Christian Formation and the Cost of the Culture Wars

A reflection by Sarah

About five years ago, I taught a course called Christian Beliefs at a Catholic university. During each class period, we would discuss a different topic that connected in some way to the ideas presented in the Nicene Creed. On the first day of class that semester, I gave the students index cards and asked that each fill his/her entire card, front and back, with as many responses to the following question as possible: “What do Christians believe?” I taught that course twice and have not since been assigned to teach another like it, but being the pack rat that I am, I kept those cards and flipped through them last week while planning an activity for my current freshmen. I had almost forgotten just how troubling the responses where.

First, a bit of context: there were twenty students in the class, mainly from Christian backgrounds. Thirteen identified as Catholic, five identified as Protestant, and two identified as atheist/agnostic. Of the thirteen Catholic students, ten had attended a Catholic high school. Eight of those had been through twelve years of Catholic education. Three Protestant students and one atheist/agnostic student had received education at Christian high schools. Given this information, one might think most of these students would have no trouble generating a list of Christian beliefs that would include many of the religion’s core tenets.

As I perused these index cards last week, I was taken back to the shock I experienced as a second-year teacher reading the responses my class had provided. A few were easily predictable:

  • “Christians believe in Jesus.”
  • “Christians believe in Jesus as the savior.”
  • “Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins.”
  • “Christians believe that baptism washes away sins.”
  • “Christians believe you need to ask Jesus into your heart to go to heaven.”

But those accounted for such a small percentage of student responses. When asked “What do Christians believe?” almost every student in the class included at least two of the following on his/her list:

  • “Christians believe gay people are going to hell.”
  • “Christians believe gay people are sinners.”
  • “Christians believe gay people are pedophiles and shouldn’t be priests.”
  • “Christians believe that if you’re gay, you can’t have sex.”
  • “Christians believe that you have to choose to be straight if you love God.”
  • “Christians believe abortion is a sin.”
  • “Christians believe abortion is murder.”
  • “Christians believe in protecting unborn babies.”
  • “Christians believe you have to be pro-life.”
  • “Christians believe you have to vote pro-life.”

Most students who listed two or more of the above had written perhaps one other statement of belief on their index cards. One responded, “I know Christians don’t like gay people or women, but that’s all I ever learned in Christian school. I don’t know what else to list.” Another produced only four items on her card, indicating that Christians believe in Jesus as savior, gay people as sinners, abortion as murder, and Genesis 1 as a literal account of a six-day creation. A significant number also included statements defining Christian beliefs against certain actions, groups of people, or other kinds of beliefs:

  • “Christians don’t believe other religions are true.”
  • “Christians don’t believe you can be gay.”
  • “Christians don’t believe it’s okay if you kill your baby.”
  • “Christians don’t believe in Muhammad.”
  • “Christians don’t believe in terrorism.”
  • “Christians don’t believe in committing sin.”

I remember taking these cards home after class that day and puzzling over them. Had my students just blown off the assignment? Or were they really unable to think of any other theological issues as core tenets of the Christian faith? At the beginning of the next class session, I initiated a discussion about the responses. I asked everyone to work together in small groups and describe in detail their thought processes during the index card assignment. As I drifted from group to group listening to the conversations, what I heard surprised and saddened me. I heard stories of students who were taught to say a few words for the unborn every night at bedtime prayers but had no idea how to describe the Holy Spirit, students whose high school religion courses had covered morality backwards and forwards but had never touched on Scripture or Church history, students who had attended Catholic school since kindergarten but had no idea that Jesus was God until they had read the first chapter of our course textbook, and students who were becoming (or had already become) so disenchanted with the shallow messages they were receiving at church that they were considering leaving Christianity entirely. It became clear that my students hadn’t blown off the assignment at all. In fact, they had taken it very seriously, and many had articulated carefully all the tenets of Christianity they had ever known.

I handed each group a copy of the Nicene Creed and explained that for the rest of the semester, all our readings would center on theological exploration of different parts of that statement of faith. I asked groups to spend a few minutes looking through the Creed and jotting down some questions they had about what they read. It didn’t take me long to see how eager most of the class was to learn. They posed some excellent questions: What does it mean to say that Jesus is one in being with the Father? What does that weird “light from light” phrase mean, anyway? Why do Protestant churches that use the Creed recite the part about belonging to one holy, catholic, and apostolic church? I remember hearing one young woman say to her peers, “I’ve recited this every Sunday of my life, but never really stopped to think about what it means.”

As it turned out, we had a wonderful semester. Truly this was one of the best groups of students I’ve taught in my career so far. And even though one young man informed me crassly that the best part of the whole term was the day I mentioned that nude baptisms were performed in the early Church, I’m hopeful that most students left the course at least somewhat more knowledgeable about basic Christianity than they had been previously. What saddens me is the reality that a group of young Christians in their late teens and early twenties—most of whom had been Christians their entire lives—were in need of such a basic introduction to their own religion. I see this need emerging again and again in my theology courses, but I’m less surprised by it now after having gained a few years of teaching experience.

The fact that such a reality is possible in a classroom filled with students raised in the Church makes me gravely worried for the future of Christianity. It becomes clearer to me every semester that we as a Church have misplaced our priorities. And it’s not always the students from conservative backgrounds who exhibit this lack of basic Christian education. With some regularity, I encounter students who identify as liberal Christians but know only about Christian principles of social justice and little to nothing about the theology that undergirds those principles. If you look at how Christian leaders are portrayed in the public eye, it never has anything to do with affirmations of the Trinity, the power of the sacraments, or the hope of resurrection. More often than not, Christian leaders that most people see publically (especially in the media) are combatting behaviors and social norms perceived to be contrary to the Christian faith. It seems that anyone can create a list of items that Christians are against: gay marriage, abortion, war, capitalism, poverty, etc. It’s no wonder these are the first sorts of things that come to mind for a lot of young people when they try and list core tenets of the Christian faith. It’s regrettable that Christianity is becoming more defined by boundaries of the culture war than by the good news of Christ. We lose people because we lose the opportunity to invite them to follow Christ as one of his disciples.

As a student of church history, I’m all too aware of the fights people have fought with a desire to keep Christ at the center of the Church. But as issues like homosexuality, abortion, and freedom of religion become the defining issues of American (small-o) orthodoxy, I have to wonder if we’ve placed the culture wars at the center. Every day at work, I see the consequences of these religious battles as I look into the faces of the next generation. I can’t help but sound off from my corner of the universe, entreating all Christian leaders of every tradition to return their focus to Christ. Surely, the attractive pull of the Gospel has the power to guide us all into the fullness of life in Christ… while also having the power to bring the next generation along with us.

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