To Think or Not to Think?
Can you ever just do things?
Or do you have to always think about the implications of what you are doing?
I believe that the teaching of the Bible tells us that we need to know why we do what we do, whether it is big or small. The form for the Lord’s Supper reinforces this in the invitation and admonition. To me that means we must always be thinking about the implications of doing what we do. When we begin to “just do it,” as the famous slogan of Nike advises, we head down the so-called slippery slope; this slope is often a much lower angle but slipperier slope than we think it is!
Stages of Schools
At the biennial National Principal’s Conference that I attended in September, one of the main speakers, Daniel Vander Ark, referred to some research done by George Marsden, an American historian who is also a Christian. Marsden wrote a book about this, called The Soul of the American University. Vander Ark summed up Marsden’s findings by identifying five stages that many, if not most, famous North American universities went through. In this book he researched the history and present of over 100 prominent North American universities. Almost every one of them started as a Christian institution but almost none of them are Christian today; in fact many are hostile to Christianity.
Here follows an italicized description of the five stages as Vander Ark sees them applying to K-12 Christian schools.
Stage 1: A church forms an extended church school, meant to protect the children and to teach them the Bible, heavy on pious acts (prayer, singing, Bible memorization), and little contact with the general culture. Special revelation is large; general revelation is small. Academically, the school is poor. Parents who participate often view intellectual activity as leading their children away from a dependence on God.
Stage 2: The school has a slight decrease in piety; there is an opening of the door to the general culture, with teachers required to teach subjects from a biblical perspective (which usually means Bible verses describing attitudes toward culture); the schools are better academically but no rival to the public schools. Many teachers are strong in faith but weak in academic prowess and in their ability to integrate faith with learning.
Stage 3: The school grows in academic strength, now looking carefully at all of culture. In every subject, teachers teach a discernible Christian perspective. The number of pious acts are few, often reserved for a chapel or daily rituals of opening and closing prayer. Neighbours think of the school as equal to the public schools. The academic credentials of the faculty are the equal of the public schools.
Stage 4: The school is now strong academically, attractive as a better alternative than the public schools. Pious acts are infrequent, perhaps a weekly chapel which is more educational than devotional. The Christian perspective on culture is written in foundational statements but seldom discernible in classrooms or in student assessments. Most participants celebrate the school’s Christian tradition.
Stage 5: The school has a wide reputation as being an excellent academic institution clearly superior to government schools. Pious acts are non-existent; the chapel is a place more than an event, now used for graduations and discussions. The Christian tradition is still mentioned occasionally, but it has no influence on decisions. If there has been a religious word in the school’s name, it is now gone.
Darlington Christian Academy becomes Darlington Academy.
Daniel Vander Ark qualifies these stages with the following comment: “These stages are certainly not exclusive nor are all characteristics present for a given school in any one stage.”
As Daniel Vander Ark talked about this at the conference I could not help but try and apply it to the school I teach at. Assuming these stages are accurate reflections of reality a host of questions swarmed into my mind. Do the five stages apply to us? If not, why not? If so, where are we on the five stages? Where is the best place to be on the five stages? What can a school do to prevent themselves from moving past the ideal point? What role does the board, the principal, the staff, and the membership play in keeping the school on track?
When I look at Ebenezer Canadian Reformed School (ECRS) and think about what people have told me and what I have read about the school’s history, I think that I see some truth to the stages for us. Which stage we are at is up for debate, I think. It is not, to my mind, clear that any one stage is the best stage. More important, maybe, are the questions of what are we doing to ensure that we do not move through all five stages? How do we ensure that we stay in the proper place? Do we know what the proper place is? Is any one stage the stage to be? Are pious acts on their own enough? (Of course not. The absence of them can be telling though.)
This is where our vision statement becomes a powerful tool. Through repeated, dogged testing of all our actions against the school vision statement, we can, Lord willing, hold our ground. It does mean we need people who are willing to ask over and over again, “How does this decision square with the vision statement?” This is not a question that only one person should be asking but all members, staff, and students.
In that way we can hold on to what is good and leave aside whatever is distracting to our purpose, our vision. To me the greatest responsibility that I have as principal is the responsibility to ensure the actions that the school takes adhere to the vision statement.
I wrestled with this very thought while dealing with the matter of the senior boys single A provincials which were held in Smithers in December, 2007. I was asked by several people if it would be possible to have the students excused from class to watch our school team play. It would have been very easy to say, “Sure, of course!” and never think any further about the question. (As you read you will see I did not do that!) It is a rare event, after all, that provincials are in Smithers and that one of our teams is involved in those same provincials.
On the other hand, different parts of me (parent, principal, teacher, church member) right away asked all sorts of questions like: “Why should the school go and watch? Is there any curricular purpose to attending? Does there need to be? Why should students all be taken out of class to attend an event that they might not even care about (leaving aside the “at least we got out of class” feeling)? What impact will this have on students with regards to what they perceive the school as valuing? Are sports gaining too prominent a role in our school? In schools in general? In our congregation? How is going to watch consistent with the vision statement? Does a decision to go or not go, say anything about where we are on the five stages?”
Think about Things – An Example
To make clear for people that do not know me well, I am not opposed to sports. I initiated and coached the badminton club last year and am coaching them again this year. I have run the climbing club for many years and have recently started driving long distances and sitting all day in school gyms to watch volleyball or badminton matches. I anticipate doing this for quite a few years to come. I walk/run about five kilometres to school every day. I played hockey for six or seven years and played on high school volleyball and basketball teams and in a very competitive industrial league for volleyball while attending university. Once a week I play fairly competitive badminton in the evening. I don’t have television so I seldom watch televised sports, nor do I follow professional sports. So while I am far from a sports “fanatic” I am certainly not an opponent of sports. However, to be honest, I would not be disappointed either if we did not have school teams. That is because in the big picture sports, like wealth, good health, etc., all melt away as the essential obedience and service comes into sharper focus.
As I considered the questions I listed in earlier paragraphs it seemed most pertinent or relevant to spend the most time and energy thinking about the place of sports in our school and schools in general. It is clear to me that in many schools and for many people sports take on too significant a role. It becomes the non-curricular activity sanctioned and promoted by the school. Other activities that are equally valuable are not sanctioned or promoted because fewer students like them or they are more difficult to deliver. Sports often gain that position because culturally it is a major influence and because there are many positive aspects to being involved in sports.
Just like there is nothing wrong with marriage, money, books, magazines, technology, or the Internet, etc, you cannot say there is anything wrong with sports. The problem is when we allow things to go out of balance in our life or have the wrong motivation for doing it. The love of money is wrong, buying/looking at certain magazines is wrong, searching for and viewing certain things on the Internet is wrong, distorting or violating marriage is wrong, and making sports our life is wrong.
In the end, I decided that as a high-school we would attend the opening game (which our team was playing in – and played very well). I decided this taking into account my ambivalence towards school sports and the knowledge that a significant portion of the school community’s feelings towards school sports are different than mine. I also weighed the impact on school spirit, particularly for the boys. Most importantly, though, I considered whether deciding to attend a game would go against our vision statement. If we had attended multiple games as a school organized event and allowed the event to overwhelm the daily life of the school, I think it would have gone against our vision statement. Not in the short term maybe but in the longer-term. Attending one game shows that sports is one part of life but should not override daily life. Attending one game acknowledges that God has given physical, mental, and spiritual talents that can be developed in sports and it gives us a chance to see and refer to the gracious gifts of God in this area without overemphasizing them. At least that is my hope and prayer.
Having observed the provincials, I ask people to think about and ask questions about what they saw. When is enough reached? When are we conforming to the culture of the world instead of shining, quietly and brightly, the light of the gospel? For those who think that I am not quite reasonable in my asking of questions, I would like to share with you some changes I have noticed that are related to sports in ECRS. (Similar changes took place at Guido de Brès when I was a high school student. There is nothing new under the sun!) Prior to the introduction of school sports teams, virtually all parents bought their children inexpensive runners. Students wore ECRS t-shirts and whatever shorts they had. After the sports program was up and running, students began showing up in more and more expensive runners, fancier shorts, etc. The ECRS t-shirt was quickly replaced by team uniforms. Matching shorts were next. Then the particular style or cut of uniform was not good enough. For some students school marks have definitely been lower as a result of school sports.
There have also been benefits from having school sports. The benefits are simply harder to see and attribute to sports. There are benefits like improved leadership skills, better sportsmanship, more self-discipline, relationships and relational skills built among team members that D.V. will continue in positive ways down through the years. At the provincials, though, I wondered what might be the next steps for the teams. Will it be matching warm-up suits, warm-up shirts and game shirts, matching labelled sports bags, desire for a more aggressive logo? I couldn’t help but wonder about the girls serving as hosts for each team as well. Is this necessary? To me there is a need for awareness on these things and openness to discussion about them. What is necessary and good? What is too much? How do you have the discussion positively?
It is hard to say at what step you have gone too far. There is not anything wrong with any of the steps necessarily. But it is certain that at some point we go too far. For each individual the tipping point, or point at which they slide from one stage to the next, may come at a different time. But somewhere along the line we will slide from Stage 1 to Stage 2 to Stage 3 to Stage 4 to Stage 5. Somewhere along the line we will focus less on Christ and more on man. Somewhere along the line our Christian practice will take a back seat to our desires or wants. Somewhere along the line we will conform instead of be transformed. Thinking about all that we do is necessary so that, conscious of what we are doing, we avoid the destructive consequences of conforming. The devil, aided by our weakness and the world, knows the best way to lead us astray. As Screwtape, the senior devil, wrote in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Screwtape is writing here to another devil, Wormwood, advising him how to lead a person astray. Make it a gentle easy road. Lull them into thinking all is well, that it is okay. Get rid of the idea that anyone should suggest limits matter.
Necessary Tensions of Thought
Gaylen Byker, the president of Calvin College, in his inaugural speech entitled “An Embarrassment of Riches” said the following:
Those of us who are inheritors of the culture and Reformed tradition that was transplanted to North America from The Netherlands are well accustomed to the tensions of which I will speak today. I take my title for this address, “The Embarrassment of Riches,” from a masterwork of the same name by Harvard historian Simon Schama. In “The Embarrassment of Riches” Schama illustrates in great detail how tension fostered the rise of the Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth century. He describes how this small Calvinistic country became the wealthiest on earth and the “arbiter of the world” by embracing the unresolved dilemma, the enduring tension, between being wealthy and being moral. He concludes that it was the wrestling with the dilemma, the embracing, if you will, of this tension that produced an era of flourishing art and education, republican government, tolerance, and public works projects of unprecedented scale.
Schama identifies what he terms “the moral geography of the Dutch mind” in this tension-packed passage:
(It – the Dutch mind – was) adrift between the fear of the deluge and the hope of moral salvage, in the tidal ebb and flow between worldliness and homeliness, between the gratification of appetite and its denial, between the conditional consecration of wealth and perdition in its surfeit... To be Dutch... was to live in a perpetual present participle, to cohabit with the unsettled... To be Dutch still means coming to terms with the moral ambiguities of materialism in their own idiosyncratic but inescapable ways: through the daily living of it...
Schama’s language is a bit hard to follow but I think it highlights very nicely how our lives of faith are to be lived. We need to think about all that we do because that is how we know where we are in our growth as Christians. It is part of the self-examination each of us is supposed to be ceaselessly engaged in. There is a constant tension to be arrived at, a pulling from God and a pulling from our weakness. If we do not think about each decision we make we are setting ourselves up to follow the pattern of weakness and sin and drift away from the way God has shown us in his word. What it ultimately means is that we are to embrace a never- ending restlessness in trying to assess our walk of life.
Hopefully in this article using an example like sports has not made it harder for people to see the point. Please remember that my point is not that school sports cause people or schools to slide away from faithful living; I don’t believe that has happened and hope it never does. My point is simply that we must think carefully about each decision that we make including involvement in sports. As we do that we see more and more where our lives need to change, where we have raised idols, where we have opted to ignore God’s call to us. By thinking carefully about what we do and why we are doing we are living the responsible Christian life. Or to quote C. S. Lewis again:
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
Is Theology Poetry?