Building Jerusalem

How is giving people books they don’t really understand fulfiling our pastoral responsibility?

Yesterday, I wrote about making theology accessible. A lot of people seem to want to do that but seem to have a very different understanding of what the word ‘accessible’ means to how I understand it. Apparently, Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics and Calvin’s Institutes were still being defended as definitely accessible.

But it was also interesting how the question was subtly changed by those defending these systematic theologies. The original question was about accessible systematic theology. That is, faced with somebody new to the Christian faith or who had just discovered systematic theology was a thing, what book would you suggest as an introductory starter. That was the question to which many were saying Bavinck and Calvin were almost certainly not the answer (helpful as they may well be otherwise).

The original question, however, soon became one of what are the most helpful, or deep, or valuable systematic theologies. But the question wasn’t changed and then asked on its own terms, it subtly changed in response to the dismissal of Bavinck or Calvin. The answer to whether these were helpful as introductions to systematic theology for average church members suddenly changed to whether pastors could find them accessible. From there, the incredulity flowed as some decried the fact that pastors did not find them accessible. What a sad state of affairs that pastors can’t engage with these works!

Except, nobody said that. Most of the people commenting seemed to have read Bavinck and Calvin. Many even said they found them relatively helpful in their own way. The question was not whether they were any good, but whether they were accessible; no accessible for the average pastor, but as an introductory text to systematic theology for the average church member. But why the subtle change? It was almost as though those who love these works (and that’s fine if you do) couldn’t bear to see them criticised on any level – even if that level was as basic as, maybe don’t offer them to people who aren’t theology nerds as an introduction to a new topic.

But I think this subtle change perhaps explains some of the problems that I was speaking into to begin with. Some of us so love certain books and authors that we insist everybody else must love them like we do too. And because we find them helpful, everybody else must find them helpful. And when they don’t, it can’t be because there is a problem with those works or authors (or we are trying to use those works in ways they were never intended to be used). That leaves us with the only option available – blaming the people who don’t get on with them. They must either be unspiritual or a bit thick. It fault can’t be with the wrong books being given to the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I, for instance, love John Bunyan. I love the Pilgrim’s Progress. I became a believer through my parents reading me that book. But realistically, I wouldn’t expect the average member of my church to get on with it. That’s not to say they can’t or there aren’t things they would get out of it if they stick with it. But realistically, when people already aren’t big readers, how likely am I to help them by giving them books written in 400 year old language? How helpful will it be to expect them to read books that use words that nobody uses any more, the meaning of which is entirely obscured? Am I more likely to encourage them to read more, to hate reading or, minimally, write off that entire genre of books (potentially all theological and/or Christian books) because I keep telling them stuff they find exceptionally hard to read is ‘easy’ and ‘accessible’?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with us liking certain books. But if we aren’t careful, we can put people off reading anything at all because we insist the books we have enjoyed as easy when, realistically, the people we are talking to would never view them that way. They are only going to believe all those kinds of books are terrible or believe they are too thick to engage with even these so-called easy, accessible ones. In either case, the chances of them reading anything at all seems extremely unlikely. Minimally, if we want people to read tough things because it’s worth it, let’s at least acknowledge that they aren’t an easy read or real page-turners.

But if we want people to engage with good theology, we do better to given them stuff that they might want to read. We certainly do better to give them stuff that is accessible to begin with. Maybe in time they will grow to love Bavinck and Calvin too. Maybe they won’t. But since when has reading Bavinck and Calvin been a prerequisite for Christian growth at any rate?

Perhaps the real question we ought to be asking is this: what exactly is our role as pastors? Have we failed as pastors if our people never read a word of John Calvin or John Frame? As I read the Bible, my job is to feed the sheep, equip them for works of service and to encourage them to remain faithful in their Christian walk by continually pointing them to Christ. I can’t help but feel Jesus couldn’t care less whether my people have read Berkhof or Bavinck (He never did and nor did his apostles). What he cares about is whether our people have understood the Word, whether they have heard it and become doers of it. He cares about whether our people have been equipped by the Word for the good works he has prepared beforehand for them to walk in. It seems to me, our tasks as pastors is to help our people to do that. When we understand that to be our role, I will begin to ask what the best way to achieve that will be. For my money, giving people books they don’t really understand probably isn’t it.