Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Religious Literacy

From my (and probably your) internet front page this morning:

"A new survey of Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons outperformed Protestants and Roman Catholics in answering questions about major religions, while many respondents could not correctly give the most basic tenets of their own faiths.

Forty-five percent of Roman Catholics who participated in the study didn't know that, according to church teaching, the bread and wine used in Holy Communion is not just a symbol, but becomes the body and blood of Christ.

More than half of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the person who inspired the Protestant Reformation. And about four in 10 Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the greatest rabbis and intellectuals in history, was Jewish." 

(By RACHEL ZOLL, AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll, Ap Religion Writer Tue Sep 28, 12:02 am ET)

I am pondering the above sympathetically.   I went to a Catholic boarding school (total immersion!) for three years and studied spiritual direction in a Catholic context, so I'm good on the Catholic stuff.  I was an active member of the United Methodist Church and now the Presbyterian Church for many years and I've taught world history, so I'm good on Martin Luther.  And I taught that history in an Orthodox Jewish school, so I know who Maimonides was.

But you know, you could write a similar assessment about me where science is concerned.  I have no concept of even the most fundamental basics. like how electricity works, and popular articles about chemistry and astronomy might as well be written in Sanskrit for all that I get out of them.

So I'm sympathetic.  But concerned, nevertheless.

I'm going to a meeting later today in which I expect to make the point that we Presbyterians are failing in our recognition, understanding, and expression of our identity as Presbyterian, Reformed, Protestant Christians.  On all counts.

I'm one of the facilitators for the Kerygma Scriptural educational program we are beginning at my home church this fall.  We usually have about 250 folks in worship on Sunday mornings; at least 70 have signed up for this class.  I'd say people are hungry -- not only for religious knowledge but for paths into such knowledge.

I'm preaching at a nearby church on October 31, Reformation Sunday and All Saints' Eve.  The regular lectionary gospel text for that day is the story of Zacchaeus, and I've been reading that wonderful Tomáš Halík book, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us, which I keep quoting at the top of my blog.  I'm trying to figure out how to pull all that together, remembering a Reformation Sunday a few years ago in which the history and theology of the day never came up except in the singing of A Mighty Fortress (a hymn written by Martin Luther and set to the tune of a popular drinking song ~ which I learned in an adult education class taught in my home church by a Jewish college professor of liturgical music!).  I was pretty sure that most people in the congregation had no idea why that particular song had been selected for that morning, and I'm pretty sure that a lot of people have no idea that the day on which we enjoy childish goblins and witches has serious religious significance.

To be honest, I have my Jewish students to thank for most of what I know myself.  Endlessly curious about other expressions of faith, they prodded me constantly to learn and teach them.  It's thanks to them that I spent hours researching both  Martin Luther's pamphlets (and sadly horrific anti-Semitism) and the history of pumpkin carving.

So . . . what are you wondering about these days?


  1. I've facilitated several Kyrgma studies and found them excellent. The shorter ones are a good way to whet the appetite for more intense Bible study. Which one are you doing?

    This is one of the reasons I'm such a promoter of the Bible in 90 Days program, too. There's nothing like reading the WHOLE THING to give people the desire to continue studying and struggling with scripture.

    And the lack of historical knowledge just drives me crazy, too! I'm planning to present a brief overview of the Book of Confessions in the new elder class I am facilitating this fall so I use them to educate the group about how reformed theology developed over time.

    Okay so you pressed my buttons this morning! Good girl.

  2. QG, I think that what we finally decided was to do an introductory study, a study on a theological concept, and a study on a specific book, and I think that for the latter two we chose "covenant" and Amos. We have offered OT and NT as evening classes, but this is the first time we've made Kerygma the focus of our main adult Sunday morning class. The first one we are doing is Listening to Scripture: Strategies for Interpreting the Bible.

    I'm with you on the whole Bible concept. In my Methodist days I participated in three year-long Disciple classes: the whole Bible, Genesis-Exodus and Luke-Acts, and Prophets/Psalms and Letters of Paul, and they are definitely life-changing programs.

  3. And QG, one of the things I found fascinating in preparing and writing my theology exam was how the same thematic threads run through the whole history of our confessions, albeit in very different language.