Questions on Catechism and Culture

**Why is this essay written in question and answer format?**

Because Question and answer format is cool.

**Beg pardon?**

Sorry. It’s in question and answer format in imitation of Frederica Matthews-Green’s essay “Under the Heaven Tree” in the book *[The Church in Emerging Culture](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0310254876)*, edited by Leonard Sweet. Also, it is intended to be reminiscent of the question and answer format of historic printed catechisms, such as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Catechism, and others.

**Why was Frederica Matthews-Green’s essay written in question and answer format?**

It was “intended to reference the penultimate section of James Joyce’s *[Ulysses](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0679600116)*.”

**Why did she do this?**

Her purpose was to provide a critique of postmodernism in terms of the purpose and calling of the Christian church.

**Is such a critique useful or necessary?**

Absolutely. Inasmuch as the church is “in the world, but not of it,”1 the church must always be evaluating the culture in which it is placed in the light of the Gospel. In whatever context we find ourselves, we need desperately to make a distinction between the purpose of the church and the prevailing winds of thought in our culture.

**What is God’s purpose in the gospel?**

To bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.[*](http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Eph%201:10)

**Is the Church accomplishing this?**

Hardly.

**Hardly?**

Well, at least, not triumphantly so. It may have seemed to have accomplished it in Europe in the Middle Ages, but a postmodern critique of the Middle Ages would indicate that the church’s apparent triumph over every part of the culture was due, in part, to the church’s capitulation and adoption of great swaths of the culture over and above the gospel.

**Can postmodernism critique the church?**

Absolutely. Inasmuch as the church is supposed to be “in the world but not of it,” any critique which can show that the church has become “in the world” *and* “of it” must be taken very seriously.

**Has God chosen any other means to bring about his purposes except through the church?**

He hasn’t indicated so.

**How does the church accomplish the purpose of the gospel, if not triumphantly?**

By providing an “alternate” or “parallel” society which takes its form, its culture and worldview, from the gospel, instead of attempting to become integrated with the world and dominant over it.

**This is from Frederica Matthews-Green?**

No. The terms “parallel society” and “alternate society” come from Marva Dawn’s book, *[Is it a Lost Cause?](http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0802843735/)*, although I think that in many ways she would be in fundamental agreement with Frederica Matthews-Green. Mrs. Matthews-Green writes from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, which in many ways attempts to function as an alternate society.

**Is an alternate society completely separated from the world?**

Certainly not. Such a society must be both alternate and parallel, creating a tension between the primary concern of aligning its culture with the gospel, and the secondary concern of relating to the culture of the larger society around it.

**How does the parallel society relate to the larger culture?**

In several ways. Marva Dawn talks about the incredible human longing which drives human activity and can only be satisfied in God, referring to this longing using C.S. Lewis’s term, *Sehnsucht*. The parallel society demonstrates that this longing can be fulfilled by living out that fulfillment. Secondly, but equally as important, the parallel society relates by living out the truths that the larger culture denies.

**What is the classic formulation for the idea of *Sehnsucht?***

Augustine’s classic formulation, “Oh, Lord, Thou has made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee”.

**Is the parallel society something that forms naturally among Christians?**

No. The natural tendency is to be conformed to the world. Forming a truly Christian society requires deliberate effort, which is why the scripture says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”[*](http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=romans%2012:2)

**How does this transformation take place?**

Catechesis.

**What is catechesis?**

Catechesis is a deliberate process of intentionally forming a society which is parallel, or an alternate, to the world’s system.

**How is this done?**

By creating a new culture which can relate to the surrounding culture, yet is fundamentally different.

**Is this new culture universal within the church?**

Yes and No. Christians ought always to strive to have more in common with each other than with any particular culture in the world. But it shouldn’t be the goal of Christians to form a single monolithic culture that spans all times and all places. Scripture indicates that it has always been God’s plan for there to be a multiplicity of cultures and ethnicities in the world, and as such, intends to have all cultures represented in his church.2

**How can you have a church that is both universal in its scope and which also represents a multiplicity of cultures?**

By creating multicultural congregations, which appeal universally to the gospel, but which also endeavor to be accessible to as many of the surrounding cultures (and sub-cultures) as possible, and to promote those varying cultural expressions within the church.

**Is a multicultural church possible?**

It is very difficult, but it is possible. Gary Parrett, S. Steve Kang, and Elizabeth Conde-Frazier have a book called *[A Many Colored Kingdom](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0801027438)*, which was written to explore “Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation,” as the subtitle says.

**What methods do they describe?**

They attack the issue from a whole host of different perspectives, but the major focus seems to be threefold: First the church must recognize that God does indeed intend for His church to be multiethnic in scope. Second, the church (and especially its leaders) must identify the ways in which they are ethnically exclusive, perhaps because they unintentionally have expressions which are very comfortable toward a favored ethnic group, but which are discomforting, or even hostile toward other ethnicities. Third, the church must work to adjust its culture to be inclusive toward all ethnic groups which may be found in the general area.

**Are these kinds of adjustments necessary?**

Not only necessary, but badly needed. The recent trend, at least in the Western Protestant Church has been to focus on “church growth” techniques, which usually focus not only on ethnic groups, but even narrower sub-groups in order to build the largest possible organization made up of the most narrowly defined lifestyle.3

**Is there something wrong with the church growth movement?**

Such mono-cultural churches may have some use, such as in particular evangelical outreaches, or in areas where there are no other cultures to represent, but their techniques have been condemned by Marva Dawn and others for building membership at the expense of proper catechesis.4

**What is catechesis?.**

Catechesis is the means by which we transmit “the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.”[*](http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=jude%201:3)

**What is the most important aspect of catechesis?**

Content. Every aspect of a Christian’s life hinges on what that Christian believes, and without certain beliefs, it’s difficult to say a person is a Christian at all.

**What are these beliefs?**

The most foundational set of beliefs which historically have been believed by all Christians everywhere, are encapsulated in the Apostles Creed, although there have been other additional beliefs which different groups of Christians have believed to be essential to the faith.

**From where is this content derived?**

In order to be truly Christian, the content must be derived from scripture. Any other source must run the risk of conforming us to the world’s system.

**Is scripture the foundation of the Christian faith?**

No. Scripture declares that Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone of our faith, with the foundation of apostles and prophets.[*](http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=ephesians%202:20) However, “scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”[*](http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2%20tim%203:16) (a good summary of the work of catechesis), and is the only source of content approved by Jesus and the apostles.

**Has the transmission of this content always been successful?**

Unfortunately not. In the early church, transmission was very successful, since a firm understanding of the faith was required either before or immediately after admission into the church, and since a solid commitment to the truths of the gospel were considered necessary as a buttress against persecution. But as the church became integrated with the Roman Empire, persecution slowed to a halt, and admission to the church came to be done by infant baptism. The result was that there was no clear occasion for a thorough education in the faith for all church members.[5](#footnotes)

**How was this corrected?**

The Protestant Reformation caused great disputes among Christians about the proper content of the Christian faith. Consequently, the identification of Christianity with the larger culture of Europe was corrected as debated their beliefs.

**Are such disputes essential then?**

If they are not essential, they are at least very useful.

**Were the efforts at catechesis by the reformers successful?**

They were incredibly successful. Making use of the printing press, several branches of the protestants produced printed “catechisms” in question and answer format, which covered what they believed to be the key essentials of the Christian faith. After the Council of Trent, the Roman church began to do the same with their system of beliefs. Martin Luther urged parents to instruct their children in the catechism and professed that he himself reviewed it every day.[6](#footnotes) The result was that in the 16th century, catechesis was more successful than nearly at any other time in history.

**Is the Reformation era the model for Christianity?**

No. It may be an excellent model for their high standards of catechesis, and their effectiveness in communicating doctrine into culture, but I believe they got some of the content wrong.

**For instance?**

I have a copy of the [Heidelberg Catechism](http://www.prca.org/hc_index.html) from 1562, which I assume is fairly representative of Reformation era catechisms. Questions of multiculturalism and ecumenicalism are completely ignored, though I can imagine that nearly every group would have been agreed on those ideas, had anybody thought to make serious arguments about them.

**Anything else?**

I see no mention whatsoever of spiritual gifts.

**Other than these, does the Heidleburg Catechism provide a useful model for today?**

Just the fact of the sort of questions they raise forces me to wonder if my culture has been too much identified with the surrounding culture, since it never occurred to me consider, for instance, how I ought to honor the Sabbath.[7](#footnotes)

**Can the 500 year old catechism critique a modern expression of the church?**

Absolutely. Inasmuch as the church is supposed to be “in the world but not of it,” any critique which can show that the church has become “in the world” *and* “of it” must be taken very seriously.

**Do all who claim the Christian name accept this understanding of content today?**

No. In the 20th Century, several other models for catechesis arose with very different views about content. For instance, John Westerhoff III argues for a much broader understanding of Catechesis in *A Faithful Church*, which he edited, along with O. C. Edwards, Jr.[8](#footnotes)

**What is Westerhoff’s understanding of Catechesis?**

Westerhoff first acknowledges that, as the word was first used by the church, it simply “referred to the activity of instruction by oral repetition. That is, persons were taught by having them sing out the answers to posed questions.” However, he then attempts to expand the definition of Catechesis to an almost limitless scope:

> “By catechesis, we mean every activity used by the church to celebrate and imitate the word or actions of God…. As such, catechesis involves all those actions within a community of faith that enhance and enliven faith, that make divine revelation known, and that aid persons and the community in realizing their vocation.”

**Is there anything that Westerhoff doesn’t include in the concept of catechesis?**

The only thing that Westerhoff seems hesitant to include under the heading of catechesis is any permanent content: “Catechesis is best understood as the process content of the Christian faith. It answers … ‘how’ (not ‘what’) questions”.[9](#footnotes)

**Is this understanding unusual?**

Historically, it’s very unusual. Theories about catechesis which specifically attempted to deny any particular content originated only in the early 20th century. However, today, and especially in the developed world, a content-free understanding of catechesis is quite common.

**How common is it?**

Harold Burgess describes four basic models of religious education, which have been common through the 20th century.[10](#footnotes) Only one model, the Evangelical/Kerygmatic Model emphasizes clearly defined doctrines and professes to teach “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Of the other three, two avoid doctrinal content, and one is ambivalent.

**How is it possible to be ambivalent toward doctrinal content?**

The Social-Science method of education affirms the need for specific content, but since it attempts to be a universal model for all instruction, it does not supply the content itself.

**Do you approve of a content-free mindset toward catechesis?**

I think it’s ludicrous.

**Why?**

First of all, factual content is the foundation of any religion or philosophy, Christian or otherwise. Without any distinctive tenants to adhere to, a religion cannot be distinguished from anything else it might be compared to. In fact, it cannot be distinguished from anything at all, and very quickly ceases to exist. Secondly, a content-free mindset is deceitful.

**How is it deceitful?**

It’s functionally impossible for any understanding of catechesis to be totally devoid of any content. The very statement that there is no content is a form of content. Instead, what this mindset does is to hide this content behind protestations that it doesn’t exist.

**Is there any value to be found in these models of catechism?**

Yes. By denying the traditional content of the faith, they must focus instead on other ideals, such as social justice. By their bringing these ideals to light, the Kerygmatic/Evangelical church is forced to consider whether these ideals should properly be a part of the Christian expression.

**Can even liberalism critique the church?**

Absolutely. Inasmuch as the church is supposed to be “in the world but not of it,” any critique which can show that the church has become “in the world” *and* “of it” must be taken very seriously.

**What is catechism?**

Deliberate spiritual formation of the church.

**Why must spiritual formation be deliberate?**

If we are not transformed, we will be conformed.

**Is it likely that we will ever have a church with a culture that is completely Christian?**

I don’t expect so. “For we know in part and we prophesy in part.”[*](http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=%20%201%20Corinthians%2013:9) I expect we’ll get it “right” only when we see him face to face. Nevertheless, it is the goal of catechesis to take what has been revealed and find ways to conform ourselves to it.

**Why is this essay in question and answer format?**

To remind the reader that not all catechisms were written long ago.

*********

1. Cf. John 17:14-15. I’m a little embarrassed to say I wrote this essay without actually looking up the reference for this quote, and now it seems to not be a direct quote from scripture!
2. Cf. Revelation 5:9 and 15:4. A much more thorough argument can be made for a church that is both universal and multi-ethnic, but I wasn’t able to fit it within the flow of this particular essay. See the chapter “Lord of the Nations” by Gary A. Parrett and S. Steve Kang in the book *[A Many Colored Kingdom](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0801027438)*
3. *Is It a Lost Cause?*; p56
4. Ibid. See also *A Many Colored Kingdom*, pp 9, 78 n.
5. This is a broad summary of *[A Faithful Church: Issues in the History of Catechesis](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0819212784)*.
6. Ibid.; p 123
7. [Question 104](http://www.prca.org/hc_text3.html#Q103)
8. A Faithful Church; p 2
9. Parenthesis in original.
10. *[Models of Religious Education](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1564764435)* Chapters 3-6

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