Shifting Goal Posts?
Rote learning: time tables, number facts, books of the Bible, psalms, hymns, and Bible texts. These are certainly not the most exciting ways to learn, but definitely necessary! Do you remember droning on and on when you learned the times-tables? Do you remember repeating psalms or bible texts endlessly in your mind? In the past, school curricula and teaching methodologies gave far more prominence to rote learning than we do currently. Some educators even discredit the mindless repetition of rote learning as mind-numbing and useless. A Christian may have a different perspective on this process, especially when this learning involves aspects of our Christian identity. Though rote memory is one of the oldest methods of learning, our digital generation may balk at such a thoughtless process.
A catechism teacher in The Netherlands experienced a surprise when he asked his students to look up Ephesians 4. Several of them could not find it, probably because they had not learned (or had forgotten!) their Bible books. For many (younger) people today, they would consider much of this rote memory work stupid and mindless. With the prevalence of Smart phones, iPads, computers, etc., an app or a few key strokes will provide access to the Internet: Bible translations, commentaries, history, science, math – you name it, you can find it. Some people even use their Smart phones to access Bible readings rather than leaf through a "real" Bible. Though more information is readily available than ever before in history, there is something the Internet, a Smartphone, or an iPad can never replace.
The question raised in this context, is a growing illiteracy, a decrease in the basic knowledge of the Christian faith. On the whole, I believe most of our catechism students (still) have a reasonable level of Bible literacy. (Though most teachers wish it was much better!) Hans Meerveld, who teaches catechetics at the Reformed College (Zwolle) and at the Reformed Seminary (Kampen), wrote an interesting and thought-provoking article in the Dutch bi-weekly, De Reformatie. I will translate and comment on his article:
Complaints about a lack of knowledge are not new. Hosea mentioned this as well. This same concern about a lack of knowledge was an important motive for Luther and Calvin to invest a lot of energy into catechesis (catechism instruction). During the past century, almost all research done among the youth in the context of their faith and church membership also discusses their lack of "faith" knowledge.
To begin with, it would be wise to contextualize this complaint. Is this Bible knowledge any better among adults? A few random tests of specific Bible facts could possibly advance the thought that it is a myth that in the past factual rote memory of the Bible was better than it is now.
Comparing Bible knowledge or basic knowledge of our Reformed faith to past situations may bear out an important (and embarrassing) fact, but that only raises more questions: are our (i.e., teachers, ministers, elders) expectations too high, or were there similar problems in the past that were left unaddressed? If Hosea's complaint about a lack of knowledge is applicable today – as in the past – then the churches are coping with a perennial problem. Why?
Hans Meerveld poses a number of questions about effective catechism methodology and we can also add questions about the effectiveness of school Bible programs. Could they or should they be more effective in passing on basic knowledge? Should there be more rigor, especially for students who could easily accommodate such rigor? Differentiated instruction is often mentioned in the context of students who are challenged by a regular curriculum.
What do we do in Bible programs that challenge the gifted learners? A more pressing question also comes up. Meerveld uses the comparison of the learning of a mother tongue as an example to point to a possible deeper, a more systemic problem within our Reformed community.
Learning your mother tongue almost appears to happen automatically. From the time of your birth, the people in your life have talked to you. Without deliberate lessons you use your listening skills to establish a context between an object and a word. Afterwards you begin to speak your first words. The learning process is not organized separately because it's the environment in which you grow up every day that imparts that language knowledge to you.
It is fascinating in this context to read Deuteronomy 6:6, 7 where Moses teaches parents what their task is with respect to keeping God's commands. Those commands must be etched upon the children's minds by means of daily use and instruction. "Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." In other words, every moment of the day. "Impressing" in this context has nothing to do with rote memory because this instruction is simply present all the time wherever they are or wherever they go.
The situation highlighted in Deut. 6:6, 7 presents us with an authentic form of learning. It's also a form of conveying knowledge which would be difficult to reject. You simply accept this instruction as presented to you because speaking this language is a requirement of (normal) communication and a qualification to belong to God's people.
Deuteronomy 6 has often been quoted to urge parents to support Christian education. Indeed, daily instruction should also include our children's schooling, but your children's instruction is much more. How many teachers get your children out of bed, have breakfast with them, or sit around a dinner table with them? Or walk with them along the road? From this Bible text it should be abundantly clear that parents have the primary task. Of course we all know that...
Hans Meerveld continues:
In this process of instruction, the place this faith knowledge takes in our lives is therefore very critical. The mother tongue/language is learned without deliberate instruction because everyone in the child's surroundings uses this language as a matter of course. Is the use of our "faith language" also a matter of course in our children's surroundings? If the context of this language development is missing, that could be one of the most critical reasons why many children know so little of this "faith knowledge." Outside of our families and outside of the church, in society at large, this Christian language that is integral to the expression our faith has become a foreign language. Religion has become a matter for our private lives. This language is still integral to our church life. Basically that means the language in our church services on Sundays and in catechism classes.
As our children are increasingly exposed to the secular influences around us via the popular media, T.V., Internet, and secular schooling (especially secular trade schools, colleges and universities), we may witness similar experiences as those described by Meerveld. By and large, our church communities have been more insular than those in The Netherlands. Is this because of our immigrant mindset, the relatively closed enrollments of our schools, and the close relationship our schools have with our Reformed families and churches (the Triangle)? These relationships are not a substitute for effective Christian parenting. The language at home must resonate with the same sound of faith as that of the church and the school. (Turn the T.V. down! Or off. Perhaps the discussion of the hockey game could wait...)
It remains an open question how prevalent or pervasive "faith language" is in our homes. What is the status of the usage of religious knowledge (i.e., Bible knowledge and the knowledge of our Reformed faith) in our families? Does that language usage support the usage of faith language, or do discussions about faith issues only surface occasionally? If the latter is the case, then there will be few situations which provide an opportunity to use (and develop) the knowledge of faith. If this (faith) language learning is no longer a matter of course, integral to the family environment, the learning at catechism lessons will become isolated experiences. Consequently, such learning will soon disappear in the wave of information that washes over them everywhere else.
How effectively does Deuteronomy 6 function in our families? What place in our families do we cultivate for "faith language," discussions about our relationship with the Lord? Remember that often the parenting model your children experience at home will become the starting point for their own homes when they are married. The pressures of the world are like the storm and rain that beat upon the house in Jesus' parable. Christian schooling can serve well to equip our youth for their task as adults in God's kingdom, but both school and catechism only serve to support and assist the parents in the task they promised to carry out at the baptism of their children.
Meerveld stresses the importance of formal catechism instruction and the opportunities young people have to discuss faith issues, as well as their commitment to the Lord. In this context he addresses an issue that is very prevalent in educational circles: life-long learning. Teachers must model this. All adults must model this if they want their children to embrace it. Certainly as Christians, we must embrace this concept and realize that it is much more than attending worship services each Sunday! Deuteronomy 6 does not stop functioning when our last child has moved out of the house; it's integral to whom we are as committed Christians: parents, grandparents, all adults.