Monday 25 July 2011

On catechesis and catastrophe

The day my mother turned seventeen, she went to the local Canberra police station to apply for her driver’s license. When she walked through the door in a short summer dress with a ribbon in her hair, the driving instructor looked up with interest. When she flashed him a smile and said she would like to take the driving test, he thought she was very pretty. When she batted her long black eyelashes and said it was her birthday, he beamed at her and fumbled madly for his camera, then took her photo and, without further ado, issued her with an Australian driver’s license. It was, he told her with a confidential wink, a birthday present.

And so, without so much as turning a key or operating a windscreen wiper, my mother was authorised to pilot one of the most dangerous high-speed weapons ever devised by the dark mind of man: the automobile.

My mother’s older sister had saved up and bought a brand new gleaming white Mini Minor, the kind all the groovy kids were driving in those days. Soon after my mother’s seventeenth birthday, they went on a road trip together to Melbourne. Now the highway from Canberra to Melbourne, if you have never made that noble journey, is an easy eight-hour drive that takes you through the sprawling languid dairy country, down along the great Murray River, and up through the hills of the Great Dividing Range. My mother being a licensed driver, her sister gave her a turn at the wheel. On a long, perfectly straight road, without another vehicle in sight, my gleeful mother held the wheel and plunged down her accelerator foot. In the passenger seat beside her, her sister closed her eyes and began to dream. The little Mini Minor gathered speed. It began, ever so slightly, to wobble. My mother pushed harder on the accelerator, smiling at the charming dairy fields. When the poor little car began to shake violently, my mother did as any person driving for the first time might do: she accelerated a little more, and then, to compensate for all that wobbling, began to nudge the wheel from side to side – gently at first, then harder, with a playful jubilant vigour. Side to side, side to side: no doubt about it, it had been a splendid birthday. Dreamily she watched a flock of birds go by. The car was wobbling wildly now, so she swerved the wheel a little harder and felt the accelerator – at last! – go flat to the floor.

That was how it happened that, on a long stretch of straight flat road, with no vehicles or obstacles of any kind for miles around, the brilliant new hundred-mile-an-hour Mini Minor found itself toppling and rolling like a rugby ball, over and over, until at last it came to rest in a wide dusty ditch, bent and crumpled and crushed, while my mother, breathless with birthday exhilaration beneath a shower of glass confetti, still clasped the wheel with both hands – in fact, still rocked it back and forth with dazed but undiminished glee.

Though they now had no car and little money, the two sisters somehow made their way to Melbourne. A few nights later, at a party a friend’s place, my mother drank for a while, drank some more, talked loudly and laughingly about her marvellous birthday, and then, wandering alone through the house, noticed some keys on a table and idly picked them up. She twirled the keyring round her finger. She went out the front door and twirled the keys beneath the encouraging smiling winks of the stars. She found the car that fit the key, a lovely red sedan, and climbed into the driver’s seat.

It was such a cool clear evening, such a perfect night for driving my mother thought as she turned the next corner, windows down and engine blazing. By the time she made it back to the party twenty minutes later, she had reduced her second automobile to a twisted steaming wreck on the corner of a quiet backstreet three blocks away.

I often think about that good, sweet-natured Canberra policeman who had given my mother her license as a birthday present. On the night of her birthday, I imagine the policeman lounging happily in his favourite chair at home, thinking of the girl with the beautiful brown eyes, the long eyelashes and dimply smile, congratulating himself on his chivalry, never dreaming that he was, that night, the most dangerous man in the commonwealth of Australia. For it was he who had made my mother a Driver. It was he who had single-handedly turned every other person and every vehicle for hundreds of miles around into a prospective victim of my mother’s birthday joy.

Many of our church leaders today are very much like that innocent-hearted policeman. We would like to make it as easy as possible for people to become Christians. Catechesis is too demanding; education is a chore; deliberate instruction in the Christian faith will put people off. And so with a knowing wink, we waive all the requirements and hand out the baptism certificate. We are charming, gallant, spiritually magnanimous – and ruinously dangerous. In our eagerness to make sure everybody is included, to reassure inquirers that the Christian faith is indeed an easygoing undemanding thing, we are looking only at the dimples and batted eyelashes. We are forgetting the longer view, the screech of tyres and the shriek of twisted steel and the long split-second when a windscreen becomes a million tiny diamonds in the sky. We blame the new converts if after some time they make a wreck of their faith.

But after considering the matter carefully and objectively, I find I cannot blame my mother for the magnificent trail of automobiles left smoking in her wake: I blame the generous heart of a magnanimous policeman.


Pamela said...

My first boyfriend drove a red Mini Minor. I think that's why he was so appealing!
I think people become Christians through the heart not through some sort of ceremony. We do learn bit by bit.

Jason Barr said...

I wouldn't say your mother was entirely without blame in this situation, but surely the one who allowed her to get behind the wheel without adequately testing her credential bears greater responsibility precisely because that was exactly his role in the situation.

As I've recently begun blogging about men's spirituality, I have been thinking quite a lot about the ways we are formed (and not formed) into men in the context of today's media-saturated world. A good deal of counter-catechesis is necessary, especially in training men to see things like male privilege clearly...

(apologies if this comment is in your queue more than once; my internet connection just went nuts)

Theophilus said...

I've been wrestling with a similar issue, but with regard to communion rather than baptism. Lately I've been attending an Anglican parish on Sunday evenings with my fiancée, because she works during the daytime. The parish we've been attending very deliberately offers communion to everyone present, consciously refusing to distinguish between those who are baptized and those who are not, or anything else, really. The church to which I belong, the Mennonite Brethren, have a tradition of taking the unifying power of communion very seriously, and therefore exluding from table fellowship those who do not belong to a church or who are not in "right relationship" with their church or its members. Consequently I have, in my unease, been abstaining from communion at the Anglican parish, which is not raising eyebrows there.

I find your writing wonderful, Ben, both for its beauty and its illumination of difficult issues. Thanks for another great post.

besideourselves said...

I too have known the exhilaration of rocking the steering wheel back and forth with dazed but undiminished glee while the air around me dazzled with tumbling shards.

And while I have my full license now (and at least one vehicle with the requisite paperwork), I doubt that my driving would be informed by the necessary counterpoints of heady exhilaration and dreadful responsibility without those rites of passage which I, like your mother, have endured.

Catechesis may be one such rite...

Fat said...

Pandora's brick.

I fear you may be met with more than a smoking mass now you have opened the bonnet - the sudden airing may kindle an inferno.

And yet aired it must needs be.

Well done Ben.

George Hunsinger said...

For those who may be interested in using a catechism, take a look at "The Study Catechism" adopted by the PCUSA in 1998. It was the work of a Special Committee, and I was the principal author.

DanO said...

And if catachesis is demanding (i.e. if it is hard to learn to talk like a follower of Jesus), just imagine how much more demanding it is to actually live like followers of Jesus!

In fact, it seems to me that a good many theologians spend all their time trying to learn to talk and never end up doing anything. I don't know if that is a good or bad thing but it does seem a little bit like spending all of one's life in the nursery...

Ben Myers said...

George - thanks for the heads-up on your PCUSA catechism!

Pamela said...

Addendum to comment 1:
Sometimes life can get a little too ferocious for our liking and then we can reflect on one of Ben's stories. And take something special from it.

Brian Gronewoller said...

Ben: this is a wonderful post. I agree wholeheartedly. One thing that I appreciate about the Patristics is that, the more I read them, the more I find catechesis as a central part of their lives. I just finished Warren Smith's new book on Ambrose, and it is an exploration of his moral theology through an exploration of his views on baptism and catechesis (the writings concerning both by Ambrose are substantial). I wish that we thought and acted in a way that held our call to make disciples as highly as they did. My church does a valiant job through its Sunday School curriculum (they bring in local seminary professors to teach classes, and I am even teaching a course on the Ancient Church for six weeks this Fall), but I realize that most of the other churches I have been in didn't do much to prepare me to walk in the faith.

But I can't blame just them. I have been that magnanimous policemen many, many times in my life. It's hard to tell a cute girl "no".

in said...

Ben. 'You cannot be serious!'
Let me understand you. A good natured official gives a license to pretty 17 year old in a time and age when cars were few, indeed the UK only brought in licencing regs once the pleb managed to own this most pernicious of poisons, now your pretty 17 year old no doubt pleased with the flattering effects of her coquettish manner boasts of her accomplishment to said sister who actually allows her to drive without first assessing her; worse falls asleep leaving this inept in charge of said killing machine, said inept in response to skittish behaviour speeds up rather than stops, crashes vehicle and then steals and crashes another whilst pissed and you blame the chap who gave her a licence, presumably your reason is said 17 year old's diminished responsibility rather than the obvious class privilege which is screaming out from this tale of Gatsby's guests and their frolics. To your capacity for moral judgement our survey says nah.

Ben Myers said...

"your capacity for moral judgement" — impossible where one's parents are concerned! =)

John Hartley said...

Dear Ben,

Briefly, thanks for a rattling good story, which is up to your usual standards of brilliance.

As to the point it illustrates, I find there are two battles in persuading churches to exercise some discernment in their baptismal practice. One is the conviction that an open (or "indiscriminate") policy is wrong - and your story makes an admirable addition to the arsenal for that. The other is the vision for a positive rather than a negative way of handling the enquirers.

The policeman in your story wouldn't have helped by simply refusing your mother the licence. She'd have asked a different policeman - or even complained to the superintendent and had him rebuked. The death-on-the-roads outcome would have been the same. Turning away requests for baptism doesn't solve anything.

Instead, he needed the charm (and the official backup) to offer something positive. A "provisional licence" to enable your mother to drive under the instruction of a qualified driver, as well as the invitation to the driving school. A proper rite of celebration for the candidate as well as an invitation to join the class.

In one of my curacies I was fortunate to serve under a clergyman who had cracked this knotty problem. Everyone was offered a service of "Thanksgiving and Blessing" based on Mark 10:13-16, and we used to build these services up and make them into really positive experiences of welcome and celebration. And everyone was also invited to join in discipleship - to come to church and enroll in the course. And that's the pattern I've followed since.

The invitation to join the class is nothing unique in our church. What is special is the way we build up the Thanksgiving service to the point where the people who are asking for the Christening really do feel that they are being given a "yes" by their church, even though it isn't baptism.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Marvin said...

So, let's get specific. What would you require of people before they enter the church? What the ecclesiastical equivalent of being able to parallel park?

Anonymous said...

Belief doesn’t mean much in our world. ‘The world’ in which we live doesn’t really care what we believe, so long as all the usual powers of our world control our desires and our habits. The lack of catechism is perhaps symptomatic of a world in which belief is not that important – ‘belief’ is private, it is between me and God, it is a product of my own spirituality, its, well… religious. Perhaps the analogy with your wonderful story Ben is that catechesis is like a memory test of the road rules, even when it is done (and, as you point out, even that is hardly done now) but where do we learn how to drive and who really tests us that we can actually drive before we are sacramentally licensed? (Though I am one for ‘believer’s baptism’ myself – and preferably with a three year catechesis prior to baptism as per the early church – the principle of confirmation should be about getting one’s P plates after a practical road test too, I presume.) Formation into the practises of the believing community is what catechesis really should be about, and in our day where ‘liberal individualism’ makes one the sole pilot of one’s beliefs and practises in theory (but in fact, we are deeply conformed by the powerful disciplines of desire and collective habits of behaviour in which are very lives are situated) it seems like we don’t understand the very idea of church.

Paul Tyson

PJtheoLogy said...

Great story to reflect on as I go to do a baptismal interview today. I have posted a few of my own thoughts on my blog.
Peter Lockhart

spirit2go team said...

This story makes some really interesting theological assertions when it is linked to baptism. Is it something we apply for, as a chosing adult? Or is it gift, given to us by the church. The theology of the story seems to suggest more of a evangelical approach to baptism than that asserted by the Uniting Church.

It also makes some interesting links re the nature of formation. Do we really think that we learn Christianity by doing a course?


Anonymous said...

Re, " The church to which I belong, the Mennonite Brethren, have a tradition of taking the unifying power of communion very seriously, and therefore exluding from table fellowship those who do not belong to a church or who are not in "right relationship" with their church or its members."

It's not the Mennonites' table. It's not the Church's table. It's the LORD's table, and to deny it to anyone is to dare stand between others and Christ.

Theophilus said...

This is the view of the Anglican parish I mentioned. The priest says, every week prior to communion, "This is the table not only of the church, but of Christ, and it is his will that those who want to meet him, would meet him here." However, in my view, this statement is overly simplistic, for untold numbers of people have met Christ in settings other than the communion table. Because the church has a mandate to exclude unrepentant sinners (1 Corinthians 5:12-13) and because the consequences of participating in communion unworthily are so grave (1 Corinthians 11:29-31), I do not believe that I, or the church, can in good conscience encourage uncritical, unexamined participation in communion. I trust that Christ will meet people at other times and places, as he has so often met me.

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