That’s not a typo. Praying is obviously highly recommended too.
It’s time to go to work. The kids are restless, they ask their father to stay and play with them. “I can’t kids, I have to go to work.” The kids are relentless, and this father stops to enter their fantasy world for a time. When he eventually leaves the game to head off for the serious business of work, his children give him a parting gift. A texta wrapped in a leaf. Not much. But when the children’s mother asks what the kids gave their dad, he says “they gave me everything.” Bandit Heeler, for those not in the know already, is the impossibly heroic role model served up by Australia’s number one kids television show, Bluey. Like many Aussie families we had the launch date for season two on the family calendar, and the episodes so far have not disappointed — some have landed very close to our family’s daily experience navigating parenting life in our home city of Brisbane, the city Bluey’s animated world draws heavily upon for its backdrops. This week Bluey won an Emmy.
In Bluey, play is serious business. The timing of this series could not be better with families around the nation facing “social distancing” measures and school slowdowns meaning lots of parents are juggling working from home with supervising their children. If your kids are like ours they know enough about Covid-19 and its disruption of their normal lives to be both upset and anxious. Navigating this moment as a parent, without fuelling anxiety or traumatising our kids, seems almost as impossible as imitating our cartoon friends Bandit and Chilli in the best of times. It turns out establishing a routine of playing with your kids might be the key to their wellbeing (and maybe for yours as well).
Our youngest daughter is at kindergarten this year, she’s the same age as Bingo, Bluey’s little sister. Our kindy is one of many fantastic kindergartens around Australia that has not just embraced a play based pedagogy, but works hard to instil play as a core value for parents trying to navigate our increasingly not play based education system. Not anticipating a global pandemic, I volunteered to be President of our kindergarten’s management committee this year, and I’ve been impressed by our director’s resilience through the early moments of this disruption, and how non-anxiously she has managed the uncertainty around school and kindergarten closures. There’s a stream of research that suggests she might have put the hard yards in to produce this resilience by spending much of her adult life not being serious, but playful. Play is something of a ritual for her, and for the kindergarten community.
Jewish Rabbi and therapist Edwin Friedman wrote A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fixin 2007. His book coined the idea of a ‘non anxious presence’ being the key to both challenge anxious systems and to lead change well. He drew significantly on his understanding of family systems and the way they shape social institutions from the ground up; someone trained or habituated to respond anxiously to disruption in family life will respond that way in the workplace as well. One of his fundamental insights was that a condition he described as ‘seriousness’ was a shortcut to anxiety; he believed a cultivated playfulness helped families and other systems become more resilient and less anxious. Friedman observed that one thing that separates mammals from the rest of the animal world — an aspect of life that makes us more highly evolved — is our capacity for playfulness; you can play with a pet dog, but a pet turtle will not engage in anything but the serious business of survival. Covid-19 is a serious disruption to our lives; a big issue; but Friedman would have us remember to play, lest the seriousness and our anxiety around it crush us and our capacity to innovate, recover, and move forward. “In an atmosphere where everything is dire, a vicious cycle develops, as a loss of playfulness destroys perspective,” he said. This is not quite a call to play the fiddle while the world around us burns, but rather a call to build resilient people who can tackle the difficulties before us with a shared ritual of play. The teachers advocating an expansion of play based educational strategy are right: play is formative, and while it might seem counter intuitive, if you have not had a lifetime of being formed by play, which is quite possible in an age that emphasises serious business (and so has sought to eradicate play from the education system after the earliest years) now is a good time to start.
Through all their ups and downs, the Heeler family is a non-anxious system; a model for our families through these uncertain times. And the core ritual shaping and driving their family; the binding agent in the love that glues them together; is play. We could do worse than sitting down in front of the TV with our families during this pandemic, then finding ways to imitate the play at home games that families around the country have already incorporated into their daily liturgies.
I’ve used these religious words like ‘ritual’ and ‘liturgy’ deliberately; the formative power of play is consistent with the Christian tradition that we are formed by our disciplines; habits we work on until they are written into our hearts and minds; rituals we enact until they form our character. The Christian tradition has often been accused of taking itself too seriously, but there has been a stream of theologians and philosophers (even Plato) emphasising the important spiritual discipline of play, and play as an expression of divine playfulness (remember, God made the Platypus). If play is hard-wired into our DNA as an evolutionary feature of our humanity, it is part of the image of God; the essence of our humanity. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote A Theology of Play in the 1970s, he says an apt description for us is homo ludens (the playing man), as he wrote he observed playfulness being excised from the serious business of work and the economy, calling this an expression of foolishness that undermined our humanity (though he saw the post-Reformation church being responsible for this outbreak of seriousness). Moltmann, looking to the revolutionary playfulness of Jesus in the face of the serious religious establishment he challenged, called Christians to return to a ritual of play, wresting control of our lives from those insisting on seriousness, in order to see revolution and change. How we play now, in a crisis, will shape how we, and our children, tackle the future. “We enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo,” Moltmann said.
Bandit is right. Play with your kids during this period, they might give you everything.
On Wednesday afternoons each week during school term I head along to a local public school and teach a bunch of public school students about Christianity in curriculum time. I had been quite reluctant to do this initially because I know the curriculum is jam packed, and though I think helping kids grapple with religion is important, I do think that in a secular context we should be helping kids navigate pluralism without defaulting to atheism or polytheism; that is, we should help kids understand and live with difference, not eradicate difference. But I’ve been convinced more recently about the goodness of special rather than general religious instruction, especially through some research put together by an academic from Israel, Zehavit Gross, and one from Australia, Suzanne Rutland, which has led to a multi-faiths body here in Queensland coming together to support special religious education (or instruction).
Religious instruction and its place in public schools has been in the news again recently because there’s a sustained campaign to scrap it from a lobby group of parents here in Queensland; they’re echoing similar campaigns in other states, and there are polls being operated by various media outlets. There was a piece a couple of weeks ago by Anna Halahoff, and Gary Bouma on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal that argued that the important role religious difference plays in a multi-faith society means that government institutions have almost a moral obligation to ensure children are exposed to religious traditions outside their own. As a public school parent, a pastor, and a special religious instruction teacher in a local primary school, deeply committed to a secular, and multi-faith Australia, and public education, I agree with them. However, in this piece, Halahoff and Bouma argued against special religious education in public schools and for general religious education. This is the line the “secular” lobby groups are now running with. I think their use of the label ‘secular’ is problematic. Halahoff and Bouma said “young Australians can attend religious schools, or religious children’s and youth groups before or after school or on weekends to assist with religious identity formation. This is not the role of public education.”
In secular, post-Christian (certainly post-church) Australia it’s an increasingly romantic notion that children (and parents) will choose such activities outside school time. It’s possible that my self-interest as a minister of religion makes me inclined to cling to any foothold still offered where the bar for opting in and out of religious instruction does not require crossing some threshold into ‘religious’ or ‘sacred’ space; but I do think religious education is part of the role of a well-rounded public education, even a secular one, especially with the ends of personal formation, well-being, social cohesion and pluralism in view. There’s also a strong educational case to be made that understanding religion, and the role it has played in society, is vital for understanding history, not simply western, or Australian history, and that such an understanding is richer when students grasp the particulars of different religious systems. Again, this is why I agree with Halahoff and Bouma that there is a place for general religious education in our schools, but I think there’s actually a good case to be made for both special and general religious education.
Christianity has, of course, played a particular role in Australian history post-European settlement, even in the founding of Australian schooling; until the denominational schooling bodies from the Catholic and Anglican churches reached an agreement with the government in the 1840s, schooling in Australia was exclusively conducted by churches. This meant schooling was sectarian. There were Catholic Schools and there were Anglican Schools. These schools would form good Catholic citizens and good Protestant citizens; fuelling sectarianism in society at large rather than secularism or pluralism. The transition of education to the states, and to a secular model where religious instruction or education was given space in the curriculum was a positive move. Special religious instruction or education is a product of secularism, not opposed to it.
The word ‘secular’ means different things to different people; its definition is contested, the sense in which I am using it is in the sense that I believe most would understand it — the idea of a separation between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred,’ but particularly here the question is about sovereignty; whether the state, or the church, is in charge. Where multiple faith options, and the option of no faith at all, exist together in a community the state either has to be neutral on questions of religion, or religious with varying degrees of accommodation. Most religious people, particularly monotheistic people, believe that their God’s sovereignty and authority is not limited to the ‘religious’ sphere, but that the state functions within God’s world. This means ‘secularity’ is always a kind of concession from the religious, an acceptance of plurality of options, this is not to argue that religious groups occupy positions of power today, certainly not any longer, but secularism, and pluralism, arose when the church was a much more powerful source of authority in the west. Secularity in the west is ultimately a concept that emerged historically both from a Christian experience of the world, and from Christian ideas about the sacred and the profane. British historian Tom Holland made this point in his new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, arguing that we’ve increasingly bought into a falsity that secularism emerged as a product of science and atheism.
In A Secular Age, Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor provides multiple definitions of ‘secularity’ operating in contemporary society. Secularity1 is the belief that public, secular, space is closed off to religious matters; that it must purely consider questions of material reality, such that church and state are separate because one is private and the other public. Church and state are also separate, in this view, to stop religious views shaping the public life of those who don’t share them. Secularity2 is the belief that religion is dead; that in the triumph of science and material explanations of reality, religion will fade into obscurity; we don’t need to make space for religion because religion is no longer a factor. Secularity3, Taylor’s version, recognises that religious belief and practice is declining in the west, specifically monolithic commitment to Christianity and the authority of the Church has collapsed not because ‘God is dead’ but because we now have more religious options than ever before, and the public square is not the singular domain of the Christian church, but a contested, pluralist, space; the decline of Christianity is not just the rise of ‘science’ and materialism, but the rise of choice. Religion is still a factor in public life in this sort of secularity because religious communities still persist as part of society, and a ‘secular’ approach to the public square is non-sectarian; the separation of church and state is to protect religious believers from each other, not just non-religious people from religious people, and it is to protect churches or religious institutions from the power of the state (whether sectarian, or atheist).
To be secular, then, is not to be non-religious, or to exclude religion from any place in public life or public institutions, it is to not have a sovereign power that is exclusively religious or sectarian, it is to remain value neutral on questions of the substance of religious belief, rather than to see no value.
Taylor’s account of how the conditions of belief have changed to allow this secular age to dawn aligns somewhat with the history of education, or schooling, in the west and in Australia in particular. Christians have long been supporters of schooling; one of the fruits of the Reformation and its ‘priesthood of all believers’ was a desire for literacy amongst men and women (and boys and girls), but churches have also long educated children as part of a deliberate strategy to ‘catechise,’ or raise children ‘in the faith,’ there’s some obvious truth in the Jesuit maxim ‘give me a child before seven and I will give you the adult.’ Education, or schooling, is a path to human formation, and to liberation from a restrictive social order — this, again, is a fruit of the Reformation, one charted by Taylor.
The historical development of special religious instruction as a product both of religious involvement with establishing schooling and secularism is not, in itself, an argument for keeping multi-faiths special religious instruction, it is, rather, an argument that you cannot simply remove multi-faiths special religious instruction from schools and call it “secularism.” The case for special religious instruction remaining in public schools, not simply withdrawing to sectarian private schools, or being abolished altogether is an educational one. Bouma and Halahoff made strong case for the place of religious education in public schools on the basis that it forms the types of citizens required for life in a multi-faith, multi-cultural Australia. They propose a way forward for religious education that involves “more teaching about diverse religions in all schools taught by qualified and trained teachers” and this “meaningfully incorporated into the Australian curriculum.” A fantastic proposal! Until late last year, even as a religious education teacher, I found the case for generalised religious education more compelling than specialised. As a pastor in a Christian church part of my support for the idea is that it would expose more people to the Gospel of Jesus, which I believe stacks up against other religious truth claims. As a parent, I want my children exposed to the beliefs of their neighbours, and to be having neighbourly conversations with people holding different views to our family. As a religious educator being careful not to infringe upon the school’s hospitality I was aware of the importance not to proselytise when answering questions from the children, and I was attempting to provide something like a ‘general’ account of Christianity to children whose parents had opted them in to receive ‘special’ religious education, that is, to be taught what Christians believe by a practising Christian.
The ends of special religious education are fostering belief and practice because such belief and practice is demonstrably beneficial for individual students, and the tenets of each religion taught in school, if taught and adhered to according to authorised curriculum, promote a pluralist schoolyard where children practice both differentiation from others and compassion for others, these are worthwhile educational outcomes (that children may also learn spiritual truths that are actually true is a question the state must remain neutral on lest it favour one ‘sect’ over another). The ends of general religious or worldview education are to foster understanding and empathy, rather than adherence.
My position on the place of special religious instruction, in addition to general religious instruction, shifted when I read the 2018 report ‘How in-faith religious education strengthens social cohesion in multicultural Australia’ by Professor Zehavit Gross, the UNESCO Chair in Education for Human Values, and Suzanne D. Rutland, a Professor emeriti in the Department of Hebrew Studies at the University of Sydney. This paper made the case for the benefit of both special and general religious instruction in forming children for a secular, multi-faith Australia. It highlights particular benefits children receive not just from religious ‘instruction’ but from belief and practice; benefits I’ve observed as the Buddhist class next to my rowdy grade 5 Christians practice meditation and mindfulness. General Religious education cannot produce these outcomes, because they must disconnect religious information from religious practices, and, by adopting the secular frame, must default to a detached, objective, agnostic approach to the spiritual dimension of religious belief. Some of the benefits of religion are directly connected to actually holding religious beliefs. Religious belief and practice is connected to human flourishing. A 2018 Harvard Study by Ying Chen and Tyler VanderWeele found that a religious upbringing involving ‘religious participation’ (not just knowledge) is associated with “greater subsequent psychological well-being, character strengths, and lower risks of mental illness and several health behaviours.” These are formative benefits for our future citizens, and thus for society. These benefits come from a sort of education that already has a place in the curriculum. It seems a case must be made against these benefits as worthy, or for other more worthy educational outcomes.
If “worldviews education” is as beneficial to producing well-rounded participants in a multi-faith society as Halafoff and Bouma argue, and I believe this to be the case, then why not both? Why not recognise the personal and social value of religious belief and practice, and the knowledge of other religions, in a secular, multi-faith world? Why not recognise the fundamental place religion has in the fabric of our society and the individuals in it and devote adequate curriculum time to forming our junior citizens with a vision of flourishing that goes beyond seeing children simply as future cogs in an economic machine?
Schools inevitably form children with some vision of the good, and curriculum selection is always ideological, and in some sense always ‘religious’ in nature. The academic and author, David Foster Wallace, a man reportedly haunted by the question of what place religion, or the transcendent, should occupy in his life famously observed “everybody worships something,” and that the only choice we get in this life is the choice about what to worship. Our schools, whether or not special or general religious education are part of the curriculum, are already forming and churning out worshippers. They were built to do this very thing in a previous, more explicitly religious, age, it would be a shame (and bad for our pluralist, multifaith, society) for our schools to so favour the Gods of economic production, technological development, and wealth that there was no space left in the curriculum for children to learn about the place of religion and worldviews generally in our society, and to explore the belief and practice of one or more of these faiths particularly. I purchased a copy or replica ‘school readers’ from the early 20th century at an op shop, and was shocked by how deeply religious the content was; one (available online) features a story about Jesus titled “Our Best Friend.” These readers aimed to foster not just reading but values; to form children. State schools have recently been encouraged to purchase Suzie the Scientist readers that will teach literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) at the same time. This doesn’t represent the end of teaching values, but changed values in the curriculum. The case for more STEM and less religion in the curriculum is not religiously neutral, it represents the triumph of a modern religion in capturing our shared imagination and orienting us towards a vision of the good life built purely on making cool stuff, and getting wealthy, in material terms.
A secular state, and its educational arm, is not sectarian, theocratic, or ‘atheistic’, but nor does it exist to promote bland agnosticism towards religious questions. A secular state might reasonably, in the face of the evidence, recognise the vitality and goodness of religion. The individual and social benefits either come purely from the ‘immanent frame’ (as philosopher Charles Taylor describes the ‘here and now’) and limited to psychological benefits and wellbeing, or found through connection to a transcendent reality, whether that is the Christian God who reveals himself in Jesus, Allah and Mohammad as his prophet, or the pursuit of Nirvana via the teachings of the Budda. The secular state in a pluralist context is called to remain value neutral and non-sectarian on the latter questions, but not the former question about whether or not religious beliefs, practices and religious institutions are a civic good and part of the fabric of our society. It cannot be neutral on the question of the goodness of religion itself because the quest for some divine truth does not just seem hard-wired into us, but also into the DNA of the western world, producing schooling as we know it, and many of the values we cherish — including secularism and pluralism. Societies that choose to reject the place of the religious quest tend towards totalitarianism rather than pluralism. It is societies that truly value the freedom to pursue religious truth that allow more than one option on the table. Our schools might be places that reflect that, and to continue the metaphor of hospitality, they are perhaps best to do this with courses prepared by chefs conversant with the textures of their own cultural practices; offering a menu for students and their parents, rather than some sort of fusion dish prepared by a generalist, that seeks to value all flavours but ends up unrecognisably muddled.
Public schools are a great breeding ground for a pluralist, civic, democractic society where we learn to listen, empathise, and navigate genuine difference. The worst thing possible for such a goal is religious parents withdrawing their children into religious enclaves; a return to sectarian schooling. Such schools can be designed either to protect children from other religious ideas, or, increasingly because of a belief that these schools, with a commitment both to special and general religious instruction, and a vision of human flourishing that goes beyond the here and now. As a proud public school graduate I’ve unashamedly been devoted to the good of secular public education for the sake of pluralism, and exposing my children to ideas and influence foreign to those practiced in our family and our church, both through curriculum time, and relationships with children and their families whose values, or worldviews, differ from my own. I find this conviction wavering in recent times as I’ve perceived the common definition of ‘secular’ shifting from ‘non-sectarian but open to religious belief and practice’ to ‘closed off from religious belief and practice.’ Ironically, I find myself drawn to the sort of schools that offer both general religious instruction and special religious instruction (albeit typically of an exclusively Christian variety). The danger of enclaves, whatever brand of religion they form around, is that in the absence of multiple perspectives and a commitment to a pluralist vision of life across difference, such enclaves have the capacity to foster various forms of radicalism of the sort that demand a public sphere that is not multifaith, but monotheistic; not secular, but sectarian. A secular education in a multifaith, pluralist, society will involve both special and general religious education, there might even be time left in the curriculum for STEM.
Jurgen Moltmann wrote a book called A Theology of Play back in the 1970s. He opens by talking about our innate burning desire for happiness and enjoyment. He says: “to be happy, to enjoy ourselves, we must above all be free… we enjoy ourselves, we laugh, when our burdens are removed, when fetters are falling, pressures yield and obstructions give way…” he says that when this happens we “gain distance from ourselves and our plans move forward in a natural, unforced, way.” He talks about humanity as ‘homo ludens’ (the playing man).
Play is different to work — which comes with different limits and a certain sort of burden, but it is also different to rest. It has similarities with both — work, because it involves using God’s good creation, and our energy, to certain ends, rest, because it is ‘recreative’ and not connected to particular ends beyond the activity itself and the pleasure it produces for us. Play is an ends in itself, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t do things to us, and through us — or that it has to be ‘non-productive,’ it’s just that the things it produces are a bi-product of the activity — so someone could ‘play music’ for fun and produce music, or do woodwork and create something beautiful, but the product (while you may pursue beauty and goodness as part of the ‘play’) is secondary to the effort. Moltmann says, of ‘games’ that the game must “appear useless and purposeless from an outside point of view” to be meaningfully ‘play’ — to ‘ask for the purpose’ makes one a “spoilsport.”
Education academics and philosophers are increasingly convinced about the formative power of play — and not just for children. Play as ‘pedagogy’ isn’t a new idea, it’s almost self-evident that children play their way to an understanding of the world, and people as old and wise as Plato have recognised the formative, educative, power of play. We’re hard-wired to play, and through play, to come to know not just the world and ourselves as they are, but also as they could be. Play is the seedbed of the imagination. Plato’s approach to learning was built on the idea that the way we play appears ‘harmless’ but “little by little” the way we play “penetrates into manners and customs; whence, issuing with greater force, it invades contracts between man and man, and from contracts goes on to laws and constitutions” and so can ultimately totally overthrow the system, though he saw rightly ordered play becomes a ‘habit’ that leads to good ordering of society as well (Plato’s Republic, book 4).
That play does things to us as we play — that it has a utility — can’t be the ‘reason’ that we play — if play is forced it loses some of its essence, but it is a reason to not take ourselves so seriously that we never play.
Moltmann, writing when he did, noticed a then ‘modern’ (now old) tendency for ‘playfulness’ to be “banned from the realm of labour as mere foolishness” as we have been forced by the industrial revolution to shift our views of what it means to be human. He saw this creating a haunting sense of loss and our desire for ‘play’ as something beyond our reach as part of a “melancholy criticism of our modern culture and its alleged loss of childlike innocence, of ancient good and religious values.” Moltmann notes that the Reformation, and especially the values of the Puritans, “abolished the holidays, games, and safety valves” of the Medieval society it reformed. Charles Taylor, writing much later in the piece in A Secular Age notes how much of the public religious life of old was ‘festive’ — filled with feasts and celebrations that have been removed from our disenchanted, disembodied (excarnated), head-focused, modern religion that no longer marks ‘spiritual time’ or a liturgical calendar, but treats all time the same; such that our calendars or schedules are dominated by a different ‘immanent’ understanding of life that prioritises work and the pursuit of pleasure through economic productivity and security. The sort of modern myth that Brian Walsh identifies in The Subversive Image (quoted in the post on rest). Work and play do relate — though the balance has been tipped somewhat in modern thinking (perhaps Protestant thinking, connected to the ‘protestant work ethic’) so that our rest is oriented towards making us ‘more productive units’ rather than rest being the thing we enjoy as the fruit of our labour (or, in fact, both being true).
Moltmann notes that the world of the 70s made ‘vacation’ a servant of ‘vocation’… where we “get away for a time to become better achievers and more willing workers” our other past times that pass as ‘leisure’ — like watching TV — have become forms of escaping a monotonous world, a world particularly devoid of ‘adventure’. Moltmann argues that “these areas reserved for free play are of considerable importance to the structures of authority and labour and their respective disciplines and moral systems” — the way the system has us ‘play’ and ‘systematised play’ itself is geared to reinforce the economic/industrial status quo. This is a fascinating point that lines up with more recent observations about the place of ‘mindfulness’ in the corporate world in a book I’m reading titled McMindfulness by Ronald Purser (read some more about it here). Play then becomes ‘enslaving’ rather than ‘liberating’ — if ‘play’ is re-creation though; and something to pursue as a spiritual discipline or part of Sabbathing, then we need to change the way we play, and consciously be formed by our play in ways that liberate us from false worship and false stories about humanity; play, like rest and work, is part of how we worship. Moltmann suggests that play is serious business — and that as a result we should “wrest control” of games from “the ruling interests” that enslave and “change them into games of freedom which prepare people for a more liberated society…” and more than that, he sees, like Plato, any effective revolution starting not with the economic structures of a society but in its play.
“We enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo.” — Moltmann.
This idea is echoed in the book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. He says:
“Each epoch dreams the one to follow, creates it in dreaming,” the French historian Michelet wrote in 1839. More often than not, those dreams do not unfold within the grown-up world of work or war or governance. Instead, they emerge from a different kind of space: a space of wonder and delight where the normal rules have been suspended, where people are free to explore the spontaneous, unpredictable, and immensely creative work of play. You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” — Steven Johnson
C.S Lewis also makes the point that how we play is significant. That our choices about re-creation matter because they form us: “our leisure, even our play, is a matter of serious concern. There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan … It is a serious matter to choose wholesome recreations.”
Play in the Bible
In the beginning, God makes a good and beautiful world. Our Jesus Storybook Bible gives a beautiful sense of God delighting in his good creation, that at least some part of his joyful declaration “it is good” at the end of each day is not just the satisfaction of an engineer but an artist; that there is ‘play’ involved in his imagination and creativity. He doesn’t ‘create’ because he has to to complete some deficiency in himself, but rather as an outpouring of his love and character. Some part, then, of our ‘image bearing’ task is to take up this playful, delighting, creative role — this is part of the call to “be fruitful and multiply” (a command often called the “cultural mandate”).
God is also hospitable. He puts Adam and then Eve in a garden that is delightful. A garden that is a feast for the senses where even the forbidden fruit is “pleasing to the eye”. He invites them to eat and enjoy his good provision in relationship with him — he is the God who walks in the garden in the cool of the day. Part of the ‘cultural mandate’ in the Genesis narrative is the task of spreading this hospitality of the garden — expanding it — across the face of the world (Adam is tasked with ‘cultivating and keeping’ the garden in Genesis 2). This is a task of spreading beauty and a creation that is to be enjoyed; and while there is work involved here, it seems that work is held in balance with enjoyment of the fruit of one’s labours (frustrated by the curse) and with rest. Some part of a Biblical definition of play is connected to our created purpose — we embodied creatures are hardwired for pleasure and created to enjoy relationship with our good creator. We are tasked with imagining and creating new realities (the raw materials for such creativity are there in Eden and highlighted for us as readers). Pre-fall the lines between work and play seem more blurry than they are now, because there is no oppressive social order and no frustration of our work. Play, at this point, seems to, by inference, involve enjoying creation as creatures in relationship with our creator – including enjoying our bodies and our senses – and through our senses, so feasting, and dancing, and laughter, and sex, and making art, and music, and sport, and imagining new worlds, and telling stories, and experiencing stories… not all of this disappears with the disordering of the fall, all of these are ‘play’ – and all of them are at their best when somehow they’re connected not just to those things as ‘an end in themselves’ but to God, either as an extension of our human call to live as his image bearers, in a deliberate engaging with these things with thanksgiving and to glorify God, so that we see in these things something of his ‘divine nature and character’ (Romans 1:20, 1 Timothy 4:4-5). Work is similar in many ways, in that we are cultivate things, but there’s something more consciously ‘utilitarian’ in our work; it has a purpose in itself that play doesn’t, which isn’t to say play doesn’t have a function, or a purpose, or that it doesn’t do anything, but when you try to make it do that thing it loses its essence. Nobody likes ‘forced fun’ or ‘going through the motions’… which is an interesting phrase with play, especially when it relates to professions that are professional versions of things we play at… whether its music, where a musician ‘plays’ until their instrument becomes an extension of the self, and the capacity to produce music shifts, or runs the risk of shifting, to being a ‘craft’ or ‘work’ rather than simply an ‘art’ or ‘play.’
As well as being a writer who wrote fantastic things about tennis and beauty (see his essay on Federer), David Foster Wallace was a capable junior tennis player who understood the strange overlap of play and work, where some things we mere mortals might ‘play at’ become serious business. In his magnum opus, the novel Infinite Jest, DFW follows the career of a junior tennis prodigy in an academy where players are encouraged to eat, sleep, and breathe tennis. To ‘go through the motions’ — playing — until the game becomes muscle memory; until they are hard wired ‘tennis machines’ — the risk here is that a player who habituates themselves into this machine-like existence disconnects the processes from their love for the game. Play has a certain liturgical quality — and Wallace makes this point because his book is ultimately about worship and the idea that we become what we love. We see this sort of disconnect in liturgical churches who ‘forsake their first love’ and go through the motions of liturgy without their hearts and hands being animated by the love of God and the desire to participate in the story of the Gospel, and we see it in tennis players who have been hard-wired into skillful machines but who hate the game, like Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic — both see tennis as a ‘means to an ends’ — whereas, someone like Federer plays the game because he loves it (which perhaps allows him to be an artist rather than an automaton).
Play forms us, and it does have an interesting relationship with work that seems to somehow work best when play informs and transforms the way we work, because it transforms what we love and the new possibilities we are able to imagine. Play can be ‘re-creative’ or ‘de-creative’ — it can be ‘transforming’ or ‘de-forming’ — the fall itself is an act of ‘playful’ rebellion; the pursuit of enjoyment of a good and beautiful thing apart from God. Part of this dynamic, whether with music, tennis, or the fruit in the garden, is a loss of the ‘purpose’ or ‘telos’ of the created thing we are enjoying; we should, in our play, be able to ‘look along’ the things of this world towards God, and so glorify him — but they become idolatrous when we either become fixated on the created thing itself, or on ourselves and what the thing produces for us. This sort of ‘looking through’ the objects of our play has the capacity to prevent those things becoming ‘ultimate’ for us whether as objects of delight or drudgery — it stops us becoming mastered or enslaved (the way Tomic and Kyrgios might feel enslaved by tennis).
Play is frustrated by the fall both because it becomes the grounds for idolatry, because work itself is frustrated (and frustrating), and so too is all of creation (Romans 8). The time for play, then, is reduced by the thorns and thistles the ground now produces, its connection to the creator is more tenuous or less obvious for us ‘outside the garden,’ and the way we play often becomes idolatrous. Even as the effects of the curse start to bite, play continues. The genealogy in Genesis 4 lists people who make tools (for work) and musical instruments (for play). Play is a narrative theme of the Old Testament. Culture is still being created. People are spreading — it’s just a question of whether people are spreading ‘garden like’ conditions, or curse, or a mix of both. The Old Testament is full of the tension between people who are ‘lovers of the world’ who still feast and make music and do lots of ‘appealing’ stuff with leisure and pleasure; who are given over to sensuality… and with Israel’s own counter-cultural sensual practices of self-denial (bacon) and festivals and feasting in a land flowing with milk and honey…
Play under the sun
The wise man in Ecclesiastes; at least in his exploration of life ‘under the sun’ is the human trying to live in Charles Taylor’s ‘closed system’ – as a ‘buffered self’ — he’s exploring a world without God, and decides that a world with God is essential for meaning. In chapter 2 he describes a ‘re-creation’ project; an attempt to build an Eden like life without curse; the #BLESSED life. He starts by declaring ‘pleasure’ itself “meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3) and then turns to work and its relationship to pleasure.
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. — Ecclesiastes 2:4-11
Nothing is gained, because all of this is frustrated. Especially because we are temporary; we are but breath. You’ve got to be careful with that phrasing right… it sounds like “butt breath” – but that’s actually kinda what he’s saying… The word rendered ‘meaningless’ in the NIV is the Hebrew word הֶבֶל (‘hebel’), which is a word that captures the ‘fleetingness’ or ‘breathiness’ of existence. It more literally means ‘breath’ or ‘vapour.’
He particularly decides that a life that is all work and no play, no goodness, no joy, is meaningless; it keeps us despairing. Especially because work is pointless because life is fleeting; we don’t enjoy the fruit of our labour, we give it to those who come after us who haven’t worked to earn it. Our lives are marked by days of work that are “grief and pain” and nights where our “minds do not rest”. So his verdict is we may as well work and ‘play’:
“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” — Ecclesiastes 2:25-26
Everything “under the sun” in a disenchanted world is temporary. Work. Life. Play. All are meaningless if all they do is confront us with the reality of this temporaryness; but there is a chance that play — that ‘enjoyment’ of the fruit of our labour — might throw us towards God. The writer of Ecclesiastes doesn’t find much hope ‘under the sun,’ but he does start to connect meaning to God and to an ‘enchanted’ view of life and reality. If life is connected not just to ‘immanence’ (Taylor’s term) or our ‘under the sun’ experience, but to the God who has set eternity on our hearts, then play throws us towards something our hearts are created to long for: the eternal… joy… the heart of God.
I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:-13
That longing for the eternal is innate, and play can either numb us to it as we ‘escape’ that reality by atomising ourselves or conforming to patterns of this world or “status quos” that immunise us to this ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as David Foster Wallace describes it in This Is Water), or liberate us, as Moltmann suggests. It’s interesting at this point to consider how much our ‘play’ is dominated by ‘screens’ that operate as portals for us into fictional worlds where space and time are suspended; where once we had a liturgical calendar that measured the seasons around Christian holidays, we now have TV seasons and lives dictated by what’s just dropped on Netflix or the latest video game. Unless we curate our art really carefully; unless we’re careful about what stories we allow to shape our imagination, these forms of ‘escape’ don’t pull us from the real world at all; they keep us trapped there. J.R.R Tolkien has some fascinating points to make on the necessity of fantasy being ‘real escape’ into worlds where the status quo does not reflect our own in order for stories to work to capture and re-create our imaginations. In his On Fairy Stories, Tolkien says stories have a redemptive capacity not just the capacity to enslave, and that participating in them (and creating them) is part of our calling as humans; a necessity for us as image bearers of the story-creating God:
For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen. Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum (wrong use does not negate right use). Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. — Tolkien
Tolkien sees fantasy, or stories, as offering recovery, escape, or consolation. The closer the stories are to our reality the more the best they can offer is simply a renewed way of seeing the world as it is, the more we are pulled into an alternative world the more we are free to question the ‘status quo’ we find ourselves operating in. Great fantasy operates in parallel with ‘great play’ — it allows us to rediscover the ‘divine nature and character’ of God through seeing the things he has made more clearly. Recovering sight like the blind man Jesus heals who first sees people moving as trees, and then as people — Tolkien says that it is in fantasy (think ‘play’) that “I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” Escape is, for Tolkien, the sort of response a wise person has to the predicament caused by having eternity written on their hearts and the crushing reality of life and toil under the sun being so fleeting. He says “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” — the danger with our means of ‘play’ — our consumption of stories via screens is not that they are escapist, it is that they are not escapist enough; we simply open the doors of our prison cell to find ourselves in the prison yard; still imprisoned by the world as it is, just with the illusion of new horizons. For Tolkien it is consolation that is the true purpose of fairy stories — and by analogy, of play. Consolation refers to the way stories and our experience of them throws us towards the eternal; towards the ‘happy ending’ where the desires of our heart are met by the God who made us and implanted such eternal desires in our heart.
“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”
For Tolkien this ‘good catastrophe’ (or eucatastrophe) — this ‘happy ending’ — this ‘fleeting taste of joy’ — which is analogous to what we hope to experience through play — throws us towards the heavenly reality and reveals something of God’s character as the God who creates the ultimate fairy story; the God who plays. Our fairy stories, like our play, are where we enact the ‘liberating story’ of the Gospel — not just the suffering or the work of service and renewal that the Gospel calls us to participate in, but a taste of the kingdom that Jesus came to bring. The ‘liberating story’ we enact as we play is one of resurrection, redemption, and renewal. Play ‘re-creates’ us as characters in this story; those re-created by the Spirit to be part of God’s kingdom. Those who do not simply live ‘under the sun’ but ‘under the son’…
Play under the son
Did Jesus play? It’d be hard to declare some sort of ‘imperative’ for us to play as a Spiritual practice in the absence of evidence that Jesus himself played — and not just as a child, but as an adult. It’s interesting to consider the ways that play might be described in the life of Jesus in ways that we take for granted; there’s a certain playfulness in his confounding of his ‘serious’ interlocutors — the representatives of the all too serious status quo — the Pharisees — through the telling of imaginative stories that build new worlds. And it’s clear when we read through the Gospels, perhaps especially Luke, that Jesus spends lots of time at dinner parties. In fact, he is accused of partying too hard. Of having too much fun. Of too much play — his first miracle is at a wedding, where he turns water into wine, with a similar sort of delight that you imagine from his father in Genesis 1…
But it’s possible he also encourages us to play as his followers because play is a natural part of being a child. His instruction to ‘let children come to him’ as an expression of the nature of the kingdom is interesting to ponder at this point; especially if play is a necessary way to cultivate the sort of imagination that might allow us to escape forms of slavery and find ourselves liberated. This isn’t to say the Spirit isn’t at work by convicting us of the truth of the Gospel and the emptiness of the patterns of this world, but rather that the renewing of our minds might happen through the sorts of pedagogical behaviours, led by the Spirit, that form us as God’s children. Children play. We don’t have to teach children to play (we might, if Plato is right, and if this thesis is right) be best to guide play towards constructive ‘formative’ ends rather than deforming ones, because play does ‘re-create’ us into a certain sort of image, or person. Play is the natural way children learn. Play is not work, but it teaches us how to approach our work.
We impose structures on children to churn them out as cogs to serve an immanent ‘machine like’ economic reality built on science and technology as little ‘worker bees’ to toil under the sun; who aren’t given the sort of education setting that fosters the imagination… and we do the same in our churches and church programs that imitate school classrooms. But children learn to innovate and imagine through play… so do adults… We beat play out of children in the name of ‘education’ because of our idolatry of work, and because we’re too serious about life, and don’t see play and joy as good and essential things to pursue; perhaps especially as (protestant) Christians who have inherited a protestant work ethic and a sense that our awe and reverence for God is best expressed through seriousness, not through coming to God as our good father wanting to play with him (and you know, there’s that famous book that says a life spent playing and enjoying God’s good creation, and bringing that goodness before God in the form of a shell collection is “a wasted life”… that doesn’t help).
What if play, like fairy stories, isn’t just for children? C.S Lewis in several essays bemoans the way we moderns banished fairy stories to the children’s section of the library because like Tolkien, he saw these stories as essential for us in expanding our horizon.
What if we have bought into the ‘status quo’ lies of an industrialised, economy mad, world so we see play either as trivial ‘not work’ or simply as the means by which we self-medicate in order to do our work better?
What if we’ve bought into a work ethic that comes from our theological tradition that emphasises the ‘heady’ nature of learning at the expense of embodied experience where play might actually be a better tool for forming us as people than teaching that feels like hard work?
What if all this conspires to disenchant and thus deform us so that we aren’t living as people liberated to enjoy being part of God’s kingdom, but rather we keep living as people enslaved by the worship of the things of this world?
What if we don’t take play seriously enough and we keep trying to be like the ‘grown ups’ who can’t get back to Narnia anymore, rather than the children whose eyes are opened to the goodness and bigness of God and his world as it really is. What if Jesus calls us to be childlike and thus to be more playful?
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:2-4
Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there. – Matthew 19:14-15
What if play is not just a type of formative or ‘re-creating’ behaviour that orients us towards the kingdom; but one of the ways we bear witness to that kingdom in our lives? What if cultural change actually does happen better through influencing the way people play rather than the way they work?
If these ‘what ifs’ are true we need to re-learn how to play in a way that is different to the play served up for us by the world; to play in a way that marks us out and teaches us that we have been liberated from the status quo offered up by the world by a king who calls us to come to him as children. Maybe we could start with collecting shells?
As Steven Johnson puts it in Wonderland, “Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms.” If we want to transform not just ourselves, but our world, as we live and play the liberating story of the Gospel, play becomes part of our ‘disruptive witness’ providing an alternative vision for life to the ‘under the sun’ status quo. Alan Noble’s excellent Disruptive Witness, hints in this direction as he calls us for ‘habits of presence’ that help us recover the way we see reality, but also ‘console’ us in Tolkien’s terms by giving us meaning in a way that satisfies our desire for transcendence.
“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence… Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.” — Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness
What would it take for our church communities to be known for the way we play? Both together and in our own lives? For us to be serious about playing together being one of the best ways to grow together as characters in God’s grand story? I like this quote from Robert Hotchkins:
“Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We all ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the fun there is and being a Christian.”
How’s that for a vision for ‘re-creation’? Maybe, despite the condemnation they earned from people closer to my theological tradition, those churches that built playgrounds inside Cathedrals — buildings that are meant to throw us towards God through their very design — maybe those churches were actually on to something after all.
My kids go to a fantastic kindergarten. It’s play based, and it really means it. It has an incredible playground where kids interacting with each other, and with nature, prompt learning opportunities spontaneously and driven by curiousity. It has toys and costumes designed to encourage learning through role play. It fuels the imagination. It sees education as being about forming inquisitive, curious, lifelong learners but also fostering a sense of community and belonging. I love it. I’m convinced about its pedagogy — and convinced this approach to education should extend well and truly into adulthood.
My oldest daughter is enrolled at the public school in our area that we felt was the closest match to this kindy in terms of ethos (the one that cared least about NAPLAN as far as we could gauge from talking to teachers at school open days). It was ‘play based’ (in a different sense to kindy) in grade 1, but that pedagogical method is rapidly disappearing into the rear view mirror, and the parent groups we’re in online are now filled with people handwringing over the school’s (not great) NAPLAN results…
At the same time there’s a nationwide push for standardisation in our education system, a national curriculum in schools and the national ‘Early Years Learning Framework’ setting standards for kindergarten/pre-school, it aims to ensure “all children experience learning that is engaging and builds success for life.” Which sounds like a terrific aim. Education is really important, but how we approach education as a nation (and as parents) reveals lots about what we value, and from a Christian framework, what we value as a nation reveals what we worship.
Our education systems are formative, they operate with a vision of what a person is, how a person functions, and what good people do, and they use practices to get there. These streams come together (especially the practices) to form ‘pedagogies’ — the ‘methods and practices’ of teaching, pedagogies are oriented to outcomes and matched with ‘curriculums’ (what is taught). ‘Play based’ is a pedagogy, so is ‘ROTE learning’… The push for education based on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is a ‘curriculum’ push. The combination of ‘pedagogy’ and ‘curriculum’ adopted and assessed in a national approach to education reveals how we see the ‘good life’ for our nation’s citizens, but it also profoundly shapes what we value, because, as Christian philosopher James K.A Smith puts it — we become what we love, and what we love is formed by practices and a vision of the good human life, and the combination of ‘practices oriented to a vision’ embedded in a story is the very essence of worship. I went to a lecture he gave on educational practices (within the context of Christian education) a couple of years ago where he said (these are my notes):
“Every pedagogy implicitly assumes an anthropology.
Every philosophy of education/strategy assumes implicitly/tacitly some model of what human beings are, and therefore what learners are.
The university has assumed an anthropology that is a lot newer than we might realize, that is contingent and challengable. Christian teaching and learning should work from a different model.
The water in which higher education swims is largely, now, a German production. The assumptions about what a university should be are post-enlightenment, 18th-19th German education, which became a model exported into the US, UK, and probably Australia. As an enlightenment institution the assumed model of the human person is the “thinking thing” model — the university model assumes humans are primarily brains on a stick. The task of education and the university is the depositing of beliefs into the intellectual recepticles of thinking things in order to equip them for a particular task. You get the prioritizing of the brain that is then wedded to a utilitarian/pragmatic view of what education is for. Universities become credentialing facilities for brains on a stick.”
It’s not just universities. This happens pretty early on — a utilitarian view of education — that we’re being trained for a vocation in our schools, to participate as economic units within a ‘machine’ is what is driving the push for STEM based education in the early years of primary school, right through to university. If education is ‘jobs focused’ not ‘human focused’ we lose, because we shrink our sense of what it means to be human to how a human contributes to and in an economy. This will have implications for decisions about who we value and what ‘humanity’ is (and about, for example, aged care, euthanasia, abortion), there’s a vicious cycle where education assumes an anthropology, and then it works to reinforce that anthropology.
The ‘culture war’ Christians seem to want to fight often tilts at the sexual revolution and how it has taken its place in our schools via Safe Schools, now, I have some reservations about Safe Schools (both in terms of its pedagogy and curriculum), but I am not worried that my kids are going to come home from school able to empathise with any of their peers who have different sexuality or gender stuff going on (I wrote an article about Safe Schools for Eternity News a while back. Read that). Education should form kids and adults who are able to live together with people who are different to them, and part of living together will is listening carefully and seeking understanding. In many ways Safe Schools offers a much better ‘pedagogical’ framework, a much more appropriate ‘practice’ and imagination driven way of forming kids, than the rest of the curriculum, and perhaps in a world that worships sex, that is what makes it more dangerous than other things on the table presently…
But I don’t think sex is the big alternative god of the west, it’s ‘a big god of the west’, certainly, but the sexual revolution still divides both conservatives and progressives, and Christians and the rest of the world. I think the most sinister ‘alternative god of the west’ doesn’t divide anybody. Conservatives and progressives and Christians and non-Christians are all on the same page… and it’s the god behind STEM. The real ‘god’ of the Babylon of the West.
It’s money. It’s Mammon. It’s the anthropology that measures a person by the contribution they make to digging stuff out of the ground, turning it into technology, and selling it to make our lives more comfortable. It’s the ‘jobs of the future’. It’s that which distracts our kids from thinking about the aspects of education previously known as ‘humanities’ and instead, has us thinking about how we don’t just make machines, but become little cogs in an economy built on the back of making machines. What is the difference in STEM’s anthropology between a human and the widgets the human creates that slot into a smaller piece of technology? Not much.
What’s new about this vision of people? That we are cogs in an economic machine designed to produce goods? Not much. It’s precisely how the Egyptians viewed the Hebrews before they were rescued from slavery and became a nation, and it’s what still leads people to enslave other people. You can only make somebody a slave if your view of humanity is on economic terms… our education system, with its emphasis on jobs, and particularly ‘machine like’ jobs isn’t hugely different, the pay and conditions are just better (mostly, at least here in the west).
STEM without humanities (and the arts) is part of the abiding myth of the western world, the catechism (the process of educating up worshippers) associated with this particular god. It’s part of what Brian Walsh called Christians to eject from in his book Subversive Christianity in 1994, when he wrote about the dominant story of the west, a story that hasn’t become less dominant just because we now fixate more on sex… it’s just we don’t see that this narrative captured the imaginations of Christians as well, to our detriment:
This story, this Western cultural myth, proclaims that progress is inevitable, if we only allow human reason freely and scientifically to investigate our world so that we can acquire the technological power to control that world in order to realise the ultimate human good, that is, an abundance of consumer goods and the leisure time in which to consume them.
This myth of progress is engraved in our high-school textbooks, proclaimed in corporate advertising, phallically erected in our downtown bank and corporation towers, propagated in our universities, assumed by our political parties, and portrayed in the situation comedies, dramas, and news broadcasts on the popular media. This myth idolatrously reduces human labour to the efficient exercise of power to produce maximum economic good.
Serving the three gods of scientism, technicism, and economism, our work lives (in both the shop and the office) are subjected to scientific analysis by industrial engineers and a whole army of consultants, to determine the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand using the best and quickest techniques to attain the highest possible economic good… More foundationally this is the worldview that captivates the imagination of our society…Looking at life with this worldview is as natural as breathing for us. Because, after all, it is in the air everywhere, and the church provides no gas mask.
Why is it that when Safe Schools drops into schools we Christians panic, we jump up and down about the corruption of our children? We reach for the proverbial ‘gas mask’ or pull the eject cord and home school, or withdraw into the Christian bubble… but when there’s a push for a STEM driven national curriculum we’re silent?
I was horrified recently when I heard a new set of early school readers Suzie The Scientist were being produced with a STEM focus so that even literacy could be taught with the goal of checking off the STEM box. ‘School Readers’ have a long history (documented here), and the first ones, instead of being produced to serve an economic agenda, featured:
classic stories from English literature
accounts from British, Australian and Queensland history
biographies of significant figures in history
traditional fairy tales
stories encouraging the development of good character.
Now. I don’t want to pretend to claim that these would’ve been perfect… education has long been a tool for social engineering and the culture wars, but the goals of these readers, included “instilling in pupils a lifelong love of literature” and “encourage virtues such as honesty, obedience, bravery and courage,” there were other educational aims in the mix, but the new
provide information about a range of subjects including nature study, early Australian history, significant figures in history
encourage children to read and enjoy traditional tales such as Jack and the beanstalk, Cinderella
inform children of heroic deeds in short biographical stories including one on Grace Darling
Each book aligns to learning outcome statements (i.e. Descriptors) from the Australian Curriculum: Science
Unlike other science-based home readers, equal emphasis is placed across all four sub-strands (Biological Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences and Physical Sciences) – 6 books for each sub-strand!
In addition, all three strands of the Australian Curriculum Science are also addressed – i.e. Science Understanding, Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills
They are include information to “empower parents to engage children in exploratory conversations about science… linked to classroom learning via the Australian Curriculum: Science” and are built around “consistent sentence structure and use of high frequency words appropriate to each reading level to help children develop fluency, comprehension and vocabulary” introducing “key scientific words introduced for discussion prior to reading and in context within the book to help children extend their reading vocabulary.”
Spot the difference.
Imagine the difference this produces in terms of people of character rather than people of knowledge.
This is why I was so greatly encouraged by the words of the New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes this week (quotes from the SMH).
“From government ministers to journalists – from industry CEO’s to senior public servants – people of influence are piling in to denounce the value of philosophy, the arts, and the social sciences – insisting that only by bowing before the altar of STEM will today’s students be adequately equipped to thrive in the 21st century.”
“Education is not simply about getting a job. Our educational institutions exist primarily to help educate the next generation to build a more just and more engaged society,” Mr Stokes said.
“They exist to provide students with higher-order skills that are flexible and adaptable to a changing world.”
He said the key to a robust 21st century education system was “not the overt preferencing of STEM” but the championing of a true multidisciplinary system.
“Ultimately, STEM seeks to dehumanise education – reducing it to an equation of inputs and outputs. Yet excellence has always been most evident when education is at its most personal.”
Yes and amen. It’s interesting that he uses religious terminology; the ‘altar of STEM’… because STEM is about worship. It’s about claiming the hearts and minds of our children in service of a particular god.
One of my parenting wins this year was watching the Falcon Heavy launch with Xavi. It’s inspired the building of countless Lego rockets. It’s not that I hate science, technology, engineering, or math — it’s that these disciplines and ways of discovering wondrous and true things about the world need to be paired with education, or formation, about what is good for humanity. Who is going to decide what technology it is good or virtuous to develop? Or how it should be deployed? Or what impact that technology might have on our brains and culture? Technology isn’t neutral, when it enters an ecosystem it reshapes it, and it reshapes us, our habitats shape our habits and our habits shape us, which means we need to be pretty thoughtful about what sort of technological changes we introduce. Which means good education in the technological age won’t just focus on the technique — the engineering — but on the telos, to what end we want to develop different types of technology, which ties into the broader question of to what end we humans live for.
Education should absolutely focus on these questions, on what a good citizen of our nation looks like, and what future we are educating towards… but STEM alone can’t save us, unless all that matters is that the Australia of the future is economically prosperous and good at digging stuff up to turn into other more expensive hardware, or at turning our time and effort into software that people want to use. The best STEM work comes from an ability to imagine, and from the curiousity that drives innovation, which requires a pedagogy that is driven by something other than the regurgitation of the status quo in order to answer standardised tests… it requires, as our kindy director says “being able to deal with problems where we don’t know the answer” so that kids start coming up with new solutions now, so that we normalise that experience, not just maintain some status quo.
Our education systems are organised towards a view of what people are, and what a good life looks like. They reinforce both through pedagogy and curriculum. At the moment our pedagogy is driven by the curriculum — by achieving certain outcomes, particularly knowledge in these fields.
What would happen if our education system was built on the anthropology that we become what we love, and with the goal of forming virtuous citizens who have the character and ingenuity capable not just of creating new technology but of assessing what it’s going to do to us?
It’s pretty clear from stories in the news recently about Facebook that there’s a questionable amount of moral philosophy behind the scenes there that has little concern about the impact of social media on neural pathways or mental health, and on what should be done with the data of its products (their view of the people who use the technology)… but I don’t want to single Facebook out, because similar things could be said about just about any (if not all) technological behemoths — the sort of companies crying out for STEM graduates. In Australia we’re increasingly enslaved by the gaming industry; what sort of qualifications are required to build and maintain pokie machines, online gambling, or sports odds?
What in our national curriculum is helping kids identify and avoid parasitic industries that destroy others rather than building them up (and so building our nation)?
What would education look like if we operated with a different anthropology, and so a different pedagogy (and curriculum)?
I have some guesses.
We’d see the STEM-driven curriculum as an ideological danger more compelling than Safe Schools (in part because we as parents are already exemplars of being more bought in to this dangerous system), not a neutral or good thing for our kids.
We’d see kids as more than ‘brains on a stick’ (or mini computers) who need to be aimed at particular careers so that they contribute to our economy, instead we’d aim their hearts towards virtue and the flourishing of themselves and others in more than just economic or material terms… and so we’d see our teachers as something more than programmers or information delivery systems.
We’d have a broader focus in terms of ‘standardisation’ — something more like the classical or liberal arts curriculums of old, but we’d encourage kids to play and explore and learn what they love and what they’re good at more intuitively. We’d have lots more problem based learning where we don’t have pre-conceived answers and where we reward innovation and imagination not just repetition.
We’d celebrate the schools (and kindys) and teachers who get this and we’d champion them and their ideas to grow their reach (and their enrolments). We’d advocate for a better way on P&Cs and other committees, and we’d write to MPs and education ministers (especially when good teaching gets threatened by standardisation or red tape).
We’d be careful about where we enrol our kids, not just to secure the best financial outcome for them job wise, but to be part of providing the best education for their peers.
We’d pay teachers better to be exemplary leaders who emphasise character and who see children both as future citizens and as individuals whose flourishing is best secured not by pumping them into some sausage machine, but by fostering their individual capacity to be curious, to imagine, and to use their gifts and abilities to serve others.
We’d work to free our schools, teachers, and children from slavery to a results driven national curriculum and see the human capital of our graduate-citizens as the product of an education, not test results (we’d have to substantially change our metrics).
We’d take responsibility for educating and forming our kids with the school as partners in that, rather than outsourcing this to schools, and so we’d take a stand against practices that are dumb (like homework).
We’d see that education, or formation, (like virtue) is about habit building and the shaping of loves through a ‘grand story’ not content delivery of disconnected facts.
We’d have teachers who both model and teach that work is a good and rewarding thing not simply because it helps us buy better technology (that we don’t need) but because it helps us build better communities and better homes. We wouldn’t have kids in math lessons asking ‘when will I ever use this’, but have them using math to solve problems or describe interesting reality (like rocket launches, though probably not rocket launchers (though that thing where youth groups used to make potato cannons would make for a good math or physics lesson)).
As Christians we’d be teaching that work is a form of worship, and that the economy isn’t neutral (or naively, that it’s a pure ‘good’), and we’d be valuing, supporting, encouraging, and becoming teachers like this.
We’d pursue real flourishing, which, as Smith put it in his lecture:
Human flourishing is found when we find our flourishing and end in the one who made us and is calling us. To be human is to become creatures whose hearts find rest in the one who has made us and is calling us; finding what you are made for.
The task of a Christian education is to help people find what they are made for.
At present, we wouldn’t necessarily be pulling our kids out of schools where the curriculum is at odds with our beliefs but putting ourselves (and our kids) in and articulating a need for change, and if we did pull our kids out into Christian education institutions it would be because they’re committed to an alternative vision of education for all, not just for enforcing some Christian bubble. What many of our church owned schools currently do, in adopting the national curriculum uncritically and pursuing exclusive excellence on its terms, or in being insular doctrinally-driven schools suspicious about the world won’t really serve anybody. In our homes and churches we’d be helping people not just aim their hearts towards virtue, but towards Jesus, and our own pedagogy wouldn’t be a head-on-stick driven exercise aimed at helping kids know about Jesus, but instead a practice driven, play based, problem solving approach to helping kids live like Jesus and love Jesus.
There aren’t many writers whose works I’ve devoured with the enthusiasm with which I’ve devoured James K.A. Smith’s work in the last few years. He has a way of both articulating and stretching the way I think, and his theological framework has rich potential in ways he hasn’t even begun to tap into yet in his writing. I’m finding it incredibly useful not just in thinking about how we evangelise and disciple, but how I deal with people pastorally. So I’m thankful for him, and I was thrilled to interview him recently for the Bible Society’s Eternity newspaper, and then to meet him in Brisbane yesterday as he spoke at a symposium at the Christian Heritage College; as a pastor I was a little out of place in a conference full of education practitioners, but I very much enjoyed the conference.
While I’m not an ‘educator’, I’m passionate about education — Christians need to figure out how to live well, and speak well, in the world; and I’m increasingly on board with Christian education, despite being pretty happy with my public school/secular university educations. This is all to say I think this matters. We’ve got to teach our kids to engage well with the world for its sake, not keep them in a bubble for their own (here’s the transcript of a talk I gave on why and how we should approach getting educated). And I don’t think reformed evangelicals like me have done a great job of doing this — the schools my denomination is involved, around the country, with charge such high fees that they can’t possibly be achieving this end for anyone but the very wealthy.
Smith’s talk, summarised below, won’t be new to those who’ve read his books or watched other talks on YouTube, but it’s always nice to hear someone in the flesh, and, when meeting them, to find out they’re both humble and willing to speak to people who approach them (even it it’s for weird ‘selfie’ requests).
Any bits of this summary that don’t make sense are a failure of my fingers to keep pace, and lots of this is as close as possible to direct quotes, while other bits are summaries.
Higher Education: What’s love got to do with it? Longings, desires and human flourishing.
Smith’s ‘axiom’: Every pedagogy implicitly assumes an anthropology.
Every philosophy of education/strategy assumes implicitly/tacitly some model of what human beings are, and therefore what learners are.
The university has assumed an anthropology that is a lot newer than we might realize, that is contingent and challengable. Christian teaching and learning should work from a different model.
The water in which higher education swims is largely, now, a German production. The assumptions about what a university should be are post-enlightenment, 18th-19th German education, which became a model exported into the US, UK, and probably Australia. As an enlightenment institution the assumed model of the human person is the “thinking thing” model — the university model assumes humans are primarily brains on a stick. The task of education and the university is the depositing of beliefs into the intellectual recepticles of thinking things in order to equip them for a particular task. You get the prioritizing of the brain that is then wedded to a utilitarian/pragmatic view of what education is for. Universities become credentialing facilities for brains on a stick.
This is not what universities were meant for. It’s not why they started. And we’re free to challenge this model. This model has been ratified by government bureaucracies as ‘the way a university should be’…
The university had a very different beginning, and a very different anthropology. It assumed a very different model of what learners were. The Desire for God and the Love of Learning a good book — a history of the pre-modern foundations of the university. Takes the history of Jesuit influences on education in Paris, and shows that it was meant to be an incubator for hearts and minds to learn to love the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons. To make people lovers of God who become image bearers in and for the world around them.
If we’re going to push back against the paradigms of the university because we have history on our side. There is an older version of the university we’re trying to recover.
A more biblical anthropology
Instead of imagining that humans are a static brain on the stick waiting for an information dump.
Let’s imagine that there’s a dynamic orienting of ourselves to some other thing — we’re always aimed at something, we’re always clawing our way towards some ends, some goal, some ultimate vision of the good life. There’s an existential dynamism about us. To be human is to be ‘after’ something. This is a very ancient picture of the human person. Certainly Aristotelian. Every human being is oriented towards a telos. Oriented to an ultimate end.
Augustine captures this as well. The ancient Greek heritage is seized upon by the church. The ‘centrality of the heart’ as the fulcrum of this drive towards something else.
“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” — Augustine, Confessions
Augustine makes a normative ‘design’ claim — we are made ‘for’ something. Human flourishing is found when we find our flourishing and end in the one who made us and is calling us. To be human is to become creatures whose hearts find rest in the one who has made us and is calling us; finding what you are made for.
The task of a Christian education is to help people find what they are made for.
The seat for this is not just the intellect. He doesn’t say ‘our minds are puzzled until they know you’ — it’s about the heart. Throughout his corpus Augustine emphasizes the ‘seat’ of the heart, because formation is not just a question of knowledge, but of love. The most holistic form of education will help us love what we’re made to love. The centre of the human person is the heart.
Desire = love
Love, learning, longing, craving: are synonyms.
We need to get over the distinction between eros and agape.
The problem isn’t desire per say, but the direction of it. Agape might be best understood as rightly directed eros. Christian agape is the right orientation of our ‘erotic’ centre, which is actually made for God.
This restlessness — every human creature is created as a lover. With this engine of desire that drives us towards something ultimate. But that’s no guarantee that they find their end in the one that has made them. The effect of the fall; of sin; brokenness, is not that we turn off love, but that we start loving the wrong things in the wrong way. We take created things and vault them up as if they were the creator. We absolutise them and seize upon them as if they were something ultimate. Idolatry. The dynamics of idolatry are not primarily intellectual; they are erotic. We desire the wrong things in the wrong way. These things aren’t wrong in themselves. If you love them in a way ordered by your love for the creator, that’s ‘rightly ordered love’…
How do I learn to love?
If I am what I love, and if you are what you love, then the crucial question is how does my heart get aimed? How does this orientation happen?
We’ve not always had the best resources at our disposal in the protestant tradition. You learn to love by practice. Your ultimate longings are not just the outcome of ideas and beliefs deposited in your mind. They are more like habits that you acquire through being immersed in rituals and routines that train your loves at an unconscious level.
Your loves are more ‘caught’ than ‘taught’ — there’s a problem with this expression that we have a narrow view of what teaching is.
What would teaching look like if we did it like this?
The indexing of our desires towards something ultimate is not just about what you know or believe, it’s a disposition that arrives from the rituals and practices that you are immersed in. They find your way to your heart through your body. You are conscripted into ways of life that come from your practices.
We’re taught to love in all sorts of places that are not schools. This kind of learning of a passion — this acquisition of a heart’s disposition happens in a holistic experience where we are immersed in a story of what the good life looks like; of what flourishing looks like.
All kinds of institutions and practices are ‘pedagogies of desire’ that are training us to love something that is not ultimate. These things get hold of us in tactile, visceral, experiences that conscript our hearts without us realising.
The competition for Christian education is not public education, it’s less the other sorts of institutions, it’s an array of cultural institutions and practices that we didn’t even realize are pedagogies of desire that are teaching them to long for pedagogies of desire. Secular liturgies.
Every time Smith’s kids ask to go to the mall they ask to go to the temple. Which means his ideas, in some small way, are sinking in for his kids… The mall is one of the most religious sites in the city. It wants you to love something ultimate. The mall pictures for you a vision of the good life that captures your imagination and your longings; you don’t even realise you’ve been conscripted to the vision of the good life based on ‘stuff’; the gospel of consumerism. Nobody thinks their way into consumerism, there’s no good argument for it. You are conscripted into it. The mall has a model of outreach called ‘marketing’ — marketing knows that you’re lovers and desirers. Marketing doesn’t give you information. It’s hard to watch an ad about a product and acquire information about it; what happens is you see a product embedded in a story. This story pictures for you a vision of the good life, and you start, over time, to picture yourself in that life. You don’t even realise you’re learning to love something else. The repetition, the immersion, conscripts you into a rival gospel. If I ask you — there’s a disconnect between what we know and what we love — if I ask you “what do you love” — you’ll give me the right answer: “I love God”… there can be a gap between what we know we believe because we underestimate the impact our desires have, and our conscription to other desires, that get in the way.
What we’re really talking about is rehabituation. Love as we’re describing it here isn’t an emotion, or a feeling, it’s a habit.
We use the word ‘habit’ in a way that is different to the philosophers, and how it has been used historically; the habit is actually the internal disposition/the inclination to some end, we acquire through different rhythms and routines. Putting the left sock on first every time is a practice, a ritual, they inscribe in you a habitual disposition; you become the kind of person whose default leans in that direction. To have a habit is to be so disposed towards doing something that you do it without even thinking about it.
Your loves, your most fundamental inclinations of your heart, aren’t just trickled down, but are caught bottom up from something that inscribes in you a disposition. Secular liturgies teach us to love certain goods; Christian education should be about a rehabituation of the heart. You can’t think your way to new habits. If I’ve acquired disoriented habits of love and longing because they were caught through the practices I’ve been involved in, I can’t think my way out; I have to practice them. This lecture won’t give you new habits, a book won’t give you a new habit; the best that might happen is an idea might become the catalyst to a commitment to a new habituation that will move you towards a love of God.
If your fundamental loves are shaped by the practices you are immersed in; we need to realize you can be being habituated without realising it. Realising that the world is not a neutral place can be the beginning of the rehabituation. You can be acquiring dispositions without recognizing it. How does this affect those who teach? What are the ways we pick up habits that shape us as we teach.
We are creatures of habit, who are made to love, and our loves are shaped and acquired through the rhythms and practices we are immersed in; none of this is a surprise to God. What does God do? He’s an incarnating God who meets us where we are and comes to us not just with a message, or the information that we need, we see that the Gospel is an invitation for us to find ourselves anew in a community, which is the body of Christ, an invitation to be welcomed into a reforming body; a reforming community of practice, animated by the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us new rituals by which we might habituate ourselves into a new way of living in the world.
If we have a negative take on rituals and liturgies; the devil gets all the good ones. Cultures are more than happy to offer us rituals. You can’t undo the deformative power of cultural practices by giving people new ideas. It won’t work. We’re desirers, not just thinking things. One of the ways we’ve gone wrong is that we thought the way to fight the fire of cultural deformation was through intellectual formation. What you need is Christ-oriented, spirited, reformation. Fighting fire with fire. Inviting people into communities of practice and liturgies that are reforming our hearts. It has to be an invitation for the whole person to learn to love again; it has to meet us as whole creatures.
Worldview? Smith has two cheers for the concept of world view…
The goal of a gospel centered approach to education isn’t just a narrow focus on soul rescue, or a particular understanding of ministry; God’s concern is as wide as the world itself. There is no learning that isn’t animated by some confession, outlook, or perspective on things. A Christian education brings the Gospel to bear on all of creation; there is no education that isn’t confessional. I’m all for that.
My only pushback on worldview paradigms; it tends to do all this in an intellectualist way; equipping people with a view, and ideas, to see the world so they can act in it in a particular way. It has tended to miss all of the dynamics of habituation, deformation and reformation of habit. We need more than ‘worldview’ — with all of that right emphasis in place, we need to see that a holistic, radical, Christian education will also take into consideration the heart. Reformation is a shift in our centre of gravity.
Scandal of the Evangelical Mind — Mark Noll — what happened in that movement was that nothing pushed back on the basic Germanic model of education. It basically said Christians can play that game too. We did. Plantinga, Wolterstorff, etc. A bunch of scholars showed we could play that game, but this isn’t entirely the game we should want to play, even if we value research.
A shift in the centre of gravity that expands from informational perspectives so that the scope of our concern includes the gut.
We’re remembering something about the university that the university forgot in modernity.
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive” — Iraneus.
Packer once co-authored a book Christianity: The True Humanism. The power of the Gospel is that we learn how to be human again. Jesus shows us what it looks like to be human. A Christian education should be a way to realise human flourishing. In our age the opportunity may be that Christian colleges and universities are the last outpost to remind us how to be human.
The practices of worship have a missional power about them. It’s important that we frame them so they don’t become superstitious. If these practices are animated by the Spirit there can be certain virtue in going through the emotions.
The kind of liturgies; there’s always going to be something about words. Posture, bodily posture, captures and teaches us something. Practices can have a dynamic that we don’t realise.
If we know all this, in Christian schools, how do we not ‘indoctrinate’ so that we engage with the free will of the person?
We need to be honest and up front about why we do what we do, and what we’re inviting people into. The freedom moment is in choosing to come here, where you’ll be committing yourself to these practices… there’s a lot of room to work out ‘Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief’…
Practice hospitality. Really, really, important. What does it look like for us to welcome other faiths into what is an unapologetically Christian project?
Indoctrination is a particularly ‘intellectual’ project. It’s a risk of every mode of education. That sort of institution is less inclined to be upfront and honest about what you’re being inducted into.
How do we physically shape our learning institutions to enable the sort of ‘learning’ in community that you spoke about?
Architecture: the material environments of where we learn will foster the way we see the world, the way we do community, etc. Thinking about how the material conditions of a space foster community would be one thing. Micro-rituals have macro significance. The university might have a thousand different routines that collectively constitute an ethos. It has to be a concert between all the teaching and cultural spaces; they have to be animated by the same story so people don’t feel like they’re inhabiting different worlds as they move around, but nor should things just ‘repeat’ — there’s no ‘extra curricular’ there’s just ‘co curricular’… nothing in here is meant to undercut curriculum. All the gears of an institution, ideally, move in concert with each other.
An education system is a powerful thing. I’ve perhaps not thought so hard about that power because I spent most of my time in institutions trying to avoid becoming institutionalised. Such is the contrarian streak that runs through just about every fibre of my being.
Australian schools are pretty contested fronts in a bunch of ideology wars — I was only vaguely aware of the “history wars” back when John Howard was Prime Minister, but at the moment there’s a “worldview war” going on for the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth.
It’s interesting, and worth chucking in up front, that Christians have long known about the importance of educating kids. One of the big reforms Martin Luther championed in the Reformation was in the education space. You couldn’t tell people they should be able to read the Bible for themselves, robbing the priesthood of some of its mysterious power, like Luther did, without teaching kids to read. The early schools in the Australian colony were also, often, set up by churches (eventually becoming public schools), and there are still Christian schools all over the place. Christians love education because education is powerful — in some sense, we should have no fear of education if we are confident that what we believe is true and stands up to scrutiny and comparison with other world views. But we should also realise that education isn’t ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ because curriculum are typically set as an expression of a set of values — we should realise that because we’ve been doing it at least since Augustine told Christian teachers to make sure they got a robust classical education so that they could understand God’s world in order in order to preach the Gospel of Jesus well in De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). This was published back in the year 397. Education served the church’s agenda well for a long time.
It turns out Christians aren’t the only ones who know that education is a powerful tool for deliberately shaping the way our young people see and interpret the world. A Sydney school, Burwood Girls, which happens to be the school my mum went to as a girl, kicked off a massive round of controversy this week when they decided to make a screening of Gayby Baby compulsory for students, who were also to “Wear It Purple“ as an act of solidarity for the LGBTQI community. According to the Wear It Purple “about us” page, the student-led organisation believes:
“Every young person is unique, important and worthy of love. No one should be subject to bullying, belittlement and invalidation. We believe in a world in which every young person can thrive, irrelevant of sex, sexuality or gender identity… We want rainbow young people to be safe, supported and empowered in each of their environments.”
This sounds like a pretty noble aim to me, so long as there’s room in the rainbow spectrum for people who share different visions of human flourishing. I desperately want my lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer and intersex neighbours to thrive, and I want to love them, but I also want an Australia where those neighbours are able to love me. And where we’re able to disagree, charitably, about what place sex and sexuality play in true human thriving. I’m not sure how a kid at Burwood who didn’t share the same framework for achieving a noble aim like this for their LGBQTI friends would feel about being forced to wear purple. I think regimes that force people of different views to wear different colours, historically, are fairly dangerous and not great at providing an environment for human flourishing.
The clothing thing seems almost impossible to enforce as ‘compulsory’ anyway. Doesn’t it? The screening of the documentary, at least in the initial proposal at Burwood Girls, was compulsory. And this raises some interesting questions. Here’s the trailer for the doco.
Mark Powell, a Presbyterian Minister, was quoted in the Daily Tele
“This is trying to change children’s minds by promoting a gay lifestyle… Students are being compelled to own that philosophical view by wearing certain clothes and marching under a rainbow flag. Schools are supposed to be neutral and cannot propagate a political view.”
I’m curious about what change in children’s minds the screening of this movie was attempting to achieve. I’m sure there are dangerous ‘mind changes’ that could be involved (as outlined above), but I’m equally certain there are mindsets about homosexuality in our community that still need to be changed. A Fact Sheet from the National LGBTI Health Alliance presented by Beyond Blue, contains the following picture of the landscape for young LGBTQI Aussies… Perhaps we do need to change children’s minds… and perhaps normalising the gay lifestyle is part of that…
“Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems. The younger the age group, the starker the differences: 55% of LGBT women aged between 16 and 24 compared with 18% in the nation as a whole and 40% of LGBT men aged 16-24 compared with 7%”
Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14x higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers. Rates are 6x higher for same-sex attracted young people (20-42% cf. 7-13%).
The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’.
The elevated risk of mental ill-health and suicidality among LGBTI people is not due to sexuality, sex or gender identity in and of themselves but rather due to discrimination and exclusion as key determinants of health.
Up to 80% of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young Australians experience public insult, 20% explicit threats and 18% physical abuse and 26% ‘other’ forms of homophobia (80% of this abuse occurs at school)
I didn’t go to Burwood Girls. And I finished school 15 years ago. I went to co-ed public schools. But I’m pretty sure I would have benefited from seeing a movie like Gayby Baby when I was at school. In my public schools it wasn’t uncommon for sexual slang about homosexual acts to be used to insult and belittle people, with little regard to how the pejorative use of ‘gay’ or ‘poof’ or any of the litany of terms associated with homosexuality might be heard by those in my year group, or in the school community, who were same sex attracted. Many of the people I know who identify as gay, or same sex attracted, came out after High School, and while I’m sure there are many reasons that are part of this decision for any individual, I can’t help but think the uneducated masses of people they might have had to confront in the school yard who spent years using words associated with their sexual orientation to demean others, was a barrier to having the sort of open conversations about their identity that might have been of benefit to them, to us, and to me. Perhaps I would have been better able to love my neighbour if the environment had been more conducive to my neighbour being truly known? It’s not just Christians who are nasty to gay people, and its not just religion that causes homophobia (and not all disagreement with a sexuality is a phobia).
Is it possible that more education might actually make life at school more comfortable for LGBTQI kids or kids with same sex parents? I would think so. Is it possible that sex education that presents homosexuality as a normal human sexuality might lead to less anxiety, depression, and suicide in the gay community? It seems possible.
Aren’t these good outcomes?
Why then are we Christians positioning ourselves against such education — be it Gayby Baby, or the so-called ‘normalisation of homosexuality in schools’?
I understand a certain stream of Christian thought that wants no sex ed in schools, but in the age of pornography, when kids are educating one another, and you can’t just leave it up to parents to encourage healthy practices, I’m not in that camp.
I don’t think you can truly love a person without truly trying to understand them. I love the idea that love is caught up with truly seeing a person through paying them attention. I love the idea that love is an exercise of subjectifying, not objectifying, the other in a sacrificial seeing of the person and their needs, and in an act of offering a way to meet those needs… based on that seeing. The true seeing won’t always mean agreeing with how the person you love sees themselves, we might actually be able to see a person’s needs in ways that they can’t imagine. But it will always involve seeing how a person sees themselves and the world in order to build a connection between their needs and your offer of love.
So, with this picture of love, you can’t love a kid who is working out their sexual identity, or a kid with same sex parents, without trying to understand what its like to be that kid, and without helping other kids in that kid’s network develop that same ‘seeing’ or that understanding. You can’t keep that kid as an “other” or as an “abnormal” kid. I think this is true in a secular sense, but I think its even true for Christians, even as we seek to point people to alternative identities and visions of flourishing, especially an identity built on who Jesus is, rather than who we want to have sex with.
This sort of understanding — the understanding required for love — actually comes through education. It comes through education that comes packaged up with different agendas.
It doesn’t just come through the application of our own agenda, or our own framework for how we assess other people based on what we’re told is true about them in the Bible. As true as that framework might be. It comes seeking to understand people on their own terms in order to have a conversation about these different frameworks. Our different ways of seeing. This education comes through hearing stories, through understanding more of the experience involved with ones sexuality, or family background, the sort of stories Gayby Baby presents. If this is the sort of change of mind Burwood Girls was trying to achieve, then who can blame them?
I’m not sure a documentary, or even the act of being forced to wear purple can achieve the second half of Powell’s suggestion — compelling students to own a philosophical view — but I do think coercive practices are problematic, whatever agenda they serve. Be it the ‘gay agenda’ or the ‘Christian agenda’.
I can understand the suggestion that Gayby Baby serves an agenda other than education, that it ‘promotes an ideology’, but it does also seem to serve a valid educational purpose given that there are families in our schools where children have same sex parents. People who believe education should be agenda, or ideology, free should have a problem with the screening of this film on the basis of its agenda. But that’s a pretty naive view of the way education functions, and has functioned, in our world. There’s a reason governments fund education, it produces ideal citizens according to a pattern, there’s a reason churches fund schools… But in a secular democracy it can be pretty dangerous for the liberty of our citizens (whatever the age) if one ideology is presented unchallenged. What if the best (both in terms of possible outcomes and desirable outcomes) that we can ask for in this contested space is that all voices are given a platform, in an appropriate context?
Which is interesting, because the Gayby Baby furore is kicking off exactly as governments around the country consider whether or not to follow Victoria’s example to remove Special Religious Education (known by other names around the country) from school life. There’s a particularly vocal group of activists, Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS) who are campaigning noisily to remove the special privilege religious institutions enjoy when it comes to access to the schools. Christians I’ve spoken to have been pretty upset about the removal of this privileged position — occasionally arguing from the historic involvement the church has had with education in our country, occasionally disappointed that this mission field has been lost (because if you’re genuinely concerned about the ‘flourishing’ of our children, as a Christian, you want them to hear the Gospel and have the opportunity to follow Jesus), while others have been angry at this further evidence that the church is being pushed to the margins in our society. Angry that our education system is being hijacked to serve a liberal, anti-Christian agenda. It’s incredible to me that SRE still exists in any form in public schools (and what a privilege), and I’d love it to continue to exist for many years. I’m not sure it can last, but if it is to last, if we are to maintain that seat at the table, we need to be prepared to offer space to other minority voices, with other visions of the good life. If we want to continue having the ability to speak to children in our schools to articulate a vision for human flourishing that centres on the reality of a good creator God, and his good son Jesus, who invites us to follow a pattern of life that will deliver a version of flourishing that will last for eternity, then we might need to be prepared for people to offer a vision of human flourishing more consistent with our age, and more in keeping with the church’s marginal position in the social and moral life of our country. We might have to let our kids hear about sex that some of us don’t think of as “normal”… and to hear about families that fall outside the statistical norm… and this giving others a voice might actually be a good and loving thing, and it might also be good for our kids, if we want them to grow up understanding and loving their neighbours and living together in community.
By the by, I feel like the real indicator of our ‘position’ in the education system isn’t so much in the SRE space, but in the chaplaincy space, where we agreed to be neutered in order to maintain a position of privilege. We agreed to give schools the benefit of a Christian presence, so long as that presence was not coupled with a presentation of the Christian message. What could be a clearer indicator of our position in modern society, as exiles, than a government and a population who are still prepared to use us to care for kids in crisis, but not to present an alternative, positive, view of the world that centres on Jesus. But I digress. Let’s return to why, as a Christian parent, I’d want my children watching Gayby Baby, and why I want them to learn, from their schools, that homosexuality is normal.
The idea that homosexuality is normal is one that offends a certain stream of thinking that wants to equate ‘normal’ with ‘God’s pattern for flourishing’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘normal’ with ‘natural.’
This Gayby Baby initiative seems to fit with the Australian Marriage Forum’s (AMF) anti-gay marriage argument that a change in the definition of marriage will change our educational agenda to “normalise” homosexuality. This is seen by this particular lobby group, and presumably others, as a problem. The AMF does not believe there is any reason to focus on sexuality when it comes to anti-bullying initiatives, and especially no justification for ‘normalising’ homosexuality.
In other words, there are many reasons to be bullied at school – for being too smart, too dumb; too fat, too thin; or for standing up for other kids who are being bullied. That is something we all go through, and the claim that homosexual people suffered it worse appears to be “taken at face value”.
There are less insidious means to address the perennial problem of bullying – for all students – than by normalising homosexual behaviour in the curriculum.
Is it just me, or is this saying “there are other forms of bullying, so we shouldn’t tackle this one”? Even if its true that other forms of bullying are out there, if there’s a genuine belief in the community that the mental health outcomes for same sex attracted people are due, in part, to bullying, shouldn’t we try to stop that bullying to see if the correlation is causation? Shouldn’t it be enough that bullying in any form is wrong, without the greater risk?
“Some educators in Australia are effectively seeking to normalise homosexuality under the guise of “anti-homophobia” campaigns. ACT Education Minister Andrew Barr opened an anti-homophobia art display at a Canberra school, at which one student’s poster read “Love is not dependent on gender, what’s your agenda?
Although no one would object to the condemnation of homophobia, promoting homosexuality in this fashion is something many parents would not be comfortable with. Redefining marriage will increase these incidents, as schools would be required to teach the equivalency of same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. The principal public school teacher’s union, the Australia Education Union, actively promotes homosexuality among its members and in schools. Its policy document, Policy on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People, says it is committed to fighting heterosexism, which involves challenging “[t]he assumption that heterosexual sex and relationships are ‘natural’ or ‘normal’”.
The change to the Marriage Act hasn’t happened (yet), but these words from the ACL seem almost prophetic (except that Biblical prophecy is all about pointing people to Jesus ala Revelation 19, which says: “Worship God, because the testimony about Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” — but now I really digress). The problem with the Australian Marriage Forum and the Australian Christian Lobby is that they’re speaking against one view of human flourishing, one view of “normal”, without actually providing a viable alternative. “This is not natural” is not an alternative argument to “this feels natural to me.” And the argument is not one that Christians should really be making when it comes to trying to have a voice at the table, and in our schools, in terms of a real picture of human flourishing. The AMF’s slogan is “keep marriage as nature made it,” the ACL submission uses the word natural 9 times and nature 4 times, and normalise or normal 10 times, while containing no mentions of God, creator, Jesus, or Christ. It’s an argument for one view of what is ‘natural’…
The problem, as I see it, is that homosexuality is totally normal. And it will appear totally natural to people. And I’m not sure we’re being true to the Bible if we say otherwise.
The “New” Normal
Here’s what I don’t get. When I read Romans 1, I get the impression that for a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, we should have no problem acknowledging that in our world, a world that readily swaps God for idols, like sex, homosexuality is the ‘new normal’… If you don’t take the Bible seriously then the normality of homosexuality seems uncontested (which, would ironically prove the point the Bible makes). And if you do, then the only people homosexuality is not normal for are the people who have had their sexual ethics redefined out of worldliness, by God. Check it.
Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents;31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. — Romans 1:22-31
This is normal. Education doesn’t make homosexuality ‘normal’ — we do — and God does it to us because humanity collectively bailed on his design.
People in this picture aren’t given a choice about what to believe about the world. God chooses it for them. God acts to create a new normal for humanity because humanity rejects him. This downward spiral is the story of humanity that plays out through the pages of the Old Testament, and in every human culture since. Including ours. Claim to be wise. End up as fools.
So far as Paul is concerned, this is the new normal. This is the default view of the world. This is what our worldly schools should be teaching, so long as they are worldly schools. To suggest otherwise misses the role and place of the church in such a world entirely. Our job is to preach the one message that enables a new normal. A new identity. A new view of the world, and the things we are inclined to turn into idols.
If we want a picture of human flourishing that doesn’t look like the things in this list, we actually need a counter story that points towards a different normal and a new nature. That’s the problem with AMF and the ACL and the push to not let our schools treat homosexuality as normal. It is normal. Until someone has a reason to believe otherwise. And that reason isn’t ‘nature’ — it’s Jesus.
The Better Normal: Paul, Athens, giving others a voice, and God’s picture of human flourishing
Let’s briefly recap. I think a summary of the important bits from above is that education is important because it allows us to truly see, and truly seeing allows us to truly love. When it comes to (secular) public education in Australia there are multiple voices wanting to be heard offering multiple pictures of human flourishing. One obstacle to any version of flourishing (except very twisted understandings of that word), would seem to be the plight of LGBTQI students in our schools, and also the children of LGBTQI families in our community. These families, by any measure — Christian or secular — are actually normal. Hearing stories from these families and creating a space to truly hear from these young people is necessary in order for us to love and understand them… But these families may not be the ideal setting for human flourishing, and embracing one’s normal sexuality may not be the best path towards that end. It may be that purple is not the colour on the spectrum that represents the best solution to the experience of LGBTQI students and families in the community, or the very best pattern for life in this world.
If Christians are going to get a voice at the table, in schools or in politics, what is the voice we really want being heard? What are we going to say? We may not have that opportunity for very long in the form of SRE, and we certainly won’t if we keep rattling cages by shutting down alternative voices, and alternative normals, rather than presenting our own, and graciously be asking for the opportunity to do that… Should we be mounting an argument from nature that it seems God himself is foiling by making things that are unnatural seem natural and desirable? Or should we be trying to better understand the link between the rejection of God, the pursuit of alternative gods (idols), and what this does to how people picture the world and how to flourish in it?
“Which gets to the heart of the matter – the matter of the heart. The separation of church and state simply papers over the reality that whether we be secular materialists or secular religionists, we are all worshippers. We were built to worship, and worship we will. Jesus and David Foster Wallace line up on that one. We want an ultimate thing. We desire something that arrives at a climax. And sex will do that just nicely in lieu of anything else. It’s an exceptional idol – and an instant one to boot. Sex is a mainline drug, and is a heaps cheaper experience than an overseas trip. Hence to challenge its hegemony in our culture is to challenge a dark, insatiable god.”
I love Debra Hirsch’s conversation with her husband Alan about what heaven will be like, in her book Redeeming Sex (have a read – it’s worth it). I love it because my wife and I had the same conversation and arrived at the same conclusion, a conclusion that gets to the core. When she asked Alan what he thought heaven would be like, his reply? “One eternal orgasm”.
That’s not trite. Not trite at all. In fact it gets to the heart of why, in the end, sexularism will win out in our culture. After all, you need as many guilt-free, culturally, politically and legally endorsed orgasms as you can if – in a manner of speaking – there is nothing else to come. If this is the pinnacle then the best thing to do is to reach the zenith as many times as you can in the here and now. Anyone threatening, questioning, or legislating against that, is tampering with the idol; threatening the order of things by refusing to bow to the image.
I’m struck by what Paul does when he enters a city full of idols. Athens. The city of Athens exists in the world of Romans 1. If Paul followed the power-grabbing, take-no-prisoners, God’s-way-or-the-highway methodology of Christendom (or ISIS, in its iconoclasm), and the church defined by a vision of the world loosely modelled on Christendom, he’d have entered the city with a sledgehammer. He’d have used that hammer to destroy every statue and altar set up in opposition to the real normal. He doesn’t. He walks around. He seeks to understand. He speaks to people in the marketplace. He preaches Jesus and the resurrection. He gets an invitation to the Areopagus, a seat at the table, if you will. And he uses it to speak about the city’s idols with a sort of ‘respect,’ in order to ultimately speak about God’s vision for human flourishing as revealed in Jesus. Sure. He absolutely nails the hollowness of idols in his alternative vision, he pushes back at their version of normal… but he doesn’t do this by knocking the statues over, or even by treating the people who follow these idols as complete fools.
He speaks to people whose view of nature has been clouded. He even does it in a way that demonstrates the value of a good secular education, quoting a couple of ancient, non-Christian (non-Jewish) poet/philosophers.
This is how to speak in a world, and city, whose view of normal is dominated and defined by idolatry and heads and hearts shaped by the normal human decision to turn on God. Because this is how to offer people a path back to God, and his version of human flourishing.
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” — Acts 17:22-32
Paul allows Athens a voice even though he believes his God made the entire universe.
Paul really understands.
And this understanding gives him an opportunity to love by offering an alternative. He offers them Jesus.
That’s why I want my kids to watch movies like Gayby Baby, and listen to the stories of people in their world. Because this is the pattern of engagement I want them to follow in this sexular age. I want them to love like that. Even if they, like Paul, are laughed at by most…
The “keep Christ in Christmas” debate kind of irks me too. It smacks of the sort of culture of nominalism that leads to all sorts of political stupidity – where we assume that calling Christmas “Christmas” is a measure of following the Lord Jesus, and that somehow we’re a Christian nation because we head along to church annually to pay our dues.
Image: This was one of the tackiest of these I could find…
But I do think that we do our kids an educational disservice if we sanitise Christmas for the sake of any political agenda.
I’m not suggesting that Christianity should be taught in the class room outside of opt-in Religious Education/Instruction. I’d hate my kids minds to be warped by some weird theology, and I’d much rather they be taught just the facts, or better – taught how to separate fact from fiction, with a good appreciation of how culture has developed to the point we’re at now.
But the fact is that our society, modern Australia, has been incredibly influenced by Christians, and by historical events that have shaped us and our values. Including the life and teaching of Jesus, and the growth and expansion of the church.
Even if you don’t believe that Jesus represented something incredible. The incarnation. God made flesh. He, and his, have modelled a life lived in sacrifice for others, seeing others as more important than themselves.
It seems a shame to whitewash that out of the system for the sake of demonstrating that we’re above culture wars, and for the sake of feeding and perpetuating a system that is hell bent on economic growth at all costs – including through rampant individualism that is based almost entirely on the question of what one consumes or purchases (or doesn’t consume, or purchase).
It’s terrible that the wonder of the incarnation is dismissed as:
“…imposed by religious instruction volunteers who lurk around primary schools in the lead-up to Christmas in the hope of relating their version of the miraculous birth to impressionablechildren.”
Way to make volunteering sound like something sinister. That really boosted the tone of this piece.
Here are some of the sadder quotes.
“The grade five pupil in question reported that all her classmates participated in Christmas activities with enthusiasm: “We love making Christmas cards for each other, and we especially love decorating the classroom Christmas tree.”
That’s nice. I guess. Making cards for each other – cards that come at no cost. That’s what Christmas is about.
What kind of decoration did you and your classmates make? “Well, we made pencil cases, hand-sewn purses, cardboard-cut outs of our favourite pop stars, favourite song lyrics … one boy even dressed up the angel at the top of the tree in the colours of his footy team.”
Yes. We need to celebrate the things we love – our heroes. Our idols. The things that make us feel good. That’s what Christmas is about. Those are good Australian values.
“It occurred to me this is Christmas for her and many kids of her generation. This is how Christmas was celebrated at her kindergarten, her primary school, in the broader community and, more or less, at home.”
“Most parents I spoke to seem to be fairly relaxed with the idea of their children participating in school-based Christmas activities, particularly when end-of-year primary school festivities have been stripped of scripture and overt religious symbolism.
According to my neighbour, a primary school teacher, “we seek to involve all the kids by making no reference to God, the miraculous birth, heaven, or anything that’s sacred”.”
You can’t unhave your cake, and not eat it too. You can’t really have a secular celebration, in an educational institution, and not talk about where the celebration originated.
That’s not education. You can’t ignore the fact that both parts of the name, even if you sanitise the events “Christ” and “Mass” are inherently religious in nature.
Even if you dismiss the claims inherent in the name “Christ” – surely you can objectively discuss that what the authors of the historical documents that we call “Gospels” (pieces of biographical royal propaganda that are amazing insights into first century culture of huge educational value) were claiming.
They’re claiming that Jesus is the fulfilment of a pretty amazing string of expectations kept alive through a Jewish people who had been oppressed, displaced, returned, and oppressed by the regional superpowers.
You could discuss the impact that these claims have had on history – how they changed the direction of the Roman empire, and potentially brought it to its political knees, because they valued sacrifice, service, and love for others. And that would be of more educational benefit than a Christmas circus featuring “a clown, juggler, acrobat or magician.”
What beneficial stuff does a kid learn from those roles that they won’t get from elsewhere in the curriculum? I’m not against kids having fun, developing social skills, and learning some self-esteem while they’re at school – but surely they can develop mad juggling skillz at home, and not on the tax payer’s dollar… Or, at a pinch, the P.E curriculum could expand to include a little clowning maybe in cahoots with the drama department… Interdisciplinary skills are good to. What I am sure of is that they have nothing to do with Christmas – secular or sacred.
The comments on posts like this are often more informative than the post itself. So we get gems like this…
Now, it’s a time to rest, reflect, spend time with family & friends, stop working, go to the beach, eat a lot, give presents, share a meal, celebrate family, friends and life. Importantly, it’s an opportunity to do that at the same time everyone else is doing it, because despite Thatcher’s dire predictions there is still a thing called society.
But what sort of society does this celebration produce? When we’re all being selfish at the same time. I’ve never heard so many adult tantrums, or arguments, in the local shopping centre as I have in the last few days.
Why not get rid of the inane secular celebrations and do what schools are meant to do – educate? Why not spend some time looking at the history of Christmas, from the manger, to the pagan festivals that Christianity took over as it expanded? To the rise, and fall, and rise of celebrations of the Christ Mass – including puritanical attempts to ban Christmas? Why not look at what “the Christmas spirit” has been historically, not so much about satisfying our desires, but things that embody the guy whose birthday it is?
I’d love kids to learn about the true wonder of Christmas. But school’s not the place for that. Not in our time, or country, and certainly not in a public system. I’m fine with the secular cause – provided it continues to allow some space for parents to elect for their children to receive education about religions from people who practice them.
I’m confident that the Christmas story – of God made flesh, coming to his own world to sacrificially swap his place for ours, and bring us peace with the Father – is the best and most appealing story – more appealing than seeing the angel on top of the tree dressed in the maroon and white of my beloved Sea Eagles. So my motives aren’t completely pure – I do think that people thinking about Christmas, and what it’s about, will possibly lead to them meeting the Jesus who was born, for real, in history. Who grew up, died, and was raised. Who claimed to be the promised king of the Old Testament, who would mend our broken world – through sacrifice.
But these motives aside, what we’ve got now, if the Crikey piece is accurate, is a poor imitation, of little to no educational value. Surely our country would be a better place if our kids took a little bit of time to get informed about what Christmas is, and why it has endured. If it was less about us, and more about others.
This can happen without threatening the provision of a robust, secular, education to every child. Suggesting that a secular education requires no mention or treatment of the sacred leaves a pretty gaping cultural/sociological hole to be filled when it comes to why the world is the way it is.
I’m not a parent. I preface everything I say about parenting with that statement because I know parenting is one of those sensitive topics that people feel strongly about, and I know parenting advice is a dime a dozen anyway. And who am I to comment on how you’re raising your offspring, who is/are no doubt (a) unique and amazing snowflake(s).
As I said in the comments on her post – I think her points are of particular importance for people engaged in Christian ministry (full time or otherwise) who might habitually surround themselves with other Christians. I don’t think you should sacrifice your children for your ministry (or in this case their academic future). But I think public education in Australia is not the basket case we often describe it as (having been the product of some pretty woeful public schools with some pretty excellent teachers on occasion). It’s a bit like our hospitals. We bemoan things in our country that other countries would give an arm and a leg for… learning about imaginary numbers is a luxury (and one I probably could have done without, in hindsight).
Queensland politicians are on the hustings. The election is 17 days away. Media outlets are beaming at the economic stimulus provided by campaign ads. Except the ABC. They don’t get revenue – they do get content though. Each party gets the occassional spot where they can address the electorate.
Today was Springborg’s turn. I like Springborg. He seems like a typically laconic country bloke. I met him at a function last week. He shook my hand.
His address today was poor. It sounded like he was reading an essay. And it contained a couple of logical fallacies.
Particularly when talking about education. After going on about how Labor had borrowed money and lumped future generations with debt he proceeded to say:
“The LNP will spend money on schools. On reducing class sizes – giving your child the opportunity to be top of the class.”
This statement patently ignores that the only way some children are going to be top of the class is if it’s a class of one. And I’m not sure home schooling is an LNP policy.
So the large Hadron Collider has been turned on. While I may have spent yesterday running around yelling “Panic Panic!!!” and singing Muse’s Supermassive Black Hole… they’re not actually colliding any serious particles until later this year.
The idea, for the unconcerned among you, is to recreate the conditions of the big bang by colliding particles travelling at close to the speed of light. The intention is to find the Higgs Boson or the “God Particle” – how Mr Peter Higgs name became synonymous with God is beyond me.
When you perform a task of this magnitude a lot of nut cases come out of the wood works – there’s a group convinced the experiment will create black holes which will destroy the world. They made a youtube video – which I haven’t seen so won’t link to. There are crazy Christians who seem a little concerned this will somehow “disprove God” or help atheists in their thinking. And then there are the stupid, ignorant atheists – perhaps my favourite group in this situation who provide comments like this on the news.com.au forum:
“I love how 99% of the negative comments about the LHC are all from Christians. I’ll Believe Physics, thats been proven, over christianity, which hasnt been proven, anyday…Christians: Look at it from a ignorant christian perspective. They are spending 11billion to prove that God created the earth. Meanwhile i dont see Christians spending money to prove that Science didnt create the earth..” – Alex from Adelaide.
Thanks Alex for your valuable insight.
Christians do not argue that science didn’t create the earth because to do so would elevate science from a study of observable phenomena to a sentient being able to perform the act of “creation”.
My other favourite was this one:
“The church must be soiling itself waiting for the day that scientists proove there is no god and that we were created from the big bang and they have the hard and fast proof. The biggest business in the world “the church” will be bankrupted. Unless of course religion can actually proove god exists. Science will have the hard and fast proof very soon. Posted by: Andrew of Australia“
Andrew is obviously pretty angry at the church – angry enough to make a claim about science’s ability to prove or disprove the metaphysical.
Atheists, in the main, are a fairly ignorant lot, often influenced by militant atheists to “believe in science” as some form of religion. Here’s the thing Alex, and other atheists out there, us Christians also believe in science. Some Christians even engage science as a weapon (think Creation Science Ministries or whatever those guys call themselves). Scientific outcomes are driven by starting hypotheses – and these are driven by the organisations funding the research. Science is not an objective entity. Science is a broad church. The reality is that science is now driven by ideology and commercial imperatives more than any church I know. Throw money into the mix and see what sort of “scientific findings” we can come up with. Most churches are driven by a goal to spread the gospel – for free. Most churches I know are “not for profits” and their “wealth” is tied up in physical assets used for the cause. Would you have churches meet in our “public” school buildings Andrew?
Not if the Sydney Morning Herald has its way. I’m no Hillsong apologist – in fact I have massive problems with their “prosperity” theology and their music, and and endless list of other gripes that I won’t go into. But this article on public schools as secular institutions being no place for any form of religion is dangerous and stupid. It’s also the worst piece of ideologically driven journalism I’ve seen for a long time, and it belongs in the opinion pages – not the news.
Quotes from the article below:
“A teacher at one public school said students had returned to class after an Exo day concert complaining about attempts to convert them, while the Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Associations says it is an attempt to sneak evangelism into schools and reveals the need for new laws.”
“The NSW Education Act says that “instruction” at public schools must be non-sectarian and secular except in designated religious education classes.”
“A spokeswoman for the Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Association said religious recruitment in schools was inappropriate. “We need to ensure that children when they go to school aren’t exposed to discreet evangelism,” she said.”
I would think that an opt in program clearly run by a church group openly trying to promote the bible is hardly “discreet evangelism” or “instruction” or an attempt to “sneak” evangelize.
So when I told Donna I was moving to Townsville she said “ha… get used to never seeing rain ever again.” Well Donna, you were wrong, so na na na nana na. Our stock editorial (the writing we have on file to use for ads and send to journalists and stuff) boasts that Townsville has 320 days of sunshine per year. I’m starting to wonder if the North Queensland year is slightly longer than the standard 365.25 days. I’ve now been in Townsville 67 days. By my calculations (read estimates) it’s rained on all but five of those days. That means that at this point the standard Townsville year runs for 382 days assuming there is no more rain. What a phenomena. We should call the weather bureau, or the department of astronomy (if they don’t exist they should), or the people who make all the calendars in the world (if there’s not a centralised company there should be, not that I’m pro-monopolies but sometimes they just make things easier).
Which brings me to today’s political discussion. On Sunday after church I was talking to a couple of people about the introduction of VSU and the government’s increasing desire to introduce a user pays culture. The underlying theory can be summarised (today I’ll try to actually summarise – ie be succinct) as the belief that people shouldn’t be forced to pay for services they don’t use – and should be able to control who they get those services from. It’s the rationale behind the sale of Telstra, the proposed privatisation of Ergon and the introduction of privately funded roads with toll systems introduced to pay them. All very interesting stuff if you like economics. For the rest of us there’s apparently a worrying spin-off if VSU sucks all the life out of on campus culture. One of the people I was talking to is quite involved with theatre stuff at JCU, she was talking about a petition signed by members of Australia’s cultural alumni – former graduates of leading institutions who have gone on to taste success as Australia’s artsy ambassadors – successful actors and musicians who claim that their success can be directly attributed to the funding they received from student unions on campus. Well I have a message for Heath Ledger, Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett and co… I want my money back. Nicole Kidman can keep hers as compensation for having to share her adopted children with a freak. But the rest of you living in your multi million dollar penthouses in America – please send me a cheque for $1210 – that’s how much I outlayed in guild fees while I was “studying” at QUT. It’s a small price to pay. I’d hate to think I spent all that money funding the future multi million dollar Australian exports. It hardly seems fair to me.
I posted a comment on Andrew the Opera Singer’s blog (as opposed to Andrew the guy who works for the weather channel) promising a link. I’m a man of my word. Here is your link. Andrew is married to Peta. Peta is Dan‘s sister. Dan is Joel‘s brother. Joel’s music can also be found here. Joel is cool. I am also cool. There are several links both literally and physically (maybe).