Religions survive mainly because they brainwash the young. -A.C. Grayling
There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true. The other is to refuse to accept what is true. -Soren Keierkegaard
I knew when I decided to write about catechesis that it wasn’t a sexy topic that would get a lot of likes and shares. It has, however, provoked some interesting questions.
Here are six final concerns I’d like to address:
- Brainwashing—I got a text from a dear friend last week who asked, “Isn’t catechizing children a form of brainwashing?”
What a great question.
In answering it, let’s first define terms. Brainwashing is:
- a method for systematically changing attitudes or altering beliefs, originated in totalitarian countries, especially through the use of torture, drugs, or psychological-stress techniques.
- any method of controlled systematic indoctrination, especially one based on repetition or confusion: brainwashing by TV commercials.
My friend’s question applies mostly to the second bulleted definition. So, we then ask, “Is catechizing a method of ‘controlled systematic indoctrination’ based on ‘repetition’? The answer is, yes. But then, by this definition, so would teaching kids to say or sing their “ABC’s,” consuming hours of Disney, or memorizing multiplication tables.
Which brings us to a second related question: “Is using a catechism to pass on the essentials of the Christian faith a good and helpful form of “controlled systematic indoctrination,” akin to memorizing multiplication tables or even a verse like John 3:16?
How you answer this question will largely be determined by whether you think a particular catechism teaches truth and helps kids think better. If you believe it does, you’ll likely use it. If you’re Bill Maher or A.C.Graying, you’ll likely have a different take.
- What do we need a another catechism for?—This concern relates specifically to promoting the use of something like the New City Catechism. The underlying thought is that we already have a lot of great resources like the Heidelberg or Shorter Catechism. In fact, some of the language in these time-honored standards is more beautiful and connects us with our roots. My response is that, although this is true, the church has always needed to create new catechisms. This is what Luther did and it’s what we need to do as well. The world has changed a lot in the last 500 years. Many of the Protestant and Reformed creeds of that time were reactionary toward Roman Catholicism. That’s the water they swam in. For us, it’s secularism. Certainly, any new catechism should be informed by historic creeds and catechisms. This is one of the strengths of the New City Catechism. It’s informed by six of the classics, especially Heidelberg and has a really cool free app. (Check it out—it has some great features!).
- “Memorization makes me sweaty”—My friend’s wife had a young grade-schooler who had a hard time helping out or doing his work. When asked why, in his characteristic whiney lisp, he’d say, “I can’t, Mrs Irwin, it makes me sweaty.” Yes, he was serious and that’s what made his response so hilarious. It’s a classic line that’s been a joke around our house for years. I often tell my daughter when she asks me to move her car or do the dishes that I can’t because it makes me sweaty. 🙂 This certainly applies to memorizing something like a catechism or learning Spanish. If we find memorization valuable, however, we’ll push through the sweatiness and do hard things.
- Heart-over-brand—Some push back on catechesis because their goal is to pass on a heart for God, not indoctrinate their kids with a particular brand of Christianity (i.e. Catholic, Reformed, non-reformed, etc.). Given that our journeys are all different (i.e. we may have had a bad experience with a certain church or denomination), I sympathize with this view. If this is your position, my only advice is to make sure you’re intentional about whatever you do in passing on your faith (Deut. 6:6-9). For example, if you’re not comfortable with formal catechesis, follow the example of Job who regularly prayed for his kid’s hearts (Job 1:5) or Jesus who successfully resisted the temptations of the devil through skilled use of memorized Scripture. And this leads us to our next concern…
- I still like Scripture better—The idea here is “Why not just memorize Scripture? What can compare with God’s word?” I’ve already touched on this here, but was reminded of it again recently at the Ash Wednesday service I attended with my son. The message was from Matt. 4.1-11 and was on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness for 40 days. How did Jesus defeat Satan in this passage? Again, it was through his clearly internalized use of memorized Scripture. How can you argue with the example of Jesus? I don’t think we can. Check out the Navigators to see some of their excellent resources for Scripture memorization.
- What’s realistic?—This last concern is actually my own. Besides scripture, we still need something like the New City Catechism—a framework of healthy, orthodox spirituality to pass on the faith. Given that it’s much easier for children to memorize than adults, churches—and especially parents—should seize this window of opportunity. The church can, then, support parents in their responsibility of raising their children by giving them instruction (including how to use the app) and the gift of a catechism at their infant’s baptism or dedication. Church leadership should make equipping parents to catechize a priority.
The church needs to serve all, however. Many will not use a catechism or commit to catechesis. That’s why I’m an advocate of, in addition to formal catechesis by parents or teachers, using a simpler framework like the Apostle’s Creed to pass on the essentials of the faith to all attendees. This short and sweet list of the basics can easily be recited by the congregation regularly on Sundays. What’s more, it gives us a connectedness with the church universal since it’s a statement shared by all three branches of Christianity.
Although there are many great resources out there, here are three good devotionals based on classic catechisms (the first two I used with my kids):
- Leading Little Ones to God by Marian Schoolland (ages 4-10)
- Training Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism by Star Meade (11- adult)
- Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Heidelberg Catechism (11-adult)