Category Archives: Teaching Tips

Should Christian seminaries train Muslim Imams, Jewish Rabbis, or Buddhist and Hindu spiritual leaders?

The world is shrinking.  With the invention of the internet, advances in technology, and the movement of people around the world culture has changed.   One of the benefits of this has been the ability of Christianity to engage with religious others without having to go to another country (although this is still necessary and good) but across the street.  This is a great advantage to the church, but the downside has been that the exclusivity of the Gospel and Christ have come under attack.  For the sake of “getting along” or “working across religious lines,” many have felt the need to water down the exclusive claims of Christianity.  However, on the other side, the religious arrogant refuse to engage at all with those of other faiths.  The former group opts for proximity to the point that they are almost indistinguishable from the groups they are trying to “reach” (Since it is precisely the gospel of Christ that distinguishes them).  This usually culminates in inter-religious action against social concerns only.   The latter opts for purity and “lovingly” lobs Jesus grenades over the walls of the church while never engaging in any type of meaningful relationships or dialogue.

The church is wrestling with the issue.  How do we engage religious others while at the same time not compromising the exclusive claims of Christ?  Many say that it cannot be done.   This simply is not true.  The question is not “can” or “if” it should be done, but “how.”  To this end Claremont School of Theology (CST) has given their answer.  Although a seminary affiliated with the United Methodist Church, they are opening up their school to train Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and other religious leaders.  Should Christian institutions take such a drastic step?  The backlash has been prompt from many within the church.  Initially the UM Church withheld almost one-million dollars from the institution, but has recently lifted the ban and reinstated the money.  Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary, offers his own warning about the choice to enter such a endeavor.  Ironically, the President of CST, Dr. Jerry Cambell, claims that the school will remain distinctively Methodist, but will simply use the addition of other religious ideas to better help train their clergy.

I personally see the move as ill-conceived for three reasons.  First, the exclusive claims of the gospel and of Christ can never be married to the theological worldview of other religions.  Jesus alone is Lord and Savior and the only true and living hope of the world.  Other religions that do not submit to the authority of Christ as Lord are simply man-centered, demon-driven, perversions of worship that have no power to save from sin or death and continue to offend the God of Creation and spurn the life, death, resurrection, love, and Lordship of Christ.  Although Christianity should be engaging genuinely and wholeheartedly with those of other religious faiths, the simple fact remains: if men do not repent of their sin and trust in the sacrificial atoning death and resurrection of Christ alone for salvation they will go to hell.  As Christians this message may be offensive, but if we truly love others we will not pat them on the back all the way to hell, but be loving, honest, genuine, and sincere about what the God of the Universe declares in the gospel of Christ.  This will entail establishing genuine and sacrificial relationships with others who do not know Christ.

Secondly, such a move distorts the exclusive claims of Christianity.  Seeing as how anti-Christ worldviews can never be reconciled to Christ the decision made by CST sends another message.  Such a move by a Christian Institution, for the sake of inter-religious peace and harmony, assumes that we are all heading in the same direction but are just a little confused about some of the minor details.  President Jerry Cambpell said, “We want to be able to facilitate love among our different traditions in order that we can begin to solve the big problems” (he never says what the “big problems” are specifically).  He also says that, “Methodism has reached out to other denominations to promote justice in the world.”  Since when did Christianity and Buddhism become simply different traditions?  When did Christianity and Islam simply become different denominations?  It seems that the underlying reasoning for such a move by CST is that we are all really not that different after all.  Something the Bible, and the Quran for that matter, would both disagree with.  In a day when Christians and others are struggling to define their faith in relation to religious others, such a move is a stumbling block.

Lastly, the the decision by CST appears to be motivated by social concerns and not the gospel of Christ.  President Jerry Campbell is also quoted as saying, “We need leaders who understand other cultures and religions and can reach across boundaries to work for the common good.”  This common good is defined as the promotion of “justice in the world” later in the article.  Should Christians work for social justice?  Absolutely.  Should Christians work for social justice with those of other religious faiths?  Possibly.  As long as open and honest dialogue about Christ and the exclusivity of the gospel are not banned, and there is no danger of seeing the cooperation as some type of synergistic approval of the validity of the truthfulness of other religions it may be useful to consider such work.  Although the CST may claim to comply with the first point, they cannot with the second.

I have to say that I applaud the CST’s attempt to engage with religious others in meaningful dialogue.  My only question would be, does a Christian Seminary have to go to the lengths that CST has in order to accomplish such dialogue?  No.

Teaching in a digital land: lectures, You Tube, and context

Inside Higher Ed has an article today that serves as a cautionary tale about taping class lectures. Apparently a professor at the U.S. Naval War College recently lectured on Machiavelli’s discussion of the goddess Fortuna and his argument that a strong leader needs to force Fortuna to give him what he wants. In essence, Machiavelli uses language of rape and violent oppression to make his point. And, the professor used similar language in summarizing Machiavelli’s argument. He then went on to reject Machiavelli’s entire approach, suggesting that good leadership should be virtue-based.

Although the entire lecture was videotaped, someone posted to You Tube just the portion of the lecture where the professor is summarizing Machiavelli’s position. Without the broader context of the lecture, it sounds as though the professor himself is promoting rape as a legitimate method of persuasion. Because of the resulting furor and the administration’s concerns with some of the language the professor used in the lecture, the professor has been placed on administrative leave.

While reading the article, I began reflecting on my own teaching style. As my students know, I like to press arguments from every side, often pursuing ideas radically different than my own, to make sure that we’ve thought carefully through an issue. Last semester alone I found myself arguing for Arianism, Mormonism, Pelagianism, and the Inquisition, among other things. Any one of those could become a 2-3 minute video on You Tube, which, shorn of context, would present me in a light far different than originally intended.

So, that leaves us with the question of how to navigate in these digital waters. With lectures being videotaped by students and schools more than ever before, professors have increasingly less control over what happens with their lectures after they’ve been presented. But I would hate to see the day that we need to monitor every segment of our classes for fear that some portion might be replicated later out of context. That would truly suck the life out of a good class. And, I can’t imagine that we can (or should) reverse the trend toward taping class lectures. So, I fully intend just to continue making outrageous arguments in my classes. If someday someone comes across a 2-minute You Tube video and actually becomes convinced by it that I really do think the Inquisition was a good idea, so be it. I probably wouldn’t want them in class anyway.

The tech talk continues – Steven Pinker on your brain and technology

I’ve posted a couple of times recently about the ongoing debate regarding how technology impacts the way that we think and learn (“Testing Your Techno Depravity” and “Wired for Distraction“). Now, I’m not a technophobe arguing that Mark Zuckerberg is the Antichrist or that Twitter is going to bring about the Technocalypse. I just think that everyone involved in any kind of education needs to stay informed about the discussion.

So, to continue the conversation, I thought I’d point out Steven Pinker’s NYT piece today arguing that a lot of the discussion is driven more by media hype that science. (Could that possibly be?) He leads with the observation that “New forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber.” And, such claims are rampant in the media about modern technology as well. But Pinker argues that we need a reality check. Instead of declining attention spans and decreased mental capacity, he contends that the sciences and the humanities are flourishing today. So, we simply lack any real evidence that increased technology corresponds to decreased mental capacity.

He also pushes back against claims about how experiences change brain structure. While such changes do occur, he seems to see them as rather superficial and not affecting “the basic information-processing capacities of the brain.”

And so, he concludes his argument with the following suggestions:

Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

Clearly then, the discussion continues. As I commented in interaction with another person, the issue isn’t so much whether technology is changing the way that we learn and think. That is clear even if we are still debating whether the changes are neurological, behavioral, or something else. The more important questions for us have to do with which of those changes are positive and which are negative (there are surely some of both), as well as how this needs to affect the way that we conduct ourselves as educators.

Rising salaries for Bible and theology professors…

…in 1560.

‘Discussion of university faculty salaries highlighted their concern that a primary aim of the proposed national school system be the development of the preaching pastorate. Teachers of mathematics, physics, and philosophy were to receive 100 pounds a year; teachers of medicine and law 133 and 1/3 pounds; but teachers of Hebrew, Greek, and divinity were to be paid 200 pounds, the salary of a college principal’. – Robert M. Healey, ‘The Preaching Ministry in Scotland’s First Book of Discipline’. Church History 58, no. 3 (1989), 347.

Oh, for the good old days when plague ravaged the land, everyone died young, excrement ran in the streets, and Bible/theology professors were paid well.

(HT Per Crucem ad Lucem)

Testing your techno depravity

The New York Times post an article yesterday, “Your Brain on Computers,”  summarizing the debate about whether our constant use of technology is affecting in mostly positive or negative ways. I commented on this a while back, suggesting that anyone involved in any kind of education/formation needed to be keeping an eye on this discussion. So, if you’re looking for a primer on the debate, this should be helpful.

Although the article is well written and worth reading, I mostly wanted to point out that the article also links to a couple of games designed to test how much you have already been twisted and corrupted by the neurological affects of technological overexposure. (Technically, they just test how much of a multitasker you are; but I like my version better.) One game tests your ability to concentrate  in the face of distractions, and another your ability to switch between tasks quickly. According to both tests, my current level of techno depravity is actually rather low (i.e. I don’t distract easily and I switch easily between tasks). Apparently I still spend too much time doing old school things like reading books and talking to people.

Wired for distraction?

Nicholas Carr recent wrote a piece for Wired Magazine on the way that the internet is literally rewiring our brains. The article reports on a 2007 study demonstrating that browsing the internet for as little as five hours actually causes significant changes in the brain’s neural pathways. Given that our brains are constantly adjusting to sensory input, this really isn’t surprising. As Carr points out,

The real revelation was how quickly and extensively Internet use reroutes people’s neural pathways. “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate,” Small concluded, “but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.”

So, Carr rightly notes that the real question is, “What kind of brain is the web giving us?” And, he thinks that the answer might be a little troubling.

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

The rest of the article goes on to point out concerns raised in several studies about the quality of learning in an internet environment – particularly the impact that hyperlinks have on reading comprehension.

Of course, this isn’t a new discussion. In a now famous Atlantic Monthly article, Carr asked the question “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” Others have sounded a similarly negative tone, warning us about the cognitive dangers of constant web browsing (see esp. Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation). But, many disagree. Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital is a great resource for arguments suggesting that the rewiring of the modern brain is actually increasing our cognitive abilities in some very important ways. And Curtis Bonk’s The World Is Open argues that web technology can and should revolutionize the way that we teach. So, like most debates, there are voices on both sides. And, it probably isn’t an either/or. I’m sure our changing cognitive context affects us both positively and negatively.

I’m highlighting all of this because most of the people who read this blog are either already involved in teaching  (whether in a church or a classroom) or hope to in the future. If that’s the case, this is a debate you definitely need to be following. Most experts are now convinced that the way people learn is changing, regardless of whether they agree about whether this is good or bad. The question, then, is how (or whether) this should affect the way that we teach. Many schools have taken the posture that the changes may be negative, but they’re inevitable. So, we should alter our teaching to be as effective as possible in the new environment. Other schools are resisting the changes entirely, arguing that one of the tasks of any educational institution is to resist developments that negatively impact people’s ability to learn. And, of course, some schools just think this is all great, and they’re excited to embrace the new opportunities.

I have not come to any easy conclusions on this issue yet. You can probably tell from this blog that I like the internet. I think it’s a tremendous resource. And I think it has great potential to facilitate learning. But, I’m also aware that it can change the way that people read and think in potentially negative ways. I’ve even seen this in myself. I notice that the more time I spend online, the more inclined I am to skim articles and draw conclusions very quickly. Indeed, I find that after an extended period online, it’s difficult for me to really dig into a challenging book. It takes awhile for my brain to switch gears and become effective in this different cognitive environment. And, apparently I’m not alone. The challenge for anyone teaching today, then, is how to tap into the strengths of the internet while avoiding or minimizing its learning pitfalls.

So, no easy answers here. The debate continues. I just wanted to make sure that you were paying attention to it.