Article – Reflections on the TCF Writers’ Guidelines and Life in the Classroom
Article – Reflections on the TCF Writers’ Guidelines and Life in the Classroom
By Vic Minish
April 12th, 2012
When The Colossian Forum approached me about writing a piece for them, they sent along the TCF Writers’ Guidelines, a writing guide for authors, based on the Christian virtues, who contribute to The Colossian Forum. As I read through the document, there was one phrase that stood out to me. It was that all writers operate with the acknowledgement that all those who confess Christ as Lord follow him imperfectly, and that it was imperative to avoid language in our writing that was unnecessarily combative and inflammatory.[callout title=Callout Title]It was an idea I began to introduce to the students I teach, and the difference in the atmosphere was marked from the first time I uttered it.[/callout]Moreover it is the idea that our dealings with each other be shaped by the confession that we call Jesus our Lord, and that our spiritual formation was at least as important as any doctrinal argument we might have with a fellow Christian. It was an idea I began to introduce to the students I teach, and the difference in the atmosphere was marked from the first time I uttered it.
First, I need to begin with a confession. The more I think about the weightiness of the issues surrounding Christianity, science and Western culture, the more I see I have neglected the spiritually formative issues of “gentleness and respect… a good conscience, and good behavior” (1 Pet. 3:15-16) and given priority to mastering an articulate voice for “being prepared to make a defense.” I am having to repent of this, and explain my error to my students. To my horror, too often my students have become like me, manifesting more of my bitter and sarcastic wit than giving breath to the meat of the content I would have them know.
In order to understand the significance of what I have said concerning TCF, a description of the landscape of my location is helpful. I teach Christian Studies courses for a Christian high school in Northeast Alabama, a place which in the eyes of the world is not too much more than a coffee stop on the I-20 corridor between Birmingham and Atlanta, and about as significant. Our school consists of about one hundred students, from half as many different churches. The major qualification for admission to our school is that at least one parent be a professing Christian. Belief is not required of our students. Even so, I very seldom have a student who claims to be anything but a Christian. Most of the students I teach are nominally professing Christians. Realistically however, they are what sociologist Christian Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. That is, they believe in a God who wants us to be happy and be nice. Since this is the Bible belt, “true believers” add Jesus to the formula.
What I am about to say might ‘read’ harshly, but it is not intended that way. What I am about to offer is a self description, one that I have read to my students asking them if their ‘default setting’ was similar to mine? They said yes.
As a member of the Bible belt, I see in myself a kind of Jesus-colored niceness, surrounded by a lot of different cultural and religious firewalls. What I mean by this, for example, is that niceness is not a moral obligation of preferring the interests of others over my own, but of outward politeness, being a well groomed Southern gentleman, and only so long as everyone minds their own business. Like me, the majority of the people in our area tend to be highly patriotic, politically conservative, and of evangelical upbringing, and individualistic in orientation. There are so many churches in our area some of them are literally across the street from each other. It appears Christianity is strong and vibrant. It is mostly a veneer.
I say this because the reality of the problems here are like every other town in the country that has a smaller witness of the church. My problems are just like everyone else’s. Together we want to see Christ as big, but we too often in actuality see him as small.
Even though it might seem to be irrelevant, Hank Williams Jr.’s A Country Boy Can Survive and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama are as much songs of personal identity as anything said in the church, even to those whose idea of the wilderness is a well-manicured suburban lawn. In this part of the country there is a seamlessness to all of this. The idea seems to be that if a student were attentive in Bible class, it would give them the fuel to fire the argument that the other guy is wrong. As long as the Bible teacher confirms the idea that it’s the Christian majority against the world, and that true believers don’t have to be or do anything weird, things are as they should be. The environment is similar to that described by Peter when he addressed the council in Acts 15; our Christianized culture is “a yoke on the necks of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” This may anecdotal, and perhaps something of a stereotype. But it is real.
[callout title=Callout Title]One student perked up and said, “Hmm, I never thought of it that way. That makes a lot more sense.”[/callout]In class I began repeating what I had read, that our humble starting point needed to begin with a good faith trust that everyone who claimed that Jesus was Lord, was, like us, a disciple who was following Christ in a flawed and deeply imperfect way. And that, (with an appeal to Philippians 3:21 via C.S. Lewis’s Weight of Glory) if we were to see them as they will be, in their glorified form, we would be tempted to worship them. We should therefore think of them and treat them as our friends, and brothers and sisters. Christianity, after all, is about human flourishing.
One student perked up and said, “Hmm, I never thought of it that way. That makes a lot more sense.” When I asked how he had thought about the gospel previously he said, “Things you’re not supposed to do. You know, all that ‘worldview’ stuff.” His voiced changed to a kind of derogatory tone on ‘worldview.’ The class and I understood him to mean the combative framing of many ‘worldview’ discussions that take place in our larger community which by-and-large promote the idea that Christianity possesses the truth, and it must be preserved by either insulating ourselves from, or fighting against, the evil world out there.
All I did was say it, integrating one idea into my classroom lectures. Almost immediately a kind of fog was lifted from our classroom. The countenance of the classes changed. Students seemed to be relieved that their fellow human beings of other “worldviews” were not the enemy, but like them bore the likeness of God, even if they denied it.
Those of other religions, and the atheistic scientist were not enemies, but image bearers to whom we were called to bear witness of the good news. The idea reframed the discussion. Denominational plurality is not the enemy. “Yankees”(Northerners) are not the enemy. Science is not the enemy. The good news means there doesn’t have to be suspicion all the time. Even when others hold similar kinds of reservation about us, we don’t have to return the favor. We can lay our life down for others with joy –even when they castigate us.
If my perception is wrong, and no student was getting what I believe they are, this still holds true, I am being changed. I have had students tell me I am different. The way I teach is being transformed. My students have told me this. In a way that is beyond what I can effectively articulate, the institution of our school is different in this repeated action. I have to remember that last bit. It is a repeated action of believing, telling, and doing. And the fog only lifts for mille-seconds at a time. But that is what the good news does. It is the glorious age to come breaking in at the present. The applicability is straightforward. Good news dissipates fear, creates hope and changes the agenda behind the discussion.
Vic Minish is a faculty member at Faith Christian School, Anniston, Alabama, teaching Old and New Testament, Theology, Philosophy and Apologetics, and Latin. He is a professor of Apologetics at Birmingham Theological Seminary, and is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Missionary Church. Vic has also graciously participated and contributed in more than one TCF forum.