In the late 1980’s, the recently deceased E.D. Hirsch burst onto the cultural scene with his idea of “cultural literacy,” which detailed the importance of having a core of background knowledge for functional literacy and effective national communication.
Hirsch ignited a national debate as to the nature of education and the meaning of literacy. Questions swirled around what should form the content of such knowledge, and whether or not education can be reduced to such things.
But the central thesis remained: there are certain things we should know.
There is a body of knowledge that lends itself to cultural literacy – and even further, Christian literacy.
So what are those things?
The church has felt the need to identify what should be known from the earliest days. Luke, along with Matthew, Mark and John, felt it critical to pull together the central teachings and life events of Jesus, with John acknowledging, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25, NIV).
Beyond the gospels, the importance of a core of knowledge is why God gave us the rest of the Scriptures He did. God boiled the law down to ten commandments; we need to know what they are – along with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the seven letters to the seven churches, the wisdom of the Proverbs, the great theological treatise of Romans, the evangelistic thrust of John’s gospel, and everything else within the canon.
So the starting point of our education, or commitment to learning, is biblical literacy. This is arguably where the church has done its best, where the spiritual gift of teaching has been most recognized, and where Christians have devoted themselves to most as students.
Beyond biblical learning, there are certain events in history to be known, and specifically Christian history. Not simply in regard to dates, names and places, but in terms of significance.
So what events – and their significance – should be known, at least in terms of Christian history? Historian Mark Noll has suggested the following twelve as seminal: the fall of Jerusalem (70); the Council of Nicaea (325); the Council of Chalcedon (451); Benedict’s Rule (530); the coronation of Charlemagne (800); the “great schism” between the Eastern and Western church (1054); the Diet of Worms (1521); the English Act of Supremacy (1534); the founding of the Jesuits (1540); the Conversion of the Wesleys (1738); the French Revolution (1789); and the Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910).
Beyond biblical literacy and historical literacy is theological literacy. The Bible gives us God’s revelation; history walks us through how some of the better minds have wrestled with it; theology puts it all together and applies it to the great questions of life and spiritual formation.
Theology has traditionally organized itself in ten categories:
- Existence, nature and attributes of God
- Revelation (the inspiration and authority of Scripture)
- Creation and Providence
- Doctrine of Humanity
- Original and actual sin
- Person and work of Christ
- Human nature, sin and grace
- Person and work of the Holy Spirit
- The Church
- End times
Of course talking about learning and actually getting that education are two different things. Where can you get a course in Christian theology? Where is church history made available? One answer is that churches and the seminaries that serve them must rise to the educational challenge.
Fortunately, many are.
Churches are increasingly developing a community college “feel” to their educational ministries. Mecklenburg Community Church offers an “Institute” which provides a fresh slate of courses each semester, from Christian Theology to Bible 101, church history to book studies. Such learning opportunities are seen as a vital “third leg” to the learning stool, complimenting the learning coming from weekend services and the learning coming from small group experiences.
Regardless of how it is tackled, never before have the habits of the mind mattered more. As Winston Churchill presciently stated in his address to Harvard University in 1943, “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.”
Alister McGrath, reflecting on Churchill’s address, notes that Churchill’s point was that a great transition was taking place in Western culture with immense implications for all who live in it. The powers of the new world would not be nation-states, as with empires past, but ideologies. It would now be ideas, not nations, which would captivate and conquer in the future. The starting point for the conquest of the world would now be the human mind.
Adds John Stott, “We may talk of ‘conquering’ the world for Christ. But what sort of ‘conquest’ do we mean? Not a victory by force of arms.... This is a battle of ideas.”
Christian literacy is learning about those ideas.
James Emery White
James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).
E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.
Jo H. Lewis and Gordon A. Palmer, What Every Christian Should Know.
Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.
Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.