Thursday, October 30, 2008

Some Thoughts on Teaching College Bible Courses


The Old and New Testament classes I teach are first-year, college level courses.

In both classes, we're halfway through the second units. What that means is, in the OT class we have surveyed the Five Books of Moses, plus Joshua through Kings, and some of the poetic books. Now we're into the writings of the prophets, going through in more less chronological order. In the NT class, we've done a fly-over of the Four Gospels and Acts and are now about halfway through the Letters of Paul (again, in something like chronological order).

If you've ever done something like this before, you know how difficult it can be. If you haven't done something like this, you might be surprised at the number of challenges it presents.

For instance, by definition, a survey course never gives you the opportunity to dive deep. The goal is to cover basic content, which creates a few dilemmas. For one thing, the teacher would like to spend more time exploring each book. The text begs for it, and that's hard to resist. I once heard about a teacher in an OT survey course who by the end of the semester had made it to the middle of Numbers. I regard that as false advertising. It's frustrating to students who expected what the course title promised. As it turns out, my preference for dealing with six books instead of sixty-six in the course of a semester is one of the least of my concerns.

Ironically, content survey is never easy in a Bible-Belt college. That's because of the pre-understandings that many of the students bring with them to class. For example, a good number of students arrive in a New Testament course thoroughly immersed in dispensational premillennialism, i.e, Left Behind-ism.

It usually starts a discussion--and gives the students some needed exercise in using a concordance--when I mention that "anti-Christ" doesn't occur one time in the Book of Revelation. In two 75-minute class sessions on the Revelation, I don't think that anyone is moved off of his or her paradigm for interpreting apocalyptic literature (provided they started with one). I consider it a small victory if students know something of what's in the book, that Revelation is far from unique, and that there's a wide range of interpretive takes, including the one I prefer, which is quite different from the only reading that most of my students know.

Anyway, those are just some of the dilemmas that go along with the real delights of my job. At the end of the day, I've gotten to study and think with and talk about Scripture. And that's a pretty good gig.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Of Raccoons and Religious Renegades, plus Garrison Keillor on Abilene, Texas

In case you were thinking about it, do not attempt to use a taser on a raccoon. According to a recent story from the Associated Press, tasers don't work on raccoons.

I have never been tased. Have you? (Okay, if you have, you might not be ready to admit it). I don't understand the people who ask to be tased to find out what it's like. No one looks like he's having fun. I'll just take their word (or scream) for it.

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On the religion front, a man in Childress, Texas has been excommunicated by the Carey First Baptist Church because he publicly favors keeping Childress County "wet" (i.e., permitting the sale of alcohol). According to the story which appears in today's Amarillo Globe-News, the man has hardly been to the church in the last four years, and was notified by letter that he is a wicked man who's being expelled from his congregation.

This reminds me of something that happened in my home congregation of the Church of Christ when I was in grade school. As I recall, two or three members of the congregation who hadn't attended in years were notified by mail that they were being "disfellowshipped" (our term of choice). I don't know if any of them had been contacted in person. Anyway, a copy of the form letter was read to the congregation at the close of a Sunday-morning service. I had no idea who any of these people were.

Years later, I was a student in a high school class taught by one of the disfellowshipped people. During the years that had passed, the teacher had never been back to church. Apparently, being expelled from a congregation that the teacher really wasn't a part of had somehow failed to shake any spiritual sense into this person. I can still remember that the teacher was a pretty good classroom instructor and gave every indication of being a fine person. I hoped that my teacher didn't know that I was a part of the congregation that had sent that letter.

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Garrison Keillor recently did one of his "Prairie Home Companion" shows in Abilene, TX. He reflects on his visit in a Salon piece called Among the hardy Republicans.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Two Questions for Blogger Users

For those of you who are still with Blogger, like me, I'd appreciate it if you could give me some help with two questions I have. I haven't been able to track down the answers at the Blogger help site. So I ask you:

1. Can you post a Hebrew or Greek font on a Blogger blog?

2. Is it possible to include footnotes in a post where each footnote is a link that will take the reader to the note of that number?

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Little Misery, a Couple Movies, and a Few Good Books

So I haven't posted anything lately. And I haven't gotten around to commenting at other blogs either. I got sick, something that never happens to me. Okay, rarely happens to me.

Last week I was sort of under the weather, just didn't feel like doing much. But Saturday I felt baaaaahhd. So I dragged myself to the walk-in clinic where the doctor said, "Strep throat." I started the antibiotics that afternoon, woke up even worse on Sunday, and barely made it to my classes Monday morning! Strange thing is, it's nearly a week later and I'm not that much better today. A little more time, I guess. (sniffle)

Anyway, on my down days, I watched What's Eating Gilbert Grape and American Gangster. I had read all kinds of good things about Gilbert but had never seen it. I had already seen Gangster when it was in the theaters. I'd put both of them in, say, my top 150. You too?

I've also spent a good bit of time reading lately. Until recently, I haven't been much into fiction. But I really liked The Street Lawyer by John Grisham (a Michele recommendation). So last week I got a copy of A Painted House, one of the few things by Grisham that isn't set in the legal world. The earlier book was better, I thought. But even when this guy's not at his best, he's a very good writer. Any Grisham fans out there who can mentor this newbie? Which ones are the very best?

Speaking of the best, I really loved almost everything included in The Best Christian Writing of 2006. It includes a free-and-fresh translation of a Christmas sermon by Augustine, an interview with Eugene Peterson about "spirituality," and Michael Foley's theologically-astute discussion of the movie "Groundhog Day." If you pick this book up, be sure to read the "Introduction" by Mark Noll. It's a gem too.

I have to say, I really like these best-of anthologies. I mean, why constantly wade through mostly junk? I already do enough of that in the Blogosphere. Evidently so do you.

Oh, on the culture front, I re-read All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, by Kenneth A. Myers. If you're feeling pretty good about American culture these days, reading this book will balance you out. On the other hand, if you're sort of down on all things American right now and you are easily depressed, then stay away from this one. It's a fine book, I must say; one that I'm glad I went back to as I'm thinking about this thing called culture.

So that's the book-and-movie report from my week or so of languishing. Seen or read or heard or done anything good lately?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Evangelic-olution and the Presidential Election

Something that makes the upcoming U.S. Presidential election so interesting to me: It seems like those conservative Protestants called Evangelicals are no longer such a solid block of voters.

Is that true? And if it is, will it make a decisive difference come November? I'm not sure. But here's a little more about what I mean.

It seems that some evangelical leaders (for example, Jim Wallis, head of the Sojourners) have done a lot to broaden what at least some Evangelicals care about. For example, in a radio interview several weeks ago , Wallis mentioned that in recent memory the huge majority of Evangelicals were focused on (1) abortion and (2) same-sex marriage, but that today it is much more likely that an Evangelical will also care about (1) poverty, (2) HIV/AIDS, (3) places like Darfur, (4) climate change, and (5) the war in Iraq.

I think Wallis is right. If he is, then it seems like the Democratic Party would have an easier time getting Evangelicals to vote for their candidate. (That's not to say that I necessarily think that the Democrats' policies are better on those questions. It is to say that, if a person cares about such issues, his perception would likely be that he's a better fit in the Democratic Party).

Among what I'd call "theological influences" that promote that sort of shift would be teachings, for example, that involve care for the Creation in response to humanity's stewardship of the earth, which goes back to Genesis 1 and involves the love of neighbor.

Now, I'm not one for moving to a conclusion without first establishing the premises,. But I might speculate that if American Evangelicals are significantly more diverse now than they were just a few years ago, then this could turn out to be an especially-interesting election.

In short, I think that a recent growth in diversity among American Evangelicals would be a very good sign for Barack Obama.

What do you think?

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Uneventful Event?

Last night's vice-presidential debate featured no knock downs or train wrecks. And much like the first debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, the opponents in this one didn't seem to have won or lost.

As might be expected, Sarah Palin appeared to be more than a little nervous, especially at first. By contrast, Joe Biden, who has experienced a lot of high political drama, seemed much more comfortable.

Because last night's vice-presidential debaters were there mainly to promote presidential candidates, they often sounded like a series of ads, first for Obama, then for McCain, back and forth. There were times when I expected to hear the standard voice-over: "I'm _______, and I approve this message."

Since Michele laughed at me because I watched the debate with pen in hand and a notepad on my lap, you should be especially thankful for the following list of a few other things I noticed:

1. Joe Biden got in a good line when he compared a McCain policy to "the ultimate bridge to nowhere."

2. Considering the pressure that was on Sarah Palin, I thought she performed remarkably well. There were a few times, though, when she couldn't seem to do much more than throw out a string of phrases, reminiscent of the Katie Couric interview.

3. I was amused by a Palin line, used more than once, to the effect that we've got to "Stop the greed and corruption on Wall Street." Good luck with that one.

4. Why is there a correlation between running for high political office and not being able to pronounce the word nuclear? It started with Jimmy Carter, continued with George W. (did his dad do this too?), and now Sarah Palin. They all say "Nucyooler." What's up with that?

5. For all of the grumbling about "politics as usual" this campaign certainly does feel different from previous ones. For example, it seems to me that John McCain's stature as an former prisoner of war generates a deference to him that winds up being returned, at least some of the time. More than once last night, Joe Biden said of McCain, "I love him." Can you imagine, in the Bentsen-Quayle debate featured in yesterday's post, Lloyd Bentsen saying something like that about the former President Bush? This race is very different.

What did you think? What stuck out to you?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

20 Years Later: Another Quayle-Bentsen Moment?



Right or wrong, I tend to approach presidential elections a lot like I approach pro football. When it starts getting close to the Super Bowl, I start paying attention.

So I plan to watch the vice-presidential debate tonight, much like I'd watch a play-off game. And I hate to admit it, but I'll watch not so I can hear the policy distinctions between the two tickets, but to see if (a) Joe Biden puts his foot in his mouth and/or (b) Sarah Palin gets rattled and says something goofy.

Does that mean I really couldn't care less about policy distinctions? No. It just means that, as I see it, our one-shot, relatively-short VP debates are much more political theater than they are real debates.

Not to mention that recent history suggests that on election day, the vice-presidential candidate is hardly a consideration. Twenty years ago, George H. W. Bush was elected President in spite of the fact that Lloyd Bentsen humiliated Dan Quayle in one of the most infamous slams in television history.

A Republican sympathizer, when I heard Bensten's line (he couldn't wait to get it out) and saw how scared and stiff Quayle looked, I thought to myself, "That's it. The election's over. We'll have to get used to saying 'President Dukakis'." Of course, it didn't happen. In fact, Bush wound up getting 426 electoral votes compared to 111 for Dukakis.

Yes, I think this election is much different than the one in 1988. And I think this one will be a lot closer. But barring a complete meltdown on one side or the other, which is unlikely, I think the debate tonight will hardly make a difference.

What do you think?