Unpaid Bills : Duane W.H. Arnold
It is difficult to write these days. It sometimes seems hard to imagine why any additional verbiage would add anything of value to peoples lives. Whether we like to admit it or not, many, if not most, have forsworn the reading of books and essays in favor of the quick search on the Internet to find a particular answer to a particular question. You may indeed find the answer that you were looking for, but you will not find the width and depth that stands behind that answer. It is somewhat like trying to evaluate a painting by Rembrandt by examining an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper that comes off your home printer. You will indeed see the painting, but you will not see the artistry. The shadows and play of light are missing. The heavy treatment wrought by a pallet knife cannot be distinguished. Instead, you are presented with a flattened image that is devoid of the visual information that designates the painting as a masterpiece. This, of course, is not even to speak of the background and scholarly research that allows us to understand, in at least a limited way, the original intent of the artist as he approached a blank canvas and/or the history of the painting as it has been viewed by countless eyes through the centuries.
Now, this is not to say that you cannot gain some modicum of truth by looking at the paper that emerges from your printer, but it is limited. Likewise, this is not to say that you cannot find some hint of joy in the accomplishment of the artist while looking at the paper from your printer but, again, it is limited.
When you read a book or an essay on a particular subject, you also gain corollary information that, while seemingly unimportant at the moment, will in the future shape your view on what you were studying. Using our example of Rembrandt, if you saw the painting and decided to get more information by reading a book or essay on the subject, you would suddenly discover a whole trove of information that would inform how you viewed the painting that you were examining. It might be information about the religious situation in Holland. It could be a discussion of the guild system that existed in Amsterdam. You might find information about the political and economic structure that existed in the time of Rembrandt. All of this corollary information will inform how you view the painting.
Yet, while we might agree with such an approach with regard to Rembrandt or the wider field of art history, so many are loathe to apply the self same approach to the Bible or, indeed, to Church history or the broader subject of theology. There seems to be an idea that anything dealing with our Christian faith should be simple and easy, and that is simply not the case. While we might refer to an individuals commitment to Christ as a “simple faith” what stands behind that faith is amazingly complex and nuanced. Moreover, the complexities and nuances of that faith will not be resolved by a five minute Internet search for “the answer”. It takes some time, some reading, and a great deal of reflection. There is a reason that there are untold numbers of commentaries on all the books of the Bible. There is a reason that there are tens of thousands of books and essays on church history and the broader field of theology. It is the reason that week by week, month by month, and year by year books and essays are recommended on this blog. They are recommended not to elicit your agreement with any particular position, but to allow you to discover the riches that are there for the taking.
It is a tragedy that so much is available, yet believers do not avail themselves of the resources. I don’t know about others, but I am disgusted beyond words with those who called themselves Christians, or Christ followers, or Evangelicals and who recite all of the political talking points of their tribe, be it right or left, yet would be hard pressed to name the writers of the four gospels without looking it up on their phones. By the way, if you think that I am exaggerating look at some of the recent survey numbers and think again. It really is that bad. We are not talking brain surgery here, we are talking basics.
The cure for this is catechesis, that is, teaching those who come within our orbit about the faith. It is not teaching people about politics. It is not teaching people about culture wars. It is not engaging in the latest conspiracy theories. It is teaching people about basic Christianity and the tenets of the faith. This has been a failure in the Church for at least a generation and we see the result all around us. How would Christians view human sexuality if moral theology, a mainstay of Christian teaching for almost 2000 years, had been taught in the Church? Would it result in a more nuanced and merciful approach? How would Christians view the current propensity for violence in light of the Sermon on the Mount?
I have said it before, and I will say it again, much that we see in the Church and agonize over are really just our own unpaid bills coming due…
I so agree with what you’re saying. If people do read books, it’s “devotional.” The Christian verse/anecdote/prayer for the day kind (and, other than Oswald Chambers, I find most of it uninspiring and boring). It’s the same in a lot of other areas. I talked with a Christian last week who thought something she read on the Babylon Bee was actually true. That led to a discussion on satire, except she didn’t know what satire was. 🙁
I will give my own church credit for doing a makeover on our Sunday School material and sermon content after we got a new pastor in 2017. We no longer preach the gospel of “Jesus Calling” (yuck!) in the women’s Bible studies. But, there are still many people in the congregation who believe the gospel of fox News, or-horror-the Epic Times (sponsored by the Unification Church) more than they believe the doctrine of grace. I continue to pray for us all.
Your and Michael’s writing is so important. I only read three blogs, and this is one of them. I come for solid content and the freedom to agree or disagree without being shot down out of the air. There are very few blogs like this one.
The last decade of J.I. Packers life was dedicated to the cause of catechesis.
When I asked him what the best use of this site would be he almost shouted…”catechize, catechize, catechize’!
This is really good stuff! Thanks to Duane and Michael.
This was about 20 years ago now, but me and my family members were catechized, and just our family, by a ‘veteran’ Lutheran pastor. We probably met over 9 months, either weekly or biweekly. We were transitioning out of generic fundagelicalism and had lots of questions, which he patiently answered. I still remember it with great gratitude.
And the commenters here are correct — there’s really no substitute for in-depth, nuanced study, which leads to engagement and reflection. It’s sad that it seems like it’s harder to find these days.
“ There seems to be an idea that anything dealing with our Christian faith should be simple and easy, and that is simply not the case”
As a pastor, I have to ask “what came first the simple and easy sermon or a lazy congregation?”
I had people love my church for the depth of the sermon. But many more left because all they wanted was a simple sermon with just enough meat to get them thru the week.
In the end, I didn’t have the largest church in town but most were pretty solid believers.
Many thanks! It really is frustrating that there is so much that can be offered, but the vast majority of believers just ignore the bounty. I’m really to the point that I don’t care if it’s somebody wearing a MAGA hat or if it’s a hipster in skinny jeans or the worship leader at the local mega church… read some books!!!
We don’t do well with preparing people for life’s hard times. Hard times bring questions, some of which have answers and others that remain mysteries. We can, however, help people to have a theological basis to deal with what confronts them or, most certainly, will confront them in the course of their lives.
“Book learnin’ and such” corrupts the mind. This was the mantra of CC for decades. They had the accepted list, and if it was not on that list, you were corrupting yourself. Is it any wonder why all MacArthur commentaries were sold in the church book store EXCEPT for THAT ONE?!?
I ferociously promoted a small book called Cat And Dog Theology during my time at CC, but unless I handed people the book (and I did to the hundreds at my own expense) nobody would read it.
In that case, my mind is thoroughly corrupted…
Mine is too. It did not end well though.
I translated a conference for the author of dog and cat theology years ago. Being a true cat lover, I worship at the altar of feline superiority on a daily basis.
I went to a church where higher education, except at a low-rent Bible college, was discouraged. Thankfully, my parents told me I could do Bible college after I did university. That was a good move, but I went to a good Bible college with a solid reputation. That old slogan about a mind being a terrible thing to waste is so true.
Well, for clarification, I was a CC pastor and encouraged reading of any kind—especially by authors or theologians they don’t necessarily agree with.
But I was usually the exception of the CC rule
So not all CC’s were like the ones you are familiar with with. Of course, I am on the left coast!
Sounds like you went about your education in the right way.
A lot of CC’s were adverse to higher education. Not all! They were against any type of secular education and in elementary school, enrolled their kids in Christian Schools where teachers weren’t trained or certified or they did homeschooling.
The CC’s I was familiar with had schools of discipleship for post HS kids where they learned not necessarily how to think critically, but instead how to parrot the party line. Some were taught a trade. Most of those were, in the long run, unsuccessful.
My wife and I enrolled our kinds in public school and after HS, encouraged them to attend an accredited college. They are both successful working women.
My parents paid for university and refused to pay for Bible college. When I went, I paid for it myself (my parents helped a bit) and I picked one that was non-denom and accredited. I am thankful that God gave me parents that could see farther into the future than I could at 18.
Steve, you were an actual rule breaker. Don’t deny it.
Linn, Sounds like you do have wise parents. I’ll bet they knew that if you were to have a successful future, you needed to avoid the Bible college hothouse.
They weren’t Christians, but they did know I needed a living wage. Surprisingly enough, I did 15 years of missionary work before I went back to teaching school (which I’ve been doing the last 30 years).
Ain’t no denying it!
” There seems to be an idea that anything dealing with our Christian faith should be simple and easy, and that is simply not the case.”
I taught at a Calvary Chapel school of ministry, teaching on the Servant Songs of Isaiah when one of the students pushed back with the simple argument. I had spent a considerable amount of time working with these passages, and the Servant songs are anything but simple. I don’t think this person had ever read the Bible as more than just a tech manual, and didn’t understand nor could appreciate these poetic expressions in Isaiah. I didn’t think it was lazinessness as much as it was an entrenched ignorance. Needless to say, that was the last time I taught there.
“I didn’t think it was laziness as much as it was an entrenched ignorance.”
It is entrenched and intentional… and that is the root of the problem. “Simple” becomes an excuse as well as a hermeneutical tool.
“While America’s evangelical Christians are rightly concerned about the secular worldview’s rejection of biblical Christianity, we ought to give some urgent attention to a problem much closer to home—biblical illiteracy in the church. This scandalous problem is our own, and it’s up to us to fix it.
Researchers George Gallup and Jim Castelli put the problem squarely: ‘Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.’ How bad is it? Researchers tell us that it’s worse than most could imagine.
Fewer than half of all adults can name the four Gospels. Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples. According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60 percent of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments. ‘No wonder people break the Ten Commandments all the time. They don’t know what they are,’ said George Barna, president of the firm. The bottom line? ‘Increasingly, America is biblically illiterate.’
Multiple surveys reveal the problem in stark terms. According to 82 percent of Americans, ‘God helps those who help themselves,’ is a Bible verse. Those identified as born-again Christians did better—by one percent. A majority of adults think the Bible teaches that the most important purpose in life is taking care of one’s family.
Some of the statistics are enough to perplex even those aware of the problem. A Barna poll indicated that at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Another survey of graduating high school seniors revealed that over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham.
We are in big trouble.”
“…We are in big trouble.”
People don’t believe that it is this bad…
How do we deal with the issue of biblical illiteracy?
I think a lot of people are satisfied with “being saved” as if that is the end of their spiritual journey.
With the introduction of Mega churches in the 70’s the message from the pulpit began to change. People, it seems, started coming to worship service expecting to leave feeling good rather than giving to God the glory due his name.
So what needs to change to make a culture biblically literate? What are the steps? I think discipleship is one place to start.
If I never preach another sermon I’d be OK with that. I found more transformation taking place as I met in small groups or 1:1 than I ever did from a sermon series.
So what do you think is the strategy to make the Christian cultures bio locally literate?
FYI—My theory of discipleship is we study to know, then to do, and in the doing (what the scriptures say) we become (transformation)
The problem is deeper than simple illiteracy.
The most illiterate people I encounter actually think they are quite literate, because they are part of a church that teaches chapter by chapter, verse by verse.
There is also the problem with ignorance of church history…which teaches you that your sect doesn’t necessarily have the last word on biblical interpretation…
The task of catechesis begins with the pastors of the churches. I daily say morning and evening prayer with the readings. In the course of three years I cover most of the Old and New Testament. That’s at least a start. When there are no expectations for the clergy, what are we to expect with regard to the laity? As I said at the end of the article, these are our unpaid bills. We have emphasized the calling to “leadership” to such an extent that we have forgotten to mention the call to “follow” and set an example for the laity. Jesus says a lot about following, and very little about leading. In other words, we need to think about cleaning up our own house first…
Duane said: A majority of adults think the Bible teaches that the most important purpose in life is taking care of one’s family.
Is this necessarily bad application? Your own family members is where you will find the neighbors in closest proximity to you. Seems to me after loving the Lord God with all your mind, heart and strength, I can not think of a higher purpose and application in life than loving your neighbor as yourself which starts with your immediate family. This is not an example of biblical illiteracy but rather a value that has been embedded in American culture that I suspect has its origins in Christian ethics and the Bible. Again, how is this bad unless we see no value in the nuclear family and want to replace it with something else?
First of all, Duane didn’t say it… Al Mohler did, quoting a survey.
Secondly, while family is certainly of importance, there are numerous passages in which a Christian’s loyalty and concern goes far beyond the family and, in some cases, believers are called to make a choice in terms of their priorities. This is really basic in our understanding of the biblical message. If you don’t want to do a full out study on the subject, I would suggest that you simply read the Gospels. Jesus is pretty clear about the matter…
I think the heart of the matter is that the Bible is not a series of TED talks aimed at self-improvement…
Duane, I’m not a big fan of AL Mohler. He talks out of both sides of his mouth on occassion.
Curious, what do you think about the concept of sphere soveirngty similar to what Abraham Kuyper taught?
I am unconcerned with whether or not you are a fan of Al Mohler. You should, however, correctly identify who you are quoting…
As to sphere sovereignty, it is an overlay of politics and culture, which provides grounding for social Democratic parties. It is a system like any other system with virtues and with flaws, but I’m not here to discuss politics…
Duane, Of course. Yes, Please accept my sincere apology. I honestly at first didn’t see your direct quote from AL Mohler. I honestly thought these were your own words. With that said, you did choose to quote him and now even seem to defend what he has written. You should interact with the substance of my question which probably gets to the heart of the matter and give grace to an obvious administrative error.
I would defend the findings of the surveys he referenced.
I pointed out the “administrative error”.
I addressed the substance of your question.
Duane, I’m not here to discuss politics or the civil sphere either. My original thought was with the priority of the family. 2 of the 3 spheres are family and the church. It’s very relevant to the topic at hand.
As I indicated above, I think a better place to start is with the Gospels and what Jesus said about family…
Any system that we overlay upon the gospels will have strengths and weaknesses. This is true of sphere sovereignty, or the two kingdoms, or even Augustine’s and Anselm’s just war theory. All of these, along with so many other theories, are tools that we try to use to understand our relation to God and to one another. The problem is that in time we elevate the tool almost to the point of idolatry. It is the reading of the Gospels that comes first. All theories and systems must be seen in that light and not as ends in and of themselves.
Duane, I just read Luke 14:26. I feel like I now need to join Patmos, the Potterfield ministry or some other cult that will deliberately isolate you from family that Im supposed to hate. Not an option for me. Sorry! But I put things in the right context and priority @6:43. God comes first. Not sure what issue you had with what I wrote but what I gather is you what you wrote @2:55 on catechesis begins with pastors in the church. My pushback on this is not quite. I actually believe catechesis begins at home. Maybe you never thought of that before but I’m pretty convinced but I’m open to your learned knowledge Dr. Duane.
There is more than the Luke reference… Read and reflect, it’s what we are supposed to do…
Should I do some lectio divina or do you have another method I’m supposed to do….?
I usually suggest something much more simple. In the first instance, buy yourself a New Testament that is not broken up into verses but simply has paragraphs. Then just read a couple of chapters a day. Reflect upon what you read and how it applies to your life and to your interactions with those around you. Read through the four gospels a couple times in this way. When you come upon something that you don’t understand, then take a look at some commentaries. Read it as a narrative, not as proof texts. It’s amazing how your view of scripture will change…
Duane, I do something very similar with my young daughter. Although there are cartoon pictures in her children’s Bible, there aren’t verse numbers and it does help with the narrative when I read to her. Now can I ask you about family? What role does a pastor verses myself as a father have in the catechesis of my 6 year old daughter and what should come first?
This might be of interest…