Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Selective Review of Teaching and Christian Practices

Ever since I read James K. A. (Jamie) Smith’s Introducing Radical Orthodoxy years ago, I have had a deep appreciation for his perspective and, indeed, have been greatly shaped by it. Though he speaks more from the perspective of a philosopher than a Biblicist, his critique of modernism and advocacy of essentially premodern ecclesiastical solutions must be heard. While not confined to ancient history, he counters modernism with old resurrected ideas in a manner that echoes the scathing assessments made by postmodernism, as is evinced in his excellent Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

Formative Education

Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is a must read for everyone involved in Christian education and in the raising of children for that matter. In it, Smith makes a case that truly Christian pedagogies must take into account the fact that humans are desiring, affective beings more than they are thinking beings. Thus, education is more about formation than information, and educators must pay closer attention to the modes of education than its content. While subject matter is important, the practices used to teach it are even more.

The fountainhead of all Christian practices is Lord’s Day worship in the sanctuary in the community of God’s people.

Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and LearningSo, as a father and an educator, I was greatly interested when my pre-ordered copy of the book Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning edited by David I. Smith and Jamie Smith arrived on my doorstep. For it is in this book that presentations are made of what I would describe as experiments that test his aforementioned hypotheses. These experiments consisted of college-level teachers integrating historic Christian practices into their classrooms in order to focus on the formation of the individual in concert with the requirements of the course material.

An Introduction to Christian Practices

The introduction of the book sets the stage of the project by describing its theoretical impetus, clearly echoing Smith’s work in Desiring the Kingdom but bringing in other material specifically geared to education. Written by both David I. and Jamie Smith, this introduction states that “these scholarly conversations represent, among other things, a move away from the notion that rational deliberation on ideas is the primary shaper of the self, and toward a more contextual and embodied understanding of how what we do with and among others shapes who we become” (6).

Smith’s appreciation for Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is clear in the descriptions of a “practice.” Summarizing MacIntyre’s argument, the introduction describes practices basically as habits, which are “acquired dispositions and inclinations that are absorbed over time by participating in the routines and rituals of a tradition, as well as by imitating the models upheld as ‘exemplars’ by the tradition” (8). The outcome of practices is incorporation into a community.

Christian practices, thus, are those activities performed by the historic church community that form the “dispositions and inclinations” (i.e. affections) of a follower of Christ.

The underlying purpose of the book’s project is clear: “[We] want to push back on reducing Christian education to the dissemination of Christian ideas.” They are in harmony with authors Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass, who “have contested the reduction of Christian faith to intellectual assent to a set of propositions.” Educators especially must experience a “shift from considering Christianity as an intellectual system to (re)emphasizing the church as a community of practice” (14).

In exploring the relationship between particular historic Christian practices and the modes of pedagogy, the participants in the project discovered that the possibilities are nearly endless. Through the experiments recounted in this book, the authors seek to further the conversation about specific questions about this relationship, questions like: “Since Christian practices are themselves… pedagogical devices to help form the self in particular directions, then are there ways in which they can function as models for, analogies to, or guiding metaphors for educational practices?” Or consider, “Can an involvement in learning experiences built around Christian practices provide some degree of counter-formation to the secular cultural liturgies that otherwise shape our lives and perceptions?” Or, “Are there present patterns of educational practice that are in tension with the kinds of formation implicitly aimed at by Christian practices, such that we need to consider restructuring teaching and learning lest their rhythms be in competition with Christian formation” (18-19)?

Christian Practices in the College Classroom

The book is worth its introduction alone, and my enthusiasm for what remains is tempered by the nature of the project. The strengths of the book lie in anecdotal successes and in the possibilities they subtly intimate. But when a college professor creatively applies key ideas about Christian practices to one class, which is only one of several in which each student is enrolled, the results are necessarily limited and modest. The episodic nature a college class that meets three times per week (and in at least one case, only once per week) works against the very ideas of what a practice is supposed to be and do.

My favorite successes are as follows.

Philosophy professor Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung elucidated Aquinas’ teaching on the virtues and vices through the historic practice of silence. She modified the practice for her particular goal, which was to demonstrate experientially the vice of vainglory by requiring the students not to talk about themselves for a week:
[No] commenting about your feelings, no offering your opinions or judgments, no wry witticisms or clever criticisms, no long-winded narratives about how your day went and what frustrated or elated you, no interrupting with ‘bigger and better’ stories, no fishing for compliments, no calling or texting to share what you’re doing, no blogging about your opinions or favorite movies or annoying neighbors or pet peeves, no complaining. And perhaps hardest of all, no defending what you did, no pre-emptive spin to prevent others from getting the wrong impression of what you’re doing, no rationalizing, no excuse-making. No nothing. Instead, be still. Listen. Let other people talk. Let your actions speak for themselves (32-33).
By means of this exercise, the students sought a sanctifying, deliberate practice which served the dual purpose of understanding a Thomist concept as well as demonstrating its immediate relevance to our time. While not advocating that this particular application be permanent, Professor Konyndyk DeYoung was able to communicate the very unfortunate fact of most people’s self-absorption in a much more memorable and poignant way than simply reading and lecture (though, of course, those practices also have a laudable history).

David I. Smith, one of the editors of the book and professor of German literature, incorporated practices involving what he calls “spiritually engaged reading” (43) or “religious reading” (44). He describes this type of reading in this way:
The kind of reading in which religious people become practiced is repeated and ongoing, revisiting texts multiple times. It seeks to be slow and attentive, drinking in the details of the text and approaching it reverentially. The reader comes to the text expecting it to make moral demands, and is willing to submit and be changed. Reading takes place in a communal context with a shared tradition of interpretation, and faithfulness counts for more than creativity. The act of reading seeks personal transformation through attentive encounter with significant texts (44).
Though in his chapter Smith does not specifically tie the practices in his class to the historic Christian reading practice of lectio divina, his previous exploration of that connection, which he develops elsewhere, is clearly in the background. As a teacher of literature, I appreciate Smith’s focus on reading a text charitably, which means slowly, deliberately, and attentively. This is particularly difficult in the high school survey-style literature class because of the temptation to read widely rather than deeply.

I further enjoyed Adolescent Psychology professor Caroline Call’s incorporation of the traditional practice of hospitality (including food) into her once-per-week, two-and-a-half hour class. Even with her extremely limited venue, she learned valuable lessons. She took the simple step of providing food for the short break in the middle of the class period and discovered that “students found the sharing of food to be the central element of a shared sense of community” (73), unsurprisingly confirming the sacramental nature of eating. But the greatest lesson she learned, however, was that “hospitality does not happen in single, isolated events, and it is not expressed simply by discrete actions” but instead “flows out from an individual’s orientation of heart and requires constant reflection, monitoring, and support” (78).

Jamie Smith’s limited application of the liturgy of divine hours to a midday class he taught on “Philosophy and Social Sciences” had what I regard very modest results. But because this practice is one I strongly advocate, I appreciated the time he took to expound the formative nature of “Christian timekeeping,” applied both in the daily offices of prayer as well as in the church calendar. He expands:
I wanted the received practice of fixed-hour prayer to function as an example of alternative ‘world-making‘ — a way of subtly rewiring their imaginations by means of an alternative story repeated over time in the mode of a prayer. The liturgical year is constructed narrativally, re-enacting the life of Christ in rhythms of repetition, inviting the people of God into that story such that the story of God in Christ becomes the story of the people of God. As Christian Smith suggested more generally, the liturgical year is a liturgical, narrative dramatization of a moral order; its unique timekeeping is an alternative practice of meaning-making and world-making (147).
Again, Smith’s ability to achieve these lofty purposes in a class that met for 75 minutes, two days per week was, unsurprisingly, meager.

Other practices that participating professors implemented in their classrooms include communal meals, pilgrimage, journaling, prayer labyrinth, conversation, meditation, and confession.

Liturgy: Reorienting the Shape of Christian Learning

Besides the Introduction, the one chapter that made the entire book worth the time to read was the one by Paul J. Griffiths, the subtitle of which is “Catechizing the Appetite for Learning.” His project is to reorient the whole conversation about Christian learning:
One of the directions in which Christians must catechize the appetite for learning in a time like ours is toward radical redirection, so radical that it may look like extinction: to understand and to seek learning as Christians do is very different from understanding and seeking it as pagan academicians do — sufficiently different that we approach equivocation in calling both “learning” (105).
Making a careful historical and conceptual distinction between “curiosity” (bad) and “studiousness” (good), Griffiths’s descriptions beg certain questions: What is it about Christian “learning” that makes such a reorientation necessary? How is Christian “learning” distinctive? His response is unequivocal: liturgy.
Christian thinking about preparatory, ancillary, and informing practices must begin from thinking about the liturgy. That is because Christian life is lived most intensely and most fully in the liturgy. It is there that the church is most fully herself as sponsa Christi… Attending to the liturgically given shape of the Christian life is of great help in seeing what ought to inform a fully Christian pursuit of learning (113).
He continues by describing key elements of liturgy that ought to carry over into all learning and life, including a “sacrificial gift-exchange,” eagerness to give a sacrificial gift solely out of love, “confession of our incapacity” and “unworthiness,” and repetitive “wastes” of time (113-115). Applying these elements to learning, Griffiths advances the Christian tradition of prayer before study, careful “attention to particulars” (akribeia), and relative indifference to outcome in favor of learning as “a gesture of loving intimacy (119). The final appeal in his essay is for grace and humility in the action of learning:
Liturgical agents stammer and lament. So, and for similar reasons, do studious learners. First, we lament our own incapacities: we are in various ways and to different degrees, stupid, inattentive, lazy, domineering, and blind. Being catechized in the direction of studiousness rather than curiosity does not by itself remedy these defects… Lament is not, for the curious, a value, but rather a sign of weakness. For the studious, lament at one’s own incapacity for study and one’s failures as a student is intrinsic to learning (120).
Understanding the complex arguments of Paul Griffiths that he advocates in his brief essay is indispensable to reorienting our understanding of distinctively Christian learning and teaching.

A Broader Scope Necessary for Success

The successes of the book mentioned above (and many more) make it worth its perusal. It is rich in ideas and tips that can be implemented at any level of education. However, the episodic nature of the applications made by college professors shows limited fruit: they demonstrate truths on a small scale, like an experiment in a petrie dish. In order to be truly successful, the ideas of the book need to be tested in a context that is broader than a laboratory.

The ideas advocated in the introduction are much, much bigger than simply techniques that certain college professors may attempt in one of their students’ many classes. To demonstrate their validity, which I emphatically affirm, these ideas need to be implemented with a broader scope.

But by “broader scope,” I don’t mean to overhaul any particular institution, though that would be a fascinating project outside of a monastery. Rather, the scale I am talking about is the comprehensiveness of these ideas to an individual’s whole life. By the time a student achieves his freshman year at college, his community and the practices associated with it are fairly intrenched. To begin a radical shift in educational paradigm at that stage is very, very late in the game. (Several of professors in this volume expressed a need even to be sensitive with students who may not buy into their project or who might not even call themselves Christians.)

To demonstrate the contentions about Christian practices most convincingly, one must start at the very beginning, with children. The authors would agree that the issue is not the presence or absence of a community of identity and its accompanying practices but rather which community and which practices are being nurtured. Through the practices that they instill in their children from the earliest age, parents nurture the inclinations and affections that shape their children’s identity with certain types of communities.

The educational overhaul needed is not just altering pedagogical techniques but a more comprehensive reorientation of the goals of education. Christian practices are not techniques (and I’m not saying that these college professors would claim that they are) but are real, historical actions that demarcate the historic Christian community. I concur with the author who expressed the need for an accompanying “church community beyond the classroom to provide a place for continuing apprenticeship in such practices” (34). The church needs to to take an active role in perpetrating those distinctively Christian, liturgical practices, applying them when needed in an academic environment, and nurturing all her children’s affections toward Jesus and His kingdom.

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