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Stepping back from the firehose

When Angela Reitsma Bick asked me to come up with a name for this column, I thought of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. In his book, Niebuhr outlines five possible responses Christians can have to society: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ transforming culture. I proposed that we add a sixth: Christ @ culture.

Stepping back from the firehose

Students at Knox Christian School in Bowmanville, Ontario, supervise construction of an expansion in 1964.

When Angela Reitsma Bick asked me to come up with a name for this column, I thought of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. In his book, Niebuhr outlines five possible responses Christians can have to society: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ transforming culture. I proposed that we add a sixth: Christ @ culture.

Niebuhr says some Christians believe that the world around us is irredeemably bad and we need to set ourselves apart from it. Others say Christianity has the power to restore the world around us. In between those two extremes are the other viewpoints. I suggested adding “Christ @ culture” because these days the world moves so fast, just keeping up with society is hard enough, let alone trying to oppose it or transform it.

When I was a student in Christian Schools in the 70s and 80s, the educational philosophy was definitely “Christ transforming culture.” The idea was that, by learning about the world from a Christian perspective, we’d be able to put our cultural views up against what the world had to offer and help renew all of culture. That’s why we were taught to do things like “see the world through the lens of scripture.” It was an approach that comes from Dutch theologian and Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper and the Reformed thinkers who followed him.

The 70s and 80s were good days for Christian Schools. New high schools were cropping up around Ontario. Redeemer College (it wasn’t a university yet) had just opened its doors. There was energy and vitality in the teaching. Christian Schools had a vision and a mission that set them apart as unique. When I went on to do graduate work at Queen’s University, I felt well-prepared. I knew my history, science, philosophy and literature as well as the next undergraduate, but had a better understanding than most people of how Christianity had influenced those fields and a good sense of how Christians were continuing to shape culture around them.

Just keeping up?
But in the early 1990s, the storm clouds were already starting to form. The last kids of the Dutch postwar immigrant wave had gone through the system. Thanks to American Fundamentalist crusaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Christianity’s cultural critiques were being limited to a few key areas like abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and evolution. On 9/11, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism replaced nuclear war as the new bogeyman under the bed. And as information technology began to fill our lives, trying to keep up with a steady stream of new perspectives, ideas, politics and art forms – as well as new forms of social media – made critiquing culture from a Christian perspective seem a bit like trying to drink from a fire hose.

When I was a Christian high school teacher in the mid-to-late 90s, the shift away from a transformative view of culture was already underway. Parents were interested in one of two things: academic preparedness for university and keeping their kids away from the evils of the Big Bad Secular World. It seemed Christian Education had a split personality – on the one hand, parents wanted rigorous, private-school style academic training. On the other, they wanted schools to preach a Fundamentalist worldview and morality to keep their kids safe. At parent-teacher nights, we didn’t talk about how home and school were working together to train the whole child for a life of service. Parents just wanted to know if their kids would get the marks they needed to get into good universities and if their kids were staying out of trouble.

The truth was that our school’s academic curriculum was pretty good – maybe even better than average when it came to teaching kids writing and research skills. And we did a good job of introducing kids to the idea of Christian service in the community. But no school can keep the world out – and drugs and alcohol were pretty prevalent. We teachers weren’t stupid but couldn’t do much about it. And we struggled with how to teach kids basic Christian cultural literacy in a world that was exploding with new information every day. (In many ways, the kids were way ahead of their teachers. I remember telling one of my students to use “Metacrawler” for a web search. He turned to me and said “actually, I prefer this new search engine: Google”).

Re-evaluate
Here’s the thing: I come from a long line of Christian teachers. My grandfather taught math at the Gereformeerde Gymnasium in Amsterdam. My dad was a principal and founder of Christian schools in Ontario. I taught Christian elementary and high school for seven years. My son goes to Christian school. So it hurts me to say this, but if we don’t do something soon, Christian Schools will go extinct in the next 10 to 20 years.

If Christian schools exist only to keep the evils of the world out, they’ll fail. If you’re paying thousands a year just to keep your kids away from online porn and drugs, I’ve got news for you: save your money and send them to a public school.

If Christian Schools preach a Fundamentalist and reactionary morality, they’ll fail. Our kids need to experience love – not just for the people who believe what we do but for all people.

And if Christian Schools try too hard to fit the private school mode, they’ll fail. Places like Upper Canada College and Havergal Boarding School for Girls will always offer a more elite education than a podunk Christian high school on the edge of a farmer’s field. And thanks to the culture wars in the U.S., the word “Christian” has become synonymous with “anti-intellectual” or “fundamentalist” for a lot of lawmakers – which makes the political environment more hostile to our schools than in the past.

As a parent, a former teacher and a product of the Christian education system, I think we need a new approach. We can’t completely transform the culture around us – that’s always been an unrealistic goal. And we can’t stay away from culture either. We need to step back from the firehose a bit – and ask ourselves what the world around us really needs. How can we, as Christians, train our kids to speak to the longings of a broken world that is bathed in bits, drowning in information and struggling to find meaning? If we can find the answer to that question, Christian Schools will have found a new educational purpose – and the classrooms will fill up again.

About the Author
Stepping back from the firehose

Lloyd Rang, Columnist

Lloyd Rang works in communications and is a member of Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville.