Community of Memory
Has relativism so invaded the church that adults have lost the capacity to disciple their own youth? In my darkest moments, I couldn't have imagined it. But a recent episode makes me wonder.
A graduate of our Centurion program (an intensive course in biblical worldview) sponsors a voluntary Christian club at her local middle school. Forty-three students eagerly signed up for the 13-week course.
Everything went well until the students reached lesson 10, which led them through a series of choices to learn the difference between matters of taste and truth. One of the choices, "believing Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity" flashed on the screen.
Our CenturionI'll call her Joannetold me "the students went nuts." She was shocked when seven of the eight small-group leaders, supposedly mature Christians, balked at distinguishing Christianity as true and other religions as false.
Joanne urged them to talk to their parents or pastors, believing these authority figures would straighten them out. The next day, they came back with their answersand they were appalling. One teen's pastor said that no one can be sure of truth, that "it's all perspective." Parents of the seven leaders agreed that their teens shouldn't say that Christianity alone is true, because that could offend others. One girl had written a paper on "Why We Shouldn't Hurt Others' Feelings by Claiming Our Way Is Right." Joanne was forced to shelve chapter 10. "They can't teach what they don't believe," she said.
If this is representative of what's going on in the church, we've got problems. We should be concerned not just about discipleship, but also about whether we are losing what sociologist Robert Bellah calls our "community of memory."
In the 1980s, Bellah conducted interviews with 200 average, middle-class Americans, searching for what, borrowing from Alexis de Tocqueville, he called the "habits of the heart" that guide us. Many respondents reported no sense of community or social obligation of any kind. They saw the world as a fragmented place of choice and freedom that yielded little meaning or comfort.
Bellah called this phenomenon "ontological individualism"the belief that the individual is the only source of meaning. It stands in stark contrast to what Bellah called "biblical" and "republican" traditions, which provide a reference point of meaning outside the individualtelling us about the nature of the world, society, and ourselves. These traditions are embodied in "communities of memory" such as religious groups, traditional families, and cultural associations. They communicate a sense of order and context from one generation to the next.
Bellah predicted that such pervasive individualism could destroy the subtle ties that bind people together and threaten the very stability of our social order.
Tragically, Bellah may have been prophetic. We have already seen what relativism and radical individualism have done to the family, which is so essential for the transmission of manners and morals from one generation to the next. I've seen the consequences of this in two generations of prison inmates. When I walk through the nation's cellblocks, I speak to kids about God the Father. They look at me as if I'd said a dirty word. Most don't know who their father is. They're like feral children, devoid of any kind of moral instruction.
If you lose the community of memory for one generation, you can make it up. But after two generations, you've severed the arteries of civilization that transmit truth and virtue. Clearly, the stakes are enormous, not just for the church but also for our culture.
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