In teaching Biblical studies, I have come to view the integration of faith and learning less as a movement from doing to becoming and more as a process from being to becoming. It is less a movement from something to another, and more a maturation process, the transformation of one’s identity, brought about through the cultivation of habits of the heart from which arise the right kinds of practices. In order words, while it is true that practices shape behavior, a more holistic approach focuses on the process of identity formation and transformation where practices are the expressions of a life rightly ordered.
In Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students, Richard R. Dunn argues that twenty-first-century postmodern spirituality is characterized by what young people have left behind. He deplores the fact that “the worldview and ethos of our Judeo-Christian heritage no longer exert a prevailing influence within which North American adolescents mature.”1 The reality this evaluation is addressing can be equated to a loss of the story. Therefore, when teaching Biblical Studies and New Testament interpretation, I endeavor to help students re-capture the Biblical story in view of gaining increased awareness of their spiritual identity in order to experience spiritual transformation. I invite them to inhabit the Biblical stories and urge them to allow themselves to be shaped by the text. For example, in BIL102 – New Testament Survey, the students write a spiritual autobiography at the beginning of the class where they offer a brief summary of their spiritual journey up to this point in life. They discuss the role (if any) the Bible has played in their life, and their expectations for the class. Throughout the course, I use problem-based task scenarios that focus on contemporary issues they relate with to help them wrestle with the implications of the Bible message for their lives. At the end of the course, they write an Integration Paper where they wrestle with the following questions, among others:
1. What do you consider to be your top priorities in life and how they relate to your Christian vocation?
2. To what extent does the way you invest your time, reflect (or does not reflect) these as your top priorities?
3. In what way(s) has your encounter with the New Testament helped to confirm, challenge, and/or push for a realignment of these priorities.
4. In what way(s) what you have learned about God and yourself and about the teachings of Jesus and the apostles has shaped and will shape your life in the future?
In addition, I encourage student to approach Scripture as if it were God’s Word intended for them, addressed to them personally.2 This is important because some methods of Biblical studies approach the text in a way that emphasizes a gap between the text and the reader. As a result, the role of the reader is to try to bridge that gap by asking a set of questions; e.g., what did the text mean then? What does it mean now? What aspect(s) of the text apply to a contemporary audience? While these are helpful questions, they often create situations where distance is maintained between the text and the reader. In addition, the application question is often abused by readers who do not want to be challenged by the text. Challenging questions can easily be relegated to the area of contemporary irrelevance.
To counter this, I encourage students to approach the discussion on relevancy from a different perspective, one that is more conducive to identity transformation and to adopt a posture that seeks to embody the message of the text. For example, instead of asking, “What aspects of the story of Daniel and the three Hebrew boys apply to a contemporary audience?” I urge students to wrestle with “What kind of persons do we need to be(come) to be like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?” “What will it take for us to trust God to such a point that we are willing to face adversity, even death, knowing that he is able to deliver us?” These questions invite the students to inhabit the story and embody the attributes and virtues that these characters demonstrated.
Reading the Bible can become an exercise accomplished for its own sake. In addition, it can easily turn into a process whereby students are content to learn the right skills to interpret the text properly without being influenced by what they read. Therefore, in my teaching I emphasize to the students that it is not enough to be good readers of the text. They need to approach Scripture in submission to the Holy Spirit in order to become faithful readers and faithful followers of the text.3 Part of this process involves exposing students to situations that offer them the opportunity to experience a change of the imagination. This is akin to what Rebecca K. DeYoung calls “imaginative exercises.”4
A few years ago, Indiana Wesleyan University hosted Ms. Leymah Gbowee, the 2011 Nobel Laureate Peace activist from Liberia. I offered students in BIL102-New Testament Survey and BIL408-Apocalyptic Literature, the opportunity to interact with and reflect on Ms. Gbowee’s experience in relation to what we were studying in the classroom and how it intersected their own lives. BIL102 students were asked to reflect on what they had learned from Ms. Gbowee’s experience and to integrate them with aspects that relate to Jesus’ teaching on the “Sermon on the Mount” and on “Hospitality.” In addition, we watched together the movie “Joyeux Noel” and engaged a discussion about the implications of Jesus’ teaching to “love our enemies.”
The students in Apocalyptic Literature class were asked to integrate Ms. Gbowee’s presentation with the ways God was shown/believed to be at work on behalf of the oppressed in Apocalyptic Literature, and discuss ways to practice the art of peace making and reconciliation. In both cases, the students were able to identify in Ms. Gbowee’s life the issues that we discussed in class. For example, in BIL408, we talked about how the apocalyptic genre served as a means to offer hope to people who were oppressed, and to provide an alternative depiction of reality where God was in control. One student mentioned,“Gbowee is an example of the hope of apocalyptic literature happening now, and she brings it all about through prayer… Leymah Gbowee had faith in her prayers because she could see beyond her current reality to envision what God could do” (J. H.). Another revealed, “I see Ms. Gbowee’s actions running parallel of several other characters in the apocalyptic literature. Both Ezra and Baruch spent time interceding on behalf of their people for God’s deliverance. They repeatedly spent time in prayer appealing to God’s compassion and mercy and pleading for deliverance” (K.D.). Another highlighted the relevancy of the exercise, “It is one thing to talk about good overcoming evil in class, but to hear firsthand how this has been true in Liberia and to learn how God is at work in the world today is truly amazing” (W. A.). The students were challenged to a deeper commitment to God and to practice what they were learning in the classroom because they realized that it was possible. One noted, “She challenged me to listen to God and when he gives me a dream to go after it; to be a light where God places me” (J. S.). Another shared, “I believe we can practice the art of peace making today but we as people need to do so by practicing these three words: honesty, courage, and perseverance… Like Ms. Gbowee, we need to show up, stand up, speak up, and shine up as a beacon of truth, reconciliation, and peace. With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (D. H.).
James K. A. Smith states, “We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain end.”5 My love for God gives rise to my love for teaching and learning and undergirds the pedagogical choices that I make. As I teach the Bible, I want the students to catch a glimpse of the passion I have for the Word of God. I long for them to emulate my posture vis-à-vis the text. I desire deeply that they join me on a journey into the text as we inscribe our lives onto the story and embody the virtues that shape our identity, transform our imagination, and make us into good people who are reading the text and committed to living out cruciform lives in the world.
- Richard R. Dunn, Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students: A Guide for Youth Workers, Pastors, Teachers & Campus Ministers (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), p. 30.
- Joel B. Green, “Scripture in the Church: Reconstructing the Authority of Scripture for Christian Formation and Mission,” in The Wesleyan Tradition: A Paradigm for Renewal ed. Paul W. Chilcote (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 38–51.
- Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 91; see also Practicing Theological Interpretation: Engaging Biblical Texts for Faith Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).
- Rebecca K. DeYoung, “Pedagogical Rhythms: Practices and Reflections on Practice,” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning (David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith [eds]; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 24-42.
- James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 40.