The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith, catechesis and other wisdom on theology and ministry: An interview with Dr. Philip Tallon

Philip Tallon

Picture courtesy of philiptallon.com

 

I want to introduce you to Philip Tallon –– for two reasons.

First, Philip is one of the most perceptive and creative theologians I know. He works on heady topics like theological aesthetics and chairs the apologetics department at Houston Baptist University. He also served as a director of student ministries and writes about Spider-Man, Fight Club, and The Legend of Zelda.1 I know several people doing deep, scholarly theological work. I know several people who are comfortable talking to teenagers and discussing pop culture. I know very few who live in both of those worlds––and combine them––as well as Phil does. I think his wisdom and practical insights below will be worth your time, even if you never read the book or watch the videos we discuss. His reference to “pastor-as-king” and his discussion of “mankind” and gender-inclusive language were alone worth the whole interview for me.

The second reason I want to introduce you to Phil is because of the book and videos I just referenced. He recently put out a new resource called The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith. One of my greatest interests is to communicate deep theology (i.e. beyond superficial or flawed pop theology) in a way that normal people (i.e. not academics) can understand and apply it.2 The Absolute Basics is a great example of that. I think a lot of you would find it useful. Maybe on your own, but much better if you could use it with a group.

Here’s our interview about that resource and more…

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You’re so interesting to me for the variety of work you’re doing. Your other two books were an aesthetic theodicy and the philosophy of Sherlock Holmes. And you’re contributing essays to books like The Legend of Zelda and Theology and Tarantino and Theology. How does this project fit in with all your other interests? And how do those other interests affect how you approached this project? Would this be different if it weren’t created by someone who’s also thinking about aesthetic theodicy and if Jesus could save aliens?

It’s funny that you ask this question, because I’ve often felt like The Absolute Basics was a bit of a side project for me, but now I realize that it’s more deeply connected to my other projects than I thought.

In pointing to all these other projects (my book on aesthetic theodicy, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) I guess the abiding interest is how theology and the arts talk to one another. There’s nothing I like more than thinking about how the arts enrich theology and vice versa. This is one of the reasons why C. S. Lewis is such a fascinating figure for me and many people. He did all this work in what we might call “public theology” and then he also went and wrote amazing stories that speak to what it means to live in God’s world. The avid Lewis lover gets the pleasure of thinking about how the two modes of discourse differ and connect. Since a pastor (Jeff Hoy) mailed me a copy of The Great Divorce when I was in middle school, while I was away for the summer, I’ve been enchanted with imaginative Christian writing. If anyone hasn’t read The Great Divorce and has to choose between two books to buy, his or mine, the choice is an easy one. Lewis all the way.

But back to the subject at hand, most of my writing has been meta-level reflection on theology and the arts, not an attempt to do theology through the arts myself. The Absolute Basics was an attempt to dip my toe into that. Specifically, I wanted to lay out some Christian theology for beginners in a way that was unapologetically doctrinal (speaking from the church) but was also creative. In this regard I was helped greatly by finding an illustrator who was a serious Christian and could help translate the ideas into images. I really can’t speak too highly of Andrew Chandler, the artist who helped me. Without him, I don’t think the book & videos would have had the reach they’ve had so far. He was able to take these images I had on the page and translate them into visual form with deft lines and a deep understanding of the Gospel.

Again, this synthesis of word & image, of conceptuality & creativity, is what I’m most interested in academically. I think sometimes we’ve regarded concepts as primary and creativity as a secondary ornament. Images being the biblia pauperum (the Bible for the illiterate) as it were, with spoken or written theology occupying pride of place and the arts being a secondary medium for filling in the margins, but of course the New Testament offers us a more integrated model. Jesus is the “Word made flesh,” the “express Image” of God incarnate. Therefore images and the imagination are already bound up in God’s self-communication. It isn’t that Jesus tells us about God with his words. He is God in very flesh. When we look at Jesus we see God. And Jesus, of course, used word pictures to talk about the Kingdom of God. This isn’t an accident. Aesthetics is bound up in the business of theology.

absolute-basics

I love the medium: a set of videos rather than just a written catechism. What inspired that?

The idea was there from the beginning. I was working in a church and knew I wanted to make something for students to use in theological education. I love those RSA Animate videos that illustrate lectures by famous thinkers. So I wrote something that could be feasibly animated. Something short with a visual hook, but where the visual element helped to enable the viewer to see the doctrinal ideas clearly.

In this sense, The Absolute Basics is really properly “read” by watching the videos, rather than just reading the text, because the illustrations are meant to be their own kind of faithful visual systematics (though a very minor systematics), where the images themselves can carry the content and help us to see the beauty & truth of God’s work in the world.

I loved some of the analogies you used. They were so easy to apprehend—trying to reconcile with friends after you ruin their Thanksgiving meal… except you can’t cook, or waving a white flag as analogy for justification. In fact, in almost all of your videos, your explanation is heavy on analogy and then you say something like, “That’s what happens in Acts…” Is this just how your mind works, or did you choose that approach for a particular reason?

Well, yes, this is just how my mind works. And I suppose it is probably how most minds work. We’re sensate, incarnate beings. Eugene Peterson says something like “stories are verbal acts of hospitality.” Most preachers get this intuitively or explicitly, and try to hang big slabs of ideas on meat hooks of the imagination in their sermons. I know some philosophers who prefer pure argumentation with premises lined up in straight rows of valid reasoning. And I appreciate this too. But even philosophers will often use analogies or thought experiments to engage our intuitions to support the plausibility of the premises. So analogies are just part of the work of communicating ideas. Again, back to Jesus, the parables invite everyone into Jesus’ way of seeing the world with unmatched economy.

Many of the extended analogies I used have theological precedents. Of the two you mention, these are nothing more than examples used by other thinkers with a fresh coat of paint. The Thanksgiving analogy–you wreck the dinner but can’t cook a new one yourself–is basically ripped from the pages of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (man ought to repay the debt of honor but can’t) and repurposed for an age that isn’t well acquainted with the feudal honor system. The white flag image is stolen from N. T. Wright’s discussion of repentance, where he talks about how Josephus commanded the rebels that tried to kill him to “repent & believe” in language that is basically identical in NT Greek to Jesus’ same words. Basically just “surrender and follow me.”

Maybe one thing more should be said about the analogies. One of the most common bits of feedback I get on the book is “great analogies.” I take this as the best kind of compliment, because I think analogies are so fundamental to understanding anything. Our language is shot through with analogy and metaphor even when we don’t realize it. We talk about good people as being “upright” or “solid.” We talk about bad people as “crooked” or “slippery.” We think about things in connection with other things. Nothing is ever really comprehended on its own, conceptually. Even God has to be grasped through analogy (as Aquinas articulates). God is best known to us through the metaphorical language of Father, Son, and Spirit. These metaphors are truthful, they show us who God is, but they also connect to us by way of analogy.

Anyway, this all went into my approach (intuitively or otherwise). The rhythm of the book is just a constant movement between ideas and analogies for this reason. If, in the end, the readers & viewers remember the analogies exclusively, I’ll still consider that a success.

A few questions about what you’re doing here as it relates to catechesis… You have 16 questions and answers and memory verses, too. Is your intention that people memorize the catechism answers and also the memory verses? Why the emphasis on memory?

It was my intention, at the very least, to offer something that was memorizable, and encourage that in the book. Hopefully churches will use it in this way. It’s certainly doable. If people can memorize the many, many lyrics in all 47 songs in Hamilton they can handle my 16 questions and answers. I mean, it’s good to ingrain the words of scripture on our hearts and minds, and to be able to repeat formal theological language. It’s even scriptural, as we read in Deuteronomy 6. It’s also not as hard as we often think. Once you get rolling, memorization becomes easier. And, of course, memorization isn’t just about getting down the content, it’s an act of meditation on God’s revelation. We’re delighting in scripture & theology through memorization & repetition.

There’s also, of course, a necessary role that memorization plays in the life of the church. If we want to be certain that Christians have really learned what the church believes, then accurate memorization is a clear way of testing that. We live in an age, at least in the American church, that has poured more resources than ever before into Christian education, but I’m skeptical that we’ve produced better educated Christians as a result. Part of this is that we put all the emphasis on top-down teaching–clear communication, engaging activities, and so forth–but very little on bottom-up responsibility for learning. On cloudy days, this strikes me as a flaw in our conception of the role of the pastor. We’ve leaned hard into pastor-as-teacher, but while neglecting the authoritative element. Especially in Wesleyan circles, I think we’ve emphasized the pastor-as-prophet and pastor-as-priest, but overlooked pastor-as-king. A responsible reflection of Christ’s threefold office should at least reckon with the ways that pastors have a duty to ensure that new Christians have truly learned what Christians believe (not to mention how Christians live). What all this looks like in practice is fuzzy to me, and I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and critique the coach, but it seems that at least part of Christian education should include real examination of the theological literacy of church members and, if wanting, insist on some kind of basic standard. At least in doctrinal terms, some kind of catechesis members can faithfully repeat from memory seems to be a fitting expectation. I’m still working through all this, but my sense is that our bar for real learning (not to mention living) is far lower that of other great periods in the church.

You and I have talked before about the benefits and drawbacks of creating new catechisms. Seedbed alone has four different catechisms available. Part of me wishes we could all use just one so that we could have that language in common among a larger group of people. What’s the benefit, in your mind, of creating a new catechism rather than all rallying around one that’s already available?

Right now it does seem like “of the making of catechisms there will be no end.” There’s your revised version of an older Methodist one. And more on Seedbed. And newer ones in books like Key United Methodist Beliefs. And now mine. And yes, I agree that there is something seemingly contradictory about having a bunch of different catechisms. It’s a bit like having a bunch of different sets of traffic laws taught in different driver’s ed classes. Not that the various catechisms necessarily contradict, but it is odd to say, “Here are the basics” when in fact there are other lists with expanded or contracted sets of basic ideas. This was very much on my mind & heart when I wrote up my 16 Qs & As. With this in mind (and without trying to sound too defensive) I reviewed most of the other extant catechisms so that I was working with these other, wiser voices. Hopefully they fit together in the way that various “longer and shorter” catechisms work together, like Luther’s catechisms or the Westminster catechisms.

I was, at least, encouraged in reviewing the UMC Book of Discipline to note that the Articles of Religion already contain a complimentary plurality in that the articles of the Methodist Church and the articles of the Evangelical United Brethren were both included, rather than being unified into a single set. And of course Wesley himself edited the Church of England’s articles for Methodism. All of this suggests a healthy underlying logic, that these doctrinal statements are attempts to faithfully express God’s self-revelation in scripture, and by that they are judged, and are therefore open to revision and re-expression in the life of the church as the Spirit and wise judgment lead us.

All that being said, hopefully anyone using this catechism in the church would come to these other longer catechisms with greater understanding and appreciation.

You’re especially recommending this for use in confirmation. I know that was your initial use for it. What inspired you to create it for confirmation? Was there something you found missing or insufficient in any of the other confirmation curricula?

Indeed. This all started from a pastoral context. I was charged with the teaching part of the confirmation process and tried to figure out how to do it faithfully and well. There’s a lot of material out there, much of it good, some of it not-so-good, but nothing that I thought would work for my confirmands in our situation. Sociologically speaking, confirmation is still an important rite for many in the church. Most of the parents in our church thought it mattered that something happened with the students, and I wanted to make sure we seized the opportunity. I care about theological education and if I muffed this opportunity to invest the talents given to me I’d feel that as a failure.

But there was also a deeper, objective purpose. Confirmation is the moment when people reaffirm their baptismal vows and commit to discipleship. That’s huge. And a key part of that is knowing what Christians believe. (Here I should note that the confirmation process is about more than that. It is also about Christian living, but we’re talking about theological education mostly, so I’ll focus there.) I wanted to make sure that my confirmands really knew their stuff when they stood up and affirmed their belief in the Triune God. This was the reason behind the catechism & memory verses, but more distinctly, it was the driving reason behind the image-rich videos. We were catechizing 6th-graders, and I wanted to make sure I offered an act of “intellectual hospitality” to them in meeting them where they were, but also not leaving them where they were.

Most of the other resources (to my mind) were either a) theologically astute or b) fun & engaging, but weren’t both. Some resources were neither. (Though, of course, nothing in Seedbed’s catalog would ever fail to be theologically astute.) Given the response I’ve gotten from other youth leaders, it seems I’m not alone in wanting something more than what was on offer for students especially. In this regard, I’ve been fortunate to have accidentally-yet-providentially stumbled on a widespread need. And that need seems to go beyond youth ministry, as there seem to be many adults who are looking for something that is unapologetically doctrinal while also being engaging and accessible.

Saying all of this puts my temperamental self-effacement on edge, because it sounds to my own ears a bit like bragging. To put my nerves at ease, I will add that I never intended to put my work in the conversation for fundamental Christian education, but the needs of ministry at the time seemed to call for it, and a publisher wanted it, and the reports I’ve gotten suggest that it’s been a help to ministers in the field. Hopefully God approves as well. (This also sounds kind of braggy in a faux-humble way.)

You used the NIV translation for your Scripture passages. That includes the use of “mankind” in some passages, like the ones you use for creation. I know some people have a problem with “mankind” not being gender inclusive. Any reason you chose to stick with that translation?

I used the NIV because it is a common translation, and, although imperfect, as all translations are, it is clear and yet not too wooden. It works well enough, and it was also the version in our church’s pews. I also have some specific gripes (probably uncharitable) against some other translations that have denominationally-unhelpful theological underpinnings or are hard to memorize. Specifically, I didn’t want to use the ESV because the Study Bible version reiterates a lot of Calvinist theology in the notes. So I didn’t want to initiate students into that version. This is where the (perhaps) uncharitable bit comes in. But maybe not. Calvinism is, in my view, a seriously flawed theological tradition that is fundamentally opposed to the core of Wesleyan teaching. Other versions just don’t flow nicely for memorization, such as the NASB or the CEB. I strongly considered the NRSV. The KJV is a work of beauty, but is so removed from common language that it requires additional ‘translation,’ which is a problem for contemporary church use.

Regarding traditional gendered language, I have no quibble at all. In this regard, the NIV’s use of “mankind” is a strength, one could argue. First off, gendered usage reflects more closely the original Greek. Secondly, words like “mankind” or “man” (referring to humans) are just part of standard English usage. I don’t tend to use “man” or “mankind” in my own writing, but I don’t object to their usage, and I don’t think we need to exile the word to the dustbin. “Mankind,” properly understood, refers to man and woman inclusively. Now that I say this, I’m regretting my own capitulation to standard academic usage by not using the term more. Further, outside of academic circles, I’ve rarely met anyone who raises the issue. So I don’t think it’s a relevant pastoral issue. At least, it hasn’t been one for me.

So as not to end answering this question on a rant, I’ll say that I am at least philosophically committed to preserving traditional language. Returning to the KJV, there is something that is lost, I reckon, in losing the formal addresses (“Thou,” “Thy,” etc.). Looking back at the distance between our common language and the variety and beauty of older English expression makes me wish that we had done more in the past to preserve it. I suppose this suggests I should have opted for the KJV as my translation of choice (or something akin), but again, one wants scripture to speak clearly now, and so as a pastor, using such an old translation seems imprudent. These are the tensions one lives with.

I’m curious, what did you learn from doing this project?

Thank you for asking this question. It’s an easy question to answer, though with a harder resultant implication. There are two key things I learned in the process. One is that, in working with confirmands, we had not dedicated nearly enough time to the process. The default schedule was only 8 weeks. Even covering what I took to be the basics of theology requires, in my view, at least double that. Secondly, I focused on doctrine (as befits an academic egghead), but a faithful confirmation process needs to attend as much to Christian living. This is a gap in my work. There really should be a second part to The Absolute Basics focusing on spiritual disciplines, Christian morality, and so forth. Not to mention there’s a need to talk about Methodism specifically, its history and distinctions, which my work largely overlooks. Perhaps we’ll be able to create some supplementary materials in the future, but until then I hope that anyone using the material in churches will be able to make up for the deficiency.

Have you heard any good stories from people who are using this yet? Anything that surprised you from how you expected it to be used?

I’ve been flattered by the good feedback. Many folks are using it much like I have, for confirmation mostly. But I’ve also heard it is used for adult education classes or in new member initiation. The reality is that most churchgoers really don’t have much of a theological grounding, so it seems to be a help in a range of contexts. Probably the most unexpected use was its adoption in a systematic theology class at HBU (not taught by me). The professor used it to get all his students up to speed with basic doctrine in the first few weeks before they dove into heavier material. This was a bit surprising because the book looks so unassuming. It has cartoons on the cover and throughout. I never expected the book to be on a college syllabus. But it seems to be helpful to the students. Honestly, I never expected this to go much beyond confirmation class. It’s a helpful reminder, I suppose, that sometimes the best things you do aren’t the things you expect to have an impact.

I conducted this interview in association with broader questions I’m asking this year related to theology and catechesis. Thanks to the Louisville Institute and their Pastoral Study Program for grant support that has enabled this work.

 

I hope you enjoyed this interview. Now two things:

1 — Go to Seedbed and check out The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith. You can see the catechism, a book preview, the first two videos in the series, and several leaders’ guides.

2 — Click here to subscribe for my blog updates. My goal is to provide thoughtful articles on theology and ministry and to introduce you to others who are doing the same.

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  1. That’s a small sample. See his CV for more, or to see where you can find those articles.
  2. As part of a grant I received through the Louisville Institute’s Pastoral Study Project, I’m having several conversations this year with people who are doing this kind of work––work I call catechesis.

2 thoughts on “The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith, catechesis and other wisdom on theology and ministry: An interview with Dr. Philip Tallon

  1. Those are good solid catechesis questions. I haven’t seen the video samples yet, but what strikes me as immediately necessary is to tie each question to some part of the Biblical narrative in addition to a Bible Verse.

  2. Pingback: "Better to lose one part of your body than the whole body go to hell" — Church discipline, pastoral authority, and schism

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