Teaching Uncritical Thinking

As I prepare for school to start in a few weeks, I have been thinking about what has and hasn’t worked in the past few semesters.

Last year I changed the way I taught freshman level introductions to the Old and New Testament to include more room for students to think not just recite. My Old Testament course now spends 10 weeks researching and writing an exegetical paper. Each Friday during those 10 weeks, I set up shop in a study room in the library and the students work to complete a research assignment (based on Helps for Writing an Exegesis Paper). It is not a long paper, only 1000 words, but I require students to write more than a summary paper. Each student must come up with their own research question about the passage and then work to answer that question. I was amazed that no matter a student’s background, public school, private school, or homeschool, how foreign this concept was to most of them and multiple students told me this was the hardest thing they were asked to do all year.

My New Testament course centers around building an exegetical notebook. In the notebook, each student is required to have one page on each of the New Testament books with basics like historical setting, author information, major themes, and outline. But the major item is that for each book they must write both a one paragraph and one sentence summary of the book (the students work in groups on the first part and work alone on the summaries). Rather than assigning another exegetical paper, as I planned, I added the summaries from my own experience of having to provide a one page, one paragraph, and one sentence summary of my PhD thesis. You can learn a lot by thinking about what is essential in any given work.

Although I was happy overall with the new course structures, I am making several changes for the upcoming year. One major change is taking a step backwards in the process towards uncritical thinking. Throughout both semesters, the biggest hurdle for the students was telling me what they thought about any given passage. Some of the issues were church doctrine related, some due to the fact I would be the one who gave them a grade, but all of them stemmed from similar fears – the fear of being wrong or the fear openly disagreeing with what they ‘know’ is the right answer.

I believe much of this is because they, we, are programmed by our education to believe that we must start with the right answer. I think this approach is disastrous for research because it removes all questions. In this method, the goal of research is to prove why it is the right answer ,therefore, all of research is an argument with those who we believe are wrong. Without a doubt there is a place for this in education, but this is not the place to begin.* This year I am going to try and show the students that we begin with our own ideas, our pre-understanding.** This is not a prioritizing of personal opinion or even jumping on the slippery slope to post-modernism. Rather it is a way of approaching research as personal reflection before it becomes public debate (almost sounds biblical – Matt 7:1-5). In this method, the goal of research is to test our ideas to see if they can hold up. Thus, research becomes a means of introspection, a way to argue with ourselves, a place for students to begin to wrestle with their faith (or lack of faith). In other words, by beginning with uncritical readings research becomes the process of thinking critically about our readings and this is the place I want to open up in all the classes I teach.***



*A mistake I made in last year’s courses was pointing students towards commentaries to quickly. I thought reading commentaries would help calm their fears of not being able to do the assignment, and it did help. The unintended consequence, however, was that students quickly assumed the commentary was right and spent much of their efforts proving why.

**Still trying to figure out ways to get them to read for themselves. I started, in the Spring, by giving students this Personal Statement on the 1st day of class. In Old Testament classes, this is a place I find Leviticus really helpful. Having students offer thoughts on sacrifices which are considered crazy today seems to be a place they feel free enough to offer opinions.

***Of course, there is no such thing as our own readings because we have all been conditioned to read in certain ways by a multitude of factors. Yet, I still want students to read the text and think about what it means to them before they begin to engage what others say it means.

My Master’s Degree: An Invitation to Rebel

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Two of my favorite professors – Dr. Ben Blackwell and Dr. Randy Hatchett

“As a faithful child of the Enlightenment, I must admit that just the thought of adopting a theological hermeneutic makes me nervous. However, perhaps it is time for me (and ultimately us – the Church) to embrace our rightful identities as children of promise. Children who once again let the word be near us, in our mouths, and in our hearts.”

I wrote these sentences as the conclusion to one of my first graduate school papers – a review of Richard Hays’ The Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. Little did I know that these words would be a strangely prophetic description of the theological formation that I would receive during my graduate education. I walked with a M.A. in Theological Studies from Houston Baptist University on May 19, 2014 and I could not be more thankful for my time there. I was blessed financially with various grants and with the Sharon E. Saunders Endowed Graduate Scholarship, I was fortunate to study under an amazing group of professors (such as Dr. Ben Blackwell and Dr. Randy Hatchett, picture above) that stretched, loved, challenged, and encouraged me, and I now recognize that I am a more faithful Christian thinker because of my studies.

As I reflect on the many ways in which my thinking has been transformed over the past few years, I continually return to the image of “rebellion.” That is to say, my graduate studies taught me to rebel against the Enlightenment and its strangle-hold over much of Christian thinking. The Enlightenment taught me to read Scripture scientifically, skeptically, surgically, and objectively. It also groomed me to reject tradition, look arrogantly at the past, and stand alone as an individual. Now, however, I find myself leaving my graduate studies as a “child of promise” – committed to reading theologically, embracing & exploring the heritage of the church, and living and learning as a distinctively Christian person.

A few of the lessons I learned:

[1] The Importance of the Church: The House that God Built

I once accepted the Enlightenment’s assumption that exegesis and theology could be (and sometimes were best) done outside of the church. I now accept the limitations of the pursuit of pure objectivity and even believe, like the Fathers, that only as a Spirit-filled Christian can I do proper and faithful exegetical and theological work. Before my graduate studies, I hoped to work in the academic world far away from the messiness of the church. Now, I’m enslaved to the conviction that Christian academics must be immersed in and useful to the local church. I entered my graduate studies knowing little about church history and caring even less. Who cared about how Origen translated a certain passage when I’ve got the best Hebrew & Greek tools in history available to me and am free of his cultural limitations? However, I now know how important church history is and indeed have found myself with a deep love for the study of patristics. In fact, I wrote my master’s thesis on Cyril of Alexandria’s Interpretation of Romans 5:12-21 and his use of the Adam-Christ Typology. If you told me that would be my topic as an exegetically-focused undergrad, I would have called you crazy. Now, I can’t imagine anything more worthwhile than studying all the depths, contours, and messiness of the Church Fathers’ lives and works.

[2] The Beautiful Necessity of Theology: Working with Spirit-Filled Words

My undergrad major was in Biblical Languages – Hebrew and Greek. This meant that I largely focused on and valued biblical studies. Actually, I often thought theological studies were pointless – why make these big conclusions when there are so many debatable issues surrounding the exegetical decisions on which they rest? I thought that systematic theologies were good for nothing except misinterpreting biblical passages. I was focused on the trees (exegesis), finding so much ambiguity/excitement there that I couldn’t understand the need or ability to debate or expound upon theological ideas (the forest) which were often foreign to the biblical text. Now, I am immersed in theology. I think theologically, I pray theologically, and I even read the Bible theologically. (Go figure!) I think terms like “the hypostatic union” and “perichoresis” are hugely important to grasping the depth of the beauty of God and his work in Christ. Once again, the Spirit-given words of the Church have opened my eyes up to a bigger and better faith, as well as a better means of reading the Scripture.

[3] An Invitation to the Vocation of Scholarship: The Mind As A Means To Worship

My graduate studies continued to instill in me a lesson which began during my undergraduate work: the truth that loving God with all of your mind is an extremely important call to an incredibly difficult task. Too many in the Evangelical church (and even in seminaries) treat the pursuit of academic excellence with shallowness and immaturity. HBU does a fine job of exemplifying a commitment to Christian excellenc (see their 10 Pillars Vision). Not only was I deeply challenged to engage with the best thinkers of history and of our day, I was also encouraged to put my voice alongside them. Thus, through the help of professor Ben Blackwell, I submitted and presented my first paper at an SBL/AAR conference. This, and other opportunities like it, were only possible because of the standard of excellence required and the personal mentorship provided to ensure that I could meet it.

I’ll end this post by saying thanks and offering some encouragement.
First: Thank you, Houston Baptist University. Thank you, as well, Dr. Ben Blackwell, Dr. Randy Hatchett, Dr. David Capes, Dr. Peter Davids, Dr. Joseph Blair, Dr. Felisi Sorgwe, Dr. Jamie Johns, and all of the many others who shared their passion and knowledge of the Scriptures and theology.
Second: No matter who you are, no matter how old you are, no matter how much time you have, & no matter how “smart” you think you are – avail yourself of the many resources all around you so that you might further learn how to think and live faithfully. Who knows, we might run into each other one day on the other side of the Enlightenment. 🙂

Receiving my diploma from HBU's Dr. Robert Sloan
Receiving my diploma from HBU’s Dr. Robert Sloan

A Surprising Result: The Freedom Not To Believe

I have the immense pleasure each year of teaching the four Gospels to 14 & 15 year olds at a fairly large Christian high school. Almost all of these students have grown up in the evangelical Bible Belt and many have been immersed in a “Christian” culture through private schooling and church involvement. However, each year I find my work most identifiable with the work of an evangelist or a missionary.

I say this because for the vast majority of my students, my class is the first time they will hear of the Kingdom of God, the resurrection of the dead, and the Trinity. My students are generally only familiar with a watered-down flavor of the faith which hardily continues on in our increasingly Post-Christendom society like algae on the bottom of a fish tank. This Christianity majors on justification by grace through faith – saying the sinner’s prayer, receiving eternal assurance of salvation, and being shamed into not having sex, using drugs, or saying bad words (as an aside, they continue to regularly do all three of these things, despite the pleas of their parents and youth pastors).

As a Christian teacher, my goal is clear, public, and unmitigated: for my students to know and follow Christ. However, there are many different reactions to my teaching, some of them unexpected and disappointing. One of those reactions: unbelief. Some students come to a point where they agree with me that much of what is around them is not biblical or Christlike. Unfortunately, for some students this discovery is not accompanied by a desire to follow the Jesus revealed in the Gospels and the demands laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. (Fortunately, this has been a very rare occurrence over my four years of teaching). This creates in me a true spiritual and moral dilemma: do I keep the status-quo and maintain the commitment of “nominal Christians” or continue to proclaim the truth even if some of those previously identified as “believers” now choose to not believe.

I was reminded of this dilemma while reading Yoder’s recently released Theology of MissionIn a passage defending group conversions in communitarian cultures, he states:

“Based on anecdotes from anthropologically conscious missionaries, once a group started hearing more about Jesus – his promises and his demands, including the moral content of discipleship – the divisions in the community that were not previously there would come to the surface. They were not there before because the Jesus message was not there to provoke them. Some individuals, sometimes many, broke out of the tribal group in order to fall back into the old life, into unbelief and nonconformity to the new norms. The freedom not to believe had become real, in fact, more real than before, because before there were no other options than the traditional tribal one. The initial group decision opened the door to Christian belief. Before that decision, unbelief had been a prison; afterwards it was an option. It was the novelty of the gospel that created the freedom not to believe.”

The observations Yoder notes of certain missionary contexts reminds me of my teaching context. When a foreign group/family/community converts to Christianity, it is not unusual for individuals to begin rejecting Christ as they learn more about him. In a different but similar way, my students come to me (mass) baptized into a nominal Christianity. The introduction of the “Jesus message” – including the moral content of discipleship – now “provokes” the students, until now only exposed to a shallow Christianity, in a new way. Their a priori commitment to Christ leads to a crisis when the previously cheap Christ is challenged and exposed by the Living Christ – leading some to no longer believe. A wise man once said that the truth would set you free – and it seems that this form of unbelief is the result of a new freedom made available by the truth.

I fear my dilemma is ultimately one of truth and commitment vs. numbers and assurance. But as I read (and teach) the Gospels, it doesn’t appear that Jesus is after large numbers or is afraid of people turning their back on him when confronted with the truth. Indeed, in a haunting passage at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus predicts a time in which he will turn away from those who thought they were on his team but were not truly committed. I’ve humbly come to believe that it is better to face that crisis now, with time to think and reflect, than when one is on their knees in front Jesus himself.

What do you think?
Does this resonate with the experience of other Bible teachers?
Does the Gospel necessarily open a door for unbelief to “Nominal” Christians?


Introducing ‘Frauen Fridays’

I haved decided to start a weekly series here at Cataclysmic titled ‘Frauen Fridays’.  I am working on my German (slowly but surely!) so I opted for ‘Frauen Fridays’ instead of ‘Women Wednesdays’… alliteration being a must.  Alas, this is the best I could come up with so far, forgive me! 🙂  Each week I will introduce a woman who is a theologian, biblical scholar, and/or other prominent figure in the Christian church or academy.

Why Frauen Fridays?  Well, as I said on Twitter last week, this is more for my benefit than anyone else.  I simply want to know more female scholars.  I remember being an undergraduate Christianity and Biblical Languages major wondering if there were any women at all working in these fields.  Even after starting my MA in Biblical Languages I could only name a handful of women in the Christian academy and had read very few books by female scholars.

The thing is–and this is important–it wasn’t for lack of women scholars!  I just didn’t know who they were.  This was partly due (I think) to the academic setting I was in.  In my 10 years at my current school I have not once had a female professor for theology or language class… the only exception being the Christian worship and music class I took as a sophomore which was co-taught by one of the music teachers.  I think of all the textbooks I had for classes only two were authored by women (both biblical languages scholars).  This has long been a personal frustration for me as I have desperately desired female role models to learn from, and to know that my hopes and dreams of becoming a professor were actually realistic goals… to know that I, and the other female students with academic ambitions, were not alone.  It could be done, right?

I was also struggling to fit into a complementarian mold for much of this time.  I wasn’t as worried about reading female scholars… theology was the responsibility (read privilege!) of men, after all.  So where did one go to learn about theology? Men. (Usually the old, dead guys… how happy I was to eventually learn that there were old, dead gals, too!)

Having since embraced the freedom of egalitarianism/mutuality and Christian feminism–because yes, for me I am certain this is God-given freedom–I have been more intentional of reading and learning about women in theology and biblical studies.  And I’m happy to say that, although there are still no women teaching theology or biblical languages at my school (though I do have the privilege of subbing for my profs every once in a while!) (edit: my horrible mistake, there actually is a really awesome women who is co-teaching one of the theology classes this semester… I forgot they were offering this particular class so that’s my mistake), there are several women teaching in the School of Christian Thought, specifically within the apologetics department.  Furthermore, from my own experience, my professors have been nothing but encouraging in my academic pursuits.  I am certain that my profs, both comps and egals alike, have played a formative role in who I am today as a young (cruciform Christian feminist) scholar.  I’ve also learned about more female scholars through my classes.

It seems to me, however, that it is still a rare or somewhat odd thing to be a feminist at my university… but I supposed I’ll save my thoughts on that for another post! 🙂 

Back to the topic at hand.  There have been, are, and will continue to be some amazing women doing great work in theology, biblical studies, biblical languages, and the church.  I want to get to know more of them and I want to get more people to know them.  So, every Friday will be Frauen Friday and will feature women from the Christian academy, church history, all across the theological spectrum, and probably some from non-academic backgrounds (in the technical sense).

First up is Mercy Amba Oduyoye, an African womanist theologian, followed by Beverly Roberts Gaventa, currently a professor at Baylor and one of the key note speakers at HBU’s theology conference next month (I’m currently reading her book Our Mother Saint Paul).  And three weeks from now, since we will be in the season of Lent, I’m planning on featuring one/some of the Desert Mothers.  Stayed tuned!

I’m looking forward to learning as well as raising awareness.  If you have any recommendations feel free to leave them in the comments section.  What is your experience?  Have you always been familiar with female scholars?  Is this a localized phenomenon or a widespread epidemic?

Peacemaking: An Exercise in Faith and Imagination

One of the goals in my classroom is to create an atmosphere where the students want to dig deeper into their faith and wrestle with critical issues.  As the year progresses my students learn of a few of my positions that are relatively new to them.  Now most of the students who either have me as a teacher or will have me next year know that I am a Christian pacifist (the adjective is necessary because my reasons for being a pacifist rely on Jesus being who the Bible says he is).  The fact that this reputation has started to precede me has led to some interesting conversations.  I have explained my reasons for being a pacifist and why I think Christians are called to a nonviolent lifestyle, but it is clear from some of their questions that much is still misunderstood about Christian nonviolence.  I am going to list some of the most common questions I get from students once they learn that I am a pacifist and craft a response for each.

1) Do you hate soldiers?

I recently had a student discover that a “Christian” group has made a habit of protesting soldiers funerals (Westboro Baptist).  She then asked me if I approved of what they were doing since I was a pacifist.  I was horrified by the question.  While I don’t think that Christians should participate in the military, I do believe that the act of waving a sign that says “God hates you” at a funeral is an inhumane and deeply anti-Christian act.  My call to Christian nonviolence puts me in direct opposition to the folks at Westboro precisely because I believe that they are committing verbal violence.  I think many pacifists often get accused of dishonoring soldiers and veterans, and it is hard for the discussion to not become personal with so many of us having family in the military.  So let me be clear, the church is called to love soldiers and veterans even if it stands against war.  In fact, the church needs to be proactive in the care of the soldiers who are now starting to come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. There needs to be a safe place where soldiers can talk about their experiences and start to heal from both visible and invisible wounds.  The church must be that place.

2) What would your husband do if you were punched in the face?

This question has actually become a running joke in one of my classes.  Now whenever I ask this class if they have any questions during a lecture, this is usually the first one asked in jest.  It started as a serious question when they found out that both my husband and I are pacifists.  They then created a ridiculous scenario where someone randomly comes up to me and knocks me out (I find Yoder’s response to hypothetical scenarios to be especially helpful here).[1]  The correct response, according to them, was for my husband to beat up the other guy.  He would do this to defend my honor, and if he did nothing that meant he clearly did not care about me.

There are several problems underlying this question.  First, they assume that the role of a man is to protect “their woman” and be willing to use violence if necessary.  This is endemic of our southern culture that identifies males as the proverbial “protector” and females as the “damsel” in need of rescue.  If this is true, the measure of a man is evaluated by the lengths he will go to defend those he loves.  I see this trope all over the place in Hollywood movies but not really in the Bible.  The second problem is that a nonviolent response is viewed as not a response at all.  I told them that my husband would probably not engage with the guy who hit me, but would immediately check to see if I was okay.  They felt this response did not really address the issue, which was equally concerning to me.  Are we so thirsty for blood that we forget about the very person we’re claiming to defend?

3) So as a pacifist are you just supposed to stand back and do nothing?

This question has been asked to me in many different ways.  It usually comes up when there has been a violent uprising in a country or a school shooting (both of which seem to be happening a lot these days).  My students often think that since I am a pacifist, my response to these situations is to not get involved.  According to them, pacifism means you stand back and do nothing in the face of injustice.  Pacifism is often mistakenly associated with being passive.  This is why I prefer the term nonviolent resistance or peacemaking instead of pacifism.  Both of these terms are active and more clearly convey the heart of Christian pacifism.

I think this question reveals both a lack of faith and imagination on the part of many Christians in America.  We say that we trust God, but when it comes to defending our families or our nation, we’re more likely going to trust our guns.  Because we automatically reach for the gun, it is hard to try and think of any other way to stand against evil and injustice.  And we as Christians are called to have a more robust imagination than that.  Our very name points back to the one who did not respond back with violence, but overcame evil with good.  If the God whom we worship was able to overcome all the powers of darkness through “obedience unto death on a cross” what does that mean for his followers?  Are we willing to take up that cross and follow him?  How can we take an active stand against violence without responding in kind?

Christian peacemaking is a virtue that exercises the spiritual muscles of faith and imagination.  Now with any virtue, we are not going to start off as masters of it.  The place where I get the best practice in peacemaking is in rush hour traffic!  If I can get in the habit of always seeing people as Jesus sees people, maybe when it counts, when my life is on the line, I won’t simply be thinking about my survival.  Maybe I’ll be thinking about Jesus and the cross and how that’s changed everything.  I’m certainly not there yet, but I can start by trusting in the Triune God, who brings peace into the violence of our own hearts.

So what is the next step? How can we start to exercise these muscles?

Here are two suggestions for moving forward:

1) Look for examples and imitate

A great example of nonviolent resistance in practice is a local anti-trafficking organization called Elijah Rising.  This organization has some warriors who never lift a sword!  They’re primary focus is to end human trafficking through prayer, worship, and awareness (they also strategically seek contact with the women who are being trafficked).  This group exemplifies a nonviolent pursuit of justice and a faith that believes in the power of intercession.

2) Start doing some reading on the subject

For an excellent place to begin see our fellow blogger Mike Skinner’s posts:

Jesus is Cruciform not Octagonal (A Response to Mark Driscoll)

The 5 Most Common Myths about Romans 13:1-7

Other recommended reading:

War and the American Difference – by Stanley Hauerwas

A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Nonviolence – by Trip York and Justin Bronson Barringer

[1]  Yoder, John H.. What Would You Do?  Scottsdale: Herald Press. 1983