The List-Driven Threat to Christian Education

July 20, 2015

As a teacher at a Christian school I believe there’s a far greater threat facing our students than secular culture. I don’t think their greatest threat is public education. I don’t think it’s a racy scene on The Walking Dead. And I certainly don’t think it’s the word “damn” in Hemingway. Instead, the greatest threat to our students is the homogenized, list-driven, rehashed Pharisaism that we’re unwittingly peddling to the young adults in our care. We’re not exposing them to the richness and depth of biblical Christianity; we’re hawking a cheap alternative.

Recently, I came across the application for a Christian writing competition, which contained an extensive list of “questionable material” that would be denied entry if it made an appearance in any of my students’ submissions. One list was summarized by the following content: “witchcraft, ghosts, etc.” Another contained things like “bathroom humor.” If this is what we want to market to our students, then so be it; but we best be prepared to say goodbye to any hope of inspiring the next Dostoevsky, the next Flannery O’Connor, the next C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, and—more startling still—I think we’ll find that even Jesus will ultimately be barred from our “safe for the whole family” contests. My chief problem with this kind of approach to Christian education is that we’re missing an opportunity to demonstrate the complexity and beauty of Christianity, and we’re settling for the propagation of a simplistic moralism.

Any approach to teaching young Christians the craft of writing that blushes and waves a dismissive hand at the works of Shakespeare should give us pause. I’m startled by the message it sends to my students to spend a month on The Tragedy of Macbeth and then offer them an opportunity to write with the addendum, “Just make sure your writing is nothing like Shakespeare’s!” If we applied the same moralistic standards that we often expect of our students to the stories that fill our curriculum, we would lose the opportunity to introduce our the young to the murderous Macbeth and his three bearded friends. They wouldn’t just be losing the enjoyment of a good story, but the chance to grapple with fate and free-will, to self-examine their own ambitious hearts, to have the eye-opening experience of identifying with a man who buckles under the pressure of an apple too enticing to say, “No.”

And it’s not only Shakespeare (who some would reject since he many not have been a believer). A closer look at the kinds of restrictive lists we often compile reveals that even some of the most influential Christian artists of all time should get the boot from our classrooms. If, for instance, we consider the common prohibition of stories with “magic” in many Christian circles, then C.S. Lewis should be next on the chopping block. Say goodbye to The Chronicles of Narnia, a story that not only contains a witch, but also contains forces for good that use “magic” as well. Barring Narnia forces us to say goodbye to one of the most vivid and beautiful depictions of the gospel that the fantasy genre has ever seen. Lewis’ drinking buddy, Tolkien, has to hit the road as well. Our beloved wizard Gandalf, the one who taught us what it means to cling to hope, risk our lives in the fight against evil, and see the strength in the “least of these” is just another outlaw on many of our moralistic lists.

It’s not just the focus on making lists that’s so problematic—although we’ll return to that in a moment—but even the things we’ve chosen to fill the lists with. This fear of fictitious “witchcraft,” for example, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible means when it condemns witchcraft and magic in the first place. The Christian Research Journal does a superb job correcting our ignorance of the Bible’s teaching and its connection to the fantastical stories we love:

“The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Harry Potter series are works of fantasy. In both, the authors create multidimensional worlds peopled with various creatures, many of whom use magical powers to affect physical changes in their world. Some of these creatures are bad and use their powers for evil, and some of these creatures are good and use their powers to battle evil. The “magical” powers are “natural” attributes of the respective fantasy worlds in which they operate. In this sense the magic is more akin to the ability of animals to speak and wear clothes in children’s literature such as The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh. Within the context of the world of the story, clothed talking animals are not supernatural, occult aberrations but the normal state of affairs. In other words, the magic is mechanistic, not occult: the make-believe laws that govern their use in these make-believe worlds are physical laws, not spiritual or moral laws. These practices are not the same as the occult-based wizardry and sorcery practiced in the real world by real people and condemned in the Bible (which illumines the real world).”[1]

When we kick Tolkien, Lewis, and even Rowling out of our classrooms, when we send the message to our students that their works are incoherent with our faith, we’re losing the opportunity to use stories “such as those in the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series as vehicles to show these youths what they really want and need — a place of love, courage, friendship, belonging, and a chance to lay down their lives in a cause greater than themselves.”[2] In other words, we lose the opportunity to bring them the very fabric that weaves together the story of the gospel.

Herein lies the heart of the problem: we run away from encountering Jesus because people are complex. People are impossible to fit on a list. The person of Jesus can’t be contained, controlled, or homogenized, and Jesus was constantly frustrating the list-makers in his day. Have we forgotten about the incidents concerning Jesus and the Sabbath? He demonstrated for us that the things on God’s lists existed for a greater purpose, and that the moment the list is incongruent with the story of redemption, we’ve misunderstood the entire point of our faith altogether. (e.g. Mark 3:1-6). We must remember how the religious leaders scoffed at his drinking and the company he kept, two more things Jesus did that violated the lists of people trying to be more pious than God. (e.g. Matthew 9:10-11; Matthew 11:19). Jesus wasn’t rebelling against lists to be trendy or provocative. He was trying to teach us something invaluable about the nature of Christianity: the lists in Scripture don’t exist as ends in themselves; they exist to show us something of the nature of God, the helplessness of man, and the desperate need for rescue. The Bible’s lists are about the story. The story is about a Person. The Person is what should be driving us and forming every decision we make—especially in our art.

I’ll be the first to admit: there isn’t an easy alternative to limiting our students’ writing with moralistic lists; however, there is a better one. The writing that we should be inspiring, that our culture so desperately needs, is writing that works from an understanding of the gospel. We don’t need safe, unrealistic, black-and-white depictions of the moral life. We need young writers who honestly wrestle with the reality of biting the apple, the struggle of humanity, the sweetness of redemption, and the hope of returning to Eden. The need of the hour is for gospel-driven writers, not moralistic ones. We need more storytellers, not more list-makers.

[1] Mark Ryan and Carole Hausmann Ryan. “Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.” This article first appeared in the News Watch department of the Christian Research Journal, volume 24, number 4 (2002)

[2] Ibid

John-Michael Ritchey

 John-Michael Ritchey attended Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA where he earned a Bachelor of Arts. After receiving his degree, he taught Upper School English at North Cobb Christian school, where he had previously attended. In 2015, John-Michael Ritchey passed away.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24