Monday, July 2, 2012

The Test of Relevantism

Mark Kalthoff has written an article defending the importance of liberal arts in a well-rounded education.  He makes the following observation concerning American academic culture.
We live in a culture of "relevantism."  Nearly every student, it seems, arrives on campus primed to ask, "How is this course, this assignment, this lecture relevant?  What can I do with it?  Tell me its immediate practical use."  Such questions arise because too many Americans know nothing of the old distinction between true education and mere training. *
The mentality of "relevantism" is not unique to academia but flourishes in the Church.  Pastors have recognized this shift and are increasingly shifting content from pulpit and classroom to deliver practical application useful for life in the church body or conducting oneself in the world.  In order to facilitate this change, doctrine is not given a priority except as it might bolster an application being presented.  Exegetical content give way to the thematic.  Categories of doctrine and theology become at best useful descriptions of what a local assembly or denomination holds as corporately true, though relegated to a status of sentimentality for individuals to pull out when opining about better past times but not able to immediately address pressing issues of the day.  The fruit of this culture is a group mentality that theology is boring and doctrine divides.  The overseers in a local body have a vested interest in resisting this wave of pragmatism and instead teaching the scriptures as they present themselves.  Doctrine and theology are not the bane of Christian life but vital instruments the Holy Spirit uses in us to effect godliness and repel false teaching.

Kalthoff warns against the attitude of immediate usefulness by reminding the reader that this is not the best gauge:
In view of this distinction between mere training and true education, I propose that submitting everything to a crass "relevantism test," the test that first asks, "What can I do with it?" is to ask the wrong question.  It is like asking about the uses for a newborn baby.  When immediate usefulness becomes the measure of value, we risk discarding things whose worth may be inestimable.  Further, it happens to be the case that things pursued for their own sake without regard to their practical utility quite often have the happy consequence of being useful in ways not originally perceived. †
Practical application has its place in Christian education, but we err when practicality is the totality of  education without establishing a foundation and building the superstructure within which the application is founded.  The usefulness or appropriateness of the basic instruction is often not immediately discernible.  Many years may go by before usefulness is realized. ‡  Both the instructor and student (or in Christian terms: disciple-maker and disciple) need to have the long view in mind.  As the information is assimilated, logical conclusions can be formed and used in appropriate times and seasons.

How does this instruction work itself out in the regular meetings of believers?  Ready-Fire-Aim tactics will not work.  Instruction needs to be consistent and committed, teaching the whole counsel of God and the plan of redemption.  Bible books should be covered as well as major theological sections (i.e., Christology, Hamartiology, Soteriology, et al) using a multi-year plan.  Will people balk at this approach and call out for something more "tangible" for today?  Yes, they will, but like any educator knows, the uneducated do not know what is essential, so understanding of the need must be integrated into the curriculum.

Someone once asked me if I want a church to be a mini-seminary.  No, I want believers in my assembly without correct doctrinal knowledge to properly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15) and be firmly grounded, even if we have to teach "boring" things to get there.

* Mark A. Kalthoff, "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge: Defending Classical Liberal Education from Melanchthon to Newman," Logia, Vol 21, No. 2, p. 51.
‡ For instance, I now wish that more American citizens had paid attention to their instruction in American Government—or were even taught it.


Karen said...

Sure appreciate this. Bring on the "boring" if it means being rooted and grounded in the living Word of God.

Bruce Collins said...

Excellent post. As a past assistant professor of accounting I always found it amusing when the students thought they knew what I should teach them. This statement is crucial: the uneducated do not know what is essential, so understanding of the need must be integrated into the curriculum

Steve Bricker said...

When I was a teen, many students asked why we needed to learn certain things in school. The answer was usually "because you'll need it later." That doesn't really answer the question. I discovered later, through teaching teenagers in Sunday School, that answering the "why" goes a long way in how the material is taken in and used.