Vacation Bible School is a tradition of Christian churches across America. The week dedicated to bringing youth to church for fellowship, learning and fun is a rite of summer. Organizers put hundreds of hours into implementing curriculum material, which has become its own industry, issued with high-tech video productions now providing thematic support to vacation bible schools.
Yet the basic act of teaching and interacting with children has not changed in thousands of years. Anyone who has participated in teaching Sunday School or Vacation Bible School knows this. For thousands of teachers the responsibility of helping children learn about faith is genuine, and also a gift.
For to teach is to learn. There is no question about that. Reviewing scriptural lessons to convey the meaning to children leads one into a place of innocent wonder at the very heart of God’s word. No matter how strong your own faith may be, or how much doubt you might personally experience through a faith journey, the moment you are called to participate in teaching about God is a humbling and enlightening enterprise.
It is an enterprise, teaching about God. Or teaching about anything for that matter. The growing notion that teachers in the secular school system (and that is as it should be…) are somehow overpaid is absurd and damaging to our country. No teacher is overpaid. Even bad teachers are part of the overall mission of helping people learn, so let us help them improve or find a different role. Good teachers are a critical component of civil society. Great teachers are a treasure. There are many of them. The fact that our country is disabusing itself of the value of education is the primary sign that we are a nation with challenges at the heart of our central values. Those are liberty, freedom, justice, equality and the right to learn.
It is not the teaching of Christian values in our public schools that will save our country. Our forefathers wisely separated church from state in the Constitutional call for freedom of (and from) religion. The public school tradition reflects and respects that separation. In fact it is the invasion of highly infectious religious thought that is dumbing down America’s schools, killing respect for real science and teaching of evolution, censoring great and compelling literature in some cases, and thwarting the encouragement of intellectualism all the way up to higher education, where American initiative is formed and forged into productivity. All this is being done under the guise of protecting so-called “conservative values.” What we are experiencing is something else entirely, a regression in civic and social liberty as a result of regressive (and aggressive) attitudes now defining public discourse. To put it simply, we are going backwards against the stream of liberal thought that invented and defined progress in America. Conservative religion is partly responsible for these reverses in progress. It has been used over the years to support slavery, deny rights to women, defend racism and prevent teaching of well-proven science in public schools. Now it has infected politics like a virus as well, all while waving the flag and claiming to represent America itself. Its time we taught our youth something entirely different through our churches. It’s time to promote the liberal heart of Jesus Christ and show that he was never threatened by science or any other type of truly academic enterprise. The very notion is absurd. Jesus was a great teacher. But let’s start following His example by putting faith where it belongs.
The teaching of faith, especially in traditions like Vacation Bible School, is where learning about God belongs. Not in public schools.
Teachers of faith can then teach with conviction. We can hope they also teach with wisdom. It is time for churches everywhere to examine and challenge each other to do just that. For too long Christian thought has been left to wallow in a pit of non-contention. Where is the vigorous debate between churches over what scripture really means? Are we afraid of each other in Christ? Do we leave it to chance that a few blowhards have it right, and that their bloviations have earned them the right to dominate the image and message of Christian thought in society?
That’s wrong. It certainly isn’t the tradition given to us by Jesus Christ, who publicly challenged teachers of the law the look at faith in God in a clear and different light. His testimony ripped through traditions wielded like a fortress against bible-era society. Jesus had no patience for the “brood of vipers” dominating others with threats of punishment and damnation, implemented through extortion and manipulation. Neither should we put up with these brands of supposed faith today.
To say that we are protecting our children from evil when fighting these forces of untruth is the truth, in all instances. The Bible is a living, breathing document. Its stories are built on tremendously powerful metaphors that are still valid today. When these living metaphors are turned into dogmatic, stiff notions of literal interpretation they not only lose the life God imbued them with, they also poison the wells of faith at will.
So let us take a moment and consider what we are teaching our children, and why.
While walking with 30 kids and 8 adult assistants through the woods to talk about the meaning of light and how Jesus used the symbol of light in so many ways, it came to pass that one of the boys in the group raised his hand and asked a question. The context was a discussion of how light filters through the trees in the woods, and how the plumage of birds is highly adapted to the phenomenon of light, even to the point of ultraviolet ranges the human eye cannot see. It was explained that birds do not need to “think” about these things when moving about their daily lives. Nature has provided them with unconscious tools for protective coloration. This is a marvelous evidence of God’s powerful creation. And the boy raised his hand and said, “So we’re talking about evolution, right?”
Yes, we are, I wanted to say. But a part of me held back because even in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, to which our family transferred from a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church after 25 years of membership, there are families that hold the literal creation story dear. Who still teach that the earth is just 6,000 to 10,000 years old. Who insist that ‘created kinds’ are original and unchanged in those years of existence.
I do not believe any of that. In fact last night after teaching Vacation Bible School there was a NOVA production on the PBS station documenting the progression of telescopes, invented by none other than Galileo, who was deemed an enemy of the Roman Catholic church for telling the truth in showing that the earth was not at the center of the universe. In fact we’ve now learned the earth is not at the center of anything. There is no center, except that which we conceive. We are so small and insignificant in the dimensions of space that we hardly matter.
Yet that is why God is so important to our conception of ourselves. To be forcefully alone in the cosmic truth of space, time and eternity is too much for the human mind to bear. But God is there. We do see evidence of metaphysical beauty in the design of the universe. Scientists do not need that notion to conduct their trade, nor should they be assigned to accommodate theology in exploring the tenets of cosmology. We must strengthen our faith on the backs of what they find, not the other way around. The Bible can help us do that, you know. Its metaphorical elasticity is not some grand mistake. Forcing it into a position of an anchor of resistance is no way to make it relevant or help us move forward in faith in the future. Great scientists also know this. A great many may also dismiss it. That is not their problem, or ours. Truth is real no matter where we find it. Reconciling great truths in faith is the purest mission of them all.
We have Jesus, the great teacher who used organic metaphors to teach spiritual concepts as our leader and our guide as human knowledge expands. So why should we be afraid? That is the heart of literalistic faith: fear that faith will be proven wrong somehow.
But we have no fear. We should not be fearful in teaching our youth the strength of faith or the brilliance of science. They go together. Great scientists from Einstein to Darwin recognized these virtues. Admittedly all have struggled with the issue in one way or another. That struggle is how God designed the universe. It is there in the changing of species and in the development of the human mind and culture. It is random material processes at work and the patent reality of free will. What a glorious God we have that leaves us choice in the matter, to believe or not to believe. Our destinies are wrapped in that simple question, and that is the responsibility of teachers to convey every time we look into the eyes of a child.
They are not stupid creatures, children. They are us; eager and vital and curious and malleable. When we fill their minds with truth, reconciled and challenging, then they are truly alive. That is the gift and responsibility of teaching. Jesus knew that well.