Never Again; or, Misplaced Priorities

After the shooting at a club in Florida a couple of years ago, I posted begging you not to politicize the deaths of your fellow human beings. I called for mourning, for grief, for respect, not an instant tirade from either side of the aisle about gun control, homosexuality, or other charged topics. Following the horrific shooting at a high school yesterday (again in Florida), my conversations and social media pages have been saturated with exactly what I tried to stave off previously. While I continue to pray for the victims, their families, and for the shooter and his family, I am afraid I must break my own silence, go against my own advice, and respond to some of the claims I’ve been seeing.

No matter your view on gun control, etc., we all agree, as a nation, something must be done to protect the lives of our children. It is obscene, it is perverse, it is unholy for even a single student to suffer and die in an environment which should be keeping them as safe as humanly possible. The thought “I could die in class today” should be the one thought furthest from the minds of those who should still be singing the songs of innocence. And yet these things happen once a week on average in the United States in recent years, with eighteen so far this year. We all agree: this is unacceptable, and it must stop.

The problem is there aren’t quick-fix solutions for broken systems, and there is an abundance of broken systems at play in this particular national horror. The American health care system is a joke. It provides very little “care” indeed. Yes, sick people are made well using some of the best and most advanced medical techniques utilized by the best-educated medical professionals on the planet — but they are made well only mechanically, mechanically. Where is the care for the minds and souls to along with the care for bodies? Trauma affects all three, but we rarely treat all of them in a clinical setting. While I believe the church, the local congregation, is best-equipped for care of souls, how are we doing so as a complement to medical care? Or are we? Mental health care, the major medical issue at stake in discussions of shooters, remains heavily stigmatized in the U.S. Why? Why are we ashamed to admit we have a sick brain that needs made well the same as a sick liver? Partly because of the church’s ground-level, lived belief Jesus means you don’t need pills or therapists. Church, how dare we keep sick people ill through guilt and shame. How dare we be so hateful and so bigoted and so ignorant as that. Perhaps if we helped people accept they need help and support their treatment we would see fewer tragedies and less violence.

(Of course, we all could use more Jesus. Always. A changed heart and a saved soul go a long way towards preventing these things.)

A second broken system is American education. Instead of providing care and seeing students as people in need of it, our education system cranks out information parrots who meet the right benchmarks on our test scores. Schools can’t provide the top-level care students need — it’s not their function, and school counselors are limited for many reasons — but they can do more than they do. For a start, and I’m delighted at our ongoing progress on this front, we can reject the idea bullying is acceptable. Will we ever eradicate bullying completely? Doubtful. But we can certainly do more to stop it, to care for victims, and to punish perpetrators. We can help students understand it’s OK to seek help when they need it. We can provide more professionals in more schools to provide that care. But we don’t, and the education system remains broken.

If the health care system and the education system are broken, so is the family system. Call me a curmudgeon, but we don’t do family like we used to. The divorce rate remains high while the marriage rate declines. Fewer people are getting married, and when they do, it’s generally as the last, very omissible, step in what used to be the “love-marriage-sex-children” progression. Many people now have multiple children with multiple partners, none of whom they marry either before or after childbirth. And we accept this horror. It’s the new normal, despite being an affront and a sin in the eyes of a holy God. Such lack of commitment, shifting members of households, etc. greatly undermine if not destroy family ties and family stability, and we’re only beginning, I fear, to to feel the effects.

And now the unavoidable: guns. Let’s just admit now, up front, no one can be shot with a bullet unless a gun is involved. Let’s also admit no one can be shot by a gun without a human being to pull the trigger. Next: let’s admit we are the only post-industrial, Western nation to see this pattern of gun violence. Finally, let’s admit these things have indeed happened before in other countries, only they took steps to prevent them from happening again, they basically stopped, and we just don’t want to do what they did because our right to own as many firearms of any kind as we want is more important to us than a first grader’s right to live. Will we ever remove guns from the hands of criminals entirely? No. But we can certainly greatly limit the number available (again, see every other major world power).

So many are currently suggesting that instead of regulating firearms more, we simply put more guns in schools, arming teachers and other staff. The solution to gun violence isn’t more guns. And, frankly, that solution stems from a morally unacceptable, morally repugnant premise. For the “armed schools” idea to work, an active shooter needs to get shot by a good guy with a gun. That’s the logic. No one is offering it as a deterrent to bringing guns to schools à la mutually assured destruction. No, they’re saying we simply need to shoot back after the shooting starts. But that still allows for — still necessitates — an active shooter. We are accepting school shootings and student death as a normal part of life in this response. Why? Why are these acceptable terms? Why are we still willing to let children die to enable our preferred solution? Why are we being reactive — responding to an existing active shooter — rather than being proactive — taking steps to ensure that potential shooter never pulls the trigger (or has a trigger to pull) in the first place? Surely it makes more sense to disarm one shooter than to give everyone else a bulletproof vest. We still may not be able to prevent all school shootings, but as the rest of the world has taught us, we can prevent most. We never have to have eighteen shootings in seven weeks again. Never again.

Except nothing will happen. No action will be taken. Not because we can’t do something, but because we won’t. We, as a nation, simply don’t value human life enough to act. We care more for our weapons, more for our instruments of death, than we do for life. We care more for sexual libertinism, test scores, and the Almighty Dollar, more for the status quo, than we do for the lives of our children.

May God have mercy on our souls.


Practicable Theology

A seminary friend and I have recently been lamenting the current state of theological education. As Paul David Tripp notes in Dangerous Calling (which I am currently reading but should have been required in seminary), the seminary has gone much the way of the university and the rest of the academy: discrete specializations all fighting for academic (and thus financial) priority. That means every professor must advertise her/his field as the most important, and that means producing increasing levels of scholarship (significant or trivial) to support that claim, and that means teaching becomes secondary, and that means bad things happen.

For my own life, it’s had both immediate and long-term repercussions. While I abandoned the thoughts of doctoral work in biblical studies coming down a mountainside in South Korea, the current trends in the field make me confident in that decision. Instead of seeking biblical truths to convey to future preachers — something now relegated to the once-defunct field of biblical theology — biblical scholars are more focused on inscriptions, dissecting tiny portions of manuscripts, and searching for anything that might subvert longstanding beliefs (note, for example, the alacrity with which the field adopted its “New Perspective on Paul”). None of those things has any bearing whatsoever on the life of the people in Pewville, as a favorite mentor likes to say. They aren’t concerned about possible textual variants in a single verse in Jude across the manuscript tradition. They’re concerned with what that verse might mean for their marriage, their salvation, their children. Quite a disconnect from the academy at present.

It seems every seminary or similar institution has a department or school of “practical theology.” It usually houses things like counseling, family studies, preaching, worship, and Christian education — you know, all those places where the theological rubber meets the ministerial road, so to speak. If you want to know what to preach, study systematic theology; if you want to know how to preach, study practical theology.

I think it’s a false dichotomy, one artificially imposed by an overly-specialized academy. You can’t do ministry without knowing the God who calls and commissions you; if you truly know that God, spent years learning about Him, you’ll have no choice but to engage in ministry in some fashion. God is both the substance and the power of preaching, for a sermon is the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit. If either element is missing, word or power, logos or pneuma, then it isn’t a sermon — and it isn’t preaching.

As the sermon, so every other act of Christian worship. All worship, whether song, sacrament, or sermon, requires a soul attuned to the Spirit of God enabled by a theological vocabulary to engage with the Divine. (We cannot praise Jesus if we do not know his name, after all.) For this reason, many authors are once again reminding us of two core truths: orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy, and theology must result in doxology. If our beliefs about God are right (orthodoxy), then we will do the right things based on those beliefs (orthopraxy). What forms the basis of orthopraxy, those right actions? Doxology, praise of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our beliefs, our paradigms, our knowledge — in short, our theology — must bring us to our knees at the foot of the cross. If it does not, it is a useless mind game and nothing more.

This is why all theology must be practical. Every ounce of the finest scholarship we can muster should be used by that body of believers at worship, the Church. If it cannot be put into practice in some fashion, explicitly or implicitly, it is at best a distraction and at work a useless egotism. That’s why I advocate for “practicable theology,” theology put into use by a local congregation seeking to praise an Almighty God. We can know words about God without knowing the Word of God, and that is a grand temptation and greater tragedy for all those who inhabit academia.

We cannot let our church members fall into the same trap. We, as shepherds of the flock, must give them a practicable theology which matters in their daily lives, a theology that enables them to walk in worship, to become living sacrifices offered to our Holy God.

Forgotten Catechesis

I attended a debate on Sunday evening with our church’s college kids. The two philosophers in the debate threw out jargon incomprehensible to most of the people in the audience, which is why I will forever remember the excursion as “that time I taught modal ontology in Olive Garden.” The debate itself was whether one should believe in God. The champion of theism was a bit lacking, and he spent too long making the wrong sorts of arguments (never bring a rationalist to an empiricist fight), but he did a decent job of explaining the classical proofs for the existence of God. But the whole thing has me thinking. Neither presenter could accurately represent biblical scholarship in terms of doctrine or textual criticism. The audience couldn’t follow what was going on, on stage without a few philosophy classes under their collective belt. It seemed to me everyone involved needed more education.

I might be biased, but that’s my approach to life. The realm of education is my natural habitat; being back on a college campus was, for me, like tossing a beached whale back into the ocean. My view of my ministry is framed in terms of catechesis: my job is to teach the people in the pews everything I know about Jesus because that knowledge creates and strengthens relationship. I’m very passionate about learning and about teaching the faith, and I think this sort of discipleship/catechesis is something lacking in many of our churches today. We’re pretty good at evangelism and worshipping together on Sunday morning, but we’ve largely failed to teach people much beyond the basics. The high (and rising) rate of biblical illiteracy is a sad testament to that fact.

Beyond church things (Bible, theology, and church history), however, we also fail to teach people a great many other things. Philosophy is one of those omissions. Instead of teaching people how to think, we prefer to teach them what to think. Unfortunately, most of the “what” comes with an agenda contingent on its setting. Christian schools, for example, have vastly different curriculum than public schools for things like biology, human origins, and sex education. Colleges can be even worse depending on the instructor. But very, very few schools of any educational level require courses in critical thinking, logic, or epistemology. In a post-industrial information age where the sum of human knowledge is accessible through a device most of us carry around in our pockets, we have become obsessed with facts, not methodologies, with memory, not intelligence. Thus our educational standards reflect our cultural priorities.

Let’s go one step further to look at the facts we seem to value. I have nothing against the STEM fields (I’m the lone humanist in a family of scientists and engineers), but they can’t be the only things on the table. Even if you mistakenly believe there is no intrinsic value to literature or that no truth about humanity is to be gained from poetry, we can all agree grammar and rhetoric are necessary skills not covered by a STEM-only education. This is to say nothing of the fundamental worth and benefits of music, history, etc. A thing need not fit some rubric of practicality to have educational merit.

If we must have only the practical and practicable taught, however, let’s cover our bases. There is a great need for trade and vocational schools. Not everyone needs to go to university — nor should they. Many other employable skills are out there, skills we need someone to have — and those skills must be acquired, and therefore they must be taught. And not just taught as an alternative to college, but promoted as proper and worthy fields in their own right. Part of that statement is tied to our need and the practical nature of those trades, yes. But another part is tied to the sense of self-worth of those in those fields. A welder, small engine mechanic, or plumber is not a second-class citizen simply because they lack advanced degrees. They are still human beings equal to any other.

In short, there are many, many things we need to be teaching, both within the walls of the church and without. We cannot propagate a false equivalency between memory and intelligence, between knowing what to think and knowing how to think. And we certainly can’t afford, as a society, to prioritize the “what” above the “how.” That road ends in auditoriums filled, not with rational human beings waiting to learn, but with automatons waiting to be programmed.