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What are we Teaching?

I was sitting in an almost empty coffee shop one Sunday evening. Reviewing my notes, I was going to be teaching a Confirmation class in our nearby church in an hour. Suddenly a group of about 12 young people in their late teens and early twenties excitedly barged into the restaurant. They began pushing tables together so they could all sit down ending up right next to my table. They obviously seemed like nice kids who were smiling and affectionate with each other. This gathering was clearly a regular thing. They knew right where they were going to sit, they knew the waitress and apparently they knew what they were going to order. No one wanted menus.

I had a pretty good idea where they were coming from because they all had their Bibles. Each one was marked with those little color tags so one could quickly find the correct chapter or book. For the most part those Bibles look used and worn. I admit I wondered if they ever carried a new Bible out in public before it looked worn.

I quickly learned I was correct. They had come from a nearby megachurch with over 10,000 members at that time. More interesting for many of us, they had vital and expanding youth and young adult programs. These programs and their attendance made the rest of mainline church leaders in the area sadly envious.

One of the young men saw I was looking at them and he smiled and asked me, “Are you a Christian?” I hesitated, then said, “You might say that. I am a pastor of a local church down the street.” I did not add my normal qualifier, “I may not be a Christian by your standards.”

This young man was very impressed. He immediately told the rest of the group I was a pastor. I did not know that for them a pastor is not someone who necessarily leads worship in a church. It is not about someone who has spent four years of college and four years of graduate school training to do a job. It is not about someone who has a current library of over 400 books. For them a pastor is someone who is a “true and committed believer.”

One young woman pushed another chair over to their reconfigured table and invited me to join them. After I got settled, I told them I wanted to know something. “Why do you folks spend your Sunday evenings in church?”

One guy, who seemed to be a leader, explained that when they were together like this “they got closer to the Lord.” Another said she went for the music. But one fellow said he was there because he was learning so much. Excitedly waving his Bible, he went on to say, “Isn’t it amazing that the entire Jesus story was the completion of prophecy hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth?”

Everyone nodded and then three or four more of them enthusiastically agreed they also went because they were learning so much. One young man explained to me that the Bible was like the manual you get when you buy a new car. “Except the Bible,” he explained, as it held it up in the air, “is a manual for life.” All of the heads nodded again. “We have classes every week at the church on Sunday evenings and we also get together every Thursday for Bible study at Jeff’s house,” one person added.

When I asked them if they knew how the Bible came to be written, they were quick to respond. It was written by God they explained. I said does that mean “God had a pen and paper?” Without hesitation one young woman said no, but it was dictated by God through the hands of his devoted believers throughout history. Again the heads all nodded.

My confirmation notes for that evening were about the split between the Northern and Southern Kingdom. So I asked the group if they knew about the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom that split in the 10th century BCE. “Yes,” a couple of them responded. I asked why they thought that happened. I was impressed when one young man responded that it was because Solomon’s son wanted the other ten tribes to pay more taxes and the tribal leaders rebelled. With barely contained excitement, he shared why it was wonderful. You see, he explained, this had all been predicted in scripture because the ten tribes “had forsaken God’s ways.” In Isaiah, he posited, it states that all of the tribes would be united when Jesus Christ reigns in his kingdom and all of the tribes would get along. For the record it does say something like that in Isaiah 11:12-13 but it refers to a Prince of Peace not Jesus.

Everyone in this group looked at him with pride. This young man knew his Bible. And then it hit me. They believed they were getting an education. They thought they were working with a manual not only promising you a good life but life after death. They thought they were learning something about history. They were genuinely excited about what they were learning and how it had changed their lives. They felt they had found a way to maneuver through the difficult challenges life throws at every one of us. They believed they had the answers and the rest of us were wandering in the desert.

They did not understand that the writers of the biblical stories were always looking backwards trying to explain what happened, using myth and metaphor.

They had no thoughts about anything in the Bible supporting misogyny, racism, child abuse, murder and sexism just to name a few unpleasant human frailties that seem to be supported by an angry God. In their minds they were getting an education that had been dictated by God. That young man’s ability to quote scripture, or something close to scripture, made him a hero.

I sincerely believe one of the failures of the mainline churches is not taking religious education seriously for over a century. It is true that today more churches are taking advantage of excellent educational products provided by organizations like Living the Questions, publications and lectures by the Jesus Seminar and Westar and our own PC.org website and publications. Unfortunately they are probably too little, too late. Since most of these resources tend to focus on the deconstruction of the old Christian story, they are little more than a confirmation of what aging members of our congregations have suspected for decades. This new information may be interesting for them, but their children—and now grandchildren—who have never been committed to a community do not get it.

And where is the next generation? We chased them away 40 years ago. What they heard as children in our churches did not compute with their later educational experiences. And frankly churches did not seem like a place to experience joy. For far too many of them, churches were more about fights and rules than they were about love and compassion. They were more about judgment and prejudice than inclusiveness. Surveys indicate they did not see churches as models for anything they would want to emulate in their lives. Churches for them certainly did not provide a manual for living or how to experience eternal life.

For me this is sad. I believe there are teachings in the Jesus tradition that can guide one into a more fulfilling, meaningful life. There has always been a path that can lead one into an experience of heaven here on earth; a path that can split the curtain between the eternal and the finite. With some wonderful exceptions we, as the institutional church, have not been teaching it. It has been easier to focus on the oughts rather than the real opportunities to experience new life.

I cannot help but wonder where the Christian churches would be today if we had listened to people like David Friedrich Strauss over 200 years ago. What would we have been teaching in our churches today about myth? What if our church institutions had celebrated the cutting edge work of people like George Gordon, Walter Rauschenbusch and Harry Emerson Fosdick in the 19th and 20th centuries instead of trying to silence them? I suspect we would be in a different place now.

So that brings me to today. What are we teaching in our churches? Are we still teaching mythology like it is history to our children? Are we still telling people they ought to act in a certain way in order to please a theistic God? Are we still insisting the historical Jesus had a unique birth, was sacrificed as part of God’s plan for redemption and without a belief in that you are not a Christian or even a follower of Jesus? Or do we just ignore all of that tradition? And if so what have we put in its place.

I believe the survival of a modern Christianity will depend on the way we answer these questions.

 

 

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