We were privileged to hear two insightful speeches this morning, one on how to build a catechism curriculum, and the other about the history and function of a catechism book from the point of view of its author. The first speech was by Dr. Christine van Halen-Faber, of the Teacher’s College, and it was called “From catechumen to communicant: Setting up a curriculum for catechism instruction.” She spoke to us of the changes in how the concept of “curriculum” has been understood by contemporary educators. Where a curriculum was once seen to be simply the body of knowledge that was delivered to the students, the focus has now shifted to the process of learning itself. The word comes from the Latin currere, “to run.” The way she explained it to us was that the curriculum used to be the “course” that the student ran, whereas now it is seen as the race itself. I’m not sure what all the practical outworkings of such a shift are, especially with regards to catechism teaching. After all, since the point is that catechism students are taught a fixed body of knowledge, it follows that catechism teaching will naturally be of the old school.
One idea that came out strongly, and rightly so, was drawing the connection between catechism teaching and Christian character. Although this wasn’t stated explicitly (at least, not that I remember), the connection comes right from Scripture. In Romans 6:17, Paul writes: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” That “standard of teaching” is what has developed today into catechism teaching. And what’s the point, exactly? “Teach what accords with sound doctrine,” Paul writes in Titus, for “older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness.” An education in the catechism produces sober minds, dignity, self-control, soundness in faith, love, and steadfastness. Indeed, if the students truly understand what is being taught them, that they were once spiritual corpses, to be burned in everlasting fire, but have now, through the blood of Christ, become a new humanity who have nothing less to look forward to than an everlasting and glorious perfection, how would you expect them to act? An education in the catechism produces Christian character. In fact, I’d argue that the goal of all education is the cultivation of character, but that’s a very different, and somewhat controversial, subject that I’ll save for another day.
Dr. J. Visscher then gave us a talk entitled, “I Belong, 25 years on,” in which, simply enough, he discussed the book by that title that he’d written twenty-five years ago. He shared with us the experience of how the book came to be, as the result of a getting of a PhD, which turned out to be its own story, too. There were things he’d learned along the way, like how to go about getting a PhD while you’re serving in a congregation, that may prove valuable for some of us students in the future. But, of course, not for William.
One part of the speech that I found particularly interesting was the story of the journey of I Belong around the world. It’s been translated into a number of languages, among them Ukrainian, and has also shown up in some unexpected places. Like San Quentin prison in California. Dr. Visscher still has some letters from inmates who wrote him from there. Now if you’re a fan of Johnny Cash, you’ll know that he played there a couple times, once recording a live album, and if you’re a fan of Merle Haggard, you’ll know that he was in the audience when Cash played there in 1958. What I’m trying to say is, San Quentin is a name that drops pretty heavily in the right circles. Also, if you ever see a rather mean looking beefcake with a rather youthful Dr. Visscher tattooed on his arm, you’ll know why.