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Friday, February 15, 2013

Profiles In Fundamentalist Education


Scenes from a Christian School


From second through ninth grades I was a student at a school founded by graduates of Bob Jones University who came to my home town originally as Child Evangelism workers. With a little humor and a little pain I now refer to my school as The Big House and my leaving after ninth grade (no high school then) as my parole. Sometimes I worry that, even at my advanced years, my parole could be revoked, and I returned to finish out my sentence.


My school and church shared some commitments – the inerrancy of the Bible, the saving work of Jesus Christ, withdrawal from (school) or suspicion toward (church) “worldly” activities. But there was conflict between church and school to the point that the minister of my church founded a parent-controlled Christian school, and the teachers at my school were banned from attending my church. One of my favorite stories from the period, told to me by my parents, is of a meeting between the founders of the school and my minster at which time he said to the female, “If there is one thing I can’t stand it is a bossy woman, and you’re one!” Naturally I felt the pull of two loyalties that made for not a little misery in my young life.

What I would like to do here is to give two profiles, or at least memories, from an education, one a friend, the other a teacher.

My Friend


The Big House
My friend’s family were members of a small independent Baptist church and owners of a small local Christian bookstore. We knew each other from school and from our fathers’ involvement with the Gideons (school, Child Evangelism, and Gideons were intertwined in my town). In our junior high years we were best friends.

My friend and I were close, and he had a great influence on me. He was a much better athlete and singer than I, the closet thing to “cool” in my fundamentalist educational world. (We attended the same public high school, but our paths diverged.) We sang in the school glee club, spent a lot of Saturdays together, and I spent the night at his house often. He influenced me to get involved with Youth for Christ and to sing in its choir which practiced in the back of his parents’ store.

He also provided me with my early sex education. He had a girl friend who told him a lot of things about females, information of varying degrees of accuracy, and some experience of things about which I knew nothing. Overall the education he provided was not helpful or healthy, but you've got to learn about these things from somewhere and someone, so you take what you can get.

We temporarily re-established contact several years ago. He was a professor of psychology at a college. He was no longer a fundamentalist. I am not sure he attended church at all anymore, though he told me he had at one time been an elder at a Presbyterian church. He had struggles with this second wife because he found her “too American.” His most profound spiritual experiences came from Indian sweat lodges out west to which he traveled from time to time.

My Teacher


The teacher taught me Bible, coached my intramural sports teams, and drove my school bus. He was “mean as a snake.” One area in which his and my friend’s roles overlapped was sex-education. One day the girls of the school were taken to a room for their talk, and the boys were sent to the locker room. There my teacher gave us talk of which I remember only two things: (1) “The Lord uses my wife’s naked body to get me to have babies with her.”  That’s a hard image to get out of your head. (2) “Boys sleep with your hands on top of the covers.” I had not a clue what he was talking about.

After I had finished school, he moved on. Later, the founders of the school sent him to a university to get a PhD so he could help them start a college. Sometime later he ended up the right hand man to a pastor who was the founder of both a college and an organization that was a key part of the Christian right.

Quite a few years ago I noted that he was a high official with a media company in the city near which we lived. I dropped him a note and got back from him a reply telling me to contact his administrative assistant to set up lunch. On the appointed day, after he came out of his office, and, as we were walking to the elevator, he said to me, “If I said I remembered you, I would be lying.” A little deflating but a whole lot of years had passed since I was a student and he a teacher.

We went through the line of company cafeteria and then went to the Executive Dining Room. On the door was a sign that said, “Executive Dining Room Closed.” He opened the door, I followed, and we sat down at a table in the otherwise empty room. He called over a young man, a waiter the dining room was open, to get us drinks. When the waiter came over he said, “The Executive Dining Room is closed.” My host replied, “No it isn't  I’m in here.” He then commented to me, “One thing I can’t stand is an employee who tries to tell me what to do.”

Over lunch I laughed when he remarked of the founder of a cult he knew: “X couldn't hit himself in the ass with a baseball bat.” (I think he liked the word “ass.” He also referred to an individual as a “candy ass.” His job had been to be the tough guy in the organization.) During a more serious moment of conversation he said, “I don’t know exactly what I am, but I am not a fundamentalist anymore.” When on the West Coast, he sometimes went to a church attended by a certain celebrity talk show host. Given where I know him to be today, I assume he returned to (a milder?) fundamentalism.  After lunch he graciously gave me a tour and the building and its workings, and we cordially parted. I did not try to contact him again.

I don’t think any general lessons can be learned from this. It may be that some who read this post will identify with it and find some comfort in knowing that others understand and can sympathize.

I know that there are those, whose names I could give, who had similar experiences with my fundamentalist Christian school and came out unscathed. Perhaps, we more shy, introspective, and sensitive types are more likely to come out of such experiences with some scars. I know I would wish what I went through on no one.

There is also an observation that, while total open-mindedness is not to be embraced, there is a close-mindedness that is unhealthy. It is counterproductive. In thought and conduct it is not always the case that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” but often enough the result of rigidity of thought and life will be opposite of what is intended. Unfortunately I have seen this kind of close-mindedness and rigidity sometimes among the Reformed as well as the fundamentalists.

Perhaps, too, there is a caution for parents. I am tempted to try to try to revise Willie and Waylon’s song, Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys to Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up Among Fundies. I know that during our child-rearing years I was highly concerned not to put my children through what I went through. While my kids went to Christian schools from kindergarten through twelfth grades (with the exception of one year for one, and two years for another, for a total of three years Smith boys were not in Christian schools) and four of them all the way through college, and, while I served a total on nine years on Christian school boards in two different cities, I believe the particular form of Christian education I experienced has great potential to be quite harmful to those who experience it.

There are more dangers to Christian children and young people than liberalism.


5 comments:

C Herring said...

Good stuff Bill....I share some of your experiences and concerns! CHRIS

C Herring said...

Bill, i share some of experiences and concerns. Some "Fundies" definitely think they speak ex cathedra. I hope you are well. - RED HERRING

C Herring said...

Bill, i share some of experiences and concerns. Some "Fundies" definitely think they speak ex cathedra. I hope you are well. - RED HERRING

mike said...

It is pretty clear you had some very bad experiences in school that still affect you. I am certain that this is not unique to Christian schools. I know of people who would say similar things about their public school experiences. Given we are in an imperfect world full of sinners, I still believe I had rather have my children in a school that was at least trying to be faithful to teach the truth. My own experience is that as a parent you can have more influence over how your children are treated and educated in most Christian schools than in the alternatives.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

I have revised the next to last paragraph of my blog, a paragraph I fear could offend some folks who are very, very dear to me. Of course, the original accurately describes my point of view. But, had I thought about it more, I could easily made the point I wanted to make without the offensive sentence. So, with apologies to those to whom I gave offense, here is the revised paragraph:

"Perhaps, too, there is a caution for parents. I am tempted to try to try to revise Willie and Waylon’s song, Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys to Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up Among Fundies. I know that during our child-rearing years I was highly concerned not to put my children through what I went through. While my kids went to Christian schools from kindergarten through twelfth grades (with the exception of one year for one, and two years for another, for a total of three years Smith boys were not in Christian schools) and four of them all the way through college, and, while I served a total on nine years on Christian school boards in two different cities, I believe the particular form of Christian education I experienced has great potential to be quite harmful to those who experience it."