The news of the gospel allies teaming up with Tim Keller to produce a catechism is a target too big to miss. Given the urban hipster brand of TKNY, one can only wonder if the catechism (which is supposed to include material from the older catechisms) will have Q&A’s like this:
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him hedonistically, especially in the city.
Q. How does God execute his decrees?
A. God executes his decrees in the works of creation, providence, and urbanism.
You get the point.
Keller’s own explanation for the import of catechesis, however, did not produce laughs but did cause some head scratching. He begins with a Jeremiah-like lament:
The church in Western culture today is experiencing a crisis of holiness. To be holy is to be “set apart,” different, living life according to God’s Word and story, not according to the stories that the world tells us are the meaning of life.
This is a curious way to begin for someone whose church has been such a booster of a city not exactly known for its restraint and modesty. If you wanted to be holy, you might pick a different city — say, Toledo — in which to live and minister. Granted, New Yorkers also need to be holy. But the pro-city rhetoric of Keller and Redeemer PCA has not echoed Tertullian, as in what has Jerusalem to do with Athens? Instead, the refrain has been more like how can Athens embody Jerusalem.
When Keller turns to his brief for catechesis he invokes the sort of experiential piety that Old Lifers have long associated with New Life Presbyterianism.
Catechesis is an intense way of doing instruction. The catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts in deep, encouraging meditation on truth. It also holds students more accountable to master the material than do other forms of education.
Truth be told, catechesis can actually be dull, tedious, and hard. And the results of mastering the doctrines taught in the answers will not necessarily be immediate. If you carry around the truths long enough, you may begin to see their significance. But just like the process of learning the difference between the nominative and accusative cases in Greek grammar seems pedantic until the student goes farther in reading and even writing (as is the case with grammar instruction more generally), so to the doctrinal grammar of the catechism will likely strike many students as boring. The new case for catechesis really should set expectations at the right level.
Keller appeals to another warm and fuzzy reason for catechesis when he writes:
Catechesis is also different from listening to a sermon or lecture—or reading a book—in that it is deeply communal and participatory. The practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.
Again, I wonder if Keller is getting catechumens’ hopes unrealistically up. Communal and participatory is not what comes to mind when I think of taking out my Shorter Catechism pocket cards while I was out walking and memorizing the catechism. “Deeply” communal and participatory produces a giggle. Of course, catechesis done in a certain environment could turn out to be communal and participatory. But the catechism itself won’t do this. It will require a pastor, elders, parents and teachers creating settings that may have such qualities.
And if that’s the case, if the deeply communal nature of catechesis depends more on the environment than the catechism itself, then I sure hope the gospel allies are going to provide a manual that describes wall colors, carpeting or wood floor covering, lighting options, room temperatures (radiators or forced air?), seating arrangements, and which cookies are best dunked in milk to go with the topic of baptism. Call it New Measures Catechesis (and hear John Williamson Nevin’s bones rattling around in his grave).