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Not Angel Factories

Written on November 18th, 2013

At Christian schools we are often judged, rightly or wrongly, on the behaviour of our students and graduates.  Many people believe that if we are really making a difference in the lives of our students, as we claim that we are, then this difference should be manifested in the words and actions of those coming and going from our doors.  Those in the Christian education business will have at some point either uttered the words or heard them said in response “but, we’re not an angel factory”.  As true (and glib) as this saying is, we had better be careful what we’re claiming when we say this.  The intention behind such a counter argument is, of course, the assertion that we can’t expect more of children simply because of the school they go to – kids will be kids after all.  However, I think there is a better counter argument, and it comes through a reading of Tim Keller and a pinch of N.T. Wright.

In Tim Keller’s Prodigal God, we hear a profound retelling of Jesus’ Prodigal Son parable.  Traditionally, the story has been one centred on the depravity of the young son.  However, Keller forces us to look at the parable as being equally about both sons.  He claims that Jesus uses the younger and elder brothers to portray the two basic ways people try to find happiness, fulfillment, and ultimately to please God: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery (p.29)These approaches can be summarized as follows (p.29-30):

The Elder Brother: Moral Conformity

  • The belief in putting the will of God and the standards of the community ahead of individual fulfillment
  • Happiness is attained and the world is made right by achieving moral rectitude

The Younger Brother: Self-Discovery

  • The belief that individuals must be free to pursue their own goals and self-actualization regardless of custom and convention
  • Happiness is attained and the world is made right if tradition, prejudice, hierarchical authority, and other barriers to personal freedom are weakened or removed.  

Keller argues that instead of viewing the depravity and redemption of the younger son as being the focal point of the story, we should be looking at the approaches that both of these brothers take in response to their father’s love and authority.  He says “The hearts of the two brothers are the same.  Both sons resented their father’s authority and sought ways of getting out from under it” (p.36).  Jesus was showing that neither the approach of moral conformity nor self-discovery is correct in seeking the heart of God.  “Neither son loved the father for himself.  They both were using the father for their own self-centred ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake” (p.36).  Both approaches are all wrong: “you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently” (p. 36-37).

The tension here in working with children and helping them to develop into maturing Christian disciples is that of behavioural expectation.  We clearly want them to think, speak, and act certain ways, but we also want them to do so for the reason that they ought to be doing so – because they love God.  However, we also recognize that there are times in life, both from a cognitive-ability perspective and an experiential perspective where we’re unable to think, speak, and act the way we ought to.  Therein lies the tension.

A solution can begin to be formed, I think, in what N.T. Wright call’s Christian character.  In his book After you Believe: Why Christian Character Matters he argues compellingly (as Keller does) that what is needed for a Christian life is neither moral conformity or self-discovery:

“After you believe, you need to develop Christian character by practicing the specifically Christian “virtues.”  To make wise moral decisions, you need not just to “know the rules” or “discover who you really are,” but to develop Christian virtue.  And to give wise leadership in our wider society in the confusing and dangerous times we live in, we urgently need people whose characters have been formed in much the same way.  We’ve had enough of pragmatists and self-seeking risk-takers.  We need people of character” (p. 25).

What we have here is a call to hard work.  We have a call to develop a Christian way of living that, because of discipline and persistence over time, has become second nature.  The tension is resolved in such an approach because we are neither calling Christians to discover for themselves the way to live a Christian life, nor are we prescribing a rule book of things to think, sayings to speak, or ways to act.  We are calling Christians to practice living out a Christian life as exemplified by Christ so that over time the Christian acts Christianly without consciously having to discover it or look up the rules.

In this way, Christian schools are not places of assembling angels, but rather places for the cultivation and care-taking of Christian character.

Keller, T. J. (2009). The prodigal God: recovering the heart of the Christian faith. London: Hodder
& Stoughton.

Wright, N. T. (2010). After you believe: why Christian character matters. New York, NY: HarperOne.

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