Friday, June 6, 2008

Biblical literracy, Christian education, and Life Principles

I haven't been blogging much in the last several months.. and since I am presently unemployed and have a decent amount of free time, I am committing to starting up again.

I feel caught in a tension. Christians seem to be stuck in an "all or nothing" mentality when it comes to biblical education. Either we study grand overarching systematic theology, or we reduce the text to mere life principles.

This has been painfully clear to me in my present quest for finding a new job. I've been researching a lot of high schools, and many seem to have no need for somebody with a Masters degree in New Testament. Their Bible curriculums are so basic and simple that it is no accident that they pass out Bible classes to coaches or teachers with specialties in other fields.

In my mind this is very discouraging. If we believe scripture is God's revealed truth, and if we agree with Paul that God's wisdom makes any mere human wisdom appear foolish, then we must start with a solid understanding of scriptural truth before we can really proceed with any other. It would seem that this simply means that if we're trying to educate our kids to actually think critically and well about issues of truth, then why would we want to simplify their biblical education? I have no problem with other subjects being taught at a high level, but my problem is when Bible is seen as the "easy subject". We should NEED more specialized high school Bible teachers, (and I say this with conviction, not self interest).

Instead, a lot of what I have seen is basic Bible survey, and lots of "Life Principles" classes. In my opinion, at least out of the schools I've seen, many have a Bible program that is just a glorified youth group. This content is what I think is appropriate for parents to teach in the home, and also covered (and then some) in the church. What is the point of repeating this material a third time? If being raised in a Christian family and attending a church is not enough to explain why you should not go out and have sex, or what Christian dating looks like, then I doubt a Bible class at high school will really change your mind. Of course no family or church is perfect, but I do not think that then should shift the focus of Bible classes, especially when the classrom is hardly the place for a mentoring relationship. Instead, Bible classes need to suplement the home and church, building a solid Biblical literate basis with the principle of pursuing Christian excellence.

Its been my experience at Biola that a lot of freshmen already have an established opinion on theology, and many are overwhelmed with Biola's Bible classes. This is really sad, because at least those who came from a solid church, and certainly those who went through a Christian High School should find Biola's Bible classes no more of a challenge than Biola's English or History classes. College is the next step up, and when your finding that instead of a step you have a chasm to cross, something is wrong. And I do not believe it is that Biola's standards are too high.

But here is where my tension lies. On the one hand, I feel like we need more and much better Biblical education. On the other hand, I think we must keep this in balance with the intensions and purposes of scripture. When we read a book like Hebrews, and simply want to teach it as "Doctrine about Christ", or worse, after teaching find ourselves with no application at all, then something is wrong. Just like Paul with Romans, the author of Hebrews had a very specific exhortational purpose for the book of Hebrews. He did not write it just so the audience could have a better understanding of Christology. For the author, the truth's he elaborates on about Christ are supposed to directly impact how the people live. This is clearly seen in his repeated exhortation to living faithfully, and persevering through trials and tempatations, (specifically the tempation to return to Judaism). Because of Christ's surpassing greatness, because of his role as high priest, becasue of the culmination of salvation history in Christ, we need to hold on and continue a life of faith, just like so many heroes of the faith did before us.

But this really gets at the problem. Biblical authors give us theology with the intent that it impact how we live our lives, but it seems like in the church we've divided these two. We'll either teach theology (though usually systematic, so its a bit removed from the text), or watered down life principles. This really hit me when I was teaching on 1 Peter a couple of weeks ago. In my mind, it made a lot of sense. The first half of chapter 1 basically says "see what an amazing salvation we have in Christ", and the latter half says "now live faithfully". For the author, the whole reason of talking about the truth of our great salvation was to motivate his readers to live faithfully. But when I taught it, I was not able to convey this. I felt like the kids were not connecting. This is probably because I'm not a great teacher, but still it really hit me that we're so accustomed to either being bored by "truth", or exhorted by "relevant application". And usually (it seems), the more relevant the application, the less it is tied to the passage. But for the Biblical authors, truth is supposed to impact how we live. If we believe the truth, it impacts our identity, and impacts us so deeply that in order to really believe it, we must live differently. Perhaps I am unable to explain this connection better because I have this mentality of separating truth and application so ingrained.

So I am caught in a tension, on the one hand, I think we desperately need greater biblical literacy, but on the other, I think we need less "theology" and more of the intended message. There is certainly an important role that systematic theology plays, and I do not want to undermine that. There are certainly difficult questions that the message of scripture raises, and I do not think we can really and satisfactorly remain agnostic on issues such as sovereingty and responsibility. But these are secondary. We cannot loose the message of the text. But we also should not water it down in the name of relevancy, or worse, to be more interesting. Of course, the greatest hindrance to this is first learning how to "get at" the message. Learning how to actually read a book rightly, learning to pay attention to historical and literary context, and learning to follow an author's logical and thematic developement can be frustrating. But without it, we're in danger of loosing something precious. We have to maintain that delicate balance between the study of scripture and its application.

That's all for now....

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