The Kiddy Pool: A Case for Catechism

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

I memorized the twenty-third Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer when I was eight years old, not as part of any official home or church-education program, but because I’d heard about them and they seemed important. What drew me to those Scriptures as a child was a vague notion of truth and beauty that today I can more clearly discern as the Holy Spirit. I have memorized significant passages of Scripture since that point in my life, but none of them have stuck with me in the same way or served to ground me in Christ during times of trial and trouble like those earliest verses. I can only imagine that those passages are inscribed on the tablet of my heart, and, thanks to the work of the Spirit, now form an essential foundation for my spiritual life.

I started working on verse memorization much earlier with my daughter, just before she turned three, because I realized how many songs, nursery rhymes, and even storybooks she knows by heart. I started with Genesis 1:1 and the Lord’s Prayer; the first establishes God as Creator (in response to her persistent question “Who is God?”) and the second allows her to participate more fully in our weekly worship service, while also obeying Christ’s teaching on how to pray. She mastered them both, and we have moved on to Galatians 5:22-23, which helps form a common ground in our family for behavioral standards that are pleasing to God.

I think it is possible to analyze and question the Bible until it ceases to mean anything at all. I don’t need to know ancient Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic or a lot of other things to understand that it’s never a bad idea to practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The culture at large does not accept this form of belief, seeing it as simple-minded, unsophisticated, naïve; yet Christ encourages us to approach Him with child-like (not the same as childish) faith, curious but not cynical, trusting but not stupid. At some level, my faith is a choice that I make, without knowing all the answers or understanding all the nuances, but seeing enough of the character of God that I trust Him.

I could draw a simple analogy from my relationship with my husband. If I can only trust in my husband’s fidelity when I can monitor all of his actions and whereabouts, that’s not actually trust. It’s surveillance. I say all of this to acknowledge that my case for catechism advocates a simple, rote method of instruction. That’s the point.

A catechism breaks down the core truths of Christianity into a memorable format. A well-written catechism does precisely what good teaching ought to do—anticipates the students’ questions and gives the students the tools to answer for themselves. With questions and answers, the catechism instructs both the interrogator and the respondent, setting the truth in dialogic, interactive, classically-Socratic format. It is a call and response that creates a relationship between teacher and student as well as truth and Scripture.

Take, for example, the New City Catechism created by Timothy Keller. As Keller asserts, “Catechisms were written with at least three purposes. The first was to set forth a comprehensive exposition of the gospel—not only in order to explain clearly what the gospel is, but also to lay out the building blocks on which the gospel is based, such as the biblical doctrine of God, of human nature, of sin, and so forth. The second purpose was to do this exposition in such a way that the heresies, errors, and false beliefs of the time and culture were addressed and counteracted. The third and more pastoral purpose was to form a distinct people, a counter-culture that reflected the likeness of Christ not only in individual character but also in the church’s communal life.” Keller’s New City Catechism provides a wealth of instruction, from the simple questions and answers (with shorter answers for children) and references to Scripture so that learners can look further when they are ready.

Working through a catechism as a family is like planting a garden, tilling the soil, planting the seeds, watering, and waiting….God gives the growth. Parents can do their part by using the materials He has provided to cultivate the soil, the eagerness that so many children naturally express about God. I felt that longing as a child, and I found a home in Scriptures that simply and elegantly express the truth and beauty of God; it does not always need to be more complicated than that. My husband earned a small college stipend by memorizing the shorter Westminster catechism. He likes to joke that he did it for the money. But our family knows why he did it: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.


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