It was years after I became a Christian before I heard the word “catechism.” It was not used in the church where I landed. We had Sunday School and Bible studies; we did not have catechism.
When I went off to college, I met Christians from other traditions and was first exposed to the idea of catechism. From what I could tell, it was a class that people in liturgical churches needed to complete before they were allowed to take communion and become members.
I though catechism was for Christians of another stripe, but I was wrong. Everyone, whatever their stripe, goes through some form of catechesis. The word, I discovered, is a biblical one, used eight times in the New Testament, conveying the idea of receiving instruction.
Everyone gets instructed. Whether the instruction comes through a series of questions and answers or through Sunday School and Bible study is not the issue. The issue is whether the instruction is consistent with the teaching of Jesus and the apostles.
In Peter Wehner’s disturbing Atlantic article, “The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart,” Alan Jacobs of Baylor University is quoted as saying: “People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe…” As such, it is not the context of catechesis – whether catechism class or Sunday School – but its content and thoroughness that is important.
Jacobs is worried about the content. He claims that today’s Christians are being thoroughly and intensively catechized not by the church but by “the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them.”
The fact that Christians are being catechized in a worldview that has nothing to do with the Bible is troubling. It explains why many Christians struggle to understand the Bible and see its relevance to their lives.
My son Kevin says that many people use the Bible like the box top to a jig saw puzzle. They look at it, then try to order the pieces of their lives according to what they see. The trouble is that the pieces they are working with came from a different box. They try to use those pieces to construct the picture of peace and joy as it is presented in sermons, but no matter what they do, they cannot make the pieces go together.
A person may pursue a life for which the Bible is not relevant. Take, for example, someone whose life is all about the accumulation of possessions – a house, a car, clothes, a second car, a boat, a second house, and so on. They go to work so they can purchase these things. They buy lottery tickets for the same reason. It is the motive power that drives their lives.
They hear the pastor claim the Bible is relevant to their lives, but this is misleading, as their lives now stand. It’s not that the Bible has nothing to do with life but that their lives have nothing to do with the Bible.
The Bible cannot be used as a self-improvement tool by people whose lives are organized around a different reality from the one the Bible itself presents. How can a person whose thoughts and concerns are completely foreign to those of Jesus and the apostles possibly understand them? The history of Israel, the commands of Jesus, the destiny of the church, the final judgment – all subjects the Bible addresses – have absolutely no relation to what that person’s life is about.
The Bible is not relevant to our lives when our lives are not relevant to God and his purpose. But when they are, we can finally escape the gravity of our own self-centeredness. And then Jesus’s teaching about God, his kingdom, and human life flash with insight and promise. As people experience this conversion, Scripture comes alive. Emotions are stirred, faith grows, and hope becomes indestructible. It is no longer necessary to fit the Bible into our lives; it has become the story of our lives. Then we understand what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he said, “Only in the Holy Scriptures do we learn to know our own story.”