From Reformation Traditions to Progressive Christianity — #1 in a Series

lecture 1Summary: Discussion begins with the lecture as an educational method, looks at the advantages of adapting lectures to blog communications, and ends with an overview of this lecture series.

Lectures have been to college education what the sermon is to church services. They have been the centerpiece of classroom education as professors spread the news of their subject to new generations.

Like the sermon, lectures are ancient technology in a world increasingly reliant on the latest in gee-whiz firepower to engage and entertain audiences. The old technologies depended on word of mouth, recently fancied up with slides and presentation software; but the audience increasingly expects snazzy videos and a sound track.

Let’s examine the state of affairs regarding lectures as educational methodology by discussing the following points:

  1. Lectures are the oldest educational method for university teaching.
  2. At best, they are interactive and flexible as a series progresses.
  3. They are scholarly and durable presentations of updated knowledge.
  4. They are disappearing from classrooms.
  5. They are well-suited for blog articles.

Old Technology. The English word “lecture” is also the French verb “to read.” In the universities of medieval Europe, books were not widely available. Teaching consisted of professors reading literature about a subject, adding their own commentary. There probably was interactive conversation as well. This emerged as the basic method of Western higher education.

Guttenberg’s printing innovation made books more accessible and affordable, so that university courses began assigning books for private study. Lectures became classroom performances in which professors summarized information, explained their views, or presented original contributions to research in the field. These performances were usually most effective when they were interactive, so that student questions brought deeper insight into the material or pushed the professor to refine and improve his work.

Lectures also became a common method of scholarly performance outside the classroom as universities organized lecture series or other public-spirited groups commissioned lectures for venues like churches and concert halls. Interactivity usually happened as scholars were asked questions at the end of their presentations.

Interactive and Flexible. My generation of college students (1960s) can tell about professors who delivered the same lectures for decades without updating them. Most of the lectures I experienced were entirely oral except when terms were written on old-fashioned black boards. However, the best professors updated their presentations to include recent scholarship and reflect awareness of current events or contemporary hot issues. The best classes were also interactive as professors encouraged questions and adjusted content during the course based on student interests. Lectures remained almost entirely oral except for occasional use of the blackboard to illustrate points.

Scholarly and Durable. Lectures are expected to be scholarly in content and relatively durable. Most class lectures are not intended for publication but sometimes they contribute to the development of more comprehensive publications . Sometimes student notes become a method for memorializing presentations of notable professors. For example, H. Richard Niebuhr’s students at Yale University collected lectures notes from his ethics class, then copied and shared them with friends. As someone whose friend is a former Yale student in contact with students of Niebuhr, I was given a 3-ring binder heavy with famous notes of those lectures.

I have also known students who venerated notes from classes that especially shaped their lives. In many cases, the professors were known among students at a university but would not be recognized outside alumni of that university.

Publication is often expected for lecture series, such as the Gifford Lectures on “natural religion” that have been delivered at four Scottish universities since 1888. Except for three years during the Second World War, Gifford Lectures have been given and published annually. They have been regarded as “the highest honor in a scholar’s career,” according to a statement by Jacques Barzun on the Gifford Lectures website. Possibly the best-known Gifford Lectures was The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James from 1900-1902. The published lectures have been recognized as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.

Disappearing and Emerging Technologies. Venerable as lectures have been in education, they are fast disappearing from university campuses. Georgia Gwinnett College, where I teach, emphasizes student engagement and retention as part of our mission, vision, and operating principles. Our Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) offers courses on a variety of classroom technologies and well-researched methodologies such as the “flipped classroom.” The bottom line, so far as old fashioned lecture courses are concerned, is to phase out instructor-centered presentations for greater activity by students using a variety of interactive technologies.

Books appear to be losing out as well. Students have resisted using electronic textbooks, but they prefer to read electronic articles or any Internet source. Video and audio content are also preferred over writing.

Blogs have emerged as an Internet form of writing that is used for self-expression or self-promotion. When successful, blogs gather an audience to follow opinions of writers on almost any topic. The potential of blogs is seen in the case of  Julie Powell, who gained attention by documenting her effort to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s cookbook in 365 days. Public response brought a Nora Ephron movie, Julie and Julia, and a publishing contract for Ms. Powell.

Blog posts are typically short and ephemeral. Often the idea is to follow the periodic musings, opinions, or news of a person or organization. Yet an Internet posting can last indefinitely. Why not use blogs for something more durable than an opinion, editorial, or article?

On a personal note, I have reached a point in life when it is unreasonable to expect a distinguished lecture series, like the Gifford Lectures, to come my way. There are things I want to say that are durable and based on a combination of insight and scholarship. Publishing contracts are hard to achieve unless one has shown an ability to sell lots of books in an age of declining book sales. Furthermore, interaction with an engaged public is also more appealing than just writing for myself without knowing how people respond.

Purpose and Market. Therefore, my intent is to write a series of articles worthy of presentation before an educational community. We will examine Progressive Christianity as it relates to traditions from the Reformation and to issues in our time.

I believe the American political system was poisoned in the twentieth century by an increasing division between conservatives and liberals. The progressive movement of the early decades of the century was a grassroots demand for reform and modernization that found expression in both political parties and at many levels of society. The unifying potential of this movement was overwhelmed as groups began to emphasize conservatism in opposition to liberalism in politics, social issues, and religion. A desperate need of nearly every level of American society today is to move beyond the chasm between conservatism and liberalism.

Protestant Christianity in America is guided by traditions inherited from the Reformation. Luther, Calvin, and others carried out reforms of what they believed were corrupt practices, doctrines, and organization in the Catholic Church. Using the Bible as the standard by which to measure true Christianity, they introduced a variety of changes. Lack of uniformity of biblical interpretation led to fragmentation of reform into numerous denominations. The internal division among Protestants continues today as churches split over doctrines or as new groups move away from old denominational categories. The forces promoting fragmentation within Protestantism have been amplified by the increasing acrimony between conservatives and liberals.

In this series of lectures, I propose to examine Reformation traditions and the American tradition of progressivism. The emergence of Progressive Christianity offers hope, I believe, for moving beyond dynamics of fragmentation.

I am calling these blog posts lectures because they will be researched scholarly products rather than spontaneous, ephemeral proclamations. The blog format invites participation by readers. I hope there will be comments that are thoughtful and helpful, leading to follow up blog posts to consider questions emerging from audience participation.

The readers I hope to attract are truth-seekers of all ages. Anyone can be a truth-seeker by relying on evidence and reason when discussing sensitive issues. Personal beliefs may not always agree with conclusions that evidence and reason appear to support; but those beliefs should not short-circuit or preempt the search.

In modern times, there have been Christian scholars and scientists known for devotion to truth even when their findings were said to undermine faith. I join those pioneers in believing that devotion to God and demonstrable truth are not incompatible. Like those pioneers, I recognize that adjusting old ideas may be threatening to personal worldviews; but genuine dedication to God, I believe, requires facing rather than denying evident truth.

Faith in God involves confidence that all forms of truth are ultimately compatible with the source of truth. Because faith in God is about relationship as opposed to belief in a doctrine, we can embrace the confusion and angst that accompany changing beliefs without feeling betrayed.

Embracing Progressive Christianity may seem like a betrayal of Reformation traditions to advocates of conservative or liberal forms of Christianity. My hope in this lecture series is to highlight truths perceived through Progressive Christianity that can lead beyond the poisonous division between left and right in our society.

 

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