The Biggest Challenge of Teaching High School Theology

All teachers have their challenges, and religion teachers are no different.  But beyond the usual problems of apathy and lack of diligence there is another all-important obstacle.

Unlike most other subjects, theology classes appeal directly to the life choices of the students.  I in no way minimize the way English, Math, Science, Art, etc, can open up a student’s consciousness and awaken the talents and faculties God gave them.  But in a religion class, we appeal to them to make a choice, to make a leap of faith based on the evidence presented.  That leap of faith affects all of their decisions, both moral and practical, as well as how they perceive the world.  It is all encompassing and can be overwhelming.

We religion teachers ask much of our students.  We ask them for everything.

We do our best to remove all impediments from their encounter with Christ.  But there is something that is beyond much of our control: the culture.

The erosion of Catholic culture in our society makes the job of the theology teacher all the more difficult.  I recently watched the movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy” about the creation of the fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Before the paint would go up, the ceiling was covered with wet plaster.  That way when the paint and the plastered dried, it would solidify with the wall.  In a religion class, the course material is the paint.  The plaster is the culture.

In scientific terms, a culture is a medium in which something is allowed to grow.  And a Catholic culture allows the faith of a student to grow.  In the school, we have some control over our school culture.  I am blessed to work in at a place where the administration and faculty understand that the purpose of Catholic education is primarily to build up the Kingdom of God.  We expect our students to live by the pillars of excellence, compassion, faith, tradition, and community.  While we are welcoming of students from any or no religion, we are bold in our devotion to the Catholic faith.

But the most important place that this culture must exist is in the family.  I could give the most profound and emphatic lecture of my life, but if the student listening does not go to Mass every Sunday with his or her family… then the chance of the the lesson “sticking” is greatly reduced.  Instead of paint on plaster, it is chalk on a blackboard.

I only have their attention for less than an hour a day, five days a week.  The topics, whether prayer or Scripture or morality, speak to their everyday lives outside of class.  If their life outside of class does not reflect the values presented at home, then it will likely not take root.  This is not absolutely true.  We all have the ability to break through the old worldviews and see things from a new perspective.  I have had students who have become Catholic because of their experiences in our school and in my class.  But the all-encompassing nature of family life soaks into the soul of the student.

I remember one particular class, I had a student say to me that if the Church removed the celibacy requirement for priests, there wouldn’t be anymore cases of pedophilia among the clergy.  After listening to her argument, I proceeded to break down and refute each of her assertions with evidence and logic.  After conclusively showing there was no link between celibacy and pedophilia, her response was, “Well, my mom agrees with me.”

It is important to understand the weight of that statement.  Who is this student more likely to trust: the person who raised them or the person who gets paid to talk to them about religion?  I do my best to build trust, but the bonds of nature are strong, as they should be.

While most families are not antithetical to the themes of my class, there is a reluctance by many to engage in the material with their children.  I can understand a parent who feels ill-prepared to talk theology because they do not have any formal training.

I would encourage parents to be as informed about their faith as possible.  While we theology teachers have our degrees and our certifications, I can say that most of what I teach in class I had to learn on my own.  And if I can do it, any parent can do it.

Even if a parent does not feel equipped to discuss the mysteries of Trinity, Incarnation, and Salvation, they can still do a great good by creating a spiritual environment in the home.  If Christ is placed as the primary focus of the home, then the faith taught in class has a better chance of touching the mind and the heart.

Outside of the school and the home, there are two other cultures that we must keep in mind.  The first is the culture of friendship.  C.S. Lewis made clear that friendships are places where both virtues and vices are cultivated.  I was blessed to have friends in high school who were dedicated to the Church.  We weren’t perfect, but I was undeservedly blessed to have them in my life.

There is a powerful witness in having your peers strive to live the way God wants of us.  This is why formal things like youth groups and campus ministries are important (but it is important to be vigilant about their content), as well as informal socializing with other Catholic teens.

Finally, there is the popular culture.  The constant drum beat of ideologies that are opposed to the Kingdom of God can wear away at even the most stalwart believer, let alone a searching high school student.

I remember when Jersey Shore was popular, someone in school mentioned Snooki and a girl said, “I love her.”  They see a depiction of a glamourous (at times), hedonistic life free from any real-world consequences.  How could that not be appealing to a young mind?

While I don’t advocate sheltering students from all popular media, it is important to engage it in a way that gives them tools to understand it.  Also, it is important to supplement what is out there with Christian alternatives.  I cannot tell you how moved I was when I discovered good Christian music as a teenager.

Winning the culture war must begin at home.  For those who are already fighting that good fight, know that as a teacher of theology, I can already see the fruits of your labor.

Copyright © 2013, W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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