The Parable of the Pop Quiz

When the Only Question is Answered With Grace

Connor Gwin / 11.25.19

There once was a Chaplain who worked at a school in Virginia. As part of his work, he taught a course in Comparative Religion to high school seniors. His class was made up of students from around the world with varying religious and non-religious backgrounds.

Given one semester to cover the major world religions, he had boiled each religion down to a two-week unit. In each unit, the class covered the origin, basic beliefs, and basic practices of the religion. The Chaplain’s goal was to teach the heart of the religion from the point of view of a practitioner. “What is it like to be a Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim?”

When the time came to teach the unit on Christianity, the Chaplain was at a loss.

Where to begin? How could he teach the basics of the religion that had so enraptured his heart to students of varying backgrounds and interest levels? How does a teacher sum up the experience of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

He started with the story of Jesus. For a few classes, he covered the basics: The angel and Mary. The manger. The baptism by John. The life and ministry. The bumbling followers. The arrest. The death. The resurrection. The early church. The Great Schism. The Reformation.

The handful of Christian students nodded politely, occasionally smiling when they remembered a story or salient detail from their time in church. The other students dutifully took notes about the story of Christianity with the same determination that they brought to the extravagant tales of Hinduism or the austere story of the Buddha.

At the end of the first week, the Chaplain knew he had not achieved the goal yet. The facts of the story alone had not communicated what it is like to be a Christian. He decided to take a new approach. At the beginning of the next week, he took the class across the street to the parish church.

“For the next thirty minutes, I want you to wander around this sanctuary and find something you don’t understand or you have a question about,” the Chaplain told the students.

As soon as each student was standing next to an item, he went to them and answered their questions. In the process, he taught the basics of Christianity.

“The pews are fixed in place to orient the whole congregation in the same direction, towards the same goal: the cross and the altar which point to Jesus Christ.” 

“The Chi-Rho on the floor are a monogram of the first two letters of Greek for Christ.”

“The stone baptismal font is the place where new Christians are baptized, cleansed of sin, and welcomed into the church.”

The tour covered all the major points of the liturgy and practice of Christian worship. It provided the background meaning to the things that the students saw around them during chapel services. It helped them see that the architecture of Christian churches also teaches the story of Jesus Christ.

As the students walked back across the street to the school, the Chaplain realized he had still not accomplished the goal. The students had not experienced Christianity. They got a great tour of a beautiful building, but they had not seen the spark at the heart of the largest religion in the world. 

The week ended, and the students left for the long Thanksgiving break. The Chaplain still felt unsettled, unsure of how to communicate the experience of Christianity. What could he say that would show the students the power of the message of Jesus Christ? 

The week of Thanksgiving flew by, and the students were soon back at school. As they walked into the religion class, they found papers at every desk, face down, while the Chaplain sat at his desk at the front of the class. 

On the chalkboard was a note: “Welcome back from break, please get out a pen and prepare for the unit quiz on Christianity.”

The class erupted in nervous chatter.

“What? A quiz? We aren’t prepared! We didn’t study! There’s no way we can pass. We’re not even sure what is on it.”

The Chaplain spoke up, “Please turn over your papers and begin your quiz.”

The students tentatively turned the papers over, dreading the questions (and grades) that awaited them.

At the top of the quiz, it said the following: 

“Everything on this quiz was covered in class, but you don’t know it all. Perhaps you weren’t listening. Perhaps you really wanted to remember it all but were weighed down by all the other quizzes and homework you have. Perhaps if you had more warning or more time to prepare you would do better. Some of you are prepared and feel very sure of your ability to do perfectly well. Some of you might try to guess or bluff your way through. Some of you might not even try because you see no point. To all of you, I have some good news.”

A few inches down the page on each quiz was a spot to write the student’s name. Next to it was a hand-written note from the Chaplain: “100%.”  

The students looked around, baffled. 

“Is he serious?” they asked. “This is impossible. No teacher would do this.”

The student’s shoulders lowered as the wave of relief washed over them. Some laughed as they checked their grades online through their phones and accepted that the grade was real. As they left the class, they told everyone they met in the halls, “You will not believe what the Chaplain just did!”  

The Chaplain sat at his desk and smiled, “This is the experience of Christianity. This is what it feels like to be a practitioner of this religion.”

There was only one question on the quiz, with the answer handwritten by the Chaplain.

What is grace?

“Broadly speaking, grace can be understood as God’s unmerited favor toward human beings, his one-way, sacrificial love for sinful men and women who deserve anything but. It is a gift with no strings attached. Grace is the answer we receive in Christ to the question of God’s disposition toward troubled people like you and me.”

“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” -Romans 5:8