Almost Christian: Parents Matter Most

I’m blogging through Kenda Creasy Dean’s new book, a theological follow up to Christian Smith’s Soul Searching. I hope you’ll join me. Find all the posts here.

Kenda begins Part Three, “Cultivating Consequential Faith” of Almost Christian, with chapter six, “Parents Matter Most: The Art of Translation.”  Here, Kenda takes a bit of a turn, into the neo-liberal world of theologians like Hans Frei and George Lindbeck.  This is particularly interesting to me because it is territory that I know well.  I wrote extensively in defense of this line of thinking in my first book, and I have since retreated a bit from that position.

In short, Frei and Lindbeck and me, and now Kenda Dean, argue that a incumbent to Christian catechism and formation is a language that is unique to Christianity.  But before Kenda gets to that, she emphasizes what every youth pastor knows and what the NYSR reported conclusively:

Research is nearly unanimous on this point: parents matter most in shaping the religious lives of their children.

But how do parents (and youth workers) do this?  By becoming bilingual.  Kenda posits that parents must be fluent in both the language “on the wall” (youth culture) and “behind the wall” (the language of Christian faith):

God calls God’s people both to converse fluently behind the wall, using the Christian community’s distinctive language, perceptions, and assumptions, and to take part in the conversation on the wall, which requires competence in the language, perceptions, and assumptions of the broader culture.

What the behind-the-wall conversation does is to afford youth an alternative version of reality, a version that aligns their own self-identity with the the purposes for which God created them.  And bilingual parents are able to translate the theological language of Christianity into language that teenagers can understand.  Kenda even proposes rules for parents who translate Christianity for young people:

  1. The best translators are people, not programs.
  2. The best translators are bilingual.
  3. The best translators invoke imagination.
  4. Translation can threaten the people in charge.

This last one I found most interesting, especially as Kenda quotes sociologist Talcott Parsons, who “once described every generation of teenagers as a ‘barbarian invasion’; we must either domesticate them or be overtaken by them.”  Translating the biblical narrative, Kenda posits, will most likely upset the established hermeneutical positions of the elder generations.  This I can agree with.

What I wonder about, however, is the “on the wall” versus “behind the wall” metaphors.  It smacks to me a little bit of hiding the lamp under the bushel, of the idea that the Christian story can only be understood by those who have been catechized into it, or worse, only by those who have been “touched” by the Holy Spirit.  While I doubt Kenda believes this, it seems to me the logical conclusion of the neo-Aristotelian thesis of Frei, Lindbeck, Hauerwas, MacIntyre, and others.  While this makes sense to me coming from Catholic philosophers and theologians like Alasdair MacIntyre and William Cavanaugh, I’m becoming more confounded by Protestants who, as I used to, argue that the church constitutes some kind of discrete linguistic community.

Am I off my rocker?

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  • Blair

    You may be off your rocker but not for this. More and more I get the sense that this line of thought goes too far. I’m writing a comp question about this in three weeks. Meeting with KD about next week. I’ll see what she thinks.

  • Tony,

    I’ve not read Kenda’s book yet– just the article in Christian Century.

    But I do intend to read her book!

    I am familiar with the “on the wall,” “behind the wall” and “over the wall” sorts of conversations from my classroom days at a Mennonite seminary in the late 1990s. Mennonites, of course, have been a people who have typically lived “behind the wall”– at least linguistically, and sometimes (as in the case of the Amish and some “Old Order Mennonites”) literally and culturally as well. So for them, this sort of typology was actually very helpful in thinking through what missiology looks like if you are assuming that “Nachfolge Christi” applies to people you haven’t encountered before but are also called to invite and initiate into your way of embodying the same.

    I’m not a Mennonite. I was American-Baptist-clergy-becoming- United-Methodist-clergy at the time. But the idea of there actually needing to be a kind of exclusive language game– or at least a different language game for initiates that is not instantly accessible to all– resonated with me even then.

    In the gospels I see Jesus working with his “inner circle” to give them not just a different language game, but a different way of both naming and encountering the world as they were following him, being discipled by him. And I see them working to do exactly the same thing with those whom they discipled. Bi-lingualism seems like a helpful paradigm. But, to complete the “language games” analogy, I might call it tri-lingualism– Christian language, immediate peer culture language, and adult/political-economic language– all three of which provide and effect different orderings of the world.

    That said– I agree that for the most part– especially in the mainline Protestant traditions– a claim that the church constitutes a unique linguistic community is increasingly hard to sustain. We may not only be in doctrinal and linguistic amnesia– it may have progressed to dementia.

    Still from our view as disciples of Jesus (though perhaps at some remove!)– it seems he was (and so we should) work at restoring and reclaiming such a language– for in the end, of the three I’ve named, only one of them has the capacity to be ultimately truthful, though even its truthfulness is revealed only as an emergent property of its interactions with the other two.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

  • DRT

    I know this is an old post, but I am just reading it now and was very struck by your last comment Tony.

    I have become convinced that churches need to be able to speak about Jesus and Christianity in plain terms. I am not much of a writer, but that is at the root of my blog. My premise is that the gospel of Jesus must have been simple and compelling to the people of the first century. I believe that is why Paul does not spend much time even talking about the actual gospel and what that means to people.

    My previous church was a full blown MTD church and they also adopted the seeker versus believer language. I feel this type of language drives a wedge into the congregation. They felt that they cannot tell the secrets of the Christian faith to seekers because of the pearls to pigs thing. And therefore they have to basically just be a MTD church so seekers are willing to start to go. I can’t imagine something being further from what Jesus would have done and what was done in the first century.

    I believe the church must have a continuous and coherent story to tell everyone.

  • Tony, I’m struggling with the “creed” element of her thesis as well. I think she touches on postliberalism but doesn’t necessarily go all the way.

    [After years of influence from both sides, I’m trying to figure out for myself where I fall on the spectrum between the correlational theology of Chicago (Tillich and Tracy) and the Yale school of postliberalism.]

    Whether she is in fact suggesting that Christianity is a “discrete linguistic community”, she is definitely right that Christian youth (at least in mainline churches like mine) are not conversant in the basic Christian narrative. While they can easily turn to the narratives of Harry Potter, Twilight, or Star Wars (more our generation than theirs), they are simply not fluent in the Christian narrative.

    I think a more probably analysis is that we all utilize multiple narratives to define our worldviews. So, while we don’t need to catechize youth to speak only Christianese, they at least need some degree of fluency with it. Right now, that isn’t happening.