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Teaching Our Faith to the Next Generation

The Key to Generational Transmission: The Hebrews
Howe Whitman Jr.

"Where are the Hittites?

Why does no one find it remarkable that in most world cities today there are Jews but not one single Hittite, even though the Hittites had a great flourishing civilization while the Jews nearby were a weak and obscure people?

When one meets a Jew in New York or New Orleans or Paris or Melbourne, it is remarkable that no one considers the event remarkable. What are they doing here? But it is even more remarkable to wonder, if there are Jews here, why are there not Hittites here?

Where are the Hittites? Show me one Hittite in New York City."

Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle (New York, 1984).

What a great question! How do you explain the persistence of the Jewish people for millennia? Above all, it is God's faithfulness to his covenant promises to his chosen people.

But how? How have the Jewish people transmitted their culture, the laws and teachings, and their way of worshiping God to generation after generation? If you are interested in the problem of generational transmission, we should look to the Hebrews.

How do we today think about generational transmission? Are we American Christians doing a good job? Are we deliberate about inculcating not just ideas, but ways of living, practices, habits that are a part of historic orthodox Christian faith and practice to our children?

With the best data we have about American youth and what they believe and practice, the answer is, on average, "no." Notre Dame sociologist, Christian Smith, conducted a landmark study to understand and describe the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. The results are published in a book entitled Soul Searching, 2005. Smith and his colleagues found that the prevailing religion of American teenagers could best be described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. In other words, God wants me to be good, nice, and fair; religion should make my life better and make me a better person; God created the world, but is not intimately involved in it.

This is not Christianity. The prevailing belief system does not equip young people to live out the gospel and our faith. When you look at Daniel in the Old Testament or at people like William Wilberforce, these were people who were thoroughly grounded in biblical thinking, worshiping and living, and who were prepared to live that way in the midst of a pervasive culture around them that was totally different and at times hostile to their way of thinking and living.

So, how do we do that? How do we give our children an education that is not only training them well academically, but also spiritually? I believe that if we want to do a better job of training and equipping our children, then we should look at how the Hebrews did it. In Deuteronomy 6, there is a key passage explaining the Hebrew approach to generational transmission.

That passage in Deuteronomy comes at a key moment in the history of Israel. The generation that had been delivered from Egypt was about to pass away. They had experienced the Red Sea, the manna, the quail, and the water from the rock, being led by the cloud by day and the fire by night. But this next generation had not experienced those things. And for the next generation, these things would be even more remote. Deuteronomy, meaning "second law", rereads the commandments of God, instilling them into the Israelites when they enter the land when his generation is gone.

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."Deuteronomy 6:4-9

This passage describes a process of inscribing the words of God and the worship of God onto the hearts of our children through teaching and talking to them throughout the day, from morning when we get up, while we walk along the road, when we come back through the gate, at mealtime, and when we lie back down to go to sleep.

This is not complicated. It involves talking and teaching and showing our children how to live, to think, and to interact in a way that reverences and honors God. If you are a parent, you are your children's primary influence, by far. Your church is next. Their time at school is also formative. Students spend 35 hours a week at school, 35 weeks per year, year after year. This sheer amount of time makes school extraordinarily influential in their formation. There is no such thing as a neutral educational environment. Every school environment is formative, and has purposes and outcomes, whether intentional or accidental, that have a shaping influence on students.

Our school seeks to be in partnership with parents in this task of generational transmission. We seek to deliberately cultivate habits of study and habits of life that will help these children to know and honor and serve God faithfully and effectively all the days of their life.

Today is the day to dedicate ourselves as parents and as educators to loving God with all of our hearts, soul and strength, and to teaching and showing and training our children to do the same. We are not adequate to the task. We need to ask God to be at work in our children's lives. We need God to be at work in our homes, our churches and at this school. We need to come together, as a community, and pray about these things without ceasing; as one body, in Christ, for the glory of God.