Thinking, Learning, and the Future of Christian Education

On one of my many forays to the Nashville Public Library, I witnessed a serious young man hunched at a computer screen surrounded on all sides by textbooks, journals, and reams of Xeroxed articles.  What drew my attention was the slightly crazed, mad scientist look – wild, uncombed hair flying every direction; bloodshot zombie eyes with dark circles; chewed fingernails, each finger discolored by various pens and markers; leg nervously tapping, and a guttural, throaty mumble that accompanied each slight movement.  Employing an uncanny sixth sense, the young man (let’s call him Kyle – he looked like he might be a Kyle in his saner moments) whirled around, looked me in the eye, and with a marked desperation asked,

thinker

“Well, what the hell do you want?”  I apologized for bothering him, watching him teeter on the edge of his chair.  He looked haunted and hunted and on the verge of tears.  He said nothing to me, so I waited a beat, then instinctively asked, “Do you want to talk about something?”  He looked up at me, and unable to speak, nodded his head.

We went to get some coffee, and Kyle told me his tale. 

 “I’m doing my dissertation in theoretical physics and explaining the extradimentionality possibilities for parallel universes.  I grew up loving science fiction, and now I am dedicating my life to proving that some of it is actually true.  I have been so excited – there is a ton of material that supports my thesis.  There is so much more information than I can possibly use, and for awhile, I thought that was going to be my biggest problem, but it’s not.  My biggest problem is what to do with the ton of information that refutes or contradicts my thesis!  I can’t just include what I want to, but I don’t know what else to do.  I read sound academic writings that say parallel universes exist and I believe it with all my heart; then I read some respected scientist who says they can’t possibly exist and I start doubting.  I am listening to a thousand different voices, and they all sound like they know what they’re talking about.  I don’t know what to do!”

Information overload is not a new phenomenon, but its influence is growing.  To use a metaphor, the ocean of information has always been huge, but it was easy to avoid.  Now we live in Waterworld, where it is virtually impossible to stay dry.  But the problem is not only the amount, but the quality.  A Hanover College physics professor told me,

“We have reached a real Promised Land of information sharing and technology, but (to mix his biblical metaphor) there is a snake in the garden.  Science, pseudo-science, and junk science share the same Internet.  Wikipedia is the first place many of my students turn, not realizing that they are relying on “group-think” and often the lowest common denominator to get their information.  They have little experience and almost no critical thinking skills to analyze what they see.  Anybody can launch a professional looking site, and a lot of real wackos post weird s***, but they quote real experts in their fields.  A Google search will take you some really strange places.  In my twenty-five years of teaching there has been one major shift – when I began, I taught research technique, now I have to teach critical thinking.”

A similar phenomenon occurs in the church – we too are awash in a rising tide of information, and lacking a sound base of critical thinking skills we openly welcome the suspect and potentially damaging in with the good.  One example:  An adult Sunday school class read the following five books in the past year: Rick Warren’s, The Purpose Driven Life; Joel Osteen’s, Your Best Life Now; Jim Wallis’, God’s Politics; John Shelby Spong’s, A New Christianity for a New World; and, William Young’s, The Shack.  My response to the teacher of this class was,

“Oh, man, that must have been a wild ride!  I’ll bet you had some fairly volatile exchanges.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, with a puzzled look on his face.

“Well, those books come at things from very different angles.  I just assumed it stirred up some real discomfort and that you had to deal with some strong differences of opinion.” I explained.

“No.  Not really.  I mean, people disagreed with some things, but nothing major.  I think they enjoyed Osteen and Young the best, but nobody said anything negative about any of the books.” he told me.

“Wait a minute.  Are you saying that no one saw any kind of conflict between what John Shelby Spong said and what Joel Osteen said?  No one picked up on any theological differences?  No one felt challenged by Wallis?  Everyone read these five books and simply swallowed them, contradictions and all?”

“Yeah, you know, they’re all about Christ, and that’s all that matters to my class.”

These types of exchanges fascinate me, because so many of our churches struggle to know how to help people grow in their faith, and our denominations are desperate to reach new people.  Christian seekers outside of organized religion regularly respond that churches need to “raise the bar” on their teaching – offer college to seminary level classes for depth study and integral learning.  Christian are inundated by messages and information, but most lack the experience and critical thinking skills to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Good theology mires in bad; and Hollywood ends up teaching Christians more about angels (Roma Downey), God (some homeless teen age kid – this week – on Joan of Arcadia reruns), the lineage of Jesus’ ancestors (Da Vinci Code), or the gore-soaked brutalization of Jesus by nasty Jews (Mel Gibson’s Passion) than the church.  Hey, if it’s on TV it must be true, right?

Over the past thirty years, the church has witnessed a rarely talked about phenomena – a growing number of laity (with no aspirations to enter professional ministry) enrolling in Biblical Studies courses at college, universities, and seminaries; purchasing commentaries and primary texts; learning biblical languages; and creating Interfaith networks and relationships.  Many of these highly motivated Christians leave the institutional church to embark on this journey because they find that organized religion has very little to offer them on their quest.  It may well be time for leaders in the church to wake up and take note.  The cream is being skimmed away – deeply committed Christians with a hunger to learn, a passion to lead, and a guiding desire to love, give, and serve – and much of what is left seeks mainly to be served, cared for, made comfortable, and not challenged beyond comfort levels and safety zones.

The very nature of Christian education needs to change.  It is no longer sufficient to dispense information, tell stories, and teach a base body of knowledge.  Instead, (returning to our gospel roots and learning to teach as Jesus taught) growing Christian disciples need help developing the skills and gifts of discernment, wisdom, and critical thinking.  These elements are critical to fully understand the parables and aphorisms of the Christ.  Local congregations have the opportunity to serve a vital role against the rising tide of suspect, silly, and downright stupid misinformation swirling amidst the solid and sound teaching and thinking – to become an ark of learning, discerning, critical thinking, and exceptional spiritual rationality.

2 replies

  1. As a Christian educator, I value the struggle in wrestling with different perspectives and theologies in order to clarify my own understanding. It is frustrating to me that in the church today, so much of what people come to Sunday school for is a confirmation of their own views and prejudices. How to shift the conversation to one of engagement rather than just swallowing everything is the challenge.

    • I hear you. Year’s ago I brought a John Shelby Spong book into a church study group. Seven people loved it, three people hated it, and one person left the church over it. My intention was to introduce different ways of looking at and thinking about our church and our faith, but some people couldn’t simply engage the concepts — they had to make it personal. The same thing has happened when I have had discussions about other faiths. If I do not condemn them, or if I highlight the good in them, someone always gets offended, and usually they question my faith and my right to be a pastor. Open-mindedness is sometimes in short supply, but I believe it is one of the most critical roles of Christian educators to continuously challenge closed-minded, narrow-minded (and non-minded?) attitudes and beliefs.

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