Monthly Archives: September 2010

We homeschool

We homeschool our kids. I have not written much about it here, but it is a big deal to us and part of the very fabric of our family. It is not easy. It takes a lot of work, most of which falls on my wife’s shoulders. I realize more and more that I need to sort through my thoughts on homeschooling, why we made the choice, and what it means to us.

There may be as many different reasons to homeschool as there are families who homeschool. But I would hazard a guess that most families who homeschool do so for many of the same reasons. They want their kids to be better educated, better socialized, safer, more well-rounded, and closer to the family. There is a deeply rooted idea in Western culture, from Plato to Rousseau to Marx and onwards, that the best way to educate children is to get the parents out of the picture as soon (and as much) as possible. This idea is rooted in another idea that the individual is primarily beholden to the state, especially within ideologies where the state is elevated as the primary social group. Homeschoolers tend to take exception to both of these ideas and go in a different direction. And yet, probably most homeschoolers do not choose to homeschool because they take exception to such ideologies, rather they homeschool because they see their local public education, and much private education, to be less than what they want for their children. This is not to say public or private education is always wrong – I am a product of both – but that public and private education is often a lesser education rife with conflicting issues, stultifying bureaucratic “requirements”, unnecessary compromises, and various dangers on many levels. We know that children are natural learners. That a student becomes educated within traditionally and culturally accepted environments (public and most private schools) is often in spite of those environments as much or more than because of them. That was very much true for me and, in fact, I had a lot of catching up to do. Only because I am a little obsessed with constant learning in my own life have I managed to become an educated adult and make up for much of my elementary and secondary education. But I am still behind where I should be.

And yet homeschooling is not all about academics. There is probably no more important element of becoming an educated person as that of one’s character. In public schools one learns basic character traits as standing in line without pushing, or not hitting other students, or not stealing, or how to stay awake in class, or how to take standardized tests. Of course, mostly one learns that to behave well is all about “getting along.” The goal is to follow the rules and to avoid anarchy. This is driven, in large part, by the needs of the teachers who must maintain order in classrooms with too many children. Cooperation, as we are told from Sesame Street and reinforced in public school, is the highest good. Goodness, as an end in itself, is not the focus of public school character development. Nor is much directed character development possible at all. In our local school district the ratio of students to teachers is 20+ to 1. There is no way that a teacher, no matter how “qualified” can truly develop and nurture the individual characters of 20+ students. In fact they can barely teach them. Certainly they cannot uniquely customize their instruction to the unique needs of each individual child. But that is exactly what homeschooling does do. Our kids get teachers who truly know them, who love them, will even lay down their lives for them. There are many excellent teachers in public and private schools (and know that I am a supporter of public education both in principle and with my tax dollars), but none know or love my children the way I do.

In short, we believe that we can give our kids a better education because we can customize the education for each child uniquely, tailoring our teaching to their learning styles and capabilities. We can give our kids a better education because we can better focus on their individual characters and help them grow into the kind of people they were made to be. And we can better educate our children because we are deeply committed to them for who they are – we love them like none other can.

I will write more here on why we homeschool and what it means to us in the future, but I am still sorting out my thoughts. I also realize there are many stereotypes about homeschooling and the strange people who make such choices. I will address some of that too. And I want to examine the idea of being “qualified” to teach and why we think we are qualified. But know this, homeschooling is no formula for success. We take each year, even each day to some degree, as an experiment. It is working so far, but who knows what the future will bring.

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>Who knows the most?

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The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently did a survey of religious knowledge across the population. You can find the article here. What seems to have caught folks’ attention is that atheists and agnostics scored highest in religious knowledge.
I do not find this surprising. There is a lot of pressure to jump on the religion bandwagon. My unscientific observations show me there is difficulty in being a casual atheist. There is group pressure, the desire to belong, proselytizing, the natural feeling that one is missing something without religion, etc. Therefore if one is not going to go down the religion route then there is some reason to know why and have a ready defense. Ironically, my experience shows me that atheist do a better job of “always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account” for what they believe than most Christians. On the other hand, I do not see any requirement in the Bible that says one has to score an 80 or above in order to get into Heaven.
Of course, one key difference, while most Christians may score lower than atheists on a religion survey, atheists do not generally offer a solution of hope. Christians may be ignorant (which I deplore) but they are not relying on their wiles to attain salvation. If one embraces the Kingdom of God, if one seeks to follow Christ in all of one’s life, then there is little need to pass the written exam.*
You can take the test yourself here. I took it and scored 100% which isn’t saying much. The test is really basic.
* I will say, however, that I do not consider the list of religious affiliations in the survey results to necessarily indicate anyone one who embraces the Kingdom of God or is seeking to follow Christ in all of their life.

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Jesus, the event within

 

This is a previous post from my other blog. Note: The more I read John Caputo the more I realize that it has been a long time since grad school and I don’t know Derrida as well as I should. Regardless, I think this post is pointed in the right direction, if only as a simplistic step towards a jumping off point.

 

Would Jesus endorse Christianity as we know it? Would he say, “Yeah, that’s it. You got it.”? Or would he surprise us all by not fitting into our concepts of who he is? I think we all know the answer.

Since the beginning of Christianity there has been the need for reform of one kind or another of the church. The letters of Paul attest to that. Some would argue, and I would generally agree, that refocusing on Jesus as the foundation of Christianity (are not Christians followers of the Christ?) is the most direct and most powerful catalyst for change and reform. This concept interests me a great deal. I am fascinated by the idea of setting aside much of what we Christians cling to and then turning only to Jesus and, with him as our sole example, examine our lives, actions, and worship. With this in mind I give you two quotes to ponder:

A great deal would have been achieved if it were remembered today also that Christianity is obviously not some sort of world view nor a kind of idealist philosophy, but has something to do with a person called Christ. But memories can be painful, as many politicians have discovered when they wanted to revise a party program. In fact, memories can even be dangerous. Modern social criticism has again drawn our attention to this fact: not only because generations of the dead control us, have their part in determining every situation in which we are placed and to this extent man is predefined by history, but also because recollection of the past brings to the surface what is still unsettled and unfulfilled, because every society whose structures have grown rigid rightly fear the “subversive” contents of memory.

Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, 1974, p. 120

In deconstruction, one sets out in search of, or rather, one is oneself searched out or called on by whatever is unconditional, or undeconstructible, in a given order, and it is precisely in virtue of this undeconstructible x, which does not exist, which does does not exist yet, which never quite exists, that everything that does exist in that order is deconstructible. Whatever exists, whatever is present, is contingent, historical, constructed under determinate conditions—like the church or the Sabbath—and as such is inwardly disturbed by the undeconstructible, unconditional impulse that stirs within it—which for the church is the event that occurs in the name of Jesus. To “deconstruct” is on the one hand to analyze and criticize but also, on the other hand, and more importantly, to feel about for what is living and stirring within a thing, that is, feeling for the event that stirs within the deconstructible structure in order to release it, to set it free, to give it a new life, a new being, a future.

John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 2007 p. 68
Rembrandt van Rijn, Holy Family, 1640
Oil on wood, 16 1/4 x 13 1/2″ (41 x 34 cm)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

I like Küng’s concept of the ‘”subversive” contents of memory.’ That there is something subversive in the very person and teachings of Jesus is a powerful idea. What would the church (I recognize that’s an unwieldy and overly broad term) do with Jesus today? In my more cynical moments I am inclined to believe he would be crucified again and again. Though the name of Jesus is prominent in Christian churches I doubt that name represents the true Jesus as much as one might assume. My fear is that I would be part of the mob that called for his death. My desire is that I would know the truth instead, that my life would be conformed to Jesus’ example and, if faced with the physical (living, breathing, walking, talking) Jesus, there would resonate deep within my soul an unqualified and unchangeable “YES!”

Of course, in a profound way we do have Jesus among us. Remember the words of Jesus, like in the following famous passage from Jesus speaking to his disciples:

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.'”

“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?'”

“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'”

To me this is kind of sneaky, in a good way. We can easily be knocked off kilter and sent spinning if we think we have Jesus pegged. What I find interesting is that the above passage always surprises me even though I have been familiar with it for decades.

How is it that Jesus is a subversive force within the church? In films like Lord, Save Us From Your Followers: Why is the Gospel of Love Dividing America?, and books like They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations we find that most people have a fondness for Jesus, though many express a dislike for Christians or Christianity or organized religion in general (most especially if it’s Christian). This makes sense to me, but I know there is a difference between a “Jesus is my homeboy” approach and a “Jesus is my lord” approach. I understand the dichotomy, but I also know that those outside the church will just as likely have wrong ideas about Jesus as those within.

If Jesus is subversive then he must challenge the very foundations of the “truths” we cling to, of that with which we are comfortable, of what we claim even in his name. If Jesus is a comfortable idea then we have missed who he is. The irony of modern evangelization is that to begin with Jesus straight away may be the path of least resistance, and yet many Christians may mean something entirely wrongheaded when using that name. This I cannot say for sure, but my intuition says it must be likely.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The raising of Lazarus, c. 1630
Oil on panel96.2 x 81.5 cm
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Caputo argues for Jesus as a kind of deconstructing force within the church. When I set Jesus and the church side by side in my mind and ponder the connection, I cannot think of a better concept than deconstruction with which to understand the force of Christ amongst our religious structures. Caputo sees Jesus as “the event” within the word Christianity. (I know I am not doing the depth of his argument justice.) The idea of “the event” he takes from the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Think of the word “democracy.” There are democracies and then there is democracy the ideal (not in a Platonic sense, but in a Derridian sense). That ideal calls to us when we think about, speak of, or participate in doing democracy. We don’t ever see the ideal, but we know it is there. Democracy the ideal is the event within the word Democracy. Think of Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) in the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He is a kind of force, a man who quotes Lincoln and Washington while entering the cynical world of real politik. In the end he becomes a kind of savior-like figure who sacrifices his life for what he knows to be true. Jesus, who’s name is spoken countless times in churches around the world is like Mr. Smith. But rather than just speaking of the truth, he is the truth, he is the image of God, he is the event within the word Christianity.*

Rembrandt van Rijn, Descent from the Cross, 1634
Oil on canvas, 62 x 46 in. (158 x 117 cm)
Hermitage, St. Petersburg

What I fear is that I live my whole life as a “good Christian” only to one day confront the actual event (Jesus) within this thing (Christianity) I am doing, and to be told “I never knew you.” The fact is I confront the event every day. The question that I must answer is to what am I finally committed, Christianity or the event within.

Back to my original questions. I don’t think Jesus would give our organized versions of Christianity the thumbs up, though I don’t think he would give the thumbs down to all of it. I do think, however, that we would all be surprised by his presence beyond reasons of “wow, he exists!”. I think he would challenge us deeply in ways that get at those very things that we use to convince ourselves of our own wisdom. I think those individuals and groups deeply embedded within the church would have trouble with Jesus on many levels. And I’m not referring to the obvious examples of those who claim Christianity but spew hatred. I am referring to the good, ordinary, run-of-the-mill Christians who try to live good lives and get along with others. They would have trouble with Jesus as much as anybody. But I also think those outside the church, who say they like Jesus but not Christians, would also have trouble with Jesus. Jesus hung around with sinners but he was not their homeboy. He was not their revolutionary either. He is God’s revolutionary, whatever that means – which is something we could spend the rest of our lives figuring out.

* This is one of the reasons I don’t like seeing a U.S. flag prominently displayed in a church. The event within democracy is not the same event as that within Christianity. The event within the U.S. flag is something closer to patriotism than democracy, and it is miles from Christ. With our tendency to focus on Christianity rather than the true Christ already in play, why jeopardize our profound and constantly reforming need for truth that much more with connecting faith to patriotism?

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>faith the adventure

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Yvon Chouinard, climber, surfer, the founder of Patagonia clothing company, and generally reluctant businessman says that true adventure doesn’t begin until things go wrong. If one sets out on a road trip and travels great distances through new and exciting terrain, there is still no true adventure happening. But if the van breaks down in the jungle, or the van is stolen, or a hitchhiker causes some serious grief, or one gets malaria, etc., then the adventure has begun. In this sense, adventures cannot be purchased or manufactured. An adventure travel agency does not sell you adventure.

Adventure is what all great stories are made from. And adventure is often the greatest teacher.

From a broad perspective one can then understand a merely lived life, that is, the life that continues safely from beginning to end of day, from one day to the next, and year to year, is not an adventure. Though such a life can be good and rewarding in many ways. But without adventure one could say something significant is missing. From a Christian perspective adventure may be the process of faith itself.

Imagine sailing on the high seas and your boat is knocked down in a sudden storm, the boat’s mast is sheared off, and the rudder is damaged. What was a fun and pleasant journey has now turned into an adventure of fear and trembling. In such a situation one cannot give up hope or one is likely to die. Work, effort, struggle ensue. The stakes have increased and everything seems riskier. What is important becomes clearer. What is superfluous is not longer cherished. Discovering the true nature of faith happens when one’s mast is sheared off and the seas are coming over the sides of the boat. I don’t see another way around it.

And yet, that is the adventure. As far as I can tell, there is no faith without the dark night of the soul. There is no faith without a wrestling match with God.

There is a problem with this view, however, The problem is not with the view itself per se, rather it is with us, with our longings and desires. We hear the word adventure and we want it. Adventure sounds exciting and even fun. I am more of an armchair mountaineer than an actual one. I love reading stories of mountain climbing, including tales of survival in the midst of dire circumstances. Though I would be right in assuming the life of faith is an adventure, I would be mistaken to think this adventure was always like the exciting stories I read in books. Our problem is to think that adventure, including the adventure of faith, only happens in the midst of extraordinary circumstances.

Truth is the life of faith usually looks on the outside rather mundane. For the Christian the adventure can be a far more private, subtle, and existential experience than it shows to the world. Sure, there are martyrs and great saints, but for most the adventure is inside. When it is visible to the world it is often understood by others differently than it might appear. For example, everyone knows the loss of a child is a big deal to the parent, but what is often going on inside is not merely sadness and grief. The wrestling with God, and with oneself and one’s beliefs, cannot be truly expressed. It is private. Even between spouses. But that same internal, existential wrestling can come about by something as simple as a poor grade in school, or the loss of a basketball game, or the breakup of a relationship.

When I was a young man (maybe thirteen or fourteen) I was obsessed with snow skiing. I nearly worshiped the sport. I would keep my skis and equipment in my room and stare at them when I was not looking at skiing magazines. One weekend I went skiing with some friends. On the way home we stopped by one friend’s house who took her skis off the top of the car and said goodbye. We drove on not realizing that friend had not closed the ski rack. Somewhere on the way to my house my skis came off the car. I never found them. I was devastated. Then my eyes opened. It was like God drew my attention to this lesser god and asked me who was more important, skiing or Him. I was shaken to my core. Anyone else might have just been upset, but for me it was an existential moment. I told this to an adult close to me and he said I was wrong to think that. He said God does not work that way. At that moment I knew he did not God like I did even though he is a Christian. Both of those experiences, the existential struggle and the realization of how God will work in one’s soul, changed my life forever. For anyone else they might laugh at the insignificance of loosing one’s skis, but for me, at that time in my life, I was in the midst of the adventure. And I still want those skis back.

Years later when I held my infant daughter in my arms as her life slipped from her precious body I was wracked with grief. And yet it was not an existential moment like loosing my skis had been years before. How can this be? Words cannot describe the pain of loosing a child. Even as I write these words the emotions come back powerfully and deeply. But was my faith in doubt? No, at least to the degree that any of us can be sure of our faith. I knew God was there, loving me, teaching me, taking me through the harsh reality. I felt connected to all those other people I knew or heard about who’d lost their children and other dear loved ones. In fact I had a sense of God being more present, closer, more obviously involved in my life than ever before. It was strange. I was suffering tremendous grief and yet had such joy. I had a sense that I was being blessed even though it came through tragedy.

I consider both events, that of losing my skis and of losing my daughter, to be important in my own life of faith. One seems trivial and the other is big and tragic, yet God used both to help me see important truths and to know myself better. Both are part of the adventure that is my growth in faith, but only one really turned me around.

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>flags

>I wonder.

I am thinking, no,
not exactly.
I am noticing that I wonder,
as though I am
looking at myself and
wondering,
why the buildings
all have flags,
and why, at least
(at minimum)
there is always a
U.S. flag.

Why do the buildings
all have flags?
Or have to have
a flag?

I can look at those flags,
wonderfully colorful
and bold, from a time
when primary colors
were in vogue.
And I wonder
what my part is
in flags.

Today would it be
different?
Would we take our hats
off for teal or chartreuse?
Or maybe, perhaps, for a flag
that proclaimed,
in the gentle cadence
of its waving,
a message of peace?

Could there be a flag
that refuses power?
Could there be a flag
that turns from violence,
rebuffs war,
laughs at the proud,
and calls to the poor?

Is there a flag for
sacrifice?
For the laying down
of one life
for another?

I wonder
about kingdoms,
knowing I am a
monarchist at heart,
knowing that there are
no true kings
except for the one who kneels,
taking gently the foot
of his servant,
and washes it.

What is his flag?

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