Wednesday, June 13, 2007

words, telling the truth, and thin theology

I'm revisiting the big topic that is in some sense the topic of the Modern church in America: the Christian Gospel (let us be explicit: "Jesus is Lord") is about more than what happens to me after I die. It's also about more than me. (We've already discussed it here in this post.)

But how do you teach that in a way that is more constructive than deconstructive?

Yesterday in one day I had two different, but equally frustrating experiences of the way our culture (our church culture) has watered down the strength of the faith.


I went with the senior adults (a smallish group) to visit the "talking murals" at a church an hour or so to the North. The murals were interesting--quite nice, really, and a surprisingly vibrant thing to see in a rural church. But after we looked at the murals and listened to the presentation, this pastor walks out with a big stack of materials (and a giant Bible--which he never opened--ah how I love the prop Bible) and proceeds to explain how to make a "wordless book"--you know, the little homemade evangelistic tract made of different colors of construction paper (black, red, gold, etc.) to symbolize the "plan of salvation." And then he pontificates about how you have to ask people if they have made a decision and invited Jesus into their heart, and he suggests that these seniors need to share the wordless book with someone before the summer is up. (Or else what? I mean, does that mean that their 80 years have been worthless before they found this brilliant salvific technology?)

It seemed like he went on for ages--and I had to bite my tongue, because I got really angry. Nothing seemed to phase the group. Afterwards they all said, "Oh, well that was pretty!" But I kept thinking about how crassly manipulative and wrong the impromptu sermon was. I wanted to tell everyone, "Look, you can ignore everything that guy said." But as it turned out I didn't say anything because I realized that they weren't too worried about it. They have probably seen it before. I am young, and occasionally hotheaded. They have the peace that comes from age.


Last evening was our third night of Vacation Bible School. It has been a lot of fun. I love spending time with the kids.

Can you tell the truth by lying? This is an old question, and not as easy as you might imagine; it hangs on quesions of what language is and does. An old professor gave this example: a kid kicks his brother. You ask, "Did you just hit your brother?" Now strictly he could say, "No," insofar as "hit" may imply the use of the hands and not the feet, but it may be more truthful for him to say "Yes."

I bring this up because I feel like a lot of adults lie to kids by simplifying Christian concepts for their level of comprehension. Last night at VBS the theme was "courage." I can't tell you how many times I heard people equating courage with bravery, with facing your fears. That's all well and good, but it is only vaguely connected with the Christian virtue of courage. Bravery is for the soldier, but courage is for the martyr. I know that's a little too deep for the younger kids, but I figured I could broach it with the 5th graders. They didn't even know what a "martyr" was.

Perhaps my queasiness here just means that I'm not the best person to teach younger kids. Because--back to my lying question--I don't think that you should hide the concise but complex theological terms that the Church has chosen over the centuries. Kids may not understand it all--and we should do our best to explain--but I wonder if it is not better to leave it incomprehensible and intact--for the time when they can understand--than to water it down and risk them understanding wrongly. Because that can lead to that weird place in which adults realize that things aren't exactly like they were taught as a child--and so it all falls apart. Furthermore, if language actually shapes our understanding (and I tend to believe that it does, as does the old Christian maxim, lex orandi lex credendi), then shouldn't we use the best language possible as we are forming young disciples?

Please forgive this long and directionless post. I am developing what my supervisor calls a "VBS hangover."

1 comment:

Emily Sanford, MSW/MDiv, '08 said...

You've really highlighted some of the challenges of preaching/teaching the gospel with integrity! It's very easy to water down and oversimplify the message.

Don't give up too quickly on teaching the 5th graders! It requires hard work, patience, and creativity, but I'm sure you can find age-appropriate ways of teaching about martyrs. It is so important to build a strong foundation, and I'm afraid that we often underestimate the faith of children.