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:

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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!”?

The Ecumenical Edwards

I’m excited to say that my new edited volume, The Ecumenical Edwards: Jonathan Edwards and the Theologians (Ashgate) was Ecumenical Edwardsjust released. This is my attempt to address the idea, now ubiquitous in Edwards studies, that Edwards can be utilized as an Ecumenical theologian. It is, of course, hard to know what that might mean. Up until this point, the focus has been on how Edwards’s unique development of a variety of doctrines seems, at least at first glance, to mirror or overlap with Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic developments. My own focus is a bit different. I suggest, in the introduction, that Edwards’s ecumenical potential lies in two features of his thought: First, his greatness, and second, his distinctively Reformed greatness. In other words, Edwards should be utilized ecumenically because he is great in his own tradition (similarly to how Barth is often employed).

Following these same notions, I am convinced that the disciples of a given thinker cannot claim his or her worth. In other words, it is not surprising that Edwards scholars would be making bold claims about Edwards’s potential. Rather, to really justify these claims, the Church catholic must weigh in. Therefore, I assembled a contributor list of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and a wide-variety of Protestant thinkers to engage Edwards with their own expertise. Seven out of the thirteen chapters were written by non-Edwards scholars, and what came out was truly beautiful. Notice that along with my own contribution, Theology Forum’s own Kent Eilers adds an excellent chapter on prayer utilizing Edwards and Pannenberg. See the Table of Contents below: 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.

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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!

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert and Milton: a brief review

Crossway are publishing Devo poetryChristian Guides to the Classics, a series of compendia to classic literature by Leland Ryken, who served as professor of English at Wheaton College and is known in biblical studies and Christian thought for books like Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (co-ed.) and Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. A number of famous works, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Homer’s The Odyssey, have been treated in the series, and this volume breaks the mold by focusing on three different authors and some of their various lyric poems. As someone who is now ever immersed in analyzing the details of scholastic theology (which can indeed be edifying if done properly!), I find this sort of work a welcome change of pace, a helpful way to counterbalance some of the other reading that occupies my time.

Ryken begins by sketching some fundamental traits of lyric poems, particularly their subjectivity: ‘Lyric poets speak directly instead of projecting their thoughts and feelings onto characters in a story.’ As to their form, the poems considered here are sonnets in which there is a ‘statement of the controlling theme’, a ‘development of the controlling theme’ and a ‘resolution or rounding off the poem with a note of finality and closure’ (p. 8). What makes the character of these short works to be ‘devotional’ is that they have ‘Christian experience and doctrine as [their] subject matter’. The effect of devotional poetry is thus ‘to increase one’s commitment to God and the godly life’, but with a greater density of content and a higher artistry than our typical devotional reading (p. 13).

As Ryken proceeds through the different sections, he gives a one-page biography of each poet. John Donne was Roman Catholic and converted to Anglicanism, preaching, in Ryken’s words, ‘ostentatious, highly literary sermons to the intellectual elite of London society’ (p. 15). By contrast, George Herbert was an Anglican minister in a small village. He ‘polished his lone collection of poems privately, and on his deathbed he handed the volume over to his friend Nicholas Ferrar’ (p. 47). Different still was John Milton, a Puritan spokesman and political figure who in his poetry ‘cultivated what is called the high style’. While Donne and Herbert ‘wrote in a middle style…Milton wanted the grand effect’ (p. 75).

For each of these authors’ poems, Ryken provides a short introduction, a lightly annotated text, a commentary and finally a few questions for further discussion. Ryken’s stated goal is not to ‘[tear] the poem apart’ but rather to ‘explicate’ it in such a way that readers ‘are putting the poem together in approximately the same way that the poet followed when composing the poem’ (p. 9). In other words, one should still be able to derive aesthetic enjoyment and spiritual benefit from these small works in the midst of the analysis. The examination of each poem is brief and doesn’t take the reader into painstaking detail, which certainly helps to keep the problem of ‘tearing apart the poem’ at bay. Because of this, the book can serve to educate readers on literary dynamics of some classic works and also still function as a spiritual resource. In a perfect world, there might have been a way to give the text of each poem its own distinct page so that a reader could more easily contemplate the poem itself without their eyes being drawn up to the introduction or down to the commentary. However, that’s a relatively small issue in the end. On the whole, this is a sharp little book written in a helpfully straightforward style and attentive to both the literary and spiritual dimensions of devotional poetry.

Since we’ve just celebrated Easter, here is one sample from Donne:

Death, Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee doth go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.