Dinosaurs and the Bible

On one day every semester I allow my Introduction to New Testament and Introduction to Old Testament students to write down their most pressing questions about the Bible. I collect them and answer them to the best of my ability. Without fail, scribbled on at least a tenth of the torn, wadded-up papers I receive is the same question:

What does the Bible say about dinosaurs?

As adolescent as it sounds, it really is a good question. Behind the concern about where dinosaurs fit in the biblical thought-world are some deeper, more important questions. How do the Bible and the principles of science fit together? What is the nature of the Bible? And, perhaps the key question of all, How reliable is the Bible?”

For the last several centuries, the Protestant answer to these questions has involved the articulation of a very complicated doctrine…the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Wikipedia provides a lowest-common-denominator definition of Biblical Inerrancy when it describes the doctrine in this way:

The Bible, in its original manuscripts, is accurate and totally free from error of any kind; that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”

The practical and applied meaning of biblical inerrancy actually involves a wide spectrum of definitions, depending on who is using it and for what purpose. Here is a general representation of the range of meanings for “inerrant.”

1)   On the extreme end, there are Christians who, when they say the Bible is inerrant, mean that there are no errors at all in its teaching about every area of life—from science and psychology to history and geography, and everything in between. The obvious problem with this claim is that there are proven errors in the historical and scientific details of the Bible, inconsistencies and contradictions that refute the claim that there are not biblical errors. However, to get around this problem, most strict inerrantists will qualify their definition with the claim that any apparent errors in the text must have been come by way of translation or scribal error. In the original manuscripts, or the autographs (which we do not have), they are correct.

2)   In the middle, we have limited inerrancy, which allows for factual errors in the biblical text because of the fallibility of the human authors. Many proponents of this position will maintain that Scripture is without error in what it intends to teach, which would not include matters such as science or geography

3)   Another position closely related to limited inerrancy involves another flexibly-defined term—infallibility. Although this word has as many different meanings as inerrancy, if not more, the main idea behind this claim is that the Bible’s teachings do not fail; they are infallible with regard to matters of faith, salvation, and Christian practice. According to the Presbyterian Church, “Infallibility affirms the entire truthfulness of scripture without depending on every exact detail.” (As affirmed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in June of 2001)

Even this cursory look at the doctrine of inerrancy reveals that there has been much disagreement about this term and thus, much debate about the nature of Scripture.

So, what does the Bible say about dinosaurs?

If you believe the Bible is inerrant in all it teaches, you must either go the way of creation museum people who explain that dinosaurs lived during the time of the patriarchs (perhaps the leviathan in Job was one?) and shun the archaeological discoveries of the last century. Or, you could claim that the days of creation in Genesis were not strict, 24-hour days but rather representations of longer periods.

But if you hold to limited inerrancy or infallibility, you could say that Genesis was not meant to be a scientific textbook or a literal history of the world; instead, it teaches us about having faith in the God of creation, who has made all that we see in the world.

So, what do you say? What do you think the Bible says about dinosaurs?

When group activities Go RIGHT….

Today I planned a group activity for my 8am class. Mainly because I have struggled to this point to peak their interest and interaction to the level I prefer (it’s 8am so…. I have thought about providing coffee). HONESTLY….. In general, sometimes it seems students approach the educational experience like a five-course meal and they wait for you to bring them dish after dish. In an attempt to move away from serving up an educational experience, I am shifting to the POTLUCK dinner approach to my classroom. I believe this empowers the students to “bring their knowledge and experience” to the table & I rely on them to contribute to their educational experience. I don’t do interactive group activities every class, but I try to do some type of group activity at least every third class.

I “know” interactive group activities are supposed to enhance the learning experience. I know that it is a great strategy to help students apply knowledge. But what if they don’t bring anything to the table? What if it was a disaster? What if they didn’t work together, or what if they didn’t give a good effort? I was also nervous about letting go of the control I would normally have with directed discussion, lecture, and individual activities. I worried that if the activity is not successful, it will be a waste of time and devalue their experience in the classroom. This activity I planed was 60 minutes… so it was a large portion of class.

This experience taught me that my students (in this class) can cooperate and learn in this environment. Reflecting back on this activity, I wanted to share a few things that I think worked and will plan on doing again. I have learned from past experiences and have adapted my teaching strategies to better serve student’s behavior.

  1. I put them into groups based on their social strengths and weaknesses.
  2. I told them how long the activity would take (45-60 minutes).
  3. I played music & changed the genre every 10 minutes to remind them to stay on task.
  4. I told them that if they were efficient with their time they would get out of class early. They ended up getting out 15 minutes early( 90 min class).
  5. I let groups that finished prior to the allotted time an opportunity to step outside the classroom to socialize, go to the bathroom, or play on their phone. (this was only about 3 -5 minutes but they were over-joyed ….)
  6. I designated different people to complete different parts of the assignment so that everyone had an opportunity to write & present their section to the entire class.
  7. I also created a competition between the groups for the most creative idea. Although no prize is really awarded, I can tell the students give extra effort to impress their peers.

In summary, I gave these students guidelines and provided a favorable environment for them to work together. The students were able to apply the knowledge they had learned from the previous class period. I also believe that this group of students is more mature than some of my other classes. This particular class is a senior level course & their behavior indicates that they are ready for the workplace. I normally would not tell students that we will get out of class early if they cooperate. However, the class was motivated to work together, was efficient with their discussion, and had high interaction amongst the group members.

I don’t know if Potluck style learning a ‘scholarly term’ or if I should really even make that type of comparison. But … I do know that my students gave more interaction, and I could physically see them come alive with learning the material in ways this class has never done. I plan to continue with group activities and provide more opportunities for students to ‘bring knowledge & experience’ to the table.

The Thinking Church

Why are so many young people in America leaving the Church? church-sign-antigay--300x210

A wide array of answers have been suggested lately. The Barna research group conducted eight national studies with teenagers, young adults, youth ministers and pastors in order to shed light on the issue. They found that young adults in the millennial generation find churches to be overprotective, shallow, antagonistic to science, inadequate in their teaching on sexuality, too exclusive, and unfriendly to those who doubt. Millennials themselves have expressed their own perspective, identifying the church’s hostility towards homosexuals to be the main reason that young adults leave the church (see the recent, overwhelming response to “An open letter to the church” blog post from Dannika Nash).

It is hard for those of us in the older generations to understand such harsh criticism. Sure, the church has its problems, but we have experienced it as a place of comfort and belonging, of worship and love. How can there be such a discrepancy between our experience and theirs and, more importantly, what does the younger generation need that the church is not giving them?

Several months ago,in a much-discussed CNN blog post, Rachel Held Evans suggested that what millennials (herself included) need from the church is authentic worship, theological substance, an end to the culture wars, a truce between faith and science, a moratorium on divisive politics, and a challenge to live holy and sacrificial lives like Christ.

I want to suggest that all of these needs can be expressed in one foundational need: The younger generation needs a thinking church.

For most of the church’s history, the leaders of the church–pastors, priests, and other clergy–were the most educated people of their times. Even into the twentieth century, it was common for pastors to read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and to have attended the most prestigious schools on earth. Today, we study the sermons and letters of preachers from the past to learn from the clarity of their thought and the beauty of their prose.

However, in the last century, key movements swept across the landscape of the church and changed it drastically. The holiness movement, the first and second Great Awakening, the growth of the charismatic church, the birth of evangelicalism, and the rise of fundamentalism all shifted the focus away from matters of the head to focus on the importance of the heart. With these movements, the church began to seek revival rather than research, to value the work of the Spirit rather than the work of the scholar, to emphasize the importance of conversion and morality over education and tradition. These were all welcome and important changes and they could have enacted a healthy balance in the church.

But as is common with the human practice of religion, we went too far. Churches that emphasized the Holy Spirit became suspicious of seminary and theological education. Churches that valued the Scriptures above all else began to exalt the Bible to a place of idolatry, worshipping the literal words of its pages rather than the living message it conveyed. Churches that centered their services on fear-inducing sermons of the hellfire and brimstone type started to lose the practices of reflective worship and repentant prayer, of intellectual inquiry and cultural engagement.

And so the scales tipped. Suddenly, churches were not encouraging Christians to be educated and articulate, to study science and literature and art along with Scripture, or to search for deep, thoughtful answers to the world’s most pressing problems. Instead, churches began to discourage difficult questions and academic interaction with the world. They felt challenged by—and consequently became hostile to—new ideas, new technology, and new ways of thinking, speaking, and ministering. The chasm I described in my earlier posts began to grow–that chasm between the intellectual pursuit of God exemplified by the pastors of the 19th and 20th century (also by Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17!) and the religious practice of the 21st century church characterized by fear of scholarship and distrust of the academy.

When the younger generation looks at the church of today, they realize that as the church, we might feel passionately, protest loudly, and correct indiscriminately, but we do not think deeply. And at the end of the day, our young people need A THINKING CHURCH.

A THINKING CHURCH would be able to converse with the fields of science and literature and business and  education, to find truth in them and speak truth to them as well;

A THINKING CHURCH would interact with culture and the arts, infusing more creativity in its worship and more cultural relevance in its message medium;

A THINKING CHURCH would train its people in apologetics, the art of defending the faith with articulation and compassion;

A THINKING CHURCH would be willing to talk with people who are from different backgrounds—whether different religions or cultures—to  learn from other beliefs while remaining firm in the tenets of their own faith;

A THINKING CHURCH would be eager to discuss answers to the difficult theological questions that many millennials ask, like:

  • How does the message of the Bible fit with the principles of science?
  • How can so many Christians read the Bible and come up with different interpretations?
  • How can I love my neighbor (who may have different beliefs from me) while remaining strong in the ethical teachings of Scripture?
  • How can a sovereign God of love allow so much evil in this world?;

A THINKING CHURCH would be prepared to offer compassion and support to those who doubt, who find themselves stuck at the uncomfortable intersection of faith and reason;

A THINKING CHURCH would be willing to change, ready to grow, and open to admitting when they were wrong.

Critical Thinking at Church picWhat the millennials really need is for the church of history, with its intellectual prowess and curiosity about the world, to meet the churches of today, with their passion for Scripture and ethics and service and Spirit. They need to see the body of Christ, in action, engaging soul and heart and strength and mind in order to change the world with the love of God.

Are we, as the church of today, ready to become the thinking church that our young people so desperately need and, if so, how do we do it?

The Chasm, part 2: The People of the Chasm

In my last post, I lamented the wide chasm that separates the church and the “academy” (biblical scholars and their scholarship), a separation I have noticed since the beginning of my theological education and that I am consistently reminded of as I teach New Testament to college students in the Bible belt. In an attempt to transform my fruitless complaints into conversation, I want to use my next couple of posts delve deeper into the chasm and discuss the people who contribute to the chasm, the problems or symptoms that result from the chasm, and the possible solutions we can work toward to eliminate the chasm.

The People of the Chasm:

Are you kidding me?

Group #1: “PLAIN SENSE” CHRISTIANS

These are the devout believers in local churches who can quote Bible verses (out of context), list the books of the New Testament in order, and proof-text better than an inspirational greeting card company. Although many in this group truly desire to understand what the Bible says, they know (or care) little about the literary themes and historical contexts of the Bible, the major doctrines of Christianity, the principles behind responsible biblical interpretation, or even the overarching “big story” the Scriptures are telling. Often, individuals in this group become confident that their interpretation is the only right interpretation of scripture, that their reading, the “literal” or “plain sense” reading, is the only way to read the Bible. This group is suspicious and even fearful of theological education, telling young ministers things like, “Don’t go off to seminary unless you want to lose your faith!,” or, “You do not need anything but a Bible and the Spirit to interpret God’s Word.” Of course, I affirm that the Holy Spirit can speak to any reader of Scripture, regardless of their education or background; however, we all need to acknowledge that understanding the Bible is sometimes a hard task and we would all do it better if we did it as a well-equipped, well-informed body of Christ rather than individuals who confuse Bible knowledge with Bible understanding. When we fail to grasp the complex beauty and depth of the biblical literature, reducing it instead to folksy advice and empty platitudes, the true message of Gospel can be obscured or misapplied in a way that hurts others.

Group #2: OUT-OF-TOUCH INTELLECTUALS:

These are the well-educated Bible scholars who have studied the Scriptures for decades, have a good grasp of its background and content, and have the skills necessary to do responsible biblical interpretation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this group spends little time teaching people in the churches what they know, instead choosing to write specialist books on specialist topics with specialist vocabulary that no one in a typical church would ever want to read, even if they could. This group is on the other side of the chasm from group #1, although occasionally a few of its members will lay bricks to start the bridge to the other side (the scholar-pastors).

Bible Scholars

Group #3: PROBLEMATIC PASTORS

These are the pastors, both educated and uneducated, who do not take the time to prepare themselves and their people for the challenge of reading and applying the Bible. Pastors could be the largest part of the construction crew to build a bridge over the chasm, but many instead contribute to it. Some do not realize how much time it takes to study and compose a biblically-sound sermon. Some cannot accept that although the Spirit does speak, hearing the Spirit well takes time, thought, and preparation. Some were not properly trained in biblical interpretation, so may need to humble themselves and seek more education. Whatever the problem might be, it is not a solely personal problem because it affects the people in the church who trust and rely on the exegesis and wisdom of their preachers. Although it is true that pastoring is a hard, time-consuming job with high demands, it must be so because the people in group #1 need to be guided to participate in the chasm solution instead of being part of the problem. We who are pastors and teachers must strive for excellence because people depend on us.

OTHER GROUPS?

Have I missed any groups that contribute to the chasm? I would like to hear from you. Leave a Comment.

NEXT WEEK…the problems the chasm creates in our church and society.

Learning and teaching from an Expectancy Value Theory Viewpoint

The Expectancy Value Theory states that people’s behavior is directly related to their perception or belief in a given objective, and the value they attach to achieving said objective. Basically, people guesstimate the amount/type of work needed to achieve an outcome, and that they have preconceived ideas of how they will feel or what they will accomplish with the effort they provided.

Although this is a Consumer Behavior/ Marketing theory, I will attempt to describe my understanding of learning and teaching from this perspective.

Learners Assumptions: College students are paying customers. Students pay the university for the opportunity to expand their education, and for the opportunity to earn a college diploma. The university has developed curriculum to guide the student through the journey of intellectual maturity as they approach graduation. However, generally speaking, no refund or rebate is given if these objectives are not met. The consumer (college student) may discontinue college all together if the product (college) does not meet their expectations or may take their business elsewhere (go to another college).

It is safe for us to assume that college students have expectations of college. Based on these expectations, students exert the perceived effort to achieve those expectations.

So this got me thinking…..Is this the real difference between a student that reads before coming to class, and those that don’t? Is this the difference between students that come to my office to ask clarification about a test question or ask me to read their rough draft prior to the due date?

IF WE HELP CHANGE student’s perception of how they can be successful in my class or college, can I create an environment that allows them to have greater achievements? (change expectations = change behavior = change outcomes)

Teaching Assumptions: Teachers provide an instructional service that facilitates the educational experience.  Just like the service industry or any company you prefer over another…some are better than others (even if they deliver the same results).  As teachers get to know their student’s learning styles, they adapt their teaching materials and instructional delivery method to serve the students better. In an ideal world, teachers will know exactly how to successfully facilitate learning, and it could be done is a systematic way. However, this is not that simple.

In “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” , Stephen Brookfield highlights that teachers do not always know what helps or hurts the learning process in their classrooms. He also suggest that Teachers must simply ask questions about the learning process in order to understand what is REALLY going on from the students perspective. For example, Brookfield explains that group activities do not always facilitate learning. Sometimes students are embarrassed to talk amongst their peers, or one peer dominates the conversation. So, just because group activities and discussion are generally good, they may not always facilitate learning.

In the next couple of weeks, I will be using a “critical incident questionnaire” to evaluate how teaching and learning is interacting in my classrooms. I hope to discover what I am doing that helps students learn, and what I am doing that prevents them from engaging like they want to. The end goal is to improve desired behavioral outcomes towards learning, and increase the total value assumption of my class.

Conclusion: Learning and teaching is an interactive process. I believe students think they know what they need to do to be successful in my class. Some demonstrate that well, and it takes very little effort on my part to get them to actively participate in the learning process. I self-identify with this type of learner, and I understand that it is easier for me to teach 20-30 students that are always prepared and contribute to class. However, I see few students that fit into this ideal learner category.

I am confused when I find students unprepared for in-class discussion, a quiz, or are simply playing on their phone during my class. I ask myself… Do they do these things because they think this behavior will make them successful? Did I not tell them my expectations ahead of time? Do they not see value in my class? Do they not feel like they can be successful? Do they know what being a good student means?

These are hard questions to ask… And an even harder question is … Can I change their perceived belief or value that they have of my class? Should I take this responsibility or is this the responsibility of the learner? How do I create an environment that increases the student’s perceived value of my class?

AND.. if I do find a way to increase the learning experience this semester…. Will it work if I do it again next semester?

My original thoughts in April of 2013

My thoughts
I thought I would post the grant proposal I wrote. As we go through the year let’s see how close I stick to the original intent.

Here is what I was thinking back in April 2013:

Being a Christian in Biology
The mission statement and vision statement of East Texas Baptist University center on the integration of faith and learning in the pursuit of truth. Biological science, by its very nature, is the pursuit of truth in the physical observable universe. Jesus is spiritual truth and the creator of the physical, observable universe. Studying the Bible, prayer and meditation are often times considered the only way to know Christ and to find the truth. Most Christians forget that we may come to know Christ better, more fully, by understanding that which He created. Humans have built barriers between faith and science. Christ has no such barriers. Reflection on Christ’s teachings in conjunction with studying His creation leads to a fuller understanding of the truth and the nature of Jesus as God and Creator.

Those who search for truth need to have the ability and skill to discern truth from propaganda, prejudice, and lies. They need to be able to think with clarity, accuracy, depth, and breadth to understand the significance of the information being presented and the fairness of the presentation. Most people live their lives with a lower order of thinking. They lack reflection and logic relying mainly on distorted, uninformed, self-serving, self-deceiving, and prejudicial thinking. Many Christians believe something is true simply because it’s what they have always believed. For example, many Southern Baptists believe that dancing is a sin. This is not a Biblical truth, it is a cultural construct. As Christian scholars it is our responsibility to teach/lead/model the pursuit of truth with Christ-like thinking. Jesus was a profound critical thinker. He demanded clarity and accuracy from those who were the interpreters of the Law. He challenged the relevance of the traditions of the religious leaders and required His followers to think deeply about complex issues. He taught His followers to broaden their preconceived ideas to include people who had been previously excluded from God’s teachings. He dared to ask questions about the way life was lived and whether or not that way made sense or was fair.

Christ demanded that we know the truth in order to be free. He demands that we be free from the Law, prejudice, hypocrisy, cowardice, arrogance, and conformity. These are all attributes of the sin-filled life. In order to be free we must be humble, have the courage to face the tough issues, persevere in integrity, fairness, and Christ-centered autonomy. To be free we need to think critically the way Christ demands. In my reflections I will discuss what it means to be a critical thinker and the attributes of a critical thinker. I will use biological/bioethical questions and issues to model integration of Biblical principles with scientific reasoning. I will model intrinsic motivation in order to inspire others to begin their search for the truth. By embracing Christ-centered faith, I will model engaging the mind of a critical thinker in order to empower leaders to be free to pursue truth where ever it may be found.

What is critical thinking?

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving thinking.

I know the definition states that critical thinking is an “art” but it utilizes scientific standards. Or did scientific standards come from critical thinking? Is critical thinking natural or cultivated? Both, I think. There are those who are by their very nature critical thinkers/problem solvers and others who are not. Critical thinking skills can be taught, learned and cultivated.

There are 8 elements to thought:

  • Purpose
  • Questions
  • Information
  • Interpretation and inference
  • Concepts
  • Assumptions
  • Implications and consequences
  • Point of view

Which when coupled with the universal intellectual standards …

  • Clarity
  • Accuracy
  • Relevance
  • Logicalness
  • Breadth
  • Precision
  • Significance
  • Completeness
  • Fairness
  • Depth

…Result in self-directed self improvement. To be a lifelong learner one must be able to evaluate and cultivate traits that promote intellectual humility, autonomy, integrity, courage, perseverance, confidence, reason, empathy, and fair-mindedness.

WAIT! Ummm… don’t those traits remind you of someone special? Someone who taught His pupils about loving God and loving others? Someone who bucked the system because it was leading people away from God? Someone who baffled the intellectual and religious leaders of his day when he was only 12 years old?

This week go through the gospels and read Christ’s teachings (you know the red writing) and look for the elements of thought the intellectual standards. Was Christ a critical thinker?