“Making something of the world:” Doctrine in motion

If there’s anything enviable about the younger generations today it’s that they have such a wide selection of Star Wars toys to play with.

Not long ago I went to a major department store and I was blown away by just the sheer volume of Star Wars merchandise—which had apparently spilled over from the toy aisles into literally everywhere else.  Among the selection are, of course, LEGO’s.  Here’s where I have to rant a little.  See, when I was a kid, there was no such thing as Star Wars LEGO’s. They didn’t come in pre-packaged sets like they do today, or at least not with a Star Wars theme.  No; they came in buckets of generically-shaped primary-color LEGO sets.  So my X-Wing was bright red and my TIE Fighters had to have rainbow-colored solar panels. And forget about instructions; I had to do it all myself.  I used to watch the space battle scenes from Return of the Jedi (on VHS, mind you) so I could get the right specifications of the A-Wing and B-Wing spacecraft.

Of course, all that nerdiness cultivated a strange sort of productivity and ingenuity.  You’d think that after all that I might have developed into something like a computer programmer or an engineer or at least the sort of person who could change his own oil.

Nah.

FAITH LIKE A CHILD

For all my sarcasm, here, you can’t really go back again.  At least not easily.  In David Brooks’ recent bestseller The Social Animal, he takes time to explain how the brain goes through various stages of development and how that affects our learning processes and social interactions.  He talks about Rob who tries to join his son Harold as he plays action figures with his friends:

“After about twenty minutes…Rob got the urge to join in….This was a big mistake.  It was roughly the equivalent of a normal human being grabbing a basketball and inviting himself to play a pickup game with the Los Angeles Lakers….[The children’s] imaginations danced while his plodded.  They saw good and evil while he saw plastic and metal.  After five minutes, their emotional intensity produced a dull ache in the back of his head.  He was exhausted trying to keep up.”[1]

I don’t have kids, but I know how awkward it can be for an adult to try and re-enter the world of childhood.  Brooks explains that this has to do with the fact that children don’t think the same way that adults do:

“…the game Harold and his buddies were playing relied on a different way of thinking, what [a psychologist named Emil Bruner] calls the ‘narrative mode.’ Harold and his buddies had now become a team of farmers on a ranch.  They had started doing things on it—riding, roping, building, and playing.  As stories grew and evolved, it became clear what made sense and what didn’t make sense within the line of the story.”[2]

Recently it’s occurred to me that the reason many people don’t like “doctrine” or “theology” is not because they find it dry or scholastic (though that may be an objection for some, as we addressed a bit yesterday), but because they struggle to understand how the various pieces and beliefs can fit together to form a cohesive whole—a story that explains, “what’s it all mean?”

We might therefore see “doctrine” as a set of LEGO’s.  If we think too much like “grown-ups,” we might miss the simple joy in putting the pieces together into something meaningful.  I don’t mean to suggest that doctrine is all about creativity—after all, there are some ideas that are true and others that are just plain wrong.  But when I read the Scriptures I find that there is a greater sense of connectedness to these ideas than we might first realize.

Doctrine, then, helps us “make something” of the world.[3]  By “make something” we mean this in two ways.  First, we “make something” of the world in the sense that we think through and make sense of it.  Second, we “make something” of the world in the sense that we allow our new understanding to propel us forward, that we might meaningfully contribute to the world as creators and agents of God’s kingdom.

This seems to be at the heart of what Paul says to Timothy in his letter to this young pastor:

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

We can see here that Paul sees Scripture (and, by extension, the doctrines derived from it) as having a role in helping God’s people “make something” of the world.  First, because Scripture teaches, reproofs, and corrects, it shapes our intellectual understanding of how the world works and God’s role in it.  Second, doctrine helps us “make something” of the world in that it “trains” us “in righteousness,” so that we “may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

If we put these two things together, we see that doctrine isn’t merely about religious education.  Doctrine isn’t about a lecture hall; it’s about learning to…well, to “play” again—to  have “faith like a child” so that our imaginations might be simultaneously shaped by God’s master story even as we are set free to animate that story in our neighborhoods and families and workplaces and every other inch of creation that belongs to God.

 

FROM DISNEY TO DOCTRINE

What might this look like, at least on a practical, day-to-day level?  Well, since many of you folks have families, it might mean re-learning to enter the imagination of your children.  Any of you have little girls?  They’re probably still running around the house singing “Let it go…let it go…” until you want to pull your hair out.  But what does this mean, really?  Let’s return for a second to our “three big questions” from earlier:

  • What is the world like?
  • What should the world be like?
  • How can the world be set right?

Do you think that when Elsa—the main character from Frozen—shrugs off her restrictive upbringing to build her own castle, that this says anything about these three questions?  Elsa is basically looking at these questions and saying:

  • “The world is full of rules”
  • “True happiness comes from freedom”
  • “I can attain this happiness if I build my own castle out away from everyone”

And how does that go for Elsa?  How does that impact Anna?  How are things finally set right—what makes Elsa and Anna live happily ever after?

Those latter questions aren’t “Christianese.”  But you’re also not just talking about a Disney movie, either.  If you talk about these kinds of questions with your eight-year-old, you’re having a conversation about doctrine, about belief.  With enough practice, you can slowly learn to connect and compare the way that the world of Disney compares with the doctrines of the Bible.  All fairy tales, for example, elevate the role of self-sacrifice (which is a Christian virtue), though many also emphasize the need to “wish upon a star” and elevate personal happiness as a supreme virtue (which may clash with Christian understandings of sin and the need for a Savior).

I realize this isn’t immediately easy, but it doesn’t take a graduate degree either.  Doctrine helps us “make something” of our world, and it can help shape future generations as well.

 

[1] David Brooks, The Social Animal, p. 54-5.

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] I’m borrowing this two-pronged metaphor from Andy Crouch’s recent book Culture Making.

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