Parris Island for the Soul: The Prophetic Schools That Christian Student Need

John Seel explores the parallels between Marine training and Christian schooling.

It seems that life is a drinking bout rather than a war. We clothe ourselves with boudoir trappings rather than armor. Ease and self-indulgence are everywhere preferred to the rigors of military preparedness. We practice on the peaceful harp rather than
on the weapons of warfare, unaware that this sort of peace is the most terrible of all wars.”
— Erasmus

“Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” — St. Paul

“Ever since boot camp, I have believed that life itself is much like combat. Life is a struggle to wrest success from the odds favoring failure and to achieve the satisfaction of overcoming the spiritual and physical challenges that confront the individual striving to be all that he can be, striving to make the world a better place for his loved ones of today and his descendents of tomorrow.” — Zell Miller

Low Expectations

Men are turned into Marines at two locations: Parris Island, South Carolina and San Diego, California. (Female Marine recruits go to Parris Island.) Each year approximately 38,000 Marines receive their basic training, which is far more intellectually and physically rigorous than comparable training in other branches of the military. Most Marines
acknowledge that these twelve weeks are the most difficult thing they ever have had to do in their entire lives. By training, tradition, and triumph, Marines are the elite fighting men and women of the United States Armed Forces. And yet wise drill sergeants warn new recruits that though basic training is hard, it’s not nearly as hard as being a Marine. The training, for all of its intensity, is only training. The real combat—the goal of all the hard work—is still ahead. By contrast, most Christian education does not prepare students for any kind of combat—mental, spiritual, or physical. Parental expectations for the academic discipleship their children need is low, presumably because they are naïve about the character of postmodern culture and the spiritual dangers of the college life their children will soon face. Michael Spencer, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, chides, “Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism.” Week by week, in church youth groups across the country, teens play games. The objective is fun, not disciplined preparation. Pastors, youth group leaders, parents and educators routinely celebrate adolescent immaturity. More often than not, we stunt our kids’ growth, then decry the results.

Acceptance of chronic immaturity is a biblical scandal when one remembers that a sixteen-year-old Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the traditional exemplar of mature discipleship: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38) Clearly, it is time to get serious about discipleship and to expect more from our children and students. Coddling and rescuing has become a form of worldliness. It’s time for them to grow up, to assume responsibility, and to prepare for battle. Playtime is over.

Dorothy Sayers reminded parents in the 1940s that this has not always been the case:

When we think about the remarkably early age at which the young men went up to university in, let us say, Tudor times [14-16 years old], and thereafter were held to assume responsibility for the conduct of their own affairs, are we altogether comfortable about that artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood and adolescence into the years of physical maturity which is so marked in our day? To postpone the acceptance of responsibility to a late date brings with it a number of psychological complications, which, while they may interest the psychiatrist, are scarcely beneficial either to the individual or to society.

Of course, there is a time for children to be children, but there is nothing particularly noble about infancy or child-like behavior. For example, self-will and instant gratification are traits tolerated in babies, but intolerable in adults. Romanticism’s notions of the “noble savage” or “innocent child” are unbiblical. Jesus called his disciples to trust like children but to think and act like adults. God want us to have, writes C.S. Lewis, “a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head. He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at the job, and in first class fighting trim.”

Christians should be able to discern evil and persevere under peer pressure: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness and in deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4:14) So the goal of childrearing is adult maturity, not a protracted, protected, and praised immaturity. The writer to first century Hebrew Christians laments prolonged spiritual immaturity:

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. [emphasis mine] (Hebrews 5:11-14)

Spiritual growth is expected of every believer. If immaturity persists, something is amiss.

A worthwhile benchmark for children’s development is a close examination of Jesus’ own example at twelve, notably the only description of Jesus that we have during his early childhood. Here on the cusp of adulthood (children were assumed to be adults as they entered into their teenage years) we see Jesus taking ownership of his beliefs, passionate about kingdom service, entering into prolonged conversations with adults about things that mattered, asserting growing independence even while maintaining a respect for the authority of his parents. (Luke 2:41-52) Why should we expect less from our sixth graders?

Wartime Footing

We must acknowledge that we are in a battle and that the priorities in our lives must be ordered on the basis of a wartime footing. A new recruit at Parris Island knows well that he will likely be facing hostile fire within weeks. The training moves his attention immediately from the casual to the crucial, with three effects on his attitude.

First, the recruit assumes responsibility for his own preparation. His life and the lives of his comrades will soon be on the line. His commitment to proficiency provides more than rank or a paycheck. Commitment forms core values like honor and duty. All Marines know that they will soon be assigned a task that they alone are able to fulfill and that it must be carried out to the best of their ability, because lives will be at stake.

Until we see Christian schooling in the same light as Marine training, it will not receive the parental support or student attention it rightfully demands. If we truly live on the basis of our beliefs, then those who shape beliefs shape our destiny. Schooling forms a student’s mind and heart. Dallas Willard emphasizes this point: When we bring people to believe differently, they really do become different. One of the greatest weaknesses in our teaching and leadership today is that we spend so much time trying to get people to do things good people are supposed to do, without changing what they really believe…. We frankly need to do much less of this managing of action, and especially with young people. We need to concentrate on changing the minds of those we would reach and serve.

And yet we regularly send unprepared students into spiritually dangerous environments, like sending Cub Scouts to fight forest fires. We routinely send spiritually and intellectually ill-prepared students into university classrooms and dorm brothels that take no prisoners. Our aim must not be isolation from the battle, but adequate preparation for it.

Second, the successful Marine accepts the rigor of the training because of the nature of the coming combat. The measure of the training is dictated by the expected nature of the challenge and the capabilities of one’s foe. Here is a description of our spiritual adversary: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) These adversaries make the terrorists and armies Marines face look like toy soldiers.

Yet Christian parents and educators play games with training because they really do not take what we are up against seriously. We flirt with sin. We taunt the Devil. We let our guard down. When in fact we should be spiritually armed (Ephesians 6:13-17), resistant (James 4:7), and alert (1 Peter 5:8). The fact that we are more than conquerors in Christ (Romans 8:37) must not lull us into complacency or delude us into thinking that we don’t need preparation. “Train yourself to be godly,” Paul charges Timothy. (1 Timothy 4:7) In the heat of battle, automatic responses save lives.

Third, the recruit understands the relevance of the training, because it is tailored to the hardest test he or she will face. Likewise, our students’ training must be spiritually sensitive, academically savvy, and socially relevant. We need to ready them for real engagement against the greatest intellectual challenges of postmodernism and against the greatest social challenges of hedonistic nihilism.

Parents and educators need to face the reality of adolescent life: watch Catherine Hardwicke’s movie “Thirteen,” Emily Abt’s movie “Toe to Toe,” read Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley’s Restless Virgins, Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, the transcript of the PBS documentary “The Lost Children of Rockdale Country.” Learn about the mostly fictitious world of “rainbow parties,” and log on to www.myspace.com. Journalist Caitlin Flanagan writes in The Atlantic, “I believe that we are raising children in a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape in which no forces beyond individual households—individual mothers and fathers—are protecting children from pornography and violent entertainment.”

What did we think we were up against? We need to get our head out of our super-spiritual clouds and honestly address what our children face. Yes, these movies and books are R-rated, but so is their world.

Some well-meaning Christians will immediately appeal to verses such as Philippians 4:8 to counter this recommendation: “Finally, brothers, what is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” This verse, however, is not a prohibition against engagement. These are the guidelines necessary for it. Denis Haack writes:

The apostle is not giving us a checklist by which to measure our involvement with the non-Christian world. Neither is he giving us a justification for withdrawing from the people and culture of Babylon. He is rather commending—and commanding—the development of a fully Christian mind and heart and imagination. When he tells us to “think about such things,” he is using a word, which means to meditate and reflect on, to contemplate, with the result that what is meditated upon becomes so much a part of us that it molds our thinking, our doing, and our feeling. In other words, he is teaching us what is necessary to prepare us to engage the culture and people of Babylon with the gospel, without compromising, and without being seduced by Babylonian ideas and values. Too many Christian schools attempt the impossible task of isolating students from secular culture rather than the fully accomplishable goal of preparing them for secularism’s challenges. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstor suggests that if educators want to get students to follow a particular course of moral action, disciplining behavior based on rules or providing positive role models is not enough. Rather, compelling reasons must be demonstrated to them in the light of the alternative. He writes, “The best defense against attacks on the consensus (truisms) of one’s community is inoculation—presenting and then refuting arguments against the elements of that consensus. Inoculation is far more effective than no defense at all, or reassuring defenses which never so much as mention objections.” Christian schools should equip students for every challenge they may face in the classroom or in the dorm room—from a professor espousing “incredulity to metanaratives” to being “sexiled” by one’s roommate. We must inculcate a confidence in the gospel’s ability to face all comers, rather than a defensiveness that hides behind a compartmentalized piety. We must teach them to follow the clarion call of J. Gresham Machen when he wrote, The Christian cannot be satisfied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all connection with Christianity. Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought. The Christian, therefore, cannot be indifferent to any branch of earnest human endeavor. It things,” he is using a word, which means to meditate and reflect on, to contemplate, with the result that what is meditated upon becomes so much a part of us that it molds our thinking, our doing, and our feeling. In other words, he is teaching us what is necessary to prepare us to engage the culture and people of Babylon with the gospel, without compromising, and without being seduced by Babylonian ideas and values. Too many Christian schools attempt the impossible task of isolating students from secular culture rather than the fully accomplishable goal of preparing them for secularism’s challenges. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstor suggests that if educators want to get students to follow a particular course of moral action, disciplining behavior based on rules or providing positive role models is not enough. Rather, compelling reasons must be demonstrated to them in the light of the alternative. He writes, “The best defense against a acks on the consensus (truisms) of one’s community is inoculation—presenting and then refuting arguments against the elements of that consensus. Inoculation is far more effective than no defense at all, or reassuring defenses which never so much as mention objections.” Christian schools should equip students for every challenge they may face in the classroom or in the dorm room—from a professor espousing “incredulity to metanaratives” to being “sexiled” by one’s roommate. We must inculcate a confidence in the gospel’s ability to face all comers, rather than a defensiveness that hides behind a compartmentalized piety. We must teach them to follow the clarion call of J. Gresham Machen when he wrote, The Christian cannot be satisfied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all connection with Christianity. Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought. The Christian, therefore, cannot be indifferent to any branch of earnest human endeavor. It Know I Learned in the Marines, former Georgia Governor Zell Miller suggests that all Americans need to go back to basic training to relearn the values of neatness, punctuality, brotherhood, persistence, respect, shame, responsibility, achievement, courage, discipline, pride, and loyalty. A free society, he argues, demands broader “characteristics, which constitute the difference between a responsible and contributing human being and an unconscionable savage bent upon taking or destroying whatever they want that they are unable or unwilling to earn for themselves.”

Educators speak of outcome-based education, so what are the routine outcomes we expect to see demonstrated in the lives and capabilities of our classical Christian school graduates? I’ll argue for these six, framed in the language of “prophetic” schools.

1. A prophetic school graduate will think and live out of a Christian worldview rooted in historic, biblical orthodoxy.
2. A prophetic school graduate will demonstrate apprenticeship to Jesus by having a detailed understanding of and plan for spiritual formation.

3. A prophetic school graduate will have a cultivated mind that maximizes his or her intellectual potential in service of truth.

4. A prophetic school graduate will have a captivated imagination in service of meaning and empathy.
5. A prophetic school graduate will have an understanding of the doctrine of calling and a personal sense of how his or her identity and gifts can be used in kingdom service.

6. Finally, a prophetic school graduate will have a global perspective that sees the gospel mandate and the world’s need in its broadest creational context.

Thriving Not Surviving

I believe that this is more than idealistic pap. Throughout my career as a teacher and administrator, students have embodied all of these characteristics. I know their names and can see their faces.

They are my inspiration. It can be done, though too often such students are the exception not the rule. My fear is that it doesn’t happen more often because we don’t expect it to happen. But, if the Marines in twelve weeks can turn a 19-year-old teenager into a combat-ready adult, I do not see why Christian schools, empowered as they are with the resources of the kingdom of heaven, cannot in twelve years turn boys and girls into “Special Forces” in kingdom service.

Our graduates face a society in which Christianity is seldom more than an afterthought—been there done that, so “last year.” They face a world in which objective truth is cast aside as mere social convention or personal opinion. They face a world in which casual sex is de rigour and tolerance for gender confusion a virtue. They face a world in which personal peace and affluence has debased the American dream into a non-stop shopping spree.

Since 2001, the only religious group that grew in every U.S. state was people who say they have “no religion,” about 15% of Americans. But of those between the ages of 16-29, the number jumps to 40% who no longer self-identify as Christians.

And, still, too often the average Christian high school graduate wanders into college life mirroring these cultural values, ill-prepared to make a kingdom difference. Parents and teachers pray that they will survive, when our goal should be that they thrive. Until we believe it is possible, until we believe that the gospel demands nothing less, until we create prophetic schools, the cultural status quo will prevail and the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel will remain irrelevant and ineffective.

Christian schools are sitting on the front lines of what amounts to a civilizational crisis. What we do for our students matters in more ways than we can imagine.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn