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.

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?