On Receiving Strange Texts in the Classroom

I attended one of my favorite gatherings over the weekend, the biannual Prince Conference Centerconference of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning (held at the Prince Conference Center, Calvin College). As an educator, my guild meetings don’t hold a candle to the value-added this conference offers. There is also – and maybe I value this most, even if its hard to put my finger on – an entirely different ethos at Kuyer’s conferences than I find at guild meetings. This is probably why I find excuses to attend and present my work at the Kuyer’s gatherings.

At the guild meetings there is quite a lot of chest-thumping and comparison, and I haven’t walked away from  them feeling all that good about myself. Certainly the fault sits with me for falling prey to it, but guild meetings are rife with status comparison. The temptation to present oneself as successful, productive and on top of one’s game presses hard on me. Frankly, I haven’t seen the best version of myself in that setting.

The good folks at the Kuyer’s Institute create an entirely different environment. Scholars from every academic discipline gather from around the world to pursue together a more robust expression of the Christian imagination in teaching and learning. Attendees and presenters are united by their commitment to teach “Christianly” – and to explore all that it means to say that for our pedagogy, course planning, evaluation, etc. The collaborative atmosphere is refreshing. This year’s conference was no exception. If you have the opportunity to attend – or want an excuse to skip your guild meetings in two years – the next meeting will the first or second week of October, 2017.

I presented a paper on developing empathy for culturally diverse expressions of Christian faith in the classroom. The dialogue which followed was rich and helpful for me as I continue refining my teaching in this area. Here are my final remarks from the paper:

C.S. Lewis suggested that we read in order to see as others see. We read because “We want to see with other eyes” he wrote, “to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with their hearts, as well as with our own…Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (An Experiment in Criticism, 137, 41). I challenge my students, Try and receive this portrait of Jesus by seeing Jesus through their eyes. Don’t merely consider the possibility that someone might actually see Jesus that way; attempt to see him that way yourself. The person and their communities who fashioned this portrait look upon the same Jesus as you. Receptivity enabled you to look into their face; hospitality enabled you to receive them into your company; empathy will enable you to see as they see.


On Grace: Week’s End Lecture

I gave this brief lecture at the end of class today in my course, The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Honestly, I don’t lecture veryRembrandt.The Prodigal Son often, and when I do only briefly. But there are times for it. Like today when I needed to grab hold of the “threads” from the week and suggest how to pull them together.

The week began with readings from Luke 15—the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son—then into excerpts from Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, and today into Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Henri Nouwen’s excellent book of the same name was our guide into the world of the painting. What follows below is my attempt to draw these threads together as they relate to the doctrine of grace (the central “thread” of the course). As always, I welcome your interaction.

Our week began with three parables told by Jesus to a mixed audience: his disciples, the crowd that generally followed, and the religious leaders (Luke 15:1-32). As Luke records it, Jesus is on the long climb to Jerusalem. All along the way conflicts crop up with religious leaders. In some cases Jesus heals when he isn’t supposed to: on the Sabbath. In other cases he doesn’t wash as he is supposed to: his hands in the ceremonial fashion before eating. And in other cases, like this one, he hangs about with the wrong people: tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, the diseased, the unclean, sinners all around. This delights the crowd but offends most but not all of the religious leaders for various reasons.

Disobeying God is what got Israel into their messy exile in Babylon in the first place. “Doesn’t Jesus know that obedience (cleanness) will pave the way for the Kingdom of God? Hasn’t he read Deut. 30?” the Pharisees wondered.

Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, 10 if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach (vv. 9-11, 16).

“Come-on Jesus, get with the program! Stop hanging about with those on the outside,” they grumble.

So Jesus tells three parables. Three things are lost, then found. Three celebrations. The point seems direct enough:

Continue reading

Opening Week Routines – What Works?

Impress Teacher ImageThis is the opening week of class at my university. My kids have been in school for a week now (Canterbury School in Fort Wayne), and public schools in Indiana have been going strong for longer than that. I even hear that Ohio public schools begin the second week of August. Yikes!

Anyway, while putting the finishing touches on my syllabi and preparing all the odds and ends wrapped up in launching the semester, I started wondering: what do other professors and students do in their first week that really works? Not the mundane stuff, I am curious about those special touches – big or small – that makes the first week of class something special.

So please let us know what you have experienced. If you teach at the University or graduate school level, what do you do that gets the semester off on the right foot? What is distinctive to you and your approach to the classroom (don’t underestimate the little things)? Or if you are a student, what have you experienced in the first week that left an impression? When have you said, “Wow, that was a great first week in that class! I wish every professor would start that way!”?

Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (A Review)

Guest Blogger: Zen Hess

Following the recent release of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Lauato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, EvangelicalEcoTheologyvarious republican presidential candidates shared their opinions on the matter. Rick Santorum, for example, said that Pope Francis should “leave science to the scientists.” Many of us may resonate with such a statement — most of our pastors and spiritual leaders probably know very little about science. However, Pope Francis is a trained chemist and, more importantly, confesses that God created all things. Should Christians, and their leaders, who confess God as Creator not have great concern regarding the well being of all the things God created? This is the conviction of Brunner, Butler and Swoboda, who crafted Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (Baker 2015).

The book is a thorough and readable resource for any learner — “whether in undergraduate, graduate, seminary or church settings” (p. 12) — who wants to understand why and how the ecological crisis relates to Christianity.

First, they name some of the problems the book is addressing, such as: “acute ecocrisis” caused by humans, the “church’s own internal strife,” the politicization of the ecocrisis, as well as a number of theological problems (p. 16-18). The authors hypothesize that each of these problems, either directly or indirectly, have hindered the Church from joining the ecological discussion; in addressing these problems, the authors clear the way for further ecclesiological dialogue on ecological matters.

Second, the authors provide an abundance of proofs for why Christians need to be concerned about the ecological crisis. Drawing from Scripture, theological doctrines, church history, sociological and scientific data, the authors make an exceptionally convincing case. At this point, however, one must remember that this is an introduction to ecotheology. I found myself, at times, wanting them to spell their arguments out in more detail. Yet, their goal is to introduce readers to why ecotheology makes sense within evangelical Christian theology — and that they have faithfully done.

Finally, the authors give a great deal of practical advice. Said differently, they tell us what to do with our theological knowledge. Continue reading

An Overtaking of Depth

41mBxWFfxTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have an article in the new volume of the journal American Theological Inquiry. The essay is titled, “‘An Overtaking of Depth’: Theology as Retrieval.” If you’re interested in checking out my recent book, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church, this article is a great place to start. Parts of the essay are adapted from it and, I hope, it will whet your appetite to read the book!

The essay has three parts. In the first, my coauthor and I ground retrieval in the basic Christian pattern of receiving and transmitting the deposit of faith. Retrieval in this sense is not unique to our time, but basic and fundamental to Christian theology.

The second part introduces six contemporary theologies of retrieval and locates them within the widespread skepticism about the fruits of modernity that characterized much of late twentieth-century theology.

The final section presents a range of possible outcomes of retrieval. We suggest that one outcome best characterizes theology as retrieval: ressourcement. This outcome demonstrates the effective negotiation of the inherent tensions of retrieval: continuity and discontinuity, stability and change, and constraint and freedom. The term “ressourcement” is well-known for its origin in early twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology, but it has broader applicability. The outcome of ressourcement is possible within any Christian community when theological retrieval seeks to receive and transmit the deposit of faith.

Here are the first few paragraphs (read the entire article here):

Like every facet of the church’s life, theology always begins already in the middle. It is caught in the middle of God’s reconciling activity, drawn along by its current, part of its history. In this sense, Christian theology is a normed practice. Its cadence and grammar are given by the revelation of God in Christ received by the apostles and witnessed in Holy Scripture. What was true for the apostles is thus true for the church today: the initial movement of theological reflection is the astonished response of encountering God’s grace. Indeed, theology springs out from worship and, when healthy, turns us back toward it.

There is a second sense in which theology begins already in the middle. The church’s work of sanctified reason takes shape in the middle of particular cultures, times, and communities. The truth of the Gospel is timeless, but it is always known and expressed within an actual place, time, and people. Such particularity includes, perhaps most importantly, the church. In the church, theological reflection is carried out within the fellowship of Christ’s body, located within a tradition characterized by unique emphases and traits, and simultaneously draws on and contributes to the church’s worship. There, in worship, theology is reminded that the risen and exalted Christ is gloriously present in the church through the transforming work of his Spirit. Thus the church, and by extension the theologian, does not merely act but is acted upon. The kinds of theologians who seek to be faithful both to the givenness of Christianity and the present moment require the skill best described as discernment.

Continue reading

Theology as Retrieval – now available

It is a pleasure to announce that my newest book, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church, is now available! You can purchase it through your favorite book-sellers. Here is a link to Amazon.Theology as Retrieval

Writing back cover copy is tricky, and I am glad the good folks at IVPAcademic did such a nice job with ours. Here is a quick glimpse of what my coauthor and I seek to do in the book.

In Theology as Retrieval David Buschart and Kent Eilers show that retrieving the Christian past is a mode of theological discernment, a cultivated habit of thought that looks back in order to move forward. Surveying six areas where the impulse and practice of retrieval has been notably fruitful and suggestive, they explore and offer constructive and programmatic proposals for theological reflection, practice and hope.

The six areas are Holy Scripture, theology, worship, spirituality, mission and cosmos (“cosmos” is shorthand for the bold vision of Radical Orthodoxy). Buy the book, and let’s have a conversation about it here on TF!

Lament as Compassionate Protest

Christians don’t lament well. I am more convinced of this all the time. We know how to complain Printbut not so much how to lament. We lack the training in it for certain, but even when we try we can’t muster any energy for it without guilt. Guilt because we think we should have a cheerier disposition as evidence of our faith. Everything will be okay because God’s “in control”, right? We suspect that lament shows a lack of faith.

Guilt is not our only hang-up. I once spoke to a group of university students about Christian responses to evil, and I suggested that our first response is silence, followed by lament. I couldn’t read everyone’s response, the evening crowd had swelled beyond the capacity of the recital hall, but follow-up conversations showed another hindrance to lament: the perception of inactivity. Lament seemed too inactive, too passive for my advocacy-minded students. Where is the courage in lament? Where is the resistance? Where is the protest?

Todd Billings’ new book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ  (Brazos: 2015) is a desperately-needed primer on the language of lament as a feature of Christian life. It arose from Todd’s journey through his diagnosis and treatment of incurable cancer, and it has much to say to any of us painfully aware that things in our world are not as they should be. If its not cancer, then it is surely something else; none of us are immune from pain. How do we lament without guilt and without passivity?

Other reviewers in this blog tour have overviewed the book (read those here). I will focus more narrowly on Todd’s portrayal of lament as “compassionate protest”.

Lament names the world as it stands: broken, yet in the process of renewal as the kingdom of God expands within it. New Testament lament is found on the lips of Jesus, “May your kingdom come.” It is not a throw-away line. Praying “may your kingdom come” identifies – without flinching or hesitation – how things really are. There are dark, incomplete places in our midst in which your kingdom does not seem present; so we cry for the kingdom and in doing so lament its apparent absence. Children are sold into sex-slavery – “may your Kingdom come.” Totalitarian governments slaughter their own people – “may your kingdom come.” The earth groans under the weight of our misuse of it – “may your kingdom come.” Cancer ravages our bodies – “may your kingdom come.”

Passivity and inactivity could not be farther from such kingdom-oriented lament. It names our broken world in the same breath that it cries out for renewal and liberation. Such lament calls for action, and not only for God’s action but for mine. It calls for leaping into the wake of new creation as participants in Christ’s kingdom drama! “As our lips say, “Thy kingdom come,” Todd explains, “we pray―we act―as revolutionaries who protest against the darkness in this “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Lament of this sort propels us into the fray even as it calls on God to remain faithful to his promises.

Our restless prayers of lament go hand in hand with compassionate protest until Christ’s kingdom has fully come…Until then, we protest against God’s enemies―death, sin, and the devil―as we bear witness to the present and future King, our God―Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We need to learn this language of lament. We need to learn it for the sake of our wrestles with pain, and for the sake of our companionship with others in pain. We have to learn the ways of unflinchingly naming our brokenness, our groaning, even as we unflinchingly call God to account. “God, remain faithful to your promise of renewal; may your Kingdom come!”

Todd would be the first to say that his language for lament isn’t his own. He learned it in the same place that we can, even if our journey doesn’t include cancer. In the Psalms we find the pattern for lamenting as our true selves. There we find the deep pattern of Jesus’ own prayers. He writes,

In lament we are confused, angry, and grieving people. But we are not just that. We have been given the script of the Psalms for playing our part in the drama: we are confused, angry, and grieving people who have been given the privilege of crying out to the Lord as his covenant people. Indeed, we are actors who have been clothed with Christ by the Spirit in the theater of God’s drama. Because of this, we can openly admit our confusion, anger, and grief without worrying that it will be the last word about who we are.”

Thank you Todd for reminding us, with the vision of this book and the testimony of your life, that lament isn’t cause for guilt, nor is it passive. Your book is a gift to the church. May we, like you, fall in step with the Psalmist: “Pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Ps. 62:8).