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Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 12.15.04 PMI’m a little envious when my friends start swapping stories about their Catholic schooling. There are common, particularly Catholic experiences shared among students at parochial schools whether they grow up in New Jersey, St. Louis, or Seattle. I’ll hear about exactly how beholden to textual criticism the high-school theology teachers were, or how many church documents had to be read for class, or how few. Such experiences have to do with curriculum, not just with culture. I can reminisce with my Evangelical peers over the music or novels or popular theology that loomed large over the subculture when I was in middle school (in this case: Jars of Clay, Left Behind, and I Kissed Dating Goodbye), but it’s much rarer that we talk about learning the creeds or confessions. I don’t know whether to attribute this to the confessional diversity within evangelicalism, to the relative recency of models of Evangelical schooling, or to the fact that I went to a public high school and missed out on a theology class at that level.

The great wave of Presbyterian pedagogy, which gathered strength from Scotland and Ulster and spilled down the Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia to the Virginia backcountry where my ancestors settled, had lost force out by the time it got to me. In Sunday School, I had to memorize portions of the Shorter Catechism, but I got off easy compared to earlier generations. Lifelong recall of the Reformed confessions is one of the characteristics Robertson Davies assigns to elderly Canadian schoolteacher Dunstan Ramsey in the Deptford novels: “The words of the Westminster Confession, painstakingly learned by heart as a necessity of Presbyterian boyhood, still seemed, after many wanderings, to have have the ring of indisputable authority.” Here’s how James Leyburn describes colonial American Presbyterian culture in The Scotch-Irish: A Social History:

Training of the young in the fundamentals of the faith had been arduous and conscientious from the time of John Knox. The Shorter Catechism must be memorized by every member of the family; the Larger Catechism, with its scriptural “proofs,” was sometimes memorized and was generally studied; many families owned copies of the Confession of Faith and knew it thoroughly.

I was examined by my church’s Session before I could take communion, as a matter of course, but the old practice of assigning tokens for admission to the Lord’s Supper had disappeared centuries ago. In those days, the church elders would have been able to test adult congregants periodically on their knowledge of church doctrine.

I don’t know to what degree the so-called New Calvinism will succeed in reviving the old spirit of Reformed education. But Mark Oppenheimer’s recent New York Times article on the movement mentions that the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is the only “unapologetically Calvinist” denomination. A church of that denomination happened to run my middle school, which reminded me of a particularly Calvinist episode in our sixth-grade Church history class. As sixth-graders, we had to re-enact the predestination debate between Calvinists and Arminians. Did God create every human soul knowing whether it was destined for heaven or hell, as the strict Calvinists claimed? Or did the free will of the created beings have some role to play? We dutifully turned to Paul’s letters and copied out the classic proof texts.

I got the general impression that we were supposed to take the Calvinist side more seriously. What was interesting, though, was that families from a nearby Southern Baptist elementary school often sent their students to the PCA middle school, which is how I first encountered self-described Arminians. At age thirteen, I was surprised that anyone would own up to the label, just as I was surprised when I got to public school and found that anyone besides my grandparents would own up to voting for Bill Clinton. But the Arminians were there, and I couldn’t discern any clear deficiencies in them. So the debate never came to a satisfactory conclusion, but it was an a good early lesson for me in the difficulty of exegesis and theological reasoning. I wish the experience were a more common one.

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