Theology is an Acquired Taste

Coffee is typically considered an adult beverage–not because children are incapable of drinking it responsibly, but because they’re uninterested in drinking it at all.  At 31, I myself don’t drink coffee for the same reason children don’t:  1) I have no reason to, and 2) I tried it once and I didn’t like the taste–it was way too bitter.  Those who do regularly drink coffee generally have a specific reason for starting.  Maybe they were cold and it was the only hot beverage available.  Maybe they were with a group of other coffee drinkers and wanted to fit in.  Maybe they had a long night ahead and needed something that would keep them awake.  But regardless of what got them started, most coffee drinkers do something that kids who have just taken a little sip could never do–they genuinely enjoy drinking coffee.

Coffee is what we call an acquired taste.  It’s not something people like naturally, but it’s natural to learn to like it.  Most of life’s worthwhile endeavors are like this.  Because it takes real effort to enjoy, reading Dostoyevsky may not provide the immediate gratification that reading the latest Dresden Files book does.  However, once the effort is made, the return is well worth it.  Whether its the edification that only comes through capital-A Art or the satisfaction that only comes with a job well done, there are some things in life that we need to learn to enjoy and work to appreciate.  One of the chief tasks of parenting is to encourage children to develop these kinds of tastes.  A child may prefer to stay home and play video games*, but good parents will nevertheless take them to see plays or visit nature preserves.  Sometimes they’ll love it & sometimes they’ll hate it, but regardless of the outcome, parents have a responsibility to lead their children into opportunities to live deeply whether they want to or not.

This is why it’s such a travesty that our churches have largely abandoned this responsibility to the youth in their charge.  With so many dying congregations in America, an irrational fear of irrelevance and a misguided drive to “save” the church has lead many Christians to try and bury their youth with instant gratification because that at least gets some immediate reaction.  Rather than doing what they’ve been given to do (baptizing and teaching everything Jesus taught), their resources must be dedicated to actions that bring about measurable results.  They gave their youth a sip of theology once, but the youth thought it was bitter.  For the marketeers, that simply means action taken, measurement recorded, time to move on and find something that “works.”  And for children, nothing gives a more immediate positive reaction than sugar.  Action taken, measurement recorded, let’s find more sugar delivery mechanisms.  The church cannot afford to be such a lazy parent.  She needs to teach her children to enjoy and appreciate the doctrine and theology that have been handed over to her so that she might, in turn, hand it over to them.  We have more important things to offer than sugar.  And if we don’t…  let’s face it, the world generally makes better candy than we do.

Unfortunately, the marketeers aren’t the only ones failing the youth.  Many Christians oppose that erroneous approach and even do so for the right reasons:  because Word & Sacrament are what build the church, they must be at the center.  However, too many of these anti-marketeers fall into the trap of over-correcting for the error.  If the marketeers teach anything, they generally teach a kind of self-help–a shallow subset of the Law which contains exhortation divorced from the Law’s full convicting power–and the Gospel is off in the corner somewhere.  In overreaction to this, the anti-marketeers decide that they will preach the Gospel accompanied only by those parts of the Law they can “trust” to fully convict–completely divorced from any part of Scripture they fear might be taken as exhortation or instruction.  Whereas the marketeers want all law to be third use, the anti-marketeers want it all to be second use, and both sides end up re-engineering the law rather than simply preaching all of it and letting the Holy Spirit decide how He will use it.

The sad consequence is that the anti-marketeers likewise fail to help those in their care acquire a taste for theology.  Despite the fact that they, of all people, should know better, they only have the sacraments and a subset of the Word at the center of their ministry.  They do not preach the whole counsel of God.  Oh, they preach sermons and hold Bible studies, but they’re so scared of “making a law out of the Gospel” that they seldom, if ever, actually instruct anyone to come.  On Pentecost, those who were cut to the quick by the law asked Peter what they should do.  Whereas Peter told them to repent and be baptized, the anti-marketeers would rather tell them “No!  You don’t do anything at all.  God does all the work.”  Meanwhile, the hearers reluctantly repent from their repentance, and then scratch their heads and wonder to themselves “God does all of… what… exactly?  Just send me to heaven when I die?  Why do I bother going to church again?”  The Gospel seems needed only because everyone is technically guilty of everything (the shallow understanding of original sin), and forgiveness is a check-box that was apparently marked off at Baptism.

The anti-marketeers certainly provide the divine service and Bible studies.  The youth are even welcome to attend.  However, they are not rigorously instructed, exhorted, encouraged, or even welcomed to attend.  The anti-marketeers set the table with a wonderful feast (minus some items that look too much like candy) and then simply stand there and hope the Holy Spirit makes the youth leave the candy shop to join them.  The youth, however, tasted theology once.  They found it bitter, and so they avoid it because nobody ever trained them otherwise.  They keep eating nothing but candy because their parent didn’t want to appear too legalistic by telling them to eat their vegetables.  They don’t have any particular animosity towards the church, but neither do they have any clue why they should be part of it.

Neither the marketeers nor the anti-marketeers have taken on the responsibility of training and disciplining the youth, and those studies showing the vast majority of young Christians leaving the Church in their late teens/early 20’s indicate the grim result.  By God’s grace, many blunder back into the Church later in life, but that does not take away our failure.  In the long-run, nobody is going to be particularly glad that they got to sing “Jesus is my boyfriend” music.  They’re not going to feel much attachment to those who provided pizza parties and gross-out games with an awkward prayer tacked onto the end.  Though immediate, such gratification is also short-lived.  If that’s all that’s keeping them in church, it’s only a matter of time until they move on.  Likewise, the youth aren’t receiving anything from those adults standing in a corner and occasionally casting a furtive glance in their direction hoping that the Holy Spirit will somehow lead them to spontaneously participate.

The very same youths will, however, build their lives on a foundation provided by those who taught them to understand what they believe and why they believe it–whether it comes from their pastor or an atheist college professor.  They will be attached to those who give them an opportunity to understand a liturgy that tangibly expresses continuity with something greater than themselves–whether it’s the chants & rituals of some activist group, or the chants and rituals of a communion of saints going back thousands of years.  They will keep coming back for forgiveness every week when they understand they actually need it every week–otherwise they’ll just keep going to whoever tells them they’re doing fine.

Coffee is not essential to life.  We can afford to let that taste go unacquired.  Theology, however, is essential.  Good parents will recognize this and train their children accordingly.  Those children whose mother is the Church deserve no less.

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*This is not to say that there aren’t video games that are legitimately Art (Silent Hill 2, Xenogears, I’m looking at you).  However, like most movies, most books, most television, etc, most video games are pretty shallow.

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2 Responses to Theology is an Acquired Taste

  1. Weslie Odom says:

    Great post! What constitutes “capital-A Art”?

  2. Matt says:

    Thanks, Weslie! Great question that I don’t have a good answer for, but here goes:

    “Capital-A Art” is the kind of art that crystallizes an abstract and/or transcendent value or concept in a physical medium (as opposed to merely triggering an emotion). Unlike advertising which tries to provoke a visceral response to catch your eye, or a pop song with a simple and pleasant hook to immediately catch your ear, you need to do some work pondering & reflecting to appreciate Art. It doesn’t just hand everything to you at once; it slowly unfolds it as you spend more time examining it. If it’s good, you usually find more there every time you look.

    I’m admittedly not a big Art person; when it comes to Art, I generally gravitate towards Literature. But based on how Literature works, the easiest way to find this kind of Art is to look at the classics that have stood the test of time. That’s not to say that there are no good modern/contemporary pieces, but time hasn’t really filtered them yet, and familiarity with the canon is the best way to get a feel for what’s worthwhile today.

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