Religious Illiteracy – Good or Bad?


osterhasen-0177I read an article on CNN a couple of years ago that quoted a social studies teacher who said that each year he asks his students “What is Easter about?”  He said they invariably bring up the Easter Bunny but never mention the significance of the holiday to Christianity.

I’ve also noted a tendency among some Churches and Christian leaders in recent years to “circle the wagons” and retreat into Orthodoxy or relatively conservative statements of doctrine.  This seems to be a reaction to the declining influence of organized Christianity in American society as a whole, and may also reflect a perception that more conservative, evangelical Christian groups are growing while “mainstream” Protestant denominations (and Catholicism) are on the decline.

I am convinced that by retreating into more orthodox expressions of the Christian faith, progressive Christians are abandoning the greatest advantage they have in the face of an increasingly secular society, which is their ability to engage with others in ways they can easily understand.   That Vermont teacher’s observation that young people are not able to identify Easter’s origins in the Christian Tradition (still less the underlying Judaic traditions), means they have no basis for comprehending words like “Christ”, “Jesus” or “Salvation”.  Such concepts mean nothing to them.  Therefore, using such terminology to try and reach them is fruitless.

Also, the only impression of Christianity many people have nowadays comes from news articles about the hate-filled activism of Westborough Baptist Church, and the anti-intellectualism, racism, misogynistic attitudes and/or homophobia of various religious groups and personalities.  So, if we use the same words such people use, even though the message itself is far different, we, as progressive Christians, are being lumped together with them in the public mind.  We are therefore perceived as out of touch and irrelevant to modern realities and concerns.  (And, as any politician will tell you, perception always trumps truth!)

On the other hand, it is very clear, from the rise of “New Age” philosophies and even social networking, that people still have a deep need for relationship and connectivity, and are looking in all sorts of places to find it.  They need a reason for life, a way to find their path through life, and they are looking for someone to walk with them when life gets hard.  I ask, therefore, whether we should insist on using specific language when talking about our faith, or whether we should change the language to be something that our audience can understand.  Once a connection is made, they will be able to see that Christianity really does have the ability to give meaningful and fulfilling answers to the questions they have about life, and can enable them to develop relationships that are deep and meaningful.

I’ve found that many Christians, especially more Progressive Christians, are upset or put off by my refusal to resort to “churchy” language when expressing my faith.  (More evangelistic Christians [whether progressive or not] often aren’t, for many of them do the same thing!)  The answer is simple: I am more concerned with communicating my faith in a way others will both understand and connect-with than I am about using specific terminology.  For me, what is important is the message, not the language used to convey it.  If using specific language were the critical issue, then why bother using English to communicate one’s faith at all?  Why not resort to the ancient Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek that the original authors used when writing the New Testament, or the “thee’s” and “thou’s” of my denomination’s Calvinist forebears?

Paul the Apostle said in First Corinthians 9:20-22: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.”

This statement lies at the heart of Christianity’s strength, which is that it has always found new ways of expressing itself that connect with the people in each particular time and place.  In this postmodern era, we are once again at a point where we must reconsider the language we use, and the methods we use to communicate our faith, if we are to make it relevant to those who are looking for a relationship with (or perhaps refuge within) something greater than themselves.

Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site). 

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

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