Education


This just in from the NYTimes.com:  Texas Conservatives Win Vote on Textbook Standards. Have mercy. We’re not just talking about adding Intelligent Design or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to the science curriculum, either; it’s the entire social studies curriculum. US History, World History, and Economics, in particular.

This is the last thing we need; clearly-defined ideologically based curricula at the state public education level. If you want that, there are plenty of options already; private Christian schools and homeschooling in particular. But to go beyond this and identify “Conservative” with “Christian” and “Christian” with “Republican” and interpret all of history in this light is way too dangerous.

I mean, just ignoring Jefferson? Arguing that the Enlightenment played only a small role in the US’ founding? That the US was established as a “Christian” Nation, based on a limited (and totally anachronistic) definition of “Christian”? Virtually leaving out the massive importance of Latinos in Texas’ history?

I’m emphasizing the seriously important role that Christianity has played in not only the founding of the US, but in the colonization of this continent in my US History course, but it is most definitely not along any particular party line because this is impossible. To recognize and emphasize the Christian influence is critical to understanding this country, but, as I tell my students, there were a LOT of different kinds of Christians between the 15th century and now, and to reify the term into a single concept yields a grossly inaccurate picture of US history. (Billy Graham’s or Francis Schaeffer’s version of neo-Evangelical Christianity, for example, has nothing to contribute to any discussion of the Christianity of the Fathers!)

This is anti-democratic at its core, in more ways than one.

Stumbled across this today. the blogger, James McGrath of Butler University, leads off with a statement that I have made many, many times in my college and university courses:

It never fails to amaze me how, time and again, conservative Christians will, in the name of “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” “Christianity,” “faith,” or even the Bible itself, repudiate things that the Bible in fact says, and says in places quite clearly.

His specific case in point is how many conservative Christians, such as Steve Kellmeyer, in a badly misguided article, think that the doctrine of God’s ineffability is a clear and obvious biblical theme and that, because the almighty is ineffable (insert joke here), cannot and does not change his mind in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

A couple of comments here. McGrath and many other professors and teachers (including myself) know that this is just wrong. There are numerous instances in the Bible of God changing his mind about X, Y, or Z, or where he is at least willing to entertain arguments that may sway him from a different course of action from the one he has decided on (Abraham’s discussion with God over Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind here, as does the Binding of Isaac; for the former, check out Exodus 32.14, 2 Samuel 24.16, Amos 7.3-6, Hosea 2, Jonah, 1 Chronicles 21, 15, Jeremiah 26.19… ).

I would go further here, however, and argue that the Jewish tradition fundamentally depends on this aspect of God. In Judaism, a central tenet is that we can, and in fact are obligated to, challenge God in the face of injustice. This is present in all three parts of the Hebrew Bible, and it is the dominant motif in the rabbinic literature of the Mishah, Midrash, and Talmuds, and, more contemporarily, in the Hasidic tradition of the Baal Shem Tov. Not only do we have the audacity of chutzpah to challenge God as “Lord of the Universe” to “do what is right?” in the same line as Job, Moses, Abraham, and so on, but the tradition of the Bible and the rabbis is that this is an argument that we can win, not just make. God is a God who responds, and does not just humor us by listening apathetically.

Second comment: This aspect of Judaism has not had much of a carry-over into Christian tradition. This is unfortunate; the development of Christian doctrine has led to the doctrine of ineffability and transcendence of God, such that he cannot be swayed by impassioned argument and challenges to justice as in the case of Christianity’s sister religion of rabbinic Judaism. In Catholicism, it is possible that God might entertain the petitions of the saints, and that Christ can be swayed by appeals made by Mary. Protestants don’t generally have this system available to them, but to the extent that God is addressed at all, it still goes through the intercession of Christ himself. This is to say that this obtuse figure of God in Christianity is not Biblical in the strict sense, but it is to say that it is the result of the dogmatization of Christianity that hangs, often, by only the barest of threads to something “biblical.”

Clearly, we teachers of Bible and the Abrahamic religious traditions have our work cut out for us.

So, I just finished the final evaluations for the course I just taught on Jesus and Muhammad, which was an intensive month-long course that (I hope) accomplished two primary things: (1) provide the students with the primary biographical sources of Jesus (gospels) and Muhammad (Sirah) in order to (2) give the students a yardstick to assess the ways in which both Jesus and Muhammad are represented and used for different rhetorical and political purposes both in the past and in the present. I was lucky to have a group of seven excellent students who took the course seriously (most of the time).

In short courses like this, it can be a challenge to provide evaluations and assessments that really provide students with an idea of “where they’re at”. There is only so much reading, and so much class participation, and so much essaying or reviewing students can do in a month’s time.  In the end, I feel like most of the class came to realize to various degrees that when it comes to Jesus and Muhammad (and the Buddha or any other significant religious figure) what we are dealing with is not with the  historical figure, but with the constructions created by either friends or foes to the traditions they represent. 

Rather than assess on information, it is important to realize that we need to assess on knowledge and understanding, even if the store of “facts” and “information” is not what we might want it to be.

Lucifer FallsAs a homeschooling family, every year we’re confronted with the  task of buying curricula for various subjects; math, reading, grammar, and… science. As a homeschooling family involved in the local coop, there are, um, certain expectations revolving around the science curriculum. If you do it with the coop group, for example, it is a pretty standard, “creationist” science orientation. (And yes, I’m fully aware of the problem placing “creationist” and “science” right next to each other in the same sentence.) If you DON’T have your kid do their science with the coop, it’s assumed that you’re doing  creationism at home. At the very least, something Intelligent Design-ish.  But to actually teach evolution? If you’re going to do that, you might as well forget homeschooling altogether and just stick your kid into your local secular, democrat, hegemonic public school.

The Gorge Trail runs at the base of the glen.

The Gorge Trail runs at the base of the glen.

An anecdote: a few weekends back I spent a spectacular day at Robert Treman State Park in New York, which houses two glacial glens and some breathtaking gorges and waterfalls. You cannot but be stunned by the power of water and time and what it can do to rock.  I commented something to this effect; my 8 year old gets my drift and asks “how old is all this daddy?” Before being able to answer, the wife cuts in “oh, sometime between Adam and Noah, honey.” Well, yeah, that puts it in a context that the kid can understand and is still sufficiently vague enough to allow for a LOT of time. Fine, but when I pointed out that the glens were formed over a number of ice ages over two million years, well before “Adam,” I got the cynical “well, who knows if the earth is even that old anyway.”

Sigh.

Look, having been brought up fundamental Christian and who yet still is somehow wired to find elements of the sacred in the natural world, I have had a long struggle with evolution. But I can say this; I’m more unimpressed by religious responses to Darwin and evolution than I am by  evolution itself. Let me be clear: I take Darwin’s understanding to be a reasonably close approximation of how life has developed, and natural geological physics to be an equally fair approximation of the formation of planet earth as we now live in and experience it. In my own religious and academic development, I have gone from the combative creationist to the reluctant Intelligent Designist to a rather apathetic “science is science, and Bible is Bible, and ne’er shall the twain meet” approach. Now, not only do I find all three of these standard Christian “reactions” wide of the mark, but in reality irresponsible theologically as well as scientifically.

Part of the reason I’ve turned my back on these three so-called Christian/religious opposing positions is that I’ve come to realize that these, in fact, all give assent to the materialist skepticism promoted by the leading lights of neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought (namely Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Jay Gould) who have argued that religion, theology, and evolutionary science are fundamentally irreconcilable with each other. On this, Creationism, Intelligent Design, and “separatists” agree with their hostile critics, thus ceding the defining terms of the debate to their opponents. I no longer believe this starting point is even true, and as a result, I have to pull the rug out from under pseudo-scientific Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the separatist wall between church and scientia.

What this means is that I’m not signing off on a classically Christian fundamentalist oppostion curriculum for my school to teach (as homeschooling principal and Chair of the School Board) and I’m not signing off on my kids getting pseudo-science from the local coop (as the concerned, diligent parent). For the purposes of basic elementary education of my two kids, though, separatism is probably the best approach; teach Bible, teach science, and teach them both right and on their own disciplinary terms. In the meantime, during expeditions such as we love going on, I need to work on an evolutionary theology to make room for science in the concept of the sacred, and make room for the sacred in natural, scientific, evolutionary history. As a result, I’ve started a most fascinating powder-keg of a book by John F. Haught entitled God After Darwin. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. I’ll report back with some results as I make some headway.

Leaving the commentary on President Obama’s speech to more qualified individuals, I thought that the President fully recognized the trickle effect of the economic situation right now into the three areas of domestic affairs most desperately in need of reform. Obama realistically described the nasty circle between the need for credit and the success of small business, home owners, and so on, but he also, I think, seemed to tacitly acknowledge that an economy that depends on credit more than any other factor is unsustainable and offered us ways to keep money in the nation and local communities. Obama also laid out what some of us have known for years but what needs to be repeated ad nauseum, which is the connection between the economy and the energy industry; an unsustainable industry of energy consumption is the harbinger to a failed economy. And  correcting this starts with education, which starts – end ends! – at home, welcome words to those who homeschool.

It’s nice to take a break from the dissertation and the job search.

So I’m staring blankly at this almost-but-not-quite-finished conference paper for the SBL meeting in Boston in a couple of weeks and I keep being distracted by other logismoi. Paper: Physical remains of early Christian memory. Distraction: Wendell Berry and memory. Paper: How books form part of an enculturating process that helps a group achieve some sort of hegemony. Distraction: Berry’s books as challenges to existing cultural hegemony wielded through education, the economy, and the media.

There is a connection here.

Must … resist …

(To Be Continued…)

tartan_2007_10_23_09_44_35This would have been unthinkable when I was a student at Gordon College 17 years ago. The student paper, a staunchly evangelical publication still known as the Tartan, formally endorses Barack Obama. I can’t wait to see the post-election breakdown of the Hamilton-Wenham area, traditionally a pretty red region on account of the students and faculty at the College and Seminary.

Boston Globe’s Articles of Faith posted the full text of it. Check it out here, or just read it below.

“Over the past week, as we have collected responses and insights from students and faculty to put together this special Election Edition of the Tartan, we have heard some intriguing and thought-provoking arguments from republicans, democrats, and independents about why they are supporting their candidate of choice. After much serious consideration, the Tartan is pleased to offer its endorsement of Senator Barack Obama for President of the United States of America.

Last spring, when the Tartan endorsed Senator Obama for the Democratic nomination, it was because he “offers the unique opportunity to have a president who inspires the public imagination to envision what is possible and empowers its leaders and citizens to rise to the occasion.” In the months since then, Senator Obama has more than lived up to these words. He has offered strong, even-keeled leadership in the face of economic turmoil; he has remained calm, thoughtful, and articulate when discussing issues of healthcare, energy, and foreign policy; and he has inspired a grassroots movement – both at home and abroad – to support his candidacy. For these reasons and more, we believe that Senator Obama is most fit to lead America through these uncertain times and to begin the process of rebranding and reclaiming good standing in America’s foreign relations.

Furthermore, while we acknowledge Senator McCain’s long history of bi-partisanship, we believe that the manner in which he has managed his campaign has not reflected strong leadership and more importantly, has not demonstrated that he is capable of bringing about the changes necessary to move beyond petty partisan feuding and begin making real progress in Washington. While both candidates had ugly moments in their campaigning, Senator McCain’s advertisements and stump speeches were consistently negative – trying to tear down his opponent, rather than make a case for his own candidacy. This way of campaigning is in line with the Rovian tactics of the last administration – a type of campaigning that America would do well to leave behind moving into the future.

Likewise, we agree with Colin Powell, Peggy Noonan, David Brooks, Christopher Buckley, Kathleen Parker, and many other well-respected conservatives, that Senator McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate was reckless and cynical. It has become very clear over the past few weeks that Governor Palin is grossly unfit for the job she is running for – much less, the job she would resume should something happen to Senator McCain. As recently as last week she was quoted as saying the role of vice-president was to “be in charge of the Senate.” This, in addition to her comments about the role of the vice president being left intentionally vague by the framers of the Constitution, reflect a lack of understanding of basic tenants of the position for which she is running. And in light of the secrecy and abuse of power in the last administration, Governor Palin’s “mix-ups” should be met with much harsher criticism.

The Tartan believes that Senator Obama possesses the necessary leadership skills, policy experience, and critical thinking ability to be an effective commander-in-chief. But more than this, he possesses these traits without a hint of cynicism. He is thoughtful and wise at a time when we need thoughtfulness and wisdom. And for this reason, we believe he is the ideal candidate for the presidency.”

Sure is refreshing to see this, particularly when it’s set against the Focus on the Family Letter from 2012 or the AFA’s voter’s guides.

Yes, that is a quote from 1 Thessalonians 5, so you can skip looking it up. No thanks necessary.

Received this email from a student, re: my Religions of the World course.

It is very difficult for me to take
these religions seriously. I honestly feel that most people in this
course are pretty much BS-ing when they talk about how amazed and
fascinated they are about these things. It’s writing what the
professor wants to hear instead of how they really feel. I have
actually talked to some students who have agreed this is the case. I
thought that by being honest and giving my genuine point of view was
better than sugar coating it, but that is often not the case in
school, as I have learned over the years. I will put my own feelings
aside in the future and only state facts. Hopefully that will help. I
honestly do not appreciate these other religions because I am a strong
Christian and God is a jealous God and does not find these other
“religions” to be at all appreciative. That’s just how I feel. I
cannot praise a religion that worships any God but the one I believe
is the ONLY one who exists. That is my struggle. I hope you understand.

Sincerely,

J. Doe, who really wants to get an A in the course without compromising her beliefs.

And, for what it’s worth, my response:

Well, I do understand. I myself am a licensed minister in the American Baptist Church of Vermont/New Hampshire. I don’t want or expect anyone to necessarily “like” any of these religions; there is much in them that doesn’t jive with Christianity. I want people to engage them, but we cannot engage them unless we know about them and look at what there is in common, as well as what the differences are. Like it or not, this is a world that is far more complicated than we Christians typically like to admit. Practitioners of religion – any religion – have got to learn to be sensitive to people of other faiths, even if they totally disagree on points of theology. This course is NOT a theology course. There is a difference between studying theology and studying religions; studying religions is studying how humans express in their own cultures their relationship to whatever is sacred to them. Studying theology is studying what humans say about God. We haven’t been doing that, although it has come up in discussion posts, which is fine, but I am not encouraging this. I do not believe we can have productive conversations about what humans think about God unless we know something about what they say and think about their world.

Part of being a Christian is being able to recognize the good. No less than Paul tells us to “Question everything, but hold on to the Good” (see 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5 I think). We can’t do that unless we learn where goodness and beauty lies, and I am of the persuasion that it does not only lie in Christianity; far from it. Genesis tells us that God the creator created our world as very good. I am trying to train students to recognize the good wherever it appears, and in this course in particular, being able to see the good and the beautiful in other religious traditions. Of course there is much that is not good; the dark side of religion is present in all of them, and this includes Christianity. I don’t know about you, but I have seen enough Christian-bashing to last me a lifetime, and I believe that throughout our history, we have deserved much of it. It is not a perfect faith. It is not “just fine the way it is.” God himself may be perfect and completely good. But Christianity is not, and I would prefer not to turn the faith into an idol that replaces God himself. It’s bad enough that this happens to the Bible.

In being critical of other religious traditions, we don’t have to resort to sarcasm and vitriol. That’s what automatically happens when we don’t understand something, usually due to our own unwillingness to be challenged or shook up a little, whether it’s in the voting booth or in conversations about religion. I hope to be giving students the tools to be critical of what they disagree with without coming across as bigoted know-it-alls who think anyone who thinks otherwise can go to hell, because they aren’t going anyplace else anyway.

So I do want you, and others in the class, to be honest. If you honestly can’t see anything the reflects the good and the beautiful in Shinto or Islam or whatever, I want you to tell me that. But you must be very specific. Condemning a Shinto garden simply because it’s not a Christian one isn’t going to cut it. Condemning the Qur’an without reading any of it simply because it’s not  New Testament isn’t going to work.

[some specific comments about student’s essays]
Peace, Benedict

Those of us who homeschool our kids through various conservative and evangelical organizations, curricula, worldview, and social networks know that we can’t be letting the liberal elite and the secular state determine our kids’ education and resulting secular enculturation. But what happens when we see those selfsame forces at work in our church? Why, homechurching of course!

Report: More Kids Being Home-Churched

Jacob wrestling with Angel of the LordSo tonight I’m giving a talk at our county public library on Judaism. I have the honor of distilling a 3,000 year old religious faith and tradition into one hour. (guffaw!)

The word is out, too. By this, I mean that apparently the chairwoman of the regional homeschooling association has learned that I’m doing this and is all excited. She got talking with some of the other homeschooling moms, who also got interested, and then they approached the wife to say how excited they are over this, began talking about having me offer classes in the homeschool co-op on world religions, give talks on the subject of Judaism and Islam and so forth at their monthly meetings, etc. Good vibes, for the most part. But… I got the “It will be so awesome (I’m thankful that I didn’t hear “wicked awesome”…) to hear someone talk about Judaism and these other religions from a Christian perspective. This is sooooo what we need!”

Wellllll….. I’m not sure how to take this. Or rather, I know exactly how I’m supposed to take this, and it kinda scares me a little bit. See, in the various circles I’m in (specifically the homeschooling one here), when the subject of world religions comes up at all, it’s always in the form of comparative apologetics. Religion X is compared with Christian doctrine and theological formulations (not Christian history, not phenomenology, symbolic imagery and iconography, ritual practices, and so on, unless it can be contrasted with Christian”orthodox” theology, doctrine, and practice), and the result of these comparisons and contrasts is as one would expect in sectarian education: We’ve got it right, and they’re off-base.

Ehhhhhh. That’s not what’s happening for this. But I feel the pressure from a demographic that is significant in the life of my family. I am there to introduce Judaism as a vibrant, living, beautiful religious faith and tradition to non-academics. I am not there to proselytize, criticize, denigrate, or even simply point out how Judaism differs from Christianity. To those informed in either tradition, the differences between them will be transparent. In fact, I have no plans to even mention Christianity except in historical context, and since this is only an hour, it will pretty much be a passing mention as a first century Jewish sect. (Rather like Josephus does in his work, actually.) Any real discussion of Judaism vis a vis Christianity will take place during the open Q+A session after the talk.

To the extent that, as Christian, this presentation will be “a Christian perspective” on a world religion, I think that Christians will – or should – recognize much in the Jewish concepts of God, the Book, and Israel. I strongly believe that serious interfaith dialog absolutely has to begin with establishing commonalities between them. I am making these the focus. And this is the aspect that I can envision frustrating my Christian, apologetically-oriented homeschooling folks potentially in the room. Evangelicals typically emphasize difference, and indeed are often afraid of having similarities in religion even pointed out, let alone discussed and engaged.

Not that there’s any shortage of “Christian perspectives” on world religions. They’re a dime a dozen, and in fact this has been going on in “orientalist” scholarship for several centuries. It’s easy enough to find. What I think makes this so exciting for these folks is the idea that it’s one of their own, someone they trust, and who they regard as being a competent authority on the subject, who is doing it. I’m more likely,launcelot.jpg perhaps, to be taken seriously than, say, a rabbi coming in to do exactly the same talk. So I welcome the opportunity. I just hope that the bridges that these types of events can potentially construct, that I seek to build, are open to everyone, and that others don’t plant a funny-looking old man demanding answers to the “questions three” before allowing others, who do not share their perspective, to cross.

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