Pedagogical Perspectives on worship, theology and art: Part I

Artwork inspired by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi and named after his 1972 silkscreen, "Lots of Pictures, Lots of Fun."

As I imagine myself teaching in the years to come, it is important to anticipate the sorts of pedagogical challenges I may encounter in a classroom setting. I have identified six challenges, and with each I describe a negative effect that may result, a possible response on my part, and a hoped-for outcome. I can't imagine that these challenges are wholly unique to my discipline (worship, theology, the arts), but I do think that they are worth stating out loud in the interest of a communal discernment process, which might in turn benefit the tribe of teachers who have chosen these fields (Christianity and the arts broadly conceived) as a primary or secondary vocation. I'll post each challenge in turn. I'll also say that these are thoughts-in-progress.

1. The hidden but potent assumptions that students bring to a discussion of worship, theology, the arts, and the church.

There are at least four kinds of assumptions which a student may bring to this complex discussion.  Far from being neutral, these assumptions generate certain prejudices that open up certain learning possibilities and close down other learning possibilities. Put alternatively, a student's assumptions create a set of inertias for the teacher, where some of those inertias support the pedagogical aims of the teacher and other inertias resist those pedagogical aims. It is the difference, if you will, between a maximally fruitful learning experience and a minimally fruitful one.  The first set of assumptions relate to the Scriptures.  Students will likely have pre-conceived notions, for example, about what the imago connotes in Genesis 1:26-27, the implications of the Second Commandment (Deut. 5:8-9) for the visual practices of Christians, Jesus’ statement in John 4:23-24 that the Father seeks those who will worship him in “spirit and truth,” the phrase in the book of Hebrews regarding the era of “figures and shadows,” and the colloquial rendering of Second Corinthians 10:5, as “a vain imagination.”

Theologically, students will come with ideas about God’s so-called transcendence and immanence, the Spirit’s ostensibly “spiritual” activity, the relative importance of our bodies with respect to our souls, the relationship of "earth" over against "heaven" as well as of the visible and invisible viz the natural and supernatural, the relative theological "weight" of Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension for the public witness of the church, and the different social locations in which students work these ideas out.

Another set of assumptions will involve the cultural context of the students.  If I teach the material in an American setting, students will carry with them, wittingly or not, deeply inbred notions about authority, history, liberty, happiness, progress and pragmatism. They will also carry with them certain dispositions generated by their respective media technology practices. If I teach the material in an west African setting, alternatively, students may come with strong feelings about the "spirit" world, the role of ancestors, the powers of evil, the web of relations within a tribe, a hierarchy of being, and the impossibility of living in the world without moving one's body. 

Lastly, students will bring assumptions from their personal experiences.  They may have had positive or negative experiences with any given art form.  They may find themselves drawn toward or away from a style of art based on their personalities.  They may have grown up in a church that appreciated certain art media but ignored or rejected other media. Significant authority figures in their life may have dismissed the whole affair with the arts or relegated them to a matter of indifference or a silly indulgence. And the church experiences that students will have accumulated thus far will, at some level, influence what they believe possible as well as desirable with art in relation to the church, on the one hand, and to the marketplace or world-at-large, on the other.

What is one negative effect that could result from such deeply held assumptions and, equally much, the conflicting assumptions amongst students themselves? The classroom dynamic may start off as a charged atmosphere and the student may feel a degree of wariness towards the teacher and fellow students.

How could I respond to diffuse this (possibly negatively) charged atmosphere? I could do several things. I could start off the class by sharing a personal story that discloses the tangled process by which I arrived at my current views on the arts. I could get the class to do a fun exercise.  For instance, if I wanted students to understand the importance of words and punctuation for the poetry that we employ in corporate worship, I could read an excerpt from Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, and then show a slide of the common way in which Horatio Spafford’s hymn, “It is Well With My Soul,” is punctuated in the third verse and how that not only leads to bad poetry but also perpetuates bad theology. I could share instances in which I messed up royally during my years as a pastor. I could also begin with a “bottom shelf” exercise (as common as possible to this particular group of students) that eases students into the material and allows them to discover the ideas in a trustworthy learning space.

What would be my hoped-for outcome?  Open minds and open hearts, willing to give new ideas an honest consideration.


Unknown said…
David, I remember my freshman year of college, when I took my first Bible courses. I was one of those people who went in to a Christian college genuinely assuming that everyone there would essentially believe what I believed and worshiped the way I worshiped. I laugh about it now, but it was pretty traumatic for me back then to begin being exposed to different possibilities about scripture and about interpretation (both theological but also practical). You will have students coming with many different perspectives, as you have already noted, and it is wonderful that you are thinking so deeply about how that will have an effect on both your teaching environment and what they will bring to and take away from that experience. I'm excited for you and for your students! They're in for something very, very special.
Thanks for this comment, Christy. Very kind of you, and honest too.

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