Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

“To suffer for doing what is right”: The Social Functions of Martyrological Language

Friday, September 26th, 2014

by Tara Baldrick-Morrone

When I teach sections on Christianity in my Introduction to World Religions course, I spend a good amount of time on getting my students to think about martyrdom. I do this not only for my own research interests, but because martyrological language plays a large role in the cultural history of Christianity. Oftentimes, the students get caught up in the blood-and-guts portion of the stories; however, my goal in having them look at such stories is to get them to think about how language works. More specifically, though, I want them to see how language serves particular functions, such as how labels are used by groups in order to legitimate their position, for example, or how those used by so-called outsiders (scholars, other groups, etc.) might serve to determine whether the group is (or is not) a “true” example of a particular tradition.

This semester, I created a writing assignment that would get at this very issue: students had to analyze texts that are written in favor of as well as against a specific group. One of the groups that they could choose to write about is the Army of God, an anti-abortion activist group that advocates the killing of doctors in order to prevent them from performing abortions. The pro-Army of God text I selected is a letter from Paul Hill, a loosely affiliated member who was executed in Florida for the 1994 murders of Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, James Barrett. In the letter, Hill does not explicitly use certain labels to characterize the Army of God (in fact, he does not even mention the group); instead, he alludes to ideas like martyrdom with statements indicating that “[i]t is a great privilege to suffer for doing what is right.” Hill is not the only anti-abortion activist to draw on this notion of martyrdom; in fact, the allusion to martyrdom is prevalent in the anti-abortion movements of the 1980s and 1990s. I would argue that these allusions are best seen in the rhetoric and literature coming from Randall Terry and his group known as Operation Rescue.

Operation Rescue emerged in 1986 in a stated attempt to get “the church” involved in the anti-abortion movement. Doing so, according to Randall Terry, would make Christians realize their sin of bloodguiltiness, which had been committed through their lack of response to the issue of “abortion-on-demand.” Addressing the guilt Christians had because of their indifference was of the utmost importance, for if Operation Rescue were to accomplish its goal of abolishing abortion, Christians would have to be willing to redeem themselves. In a 1989 recruitment video, Terry stresses this point when speaking to protesters: “We are not going down there as the heroes. We are going down there in a spirit of repentance. We are guilty; the blood is on our hands. We’re fifteen years late … We are more guilty than the police when they take us away because the police are not called to be the salt of the earth. We are.” In Terry’s mind, Christians had to come together on this issue, as “only those with warriors’ hearts c[ould] turn the nation around.” These warriors, according to Terry, would be “disciplined, willing to sacrifice, and ready to die.”

The choice of thinking of themselves as warriors who are ready and willing to die, i.e., the use of martyrological language, serves to legitimate Operation Rescue (as well as the Army of God and Paul Hill) in terms of their identities. This martyrological language functions to position them in a much larger formation of civil disobedience and Christian martyrdom. This is done explicitly by Terry in Operation Rescue’s 1988 “handbook” when he draws on the martyrdom of Polycarp, the second-century bishop from Smyrna who was killed for his refusal to renounce Christ and swear to the Roman emperor. More importantly, not only does he reach back to this story from antiquity, but the source he cites from is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which, by recounting numerous martyrdoms, constructs a trajectory of Christian martyrdom that spans from the early church period to Protestant martyrs in the sixteenth century.

Elizabeth Castelli’s work on martyrdom and memory in antiquity is useful for thinking about Operation Rescue because, as she argues, “the memory work done by early Christians on the historical experience of persecution and martyrdom was a form of culture making.” Christian identity became “indelibly marked by the collective memory of the religious suffering of others.” In this same vein, then, groups like Operation Rescue use this social memory of early martyrdom to their advantage by arguing that one’s willingness to die lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian in the world. This language also “implies a broader narrative that invokes notions of justice and the right ordering of the cosmos.” Castelli’s point here regarding the “right ordering” of things situates martyrdom in antiquity as a series of conflicts over order between the subjugated (Christians) and the powerful (Roman authorities). Thinking about the function of martyrological language as a way for a group to contest the current order of the world–as fellow CH blogger Jenny Collins-Elliott did earlier this week–is appropriate for thinking about Operation Rescue, as their acts of “martyrdom” sought to overturn the current state that the world was in, namely, the legalization of abortion. Although modern Christian groups are not the minorities they once were, the use of martyrological language attempts to create ties to the past so that the present can be portrayed as being part of a continuous historical narrative.

Tara Baldrick-Morrone is a doctoral student at Florida State University. Her research interests include rhetoric about the body and disease in late antiquity, ancient medicine, and issues of method and theory in the academic study of religion by way of critical pedagogy. She can be contacted at tbaldrickmorrone at fsu dot edu and on Twitter.

* Image courtesy Religion News Service.

David Tracy’s Principle of Provocation and the Reading of Church History

Monday, January 28th, 2013

By Tom Schwanda

I teach both a grad and undergrad course in the history of Christian spirituality. While the primary areas of my specialization are seventeenth–century Puritanism and eighteenth–century Evangelicalism I enjoy teaching the entire landscape of church history. In my classes we read and examine the writings of some of the “Communion of Saints” including Perpetua, the desert fathers and mothers, Benedict of Nursia, Bernard of Clairvaux, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Thomas á Kempis, Jan Hus, Martin Luther. John Calvin, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, John Woolman, Phoebe Palmer, Theophan the Recluse, representatives from Pentecostalism, Howard Thurman, Desmond Tutu, Watchman Nee, and Thomas Merton.

Over the centuries we have tended to privilege oral and written texts by and about those whom we study. However, increasingly we recognize the importance of art and architecture and place and space as equally revealing texts. Regardless of the type of text we face a common challenge in reading wisely and well these records. This reminds us of the common task of interpretation. Recently, I was revisiting David Tracy’s summary of hermeneutical principles in his Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (Crossroad, 1981, see especially chapter 3).

There he defines a classic text as something that is always in need of deeper interpretation because it possesses the ability to transform us and communicate new meaning. His four guidelines are: preunderstanding, that no one ever approaches a text objectively; provocation, which recognizes that texts can provoke, vex, challenge, and transform our reading; dialogical engagement with the text that is often reflective of the dynamic interaction between a conductor and a symphonic orchestra; and the company of readers, which indicates that no one reads or interprets a document in isolation. This may occur subconsciously or far more obviously as other colleagues confirm or challenge our readings and presentations, whether at our annual conferences or in peer review journals and the like.

While all of these are useful to historians I would like to reflect more fully on Tracy’s second point of provocation. He asserts that reading a classic text should in some way unsettle us. Provided we approach a text with a degree of openness it is impossible to read it and remain neutral. For example, in reading the spiritual writings of eighteenth–century Evangelicals some might bristle at the lingering Puritan influence of the Song of Songs that manifests itself in the devotional language of ravishment, sweetness and mystical transports to heaven. However, this provocation might not always produce resistance. Possibly, at times, it might transform our own perceptions and expand them in a positive way. In reading early Evangelical diaries and letters I recognize the strong sense of awe and wonder that characterize those men and women. Their view of God often seems more transcendent and sensitive to an appropriate holy fear than I find in myself.

Further Tracy’s second hermeneutical principle reinforces the self–implicating nature of Christian spirituality (For a helpful summary of this principle and key resources that introduce this in the field of Christian spirituality see Tom Schwanda, “’Hearts Sweetly Refreshed’: Puritan Spiritual Practices Then and Now.” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 3, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 30). Therefore we recognize it is impossible to engage any texts accurately and honestly and remain completely objective and unbiased. When I was first introduced to this principle I spoke of my reservations to an older historian. He strongly asserted that no one, regardless of impartiality, reads anything with total objectivity. Over the years I have become convinced of that reality.

How then can we read Benedict’s Rule and not be challenged by the temptations to pride and the struggle of humility which we face in the academy that he explores in chapter 7? Interestingly this is the longest chapter in the Rule. Or in reading Julian of Norwich’s vision of the hazelnut in which God responds to her query of what it means by declaring that God made the hazelnut, God loves the hazelnut, and God preserves the hazelnut. Does that not encourage us to reflect on the doctrine of providence and God’s care for us? Or how does the Puritan practice of heavenly meditation provoke our own consideration of the importance of heaven in relationship to all of our comforts and investments in this earthly life?

Recognizing the self–Implicating nature of church history also is present in every classroom. Students typically identify with certain writers while they express deep frustration with others. Many undergrads, in particular, find the austerity and ascetical practices of the desert tradition forbidding, especially in the affluent ease and wellbeing that they normally inhabit. But others students are strongly attracted to the identical saints and their counter–cultural writings. Indeed this is a very salient reminder that as we explore the writings of our discipline it is not enough to register mild resistance or even a stronger rejection or conversely a favorable acceptance. More appropriately what is to be invoked is the deeper impression of why a certain text vexes us or why another document, perhaps celebrated by others leaves us cold.

To illustrate this more personally I have been recently reading Susanna Anthony (1726–1791) for a research project on eighteenth–century Evangelical spirituality. Samuel Hopkins, a student of Jonathan Edwards and later Anthony’s pastor at the First Congregational Church, Newport, RI, collected her writings and published them as The Life and Character of Miss Susanna Anthony (1799). Mark Noll comments that, “the spiritual transports of Anthony’s life were reminiscent of similar experiences from mystical Christian women of the late middle ages” (The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, 288). On the one hand, I struggle with Anthony’s debased view of self and frequent references to “worm theology.” Repeatedly she affirms her vileness and describes herself as a “worm of the dust.”

Nonetheless while I find an internal resistance to that there is the reality of my own sin, brokenness, and twisted motivations. Moreover on the other hand, Anthony is not stuck in a gloomy pit of despair because of what target=”_blank>“the great God–Man–Mediator” has done for her, uniting her in union with Christ. Responding to this her soul soars with gratitude of joyful love and adoration and contemplation of God. Amid her transport of joy she declares “while my whole soul is divinely ravished, with the infinite glories of thy nature, and the felicity of being so nearly united to Jesus the dear Mediator, it is enough.”

It is enough! Personally I am attracted to that type of affective piety and contemplative enjoyment of God. However, as I pay attention to Tracy’s hermeneutical principle of provocation I realize that which might first unsettle me, in case of Anthony’s worm theology, prepares me for a greater transformation of contemplation and transport of love and joy. Provocation can be very positive, especially as it guides and challenges our reading of classic texts. And perhaps it might just stretch us to be more attentive in our research and teaching.

John Henry Newman, Monasticism, and the Teaching of History

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

by Greg Peters

John Henry Newman’s Coat of Arms
I am a scholar of Christian monasticism, an Anglican priest and a professor at an unashamedly religious institution in the Protestant Christian tradition – and I am happy! There’s something unmatched about working at an institution that supports one’s theological/religious convictions, provides opportunities to further explore one’s faith with students and colleagues and helps to integrate one’s life into a coherent whole. I am here not because I am unable to go anywhere else but by choice. I love what I do and I love coming to work each and every day (though I do enjoy my summer and January breaks). For many scholars such a life would seem too quaint and simplistic and for others my employment at an overtly religious institution is tantamount to a lack of intellectual freedom. That certainly is not the case here at Biola University.

Biola University was founded in 1908 as the “Bible Institute of Los Angeles” (hence the neologism Biola). It became a college in 1949 and a university in 1981. Today there are nearly 6,500 students being educated in six schools from the bachelor’s to the doctoral level. There are several hundred faculty members and twice as many support staff stuffed into 95 acres in the larger urban sprawl of Los Angeles, closer to Disneyland than the Disney Concert Hall. The beaches and the mountains are within easy driving distance as is Mexico, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. If you don’t mind people, asphalt, sunshine and heavy traffic then we are ideally located.

In addition to teaching at a great university, I also teach in one of the most exciting undergraduate programs on campus, and perhaps even in the country – the Torrey Honors Institute. Torrey is a liberal arts, great books based program that demands much reading, writing and discussion from its students. Since students do not take a major in the Institute, they add a specialized major in any area available at Biola University to the grounding they have received in the classics. As a result, Torrey combines the best of classical and traditional American university education; that is, we sit in a circle for six to nine hours a week discussing the classics of the western tradition (think Homer, Plato, Locke, Austen, etc.). I never have to lecture and I always get to work with the best and brightest students on campus.

Furthermore, as a scholar of monasticism and an Anglican I have the privilege of seeing what we do here at Torrey fit into the larger picture of monasticism, at least when viewed through the lens of the Anglican-turned-Roman Catholic John Henry Newman. In his article “Schools of the Lord’s Service: Benedictine Ideals in the Educational Thought of John Henry Newman,” [American Benedictine Review 57.1 (2006): 60-80] Denis Robinson, himself a Benedictine monk, writes that the

virtues of monasticism for Newman were enshrined in five basic ideals: (1) the significant bridge monastic culture formed with the patristic past, (2) the mixture of the active and contemplative ideals, (3) the notion of the central spiritual dimension in education, (4) an essentially Platonic epistemology, and (5) the expression of these in the practice of the Liturgy of the Hours [that is, daily prayer] (p. 64).

On the first point, “In [Newman’s] estimation the Benedictine tradition formed a bridge between the world of the Fathers and the modern world. Monks enshrined the values of the classical world by carrying forward the teachings of the ancient church in a way of life as well as in formal theology” (p. 65). Newman’s writings on the Benedictine’s are some of the results of this belief, as is his The Arians of the Fourth Century from 1833. Concerning the second point, Robinson writes that “Newman had little taste for rarefied academicism. In his estimation, scholarship had to be sound, but it also had to be mixed with a ‘practical frame of mind.’ In other words, theory had to spill over into action or it was essentially useless” (p. 67). Reflecting on the relationship of spirituality and education, Robinson believes that “Newman’s view of education was precisely discovery of meaning. Theory had to be infused with an existential regard, a spirituality that spoke to the dreams and hope of people where they lived…” (p. 67). Regarding Newman’s Platonism,

Theoretically, this intersection of the visible world and the invisible reality of the divine points to Newman’s essential Platonism. Although Newman was influenced by the work of the earlier group of Anglican scholars know [sic] as the Cambridge Platonists, he was somewhat distrustful of their overly rational and supernatural interpretation of Plato’s work. Newman’s project in the Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) in many ways can be attributed to his need for an epistemological rehabilitation of Platonic idealism. Without getting into too much detail, Newman posited the necessity of innate ideas, refusing to accept Locke’s sense-based empiricism. However, Newman also appreciated, in a way Plato undoubtedly did as well, the need for the incubation and expansion of these values in the lived experience of human beings. (p. 69)

Finally, concerning his fifth point, Robinson notes,

In Tract 75, Newman offered an apologetic for the Benedictine breviary… The lessons of the Liturgy of the Hours formed a compendium of prayers, doctrinal readings, Scripture readings and the poetry of the psalms. The Liturgy of the Hours was the ultimate catechumenal text in Newman’s estimation precisely because it did what any good educational and formational tool should do, that is, it shaped the life and thought of the person through continual re-presentation of the truths of Christianity in a varied and multi-dimensional way. (pp. 69-70),

As Robinson ably demonstrates, for Newman the Benedictines provided an educational model that was worthy of emulation. In fact, as Robinson explains, Newman used this model as the basis for an attempted renewal of the Oxford University tutorial system upon his appointment at Oriel College in 1826. It is my opinion that these same five observations are applicable to the educational task attempted today at the Torrey Honors Institute, aligning its program with that of both the Benedictine legacy and the educational philosophy of John Henry Newman as developed under the influence of his reading of the Benedictine tradition.

(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)   Jeff Rau  

First, the Torrey Honors Institute seeks to connect its students to the past, including the Christian inheritance, by reading authors from the past 2,500 years of Western civilization. This reading and study of the past is what best equips students for life. The Institute also strives to connect the contemplative and active ideals of education into a cohesive whole. Though the bulk of a student’s time in Torrey is spent in the reading and discussion of assigned texts, tutors (as the professors are called) encourage students to participate in Institute-sponsored programs that reach others, such as Torrey Theatre, Torrey Music and the Torrey abroad programs.

Further, many students participate in short-term service programs administered by Biola University or other service agencies and/or reach out into the local community through local, community-based programs. The Torrey Honors Institute does not neglect the spiritual dimension of its students who are expected to have a “growing spiritual life.” Through the intentional mentoring program and inclusion of great Christian texts, primarily the Scriptures, into its curriculum, the Institute seeks to minister to the whole person. Conversations between students and tutors are personal and spiritual as often as they are academic.

Though not fully adopting a Platonic epistemology, the Institute does use the Socratic dialogue format, as exemplified in Plato’s dialogues, as the basis of its educational pedagogy. The Institute believes that all truth is God’s truth and is given to us as a gift from God; therefore, discussion of any text that yields an “understanding of the philosophical systems and worldviews of the greatest Christian and non-Christian thinkers in Western civilization” is worthwhile. Finally, the Institute’s educational goals are intended to develop the full Christian life of each student, including their prayer life. Sessions are often begun with prayer and students and tutors are encouraged to pray with one another.

Most importantly, just as the Benedictines have historically prioritized the use of the Sacred Scriptures in both their teaching and praying, the Institute also gives pride of place to God’s Word and strives to incorporate its teaching and truths into all class sessions and Institute activities. Like its predecessors Benedict of Nursia and John Henry Newman, the Torrey Honors Institute honors the Holy Scriptures as it strives to create whole persons with whole souls pursuing truth, goodness and beauty. It too, like Benedict’s monasteries, strives to be a school for the Lord’s service and I am happy to be involved in such an important task.

It seems important to me that scholars, especially those of Christian history, know where they have come from as much as where they are going. Though the past is always open to debate the future is completely hidden, despite our best attempts to predict it. Biola University knows where she comes from and has a fairly good idea of where she’s going should it work out according to plan. As well, the Torrey Honors Institute also understands its connection to the past by way of the great books of the intellectual tradition. We love books because we believe that

Unless great books are our very life, unless we look forward hungrily to the next opportunity to read them ourselves or to hear our students discuss them, unless by impulse and choice we are turning them over in our mind as we walk across the campus or through the school hallways, it is only a cold dish we are likely to serve up to our pupils, and they, taking their cue from us, will discuss great and noble ideas at a low temperature and on a low plane
(John Erskine, founder of the General Honors program at Columbia University in 1920).

It is my hope that all of us, as teachers and scholars of Christian history, be rooted in our respective traditions and histories so that we can be effective in what we do, inspiring those who will come after us. Again, I am happy and I love what I do. I hope you are too.

On Teaching Church History to Undergraduates

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

By R. Barry Levis

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.

Changes in Academia

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

by Almer Jesse Smith


Recently there has been talk of changes in academia. LinkedIn reported on January 9, 2012, that the Modern Language Association (MLA) suggested major changes in the nature of doctoral studies and dissertation research and writing. At the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky, Dr. David Puckett delivered a faculty address in which he suggested it might be time to make changes in the doctoral program in theological education. A glut of Ph.D. graduates in the market place unable to find positions in traditional brick and mortar institutions are filling the ranks of the up and coming online academy as adjuncts willing to work with no prospects for tenure or the usual benefits package that accompanies traditional higher education employment.

For profit universities have brought an entirely new focus to the educational enterprise, steering clear of purely research driven institutions and instead preparing people with marketable skills, the faculty is held to a standard of excellence that is outcome driven, not publication driven. Although not a “for profit” institution, Liberty University, has adopted this model. The goal is the preparation of students for life, not the publication of essays, monographs, and textbooks, even though the school has its share of published authors on faculty.

Like it or not, change is coming to the academy, and principally in these areas: (1) the nature and objective of graduate and post-graduate education, (2) balancing the graduation rate of doctoral students to the demands of the academic market, and (3) the impact of online education on traditional brick and mortar schools. The last item is of particular concern for theological education as the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) grapples with the issue of distance and online learning.

What, exactly, are we, as educators, and especially as Church History professors, attempting to achieve? What outcome do we desire for our students? Is it our goal for them to (1) think historically about critical issues, (2) have a sufficient comprehension of the broad contours of ecclesiastical history in general and their own denominational history specifically to be functionally literate in the subject area(s), (3) apply principles gleaned from the study of historical situations in new and creative ways to the ever changing circumstances in which they live, work, and minister, or (4) simply meet the employment and/or ordination criteria of their particular faith communities? These questions and many more need to inform any discussion of changes in teaching methodology and curriculum development in the field of Church History (for a fuller discussion see Dietrich Werner, “Challenges and Opportunities in Theological Education in the 21st Century,” Edinbugh 2010–International Study Group on Theological Education [PDF]). Perhaps a survey of pastors five, ten, and fifteen years out of seminary would be helpful in determining the effectiveness of Church History studies in terms of (1) content retention and (2) ministerial usefulness. Such surveys would probably best be developed and utilized as part of individual schools’ institutional effectiveness studies.

In a market where there are far more Ph.D. graduates than there are jobs to fill, which seems to be especially true in historical studies generally and Church History specifically, schools need to re-evaluate how many students should be admitted to doctoral studies in Church History. Granted, for many schools, these doctoral students provide a low-cost faculty option for teaching undergraduate courses, but does such an arrangement do justice to the student or the academy to use these students for six to nine years, graduate them, and leave them awash in student debt and limited employment options?

Another way to look at this issue is to ask, “Are we really preparing these scholars with transferable skills that will help them find meaningful employment within the academy?” After all, a Ph.D. graduate is a person presumably equipped to add to the knowledge base of the discipline through scholarly research and also to communicate in a meaningful way his/her knowledge of the subject to students preparing for vocational religious service or a life in the academy. What else is she or he qualified to do in the academy? What if a scholar graduates with a Ph.D. only to be forced to settle for lesser employment? What kind of contribution will he or she make, long term, to either the discipline or those preparing for vocational ministry?

Not a few recent Ph.D. graduates have turned to the growing online educational sector for employment. This is how I, for one, found myself teaching in the online community. Having taught in the online environment since the Fall 2006 semester, I have some basis of experience for addressing this issue. Online education has its benefits and its drawbacks. John D. Laing (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Houston, Texas, campus) presented a paper to the Evangelical Theological Society in 2007 pointing out the limitations of online education (“Online Education, Ecclesiology, and Christian Education”). Questions remain with ATS as to whether a purely online program can satisfy the “community of scholars” component of accreditation on the same level as the traditional brick and mortar divinity school (for the latest proposals in this regard see section B.3.1.4 and B.3.2.1 of the “Proposed Degree Standards” at the ATS website).

Whether one thinks this is a good thing or not, online education is here, and it is here in a big way and likely to become a dominant force in ministerial education in the future. For example, as of January 2012, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary had 8,444 students enrolled online and 271 online faculty. Other seminaries, divinity schools, and universities are exploring the online option as a way to boost enrollment and income. Online education is a cost-effective way for schools to reach more students, but currently I know of no online programs in theological studies that are ATS accredited. However, if the “Proposed Degree Standards” are adopted, it may become possible for online schools to find a way to overcome the “community of scholars” obstacle to ATS accreditation.

Certainly the capacity to make this happen exists through student cohorts and course designs that require direct instructor-student contact and feedback. Currently such online programs are accredited through regional accreditation agencies such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). I am hopeful that (1) the “Proposed Degree Standards” mentioned above will be adopted by ATS, and (2) online theological institutions will explore creative ways to satisfy these revised standards for accreditation. While this will not end degree mills, it will put online theological education on relative par with the tried and true residential programs that have been, and will likely remain, the mainstay of theological training, and it will do more to help curb the growth of degree mills in the online community.

In summary, change is inevitable for the academy in general and for theological education in particular. What shape will that change take? How will it impact both churches and the academy in the years ahead? Curriculum development committees and faculty senates need to give careful consideration to these issues. More scholarly research needs to be done in regard to the effectiveness of various educational delivery methods and the needs of the churches and academy for trained professionals in various theological sub-disciplines such as Church History. The fruit of such research should be utilized by seminaries and divinities schools in redesigning their degree plans and projecting enrollment numbers to produce graduates who are fully trained and able to meet the demands of today’s various ministry contexts with a solid foundation in historical studies.

Giving the Devil His Due

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

by Tom Simpson

© Copyright Jon Styer/Eastern Mennonite University (CC BY 3.0)

Just in time for Mother’s Day, a bit of commentary on a very recent moment in church history, and something for your syllabi:

Like many of you, I teach a range of upper- and lower-level courses on religion. In all of them, I use an assortment of strategies to bring the students to “breakthrough” moments, moments when they realize that the academic study of religion, irrespective of our different backgrounds, leads us to questions, and insights, of ultimate importance.

In this regard, the arresting documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell has been a godsend. It tells the story of ordinary Liberian women, Christian and Muslim, who banded together, praying, fasting, and protesting until they “did the unimaginable” – they brought an end to Liberia’s recent, raging civil war. In the film we see Leymah Gbowee, one of the movement’s heroines, launching the campaign in Monrovia’s St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. At film’s end, we find her there again, on Mother’s Day, with her sisters in the struggle, the “mothers of Liberia,” rejoicing and basking in the choir’s praise: “And I thank God, thank God, for Momma.

I show Pray the Devil Back to Hell so frequently and so enthusiastically because it offers a portrait of religion at its best, and religion at its worst. Here is love in its fullest measure, nonviolence in its fullest expression. For my students, born in the 1990s, who want to understand the resistance campaigns of Gandhi and King, but find those histories increasingly remote, this film makes it plain. And yet in the same film we find religion’s dark side: Liberian President Charles Taylor, standing in church, testifying that he enjoys the blessing and protection of “Jehovah God Almighty.” “No one can bring war against me,” he adds; “I am war itself.” Taylor’s warring opponents, moreover, attend the mosque as religiously as his supporters go to church.

Maybe you already know all this. Pray the Devil Back to Hell isn’t on the margins of our consciousness anymore, the way it was when I got my first copy of the film back in 2009. Now PBS has made it a centerpiece of its “Women, War, and Peace” documentary series, and Leymah Gbowee has a Nobel Prize, as does Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian president whose victory was the culmination of the women’s campaign. Charles Taylor too has been in the news, finally receiving his verdict at The Hague.

If you decide to use the film in class, let your students know that they’re in for an intense, but rewarding, experience. I pause during the film, no more than 30 minutes in, to see how they’re doing, and I make sure to leave time for them to reflect and talk afterward. Inevitably, they respond with gratitude. They witness the power of love and the deep wisdom beyond university walls. My abiding hope is that they will never be the same.


Tom Simpson, Ph.D., teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. You can find more of his reflections on religion, culture, and the teacher’s craft at