Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Who Knows (Anything)?

           A few weeks ago a young woman approached me about teaching a Bible class for young professionals like her. She said that nothing much was available in the churches, or it was all at the wrong time, or it was too narrowly focused on truth as that particular church saw it, and none of her friends particularly wanted to go to a church anyway. But still, she had friends and colleagues who would love to get together to study what the Bible says. They were just curious. Would I be interested in sitting down sometime, with her, to discuss the possibilities?

            I was. I put a note in my agenda to set the meeting up as soon as I return from my study leave.

            I have to say that the request stunned me. I can’t remember the last time someone approached me about learning more about the Bible. In fact, if I’m honest, one of the things that has changed most in the thirty or so years that I’ve become a pastor is both how much people know about Christianity in general, and how willing they are to invest in that knowledge.

            When I started as a pastor, teaching kept me busy. I had two weekly catechism classes filled with teenagers. Those same teenagers also went to church once, or even twice, a week. I did a Wednesday evening adult Bible study that was well attended—sometimes as many as fifteen or twenty people crowding into my living room. Well-attended lay-Bible studies met in the church, some as women’s groups, and others following popular interdenominational curriculums. 

            I also preached twice a week—to dwindling audiences, I’ll admit. Still, the second service often had at least half the people in it that the morning service did. We usually covered the catechism. And whatever you may think about whether or not the catechism was “right,” at the very least going through the catechism introduced people to the basic framework of Christian theology. We’d cover the doctrine of God, sin and atonement, the Apostle’s creed, and last things, for example. The youth group meeting would also include some Bible study, and many adults belonged to small groups that focused on the Bible with the help of all sorts of denominationally approved study-booklets.

            These days—and for quite some time, actually—in churches both conservative and liberal, people don’t study nearly so much. Catechism classes have pretty much disappeared unless it is time to do confirmation. Youth groups meet during the Sunday service, so while they do spend a few minutes studying, they miss out on sermons. Adults may belong to small Bible study groups, though it is more likely (barely) that they belong to a book club. Sermons are preached only once a week.

            The nature of study, when it does happen, has changed, too. Where once study groups would read and discuss prepared materials, these days they tend to sit around a circle and offer opinions about what they “feel,” about some passage or issue or doctrine. The sense that two thousand years of reflection on almost every theological issue imaginable has already occurred is absent. People invent insight on the spot, if insight is what it can be called.

            This turn away from an established tradition of theological knowledge—or, if you please—reflection about faith and life, isn’t restricted to people in the pews. One of the more interesting changes that has taken place over the past thirty years is that pastors themselves seem to know less. This is a harder thing for me to get my head around. I’ve taught at the college and seminary level, and had occasion to sit in many classes as a guest over the past few years. I’ve met many recent grads at pastor gatherings. And the bottom line, to me, seems to be that pastors just don’t study the same things, in as great depth, as they used to. Few study Greek or Hebrew. Books that pragmatically lay out how to grow your church or transform your ministry or give purpose and direction to your life abound—not that there is much evidence now of growth or purposefulness than there used to be. I’m not hearing young pastors talk about the big theologians anymore—no Karl Barth, no John Caputo, no Richard Kearney, no Nick Wolterstorff, no Charles Taylor. Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy, stuck in my dusty tomes.

            I understand that I’m generalizing. But I do believe this is a pattern, even if some pastors are still avidly reading and studying the classic stuff.

            Now, in all fairness, it is probably important to note that for most of its history, most Christians and many of their priests were very ignorant. For the first fifteen hundred years of the church’s history, most people couldn’t read, for starters. Being Christian was just what people were by culture and habit. They knew the Apostle’s Creed (maybe), the ten commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and some of the Bible’s highlights. They knew how they were supposed to behave. The education of most priests was a shadow of what seminary education came to be after the invention of the printing press (and a whole long train of other factors). Historically, there is a way for Christians to participate in their faith in a lively and personally meaningful way in spite of not knowing much about it.

            The other side of this reality, however, is that where Christians in earlier centuries had little opportunity to learn more about their faith, even if they had wanted to, Christians today are voluntarily turning away from knowing more about their faith in droves, even though they have the option of learning more than ever.

            What has happened? Many things, on many different levels, I think. Let me make a starting list of the usual suspects:

1.     People simply don’t read as much or with as much understanding and depth as they used to. There is extensive scholarly consensus here that I’ve gone into in other posts, and my book, Not Sure. The bottom line is that if you don’t pick up books you won’t be able to figure out or recall even basic theology. If Christianity is a religion of the word, and people are not interested in reading words, you can be sure that Christianity is going to be in trouble.
2.     People are too busy to read, or to gather to study or learn. In a way, this partly has to do with priorities, of course. But not entirely. If you live in a big city like New York or Toronto, it takes a very high level of commitment to fight the traffic and get over to church or someone’s home to study. The traffic is stalled, the kids need rides to hockey and basketball, both parents are working, more people have complicated patchworks of part-time jobs with odd schedules, and those who are on the big career track are facing huge demands at work.
3.     People are too distracted to make study a priority. Let me count the ways. Television, internet, gaming, cottages, kid’s sports and activities (again), juggling two careers (again). We work on backhands and putting, abs and pecs rather than reading. And then there is shopping at the mall, and movies, and a critical lack of babysitting.
4.     At the same time, people don’t feel the need to know. And perhaps this is the biggest change. There was a time in the history of the church when the three great estates each had their own area of expertise, which they were supposed to practice on behalf of everyone else. The nobility ruled. The peasants tilled the land. And the church saved everyone through prayer, ritual, study, and whatever it was that they did in the monasteries. In this system, people didn’t have to know and were not encouraged to know—some one else did it, for them. But, in a round about way, we’ve returned to that sense that whatever is in those theology books is great for theologians—but I don’t need it. I am particularly struck by the suspicion people have for learning, a sort of crawling anti-intellectualism that shouts “if it isn’t useful, if it isn’t going to advance my career, it isn’t worth it.”
5.     The culture in general has made church, and what used to be its demands for study and attendance, passé. This is mostly through a widespread—and well-founded—suspicion of institutions and the power they wield. When any institution tells you what to do these days—people bristle. Trust is low. The church—its philandering priests, its residential schools, its insistence (in some quarters) on what is perceived as outmoded rules, just doesn’t seem to merit much interest or study or attendance where you might learn.
6.     And finally, our individualistic culture has put a lot more trust in the spiritual narratives we spin on our own. More on the why and how of this in the next column.

            What do we do about all this? Can churches somehow plow against this cultural tsunami? I hope so. I think a lot about it, and experiment. In the meantime, However, I am taking up that young professional on her offer to help me establish a Bible study for her and her peers—probably in a pub. I’m looking forward to it.

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