Invisible Teachers

The forces that shape—and reshape—our faith

Growing up, I rarely heard the word catechism. If it was used, it was likely dismissed as “something Catholics do.” Once, during someone’s testimony about coming to faith, I remember hearing the statement “I learned my catechism wouldn’t save me.” In one way, she was right. Rote memorization of doctrine doesn’t get anyone into God’s kingdom. But there is a way in which such practices do redeem us.

Catechism is a fancy word for “formal instruction.” Specifically, catechisms are a series of questions and answers about core doctrinal issues. If you have any familiarity with them, it might be from some of the catechisms developed by the Reformers and subsequent traditions. But catechism can refer to anything that smacks of formal training. It’s what we are doing when we teach the Bible to our children, take them to Sunday school, or enroll them in Awana or other methodical Christian instruction. It’s what we are doing when we encourage them to establish a quiet time of prayer and Bible study.

As adults, we (hopefully) continue to seek formation through weekly sermons, small groups, Bible studies, online courses, books, and podcasts. And we are also catechized in other less visible, but no less formative, ways. James K. A. Smith refers to this as a “secular liturgy”—the rhythms, habits, and relationships that subconsciously form us: what we consume, where we live, how we’re brought up. For example, I was born a plumber’s son in Chicago, which means my personality and view of the world were formed by the culture of the Midwest (not overtly friendly, but loyal and nice). As a result, I admire blue-collar work and have a Midwest vibe, even though I now live in the South. Or consider the way our musical preferences were formed by the era in which we lived or the partialities of those around us. We either conform to our parents’ opinions, beliefs, and taste, or we rebel against them. Either way, we are being formed by what we’re exposed to.

Much of our cultural catechesis consists of traditions worth celebrating. These are a beautiful part of the diverse tapestry of humanity, a product of how God has, in His providence, birthed us into unique families and communities. But there is also a way in which the rituals and habits that form our hearts can be harmful—a way in which the fallenness of our influences shapes our thinking and behavior.

Perhaps this happens most acutely in how we are tempted to idolize, rather than respect, our heritage and use it as a kind of secular creed. An unhealthy nostalgia can overcome us, making us long for eras and days much rosier in hindsight than in reality. For Christians, this in many ways goes against how God forms His followers into a new family with a new creed.

Sometimes it’s the comfort of our tribal preferences—ways of thinking and believing that might be antithetical to how God seeks to form us through His Spirit.

Or sometimes it’s not misplaced nostalgia but the comfort of our tribal preferences—ways of thinking and believing that might be antithetical to how God seeks to form us through His Spirit. Adopted and learned habits subconsciously work against our Christian sanctification. Perhaps this is most obvious in the way we process the daily news, especially in this era where content is so deregulated and ubiquitous. We’ve always been influenced by prominent voices, but today it seems easier to adopt a worldview that conforms to whatever makes us comfortable. Plus, we are inundated with news at a frequency unseen in any other era of history. Every second, if we choose (and sometimes if we don’t), we’re alerted to some kind of brokenness somewhere in the world, and then are barraged with the corresponding range of opinions that follow.

Have we stopped to consider how formative this is? That every hour we are being shaped by reports of current events and immediately begin sequestering ourselves into tribes based on how we see and hear that information?

This catechesis is happening to Christians who regularly go to church and who likely consider themselves constant students of the Word. We don’t even realize that the daily reading, processing, and commenting on the news is, in and of itself, a kind of religious exercise. This is why there can be such a striking disconnect between what we say we believe on Sunday and what we confess on Facebook on Monday. This is why, instead of faith shaping our worldview, our worldview often shapes our faith. The liturgy of cable news or Twitter is more powerful than the broken rhythms of our religious life.

So how do we remedy this? The first and simplest answer is to both limit and diversify our media consumption. That’s easy for me to write on paper. It’s much harder to break away from my digital shackles.

Instead of faith shaping our worldview, our worldview often shapes our faith.

First, to be intentional about guarding our hearts means we deliberately seek to break the ingrained habits warring against our souls. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, we must allow Scripture and theology to better embed themselves in our lives. We need newer and deeper rhythms of prayer and meditation. We need better questions to help us participate in the Spirit’s renewal of our souls. We might ask: What does this Bible passage say about the way I see the world? What are potential blind spots, shaped by my culture and tribe that this scripture might expose? What friendships can I cultivate to help me gain a more expansive view of the world?

Of course, these are not questions to ask ourselves just once. Realize there is a daily fight for our souls and our minds: The pull of digital distraction and the strong temptation to be yanked away from the gospel toward tribalism will never fully go away until Jesus returns.

But this is the life of a Christian in the world. We are sojourners and strangers in a strange land. We will always be tempted to accommodate ourselves to earthly movements. But sojourners and strangers should be a little uncomfortable in any earthly movement. Wherever you land on the political and social spectrum, you should not feel at home in your party. You should always guard against ways you are tempted to press your faith, like Play-Doh, into the image of the cultural movement you most easily identify with.

After all, we are Jesus people, kingdom people. We don’t look back at some mythical golden era or forward to some movement we believe will save us. No, we look upward and onward, anticipating that city whose builder and maker is God.


Photograph by Ryan Hayslip

Related Topics:  Spiritual Life

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