Monday, February 8, 2010

Education As Relationship

[Part 2 of a short series on education for the New Covenant Church newsletter]

Part One: Teaching is More than Information Transfer

“No man is an island.” Thus the 17th century English poet/pastor John Donne summed up the human condition. My individual actions ripple effects into the lives of everyone around me for good or ill. The social nature of human beings, one aspect of our imaging God, profoundly affects the task of education. This major concept in the developing NCS experiment in Grace-based education builds on the core truth that humans were created for community, not hyper-individuality.

I guess it’s no surprise that a nation founded by people who left their own countries to start a better life far from everyone they knew would turn out a nation full of individualists. We reward individual effort and accomplishment far more than we value group unity. In public life, group cohesion breaks down as soon as an individual scents the opportunity to exploit some weakness to his advantage. I’ve heard plenty of complaints both in person and in print from folks who think cooperative learning is foolishly new, unfair to their kid’s accomplishments, and wasteful of time and resources.

I’m not saying that individualism is wrong. I give grades to my students for their individual work. Each of us stands before God individually either condemned by our own sin or redeemed by the work of Jesus Christ.

But a hyper-focus on individualism weakens the unity of the Spirit that binds together God’s people. The Covenant is a communal grace.

Within the Trinity, God Himself enjoys perfect unity and community. When He created man in the Garden of Eden and stamped His image upon us, God made us to beings-in-community. God didn’t leave Adam alone for long – soon Eve provided the companionship that God always intended for His creatures.

Yet the Fall affected even the expression of God’s image in man. Sin destroys community. Immediately after eating the fruit, Adam and Eve “felt” the breach in their relationship with the Creator. Isolation has dogged our path ever since.

How does this relate to education?

I submit that effective education must take place within “community”: within a set of nurturing relationships. The nature of education itself, the stamp of the image of God on both teachers and learners, and the pattern we see from Christ Himself all support “relational teaching.”

No teaching relationship in Scripture exists in a vacuum. Parents are to write God’s law upon their children’s hearts through daily, patient, commonplace conversations. Christ mentored His disciples for three years, living among them. Paul instructs experienced men and women to teach the younger, implying that there’s more at stake here than simply passing around a Life Manual. God Himself enters into a personal relationship with His people, individually shepherding His flock toward glory. No one is in this alone.

It is our nature as image-bearers to be social. Teachers and learners exist in a community, and an educational institution must recognize the value, gifts, and abilities that each student and teacher brings to the table. Whether I recognize it or not, my classroom at NCS is a small microcosm of the Body, each member vital to the healthy functioning of the whole. Relationships are at the core.

As a teacher and a Christian, my lessons aim for the deeper levels, down in the heart where students pay allegiance to their real gods. I mentioned Dr. Bill Davis, of the Covenant College philosophy faculty, in my previous article. In his lecture in one of my classes about worldview as it relates to education, he told us that true education takes place not in the intellect, but at the worldview level. As a teacher, I am not so concerned with my students’ ability to conjugate verbs as I am about their core beliefs. Either we educate Christianly, or we create smart pagans. Education cannot take place in a philosophical vacuum. [Facts may be neutral, but humans aren’t.]

“If your teaching does not reach a student’s worldview presuppositions, then the education is essentially ineffective,” Dr Davis said. His next thought hit me between the eyes: “A student will allow only one type of person to effect lasting change in her worldview beliefs: such instruction must come from someone she loves. And students will love those people who truly model Christ’s love for them-- ‘We love, because He first loved us’ (I Jn 4:19).”

A loving, Christlike teacher can affect the deepest regions of a child’s heart and mind, operating as a partner with parents in the Covenantal upbringing of their children. Those deep waters stir slowly and the effects appear years (decades) after the student leaves the classroom.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


This post was written a couple years ago but is indicative of the type of instruction that happens at NCS.

So, today. I was teaching my Bible class. We're going through the gospels. Once again, I found a space to relate pop-culture and education.

So, Jesus performed miracles. This we know. This we laud. We read them as flippantly as if they were bread in a toaster. Those "miracle stories" and "parable fairy tales" pass under our eyes as quickly as the toothbrush on our teeth or the shampoo through our hair. I think those of us reared in evangelical circles let the mystery and enchantment of Christ and his works pass by us.

Today's objective in my lesson plans: Allow students to understand how much of a bad-ass Christ was. Now some are probably shocked at the fact that I put "Christ" and "bad-ass" in the same sentence. Others are immediately "navigating away from this page" because the word "ass" appeared in it at ALL! Others will read on for either a good laugh, a chance for a more critical comment, or a furled brow trying to figure out what I mean.

We began class with a BASIC discussion of philosophy and it's reactions. We started with classicism (straight-laced/symmetrical
l). We brisked over the architectural principles mostly, as today's students demand visuals. Then we ran to the Gothic (bright, crazy). We talked about how the children of the Gothic age cursed its ornamentation. They ran for Neo-classicism. They wanted that symmetry and order again. Then came Romanticism. It screamed of emotional vomit. Countless poems expressed some gushy emotion or another. Quaint, Victorian cottages were filled with knickknacks, overstuffed chairs, tacky wallpaper and towering spires. The reaction? Modernism. We discussed the Great War and its follower. We talked of architecture, art, philosophy, science, etc.

Then we tried to figure out how a philosophy, whose whole design rested on the pinacle of absolutes could have spun the pot of Christianity. What effect did it have? How was Christianity different because society was begging for absolutes, scientific measurement, empericism, and precision?

Students were brave enough and even smart enough to come up with ideas - of course not using the jargon, of:
higher criticism
doctrinal "boxing in" of God and Truth
eliminating the mystical nature of God
belittling the Holy Spirit

Okay - here's where it got good and my objective was coming into play.
We headed BACK to the classical world. We took a journey in time that led us to cheating tax-collectors, as if that aspect of history were much different than our present situation, self-righteous and reputable pedagogues called the Pharisees, and an emperor with as much a self-aggrandizing mentality as the "redneck agenda."

Was Christ a subtle, robed gentleman that would have knocked judges' socks off at a Fabio look-alike contest? Was He a well-groomed Swede with soft hands? With minimal direction students began to see that Christ was not the model on the center insert of our "first Bible" holding dozens of children under a tree in a grassy knoll. He was a go-getter. He was doing things NOBODY had ever done before. He was loving like NOBODY ever assumed one could love. He was befriending everyone BUT the Pharisees. His "band of merry men" weren't the cream of the crop. They were scrappy fisherman with five o'clock shadows and a trail of fish-gut stench happy to be invited by a Rabbi. Christ didn't clamor for title, beg for crown, or shmooze for respect. In fact, in Luke 20:8, Christ wouldn't even give the chief priests a decent answer as to the source of His authority. He didn't flaunt; He did.

In this postmodern age live dozens of Christians. The intentional use of litotes in the last sentence is no doubt a term of agreement for many of my provincial evangelical friends. Nonetheless, this postmodern age has gotten a bum rap. Those of us trapped in the transition between modernism and postmodernism are feeling screwed out of all we held near and dear. Some of us are looking for the hopefulness of what postmodernism holds. Christianity is JUST now being forced into a transition. Denominations that thrived and were even born from modernism are unsure. The confusion is resounding.

Modernism gave us black and white. We know ALL the truth of Christian practice from it. We know how to act socially in light of what Scriptures tell us. Social norms and folkways derived from biblical precepts have been canonized. The mold of order has wrapped us like a Boa. Postmodernism deletes absolutes, negates order, and fosters chaos. God is not the author of confusion so SURELY postmodernism is of Satan.

To argue such is to stab ad hominem at the whole of a generation. That's to say that God must not be on His throne because there were ages in which bad judges ruled the land. Job suffered. Where was God?

Well, He was up on His throne doing just what He knew best. Letting His mercy flow from His justice. He's not unaware that this age, this generation is reacting. He's not trying to find a hole to burrow in. Neither should we. More like the Master, we should DELVE in, face first, and delight in what our progeny has to teach us. My teenage pedagogues have taught me much about loving everyone regardless of creed, race, or philosophy. They've alerted me that this "generation of vipers" might have botched some of God's truth in the attempt at a trade off. True, we cannot afford to sacrifice the veracity of redemption on the altar of communal love, but is it so easy to do the other way around? Shouldn't we strive to KEEP truth and grab the love, mystery, and healing that come with this present philosophy?

We are image bearers of Christ, whether we are Japanese or lesbian, murderer or black, male or cashier. Sin, profession, creed doesn't change our human condition. As Christians, we are called to fix . . . to reform. If we can find the truth or reform music, literature, and art, how much more should we do so of a philosophy that's not pacing at the door to leave. Perhaps postmodernism could be what shakes up this church of Laodicea.

Needless to say, my eighth graders see themselves trapped in a world were sins like "saying bad-ass" have trumped sins like "not loving your neighbor." They're willing to be Republican bigots as long as they're Republican.

We discussed some modern-day bigots. We listened to tracks from "American Idiot" by Green Day. We heard some of the old stuff by Sinead O'Connor and even Bob Marley and the Indigo Girls. Students grappled with the messages. Even though we don't agree with all of them, they saw the artists' desires and push for change. They were willing to speak for what they believe and not trap themselves in a comfortable "God-box."

Later, I asked them to close their eyes. They were guided to "Imagine it. Atlanta, 2007" (it really wasn't a flashback to Sophia from the Golden Girls). I told them to picture a man. He's a nice man, a good man. He's got his head on straight. He's walking all around Atlanta stirring up local politics. He's working grass roots. He has a run-in while walking, with some local hookers. He gives them lots of money, not for services, just for them to be able to eat. He meets up with some drug dealers and does dinner with them. Afterward, He invites a homeless guy over to spend the night. The hookers come over later that night and have pizza and they watch a movie and go home.

I asked students what they'd think of that man. I assumed they'd get my drift. I was shocked with answers like "He's not good because he's condoning their actions." Others claimed, "He might fall into sin because he's spending time with bad people." I asked who they thought this man was. "A bad man," replied one. With a tear on the brim of my lid I realized my pupils had passed right over their Savior, just like the Pharisees, just like the modernists, just like me all because He was unrecognizable as a bona fide bad-ass.