A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Christian Education, Part 3
Christian Educational Censorship
This selection is an excerpt from Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission
Censorship in education is a controversial topic in both Christian schools and public schools. A Christian teacher has the Bible as a guide and example for making wise choices about objectionable elements students will encounter in literature.
We need always to distinguish between the educational and recreative purposes of reading and viewing. The Christian cannot read for pleasure works or parts of works whose censorable elements do not pass the Scriptural test. The Christian's enjoyment of a work must be determined by the degree to which its form and content approach the Biblical standard. However, the educational purpose requires at times a greater latitude than the recreative. If we are to obey the Lord's commandment to be "wise as serpents" as well as "harmless as doves," we need to know what we are to be wary of. We need to be conscious of events and developments that have a bearing on our service for the Lord and on the well-being of ourselves and those under our care. One cannot read far in even National Geographic or U.S. News & World Report without encountering censorable elements. We are justified, indeed obligated, to expose ourselves to some material that is repugnant to our Christian morality and theology so that Satan may not take advantage of us and ours. This latitude does not extend to idle curiosity; it stops where the recreative interest begins.
Genuine moral education
Christian moral education aims at the moral preservation and development of Christian students. This aim entails teaching them to discern and desire good and to recognize and abhor evil, before they encounter the crucial and often subtle moral choices of adulthood. Most often, in literature as in life, good and evil are intertwined. The older the student, the more easily he can separate the strands, categorizing his responses. Christian education, in home and school, has not accomplished its purpose in the mind of the student and prepared him for life until he has learned to discriminate between the good and bad elements of his experience with the world and to choose the one rather than the other. The Christian educator must not only judge but also teach judging if he is to engage in Biblical moral education.
Education, then, is preparation, and preparation implies a process. There are two notions of moral education that are not really education at all, for they involve no process:
- Immediate immersion (immediate exposure to the evils of the world). The permissivist secular view assumes there exist from the beginning the capabilities it undertakes to teach.
- Ignorant innocence (complete seclusion from the evils of the world). The exclusivist view provides for no development of discernment and resistance to the evils of the world. This view is what Christian educators are often charged with holding and what, in fact, some of them actually think they hold.
Neither concept of moral education allows for any process of preparation for confronting and resisting the deceptions of the world. In reality these conceptions are not moral education at all, but moral noneducation. If we wish to educate a person to survive in water over his head, we may, of course, push him in suddenly (the method of immediate immersion) and trust his innate swimmer's intelligence. We can, on the other hand, try to keep him away from the water (the method of ignorant innocence), though we cannot be sure that he may not someday be trapped in a flood or on a sinking vessel. The better way, we think, is to teach him to swim. We will introduce him to the water gradually with someone present to instruct him so that someday he can survive on his own.
Two Special Problems
In order not to leave doubts unanswered, we need to give special attention to the two censorable elements that are most flagrantly prevalent in the modern moral environment and yet that are not absolutely condemned in the Scriptures: erotic and scatological realism. Occurrences of these elements in the Bible suggest two mutually qualifying principles in the divine attitude toward them: (1) the goodness of nature as God created it and (2) the propriety of concealment because of the fall. The human bodily functions are part of the divine creation that God approved and blessed: "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). Since the fall, the body has shared the corruption of the fallen nature even in redeemed man, and the redemption of the body will be the last step in God's restoration of man to what he has lost. However, it is clear that the human physiology itself and the physical desires created in man by God are not to be despised but to be regarded with respect as part of His handiwork. "I will praise thee," wrote David, "for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well" (Ps. 139:14).
Both the procreative and excremental functions are recognized in the Scriptures and are mentioned without any sense of shame. They are, however, regarded as private: in the case of the marriage union, to preserve its meaning to those involved; in the case of the excremental processes, to prevent offense to others. Modern thinking typically supposes, on the one hand, that the goodness of nature justifies the flaunting of nature and, on the other, that the impulse for concealment implies shame. The divine view combines high respect and secrecy. Upon those parts that fallen nature regards as uncomely--those kept clothed--God, says Paul, has bestowed "more abundant honour" (I Cor. 12:23-24).
Eroticism in the Scriptures is both fervently approved and vehemently condemned. Physical intimacy within marriage is not only tolerated (as in Roman Catholic theology) but also commanded and celebrated (I Cor. 7:3-5; Song of Solomon, passim). Physical intimacy between the sexes outside marriage is fiercely denounced and threatened. "Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge" (Heb. 13:4). The measure of the divine approval of the sexual relationship in marriage is the measure of the divine disapproval of its perversion outside of marriage. Also, in the command to "flee . . . youthful lusts" (II Tim. 2:22; I Cor. 6:18) is a recognition of the power of perverse sexual desire to destroy the spiritual life. "Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned?" asks Solomon (Prov. 6:27-28). Divine wisdom in Proverbs juxtaposes accounts of licit and illicit eroticism with exhortations to enjoy the one and shun the other (chapters 5-7).
The Biblical view of the marriage union is both more idealistic and more realistic than the common view today even among Christians. In both Old and New Testaments, the marriage union images the relationship between God and His people. Christians throughout the ages have seen in the celebration of the physical loveliness of the bride and the fervent desire for physical consummation in the Song of Solomon a picture of Christ's love for His Church. The prophets depict the love of Jehovah for Israel and His grieving over Israel's rebellion in terms of the marriage relationship. Ezekiel represents the broken relationship in strikingly erotic terms (chapters 16 and 23). Spiritual infidelity is represented as harlotry from the prophetic books to the Revelation. The defilement of the temple in Jerusalem by the heathen, a consequence of Jehovah's abandonment of Israel to her lovers, is described as a sexual violation of a once-holy sanctuary (Lam. 1-2). The use of this imagery to express the relationship of God and His people indicates the high value He places upon the marriage union, including the physical experience, and the favor with which He regards those who preserve it undefiled.
But combined with the idealistic perspective of the Scriptures is also the realistic. The Scriptures speak matter-of-factly about the "duty of marriage" (Exod. 21:10), "the natural use of the woman" (Rom. 1:27), and the need to "come together" regularly to avoid the temptation of the devil (I Cor. 7:5). Discussions of marriage today tend to be either idealistic or realistic rather than both. The result tends to be either sentimental or coldly practical. Both the highest idealism and the most practical realism combine in the Biblical view of the marriage union, whose purpose is severalfold: human happiness, the replenishing of the species, and a defense against incontinency. A fourth purpose, often neglected, is to produce "a godly seed" (Mal. 2:15)--in the words of the poet, "Of blessed saints for to increase the count" (Edmund Spenser, Epithalamion, l. 423). The function of the erotic in each of these purposes is obvious.
The representation of the erotic in the Scriptures exceeds what in literature would be the tolerance threshold of many moral conservatives but is less obtrusive and graphic than its manifestation in modern literature generally. Its level of explicitness in the Scriptures varies somewhat according to whether the Holy Spirit is depicting virtuous or vicious love, whether (in the case of virtuous love) the perspective is ideal or practical, and whether the eroticism is being rendered metaphorically or is the metaphoric vehicle of another idea--namely, the relationship of God to His people.
In the case of virtuous love in particular, the privacy associated by the Scriptures with the physical union is reflected in a certain tact with which manifestations of it appear in the sacred text. This privacy, as indicated above, is not because of shame but for the protection and honor of an exclusive relationship. The purpose of figurative expression in the Song of Solomon is both to protect from profanation and to glorify the reality to which it refers. There is frank description to a certain degree and figurative representation thereafter. In its affirming the goodness of the marriage union, this description is the very antithesis of the pornographic in purpose and effect.
As the metaphoric vehicle, rather than what is rendered metaphorically, eroticism appears with greater explicitness, particularly in the prophets' denunciation of Israel's disloyalty to Jehovah. Israel, charged Ezekiel, "doted upon their paramours [the Babylonians], whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses." This Israel did as in "the lewdness of thy youth, in bruising thy teats by the Egyptians for the paps of thy youth" (23:20-21). The loftiness of the ideal of virtuous love in the Song of Solomon permits less explicitness than the searing scorn of Ezekiel toward the profaned relationship of Israel with Jehovah. Idolatrous Israel had nothing left to conceal.
The explicitness of the practical perspective in the Scriptures appears in Paul's commands concerning the physical obligations of the marriage relationship in I Corinthians 7. Paul is straightforward and specific in answering the questions of the Corinthians. The passage is a model of spiritual advice. An even bolder explicitness appears in Paul's discussion of circumcision in Galatians. Angered by the Judaizers' insistence upon circumcising the Gentiles, Paul exclaims that castration might quickly allay their concerns: "I would they were even cut off which trouble you" (Gal. 5:12).
The Christian turns to the Bible for his standard in evaluating erotic realism in literature. Is the Biblical moral perspective present? Is there an affirmation of the good and the true and a condemnation of the evil and the false? If so, is there also a mutually qualifying idealism and realism in the presentation of the good? Is there a controlled and purposeful explicitness? On this basis the Christian can reject the overwhelming majority of instances of explicit erotic description without condemning those instances, rare as they be, that conform to the practice of Scripture.
Scatological realism, like erotic, is more apparent in the Scriptures than most moral conservatives would find tolerable in literature but less apparent than in much of modern literature. References to excrement or to the excremental functions appear usually in passages implying divine contempt or disgust. Divine indignation appears in the language with which the Lord has the prophet Ahijah address the disguised wife of Jeroboam in I Kings 14:7-10. "Go, tell Jeroboam, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Forasmuch as I exalted thee from among the people, and made thee prince over my people Israel, And rent the kingdom away from the house of David, and gave it thee: and yet thou hast not been as my servant David, who kept my commandments, and who followed me with all his heart, to do that only which was right in mine eyes; But hast done evil above all that were before thee: for thou hast gone and made thee other gods, and molten images, to provoke me to anger, and hast cast me behind thy back: Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone."
A similar contempt appears in the Lord's message to the wicked priests through Malachi (2:1-3).
And now, O ye priests, this commandment is for you. If ye will not hear, and if ye will not lay it to heart, to give glory unto my name, saith the Lord of hosts, I will even send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings: yea, I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts; and one shall take you away with it.
Paul, comparing the acquired capabilities and credentials which he once valued so highly (and which, by the way, the Lord continued to use after Paul's conversion) to his present concerns and goals, said that he counted them "but dung" that he might "win Christ." He used some of the strongest available language to express contempt for his former values. Expressing God's contempt for Israel's facade of respectability, Isaiah wrote, "All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" (64:6). The reference is to discarded menstrual napkins. To the Laodicean church, the Lord Jesus has John write, "Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth" (Rev. 3:16).
These and other references assume the obnoxiousness of excrement to civilized man. They also associate moral and spiritual purity with physical cleanliness. To leave human excrement uncovered in the camp of Israel was to offend the sensibilities not only of man but also of Jehovah (Deut. 23:12-14). This offensiveness exists presumably when excremental references gratuitously cover the pages of literature or appear in conversation. Both speaking and writing are social acts liable to moral censure. The most naturalistic of writers have not considered descriptions of urination and defecation necessary, in fiction or nonfiction, to ensure realism. Gratuitous scatological references are quite properly regarded as defilement in verbal communication--all the more so when they are used to degrade and desecrate the pure and noble. By most of today's writers they are not used to portray the vileness of a thing as it appears in the eyes of God.
Should Christians judge acceptable the kind of rough language used by God in the Old Testament in response to Israel's degeneracy? The criteria of gratuitousness, explicitness, and moral tone apply here as elsewhere. Is the occasion analogous to those that elicited this language in the Scriptures? Is the target of the language spiritually and morally detestable to a degree that would be equally disgusting to God and His people and incur a similar rebuke? Is such expression similarly motivated? Will it be similarly received? Are social sensibilities today such that similar expressions will have a similar effect, or will they complicate the impact in a way that will cause confusion? Advanced societies with sanitary conveniences live farther from "nature" than do less well-developed societies and become more fastidious about such matters. The Biblical model together with a sensitivity to social norms will be a sufficient guide for judging instances of this type of the censorable.
These considerations must also control our own practice. Nature, as God created it, is not evil, but neither is concealment, whether for protection of the precious or for accommodation of others' sensitivities. Extreme wickedness merits strong but not reckless language. The believer's speech should be "seasoned with salt," not salty; it should communicate "alway with grace" (Col. 4:6). The enemies of Jesus tried but failed to "catch him in his words" (Mark 12:13)--words that had keen edge but also graciousness (Luke 4:22). The Biblical standard, today as then, is "sound speech, that cannot be condemned" (Titus 2:8).
The Christian concept and practice of censorship is an outgrowth of the Christian philosophy of education. (See Chapters 1 and 2.) All non-Christian material in the Christian classroom functions to make a Christian point. It is godly to present ungodliness in a Biblical manner, for a Biblical purpose, and to a Biblical effect. It is ungodly to use what might seem the freedom of Scripture as a cloak of licentiousness (cf. I Pet. 2:16). Genuinely Christian teaching, permeated with Scripture and directed by the Spirit of God, remains morally and spiritually well-targeted in its choice and use of materials. It meanwhile does not deny accountability to the trustees, administrators, principals, and parents it serves.
Chapter four of Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission, ©1992. Used with permission of BJU Press. For permission to reproduce this article or to link to this page, please write JourneyForth@bjupress.com.