Life in the American South is a constant head-spin.  Liberal Progressives mixed in with REvangelicals and other Disciples of the New Faith who worship the current Acting President (“Make ME Great Again”).

It’s a crazy time in a crazy world.

So … here are some thoughts on the more-critical-than-ever need for Education:

Decision time for (religious) educators

Several provocative questions bumped my brain like potholes while driving through Asheville this week. Passing a church sign that read, “Christian Education” I noticed a billboard on the other side of the street announcing “Decision America,” Franklin Graham’s evangelistic tour of eight cities in North Carolina. He brings his version of the gospel to Asheville in October.

This got me thinking about what people learn from Christian teachers and preachers about Christian beliefs, Religion itself and even what Jesus taught.

The National Secular Society (NSS) in England has been bringing a non-religious voice into the religion-dominated culture for over 150 years. One of their current projects, “No More Faith Schools,” asks the uncomfortable question: “Do you think pupils should be free to develop their own beliefs?” Their concern is state-funded faith schools. The NSS thinks that religious schools are free to teach their sectarian beliefs, but citizens of Great Britain shouldn’t be paying for that. Sound familiar?

Ask a Christian, Jew or Atheist to pay for a child to study the Qur’an or pray to Krishna and they may choose to keep their wallet in their pocket or purse.

Because a central role of secularism is education, organizations like the NSS also expose faith agendas that may not be well known. An example is their recent post about the “shoebox scheme”:

“Operation Christmas Child is a scheme run by an Evangelical Christian charity called Samaritan’s Purse. It is a ‘shoebox scheme’ which many schools, youth groups, churches, councils and other organisations get involved with during the run up to Christmas. Donors fill shoeboxes with toys, which are then sent to children in developing countries as ‘Christmas presents’. Schools and parents often see the scheme as an opportunity to teach children about the importance of helping those less well-off. What many participants do not know about the scheme is that it aims to push fundamentalist Christianity on vulnerable children.

Once they arrive at their destination, the boxes are given to children at an ‘outreach event’, together with conversion-focused Christian literature. The children are also encouraged to join a Christian indoctrination programme called ‘The Greatest Journey’. It’s important to note that countries with large Muslim populations are targeted in particular.”

Clicking around the Samaritan’s Purse website explains some of this, but how many people ask these kinds of questions? After all, it’s just a charitable holiday gift to poor families, right? People are free to contribute to any cause they choose, but they might like to learn that the “purse” for these missions holds assets over $700 million with over $300 million a year spent on Christmas shoeboxes (gold and frankincense included?). A $30 million dollar travel budget sure beats the donkey shared by Jesus and his staff of twelve.

After the latest storm hit the NC coast, chaplains were sent to render assistance. Each family that was helped was encouraged to acknowledge their sins, pray to accept Christ and receive a large, colorful “Billy Graham Training Center Bible.”

It may surprise you to hear this but as a secular person I have no big problem with these evangelistic activities—as long as people are educated about what’s really going on. Lots of groups have a mission to reach the rest of us with their message directly from God. I think each one presents a challenge to people of other faiths (and other branches of the Jesus Tree) to re-think their own educational programs, self-reflectively considering whether they offer harmful indoctrination or healthy inspiration and invitation to freethought.

Those who resist teaching (or preaching) that broader approach need to ask themselves if they’re actually offering a good, fair education that respects active (read: functioning) minds. If students learning about the “Jesus Tree” are only taught one species of that tree and not exposed to other trees in other forests, then they are being led into the dark woods of ignorance—the opposite of true education. Doesn’t that harm all trees?

I know there are congregations and schools that provide comparatively balanced instruction. There are well-intentioned teachers who are trying to nurture young minds to “use the head on your shoulders,” as my father used to say. But it seems to me that we need more in the religious community to honestly present a variety of views to stimulate curiosity, questions and the search for truth and wisdom. None of that is easy. Many teachers are not trained to do that. But maybe it’s what the religious world needs more than a billboard or yet another crusade for souls.

Oddly enough, humanistic freethinkers could be great resources for a broader educational experience for students of any age. We can notice and question the advertisements on both sides of the road, and might offer a wider lens and larger scope to drive productive conversation right into the classroom, potholes and all.

Chris Highland
2019

 

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