Why my Christian education has troubled me, by Mike Friesen

Not everything that claims to be ‘Christian’ education is actually Christlike

Uber-blogger Mike Friesen

Mike Friesen is one of my favorite former students, 20-something bloggers, and friends.  He asked me to respond to his blog post yesterday (5/2). It fit so remarkably with the meetings I was in last week that I asked him if I could repost his thoughts and my reply.  Read us both and then jump into the conversation. I think it is a critical one for the future of the future of Christian higher education.

Why my Christian education has troubled me….

by Mike Friesen

In the fourth grade, I was sitting in Sunday School and my Sunday School teacher was teaching about the book of Revelation. During this time, he told us that God planned for a treacherous man that they call the anti-christ to come and murder all of the remaining Christians who were “left behind”. He said that God needs to destroy this earth because the people are so bad. I raised my hand in painful innocence, and, asked why God couldn’t just fix this earth instead of destroying it and planning that pain? My Sunday School teacher told me it was in the Bible, so I “better not question it”.

Not everything that claims to be 'Christian' education is actually 'Christlike'.

My freshman year of College, I was sitting in my Freshman New Testament class and my teacher told our class that if we weren’t tithing our time each day to God in prayer we were not living as “faithful followers of Christ”. She said that if weren’t dedicating 2.4 hours a day to God in prayer, and, more than 10% of our money to God, there was no way we could be right with God. She shamed the class with this belief the whole semester. I remember sitting in this class being livid, because, any person who needed to flaunt their “spiritual success” over another person to make them feel bad, doesn’t seem very Christ-like. Never mind that this “biblical teacher” with “biblical teaching” was teaching something that was clearly not biblical.

We need people to guide us in life, don’t we? There are people who are clearly more mature than we are. That’s why Churches need Pastors, Elders and Deacons. It’s why we need Counselors and Spiritual Directors. We need people who are further in the journey, to guide us deeper in our own. How can anyone who has not taken that journey themselves lead others to where they’re desiring to go?

It’s as if education has become a product of consumerism. We are told to believe certain beliefs. And, when we do this, we can get confirmed or affirmed. So, we’re told our worth as students comes from repeating the answers of our teachers back to them. So what if our teachers are wrong, then our worth as students comes from believing their wrong beliefs? And, if the teacher is right, and, we consume it, then is it a part of me, or, do I just know it?

It's as if education has become a product of consumerism.

In my short life, I don’t learn by being told to consume. I learn from being wrecked by reality. We learn by being present to God, to ourselves and others. Very few things will teach us more than the failures, pain and reality of who we are, and, being present to where others are at. In these moments, we are wrecked by bigger and better questions. And, these bigger and better questions alter our path, it narrows our path to God, but, the road becomes wider for ourselves and others. Bigger and better questions, will hurt us, but, only because it is tearing open new space for others, for ourselves and for God to move within us. This space feels like life and death, because, I am dying to who I was and being reborn into something more beautiful, more hopeful, more peaceful and more filled with love, more filled with God.

The best teachers in my life, are the people who create space for me. Their thoughts, their life, their questions, create a new reality for me, which points me to God. They aren’t troubled by my questions because their space can occupy the weight of it. They aren’t troubled by my pain and doubts, because their space can occupy the weight of it. The best teachers in my life have given me more space for God to occupy within me, because, the way God works within theirs, painfully and wonderfully opens its way into me.

My hope for you, is that you have good teachers in your life. People who will lead you to a bigger reality. People who will help you be filled with the life that is dying to be awakened within you and around you.

—–

My Response to Mike

Much of what passes for 'Christian education' today is neither.

Mike your ability to give voice to the cry of the heart of a generation never ceases to amaze me. In the process, I think you are also giving voice to the heart cry of many educators as well.

Much of what passes for ‘Christian education’ in America today is neither. It is not education, because it is only interested in indoctrination. It is not Christian, because it isn’t interested in the kind of educational practices Jesus to which Jesus devoted himself.

Like Morpheus in The Matrix, genuine Christian education seeks to “free minds” from false ways of perceiving the world. Getting students to parrot “correct” answers within a narrowly defined band of options is as dangerous as it is counter-productive. It either leaves students “enslaved” to limited ways of thinking, or terminally “skeptical” (another form of enslavement), because they intuitively know that something is wrong with their world as interpreted by those around them. That goes for most public education and its obsession with “political correctness,” and a great deal of church-sponsored education that is equally obsessed with “traditional correctness.”

Morpheus offers Neo the opportunity to free his mind from his false perceptions of his world.

Great education teaches students not so much WHAT to think, but rather HOW to think. The truth doesn’t need to be protected by limiting our conversation to “safe” answers. Truth needs to be let out of its cage so its dangerous questions can transform us.

Greco-Roman liberal arts education on the other hand, was specifically designed to be “liberating arts” that could “free the mind from traditional beliefs accepted uncritically.” Birthed in the life and teachings of Socrates, as recorded by Plato, and refined by Aristotle, a liberal arts education was consumed, not with the acquisition of information, but the pursuit of truth. Their aim was to help students examine their “opinions and values to see whether or not they are really true and good.” (http://bit.ly/k6S0ZP)

The Greeks specifically designed a liberal arts education to be “liberating arts” that could “free the mind from traditional beliefs accepted uncritically.”

While Jesus never established a brick and mortar school in the modern sense of the word, he taught his disciples using the same methodology as both Greco-Roman and Rabbinic higher education. (http://bit.ly/k6lMuq). He sought to lead his disciples into liberating truth, telling them,“You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). (http://bit.ly/inAp6G)

Both Jesus and Socrates sought to accomplish this liberation by means of a highly relational form of education. The Socratic method of instruction necessitated intimate relationships in tight-knit learning community. Socrates and his student, Plato, called their disciples “friends,” precisely because they “wanted a relationship that was characterized by shared community.” (http://bit.ly/kHGM7B)

Jesus was the one teacher in history who could have told his students “Sit down, shut up, and listen, I AM GOD!” This makes it even more astonishing that he developed such a dynamic interactive relationship with his students that they felt free to interrupt his “last lecture” with their questions no less than THIRTEEN times. (John 13-16). Try to imagine most modern teachers doing that?

 

Jesus was the one teacher in history who could have told his students “Sit down, shut up, and listen, I AM GOD!"

Instead, Jesus’ teaching method was also highly relational. It was centered on the creation of a learning community where master and disciples lived in close proximity to one another and forged a friendship. Like Socrates, he told his students, “I have called you friends” (John 15:13-15). (http://bit.ly/inAp6G)

I think that this is what your generation longs for so desperately. As you put so eloquently in your post:

“The best teachers in my life create space for me. Their thoughts, their life, their questions, create a new reality for me, which points me to God. They aren’t troubled by my questions because their space can occupy the weight of it. They aren’t troubled by my pain and doubts, because their space can occupy the weight of it. The best teachers in my life have given me more space for God to occupy within me, because, the way God works within theirs, painfully and wonderfully opens its way into me.”

"The best teachers in my life create space for me. Their thoughts, their life, their questions, create a new reality for me, which points me to God."

Yet, as you also note, contemporary “education has become a product of consumerism… if our teachers are wrong, then our worth as students comes from believing their wrong beliefs? …In my short life, I don’t learn by being told to consume. I learn from being wrecked by reality. We learn by being present to God, to ourselves and others.”

Socrates could not have said it any better!

Plus, I think you would be encouraged to know that you are not alone. Last week I spent two days at a elite gathering of Christian college presidents and academic vice-presidents who were voicing many of the same concerns you are raising. (Plus a few more.) We universally affirmed that our current consumer oriented, indoctrination obsessed, anti-supernaturally biased, and culturally irrelevant approach is failing. Our current way of doing “Christian Education” has done little more than produce a generation of “moralistic, therapeutic deists.”

 

We need a revolutionary movement of schools, and churches, committed, not to consumerism, but to equipping students to think and act throughout a lifetime of personal transformation into the image of Christ, and societal transformation in every realm of culture.

We need a revolutionary movement of schools, and churches, committed, not to consumerism, but to equipping students to think and act throughout a lifetime of personal transformation into the image of Christ, and societal transformation in every realm of culture.  Students who know the story of Scripture, have experienced that story in their own lives, and who can translate that story to a world in need of the kingdom of God.

Schools devoted to biblically faithful, spiritually dynamic, intellectually challenging, relationally connected, culturally resonant, and missionally directed higher education. Schools whose executive leadership, faculty, and staff strive to live and teach in a Christ-like manner. At the conclusion of our time together, the group decided to team up to write a document that could foster a worldwide conversation toward creating such a revolutionary movement among our peers.

So Mike, I beseech you and your generation not to give up on Christian education, but instead to join us in this conversation (your post is a great start). Without your help and the help of the best in your generation, this conversation is doomed to failure. But if we can pray, and seek the voice of God together, who knows what great and mighty things he might say to us. I believe that the cry of His heart is to grant us new approaches to education that are exceedingly, abundantly above all we could even imagine. Yet, I also believe that this new day will come only if we listen “to his power that is at work within US” together!

I love you, brother!

Gary

—–

Your response to Mike and me?

 

17 Replies to “Why my Christian education has troubled me, by Mike Friesen”

  1. Good ideas. But they can never come to fruition as long as Christians continue to believe that the Christian Bible is the inerrant, infallible word of God. Are you guys prepared to make this leap?

  2. Absolutly excellent article and reply by Gary.__Astounding. I'm speechless. And that is rare.

    1. Wow! That it rare! Thanks for the encouragement! I'll make sure Mike reads your reply.

  3. I have to admit, i hesitate to get involved here, but I'd like to throw one sentiment into the mix. Is it too much to say – with all the books and art and deeply dug theology all around us — that we shouldn't be equipped to fight back a little in the classroom when confronted with such blatantly errant theology such as "if you're not giving 10% of your time, there's no way you can be right with God".

    If we're redefining what it means to be a teacher (did some bad apples spoil it for the batch, or are we redefining?), then ought not we redefine it for the student, too?

    Its time to get smart, is it not? What's the cost? Time? And get confident in your Savior — its like yearning to be in the NBA, but never taking the time to practice on the hoop in your back yard — so that when a teacher spouts off about his/her bible, you can respond — "which one are you reading, because mine doesn't say that. I read that part yesterday."

    1. I agree, Bryce! Hey, you're the one paying for the education! Don't be passive! Of course, you might pay a price in the classroom power political game of grading, but it seems worth the risk to me. If Aristotle had never talked back (respectfully) to Plato, we would have missed an entire philosophical tradition!

  4. We sweep alot of funky stuff under the rug called "Christian." Go to any "christian" website and the advertisements for "christian" stuff blinds you to thing you actually went to the site for (present site excluded of course.) We say we're a christian nation – but we're not. We say we're christian business people, but we cheat like the world. Putting the word christian in front of another word does not make it something that honors God. Applause to the young man for his honest comments and insights. Shame on us older folks for handing the younger ones a bunch of hypocrisy with "christian" stamped on it. Thanks for the forum Gary.

  5. Stephen via Facebook

    As a veteran high school and college teacher in BOTH christian and public school I really appreciate the ideas in this article. We teach the truth about out subject matter regardless of the setting.

  6. Mandy via Facebook

    What an amazing blog. Mike Friesen is our people. And a great follow up by my friend Gary David Stratton!

  7. Jeff via Facebook

    Never had Gary David Stratton for a class and haven't seen Mike Friesen in awhile, but both, I think, hit the nail on the head. We- and by we I mean myself and those younger- want relationship, not indoctrination.

  8. Bill via Facebook

    Let's remember and always focus on the why of the content. We need, as you guys both stated, to make sure life transformation is the objective and the emphasis with a clear path toward thinking and living Christ like.

  9. Shannon via Facebook

    Great article Gary! I was homeschooled and then went to bible school- so I have a lot of experience with the good and bad of CE.

  10. Lindsay via Facebook

    As a teacher in a Christian school, I heart this. Very, very much. And Mike seems like the kind of student I became a "Christian school" teacher for. 🙂

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