November 5, 2015

Christian Parents: Is your Child’s School Fundamentalist?

Christian parent, are you sending your child to a moderate-fee paying Christian school in which there’s a great drama program; good music program aided by funky young teachers who learned their craft in mini-Hillsong-esque churches; a slightly thrown today Christian Education program that occasionally veers towards moralism; a good pastoral care set-up; good sports and outdoor Ed program run by fit young things who help out at SU camps over the summer; and that have a requirement that teachers tick a church attendance box.

You are? Then Christian parents, according to how the educational experts in Australia view it, you are probably sending your children to a Christian fundamentalist school.

Now you go, “Hold on a minute!  Christian fundamentalism?  Isn’t that about dinosaurs not existing, guns, voting conservative, and living in, if not actual compounds, then figurative ones?  Long hair for the girls, short back and sides for the boys?”

Well it used to be, but check out this interesting article on the ABC news website today.  The article begins thus:

The radicalisation of young people has become a growing concern since 15-year-old Farhad Jabar shot dead police accountant Curtis Cheng outside police headquarters in western Sydney on October 2. Concerns that radicalised students are preaching extremist views in school prayer groups have prompted calls for the prayer groups to be cancelled.

Two matters becomes apparent in the article. One, the problem among a minority of people within a minority religion in Australia is being read, for good or ill, as a problem with religion in general within the education system of Australia.  And secondly, given that the radicalisation problem in prayer groups occurred under the very noses of the secular education department in their secular, state schools, (something the article does not say), then it would seem that our practice (i.e, moderate-fee paying Christians schools) is going to be scrutinised to resolve their problem .

The article begins by talking about radicalising prayer groups in schools which lead 15 year old boys to murder, then launches into an investigation of religious schools in Australia, and how the percentage of such schools is extremely high, given the OECD average.

Now I am not saying this to stir the culture wars pot, but merely to point out that from this side of the fence, the evangelical Christian side, the average Christian school looks fairly culturally domesticated.  As a father of a 14 year old artsy daughter I think her school’s education and arts program is wonderful.  As a pastor of a church I think her school’s Christian framework leaves a little to be desired, primarily because untrained people are being asked to teach the topic, and Christianity generally becomes the subject that gets left-over time.  For us – and for many others including a majority percentage of un-churched families who want their child to flourish in a good environment – it’s a Goldilocks school; not too hot, not too cold, just right, especially given the government alternative in my neck of the woods, which is more like the Big Bad Wolf.

Yet to hear Dr David Zingier from Monash University’s Faculty of Education describe such a school, it sounds like it’s liable to lead to another shooting. Dr Zingier labels all such schools as my daughter’s “Christian fundamentalist”.  Now I don’t think he’s making a pejorative statement there, but simply reading it as he sees it – anything outside of the well-heeled church schools that claim to be Christian schools fit that category, primarily because of its understanding if Scripture, salvation, worldview etc.

Now for those of us within the Christian community we tend to see the nuances, don’t we? I mean every teacher in my daughter’s school would be horrified to hear that the secular education system regards their savvy, snappy, well run, relaxed environment school as “Christian fundamentalist”. We know what a fundamentalist actually is in Christian circles – and it’s not us.  Yet clearly it is us according to the new narrative, since clearly secularists see no such nuances. And we’d better get used to this new nomenclature, and the scrutiny it will bring us under.

As I have said it before, the scrutinising spotlight is going to be focussed on Christians in the culture and the public square in a way we have not experienced in the West before.  It just seems interesting that the catalyst for such scrutiny is not because of what is being doing by self-proclaimed Christians school, or even what is being carried out in private schools, but by radicalised Muslims in government schools. A secular camel being pushed through a religious needle.

The article goes on to point out, in a relieved kind of way, that high-fee paying church schools are basically secular in framework and output, something a visit to their end of year graduation ceremony would certainly reveal.  Same hopes, same dreams (only bigger and more expensive) than the graduation ceremonies at secular state schools. So no problems there.  The mainline church schools by and large tap into the baseline cultural narrative, and are therefore given the doggy biscuit of approval by the secular framework.

The medium to long-term solution for the “Christian fundamentalist” schools will be determined one of two ways.  First, there’s every chance that, just as the mainlines did, many will domesticate the gospel message and water it down to moralistic, therapeutic deism (thank you Christian Smith), in which the gospel is not the gospel of the kingdom, but the gospel of the empire; be good, follow your heart, be the best you can be. Let’s not get too precious about that, because that’s the historical trend and unless strong measures are put in place that will be the future trend also.

And since too many churches for my liking already espouse that, then it stands to reason that many Christian teachers can be no more or no less than what they have been theologised to be. It’s a nonsense to claims such schools are “fundamentalist” because since they draw from so many church backgrounds, the Christian framework they offer is restricted to the things they have in common.  We are not talking confessional schools here (of which there are examples also). However many such schools will quietly drop the full-blown “Christian” logo, rewrite their employment guidelines in keeping with anti-discrimination laws, and get on with the job of providing a good secular, moral education with perhaps a Christian veneer. That’s not a value judgement – that just is.

The second option will be, and it will increasingly become not an option but a requirement, to increase the fees to 100 percent of what it costs to educate your child. If the state eventually determines that its brand of secularism is going to be “hard” (in that it will brook no differences and wants all to be educated the same way with the same values), then it will cease funding ethical communities (schools, adoption agencies, church aged-care facilities etc) that by conscience will not sign off on certain legislations. Hence “Christian fundamentalist” schools will be obliged to increase their fees – by huge margins – to cover it.  The primary thing stopping any government from doing that is that the rush back to state schools would send the government broke.  For every hundred people complaining about religious schools being given special dispensation, there is a government official thanking whoever that they don’t have to sign the full cheque.

Which raises one other question for me.  If – when most of our children are back in state schools – and that state school system requires them to attend a class on Australian values that teaches exactly the opposite of what Christian parents are teaching at home, and indeed views the Christian framework on such matters as dangerously hostile to our secular state, would we be pulling our children from such classes? Or to put it another way, when the new Australian secular anthems are being sounded, and our children are being required to bow down to them, will we be keen for them to stand up, walk out, and leave the assembly?

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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