Unintentional Lessons

More bells and whistles than you need in a car. It’s a parable.

When people hear that I write books, they often ask where I get them published. I tell them I self-publish. “Oh.” They say, “Well, that’s nice too.” My books are so distinctively Lutheran that only a Lutheran would be interested in publishing them. Of course, there are Lutheran publishers. My own synod has a very nice one. So why not there? They would handle all of the technical details, pay for proper editing, take care of marketing, and I would actually make a small profit on my books, instead of taking the occasional loss, or having to do gofundme campaigns. (Click HERE to help get Catechetics published.)

Two reasons, really. One, I have the copyright. Because I use print-on-demand services, the book need never go out of print. That may be a bit arrogant. After all, I’m a country parson publishing some little books, not a sem prof translating Luther’s House Postils.  But I want the books to be available. It is important to me. And it’s my book.

But there is a more significant reason. I sent an early draft of several chapters to a theological leader in our synod – he has since taken up residence at the IC in a very public support role in President Harrison’s administration. He recommended that I not use our synod’s publisher, because there are a lot of entrenched interests when it comes to catechism instruction, and my book places some of them in the crosshairs.

Today on FB there was a good example of that.

Let me begin by saying that I really wanted to love the new catechism. Friends were warning against certain things, and I brushed off their concerns. The new catechism has fixed certain Aristotelian/Melanchthonian weaknesses, choosing instead to follow the outline of Luther’s Large Catechism. That was such a welcome change that I was willing to overlook a few quibbles. But eventually, even I could no longer overlook them.

There is a difference between what the teacher thinks he is teaching, and what he actually teaches. I’m not a big fan of post-modern hermeneutical methodology. Words have inherent meaning. But method can send messages that the catechist is not even aware of. Worksheets means “This is academic. Fill in the correct checkboxes because I told you to. Don’t worry, this doesn’t really apply to your life, and once the worksheet is done you can forget about it.” (As Kenneth Korby used to say, “From the mouth of the teacher to the pen of the student without entering the mind of either.”) Allowing children to miss catechism class for sporting events lets them know, with crystal clarity, which god they really should worship.

There are subtler lessons.

This morning, I saw a post with a quote from the new Catechism:

What is Christianity? A Christian is someone who, by the power and work of the Holy Spirit through the word of God, believes in and confesses Jesus as Savior and Lord. Through Baptism, a Christian is adopted into the Father’s family, the Church.

It was in a brightly colored picture. Brightly colored pictures are usually for short slogans, easily remembered. This has four prepositional phrases in a row, modifying and limiting the verbs. One is nested. It doesn’t exactly flow from the tongue.

In my review of the field test, I said:

The answers in the introduction alone have ballooned from 35 words per answer to 76. The grade level of the answers for this section is now 10.4, according to the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Exactly who is this catechism for? … How are fifth-eighth grade students expected to read prose written for high school juniors or seniors?

I stand by, and reiterate that criticism. My writing tends to be a bit dense, usually about 9th grade level. But my books are for teachers. My sermons clock in somewhere around a 5th grade level. That matches the Small Catechism itself.

My major complaint about the new explanation is the complexity of language. Too often, it sounds as if it is a legal contract. In a world defined by 140 or 280 characters, the answers are just monstrously long, and the grammar is difficult to decipher. The question asks about Christianity, and the answer is about the Christian. I was in a debate this morning about what the section even means.

But I don’t think there is a debate about what it teaches. And sadly, what it teaches has little to do with the meaning of the words themselves. “What is Christianity? Christianity is hard and confusing, and only really smart people understand it.” I am certain this is not what the authors intended. But it is the meaning that will be remembered. Because the definition will not be.

Luther says the church is “The sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” That’s written at about a second grade level. Luther said a child of seven could understand it. 500 years of science later, and it turns out, he was right.

The new catechism fails in precisely the thing it is needed to do: Teach the faith to children.

That’s a problem. And all the fancy graphics in the world won’t be able to solve that. There are some really good things about the new catechism. But as a tool to teach the faith, it is not useable. I know many  have enthusiastically embraced it. I know many will think I’m just complaining because I don’t like change. But change is only useful if it improves. And in the thing for which this exists, it does not. It will yield a generation of people who know even less what we believe teach and confess. They will come out of their catechesis thinking that the faith is strange and obtuse, entirely unconnected to daily living. This was, of course, the same problem Luther faced. In his day the church was for the monks and priests. The people didn’t really need it. It appears we have not learned well the lesson of Luther’s Catechisms. “They would need to become children, and begin to learn their alphabet, which they imagine that they have long since outgrown.”

Let’s get back to ABC’s, and leave the court theology for the court theologians.

If you agreed with this post, you might want to check out Teach These Things. It is an ABC approach to teaching the faith.


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6 Responses to Unintentional Lessons

  1. Roger Sterle says:

    Really, really good!!! My level–1st grade!!!


  2. I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis, especially on the difficulty of the language. If you look at the older catechisms (1912; 1943(?)), the answers are much more concise and to the point. I would love it if someone were to do the 1912 Schwan catechism in updated language and Scripture references.

    • Country Preacher says:

      I’ve considered that, actually. If you know someone who wants to offer me a major grant so I can just work on pet projects full time, let me know. I’d love to do it.

    • Bruce Kintz says:


    • Jesse Krusemark says:

      That’s what I did with Reu, which is what I use. I replaced catechism texts with CPH 86 and Bible texts with ESV mostly, then brought the language of Reu’s explanation in line with those.

  3. Bruce Kintz says:

    Wow. Well, we are here to serve most and many. Blessings on your day.

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