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Book Review: “Educating People of Faith: Exploring the History of Jewish and Christian Communities”

Educating People of Faith

As soon as I came across Educating People of Faith: Exploring the History of Jewish and Christian Communities, I knew I needed to read it. I hoped learning more about the history of how people of faith have been educated would provide insights about what practices churches could recover today. I also hoped it would provide some clues about why faith formation in the church is in such a gloomy state today.

Educating People of Faith is a collection of essays that focuses on faith formation practices for specific time periods and communities. While one essay focused on “Religious Formation in Ancient Judaism,” another explored “Catechesis in Calvin’s Geneva.” Each essay offers insights, goals, and the historical, cultural realities that aided or hindered forming people in their faith.

While the book might not have been as practically aimed as I would have wished, it did succeed in giving a historical perspective on how people of faith have been educated. For all the current-day focus on children and youth ministries, such a focus has not always been the case for the church. Often, much of the energy on forming faith went first to the formation of clergy and secondarily to interested and proactive adults. Another takeaway from the book was how important the role of the parish community life was to the formation of individuals. That is in sharp contrast to our current over-individualized attempts at formation. Perhaps it should not have been as surprising as it was to me, but I’m not sure I had reflected on the reality that the current upswing in the church’s focus on faith formation in the home seems to be a return to a past norm rather than a new trend or fad. Since the church’s faith formation efforts in the past were focused on clergy, much of the education of children and youth fell to parents and godparents.

Educating People of Faith also gives some precision to words that we tend to use too casually today. For example, the phrase “Christian education” has fallen out of favor, with such phrases as “spiritual formation” and “faith formation” taking its place. While I am an advocate of this shift (see previous blogs), I acknowledge that we have often failed to define our terms. Educating People of Faith defines formation as “the comprehensive preparation of religious men and women, in orders or in seminaries, for the life they will lead, this often begun at an early age” (14). “Religious formation - here defined as the preparation of individuals for the ideal religious life” (29). Such specificity can help clarify our aims of faith formation.

Another helpful perspective is how the Scriptures were used as a primary norm for formation across the generations and even across Judaism and Christianity. While all communities used Scripture as a primary instrument for faith formation, how Scripture was used varied. The essay I found most fascinating, “Monastic Formation and Christian Practice: Food in the Desert,” contrasted the practices of solitary and communal monks. For both communities, “Real scriptural knowledge is a matter of possessing the word inwardly rather than keeping it bound on a shelf” (105). Although memorization was practiced, the aim was higher than regurgitation. “For them the ability to adapt a message to an occasion, visible in this production of ‘alternative’ parables, testifies to the degree to which they have made Scripture their own” (108). While this essay gave me lots to ponder, this particular insight made me wonder, “Would it be too crazy to propose a practice in your church that no one read Scripture for a week, but instead attempt in as many ways as possible to live out and create ‘alternative’ parables?” Perhaps we might gain a new appreciation for Scripture and a renewed desire to “eat” from the nourishment of Scripture instead of being nourished solely by our culture.

Educating People of Faith also provided a number of helpful reminders, such as, “Rites and practices…are not self-interpreting” (18). This is certainly a danger in our individualistic culture. We need the community of faith to help guide and form us. Even if local churches focus more attention on equipping families as a primary arena for faith formation, churches can’t presume that families can do so on their own. They need the larger faith community for perspective of larger, community-wide needs and as a guide to pass along the faith, faithfully.

The essays in Equating People of Faith might have been more helpful if each were as explicitly structured as the first one, “Religious Formation in Ancient Judaism.” The guiding questions were laid out as:

  1. According to this view of Judaism, what is the summum bonum, the ultimate goal which a religious education should prepare one to achieve?
  2. What conceptions of the person and community are implied by this understanding of the highest good?
  3. How does one achieve the summum bonum? What materials, and what types of personal discipline, are useful or necessary?
  4. Can one help others achieve this end, and how important is it to devote one’s own energies to such assistance of other people?” (page 29)

These questions are worthy of reflection for Christian education or discipleship teams (not to mention the church council).

While Equating People of Faith was not a home-run in terms of my own hopes for it, it was a worthy – though often academic – read. It made me reflect not only about my own faith formation practices, but also about how congregations can think at a higher level about the “whats” and the “whys” of their faith formation practices.

Reflection Activities

At your church’s next meeting or even on a retreat, work through these questions:

  • What is the goal we are preparing our church members to achieve?
  • What does this say about our understanding of the people and community God is calling us to be?
  • How are we equipping – through activities, experiences, and classes ­– our church members to achieve the goal God has for his people?

Other Questions for Church Leaders

  • How are we equipping our church members to lead lives of discipleship?
  • How are we equipping parents in their faith formation efforts with their children (of all ages)?

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