You would think it would be obvious: in order to sustain the faith, elders need to teach the faith to their children. How else is it going to happen? While there is something to be said about people sort of stumbling across God accidentally, or deriving a spiritual sense through interaction with the natural world, there certainly is no guarantee this will lead to a discovery of any transcendent truth, such as the revealed Word of God as understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact, history shows us there is a strong tug away from God for both the susceptible and the ignorant. It’s not as though God couldn’t just reach out and pull in anyone he wanted to, but there’s always that pesky free will. God may be calling to us in a variety of ways, but there are lots of other calls out there: false calls and wrong numbers and scams. Wouldn’t it be better, easier and more effective to simply point our children in the right direction, guide them along the way, and lead them to the surety and confidence that faith in God inspires? Why wouldn’t we do that? You would think it would be obvious. But apparently, it’s not.
The Bible is, of course, filled with stories of the consequences of not teaching the faith. Almost every chapter in the book of Judges contains a warning similar to this one from chapter 2:
Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshipped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord, and worshipped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them to bring misfortune, as the Lord had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress.
Ouch! What is remarkable about the book of Judges is that this story is told over and over again. The Israelites just can’t seem to get it, so they get punished over and over again, but then are rescued by heroes both great and unlikely, like Deborah and Gideon and Sampson. But their institutional memory seems impaired, and once rescued, they stop teaching the faith and go back to doing evil. If ever there was a case of spiritual recidivism, this was it.
But it doesn’t stop in the book of Judges. The Old Testament histories are a constant battle between fidelity and infidelity to the Word of God. These are generational battles. They aren’t caused by a single random snake-oil salesman coming in and corrupting society. The Israelites forget about faithful observance, this negligence seeps into their society, and it opens up the door for other, bad, influences. And no matter how many times they suffer the consequences of their neglect, they always revert back to it in the end. So, small wonder that the outstanding and consistent feature of all of the heroes in the Old Testament is their fidelity to God.
One would hope that all of that got solved with the arrival of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. The irresistible and transformative power of Christ lights up nearly every page of the Gospels, and no one touched by it is unaffected. But within a few years we see Paul dealing with churches struggling to stay on course. One such church was the church in Corinth, and he writes to them:
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.
Such internal fighting has happened throughout Christian history, but there has been another kind of war, another kind of tug, more reminiscent of the time of Judges: the pull to abandon the Judeo-Christian God altogether, or to water down Judeo-Christian faith in order to satisfy things that are not of that faith. It is a pull we are experiencing in our own time, as we discussed in the first episode of this podcast. And, as was true with ancient Israelites, some of the culpability lies in our own negligence.
I’ve heard it said, not infrequently, from members of the boomer and millennial generations, that parents won’t force their children to attend religious services or learn the traditional faith, with the idea that when the child reaches some age of maturity, they will be able to decide on their own. This is insane, and it is insane whether you’re a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist or a follower of just about any system that believes in some sort of transcendence that guides moral and ethical values. What, exactly will the child choose from if they don’t know anything? And, if and when they do learn, aren’t they learning that religion is nothing more than an intellectual exercise? That faith is nothing more than borders established for an orderly society, rather than the principal means by which we can enter into the transformational realm of transcendent grace? For Jews and Christians, the Bible demonstrates repeatedly the destruction that rains down on society when the faith is not transmitted convincingly to the next generation. Moral and ethical values are not enough to produce better humans, as is demonstrated by the ultimate failure of the legalistic Law of the Old Testament. Humans only progress when they are confident there is something to progress towards. The vision of a New Jerusalem, a shining city on the hill, is only compelling if there is some notion that it may be in some way real. If we don’t teach our children this, we’re taking a very big risk that they’ll never find out on their own.
The average American teenager is subject to a deluge of information through the multitude of information sources available today. This is true in many other places around the world as well. But this fire-hose of information is not curated. All data points have equal value, which becomes a great tool for spreading disinformation. People used to say don’t believe everything you read in the papers; I would alter that quote to say don’t believe anything you read on the Internet. It might be true, but most often the source is unknown and therefore untrustworthy. This is of course a larger societal dilemma, but it’s not hard to see how this is devastating to faith. An anonymous but authoritative sounding source says there is no God, another says there is. Who do you believe if all data points carry equal weight? One says in a world without God you can do whatever you want – you can enact a life of sex, drugs and rock and roll if you want to, because nothing really matters. The other says you need to be selfless, work hard for others and put aside selfish desires, because things matter very much in an eternal sense. Let’s be honest: without guidance, the average person is going to choose some version of sex, drugs and rock and roll, concentrating on material and sensual fulfillment. That’s certainly what they did in the Bible. How did that turn out for the people of Sodom? If you don’t remember, God burned the city down with acid rain and killed everybody except Lot and his daughters. Perhaps not the outcome they were hoping for.
It is likely that most people reading this blog or listening to this podcast already have some awareness of the importance of teaching the faith. Most church-going and perhaps Christian-podcast-listening people also have a belief that the knowledge they carry about the faith is common knowledge. Everybody knows we need to teach the faith, right? It is at this point that we need to introduce the concept of magic-woman thinking. My elderly father-in-law believed that he would be able to find the perfect housekeeper for himself and my mother-in-law, even though they lived in a remote town with very few resources. None of the local girls measured up, but he was sure the perfect one was out there somewhere. So, he kept looking, and looking, and looking for the magic-woman to clean his home, but of course, he never found her. Christians today have something similar to magic-woman thinking. Someone else will come along and straighten up this mess. Someone else will teach my children or my grandchildren. Some magic will happen and a magic woman will appear and society will right itself. Right?
So, for those who might be in this magic-woman frame-of-mind, it is just possible that you will get your magic, in the form of acid rain, or a world of plundering plunderers, or some kind of wild apocalypse right out of Revelation. Maybe such an ultimate end is inevitable for the world as a whole, but you need to ask yourself – seriously ask yourself: do I want that end to be the end for my own children? For my own grandchildren? As Graham Nash once said, “Teach your children well . . . and feed them on your dreams.” What should be painfully obvious is that the dream of self-centered materialism is ultimately a nightmare of death, but the dream of grace can lead to transformation and entry into that City on a Hill.