A little more reflection prompted by Karl Giberson’s Guardian piece. There Karl describes “surviving” his youthful evangelical subculture. It should not be forgotten, though, that individuals reject all kinds of childhood backgrounds. The bass player in a band I was once in wore a badge saying “I survived a Catholic School”. I met him at a Pentecostal Church. I’ve also known many people who feel they’ve escaped to Christianity from secular environments – whether from the narrowly materialistic parents who said “Religion won’t get you far in this life,” or from the zealously political homes where Karl Marx ruled and the kids went to party conferences rather than Sunday School. Atheism can be oppressive too, as William Murray famously testified regarding his upbringing by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
The fact is, the perception of “survival” depends as much on individuals as on insititutions – not least the individual “victim”. No doubt I’m not the only one to have gone all the way through school with friends who remember their experience with bitterness, whilst you found it enjoyable, or vice versa.
But accepting there are shortcomings in North American Christian culture, is the alternative any better? The daughter of a friend from church has just moved on to the local state secondary school. The kids, in groups, were asked to place in order of importance various cards labelled “family relationships”, “money”, “good job”, “education”, “friendship” and so on. There was also a card labelled “devotion to God” (which suggests it was either an RE lesson or the statutory “religious” school assembly). My friend’s kid noticed that this card remained in the box, and suggested she’d like to see it somewhere in the heirarchical pyramid. “Where?” she was asked. Rather sheepishly (but truthfully) she replied she’d put it at the top, which didn’t go down well, but she was content to see it slotted in somewhere on the pile. Nevertheless, after she’d had to leave the room for a while she returned to find the completed hierarchy with God firmly back in the “unused” box. It’s called group consensus – God is voted out of existence democratically.
Now, clearly to be the only child in your group to attribute to God any importance (and to admit it) is deeply counter-cultural. And pretty risky for an eleven year old. Maybe situations like that don’t occur in US schools, though they would appear to in University science faculties. In the real world secularism is far from neutral.
Yet one other point is of interest in this. The most recent official survey shows that, despite Britain’s increasing secularism, 68% of people still self-identify as Christians. And common experience shows that for most that includes some kind of belief in at least an approximation to the Christian God. This 68%, for the most part, are the people who have taught their kids absolutely no sense of accountability to that God.
This, to me, demonstrates the truth of what Jesus taught. It so happens that my church friend shared her anecdote with me during a Bible study on Mark’s gospel. There we had already remarked that Jesus did not address his message against the pagan state, nor even primarily against the corrupt religious institutions. Instead he called each individual to account for treating God as if he weren’t God. He did not come to call the righteous, or the institutions, but sinners to repentance. It’s important to remind ourselves that the state of the individual heart is overwhelmingly more important, to Christ at least, than the intellectual integrity of any subculture.