Monday, March 12, 2012

Culprits for Biblical Ignorance

Today I want to talk about something that should be obvious to everyone in the conversation of Christian education but, sadly, is too often neglected at worst and merely assumed at best. What I am talking about is the practice of studying the Bible in order to gain a thorough knowledge of it. I’m going to leave off for now discussing the extent of and approach to the Biblical knowledge necessary for all God’s children. Here, I will examine the chief reasons for the dearth of Bible knowledge among God’s people, even among those raised in Christian homes and taught in Christian schools.

1. Worldview thinking

God has placed me among His people who love and promote “classical education.” One of the purported benefits of this method of education is its intellectual rigor. This rigor, coupled with a desire to be epistemologically self-conscious in a distinctively Christian way, is supposed to produce Christians who are able to “give an answer” to all forms of unbelief. This goal, while worthy in many respects, has been misapplied by its emphasis on “worldview thinking.” Of course, I recognize that the Christian faith is capable of providing a thoroughly extensive and intensive account of reality. But that desire to pass on such knowledge has minimized those disciplines (intellectual and otherwise) that are most valuable for Christians.

This fact came to my attention a couple years ago when I was at a teachers’ training provided by a leading school in the Christian classical school movement. I was surprised by the fact that at this intellectually demanding classical Christian school, Bible class met only three days per week. So I asked a board member about it, and he told me that they do so for two related reasons. First, they want to be careful that they don’t tacitly teach their students an improper compartmentalization of Bible from the rest of life. This avoidance is accomplished apparently, at least in part, by deemphasizing the formal teaching of the Bible proper. The second reason is that the Christian worldview is integrated into all school subjects. Thus, students will learn the Bible from their literature, math, science, and history teachers. The theory is that the Bible will so saturate the other classroom subjects that the students will complete their education with an adequate knowledge of it.

Worldview thinking has largely become a trendy buzzword for relevant engagement with the surrounding culture. Even at its best, it treats Christianity as a disembodied system of thought to be argued persuasively. This is a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is its deemphasis on the data of Scripture in order to engage in the realm of ideas. Christianity is “assumed.” It is a lens through which one interprets reality. But when treated merely in this way, my observation has been a neglect of actual Scripture and a very shallow understanding of its facts.

I would add as a parenthesis that Bible classes themselves also frequently tend not to deal with the Bible as much as theology or apologetics. There is a tacit fear of making Bible class too much like a moralizing Sunday School class, almost as if the Bible itself cannot be taught in an intellectually rigorous way.

2. Catechism

Catechism can be thought of as both method and content. I am not against the method of question and answer. Indeed, I regard it as a very effective pedagogical technique, especially in the early years. Rather, I am observing the drawbacks of the catechisms taught in the primary school years. When I began moving in the Reformed direction, I soon discovered that a distinctive of Reformed child rearing is the practice of catechizing. Debates ensue about the best catechism for children. Parents take as a mark of parental success the difficulty level or antiquated sound of their child’s questions and answers. A child who is equipped with a pea-shooter will learn only a purportedly watered-down “Catechism for Young Children.” Better, a child with a pocket pistol with have at his ever-ready disposal the answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. But parents who want to go all out and equip their children with a bazooka that is sure to knock out all enemies of the gospel will teach their children the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Of course, I am speaking facetiously, but I am truly concerned that we are putting the cart before the horse. I heard of a dear friend of mine recently expressing concern about his four-year old’s inability to articulate the truth of the Trinity. My friend, of course, was not overly concerned, but I do think his prioritizing of the study of doctrine even at this early age illustrates my point. Catechisms are essentially systematic theology. And systematic theology should rely on a thorough knowledge of the Bible. Regrettably, my observation has been that a heavy emphasis on catechism frequently goes hand in hand with a shallow knowledge of the stories, types, symbols, terminology, and facts of Scripture.

Again, by way of parenthesis, I am not opposed to teaching children the language of doctrine. My concern is with how prioritizing it easily results in a deficient knowledge of the Bible itself. Additionally, teaching doctrine is important especially in later years after a strong foundation of Biblical knowledge has been laid. Pedagogically speaking, Bible content is an enormous amount of “grammar level” material. I regard theology and apologetics as essentially “dialectic” material.

3. Partisan spirit

Frequently coupled with catechizing is a partisan spirit that is more concerned about losing children to other theological traditions than producing people who know their Bibles thoroughly. I have heard parents, whose children, though remaining faithfully passionate about serving Jesus, now identify with a different type of church, lament their failure to catechize their children better. I have heard teachers object to my cautions concerning catechizing by saying that our children may not turn out Reformed if we teach them only the Bible. Oh, the irony! These concerns may be legitimate to a point, but they also reflect a divisiveness that has plagued Protestantism for years. It is as though our desire to keep our own types of churches full justifies circumventing a rigorous Bible education.

This partisan spirit also implies a lamentable misunderstanding of how to replicate our own. As parents and as educators, we must recognize that watertight theological arguments and meticulously qualified catechism responses are not sufficient to pass on our heritage. Our heritage is more than a list of theological distinctives. And Christ’s body is much, much bigger than our own particular convictions. And I speak as one who feels very, very strongly about my own!

4. The spheres

The final culprit for our general Bible ignorance that I will mention is, once again, sphere sovereignty. I have talked about the inadequacies of the spheres before, and so I will only touch on them briefly here. Many churches operate under the assumption that the intellectual development of Bible knowledge is the responsibility of the “family sphere” while the responsibility of the ecclesiastical sphere extends to the spiritual development of its members. Thus, pastors labor to persuade parents, especially fathers, of their responsibility to teach their children the Bible, and, once the job of persuasion is done, they try to equip them in their pursuit. Thus, they have book table, and they recommend Christian schools, which operate in the sphere of the family. But in an effort to maintain supposedly proper distinctions of roles, churches demure from offering a thorough and rigorous Bible curriculum.

Once again, I regard this neat, watertight theological construction as providing churches with a respectable excuse for not making the long-term, expensive, and inconvenient commitment to teach the data of the Bible in a systematic way (apart from the pulpit).

Of course, these criticisms do not apply equally to everyone, and there are churches out there who do a very good job in offering such vital programs. The bottom line of my concern is that believers of all theological backgrounds do not know their Bible. Teaching the Bible is a lot of work and takes years of diligent labor. But if we are to have a generation of men and women who can make a difference in the surrounding culture, then they must be saturated with Biblical knowledge. And that knowledge is possible only if we make the commitment to teach it thoroughly and rigorously.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Pathway to Freedom: Christianity Replaced by the Church

In his article, “Why Can’t We Have a Christian Republic,” Daniel McCarthy of The American Conservative highlights a phenomenon that has been recently brought to my attention, an understanding of which, I believe, is necessary for lasting systemic change in the American system. Some of the most basic values that Americans hold dear are the very ones that will continue our demise of any claim to moral superiority.

McCarthy calls our system, borrowing from Grant Havers, “federal majoritarianism,” which values self-government, while maintaining a sort of aristocracy rooted not in heredity but in education, connections, and, more recently, charisma. This premium placed on self-government comes clearly from the Colonists’ being predominantly Protestant, that is, within ecclesiastical traditions “in which congregations had great say over church governance.” Thus, McCarthy states,

It’s easy to see how men who were accustomed to managing their spiritual affairs might think that they could manage their worldly affairs without king or Parliament. The tradition — the practice — of self-government held more authority for Americans than such institutions as crown, Parliament, or Anglican hierarchy. When the two types of authority came into conflict, it was clear where the colonists’ strongest loyalties would lie.

Americans love their independence, their liberty for every individual person as an individual and not as a member of a group or family or race. This nation began as a Protestant nation that was always trepidatious about either Church or civil leaders who claim any sort of authority. For instance, McCarthy recounts that in the 19th century the Roman Catholic church, a thoroughly authoritarian tradition, was confronted with suspicion in the United States. He reasons, “because the Catholic faith subordinates the laity to a hierarchy, wouldn’t Catholics in politics subordinate citizens to the pope or a dictator?” I also presume that this suspicion has factored in to keeping the Catholic Church from exceeding 25% of the populace to this day. In ecclesiastical matters, like civil, Americans prefer their leadership to earn their rights by education, connections, or charisma.

The question posed by the (presumedly Catholic) author is this: “As Protestantism has mutated into less structured congregations… and as religious practice in general apparently declines, have Americans also lost the experience that made political self-governance possible?” American is sliding from a loosely structured “federal majoritarianism” to a “new plebiscitary majoritarianism, which is impatient with constitutional filters [and the limitations it places on the leadership] and demands a direct expression of the people’s will through the power of the president of the United States.” With this slide in view, are Americans willing to continue perpetuating their system while recognizing the possibilities inherent in a system of liberty of the individual accompanied by an almost irrational trust in charisma and celebrity?

One could hope for a “Catholic moment” in which authority and hierarchy play a greater role, despite their risk of abuse. But such hopes must be tempered by the reality that America’s “political structure at its core is Protestant.” Not only would such a move be resisted by the populace, the Catholic mindset rightly hopes too much:

Catholic political theory has a hard time dealing with the American political system — despite a great many modern modifications, the Catholic Church’s fundamental understanding of how politics works was shaped by the practices of Christendom, by the existence of stable authorities who formally acknowledged the moral authority of the Church and who at least pretended to heed the Church’s teachings. The American public, by contrast, is not a stable authority... and neither the public nor the Constitution acknowledges the authority of the Church in anything except the fuzziest or most utilitarian terms.

This, I believe is the heart of the matter. America was founded upon “a Constitution that rested exclusively on popular rule.” And this rule by the populace, rather than establishing religion, guarantees the equal legitimacy of all religions, though under certain transcendent limitations. Thus, as time has passed and the people have become less Christian in their individual thinking, “we have something closer to a mass democracy than a federal republic.” And “the influence of a landed well-read aristocracy has given way to what Aristotle would have recognized as a money-minded oligarchy.” McCarthy makes the scathing but true indictment that “commercial wealth speaks more loudly than the Framers had expected, and the 18th-century notions of character and reputation have fallen before modern concepts of charisma and celebrity.”

Daniel McCarthy has made an accurate assessment of where we are and how we got here. It is most certainly true that when men like Thomas Jefferson guaranteed the equal standing of all churches, he radically relocated the role and the realm of rule of religious institutions. By moving the work of the Church to primarily, almost exclusively, the inner, spiritual man, a movement with with the church itself was complicit, the American system established a baseline authority to which even the Church must submit. The Founders redefined the authority the Church could wield and established rules that must not be broken. Equal legitimacy of all religions is possible as long as each one abides by these higher and prior laws that transcend all others. John Locke knew that the biggest threat to liberal democracy was the Church and that the Church needed to be replaced with a internalized Christianity. But when the Church acts as an institutional body meeting the needs of the whole man, she is forced to break some of these transcendent rules, at times encroaching even upon the purported functions of the civil state.

In America religious freedom has come at the cost of internalization. Thereby the church has been provided with an excuse for abdication, and she has taken full advantage. Now, in this age of tolerance, it has been too easy to minister merely to men’s souls but not to the whole man. And being complicit in this internalization, the church has become largely irrelevant as an authority over and definer of culture. The civil community with its practices now transcends the ecclesial community and its practices. Thus, in the words of Rich Lusk, the cross has been replaced by the flagpole. We teach our children the pledge of allegiance but not the Nicene Creed. The practices of the church have been internalized and individualized. Baptism is for those who can comprehend the gospel. The Lord’s Supper is a time of quiet introspection and not a joyous, sensuous feast. It is no surprise that the largest denomination in the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention.

My burden is not primarily for the nation of the United States but for the Church. It is only as she recovers her understanding of her authority over the affairs of this world will the culture change. This understanding was more obvious in her early centuries when she was more clearly an alternative and counter culture. She now needs to awaken to the fact that she is in a situation very similar to those early days. She must recognize that rather than being her ally, tolerance of internalized, individualized religion is a grave enemy. She must reassert her transcendence above the limitations placed upon her by the mass, tolerant democracy in order to act as the Church.

Daniel McCarthy asks, “Why Can’t We Have a Christian Republic?” We can. But only when Christianity has been replaced by the Church.