Calling Bullshit

Chen Wenling - What You See Might Not Be Real.jpg

Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West, from the University of Washington, have developed a course called ‘Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning for the Digital Age’.

The lectures and readings might be crap, but they are at least easily accessible online, and the little assignment looks fun. But what I think I most like about the look of the course is the format, and the refreshing use of Benny Bloom’s silly taxonomy:

Learning Objectives

Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:

  • Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.
  • Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.
  • Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.
  • Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
  • Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.

That said, would it not be considerably more interesting – and manifestly more important – to take (and to teach) a course on the possibility, nature, and habits of ‘truth’ and its relationship to the cardinal virtues, rather than one on ‘bullshit’?

Pontius Pilate, in his greatest moment, probably thought so too: Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια; It’s a pity he ‘would not stay for an answer’ and so risk having his ‘mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth’ (Francis Bacon).

[Image: Chen Wenling, ‘What You See Might Not Be Real’, Beijing Art Gallery, 2009. Photo credit: Ng Han Guan/AP]

Some Recent Watering Holes


Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source


I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:

And this:

On the seductive fallacy of the ‘safe’ classroom

violenceAlmost every semester, I remind my students that I have three general expectations for any particular class. I couch these in terms of joy, formation, and community. In regards to the latter, I note my expectation that we will learn together. Studying theology is a challenging exercise, but I hope and expect that there will be a growing awareness among my students that theology is the responsibility and work undertaken by a hermeneutical community. Part of this entails that students feel a measure of safety in the classroom, that the learning environment be a place where their learnings and reflections are welcomed. No one learns while feeling threatened or in a place where one is constantly on the defence, or on the charge. Any classroom can be a perilous place as much as it can be a gift, a place where we grow frustrated with and mistrusting of one another, a place where we can learn the disgraceful habits of competition and soon forget that the texts we employ, and the ideas we share, are not part of some intellectual game but rather represent our efforts to think faithfully about the narratives of divine love. I believe that the story of God is the most beautiful of stories, and we learn it best when we learn in such a way that that beauty finds form in our learning together.

But there is another side to all this. For if the learning environment is merely safe, it is unlikely that anyone will learn anything at all. Teaching calls for a kind of necessity for violence – a kind of violence against our dearly-beloved ideas and convictions, for example – apart from which the kind of expectations I have in my teaching cannot be reached. Thus there is a real sense in which I hope that my students will not feel safe at all. For there seems little point in undertaking theological study unless one is willing to have one’s ideas interrogated, challenged, transformed, changed. Real learning is always a kind of repentance, with all of the risk and pain in the arse that such entails. It may also, as George Steiner has noted, ‘take us as near as is possible to the concept of resurrection’. In this sense, I invite my students to resist with all their might the seductive fallacy of the ‘safe’ classroom and what Ilan Stavans recently called the ‘façade for overprotectiveness’. ‘Being in class’, Stavans writes, ‘doesn’t bring salvation. Instead, it plunges you into the contradictions that shape our lives. Safety is a basic principle of education: Knowledge results from trust, and trust comes from care. Yet whether we like it or not, violence is an unavoidable feature, our constant companion. Nature without violence is a contradiction’.

‘Fidelity and betrayal are close knit’ (Steiner) in any community, classrooms included.

Rowan Williams: An Interview

Rowan Williams 12In this insightful and encouraging interview, conducted with Terence Handley MacMath and first published in the Church Times, Rowan Williams ruminates on teaching, church leadership, theological education, funding, experiencing God, faith, the theological task, reporting on charities, his greatest influences, and reassuring and loved sounds. His comments – particularly those about the relationship between Christ and the world – are all the more pertinent given recently-published pieces in the mainstream media about what most of us, I suspect, have known for so long now, about Britain’s ‘disappearing Christianity’ and Christian extinction’.

My work is teaching, writing, studying, plus lots of administration and raising funds for the college, and chairing Christian Aid. Probably most of my time goes on college, and a variety of teaching events for churches and schools.

I’m currently giving a series of lectures here on the history of the doctrine of Christ, trying to tease out how thinking about Christ clarifies the relation between God and creation overall.

As Archbishop, you’re constantly responding to things, and even if you do get some writing done — as I did, a bit — it tends to be issue-focused. I like having the chance of some longer breaths for thinking through questions.

When I was in post, the urgent questions were often serious theological ones, if rather heavily disguised at times; so I found myself reflecting hard about the nature of authority in the Church, and what it meant to speak about the interdependent life of the Body of Christ. That latter point continues to be absorbing for me, and I think that this term’s lectures will have reflected that a bit — thinking about the inseparable connection between what we say about Jesus Christ, and what we say about the community that lives in him.

A bishop has to be a teacher of the faith. That is, he or she has to be someone who is animated by theology and eager to share it — animated by theology in the sense of longing to inhabit the language and world of faith with greater and greater intelligence, insight, and joy. So, yes, bishops need that animation and desire to help others make sense of their commitment.

Arguments about priestly training go round and round, don’t they? Too theoretical, too pragmatic, not enough of this, not enough of that. . . My worry is, if we focus too much on curriculum — what should the modules be? — we may somehow fail to connect things up in a big picture in which pastoral care, sacramental life, prayer, scripture, social and political perspective, and doctrine all interweave. We need to have that interconnectedness in our minds constantly, as we seek to shape future ordained ministry, because that is what provides the deepest resource for arid and frustrating times. And that is what guarantees that we have something to offer our society that’s more than simply religious uplift, moral inspiration, or nice experiences.

A lot of debate in and out of the Church is shadow-boxing, because people don’t recognise what the questions are. Of course, recognising what the questions are does not remotely guarantee that you will agree, but it helps to know what you’re disagreeing about, and stops you resorting to tribal slogans, whether secular or religious. My old friend and colleague Oliver O’Donovan is particularly good at this excavation of basic questions, and has been a great help and inspiration.

In an ideal world, government and educational establishments would recognise that theology is as significant a study as other humanities. But, given that the study of the humanities in general is so badly supported these days, I’m not holding my breath. It’s anything but an ideal world.

This means that I would plead with the Church to take seriously the need for investing in theological education at all levels — to recognise that there is a huge appetite for theology among so many laypeople, and thus a need for clergy who can respond and engage intelligently. The middle-term future may need to be one where there are more independent centres of theological study outside universities, given the erosion of resources in higher education, and I think it’s time more people started thinking about what that might entail in terms of funding.

British theology is more cosmopolitan than when I started studying it. In the Sixties, people writing about doctrine in the UK were not very enthusiastic about Continental writers (though it was different for New Testament scholars); and modern Roman Catholic theology was largely ignored. Now we read far more widely, I think, and we’re more ready to take time over the intricacies of historical arguments rather than dismiss them as tiresome and unnecessary complications.

There’s more critical interest in the history of spirituality, and more willingness to let it come into the territory of doctrine. All this is to the good. My sadness is the decline of institutional resources for theology in the UK: limited funds for research, and theology departments under threat.

It’s hard to pin down my first experience of God, but I suppose [it was] through shared worship in the Presbyterian chapel of my childhood, and a strong sense — when I was around eight, and my grandmother, who lived with us, was dying — of God’s care and providence, and the presence of the crucified Christ. Shared worship is still a major part of how I encounter God, but, from my teens, this has been balanced by a growing hunger for silence before God.

I’ve never felt any real disjunction between academic theology and faith. I’ve found that studying the development of Christian doctrine has excited me, and helped me see something of the veins and sinews of faith. My research has arisen out of my desire to understand better what we say as people of faith.

Apart from the obvious question about how we Anglicans manage the tension of living in a diverse global church — where we need a more robust theology of what interdependence does and doesn’t mean — I think my biggest concern is that we don’t have a rich enough Anglican theological consensus on the sacramental nature of the Church. That’s eucharistic ecclesiology, to put it in technical language.

Underrated theologians? John Bowker, Olivier Clément, Andrew Shanks.

Theology has a modest but vital part to play in the Church’s mission. We need to keep asking questions about how we’re using our language, so that we don’t get stuck with unexamined habits of speech, don’t assume that true formulations about God tell us everything about him, don’t forget the sheer scale of what we are daring to speak about. Theology helps with all this. And it helps clarify what we believe about human nature and destiny, which is of real importance for a world that is often deeply unsure or confused about the roots of human dignity.

Theologians don’t necessarily ask the same questions as others do, but there is a continuity, and theologians need the skill and patience to draw out those continuities. That’s why it is important that there are writers who try to work in the boundaries between academic theology and secular culture, and those who try to put the great governing themes of classical theology into plainer words. Mike Lloyd is a good example.

I was an only child. My father worked as an engineer, and my mother had lifelong health and mobility problems. They were both Christians, though reticent and sometimes uncertain about it. My wife, Jane, of course, is well-known in her own right as a teacher and writer. We have a daughter who teaches in an inner-city primary school, and a son studying drama at university. Both would still call themselves Christian, though they slip in and out of the institutional life of the Church.

The most reassuring, loved sound to me is the door opening when my wife or children come home.

Some irresponsible and hostile reporting about charities was the last thing that made me angry. Nationally and internationally, charities are expected to pick up the slack where statutory provision drops away — yet they’re subjected not just to proper demands for accountability, but often to what looks like wilfully negative and undermining reporting, focused on excessive salaries, inadequate monitoring of expenditure, intrusive fund-raising, and so on. These things all happen, and need to stop happening; but just how representative are the hostile headline stories, especially where international aid is concerned?

I’m happiest when I’m at the Pembrokeshire coast on family holidays.

Augustine has probably been the greatest theological influence above all, but also Vladimir Lossky, who was the focus of my doctoral research; Barth, Bonhoeffer, Austin Farrer, Donald MacKinnon, James Alison. I don’t know if Simone Weil is allowed to count as a theologian; I don’t always agree with her by any means, but she was a huge influence at several points. Among specific books, I remember Bonhoeffer’s prison letters; Charles Williams’s He Came Down From Heaven; Herbert McCabe, Law, Love and Language; Hans Urs von Balthasar, Elucidations.

The greatest influences in my life have been the parish priest in my teenage years; the Benedictine monk who was my spiritual director; and Jane and the children.

I pray most for patience, freedom to forgive and let go of hurt — for myself and for the whole Church and human family — and for the rescue of the vulnerable: the abused, hungry, terrified, wherever they are.

If I had to choose a companion to be locked in a church with for a few hours, I’d toss up between St Augustine, T. S. Eliot, and Bonhoeffer, from the past. In the present — family apart — Salley Vickers, Michael Symmons Roberts, or Kathleen Norris.

Who is Jesus?

This coming semester at Whitley College, I’ll be teaching a unit called Who is Jesus?

Here’s a little about it:

I’m really looking forward to teaching this unit – alongside one on my other favourite JC, Johnny Calvin – and to the insights that emerge as my students and I engage with the following texts, among others:


  • Stephen E. Fowl, ‘Reconstructing and Deconstructing the Quest for the Historical Jesus’, Scottish Journal of Theology 42 (1989), 319–33.
  • Thomas P. Rausch, Who is Jesus?: An Introduction to Christology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), Chapters 1 and 2.


  • Douglas A. Campbell, ‘Christ and the Church in Paul: A “Post-New Perspective” Account’, in Four Views on the Apostle Paul, ed. Michael F. Bird (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 113–43.
  • Louis Martyn, ‘The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians’. Interpretation 54, no. 3 (July 2000), 246–66. 


  • Gerald O’Collins, ‘The Jewish Matrix’, in Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 21–43.
  • Francis Watson, ‘The Quest for the Real Jesus’, in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, ed. Markus Bockmuehl (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 156–69.


  • Gregory of Nazianzus, ‘To Cledonius the Priest against Apollinarius (Ep. CI)’, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. Volume 7: S. Cyril of Jerusaelm, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Edinburgh/Grand Rapids, MI: T&T Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989), 439–43.
  • Irenæus, ‘Against Heresies’, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers – Justin Martyr – Irenæus, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh/Grand Rapids, MI: T&T Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), III.16­–22 (pp. 440–55).
  • Tertullian, ‘Against Praxeas; in which he defends, in all essential points, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity’, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Volume III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh/Grand Rapids, MI: T&T Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), Chapters 27–30 (pp. 623–27).


  • Athanasius, Athanasius on the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, trans. The Religious of C. S. M. V., 2nd ed. (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1953), 25–64.


  • The film Ordet, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer.
  • Robert Barron, ‘Christ in Cinema: The Evangelical Power of the Beautiful’, in The Oxford Handbook of Christology, ed. Francesca Aran Murphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 475–87.


  • Anselm, ‘Why God Became Man’, in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), I.xi–xxi, II.iv–xx (pp. 282–307, 317–54).
  • John D. Zizioulas, ‘Biblical Aspects of the Eucharist’, in The Eucharistic Communion and the World, ed. Luke B. Tallon (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 1–38. 


  • Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism, trans. Darrell L. Guder (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983), 343–68.
  • Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans. John Newton Thomas and Thomas Wieser (London: Collins, 1961), 37–65. 


  • Hans W. Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology, Expanded and updated ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 140–50.
  • Jürgen Moltmann, ‘The Resurrection of Christ: Hope for the World’, in Resurrection Reconsidered, ed. Gavin D’Costa (Oxford: Oneworld, 1996), 73–86.
  • Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, 2nd ed. (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002), 68–90.


  • Jeremy Begbie, ‘Christ and the Cultures: Christianity and the Arts’, in The Companion to Christian Doctrine, ed. Colin E. Gunton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 101–18.
  • Robin M. Jensen, ‘Jesus Up Close’, Christian Century 120, no. 19 (2003), 26–30.
  • Lawrence S. Cunningham, ‘Christ in Art from the Baroque to the Present’, in The Oxford Handbook of Christology, ed. Francesca Aran Murphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 506–16.


  • Benjamin Myers, ‘“In his own strange way”: Indigenous Australians and the Church’s Confession’, Uniting Church Studies 16, no. 1 (2010), 39–48.
  • Stuart Piggin, ‘Jesus in Australian History and Culture’, in Mapping the Landscape: Essays in Australian and New Zealand Christianity: Festschrift in Honour of Professor Ian Breward, ed. Susan Emilsen and William W. Emilsen, American University Studies (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2000), 150–67.
  • The Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology: Toward an Australian Aboriginal Theology, 2nd ed. (Hindmarsh: ATF Press, 2012), 55–74.
  • Stanley Jedidiah Samartha, ‘Indian Realities and the Wholeness of Christ’, Missiology 10, no. 3 (1982), 301–17.


  • Gavin D’Costa, ‘Christ, the Trinity and Religious Plurality’, in Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: Myth of Pluralistic Theology of Religions, ed. Gavin D’Costa, Faith Meets Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 16–29.
  • John Hick, ‘Christology in an Age of Religious Pluralism’, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 35 (1981), 4–9.

If you’re keen to know more, it’s not too late to enrol ;-) The unit can be taken at either undergraduate or postgraduate level, as well as online (at UG or PG level) from anywhere the World Wide Web has reached.

On being ecclesiastical tourists

Duane-Hansons-TouristsWhile in the mad throes of writing lectures for an upcoming course that I’ll be teaching on the church, I am grateful to be re-reading Michael Jinkins’s very fine book The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology in a Post-Modern Context. In one little section, subtitled ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Church’, Jinkins offers a great reminder of the challenge and danger that inherently lies in teaching a course on ecclesiology. It begins:

Roland Barthes’s essay “The Blue Guide” is suggestive for those who want to learn to reflect on the speech of the church about itself. His essay considers a popular series of tourist guidebooks (called Guide Bleu in French) to various European destinations. To be precise, his essay considers the presuppositions, one might almost say the prejudices, of the guidebook, which remain unstated by the editors and reduce the particularities of a country and its inhabitants to stereotypes, cliches, and sights (or monuments) to be seen, but not observed. The complex and real “human life of a country disappears,” he writes, “to the exclusive benefit of its monuments.” And the rich diversity of human existence is boiled down to a few picture postcard images. He writes:

In Spain, for instance, the Basque is an adventurous sailor, the Levantine a lighthearted gardener, the Catalan a clever tradesman and the Cantabrian a sentimental Highlander. We find again here this disease of thinking in essences, which is at the bottom of every bourgeois mythology of man (which is why we come across it so often). The ethnic reality of Spain is thus reduced to a vast classical ballet, a nice neat commedia dell’arte, whose improbable typology serves to mask the real spectacle of conditions, classes and professions. For the Blue Guide, men exist as social entities only in trains, where they fill a “very mixed” Third Class. Apart from that, they are a mere introduction, they constitute a charming and fanciful decor, meant to surround the essential part of the country: its collection of monuments.

Is there not a corresponding danger in ecclesiology to reduce the vast diversity of church, the ambiguities of this rich human-divine reality, to a few neat (noncontradictory) patterns, types, models, paradigms, definitions, or descriptions—to notice the monumental remains and to dismiss as irrelevant (and irrelevantly messy) the actual communities of faith that shape these monuments and that move within them and make sense of them? What would it entail, what would it require of us, to notice and take seriously the particularities of church, to go beyond phenomenology to phenomengnosis, to understand the ambiguous flux of existence as itself the sign that demands to be understood in its own terms? Barthes says, later in this essay:

Generally speaking, the Blue Guide testifies to the futility of all analytical descriptions, those which reject both explanations and phenomenology: it answers in fact none of the questions which a modern traveller can ask himself while crossing a countryside which is real and which exists in time. To select only monuments suppresses at one stroke the reality of the land and that of its people, it accounts for nothing of the present, that is, nothing historical, and as a consequence, the monuments themselves become undecipherable, therefore senseless. What is seen is thus constantly in the process of vanishing, and the Guide becomes, through an operation common to all mystifications, the very opposite of what it advertises, an agent of blindness.

Banksy - Tourist InformationA tourist, perhaps on one of those packaged coach tours, can visit a foreign country only to tick off the sights (the monuments): the Eiffel Tower, Westminster Abbey, Edinburgh Castle. She envisions the people of these foreign countries she visits as stereotypes already firmly established in her head: Scot in kilt with bagpipes, Englishman with umbrella and bowler, Frenchman wearing beret, smoking cigarette, drinking wine. The tourist returns home having traveled but having only minimally encountered the countries toured and their inhabitants. The idiosyncratic, the eccentric reality of humanity, the exactness of place and time and circumstance, the life lived in ordinariness is easily ignored in the headlong rush to account for all stereotypes (thus never really knowing the people) and monuments (thus never understanding why the monuments are there or what they signify). One sees here the way in which the yearning for essence can alienate us from history; though this superficial tourist may be surrounded by “historical” monuments, she has little access to their meaning because they have been decontextualized; consequently, she is estranged from her own history of being present in that place. In the worst cases, the tourist takes her “home” on tour with her to the extent that she never enters into the foreign time and place at all—the ultimate jet lag.

The ecclesiastical tourist, likewise, can emerge from a “study of the doctrine of the Church” having never entered into church at all. While giving the impression of sailing to all the great ports of call, he may have only circumnavigated the stereotypes. What is clearly implied in such ecclesiological globetrotting is that the church is an idea, and that paying attention to the actuality of particular human communities of faith only distracts us from some divine ecclesiology, a neat analytical description that is (supposedly) forever and everywhere true.

Church: The Quest for Christian Community

One of the units that I’ll be teaching at Whitley College (University of Divinity) this coming semester (30 July–29 October) is called Church: The Quest for Christian Community. The unit can be taken at levels 2, 3, or 9, and all are welcome to enrol.

Over 12 sessions, we will consider the following broad themes:

1. The Quest for Christian Community: Approaches, Issues, Challenges
2. The Community in Kingdom and Spirit
3. The Community as the Body of Christ
4. The Community as Priesthood and People of God
5. The Community and the Missio Dei
6. The Community under water: Baptism
7. The Community at Table: Eucharist
8. The Community of the Word
9. The Community Growing in God
10. The Community at Work
11. The Community in the World
12. The Ethical Community

And here’s a little taster of what is in store:

If you are interested in joining us, or in simply finding out more about this course and others, contact Whitley College (by email or phone 03 9340 8100) for more information.

Academic position: Dean of Studies and Lecturer

kcmlApplications are invited for the position of Dean of Studies and Lecturer at the Knox Centre for Ministry of Leadership in Dunedin, New Zealand. The Knox Centre forms and trains theology graduates for ministry and leadership in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. This includes running a two-year internship programme for people training for the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. As Dean of Studies, you will handle course enquiries and manage the ordination programme’s curriculum. As Lecturer, you will teach at least one paper in the ordination studies programme, preferably in the areas of Theological Reflection and/or Presbyterian-Reformed Studies. As well as having the requisite skills in administration and education, you will be familiar with the Presbyterian-Reformed tradition, you will have a proven background in Christian ministry and leadership, and you will have either a D.Min or a PhD in Theology. A full Job Description for this position can be obtained from the Registrar. Applications can be submitted to the Principal. The position is available from 1 January 2015. The closing date for applications is 16 May 2014.

Position: Senior Lecturer in Mission Studies

laidlawLaidlaw College in Auckland is seeking a Senior Lecturer in Mission Studies for its School of Theology, Mission & Ministry:

The Lecturer will be responsible for teaching in mission and contextual studies, ensuring that courses are developed and delivered in ways that are faithful to the Gospel of Christ, culturally incisive, and grounded in a biblical understanding of God’s missional purposes for Aotearoa New Zealand, the nations of the Pacific region, Asia and the world. They will also be actively involved in the College’s community and will lead the College’s Centre for Cross Cultural Mission (C3M).

The desired candidate will have the following skills and qualifications:

      • A PhD or equivalent in a relevant area of research
      • Significant missional experience
      • Active involvement in a local Christian community of faith and in Christian initiatives in the wider global community
      • Ability to publish papers and present research at academic conferences
      • Experience in teaching within a tertiary education provider
      • Experience mentoring students and providing pastoral care
      • Understanding of recent developments in the theological and general tertiary education sectors nationally and internationally
      • Experience and/or willingness to utilise e-Learning pedagogies and technologies

This position is a permanent full-time (1.0 FTE) position.

Please email your CV and cover letter to Natalie Tims, Human Resources Manager, at ntims@laidlaw.ac.nz to register your interest and request an application pack. Application packs include an application form related to your previous experience and theological principles, a Statement of Faith and a five-year Professional Development Research plan. Application packs must be submitted by Friday 2 May, 2014.

You can read the Job Description here.

Some stuff on the stove


Shouldn’t Baptist churches retrieve the practice of venerating the saints, that is, engaging in corporate worship acts designed not to worship the saints, but to remember, honor, learn from, and celebrate saints from our Baptist family and from other Christian communions? Until we regularly include commemoration of the saints in our worship celebrations, we will continue to neglect the opportunity to give proper value to those from our past who have borne courageous witness to faithful discipleship. Commemorative acts done in our Sunday morning services would provide a suitable accompaniment for the tradition some have already developed as part of their Vacation Bible School program, in which stories are told of great spiritual leaders worthy of emulation … [HT: Steven Harmon]

[Image: from Old Picture of the Day]

An aid for teaching

‘No matter how often it happens in my courses, I never cease to be infuriated with plagiarism’. So tweeted a friend of mine earlier this week. And every teacher worth his or her salt knows the feeling. His comment coincided nicely with a very practical gift that my thoughtful partner purchased for me just a day or two earlier – a ‘GOOD JOB’ stamp that I’m really looking forward to using the next time I engage in that wonderful form of lovemaking called ‘grading papers’:


Of course, when I think about my current crop of students, I anticipate that mainly only one box will be required. However, the Augustinian in me can certainly imagine occasions when all three boxes will need to be ticked, and sometimes all at once.

Grading papers as a form of lovemaking

grading-1aIt is not difficult to imagine a world in which not a few teachers will be seduced by the kind of software that edX is making available. But it is inevitable, is it not, that such seductive invitations, if taken up, will be met with a massive anti-climax and a certain increase in academic sterility. More tragically, however, it would mean a decline in the frequency and joy of teachers making love. For grading papers, like indexing a book or replying to students’ emails, is an act of love-making – love for our students, love for attempts at meaning making, love for the pains that inevitably accompany an inquiring mind, love for the subject and for those whose labours have made ours possible, love for the task of teaching itself, et cetera. And as with all other forms of love making, one is, to be sure, not always ‘in the mood’, and it can be simply exhausting and largely unsatisfying in and of itself. It is certainly a form of judgement. Even so, it is incumbent upon we who teach – the incumbency of the kind of freedom that only love can bring – to strive to improve our love-making skills (it’s why some of us try to keep up with our Greek, for example) rather than subcontracting such responsibilities out to third parties, gadgetries and gimics. Thank God for good tools – that is, tools which assist our efforts to love – but when tools reign over, replace, or even become an extension of the lover themselves, we have ceased to love, and so God help us all.


Speaking of love making, if all goes to plan the next post here at Per Crucem ad Lucem will be a sermon on two texts from the Song of Songs.

Some resources on early Presbyterianism

Despite the considerable freedom and trust that many of us teachers enjoy in shaping our courses pretty much how we’d like to, it’s pretty difficult, if not irresponsible, to teach a course on Presbyterianism without at least one lecture on John Knox. To neglect this thundering prophet and consummate politician during such a course would be like trying to teach someone about the history of fishing without ever mentioning Izaak Walton. And, of course, those doing research on Knox have much welcomed the recent studies on the sixteenth-century reformer by Rosalind Marshall and that by Richard Kyle and Dale Johnson. And then there is T. F. Torrance’s noble attempt (in Scottish Theology and elsewhere) to make Knox appear as a Barthian after his own image (an attempt, to be sure, which is nowhere near as pathetic as Eric Metaxas’ remarketing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in American evangelical drag). But despite these stimulating studies, I confess that I have simply never found preparing lectures on Knox to be particularly interesting. I certainly expect my students to have a working knowledge of one of their major ecclesiastical grandpas, and of the massive events that led up to the birth of their ecclesial identity in 1560, and of the exciting and formative decades thereafter. And it is true that one simply cannot tell this story with an absent Knox, or, equally importantly, with an absent Andrew Melville. (By the way, Melville is himself the subject of a number of recent and much welcomed studies. See, for example, Steven J. Reid’s impressive volume, Humanism and Calvinism: Andrew Melville and the Universities of Scotland, 1560–1625, and the essay by Ernest R. Holloway III, published as Andrew Melville and Humanism in Renaissance Scotland, 1545–1622, both of which I found enormously helpful in filling in some of the gaps in my knowledge of this much underestimated giant of the tradition.)

I recently did some teaching on early Presbyterianism, and was committed – as I increasingly am – to approaching the subject ‘from below’. In my preparation, I draw heavily upon a number of very helpful studies. I want to draw attention to three of those. First, Margo Todd’s The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland. There is no question to my mind that Todd’s is an exceptional study, unmatched in its scope and accessibility, and enormously helpful for gaining a sense of the bigger picture, and that with just the right level of detail so that you feel that you’re not being fed propaganda and/or sloppy work. The macro level vista is both the study’s strength and its greatest vulnerability, for while its overview nature superbly introduces us to themes and challenges associated with the subject, the book does not particularly assist readers to appreciate some of the geographically-specific features at play. In other words, it’s a bit like having a fantastic cookbook on Indian food but which makes little distinction between the Punjabi and Udupi palettes.

With Todd in hand, however, two additional studies assisted me to arrive at the subject with greater detail and a more pronounced awareness of the nuances at work. First, there is the remarkably entertaining Stirling Presbytery Records, 1581–1587 edited by, and with an stunning introduction from, the first-class historian James Kirk. Second, is John McCallum’s revised doctoral dissertation published as Reforming the Scottish Parish: The Reformation in Fife, 1560–1640 (in Ashgate’s St Andrews Studies in Reformation History series). Well researched (he draws mainly on largely-neglected kirk session minutes) and accessible writing presented with helpful charts is always going to be a winner when I’m preparing lectures. McCallum does what Todd doesn’t; namely, place the spotlight onto one region, a region (Fife) which is in many ways, as he argues, a reasonable snapshot – because of the diversity of Fife’s presbyteries and parishes – of the reforms and obstacles to reform that were taking place across the country. And McCallum’s focus on the themes of availability and training of ministers, of discipline (and the role of those ‘genuinely parochial institutions’ known as the kirk session) and of worship helped to bring those infant years of Presbyterianism alive for me, and helped – together with Todd’s and Kirk’s work – to fill in some important gaps in what has been a largely ignored period of the church’s life. I can only hope that additional studies exploring other areas of early Presbyterian life might be undertaken.

On resisting the chaotic non-conformity of private, virtuoso theologies

‘Throughout the history of the Reformed tradition, the central place both for the ongoing hermeneutic process urged in the confessions, and for the general influence of the confessions in the Church, has been the pastoral office through preaching, teaching, oversight, and leadership. Correspondingly, it is chiefly the minister of the word, among the other ordained ministries, who is held accountable in the constitutional questions for following the leading and guidance of the confessions of faith. Appropriately, theological education was in the past structured by the theology of the confessions. Rather strongly, thus, I wish to remind those of us that find our calling in theological education that it is scandalous for a faculty member in any discipline in the church’s seminaries not to be able to locate his or her work and thought and teaching matter with relation to the confessional teachings. We do not want again the old teaching oath, or any teaching oath at all, and the inevitably stifling conformity it promotes. But neither do we want the On resistsing that leave the relation of thought to life in the empirical church to the improvisation of individual ministers. Further, theological education carried out in programs of continuing education or presbytery projects of many types, should be oriented by a reasonable awareness of what the Church teaches in its confessional and creedal literature.

More broadly, it is the educational ministry of the Church on all levels that should bear the chief responsibility for a confessionally rooted hermeneutic, worship, and mission. The idiom of the tradition, whether in words or ethic, needs to be exercised in spiritual, biblical, theological, and ethical education.

It would be well, we often think, if one might be just a Christian, and not a Presbyterian, Catholic, or Methodist. But so, it might seem, is the case with language. What if we could avoid German or English and just speak language? But it doesn’t work. Esperanto is a wonderful idea, but like Basic English a few years back, it is bereft of the richness of meaning and naturalness of a true language. So a theological Esperanto, or ecumenical Esperanto—for the time being at least—leaves us far from the concrete reality in which we live and speak. The idiom of the Reformed tradition, when fully understood, is the ground and motive both for ecumenical awareness and progress, and for other kinds of reform and advance. Not abandonment, but reform, as new light breaks forth from Scripture and illuminates new situations in our culture and environment and in the world Church, is the promising idiom of our tradition’. – Edward A. Dowey Jr., ‘Confessional Documents as Reformed Hermeneutic’, Journal of Presbyterian History 79, no. 1 (2001), 58.

The Joy of Teaching

Harry Hazel, The Joy of Teaching: Effective Strategies for the Classroom (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2010). xii + 158 pages. ISBN: 978-1-60608-613-1. Review copy courtesy of Wipf and Stock.

Since I read Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do, I’ve tried to keep abreast with books on teaching, books which seek to hold up before me the teacher’s task and to encourage me to attend to its craft. Recently, I read The Joy of Teaching: Effective Strategies for the Classroom by Harry Hazel, Professor of Communication Arts at Gonzaga University and author of Art of Talking to Yourself and Others and The Power of Persuasion, and co-author of Communicating Effectively: Linking Thought and Expression.

In researching for this book, Hazel collected reactions from over one hundred North American teachers about why they like what they do. Most emphasised the joy of helping students learn and seeing those students develop their potential: ‘Good teachers challenge, cajole, prod, push and move each student as far as they can’ (p. 5). Hazel observes that while good teachers ‘give away’ knowledge, those who find little joy in giving to others will find little joy in teaching. Moreover, great teachers exhibit a passion for their profession which leaves no doubt that they enjoy, at a deep level, what they were doing. They hold learning in high esteem and are committed to ongoing formation and to professional development.

He shares a number of other findings:

  • excellence in teaching has more to do with an exceptional grasp of the material and clear communication techniques than with popularity.
  • the best teachers demand much of their students.
  • good teachers take time to find out how students in a class learn best, and then adapt. Like Bain, Hazel too notes that there is all the difference in the world whether we are teaching a subject to students or teaching students a subject, and that effective teachers will employ whatever method they believe will best develop an individual student.
  • good teachers respect and love their students: ‘It may seem obvious that liking students is a prerequisite to liking education, but some teachers don’t really like most of their students. They tolerate them because they have to. Once the class is over, they have little contact with them. Happy teachers, on the other hand, really like the students they encounter’ (p. 133).

Against Gerald Goldhaber’s prophecy (in Organizational Communication) on the death of the lecture, Hazel draws upon Plato, Aristotle and Joseph Lowman’s work in Mastering the Techniques of Teaching to defend the use of ‘what can be an excellent teaching tool’:

Properly delivered, a lecture lights up a room. If a teacher is well organized, presents her ideas clearly and sprinkles theory with riveting examples, she has a good chance of keeping the attention of her students. But if she speaks in a monotone, wanders all over her subject and hovers in the clouds of abstraction, most of her students will tune out. The bland lecture competes with the Quaalude as a way to induce sleep. (p. 37)

While some will find The Joy of Teaching a little anecdote-heavy (a sad trend, it seems, in much recent North American literature), and few engaged with adult-education will find much here that inspires, the book will certainly be read with profit by secondary school teachers and by those who care about what is happening in our high schools.

Lecturing Position in Biblical Studies

The School of Theology at the University of Auckland seeks to appoint a Lecturer in Biblical Studies with expertise in Hebrew Bible, but capacities to teach into the New Testament. The position may expand to include studies of Emerging Judaism in the future.

The successful applicant will be expected to undertake research, to teach at introductory undergraduate, advanced undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and to supervise research students for the MTheol and PhD degrees.

Applicants will be expected to have a PhD or equivalent in Biblical Studies, some research publications and teaching experience.

Applications close on 21 March 2010.

For more information contact Elaine Wainwright.

Create challenging learning environments

It could be that we need to spend less time writing lectures and more time thinking about springing surprise tests on our students; that is, at least, if Nate Kornell and Sam Kornell are right:

‘… errors are not necessarily the enemy of learning; they can, in fact, enhance it. Likewise, the widely held belief that testing serves no purpose other than assessing performance is built on a similar misconception. In reality, testing — whether self-testing or testing in the classroom — can, under the right conditions, better promote learning than can studying … We tend to assume that the best way to consume and remember information is through the application of rigorous, extended study. What we fail to see, however, is that the process of trying to work through a problem to which we don’t know the answer focuses our attention on it in a way that simply studying it does not. The desire to get the answer right, and the frustration of failure, is partly to account … Create challenging learning environments, make mistakes and then learn from them’. – Nate Kornell and Sam Kornell, A Really Hard Test Really Helps Learning.

Either way, the spoon-feeding days are over.

If you were a school teacher in the 1850s …

If you were a school teacher the 1850s, here are 13 rules to which you probably were required to adhere:

1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys [lamp globes], and trim wicks.

2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and scuttle of coal for the day’s session.

3. Teachers will make their pens carefully. They may whittle nibs to individual tastes.

4. Male teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.

5. After 10 hours in school teachers should spend their remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.

6. Women teachers who marry or engage in uncomely conduct will be dismissed.

7. Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his/her earnings for his/her benefit during his/her declining years so that he/she won’t become a burden on society.

8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barbershop will give good reason to suspect his/her worth, intentions, integrity, and honesty.

9. The teacher who performs his/her labors faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents per week in his/her pay providing the Board of Education approves.

10. Teachers will maintain a garden on school grounds to provide additional food for themselves or students.

11. Teacher candidates must be at least 16, be able to read and write, do simple arithmetic, and have a clergyman’s letter in hand attesting to their sound moral character.

12. Teachers must attend a house of worship every Sunday.

13. Teachers must keep the school clean, haul any necessary wood to keep the stove going, bring water from the well, and start a pot to boil in the morning so students who bring their lunch can heat it if necessary.

What a breeze … and no emails to check. O how much more fun it is to whittle your own nibs and cut your own hair at home.