C.S. Lewis’ Mansion as a Lens for Faith Education

In his article “Do We Know Why Educated Adventists Leave the Church?” Matthew Quartey highlights many issues that have created an exodus from Adventism. The one I will speak directly to, as he pointed out through the story of his son’s book report on Harry Potter, is our Church’s strong protectionist DNA factor that turns to quick-fix forms of schooling in an attempt to fortify students against leaving church membership. This concern with creating Adventists can easily override both the educational goal of developing lifelong learners and the call to make Jesus-centric disciples. My personal experience includes seeing friends graduate from SDA high schools and go onto public post-secondary where they start to doubt their entire faith structure after taking a science or philosophy course. Or, as with my pastor friends, go to an Adventist university and come out the other side still feeling uncomfortable with talking to other denominational Christians, let alone non-Christians.

I fully agree with Quartey’s assessment that these issues stem from middle and high school experiences. The biblical curriculum focus for secondary students does not start with the needs of students in their own faith journeys. Rather, the focus is rooted in turning out Adventists by having students know more about church doctrine than being Orthodoxically engaged. With such an approach, students develop “theological blinders” that keep them from fully expressing their faith and even causing undue harm toward non-Adventist from a trained stance of ignorance.

C.S. Lewis provides a worthy point of orientation to help start correcting our need to produce Great Controversy-quoting teens. He described Christianity as a large mansion with many hallways and corridors filled with even more rooms. Among all of these spaces we find the many, many different branches of Christianity. The focus for new believers, or in this case, students, is simply getting them into the foyer of the mansion. To provide an overview of Christian essentials so that then new believers/students may go down the various hallways while being able to discern why and how they all connect. The SDA Church’s current method of faith education skips the front door and tries to bring students in the back door to just “our room.” Don’t get me wrong, Adventist schools should teach Adventism and have guided practice of rituals. However, as Lewis suggests, the greater calling is teaching faith in a manner that ignites passion for exploring the whole of Christianity, not just one part of it.

Through my training to become a teacher, along with now my practice thereof, I have come to engage in three principles. These seemly simple ideas help me focus on students and their spiritual capacity while walking them through the front door of Lewis’ mansion. The first two came from my theology professor at Columbia Bible College, namely don’t teach more than they can handle and don’t teach things that have to be unlearned later on. Teaching students more than they are able to understand is overly obvious as a bad idea. What is not often seen is the inversion of that: teaching students what they can actually handle. Children and youth are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. The diversity of how youth learn can be quite daunting, but this is not a reason to oversimplify faith-building curriculums. Teens need to learn how to explore and be comfortable with the large breadth of biblical and theological sources. By buttressing Adventist beliefs alongside differing points of views, students will learn to discern among the vast array of Christianity’s dogmas while feeling more at home in Lewis’ mansion. Bible teachers should encourage imagination by having lessons that are not answer-based but rather honest and open-ended searches. By treating high school students as actual emerging adults we will instill in them a sense of trust and worthiness.

Second is the idea of not teaching something that will have to be unlearned later. As my professor pointed out, many times well-meaning teachers over simplify or leave out parts of the Bible and theology they find difficult to teach. Then when students from such settings come to their college classes, they realize how far off they have been truly led, from not knowing there are different forms of creationism to misunderstanding what Trinitarian Theology really looks like. At least in a Bible college setting, students have Christian professors to fall back on, but what about youth who go elsewhere for post-secondary? Or those who don’t go to college?

When we subject a student’s entire biblical knowledge to only a single set of denominational thinking in an effort to keep them “safe” they become theologically stunted and brittle. If one area of their belief structure becomes shattered, that fault line does not just stop within one topic or idea, it spreads to all sorts of places in the student’s interpretations. I have had former high school students say to me, “I learned this was wrong, it got me wondering what else I was taught wrong.” Noticed they now presuppose that something else must be wrong? That is the danger, because now the student will look for something to disprove rather than build up and grow.

The third principle, which came from my own former high school Bible teacher, is to never try to be faithful for students. Many Adventists’ faith-forming practices in school involve forced attendance at vespers or seemly arbitrary yet mandatory Sabbath rules, among a host of other mandates. This leads to youth hating the church and worse, God Himself through the rule-based example we gave them. By recasting students’ needs as the center of spiritual schooling, teachers can allow space for the Holy Spirit to be part of their classroom. Of course, this means a certain level of risk, that students may choose to reject Adventist views. But what is maintained is the respect of students’ spiritual agency, which in turn creates a safe school environment. This means schools should still create moments of encountering the living God, but it also means we have to be open enough as a school and church community to allow these up-and-coming young adults to say no and disagree without criticism (or bad grades). Søren Kierkegaard would wisely remind us of the need for patience in the transformative work of the Holy Spirit. Knowing, of course, that we cannot stuff all of life’s spiritual growth into high school nor shove it down teens’ throats.

What these three principles — not teaching more than students can learn, while also teaching them what they can know, not teaching something that has to be unlearned, and not being faithful in place of students’ own faith — leave us with is teaching as C.S. Lewis suggested: faith in searching. To place the student back at the center of religious schooling means equipping them with spiritual experiences and theological tools that may indeed take them beyond Adventism. But like me, they may still choose to remain part of the Church that has given them a sense of community and belonging without scorn of difference. I love our Church, however my spiritual journey had to find new sources of guidance because Christianity and faith expression are far bigger than one denomination. Let us seek to find better ways of defining success in our students’ spiritual growth as a community of hope guided by the Holy Spirit, not fear of membership statistics.

 

Kevin R. McCarty is a graduate student in Indigenous & Interreligious Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology and Educational Leadership at Trinity Western University.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11084
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There is no biblical evidence for the notion that Jesus sanctioned the attempt to express his “good news” in written form.

In fact, it seems if he had wanted to have a book written about his philosophy he would have written it himself rather than leaving the task to second, third or fourth hand hearsay or people such as Saul née Paul who didn’t know him at all except through supposed divine intervention.

By extension, it is unreasonable to start from the assumption that Jesus would have sanctioned the construction of any churches with his name on the door, any schools claiming to educate children on his behalf, or the development of health care systems profiting from the pain and suffering of others while being used as an underhanded “entering wedge” or subterfuge whose real purpose was to get at a tithe of the patient’s net—or even better still—his gross income,

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Questioning the motives of caretakers to teachers seems out of bounds and an insult to those who serve in any ministry. If money were the object, they could get more elsewhere. Maybe I have misunderstood what you’re saying–I hope so.

Very few in biblical times could read. Or is this a joke?

You wanna hear a joke?

From the day I was born until I recanted my SDA baptism at the age of twenty five, I—based on nothing but biblical hearsay—was accused of having committed the original and deadly sin of allowing myself to be born.

In fact, this remains a basic tenet, not only of most SDA’s, but of Christianity in general.

Talk about an insult, not only to me, but to uncounted billions of god’s creature for the past two millennia!

Thankfully, I no longer allow myself to be insulted by irrational people whose opinion I do not respect. Instead, I consider their fallacious arguments and ad hominem attacks to be a long-running joke, although I find their particular brand of “humor” much too stale and oft repeated to actually be considered amusing.

As a personal aside, my dad, while in his youth, was offered a professional hockey contract which would have required him to play few periods on “The Lord’s Time”. So he turned it down and went to work for the denomination for a much lower salary.

Given that he passed years later, still uncertain about whether he could or would be “saved” from the same sin I and every human has committed according to SDA and EGW standards, I’d suggest that he, and everyone who’s bought into the “good intentions” of any institution which holds admittedly and adamantly anti-human beliefs, would not only lead a happier life by rejecting such essential affrontery but would most likely earn a better and more honest income by looking elsewhere for both spiritual and financial well being.

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We seem to have come from different churches. I am a senior and joined the church at age 17 and missed church school until I went to a boarding academy for my senior year and then college. If I heard anything like this, I don’t remember it. I did struggle with the idea that one had to “hear” the Gospel to be saved and occasionally heard some crazy comments, but didn’t take them seriously. I do know our founder, EGW, said many pagans would be saved, and the Bible talks about those who know God through nature. He knows where we have been born.

I have always started with the truth that God is good, He is love, and more wonderful than we can imagine. I don’t allow anyone to tell me otherwise. Every now and then, as in any institution I run into people who put the institution first. I feel sorry for them that they are misinformed and pray God will “wink” at their ignorance. There are some leaders like that, but I think the majority of members have moved on.

BTW I worked in the denomination for 25 years in editorial and executive assistant work, studied theology at Loma Linda University for four years while my husband was in dental school. He went from there into nonprofit work near the border and never made money in the field. We came back to Md where I worked at the GC in 1984. He worked in dental insurance and saw how crooked that was and went to dental assisting until he got Lyme disease and had to quit at 56. At the GC I saw some political jostling but theologically did not pick up anything like you experienced. Our scholars and many administrators are believers in righteousness by faith. Some evangelists still focus on doctrine and infer Sabbath keeping is necessary for salvation in the last days. I am totally against that. Sabbath is a symbol of rest in Christ’s righteousness. We are saved unless we reject His sacrifice, not a church. A day cannot save.

A few years ago I heard Robert Wieland speak, and I think he has it right that we are born legally saved by Christ’s righteousness from the foundation of the world. This message has caught on… Whatever,anyone teaching that children are not saved, is in error. It does not square with the character of God as represented by Jesus. I believe in progressive truth and we weren’t supposed to stop learning when our founders died (and they said so). Knowledge has increased in the Bible and in all areas. .The editor of Adventist Review stated that Desmond Ford (when he died) was a positive influence to the church by preaching Christ as our righteousness. He helped change our focus and many before and after him.

The church erred in making EGW infallible to so many (who didn’t think for themselves). She lived in a different era and accepted much of her culture with other Christians. Like the Bible, her principles were right and her advice needed to be taken in context and in whole not as selected texts. People use her as proof texts to this day. Taking the Bible as verbally infallible is impossible and still be true to its principles. It was not dictated by God.

I feel sad about your father. But be comforted; he will praise God when he awakens. It’s too bad his life couldn’t have been better and those he preached to. This comes from the false doctrine of original sin and perfectionism which is regaining adherents among some on the fringes of Adventism. Unfortunately, it appears we will always have demonic off-shoots and fringe groups–that is how satan uses religion (like the Qron group).

Have you heard the one about the three three blind men who try to describe an elephant based only on what they can feel with their hands?

Obviously, each comes away with a different understanding of what an elephant is “really” like, having touched only the ear, the leg, the tail, etc.

So I disagree.

We went to the same church.

Only at some point you decided that you wanted in and now, apparently, you don’t want out, so you’re willing to overlook whatever you must, in order to stay in your pew.

I, on the other hand, was forced into Adventism from birth but slowly saw the truth in something Woody Allen said, that is, that I didn’t want to belong to any group, club, organization or institution that would have me for a member!

Further, people who have decided to stay SDA’s invariably imply or insist that I’ve made a mistake or that the church has changed. But I know this is not the case. Churches are like elephants in that they are always the same and cannot become something they are not.

Most importantly from my perspective, if a church really does renounce its former “truths”, such as the notion that Beatles’ music is bad, you’ll go to hell if you don’t give them ten percent of you income, EGW’s teachings cannot reasonably be thought of as a demonic offshoot of Christ’s “real” Gospel, etc., then the next logical question is which of their purported “truths” will they abandon next?

For my part, I am no longer interested in, or amused by such an unpredictable guessing game!

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