Walk the Walk… in secret?

After my last post about Small Group Communication class working with Mission Marshall, I got some questions about what communication has to do with a service project, and why we would count that as a class requirement.

So that got me thinking… an easy answer would be that the point of Small Group Communication class is to learn how to effectively work in groups, be a leader, and make your group stronger. Therefore you need a group project, and what’s better than applying your skills in a real life situation?

Photo Credit: sparklefish via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: sparklefish via Compfight cc

But that doesn’t speak to why I felt I could write about this project and class in a blog focused on integrating faith an learning in the classroom.

I’ll admit, I’m very new to the idea of talking about faith at school. You might know that I got my PhD, and a lot of my teaching experience, at the University of Kansas. Great school, but public. There was absolutely no room for religious views of any kind at school.

But, we did have Small Group Communication class, and my adviser developed this idea of connecting the class with an outside organization so that we could also make it a service project.

You did not have to teach the class that way. A board game creation project would also fit the bill.

But thinking back now, those of us who adopted the service project model all had something in common… I think we were all Christians!

We just did not talk about it. Ever.

For me, the connection between doing a service project and integrating faith and learning is clear. Didn’t God teach us that every helping hand we extend is the same as helping Him?

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’” Matthew 25:34-36

Photo Credit: the tartanpodcast via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: the tartanpodcast via Compfight cc

At ETBU, we talk a lot about faith in the classroom. Professors are encouraged to share their own faith stories, pray with students, and involve Bible verses as they are relevant.

We do a great job of talking the talk in the classroom.

I think all of us are also walking the walk with God, but maybe in a more private manner. How often are classes involved in feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked?

How often do we help students walk the walk in public?

When I was at KU, I was involved with a great church and felt that I was doing my best to serve others… on Sunday. Then I would return to work, where I was forbidden to share my religion in class, and leave it all behind. A good idea? Of course not, but I caved to the pressure.

The one place where I could broadcast my Christian values clearly and reach out to help others with my students was through the service project in Small Group Communication. And I think we were all doing that, we just didn’t talk about it in those terms.

Moral of the story? I think it’s threefold:

  • I am so happy to have the freedom at ETBU to talk about our Christian walks openly with students!
  • Serving others IS serving God.
  • Doing more than talking about faith may be a better measure of the integration of faith and learning.

AL

Has Texas Been Bought?

Has Texas been bought?

According to a recent study by East Texas Baptist University Associate Professor Elijah M. Brown and student Taylor Cruse, 81% of all members of the Texas House of Representatives have received financial support from the payday loan industry.

In a recent university class project I worked with students to identify the extent of the payday and auto title loan industry in Texas.  According to the Christian Life Commission, payday and auto title loans are “high cost, small-dollar loans offered to individuals without a credit check and little consideration of their ability to repay.”

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

Money Mutual, a somewhat typical payday lender, proclaims, “Get up to $1,000 as soon as tomorrow!” and then in fine print on their homepage note, “the typical representative APR range is somewhere between 261% and 1304% for a 14 day loan.”

In Texas the average payday loan is $475 and effective APR ranges from 250% to 800%.  According to a recent report from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, “Texans paid more in payday and auto title loan fees in 2013 compared to 2012 and remained in debt longer, even though they took out fewer total loans during that same time.”

Payday and auto title loans offer “no meaningful protections for borrowers,” imperil financial viability, restrict financial growth, and trap individuals in cycles of debt.  One student voiced his worry that his parents who had taken out a payday loan in his name and without his consent might jeopardize his credit and future earning potential.

Nationally:

  • There are over 22,000 payday and auto title loan locations in the United States (meaning there are more payday and auto title loan locations in the USA than there are McDonalds);
  • Payday and auto title loans generate an estimated $27 billion in loans each year;
  • The typical borrower ultimately pays $822.50 in principal and interest for a $350 loan;
  • Over 80% of payday borrowers take out more than one loan per year;
  • In Texas, a majority of borrowers are in their 20s and 30s, 59% are women many of whom are single mothers, borrowers include all major ethnic groups though there is a disproportionately high percentage of African American borrowers;
  • The majority of individuals who utilize these loans do so not for one time emergencies but to pay for recurring basic expenses such as utilities, food and housing.

Payday and auto title loans trap borrowers into cycles of debt by charging usurious and exorbitant APR and often refusing partial payments.  The following are actual APR charges self-reported by a variety of payday loan companies on their websites:

How can this be legal?

The Texas Constitution notes that in the absence of other legislation individual borrowers should not be charged more than 10% APR.  In 2005 the payday loan industry reorganized themselves into Credit Service Organizations (CSOs) which were designed in 1987 to help individuals with bad credit receive small loans from third party vendors.  An individual who visits a payday store in Texas will therefore be offered a loan from a third party vendor at less than 10% actual APR thus satisfying the legal requirement of the state.  For procuring this loan the CSO will then leverage a fee and in Texas there are no regulatory caps on these fees.  This causes the effective APR to sharply rise into the hundreds of percentage points.

Payday and auto title loans can quickly propel people into a cyclical debt bondage.  According to the Pew Charitable Trust, 41% of borrowers need a cash infusion from an outside source in order to pay off a payday loan.  In 2012, 35,000 cars or an average of 95 cars per day were repossessed in the state of Texas due to defaults on auto title loans.

Unfortunately, churches and other nonprofits are implicitly at the forefront of subsidizing this industry.  At times individual borrowers pay off their payday loans and then request and receive help from churches and other nonprofits to cover expenses such as food, rent and utility bills.

The challenge, in the words of a timely episode of Last Week Tonight by Jon Oliver, is that regulating this industry is “like playing legislative whack-a-mole.”

This is especially the case in Texas.  The Office of the Consumer Credit Commissioner is tasked with protecting consumers from predatory lending practices.  However, an El Paso Times article observed that the current individual overseeing this state agency is William J. White who is also a Vice President of Cash America, a company hit with sanctions last November for abusive practices.

The situation in Texas is perhaps even far worse than the above indicates.  Working closely with East Texas Baptist University student Taylor Cruse, public campaign donations for every member of the Texas House of Representatives was meticulously considered.  This new research revealed:

  • 81% of all members of the Texas House of Representatives have received financial support from the payday loan industry;
  • 70.9% of all Democrats and 87.4% of all Republicans have received monetary contributions from a lobbyist working on behalf of the payday or auto title loan industry;
  • 56.4% of Democrats and 81.1% of Republicans have received $1,000 or more from this industry; 18.2% of Democrats and 43.2% of Republicans have received more than $5,000 and 1.8% of Democrats and 16.8% of Republicans have received more than $10,000 in cash donations from this industry;
  • The median amount received by Democrats was $1,000 while for Republicans it was $3,250.

This is not a Democratic or Republican issue but a common good and public wellbeing issue begging the question: has the payday and auto title loan industry bought the Texas legislative assembly?

4 - Chart on Payday ContributionsThe payday and auto title loan industry is a predatory industry running counter to sound financial principles, the common good, and multiple biblical commands.

How can churches, nonprofits and other concerned citizens respond to this situation? Perhaps the following are five beginning points:

  1. Emphasize fair living wages and fair lending practices for all;
  2. Incorporate awareness and education about the duplicity of the payday and auto title loan industry into financial stewardship initiatives;
  3. Help individuals pay off payday and auto title loans;
  4. Contact state and national representatives and, whatever their previous record, ask them from this point forward to refrain from receiving any additional financial contributions from lobbyists working on behalf of the payday and auto title loan industry;
  5. Support the work of the Christian Life Commission and other organizations working to limit the injustices perpetrated by these industries.

EMB

Lightbulbs

In my last week of teaching organizational leadership this semester, my students were asked to make presentations to their classmates surrounding some sort of ethical leadership dilemma. The students were asked to advise the class on what decision should be made by the leaders in the case from an ethical standpoint while paying attention to what made good business, financial, and legal sense. They were then to use the leadership techniques, models, theories, ideas and perspectives from the semester to present a plan of action to address the case.

They did a remarkable job.

In fact, they did such a wonderful job in pulling together all of those pieces, that the presentations gave me new perspectives on a couple of leadership decisions currently facing one of the organizations that I serve as a member of the board of directors. Of course the presentations weren’t perfect. I questioned the accounting on a couple of proposals and some of the ethical justifications were a little weak. Others lacked detail in applying the leadership models we had discussed. All of which gave me one last opportunity to help students make connections to the material as I asked one final set of questions.
And I saw it…

While I was asking those final challenging questions, I saw a couple of final light bulbs come on.

Some were students who had excelled in gathering the information, but had not yet fully put it into practice. Others I had watched struggle to knit the pieces together all semester long. Watching it all begin to click for them is remarkably rewarding. I am so proud in those moments for the students who continue to work until the light finally dawns.

And in those moments, I’m reminded of why I teach leadership. Because they can learn. (Tweet This)

Many of them come with a great deal of leadership potential. Some are naturally influential with their peers. Others are able to speak eloquently and persuasively. Still others think critically and apply ideas readily. But they still need research and theory and practice to really begin to excel in leadership.

Hopefully, my classes give them the opportunity to gain the knowledge they need and to practice in a relatively safe environment.

Though at this point in the semester, I am weary, it is these moments where they succeed in pulling all of the pieces together, that I am inspired anew to

  • Tweak a classroom exercise
  • Find an even better textbook
  • Edit and refine a lecture
  • Try out a new teaching tool or technique

Because I’m not done learning any more than my students. (Tweet This)

So, we’re off to a summer “break” where my reading list is longer than the one I had during the semester.  But maybe I’ll grab a quick nap first.

-ep

More Questions Than Answers

We tend to think of leaders as people who have all the answers.  Maybe it’s because from childhood the people who “lead” us seem to have all the answers:

  • Our parents, who have already survived childhood
  • Our teachers, who have already conquered spelling, math, and reading
  • Our team coaches, who understand the fundamentals of the game

It can be a rude awakening when we find ourselves in a leadership position and realize that we don’t necessarily have all the answers.  But, do we really want our leaders to have all the answers?

This week in class, we were discussing the idea of the leader as coach.  I’m not talking about the kind of athletic or sport coaches that many of us are familiar with.  The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

Unlike a consultant or a trainer, a coach helps you to discover answers for yourself rather than delivering answers as an expert.  Our discussion in class centered around the ways that a leader can help their employees to gain competence and confidence by coaching them to find their own answers rather than always offering immediate solutions.

We talked about the reasons that coaching an employee to come to their own solution might be helpful.  My students identified some good reasons:

  • The employee might have more buy-in
  • The employee gains confidence and expertise to work independently

Apparently, though this might sound good in theory, this was a tricky concept for my students to apply.  After some very rudimentary training, I asked them to use a basic process to coach another student in class (on any subject of their choosing).  And off they went!

Initially, I was really getting a kick out of some of the “challenges” they chose to be coached on, but somewhere along the way, I heard a lot of the coaches telling their fellow student what they should do.

“You should open the door if you really want to be a gentleman.”
“You would plant that particular item during late spring.”
“Well, when I study for Dr. Prevost’s tests, I usually…”

You get the idea.

When we debriefed, they confessed how difficult it is to ask questions rather than providing solutions to people’s questions, problems, and dilemmas.  Almost immediately, we default to offering solutions.  Especially as leaders, we are used to be asked to “fix” the problem.

But, is delivery as powerful a method of learning as discovery?

Val Hastings from Coaching for Clergy actually points out in his trainings how often people in scripture came to deep insights from being asked questions. Consider these questions asked by Jesus:

“Peter, do you love me?”

“Which one of these three was the neighbor?”

“Who do you say that I am?”

Perhaps we should learn from this great teacher who has more followers than any of us will ever hope to have.  If you want people to follow, then ask powerful questions.  As leaders, we don’t always have to have an answer.  And even when we have an answer, perhaps we lead people to deeper, more meaningful insights and opportunities when we ask the right questions rather than always giving them answers.

When has someone led you with a powerful question?

-EP

Practice Makes Perfect

task

Photo Credit: Rob Swatski via Compfight cc

This morning, a co-worker and I were discussing how busy our Spring Semester has felt. We talked about feeling as if we are speeding ahead toward the end of the semester, fighting just to get everything accomplished. And sometimes along the way, we struggle to connect with people in meaningful ways.

These two dimensions of our work, being concerned with getting a job done and being concerned for the people involved in the work are highlighted in the managerial grid developed nearly 50 years ago by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton. Though the grid has 81 possible combinations, most of the time we discuss five major styles (Blake and McCanse, 1991):

  • The Impoverished Manager – with low concern for production and low concern for people.
  • The Sweatshop or Authority-Compliance Manager – with high concern for the work, but low concern for people.
  • The Country Club Manager – with high concern for people, but low concern for accomplishing the work
  • The Status Quo or Middle of the Road Manager – with a moderate concern for both people and task
  • The Fully Functioning Manager or Team Management – with a high concern for both the task and the people doing the task

In recent weeks in Organizational Leadership, we’ve been working through various models, theories, and concepts related to “concern for people” including employee motivation and follower engagement.

Creating task-related assignments isn’t all that difficult for me, but I have discovered that it is tricky to create assignments to help students gain skills in working with people. I think many of my students struggle to see the value of these assignments. It seems obvious that we ought to be concerned about people and speak to them in ways that uphold their dignity, so many of us assume that we do so naturally. But communicating concern for a person while also communicating a concern for getting the job done is trickier than it sounds.

This week, I asked students to create a draft of an email they might use to delegate a task to an employee.  I asked them to use what we’ve learned about employee motivation and engagement to create this document. I got quite a few sample emails that told me about the new task that the boss wanted me to do.  A lot of them were straightforward and to the point.  Many of them clearly communicated the new task.  They weren’t rude, but very few of them effectively showed much consideration for the employee.

Last week, I asked students to role-play a situation with an employee where they intentionally integrated one of the leadership practices identified by Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge: Encouraging the Heart.  As I listened to their role-plays, I heard a lot about the task, but most of my students found it much more difficult to find words to recognize contributions and celebrate victories as a part of their conversations.

While I perceive that some of my students think that role-playing and writing out emails are unnecessary work, I tend to believe that many of us have to actually practice expressing concern for people in the midst of our work.  I know there are some people for whom this is a more natural process, but even then, I think it requires practice to communicate that concern in a way that each unique individual can hear and receive it.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc

We seem to take for granted that practice is necessary for gaining skills in playing basketball or the piano.  But I think many of us mistakenly believe that we are automatically going to be good at the skills necessary for working effectively with people.

Or perhaps we just assume that we get on-the-job experience at these skills, so we don’t need to practice them ahead of time.

That seems a lot like asking someone to attend your oboe recital when you’ve not ever actually picked up the instrument.

 

So, I’m going to keep looking for ways for my students (and myself) to practice effectively demonstrating concern for people without losing sight of the task at hand. Maybe you’ve got some ideas.

How do you help students “practice” new skills in your classroom?

That’s humiliating!

Just a year ago, I was flabbergasted when I discovered that quite a great number of students in our introductory leadership class, Learning and Leading, couldn’t explain the difference between humility and humiliation. This presented quite a difficulty since we spend an entire week in our freshman leadership class on the role of humility in leadership.  In fact, when I asked them what they thought about the article they read which referenced the role of humility in leadership, a number of them thought the idea was a terrible one.

humility

Photo Credit: gak via Compfight cc

In twenty-three sections of this particular class, almost every facilitator had a similar experience. Many of these students had seen leaders who chose to use intimidation or humiliation with their followers and our students couldn’t distinguish this from the concept of having humility as a leader.  Others had watched as once respected leaders had plummeted from public approval through various scandals and wanted no part of leadership accompanied by humiliation.

So, when every group in my Organizational Leadership class selected humility among the top qualities of a leader, I was thrilled. (Only 7% of Barna survey respondents selected humility.)

As I discussed in last week’s blog, a couple of the characteristics of good leaders selected by my students were unexpected. Though the first gave me plenty of food for thought, this second difference was particularly surprising in light of my past interactions with students about humility and leadership. Though I’m sure I maintained an outward posture of serious academic fervor in front of my class, inside I was throwing a party.

I think any faculty member in Christian higher education wants to celebrate when they see their students integrate faith with their learning. Whether they realized it or not, these students were drawing directly from the teachings of Scripture in considering what makes a good leader.  When we consider the character of Jesus Christ, humility is among the first qualities to come to mind. Consider the words of Philippians 2:5-7

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant…”

If we, as leaders, are leading only in the context of being followers of Christ, then it would be exceptionally difficult to find a place for self-serving leadership.
And as often seems to be the case, research supports the words of scripture. Jim Collins’ research in Good to Great indicates that the best leaders are in fact humble.  He talks about a “curious combination” of personal humility combined with a great deal of drive to see the organization succeed.

Of course, being humble doesn’t automatically make you a good leader, but in a world where so many leaders we see are arrogant, domineering, or self-serving, I’m so impressed that our students can envision a world where the most valued leaders look out for the good of others and give credit to those around them.

-ep

Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander…

Watch this Video : http://youtu.be/8H48vMYu1J0

Hillsong United – Oceans (Where my feet may fail)

” Spirit Lead me where my trust is without borders

Let me walk upon the waters

Whenever you would call me

Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander

And my faith will be made stronger

in the presence of the Savior

I will call upon your name

And keep my eyes above the waves

When oceans rise

My soul will rest in your embrace

For I am yours and you are mine”

This past Sunday I was introduced to this praise and worship song. I remember thinking back to lifeguard training. We would tread water for 20 minutes straight with our hands above the water in-order to get our lifeguard certification. We started with 5 minutes, then we trained for 10 minutes. Eventually, we mastered 20 minutes. This skill was required and needed for life saving purposes. If I was drowning, I would want a lifeguard that could tread for as long as needed.

This reflective process has taught me that we set standards, we prepare our students for what we know they will need, and we implement strategies to help them succeed. But in reality, we can only prepare them for so much. So much more learning must take place through life experiences and outside of class assessment.

At this time in the semester, I see many of the students treading water with their head just above water. I challenge my students to cherish these moments. Let God use these moments to prepare them for the road of life ahead. To one day be the leader that is teaching others. My hope is that these moments they share at this university will help them to dig deeper in their faith. My hope is that God will take the moments and use them to draw closer to him.

My challenge to myself is the same. I am in my own journey of “treading water” and I know God is going to lead me to a deeper place in my faith. He is going to stretch my abilities and give me the ‘required skills needed’ to make a difference.***


Podcast Update

I have been tracking the progress of the students viewing the podcast prior to class. Six out of 16 students are viewing the chapter podcast prior to or after class.  In addition, the same 6 are completing all assignments whereas the other 10 are just not. Conclusions: if students do not turn in assignments, they are also not likely to read, listen to the podcasts, or come prepared to class.

In order to increase in-class participation, I started posting the discussion questions from the podcast/reading materials the day prior to class and individually assigning them to a question. Most everyone in class shows up with the answer for their question. This has helped in-class discussion and has given the more introverted students time to prepare to speak in-front of other students. It has also facilitated deeper discussion when the student are prepared to talk about the topics.

Although this process has not been perfect or easy, the process has provided opportunities for students to be responsible and mature learners. These opportunities are crucial for developing critical thinking in higher education.

In summary, I will continue to provide opportunities that facilitate in-class discussion and develops critical thinking opportunities. Today it may involve a podcast, tomorrow it may involve video conferencing or some other type of teaching method.

-LM

Real Live Prof

Semi-sweet. I am really sure that when I took the class, “How to Teach Sociology” at UNT, the prof never covered the end of the semester.

I was in my office this week, between classes, when three students dropped in. One is graduating next week, and is already applying for jobs for which ETBU has well prepared her. She is also getting married next year (she has already picked out the guy, and is asking us to save the date). The second student graduates in the spring, and is already planning on grad school. She too, is applying for jobs in her field. The third student (I have now run out of chairs), is graduating in the spring, and looking at grad school as well. They are all excited about life and the seemingly endless possibilities and permutations. I am very excited for them, and I know they will do very well. I should probably care more that they are so raucous and such frequent visitors, because I am sure “they” disturb the peace of the otherwise somber and tranquil office. But, I love being with students. It is my favorite part of the job. It is also emotionally taxing when they leave.

I know this because they will soon graduate, and be gone. Oh, they will promise to “stay in touch” and will try to do so. I might see some them at the Homecoming football game, or be asked to write a reference letter…and then I will see a posting or status update of theirs on Facebook, and realize I have not seen or heard from them for several years.

Students are also nervous about their futures and all of the unknowns it holds for them. I am always amused when they ask me, “Will you be at my graduation?”

I always respond, tongue in cheek. “I was thinking about not going this semester. However, because you were such a wonderful student, I will go, just for you.” (Of course, I am required to go.) But the truth is, I would not miss it even if I could. Semi-sweet: I love to meet the students’ families and I love to say over and over, “Congratulations!” However, nearly 30 graduation ceremonies (3 per year) have taught me it will probably be the last time I see most of them.

I was eating breakfast very early this morning with my wife Diana, when she said, out of the blue, “I miss my kids”.  One has graduated college, and has a job (The dream comes true!), but she lives 3 hours away. The second is half way through college, and stays gone most of the semester. The third, whom she was about to struggle with waking and getting to school, is in 8th grade. But I know what she means.

Top Ten ways to avoid misreading and misleading

Teaching is a difficult and risky business.Bashaw

Of course there is great joy involved in exposing students to new facts, interesting discoveries, and life-altering truths. But when all is said and done, when students leave your class armed with knowledge that may fuel their actions and guide their thoughts for years to come, the scary question lingers, “Was my teaching true?”

James is quite aware of the difficult nature of teaching when he warns in James 3:1-2:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.

I imagine that James could have been thinking about his own position of leadership in the Jerusalem church, aware that he had made mistakes in his teaching and his example. Despite the wisdom he showed during the Jerusalem Council in recognizing God’s work among the Gentiles (Acts 15), he also realized his example (both the good and bad parts) affected many early Christ-followers. If he struggled with the practical acceptance of Gentiles in the church, his brothers and sisters in Jerusalem would see that and be affected.

James’ warning about the dangers of teaching is especially appropriate for those of us who teach biblical truths–the pastor in the pulpit, the Bible study leader, the Christian blogger, the Scriptures professor, or any teacher who integrates faith and biblical teaching into her discipline.

Because it is so easy for us to misread and mislead.

It happens to the best of us. All you have to do is follow the blog posts on Facebook to realize that well-meaning and well-respected teachers of the Bible regularly misrepresent what the Bible actually teaches. Dave Ramsey, the financial guru who helps Christians manage their finances, has recently been criticized because his “biblical principles” of money management contradict the biblical message about wealth and poverty. Infamous Famous pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church has ignited so many blog and article wars with his controversial teaching (especially regarding the subject of women in the Bible and the Church) that a Google search for “Mark Driscoll AND wrong” turns up over a million hits. Even teachers and pastors who have some important, helpful things to say sometimes fall into the trap of irresponsibly interpreting Scripture. And for some reason, it is the bad readings of Scripture that always seem to spread faster and farther than the accurate ones.

So we must be careful teachers of Scripture. It is difficult to interpret the Bible responsibly  and faithfully but we who teach the Bible must take that task seriously and try to minimize misreading and misleading as best we can. In my ongoing quest to become a responsible interpreter and teacher of the Bible, I have learned some important lessons (mostly the hard way!) about reading, interpreting, and teaching the Bible.

Here are my top ten ways to avoid misreading the Bible and misleading others:

1) Know yourself. It is important to be aware of your own biases and preconceived ideas when you interpret Scripture. Everyone comes to the Bible with prejudices, formed by nationality, economic status, ethnicity, families of origin, church tradition, experiences, etc. Being aware of these biases helps to curb assumptions and forces an interpreter to consider that his or her view may be pre-formed rather than based on Scripture.

2) Read a passage in its literary context. When someone studies a verse or a passage it is important to read the verses and paragraphs before and after that passage to understand what is going on. The best practice is to also be aware of the message of an entire book so that it is easier to understand the purpose of an individual passage in the overarching story or letter. [as a side note it is also helpful to know the genres of the Bible and read according to genre]

2) Know the history. Interpreting a passage well requires knowledge of the social and historical context in which that text was written. For example, it is important to know that Revelation was written in a first-century Greco-Roman context and that the first readers of the book were experiencing persecution and were being tempted to worship the emperor rather than God. Such information helps us make better sense of the emphasis on worshiping God, the images of judgment for persecutors, and the firm warnings to repent.

3) Be aware that  all translation involves interpretation. Most words in the original Hebrew and Greek of the Scriptures do not have exact counterparts in English. For this reason, many translations of words and concepts are close but not perfect interpretations. It is dangerous to base a belief or teaching on one word (say the word “head” in Ephesians 5:23) when our word for head in English has many connotations that the Greek did not have.

4) Recognize the distance between the world of the Bible and our world. When reading ancient literature like the Bible it is important to ask, “What did this mean to them?” and then gauge what differences exist between the world of the Bible and our world. This one of the most foundational skills required in biblical interpretation. A great resource that focuses on finding the meaning of a biblical text in “their” world before interpreting it in “our” world is Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. All biblical interpreters should read a book (or books!) on practical hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) before attempting to teach the Bible in a formal setting.

5) Know the whole story. Reading the Bible should not be like eating at a buffet. We don’t get to choose what to accept and what not to accept. The Bible is like a many-course meal, with each part served in preparation for the next. We have to read the whole story, know the whole message, in order to fully appreciate and understand the individual parts.

6) Be open to being wrong. Given that every interpreter has preconceived ideas about the Bible, and given that there is always more to learn about the history and literature of the ancient world, it is vital that we resist becoming dogmatic about our interpretations. Even the most brilliant of theologians and most devoted of pastors change their minds about Scripture as they study more and live more.

7) Read the opinions of Christians who disagree with you. There is great value in listening to and reading interpreters who differ from you. If you are an evangelical conservative, make it a practice to read the works of liberal theologians or Catholic scholars. If you are a Baptist preacher, listen to sermons from Pentecostal pastors and Episcopalian priests. If you are an egalitarian, read complementarians (no matter how angry they may make you!). If you are a Calvinist, read Arminians. Willingness to learn from others has no down side. Such practice can show you new ways to look at a passage, help you strengthen your own views, or open your mind to a new perspective or a new truth.

8) Use words like “probably” and “likely” instead of “definitely” and “without a doubt.” In light of #6 and #7, it is a good idea for teachers to keep their language open to possibility. First, it lets students know that interpreting the Bible well is a process, one that will not end until we no longer see through a glass darkly. Second, in the age of blogs and podcasts, what you teach may be on record for ever; it is always better to leave room for growth and change rather than creating a situation in which you may have to blatantly contradict yourself in ten years.

9) Read other literature. Read ancient literature and Victorian novels and contemporary fiction and poetry and essays and biographies. Read other literature because it makes you a better reader and interpreter of the Bible, which contains some of the most complex and beautiful literature in history.

10) Pray daily and ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to truth. Jesus tells his disciples in John 14:26, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” If the apostles, who witnessed Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, who were immersed in his teaching and love and truth, if even these were going to need the Holy Spirit to teach and remind them, don’t you think we lowly teachers of Scripture need it too?

jgb

 

 

 

Real Live Prof

In sociology, our “Big 3” theories are Conflict Theory, Functionalism, and Symbolic InteractiBig 3onism. We use each of these as frameworks to analyze “everything.” Sociologists think they have helpful insight about all things, including society, institutions, and global inequality, all the way down to small groups, families, and our interactions with vending machines. Symbolic Interaction itself has a sub-theory called Labeling.

Labeling theory suggests that we receive labels from significant people, including peers, in our lives as we are growing up. They are like giant bumper stickers slapped on our foreheads. Every time we look in the mirror or think about ourselves, or snap a “selfie”, we see the label. I always ask my students to imagine the biggest kid in 2nd grade sitting down at lunch across from the smallest kid in 2nd grade. The small kid’s mom is concerned her boy will not grow up fast enough, and so she packs extra Twinkies in his lunchbox. The biggest kid’s mom is concerned her boy is already too big, so she packs him carrots and celery instead of dessert.

One day, the big kid looks at the little kid and his Twinkies, and says, “I love Twinkies”.

The little kid hears this and fearfully shoves them across the table and tells the big kid, “Here, take mine!”

The big kid takes them and enjoys them. Both kids just got labeled: Bully and Wimp. The big kid soon learns his size and burgeoning reputation can help him get all the Twinkies he could want while the little kid soon understands that he must supply whatever the big kid wants.

Another thing about labels that I always try to include in my lectures is that negative labels stick best. I often ask my students to try and recall some negative label that their parents or teachers gave them. It is amazing how the pain and shame of a careless or mean word uttered by an authoritative person can easily flood back in on us as we so easily remember those words from years and even decades ago. I can tell my daughters every morning how beautiful, sweet and smart they are and it will barely stick. I can say one time in a lifetime that they are ugly, sour or stupid and they will remember those words forever.

The power of a label comes from believing uncritically that the labeler knew what they were talking about. As soon as we do the labeled behavior, we hear the labeler say, “See? I told you that you were_________.” Eventually, we live “down” to their labels and agree with them.

So, imagine my surprise as I went to Senior Chapel last week and was greeted by a person passing out colored markers. He had written negative labels on his arms. As the program began, I was amazed to hear person after person talk about their labels that had been stuck on them: porn addict, drug abuser, judgmental, masturbator, etc. As they talked about their labels, a common thread began to emerge. They said that only as they confronted the labels and their own sin and asked God for healing, forgiveness and recovery, did the labels begin to come off. This is the key point I always make with my Loser Selfieclasses: the only way labels ever come off is with the grace of God. It is the very rare person who takes the negative label as a challenge and says to their critic, “You think I am loser? I will show you and become a winner!” 

As we were entering chapel, we were offered pens as a way to remind us to get real, honest and even transparent with each other about our labels. I happened to be sitting by two students during the Senior Chapel and when they heard we should write labels on ourselves, they got excited. They offered to write labels on me…ouch!