Christian Education: Education Idolatry

We live in a society in which the central emphasis could be described as anything but God. Even more alarming is the thought that this same trend can be observed in Christianity itself. The reality of our cultural crisis is a fact we must come to terms with and, in context of the Christian School, we must open our hearts and minds to our own negligence of God-focused paradigms and practices. What are the distinctive qualities of “Christian education” and how does our answer to that question impact the daily practices of the classroom?

Like it or not, true biblical education over time will always result in a division between those Christians who build their cultural endeavors on a biblical foundation and who will prosper under God’s cultural blessing, and those Christians who do not, and who remain in the cultural ghetto typified by a modern Christian merchandise shop. We once built great cathedrals; now we throw gospel Frisbees. -Douglas Wilson, Repairing the Ruins

The erosion of our Christianity has equally eroded our vision for Christian education. There aren’t enough curricular, programmatic, or state standard sandbags to fix the decades of degradation we have suffered. This may all sound dire, but truth needs to ring with reality if hope can ring with possibility. The following points are an attempt to define, clarify, and specify education idolatry. The conclusion is a hopeful call to repentance from education idolatry.

1. What Is Education Idolatry?

Everyone is partially blinded to the degree that we are influenced by our culture. Like the pagans in Habakkuk, we are enamored with our own glory instead of the glory of God. Such a foundational paradigm is not easily recognized and less easily removed. In the book of Habakkuk, the prophet laments the iniquity and judgment of Judah. At one point he cries out, “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it ” (Hab. 2:18-19). Instead of metal images and silent stones, we deal with different idols: atheistic and agnostic philosophies of education. Can this teach?

2. Education Idolatry Clarified

Education idolatry is the result of any educational philosophy that is less than comprehensively centered around God. C.S. Lewis frames the issue so clearly it is worth quoting him extensively.

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.
–C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

The actual pursuit is of God himself and education is merely a means to better equip students in that pursuit. Lewis understood that education, in general, is idolatrous when it fails to recognize this ultimate pursuit. However, when Christian education is insufficiently permeated by Christian truth the result is particularly idolatrous.

3. Education Idolatry Specified

So what does education idolatry look like practically? In purpose, perspective, philosophy, and programs there are numerous ways this becomes integrated within Christian schools.

  • If the ultimate purpose of education matches the worlds (Is the American dream the goal?)
  • If our educational philosophy could be summarized as supplementing secular education with Jesus
  • If each subject is not taught from an all-encompassing Christian worldview
  • If Bible class is the extent of the biblical curriculum of the school
  • If public school is viewed as the measuring rod for academic excellence
  • If chapel is understood as the spiritual component of the school

There are undoubtedly other ways that idolatry can infiltrate Christian education; however, these serve as overarching entryways.

4. A Call to Repentance

Education is not philosophically, theologically, or spiritually neutral. Worldview affects every facet and Christian education must be held to a higher standard of thinking through curriculum, pedagogy, policy, discipline, and spirituality in a distinctively Christian manner. Christian educators must engage in self-examination, institutional examination, and philosophical examination to determine where idolatry has crept in. Then our call is to confess and diligently pursue the beauty of gospel driven, biblically faithful, and spirit-empowered education—Education…for the glory of God.

Chris Dunn
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Comments 2
  1. Scott,

    Thanks for taking the time to read and interact. I suspect that our overarching disagreement may come from the scope of my intent and context. I specifically have in mind educational institutions that are identified as Christian yet misunderstand what makes them distinctively Christian. So, the point is not that secular education or knowledge is worthless (I myself went to public school K-12); however, that Christian education needs to think through all the philosophical and pedagogical issues in a manner that warrants being distinctively Christian. You and I agree about parents role in teaching their children about faith (in fact that is one of my major points in the last post). However, if parents opt to supplement what they teach at home by investing in a Christian school, then they should be assured that the education received is rooted in an all-encompassing Christian worldview. Thanks again for the interaction and for helping me to think through and sharpen my ideas!

  2. Chris, I have been reading your series on Christian education and find it very one sided. According to your thesis I should not be a Christian because I went through public education. You refer readers to Philip Melanchthon in an earlier article who is one of the Fathers of Public Education. You ignore Romans 13:1 “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer add to this saying “when public authority does not conflict with the will of God.” Your structure is works oriented not faith based. Finally it is we as parents that are to teach our children about our faith, pushing it off on the teachers is just wrong. I have served in Christian education for now 41 years. I have a balance in my education both in public school and Christian learning institutions. Your thesis needs more discerning to find a balance in how we can learn.

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