Stick with the Basics: On Study and Learning

Once in a Bible study at church, a guy said something that has become paradigmatic for me: he said that in following Jesus, we always have to stick to the basics. We have to continually revisit the basics of the faith so that we do not fall like a massive tree with no roots. Sticking to the basics does not keep you from taking advanced courses in theology, but losing the basics of the gospel often comes when we forget simple human realities, let alone basic Christian realities. I see this a lot as I have traveled and lived overseas: cross-cultural information in books and on the internet helps, but I basically have to throw all that out and start over again when I deal with real people. Even though I have to throw it out, I get to go pick through the garbage when I get ready for the next go round.

I studied Intercultural Studies when I was at Biola University. There were courses like Interpersonal and Intercultural Adjustment, Cultural Anthropology, Village and Tribal Cultures, and other courses teaching how to bridge cultural gaps and make friends to share the gospel. I learned about time versus event orientation, dichotomostic versus holistic thinking, and crisis versus non-crisis orientation. Some people want everything to be ON TIME, whereas others take more or less time as the situation permits. Some people want life in black and white categories, while others try to consider how all things run together. Some people try to foresee and prevent problems, while others save relational strain by taking a relaxed approach to everything. Cramming all these things into my head helped me build a sort of ship with which to navigate the stormy seas of cross-cultural living, but the building of the ship is only the first part in a sequence of instructive disasters.

What I have found is that the first storm sweeps me off the deck of the ship and I nearly drown in the waves — all while watching the ship dash itself upon the rocks. I pick up some bit from the wreckage that helps me float to shore and then I try again. “Saving face” is supposed to be important in Korea, but if I approach every interaction worried that I will horribly offend someone, I will never get anything done. When I got fired after my first week at the job that brought me to Korea, I had to assess what might have gone wrong. The piece of broken ship that I clung to was the idea that Korean leadership is not likely to say precisely X, Y, and Z about what went wrong, so I just tried to negotiate my way to an end of the story that hurt a bit less. It seems that the main problem was that I did not have the kind of personality the director envisioned for a kindergarten teacher. My willingness to negotiate through the mediation of the head English teacher and not storm into the director’s office seems to have helped everybody save face: the director’s decision was visibly final (decisive leadership!), but my continued pushing may have led to a better severance arrangement than was initially offered (lemons to lemonade!). There is no substitute for being awake to reality, no matter what cultural knowledge I might have.

Being dashed upon the rocks is never pleasant, but it is necessary to build a new ship after the first one is dashed upon the rocks. Although shipbuilding changes over time, having built one ship makes it faster to build a new one and provides a framework to organize new experience. When I looked for a new job in Korea, I applied all of my newfound cross-cultural expertise to my job hunt. After I found a new job, then I learned about the essential differences between working for a large school with budgetary flexibility and working for a small school teetering on the edge of financial disaster. I heard stories from friends whose schools were going under and several foreign teachers’ contracts were finishing with severance pay due to all of them at the same time. In my own case, working for a small school meant that contract renewal time got ticklish and resulted in the school canceling my renewed contract and changing their kind of school so that they did not have to keep an expensive foreign teacher. My friends and I ultimately made out okay and we were able to pay off debt and save money. Whether my ship broke on the rocks again or merely ran aground, the main benefit I derived from prior education was improved resourcefulness and resiliency.

Applying all of my Korea experiences to living out the gospel, there is just one gospel that came from Jesus Christ, but there are a thousand ways to be dashed upon the rocks. In the area of theological views alone, there are many competing valid theories about how God works out salvation, not to mention all the shades and gradations of heresy that confuse the matter even further. At present, one of the few things I can definitively say about my own views is that I am not a John Calvin fanboy. Be that as it may, I am confident about various things like the badness of sin, the goodness of good works, the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross, and the responsibility laid upon humans to respond to the offer of salvation. I am confident that the Bible is worth reading and the Church worth sticking to. Every time Christians are lost in betrayal by a leader, heavy persecution, or simple apathy, perhaps something could have been done. Although they were dashed upon the rocks and they gave up or circumstances proved overwhelming, those who can must stick with the basics so that they do not lose the essential skills for keeping the faith.

There is always some new twist that forces Christians to adapt or sink in their complacency. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and Caesar wanted to know more about Jesus, were they supposed to demand that they be persecuted? When printing presses in Europe started churning out Bibles, what should have been done to prevent heresy? When denominations and theological lines in the sand multiply, what should modern Protestants do? To stick with the basics is a behavioral response rather than an intellectual answer, but some questions cannot draw a universally acceptable final answer. C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity at a basic level and Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity at an advanced level both indicate the basics that all Christians can stick to. Denominations are important and theological differences reflect spiritual dissonance, but stick to the basics. A lot of faith dies in the rarefied atmosphere of theological libraries, but seminarians who remember the basics do not forget to bring oxygen tanks.

  • Stanley_M

    The basics are important. In addition to biblical basics there are also the basics with respect to psychological components. Christian practice.

    Throughout the New Testament there is an esoteric message for those with the eyes to see. Much of it has to do with awakening… heightening awareness of the Holy Spirit, awareness of the existential challenge, remembrance of conscience, right action, morality.

    This spiritual warfare or vigilance is critical to the life of any serious aspirant to the Christian life. A very basic part of the awakening process is self-remembering. Cultivating the capacity to “watch” the self in an objective and impartial way in the course of day-to-day living… so one can become more aware of the subtle masking that goes on, the shifts of personality, the infinite ways we deceive ourselves and short change Christ.

    In the normal state contrary to the views of the more optimistic end of modern psychology, people do not in fact have a central “I” although they flatter themselves in believing that they do. We have many small “I’s” that constantly come and go in the babylon of self, as witnessed by the subtle underlying shifts in us… moods, emotions, sexual impulses and the constant automatic production of thoughts that “happen” automatically in response to stimulus of one sort or another. This is the cauldron of the divided self.

    As Christians we don’t seek unity as a Buddhist might through specific techniques, because Christ is our unity… but we have to assist in the work of salvation. This is why there is the call to awaken, gird our loins, fight the fight… metaphors for the spiritual warfare in which we must engage in order to open the path for the fuller expression of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the dawning of greater inner unity… so that when we say “I” it really does signify a fully unified response.

    Without this inner discipline Christians risk walking down paths of subjective identification with temporal concerns… in the form of conservative political agendas for example. Much of this type of activity is in tension with that which is truly Christ centered and can in some cases actually divide us spiritually from the work to which we are called as Christians due to the demands of politics, ego, opinion, ideology etc.

    Getting back to basics is essential in an American “church” (I use the term in the most generic sense) that has used the vehicle of the gospel to aggrandize in the form of mega churches, prosperity so-called gospel, TV fame-and-fleecing ministries and many other aberrant abuses of the gospel. Tragically much of this has been “normalized” to the degree that many Christians don’t even recognize it as dysfunctional.

    In America there is a tremendous need for a return to basics, for an awakening in the spirit and for a separating out of that which is spiritual from that which is temporal. This was a point Jesus continually drove home in his teaching as he drew his listeners back to a central critical truth for the believer… ‘in this world… but not of it.’