Thursday, January 27, 2011

I-Monk on the Suburban Jesus

I've been reading excerpts from this rant by the late Michael Spencer to my Gospels students ever since I came across it a few years ago, and thought it would be worth sharing here:
I am just amazed at why anyone would want to be involved with Jesus unless you were convinced that what Jesus said, Jesus taught and Jesus did was the truth. I cannot understand why someone wants to be involved with Jesus if they don’t either intend to believe and emulate Jesus or at least encourage, assist and applaud those who do. Taking the Christian label and then acting like Jesus was someone from whom we should never take advice or example is incomprehensible.

I used to get paid by large churches to tell their kids all about Jesus, get them into Bible studies and take them on mission trips- which I choose to be in the inner cities of Chicago and Boston, not the beach. The basic assignment was actually to keep these kids out of drugs, jail and pregnancy so they could go to college, make lots of money and pursue the lifestyles of rich Americans while attending large prosperous megachurches.

I figured this out early on, but I kept telling myself it wasn’t the case. I thought that if one of those kids becomes a serious Jesus revolutionary, going among the poor, giving up the suburban lifestyle, my churches would have applauded.

Then, a few years ago, a church kid from Minnesota came to talk to me. She’d been out of college for a few years, had come to Appalachia to teach English, then taught and coached at our school for a while, after which she took off for Africa for a couple of years. She brought me a letter from her parents where they told her what they thought about her life.
In this letter, the parents honestly said what they thought of this girl. They thought she was nuts. The called all the ministries she worked for abusive, slave labor operations. They begged her to come home, take her college degree into the city and make some money, get a house in the suburbs and find a husband with wealth and security.
Hey, I understand what parents go through. I feel their pain. I really do. But that letter told me, once and for all, that I had been right all those years ago, and I’m still on target today when I feel this way. Suburban Christianity is frequently not about an honest following of Jesus. It’s about an edited, reworked Jesus who blesses the American way of life and our definition of normal and happy.

It’s Jesus the sponsor of our beautiful church. It’s Jesus the bus driver of the ticket to heaven. It’s Jesus the guy who wants us to be nice to children. It’s Jesus who presides over all kinds of niceness.

...[I]f we don’t really believe Jesus is the one for whom we sell it all to buy the pearl of great price, what’s the point?

I also know my own answer. Learn to know the virtues of relative poverty. Learn to see poverty as Jesus and the saints saw it. Keep real poor people in view. Keep real poor churches in mind. Don’t listen to the broadcasted, published propaganda of the suburban Jesus. Read the sermon on the mount. Remember that Jesus is a true revolutionary, and those who want Jesus but reject the revolution always have a nice slide show and plenty of facts and figures.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Grading Class Participation

I've never been completely satisfied with the ways I have tried calculating class participation in the past, so I decided to look around a little bit before deciding on an approach for this semester's seminar. Everyone seems to agree that it is complicated. For instance, how many contributions in a class session count as an "A"? Do you assign a 0 if someone doesn't participate verbally at all? How do absences factor in? How does one distinguish between quality and quantity . . . on the fly? Obviously, I don't want everyone vying for participation. And I don't want to unfairly penalize students who are clearly engaged but who aren't as loquacious.

For these reasons, I tend not to assign a separate mark for class participation. (And I've had experiences in the past where I've assigned, say, 15% for class participation because it is important, only to realize at the end of the semester that I didn't keep track well enough to hand out a meaningful mark. In such cases, strong memories of positive or lacking contributions may affect the mark, but in general class participation works out to the student's average in their other assignments. This sort of "fudge factor" grading is obviously not ideal.)

In a small 4th year seminar, however, creating an ethos of community participation is vital; learning to contribute thoughtfully to high level discussions is part of the point of the course. In this context, assigning a grade for participation, however small, is important and makes sense.

But how does one do it efficiently and fairly? Here are a couple suggestions from an article and comments in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
  • "If they are actively participating every day, they get a perfect score. While active participation is easiest to measure by those students who speak in class and contribute to discussions, I also consider those who are clearly following the conversation and being thoughtful about it. If you don’t regularly participate in class, your score drops. Those who never participate in class but have perfect attendance will end up with a score around 60-70%." - Brian Croxall
  • "A person who comes to every class but never contributes earns a 50. A person who contributes to every class but never says anything of value–working for that tick mark–gets a 75. I tell shy students who protest that they don’t “like” to talk that I am certain they have classmates who don’t “like” to take exams or write papers. Don’t like the policy, don’t take the course. I send around a clipboard at the end of class for students to claim their participation and I keep weekly records. This all translates into real grades–not quite a bell curve, but stand outs and freeloaders earning their As and Ds, with various shades of B and C for most." - englishwlu (scroll down to the comments); profe1 in the same thread recommends a mid-semester self-evaluation.
Good suggestions, but lacking in detail. I'm tempted to adopted this rubic by Adam Chapnick or perhaps this one by John Immerwahr.
    I'm curious. What have you found that works well? (Both student and teacher perspectives are welcome!)

    Briercrest Writes

    Whatever I might say in general about the cancerous state of contermporary academic publishing, I am genuinely enthusiastic about the publications of my colleagues at Briercrest College and Seminary . . . and 2010 was a particularly good year for Briercrest authors:

    My NT colleague, Marty Culy, saw the publication of his Ph.D. dissertation:

    Culy, Martin M. Echoes of Friendship in the Gospel of John. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010. well as a handbook on Luke, co-authored with Mikeal Parsons and Josh Stigall:

    Culy, Martin M., Mikeal C. Parsons, and Joshua J. Stigall. Luke: A Handbook on the Greek Text. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010.

    Eric Ortlund also published his dissertation, a steal of a deal at $118.76:

    Charles Hackney's Martial Virtues: Lessons in Wisdom, Courage, and Compassion from the World's Greatest Warriors (Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2010) has already been published in Italian and is about to come out in French translation.

    And from Blayne Banting we had Take Up and Preach (Xulon Press, 2010).

    Finally, my colleague Susan Wendel's published dissertation, Scriptural Interpretation and Community Self-Definition in Luke-Acts and the Writings of Justin Martyr (NovT Supp. 139; Leiden: Brill, 2011) is scheduled to appear in February. 

    Well done, one and all!

    Tuesday, January 18, 2011

    A culture of rigor and higher Saskatchewan

    Two recent pieces from the Chronicle of Higher Education intersect in interesting ways with my own teaching context. The first is about the challenge of recruiting international students to Canadian Universities:
    "Usher....notes that emerging demographic challenges are particularly great in Canada’s Atlantic provinces and Saskatchewan. 'Here, the choice is not between a cheap-to-recruit domestic student worth $12,000 vs. a hard-to-recruit international student worth $16,000 – it’s an international student or nothing. For schools off the beaten path, it’s often easier to recruit students from Thailand than from Toronto.'"
    The second reviews a new book that "makes a damning indictment of the American higher-education system":
    "In the statistical analysis that sums up their book, they identify two significant college-level variables. First, all else equal, students' CLA [Collegiate Learning Assessment] scores are more likely to improve if they report that faculty members at their college have high expectations. Second, students' scores are more likely to improve if they say they have taken at least one writing-intensive course and at least one reading-intensive course in the previous semester.

    It might sound trite, Mr. Arum says, but those observations boil down to the lesson that colleges must find ways to build cultures of academic rigor. He says that task is something that each campus will need to do for itself."
    This made me glad that Briercrest included "rigor" as part of our mission statement:
    "Briercrest College and Seminary is a community of rigorous learning that calls students to seek the kingdom of God, to be shaped profoundly by the Scriptures, and to be formed spiritually and intellectually for lives of service."

    Of course, articulating a mission and living the reality are two different things. To be sure, we are still in progress. But I'd like to think the kind of writing assignments we routinely require of our students goes some way toward addressing the concerns raised in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    Bonhoeffer on Asceticism

    "If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. . . . Any objection that asceticism is wrong, and that all we need is faith, is quite beside the point; it is cruel to suggest such a thing, and it is no help to us at all. When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, from chapter 16.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    Augustine on Friendship

    "There were other things which occupied my mind in the company of my friends: to make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together well-written books, to share in trifling and in serious matters, to disagree though without animosity--just as a person debates with himself--and in the very rarity of disagreement to find the salt of normal harmony, to teach each other something or to learn from one another, to long with impatience for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival. These and other signs come from the heart of those who love and are loved and are expressed through the mouth, through the tongue, through the eyes, and a thousand gestures of delight, acting as fuel to set our minds on fire and out of many to forge unity." - Augustine, Confessions, 4.13 (Henry Chadwick trans.; Oxford World Classics, 1998).

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Second Semester Schedule

    8:00 – 9:15

    8:00 –9:15

    9:00 – 12:00
    Advanced Studies in New Testament Literature
    9:30 – 10:30
    Office Hour

    1:30 – 2:30
    Office Hour

    4:00 – 5:15
    4:00 – 5:15

    With all that blank space in the middle, it doesn't really look that busy, does it? Well...

    Tuesday, January 4, 2011

    A commonplace update

    I've been wondering whether I should revert to my original description of גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב as
    "A commonplace book containing items of interest to a biblical studies professor at a confessional Christian college. My voice will only intervene in the event I have something to say."
    I do have notes here and there that might eventually materialize as substantive posts, but at the moment reading about prophecy and preparing for what will be another busy semester takes priority--and feels more satisfying. Also at t.'s recommendation we have resolved to take a "writing date"* three evenings a week this semester. The procedure is simple: Put s. to bed, set up mood lighting, prepare snacks, turn off the internet, and sit for an hour working uninterrupted on our respective projects. The result so far is less time for blogging, but measurable progress on an article I thought I would have to shelve until the school year is done (because I don't have time). It is also refreshing and, in its own way, fun.

    *The idea comes from this excellent column by Rachel Toor.

    In other news, today is the one year anniversary of my mom's seizure.