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Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning
Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011
237 pp., 24.99

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Jesse Covington, Maurice Lee, Sarah L. Skripsky, and Lesa Stern

Habits of the Heart & Mind

Teaching and Christian practices.

For the last several years, the four of us have met weekly to eat, pray, and explore texts on Christianity and education. Against the backdrop of these working lunches—sustained with food, punctuated by laughter, and formed by friendship—one book has proven especially thought-provoking. In Desiring the Kingdom (Baker Academic, 2009), James K. A. Smith argues that we humans are social creatures of embodied, meaning-filled habits. That may not sound like a controversial thesis—on the face of it, who would disagree?—but Smith unpacks it and situates it against some notions that have wide currency, especially in the evangelical world.

When we read Desiring the Kingdom last year, we were particularly stimulated by Smith's critique of "worldview" models of Christian education as overly cognitive and individualistic, to the neglect of the communal practices ("liturgies") that shape human affections toward a particular vision of the life worth living ("the Kingdom of God"). We were therefore delighted to have the opportunity to read the newly published collection of essays Teaching and Christian Practices (TCP), edited by James Smith and his Calvin College colleague David I. Smith, with contributors from a variety of American Christian colleges and universities. The authors of TCP undertook to integrate classic Christian practices into their teaching and mentoring of students, and the book reports and reflects on the results. As we made our way through the book, four questions in particular emerged as thematic for our discussions: What is "Christian" about these practices? How do people change? What does TCP teach us about pedagogy? What might have to be sacrificed in order to create space for such practices?

What Is "Christian" About These Practices?

From the front cover to the last page of text, the modifier "Christian" characterizes the practices being recounted and analyzed. There's nothing wrong with that—in fact, it seems only appropriate, given the book's focus on "the practices involved in teaching and learning … in an explicitly Christian frame." However, one might reasonably ask: What, precisely, makes a practice "Christian"? The editors endorse the definition offered by Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra: Christian practices are "things Christian people do over time in response to and in the light of God's active presence for the life of the world." The salutary result is to widen the set of "Christian practices" considerably beyond baptism, Eucharist, prayer, and Bible study. But is it sufficient to say that practices are Christian because they are what Christians do?

This question is worth asking because what is at stake in the book's proposal is the specifically Christian formation of students in specifically Christian educational contexts. But the kinds of practices at issue are not religiously neutral, encoding a generic, featureless spirituality which becomes "Christian" simply by virtue of being exercised by Christians. Practices form persons according to particular narratives, particular visions of the "good life." The recurring arguments over the legitimately Christian use of certain forms of meditation, for example, are about whether the internal logic of such practices—the story they tell—runs counter to the formation of genuinely Christian faith and life.

How, then, is a given practice to be identified as "Christian"? One possible criterion might be membership on a "historic" list—a list appealed to (although never fully spelled out) by TCP. But this does not help us to understand why these practices form people as Christians. To their credit, the contributors to TCP pause often, as they narrate their experiences, to reflect on the significance of the practices they describe. For Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, for example, Christian practices contribute to "Christ-like" character and living. For Carolyne Call, hospitality involves "recognizing the stranger before us (as Christ or as the image of God)." For Julie A. P. Walton, in shared meals "Christians … acknowledge that all food is God's providential gift." For Ashley Woodiwiss, pilgrimage is "a form of spiritual worship." And so forth.

Implicit—and usually very far from the surface—in these accounts of Christian practices is their grounding in God as specifically identified, as truly revealed, in the mutual love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At one point, David Smith signals agreement with Miroslav Volf: "Practices are Christian insofar as they are 'resonances' of God's engagement with the world." But God's "engagement" with the world has a form, a face: that of Jesus Christ. Practices such as testimony and hospitality, pilgrimage and liturgical time-keeping—not to mention baptism and Eucharist—conform persons to Christ as they enter by the Spirit into Jesus' concrete life of obedience to his Father, the God of Israel. Practices find their meaning and coherence in a community whose historical memory celebrates God's mighty acts on behalf of his people, culminating in Jesus, and whose anticipation of the future is animated by the Spirit of that same God. Practices open to personal and social experience often a foretaste of the world reconciled, renewed, and at peace within the triune God's embrace. Thus Christian practices affirm both the sacramental goodness of the created order and the transformative teleology of creation's redemption, as given and as promised by the Trinity.

All of this will certainly be familiar to readers of Books & Culture. So what exactly is the point? Are we complaining that the authors of TCP should have articulated more explicitly the distinctively Christian—the Trinitarian, ecclesial, and eschatological—nature of the practices they depict and commend? Not necessarily. Perhaps such articulation is adequately reserved to separate, more "theoretical" treatments such as the very fine chapter by Paul J. Griffiths, "From Curiosity to Studiousness." And, of course, simply stating the Christian content of the practices in question risks the unbalanced privileging of the cognitive that an attention to practices is meant to resist. The "Christianness" of Christian practices is to be not only understood and told, but also lived. But in whatever mode, it would be worth asking and answering, more deeply and more positively—assuming agreement with TCP's high estimation of the role of practices in forming faithful people—what makes Christian practices Christian. The authors' students, their colleagues (including readers), and their churches would benefit.

How Do People Change?

By focusing on the formative role of behaviors, the authors of TCP evoke Aristotle's well-known account of habituated virtue: "[S]tates of character arise out of like activities …. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another …; it makes … all the difference" (Nicomachean Ethics, II, 1). Here, Aristotle appears at odds with the New Testament's heart-centered model of the human person. "Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit," Jesus says. "For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of" (Matt. 12:33-34, NIV). Can Jesus' words be reconciled with Aristotle's? In TCP (just as in Desiring the Kingdom), readers are confronted with the neo-orthodox challenge of Smith and others: can't behavioral fruit produce changes in the tree itself? The praxis-oriented re-visioning of education in TCP requires exploring the extent to which people change from the inside out (renewed cognitions and hearts which then bear fruit in action), and the extent to which they change from the outside in (modified actions producing reformed hearts and cognitions). TCP's authors treat this puzzle in largely constructive and encouraging ways. Indeed, many of the chapters resist dichotomies that give absolute priority to interiority or exteriority, instead offering (or assuming) a more complex interrelation of the two.

One feature of interiority that is central to education is cognition. Are humans creatures for whom thoughts lead and behaviors follow, or do cognitions follow our practices? Perhaps retreating from the linearity of his claim in Desiring the Kingdom that "we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down," in TCP Jamie Smith apparently rejects a practice-reflection dichotomy. While other accounts in TCP seem to make similar assumptions, DeYoung offers explicit elaboration: "So we need practices, and we need reflection on practices. Practices enhance and expand our reflection, and reflection enriches and sustains our practices."

A second aspect of interiority that is central to a Christian understanding of education and formation is the regenerative and sanctifying role of the Holy Spirit. The editors touch on this point in their introduction, and David Smith's concluding chapter helpfully recognizes that practices are not decisively causal for students' formation—Christian practices offer no guarantees of success. Likewise, DeYoung resists any mechanistic construal of habituation, firmly relying on divine participation rather than human efforts. Moreover, Griffiths observes that the formative nature of liturgy is most active in the corporate worship of the church, emphasizing its dependence on God as initiator and primary teacher. While some of TCP's authors are less explicit about God's role in formative change, what they propose and assume throughout is certainly more theological than Aristotle's account of habituation.

Of further interest are developments that connect various aspects of formation—an area in which community features prominently. DeYoung suggests that humility and willing submission to the practices of a tradition show an internal acknowledgement that one needs to be formed by external influences. In reflecting on faith-based revisions to his Western Civilization courses, Glenn E. Sanders lists "community-building" and friendship as two of the practices "essential in a classroom engaged with moral and spiritual concerns." David Smith's concluding argument that people change in community suggests an outside-in aspect to transformation but may also begin to hint at reconfiguring what identity is in view: within the church, change may occur from the inside out corporately, but this dynamic may also mean that individuals embedded in such communities are shaped individually from the outside in by the church's alternative practices. Ongoing thinking about the nature of the college-as-community and its relation to the church could prove an important exploration.

TCP offers helpful developments in these ongoing conversations. More needs to be said about practices in relation to how formation occurs. Among many facets, such reflections might fruitfully explore how God's grace can be actively mediated by and manifested in multiple, interrelated modes—including cognition, affections, behaviors, and communities.

What Does TCP Teach Us About Pedagogy?

In addition to thinking about what makes practices "Christian" and the ways these practices affect change, TCP prompts faculty to question how to make tangible changes in teaching. Faculty members in various disciplines share their attempts to make pedagogical changes and reflect on the effects of those changes. What can the reader learn from these narratives? Rather than providing definitive answers or models, these essays prompt faculty to experiment with and reflect on their own pedagogies. First of all, the authors ask questions relating pedagogy to faith. Some of those questions include how to model Christian faith in their classrooms and how they are different from faculty who do not profess such faith. Additionally, TCP prompts us to think about how faith affects how we define and model "excellence" within the classroom.

Most of the contributors spend considerable time reflecting on pedagogy in relation to challenges of student engagement and spiritual change, as well as the overall manageability of practice integration. It is apparent that the changes instituted in courses are just the beginning of spiritual growth. That is, desired effects are meant to transcend any individual course. What kinds of practices might be best within the context of a Christian college to help students adopt healthy, long-term habits of heart and mind? Are there certain practices that are best to introduce students to at this developmental stage in their faith and life? Carolyne Call reflects on how she practiced hospitality—how can a hospitable classroom invite dignified student engagement with the instructor, peers, and course content? Walton wonders if eating a meal together would help promote a collaborative spirit in a class typically seen as competitive.

These and other chapters raise additional questions related to embedding practices within specific courses but also related to holistic change in students. For example, given that there may be many different ways (practices) to encourage change in the hearts and minds of students, which practices (and how many of them) should the faculty member choose per course? TCP practices ranged from shared dining to fasting, from testimony and confession to observing the liturgical calendar. As readers, we wonder which practices are best engaged in together (such as prayer and fasting, as opposed to just fasting alone). Another challenge to integration is how often to "practice a practice" to have the intended effect. Walton had students eat together twice during the semester: is this frequent enough to be called a "practice"? And even if this fellowship has a positive effect on student relationships, is it teaching the right kind of lesson about fellowship? Others in TCP wonder whether a class that meets once a week is enough to achieve the depth of a Christian practice. Is it enough to talk about a practice and then model it once with students, encouraging them to continue the practices outside of class on their own time? Given the time constraints of many college classrooms, it's worth reflecting on practices that can be faithfully enacted within a limited amount of time. Faculty do not want to cheapen a practice nor stunt its effects by rushing. Conversely, if such practices are more expansively practiced, faculty may struggle with how often they should require these practices when the practices are to be undertaken outside of class hours.

Related challenges for faculty include choosing appropriate practices and making those choices manageable. Do faculty always have to choose Christian practices with clear con-nections to the course? Might a professor adopt a practice that is not directly related to course content? For example, Kurt Schaefer notes that while his teaching of econometrics has little obvious relationship to practices such as prayer and confession, he "wanted to adopt … practices … connected to the epistemic distinctives" he sought for students. Similarly, TCP's authors chose the targeted practices for their students. We wonder if the students could choose practices of their own as a means of ownership of learning and personal transformation. Even if the students choose practices not as clearly appropriate as what faculty might have instituted, would there not be significant value in a cooperative process and shared vision rather than a teacher's well-developed plan?

TCP also motivates reflection on which practices are best left for the church (such as communion) and which practices are best for the college context. We do not believe that a Christian college is a substitute for the church. However, Christian practices in the context of a college course might better support and extend the role of the church. Similarly, these readings prompt us to consider if there are practices that are corporate by nature (or should be practiced in groups where people have a commitment to one another) and other practices that are more individual.

In addition, TCP highlights the challenge of students' varied religious backgrounds and knowledge. Just as we can no longer assume substantial biblical literacy, even among the much-churched of our first-year students, we also cannot assume that students know much about Christian practices such as prayer or meditation. Therefore, TCP contributors note that they had to spend time educating and preparing students for these practices. How much time and depth should be provided such that students have a shared vision before a practice is instituted? Is it acceptable for students to "learn by doing" without the background knowledge? Faculty cannot assume that what students "take away" will match what was intended—hence, course reflection, assessment, and refinement may be needed. Given that student learning from Christian practices may vary, reflective exercises seem critical and are a common theme in TCP. Such exercises (whether written, conversational, or otherwise) deepen student understanding and also provide opportunities for faculty to answer questions or deal with misconceptions that arise.

Faculty also note a range of positive and negative effects for themselves. How may faculty be impacted spiritually, emotionally, and relationally by engaging in these practices? The quest for faith-learning integration can take a toll on faculty and students alike (in terms of resource and time costs) but may also offer fruits to the faithful (DeYoung and Sanders). In considering relative costs and merits of applied Christian practices in higher education, we might imagine multiple models for such integration.

What Might Have to Be Sacrificed?

It's no secret that Christian higher education tends to be under-resourced in both financial and human terms. We are vulnerable to economic stressors as well as ideological stressors. We may also be under-resourced in imagination, as David Smith suggests in his closing chapter, "Recruiting Students' Imaginations." In Smith's view, faculty must not only require students to practice Christian behaviors but also stir students' imaginations to participate in a shared vision of the "good life"—envisioning, desiring, and pursuing the Kingdom together. Yet in responding to the imaginings of TCP, we should also consider the practical pressures of adding or extending Christian practices within academic programs that may already feel saturated by a mass of academic standards and goals. Christian practices seem necessary for faithful living, but we may understandably question the practicality of these practices within our institutional environments.

So how might we, as Christian educators, newly imagine the integration of faithful teaching practices? Three distinct models emerge from such practical imagining: two models emerge quickly (as a false binary), and one more slowly (as a third way). The first two models are supplemental and sacrificial integrations: we must either supplement our academic teaching practices and goals with Christian practices, or we must sacrifice something from our current habits in order to "prepare the way" for faithful disciplines. However, these models assume a limited, material economy: do Christian practices really occupy curricular space and time in the same way as traditional academic elements do? And if so, what are the consequences?

If we conceive of "space for God" in higher education in terms of time for something like reflection on practices (e.g., Walhout's "reflective infrastructure" of labyrinthine learning), then perhaps we must concern ourselves with traditional academic and material economies. If we do, we might consider supplementing existing courses with unusual field trips (e.g., Woodiwiss' pilgrimages) or more traditional supplements (e.g., labs and discussion groups) without sacrificing any content or lowering any standards. We might also link courses more closely to existing chapel, ministry, or student life programs and rely on campus staff to help students practice Christian behaviors (indeed, much of Christian higher education already relies on this staff-driven supplemental model). However, the supplemental model assumes that "more is more" and can overburden faculty, staff, and students alike without attending to Christian disciplines in which "less is more" (e.g., silence or fasting). In holding to supplemental imaginings, we may unintentionally mimic the frantic pace of the rat race rather than walking faithfully and reflectively in Christ's steps. If such supplements require investments of human or financial resources, we may also anticipate resistance from those stewarding resources in climates of significant stress.

Another option is to address academic economies boldly and counter-culturally, reflecting on what we may sacrifice from academic habits in order to allow more space and time for Christian practices. In a sense, this model claims that "less is more"—or even that "more God is more." In promoting charitable approaches to reading, David Smith was willing to make "some modest sacrifices of previously assigned texts" in order to allow time for repeat readings of a single poet, among other attempts at charitable reading. While some may understandably resist sacrificing any academic content for faith-learning integration, we might profitably consider alternative standards of (behavioral) excellence from within the Christian tradition, standards typically ignored by the contemporary academy.

Finally, a third way for integration emerges: the way of synergy. Rather than assuming that integration of Christian practices necessarily requires either supplementing or sacrificing, we should imagine possible synergies among traditional academic standards and alternative Christian standards and practices. In this imagining, we can seek surprising, high-impact practices in which either "less" or "more" can be "most." DeYoung found that implementing rhythms of practice and reflection on practice in her philosophy class allowed space for powerful metacognition as well as motivation for her students to teach peers in residence halls about vices and their remedies. Her pedagogical model included sacrifices of speech (i.e., a week of silence about the self) as well as supplements of speech (such as "reflective theorizing"). Such synergism between sacrifice and supplement can lead to students' deeper comprehension of philosophical content (a traditional academic teleology) as well as more powerful self-examination as part of spiritual formation (a Christian teleology). A number of TCP's contributors demonstrate such imaginative, synergistic relationships among Christian practices and student learning, engaging with high-impact practices.

Jesse Covington (assistant professor, political science), Maurice Lee (assistant professor, religious studies), Sarah L. Skripsky (assistant professor, English),and Lesa Stern (associate professor, communication studies) teach at Westmont College.

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