From and Toward: STEAM-Style

Biblical integration means teaching all things from and toward the glory of God. These two directions—from and toward—are both important. In STEAM subjects like science, and all other subjects, we need build on strong foundations (from) and aim for healthy goals (toward). Sadly, some of the work done in scientific fields has recently been marred by an uncritical acceptance of two beliefs: naturalism and cultural relativism.

From: Foundations of Science

Naturalism is “the philosophical belief that reality is composed solely of matter and that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes (e.g., law of gravity).” In other words, there is no supernatural.

John A. Bloom helpfully noted, in The Natural Sciences: A Student’s Guide, that “contemporary science has chosen to restrict itself to giving naturalistic explanations no matter what,” (21) and this leads to perceived conflict between between science and Christianity. Bloom helps us understand that there is no real conflict between science and the Christian faith. No, he helpfully illustrates that the real conflict is between naturalistic and Christian commitments. Therefore, the science vs. faith narrative that is often conveyed in popular culture is not accurate to real life. Instead, the faith commitments of naturalism and Christianity provide differing perspectives on the foundations of scientific study.  

Naturalism and Christianity are both faith commitments. The question is: which is more scientific? And which provides a better foundation? Naturalism assumes materialism (the belief that all things are composed of matter, energy, or ideas). Christianity, on the other hand, holds that there is a God who works in and above the material world. God is able to do this because He is not a part of creation; He is the Creator.

Christianity offers a stronger foundation to build upon because it can engage all the laws of nature, and it gives reasonable support by demonstrating that the laws of the natural world were decreed by a Law-maker. Naturalism assumes laws of nature, but can give no account for the origin or enforcement of these laws. Instead of limiting the study and understanding of the world to the natural, Christians can study the natural universe and investigate natural causes most accurately and confidently because we understand that God is the Originator, Designer, and Sustainer. We have a foundation to build on. Those committed to a secular worldview are looking for a “God-particle,” a theory of everything, and other unifying ideas, but they are searching for what Christians have already found—God.

Toward: Right Aims of STEAM-Subjects

While science is invested in investigating the what of various phenomena, engineering and technology is working with the how and why. Tech companies want to design, enhance, and engineer items to make the world better. And, in many ways, they have succeeded. We have devices that can clean water, perform accurate surgeries, preserve food, and much more. However, the big question that needs to be asked is: What is the definition of better?

Is cheaper, more accessible food better? Are GMOs good or bad? Are fossil-fuels good because of all the advances that they provide? Or are they a problem because of the pollutants they emit?

STEAM subjects must wrestle with ethics because engineering and technology are ethically guided. Many technologies have made things easier for the developed world, but easier doesn’t always mean better. The prevailing moral construct of secularism is cultural relativism—“the belief that truth and morals are relative to (or defined by) one’s culture.” This is a shaky concept. It would mean that the will of the people (the culture) is what determines what is good. In other words, what we want is what we should get. On its face, this is a dangerous way to live. Every one of us wants things that are not good. There are numerous historical examples of cultures gone wrong—think about slavery, greed, discrimination, and other evils that have marked era after era. Why would a rational person (like a scientist) want to live according to a hypothesis that has already been tested and been found disastrous?

Christians have a vision of the good life. We have a reason to believe in innate human rights. We have an understanding of the brokenness of mankind. We have a commitment to follow Christ in helping those in need.

Christian engineers and technologists have concrete aims and standards. This is a major advantage when it comes to inventing, designing, or improving. We can wrestle with whether or not our work is honoring to God. We can choose projects that do more than make things easy—we can work on projects that meet needs, advance the gospel, support equity, and explore God’s creation.

In my next post, we will examine the aim of the scientific method and how that relates to biblical integration.

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STEM, STEAM, and an Integrated World

Integrating material is a natural inclination for many educators. We intuitively understand that the world is not neatly divided into separate areas of study—all of life is interdisciplinary. Think about any area of life to see this play out  in your own life. Taking care of family includes budgeting, planning, teamwork, entertainment, problem-solving… Playing baseball includes score-keeping, situational thinking, leadership, order, identification… Cultivating a healthy lifestyle includes shopping, exercising, cooking, sleeping, enjoying, accomplishing… While life is made up of many elements, those elements are all part of a larger whole. This understanding is clearly seen in STEM-education.

“STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. Rather than teach the four disciplines as separate and discrete subjects, STEM integrates them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications.”

Of course, this makes sense. Science has the goal of systematically moving from ignorance to knowledge. Technology is the practical application of knowledge. Engineering uses science and technology with the aim of creating things/spaces/systems which are useful for people. Math is the science of numbers which is used as a language for measurement and communication. Each element of STEM serves the others. They exist with one another and for one another. However, the world of education is now noting that the symbiosis does not and should not stop with science, tech, engineering, and math. STEM does not exist as something walled off from the rest of the world.

Think about the area of “design.” Is design more related to engineering (designing bridges/planes/golf-clubs) or art (designing sculptures/beautiful buildings/music)? Uh oh. You might have noticed the cross-over. Bridges and buildings do need to be engineered, but they also need to be artfully developed. Consider the old cathedrals of Europe—are they great feats of engineering or great works of art? Both! Architects are artists… and engineers. It turns out that the world is, as previously noted, naturally integrated.

This is one of the reasons that STEAM education (STEM plus Art) is on the rise. There is a need for scientists to think creatively as they produce hypotheses, consider how to test them, and convey their findings. Musicians are innately mathematical. In fact, music is, in a very real sense, math (twelve tones combined systematically in horizontal and vertical patterns). City planners have to do the math in order to pragmatically engineer working systems, but they must also engage in the art of developing appealing and attractive spaces.

Is it any wonder that some of the great thinkers were artists and scientists? Consider Leonardo da Vinci: painter and inventor. Consider Benjamin Franklin: author and scientist. And think about some of the great developments of every age. Is the Parthenon art or engineering? Both. Is the iPhone practical or stylish? Both. This shows the natural integration of the ultimate Designer—God. And it shows that those in his image are made to be integrators too.

In my next post, I plan to help you explore how STEAM teachers can think about how a Christian worldview differs from secularism when it comes to teaching from and toward the glory of God.

 

Christmas Confidence for the Struggling Teacher

Teaching in a Christian school can be hard. There are all the usual challenges of teaching (discipline, time-management, grading, communication, etc.), but there is something else too: the heavy weight of hard-hearted students. One of my most persistent struggles as a classroom teacher has been with lost students who see the gospel as old, boring, played-out, and dry. They think that, because they have heard the story often, it is normal for them to be innoculated to its worship-inducing effects. It crushes me that those who are quickest to yawn at the gospel are those who have never grasped the goodness of the gracious God who has offered Himself to a lost and needy world. It is hard to watch a starving soul push away the nourishing meal that is so desperately needed.

However, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,” (Rev 7:10). His ways are perfect and He is in control. 

David’s words in Psalm 18:28-30 are some of the most encouraging in the Bible:

You, Lord, keep my lamp burning;
   my God turns my darkness into light.
With your help I can advance against a troop;
   with my God I can scale a wall.
As for God, his way is perfect:
   The Lord’s word is flawless.

Our hope is in God. His ways are perfect. They may not always seem perfect to me, but that simply means that I am not rightly or fully understanding what He is doing or how He is doing it. Isaiah 55:9 reminds me that his thoughts are infinitely higher than mine. So, when we see a student not grasping the goodness of the gospel, we must remember that God is working out his perfect plans. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16) and the Lord knows how to wield his power. He is not limited by our inadequacies. 

The Lord’s ways are not only good and right — they are unstoppable. Listen to the words of God:

Remember the former things, those of long ago;
   I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
   from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, “My purpose will stand,
   and I will do all that I please,” (Is 46-9-10).

He cannot be stopped! He never tries to save a student, but then fails to do so. God never fails. His word is power. For God to attempt something is to accomplish that thing. John Piper helpfully elaborates, saying,

The risen, reigning, King of kings and Lord of lords reigns over this world and over his mission with absolute sovereignty. Nothing is outside his sovereign will. If he meets with resistance, he either allows it for his purposes, or he overcomes it for his purposes. His sovereign purposes are never thwarted.

We see this in the Christmas story when the angel speaks to Joseph with these words: “[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins,” (Matt 1:21). Do you see the promise here? “He will save his people from their sins.” There is no maybe or might. He will save his people.

But who are his people? The angel again answers — this time speaking to the shepherds — “Glory to God in the highest heaven,  and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” (Luke 2:14). He brings peace to those He graciously favors. There is no stopping God from keeping his promise to save his people. There is no way for his favored ones to get away from his kindness. Remember David’s words?

Where can I go from your Spirit?
   Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
   if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
   if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
   your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
   and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
   the night will shine like the day,
  for darkness is as light to you, (Ps 139:7-12).

Of course, knowing that God is a gracious and powerful Savior does not make hard-heartedness easy to handle. But it does bring confidence to the situation. I can’t save my kids. But God can. And He can use any elements He wants to bring about that salvation. If He can use a census, a stable, and some shepherds, He can use the situations in my students’ lives too. 

It is a horrible injustice for his gospel to go unappreciated in the classroom (or anywhere else). However, I take joy in knowing that He is a God who has planned to use even the worst evils to accomplish his good plan. Think back on the crucifixion of Jesus. Acts 4:27-28 shows us that even the conspiracy of evil leaders to kill the Christ was God’s perfect plan: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

It was his plan from the beginning that his unjust death would justly save his people from their sins. This is what the angel meant when he spoke to Joseph. Even the most heinous crime against the Holy One was to be a part of God’s saving mission. He is so good! He is so strong! And just as the Lord planned to die for the world before He breathed it into existence, He chose to save his sons and daughters. Paul teaches in Ephesians 1:4-6,

He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

God saves his people. The Christmas story is clear: his name is Jesus and He will save his people from their sins. Those who belong to Him will believe in Him. We can be confident of that. And we can rejoice in the role He has given us in his saving mission. But why don’t all believe? If God’s missions never fail, why do some people fail to follow Him? In John 10, some skeptics came to ask if Jesus was the Messiah. They didn’t believe in Him, and the Lord explains why some people believe and some people don’t:

Jesus answered, “I did tell you [that I am the Messiah], but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one,” (John 10:25-30).

I am so encouraged by the Messiah’s words here. His sheep listen to his voice. His sheep will have eternal life. His sheep can never be taken out of his hand. And the Shepherd made no mistakes in assembling his flock. Further, He makes no mistakes in using us to declare his truth.

God has placed us in the lives of students to be his voice. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14-15) We have have been sent to preach to them in and through the classroom.

So, if you are discouraged at the hard-hearts (as I am at times), keep telling your students the Good News. People are included in Christ when they hear the message of truth (Eph 1:13). Preach, preach, preach. God can replace the stone heart and bring life (Ez 36:26). And He can use you to do it.

And keep praying. John tells us, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him,” (1 John 5:14-15). Pray, pray, pray. Pray that God would save your students because only He can do it. We can’t save our students. Our students cannot save themselves. Only Jesus saves. Ask Him to exercise his sovereign power and bring dead hearts to life.

Christmas lifts up my heart when I am discouraged because my lost students sit un-enamoured by the gospel. God’s ways are perfect. God cannot be stopped. God will save his people from their sins. Glory to God, He brings peace to those He favors. And He uses his people to share his Good News. Salvation belongs to the Lord (Rev 7:10), but who knows but that you have come to your [teaching] position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14).

Sin, Satan, and Biblical Integration: Our Arguments Matter

Here is a very small sampling of the messages that our students hear regularly:

“Follow your heart!”
“You just do you.”
“Struggle is bad.”
“You’ll never be any good. There is just no point.”
“More is better than less.”
“You are the captain of your fate.”
“The most important thing about you is what others think.”
“You would be happy… if only you were taller/smarter/better/etc.”
“Just do it. No one is watching. No one will know.”
“The only person you have to please is yourself.”
“The most important thing about you is your grades/happiness/sports/popularity/mentions.”
“Things will just work themselves out in the end.”
“You are on your own.”
“Only you can give your life meaning.”
“You’ll have time later. Put it off.”
“If you have less than me, you are less than me.”
“Whiter teeth, newer cars, trendier clothes… these are the building blocks of happiness.”

Satan and the world argue that these things are true. And they argue ferociously. There is no better advertiser than the devil. He pretends to be an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). Satan pretends to be something that he is not to sell something he doesn’t have. Couple his work with the what the world uses — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16) — and we have an even more difficult situation. The sinful nature uses the power of love to lead us astray by aiming hearts designed for pleasure in God toward pleasure in the flesh, the eyes, and in this life (1 John 2:15). Satan and sinfulness are always arguing to convince our students to buy into a lie. They are making their cases without rest. And their cases lead to destruction. This is why the teacher must enter the fray too. We have been tapped to represent God, his ways, and his truth. We have been chosen to combat the lies of the enemy with better arguments.

Thankfully, our Lord has not left us here to fight for Him on our own. He has given us his Spirit. He is working through us. John didn’t just describe the power of worldliness, but also of God in us, saying, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world,” (1 John 4:4). And God is not interested in fighting to a draw. Our God never ties a match; much less loses. He cannot be stopped. And He chose us to accomplish his unstoppable plan. We were chosen for his work, “having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,” (Eph 1:11) we know that He will do it.

So, make his case. Argue, argue, argue with your students on behalf of God. (Remember that arguing is not about an ugly exchange, but making a logical case.) Lovingly argue. Compellingly argue. Consistently argue. Biblically argue. That is what integration is all about. You are arguing from math, science, English, and art that God is God. You are using the evidence of your subject to show your students the truth. Truth. The world doesn’t have that. Satan doesn’t have that either. But you do. You do. The enemies of God are making their case. Are you giving your life to making God’s case? Does your classroom reflect that?

 

Arguing with Your Class: Biblical Integration

You might have learned something that sounds contrary to this in Classroom Management 101, but teachers have the obligation to argue with their students. Now, I don’t mean you should engage in a shouting match or to make incendiary comments. No, I mean something else entirely. As Holland and Forrest point out in Good Arguments, the word argument can simply refer to “the process of giving reasons or evidence in support of a belief or claim,” (xi).

As educators, we are making a case for everything that we teach: “Alexander Hamilton should be understood as one of the most important Founding Fathers because…” or “Marshes provide an important and unique service in the ecosystem since…” We are in the business of making valid, coherent arguments for and with our students.

As Christian educators and biblical integrators, we are also making a case for the ultimate truth: God and his gospel. Every time we teach, we are entering a battlefield of ideas in our students’ minds. Poorly presented truths — or disintegrated partial truths — are not persuasive. The best arguments are more likely to come out on top. And our God is worthy of our best rhetoric. Here is an example of an argument from science:

“The First Law of Thermodynamics states that matter/energy cannot be created or destroyed. But matter and energy do exist. Either they came from something or else they are eternal realities. The Second Law of Thermodynamics (or the Law of Increased Entropy) shows that the universe is winding down. Energy is gradually becoming unusable. This indicates that the universe had a specific beginning; it came into existence at a particular moment in time. If the universe began, we must ask about its cause. If matter/energy is can’t be created, we need ask about what kind of force can do the something we deem impossible.”

This argument does not go all the way to defining the cause of the universe as God, but it makes the case that the evidence supports a cause, and that cause would need to be outside of the universe and very powerful. This argument is base-hit rather than a homerun, but it is an important step in the overall argument that you might make in a year-long science class. The student sees that believing in a cause like God is not unscientific.

Finally, when we argue well, we teach our students to do the same. If they can see how to validly support a conclusion with premises, they are on a good road. If they can detect errors, manipulations of the facts and logical mistakes, they are better positioned for success. If they can notice their own errors of thinking and internal biases, they will be able to better separate truth from error.

Good arguments give God pleasure. Holland and Forrest explain, “When we reason well and present good arguments, we reflect God’s character,” (xiii). He made us to be reason-ers (Phil 2:12). He has demonstrated that the gospel can be amplified through the vehicle of reasoning (Is 1:18). And He warns his people not to get taken in by bad ideas and arguments (Col 2:8).

As you teach, recognize that God has given you a platform so that you can give an answer for the hope within you (1 Pet 3:15). Along with knowledge of your subject, He has equipped you with the power of God in the gospel (Rom 1:16). And He has wired your students for arguments. They will be influenced by something, let it be truth. Are you engaging in the argument? Are you a case-maker for Christ through your teaching? As biblical integrators, we are called to helping our students through great arguments.

**For a master-class on a Christian argument and strong biblical integration, see Paul’s discussion in Acts 17:16-31.

Thanksgiving and Biblical Integration

In Every Bush is Burning, I make the case that Christian teachers, among other things, should be incarnational. Simply stated, being incarnational means putting flesh and bones on the gospel for your students. Jesus, God incarnate, brought the perfections of God to earth when He came as a man. We can never do this as effectively as Jesus did, but, as his followers, we want to show the goodness of God in the clearest, best way that we can. We imitate Him.

The Thanksgiving holiday is right around the corner and it should remind us to demonstrate gratitude to our students. Do they see us as thankful people? Christian education can be hard, but 1 Thessalonians 5:18 reminds us to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

No matter how busy we are… No matter how tough a certain student might be… No matter how many other stresses we have going on in our lives… we are called to gratitude. Our piles of grading in no way diminish the reality of the gospel. When we allow our circumstances to dictate the level of our thankfulness, we are implying that our situation shapes our lives more than the gospel does.

It is okay to struggle.  Life is often hard. But let’s struggle while thankful. Show your students the power of the Good News through your attitude of thankfulness. Your integrated lessons will sink in deep when the ground has been saturated by your integrated life.

Worship Music and Wolves: Biblical Integration and Critical Thinking

Some of the most popular Christians teachers and theologians are musicians. As Christians, we might listen to a sermon podcast. We might study a book by a professor. But we sing and memorize the theology of musicians. This means that they must be held to the highest standard. Songs are in our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts. James 3:1 says that not many should desire to be teachers because teachers will be judged more strictly than others.

One of the large issues facing the believers today is that our most popular worship musicians are often not from churches with a strong, biblical theology. For example, I believe that “Living Hope” by Phil Wickham and Brian Johnson is one of the best worship songs released recently. It has excellent, moving, and accurate words that poetically express the gospel. However, Brian Johnson’s church, Bethel, is known for errant theology and practice . Likewise, Hillsong pastor Joel Houston stated that “evolution is undeniable,” in reference to a questions about the popular song “So Will I.” (I wrote about that song a few months ago in light of their lyric on evolution.) Hillsong produces many of the most popular worship songs sung today. The list continues. “Death Was Arrested” is a fantastic and valuable worship song. It came out of North Point Church where Andy Stanley is the pastor. He recently made waves by saying that we should “unhitch” from the Old Testament. Let me repeat: many of the most popular Christian, worship songs are coming out of churches that are not teaching in accordance with the historic, Christian faith.

As biblical integrators, we must be working hard to develop the critical-thinking skills of our students. I am not contending that we should stop singing all the songs from churches like Bethel, Hillsong, or North Point. However, I do think that we need to stop singing them uncritically. We don’t want to raise up a generation that trusts a church or band simply because they are  able to write catchy songs. We want our students to develop into young Bereans who test every teaching against the Word (Acts 17:10-12).

This is where we come in. Yes, Bible class and chapel should assist in helping students trust the Bible and navigate its ideas, but much of the work is done in other classes. An English teacher helps students discover which sources are credible. A math teacher assists students in sniffing out faulty logic. A science teacher shows students how to measure and understand reality. A history teacher helps students learn from the mistakes of the past. An art teacher equips students to note the ideas conveyed in various styles and forms. A speech teacher shows brings to light the art of arguments and persuasive techniques.

We are not trying to shield our students from the ideas that these churches and church leaders are promoting. But we must be investing extreme effort to help our students develop the skills needed to assess the situation themselves. They will face dangerous and errant theology throughout their lives. We must prepare them. They need to know what to do when the most popular teachers are peddling attractive heresies. We all know that devil can attack from the outside, but he is even more dangerous when the attack comes from within. As Jesus warned, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt 7:15). Let’s teach our students to critically apply the Word of God to detect falsehood. Souls are on the line.