Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

11/17 2017

Did We Really Do Things Better Back Then?

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On the Field

I got to the soccer field five minutes before the end of practice, in time to hear the closing strains of a plaid-skirted mother’s rant to her friend about the way they teach math these days: “So I said, why are you beginning with centimeters? How hard is it to carry the ones?” (I’m just reporting what I heard, folks, not trying to make sense of it.)

At first annoyed—get over it—I then dropped my stone and let it roll away, for I’ll admit it: I do the same thing. They did everything better when we were young.

In the Classroom

Take teaching a kid to play the saxophone.

My seventh-grade son plays the professional model saxophone my parents bought for me my senior year in high school, when they thought I was going to college to study music. That purchase was a few months before God started messing with my life, eventually inviting me to become a preacher. I played that saxophone for nine months; my mom thinks God still owes her $2,000.

But now my son plays the instrument. And I can’t believe how they’re teaching him to play. First, all the other saxophonists hold their horns between their legs, but I won’t let him. My son is going to position the thing to the side of his body, the right way—the way I was taught.

And don’t they teach kids to speak rhythms anymore? When I try to help him with a tricky rhythm, I say, “Speak it with me: 1, trip-l-et, 3-&, 4—da, one …

And he looks at me like it’s time to chat with his mother about my fitness for fatherhood.

The stone I drop hits my sore toe and tumbles a few feet away.

And in the Church Too

And we do the same thing in the church too, don’t we? It’s not just the schools that used to do it better.

I recently saw an article skipping through the fields of Facebook entitled, “Hymnals Are Back to Stay,” and all the people I know who know that singing out of hymnals is the right way to do it—the way they did it back when people still came to church—were smiley-emoji-ing the heck out of the comments section.

None of us, of course, can remember the time when hymnals were the new technology, and I can only imagine what the nostalgia-prone set was saying then. It might have gone something like this: “Remember when we all used to have the same seven hymns memorized, and we sang them over and over again? How unfortunate for the kids these days—they’ll have to sing something new almost every week!”

And now, having recently commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I can’t help but think how much better Christianity was back in the 16th Century, when Protestants really believed in sola scriptura (none of this consulting-experience-to-figure-out-the-truth stuff), and justification by faith alone was still fresh and exciting, and we actually killed the people we disagreed with rather than merely crucifying them online. I’m getting misty-eyed just thinking about it.

We all do it, I’m sure, about one thing or another—reminisce about how we used to do things—so maybe we should all drop our stones.

And while we’re at it, maybe we should toss away the stones in our other pocket as well, the ones we’re saving for those poor, misguided people who actually think the way we do things now is just fine, even better than it used to be—however unimaginable that seems to some of us.

The soccer practice was wrapping up. The coach was giving the final pep-talk to the girls circled around her, and that gave the plaid-skirted mom time for just one more complaint, this one about the teacher’s eschewing flash cards in teaching multiplication tables.

“She just thinks they can use a calculator! And so I went out and bought flash cards, and I’ve been quizzing Suzy every night because I want her to know them like this,” she says, snapping rapid-fire to indicate the speed with which she learned her multiplication tables as a child. “When she sees ‘8 × 3’ I want her to think right away: ‘16.’”

Ah, those were the good ole’ days, weren’t they?


The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife, Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

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