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Review of The Frog and the Fish

Wednesday, 8 August 2018  | Bruce Wearne

The Frog and the Fish: Reflections on Work, Technology, Sex, Stuff, and Happiness

By Chris Parker

(Penrith, NSW, Australia: National Institute for Christian Education, 2017)

This utterly non-pretentious book is for those taking the ‘next step’ after secondary school. The author is a teacher of would-be teachers at a Christian teacher training institute (NICE), but he writes as one who is a graduate of a state school. It is written as his
Christian contribution about culture and its complexities, encouraging the reader to live with a grace-filled Biblical focus ‘in the world, but not of the world’.

Chris Parker’s immediate concern is for those making the transition across ‘the blurry cusp from school and life after school’ (p.10). He looks back on his own odyssey and has now written the book he wished he could have read during his own transition from school to what lay before him. The book has been written from a deep personal awareness of the importance of the time in a young person’s life when this ‘blurry cusp’ has to be negotiated.

When he made the transition, he explains, he was on the atheist’s path. He now looks back and sees that he stood in need of a Christian way of interpreting the tensions, ambiguities and challenges in that new post-school context, with a perspective filled with knowledge of God’s unmerited grace.

He writes as a good teacher, recalling the time before he was a teacher and even before he was a post-secondary school student. He also writes with a sense of religious understanding for those who share the atheism he stoutly believed before he was converted.

As a Christian educator, Chris wants to emphasise the many sides of human responsibility in the face of the many cultural forces we face. These forces - manifest in our reflection on ‘work, technology, sex, stuff, and happiness’ - are inherent in our cultural environment. We live in relation to our culture. It is truly ours and yet we need to be aware of how it is shaping our views and shaping the way we act.

But why The Frog and the Fish? Chris begins with an easy-to-grasp metaphoric observation - a parable if you will. The frog hops into a pot of cold water that is cooking on the stove and is comfortable and cooked. The fish cannot be free from the water; its life is in water.

Our author continues by organising his narrative by means of these two parabolic examples to encourage reflection about culture designated as ‘the water we are swimming in’. And so there are ‘Some Big Questions’ (Part Two): Who are we really? What is the world really like? Why is there so much injustice? When will there be justice again and can I help?. And then there is the discussion of ‘Some Big Issues’ (Part Three): work, technology, sex, stuff, truth, happiness. Part Four is ‘The Big Answer’ which is put forward in explosive brevity. Here’s a sound bite:

Grace means that we can be deeply counter-cultural. Not for the sake of random rebellion, but because we can see the truth about who we are, and the nature of the world, through the lens of the Bible - and not from swimming (or drowning) in the water of our culture.

Grace means we are free to be discerning towards the water we are swimming in.

The educator of schoolteachers has now also produced a book to help a school community refresh itself, as an educative community, about its surrounding culture. But The Frog and the Fish will also encourage Christian school graduates to reflect upon the school they have just left. Are they, for their generation, going to continue the work that has enabled them to be schooled? Are the school’s graduates to consider themselves as part of the community supporting the school from which they have graduated? Schools help students to deepen their appreciation for the surrounding culture by forming a school (culture) that contributes to the water in which all continue to swim. But it is also important for schools to hear, in an ongoing way, how their programs of nurture have impacted the adult lives of their alumni.

The author’s literary skills allow him to achieve something unique that deserves our attention: he has written a ‘Christian world-view’ book that encourages reflection on how ‘work, technology, sex, stuff and happiness’ can and should be considered not just separately, but also together. In that sense, this book is written for its own time and, if it is to be taken seriously and do its work, it should be inspiring further reflections and even updated versions later on when the students it has encouraged write their culturally sensitive and updated version of The Frog and the Fish for their generation.

Chris Parker has carefully crafted this 137-page book by taking his own experience very seriously and learning from his subsequent role of teacher-educator. He aims to encourage creative, bold and careful thinking by those who will not be returning to their Secondary School next year. Yet this very worthwhile volume is not just for students and educators, but also for the parents and all others involved in the school community: support staff, former students, school boards and supporters of the school.

We are told by the author that there are many Christian books that deal with a Christian world-view. In many or most cases they are dealing with the kinds of intellectual problems and debates that a young person will confront when entering into ‘higher education’, when undergoing professional training in some or other specialist arena. There’s every suggestion that that kind of book is needed, but that is not exactly what The Frog and the Fish gives us. Parker no doubt will be delighted when his book is read with relish by young secondary school graduates who have their hearts set on law, nursing and medicine, business and any other ‘job’ requiring specialised training. But the author is also attuned to the actual real-life tensions and challenges of ‘the blurry cusp’ and he knows that the choices are not simply about which higher education path a high school graduate will take. There are also paths that lead elsewhere, into other kinds of work, into other work-related avenues and also into the ambiguous paths of unemployment. This book is also for them and for those who, for various reasons, may be unable to work.

Others, I suspect a growing percentage, remain unconvinced about the urging of their peers, their parents and their teachers about the need to go on to ‘uni’. They are already confronted by the presumptive needling and manipulation of the mass media, the end-of-term hysteria when university entrance scores are published, not to forget the capitalistic commercial badgering that makes the choice of a non-higher-education path seem irrational. Parker does not make a big issue of this potential readership cohort, but such young people will certainly benefit from the ‘deep’ pastoral encouragement, inextricably linked to the volume’s emphasis upon the restorative grace of God in Christ.

Thinking, choosing and acting as a Christian are as much a matter for those who do not go on to higher education as it is for those who do. The young fellow who goes back to the farm to help his parents and older brother for a couple of years is as much in need of encouragement to reflect upon ‘work, technology, sex, stuff, truth and happiness’ as the younger brother who wants to master chemistry and solve the problems that we face from the world-wide decline in the bee population. The young woman who is happy as a personal carer at an aged care facility can benefit from this book just as much as her friend who goes on to the School of Medicine. And, by reading the book together, their friendship and Christian solidarity can be enhanced. Why not?

Somewhere above I suggested that The Frog and the Fish could be a book by which a Christian school or a group of Christian schools refresh their vision by bringing teachers, parents, students and former students together. Maybe it could be an annual event where former graduates are given a platform to explain their subsequent experience and help senior students by friendly discussion and advice. This would be particularly worthwhile in a context where Christian education - whether at school or in higher education - has gone stale and is in need of spiritual refreshment. I’d also suggest that, where there are Christian schools and limited Christian higher education options, a long-term agenda be implemented whereby teachers, parents, students and former students can together assist the Christian high school in negotiating the ‘blurry cusp’. Such efforts will also be well placed to make a significant supportive contribution to those headed for the workplace, university or elsewhere. And it should be out of that kind of generation-to-generation support, which refuses to forget how the Gospel has drawn us out of darkness into the grace of Christ Jesus, that genuine educational culture is cultivated.

This book may prove to be an excellent ‘graduation gift’, while school principals and councils may also see it as a resource to explain to prospective parents why the school does not provide a ‘one-path suits all’ curriculum that these days is often induced into secondary schooling by policies promulgated by public education authorities. Teachers can give this book to their students and concerned adults can give it to the young people they know who are moving on past school. A Christian student at a State school might even give it to her teacher. But it could also be a worthwhile gift to parents who also have to be attentive to their child’s sense of where they are being led. The book suggests that schooling and education and ‘life after school’ are responsibilities that are given to us to be mutually shared and carefully cultivated.

If this book is read in the ‘deeply counter-cultural’ context of God’s grace, then the undergraduate on her way to a medical career will already be confronted with her Christian calling to avoid all professional condescension by maintaining deep respect for God’s gift to her (His grace) of her school friend who chooses the path of personal care assistant. The point is captured in these words:

Grace means we are free to be discerning towards the water we are swimming in. We are free to see work as an opportunity to serve and participate in something much larger than ourselves and not a way to define our worth.

Bruce C. Wearne is a retired Monash University sociology lecturer. He now spends his time assisting Christian Aid and Development students while continuing research in the foundations of 20th century sociological theory.

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