So here’s the thing: We’re all getting stupider.
I say this because I recently stumbled upon a Harvard entrance exam from 1869.The exam features, among other things, the expectation that students will be able to translate sentences into perfectly accentuated Latin and Greek. It asks the student to name the Ancient Rivers of Gaul and France (um…the Nile?) and asks questions like “divide 33368949.63 by 0.007253. What is the quotient of 333.6.984963 by 72530?” which I’m not even sure I could figure out how to type into a calculator. Good thing too, because, you may recall, that they didn’t have calculators back then. So students had to find the cube root of .0093 to five decimal places by hand.
Now I couldn’t get into Harvard today, but I could at least take the entrance exam without breaking down into tears. But in 1869?
Rather, I would have bawled. Literally been reduced to a bucket of tears right there at my little, test-taking test table, desk thingy…whatever they would have called it. And when I first stumbled upon this I assumed that’s what most of the students would have had a similar reaction. But au contraire, in September of 1870, 210 students took the exam and turns out that, of them, 185 got in. Did you catch that? Something over 50% of the applicants who took the exam I just quoted actually knew enough of the material to pass it.
You can’t tell me that would happen today. Not when today’s sampling of college entrance exams features questions like “Given the equation s(p)= 3000/2p+a please plug in 100,000 for a, 10 for p, 20 for s and tell us if you came up with the same answer our calculators got” for Math and “In the sentence ‘This is a noun’ please find all the nouns” for Reading. You can’t tell me that 185 students would know the answers to Harvard’s 1870 entrance exam.
You can’t and so I must surmise that we’re all getting stupider.
And, sadly, Christians are the biggest offenders.
Let me explain.
In 2003 Fox began running a show called Arrested Development. The show is a story about a wealthy family that found themselves in some fraudulent activities and somehow, through the dysfunction and legal red-tape, was trying to find a way to work it all out. Basically, it’s about an America family that manages to encompass every single parasitical relationship and cultural dysfunction possible. In short: it’s brilliant.
In the series, the oldest brother, played by Will Arnett, is a memorable character by the name of George Oscar Bluth who chooses to go by “Gob” (pronounced like the Biblical “Job”). To make matters worse, Job is a magician. Not only that, but in the spirit of the parody, he is a magician who is infamously and repetitively correcting those around him for their use of the idiomatic term “tricks” to describe the product of his trade. He makes a point of reminding his siblings, friends, coworkers and anyone who will listen that the acts he performs are “not tricks, they’re illusions…tricks are something you do for money”. Which, one could argue, is also a Biblical allusion:
Anyway… as you can imagine, by asserting his desire to be respected as he pursues the buffoonery that is his career, Gob quite inevitably becomes the brunt of just about every joke on the show, all the while failing to realize as much.
In one of the episodes Gob commiserates how he was recently kicked out of the local Magician’s Alliance for betraying one of the secrets of the trade. The show flashes back to a picture of him with the magicians in which they are all standing together, in their entire magical gid-up, holding a sign that says:
Thus, the joke continues.
And this, I offer, is a perfect metaphor for the church of today’s culture.
For (bear with me if you will) we Christians are like Gob and his magicians, constantly correcting the culture around us all the while refusing to realize that the reason they won’t stop laughing long enough for us to shove our Evangelical tracts down their throat is because we’re the joke in the room.
In September of 2013, Relevant Magazine ran an article titled “Why Aren’t More Intellectuals Believers?” In this article, David Denison draws upon the fact that Christianity has become the modus operandi of the average American and in doing so has refused to allow itself to be not only critiqued but also maintained with any level of intellectual validity. This is, of course, a broad generalization but Denison’s critique rings vibrantly that in American churches: “Christ’s call to have a childlike faith has been bastardized to a point that encourages blind acceptance of whatever we happen to have been told.”
To which we can only respond:
And this problem stems from our leadership.
There is a stereotype that seems to have general acceptance within Christianity that Christian leaders must be called by God to their role as leaders. I absolutely agree with that statement if said statement is the beginning and not the entirety of the sentence.
Because Christian leaders must be called by God to their role as leaders but they must also be capable, equipped and trained in said role. The second part too often seems to be lost within the call.
The Church is showing the symptoms of a depreciated value in education, both theological and general. The stereotype of a Christian consists of simply being “brainwashed”; our intellectual capabilities are constantly in question.“God called me to ministry so I went” seems to be the mantra of our Christian leaders. But a sincere defense of the gospel is no excuse for stupidity. In fact, it makes the offense all the worse.
Thus we bring the critique upon ourselves. It should be no wonder to the self-aware Christian that intellectuals are leaving the church. Because more often than not our answer to the most difficult spiritual/intellectual questions boil down to:
Armed with this attitude we set out in an attempt to address and transform the culture around us then get immensely frustrated when it doesn’t work. If we feel any resistance to our message, or find that culture has the audacity to question the validity and pertinence of our beliefs, we become instantly defensive, reacting with angry calls for the judgment of the miscreants who dare to speak in such a manner. Then, when we’re done blogging, berating and lashing out against the culture and start to Evangelize again, we’re befuddled by the fact that the reaction is still
In doing so we fail to realize, like Gob, that there’s a fantastic joke in the room… and it’s us.
And yet, we demand to be taken seriously.
In saying this, I’m reminded of my frustration fueled by a recent change in the curriculum of a popular Evangelical seminary. They decided to remove Biblical languages from their curriculum so that students could avoid the “endless hours of studying vocabulary and paradigms”, finish their degrees faster and get on to, what the explanation implies is, “real ministry”. The insinuation here being that education is not ministry and does in fact detract from actual ministry so it must be minimized for the sake of the church.
And yet, we demand to be taken seriously.
This has not always been the stance of the church. The famous reformer John Calvin on the heels of the Protestant Reformation instituted an academy in his Geneva that provided both catechism instruction in the faith but also an array of other studies similar to what we might label “liberal arts” today. The goal of the academy was to enable a person to think, articulate and reason and then to release these abilities to an intellectual and capable study and application of Scripture in the world.
Jesus himself, one may recall, though He was on earth for 33 years spent only three of them in actual quote-quote ministry. When He did enter ministry, He did so being aptly educated in the Scriptures as well as with an understanding of His culture. This is evidenced in numerous instances throughout the gospel, the foremost being His constant refutation of the Pharisees, the pinnacles of intellect in the age. All of this, He did, with an authoritative air that was backed up by knowledge.
Aren’t we to follow His lead? Shouldn’t we pursue intellectual capability as well as a passion for God? Shouldn’t those two things not be mutually exclusive?
My fear is that rather than being an innovative and prophetic voice in culture, the Church has become entirely reactive. We do not lead culture but rather adopt a dangerous and ineptive defensive stature. The summation of our public appearance is a painfully uninformed critique of the culture around us instead of a transformation of the culture based upon a grounded and knowledgeable understanding of both the source of our authority (the Bible) and our target audience (culture).
We demand to be taken seriously but aren’t willing to do what it takes to earn respect.
What? So what’s the solution? Am I just going to label all of us as “moronic”, drop the microphone then walk of the stage?
And indeed, this may all sound like a rather harsh critique. But the concern is genuine. And as a seminary student myself, this reprimand comes back on my own head as much as anyone.
Inasmuch, my proposition is this: we need to educate ourselves and we need to do so yesterday. We need to become not just proper students of the Bible (though oh don’t we desperately need that?) but students of culture as well. Be in the world, but not of it, learn from the world but do not mimic it. Rather having caught yourself up to speed, now set a path in which the world will follow because you have not only the authority of Scripture but the wisdom of the ages to guide you.
Therefore, congregations need to prioritize the education of their pastors. Pastors, in turn, must take it upon themselves to constantly be learning. The pastoral trade ought never be a stagnate one. This doesn’t necessarily entail institutionalized education; a piece of paper hanging over your head doesn’t necessarily mean anything. And not every pastor or church can afford a seminary degree. But rather pastors should be constantly searching the Scriptures, reading theology, interacting with culture and combining the acquired knowledge into one coherent approach. Education for pastors must be viewed as a priority and, in return, congregants must expect an advanced level of intellectual capability from their leaders.
Don’t misunderstand me: this is not because we are supposed to
No, absolutely not. The key to faith is not answers; the key to faith is questions. The problem is that Christians today don’t even know how to ask the right questions. The battleground of religion in the upcoming post-postmodern world will be fought in varying levels of conversation. And right now we’re in perilous danger of losing our ability to even in engage in the conversation. Much less transform it.
If we’re to change this, if we’re to engage in culture then it must be with a culmination of our hearts and our minds. Otherwise, we’ve no way to be taken seriously. Otherwise, we’re just the joke on a TV show that will play in the history books of tomorroyear. Otherwise, we’ve abandoned our calling and our role in culture.
If we demand to be taken seriously, it starts with taking education seriously.
On that note, I really should be studying for finals…