Christian School: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, May 12, 2013

In the last few weeks, a 4th Grade Science Test reportedly used at a church school has been making the rounds on the Internet. It has been the subject of much mockery and derision, and the comments section of any site that hosts it is invariably filled with people asking the question, "What effect does this sort of teaching have on a child? What sort of person graduates from a school that uses a test like this?" I am that sort of person. I attended a school where if this exact test was not used, it certainly would have been endorsed by many of my teachers.

In the city of Greenville, South Carolina, USA, about 100 miles from Columbia, SC (where this test was allegedly given), I graduated from Shannon Forest Christian School in May of 2000. The school was operated by Shannon Forest Presbyterian Church. I was ranked number five out of a class of twenty-five and I had a 3.8 GPA. I'm not dropping these numbers to pat myself on the back; I'm just trying to give you the picture that I was considered one of the good students.

When I was ten years old, I was physically attacked by some of my fifth-grade classmates at a public elementary school. When the school administrators refused to do anything substantial in response, my parents decided to take my brother and I out of the public school system. I remember being told that my parents believed that I would receive a higher quality education in a church school. If I'm not mistaken, there probably weren't many other private school options besides church school.

Therefore, at the tender age of eleven, I went forthright into the belly of this Christian school, not really knowing exactly what awaited me there, but assured that it would be better than public school. I knew that I would be expected to study "Bible" as an academic subject in addition to English, history, science, mathematics, and all the rest. This troubled me not a bit as I had been raised Catholic (not in a particularly strict way). My mother and paternal grandmother would sometimes take me to church to celebrate the mass (the Catholic Sunday celebration), but my father and paternal grandfather did not attend church.

Things were much better for me in a number of ways. For starters, I was never made to feel like I was in danger of being attacked by other children. Mocked and ridiculed by my peers? Sometimes. Physically attacked? No! I am a software developer, and I definitely was the type of child you might expect to grow up to be a software developer; not a lot of friends! If I got in trouble at school, it was for not sitting still and talking; if I got in trouble at home, it was usually for taking apart a computer that then failing to put back together so that it would work. (Okay, that was one thing I got in trouble for. However, I did get bailed out by a "warranty replacement" on one hard drive after plugging in an IDE cable backwards.) I was also allowed to attend more advanced classes than other children my age and skip the seventh grade. This was a big deal to me; I was raised to value my education, and this accelerated it.

When I graduated, I attended Texas Tech University. I received enough advanced credits to skip over nearly a year of college courses. If I remember correctly, I had achieved "Sophomore Standing" at age 17, a full two to three years ahead of most other students at that level. My very first semester, I enrolled in "Calculus III". After the course concluded (I earned a grade of "A-"), my professor told me that although he found me to be somewhat immature compared to the older students, he was very impressed that any student could walk thru the door and take on such a course straight out of high school.

Based on what I accomplished attending school as I did, I believe that I have proven wrong those who would assume that everyone comes out of such a school intellectually stunted.

However, looking back at my years at Shannon Forest Christian School, I can see a very dark side to my time there. I may not be intellectually stunted, but I received scars that I wear to this day. I will explain.

Scars? Was I paddled or hit at school? No! Never! Not a single time! Shannon Forest had a policy prohibiting corporal punishment. One teacher had a paddle that she would show to her students as though it were a relic from a bygone era.

Am I referring to being scarred metaphorically somehow by a fourth grade science test? No, as a matter of fact, I mean something different from that. In case you're wondering, Charles Darwin and his Evolution Theory were taught side-by-side with the theory that the fossil record was created by a world-wide flood. (We were told that we might have to write about evolution in college.)

Allow me to backtrack again. Recall that I said that I was raised attending Catholic church and Presbyterian school. To many, this is a big deal! "What's the big deal? Don't they both believe that Jesus died for our sins?", you may ask.

The Catholic religion is very heavily ceremonial. There is a proper ceremony for the mass, another ceremony for Christmas, another ceremony for Easter, another ceremony for Reconciliation, and on and on. Presbyterians reject a lot of the ceremony. The central tenent of their religion is "By faith we are saved." ("For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God." Ephesians 2:8)

Catholics and Presbyterians also have in common the doctrine of "Original Sin". Most readers already know what this is, but for those of you who don't know, the basic idea is that after the Creation, Adam and Eve, the first man and woman (and ancestor to every human being), sinned against God and thus acquired a "sinful" nature, which we inherit. Therefore, the moment are born, we are wicked in the sight of God and in need of being forgiven and "saved". Catholics typically believe that we are obligated to participate in the Church ceremonies and worship God to receive our salvation. Presbyterians typically believe that no person or church saves another, that we become "saved" and are forgiven when we have faith in God.

At the center of the religious instruction I received in Christian School was the notion that everyone who believes the correct things, who "has faither" in God will be rewarded for eternity in "Heaven" with God. Those who believe anything else (or have never heard the correct doctrines) will be punished by burning in fire forever in "Hell".

Let's stop and think for a moment about that fourth grade science test. Sure, a person could expose himself to mockery and derision by the unchurched for saying that the theory of evolution is false and that God literally created the world in six days, that God created Eve from Adam's rib, that the fossil record was created when the literal events of the Biblical flood occurred, and that some stars will fall from the sky at the end of the world (Yes, that is in the book of Revelation). I probably would have passed that test with an "A+" had I attended fourth grade at the school where that test was given, and yet, I achieved in college and then began a successful career as a software developer. I'm certain that many children who passed similar tests have gone on to become doctors, engineers, lawyers, and have achieved at the highest levels.

However, let's think about some of those other things I told you about; really think about them. There's hardly a day that went by without hearing something about "If you died today, would you go to Heaven? Are you sure?" One day, a teacher came in to class (who was a respected history teacher, among other things) talking about how there are so many people who are "eightteen inches away from being saved" because that is approximately the distance between the heart and the brain; that figuratively, a person may have God in his head, but not in his heart, so even though he thinks that he has been saved, he hasn't, and will burn in Hell for all eternity when he dies in spite of his best efforts.

Also, on many occasions, I was asked probing questions about exactly what I believed about God. Why? Well-meaning people knew that I was Catholic and that I might not believe the correct things to be saved. Therefore, they were just checking up on me.

I'm not certain about the difference between having God in your head and having God in your heart, but what I have come to believe for certain is that a person could become a raving lunatic worrying about such things. I once read that the reformer Martin Luther (the namesake of Martin Luther King) worried that stepping on two pieces of straw that formed a cross was disrespectful to God.

Probably the worst thing that I suffered was the belief that my father was going to burn in Hell for all eternity.

The writer Richard Dawkins (who I'm certain must be despised at the same level of Charles Darwin at Christian schools and churches everywhere) wrote that a sincere belief in Hell is one of the worst things a person can endure and that to teach such to children is child abuse. Let me refer you to someone else: David Pack, a Christian writer. David says that the modern belief in Hell is a misinterpretation of the Bible that actually arose from old Pagan beliefs.

When I talk about being "scarred", I'm referring to being indoctrinated with these noxious beliefs that people that I love and myself may be tortured for all eternity by a "loving God". Sure such a belief may be eventually cast aside, but once the fear of Hell has been internalized, it can still crop up years later.