June 17, 2008 | 9:37 am
Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
Here’s a sad story from The Christian Century about how Christians don’t understand their own tradition, written by a woman who teaches “Intro to World Religions” at Piedmont College:
Students who complete the class say they feel more at home in the world. They are less easily frightened by religious difference. They are more informed neighbors, better equipped to wage peace instead of war.
The only place the course backfires is in the unit on Christianity. Students who have spent every Sunday of their lives in church may be able to name the books of the Bible in order, but they rarely have any idea how those books were assembled. They know they belong to Victory Baptist Church, but they do not know that this makes them Protestants, or that the Christian tree has two other major branches more ancient than their own. Very few have heard of the Nicene Creed. Most are surprised to learn that baptism is supposed to be a one-time thing.
With only five class sessions for each religion, I cover the basics quickly: early Christian history, composition and content of the New Testament, the Great Schism, the Protestant Reformation, central Christian doctrines and common religious practices. Faced with so much new information, students often have a hard time formulating their questions.
“If Paul wasn’t one of the 12 disciples, where did he get his stuff?”
“Do Catholics really think saints answer their prayers?”
As often as I have answered such questions, my sinking feeling never goes away. The things I tell students are so different from the things they have heard in church that I can hear their brains straining against the waves. They never noticed that Matthew and Luke tell different stories of Jesus’ birth, or that Mark and John tell no such stories at all. They never imagined that the first Christians did not walk around with New Testaments in their pockets. No one ever told them about Constantine, Augustine, Benedict or Martin Luther. They never thought about what happened during the centuries between Jesus’ resurrection and their own professions of faith. In their minds, they fell in line behind the disciples, picking up the proclamation of the gospel where those simple fishermen left off.
Even as they are turning in their quizzes, the students know that something has just gone badly wrong. “I think I just did the worst on my own religion,” one says.
The rest of the article can be read here. I find this tragic but not surprising. We’re not even talking about a major university here that might offer in-depth explorations into a Christian theology foreign to Sunday School graduates. This is basic intro-to-Christianity, Huston-Smith stuff.
This reminds me of Os Guinness’ book “Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It.” I also think it has a lot to do with the unbiblical teachings that can be heard in many churches.
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