Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Should Bible in Schools Be Trashed?

Watching Breakfast yesterday I was intrigued to hear the Reverend Clay Nelson of St Matthews-in-the-City come out strongly against Bible in Schools saying that it is should be trashed. He argues that it is “un-Christian to force our faith on other people.” He aligns himself with the Secular Education Network. According to its website, this network is profoundly secular growing out of the rationalist society. It affirms a naturalistic world view rejecting all supernatural explanations. It sees science and religion as opposed explaining the world in fundamentally opposing ways.

The Rev’s position raises all sorts of questions for me. First, why would a Christian minister support an organisation like the Secular Education Network that blatantly opposes Christianity and faith claims? Christianity is premised on a God who created the world, the story of his repeated intervention, and most importantly, the story of Jesus who was imbued with power and performed miracles, rose from the dead, and whose Spirit acts in his people and world today? Can it really be said that the Rev in any real sense represents “our faith” when he aligns with the openly anti-religion Secular Education Network and against the proclamation of the gospel to NZ’s young? Certainly, on the basis of this at least, he does not align with the same faith as I do.  

Secondly, why would he oppose Bible in Schools on the grounds of force? Is it illegitimate “force” to allow a school to opt in or out of Bible in Schools at any time? or, when any parent at any time can opt a child out of the program? Is it illegitimate force for the church to faithfully and carefully obey the law which allows them to do this? After all, Bible in Schools is Government approved. It has been run on this basis for decades. If Bible in Schools was truly compelled, illegal and not well managed, he would have a point. However, it is not compelled, it is legal and the Christian Education Commission does a fine job in ensuring that the program is well run without compulsion.

Bible in Schools exists as a program because our forebears acknowledged the principle of the separation of Church and state. However, they also acknowledged that NZ, like all western nations, was to a large extent founded on Christianity. The Christian Church has been heavily involved in NZ’s history from its inception, including the Treaty of Waitangi. As a result of these two convictions, our forebears believed that the faith has some primacy and its values and basics should be taught. As such, the BIS program was established whereby the school is closed and the Christian story and its values taught. Direct evangelisation and proselytism has always been repudiated in Bible in Schools.

Christianity and the program are a long-established part of our Kiwi heritage as is Maori culture. I wonder whether the Rev would argue that we should remove Maori culture from the school curriculum because it is coercive and mono-cultural? After all, every NZ child has to study it. None of us should suggest such a thing.

In my view, the Christian story and its values should not be marginalised into a half-hour school closed program, but responsibly taught within the curriculum. Yes, we should teach young people to understand all the major religious and philosophical perspectives; but we should give some primacy to the faith that undergirds NZ culture—to not do so is a denial of our national identity.

A few other things come to mind. First, Jesus told the Pharisees and disciples that a kingdom divided against itself will fall. The Rev is nicely accelerating this in NZ. I wonder how Jesus views his comments. Secondly, the Rev perpetuates the western myth that secularism is neutral whereas religion is not. Secularism is not a neutral position—it is an anti-position; an anti-religion, anti-supernaturalism and anti-faith philosophy. It is as much a “religious” belief system and faith-claim as any religion. It is premised on the presupposition that supernaturalism in any form is untenable. This cannot be verified. Case in point, the origins of the universe; Christians claim God initiated it. Secularists have no answer other than chance. The jury is out on the actual answer and we all make our own call. Thirdly, as an aside, the claim that science and faith are fundamentally opposed is nonsense and the sort of either-or modernist thinking that should be rejected.

The media loves this stuff. If you google bible in schools, this story is everywhere. What the Rev has done is give them another angle to hammer Christianity—when one of “their own” comes out supporting the anti-Christian agenda that underlies our culture. While the Rev is quite within his rights to say his piece and believe as he does, in doing so I believe that he violates his call, his church and tradition, the gospel, and plays into the hands of the anti-Christian worldview. Bible in Schools is not coercive, it is an integral part of our heritage and I hope it continues to play an important part in the NZ education system.


Steve Tollestrup said...

Hi Mark, I think the elephant in the room is whether Bible in Schools is really more about 'evangelism in schools.' When I talk privately to BIS teachers, most all of them give away the fact that it is by sharing that their high point is in seeing Children come to faith. That is really great news. But I have to ask whether a school room is the best place. In the coming years, other faiths will also rightly ask for instruction opportunities in their faith traditions. While we might have an historical claim of Christianity in NZ, the reality is we are now on the margins with other faiths in a mainly secular and agnostic culture.

My thoughts are that we should move to Religious Instruction in schools and start to build respect and recognition of other faiths. Some of the unbelievable rhetoric of recent around Zionism and Islam is massive testament to how religiously ignorant we are as a nation. To add another example I was with someone the other day who pointed to a Sikh complaining about all the Muslims in Auckland. Right now we need a whole lot of religious tolerance and understanding. I think BIS needs to think a bit laterally on this one and reformulate their approach, then partner with churches and ministries for Bible clubs or some such out of school. Steve Tollestrup - Evangelical and Liberal.

Anonymous said...

I like what you have to say Steve, that makes far more sense approaching the BIS situation with a more lateral understanding, its also about being confident in the Gospel story and the knowledge that through diversity we can maintain a faith that seeks to connect with all facets of society howbeit religious, secular or cultural.
Our history in NZ shows us we have come from strong Christian foundations but they also show us we get it wrong at times, and these modern times in NZ seem to be as removed from Christianity as they are from the Treaty.

Paul Long said...

Thanks for this blog post. I happened to watch that portion of the breakfast show and heard that too and was dumbfounded that the Rev would say what he said.

I know very little about the approach or curriculum of BIS so can't comment on it but I was wondering ... are "moral values" taught in school as part of the curriculum?

And related to the above, if they are taught in school, I am curious as to what are considered universal moral values and how these values came to be agreed upon.

Personally I find that it can be difficult to argue and justify moral values apart from some form of "religious framework".

Mark Keown said...

Cheers Paul. I don't think morality is taught, but there are values taught in the curriculum.

Dr Glennis Mafi said...

Quite apart from all the relevant comments already made, part of a good education should at least familiarize young people with the story of the Bible and of Jesus Christ, as these stories have hugely influenced society in so many good and positive and important ways (e,g. law & justice, health care, respect for all, place of women , social services, knowledge and education -- yes, including science - so many great scientists have looked for order etc in the natural world because they knew there was a God of order behind it. etc etc). Christians who are most familiar with the Bible & with Jesus Christ are best placed to do the teaching.

Wojtek Krzyzosiak said...

Ok, suppose a similar program was initiated based on Islam. Would you be happy to have your children attend, even given an opt out provision?

Mark Keown said...

Yes I would if: 1) Just as the CEC programs are approved, the program is approved and run according to the approved guidelines; 2) The school board approved of the program; 3) The parents are well informed and can opt their children out. The gospel is not about the enforcement of the Christian position. We don't see the early Christians trying to stop Greco-Romans and Jews promoting their religion. They proclaimed their belief system inviting people to believe.

Jeff said...

Radio NZ has done a good series giving time to both sides of the debate..

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