The Self-Serving Conventional Wisdom of the Incurious Laity

In which conventional wisdom is suspected to smoothly glove a muscled hand at the throat: a constructed justification for hoarding knowledge as power.

Are the Bible-blogging church-type educators among my readers reading Anastasia? And if not, why not?

It’s the same way I feel when people at church assure me that no one is interested in learning theology. My question is always the same. Has anyone tried it? Did we run a class like the one I’m proposing and had it flop?

The answer is no. No one has tried it because everyone already *knows* it isn’t going to work.

Oddly enough, the people telling me this are invariably interested. I would love it, they say. But no one else would.

This means my experience of people is exactly contrary to the received wisdom. I get cornered in the parish hall for conversations about theology—when people aren’t too afraid of me, I have to add—on a fairly regular basis. My experience is that people want to know these things. They just don’t know where to start.

Last week’s raft of graduates included a handful of students whom I had had together in “Introduction to the Old Testament.” During one session, as a result of a particular student’s deft handling of Jonathan Culler, they had an amazing conversation about the fact that many seeming concrete things—sexuality, the middle class, race—are invented social constructs. They discovered that, if “everyone knows” something to be true or real, then that thing especially needs to be pried up and dragged to the middle of the floor where the cat can sniff it. All conventional wisdom invites a hermeneutic of suspicion.

And finally—and this is why I am so excited about Anastasia’s post—these students aimed that insight at the “conventional wisdom” about Teh Seminary Book-Larnin’: “everybody knows” that our congregations don’t really want to hear about all thish-yere stuff we learn in these rooms. Except, when you ask around, lots and lots of us have experienced adult learners in the church as intellectually curious and patient of new ideas.

So: whose interests are served by this myth of the incurious laity? Some group who would be inconvenienced by an intelligent, knowledge-hungry mob of adult learners? Who prefer the unidirectional dispensing of approved perspectives to the unpredictable results of informed collaborative construction? Until such a group can be identified, we can assign them some meaningless cipher as a label; let’s just call them, floverly-controlling, flower-grasping, flinsecure fleaders in the flurch.

Example: I recall a student who dismissed all documentary hypotheses of the Pentateuch as “elitist.” He argued that all such inquiry was a fine “brain exercise” for those who enjoy higher education, but that there was no way he was going to inflict it on the “general public” in his care because they would only be “confused” and “outraged.” Clearly, he saw it as part of his ministry to

  1. enjoy the power bestowed upon him by the structures of accredited higher education and ordination, and to
  2. exercise that power to paternalistically keep the lay people in his care ignorant of such facts he judged they might initially experience as disorienting.

In other words, he didn’t see that he embodied the elitism he decried, and that he depends on that not-seeing to justify his exercise of paternalistic power. Seminary educators will recognize this stance as common. The “conventional wisdom of the incurious laity” serves the interest of those who see knowledge and power as a scarce resource to be hoarded among an elite, empowered ruling class. To challenge that conventional wisdom may be to challenge an oligarchical model of clergy and power. “The facts will set you free.”

[The Self-Serving Conventional Wisdom of the Incurious Laity was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/05/20. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

3 Responses

  1. Confused and Outraged is partly a function of the skill and tact of the teacher, even in dicey situations. My goal is not to explain the Hypothesis but to help people better understand the bible. For example, recognizing two sources, even without getting into the technical details, is indispensable for understanding Gen 1-2.

  2. Brooke, great post!

    My experience has been that most people tend to want to understand their bible better (however, there is always a segment of the church that is unwilling to work out their theology, which is less indicative of their education and more about their work ethic).

    The church I pastor at consists of mostly blue-colored workers. There are few parishioners that have a college degree, but they are several who are passionate about learning. My church likes us (the two pastors) to take our time and go slowly through the material. I have been taking a class through the book of Proverbs, and our class is about to finish its second year (we are in chpt 14). I will probably be finished with the book in another two years.

    I see no reason why we can’t provide more for our parishioners than the cookie cutter, cut n’ paste material put out by the various Christian publishing houses.

    Just my $.02

  3. Hi! Thanks for the link. I love your post and I’m working on one in response.

    I think the ideas of vocation and giftedness are indispensable here. I am often cut off at the knees when I volunteer to teach in the parish, for precisely this reason. I am told no one wants to know what I have to say. It is assumed that I will confuse and upset and I think the clergy do want to maintain some measure of control over the theological content of what is presented in the parish.

    That doesn’t take into account–or really give me any credit for–my ability to connect with people. I don’t honestly do that well when I’m reading from a script prepared as part of a published curriculum. But if I can take the time to just share with people what I know in ways that may help them understand or see things they didn’t see before in scripture and in the liturgy, it comes across. That’s what teaching is about and it’s what i think I’m gifted for. I don’t think I’m the only person who is gifted that way. I do know, though, that it’s really difficult for me to find a place to exercise that gift in most churches.

    I don’t have a vocation to the priesthood or to the diaconate. I might be a catechist, though, if there were any such thing in my church.

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