Teaching the Faith

A short note on the subject of داعش Daesh (The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria) and how it recruits young people from across the West (and likely the world) — because it is something I will come back to again and again as I consider the overall failure of the church the catechize, to instruct the young, on the faith.

Scott Atran was interviewed on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday last week, and he had this to say about how attractive the idea of a restores Caliphate is even to Muslims who do not support داعش and its war making:

Well, so far, the counter-radicalization or counter-narratives proposed in our societies have been pathetic. First, they preach things like moderation. I often tell them, don’t any of you have teenage children? When did moderation do anything? And they’re all often repetitive, mass messaging and lecturing at young people, whereas the Islamic State takes a very intimate and personal approach. They look at each individual and sometimes spend hundreds, even thousands of hours drawing out their personal grievances and frustrated aspirations and trying to link it to a larger story of how the world should be and what they can do to contribute to it. … [W]e’ve got to provide young people the possibility for some other mode of life that’s hopeful, adventurous, glorious and provides significance. Again, we don’t provide much of anything except belief in things like shopping malls. We don’t even listen to young people. There are no programs that I know of that really allow the ideas of youth to bubble up and cultivate an alternative that comes from them.

Give the whole thing a listen. It’s worth the time.


Karen Armstrong, whose work on Islam and the West I’ve been reading for more than 20 years now (along with Dilip Hiro, she’s one of my favorite authors on the Middle East and Islam), echoes something similar in a recent piece in The New Statesman:

Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a ­stifling sense of insignificance. [Emphasis mine — CHF] Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning.

I’ve thought a lot about how churches teach the faith to the young. (Because I’ve done some of it.) The process of catechesis (at least in the United States) is generally a product of Christendom — it’s structured like school (books, assignments, papers, curricula, programs — none of it hefty in my experience, and little of it terribly impressive), it’s an adjunct to the worship experience, it’s largely impersonal, and it assumes a Christian/Christendom community that can otherwise support faith instruction. It assumes — and rightly, I think — that faith is learned everywhere, but that what is studied in church is supposed to give shape, sense, and comprehension to a generally already “Christian” culture and “Christian” community.

Even then, I would argue that the catechesis used in America from the 1950s onwards wasn’t much help in preparing American Christians for the things they would do and experience. As Christendom was unraveling, ways of teaching the faith did not keep pace (the WWII generation was almost completely unable or unwilling to show what it meant to live and have faith in a violent world, and that puzzles me), and thus a sense that the church had anything important to say about the meaning and purpose of life, especially life in difficult or troubling circumstances, slowly unraveled as well.

Daesh shows how to do this. We build relationships, one person at a time, slowly, faithfully, purposefully. Not to do violence, but to live out what I think is an adventure — the love of neighbor as Christ loves us, a love that takes tremendous risks because it loves enemies, goes after the lost, and seeks the good of even those who wish us harm.

So, here’s what is bubbling in my mind.

I’m thinking small. A small Bible study that is also a communion service — the simple words of institution that Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 10 along with bread and wine passed around. The study of the Bible will focus on the story. Yes, it will be the story as I have come to see it — that of the call of Israel, it’s rise, its fall, its conquest, and its redemption in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible story is a story of new life out of staggering failure — the conquest of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem, the death of Christ. Because my hope is to find and gather the lost, the lonely, the unloved, the unwanted, to show them just how they are God’s people — how they are part of this story of new life, of resurrection.

We’ll do this by meeting people where they are, listening, empathizing, and accompanying. We do this slowly. Despite all that has happened to me, I am theologically, confessionally, and liturgically Lutheran (for the most part; please do not ask me about Law & Gospel, I’m liable to get all unorthodox on you, and then you’ll just hate me) and this worship community will reflect that. We focus on grace, on God’s unearned gift for the world, and the response to that grace of love and faithfulness to God. God meets you where you are, but God won’t leave you there. We will also remember, however, Israel’s story of repeated failure. Of Israel’s constant need for redemption. This is why we are utterly dependent on the faithfulness of Jesus — because we cannot be faithful enough ourselves.

My hope will be this study and this worship will equip the people I teach to go out themselves and find the lost, and begin this process again. And again. And again. I am most interesting in reaching out to people no one else seems interested in, and hope to find people who can and will do that to. I’ve said this before, but I will say it again — love will be both means and end for us.

This is not a program. I do not know how it will work, or even if it will. I don’t think a lot of the catechetical materials I’ve seen take young faith seriously. And I want to take young lives — and young faith — seriously. We are failures called by God to great work and actually empowered to do that great work. That, to me, is the amazing reality of our encounter with God.

Right now, I am in upstate New York. I could try to do this work here, but our being in and around Albany is something of an accident. After more than a year, I finally have a job — a serious job, one I would never have sought but something I think I can do and actually be good at — it is seasonal (the work ends in late April, though I will continue with the company if they like what I do), so I’m committed to being here. In New York. For the duration.

But I have fostered some close and very intense relationships with young people out West (one of those relationships has given me renewed purpose, has made this vision entire vision of ministry possible with a clarity I utterly lacked before we met), and I my hope is to move out there and begin this work with them.

Mostly, though, I want to build the kinds of relationships that will help people looking for purpose and meaning in their lives to find it in the Gospel, and in a community of people committed to living out the gospel call to love and find the lost and feed sheep. To use what I have started online and see if it can happen in the real world. Love as means and end.

But there’s also more work to be done online, too. I’m not sure what that might look like, or where we’d even start that. In part, it would be good to have a network of support, people praying for the success of By The Waters of Babylon, for all the people we meet, minister to and with. There may also be a place for an online Bible study too. I don’t know how many people, if any, would be interested in that. (I’m not looking for financial support yet because I’m not ready for it.) I started with online relationships, so that should continue. I know I have to be careful how many of these relationships I personally try to maintain, especially when I’m working full time.

Whatever it looks like, we will worship God, proclaim Christ crucified and risen, teach the faith, and meet people — one soul at a time.

Love as both means and end.

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