Isolate or Inoculate?

Isolation is only moderately effective and socially very disruptive.

There have been many words of tribute in this newspaper to former CC editor, Bert Witvoet. My interactions with Bert were limited to a few exchanges I had with him when he was Editor of the Christian Educators’ Journal in the 1990s. I do recall that Bert was released from his Christian high school teaching position for daring to expose his students to J.D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye. I experienced a similar backlash from the community of Fraser Valley Christian High School in Surrey, B.C. in the early 1970s when a teacher presented a pre-release recording of the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar to his senior students. Several parents withdrew their kids from the school as a result. Ever thereafter, when a teacher proposed a potentially “risky” curricular innovation, the response was: “Be careful, we don’t want another Superstar fiasco.”  

Live apart?
Both Bert’s Catcher in the Rye experience and my Superstar one raises the age-old question of how Christians should engage with secular culture. The isolationist view holds that Christians should shun engagement, living apart from the world as much as possible. In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are certainly aware that, in the absence of any known cure for the disease, the best we can do is isolate ourselves from one another in the hope of mitigating our chances of catching the disease and/or spreading it to others. But isolation is only moderately effective and socially very disruptive. Infectious disease scientists know that the best way of eventually curbing COVID-19 is by developing a vaccine against it. By inoculating a weakened form of the virus into large numbers of the population, our bodies’ immune system will produce antibodies against the organisms in the vaccine. Then, in the event of serious exposure, the antibodies are already there to fight the disease and most of us won’t get sick and thus won’t have to be isolated.

Thoughtful participants
Reformed thinking holds that the inoculation metaphor is better than the isolation one for characterizing Christians’ engagement with the “world.” Thus, for example, Christian schools should inoculate students against the “spirits of the age” at developmentally appropriate times thereby honing their ability to discern and resist these spirits. In this manner, Christian teachers, like Bert Witvoet, help their students become thoughtful participants in society, equipping them to further the restorative work of Christ on earth.

By the way, this is not to say that there are no limits to the literature, theater and music (and more) that Christians may experience. Any art that is blatantly pornographic or that celebrates violence has no place in the Christian life. But one must be careful not to judge a literary or other artistic work on superficial moralistic grounds. The Bible includes many graphic accounts of sex and violence. Many of the heroic figures of the Old Testament are not the sort we would want our children to “hang out” with. Think, for example, of David, that Old Testament King and “man after God’s own heart,” who was both an adulterer and murderer. Despite his grievous shortcomings, David loved God, confessed his sins and was used by God as a link in the covenant line that led to Jesus. A careful consideration of the life of David might well inoculate us against following his sinful example. But, if we do, there is still, thank God, the final cure of Jesus’ forgiveness.


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