The Christian Century website reproduces an article by Nancy Ammerman from the current issue. Ammerman argues that the (uh-oh) “mainline churches” don’t devote enough energy to religious education, especially for older children and teenagers. That should probably be uncontroversial; I know of relatively few Christian education practitioners who would say, “Golly, we’ve got a thriving program that our congregation supports unstintingly, that actually teaches young people about the Bible and the faith.”
Ammerman recollects memorizing passages from the Bible as a positive, as “a formidable reservoir of memory to call on, with words and images that remain a powerful part of my psyche.” “[W]hen we commit something to memory, it sinks deep and often resurfaces in surprising ways to meet new situations.” These points strike the exact mark I aim at in my biblical theology course — a mash-up of Nancy Ammerman with Gary Klein, extruded into a practice of Christian halachah and haggadah, not in the tractionless idiom of “I like to imagine that” or “She must have thought,” but in rich, dense, durable continuity with the reasoning of generations of saints, preachers, activists, and sages.
Mainline churches have, I suspect, become so fearful of proof-texting, brain-washing, and imposing ideology that they, we, have defaulted on the opportunity to develop a profound theological infrastructure for whatever “more sophisticated” spiritual maturity we aspire to. But that’s just plain folly. First, the decision not to “impose” religious teaching conveys the clear message that religion is a consumer choice; unlike (for instance) traffic safety or, frequently, which political party to support. Learners recognize the unstated message that “we say this topic is important, but it’s not ‘important’ in the sense that we really insist you take it seriously.” Religion-as-choice makes doctrines and practices into the spiritual ornaments by which we always accessorize the really important parts of our lives.
Second, if churches want people to deal with Scripture and theology on a level more profound than just bandying catch-phrases, they/we need to move people through that phase, not just hope (wishfully) to leap-frog them over it. And there’s no time more suitable for learning to proof-text, so as later to grow beyond it, than childhood. That doesn’t require that we jettison the exquisite work done by the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd; it does require that we/they offer more than pizza, movies, earnest discussions of nascent sexuality, and encouragement to doubt everything. And for heaven’s sake, we should at least start with Catechesis (or something as good)! From the good start that Catechesis makes, we can then draw children with us deeper into the world of Scripture, the rationales of the faith’s teaching, the marvelous lives and testimonies of our forebears.
This being Easter week, I’ll forbear speculation about whether congregations (and leaders!) would support such a commitment, and why not. But by abstemiously refusing to teach our children, we escalate a spiral of ignorance that does nothing whatever to advance the faith we at least notionally pretend to uphold.