My parents, both born and bred in Indiana, uprooted their family and moved us all to Texas when my siblings and I were 10, 7 and 6. The first thing my mother did after our move was enroll us in swimming lessons. She knew that the hotter weather here meant that water activities were a big part of summer vacations.
She herself never learned to swim, and was personally terrified of water any deeper than that of a wading pool. She was determined that her children would not suffer that same fate.
The three of us became decent swimmers and divers. Any fears I had quickly disappeared as I gained skill and competence. Creative play in the “deep end” quickly took on a major role in summer fun and gave us all a great deal of physical exercise while building stamina and health.
Those memories surfaced as I began to consider a critique of one of the church’s major dilemmas: its young adults are leaving in droves. Many say that the church is too shallow—we have not taught the “deep-end” skills necessary to integrate faith, life, love and work. By insisting that our children and youth stay in the shallow end of theological debates, where all is black and white and easily answered, we leave them unequipped to deal with a world saturated with multiple shades of gray, uncertainties, a multiplicity of morally ambiguous choices, and seemingly unsolvable problems.
The wading pool theology they’ve been fed offers no preparation for complex decision-making. They fear the deep end and often miss God’s call for full Christian living that integrates all of life..
In working last year with the church youth group, I asked them to differentiate between Santa Claus and Jesus. I believe that we feed our children a Santa Claus god and then are shocked when, at some point after learning that the Santa Claus story taught as truth is really just a big charade put on by parents, they also turn away from Jesus.
I gave the youth the words to “Santa Claus is coming to Town” and “O Holy Night” and asked them to compare the two. In many ways, Santa Claus looks a lot more powerful—after all, he’s watching them constantly and knows when they’ve been bad or good! Furthermore, they also had no real idea of what the word “holy” meant, or how to pull such a concept into their lives.
Even so, they applied themselves to the task. Slowly, the light began to dawn and we ventured together into a real exploration of the nature of the Savior. They moved from the wading pool to the deep end that night. It was startling, enlightening and life-changing. I suspected I risked the wrath of parents with that discussion, for many themselves were still stuck on a Santa Claus god.
Those whose faith teaching has kept them in the wading pool often learn to proof-text themselves through life. Proof-texting means taking some small portion of the Bible (or political stance or statement) completely out of context, linking it with other small portions, and then creating a chain of statements that, taken only at face-value, appear to support really awful things. Arguments for slavery, racism, genocide and seeing women as slightly sub-human and without basic rights have all sprung from the proof-texting mindset.
Proof-texting pastors helped create the environment that ultimately led to the Civil War and the splitting of many church bodies. The Southern Baptist Church, the Southern Methodist Church which commissioned Southern Methodist University, and other “southern” bodies were formed by those groups which proclaimed that the Holy Scriptures supported and even mandated the enslavement of certain people groups.
We’ve got to learn to swim in the deep end of theology, and teach the next generation to do the same. If we do not…I shudder at the consequence.