Blog Archives

Flotsam and jetsam (12/10)

  • Craig Carter offers a post In Praise of the Lecture, arguing that the lecture is a moral event, a personal act, and a tribute to metaphysical truth. HT

Today, the lecture is out of favor in politically-correct circles. Like dead white males, high academic standards and absolute truth, it has been consigned to the dustbin of history by enlightened, late-modern, progressives who do not quite believe that God grades on the curve, but who do hold it against Him that He does not.

To all Christians and other lovers of Lewis I would say this—- please during this Christmas season come out and support this film, not least so we may see more of Narnia in the future.  This is certainly a film appropriate for families to see, though a couple of the scenes in 3D with the big sea monster may be a little too intense for wee bairns as small as Reepicheep.  Be that as it may,  we must say— Well done good and faithful servants at Walden.   Inherit the Kingdom yourselves.

But our longing for “authenticity” also bears a suspicious resemblance to the latest plot twist in the story of consumer culture: the tendency to rapidly replace the squeaky-clean franchise with the “authentic” franchise.

Hearing what he called “the still, small voice of love” amid the cacophony of secular voices calling for attention needs special effort: “It requires solitude, silence and a strong determination to listen.” The Internet has not made the spiritual life any easier.

Rethinking the purpose of tests in theological education

Yesterday, James McGrath asked about the impact of technology on the way that we are teaching our classes. And, he specifically wants to know what impact this does (or should) have on our testing methodology. As he puts it:

I have found myself considering phasing out exams of the traditional sort, in which I essentially test what they have been able to remember. Information is available with a few clicks of their thumbs, and so it seems better to instead test students’ ability to find reliable information online, rather than test their ability to remember it.

I’ve been wrestling with a similar question in my theology classes for a while now. What exactly is the purpose of an exam in a theology class? The theology exams I took as an undergrad focused primarily on simple recall. As long as I could memorize and retain the information from the notes, I was good to go. Seminary upped the ante by making better use of short-answer essay questions. Even here, though, the focus was on remembering the notes and discussions so I could answer the essay questions properly. But, as McGrath points out, in our technological age, recall simply isn’t as important as it used to be.

So, if recall isn’t the point of a theological test, what is?” What exactly should I be trying to assess? The conclusion that I’ve reached is that a theological exam (I think the purpose of an exam varies from one discipline to the next) should be about what students can do with the knowledge that they have, rather than just what they can recall. And here my emphasis has gone in a slightly different direction than what McGrath proposes. In his post, he focused on the skill of being able to find information. That’s an important skill that should be taught and assessed. But it seems more rightly assessed in papers and other assignments. Since I’m largely training people for ministry, I’ve chosen to focus my examinations more on the students’ ability to use their theological knowledge by applying it to new issues and situations. In other words, I’ve focused my exams on assessing whether students can “think theologically” when they encounter real-life situations in ministry.

But, how do you do that? This, of course, is the challenging question. And, I’m open to suggestions. The way that I decided to do it last year was to redesign my exams entirely around case studies. I would first determine the theological issue that I wanted to examine my students on. Then, I would reflect on how that theological issue has contemporary significance for life and ministry. And finally, I’d create a question that (hopefully) forced students to apply their knowledge to a real-life situation, many of which were drawn from my own ministry experiences.

For example, in an exam dealing with theological anthropology, I wanted a question on creation/evolution issues. I could simply have asked the students to write an essay explaining/defending their position. Instead, I went with the following:

You’re having a meeting with a youth leader who has been teaching students that God created humans through evolutionary processes (i.e. theistic evolution) and a parent who is upset because he believes that this contradicts the Bible. How will you handle this discussion? Will you side with one person or the other? Why? What would you like to see happen as the result of the conversation?
The advantages of a case study question like this are (at least):
  • The question itself continues to show students that theology is not an abstract discipline. It has direct bearing on life and ministry. I think a good exam should continue to teach by reinforcing what you think is important.
  • It pushes beyond a mere statement of the students’ position, though it should still elicit that. It asks the student to apply their perspective to a real ministry situation.
  • The final part of the question is there to see if students have made the connection between theological conversations like this and spiritual formation. I want to see if they’re just going to focusing on “winning” the argument, or if they’ll see this as a way of growing people through theological dialog. (We discuss this in class; so it’s not unexpected.)

I did learn some valuable lessons from this last year. First, exams like this take the students a lot longer to complete. I had to make mid-semester adjustments to keep the exams within reason. Second, writing questions like this is harder than I expected. I routinely received good answers from students that weren’t quite what I was looking for. The evolution question above, for example, often elicited responses that said almost nothing about the students own perspective. (They focused more on how to “handle” the situation.)  Since I want that to be a part of the response, I’ll need to adjust the question next time. Third, the students liked the new approach (or they lied to me, one of the two). The exams became opportunities for lively discussion afterward and several students commented that they even shared the exam questions with people at their churches.

What do you think? What should a theology class in a seminary be trying to accomplish, and how do we best assess whether that has happened?

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.

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.

Desiring the Kingdom 4

Continuing with our series on Desiring the Kingdom, Smith is now ready to move into the heart of his argument. So, he contends in the second chapter that contrary to our common conception of ourselves, the majority of our behavior is driven by our habits rather than our choices. Indeed, he cites research supporting the idea that only 5% of of human behavior flows from conscious choice. And, this means two things. (1) “Automatic” processes exercise tremendous influence in our lives. And, (2) we’re deceiving ourselves if we think these are limited to mundane or routine behaviors. So, we need to consider how these automatic processes are shaped and the impact that this has on us.

Smith recognizes that we need to distinguish between “thin” cultural practices (mundane, everyday actions with less impact on identity) and “thick” cultural practices (habits that shape who we are). To that end, Smith offers the following definitions of certain key terms:

  • A “ritual” is any action performed routinely.
  • A “practice” is any action performed routinely that is directed toward a particular end.
  • A “liturgy” is a “ritual of ultimate concern” (p. 86)

These definitions are clearly sequential with the latter two embedded in the first. That is, something could be a ritual without being a practice, but all practices are necessarily rituals. What makes the difference is that all practices are intentionally directed toward some end. They are not mundane actions with little or no real significance (e.g. tying my shoes in a certain way), but they are actions that are specifically designed to form us in certain ways so that we will desire certain ends. Thus, there can be no neutral practices, they are all “meaning-laden, identity-forming practices that subtly shape us precisely they grab hold of our loves – they are automating our desire and action without our conscious recognition” (p. 83). Thus, my practice of kissing my wife every morning before I leave for work is a ritual that forms me to be a certain kind of person – i.e. one who desires his wife. And, much of this happens at a pre-conscious level. I’m not aware that my desires are being shaped and reinforced every time that I do this, but they are.

And, for Smith, liturgies go one step further. They are not simply rituals directed toward a particular end, but they are rituals directed toward an ultimate end. In other words, practices designed to form in us a desire for something that should be our ultimate concern. They are “rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations” (p. 86). So, a Christian worship service is a liturgy because it is designed to make us into beings who desire God above all else. And, we’ll discuss in the next post that going to the mall is also a liturgy in the way that it shapes our identities and ultimate concerns.

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.

Expository preaching – friend or foe?

The Gospel Coalition posted an article today by Iain Murray titled “Expository Preaching: Time for Caution.” In it Murray raises some questions about the current trend toward expositional preaching, where “expositional” is understood to refer to “preaching which consecutively takes a congregation through a passage, or book of Scripture, week by week.” Although he recognizes some of the reasons often given for this style of preaching ministry, he raises five concerns:

  1. Not everyone is gifted/capable of doing this kind of preaching well.
  2. Preaching should not be seen as merely instructional.
  3. There is a role for lecturing your way through the Bible, but that is not the primary function of preaching.
  4. Expositional preaching can easily become a dull running commentary on the text, rather than the powerful and memorable declaration of important ideas.
  5. Expositional preaching is not conducive to evangelistic preaching because not all texts are equally conducive to Gospel proclamation.

He concludes with two final thoughts. (1) This doesn’t mean we should avoid this kind of expositional preaching, only that we shouldn’t make it the exclusive focus of the pulpit. (2) We shouldn’t limit “expositional” to this kind of preaching, but should extend it to any kind of sermon that seeks to explain God’s word clearly and powerfully.

My initial reaction when I started reading the article was not terribly positive. I immediately jumped to what I think of as the opposite of expositional preaching – the kind of “topical” sermon that takes its starting point from some biblical text, but never returns to it. Obviously, though, that is far from Murray’s mind. He is still talking about preaching expositional sermons, he’s just pushing back on the idea that a truly expositional preaching ministry needs to walk through entire books passage by passage.

My second reaction was one that he actually dealt with throughout the article. I concluded that of course we need expositional preaching or people won’t ever hear the whole word of God. And, I’m actually still concerned about this one. As I reflected a bit more, however, I began to wonder if the contemporary emphasis on expositional preaching was related to the modern shift away from other teaching times. With the downfall of Sunday schools and Sunday evening services, where do people hear the word of God taught/lectured on a regular basis? If Murray is right and teaching/lecturing is not the primary purpose of preaching, something that I would agree with, how are we ensuring that people are getting that other kind of equally necessary time in the word? They certainly aren’t getting it from most of the small groups that I’ve been a part of. (Hmmm, what’s the common denominator there?) Is it possible that expositional preaching of this kind is the solution to a problem that we should be trying to solve in other ways?

So, here are the questions for our consideration. First, what do you think of Murray’s arguments? Do they hold water? Second, what do you think about the contemporary emphasis on expositional preaching? Does it lie at the very heart of good preaching? Is it something that has possibly gotten overemphasized in the modern church because of weaknesses in our teaching ministries elsewhere? Or, do you just like topical preaching and would like to hear more series on “You and Your Money.” I must confess that although I’ve had many regular teaching ministries over the years, I’ve never had to preach every week. I think we all can and should have an opinion on this, but I’d be particularly interested in hearing from those of you who preach (or have preached) on a more regular basis.

Desiring the Kingdom 2

Continuing with our series on James K. A. Smith’s Desiring in the Kingdom, this post will consider Smith’s understanding of the relationship between pedagogy and anthropology.

One of the more helpful parts of the introduction to Smith’s work is his argument that every pedagogy is fundamentally shaped by a philosophical anthropology – i.e. some view of what it means to be human, what human flourishing looks like, and what it takes to get there. And, he argues that most contemporary pedagogies are grounded in modernistic assumptions about the human person that overemphasize our rational nature. To a large extent, our modern educational institutions and practices are grounded in a philosophical anthropology that sees the human person as a “thinking animal.” So, it should come as no surprise that we view education as primarily passing along knowledge.

But, he argues that since this modernistic anthropology is fundamentally antithetical to the biblical picture of the human person (we’ll unpack that a bit more in the next post), we need to reject both it and the educational models that are based on it. “We need to think further about how a Christian understanding of human persons should also shape how we teach, not just what we teach.” (p. 33) A Christian pedagogy should be grounded in the conviction that human persons are shaped by their desires which are in turn shaped by formative practices. Christian education, then, should focus on developing people who love the right things by training the desires through the right kinds of practices. So, Smith offers the following as a much better definition of education.

“An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices.” (p. 26)

This doesn’t mean that we neglect the cognitive side of formation, but that we see it as secondary rather than primary.

I’m still processing what I think about his argument regarding the fundamental role of formative practices, though at the moment I’m pretty sympathetic. But, I love Smith’s emphasis on being attuned to the philosophical and theological anthropologies that lie behind our educational practices—and, consequently, everything that we do to shape people (discipleship, teaching, mentoring, evangelism, etc.). How much of what we do in our churches to raise up God’s people is actually informed by cultural concepts and practices that may be antithetical to the good news that we proclaim? That’s really how I developed my interest in theological anthropology to begin with. It seemed to me that we needed more intentional theological reflection on what it means to be human so that we can self-critically assess our ecclesial practices.

Desiring the Kingdom 1

I finally got James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009) off my “to read” shelf and actually read it. The book has a wealth of interesting ideas, so I’m going to spend a little while blogging my way through it.

The basic premise of the book is that modern Christian educational practices are overly rationalistic and intellectual. This in itself is such a common claim these days as to be almost boring. But, the particular way that Smith develops his argument is worth following.

Smith’s argument really rests on two basic propositions: (1) human persons are basically affective beings—that is, we are shaped more by our loves/desires than by our beliefs/ideas; and (2) our loves/desires are in turn shaped more by habit-forming practices than by beliefs/ideas. I don’t think Smith wants to denigrate the importance of beliefs/ideas in any of this, but he does want to argue that they are less central than we like to think. Instead, our lives are driven primarily by our affections, which are in turn shaped primarily by our regular practices. Thus, the book comprises a basically Augustinian approach to educational formation today. But, although the book’s articulated goal is to deepen on our understanding of education, its arguments have broader significance for spiritual formation in general.

He establishes his first point by appealing to the Augustinian notion that our lives are driven primarily by our loves. We all have some vision of the “good” that we love and orient our lives toward. Although this vision has cognitive content, it is the affective power of the vision that causes us to orient our lives around it. So, Smith contends that real Christian formation needs to be more focused on forming people who love the right things than on making people who believe the right things. He does not deny the important connection between loving and believing, but he thinks that modern education has not only gotten them backward but that it often neglects the former entirely.

Smith devotes the majority of the book to establishing and explaining his second point—i.e. that our desires “are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate” (p. 25). To do this, he develops the idea of “cultural liturgies,” or practices that fundamentally shape who we are as people. These practices are liturgical in that they are fundamentally religious (i.e. oriented toward some concept of the good) and pedagogical (i.e. they shape us into the kinds of people who will be oriented toward that good). And, he argues that virtually anything you do on a regular basis can be a “liturgy” in this sense. Consequently, we need to pay much more attention to the formative dimension of such practices.

So, he summarizes his core claim in this way: “The core claim of this book is that liturgies…shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (p. 25). And, it’s a claim that he thinks should challenge and reshape our modernistic approach to spiritual formation in general and Christian education in particular.

What is interesting about the book is the way in which Smith applies this core claim to several “cultural liturgies” (e.g. shopping at the mall) and how this reveals the power of “ritual” in shaping personal and corporate identity. How he does this should become clearer in subsequent posts.

Desiring the Kingdom 1

I finally got James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009) off my “to read” shelf and actually read it. The book has a wealth of interesting ideas, so I’m going to spend a little while blogging my way through it. Link to other blogs on this book.

The basic premise of the book is that modern Christian educational practices are overly rationalistic and intellectual. This in itself is such a common claim these days as to be almost boring. But, the particular way that Smith develops his argument is worth following.

Smith’s argument really rests on two basic propositions: (1) human persons are basically affective beings—that is, we are shaped more by our loves/desires than by our beliefs/ideas; and (2) our loves/desires are in turn shaped more by habit-forming practices than by beliefs/ideas. I don’t think Smith wants to denigrate the importance of beliefs/ideas in any of this, but he does want to argue that they are less central than we like to think. Instead, our lives are driven primarily by our affections, which are in turn shaped primarily by our regular practices. Thus, the book comprises a basically Augustinian approach to educational formation today. But, although the book’s articulated goal is to deepen on our understanding of education, its arguments have broader significance for spiritual formation in general.

He establishes his first point by appealing to the Augustinian notion that our lives are driven primarily by our loves. We all have some vision of the “good” that we love and orient our lives toward. Although this vision has cognitive content, it is the affective power of the vision that causes us to orient our lives around it. So, Smith contends that real Christian formation needs to be more focused on forming people who love the right things than on making people who believe the right things. He does not deny the important connection between loving and believing, but he thinks that modern education has not only gotten them backward but that it often neglects the former entirely.

Smith devotes the majority of the book to establishing and explaining his second point—i.e. that our desires “are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate” (p. 25). To do this, he develops the idea of “cultural liturgies,” or practices that fundamentally shape who we are as people. These practices are liturgical in that they are fundamentally religious (i.e. oriented toward some concept of the good) and pedagogical (i.e. they shape us into the kinds of people who will be oriented toward that good). And, he argues that virtually anything you do on a regular basis can be a “liturgy” in this sense. Consequently, we need to pay much more attention to the formative dimension of such practices.

So, he summarizes his core claim in this way: “The core claim of this book is that liturgies…shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (p. 25). And, it’s a claim that he thinks should challenge and reshape our modernistic approach to spiritual formation in general and Christian education in particular.