Up, up, and away! Seriously?

A few days ago I was lecturing on Jewish apocalyptic literature (literature that deals with the end of time). I was explaining to the students that apocalyptic ideas generally surface during desperate times when people are hoping and praying for an end of the present age and for good to conquer evil. My lecture was specifically focused on the Book of Daniel, written during the dark time of Syrian rule when the people of Judah were forced to worship Greek Gods. I explained to my students that Daniel had a vision of a “Son of Man” (great king) descending to earth from the clouds to save his people. I went on to explain how this idea was later picked up and expanded on by the Christian, Paul (as in the Apostle Paul). It is a fact that Christians await the return of Jesus, and it was Paul who explained how it will play out. Here is what Paul wrote:

“For the Lord [Jesus] himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17

At this point in the lecture I ask if anyone knows what this event – Christians being sucked up into the air to meet Jesus in the clouds – is called. I typically have a few kids who know the answer: the Rapture. Using the below images I show the kids what this might look like.

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I use the above illustration to explain to my students how many Christians envision total chaos when the Rapture begins. In other words, cars and planes will crash out of control as pilots and drivers are sucked out of their seats.It is usually at this point in the lecture when many of my students who are totally unfamiliar with this idea start to look at me as if I had just vomited up a goat.

I tell the students that according to conservative Christians not all people will be Raptured, many will be “Left behind.” Hence, the popular Left Behind book series and movie starring Kirk Cameron.

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It was at this point in my lecture a few days ago a student by the name of Brady blurted out “how can people believe in this stuff?” I told him that people often believe what they are raised to believe. It is worth noting that most of my students have been raised in the church and have never heard of the Rapture. Why? The answer lies in the fact that mainstream protestant churches do not focus on end-of-time events, whereas conservative evangelical churches do. As a result, my evangelical students are consistently well versed in matters pertaining to the end of time (the Rapture, the Tribulation, the antiChrist, the mark of the beast, Judgment Day, hell, etc.).

During this lecture I remind my students that just last year many Christians were predicting the return of Jesus to occur on May 21. It was a date predicted by a popular conservative Christian by the name of Harold Camping. Camping founded a popular Christian radio show called Family Radio in 1958 and has hosted a call-in radio program called Open Forum since 1961. The followers of Camping, along with an organization called We Can Know, spent thousands of dollars on billboard space to get the word out. And, as you can imagine, atheists from all across the country could not resist throwing their voice into the discussion with their own billboards (scroll down to see the battling billboards).

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It is important to point out that not all conservative Christians agreed with this prediction, and for sound Biblical reasons. The Bible does say “No one knows the day or the hour” of Jesus’ return, and none of my evangelical students expected the Rapture to happen on the 21st of May. Needles to say, none of my students were surprised that Jesus did not return.

I should point out that after the predicted date came and went the below billboard appeared. I’m not sure where it appeared, or who paid for it, but I find it hysterical!

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In the seventeen years that I have been teaching world religion in Red Wing, Minnesota, I have had well over a thousand Christian students,and I can tell you honestly they are not all the same. The fact that all of my church-going evangelical students know everything about the Rapture and nearly all my church-going mainstream protestant students know nothing of it speaks volumes to the variations in what kids learn about in church. The Christian faith is very diverse, and there are many ways to be a Christian, just as there are many ways to be a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or Jew. Diversity is everywhere, and public schools need to help our kids understand it, all of it.

Battle of the Billboards

Conservatives are quick to celebrate unregulated competition. They see it as crucial to a healthy economy and a free society. Competition, they argue, leads to efficiency, lower prices, and high quality goods; and any movement away from competition is a step in the direction of socialism and communism.

During the holiday season competition goes into overdrive as stores and businesses compete for our dollars. But it is not just our money that is being competed for, it is also our minds.

Believe it or not atheism is a heavily marketed “product” this time of the year. Atheist organizations around the country rent space on billboards to sell their “Christmas message.” The below example is from last year in New York City.

Holiday Billboard Battle

It is interesting (almost comical) to note that the Catholic Church, not wanting to be out advertised, put up their own billboard in a space near the atheist billboard. Ah…let the competition begin and all the good that competition breeds!

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As Americans we do live in a market place of ideas. Competition is crucial for a healthy mind as much as it is crucial for a healthy economy. Thank God (?) for competition! Just a thought.

Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. Wait, what?

Thomas Jefferson, the celebrated author of the Declaration of Independence, would not be overly surprised to hear that his portrait is on the nickel, but he would certainly be rolling in his grave if he knew the words “IN GOD WE TRUST” were printed along side of his face. Why? Because Jefferson was not a Christian, he was a Deist. He was, in Christian terms, a “non believer.”

There is a common misconception that all of the Founding Fathers were Christians. They were not, and Jefferson is one example.

Deism is something nearly all of my students are unaware of until they take my world religion course. Most students understand atheism and they might even know an atheist, but not many students know about deism, let alone know a deist.

Unlike an atheist a deist does believe in a higher power as the creator of the world, but unlike a Christian, a deist does not believe in miracles. Deism holds firmly to the idea that natural law runs the world – always has and always will. In other words, Jefferson rejected miracle stories. He did not believe in the divinity of Jesus nor the claim that Jesus walked on water and rose from the grave. Not only did he reject these ideas he literally,using a razor blade,cut them out of the Bible; he removed the “diamonds from the dunghill” (Jefferson’s own words). The Bibles he cut up are on display in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C..

To many Christians the act of cutting up the New Testament and throwing portions of it away as garbage is nothing short of sacrilege, and the claim that Jesus was not the only son of God, blasphemy. At first glance one might be tempted to see Jefferson as a “Christ hater,” but he was far from that. Ironically, Jefferson greatly admired Jesus as a counter cultural sage and teacher of wisdom and social justice. His intention in cutting up the Bible was to remove those elements of the story that defied reason and natural law so a more accurate and “reasonable” picture of the historical Jesus could surface.

For patriotic conservative Christians Jefferson is a bit of an embarrassment, and his views on religion a bit problematic for those who try to argue that America was created by Bible-believing Christians. Jefferson viewed the supernatural aspects of religion as nothing more than superstitions propping up useless and dangerous dogma. Jefferson, in today’s terminology, was a “free-thinker,” but he was NOT an atheist and he was not a Christian.

In 1904 Congress published Jefferson’s “cut version” of Jesus’ story, commonly known as The Jefferson Bible, and gave a copy to each new member of Congress. This practice continued for the next fifty years.

Jefferson’s Bible is an example of how many people separate and celebrate the wisdom of great teachers like Jesus from the dogma of religion. As Americans we should be proud to claim Jefferson as one of our own, and the memorializing of Jefferson is a shining example of how America can embrace and celebrate those who are free-thinkers and non religious, but obviously not all agree

If it takes a whole village, we’re in trouble.

Every day across America millions of young children in public schools are taught that dinosaurs are millions of years old and that all living things evolved, and then, usually on Sunday morning, they are told by their churches that the public schools have it all wrong. Oh, my! What is a kid to believe?

The dichotomy between what schools teach and what some churches preach should be a concern to every community. And if it takes a whole village to raise a child, as the old saying goes, some kids might be in trouble.

The trouble lies in the fact that many conservative churches do not just dismiss evolution, they demonize it. In the below cartoon, published in a popular creationist magazine, the public schools and the teaching of biological evolution are linked to school shootings and violence! Tying the teaching of evolution to homicidal behavior is outrageous, but it does speak to how fearful (and blaming) some Christians are of scientific reasoning and public schools.

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My concern is that this contentious division between what conservative churches teach, creationism (aka “intelligent design,” “creation science,” “Biblical literalism”), and what public schools want students to learn (critical thinking skills) can make kids feel an uncomfortable pressure to take sides. In many ways it is like a nasty custody case where both parents are accusing the other of being a neglectful parent; the church accusing the schools of locking God out of the classroom, and the schools accusing the church of locking the intellect out of their sanctuaries. And, like most ugly custody cases, the children are caught in the hostile crossfire of opposing messages.

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According to a recent gallop poll forty percent of Americans subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible. The number is higher among Republicans, fifty-two percent! This poll reflects a major division in America that our communities need to take seriously if we are serious about “no child left behind.” It is worth noting that states consistently at the very bottom in student achievement scores the area of science, according to ACT testing data, are all from the south and from those states that make up the Bible Belt. It is not a coincidence that in states where Biblical literalism is strongest, science scores are the lowest. To view the data click on the below link.

http://www.mibazaar.com/education/actscores.html

Here in Red Wing, Minnesota, there are numerous large and well-established churches that teach their young that all of creation was brought into existence some 10,000 years ago exactly as described in the book of Genesis. These churches passionately believe that a literal reading of the Bible out trumps scientific reasoning when it comes to explaining the origins of life. Consequently, children who are enrolled in the Red Wing school district who attend any one of these conservative churches must choose who to trust, their pastors or school teachers.

To avoid putting children in this position many parents choose to home school their children. It is estimated that seventy five percent of evangelical Christians home school their children. There are many sound reasons why a child should be home schooled, but sheltering a child from scientific reasoning should never be one of them.

Here is the problem as I see it: conservative evangelical children are raised to believe that critical thinking is okay as long as it never intrudes upon Biblical Truth. If it does, it then must be resisted and treated as an enemy and agent of Satan, the Great Deceiver. But wait, there’s more! Not only is evolution viewed by some churches as evil, it is also seen as the cause of all other evils. The below illustration is from a pamphlet distributed by the Pittsburgh Creation Society, and sums up nicely the extent to which conservative Christians see the teaching of evolution as the root cause of many other “problems” such as hard rock, sex education, abortion, suicide, socialism, crime, homosexuality, terrorism, and inflation (Inflation! Really!?).

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I recently had a conversation with a colleague of mine in the science department. He told me that despite numerous lab experiments in microbiology that visibly demonstrate the evolutionary processes, he still has students say they don’t believe in evolution. How can this be? Perhaps Mark Twain has the answer:

“When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to caste a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I could do it myself.”

- Mark Twain

Like all teachers I expect my students to think critically and to objectively examine everything, including the Bible. Do I think the Bible has value? Yes! Absolutely! The Bible is an amazing snapshot in time of how people before the advent of scientific reasoning thought, worshiped, and viewed the world, and it is loaded with wisdom and ideas that live on in three major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The Bible is truly an amazing book that has, in both good ways and bad ways, played a major role in shaping Western civilization. However, it is not a science book. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of faith, but any worldview that can be shaken by critical thinking might need to be shaken. Just a thought.

Is Jesus Dead?

There are flashbulb memories in every teacher’s career that stand out, moments in the classroom that cannot and will not ever be forgotten. One such moment for me happened in the fall of 1997. I remember it like it was yesterday. Class had ended and the bell had just rung and students were up and out of their desks heading for the door. But one student slowly and hesitantly moved her way to my desk. Her name was Angel.

Angel was a seventeen year old junior with brown eyes and dark brown hair. Academically she was an average student. She was not in special education, nor was she was on an IEP (Individual Education Plan), and she had no case worker and no learning disability – she was a “typical” student.

As she approached my desk I could sense there was an issue about to unfold. She looked a little apprehensive and nervous. At the time I did not know her name, but I would soon never forget it.

Upon reaching the front of my desk she put her books down and sheepishly said, “Mr. Morrison, I have a question.” “Let’s hear,” I replied warmly. She glanced behind her and scanned the room as if wanting to make sure no other students were in earshot, and then turned to me and said, “I don’t know anything about religion and I’m a little embarrassed to ask this.” I smiled and assured her that I welcomed all questions. An uneasy smile spread across her face and I’m pretty sure she was blushing when she asked me a question I will never forget: “Is Jesus Dead?”

The question caught me off guard. It was apparent that she was not asking a metaphorical question pertaining to resurrection theology. She literally wanted to know if Jesus was dead or alive in the literal sense. I paused briefly to process her question. “Wow!” I thought to myself. “Here is a young lady living in a small Minnesota town who does not know if Jesus is dead. How can this be?”

“He’s dead.” I answered calmly and objectively, trying to not act overly surprised. “He died nearly two thousand years ago.” “Okay,” she replied. “I was not sure. I don’t know anything about religion,” she explained. “I have never been to church, my parents have never been to church, and none of my friends go to church, so I really don’t know anything about all this stuff.”

“Well then,” I said with a warm smile, “you’re in the right class.”

“I know!” she exclaimed laughing. “I’m really looking forward to it!”

As she headed for the door and out into the hallway I remember feeling dumbstruck by how odd it was that a kid her age, living in Minnesota, would not know if Jesus was alive. Or was it odd? I remember my daughter once asked me if Easter was when Santa Clause was nailed to the cross. I remember laughing. The image of a crucified Santa with elves and reindeer at the foot of the cross weeping uncontrollably was so outrageous I had to laugh! My daughter was clearly ignorant and did not understand Jesus’ connection to Easter and Christmas. However, she was only four years-old at the time. Her naive question was understandable, especially given the fact that images of Santa and magical bunnies outnumber images of Jesus a gazillion-to-one in the media and marketing frenzy of the holiday seasons. As a culture we can easily forgive a four year-old for not knowing the facts about Jesus, Christmas, and Easter. But as a culture can we forgive ourselves when a born-and-raised-in-America high school student does not know if Jesus is a living human being? Obviously we should not fault Angel for being ignorant; her parents, friends, and elementary school teachers taught her nothing about religion. The fault lies with the American educational system and its almost total reluctance to teach about religion.

In 2010 Pew Forum conducted a major survey showing that Americans, for the most part, are the most religiously illiterate people among the industrialized nations. It is a well-known fact that in Europe – and every foreign exchange student I have had in class will attest to this – religion is a standard part of elementary and high school education, and for good reason. Historically and politically, religion has proven itself to be a life-shaping force that influences personal choices and public policy around the world, as well as international relationships. “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics,” said Gandhi, “do not know what religion is.”

If 9-11 and the mass suicide by the followers of Reverend Jim Jones have taught us anything it has taught us that religion can miscarriage in a deadly and horrific way. To not teach our children about the good, the bad, and the potentially dangerous aspects of religion is to ensure the growth of ignorance and all the dangers that ignorance can breed. Obviously a student like Angel leaving high school with no knowledge of religion does not pose an immediate or automatic threat to civility or to her personal safety; children can be raised to be community-minded and moralistic in the absence of any kind of traditional religious doctrine. However, if public schools do not educate children about religion others may try. The harsh reality of life tells us that religious cults and extremist groups seek out the young and ignorant to exploit, recruit, and indoctrinate with their dogma. Fanatical extremist groups are not limited to just the Mideast. They are here in America as well. And if public schools do not teach about religion and explain the inherent pros and cons, who will? The churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues can only do so much with those who voluntarily come through their doors, and even then there is no guarantee that they will not preach and teach extremist views that turn children into suicide bombers and gay-bashing hate mongers.

American public schools have a moral obligation to protect children and arm them with knowledge that will help them survive and thrive in the real world. Knowledge about religion should be a top priority, but it is not (for reasons I will address in later posts). If, as a nation, we are willing to spends millions and millions of dollars in teacher salaries to ensure that children know how to play badminton and keep score in bowling (as is done in physical education), we should be able to find the money, resources, and resolve to ensure that our children leave high school knowing what religion is and what it is not. Can we really afford to become a country of “Angels”?