In early 2020, I taught the second installment of a 3-part theology series for a group of students in an Urban Ministry Leadership Program offered by a leading seminary in the Chicago area. The immediate challenge was taking over a course in mid-stream. The previous professor—a dear friend and respected instructor in her own rite—transitioned out of the seminary. The resulting need for an instructor– created an opportunity for me to teach my first theology course, though I was still completing my PhD in systematic theology. In this brief article, I will highlight 5 pedagogical insights that informed and will continue to inform my teaching. These include professor as griot, translator, practitioner, and peer, along with the importance of intellectual virtue.
Professor as Griot. Drawing on the West African notion of the griot as storyteller, historian, poet, etc., I recognized that my academic credentials, while important, were not ultimate in being respected and received as an instructor. In addition to speaking theologically, I had to speak pastorally as understood in the black church. In other words, I had to find ways to invite students into God’s theological drama that resonated with their minds and affections. While my classroom was not exclusively Afro-American, it was predominately so. With the proven power of narrative, I had to “tell the story,” with theological veracity. In other words, lectures were never monological information dumps, but dialogical – “call and response” engagements celebrating theological truth.
Professor as Translator. In addition to being a griot, contextual hermeneutics loomed very large in the communication process. A major challenge with the previous instructor, who is a white female theologian, was that the material came across as too abstract and esoteric. When I arrived, I learned that much of what was taught the previous term was not understood. In fact, many of the students expressed that they had simply given up on learning the material. As an African American who grew up in the black religious tradition, I was able to serve as an effective translator. That is, I was able to parlay dusty, arcane theological terminology into living language familiar with my target audience because I lived in both the academy and the black church. The situatedness and lived realities from which the previous instructor sprung up produced ingrained narratives, culturally shaped values, and biases with inherent blind spots. However, because of our cultural and religious solidarity, I was able to effectively speak to these gaps.
Professor as Practitioner. Furthermore, while head knowledge is required, it is insufficient for teaching effectively in a context where many learners were already church leaders looking for ministry helps and actionable insights. Credibility was built on not just information, but wisdom—the effective application of information to produce a desired outcome. These adult learners wanted to know that their instructor had been in the trenches working out his own theology, and not just engaged in theoretical, ivory tower blather. They wanted to know that what the instructor was promoting as theology was more than accurate doctrinal formulations, but affective, pragmatic, and livable religion.
Professor as Peer. Most fundamentally, I found that our shared situatedness created a sense of solidarity. Consequently, we were able to relate and mutually “teach” as peers around common experiences, narratives, values, and insights. Most of us were ministry practitioners actively engaged in the theological task. In this regard, there was a leveling in the classroom in which all of our perspectives were valued for their contributions to the conversation. This created a sense of belonging and connectedness that was both aspirational and inspirational.
Intellectual Virtue. Lastly, I want to briefly touch on intellectual virtue. I was introduced to the notion of intellectual virtue by Professor Kevin Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, who taught my prolegomena course as a PhD student. In short, intellectual virtue deals with habits of the mind that lead to or promote truth. This may manifest as charity, a generous spirit, humility, fairness, open-mindedness, courage, honesty, etc. This is contra vices that lead away from the truth, such as laziness, intellectual pride, fear, etc. In my experience, striving for intellectual virtue was helpful to the teaching enterprise, as it promoted authentic, stimulating, and thoughtful engagement.
In summary, I am convinced that these pedagogical insights can inform teaching—in urban contexts in particular—and other contexts in general. According to the testimonies of the adult learners involved, the content and presentation were well received as digestible and impactful. Many of these students understood the theology for the first time. Others gained greater theological facility. Those at risk of not passing the course were able to apply themselves with greater success. Importantly, contextualization is essential for effective theological teaching. Learning to adapt to the hermeneutical, situational, and narratival context of a given group of learners can make all of the difference in the classroom. While our backgrounds may be radically different from those we teach, a proper awareness can enable meaningful adjustments and adaptations, enriching the learning experience.