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Monday, January 16, 2017

How to structure the telling of our Christian Story

Telling our Christian story to others, especially young people--what we used to call "catechetics"--needs to be structured. It needs to be structured across more than just one year, or just grade school or just high school. We need to structure the telling of our story throughout our Christian lives.

There are two basic principles for structuring the telling of our story. 1) the story must fit into a predictable and easily understood pattern, so that the listener can look forward to the next development of the story. If the story-telling appears to the listener to be random: "this semester we are looking at the sacraments, next semester we will look at the commandments," the listener has no idea of what is coming next, or why it is coming. He or she has nothing to look forward to. The result is boredom.

And 2) the story must engage the intellectual challenges of the environment of the listeners. There is a wealth of scriptural and historical and theological development that can enrich our faith, so we must find ways to include that wealth into the telling of our story. Too many of our secularist peers know the story of those developments more than we people of faith know them. Our lack of knowledge gives them evidence that we cannot handle real intellectual challenges.

To meet the requirements of the first principle, predictability, I use the framework of the seven-day week. We are used to living the week over and over again. We know what to expect on Mondays, and on Fridays, and on Sundays.

To meet the second requirement, engagement with present-day intellectual challenges, we need to know the scriptural and historical and theological developments of our time.

The Structure


On Monday we tell stories from what we Christians call the Old Testament. We adapt the telling to the listeners. It may be enough simply to read the story out loud. The stories themselves have held people's interest for thousands of years.

Take, for example, the story of Joseph in the last chapters of the book of Genesis. I get overcome with emotion every time I read how Joseph made himself known to his brothers after he put them through serious testing. Think of the long story of Samuel and Saul and David and Solomon.

But the term "story" need not be limited to narratives. Reading the books of Job, or Proverbs, or the prophets like Jeremiah or Daniel can be equally interesting.

The important thing is that the listeners know that on Monday they are going to hear Old Testament stories straight from the source. 


On Tuesday we tell stories about how the Monday stories got written down. Here is where scriptural and historical knowledge come in. We need to tell our listeners that these stories did not just drop out of heaven. They are the products of human authors, living in historical times, and those historical times shaped the way the stories have been written. How did the book of Genesis get written? Who wrote it, when did they write it, where did they write it, why did they write it?

Obviously, this Tuesday work will be different when we are talking with second-graders than when we are talking with seniors in college. But the basic structure will be the same: we will be helping the listeners to think critically about the origins of the stories that shape our faith.


On Wednesday we tell stories from what we call the New Testament. The stories need not be limited to the Gospels and Acts. They could include the writings of Paul, or the book of Revelation. Once again, we may simply have to read the passages out loud and then talk about what we have read. We simply let the Scriptures speak to us. We ask the students what the passage says to them.


On Thursday we look at how the New Testament stories came into being. We share present knowledge about who wrote the Gospels, when and where they were written, and why they were written. Once again, we need to share what the scripture people and historians and theologians have already worked out for us. Our faith is not just for children. But children need to be introduced to the processes of thinking critically about their sacred writings.


On Friday we tell stories about how Christians have lived and what they have done in the centuries since the time of Jesus. We need to talk about Constantine, and Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther, and Georg Hegel and Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II. We Christians need to know our story as a people, and not just the story of Jesus.


On Saturday we tell stories about the bad things we Christians have done. We need to know that we have been a sinful people, and we need to own up to our history. Forced conversions, the atrocities committed during the Crusades, the religious wars of the 1500s and 1600s, colonialism, slavery, and some of the ways we Christians have made peace with violence in our own time--we need to know and reflect on all these parts of our story. Not knowing them will allow us to repeat them.


On Sunday we look at how we Christians relate to other religions of our time. We examine Islam, or Buddhism, or secularism. I call secularism a religion because religion is one's picture of the world. If I see the world as a result of blind evolution, the result of random chance and without meaning, I will live my life out of that view. I may very well act in morally admirable ways on an individual level, often in ways more admirable than my fellow Christians, but my secularism does not offer me a reason to avoid the kinds of human and environmental destruction that capitalist societies make peace with so easily.

Monday again

On Monday we begin the pattern again. Old Testament, study about the Old Testament, New Testament, study about the New Testament, church history, church sinfulness, and Church in the midst of today's world.

The Seven-day Pattern

Obviously we cannot do religious instruction seven days a week. We treat a series of meetings as though they were in seven-day sets. Week one would be Monday, week two Tuesday, and so on. Do that twice and you have a fourteen week semester. Do that over and over again and hopefully both students and teacher will continually deepen their knowledge of the Bible and our history. The result will be a combination of novelty and predictability. Each meeting will offer the promise of new development, along with a sense of direction--we are going somewhere, we are making progress. The enterprise is good.

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