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.***

 

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*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

Chad at HBU’s ‘Paul and Judaism’ Conference

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Here’s Cataclysmic’s own Chad Chambers presenting his paper “Before I was Born: Paul’s Calling and the Question of Time in Galatians” at Houston Baptist University’s ‘Paul and Judaism’ conference going on today and tomorrow.

Chad did a great job and his paper was really interesting, taking a look at how Paul views time in the book of Galatians.  Definitely piqued my interest! Well done, brother!!

 

Houston Baptist University Theology Conference – N.T. Wright, Beverly Gaventa, Ross Wagner

HBU Theology Conference

Paul and Judaism

March 19-20, 2014
Houston Baptist University

HBU is pleased to host a conference on Paul and Judaism that will explore Paul’s theology and practice within his Jewish context. Our keynote speakers include N.T. Wright (St Andrews University), Beverly Gaventa (Baylor University), and Ross Wagner (Duke Divinity School).

Papers and Abstracts:
In addition, we are inviting papers representing a variety of approaches from scholars and graduate students in this area of study. Participants will have 30 minutes to present papers (inclusive of Q&A).  Please submit a 200-300 word abstract to Dr. Ben C. Blackwell by January 15, 2014, with notification of acceptance by January 31. Registration by February 15 is required for those who will present at the conference. For submission information and conference schedule go here.

Meet Jessica…

Jessica Parks is a self-proclaimed language nerd and happily married to one as well. She is a full-time graduate student at Houston Baptist University where she also works as a student grader and occasionally substitutes for Greek, Hebrew, and theology classes.  She recently earned a Master of Arts in Biblical Languages and is starting her second master’s degree this fall in Theological Studies. In addition to biblical languages and linguistics, she is interested in Septuagint studies, early Christianity, patristics, and gender issues. Jessica is a member of First Colony Christian Church (Sugar Land, TX) and serves on occasion through preaching and teaching. She also enjoys going to the movies with her husband Jimmy, playing with her dogs Charlie and Bo, and of course a good game of Zelda.

Follow Jessica on Twitter @mrsjessparks and read her recent review of T. Michael Law’s book ‘When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible’ as part of a blog tour hosted by Near Emmaus.