Expanding the Biblical Worldview of Christians in Myanmar

Don Closson, who has taught Christian worldview on several continents, recently returned from Myanmar, which has in recent years been oppressed heavily by an atheistic regime. Representing his church Christ Fellowship in McKinney (TX), he shared with pastors and students a biblical perspective on world missions and how the Church there is both historically blessed and currently in a good position to reach their own nation (formerly known as Burma) with the gospel.

Details of a trip can begin to fade even as the effects of jet lag seem to grow stronger. Fortunately, I do remember many wonderful aspects of my whirlwind eleven-day trip with friend and pastor Ken Stoneking to Myanmar (the U.S. still insists on calling it Burma), one of the poorest and most oppressed countries in Asia.

Praise God for a Fruitful Trip

This was my most successful cross-cultural teaching experience to date. I say that for several reasons. First, the topic was timely and relevant to my audience of pastors and students at the Mandalay Bible Seminary. I spoke on God’s Kingdom as it relates to world missions by breaking the topic down into four parts: the theological, historical, cultural and strategic perspectives. After I finished teaching the 20 hour class over five days, my host told me that he had been struggling with this very topic, particularly how to motivate the church leaders in Myanmar to play a greater role in missions. He expressed that many churches in Myanmar have an inward perspective and needed help seeing that believers have an obligation to be a blessing to those around us. He told me that my talks gave him a number of ideas to develop further after our visit.

Myanmar’s Uniqueness

My preparation for this class increased both my own understanding and appreciation for the task of world missions. As I put the lessons together, I got more and more excited about my opportunity to share with the pastors and students. I realized that they live in a strategic place to reach a part of the world limited to Americans. Myanmar is in the global 10/40 window that defines the least evangelized segment of the globe. In fact, its capital city Yangon is listed as one of the 100 gateway cities to this 10/40 region, the rectangular area of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north latitudes, according to The Joshua Project. The population of the world is growing more Asian every year and Myanmar is centrally located to impact China, Thailand, and India!

Connecting the Dots…

A serendipity was “connecting the dots” as I researched the relationship between the Church in Myanmar and the early Reformation—going all the way back to John Wycliffe in the 1300s. Wycliffe challenged the authority of the Pope and the refusal of the Church to put the Bible in of the language of the common people. His followers were known as Lollards, and they preached anti-clerical and biblically-centered reforms.

Jon Huss read the teachings of Wycliffe in the 15th century and attempted to reform the church in Bohemia and the adjacent area called Moravia. Gaining a wide following, the Hussites influenced the region around Prague, Czech Republic, including a group which became known as the Moravian church. Huss was eventually burned at the stake in the center of Old Town Square in Prague for challenging the official doctrines of the Catholic Church. However, the Moravian Brethren continued on and became a powerful force for evangelism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Evangelist and church leader Count Zinzendorf was at the center of this movement during the late 1700s. He traveled to America and England meeting with Jonathan Edwards and other leaders of the Great Awakening that brought revival to both England and the Colonies in the 1730s and 40s.

In 1806 a group of college students at Williams College prayed that God would again bring revival to the country, sparking a movement among college students known as the Haystack Prayer Revival. These five students would help influence a young man named Adoniram Judson to commit his life to missions. Judson set sail for India with his wife in 1812, but the East India Company would not allow them to enter because they feared that missionaries would stir up the Hindus. Taking the first boat East, Judson arrived in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1813. After six years he had his first convert and when he died at age 62, after spending 38 years in Myanmar, it was estimated that there were over 200,000 Christians in the country. Judson was the first to translate the Bible into the Burmese language, a translation that was so good that it is still used today and preferred over recent translations because it is more theologically conservative.

More Dots

The day after I left, an earthquake hit Myanmar. Thankfully, God spared the Mandalay Bible Seminary. Then our president visited for the first time in recognition of the political changes occurring there. Please pray for the Christians in this strategic country. They are standing boldly and are ready to be used of the Lord for the Great Commission.




Christians in the World

Don Closson looks at three books on how to live the Christian life in 21st century America: Radical, The Next Christians, and To Change the World.

Introduction

download-podcastHave you ever heard a sermon that tried to convince you that our earthly possessions should be looked at more like a hotel room rather than a permanent home? The point being that earth is a nice place to visit, but it’s not a believer’s final destination. As aliens and strangers, our real residence is with God which usually implies a heavenly spiritual existence that is completely foreign to our current one. In a bit of a twist, a recent article in Christianity Today argued that most evangelicals have things backwards. We are wrong if we think that at Christ’s return the wicked will be “left behind” and the righteous will be taken away to a heavenly abode. It’s the wicked who will be removed while the righteous remain on earth. The author’s conclusion is that we should be more caring about this world because it, not heaven, will be our eternal home.

How we view “final things” or the “end times” impacts how we live today. There is a heated debate going on about the priorities of those who desire to live out a biblical worldview. Should we be focused on restoring this world, redeeming it for God, or on offering the lifeboat of salvation in order to save some from impending destruction along with the rest of the cosmos? Are we to be mostly about creating a restored culture through our Spirit empowered efforts, or are we seeking salvation for a redeemed people leaving restoration of the world to special acts of God?

In this article I will focus on three popular books that offer different perspectives on how Christians should prioritize their lives: Radical by David Platt, a mega-church pastor from Birmingham, Alabama; The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons, a conference speaker who has created an organization to encourage dialogue about the purpose of the church; and To Change the World by James Hunter, the lone academic, a professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia.

Platt’s book is simple and straightforward. He tells his story mostly by giving examples of people in his church who were radicalized by the gospel. Lyons’ book is a polemic against what he calls a gospel that only tells half of God’s story. Hunter gives us a scholarly tome, calling Christians to humility when it comes to changing the culture in which we dwell. Although these books are different in significant ways, they all present an argument against the so-called American dream of runaway materialism and extreme individualism.

Three different books, espousing a similar message, told with both passion and thoughtfulness. Join me as we consider how Christians are to dwell on earth as aliens and strangers.

Becoming a Radical

The strength of David Platt’s book Radical is its simplicity. He pleads with us to believe what Jesus says and then to obey it. But like most things in life, his simple admonition hides nuances and assumptions that beg further explanation.

Platt fills his book with example after example of Christians making radical life decisions as they reject both the American dream and the typical American way of doing church. He argues that “[W]e as Christ followers in American churches have embraced values and ideas that are not only unbiblical but that actually contradict the gospel we claim to believe.”{1} After introducing himself as one of the youngest pastors to lead a mega-church, he admits that the “bigger-is-better” tendency in our churches is hard to support in Scripture.

Platt’s concerns are worthy of much soul searching and careful interpretation of God’s Word. But about halfway through the book I found myself both attracted to, and frustrated by, the many stories of life change among Platt’s congregants as well as his own struggles over how to lead his church in a way that is Christ honoring. For example, Platt’s discussion of Luke 9 results in this sentence: “We do have to give up everything we have to follow Jesus. We do have to love him in a way that makes our closest relationships in this world look like hate. And it is entirely possible that he will tell us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor.”{2} Unfortunately, when I looked for principles to know when and to what extent Jesus is asking me to do these things, I didn’t find that Platt offered any.

Platt leaves little room for interpretation when it comes to the words of Jesus. Is it possible that Jesus used rabbinic hyperbole or exaggeration common to the Jewish teachers of his day when making his more drastic comments about holy living? Even though Platt occasionally tempers his remarks with an “I don’t have all the answers” or “I have more questions than answers,” he writes as if his reading of the text is obvious and conclusive.{3}

Platt’s book Radical is intended to shock culturally captive Christians out of their American Dream stupor and to become serious Christ followers. His one-year dare at the end includes activities from which all believers would benefit. We should be praying for the entire world, reading through the entire Word, sacrificing our money for Kingdom purposes, reaching out to those in other cultural settings, and committing ourselves to multiplying church communities. I just wish that Platt had given us a little more nuanced guidance as to when and to what extent Christians should live a radical life.

Restoring Eden

Of the three books we are examining in this article, I anticipated the arrival of Gabe Lyons’ book The Next Christians the most. I had read glowing endorsements and was hoping not to be disappointed.

The first of three sections in the book describes how the world has changed in its perception of Christianity. Although there is much good information here, Lyons resorts to the phrase “perfect storm” once too often in describing our current cultural milieu. He is right to describe attitudes towards believers in post-Christian America as mostly negative, but I am cautious about his complaint that our situation today is somehow unique.{4}

Lyons describes the church’s response to social change as either separatist or cultural. The separatists are characterized by judgmental withdrawal from society, aggressively defending a Christian America that no longer exists. They reduce the Christian’s task to saving a few souls via evangelism in ways often offensive to our pluralistic society. It’s not a pretty picture. According to Lyons, we are far too influenced by the remnants of the Fundamentalist movement that did battle with modernism at the beginning of the last century.

Cultural Christians seek to blend into the culture rather than judge it, and define the Christian life as primarily doing kind things for others. These self-identified Christians place tolerance high on their list of virtues and are working diligently to avoid topics or actions that might alienate their neighbors. Lyons argues that they have conformed to the culture in a way that relinquishes any hope of having significant impact.

Lyons endorses a third category which he calls restorers. He describes these people as those who “envision the world as it was meant to be and they work toward that vision. Restorers seek to mend earth’s brokenness.”{5} They are optimistic, and see “that God is on the move—doing something unique in our time.”{6} Their mission is to see “how things ought to be,” and then to commit their lives to making it so.{7}

In a manner similar to Platt’s book Radical, Lyons chastises Christians who focus too much on the Gospel message of redemption and emphasizing a salvation that offers escape from this fallen world. By putting restoration back into God’s story we don’t have to wait for God to give us a new heaven and earth, we can experience it now.

Lyons’ call to action is an expansive one and it immediately raises questions about what a restored world should look like; what specific form should our political and economic systems take? He seems to assume that we should know the answer to these questions but I am not so sure that it’s that obvious.

A Faithful Presence

We will now consider the most academic of the three books we are examining, James Hunter’s book To Change the World. Not only is Hunter’s book one third longer than the other two, it is far more abstract in content. Where the other two books give significant space to stories of lives changed by a biblical calling, Hunter devotes less than three pages to real life examples. What we do get is a thoughtful overview of how most Christians wrongly pursue political power in the name of Christ.

According to Hunter, Christians can be broken down into three distinct groups: the Christian Right, the Christian Left and the Neo-Anabaptists. The Christian Right seeks to win the culture war. In its eyes, Christian America is disappearing and needs to be defended. Secularism has conquered the media, academia, and government, resulting in a culture that rejects biblical values and corrupts our children.

In many ways the Christian Left and Neo-Anabaptists look a lot alike. They are hostile towards an unrestrained market economy and capitalism itself. They also share a sharp loathing for the Christian Right. But they differ dramatically regarding the believer’s relationship to government. The Left see the government as a partner while the Neo-Anabaptists see it only as a coercive force that uses violence to enforce its will.

Hunter argues that all three groups seek political power in order to change the culture, a goal that will inevitably fail. He spends a large portion of the book explaining why changing a culture is far more difficult than most appreciate. Cultures are more complex and resilient than we think and cannot be changed by just putting new ideas in people’s minds.

In the end, Hunter calls Christians to what he describes as a faithful presence. Rather than defending against the secularization of culture, trying to be relevant to it, or even seeking purity from its negative effects he calls for another response that lends authenticity without sacrificing coherence and depth to our faith.

Building a faithful presence requires that our leaders care more about discipleship than fighting the culture war or gaining political power. Christ followers today have faith but lack a vision for living that is distinct from the larger post-Christian culture. For Hunter, “A theology of faithful presence means a recognition that the vocation of the church is to bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God.”{8} Hunter realizes that the New Heavens and New Earth will be God’s restoring work, but by honoring God through our relationships and our tasks we will taste something of His kingdom now.

Summary

In this article we have considered three stimulating and passionate books, Radical by David Platt, The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons and To Change the World by James Hunter and have been left with three overlapping pictures of what it means to be a Christ follower in the current American culture. Is the Christian life about being a radical, being as counter-cultural as possible? Is it restoring the world to a pre-fall condition? Or is it as simple as being a disciple maker?

The apostle Paul certainly lived a radical lifestyle, but he was limited by a couple of parameters. Paul talks about being free from the expectations of men and yet careful not to give offense in any way that might hinder the gospel.{9} He was culturally sensitive enough to know what actions or words might keep people from hearing the good news. He said that he became all things to all men so that some might be saved. He conformed to the culture enough to communicate the transcendent truth about Jesus.

Paul says very little about reforming Roman society, the government, commerce, or education. He seems to be much more concerned about the culture within the church than he does the culture at large. He writes, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?”{10} His desire was for Christ followers to live out the “one another” passages that fill the New Testament. To be loving, encouraging, building up, and bearing with one another in a way that will draw outsiders to the gospel.

What about Gabe Lyons’ strong emphasis on restoration? In my mind the issue is one of priorities. Most Christians would like to see their efforts result in some degree of healing and restoration in our society. But is healing and restoration of America our first priority? This might be true if one holds the view that Christians must take over society prior to Christ’s return, as do some postmillenialists. But for those who believe that Christ will return as a conquering king to a world in rebellion, there is no expectation or responsibility for Christians to restore the planet. These differing positions show, once again, the relevance of theology to everyday life.

International speaker and author Os Guinness describes clearly our first priority as believers. He writes, “All that we do must be first and last for Christ and His kingdom, not for America, or the West, or democracy, or whatever. The ‘first things’ must be first again, and everything else must be viewed only a bonus or a by-product, and not our prime concern.”{11} Since God has chosen to build his kingdom through the church, it is Christ’s church that should receive our primary efforts.

Notes

1. David Platt, Radical (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2010) pg. 3.
2. Ibid., pg. 12.
3. Ibid., pg. 3.
4. Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians (New York: Doubleday, 2010) pg. 11.
5. Ibid., pg. 47.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., pg. 60.
8. James Hunter, To Change the World, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), pg. 95.
9. 2 Corinthians 6:3.
10. 1 Corinthians 5:12.
11. Os Guinness “Os Guinness Calls for a New Christian Renaissance,” Christian Post, www.christianpost.com/news/51309/

© 2011 Probe Ministries




Tactics for an Ambassador: Defending the Christian Faith

Most Christians equate evangelism with conflict: an all-out assault on the beliefs and values of others. In our relativistic, live-and-let-live culture, even the most motivated believer feels like he’s committing a crime by entering into a spiritual discussion. Are there ways to take the anxiety out of evangelism?

The idea of doing Christian apologetics, a fancy word for defending the Christian faith, has lost some luster among church goers. The word conjures up images of conflict, anxiety, and even anger. But most of all, it generates thoughts of inadequacy and lack of confidence among those called to “give an answer” (1 Pet. 3:15) for the hope we have in Christ. Most people are trying to avoid conflict and the emotional fatigue that comes with defending a controversial set of beliefs that are often ridiculed in our culture.

download-podcast We live in an era that values diversity and tolerance above all other virtues. Anyone claiming to have true knowledge about important things like the nature of God, good and evil, or the purpose of human existence will be accused of intolerance and a mean spirited attempt to impose their beliefs on their neighbors. You are allowed to believe almost anything today, as long as you don’t claim that it is true in any universal sense.

Part of the reason that Christians in American churches do so little evangelism is that they are convinced that it constitutes a spiritual invasion, an attack on the beliefs of a friend or neighbor who will resist this apologetic assault with everything he or she has to offer. They also believe that they will have failed miserably unless every encounter ends with someone trusting in Christ. It’s either total victory or utter defeat, and there are no innocent bystanders.

Tactics by Greg KouklGregory Koukl’s book Tactics helps to give Christians the right perspective on evangelism and apologetics.{1} He argues that the D-day invasion model for evangelism is counterproductive, and that seeing oneself as an ambassador for Christ makes more sense. We need fewer frontal assaults and more embassy meetings. The skills necessary to be a successful ambassador are quite different from those of an infantryman. Persuasion rather than conquest motivate the ambassador, and one’s style of communication can be as important as the content being conveyed.

According to Koukl, an effective ambassador for Christ must master three skill-sets. First, a Christian ambassador should possess a clear understanding of the message being offered by his sovereign King. Second, he needs to exhibit a personal character that reinforces the message he’s been charged with, not distract from it. Finally, an ambassador needs sufficient wisdom to know how to communicate his message in a manner that draws people into dialogue and then to keep the conversation going. This kind of wisdom translates into specific tactics for communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ to a culture that has been preconditioned against the message.

Why Do We Need Tactics?

In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul says that we are Christ’s ambassadors and that God has entrusted us with a message of reconciliation to a lost world (2 Cor. 5:20). But, although we have good news to share, Christians often don’t feel capable or confident to share it.

Being tactical has to do with the way one arranges his or her resources. The effective tactician knows when to be aggressive and when to hold back and gather information. Commanders on a battlefield don’t unleash every weapon available at the beginning of a conflict, nor do ambassadors immediately unveil all of their arguments.

Apologists know that one of their most important tactics is the well placed question. Picking up important personal information about someone’s background and worldview provides critical insight into the best way to steer the conversation. The ability to ask good questions, combined with good listening skills, helps to avoid stereotyping people in ways that can cause the conversation to end suddenly. It also shows that you care about someone as an individual, not just as, for example, a Mormon or a Muslim. Even when someone labels oneself, let’s say as a Hindu, it’s important to discover what that term means to them. Hinduism contains a wide variety of possible beliefs and it would be counterproductive to argue against something that this person doesn’t adhere to. As you can imagine, being a good listener and shaping your comments to fit the individual will most likely have a greater impact on them than just memorizing a tract and delivering it regardless of the setting.

Employing wise tactics implies a thoughtful rather than emotional approach to conversations. Emotions can quickly get the best of us, especially if we are unprepared to respond to the questions and challenges that we may encounter. Good planning helps us to accomplish our goal of guiding people to the truth about Jesus. It can also help us to avoid provoking someone to anger. Once people get angry they rarely hear our defense of the gospel. It’s even worse if we get angry.

Some might respond to this call for wise tactics in sharing Christ by saying that you cannot argue someone into heaven. I would respond that you cannot love someone into heaven either. Neither arguments, or love, or a simple telling of the gospel alone will win someone to heaven. Only the Holy Spirit can change someone’s heart, but it doesn’t follow that God doesn’t use these methods to build His kingdom.

Becoming Sherlock Holmes

Sometimes we Christians are tempted to dump our entire theological systems on anyone willing stay put long enough to listen. This doctrinal dump might be a light load for some but a train load for others. The problem is that we are often trying to answer questions that people haven’t even thought up yet and we can add confusion and distractions to the gospel message without even being aware of it. How can we avoid making this mistake?

When we sense that a conversation is headed toward spiritual territory, perhaps our first inclination should be to ask good questions so that we better understand the person we desire to share Christ with. Good questions protect us from jumping to conclusions and to deal with the actual beliefs a person holds rather than some straw man position that we might prefer to attack. They also have the tendency to naturally promote further dialogue and shape the discussion.

Once a person makes a statement regarding what they believe to be true, good questions can be particularly helpful. If someone tells you that it is irrational to believe in God because there is no proof that He exists, you now have an opportunity to ask key questions that will make your eventual responses far more effective. The first category of questions seeks further information and clarification. For instance, you might ask “What do you mean by God?” or “What evidence would you count as proof towards His existence?” You might ask if he knows anyone who believes in God and whether or not they might have good reasons for doing so. Asking someone how they arrived at a conclusion or how they know something to be the case helps to differentiate between simple assertions of belief and reasons for holding that belief. People often make statements of belief without much forethought, and when challenged they find that they have little more than an emotional attachment to their view.

Don’t panic if you run into someone who is prepared to defend his or her views. Even if they have an extensive argument supporting their position, good questions can get you out of the hot seat and provide time to build a stronger case for your next encounter. You might ask them to slow down and present their case in detail so that you can understand it better. You can also tell them that you want time to consider their position and will get back to them with a response. Giving someone the podium to clearly present their beliefs is usually well received. Listen carefully to what is said and then do your homework.

Suicidal Arguments

One of the more interesting parts of Tactics are Koukl’s chapters on ideas that commit suicide. These are commonly called self-refuting ideas or ideas that defeat themselves. A fancier description is that they are self-referentially incoherent. It doesn’t take long to encounter one of these arguments when talking to people about religion.

A simple example of a suicidal view is expressed by the comment, “There is no truth,” or the more humble version, “It is impossible to know something that is true for everyone, everywhere.” This statement fails its own criteria for validity by denying universal truth claims and then making a truth claim implied to be universal. If what the statement professes is true, then it is false. It commits suicide because it violates the law of non-contradiction which prohibits something from being both true and false at the same time.

Christians who are highly influenced by a postmodern view of truth often make self-defeating arguments as well. Koukl gives the example of a teacher in a Christian college classroom asking her students if they are God. When no hands went up she proclaimed that since they are not God they only have access to truth with a small t; only God knows Truth with a capital T. The implication is that small t truth is personal and limited. A student might ask the teacher if what she just offered is truth with a small t; if so, why should the students accept the teacher’s limited personal view of reality over the student’s perceptions?

Another argument that’s quite popular and self-defeating is, “People should never impose their values on someone else.” A quick response might be, “Does that express your values?” Of course it does. Then ask the person why he is imposing his values on you. His statement violates the criteria of validity that it tries to establish.

Even comments that seem to make sense at first suffer from suicidal tendencies. For instance, some have argued that since men wrote the Bible, and given that people are imperfect, the Bible is flawed and not inspired by God. The problem is that although people are imperfect it does not follow that everything they say or write is flawed. In fact, if everything a human says or writes is flawed, then this comment about the Bible is flawed. Just because people are capable of error, it doesn’t mean that they will always commit error.

Helping people to see that their truth claims might be contradictory must be done gently. The point is not to merely defeat their position, but to help them to become open to other ways of thinking about an issue. It is in this context of gentle persuasion that the Holy Spirit can change a heart.

Sharpening Your Skills

The list of self-defeating truth claims can get rather long. For instance, it is common to hear people say something like “science is the only source for truth.” The problem with this statement is that it is not scientific. There are no scientific experiments that one can perform which establish that science is the only source of truth. It is a self-defeating statement.

It is also quite popular to assume that all religions are basically the same and equally true. If this is the case, then Christianity is true. However, a basic teaching of Christianity is that the core teachings of other religions are false and that Jesus is the only source of salvation. Again, the statement defeats itself.

Ideas that commit practical suicide include the notion that it’s wrong to ever condemn someone, and that God doesn’t take sides. The first comment is a condemnation of all who condemn others. The second assumes that God is on their side, even though God doesn’t take sides. If you think through these ideas you can be ready to gently point out their self-contradictory nature and move on to subjects more profitable.

When dealing with difficult ethical issues like abortion or homosexuality, it is always helpful to have a preplanned set of tactics. Koukl gives the example of a Christian who is asked his views about homosexuality by a lesbian boss. He begins his response by asking if the boss is tolerant of diverse points of view. Does she respect convictions different from her own? Of course, true tolerance means putting up with someone you disagree with. Since very few people want to label themselves as intolerant, they will usually affirm their support of the practice, protecting you from being attacked for giving your viewpoint.

Gregory Koukl’s book contains many more great ideas about responding to attacks on Christian belief. At the end of the book he leaves us with what he calls the ambassador’s creed. An ambassador should be ready to represent Christ. He should be patient with those who disagree. He should be reasonable in his defense. And, finally, he should be tactical, adapting his approach to each unique person that God brings into his path. Our wise use of tactics should improve the “acoustics” in a conversation so that people can hear the gospel well.

Note

1. Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).

© 2011 Probe Ministries




“You Shouldn’t Dis the Mormons Unless You’re a Member”


I think religion is great! I don’t however see why we have to dis other people. We are all children of God and here trying to get back to Him. I hate it when I see all these sites talking bad about the Mormons. They aren’t bad people, they just believe a little different. I think it’s kinda cool the things they do, like work in their temples for people that have passed on. In the Bible it says that we need to be baptized to enter into heaven and what if someone didn’t get the chance, they can still be saved because of the Mormons beliefs. It also talks about baptisms for the dead in Peter, so it is scriptural. I also had a thought. Are you guys Active Members in Full Fellowship of the Mormon Church? If not why are you talking about the Mormons? It’s like this, If you have a Ford Explorer and it has a very serious electrical problem that requires specific dealer attention, are you going to take it to a BMW Dealer…. I personally don’t feel that is very Christ-like talking bad about other religions whomever it may be. Why don’t we focus on our own churches and magnify our own beliefs and our own salvation [rather] than attack other religions that are trying to do good acording to what they know. Why can’t we all just love our neighbors like Jesus Christ says? Whata ya say.

We certainly aspire to love our neighbors as Jesus commanded. But being loving and gracious does not exclude truth telling. In fact, ignoring the issue of truth is not very loving at all. If we believe that someone is in danger it would be cruel not to inform them. Certainly, we are to do this with gentleness and respect as Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:15-16, but we are still responsible for sharing the truth in love. Jesus warned that there would be false prophets, and that they would be dangerous (see passages below). The danger is that people might be deceived into trusting a gospel that is not capable of saving them. The price for being deceived is steep: spending eternity separated from God.

Actually it is the Mormons who first charged that all of traditional Christianity is apostate. The message that Joseph Smith supposedly received from the divine figures in his first vision is that all the denominations and teachers at that time were an abomination to God. Mormons claim that they are restoring the true gospel that was lost a short time after Christ. There is a long tradition within Christianity, going back to the first generation after the birth of the church, to defend itself against new gospels and new messiahs. Defending biblical Christianity against the claims of Mormonism is the responsibility of everyone who claims the Christ of the Bible as their savior.

Although tolerance has come to mean that we are to hold all ideas equal, that is not what the word means. To tolerate someone you must first disagree with them, otherwise there would be no need to be tolerant. A tolerant individual gives someone he disagrees with an opportunity to make their case, to convince them that their view is correct. After meeting with Mormon bishops for over four years I feel that I have been tolerant and will continue to do so in the future.

Sincerely,

Don Closson

False Prophets – Matthew 7:15-23 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

False Christs – Matthew 24:5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.

False Gospels – Galatians 1:8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!

False Gods – Exodus 20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me.”

© 2010 Probe Ministries




American Education: The Hundred Years War

On its surface, the process of educating our children appears to be fairly straightforward. First, you must determine what kind of person you want to produce at the end of their formal schooling. In other words, decide what it means to be an educated person. Then, you establish what knowledge and attitudes will accomplish this goal. Next, hire an administrator who has the ability to pull together all the necessary components; someone who knows the best, scientifically verified, teaching techniques and the best optimum environment for implementation. Finally, give the principal or headmaster the authority to hire gifted teachers who can successfully do the job or to fire teachers who cannot. There’s only one problem with this simple formula: educators disagree on how to complete every one of these steps. To make matters worse, education is one of the most expensive responsibilities that our government fulfills.

In the last forty years, spending in the U.S. on K–12 education has more than doubled. In 1970 it was $221 billion; by 2008 it rose to $556 billion in constant dollars.{1} During that forty year period, enrollment has changed very little, rising from about fifty–one million to fifty–three million students. So essentially, spending today is twice the amount we spent in 1970 on about the same number of students. Naturally, one would expect to see significant gains in learning for that money. However according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress Scores, not much has changed. For the last forty years scores have remained flat. Reading scores for seventeen–year–olds have remained at 285 out of 500, and mathematics scores went from 300 to 306, a minor improvement.{2}

Many argue that the reason we are not making progress in our schools is that we are using the wrong playbook. Because our educational leaders have bought into a philosophy of education based on a faulty view of human nature, they have endorsed techniques in the classroom that have marginal impact at best. This situation has not gone on without being contested. Historians of education point to a struggle going back to the beginning of the twentieth century between two factions that have very different ideas about what it means to be human and what the goal of education should be. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that there has been a century–long struggle between two distinct ways of thinking about how to educate our children.

In what follows we will look at the opposing worldviews of these two education camps and consider how their struggles have impacted our children. Join us as we look at the effect of what might be called the Hundred Years War in American education.

Progressive Orthodoxy

Education historian Diane Ravitch argues that at the end of the nineteenth century, America was facing two possible educational paths. One path led to an academic curriculum consisting of history, literature, science and mathematics, language, and the arts for all high school students. The other path endorsed a vocational emphasis for most, and an academic training only for a few.

Criticism of the academic curriculum came from pragmatic business leaders and faculty members of our newly formed colleges of education that had recently sprung up across the nation. These so–called “progressive” educators felt that schools should be focused on the needs of society and students rather than centered on the traditional content of an academic curriculum. This emphasis on making school more practical and student–centered reflects the thoughts and writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau is considered by many to be one of the most influential thinkers on educational philosophy in Western culture. His book Emile, written in 1762, offered an extremely child–centered educational method in response to the traditional content–focused curriculum of the day.

Rousseau’s educational methods sprung from his faith in a particular worldview. One critical aspect of this worldview is that Rousseau believed that humans are “good” and that they naturally worship their Creator.{3} He also argued that all we need to know about God can be learned from nature; any other source, including the Bible, would be seeking man’s opinion and authority which always turns out to be destructive. Rousseau thanked God for making him free, good, and happy like God himself.{4} Regarding education, it’s not surprising that Rousseau valued freedom above all else. He wrote, “The truly free man wants only what he can do and does what he pleases. That is my fundamental maxim. It need only be applied to childhood for the rules of education to flow from it.”{5}

The result of Rousseau’s worldview is predictable. The child, rather than his teacher, knows best how to learn and what to learn. This student–centered approach leads Rousseau to a strong opinion about books and reading. He brags that, “At twelve, Emile will hardly know what a book is.” He adds, “I hate books, they only teach one to talk about what one does not know.”{6} His Emile will learn from life itself but only when the need for such learning comes from within.

For Rousseau, natural man is always superior to civil man and love of oneself is always good. This focus on freedom and student centered learning would influence educators for centuries and would find a warm reception in the minds of American educators in the progressive education movement.

Rousseau’s Disciples

It’s ironic that the most prestigious college of education in America, Teachers College at Columbia University, began as the Kitchen Garden Association in 1880 with the goal of training young girls to work as cooks and housemaids. Later, carpentry was added to attract boys and, as a result, the name was changed to the Industrial Education Association. In 1887 it was renamed the New York College for the Training of Teachers, and five years later just Teachers College. The opening of Teachers College marked the birth of the progressive education movement in America.

If Teachers College was the birthplace of progressive education, John Dewey was its father. Dewey was probably the most influential of all American philosophers and had an immense effect on how we think about education as a nation. He saw schools as a tool for social reform, and the goal of this reform was to replace Christianity with a new secular religion of democracy. To accomplish this goal, schools should turn from the traditional curriculum that encouraged abstract thinking and handing down the best ideas of Western Civilization, and instead base their activities on the needs and experiences of children in the home and community. Children should study problems and processes that mean something to them. Shop work, sewing, and cooking were a greater need than ancient languages, mathematics, history, or theology. As a result, books were downplayed and projects centering on vocational training become the mainstay of many public schools.

While Dewey saw the value of maintaining some of the traditional academic content, some of his disciples worked to have it removed completely. William Heard Kilpatrick took the mantle of leadership for the progressive education movement from Dewey as an immensely popular professor at Teachers College. His 1925 book Foundations of Method described an educational philosophy that, to this day, still controls much of American education. It argued that we should simply teach children—to be child–centered, not subject–centered—because knowledge is changing so quickly and today’s subjects will be of no use tomorrow. It celebrated whole–language over phonics and critical thinking over rote learning, tests, and even report cards. His first opportunity to design an experimental class resulted in no set curriculum, no assigned reading, math or spelling work, and no tests.

Augustine and the Academic Tradition

For the last hundred years, the progressive education movement has promoted a child–centered curriculum as a necessary remedy against a dying books–and–content–centered form of schooling. This old order was often referred to as a “liberal education” or possibly the “academic tradition.” Which worldview undergirds this academic tradition in schooling?

Progressives and traditionalists have very different views of human nature. Rousseau and the progressives argue that humans are created happy, free, and good while traditionalists see things more like the fourth century Christian Augustine of Hippo. Augustine believed that all humans are born with a sin nature and a tendency to do evil. There is a famous passage in his Confessions in which he describes an incident in his youth where he and his friends stole and destroyed fruit from a nearby orchard because, as he writes, “I became evil for no reason. The only motive I had for this wickedness was the wickedness itself. It was disgusting, but I loved it.”{7}

Augustine believed that wisdom did not come from within our fallen natures, but came from God and knowledge of his word. He argued that “we should be led by the fear of God to seek the knowledge of His will . . . it is necessary to have our hearts subdued by piety, and not run in the face of Holy Scripture.”{8} While Augustine depended on God as a source for wisdom, he acknowledged that teachers need to use good methods if they are going to shape the minds and hearts of their students. He asked the rhetorical question, Should the wicked “tell their falsehoods briefly, clearly and plausibly, while the latter [believers] tell the truth in such a way that it is tedious to listen to, hard to understand, and . . . not easy to believe it?”{9}

Augustine and those who followed in his tradition down though the centuries believed that children must be trained in the beliefs and disciplines that made for a civilized society. Not just any information or content would do. A truly educated person would receive a foundation of theological training that would inform all the other disciplines. The first universities in the eleventh and twelfth centuries continued to see theology as the queen of the sciences. Although theology was still center stage through the Renaissance and the Reformation, it was removed from its throne during the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The progressive education movement’s efforts to reduce the influence of Christianity on schooling in America have been successful. During the 1960s and 70s the Supreme Court issued ruling after ruling that resulted in the secularization of our public schools. Parents would have to look elsewhere to have their children instructed in a Christian environment.

Why Does This Matter?

Even the progressive education leader John Dewey understood the need to transmit the best of one’s culture to the next generation through the process of education. He wrote, “Unless pains are taken to see that genuine and thorough transmission takes place, the most civilized group will relapse into barbarism and then into savagery.”{10} Dewey and his disciples planned to use this transmission process to change our culture dramatically.

Dewey’s goal was to change the worldview upon which educational philosophy in America was grounded. He was convinced that the only intellectually responsible philosophy was a naturalistic one. This meant that education, ethics, politics, and life itself should be devoid of any hope in, or influence from, supernatural beliefs. As a result, he worked to replace America’s faith in Christianity with faith in democracy, which he referred to as a religious belief. Revelation and religious authority would be replaced with the scientific method and this new faith in democracy.

Dewey was instrumental in breaking the connection to our past as a society. His followers took his lead, offering an even more radical break from the academic tradition. For instance William Heard Kilpatrick, a mathematician, argued that mathematics is “harmful” for ordinary living, and that dancing, dramatics, and doll playing offered more potential for educational growth.{11}

At the end of WWII, progressive ideology reigned supreme in American education. But even though the battle over educational philosophy had been won, its implementation would constantly be challenged. The Russian satellite Sputnik in the 1950s caused a temporary panic and a short lived re–emphasis on science and mathematics. But by then, the enrollment in science had already declined precipitously. For instance, fewer than five percent of high school students took physics in 1955, down from nearly twenty percent in 1900.{12}

By the late sixties, only the lucky few who scored well on IQ tests received an academic high school curriculum, and our universities had begun to give in to student demands for relevancy by gutting the required curriculum and adding less challenging, highly politicized programs like women’s studies, Black studies, and peace studies. To some, it appeared as if adult supervision had disappeared from our university campuses.

In recent decades, parents have resorted to homeschooling and private schools in search of rigorous academics for their children. Others have pushed for charter schools and voucher programs to re–inject greater rigor in the public schools. But it appears that the hundred years war over educational philosophy will continue well into the future.

Notes

1. U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis, www.bea.gov.
2. NAEP Data Explorer, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Eduation Institute of Education Sciences, nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata.
3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education, trans. Alan Bloom (Basic Books, 1979), 278.
4. Ibid., 281.
5. Ibid., 84.
6. Ibid., 116.
7. Augustine, Confessions 2.4.9.
8. D. Bruce Lockerbie, A Passion For Learning (Moody Press, 1994), 78.
9. Ibid., 80.
10. E. D. Hirsch, The Schools We Need, 120.
11. Diane Ravitch, Left Back (Simon & Schuster, 2000), 181.
12. Ibid., 350.

© 2010 Probe Ministries




“I Am Offended by Your Biased Article About Islam”

I have just read your article titled “Islam and the Sword.” What is very obvious is that there is A LOT of bias and misinformation in your article about Islam, Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), etc. It is very offending and I want you to neutralize your article completely. Objectivity is important if you want to be considered a credible writer and it is clear you are not at all.

You wrote, “Although considered only human, one Muslim writer describes Muhammad as “[T]he best model for man in piety and perfection. He is a living proof of what man can be and of what he can accomplish in the realm of excellence and virtue. . . .”{4} So it is important to note that Muhammad believed that violence is a natural part of Islam.” Where is the logic in this??? Especially in the last sentence. How did you move from saying that Prophet Mohammad, the best of all human beings, embodies perfection and virtue and then say he believed violence was an integral part of Islam? Where are your references? The verses that you took out of context? Any decent person is aware that no religion condones violence or bloodshed and I am telling you Islam is not an exception.

The Badr incident did not occur the way you wrongfully relate it. What you say about jihad and the Holy Prophet’s life is ridiculous and immature. I should not and will not justify that Islam is a peaceful religion and loves the other monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam). Rather, I am asking you to thoroughly research your ideas before publishing them on the web site, which needs to be cleaned from bias and misinformation.

Thank you for taking the time to express your views regarding my essay on Islam and the sword. I am sorry that you believe my information to be in error. I would be interested in your description of the Badr incident. The Oxford History of Islam describes it as one of a number of raids launched against Meccan caravans in order to seize booty and hostages. I would assume that this was accomplished violently rather than peacefully. I am under the impression that Muhammad’s depiction as a warrior and political leader is not very controversial.

My point regarding the life of Muhammad and the model he represents is simple. If Muhammad is to be considered the ultimate model within Islam for human behavior, and if he used violence as a tool to further Islam, then violence is a natural part of Islam.

The idea that no religion condones violence is just not the case. The Norse gods of Germania and Scandinavia worshipped Odin, the god of war. Human sacrifice was a central feature of the Aztec religion in Central America. Religion has been used to condone warfare and violence.

I doubt that anyone writes on history or religion without a bias. But, I do feel that accuracy is important.

Sincerely,

Don Closson

© 2010 Probe Ministries




“What is the Relationship Between Worldview and Salvation?”

Dear Don,

1) What is the relationship between worldview and salvation? Can you have a predominantly non-Christian worldview and yet accept Christ as your savior? Likewise, can you have a perfectly accurate Christian worldview (perhaps like the demons who shudder) and yet not be saved?

2) What is the relationship between worldview and Christian maturity? How much “accurate Christian worldview” is needed in order to mature as a believer in Christ? Conversely, is there any indication that an increase of worldview data brings about Christian maturity (e.g. fruit of the spirit, characteristics of elders, etc.)?

A quick answer to question 1) is yes and yes. People often come to Christ with a less than biblical worldview. Hopefully they don’t stay there. Fortunately, we aren’t the judge of how much information is necessary for salvation. If someone claims that they have placed their trust in Christ’s work on the cross, God judges the adequacy of their faith. However, we are told to measure someone’s maturity when leadership in the church is the issue.

The issue of having correct knowledge but not being saved is a real problem. Traditionally, faith has been described as having three components.

a) Faith as Knowledge (notitia — Latin, literally: knowledge, from notus, known) Jude 3 “ . . . I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Consists of the propositions or content of the Christian faith. Knowledge is a necessary ingredient to having faith.

b) Faith as Assent (assensus — assent, agreement, belief; approval, approbation, applause) This aspect of faith goes beyond simple knowledge to being in agreement with or accepting the truth of Christian teaching.

c) Faith as Commitment (fiducia — trust, confidence, faith, reliance) In the case of Christianity, it is commitment to both truth claims and to the person of Jesus Christ as indicated by the way one lives his or her life. Christians may experience different levels of confidence in specific truth claims.

Merely having the knowledge of Christ’s saving work is insufficient for salvation.

Regarding your second question, you might want to look at Barna’s book Think Like Jesus. It makes the argument that living a life of righteousness depends upon having a worldview similar to that of Christ. Both Romans 12:2 and the verse below seem to imply that knowledge and the renewing of the mind are important components of living a righteous life.

Philippians 1:9-11 “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.”

Don Closson

© 2010 Probe Ministries




Teaching at Word of Life in Romania & Hungary

Editor’s Note: The vision of Probe Ministries—to free 50 million captives and build them into confident ambassadors for Christ by 2020—promises to involve some 20 million believers overseas. Trips by Probe staff members near the time of this writing include destinations like Burundi, the Philippines, Belarus and—the topic of this report featuring Don and Deanne Closson, two of our staff veterans—Hungary and Romania. We hope you’ll feel you have an insider’s view of helping people think biblically and prepare to pass on a Christian worldview.

One of the things I enjoy about working at Probe is our tradition of partnering with churches and other ministry organizations. An example is Probe’s partnership with Word of Life Fellowship (WOL) both here in the U.S. and overseas. The relationship began when our National Director Kerby Anderson taught at WOL in New York, and later at some of their international campuses. Additional Probe staff members began teaching other courses. In January, 2010, my wife Deanne and I had the privilege of traveling to WOL schools in Romania and Hungary.

Word of Life Leaders Alin and Iuliana MunteanActually, our invitation to Romania came about during our first trip to Hungary in 2008. Deanne and I became friends with students Alin and Iuliana Muntean and their 4–year–old daughter, Ruthie. Alin and Iuliana were mature beyond their years, serious students, and active evangelists in the various WOL outreaches. When we let them know that we were returning to Hungary this year, they invited us to Romania to teach as well! WOL Bible Training and Discipleship Center is only two years old but already has fourteen students. Needless to say, we were thrilled to accept their invitation.

Word of Life Romania dormOur four–day stay in Romania was a busy one. My class was made up of seven second–year students. I taught five hours a day on Apologetics and Worldviews as well as a one hour chapel that challenged our very capable translator, Wanna. She had an amazing ability to translate difficult abstract ideas from English into Romanian. Her skills became evident as the students asked pertinent questions that demonstrated their grasp of the topics. They were eager to receive the apologetics information on the reliability of the Bible, the deity of Christ, answers to the problem of evil and other topics. I also spent one evening helping them to think through a response to the local Jehovah’s Witnesses whom most had encountered. It was a lively discussion particularly when they realized they now have biblical answers to those false claims. Deanne sat in on the classes to interact with the students too. She prayed with the girls during a devotion and is continuing friendships with them via email.

Word of Life Romania Students with Don Closson of Probe (left)

Although we only had a few days to spend with Alin and his family, we sensed the considerable burden they were carrying as temporary leaders of the ministry. The director of WOL Romania is in the U.S. until May on a fundraising trip, leaving Alin and Iuliana in charge. Alin was not only overseeing the large building project but was also teaching classes, leading the other staff members, and serving with the various ministry outreaches into the local community. Munteans' new home at Word of Life Hungary
Word of Life Leaders Alin and Iuliana Muntean's home in Hungary On top of that, Alin, Iuliana, and Ruthie (now almost seven) live humbly in two of the small student dorm rooms because there isn’t enough money yet to finish the construction of their WOL house (shown here). We were touched by Alin’s love for the Lord, his family, and a desire to maintain a healthy team atmosphere in light of a demanding work schedule. Please join us in praying for this new outpost for the gospel in Romania and for Alin, Iuliana, and little Ruthie as they depend on God for their needs.

As Iuliana wrote in a recent email:

Thank you so much for praying for us. We need it so much! Thank you for your sensitivity for us and the students as well. God is faithful and will do even more we can ask or think. Thank you for your care!

From Bucharest we were on to Budapest. Fog made it impossible to land in Budapest or at a secondary airport so we circled back to our starting point and the airline put us up in a nice hotel. One benefit to our detour was getting to know Andrassy, a 29–year–old Romanian businessman who lives in Budapest who translated for us. When he found out that I was teaching apologetics at a Bible institute in Budapest, he mentioned that he had grown up going to Bible camps similar to those of WOL. Andrassy told us that he was recently engaged to be married and had yet to find a church to attend in Budapest. We offered to ask our friends in Hungary for recommendations and to send them to him, which we did.

Don Closson teaches at Word of Life HungaryOur time in Hungary was also extremely rewarding. I had thirty students from nine different countries for a course on the cults covering the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, Kabala, the Unification Church, and others. Thanks to the expertise of our translator Chris, the students seemed to enjoy the class and always had great questions. In an hour–long chapel I offered a response to the accusations by the so–called “New Atheists” that there is not enough evidence for God’s existence and that religion is the major source of wars in the world. I could tell that this information was new to the students. Afterwards, one student asked if he could meet with me. We ended up discussing for hours a variety of topics over two separate days. Since his list of questions about the Bible and Christianity was long, I agreed to work through the ones we didn’t cover and email my replies to him. It was encouraging to me that this young man is serious enough about his faith that he wants answers to important questions.

The Castle (Word of Life Hungary)The WOL ministry in Hungary is having a significant impact both in the Bible Institute and with evangelistic teams. While we were there, a team was invited to present a drama in Czech schools. Eleven boys met with one of the WOL staff members to talk about Christ after seeing the play, “Born to a Living Hope.” WOL is very serious about evangelism and has effective tools to share Christ in schools, prisons, and in open–air settings. The ministry also has ambitious plans for the 100–year–old historic structure on their property. They have just rebuilt the roof of the building and hope to build new classroom and office space on the third floor.

Our time in Romania and Hungary was a great blessing. Now that we are home, I am meeting with a young man studying as an intern with Probe. I met John Nienaber, an Indiana native, when he was a student at WOL Hungary in 2008. He caught the “apologetics bug” and has wanted to learn more ever since. Inside The Castle at Word of Life, Budapest, Hungary
John, former student at Word of Life, now interning under Don Closson of Probe WOL has ministry in sixty countries around the world and certainly could benefit from our prayers and support. Please pray for Alin and Iuliana Muntean in Romania as well as their students and staff. Pray too for Director Alex Konya, the students, and the rest of the staff in Toalmas, Hungary, that they will be able to continue their renovations for improved classrooms and as they witness to those in the surrounding eastern European nations. Pray for John Nienaber as he gains new tools for his apologetics toolbelt. Finally, pray for the Probe staff (Pat Zukeran was in Hungary last November and Michael Gleghorn taught  there in March) as we link arms with partners such as Word of Life and other great ministries.

© 2010 Probe Ministries




A President’s Educational Choice

An Important Choice

With each presidential election Americans are called to reflect upon public policy, ranging from military funding to education reform. Once the new president is chosen, everyone looks for evidence that he will move the federal bureaucracy in a direction favorable to their own agenda.

When it comes to education, President Obama has been difficult to figure out. In early speeches he seemed to favor dramatic reform. During the campaign he said:

We need a new vision for a 21st century education – one where we aren’t just supporting existing schools, but spurring innovation; where we’re not just investing more money, but demanding more reform; where parents take responsibility for their children’s success; where our schools and government are accountable for results; where we’re recruiting, retaining, and rewarding an army of new teachers, and students are excited to learn because they’re attending schools of the future; and where we expect all our children not only to graduate high school, but to graduate college and get a good paying job.{1}

Later, Obama appeared to move closer to those who already hold sway over how our schools operate, especially the teachers unions. An indication of this trend was the sound of relief voiced by Marty Hittelman, president of the California Federation of Teachers, who said, “It’s such a clear change from what we’ve had. . . . Someone who’s friendly to labor. . . . Someone who wants to work with teachers.”{2} Obama has also signaled encouragement to the unions by appointing a teacher-friendly Stanford University professor to lead his education transition team.

But sometimes personal action speaks louder than political appointments. Our new president has decided to send his two children, Malia Anne and Natasha, to a well known private school in Washington, D.C. The Obama children will attend Sidwell Friends School, a private Quaker affiliated school that charges $29,000 a year per student. Some are criticizing the Obama family for not supporting the local public schools. As a supporter of educational freedom, and choice, I personally have no problem with the president choosing the best educational setting for his children. I would do the same.

What interests me is what this choice says about President Obama’s thoughts regarding educational excellence. Sidwell Friends School violates key principles that the teachers unions and other public school supporters tell us are necessary elements for excellent schools, programs and policies that reformers insist taxpayers should be providing for every student in America.

Ensuring an adequate education for all of our children is a matter of justice that Christians should be concerned about. In what follows I will look at these so-called educational necessities the teachers unions and other public school supporters demand.

What Sidwell Needs

President Obama’s decision to place his daughters in Sidwell reveals something about what he thinks it takes to provide a superior education. Choosing this expensive private school raises interesting questions about President Obama’s support of what might be called the “common wisdom” that public school leaders and teachers unions tell us is necessary for good schools.

Much of the following was brought to my attention by Mike Antonucci who writes a monthly newsletter for those who are concerned about education in America and particularly the role that the unions play in shaping it. Antonucci points out six areas in which the Sidwell School might be seen as deficient by our leading reformers and especially by the teachers unions.

According to the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, the first deficiency at Sidwell is obvious. On its web site the NEA argues that “the attainment and exercise of collective bargaining rights are essential to the promotion of education employee and student needs in society.”{3} In other words, the school simply must be unionized. How can Sidwell School hope to effectively educate students without a collective bargaining agreement? It boggles the mind to think that they can educate President Obama’s children without such necessities as union agency fees, binding arbitration, grievance procedures, and most important, teachers strikes!

How can real education occur in the absence of an angry battle between a well financed teachers union and a harried entrenched school administration? Can real learning happen in the absence of endless hours of negotiations over every aspect of the curriculum, the daily schedule, and teacher placement? Doesn’t the president know that a hostile, confrontational working environment actually improves the educational process?

In addition to this remarkable neglect, the Sidwell School forces its teachers to pay between ten and forty percent of their health care insurance premiums, contribute towards their own retirement plan, and almost unbelievably receive only two personal days off per school year. Barbaric! Everyone knows that teachers are only concerned about compensation and benefits and if they do not receive an amount above the median level paid out by other schools of similar size, they simply can’t function. These teachers are obviously being coerced to remain at this school. And to think that some have suggested that the opportunity to work with motivated students and supportive parents in building a strong learning community might be more important than financial rewards.

More Problems with Sidwell

A key ingredient missing from the Sidwell experience will be an appropriate level of diversity. To many, diversity has become the ultimate good in education. Millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to create highly diverse student bodies across the nation. Without a high level of diversity, it’s argued, students will not develop the necessary degree of tolerance, both for people and ideas, needed for our society to prosper or even exist into the future. A diversity deficit might result in the president’s children coming to the frightening conclusion that truth itself isn’t diverse and that perhaps we should not accept all ideas equally.

Although the Sidwell School has a significant level of diversity – thirty-nine percent of the students are part of an ethnic or racial minority group – Washington D. C. public schools are ninety-five percent ethnic and racial minorities. How can the president send his children to a learning environment that is so far behind the level of essential diversity prominent in our capitol’s public schools? If some diversity is good, isn’t more diversity better?

However, this deficit of diversity pales in comparison to the next problem. The Sidwell School is a Quaker institution. It has mandatory weekly worship meetings for all its students, including the president’s children. This practice goes far beyond the legitimate academic objective of learning the history of religious traditions; it requires students to participate in a religious activity.

The official National Education Association’s Web site makes it clear that “encouraging or compelling students to participate in any religious activity, such as prayer, during any type of holiday festivity or classroom activity is forbidden.”{4} Now, if such activity is harmful to our public school students, does it make sense to expose the president’s children to them?

The NEA adds that while students may study various religious expressions and practices, they may do so “as long as schools make sure different faiths are represented in school-wide or classroom activities.”{5} Does Sidwell promote Islamic or Wiccan worship? Is our president setting a good example by allowing his children to be taught in such an intolerant setting?

Sidwell’s Curriculum

Here’s another problem. It appears that Sidwell is kind of old fashioned when it comes to its curriculum. Its Web site says, “We believe that to be effective, education must be founded on secure mastery of basic skills . . . We place strong emphasis on reading, personal expression of ideas through speaking and writing, and the mastery of computational and problem solving skills. We also encourage scientific exploration, artistic creativity, physical activity, second language acquisition.”{6} Basic skills? Mastery learning? Isn’t this a throwback to the education of the nineteenth century?

In the middle school, Sidwell’s history curriculum says that “Each history course is designed to provide students with a sound foundation of knowledge in a given subject area and to develop research, writing and interpretive skills.”{7} To many modern educators, this focus on acquiring information and developing mastery of essential skills is reminiscent of educational policies that have been out of vogue for decades.

Professional educators tend to endorse something called the Progressive Education Movement. This movement emphasized a “naturalistic,” “project-oriented,” “hands-on,” “critical-thinking” curriculum and “democratic” education policies endorsed by the philosopher John Dewey.{8} Beginning early in the twentieth century, educators challenged the emphasis on subject matter and have attempted to replace it with what might be called the “tool” metaphor for learning.

The “tool” metaphor argues that students’ minds shouldn’t be filled with lots of facts, but instead should be taught how to learn. Although various arguments are used to promote this view, the one most often heard goes something like this: “Since knowledge is growing so quickly – in fact it’s exploding – we need to teach kids how to learn, not a bunch of facts that will quickly become outdated.” Education historian Lawrence Cremin writes that our elementary schools have been dominated by this metaphor since the 1960s, and that our secondary schools are not far behind.{9} The result of this monopoly has been a reduction of what might be called “intellectual capital,” an agreed upon set of necessary facts that all well educated people should possess.

The Sidwell School seems to believe that this so called intellectual capital is important. By stressing the acquisition of key information in its curriculum it is revealing a more traditional rather than progressive education. Can this antiquated curriculum possibly prepare the Obama children for the rapid changes of the twenty-first century?

Educational Excellence

It seems, then, that the Sidwell Friends School chosen by the Obama family for their daughters violates many of what is considered to be the “best practices” in the public school sector.

On the other hand, it represents many of the factors that we know make for a superior learning environment. Almost twenty years ago the Brookings Institution published a book that made a powerful argument regarding what makes for an effective school and what doesn’t.{10} The author’s conclusions were really not that surprising. In a nutshell they found that bureaucracy kills, and if public schools are anything they are bureaucratic. In fact, the study argued that private schools are usually more effective simply because they have greater autonomy than public schools.

Exercising this autonomy begins with an educational leader. The role of a private school headmaster is often quite different from the public school equivalent, the principal. The headmaster has much more autonomy in fashioning the educational vision for his school as well as the authority for executing it. This includes shaping the curriculum and hiring and firing teachers based on their effectiveness and support for the school’s program. In the end, private school leaders have much greater power to fashion the kind of educational community they envision than do public school administrators.

Private school leaders also enjoy the freedom to create a disciplined environment necessary for learning to occur. Because parents have freely chosen a private school for their children to attend, they have already bought into the way the school chooses to structure its students’ time and how it deals with distractions to learning. Parents of private school children tend to be much more supportive of the school’s teachers and administrators as a result. This is not to say that private schools always get it right when establishing a disciplined learning environment, but parents always have the option of pulling out if they become disenchanted with the program. This educational choice both empowers private schools and encourages change as well. Parents vote for the programs that work and take their funds elsewhere when they feel the school is not a good fit for their children. Successful schools are rewarded; others are encouraged to change.

Private schools succeed when the headmaster, teachers, parents, and children have worked together to create a learning community. As simple as this sounds, it can be life changing for the students involved. Even students from our most challenging urban environments have benefitted from schools that have been freed from their bureaucratic straitjackets. If we hope to impact our most needy students in this country, we will do so by encouraging policies that increase the autonomy of school leaders and empower parents by giving them the kind of educational choice that President Obama enjoyed when deciding to send his children to the Sidwell Friends School.

Notes

1. Dan Lips and Jennifer A. Marshall, “Transforming and Improving American Education: A Memo to President-elect Obama,” The Heritage Foundation online, December 9, 2008, www.heritage.org/Research/Education/sr32.cfm.
2. Nanette Asimov, “Stanford professor leads Obama education transition team,” SFGate, online home of the San Francisco Chronicle, November 22, 2008, www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/11/21/BANK140G28.DTL.
3. EIA Communiqué, November 24, 2008, www.eiaonline.com/archives/20081124.htm
4. Tim Walker, “Merry…? Happy…?” National Education Association online, www.nea.org/home/15287.htm.
5. Ibid.
6. Sidwell Friends School, Lower School Philosophy, www.sidwell.edu/lower_school/academics.asp.
7. Sidwell Friends School, Departments, www.sidwell.edu/upper_school/departments.asp.
8. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 7.
9 . Ibid., 49.
10. John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, Politics, Markets & America’s Schools (The Brookings Institution, 1990)

© 2009 Probe Ministries




Cross Cultural Apologetics in Uganda

For any speaker, cross-cultural teaching is challenging. So when Pat Zukeran and I were asked to participate in two pastors’ training conferences in Uganda, Africa, my prayer life took on a new urgency. Although the official language of Uganda is English, most of its citizens use one of twenty-nine other languages. Uganda is mostly an agricultural society and is somewhat isolated from the Western media. A majority of the pastors had received only a limited education, and would be fortunate to own a Bible much less have books for a theological library. Pat and I realized we would have to adjust the way we normally present our lessons to incorporate word pictures and stories to help the Ugandan translators effectively communicate our messages with this specialized audience.

However, a more central question was whether or not these pastors felt a need for the kind of apologetics information that Probe usually provides. Did they care about arguments for the authority of Scripture or the deity of Christ? Was maintaining a Christian worldview something they would understand or even be interested in? Would defenses against religious pluralism, Mormonism, and Islam be wanted or deemed unnecessary? I fervently prayed for wisdom and discernment as we made our preparations. Thankfully when it came time to go, I experienced a peace as I stepped out in faith. The Lord was sending us and I was eager to see how He would accomplish His plan for the Ugandan pastors!

Our time in Uganda was split into two one-week conferences. The first conference was near the town of Jinja, not far from the country’s eastern border with Kenya. This town is on the shores of Lake Victoria, near the headwaters of the Nile River. Our actual conference location was a 30 minute van ride to what we later discovered was the first church in Uganda, built in the 1880s by the Anglicans. Most of the attendees were lay pastors in area churches along with a few priests. We later discovered that the Anglican priests were responsible for as many as twenty churches and spent most of their time marrying, baptizing, and burying members. Much of the work of evangelizing and mentoring new believers fell upon the lay workers. As a result, this group of 125 workers was essential to energizing and equipping the Anglican movement in the region.

Pat opened the conference with a great session on the biblical mandate to be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have in Christ. Some of the pastors admitted that they had never really thought about having to defend what they believe. They would share with their neighbors that they believed about Jesus, but they didn’t even think about defending the faith if questions or objections arose. We later discovered that Jinja was the center of Mormon activities in Uganda. The pastors were shocked to hear what Mormons believe concerning the nature of God and specifically the person of Christ. They also responded positively to arguments against religious pluralism acknowledging that they were hearing them for the first time.

For the next leg of the trip, we headed out to Fort Portal to partner with ALARM Ministries on the western border of Uganda next to the Congo. We had received an e-mail from both the Ugandan government and our state department warning us about the ongoing conflict in the Congo. Fortunately, the fighting had not spilled over into Uganda. Other than refugees entering into the country we did not notice any problems.

Uganda MosqueIt turns out that the group of pastors in Fort Portal was especially passionate about the apologetics material Pat and I covered during the six hours each day. They were experiencing a direct challenge from Islam and had little information with which to respond. Many of them felt the burden to defend their faith from the rising influx of money and mosques from Libya. Libya’s ruler Muammar Kaddafi has taken an interest in Uganda. In Fort Portal he has built a large, gold-domed mosque and a mansion for the local fifteen-year-old tribal king. Local Muslims have been targeting pastors and their sons by offering money and even cars to those who would convert to Islam. Sadly, some have done so.

In response, Pat and I decided to change our scheduled topics to make the last day entirely focused on Islam. I did a session on the history of the religion and its basic beliefs while Pat covered apologetic strategies to use when talking with a Muslim. At the end, one pastor jumped to his feet and began shouting in the local dialect. We wondered what we might have said to upset him and looked to the translator. Translated he said,

“For years the Muslims have challenged us and we’ve never been able to answer their challenges. Today, our teachers have provided answers and addressed the issues they bring up. Now for the first time I feel we are equipped to answer them when they come for their crusades here in Fort Portal!”

Another pastor agreed with him and stood up to say,

“For too long we have given bad answers or just beat around the bush. Now we can provide solid answers!”

Then a third pastor exclaimed,

“After receiving my new Bible (given to them by the mission trip funds) and hearing the teaching today, I love God’s Word more than ever!”

Uganda BiblesWith that, they began celebrating by raising their new Bibles above their heads, dancing and singing a song titled, “Heaven and earth will pass away but God’s Word will endure forever.” It was a very moving for us to see the joy in their hearts because of our teaching.

Our other material also connected as well. I spoke about temptations all Christians experience when life becomes difficult. We in the U.S. tend to trust in our wealth, technology, and entertainment when we should be turning to God for strength and endurance. In Africa, the tendency is to revert to the traditional African religions that include local witch doctors and ancestor worship. We had a number of good discussions about trusting only in God and the truth revealed in Scripture rather than in other belief systems and unbiblical practices.

Our time in Uganda reconfirmed the need for apologetics regardless of location and culture. Although the challenges may be different, Christians everywhere need to have confidence in the gospel message if they are going to take it into the world. It is our prayer that we left our brothers and sisters in Uganda with tools that will equip them to be more effective ambassadors for Christ.

© 2008 Probe Ministries