Author Mark Roques challenges the assumption that some things are in the ‘secular box’, while others are in the ‘religious box’
How can we serve God outside the Church sphere? Many Christians today are aware of the problem of dualism: the sacred/secular split. It’s easy to understand that preachers, pastors, evangelists and apologists are serving God but what about cobblers and French teachers?
William Tyndale (1494-1536) is famous for translating the Bible into English but few know how much he affirmed the calling of the humble cobbler. Indeed, one of the articles of heresy against Tyndale, the leading English Reformer, who was executed for heresy in 1536, was that he taught:
“There is no work better than another to please God; to pour water, to wash dishes, to be a souter (cobbler), or an apostle, all is one; to wash dishes and to preach is all one, as touching the deed, to please God.”
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We can imagine Christian cobblers working together in a vibrant community making shoes, loving the leather and their customers by infusing the manufacture of shoes with Christ’s love and wisdom but isn’t the teaching of French or German completely neutral? Surely it has nothing to do with Christian faith. We need to think again.
Years ago when I lived in Bath I was chatting to Ruth in church after the service. I began to probe Ruth about her job as a French teacher. I asked her how her Christian faith impacted the way she taught her subject.
She looked at me with thinly disguised disdain. “It has nothing to do with my faith. I just teach French. Church is in the religious box and French is in the secular box.”
I thought I needed to challenge this popular but unbiblical dualism. We should not divide life into the secular bit and the sacred bit. Doesn’t everything belong to Christ the Lord?
“Have you ever thought about the hidden messages that are often being communicated in the way we teach French?”
Ruth looked at me as if I had just told her I had become a Zen Buddhist. I launched into my patter.
“In my view the dominant way of teaching Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) is caught up in an individualist and materialist story. It’s all about me and my consumption. It’s ‘I shop therefore I am’ or in Latin ‘Tesco ergo sum’.”
Ruth grimaced at my feeble Latin joke and began to look slightly desperate and forlorn. “Why are you saying this? French teaching has nothing to do with faith!”
“Just look at a typical French lesson, Ruth. Often the focus is upon self-governing individuals buying ice creams, making complaints about hotels and enquiring about where to go shopping. I call this the self-centred tourist worldview. ‘I want a lobster flavoured ice cream now.’ ‘I want to make a complaint about the ugly curtains.’ ‘I am very angry about the stale croissants.’ ‘Why is the bath so big?’ ‘Why must we queue outside with no air conditioning?’”
Ruth relaxed slightly and murmured. “I think I see what you’re getting at Rocky. You are concerned about an entitlement mindset. Is that right?”
“Brainy boffins (eg Dr David I Smith) have studied MFL textbooks and they are struck by how the dominant story of our western world, consumerism, is the hidden, pulsating theme. Textbooks often present people as egocentric and materialistic. They live as if there is no God and everything is just physical so shop till you drop and grab that bargain before Roger beats you to it.”
Ruth was now beginning to soften and her disdain was ebbing away. She was beginning to appreciate my cut-diamond insights into the aggressive nature of consumerism. I steamed ahead.
“Here’s a cute, little story to make my point. You’re on a coach in China, surrounded by jocular and flamboyant tourists. Suddenly there is a jolt, the coach stops suddenly and the Chinese driver looks irate. The attentive tourists notice that an elderly Chinese lady has been knocked over and is lying on the road. They exit the coach and begin to parlay with the distressed lady who is recovering from the shock. ‘Here’s my phrase book, let’s apologise to her’, urges Doris from Barnsley. They whip through the phrase book and they cannot find the Mandarin for ‘We would like to apologise for this incident.’ The entire phrase book is focused on self-centred tourists who crave constant consumerist activity and apologising to locals is just not part of this egocentric and myopic lifestyle.”
Ruth was now warming to my theme. “But that’s awful. Surely saying ‘I’m sorry’ is part of life. It should be if we are Christians.”
“I apologise unreservedly to you if this sounds bonkers but boffins have also discovered that the only mention of ‘religion’ in MFL textbooks are horoscopes.”
Ruth was shocked when I said this and remarked: “So these textbooks are presenting humans as either self-centred consumerists or pagan astrologers.”
I decided to be blunt.
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“Oui, vous avez raison.” (French for Bang on the nail)
“So given all this, how can I serve Jesus as a French teacher?”
“Well a simple thing you can do is to tell your students stories about people who are busy loving their neighbours rather than scheming their next trip to Homebase. Consider this story. Neema Crafts is a faith-filled business that makes God smile. It started in 2003 when a Christian woman Susie Hart taught three deaf men to turn elephant poo into paper in a Tanzanian village.
Neema now employs more than 100 deaf and disabled people who make handicrafts, cards, books and jewellery. The business is flourishing and has transformed the lives of many people who used to be snubbed, shunned and ignored in the village of Iringa.
Neema Crafts aims to change negative attitudes towards people with disabilities in the local society. There’s a great stigma attached to having a disability in Tanzania, and Neema Crafts provides dignity and hope for many people who previously relied on street begging or were hidden away at home.
The centre has eight craft workshop areas, a therapy unit for disabled children, an award winning cafe, a conference centre entirely staffed by deaf people and a welcoming guest house jointly run by the local Mother’s Union.”
“That’s an inspiring story, Rocky.”
“Ruth, French teachers like you can serve God by challenging the consumerist faith in all kinds of creative and fun ways. You can talk about Neema in French. Tell the stories of ordinary people who really love their neighbours and shun the militant shopping gods.”
“You could even do a lesson on William Tyndale and his admiration for godly cobblers!”
Ruth was now enjoying the conversation. However, she did mention with delightful irony that she had to dash off to Tesco to meet her husband, Brad!
She laughed and added cheekily: “Tesco ergo sum”.
This article was originally published on the Thinking Faith Network website.
Mark Roques taught Philosophy and Religious Education at Prior Park College, Bath, for many years. As Director of RealityBites he has developed a rich range of resources for youth workers and teachers. He has spoken at conferences in the UK, Holland, South Korea, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. Mark is a lively storyteller and the author of four books, including The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails: Creative Ways of Talking about Christian Faith. His work is focused on storytelling and how this can help us to communicate the Christian faith. He has written many articles for the Baptist Times, RE Today, Youthscape, Direction magazine and the Christian Teachers Journal.