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The List-Driven Threat to Christian Education

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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

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