On Teaching Church History to Undergraduates
Rollins College is almost stridently secular, unlike many other colleges in our consortium. Therefore teaching the history of the Christian Church can be a daunting experience. In some ways our student body at Rollins is bifurcated: we have a large majority of students who have had almost no exposure to Christianity at all and a smaller group who think they know all there is to know about theology and the Bible. Of course we do have some students in the middle of the spectrum, but the extremes seem far better represented. Trying to bridge the gap between those two groups is often a challenge.
I teach three courses that focus entirely on the history of Christianity: a lower–division survey course, Christianity and Society; an upper-division course, the Reformation; and a graduate seminar, Religion and Western Culture (focusing on the Middle Ages and the Reformation). In addition, I include material on the history of religion in most of my other courses where appropriate (and even at times when it is not). Thus I run into the problem of trying to fill in gaps that exist with my secular students and overcoming the misinformation that my religious ones bring into the course.
I normally don’t lecture but use primary source documents as a starting point for questions and discussions. Fortunately most of our students are invariably polite and respectful (although not always), and I encourage them to ask questions about terms and concepts they don’t understand in the readings. In some cases students are too embarrassed or don’t think it is “cool” to ask. Therefore, I am attentive to the glazed look on some students’ faces as a barometer. When I note the blank stare I backtrack and begin defining concepts and filling in historical details. If I’m lucky a more self-assured student will ask. Having been teaching for forty-five years, I should have by this time produced a series of canned answers which I could put on my computer or Blackboard defining Transubstantiation, Canon Law (having nothing to do with military tactics), Original Sin, Atonement, Pentecostals; the list goes on endlessly. Equally challenging are the students who think they have a clear grasp of these technical terms but have any number of misconceptions or denominationally specific understandings of them.
I have prepared a boilerplate speech for the beginning of all my courses dealing with religious subjects: this is a history course and not a Sunday school class. I approach the material from the historical perspective, meaning I will depend on standard forms of historical evidence. Miracles therefore always become problematic. I try to explain that to a person of faith there may be no question about the reality of miracles, but the historian cannot assess them since they cannot be verified by unbiased historical evidence. That always produces scowls in the corners of the room. I emphasize the fact that the Church like every other institution has not remained constant, that it has relentlessly changed including its understanding of the original teaching of Jesus and church doctrine. I also explain when I begin discussing the Reformation, that today I will probably offend some Catholics. But not to worry, I will eventually upset Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Baptists.
I likewise try to shake up the complacency of our students at the very beginning of the course. For instance, I open my survey course with Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography for shock value. Because Dom lives some twenty miles from our campus he has visited on several occasions to discuss his book with my students. It is amazing how students can rail against the author’s conclusions when we have our preliminary class discussion and how silent they become once confronted by the author himself.
I have also used Bart Erhman’s Misquoting Jesus because it provides an excellent introduction to the critical examination of historical sources. Either book obviously causes my more conservative students a good deal of unease, but both religious and secular students learn about the study of early Christianity through these very accessible readings. These works also lend themselves to good class discussions about the gap between what students have been taught from the pulpit or Sunday School, and what is taught in seminaries to prospective ordinands, especially in mainline Protestant and Catholic seminaries.
Once I get past the early church, the sailing gets quite a bit smoother until we get to the Reformation and problems arise again. The students especially love the tales of corruption and scandal in the late medieval church, although they don’t much like excursions into Scholasticism (which I explain is a necessary evil). But then for my religious students, denominational rivalries raised their heads once we begin examining the various battles between Catholics and Protestants, and between the assorted Protestant groups.
The quiet of the eighteenth century comes as a relief, but then we must confront conflicts between science and religion, especial Darwin, and the issues of biblical textual criticism, especially when I take a detour to the Jesus Seminar. Nevertheless, the class discussions become much more lively as we traverse these mine fields. The students are so exhausted by the time we reach the twentieth century and so preoccupied with their final writing assignment that Vatican II and Ecumenism can’t provoke much excitement out of them. The kick-start we get in discussing Crossan or Ehrman at the beginning of the course, however, enables students to expressing their views comfortably but generally respectfully on the controversial issues we confront.
My Reformation class works out quite differently. As an upper division course, most of the students are either history majors who have had the European survey course or religious studies majors who have a much better grounding in the material. Nevertheless, I know that many of them have little understanding about the differences among denominations and that since so many of them are not active churchgoers, they do not comprehend specific variations that emerged from the Reformation. Therefore, I require all students to make a series of local church visits so that they really study the transformations emerging from the sixteenth century. They attend a Traditional Catholic service, which still uses the Tridentine Mass; a Lutheran service; a Pentecostal church after discussing the Protestant radicals; and finally an Episcopal service at the local Cathedral. I assign them a short paper after each visit in which they analyze one aspect of the service: the music, liturgy, method of praying, the sermon, or the physical setting.
At the end of the semester, they produce an historical recreation of a Calvinist service in our chapel, in which they reconstruct the sermon, liturgy, and appropriate music working with our Dean of the Chapel and the choral director. The students break into groups: one selects a sermon by Calvin and then edits it into the time constraints dictated by the dean. Another group working with the music director of the chapel selects suitable music for the service. Others map out the liturgy or the vestments to be worn by the clergy. At the end of the semester, the class takes over the regular Sunday chapel service and conducts the historical recreation on the basis of the research they have completed. Even the “unchurched,” because of their church visits and research into the Reformation, are able to produce a surprisingly accurate historical recreation of a typical Sunday service in Calvin’s Geneva. A young Jewish student did a marvelous imitation of Jean Calvin the last time I taught the course. (We don’t, however, have Michael Servetus show up at the end, although that would certainly add color).
In either course, students often ask me if I am a Christian or not. Many assume that I am not because of the assignments I give them that seem to undermine traditional church teachings. One Southern Baptist student was clearly in shock by what I was presenting. The student informed me that his mother was planning to drive over from Lakeland to sit in my class to correct my errors. She planned to convert me to Christianity. I started to tell him that in fact I am an Episcopalian but then thought better of it. I discovered several Southern Baptist students who do not regard Episcopalians as Christians. So my battle might have been lost anyhow.
Finally, I regularly take advantage of the college’s generous support for outside speakers to supplement my courses. There is a great deal of local interest in religious topics, particularly controversies over the historical Jesus. I have therefore been able to invite to campus a number of prominent scholars to visit my class and also deliver very well attended public lectures. In addition to John Dominic Crossan, Rollins College has hosted in the last decade Jack Spong, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong, and this spring Marcus Borg. We always fill our lecture hall when the visiting scholars present the public lectures, while Karen Armstrong filled our 500-seat chapel. Part of the speaker’s obligation includes interacting with our students in small setting, thereby greatly enriching my courses.
I hope that many members of the ASCH will respond to this post with their own teaching experiences. Much as we might think of ourselves as just ordinary run-of-the-mill historians, our subject matter—unlike the rise of industrialism or the impact of the Atlantic voyages—can often cause controversy, heated arguments, resentment (once I had a graduate student clobber another after class, but that’s another story), and anger. I’d like to know how others in the profession handle these situations.