Pedagogical Fatigue & Empathy

By this time in the semester I’m always tired. It’s partly physical fatigue, and emotional (so many new relationships to establish). There is, however, another kind of weariness. I feel the fatigue that always sneaks up on me from traveling up and down what I’ve come to call the teaching and learning ladder.

ladder2I don’t know what else to call it. If you’re also a teacher then you might have some other name (please share it). For the longest time I didn’t realize the ladder existed; it was there, always, and in every class I was traveling up and down without knowing it. Now that I recognize it and know that my students and I are on it together, I have an entirely new sense for the importance, centrality even, of pedagogical empathy. Let me explain.

I stumbled upon the idea of a teaching and learning ladder in the weirdest place. In the Preface of C.S. Lewis’ little commentary on the Psalms he describes the perplexing difficulty that students have with getting answers from teachers. Sure, teachers are constantly offering responses to student questions, but do our responses — Socratic, didactic, or otherwise — actually address the questions our students are asking?

C.S. Lewis describes it like this:

It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than a master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought to me by my pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms [Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1958], 1-2)

I know that struggle! Compared to my students, I stand on the ladder several rungs higher (many rungs in some cases) and thus hear their questions from my rung and not theirs. Questions make perfect sense from their rung, because they live and breathe the same air. And that’s the rub: I live and breath on a different rung and share the air with different questions and insights. From my rung I can sometimes see their questions aren’t quite the right ones. I see, as Lewis puts it, “a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.”

Pedagogical empathy is meeting a student on her rung, and its hard. “I’m not used to the air,” I gasp. “The vista looks strange from here,” I complain. “These aren’t the right questions!” I gripe. Its hard, but I’m learning at least two benefits from all my trips down the ladder. Continue reading

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So What? Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World [Review]

As October sneaks in the back door, I’m finding myself already in the third month of pastoral ministry. I’m preparing my eighth consecutive sermon; I’ve done several visits to homes and hospitals. The sum of people I’ve prayed with, laughed with, hugged or shaken hands with is well into the hundreds. What’s more, being in a small town means Jessie and I have even had dinner with the mayor!

One thing I’ve learned, quickly and sharply, is that things that impressed me in seminary don’t have the same dramatic effect on my congregants. People aren’t impressed when I offer some variation of a Stanley Hauerwas quip, such as: “the first work of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world more the world.” It’s not gone over any more impressively when I attempt to do some Childs-ean canonical hermeneutical maneuver. No one has complimented my sermon’s works cited page.

But, my oh my, do they get riled up by a good answer to the question “So what?” It’s not at all the case that my beloved congregation doesn’t care about reading Scripture faithfully or theological interpreting culture. If I’ve made sense of the comments I’ve received, the reason they love a good answer to “so what?” is because, oftentimes, the line from sermon to discipleship is not always clear. Preaching on God’s “absolute difference” (to borrow a phrase from Rev. Warren Smith) does not directly translate into any meaningful action, whether an action of heart or soul or mind or body. They want to draw nearer to Jesus somehow and delight when the way is made known to them. Continue reading

“We must not, when we do speak, say too much.”

I don’t have time at the moment to comment on this section from the first volume of Sonderegger_Katherine_photo2014-256x300Kate Songeregger’s dogmatics, “The Doctrine of God.” I simply put it here with some reading notes to mull over. In the section I’m excerpting from she wrestles with the long-standing tension between God’s knowability – he does not remain hidden – and his utter incomprehensibility – he is not a being to be comprehended in the way we know beings of our own sort.

What strikes me every time I read this volume is her boldness to attempt two things at the same time, neither of which come easily. She works to solidly situate her restatement of Christian teaching squarely within the stream of Christian thought, while simultaneously reconsidering the sources of Christian theology afresh. As in the following bit, you can’t miss her sense that the question is still fresh for us, for her: how shall we speak of God?

We cannot stress too strongly the radical novelty that is human knowledge of this incomparable Subject. Again and again we must be broken on this novelty, this transcendent Uniqueness. We may speak, if we care to, of the ancient puzzle of the One and the many – but the Lord God of Israel, the One God, outstrips and explodes even that ancient mystery, this One without Form or Likeness. “No one has ever seen God,” John tells us in the close of the great epilogue; but “the Only Begotten has made Him known” (John 1:18). Its all there, in that one verse, isn’t it? Everything we have said about God’s Uniqueness and Formlessness, His majestic Life as dynamic Light, His deep Hiddenness and Humility—is it not captured in a few simple words? And our knowledge “at a distance,” our success in knowing the Lord—as Mystery, our earthen vessels that hold such Light—is that not also set forth here, a gift of our Lord Christ?…God is known! A positive relation, a beachhead has been established, between Creator and creature, and in that Radiance, God has been made known. But such a knowledge! (390-91)

In short, when speaking about the knowledge of God we have ground to stand on, a “beachhead”: the Incarnation of the Son. But still, perhaps the knowledge we gain in the appearing of the Son should drive us to silence. Or perhaps compel our use of Platonizing concepts that hold God at reserve—out of respect for his divinity of course. Perhaps its all too great for us to really do anything with besides stunned silence! Indeed, she asks, “Why should we speak rather than hold our peace when in the presence of this great Mystery?”

I found her response poignant. Continue reading

A Reforming Catholic Confession

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To mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a fresh Christian confession has been written to accentuate and celebrate theological unity among Protestants of diverse traditions. “A Reforming Catholic Confession” (RCC) was posted online just days ago. When asked to join an initial group of signatories months ago, I eagerly read the confession and happily signed.  Now that it’s posted I invite you to read it and consider adding your signature here.

The RCC is clear about the Gospel, robustly trinitarian, and “catholic” in all the ways I seek to be catholic myself—without apologizing for my place within the Protestant tradition. The rationale for the RCC is explained in some detail on the website, including the following samplings about Protestant “catholicity”:

[1] The Protestant Reformers believed they were contending for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and recovering the gospel that some were “so quickly deserting” (Gal. 1:6). They therefore believed their efforts to be both catholic and evangelical, that is, on behalf of the whole church and for the sake of the integrity of the gospel, particularly the singularity and sufficiency of Christ’s person and saving work (solus Christus). […]

[2] … While we regret the divisions that have followed in [the Reformation’s] wake, we acknowledge the need for the sixteenth-century Reformation, even as we recognize the hopeful possibilities of the present twenty-first century moment. Not every denominational or doctrinal difference is a division, certainly not an insurmountable one. We dare hope that the unity to which the Reformers aspired may be increasingly realized as today’s “mere” Protestants, like Richard Baxter’s and C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christians,” joyfully join together to bear united witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to its length, depth, breadth, and width – in a word, its catholicity. We therefore aim to celebrate the catholic impulse that lies at the heart of the earlier Reformation even as we hope and pray for ever greater displays of our substantial unity in years to come.

[12] “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). Various sixteenth-century Protestant groups – including Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and some Anabaptists – produced confessions that not only demarcated their respective identities but also, and more crucially, established their catholic bona fides. In view of their catholic credentials, the common notion that Protestants are theological innovators who are hopelessly divided over doctrine because of a lack of centralized authority is an unwarranted caricature. On the contrary: as mere Protestants, we all acknowledge the Triune God of the gospel and the gospel of the triune God, including the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ and the biblical testimony about him. While we continue to disagree about the particular form and content of certain doctrines, we together affirm God’s Word as the singular and ultimate authority to which we must all submit our respective interpretations for judgment. Our interpretive disagreements must therefore be viewed in the context of our even greater agreements about Scripture. It is in this spirit, with hope and prayer, that we together confess our common faith.

What I appreciate about the RCC, and I would not have signed it otherwise, is that it makes no attempt to bash, caricature, or slight brothers and sisters from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions of faith. I don’t believe it will harm ecumenical dialogue or partnerships in mission with non-Protestants. In fact, perhaps it will galvanize both, tamping down fears about compromise by articulating a generous, catholic center. Drawing confessing Protestants around a shared theological center is the goal, and I believe the RCC does that admirably.

For instance, here’s the article on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Anyone who knows anything about the Reformation, or the subsequent splintering of Protestant factions, knows how controversy and disagreement swirl around these.

That these two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which some among us call “sacraments,” are bound to the Word by the Spirit as visible words proclaiming the promise of the gospel, and thus become places where recipients encounter the Word again. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper communicate life in Christ to the faithful, confirming them in their assurance that Christ, the gift of God for the people of God, is indeed “for us and our salvation” and nurturing them in their faith. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are physical focal points for key Reformation insights: the gifts of God (sola gratia) and the faith that grasps their promise (sola fide). They are tangible expressions of the gospel insofar as they vividly depict our dying, rising, and incorporation into Jesus’ body (“one bread … one body” – 1 Cor. 10:16-17), truly presenting Christ and the reconciliation he achieved on the cross. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper strengthen the faithful by visibly recalling, proclaiming, and sealing the gracious promise of forgiveness of sins and communion with God and one another through the peace-making blood of Christ (1 Cor. 11:26; Col. 1:20).

That’s a confession I can make. Even as I’m aware that Protestants of different traditions would nuance this statement, or emphasize certain parts in keeping with their liturgical traditions, I hope it’s a center around which we can celebrate the feast.

 

Incarnational Ministry: A Review

In the seasonally-awkward month of September, it is difficult to know what to wear on any given morning. Fellow midwesterners know the trouble. Will what you’ve put on keep you sufficiently warm for the morning commute? Will it become excessive insulation by midafternoon? The question lingers: has the time come to swap out summer for fall? Seasonal transitions can be full of uncertainty.

It so happens that Samuel Wells’ new book Incarnational Ministry (kindly sent for review by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) arrived in my hands during a season-of-life transition. With a month of pastoral care to challenge everything I thought I knew, this lyrically-written book provided a theological reflection on ministry that, like choosing just the right sweater on a fall day, helped me to feel a little more comfortable in the life of ministry.  Continue reading

King James is Alive and Well

This morning Christian Century published my review of The Bible in American Life (ed. Goff, Farnsley, and Thuesen), an impressive historical, sociological, and analytical review of the Bible in America. Here’s the introduction to the review:

King James is alive and well. The King James Version of the Bible, that is. In fact, it’s the most widely read translation in America. Although Zon­der­van’s NIV far surpassed the KJV in sales some time ago, 55 percent of people who’ve read the Bible outside of a worship service in the past year still prefer to read from the KJV, according to the studies analyzed in the introduction to a new book coedited by Philip Goff, Arthur E. Farnsley II, and Peter J. Thuesen.

In this impressive collection, 30 scholars contribute to an immense sociological review of who reads the Bible, how they read it, and how their reading has shaped American culture. The book begins with a summary of two national surveys (the 2012 General Social Survey and the National Congregation Study III), a thread that is referred to throughout the subsequent essays. The second section, “Past,” consists of 15 essays that explore the Bible’s use throughout American history, from the first Bible published in America (“the Indian Bible of 1663”) to the Bible’s influence on soul and pop music to the “commercial concerns” of the Bible industry. The reflections in these essays on how Americans have used the Bible serve as a stepping- stone to understanding why Americans use the Bible the way they do today…


Read more at the Christian Century website or, if you’re a subscriber, in the September 13 print edition!

The Bible’s Ideal Reader

The literary theorist Umberto Eco has a theory about readers. Every text calls for an ideal reader. The ideal reader of any given text is the person receptive of its content and formed to follow its patterns (see, The Role of the Reader, 1979). In other words, the person who is willing to “see” as the text sees (this is how the world is) and then live accordingly is the ideal reader.

Consider the following picture:

Nazi.Nosalute2

That guy is NOT the ideal reader of Nazi propaganda. He refuses to buy into the Nazi’s picture of the world – choosing not to “see” as they see. And he won’t live accordingly by offering his salute to Hitler and all that his regime stands for, despite the very obvious social pressure. “Nope,” you can hear him saying to himself.

Today, in a class that surveys the entire Bible in one semester (crazy, I know), I challenged my students: “Be that guy.” Refuse to become the ideal reader of Nazi propaganda, and if you find that easy enough then go ahead and refuse to become ideal readers of all the other counterfeit stories on offer today: consumerism’s story (you are what you buy), nationalism’s story (our nation is the best nation), humanism’s story (you have all that you need to become your true self), naturalism’s story (all that matters is matter). Instead, become the Bible’s ideal reader. Read this book and accept its invitation to see as it sees, and then live accordingly. Sure, its a strange world we find in the Bible (to borrow Barth’s phrase). Who can deny that? But in light of Jesus we Christians believe it tells the true story about God, us, and the world.

“Be that guy,” I challenged. With your arms resolutely crossed, say “Nope” to all the counterfeit stories, and read the Bible as an invitation to see the world truthfully and to live accordingly.