I am new to pedagogy, the study of teaching methods. I am not, however, new to teaching. My first chance to teach came in first grade, when I understood a mathematics concept better than another student and the teacher asked me to work with him to help him understand. From that day to the present one, I have been teaching almost constantly in some way or another. Today I am a chaplain at a K-8 Episcopal school and have the privilege of not only addressing students from the pulpit in daily chapel services, but also of teaching Religion class to seventh graders. Our school is particularly adept at exploring creative, cutting edge methods of pedagogy. We read great books, hear some incredible guest speakers, and watch all the TED talks about education. Of particular interest right now are methods in which the students discover truths for themselves or creatively construct them. The lecture model – where one expert knows the material and tells it to people who don’t know – is quite rightly recognized as only one of many possible pedagogical methods, all of which merit exploration. In many ways this is an exciting time to be a part of the private school world: we are allowed to experiment, fail, and succeed in ways that many educators in the public school system are not. While many public schools in America are becoming more structured and more test-oriented, other schools are relearning old methods and appropriating lessons from homeschools, unschooling, and one-room schoolhouses. In a world where the information super-highway is in our hip pockets, the expert lecturer takes on a more specialized function, and new trails for learning are being blazed daily.

But I have problem: I’m also a priest, a presbyter in a 2000-year old Christian tradition of being the expert who knows and tells, of being the evangelist who proclaims to those who have not heard, of being the elder whose wisdom corrects the simple, of being the teacher to those who have not studied Scripture, of being the translator to those who do not speak Greek and Hebrew, of being the pastor who directs and disciplines the sheep. That pulpit is quite intentionally high: in many ways, it’s meant to be a difficult ascent.

And I stand in the ancient Hebrew tradition wherein the prophet says, “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction – because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 2:7). Not only is the priest supposed to be an expert teacher who knows and tells, as well as the prophet who relays messages from the Almighty, but even the Christian spiritual tradition, as experiential as it must be, is based on following another as he or she follows Christ. We celebrate saints who have triumphed, not sinners who are just starting out. It makes Christian sense to visit a Julian of Norwich in her cell and make pilgrimage for Becket’s intercessions because these saints have something that we disciples still need to develop. Christians follow; it is in our nature to follow. And we want our spiritual fathers to be able to lead us further on. Priests are trained to pass on Jesus’ call from the sandy Galilean shore: “Come and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

In the Church, there is certainly room for creativity and new teaching methods. But there are limits: there are absolute truths. The destination of the journey toward truth has already been expressed definitively; though we find, as we go, that there is more to learn along the way than we could ever imagine. Students study the Bible, but “Scripture belongs to the Church,” of which the priest is a representative, in a way that Shakespeare does not belong to the English teacher. Yet there is a daily freshness to the Word of God of which it can truly be said, “Thy mercies are new every morning” (Lam. 3:23). Church pedagogy must take humility into account for both teacher and learner. As the hymn paraphrases Aquinas, “What the Truth hath spoken, that for truth I hold.” Learning is a spiritual task, not just an intellectual one, and it requires an expert who, from continual learning, knows and tells, someone who first walks and then can invite followers.

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How, then, must we Christians teach the faith? New methods and techniques are incredibly valuable; but the old techniques express not only the goal of learning but the reality of the specific position from which a representative of the Church must offer teaching. Old methods are not dead, but they must be adapted to new contexts or risk becoming ineffective. My context as a priest is as an expert in the ancient Church, my students’ context is that of a typical postmodern American teenager. Bringing these two radically disparate contexts together is not easy. But as a parent of little boys, I’ve learned that there’s good wrestling and bad wrestling: good wrestling is all in fun and comes naturally to boys. Bad wrestling is trying to hurt someone. Wrestling to bring together postmodern concerns with ancient Christian answers is good wrestling.

The featured image is “School-teacher” (1727) by Krzysztof Lubieniecki. It is in the public domain.

 

About The Author

Fr. John Thorpe is chaplain at St. John’s Episcopal School in Dallas, Texas. He grew up in Oklahoma as a self-proclaimed “Protestant mutt,” becoming an Episcopalian in his teenage years through St. Augustine’s, Tempe, Arizona, and Church of the Good Shepherd in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. He attended Oral Roberts University, earning one degree in music composition and another in theological/historical studies in 2002.

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