In the history of Christianity (and probably most other religious traditions, as well), there have been periods when Christian clergy have been among the least educated in society, and periods when they have been among the most educated. In today’s Christian landscape, in which “the church” has been fractured into almost too many branches to keep track of, the educational level of Christian clergy probably varies considerably.
What I find increasingly exasperating is the way in which clergy (and, in most cases, the flocks they tend) are increasingly identified with the most unsophisticated and uneducated elements of society. This week, I came across an excerpt from a “Christian” textbook which purported to teach the “science” of creationism as if it were factually established. But it didn’t stop there. It had an entry about electricity which it called “mysterious”, and it basically said that we don’t know what electricity is or where it comes from. I shudder to think what children educated in “Christian” schools using such textbooks will end up like as adults.
Clergy who pastor the congregations out of which people who create and use such textbooks come have a huge responsibility for this perpetuation of ignorance in the name of religion. I would like to think that these clergy know better, but I am afraid that they don’t. I’m afraid that they believe the drivel that is being published dubiously as educational material. Such clergy have bought into a mindset formed by biblical literalism that has made them into a kind of Christian Taliban: people who reject the insights of other branches of human knowledge when they seem to conflict with the “plain words of Scripture.” Such pastors are helping to create a dangerous segment of American society which is anti-intellectual, reactionary, and increasingly separated from the mainstream. And, in the process, they are helping to marginalize religion in American life.
Yes, there is no shortage of clergy who are happy to rant about creeping secularism as the great enemy of religion in America. What they fail to see is that their version of Christianity, which receives so much public attention precisely because it appears so bizarre to the mainstream, is probably doing more to help drive people away from “organized religion” more quickly and effectively than anything else. Their effort to defend an unsophisticated and simplistic caricature of the Christian tradition is digging that tradition’s grave ever deeper. Especially since American public opinion and perception is so profoundly shaped by the media, whose obsession with caricatured religion is itself rather bizarre.
I came across something else this week that I have been unable to find since. It was quoting a well-known theologian whose name also has gone out of my head! But the point of the quote was that we desperately need to abandon this simplistic approach to both the Bible and the Christian tradition, because it is this very approach that is taking the life out of both. This person sought to make the point that religion should not be easy. It should require us to struggle with texts, traditions, and meanings, because that very struggle is what moves us forward in our spiritual lives.
Sadly, Americans don’t like to go for complexity or struggle. We like to make things as quick and easy as possible. We want churches with the spiritual equivalent of drive up windows that serve up tasty religion that goes down easily and requires little from us. But, just like fast food, while such a diet may taste good, it provides little in the way of actual nutrition for the soul.