Presbyterians and the Saber-Tooth Curriculum

Aug 11, 2019

Some 45 years ago, I took a class that looked at paradigm shifts in cultures – those shifts in thinking and/or doing that reshaped a world view and ways of life. Such paradigm shifts include the shift to recognizing the sun as the center of the solar system, with the connected insight that the earth is a globe; the printing press; the industrial revolution.

I remember one book by Abner Peddiwell called The Saber-Tooth Curriculum. In this allegory we meet a Paleolithic man named New Fist. He was an innovator and a thinker. He looked at the difference between children and adults. The children played for fun; the adults worked for security and enrichment of their lives. The children dealt with bones, sticks, and pebbles; the adults dealt with food, shelter, and clothing. The children protected themselves from boredom; the adults protected themselves from danger. So, he devised the idea for an education program for the children.

New Fist needed a curriculum. He ran various activities over in his mind. “We have to catch fish with our bare hands in the pool far up the creek beyond that big bend. Also, we club the little woolly horses. Wherever we find them we club them. And finally, we drive away the saber-tooth tigers with fire.” He had a curriculum. Soon his students in bare-handed fish catching, saber-tooth scaring and woolly horse clubbing were outperforming others. Over time his curriculum spread among the tribes.

Over generations things around them changed. Glacial debris muddied the pond so you couldn’t see where to grab the fish. Climate change meant the extinction of the saber-tooth. The little wooly horses evolved, grew bigger, began to develop the strong center toe which would one day be a hoof. They now ran in the grasslands rather than plodded through the bushes. Yet by tradition, the old curriculum remained in place.

Fishing with nets grew in practice. Laying snares for other game grew in practice. Ways to protect people from new predators grew in practice. But the education system didn’t. In the words of wise, old custodians of the customary, “If you had any education yourself,” they said severely, “you would know that the essence of true education is timelessness. It is something that endures through changing conditions like a solid rock standing squarely and firmly in the middle of a raging torrent. You must know that there are some eternal verities, and the saber-tooth curriculum is one of them!”

People from another tribe looked at them and determined that “they do have something they call education, but it is just a collection of traditional activities, a machine they worship for its own sake… they are forever blocked in their attempts to better their lives by reason of having mis-education, pseudo education, in place of real education.” Extinction of that tribe loomed.

When it comes to knowing how to effectively reach new people and bring them into Christian fellowship and service, leaders in established churches are by and large of products of a churchly equivalent of a Saber-Tooth Curriculum. The environment around us has changed. My father, retiring from active ministry in 1987, said to me “I’m glad I’m retiring. Ministry is changing into something new.”

To thrive a church needs to learn from those outside its customary behavior and walls. Future leadership, both pastoral and member, needs to bring the benefits of a new curriculum. I don’t have such a curriculum but I can maybe help plow the fields of our thinking to prepare them for new seeds to be planted as the church moves ahead. It will also take willingness to try, to fail, to learn from that and to try again.

Rev. Bill Schram began his ministry with Westminster in March 2018 and is the current Interim Minister. Bill attended McCormick seminary in Chicago and met his wife Jenny there. They have served as co-pastors and in separate positions. He has served churches in urban, near suburb, small town, county seat towns in various positions such as pastor, associate pastor, interim pastor, and hospital chaplain. He and Jenny have two natural and one foster daughter. Delightfully, they now have a granddaughter to enjoy.

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