online book group: Almost Christian, chapter 6

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In this chapter, Dean begins to get at the heart of the issue. In order to pass on our faith, we have to practice it ourselves.

That’s the whole chapter, in a nutshell.

Research tells us that we overwhelmingly “get what we are”–ie, when we practice our faith and live as though it’s important in our lives, our children do too. When we choose other priorities, our children do too. The idea of the adolescent rebellion is not quite accurate, at least when it comes to religious matters. (and, in terms of generational theory, the adolescent rebellion actually comes much later–when we truly rebel against our parents is when we’re older, especially when we become parents ourselves.) Also, when we program what Dean calls “pseudo-Christian youth activities executed for the sake of good intentions” (ski trips, youth sundays, church sports, performance choirs, etc), we communicate that this is what faith is about…feeling good about ourselves, having fun, and bolstering our “middle class values of achievement, self-expression, and self-determination.” We lose our Christian identity when this is all there is to our faith.

The difficulty, of course, is that most of us think we are not qualified to pass on our faith, because we don’t understand it ourselves. Most of us don’t have theology degrees (and even those of us who do don’t know everything and are often stumped by questions from young people!), so we assume we can’t teach or mentor or model Christian faith. Unfortunately, that has meant that we simply choose not to do it. We outsource faith formation to the Professional Christians and expect our kids to come home from an hour or two a week with faith to sustain them through their lives, or at least their adolescence.

But as Dean points out, “Teenagers’ ability to imitate Christ depends, to a daunting degree, on whether we do.” I don’t think this is just about teenagers–I think it’s about mutual upbuilding of the community. Our ability as individuals to imitate Christ depends a lot on whether the people around us do. The more we seek Christ and Christ-likeness, the more the people around us can and do too.

To answer the common problem of not knowing enough, Dean reminds us that we are not trying to form beliefs about Jesus, we are cultivating trust in Jesus. This is not always the same thing–and she illustrates by telling a story of a famous tightrope walker, who asked a prince if he believed the tightrope walker could cross Niagara Falls carrying a man on his back–the prince said “yes, I believe you can do that.” The tightrope walker’s response was “Will you be that man?” And here belief and trust parted ways, for the prince declined. How often do we do the same about Jesus? We believe all kinds of things about Jesus, but when Jesus asks “will you come, follow me?” then our belief and trust often part ways.

In Deuteronomy, we are called upon to teach the way and words, trust and obedience, of the Lord to the next generation. But we don’t have to make them into something different–everyone is already a beloved child of God, made in the image of God. Our task is to MODEL godliness, to SHOW that we love God, to embody our faith, to delight in the Lord, to talk and to live our trust in God. As an example, Dean points to something we all struggle with–simply reading the Bible. We often believe that the Bible is too difficult to read, or too hard to understand, so we give up before we’ve even started. What does that tell young people? “The issue is not whether young people can read the Bible (they can). The real issue is…well, really, why would they want to? What have they seen in the church that would suggest that the Bible is a source of power and wonder? When have they seen their parents (or other caring and trusted adults) derive life and joy from reading scripture?” (p128)

Dean uses an example I’d never thought about before, but seems so accurate. We often will research things we are already interested in–ie, we hear a song on the radio and we love it, so we look up the band and start to follow their other work, learn their history, follow their tours. We read a novel that mentions a historical event and we find it interesting, so we do a little research until, without even realizing, we’ve become sort of a mini-expert in an obscure historical moment. We visit a place and come home wanting to know more about things that have happened there. We see a beautiful piece of artwork, or hear a beautiful piece of music, and we want to know more about the artist and the art, maybe even dabbling in it (or taking it up!) ourselves. It’s rare that we become interested in or obsessed with something because we researched it for a school or work project…the learning follows the love.

How might that affect the ways we do Christian Education for any age? How can we pass on love–God’s love for us and our love for God–so that people want to learn more, want to follow Jesus more closely, want to experience the movement of the Holy Spirit, want to know God’s word and will and dreams? Until we want those things, they’ll be unlikely to happen. We’ll force people to read the Bible or to pray at the beginning of meetings or classes, but without love, it’s nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (thanks Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, for that audio image!). How can we communicate that love…to young people and to each other? We are not asked, in Deuteronomy or by Jesus, to be theology experts. We are asked to follow, to remember, to love, to dream, and to let those things show–not keep them inside for ourselves. Are we willing to do that, imperfect as we are?

The primary metaphor of this chapter comes from 2 Kings 18-19 and Walter Brueggemann’s interpretation of that section of scripture. It’s an obscure story, in which the Israelites are on the verge of being conquered again. The Assyrian army has surrounded their walled city, and negotiations about the surrender (or not, which would mean a thoroughly unequal battle) are taking place on top of the wall. There are two languages spoken in this story–inside the city, “behind the wall,” the Israelites speak Hebrew, the language of the people of God–the people God has saved and will continue to save, the language of God’s promise, the language of their storied yet somehow Holy history, the language of their prayer. There, behind the wall, in their obscure little language, they encourage each other, they grieve, they pray, they remind each other of the stories and promises–they nurture their faith. Up on the wall, they’re speaking Aramaic, the language of those who dismiss YHWH, with the Assyrian empire. Because they are nurtured by the behind-the-wall conversations, they are able to take part in the on-the-wall conversations with a different perspective. They have a different worldview, a completely different set of assumptions, than the empire outside the walls. They have a different vision to work toward, and that vision comes from those behind-the-wall moments in their alternative and homey language.

Brueggemann and Dean say that we need both languages–that we can’t simply adopt one and ignore the other. However, the on-the-wall language and conversation should not be the dominant one. Instead, our out-in-the-world, cultural conversation must be informed by our behind-the-wall language and conversation. It is behind the wall that we learn that God loves us and what it means to love God. It is behind the wall that we have language for hope, love, faith, accountability, community, authenticity, calling…and that language and worldview should be at the heart of even our on-the-wall conversation. Then we can engage in translation, rather than assimilation. We know there are two conversations to be had here, and two visions of reality–the question is, will we nurture the behind the wall vision enough for it to affect our on-the-wall lives? There’s plenty of empire language and vision to go around–we are immersed in it practically before we are born. As Dean says, “The empire’s language dismisses YHWH, offers tantalizing but ultimately empty promises of salvation, and hands out scripts that the empire expects us to follow. Unless the church cultivates a behind-the-wall conversation that reminds us who we are, who we belong to, why we are here, and where our future hope lies–unless we hand on a tradition that gives cultural tools to help us lay claim to this alternative vision of reality–then the empire’s conversation is the only view of reality we have.” (p114)

So…

How do we cultivate this behind-the-wall conversation? How do we let our love show? Where does our passion lie, and how can we share God’s passion with one another?

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2 responses »

  1. The learning follows the love is a great expression with much meaning. I wonder if our acculturation has caused us to love the American dream to buy and have, and that this is what we have come to love? We then find a rationale to maintain it. Giving little to the church can be rationalized down to 2% when we claim that life’s expenses are too great to give any more to the ministries of the church. Could it be that the on the wall conversations of our culture have surpassed in importance the behind the wall dialogues of the church? And, has the church in any way played into this? Do churches sometimes talk the on the wall talk so as to not offend members? I’d love to hear from others on this idea of on the wall and behind the wall conversations.

  2. Rick, I think we have done exactly what you suggest–we have simply used on-the-wall language and conversation as a substitute for behind-the-wall, because it’s easier and less offensive. That makes it easy to understand Moralistic Therapeutic Deism–which is entirely based on wider-culture language like “be nice” and “be happy.” What I’m not certain of at this point is how exactly to cultivate the behind-the-wall conversation. I think it’s important that that conversation be accessible, which may mean we can’t use all the old language-of-faith (though some faith traditions do this, even literally–ie, Jews learn Hebrew, Muslims learn classical Arabic, etc) that our theological tradition has given us, but it’s crucial that we translate it meaningfully. Otherwise, behind the wall we’re having the same shallow conversation as on the wall. Which, I think, is what Dean says has happened over the past hundred years in much of the mainline church in the USA, and we’re noticing now because our barometer (youth) has dipped.

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