About Kiel Nation

Loving my wife. Teaching the Bible. Surviving nuclear threats, earthquakes & typhoons. Cooking curry.

Frodo as Pastor

Every year at least once, sometimes two, three or ten times, I rewatch Lord of the Rings with my wife and/or friends. This year I managed to watch the extended additions with her and showing significant portions of the theatrical version of the first two films to all six of my classes while they were given time to finish their final projects in the last weeks of school. We suffered a pretty major earthquake a couple of months ago, so the whole school is in what I call an “earthquake grace” mode, giving a bit of mercy all around. Lord of the Rings and class time to finish projects felt like an appropriate mix of therapy without sacrificing my educational agenda. It’s on Netflix in Korea so there are Korean subtitles, and surprisingly many of my students had never seen it, or only seen it once when they were much younger. Few to none properly understood the themes nor the source material or any information on the source himself, Tolkien. I was able to educate them properly, having haphazardly put the movie on at first, I’m now planning an Inklings club for next year to make sure the Korean youth in my care do not escape their educational experience without proper and full immersion into Narnia and Middle Earth. God forbid!

This time watching it I was also in the middle of assessing the spiritual formation efforts at our school, and in general I tend to think about pastoral care as I go about my business day to day. My dad is a pastor, and even though I’m adopted I think it’s safe to say it’s in my blood. Watching LOTR over and over with my classes and then at home while thinking about spiritual formation, for some reason I singled out the storyline of Frodo in my mind. While watching Fellowship of the Ring a few of my classes happened to end when Frodo was in Rivendell taking up the mantle of ringbearer while the pantheon of warriors fought with each other. My students were positively transfixed (and angry about having to wait until the next class to continue on). They feel small and powerless, and now understanding the context of the story and who the author was, and what the Hobbits represented, it honestly inspired them. Many of them have suffered severe spiritual abuse from family and churches. There are many awesome Christian people in Korea, and many wonderful pastors. But there are also regular scandals that would make the worst of the western evangelical industrial complex¬† blush. Regularly in the news are things like pastors killing people including family members, fist fighting during meetings, embezzling money, having affairs with significantly younger women, so on and so forth. One student told me about an article that detailed a pastor bringing a gun (illegal to own in Korea) to a meeting and hiring mafia bodyguards to intimidate his own elders at a meeting. Aside from the inspiration for a film script that I hope to submit to Netflix, I was stunned and completely ashamed this behavior was associated with church leaders here. The impact has been huge, and in this neo-confucian culture a lot of times they deal with shame by erasing it as quickly as possible, not processing it at all. This has left many of the youth very unsure about how to move forward with their faith, or if their faith is secure, with their churches. I’m sure many of my western readers of faith (or of former faith) will have little trouble relating to that. Just imagine if our culture was built on collectivist honor and shame more than individualist innocence and guilt, and try to process how a child would navigate these issues. How do you trust spiritual authority? How do you process the evil in your own life when such evil is dominate in those who are supposed to be guiding us into the light?

Enter Frodo. The humble among the powerful know they can’t handle the ring’s power, starting with Gandalf and ending with Galadriel. The scene when Galadriel was tempted by the ring had my students convinced she was evil. When I explained her backstory and what that scene was really showing, that even though she was good she could be corrupted, they expressed tangible fear and dread, and remained glued to the story. How could Frodo withstand the temptation? How could he carry such evil to its destruction when all the high ranking and powerful characters could not?

These little souls carry many burdens and they are desperate to share them. When they do, they give the listener power. This is part of the pastoral experience and a big part of the life of a Christian community. If we don’t have openness and honesty coupled with wisdom, love, humility and care, we have serious danger. With each relationship and each conversation, little rings of power are being handed over to those in leadership. Those in pastoral care are trusting those doing pastoral care to help them destroy the evil in their lives, whatever form it may be, not to use it against them. And yet even Frodo faltered at the end, but he had his Fellowship, and the one remaining member with him, Sam, to get to the precipice. Even then, without a demon creature to exploit Frodo’s weakness with his pure rage, no goodness from within Frodo would have finished the job. It took a divine plan from outside of him to properly do what needed done, and in ways that none of the Fellowship would have planned or thought of.

As I watched this year I thought of how I want our spiritual formation at the school to look a lot more like Frodo. We aren’t wizards or kings or warriors. We’re common people with an uncommon task. I wish more pastors felt this way, and more training was done in this tone. For now I know I can’t leave my students with swords and shields and traditional forms of power, but with the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Somehow, in unexpected ways, through these means the light reaches into the darkness, and evils are vanquished.

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Preaching and teaching, and the distinctive opportunities for Bible teaching in secondary Christian education

Preaching is proclaiming and teaching is explaining. There is more that can be said of course, but this summary is true. Too often there is a harsh dichotomy of emphasis placed between these two. There is also too often a false confluence, that if one has preached they have also taught, or if they have taught they have also preached. These errors may seem small until you witness the results, which are usually some kind of confusion on a spectrum of severity. I’m thinking about it now because I see the results in my students all the time. They have been proclaimed to their whole lives with very little explaining, and have even been told that asking questions is bad. Has this kind of discipleship achieved the desired results? No, it hasn’t, not here in Korea nor in the USA. We don’t want an unquestioning faith, nor a questionable faith. The Bible presents it in balance and Christians are always to strike the balance. The issue is how well we do.

My contention is that there are few to no opportunities for doing the explaining ministry of biblical teaching as well as can be done in Christian secondary schools. Between 7th and 12th grade, six years of education, longer than any Bible college or seminary program and in a much more holistic environment, students under solid instruction and guidance with appropriate curriculum, have the best opportunity to experience the fruit of teaching ministry. I must add, this is not all that is needed for true discipleship and spiritual formation. The word must be proclaimed from pulpits and lived out in homes, and teaching happens in those contexts too, just not like it can and often does in school.

There are many questions that need to be sorted out to do this well, issues protestants, especially of the non-denominational variety tend to avoid, such as what’s the distinction between the role of parents, churches and Christian schools in the character formation and biblical literacy of their children? Answering these questions will also help solving the category errors I wrote about before, such as the distinction between pastors, parents, lay church teachers, and Christian school chaplains and Bible teachers. What I see happening now in my context, and why I’m thinking and writing about it, is that my students are confused and therefore have shut off much of their attention from what they rightfully perceive as a chaos of authority. Their church proclaims a neutered gospel and a fundamentalist ethical system. Their parents proclaim society’s expectations for academic and financial success. And at school they get everything in between. When I try to both proclaim in chapel, and explain in class, the reality and centrality of the Gospel of Christ, I’m looked at with no small amount of confusion. They are too busy avoiding the sins their pastor told them about to consider the majesty of Christ, and they are too busy trying to get in to the best university they can to understand and own their identity in Christ as a gift that changes them, and not something they earn with their good works as defined by neo-Confucian social ethics and modern materialistic standards of living, all baptized into a syncretistic theological soup.

I’m hopeful, because God is the one who unwinds all our confusion for us, but he also ordains his people to be part of that process, and uses the friendships, fellowships, churches, families and schools those relationships build and maintain to do his work. He gives the gifts of teaching and preaching, and it’s his work. He’s done it from the beginning and he’ll continue. But the process of doing it is part of the his refining for those doing the work, and it should be taken seriously and worked at with discipline and thoughtfulness. We live in thoughtless times, the body of Christ should be known for more, and what I’m talking about here is a big part of that.

A few of the burdens of being a Bible teacher at a Christian school

When I say Bible teacher, I don’t mean a preacher or even a seminary professor. I also don’t mean a Sunday school teacher. I mean a Bible teacher at a Christian school. Most folks have a hard time categorizing what you do. To some, you’re a pastor, which isn’t the worst thing unless that’s all they see you as, because when you give them a bad grade on an assignment now you’re evil for grading their spirituality because they forgot you were a teacher assessing their academic skills in a range of academic disciplines related to the Bible. Some will view you as a professor. But then, when you do happen to give spiritual advice, they will tell you about their pastor’s contrary opinion to yours expecting to shut you down, or a book they read, or a podcast they listened to, or Youtube video they watched, or their own freshly formed opinion. It’s to be expected in any field every once and awhile, but something about being a Bible teacher makes people project all their opinions on Christian spirituality on to you such that they expect you to say what they are already thinking, even students, but not view your opinion as important as a pastor of a church. I know this happens in other ministry capacities too, but there are fewer category errors because the lines are more clearly drawn. The fact is, depending on how a school is structured, a Bible teacher has a foot in a pastor realm, an academic realm and a counseling realm. I believe doing the job well means owning this and clarifying what you are aiming to achieve in each setting you’re in as you are in them. It’s just part of the job, and it can take a long time for a new Bible teacher to establish as a practice and policy school wide, but it’s worth it.

Something I have been thinking about a lot is that while there is much attention given to training preachers, and Bible teachers in a church setting, there is very little to no training on teaching Bible in Christian schools. There’s becoming a pastor, a missionary, or a professor, but not an emphasis on primary or secondary schools. The markets of Christian higher education admissions and primary/secondary school Bible teaching jobs both reflect this neglect. Most Bible teacher jobs, and there are a sad few of those, have odd or few requirements, often low pay, and I cannot find a single Christian University or seminary that has a program specializing in Bible teaching to elementary or secondary school youth in a Christian school. Maybe churches and families have got it covered, but from my experience and what data I’ve been exposed to I think not, definitely not to the level needed in our secular age. Furthermore, even if they were, the majority of Christians want Christian education for their kids if they can get it, and a big part of that is because they want solid Bible education. Yet, what Bible education is is often thought of in truly nebulous and unhelpfully varied ways. Hence, many of the jobs are strange hybrids with coaching or other subject and those hired into them are either given too much administrative authority or no authority at all. In my case, my leadership takes it seriously and has given my colleague and I a lot of room to navigate the best practice in our context. Even with a green light to figure it out it is still an uphill battle, and that’s just our world, not to mention the battles inherent to any school., and a Christian one at that, topped off by the fact that we are an international school. That battles are endless. Yet, it’s worth it.

Why is all this worth it? Because of what the Bible is and what is says. If the Bible is the word of God, and I like all Christians believe that it is, and if it tells us to train up in children in the way they should go, with countless examples of that being training them in God’s word, then formally teaching youth in modern Christian schools as best we can is worth it. We also need to remember that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I say there’s a lot we can do to that end.