After Church: Christian Education

If there’s one thing that is true about the current American Church, it’s a lack of education.

Let’s say that, when you go into a class and find that nobody even knows who Gideon is, and where his story is located in the Bible, you’ve got a problem on your hands. I do not like describing it, nor seeing blank stares when I mention Biblical figures who are quite prominent. Yeah, everybody knows David, and everybody knows Solomon, but what about some of the more obscure stuff? Ezra? Nehemiah? How about people who don’t have a book to their names? It’s disconcerting, to say the least. My perspective is skewed due to my Christian education (kindergarten to twelfth grade), but I can’t imagine a “Bible-believing” church has members where they don’t know parts of that same set of documents. We’re not just talking about memorizing Scripture here – there’s a deeper problem with theological perspectives, wherein people believe they can make things up because, hey, I don’t read it and nobody else does either! That’s dangerous!

I don’t agree with Walter Brueggemann on everything, but his book Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education seems a great place to start remedying this problem. Forgive the somewhat academic discussion here, but Brueggemann’s audience isn’t the general reader, so I will try to condense and make clear what he means.

According to Brueggemann, education is the maintenance of the community between generations – that is, it keeps the community’s knowledge and moral values throughout time . As such, any education hoping to prolong the values, vision, and perception of the community needs to ensure that it can sustain it self-identity (individuals), as well as freedom and novelty that can make the community’s social identity compatible with contemporary problems. Brueggeman believes the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is overwhelmingly in support of this model, even though its purpose may seem just like storytelling – it has a dual purpose

This educational method rests in the cognizance of canon criticism, both the awareness of how the material came to its present form (canonical process) and the present form it is not in (canonical shape). These are vital questions, for they speak to the heart of how ancient Israel treated their texts. The way they were formed are, in themselves, confessional acts of a certain prerogative, not only for community belief but also in training the community up in the way it should go. They took the old text seriously, while also allowing new articulations of belief . They are engaging the Word of God as a living and breathing entity, rather than primary emphasizing tradition (fossilizing) or radicalism in abstraction (relativising).

As far as that last line goes, there are a bevy of ways to misinterpret what is meant. It’s not an addition or removal of things in the text; rather it’s adjusting the Gospel to new time frames and circumstances. Tradition is great! Relativizing is not! But a dead word can’t be alive; a Word that does not speak cannot bring people to life. Therefore, without abandoning the text’s anachronisms, we can still make it relevant to today by retaining the content – this has happened throughout, and will continue to happen. If we believe its eternal relevance remains, then certainly we can find new ways to exemplify that same message, right? Towards this objective, Brueggeman proposes the three essential elements of knowledge and education in ancient Israel: Torah, prophets, and wisdom.

Torah is the most basic authority, claiming Mosaic authority that is fundamental to all that comes after it, as a result being fundamental for education. It is, in effect, a statement of definitive ethos, which defines the character of the community – the structure is given to each generation in a non-negotiable form. That is not well liked by the more liberal segment of the Christian community – there are things they cannot remove that offend them, yet they must remain regardless. In a way, it is best expressed by the idea of “pedagogy as a form of worship” by engaging and binding the young into the perceptions and ideas of the community. The construction of absolute normative truths and a particular symbol system to support them remains the essential component of their belief.

As well, the continual emphasis on story, rather than direct doctrinal dissemination, is also part and parcel of ancient Israelite community. Stories can, at times, express what would otherwise be ineffable, and has easily become part of the Christian tradition as well (the story of Jesus’ life, as well as narrative theology, attest to this). As concrete, full of spontaneity in the telling, and utilizing imagination to its highest degree, stories help relate the experience of Israel (and the Church, now) to each generation. However, it is also the disclosure of new knowledge in a new epistemology: God saved the community! It is a disruption and subversion of the normal order, attributing the real power to God rather than earthly authority who claim power wrongly . Thus, God, who demonstrates power, keeps promises to the nation of Israel that can actually be kept.

Prophets, on the other hand, trace the impingement of God into existence, either reshaping or destroying parts of the Torah paradigm as God interacts with humanity as an active participant. In this respect, the pathos of God becomes apparent, the abrasive nature between what is current and what is promised. The abrasion does not reach its full overcoming by power or force, but by hurt. As Brueggeman states, it “…is something immediate, intrusive, and surprising. It is not normative. It is not known in advance. It is a way of knowledge that is not known until it is uttered. When it is uttered, its function may be to break the Torah, to challenge the consensus, to practice criticism on that which, until now, has been beyond criticism.” A new epistemology is introduced, one that emphasize knowledge from an unlikely source that, unless the community pays attention, no one will understand (and they rarely do, until after the fact).

Their poetic forms are an assault upon the common order, which until now remained undisputably approved by God; now the message has changed, has once again become subversive. You may, as Brueggeman says, see it as an alternate framework for humanness, directly from God, clashing with the assumptions of the old. However, even in its radicalism, it is still derived from the canon and moves against it at the same time, a dialectical (characterized by two opposing forces) conflict of how Israel assesses its own canon (for, as we know, the prophets are considered just as normative as Torah, even if they come later).

Lastly, the Writings and wisdom literature, a loose collection of writings with significantly less authority than the Torah or Prophets, exists as a space to question orthodoxy and ask tough questions. There is no generalization made between these diverse texts, but in general there is the logos, the conviction that there is sense, order, and meaning in life; such an order is both hidden and revealed. Think of it in two senses: clan wisdom, which helps discern the shape, boundaries, and limits of conduct in the community, and court wisdom, which addresses matters of power, freedom, and responsibility. We find wisdom as the process of questioning what has come before, a process of reflecting on Torah and prophets and reflecting “Where shall wisdom be found?”. How does one make sense of human experience in this paradigm of ancient Israel? They ask the tough questions that are not so easily resolved, yet can be found in the very construction of the world – if God created the world, it cannot be accidental or haphazard, but demand some explanation that is obvious, or makes sense (otherwise God would not have made it this way). Like John Calvin’s take, God works, to some degree, according to a process which humans can perceive – even if, at best, it’s a tangent on God’s knowledge base.

Observation, generalization, and exploration constitute a scientific method of wisdom literature, attempting to see “what there is” in what is seen, defined, and experienced. But there is also the element that there are some things we cannot know, for God holds all wisdom, and to understand that wisdom is to be God – not a possibility. Thus, wisdom literature seeks to explicate this with a number of different methodologies, all seeking to convey these ideas. Since knowledge is a good thing, and humans are given responsibility to form communities, there is a balancing act between established beliefs about the divine and human failings to understand its mystery. Confidence must be had, but measured; there, true learning can occur.

Thus, Brueggeman’s true educational model integrates these three ideas into a pattern of disclosure, disrupture, and discernment. In sum, it is the response of faith as obedience, as obedience is the only proper response to a holy God . These are the aims of all these methodologies – to establish obedience, to understand how to achieve that obedience through new circumstance, and to characterize continual obedience even in the face of the unknowable (in some sense) God. To follow God is to follow the commandments given; to be near to God requires the same as the entry point to faith, and hence the essential objective of Christian education. It’s interesting that Ecclesiastes 12 contains this exact same conclusion, having gone over all the facts of the matter:

Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. 10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.

11 The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd.12 Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

Even education comes down to obedience. If you don’t know the proper course of action, how can you be obedient? That doesn’t mean the answers are always easy – who said that was the case, and where does it say life becomes easy when you’re a Christian? That is why we are the Church and not just some disorganized body of people. We live in common obedience to the One who has saved us, and we keep the Body in line. That’s why we educate, and we continue to educate. If we lose that, it’ll be a terrible blow against the community – though I doubt, with God in charge, that this will ever happen.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.