Monday, February 27, 2012

Pronouns and Perceptions of God

Language influences our perception of the world. While not dictating how we perceive things, it certainly exerts a significant shaping force. Recent statements by certain prominent figures have emphasized the supposed “masculine” nature of Christianity, pointing to various references in the Bible for support. None of those who reject this “masculine” claim argue that the Bible doesn't use male language to refer to God at times. However, the Bible uses a much wider range than simply masculine terms and male pronouns. This range is often overlooked or ignored by the mainstream evangelical community, whether out of ignorance or deliberate neglect. This article byLauren F. Winner raises our awareness of the richer language available to us in the Scriptures and often sorely lacking in our personal and communal religious practice. I affirm her statement that:

To my mind, the church today has impoverished itself by praying with and singing with and thinking with such a small set of the many images for God found in the Bible.”

Winner speaks of her frustration in not having a suitable pronoun for God, having recognized that using the male pronoun set (he, him), fails to capture the fullness of God and, unfortunately, leads most worshipers to perceive of God in strictly masculine terms. Other languages are more fortunate in that they lack gender-specific third-person pronouns. In these languages a third-person reference need not carry any notion of gender. In fact without clear antecedents, the reader or listener cannot determine whether the subject of reference is male, female or otherwise. In English we don't have this option, so when confronted with choosing to refer to God as “he” or “she” most of us fall back on the default “he.” For many it is disturbing, even unacceptable, to adopt the female pronoun “she” in reference to God, although the Bible doesn't present any specific obstacle or objection to this.

Like Winner I am trying to figure out how to speak of God without always saying “God” or using other specific names and nouns. More often than not I still revert to the standard “he” but occasionally in my own prayers I will boldly(?) use a “she.” I admit, however, that I would be uncomfortable doing so in a public worship setting, in part because I can foresee that such a usage would meet with general disapproval and rejection, which I am sensitive to, and in part because my conditioning leads me to find this usage strange and awkward. I would like to hear what experience others have with this and what their current practice is.

How do you speak of God and how does your worship community speak of him/her? (You see the problem here.)

Would you and your worship community find it uncomfortable or unacceptable to refer to God in feminine terms?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Masters, Servants and the Kingdom of God

My wife and I have enjoyed watching the British television series Downton Abbey. The show, for those unfamiliar with it, follows the life of the Crawley family and their servants during the early years of the twentieth century. The series begins at the time of the sinking of the Titanic and ended its second year at the beginning of the 1920s. A third year is currently being produced for release in the UK this fall and, presumably, in the US in 2013.

The show highlights a period of time in which an aristocratic family such as the Crawleys (the Earl and Countess of Grantham, according to the program) lived on large country estates and were attended to by a host of household servants. Downton Abbey depicts aspects of the lives both of the family and of many of their servants, giving us some insight into the differences in life between the upper class and their servants. I do not argue that the program shows exactly how life would have been, especially for the servants, but it certainly gives some good indications of it and clearly demonstrates that significant social and lifestyle differences existed between the servants and their masters and mistresses.

This distinction between servant and master as shown in Downton Abbey came to mind today as I was reading from Luke 12. In verses 35-40 Jesus speaks about the need for servants to be ready for their master's appearance. In the television program we saw regularly how the household staff had to be prepared to respond to the needs and requests of the master and his family at a moment's notice. Failure to do so would have been considered poor work and quite possibly grounds for dismissal.

But my thoughts were particularly captured by verse 37, which in the latest NIV translation reads:

It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.”

I had never noticed the aspect of this verse that I have highlighted here. Did you catch it? Speaking of his kingdom and the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus describes a situation in which the roles are reversed. The master, who would normally be dressed and waited upon by the servants, dresses himself, seats the servants at the table and waits on them. This is radical. I cannot imagine that this would have ever happened in an aristocratic household in our world. In Downton Abbey the Crawley family strives to treat their servants well, but they certainly never reverse roles with them. In fact, in one episode the servants are given time off on Christmas Day to celebrate among themselves, leaving the family to serve its own drinks and care for themselves for several hours. One visitor, a very wealthy businessman, complains about this state of affairs because he considers it beneath himself to have to serve himself in any way, especially while the servants are allowed time to make merry. His response strikes me as far more common in our world. The powerful, the elite, the masters demand to be waited upon and the servants do the waiting. But not in God's kingdom.

If we pray for, long for and strive to see God's kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, what does a verse like this imply for the way we live? Certainly it tells us something of the amazing relationship between ourselves and the Master, God and that in itself is worth reflecting upon. We are to be formed into the image of the Master ourselves, so what does this mean concerning how we live on a daily basis, especially those of us from the West who have long been in the position of master rather than servant on a global scale. What does it mean in terms of our churches, our social organizations and our families? Are we willing to step down from our position of master, whether it be master in our family, in our workplace, in our church or anywhere else, and serve those whom we normally expect to serve us? (And are we even aware that we have such expectations?)   

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Praying for the President

This article by Eugene Cho caught my attention today. His message applies at any time but is particularly timely in an election year.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Some Thoughts on Laying Down the Sword

While in the local public library recently I noticed a book on display entitled Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses by Philip Jenkins. I didn't immediately check out the book. In fact I put it back on the shelf, left the library and only returned to check it out the next day after a night of thinking about what the book might have to say. I will not argue that the book is profound, but it is thought-provoking and worth consideration by anyone who ascribes some type of authority to the Bible.

Jenkins starts with the fact that the Bible contains verses that describe actions which to our modern sensibilities are reprehensible and unacceptable. In fact, were we to encounter a description of such actions today we would likely refer to them as genocide. He has in mind particularly the stories of the Israelite conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua, though he does make reference and consider other troublesome passages as well. He acknowledges that much of our modern sensibilities, the very ones that should trouble us when we read passages such as those in the book of Joshua, have in fact grown out of a Judeo-Christian tradition and asks how it is possible that we are able to tolerate the existence of such stories in the Bible.

He points to a few primary means of dealing with this disturbing texts. Historically they have often been allegorized, meaning that they have been read not essentially as factual historical documents but as stories that depict in human activities the spiritual realities that humans confront. For example, the battle to drive out the Canaanites might be read as the story of each believer needing to drive out sinful characteristics in his or her own life. These types of readings occurred more frequently early in church history and often seem quaint and unrealistic to modern readers.

Another response has been to project contemporary believers into the place of the Israelites and assigning whatever enemy they faced to the role of the Canaanites. In this way people could justify the fight against and even the annihilation of other ethnic groups. This response should rightfully trouble us, but continues to hold merit in certain circles even today. Jenkins shows how this type of reading has led to very “unchristian” behaviors, including massacres and genocides, perpetuated because of a particular biblical hermeneutic. Corollary to this, the violent acts are justified by arguing that the victims were particularly evil, unholy and a threat to the survival of righteous people and even of humanity in general. Such a viewpoint may also emphasize the sovereignty of God, arguing that anything God commands cannot be wrong, therefore the annihilation of a nation or city cannot be considered morally reprehensible when God himself has commanded it. God must have his reasons and even when we don't fully understand them, we must accept them.

Yet another response has been to effectively expunge these texts, not removing them from the canon by deletion but by neglect. This, Jenkins argues, has occurred in most Christian churches today. He gives the example of the Revised Common Lectionary and shows how a reader following the readings of this lectionary would never have to deal with the most violent passages of the Bible. A corollary to this approach has been to pass lightly over such passages. In this way one might continue to present the story of Joshua taking Jericho but not really consider the full implications of the story in terms of the eradication of an entire city or race.

Many Christians will have difficulty accepting Jenkin's arguments because he makes clear at the beginning of his book that he does not accept as factually historical the stories in which the most violent texts are found. He presents evidence for his position, evidence that will carry weight with some and which others will reject out of hand. However, regardless of how one views the authority and factual historicity of the Bible, Jenkin's book raises questions that Christians should address. Whether one accepts the story of Joshua's conquests as factual history or not, the Christian church has included them in its canon from the earliest years of church history and they have formed a part of Christian theology and worldview. If one rejects them as historical, one must still take into account their presence within the canon and the effect they have had through the centuries. If one accepts them as historical, then one must wrestle with the implications for our understanding of God and his interaction with humanity. The issues are not easily resolved and therefore are generally avoided.

Jenkins raises these questions at this time in part, I believe, because of the number of voices, Christian and non-Christian, that argue that Islam is an inherently violent religion, as demonstrated by its holy book the Quran. Jenkins counters that the Bible in fact contains more passages that clearly advocate and condone violence than anything found in the Quran. Whether one accepts or rejects this, Jenkins presents evidence and arguments that must be taken into consideration. Jenkins also claims that, just as Christianity and Judaism have outgrown their more violent tendencies by and large (allowing for certain fringe groups that would continue to use such passages as grounds for ethnic or religious violence), so there is hope that the voices in Islam that advocate a broader, more tolerant approach to those of different faiths, will gain the ascendancy in Islamic interpretation. Ultimately, Jenkins says, we must remember the context in which any holy text is written and in which it is currently being interpreted and applied.

Jenkins presents some suggestions for how one might read these violent passages. He advocates, like Martin Luther, that the reader “read cleanly,” meaning that he or she must consider whether a given passage applies to the reader today or not. If it does, then the reader must seek to understand how. This approach recognizes what most believers actually practice even if they affirm the inspiration of every word of the Bible: that some verses are applicable to the modern reader and others are not. Jenkins quotes the medieval scholastics, who had a rule: “Quidquid reciptur ad modum recipientis recipitur,” which he translates into English as roughly: “What people hear depends on who is doing the hearing.” Jenkins also advocates reading any text within the larger context both of the particular book and the Bible as a whole. This requires an awareness of the context in which a particular book or story was originally written as well as the overall purposes of the Bible. Finally, Jenkins recommends that readers “read from below,” that is, that we consider each story not only from the perspective of the protagonists, the victors and the heroes, but also from the perspective of the vanquished, the oppressed and the powerless. This requires listening to interpretations coming from voices of those who have been or are marginalized and not simply to those who continue to write from positions of power, privilege and influence.

This book troubled me. It also challenged me to think about and read the Bible differently. I recommend it to others who want to engage with the biblical text that is, not the one we like to think of existing: the one that contains passages that are disturbing, even reprehensible. If we cannot do this honestly then we cannot deal truthfully with those who question the meaning and authority of the Bible.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Revising my Thinking on Same-sex Unions

The issue of same-sex marriage or civil unions has become quite the hot topic lately. I come from a church background that would unhesitatingly reject the notion. I have no doubts on where my church stands on homosexuality, nor on the possibility of same-sex unions, however you want to label them. In 2008 the state of Arizona passed a measure defining marriage as between a man and a woman. I do not remember how I voted on the measure, but I'm fairly sure I voted in favor of its adoption.

Were the same measure put on the ballot today, I'm not sure that I would support it. In several excellent posts Elizabeth Esther captures well much of my thinking on this issue at the present time. I recommend this article, this article and this one as well. While many of my conservative friends would disagree strongly with me, I do not think that our society is going to crumble if we allow same-sex couples to enjoy the same legal rights that hetersexual couples do. 

The issue for me is not whether homosexuality is moral or not. The issue is whether we as Christians can enforce a particular understanding of morality on a society that is increasingly diverse and not inherently Christian. Some have suggested that the majority still support the idea of hetersexual marriage only and that this should settle the matter. But as others have countered that society has an obligation to protect the rights of minority groups. By definition a minority group is never going to win a straight-out popularity contest in its favor. That's why we make laws to protect their interests. If majority rule were the only criteria, blacks would still be politically disenfranchised in this country (or at best they would have waited for it even longer than they had to). To quote Esther:

I also find it disturbing that Christians are upset about "the will of the people" being overturned by a judge. Sometimes the "will of the people" is dead wrong. If the majority always ruled, then African-Americans and women still wouldn't vote. The reason we need the courts is to help protect the rights of minority groups.

Whether I agree with homosexual behavior,  I don't think that I have the right to tell homosexual couples that they cannot enjoy the same rights before the law in regard to each other as I have in regards to my wife. 

A second issue is whether in trying to enforce a particular definition of marriage, Christians succeed in showing love. I often hear the phrase "hate the sin, love the sinner," but what I see all too often is that the sinner receives the hatred and love is not communicated in the least. I think that Elizabeth Esther points us in the right direction. Rather than fighting so hard against same-sex unions, Christians should lead the struggle to show true love to our neighbors--even if those neighbors happen to be a same-sex couple. In our current efforts to "defend" marriage we seem to be doing nothing more than demonstrating how hateful and arrogant we can be and that doesn't strike me as being in the spirit of Jesus at all.

Monday, February 20, 2012

What's Up with the Girl Scouts?

On Friday afternoon I walked to our local supermarket to pick up a couple pizzas for our evening meal. As I entered the store, a young girl scout asked me if I was interested in buying some cookies. I told her I would think about it and proceeded into the store. Examining my wallet I found a bit of cash and decided that I could support this girl in her cookie sales--not to mention that I can always be tempted by a tasty girl scout cookie!

Returning home I jokingly told my wife that I had been taken hostage by a band of girl scouts and had to purchase my freedom with a couple boxes of cookies. Because our budget is a bit tight, I thought she might object to the unnecessary expenditure and wanted to create a lighthearted atmosphere around my purchase. However I did not accurately anticipate her response. She didn't raise any concerns about the expenditure as such, but commented that in light of the current controversies surrounding the Girl Scouts, she would not have made this purchase.

I was quite ignorant about this controversy, so inquired a bit further of my wife, followed by a bit of internet research. What I've found is that some conservative families, particularly conservative Christians, now consider the Girl Scouts to have sold out to a radical feminist, lesbian agenda driven by the Planned Parenthood organization. Therefore to have anything to do with them, including purchasing cookies from your neighborhood girl scout, is strongly discouraged, even reprehensible. Oops. If only I'd known. My problem is, I don't know how much of the clamor in the blogosphere to believe. I've found links to various articles and blogs, but as often happens when conservatives get upset about something, rhetoric quickly heats up and individual incidents are interpreted as major trends. I honestly don't know what to believe, but I know clearly what the conservative evangelical Christian community wants me to believe. I'd be grateful to anyone who can help clarify what's happening with the Girl Scouts organization. Maybe it is no longer an organization I want to support, even in such a small way as buying a box of cookies. But I want to make a decision based on clear evidence and not superheated rhetoric.

In the meantime, I'm going to guiltlessly enjoy the two boxes I did buy. No sense letting a good cookie go to waste.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Perspective of Privilege

This week in the men's Bible study I've begun attending, the pastor leading the study led us to look at Isaiah 58. This passage, for those not familiar, contains some strong exhortations to:

“loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke.”

The pastor, a friend of mine and a man whom I respect, challenged the men in the group to consider where we might find oppression around us and how we might take part in setting those free who are oppressed and in fighting injustice. The men struggled with this a bit, offering some thoughts about situations in other countries—valid observations worth making. But when pressed to think of examples of injustice and oppression within our local or even national context, they really ran against a wall and what little response they offered tended toward the idea that in America we don't really know oppression or injustice, that all Americans have equal opportunity and possibility to pursue their dreams and develop their lives. Any failures in this area, they essentially argued, are due more to lack of personal initiative than anything.

As I listened to their discussion and looked around the room, I realized that every man in the room was white. Most of them are seniors and many grew up in the Great Depression of the 1930's, so I cannot say that none of them have experienced hardship or difficulty. But at this point in life we represented a very small cross-section of society: a group of white men from middle and upper-class society. We couldn't adequately respond to the pastor's question (who is himself a white male, for the sake of full disclosure) because the simple fact is that we all come from the privileged group in our society. I do not know these men well enough yet to know how much (or little) they have interacted with those in our society who do not come from this privileged position, but regardless of this interaction, all of us see the world from our privileged position. We do not see the oppression and injustice in our society because it is invisible to us. I raised this point in the group and received some acknowledgment of it, but in general the group didn't seem to grasp the truth that we represent a privileged minority and that this affects how we perceive the world around us.

Lately I have been reading a lot from the pens of feminist bloggers, trying to better understand feminism and the feminist perspective on the world and our society in particular. The more I do this, the more I recognize how unaware and uninformed I am. I realize how much my perspective on every issue has been shaped by my background and status as a white male in America. Living overseas for several years has also done great things to stretch me and help me grow in this area, but in many ways I feel that I have just begun to learn. I want to be an advocate for women, but what I understand now is that first and foremost I must learn to listen to them. As Dianne Anderson wrote in this relevant post, I need to recognize that the disenfranchised, the oppressed, those battling injustice, are not voiceless. Rather, those of us in positions of privilege and power do not listen to them. We don't hear them. We don't need to—and probably don't want to—listen to them, because we operate from a position of power and we like the way things are. Who wouldn't?

This doesn't mean that I should remain silent. There is value and purpose to adding my voice to the voices of the marginalized: be they women, ethnic or sexual minorities, the poor here or in other countries, or any other oppressed group. I must stop ignoring them. I must be willing to surrender my position of power and privilege. But rather than telling them what they should do and how they should conform themselves to some standard put in place by the privileged class, I need first and foremost to listen. I need to hear about their experiences and try to enter into their situation as best as I am able, recognizing that I cannot fully become one of them. As Diane writes:

"Essentially: it is a hard road to navigate, but the first and foremost thing in any social justice approach needs to be peace, patience, grace, and mercy. Understand things before you dive in to “help.” You may just learn something worth knowing."

Jesus can serve as my role model in this. After all, he occupied the position of ultimate power and privilege. He had everything at his disposal. Yet, as we are reminded in Philippians 2, he chose to give all of this up. He stepped out of his position of power into a position of servanthood, of powerlessness. This is not the model offered us by many concepts of “biblical manhood.” But it is a model that helps us to actualize Isaiah 58, to become agents of transformation who work toward the realization of God's kingdom on earth rather than just holding on until we can get out of this fallen place.

I've only begun my journey of transformation, but I hope to learn to listen. I want to recognize the injustice and oppression around me and, in listening to those suffering from it, to understand how I can work with them to break those chains and set the oppressed free.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Worldviews, Evolution and Slippery Slopes

A few years ago the church I attend established a number of home groups focused on strengthening our understanding and application of a biblical worldview. They used a series entitled The Truth Project (, created and supported by Focus on the Family. The series is quite well done and impressive—convincing in fact. The presenters argue how a biblical worldview begins with a foundation of certain beliefs about God, truth and humanity, on which are then built the biblical view of things such as politics, economics, history, art and a wide range of other topics. They show this visually as a facade like that of a classic Greek building, with the foundation supporting columns on which rests a beam with niches for various topics, all covered by a roof. I came away from watching the series feeling like I had a nice grasp of what a biblical worldview looked like. For me there weren't any particularly new elements, but the series brought them together in a nice synthesis. The way they present the structure, if you remove any one element of it, the whole structure faces the danger of collapse. The direct analogy of course is that our society is increasingly removing or modifying elements of this biblical worldview and the whole “house” of our Western Judeo-Christian culture is now threatened.

Now, some years later, I'm beginning to question many of the presuppositions and arguments made in this series. I do not have the full series at hand to review and examine more critically, so I will not try to argue with specifics from the series but from general points that they made. First of all, I wanted to put the word “biblical” in quotation marks every time I used it in the first paragraph, because I really think this word has become attached to far too many things. Although she takes the subject in a somewhat different direction, I credit this post by Rachel Held Evans with stimulating much of my thinking on this issue.

I was raised in a circle that treated the Bible as God's answer book to everything. It was in essence not only the book that showed us the path to eternal life, it was the guidebook to every question, the ultimate key to organizing our lives. But is that what the Bible really is? Can it realistically fulfill this role? I rather doubt that at this point. Given that sincere Christians often disagree (at times vehemently) on key issues (not just theological), it seems dubious to me that we can speak of a truly “biblical” understanding of most questions that face us as humans. Is there really a “biblical” politics? Would that look more republican, democrat, libertarian or other? Is multi-party democracy more “biblical” than divine-right monarchy? What about economics? Many of those around me advocate unhesitatingly for capitalism as the clear “biblical” economic system. Never mind, as Evans points out in her article, that this system didn't even exist in Bible times.

I think that much of what the Truth Project advocates as a “biblical” worldview is really a classical Western worldview. Some of it has been influenced by the text of the Bible, though even in this it derives from a particular interpretation or set of interpretations. Much of it derives far more from Greek philosophy than the Bible. Even more it represents a particular Western cultural worldview than an inherently biblical one. This is not to say that the Western cultural worldview cannot be argued for and defended (or argued against and attacked). I am simply arguing that to assert that this worldview is THE biblical worldview is erroneous, false, and misleading.

I understand better now why the advocates of this worldview are afraid. As I said, they see their worldview very much as a cohesive, interlocking structure. Remove one piece and the whole building is in danger of collapse. In their minds this is precisely what is happening in the United States today. (I dare say that most of those behind the Truth Project would say that Europe has long ago abandoned this worldview and is now paying the price.) Therefore out of fear they must try to promote and rebuild this worldview so that their ship doesn't sink (to switch metaphors). What is more, since they tie their worldview to their Christian faith, to see the worldview crumble is to see their faith crumble as well. No wonder they feel such a strong need to defend it. As Evans writes in her book Evolving in Monkey Town: “for fundamentalists, Christianity sits perpetually on the precipice of doom, one scientific discovery or cultural shift or difficult theological question away from extinction.”

What if, by contrast, our faith is much more fluid? I'm not advocating for a completely undefined faith. But what if our faith is far more adaptive and flexible than we have tended to perceive it? “Fortunately,” writes Evans in her book, “the ability to adapt to change is one of Christianity's best features.” For this reason she describes herself as an evolutionist, arguing that: “I'm an evolutionist because I believe that the best way to reclaim the gospel in times of change is not to cling more tightly to our convictions but to hold them with an open hand. I'm an evolutionist because I believe that sometimes God uses changes in the environment to pry idols from our grip and teach us something new.” I imagine that her use of the word evolutionist makes some people uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable until I understood what she is saying. Then I began to become an evolutionist as well.

I'm beginning to see faith not simply as a set of propositions that one must assent to (without, however, abandoning the idea of absolute, propositional truth) but as a journey; a journey toward Christlikeness; a journey of discovery in which God guides and directs us by the written text of the Bible, by the community of sinner-saints around us and by the agency of his Holy Spirit. I'm finding there are a lot of people on this journey. Some might accuse us of abandoning our faith; of making it personal and subjective. I don't think that is the case, at least not for many of my fellow sojourners. Rather we are seeking to understand what it means to be Christ-followers in the modern world, faithful to God's Word in Jesus Christ in the context of the 21st century. I guess, like Rachel Held Evans, I have stepped onto the slippery slope. It is not as solid, secure and well-defined as the structure of the “biblical worldview.” But as she says: “Now, I have to keep a very close eye on Jesus, as he leads me through deep valleys and precarious peaks.” Let the journey continue.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Economic Benefit and Worth

Last week I was watching a news program on our local public broadcasting station. They featured an article on a gathering of bird-watchers that was taking place in our city. The section focused particularly on the economic benefit that bird-watching brings to our region. This caught my attention because it represents to me a disturbing trend I see in society and in the church: the tendency to evaluate everything in terms of the economic cost and benefit.

I do not think it inherently wrong to evaluate the cost and benefit of a particular activity or course of action. Often it is quite essential that we do so. However I am disturbed when this becomes the sole or primary justification for an activity. This implies that if something will not be economically beneficial, it is not worth pursuing, as if life can be reduced simply to economics. There is nothing wrong with looking at the economic impact of bird-watching, nor with indicating that it brings economic benefit to our area. But would bird-watching be less worthwhile if it did not bring this benefit?

The producers of that news show felt that emphasizing the economic benefits of bird-watching would be the best angle for the story, although the program itself is not specifically focused on economics. This indicates that the economic angle was perceived to resonate with viewers. Were this an isolated incident I might not think much of it. But I see similar emphases in other situations. In my own organization there is a push for operating more efficiently, for generating more “bang” for the “bucks” our donors provide. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is good to use funds responsibly, especially as a non-profit organization. 

My concern remains though, that we cannot evaluate the value of an activity simply or solely in terms of its economic impact. Some activities are worthwhile regardless of their economics. Some are worthwhile even though they may have a negative economic impact. I think this problem lies partially at the root of debates about government spending. If we expect our government to operate exactly like a business, then we must evaluate whether any particular activity produces positive economic growth. But if we accept that some activities are worthwhile regardless of economic impact, then we allow the possibility that the government (or other organization or business) may engage in that activity even though it actually costs money in the end. One example that comes to my mind is public transportation. I believe that it is worthwhile for governments to support public transportation even if it is not self-sustaining or profit-generating. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this blog post, but I maintain that they exist. Other examples could be cited.

Economics are a factor in our lives. They are not the only factor. When we make them the deciding factor, we may miss out on activities or courses of action that bring other benefits. We need a more holistic assessment of the cost and benefit of any choice, something more than simply whether it will bring economic gain.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Thoughts on Homeschooling

Recently I had the privilege of sharing with a group of homeschoolers about my experiences living and working overseas. I appreciated their interest and the questions they posed. Our time together passed quickly and could have easily extended another hour or more. A brief interaction with the parent who organized the session stands out to me because it hinted at something that, despite all the positive aspects of homeschooling, troubles me about some members of the homeschooling community.

As I was gathering my things to leave I was talking with this mother—a very friendly, polite, and intelligent woman—about my children's situation now that we are back in the United States. I told her that my daughter currently studies at one of our local public high schools and then commented that she was thriving there and it seemed in fact to be a good environment for her. This seemed to rather surprise this mother. We didn't have time to discuss it further, but from my impression she found it quite difficult to believe that someone could consider a public school to be a good environment for their child.

I do not want to accuse this woman of any particular bias, because we did not have time to really discuss the issue. But her reaction hinted at something I have picked up at times from other homeschooling families: the sense that homeschooling is really the most godly and superior choice for teaching children. Depending on the degree to which this philosophy is held, it may express itself as a complete disdain for anyone who doesn't home school, or it may be expressed more as pity for those who do not home school due to either family constraints or other reasons. Admittedly, not all homeschooling advocates actively demonstrate this philosophy and those who truly disdain non-homeschoolers are probably a quite small minority, but I think that the philosophy does pervade most homeschooling families. They are so convinced of the benefits of their method that they must perceive every other schooling option as inferior in some degree. Perhaps this is only to be expected, given the commitment and effort it takes to home school.

When our children were young, my wife and I did not envision sending them to public school either. In fact my wife often had quite critical things to say of our local public school system. Now as our children are in or prepare to enter high school, imagine our own surprise as we enroll them in the same public school system which earlier we had viewed so critically. We are not unaware of the weaknesses and drawbacks of doing so, but at the same time we see our daughter thriving in her current school environment as she has not thrived in the past several years of her education and we look forward to launching our son into the same system (albeit to a different high school) next fall.

Our children have spent most of their educational lives either in small, Christian school contexts or studying at home in a semi-homeschool environment (not a “true” homeschool environment because we did not choose and implement the curriculum ourselves, although our children did their study at home under our supervision and with our assistance.) To the extent that they had classmates, they were largely from the same or similar cultural backgrounds as they. Although we lived in other cultures and they had some interaction with these cultures, their key educational environments were distinctly evangelical and American.

Now that one of them is in public school (our son is finishing his middle school years in an on-line virtual academy), she is for the first time in her life immersed fully in a secular world. She is surrounded by people who are not like her, people who do not share the same underlying values or beliefs. She has made friends with people who are quite different in their worldviews, not necessarily the people we would have chosen for her had we been the ones making the choice. But we are not and at age 15 we no longer should be, at least not in a directive sense. We do converse with her about her friends and as she interacts with them it has opened opportunities for conversation with her about many issues. She is, for the first time, having to consider the meaning, implication and impact of Christian faith in a decidedly non-Christian context. The outcome is not certain, but my wife and I are convinced that the process is worthwhile.

I see a trend among some evangelicals in America, a trend to condemn the secular culture in which we live and to respond to the increasing secularization by retreating and withdrawing from it. Homeschooling can, in its more negative forms, constitute a part of this trend. It seems that some families feel that we can no longer engage with the culture and our best response is to try to isolate ourselves and try to remain pure and unsullied. I do not think this is a healthy response. Nor do I think it is a realistic and workable response. At some point our lives must cross those of others who are different from us, who do not think and act and believe as we do. If we do not prepare our children for this interaction when they are growing up, when we are most able to influence and teach them, they will instead crash into it later in life. I fear that children who grow up in an isolated conservative Christian environment, even if they are “armed” with apologetic skills to “defend” their faith, will find it difficult to deal with a secular society. But deal with it they must at some point. For this reason, among others that I will not go into here, I am glad that my daughter is in public high school.

I am not opposed to homeschooling. It may be the best option for some and it definitely has advantages. The group I talked with recently were certainly polite, generally engaging and interested in what I had to say. I don't know that the average public school classroom would have been such a receptive environment—though in fact I do not know because I have not had that opportunity. What I would say to homeschool advocates is: recognize that homeschooling is an option, not a mandate. It is not more or less godly than placing our children in public schools, so do not judge those of us who take that route. Recognize also that your child will have to deal with a world in which the majority of people around him or her will not share the same beliefs, values or worldview and consider how you can foster a healthy ability to engage and interact with people from that world. Let us not be guilty of creating a Christian ghetto culture. Salt doesn't do much good if it just sits in a salt shaker, no matter how comfortable and welcoming that may be.