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What Churches Take For Granted (But No Longer Should)

A first-grade teacher does not require, but typically expects the five and six-year-olds that arrive in class to be able to:

* understand enough language to communicate with other humans
* eat their own food without assistance
* sit in a chair (or on the floor) without rolling on the stomach and
flailing helplessly
* use the bathroom independently when necessary
* walk from one place to another without getting lost

These basic functions are the unspoken expectations of school administrators for five or six-year-olds when enrolled in a school. Schools typically don’t typically make these abilities a written requirement; it’s broadly assumed that the average five or six year-old has these linguistic, social and physical abilities in place. So much so, that most first-grade teachers would be perplexed and frustrated with a student who lacks these skills. Were the teacher to devote her time to training a five-year-old to speak, sit or use the bathroom, it is safe to say that she would do little else. The expectation is that parents, and the broader culture, are responsible for these skills. Lacking them, classroom instruction would fall apart.

A similar situation exists in the church. The Bible does not explicitly require the following abilities:

* read a serious text with carefulness
* sustain attention to and experience comprehension of arguments
* understand something of why form matters
* sense the difference between appropriate and inappropriate communication and expression
* have some sense of what is beautiful and what isn’t
* respect the need for authority and differing roles
* retain a sense of tradition and posterity.

These basic abilities are the unwritten expectations of how the Bible expects a human being to be, before he or she enters the classroom of the Bible. The Bible itself is a serious text, and requires careful reading and thoughtful interpretation. The Bible itself makes use of extended argument, and requires a right use of reason. The Bible itself makes use of several literary forms within its covers, and assumes we understand the meaning of poetry, narrative, apocalyspe, etc. The Bible assumes that we come to the task of worship with certain understandings of form, occasion, and tradition already in place (witness the fact that worship is never explcitly defined, the Hebrew and Greek words rooted simply in the concept of bowing). The Bible tells us God is beautiful (glorious), and assumes we understand what that means and how we ought to respond to that.

Certainly the Bible does not make these sensibilities and perceptions a requirement to salvation. They are rather like what a first-grade teacher expects to be in place before she can instruct the children further. There is no point talking about metaphor if the child cannot speak English. No point in teaching multiplication if the child cannot sit in a chair for more than five seconds at a time.

I suggest we are at a time in history when those coming to the Bible lack much of what the Bible assumes must be in place to make sense of itself. This has happened before, in times of cultural collapse and disintegration.

The Bible has is inspired and inerrant, down to every word. That does not mean the Bible will teach you how to read. You have to learn that somewhere else. The Bible tells you to love God rightly, judge wisely, and honor appropriately. That does not mean the Bible will give you a tone-of-voice-guide, or an etiquette book with your superiors, or practice at critiquing an ugly poem or vapid music. You have to learn that somewhere else.

Where are these things supposed to be learned? Ideally, a culture teaches people these things. Most folk cultures throughout history have taught people to judge beautiful from ugly and appropriate from inappropriate, give honor to whom honor is due, recognize particular forms and ceremonies for particular events, possess some sense of heritage and so on. The problem instructors of the Word face today is this: we no longer have a culture like this. We are in a post-cultural era, with little still existing of the early schooling of the human being which most cultures have supplied. Ours is a hodge-podge of competing sentiments, contradictory notions, and convoluted assumptions thrown together under the banner of ‘multi-culturalism’, and blended with efficiency by technological mass media. Schools perpetuate this problem by deliberately ignoring or obfuscating literary judgement, moral judgement, and aesthetic judgement. With good reason, too: such judgements have to be rooted in a belief about God, the world and humanity, and secularists would rather bathe in hot cooking oil than select or promote a religious worldview.

This is Lewis’ warning in The Abolition of Man – an abandonment of teaching any kind of transcendental judgment will bring about men without chests, trousered apes who lack any ability to moderate their brutal or sentimental appetites. And what shall we do when those men without chests grow up and sit in the pews? (The Abolition was published in 1943.)

Were a pastor to spend his time training his people to do or know what years inside a Christian culture ought to have done, he would do little else. Yet I suggest, to a large degree, we have to face the fact that we live amidst the ruins of Christian culture. The Sunday to Sunday experience that characterizes Western Christianity is the religious equivalent of trying to teach people to sit in a chair and do the multiplication table at the same time, or trying to teach people to say their first words and write them simultaneously, or trying to do potty-training and reading in one go. Pastors in the 21st century need to teach the meaning of form alongside preaching biblical forms, the meaning of beauty alongside the theology of God’s glory, the meaning of ordinate affection alongside exemplifying those affections.

If a first-grade teacher receives a group of five-year-olds who cannot speak, walk, or sit, she will do little good by simply keeping to her lesson plan. She needs to recognize the problem before she can correct it. I suggest the beginning of a remedy is to recognize how little we possess of what the Bible assumes we already have. From there, we can begin small and humble efforts to try to restore what the Bible expects of its first-graders.

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.