How much teaching is enough?

After reading Michael Spencer’s book Mere Churchianity I searched his website without success for an exact quote from a commenter, one he had paraphrased in the book. Today I gave it another try, and came across the quote in one of his articles, but still no link to the comment. Here it is:

It’s time for one of your favorite programs here at Internet “Secret, Terrible, Unspoken Thoughts…REVEALED!”

Today’s secret thought was uttered by a commenter in a recent discussion thread, but it’s the kind of terrible thought that lurks in the minds of many of you reading this post. What terrible, shameful, embarrassing secret thought am I referring to?

Frankly, I’m to the point where there isn’t that much a pastor/teacher is going to be able to say that I haven’t heard 100 times already.

I know, I know. Shameful. Can you believe there are people like that out there? Someone call the watchbloggers.

The reason I searched so diligently for the quote is that I thought I might be the commenter in question. Now, if those are the exact words I probably wasn’t, since I don’t use the phrase “pastor/teacher” and I would have spelled out 100. But I have said almost exactly those words, at least to myself, many times in the past few years.

Before I write about what I mean by those words, let’s look at what Spencer thinks they mean:

The commenter is correct, and he isn’t saying “tickle my ears with something new.” He’s saying that the model of Christian spiritual formation now extent in worship is one that sees the 40 minute information dump as the primary means of spiritual growth. The sermon, the sermon and the sermon from the preacher, the theologian and the teacher. Plus a daily quiet time. That’s evangelical spiritual formation in a nutshell.

It’s hit me like a ton of bricks this past year: the blogosphere is full of voices that think we are all a bunch of big brains, and nothing more. We need more information. More data. More sermons. More books. More facts. More lectures. We are what we think. We are what we hear, read and think. So open up those brains and pour it in…after an appropriate prayer.

Well, I don’t disagree with what he writes here, and the imbalance Spencer describes is definitely something to wonder at. But I think I mean something less dramatic.

My question is this: how hard is it to learn not just the basics of Christian doctrine, but most of what is important? Is it really a lifelong endeavor, requiring weekly (or even more frequent) lectures supplemented by lots of independent study?

I began thinking about this when I realized that a sermon was increasingly unlikely to feed my mind. What I was hearing I already knew, sometimes far better than the preacher. But I didn’t chalk this up as a shortcoming of the preacher. In the early years I had been pretty hungry for doctrine and diligent about feeding myself. It didn’t surprise me that I was now hearing things I already knew, that I had heard from the pulpit over and over.

I wasn’t even dismayed in the beginning, because it is perfectly obvious that such a thing must happen. There just isn’t that much doctrine that it can’t be covered in a year or two of sermons and Sunday school. You’ll get through it faster if you add your own study to that. From that point on you’ll be hearing something you already knew.

And there is certainly more to learning than hearing something once. Repeated visits can help you internalize a truth more solidly, or understand it more deeply. That contented me for awhile. Later, when I likely to know as much about it as the preacher, I would occupy myself with judging his presentation of it—not always a spiritually healthy practice!

But mostly I listened in faith that there was some other purpose in hearing a point preached again and again, something beyond edifying my mind. And plenty of spiritual adepts are quick to claim that not all the reasons sitting under preaching can be quantified, that God works through preaching in ways we can’t easily detect.

Once on tape I heard R.C. Sproul begin a sermon by asking his congregation if anyone remembered the point of last week’s sermon. There was a pause, filled by nervous tittering, and then Sproul proceeded to say something like this: That’s fine. It used to bother me that parishioners could rarely remember the content of my sermons from week to week. But then I realized: I’ve done my job, and you’ve done yours. I’ve proclaimed the Word, and you have heard it proclaimed. Whatever happens beyond that is up to God.

Now, I do like the fact that this gets beyond the idea that the preacher and the parishioner are somehow obligated to make something happen during the preaching of the Word, and if it fails to happen then at least one of them has failed somehow: I didn’t preach properly, I didn’t listen properly. But I still wondered: what exactly is this thing that happens beyond the reach of our consciousness? And, more important: does it happen often enough that it merits regularly gathering the many to sit through point after quickly forgotten point, in order that the few might occasionally—what? Have their previously hardened conscience unexpectedly pricked? Suddenly understand something they didn’t get the first forty-seven times they heard it?

I’ve lately come to the conclusion that there really is a point where you’ve heard enough, and going beyond that point is at least optional and sometimes fraught with danger—the danger of thinking that going ever deeper into the Word outweighs the need to live what we’ve already learned. Those who aren’t living what they already know should be wary of thinking that learning more will somehow fix that problem.

My proposal is simple: before starting a sermon, the preacher should quickly state the point he is about to make, then excuse anyone who has heard enough on that point. What would those of us who are excused do instead? Well, I suppose we could discuss some other point of doctrine that interested us more. But I’m more intrigued by the possibility raised by one of the commenters on Spencer’s blog post:

I don’t know who said it first . . . but it could have easily been me, or maybe any of us. I do think that I’ve been at different places at different times in my life. There was a period when I (I now think erroneously) could sit and listen for hours to instruction on techniques of godliness. Then there were long periods of times I sat and longed to hear theology, and Biblical exposition. I expect to be at that place again. There were times I could sit and feel the emotional worship take me to another world.

But for now, I long for a friend. As a middle aged Christian man, I’ve never been lonelier than I am now. Sitting in our Church worship week after week is like handing a man dying of thirst a tall mug of ice cold. . . . sand.

I long to talk to my pastor or any man in my Church with my guard down, talking about how sad I feel about my kids moving off to college, or how disappointed I am with some things in life, or how I still have dreams unrealized. I equally long for one of them to tell me something personal and of substance . . . maybe how they are struggling with an issue or how their marriage isn’t perfect. I’ve done every thing I know to do to create that safe zone where they should feel free to talk. But it is counterintuitive to speak honestly in the context of a Church.

I hate standing in the basement of our church each week for snacks, coffee and “fellowship” while I have to filter every word that I want to say . . . to avoid the “that’s disgusting” look from my fellow-believer, or from my pastor.

I hate to start to talk about the most important thing of my deepest place and watch the pastor look at his watch or sigh in disbelief as if I should beyond that by now.

I think I’d like to spend my time talking to this guy. I know that we could just as well talk about such things outside of church, and some might think it would be more proper to do that. But if we were there together sitting out the sermon, I think we could talk and it would be time well spent.

Done with Blogging For Books

I’m glad that reviewing books for Waterbrook Multnomah got me back to blogging, but otherwise it was not a happy experience. No fault of theirs; I wish them well with the program. But the obligation to write a review forced me to write two negative ones, something I don’t enjoy doing.

I won’t be requesting any more books through this or any similar program. Instead, I’ll go back to getting my “free” books from the library, and posting reviews only when I think they’ll be helpful to others.

Radical, by David Platt

I was surprised at how much I disliked this book. What intrigued me was the subtitle, “Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream.” I do think that the American view of the good life is at odds with the Christian view. But what Platt means by “American Dream” is materialism (Christians are too materialistic? How new an idea is that?), whereas he fully embraces what I consider a much more dangerous aspect of the Dream, namely cultural imperialism.

Platt’s book begins with a look at the Gospels, establishing a truth that has been transformative to me, namely the need to die to self. He even cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer in support:

In [The Cost of Discipleship] he wrote that the first call every Christian experiences is “the call to abandon the attachments of this world.” The theme of the book is summarized in one potent sentence: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Platt characterizes what he considers the conventional “attachments” from which American Christians suffer: materialism, addiction to physical comfort, a need to be entertained, lack of devotion to the Word, lack of concern for the world. He exhorts his readers to loose themselves from these chains—and offers them a new set, a burning desire to “do something great for God.”

Platt tells of believers around the world he considers sufficiently sold out to God, but none of them seem to be afflicted with this desire. They are certainly devoted to living faithful lives, and I expect they are confident God will use their faithfulness to accomplish His purposes. But Platt offers no examples of, say, South Koreans who have set aside their own relatively affluent lifestyles in order to do something great for God in another country.

Which gets to my point about cultural imperialism. There is a peculiarly American faith in the self-evident superiority of our thinking. Whether it be our approach to economics or entertainment or government or spirituality, we figure that those who resist our thinking simply don’t understand—yet. And so we blithely export our ideas in these areas, ignoring how well or badly those ideas have worked for us. We know what’s best, even if we aren’t able to live it.

Platt urges his readers to jettison materialism and center their lives around spreading a truth that—in his own opinion—they understand poorly and are unable to exemplify in their own lives. I’m afraid this only trades one worldly attachment for another; the lust for comfort is replaced by the lust for power.

I wish that people like David Platt who push a vision for the church would at least wait long enough to show us how it has worked out for their own local congregation. But I wish even more they would take to heart something else that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, in Life Together:

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first and accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

(I agreed to review this book for Waterbrook Multnomah books, in exchange for which they sent me a free copy.)

Chinese mothers

I enjoyed reading this article which explains how the “Chinese mother” is a superior parent to the modern Western mother, but I didn’t know what to think about it. James Fallows says (jokingly) that commentary on the article is bringing the internet to its knees, but for some reason I haven’t run across any of it.

Fallows suggests that Amy Chua has actually written a Swiftian satire, and I tend to agree with that. Taken that way, she does a masterful job of tweaking the noses of people who vaguely envy the stereotypical successes of Asian children—while still reveling in those successes, which is the part that amazes the writer in me.

But I’m curious about one thing: why are we envious of the specific accomplishments she parades past us? For example, she brags about how her children were not allowed to play any instrument other than piano or violin, and not allowed not to play piano or violin. Is excellence on piano or violin (presumably playing classical music) a hallmark of a properly educated child? Does it enrich your mind in a fundamental way that, say, playing guitar or banjo—or even listening to music intelligently—does not? Does it make you more welcome at parties, i.e. do our eyes light up when our piano- or violin-playing friend shows up so we can beg them to entertain us with a performance? Does it get you anything except frustration over not having opportunities to exercise a hard-won skill?

I do think that Chua has done a good job of zeroing in on what we have come to see as excellence, and of demonstrating the hard work (and unyielding attitude) that is required to achieve such excellence. But it wouldn’t hurt to go over her article, skill by skill, asking the question: Would you remind me again why this one is important?

Mere Churchianity, by Michael Spencer

I’m reluctant to review Mere Churchianity using my normal standards for a book, because much of I care about may not matter to Michael Spencer’s target audience. The writing is breezy and entertaining, and says something that needs to be heard by people who have left or are about to leave the church. So if Spencer’s book gets the disaffected to sit still long enough to absorb his one simple point—namely, that you can reject the institutional church without rejecting Jesus—it will have accomplished something important.

I am not in Spencer’s target audience, but I am a fellow traveler. I am also troubled and disaffected by what he calls churchianity, but I am more curious than he seems to be about what went wrong in the institutional church and why. And although I am no longer interested in trying to fix the institutional church, I still think it is good—for all our sakes—to speak clearly and lovingly of its weaknesses, flaws which often discourage and even prevent the kind of living to which Jesus calls his followers.

Given that, my main criticism of Mere Churchianity is that it isn’t such a book, i.e. it isn’t the book I wish he had written, and that’s not fair at all. The writing reaches dizzying heights of snark—but snark is the favored tool of the writer these days, Christian or not, and perhaps it speaks to just those people Spencer wants to reach. The content is very thin, a repetitive stream of over-the-top claims backed up by little in the way of concrete examples, glued together with attitude that is brash, funny, and rude—but if this approach gets the attention of those leaving the church, perhaps it will succeed where a more balanced and objective (and unread) attempt would fail.

I hope that Mere Churchianity succeeds in its goal of persuading those who give up on the church not to give up on Jesus. But I wish Spencer had chosen to write to a broader audience, also making clear to those who haven’t given up on the church why the grievances of those on the way out are legitimate. Perhaps he wasn’t interested in this, or perhaps it was beyond him to do so. Perhaps someone else will write that book, building on what Spencer has written here.