Mental Malaise in a Fragmented Age

A reoccurring issue in both the books I’m reading and in the schools I’ve worked at, is that we live in an age of particular fragmentations and on a scale that is unique. Reasons for this vary, but the internet age is part of it. How we have utilized the internet is another factor, such as social media, and the ubiquity of mobile internet devices in the hands of increasingly younger people is perhaps the biggest. It’s the amount of info, including targeted ads and messaging, in the hands and drawing the eyes of a critical mass of young people that has led to a kind of fragmentation of identity and a malaise that follows it. Students are overwhelmed with information and then with the the task of making sense of it. Adults have the issue as well, and while they have tried, or not, to figure out this new life, they have certainly failed to pass a serviceable amount of wisdom to the next generation.

In my own experience of being a student when the internet first really popped, and mobile technology quickly followed, there was a fragmentation of knowledge, how to interpret it, how to act on it, and confusion was a very common feeling. At the time I didn’t appreciate any of this as a global phenomena or anything beyond my own experience. I took it as a problem of fitting in on my part as an individual. It wasn’t long before I went to university and realized the issue was a bit bigger than me, and then further into life to see a larger impact, especially as I traveled and worked around the USA and the world. Now the market is flooded with books, talks, consultants, and all manner of attempts to sort it all out. We no longer have a unified story, or identity, and with the loss has gone a basis for agreed upon virtues. We are well marketed into consumerism, but very poorly discipled into humanity.

I say none of this as a technology naysayer. I’m largely for technology and its utilization in education. But I also can’t deny what I and the market at large are seeing, and that is a real dearth of wisdom, perhaps a specific kind of wisdom in the form of information literacy. With incredulity towards metanarrative comes the absence of the kinds of norms that support any harmony between an intellectual and a virtuous life. There is only left a life of distraction and whim. Happiness is quick to fade as well. Suicide becomes a common thought, and slowly a more common practice. Fragmented attention, fragmented stories, fragmented lives and malaise are all that’s available under this worldview rubric. And to this end the materialistic cultures rush headlong.

As a Christian I have to acknowledge the fragmentation of my own tribe. It’s well beyond good apostle’s warnings to not “be of Paul, or Apollos, but of Christ.” It’s also beyond schisms and reformations and three major divisions. We’re well into thousands of expressions of faith, some quite close, others may as well be from different galaxies. The debate about doctrinal and practical norms will perhaps never cease until time’s end. And yet, in my experience and in my intellectual explorations, I can find no greater answer to the problems of our age than the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Bible in which its contents are found. While the various traditions squabble over what the Bible is, and how it is to be used, and what other sources of authority to draw from and how precisely to do that, at the end of the day it is the Bible and it is the life and work of Jesus that are the center of the Christian story. While we have much to overcome, we have so much to offer. I for one draw a great deal of purpose from this effort in my context. There is a wholeness to be had amidst the fragments, and a healing calm more powerful than the malaise.

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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.

Thoughts on being and feeling foreign

I’m in my home state of Kentucky for the first time in several years, and back in the United States for the first time in a year and a half. It’s the longest I’ve been away from both and coming back feels both strange and wonderful. I can feel all the friction in life of being a foreigner dissipate, and that’s quite an experience, to notice a lack of friction. I guess this is one of ¬†the things the experience of living abroad buys you, you can feel “home” more deeply.

It’s all still pretty fresh still and will only last a few weeks, but my mind is already drifting into thoughts about just how foreign I am in Korea and how much I feel it. Korea is easy to learn to survive in but hard to feel at home in. I love it, no doubt, I truly do. I love being and feeling foreign, and when someone local takes the time to make you feel and be less so, it’s a real gift and friendships can grow quick and deep in that way. Likewise, when someone local takes no time to do that, or takes time to make you feel more foreign it can feel horrible and disheartening. Experiencing both of these things while out and about is one thing, but where one works and lives is harder. For me, my place of employment is the hottest furnace of cultural friction. It’s accredited both by an international Christian school organization and by the Korean government. It often feels like two schools in different dimensions existing side by side and overlapping each other in some quantum realm where the rules of physics are broken and bent. Often I love it because it creates situations that I find comedic. A task that should be simple is complicated to no end because cultural norms for decision making, leadership and communication smash in to each other or miss each other completely. Over time it does start to wear people out, and then it’s time for popcorn as different cultural norms for engaging conflict take center stage.

I’ve managed to befriend and learn the most from third culture people. These are folks who are Korean-plus. Korean Americans, Korean Canadians, Korean Argentinians, Korean Uzbeks, and the list goes on. The ones I work with are all bilingual and even though they play down their knowledge of Korean language and culture, to a mono-cultural American they are gateways into the other dimension, and with every small explanation, be it about words or issues or cultural norms, a once blackened part of the map of our experience has light shed on it. Being foreign is just what someone from the outside is, regardless of how they feel. But feeling foreign is related to how much information one has to survive and thrive in the context, and ignorance is bliss until your life is defined by it. Upon reflecting on my flights home, I realized the best friends I’ve made in Korea are the ones who help diminish my ignorance quotient, which always has the affect of making you feel more at home, or at least more at ease. The worst feeling is being ignorant, simply not having information, but being treated like you’re stupid, like you have the information but are too dumb to use it properly. Maybe the only thing worse than that feeling is when someone knows you’re ignorant, and won’t help because they feel like you’d be too stupid to understand. In a work environment, where you’ve been hired because of your value to the organization, being made to feel foreign, or being ignored or overlooked because overcoming your foreignness will take too much time, starts to make you question your value. At one point I actually asked all my students and their parents who visited me, if they felt like I was a valuable addition to their education and life. Thankfully I got a positive response, and it has helped me focus on what likely matters most to my time in Korea, my students.¬†Working in a foreign context means that you are dependent on others to give you access to parts of the organization in order to provide any value there. A lot of times access can very simply be denied. That leaves you in a position to hammer down on what you do have access to and make the most of it. Like I said earlier, I actually love Korea and I love my work teaching Bible in a secondary school, but there’s no denying the challenges.

Another big part of the challenge is how to deal with challenges. After years of having my conflict management and leadership skills honed in the furnace of tech startup culture on the west coast, where issues are surfaced quickly and open and frequent communication are valued at a premium, I’m now in a context where that’s the worst thing you can do. All my instincts work against me. I’ve highlighted what I see are severe issues to the organizational and spiritual health of our Christian school, and it’s as if I’ve walked out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to my butt. Everyone gets quiet and tries to pretend it’s not happening to protect what’s left of my diminishing honor. I hate it. I hate being treated like the problem for simply taking a flashlight and showing where the problem is, especially when that was the very currency of leadership where I had come from. But there it is, ignorance met by a black hole of communication and the oh so present reminder, you are not from here. That leads to another question of belonging.

Thankfully I believe a sense of belonging should be cultivated separate from a sense of foreignness. Even though I’m visiting my home now, I don’t feel the same belonging I once did years ago. I’m a different person, and I feel called to different things in different places. I feel called to belong in a foreign place dealing with all the friction that ignorance provides. Ultimately, as a Christian I believe I’m an alien on Earth no matter where I am, and I hope that in Christian contexts this is something we can all agree on. We are citizens of God’s kingdom and that transcends every tribe tongue and nation.