Lo, and The Lord spake, saying “You’re really making too much of this.”

Let me preface this post by getting one thing blazingly clear.

I do not believe in God, an afterlife, or any other form of divine figure, mysterious creator, post-mortem reward or consequence.  Hell, I don’t even believe in the existence of the soul (Mum, relax – not your fault!).  I personally believe that history has probably boasted one or more Jesus-like figures around about the right time frame.  Men and probably women of exceptional character and compassion who through a combination of right-place-at-the-right-time and storyteller embellishment managed to accomplish some extraordinary feats of goodwill that went on to inspire others to think about how they live their life, and keep telling the story.  They weren’t divine figures, just good dudes whose books most of us could do with taking a leaf or two out of.

No, not that book.

As such, my beliefs on church & state should be clear.  If God has a place in parliament, then so should Link & Princess Zelda, He-Man and Luke Skywalker, because I picked up as much about values from them in my childhood as I did from my exposure to religious education.


Everyone needs to calm the fuck down about this school chaplains thing.  They are not bad people.  Sure, there’s a few kinks that probably need to be worked out like inconsistencies in application & role across the nation, and the title they’re given.

Hell, like any job there’s bound to be a small distribution within them who are ineffectual at best, through to incompetent or unprofessional, and sadly they’re the ones we’ll hear about.  Go on, put it to the test.  Raise your left hand and list five colleagues who don’t deserve the current position they hold.  But let’s remember that for every one of them there’s a stack doing their job in the range of properly to incredibly well.

It doesn’t help that this announcement’s hit the fan while barrels were still smoking about the scripture classes in Australian schools fiasco, which for the record I do count as an abomination and a real kick in the teeth for progress as a tolerant, secular multicultural society.  But for the sake of the cold dry logic you want running your education system, let’s at least do this hardworking cohort of people the dignity of tarring them with their own damn brush.

In Schools

Chaplains aren’t there to instruct.  They don’t take classes because they’re not teachers, and that’s exactly where their niche and their appeal is.  They’re not figures of traditional authority.  The chaplains I’ve worked with in this program have been nothing short of wonderful, and an incredible asset to the school community.  Have you looked at the state of schools in Australia?  Classes aren’t getting any smaller, authority’s being stripped away from teachers by a creeping customer culture in parents, our schools are being held to ransom on standardised test results, and don’t even get me started on the baby bonus tsunami.

Us teacher types can do with all the backup we can get.  If a student’s having trouble learning, it’s our job to do something about that.  If it’s due to some kind of breakdown in the way their brain handles the way information’s processed, we’ve got plenty of things in place to help.  If a kid’s having trouble because of something at home, we can’t exactly squeeze that out of them.  If they’re having trouble because there’s some drama amongst the other kids at school, it’s invaluable having someone in that in-between space who isn’t a teacher, isn’t a peer, and doesn’t carry the stigma of “going to the school psychologist.”

Chaplaincy 101

Here’s a little insight into how the job works, courtesy of the chaplain from my old school, Zoe.  Some of what she does is on an interpersonal level, working directly with students.  Some of what she does is schoolwide stuff, organising things within the school such as motivational, life skills and values-education programs.  I can vouch for her professionalism in putting these things together, there was no agenda other than to make sure the kids were happy at school, at home, and amongst each other.  She also works closely with the student services team, and is actively involved as a point of contact between student, home and school in the case management strategies of a number of at-risk students.  Zoe talks about the students as “clients” because ultimately they have the choice as to whether they seek out her services or not.  She follows strict guidelines as to only offer what she’s capable of and qualified for, and she refers anything that needs more than a compassionate ear.  Sometimes those referrals go to in-school health services such as the school nurse or psychologist, other times it’s to community agencies that the students and their families were unaware of.  It’s part of her job to maintain that network of community support so that her referrals are valid and relevant.  Still, it’s the student’s choice to access those as well.

Now for the most important part, and the part that’s got all of you reaching for the pitchforks and flaming torches is where God fits in with all of this.

Zoe brings her faith to school in exactly the same way I bring my atheism. If someone directly asks, I’ll tell ’em, and I’ll engage in conversation.  If they don’t ask, or if they’ve got some beliefs of their own, I don’t bring it up.  Neither does Zoe.  Why does she do it like that?  Because it’s her job. It’s a chaplain’s job to recognise, acknowledge and respect the fact that they’re employed in a secular environment in a multicultural society.  They’re there to help kids, not crusade.

What’s Actually Important?

Let’s bring back that thought about Link, Zelda, He-Man and Luke for a minute.  Link taught me that muscle won’t get you anywhere unless you apply it with courage and wisdom.  He-Man taught me all kinds of things about social skills, peer pressure, and making the ethical decision rather than the popular decision.  Luke Skywalker taught me that standing up to injustice may get your ass kicked a little bit but that at heart, nobody really wants to be screwed up and nasty.  (He also taught me that drinking blue milk in caves in the desert is not a lifestyle I would choose.)  These are values that I’ve learned.  Values connected to dealing with adversity, building resilience, and how I construct and define my social niche.  Add to that the values I learned from my school chaplain, that belief is nothing without knowing why you believe it, that understanding the point of view of others is where compassion in the face of conflict comes from, and that the West Coast Eagles are a fundamentally evil force deserving of subjugation at the hands of the Essendon Bombers (thanks Frank!) and I’m feeling pretty good about the world.  I went to an Anglican school too, so religious instruction was part of the package and fair game.  I don’t believe in God,  but I know why.  I have a whole set of other beliefs about the world, and I don’t make a habit of making enemies.  I still don’t give a crap about football – I think that’s the remnants of my teenage rebellion.

Pop culture’s not interested in promoting values anymore.  There’s a lot of parents too time-poor to really get their hands dirty.  As long as everyone’s doing their job properly, how about we lighten up and look on the bright side of what these guys can bring to the village?

By | 2014-11-17T12:09:37+00:00 May 16th, 2011|Education|5 Comments

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  1. Ash May 17, 2011 at 1:08 am - Reply

    I find your thought-out and well-reasoned arguments intimidating, confusing and disturbing.

    • Joel Birch May 17, 2011 at 8:22 am - Reply

      I think what I’m getting at is that religious instruction and people who happen to be religious are two different things.
      From personal experience and my network of people, I’ve only seen and heard great things about school chaplains, and none of it’s been evangelical.

      Holy crap, I just rewrote my blog in two lines.

  2. Jason May 22, 2011 at 5:14 pm - Reply

    Nice blog you got here, Joel.

    I agree with pretty much everything you said but I have to take issue with Link being a paragon of virtue. This is a child who roams the countryside, stabbing random creatures on the off chance that some money will fall out of them. Whenever I play Legend of Zelda, I can almost hear a gravelly detective voice from some generic TV forensic show saying “Soon the thrill won’t be there anymore, and he’ll need to graduate to human prey to get the rush he craves”.

    • Joel Birch May 22, 2011 at 7:52 pm - Reply

      Well, I’m not so sure I went so far as to call the little guy in the green hat a “paragon of virtue.” I was talking more about the overarching & recurring theme through the games with the whole Triforce thing.
      Besides, in Australia at the moment the video games scene is paternalistic enough – we really don’t need to go looking for more trouble.

  3. Bek May 24, 2011 at 10:57 am - Reply

    Love your work Joel, you write from such a grounded place,’sure-footed’ people are hard to come accross in this world and you are definitely one of them!!

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