Political Correctness and the New Christian Orthodoxy

Article by   August 2006

At the end of a lecture, I often find myself being asked questions by a student who prefaces what he or she has to say with the phrase `This may be a stupid question, but....' My response is almost always the same: there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers. Perhaps that it a little absolute in its claims, but it does highlight the fact that, on the whole, most questions are worth asking; it is the answers which run a much higher risk of being foolish or silly.

In fact, I find the questions coming from students to be, on the whole, extremely instructive. Frequently, they force me to re-examine some familiar idea from an angle I had not anticipated; for sure, often an angle which proves less fruitful or enlightening than those I have already explored; but even the consideration and rejection of such an option helps to sharpen my views and my critical vantage point. More important, however, is the role that student questions play in allowing me to profile the student concerned. Indeed, after 21 years of doing the lecture-question-answer routine, at university and seminary, from both sides of the academic fence, not to mention both sides of the Atlantic, I like to think that I'm a pretty sharp student profiler.

Students who ask questions generally fall into various stock categories. There are the ones who simply don't pay attention and, at the end of a lecture on Martin Luther will still ask as to why the Pope found him unacceptable or whether he ever listened to Elvis Presley. Unencumbered with the burden of knowing any church history, such types will, I am sure, make stellar contributions in the field of whatever is the latest trendy American church movement which regards itself as facing unique circumstances as well as solving all problems, exegetical theological, and practical. These students I like, not because they are destined to lurch from causing one ecclesiastical disaster to another, but simply because they offer opportunities for me to crack cheap jokes at their expense. As my dad once said to me, `You know, son, you don't get too many opportunities to patronize people in this life, so you have to seize every one that comes your way.'

Then there are those self-important characters whose questions are rather more like elaborate statements designed to inform everyone else in the room (including the lecturer) of all that they know on the subject. They attend class not so much to learn but to sneer or to score points. Generally, such aspire to be academics but, lacking the talent or the patience or the discipline to achieve that goal, they often take the short-cut to self-importance in the blogosphere or by starting their own theological newspapers or devoting their lives to committee work in one or another of the Presbyterian denominations where no document or meeting will be complete until they have added their comma or semi-colon. I like Kierkegaard's damning phrase for such: `substantial mediocrities.'

Finally, there are those who ask genuine questions, driven by curiosity, often prefaced by the `This might be a stupid question but....' clause, indicating their basic modesty and teachability. These are the people who are going to make a really positive impact in the churches in which they eventually settle.

All three categories prove the old Chinese proverb (at least, I think it's an old Chinese proverb - Master Po used it at some point in the Kung Fu series of the early 70s; that is surely enough to require that people of intelligence should take it seriously as a philosophical contribution) that, like Grasshopper, one should not seek to find the answers, only to understand the questions. Once the lecturer understands the significance of the question being asked, he does indeed have great insight into the mind and character of the one who questions.

Questions, therefore, are important because they reveal so much about the inner-workings and priorities of the one who asks them. And this brings me to my main point: I am increasingly disturbed by the questions, or rather question, I get asked when I visit churches. I have always assumed that the priorities of Christianity, at least historically considered, can be discovered by looking at the creedal documents which the church has produced over the centuries and the various discussions which have shaped her history: obvious theological examples would be the Incarnation, the Trinity, the work of Christ, the nature of grace, the meaning of justification, the role of the sacraments etc; practical examples might include loving one's neighbour as oneself, helping the poor etc. I am not claiming here that there has been universal consensus on all these points or practices at all times; but I do think that, on the whole, these topics reflect the priorities of the church's discussions and confessions, even in those cases where no consensus on the details exists.

Thus, if I was an alien from outerspace, and all that I knew about the church's history was, say, provided by Schaff's Creeds of Christendom and the books on a typical Church History course bibliography, I would arrive at church expecting to be questioned on these matters. Such questions would indicate to me that the people in church were steeped in the historic priorities of the Christian faith and were distinctively Christian as opposed to any of the other options out there.

Ahh, but in my experience that is not the case. In fact, in my twenty-two years of Christian life, I have rarely if ever been asked when visiting a church about any of these topics by the church people I meet, a statistic which is stunning when one thinks about it. Instead, since coming to the USA, I find that one question, and one question almost exclusively, is asked of me or my wife when meeting other Christians: `Where do your children go to school?' Mine, of course, go to the local public - or, in Britspeak, state - schools. Judging by the reaction I get, that is not the answer a seminary professor and church office-bearer is meant to give. `We send the sprogs to Christian school' or `We homeschool' are, it would seem, the politically correct answers to such a question. But I'm afraid I can't oblige - my sprogs go to state school.

Now, I have neither time nor energy either to justify my choice of schooling to readers of this column; nor am I interested in criticizing either Christian- or home-schooling. To put it simply, I regard the education of my children as nobody's business but that of my wife and myself; and the education of other's children as their business, not mine. And it certainly is not the business of the church to dictate to me one way or the other. One of the reasons I am not a Catholic is that I do not appreciate the church poking into personal family business - be that business my choice of whether or not to use contraception, or where and how I educate my children. As far as I am concerned, that kind of interference is the hallmark of cults (and to me a cult is not defined so much by its beliefs but by its treatment of its members).

So, before `Outraged Homeschooler of Montana' wishes Ref21 was a subscription magazine so that he could immediately cancel his as an act of principle, let me make it clear that this article is not a criticism of either homeschooling or Christian schooling. What concerns me here is the culture which has made this issue which, as far as I can tell, has never been defined as a point of Christian orthodoxy by the church, into the acid test of fidelity such that it is the basic introductory question to ask in conservative evangelical and Reformed circles; and, in addition to being none of the questioner's business and an intrusion into another's family privacy, it reflects an eccentric understanding of Christianity and orthodoxy.

Christianity is not, and never has been, defined by the parental choice of where or how to educate children; and it saddens me that the culture of conservative American Christianity seems to have sent this message to its people. This new orthodoxy is simply not orthodoxy in terms of its priorities in any meaningful, catholic, creedal sense. At best it assumes that all Christians have a good grasp of the Trinity, Christology, salvation, loving one's neighbour etc and that these things can therefore be simply assumed, allowing us to focus on peripheral issues; at worst, it represents an odd understanding of the historic Christian faith which places philosophy of education at the pinnacle of Christian thought and practice, with all that other pesky stuff that the church has actually wrestled with in its creedal and confessional discussions over the years - and for which many have indeed given their lives - relegated to the margins of Christian interest. Indeed, as a test of someone's Christian faith and love, asking where the children go to school is about as helpful as trying to find out if someone is pro-life on the basis of whether they are vegetarian or not - a test which, I believe, Adolf Hitler would have passed with flying colours.

Again, do not misunderstand me here: this is not, emphatically not, a criticism of Christian schooling or homeschooling; but it is a criticism, and I hope a very pointed one, of that church culture which has come to make the issue of education the acid test of orthodoxy and fidelity; and, by implication, it is a complaint about an ecclesiastical environment where such intrusive political correctness with regard to education seems so often to foster hostility and condescension towards those who do not buy the current trendy thinking on the issue.

So, if ever you see me in your church, don't ask where I send my kids to school; I'm probably not going to give you the answer you want. Ask me instead about the trivia of the Christian life - you know, whether I love the Lord my God with all my heart and soul and mind, and my neighbour as myself. Weird, peripheral, oddball stuff, I guess - but do it to humour me, if nothing else.


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