A Blog is an opinion rather than an article. While CSM teaches through its articles and books, the CSM Blogs are efforts by CSM consultants to struggle with difficult ideas in Christian education and move to some kind of clarity. Please read any CSM Blog in that light.
“Culture Wars” and the Christian School
First, I believe that we are in a culture war and that the stakes couldn’t be higher. The reality is that, as the Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23). The stakes of this war are indeed stark – death or life. Or as Moses put it in Deuteronomy 30: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him”. That culture war is ongoing, has been from alpha and will be to omega.
Obviously, I am not here using the limited definition of culture with regard to the arts, or ethnic customs, or sociological dilemmas. I am influenced by Andy Crouch in his book Culture Making where he defines culture as ‘what we make of the world’ (p. 23). It seems clear that we are in a continual struggle to understand, live in, and change the world from the moment that we are born to the moment that we die. As we go through that process, it also seems clear that we are faced with opposition on a continual basis. This opposition can be for good reasons -my mother did not think it culturally wise for me to speak German in my very English and very patriotic elementary school in the early 60s. It can also be for bad reasons – I resisted strenuously the requirement in those same schools for me to sit still and not collaborate with my neighbors.
The other kind of culture wars as evidenced in Christian journals and Christian talk radio speaks much more narrowly about culture wars. These commentators are particularly concerned, even obsessively concerned, with sex, persecution, Christian athletes, and Presidents and Supreme Court Justices. Recent sets of headlines from one journal I subscribe to include the following: Transgender Teen Stats Increase; Court in Sudan fines Christian Leaders; Philadelphia’s Faith-Filled Football Champions. The thread is pretty clear most of the time – we are under persecution and are fearful of what is going to happen in the future. This leads to…..
Second, I don’t think that there’s anything new about the culture wars in this latter sense. There have always been Christians who have taken the idea of good and evil, life and death, and created an Hobbesian struggle out of it where we are unlikely to see much good happen in this world and so we’d better make sure we are pure and ready for heaven, not through our own works lest we boast but through the blood of the Lamb. The Anabaptists who want to be very separate from the culture in which they live to the evangelicals who want to take over the Republican Party and make it Christianity in action are two obvious actors in this view of culture. But if we acknowledge that, to quote Andy Crouch again, we are better directed to ‘make’ culture than we are to go to war with it, we can change the nature of the conversation. This is not to deny that the Gospel and the World and its Culture are at loggerheads. It is to say that Constantinian Christianity – the adoption of the World and its Culture by the Gospel – has not served us well. The compromises we have made in elevating the language of power over the language of the Servant have not helped the witness of the Resurrection Christ and, in recent years in the west, have led to the overt rejection of Christianity’s hypocrisy and desire for power.
Third, I believe that the “culture wars” are a distraction to what the Christian school should be doing. I feel about the wars rather like the prophet Isaiah thought about the futilities of his own time: “As a pregnant woman about to give birth
writhes and cries out in her pain,
so were we in your presence, Lord.
18 We were with child, we writhed in labor,
but we gave birth to wind.
We have not brought salvation to the earth,
and the people of the world have not come to life”. (Isaiah 26)
We do not want to inculcate our children into the fear and despair that the culture wars can bring along with its associated hatreds and suspicions of “the other”. We do want to inculcate in our children the joy and creativity associated with “making culture” with its associated generative witnessing and blessing. James Davison Hunter describes this in his book To Change the World as “a theology of faithful presence” (p. 195). We are, I think, actually blessed by entering an era that is less Constantinian, where Christianity is not the dominant secular power in the world. The threat of “secularism” is, in the Christian school, no threat at all. To adults, I sometimes feel the threat of secularism is actually a regret that we no longer own the halls of power, that we can no longer dictate to people how they should live, that we can no longer censor their reading and their thoughts. In that fear and despair we actually seemed to have created our own Christian 1984 and now mourn its loss. For children, the stakes are entirely different. Children reflect from conception the joy of the Father’s creativity, they rejoice in the discovery and novelty of His world, and they explore with exuberance the potential implicit in their own giftedness and in the world’s mysteries. Their parents are at war with culture; they care more about making and influencing culture.
Finally, I want to go back to Hunter’s “faithful presence”. Children know they live in the ‘stable’. Their experience from the moment of coming unwillingly into a cold world at birth tells them that nothing is as it seems. The fact of Jesus being born in a stable is both a real and a mythical statement of nothing is as it seems. Herod’s attack on Bethlehem was clearly a culture war from the human side. But Jesus’ response to the stable was neither to accept it nor to accept the challenge and war against it. His response is the one we must surround the child with in our Christian school. It is to witness to it, be faithfully present to it, and to serve it with authority.
We do well when we teach our children in our schools to be a witness in the world, to put on the armor of God. I quote the passage in full to emphasize that the armor of God is not aggressive but to enable the Christian to “stand”, “stand your ground”, “extinguish”. It is not armor in the sense of go to war, but armor in the sense of keep your strength and witness. “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6).
We do well when we teach our children to be faithfully present in the world with the action it implies. We are given by God the strength to be His followers. We are also given the task by God of embodying Jesus’ love in the world. The example I am increasingly drawn to is in service hours that, even in public schools, has moved from community service (doing something good to others) to service learning (doing something good, learning from the experience, and growing). The Christian school should take that yet another step to help our children point past themselves to the origin of Goodness, the Father Himself exemplified in the service hours of the Son.
We do well when we teach our children to serve with authority. When children are present with people rather than doing to people, when children find most joy through service rather than through the gain and exercise of power, as Christian school leaders we can feel great satisfaction. Being with, and service, are not humble tasks. They are filled with the authority of Jesus who by being one with the Father therefore spoke with authority, acted with authority. Jesus did not typically use his relationship with the Father to muscle his way into conversations. Rather, he exuded the authority natural to one who was in unity with his Father. When our children enact the Gospel, they don’t have to claim authority; they will exude authority.
The culture wars have no place in our Christian schools. Rather, would do better by teaching our children to harness their God-given gifts, creativity, desire to make things happen in order to “make culture”, serve with authority, and be faithfully present. The outcome will be a non-aligned Christian witness that has enormous power to move a society. By abandoning the culture wars and taking on the making of culture, our schools actually have the ability to ‘make a nation’. The alternative of war, as Stephen Prothero points out in Why Liberals Always Win the Culture Wars, is to constantly be on the losing side of a confrontation. Christian children should always be on the winning side of grace over works and love over fear.
Note: I do not claim that the authors I have cited agree with me or any of my conclusions.