I’m in the midst of one of my favorite times of the year. I have the privilege every summer of serving as a teacher, and this year as the onsite director, of our denomination’s “Theological Foundations for Youth” program. This program of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America brings rising high school seniors from all over the country to the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh to deepen their walk with Christ and their understanding of the reason Christ raised up this particular branch of his church. Through intense classes, times of singing, prayer, and service to local congregations, and lots of time for students to ask and gain godly insight regarding their soul’s deepest and sometimes darkest doubts and questions, this three week program is really something special. But some would say it’s not about reality at all.
It’s common, even among Christians, to talk of such Christian conferences, camps, and even entire institutions of Christian higher education as “bubbles”, safe places where the sharp edges of life are softened, wherein we spend time living among safe people who won’t really challenge our way of thinking and doing safe things that don’t really cost us much personally and about which we feel unjustifiably proud of ourselves for accomplishing. Angry alumni rant online about how their Christian high schools or colleges sheltered them in ways they didn’t recognize until after graduation when “real life” hit hard and they faced it utterly unprepared, and now in some ways they feel utterly crushed by the hardships they never knew the real world force them to carry. The bubble they’d been living in burst in a big and painful way.
I will not for a second deny that there are indeed some Christian schools which refuse to address major life issues in an intellectually credible and emotionally compassionate way, and this kind of education is terrible preparation for life beyond graduation. These institutions deserve the criticism of their alumni, and they don’t deserve the title “Christian” because they dishonor and implicitly slander Jesus Christ, the personification of compassion and the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. But we should also remember that such schools find their mirror opposite in “secular” schools which presuppose the nonexistence of knowable absolute moral truth and which assume the false dichotomy between the physical and the metaphysical, if matters metaphysical are even addressed in the curriculum. Whether it comes under the guise of Christianity or a purposeful godlessness, such systems are guilty of educational malpractice; they do not prepare students for real life beyond graduation.
But, thinking again of Christian colleges – a subject near to my heart as the chaplain of one – what about those repressive moral strictures we force upon students in our rules for student behavior? Aren’t these just remnants of an antiquated morality which create condescending codes of conduct and incite resentment among students who just want to be treated as adults? How can such stringency prepare students for life in society, life beyond the bubble? Well, again, there may be some codes of conduct on some campuses that are simply arbitrary but treated as morally absolute, as “thus says the Lord” when the Lord didn’t say thus at all. But it seems that often, complaints against Christian college codes of conduct suffer from a fatal irony in their attempt to advocate a more “adult” atmosphere on campus.
Having what some would deride as a strict code of moral conduct is not, in and of itself, prohibitive to preparation for the “real world.” If anything, it better prepares students for the work world by requiring self-restraint and a lived-out sense of personal responsibility, and by demanding that students treat others with respect – in other words, teaching students to act like adults. The idea that you can live however you’d like to, do what you want with whomever you’d like to and binge on whatever you feel like binging on with no real life consequences is utterly unrealistic. Bosses don’t usually go for that kind of entitled attitude, unless the employee is an expert at keeping it to himself – not an easy thing to do in the age of social media and permanent adolescence. Normally, bosses will prefer the hard worker who can actually be trusted, and who shows up on time and doesn’t complain when told to do something he or she might consider a waste of time. And on Christian campuses who represent Christ well, such codes of moral conduct are not merely pragmatic much less arbitrary; they’re grounded in truth and when well executed, are a means of teaching Christ-likeness and can be used among other emphases on campus to introduce the gospel of his saving, transforming grace. Generally speaking, someone whose inner life looks increasingly like that of Jesus Christ would be an employer’s dream come true.
Speaking at least with regard to the Christian college I’m privileged to serve, Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA, there are indeed some very unrealistic elements in the way authority figures deal with students, if realism is measured by what happens after graduation – and this lack of “realism” serves the students really well. When a student struggles and stumbles morally, rather than “throwing the book” at them immediately, we seek to compassionately come alongside them with God’s book, the holy Bible. We don’t simply dismiss students as an employer might if an employee breaches the company’s code of conduct; we seek to minister to the student, to look for underlying issues behind the symptomatic behavior, to engage them on a heart-level with the living Christ, the one who can by the Holy Spirit and the Word he wrote really educate them, way down deep in their inner being. We’re not perfect at it by any stretch; we make mistakes. But we do strive not merely to discipline our students, but to disciple them. We want to teach them not only how to secure a career, but how to carry a cross. You won’t get that beyond the alleged Christian bubbles floating about in a society that doesn’t realize collectively just how much it owes its cherished freedoms and advances to that antiquated book full of repressive moral demands called the Bible.
The Bible is honest and wise about the way life really works, before and after graduation. And the Bible not only prepares us for the real world; it teaches us to change it. It teaches us to live out truth which will endure long beyond silly, immature and often deadly vanities which will all pass away, and which some to the destruction of their lives hail with tragic irony as the marks of personal maturity. Christian conferences, camps and campuses seeking to promote truly Christian, Christ-exalting education are more grounded in reality than all of the secular reasoning and edifices of self and state worship that surround them in “the real world”, the systems of thought and life driven and doomed by their unreasonable and unrealistic lust for autonomy; they serve the world which Scripture tells us is passing away to yield to something permanent, something eternally true.
So, where Christian bubbles – and secular ones – do exist, we ought to burst them with the sword of the Spirit, the word of the living God. And we ought to pursue instead the best kind of education, the kind that prepares us to breathe into this world the life and truth and freedom of the world to come. This education involves far more than choice of schools – much as I love Geneva, I know and am grateful that the Lord leads his people into and to become part of state schools as well. But that’s precisely my point. Christ’s kingdom is universal; he’s the real ruler of the real world. So going to a school that thoughtfully and carefully acknowledges that truth in every aspect of its education is not living in a bubble, it’s standing on something solid.
If you think of it, please pray for the TFY program, for its faculty and staff, and especially for the precious students whom we have the privilege to serve in the name of the living God, to help prepare them for real life.