catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 8 :: 2011.04.22 — 2011.05.05


Learning the rhythms of the New Creation

Easter is the season of the church year in which we celebrate the inauguration of a new reality that dawned in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  The Apostle Paul describes this new order:  “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17 NRSV).  Although baptism is the act of immersing us into this new reality, there remains a host of questions that could be called educational or formational, of how we learn to submit ourselves to the rhythms of this new creation (and how we encourage each other to do likewise).  These questions lie at the heart of what it means to be a disciple — a word that comes from the Greek mathetes, meaning learner or student. 

In our technological age, education is almost always discussed in terms of techniques, i.e., how we intend to learn.  Neil Postman opens his classic work The End of Education with an argument that the narrative by which we educate (the why of education) is much more significant than our techniques:

In considering how to conduct the schooling of our young, adults have two problems to solve.  One is an engineering problem; the other a metaphysical one.  The engineering problem, as all such problems are, is essentially technical.  It is a problem of the means by which the young will become learned…. [It] is important to keep in mind that the engineering of learning is very often puffed up, assigned an importance it does not deserve…. There is no one who can say that this or that way is the best way to know things, to feel things, to see things, to remember things, to apply things, to connect things and that no other will do as well.  In fact, to make such a claim is to trivialize learning, to reduce it to a mechanical skill.

Of course, there are many learnings that are little else but a mechanical skill, and in such cases, there well may be a best way.  But to become a different person because of something you have learned — to appropriate an insight, a concept, a vision, so that your world is altered — that is a different matter.  For that to happen, you need a reason. And this is the metaphysical problem I speak of.

Later in the same book, Postman will talk about this “reason” using the language of “narrative,” which is terminology that may be more familiar to us in thinking about the problem of education among the people of God.  One of the major challenges of Christianity in the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is that Christ’s followers are prone to think about the why of education in terms of other narratives first, instead of the biblical narrative.  Perhaps the most egregious temptation is to think about education in terms of the economic narratives of capitalism and consumerism. According to this narrative, we educate our children in order to prepare them to be useful participants in the economy of global capitalism.  Developing skills that we can use to care for others and ourselves is certainly important, but it should not be our primary motivation for learning.

Similarly, we are often tempted to define education in terms of the narrative of individualism — and particularly so as adults, as we think of “developing our careers.”  The narrative of individualism is, of course, intertwined with the economic narrative, and yes, even our understanding of the biblical narrative (particularly concepts like salvation).  God has created us as unique persons with distinct gifts and talents, and the platonic ideal of “know thyself” can often be useful, but individualism also should not be the fundamental narrative lens through which we view education.

A third tempting narrative, particularly in the realm of public education, is that of the nation-state, i.e. we are educated in order to become good citizens of the nation.  Although this narrative has perhaps waned in its significance somewhat since the middle of the twentieth century, it is still a powerful force in thinking about why and how we are educated.  Again we must say that although it is important to know the history and customs of the places in which we live, the narrative of these places should not be the primary narrative that defines our education.

So, if we agree that the economic, individualist and American narratives are not the primary narrative for our education and formation as disciples of Jesus, what then does it mean for us to take the biblical narrative as a primary narrative for education across the whole spectrum of human life from birth to the infirmities of life’s final years?  Although we are the people of God, our thinking has been clouded all too often by other narratives to such an extent that we cannot even begin to imagine what an answer to this question might look like.

It seems to me that there are three essential facets of the biblical narrative that we must bear in mind as we seek to submit ourselves to God and to grow deeper into the abundant life to which we are called:  the people God has given us (particularly in the local church community), the place in which we find ourselves and the mission of God’s work in reconciling all creation.  The local church is the place where these three facets intersect, a community that is an incarnation both of the people of God and of the body of Christ in a particular place.  Therefore, it should be foremost in our minds as we explore this question of what education according to the biblical narrative might look like.

First we must come to an understanding of the church, not as religious community to which we commit a certain “spiritual” sector of our being and resources, but as a holistic community in the broadest sense of the word.  If we understand ourselves as sharing life together on a 24-7 basis, we begin to think of education in broader terms than just Sunday School, youth groups and the other programs of religious education (though all of these might be one part of our practices of learning and growing together). 

Everything we do together — all of our practices of caring for each other, seeking the peace and flourishing of our particular places, etc — becomes an opportunity for us to learn and grow and an opportunity for us to invite others into this work: our children, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors.  No matter where we live, there is much work for us to do, much injustice that demands our attention — from the isolation and consumerism of suburbia to the crime and racial/ethnic struggles of cities to the abandonment and abuse of the land in rural places.  Everywhere, our members and neighbors have basic needs (food, affordable housing, clothing); as humans we also are born, mature, get sick and eventually die, all of which are social activities.  This very local and particular milieu is the context in which we discern how we are going to learn and grow together.  It is the context in which we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, proclaim that the powers of death — however overwhelming they may seem — no longer hold the final word.  If we read the biblical narrative in this way, i.e., that God is calling a community of people in a particular place to be the real presence and body of Christ there and to seek the healing and reconciliation that his resurrection has made possible, then we have a powerful narrative by which we can radically reform how we think about education and formation as church communities.

At the risk of wandering too far into the realm of technique, allow me to mention two practices that have been helpful for us at Englewood Christian Church on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis in beginning to work within this narrative.  My hope is not that these practices would be taken as models, but rather that they might stir the imaginations of churches in other places about what learning and growing as a community of God’s people might look like in their own contexts.

The first practice is the commitment that a number of us have made to “home schooling” (or more properly “church schooling”) our children together.  (There are also others here, I should add, who have very good reasons for sending their children to public schools.)   Our primary motivation in doing so is not fear of the public schools, nor concerns about the quality of education, but rather the opportunity and greater flexibility this approach offers to immerse our children in the life of our church community in its fullest sense.  Our children are taught all the basics that they will need to flourish — reading, writing, and yes, arithmetic — but their education also includes things like learning to grow food, studying the inter-workings of creation in an urban place and visiting older members of our congregation who are not able to get out much.  Church schooling in this way also affords our children the opportunity to nurture deeper friendships with adults in the church community who are not their parents, a sort of relational capital that we hope will bear fruit in years to come as we continue to seek to be faithful together in this place.  This arrangement also allows the adults who teach the flexibility to coordinate their teaching schedule with their other responsibilities in the church community and beyond.  It is important to note that church schooling in this way is formational not only for the children but also for the adults who assist with the schooling.  We have found that all the children’s bookwork can usually be completed in the morning — if they are attentive and diligent — which leaves the afternoons free for other sorts of learning, like crafts, baking and good old-fashioned play.  Church schooling in this way also provides us the leeway to be intentional in teaching our kids about the mission of God, as well as to highlight how all facets of life and learning should be submitted to this mission.  For us, the opportunity to form our children’s learning around the particularities of the people of our community (and their distinctive gifts), the place in which we have been called and the reconciling mission of God — and for us to be formed by engaging our children daily in these ways — was simply too good to be passed by.

Secondly, the basic shared practice of reading and discussing books together has been of great importance in our formation as a church community over the last quarter century.  These practices have taken a variety of forms over the years, some more informal (such as once person reading a book and then passing it on to others) and other times has been more formalized as part of a Sunday School class or Bible study group.  Some books we have read are not necessarily Christian books, but help us to think about various aspects of our work in an urban context — for example, Jane Jacobs’ Nature of Economies, or Wendell Berry’s work or Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, or even the book on which I based the early part of this essay, Neil Postman’s The End of Education.  Other books are theologically stretching and challenging books that are typically only read in seminaries like Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus and Community or Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament.  Regardless of what sort of books we are reading at any given time, however, what we read together is selected on the basis of its relevance to helping us grow deeper in our understanding of the mission of God and how we faithfully embody the Gospel as a community in our particular place.  I am always inspired by the sense here that there is always more to learn and be challenged by, and that the local church community is the primary place where this sort of growth happens.    Training in trades — even seminary training — can be useful, but the place where we ultimately must continue to grow and be transformed until the end of our days is the church congregation!  This shared practice has led us to create The Englewood Review of Books, which we hope will inspire churches in other places to consider the place of reading and conversations about reading within their own congregations.

As we celebrate this season of Easter, let us rejoice in the hope that our transformation is possible because of the resurrection of Christ.  A new world, a new creation is possible, but as the Apostle Paul argues in Romans 12, it requires the renewing of our minds and our imaginations.  Maybe such renewal begins with the renewing of our imaginations about how we learn and grow — a renewal that begins with reflections on not only what the end of our education is, but what our end is as human beings, created by God.  Such reflection on ends will undoubtedly lead us to reflect on the narratives that shape our imaginations and lives towards these ends.  As a result of the resurrection, everything has indeed become new.  Let us live and grow together every day in the truth of this new creation!

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