Education Regression: Should United Methodists Limit Distance Learning?

Commentary has recently been showing up around the blogosphere on the decision of the University Senate of the United Methodist Church to limit the number of credits taken towards the M.Div. to one-third of the total degree curriculum (see here and here). Such a move could have a significant impact on some schools who have extensive online programs. For instance, Asbury Theological Seminary currently allows two-thirds of the M.Div. to be completed in an online format. Asbury also provides a substantial number of ministers to the United Methodist Church many of whom undertake a large part of their studies online. Questions as to the adequacy of online education have arisen before now; but with this move by the University Senate, they have arisen once again. During my own time as a student at Asbury, I split my degree program down the middle with approximately half of my courses being online and half on campus. I like to think of myself as having had the best of both worlds in this regard. Here are a few reflections based on my own half and half experience. Let me say first that my experience is limited to Asbury, and I can only speak to that program. Asbury has a high quality online course delivery system that is constantly being improved and is much better now than when I began my classes in 2005. I’m not familiar with other distance learning programs; so I can’t speak to those.
First, in online courses students receive much more detailed and extensive feedback on assignments. The comments on my papers and assignments were far more thorough in online classes than in traditional geophysical courses. I learned this both as a student and as a teaching assistant in two online courses. As a TA, I was expected to give a lot of substantial feedback that formed a great deal of the course instruction. In online courses, not only are corrective comments given for what needs improvement but positive comments are made on what is done well. Across the board, I tended to get much more feedback in online courses, which made them very beneficial.
Second, online courses tend to be more heavily weighted on substantive participation. Many classes divided students into small groups for discussing the assigned readings, and the discussions were expected to reflect substantive interaction with the texts and our classmates. If we did not do the reading, then we would have nothing to contribute to the discussion and our grade would suffer. In contrast, its quite easy to attend class on campus, sign the roll, skip the readings, and surf the web during the lecture. It should be quite plain that online courses create much more accountability for students to actually do the work.
Third, online courses typically provide for more interaction with the professor. I tend to be the kind of student who tries to get to know his teachers, but many do not. The traditional classroom gives provides a superficial feeling of connection or interaction simply by virtue of everyone being is the same room. The online format leads profs to do a bit more to make sure they are connecting with students. If they don’t, then the students are just sort of out there in cyberspace all alone.
The traditional classroom certainly has some strengths over the online classroom as well. I am not persuaded, though, that the traditional classroom is significantly stronger or that the online classroom is second rate. Major strengths of the online classroom are significantly increased interaction with the professor and with other students. I am disappointed that the University Senate has placed this limit on online courses. I believe it is a mistake that may ultimately lead to a less educated clergy, but an explanation of that claim will have to come in another post.

The Scandal of Preaching in a Digital Age

The new issue of The Princeton Theological Review is now available online and contains my article, “Faith Comes from Hearing: The Scandal of Preaching in a Digital Age.”  The article considers whether contemporary proposals for new homiletic forms is faithful to a biblical understanding of preaching.  Here’s an excerpt:

Not only is Christian preaching to be content specific, it is also often counter-intuitive. Our discussion of the factions in Corinth demonstrated just this point. The gospel itself is counter-intuitive because it is powerful despite its lack of adornment with worldly wisdom and eloquence. The division of the Corinthian church into a Paul party and an Apollos party was, for Paul, a great source of discontent. It is most likely the case that Apollos gained a following because of his eloquence and education. He was a leader whose skill in oratory would provide a source of boasting for the Corinthian Christians. This is what bothered Paul so deeply. The Corinthians were following their culture. The assurance that came through the gospel came paired with the fact that it was foolishness when considered in light of the wisdom of the day. Convention required that orations be adorned with special techniques, and the most successful orators were masters of these techniques. Paul did not want his missionary success to depend on his own skill or eloquence but on the power of God at work in the gospel alone. This was clearly counter-intuitive, but Paul insisted on it regardless.
Click here and scroll down to page 43 to read the whole thing.

SBL Suspends New Student Restrictions

Late last year the Society of Biblical Literature imposed new restrictions on student paper presentations and participation at the SBL annual meeting.  These changes did not come without controversy.  Indeed, a number of students registered their displeasure with the SBL Council’s decision.  You can find my own disagreement with the Council’s decision here.  In light of my earlier concern, I was pleased to get an email today from John Kutsko, Executive Director of the SBL, notifying student members that the Executive Committee of the Council had suspended the earlier changes implemented by the Council.  I am very glad to hear that student concerns are being heard and am appreciative to the SBL Student Advisory Board for representing the interests of student members.  The issue will be up for further discussion at the spring meeting of the Council.  Full participation of student members is in accord with the agreement for membership in the SBL and provides important opportunities for student advancement, professional experience, and valuable feedback.  It is my hope that the changes will be permanently revoked and that students will continue to enjoy full rights as members of SBL.

THEOLOGY FAIL: Children’s Bible

Not too long ago, I sat down with my young son to read to him from My Bible: 20 Old Testament Bible Stories by Ellen W. Caughey. As I was reading to him from the first story on God’s work of creation, I came across this paragraph:
“In six days God made the earth and oceans, plants and trees, the sun, moon, and stars, animals, and people.  On the seventh day, the day we call Sunday, God rested” (italics mine).
What? The seventh day that we call Sunday?  Does not the author of this little volume know that the seventh day of the week, the Hebrew Sabbath, is Saturday, not Sunday.  Sunday is, of course, the first day of the week on the Jewish calendar.  It would appear that Caughey mistakenly takes the day set aside for Christian worship to be the same as the Jewish Sabbath.  This, however, is not the case.  Christians worship not on the Sabbath but on the first day of the week, the day that God raised Jesus from the dead, which was hardly a day of rest but, rather, the day when God’s great and glorious work of new creation exploded into the old creation inaugurating the overthrow of sin and death.  The earliest Christians, who were also Jews, evidently took the resurrection of Jesus Christ to be such a world shaking event that they changed their weekly holy day from Saturday to Sunday.  Anyone who takes it upon herself to write an abridged collection of Bible stories for children should know enough Bible to know the difference between Sunday and the day of rest.  I won’t be using this one with my family any more.
This might also point to a further and altogether unfortunate cultural reality that many Christians may be ignorant of the fact that they worship not at the end of the week but on the first day of the week.  It is no small thing that we begin our weeks worshipping the God who raised Jesus from the dead.  The first day should set the tone for all that follow.
NB: Note as well the peculiarly white Noah on the cover. Evidently, the illustrator forgot that Noah was from the Middle East.

What is the Role of the Pastor?

What is the role of the pastor? This topic has garnered quite a bit of attention around the blogosphere as of late.  I first came across a post by Gavin Richardson on how congregational perception of the pastor’s role has changed over the course of church history.  Gavin suggests that the early church was marked by pastors as theologians.  And this was probably the case up into the Enlightenment period.  As the 20th century came along, the role of the pastor transitioned into being percieved as that of a Christian counselor.  Even more recently, it would seem that congregations want an entrepreneur for a pastor, someone who can build the organization.  Gavin’s conclusion is that many of us simply don’t know what role we think a pastor should have, and I think he may be on to something.
I then discovered this article by Gerald Hiestand over at First Things: On the Square.  Gerald is calling for pastors to take up, once again, the mantle of resident theologian.  He is particularly interested in seeing pastors take up this role by taking up their pens in order to theologically shape the wider church.  I indicated earlier this week that I am quite sympathetic to Gerald’s view and hope that many pastors will respond to this call.   
Just today Scot McKnight has responded to Gerald’s article with a number of important questions.  Scot’s response is sympathetic and irenic, but he seems to think pastors are probably more theological than Gerald gives them credit for.  Gerald helpfully responds in the comments to Scot’s post. 
This is an important issue that needs some extended discussion.  What do you think?  What is the role of the pastor?  Is the pastor a theologian, CEO, counselor, all of the above, or something else entirely?  How does scripture shape your understanding of the pastor’s role? 

At Least they Get It

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a cross on San Diego’s Mount Soledad is unconstitutional and must be removed, reports the Washington Times.  Proponents of keeping this cross in place have called it a “war memorial.”  The Times article cites the court’s decision saying:
“The use of such a distinctively Christian symbol to honor all veterans sends a strong message of endorsement and exclusion,” said the court in its decision. “It suggests that the government is so connected to a particular religion that it treats the religion’s symbolism as its own, as universal. To many non-Christian veterans, this claim of universality is alienating.”
Aside from the curious notion that the main symbol of the reign of the Prince of Peace, not to mention reconciliation between God and man, should be used as a war memorial, let me say that I’m a fan of seeing crosses up all over the place, and the reason for that is the same reason the courts want crosses to come down.  The cross is distinctly Christian; the cross says that Jesus of Nazareth uniquely propitiates the just wrath of God against human sin; the cross says that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is true and all others false.  That is, the cross is exclusive.  I’m a fan of seeing crosses displayed in public precisely because they announce the universal and exclusive rule and authority the Lord Jesus Christ.  The courts want to tear the cross down for exactly the same reason.  At least they get it. 

HT: Methodist Thinker

The Pastor and the Theological Task

First Things has posted an article at their “On The Square” page by Gerald Hiestand, Executive Director of the Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology, on “The Pastor as Wider Theologian, or What’s Wrong with Theology Today.”  The article addresses the present lack of theologically inclined pastors, a staple of the historic Church, and calls for a paradigm shift in which pastors become the Church’s most significant theologians.  I wanted to draw attention to this article because the issue is near and dear to my own heart and sense of vocation.  Here’s an excerpt:
The ecclesial renewal of Christian theology will not take place apart from a concerted effort to reestablish the pastoral community as the church’s most significant body of theologians. The pastoral community must once again become serious about the duties of the theological task—study, prayer, writing, and theological dialog. The pastoral community as a whole must once again don the mantle of theological responsibility for the wider church.
I am not simply stating that pastors must become more theologically informed, or that pastors much preach with more theological precision. True enough, but this will not solve the problem. Rather, an entire paradigm shift is needed. Pastor-theologians, not academic-theologians, must once again become the leading theological voices of the church. We ask too much of our academic theologians when we ask them to answer—from the outside, as it were—the pastoral questions facing the church.
We must stop insisting that pastorally sensitive theologians and theologically sensitive pastors choose between theological scholarship and the church. Theologians not only belong to the church, they also—in the main—belong in the church.
Amen! Be sure to read the whole thing.