Outcomes for Learning

Well chosen, clearly expressed, learning outcomes (or whatever you call them) are a joy to read. They also help students learn and teachers teach. By defining the skills and abilities that students should achieve, they can guide and give shape to a course.

However, in the real world, learning outcomes are most often prepared in a hurry (after all there are so many more fun things a teacher should be doing, like banging their head against a metaphorical wall in desperation at the latest nonsense poem foisted on them by dull but devious students in place of crisp and informative prose). Almost always, at least in theology, lists of learning outcomes are prepared by teachers who unconsciously envisage their subject as a load of topics to be “covered”. Content is king, isn’t that what they say?

The result is often lists that are too long. (I think so far 22 items is the most complex I have seen!) Lists itemise all the content areas that might be included. If the course is on the Old Testament prophets, then (self)evidently students should:

“know about:

  1. Isaiah
  2. Jeremiah
  3. Ezekiel
  4. The book of the twelve” (if the person who shaped the outcomes is a trendy modern scholar, if not the old fuddy duddy will have helpfully listed all twelve books.)

Learning outcomes prepared by a committee (as when several colleges need a common set) are even better, for each teacher adds their own pet topics to the topic list. Someone is bound to be an Ancient Near Eastern literature specialist, so the students must see the importance of cognate literatures. Another is into intertextuality, we have to include that… You get the idea.

Now, stage two, if you have learning outcomes, how can you demonstrate they are being achieved by your students? You assess them. All of them, since these are the things every student will have learned!

Just tell me one thing! With such a long complex and content oriented list, how?

Let’s manage education

All five nations that embraced this high-stakes, outcome-driven form of accountability are still well below expectation and seeking answers, while those nations that maintained traditional, norm-based, competitive examination systems have risen or held the line in Pisa.

To illustrate, since 2000, New Zealand students have seen a drop of 42 points in Pisa maths, 20 in reading and 15 in science – a total of 77 points.

Warwick Elley (emeritus professor of education) in the NZ Herald

Superstimuli and the Terrible Ten Biblicist Claims

Today I want to turn to those terrible ten claims made by Biblicists. 1 Christian Smith, Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2011) 3-5.

My aim is not to discuss whether, or how much, Evangelical scholarship may have been infiltrated by these ideas. Nor am I really trying to answer the question I was asked on Facebook of how many on the list I could support. Even though this post began with my surprise that DeYoung’s response to them seemed (almost) more negative than mine. He wrote:

I agree with point 1 and would affirm points 2, 7, 8, and 9 with the right nuance. But I disagree with points 5 and 6, and I am not comfortable with the wording in 3, 4, and 10.

Before going further here is the list (with some first comments):

  1. Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
    Right at the start DeYoung and I disagree, he accepts this, I cannot. The words of Scripture are clearly human words, I would claim that the message is divine while the words are human. I think this is what some of the biblical authors themselves claim, like Luke’s account of his process in writing (Luke 1:1-3) or the movement from vision to speech in the prophets (e.g. Amos 7:1-9; 8:1-3). The untruth of 1. is also demonstrated, it seems to me in the fact that Jeremiah does not usually sound like Isaiah, nor Luke like John.
    In this case the untruth of the proposition at best wrongly and badly states the claim that the Bible texts are inspired Scripture.
  2. Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
    This again is an overstatement. Scripture is NOT the “exclusive mode of God’s true communication” but might be closer to the truth if we inserted the word “authoritative” before communication, and perhaps toned down the claim to exclusivity.
  3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.
    This one is plainly bonkers. No way does the Bible address every modern concern. Yet, the claim that Scripture is sufficient – that it tells us what and even “all” we need to know about God and for our salvation – is really important.
  4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
    The perspicuity of Scripture is vital to Baptist life and ecclesiology, but it should never be misstated like this, there is much in Scripture that is difficult, often reading in the light of serious study helps clarify, and yet (again, what we need to know about God and for our salvation) is clear and we have to (intentionally) misread, or be mislead, to miss it.
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
    This one is sneaky. Did you spot “literal sense” in there? Very little in Scripture is expressed literally. Yet the desire to read the plain sense, and not to get carried away with allegorising and spiritualising is a sound one!
  6. Solo Scripture: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
    This one is plain untrue. Take the doctrine of the Trinity as example, it fits with and makes sense of so much in Scripture, yet it can nowhere be read as the plain teaching of a Bible passage. The truth it overstates is that our doctrine and practice should be subjected to the test of the text. They should conform to Scripture and not the reverse.
  7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
    Such a univocal text does not describe at all the Bible I read. (I am currently supposed to be marking short essays on the topic “Did God want Israel to have a king” and the nuanced and diverse attitudes to theologies of kingship expressed in just 1 Samuel, let alone more widely in the OT are sufficient to give that claim the lie.)
    Yet, the consistency of Scripture is surely the reason for the claim that 1 Tim 2:11-12 cannot be read in its most obvious plain sense, that sense (that women should not teach or speak in church) is wrong – it does not “fit” with Paul’s own practice. So, I want to affirm the principle of consistency, while denying the excessive claim in Smith’s formulation.
  8. Universal applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
    This one is a case where DeYoung’s casuistic approach may have merits, for “certain values” of “taught”. The theological understanding that the writers were teaching are indeed true for all times, places, and people, 2 As I affirm strongly in the first episode of Deep Bible. But much that they teach (about other more time-bound matters) is not similarly eternal. Thus the laws about wearing clothes of mixed fabrics are not “revoked”  yet do not control my clothing choices. They ought to stand as a warning though against living in ways that are indistinguishable from the Pagans around us.
  9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.
    Here I am with DeYoung, “with suitable nuancing” this is one I can affirm as stated, though sometimes the inductive process is quite lengthy with several steps.
  10. Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects–including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.
    Even without the (rather naughty?) inclusion of “romance” this is one to resist. And yet even here there is at its heart the admirable desire to take seriously to sufficiency of Scripture. That is a truth worth retaining even while we deny the “supertruth” of the claim.

That last comment will bring me back to my title. But first let me draw your attention to the way this reflection on the claims in the terrible ten have run. In most cases the claim is untrue, yet in every case the claim intends to protect an important truth. This is the insidious nature of these (rightly identified as) terrible ten. They seek to protect truth but affirm a lie. At their heart they are ways in which Evangelicals (certainly in the “wild”, but often in the captivity of the academy too) seek to protect the claim that the Bible is Holy Scripture – the self-revelation of God. But each of them does this by insidiously claiming “more”. In this the terrible ten are like the “superstimuli” that ethologists and pornographers (like the Orange Overlord?) have identified or cashed in. They present something “more” or “better” than the truth, and thus lead the animal astray.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Christian Smith, Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2011) 3-5.
2. As I affirm strongly in the first episode of Deep Bible.

Getting the PIP and the Deep Bible project

Christian Smith (American sociologist of religion, who coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic Deism”)  published The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture with Brazos Press back in 2011. His list of ten characteristics of “biblicism” 1 He seems to use the word as a shorthand for what is wrong with self-consciously “Evangelical” readings of Scripture. was recently cited by Scott McKnight as part of a brief affirmation of the thesis of the book. This made it onto my Facebook screen just a few days after we spent Saturday recording for the first episode of Deep Bible.

Several Evangelical scholars reviewed Smith’s book largely to rebut his claim that these ten features are characteristic of Evangelical (or at least of academic Evangelical) Bible reading. Though they have also criticised his thesis. 2 Kevin DeYoung, “Christian Smith Makes the Bible Impossible,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, August 2, 2011, https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/08/02/christian-smith-makes-the-bible-impossible/ and “Those Tricksy Biblicists,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, (September 1, 2011), https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/09/01/those-tricksy-biblicists/; Peter J. Leithart, “A Cheer and a Half for Biblicism,” First Things, August 26, 2011, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/08/a-cheer-and-a-half-for-biblicism; Robert H. Gundry, “Smithereens! Bible-Reading And ‘pervasive Interpretive Pluralism.,’” Books and Culture, October 2011, http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2011/sepoct/smithreens.html.

This thesis considers the ten marks of Biblicism in the light of the phenomenon Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (hence forth “PIP”) claiming that this fact of multiple readings makes these tenets impossible.

Getting the PIP (pervasive interpretive pluralism)

This post is not a review, or even a notice, of Smith’s book (I have not read it) nor is it a review or response to his critics, rather it is my response to his list, in the light of recording the first episode of Deep Bible. You see one of the core problems with the Bible today for Evangelicals (and other Bible-centred believers, like Baptists) is PIP. You do not have to look far to get the PIP, perhaps all the current (and past) hot button topics among Christians reveal that interpretative pluralism is indeed pervasive. Take the discussion between “Egalitarian” and “Complementarian” camps, they read the same Bible passages, but come to different conclusions. Even the arguments over “gay marriage”, are fueled by different hermeneutics leading to different conclusions. 3 Though in this case one side sometimes denies that this is the case, it is more charitable to recognise that both are reading and trying to follow Scripture. Though in this case for both sides the big picture rather than the interpretation of individual passages is usually the driver. 

Therein lies the rub at least for those who live and have their being in church as well as breathing the more rarefied air of the academy. For, in church (at least in the pews) 4 Or even the comfortable padded seating that serves the “same” function today. most or all of the terrible ten are believed as gospel truth, and hermeneutics is either an unknown concept or code for “attempting to avoid the plain sense of Scripture”.

Hence the importance of PIP for Deep Bible episode one. 5 I plan to consider the terrible ten in another post, as I was surprised to find that I was more positively disposed towards the statements than DeYoung! My contribution offers two strands of practical everyday response to PIP.

Radios and telephones

First, I suggest we need to recognise and distinguish two ways in which God uses Scripture to communicate with us, let’s call them the radio and the telephone. Sometimes the Holy Spirit uses a Bible passage (or even verse or phrase) to give a particular message to a particular person (or group). When this happens it is a bit like the Spirit inspiring Jeremiah with the message that God watches over his word to fulfill it (Jer 1:12) that message came from a pun on the Hebrew word for an almond branch (Jer 1:11). The message has nothing (at all) to do with almonds or branches or trees. God just used the (bad?) pun as stimulus. When God gave Barbara and I a comforting message about our move to New Zealand (following the traumatic shock of being evacuated from Congo and losing contact with so many of our friends and colleagues) that comforting message had nothing to do with the message of the book of Jonah, but God used the familiar story to make his point – and, as with Jeremiah’s pun, it worked for us. That experience is God making a personal telephone call.

OTOH when God inspired the writers of Scripture to reveal truth about the world and especially about its Maker, Sustainer and Redeemer that message, like a radio broadcast is intended for anyone who has the equipment and listens in.

Failure to distinguish these two sorts of meaning leads to much of the most pernicious misuse of Scripture, and so is responsible for much of the PIP that we get today. For we live at a time that prefers the immediacy of “the spirit” 6 Sadly often without the discernment needed to distinguish “the Spirit” from “my spirit”. to the work of rightly handling the word of life.

Let’s just agree to disagree

Another cultural tendency also impacts the PIP. Tolerance  is a virtue (it is perhaps both the most important, under practiced, and yet over-rated virtue today). In the face of multiple interpretations of Scripture this core virtue of the pomo world kicks in, and we find ourselves tempted to “agree to disagree“. Agreeing to disagree is fine and desirable when we have really discussed, understand where the other is coming from, still respect them, yet despite this disagree.

It is not so fine or desirable when it is almost our first response to differing understandings of what the Bible teaches. Because it suggests that the Bible can (rightly and properly, and not merely because of human sinfulness) teach different things to different people. If the Bible can mean anything, then it actually means nothing!

In everyday life we accept restrictions and limits on what texts can mean. Two key and common restrictions are the meaning of words and phrases (literary restraints on possible meaning) and authors’ intentions (historical restraints on meaning). Much of the rest of the Deep Bible series will consider these two sorts of limit and how we can move between these towards deeper and fuller (yet more restrained) understanding of the Bible.

Notes   [ + ]

1. He seems to use the word as a shorthand for what is wrong with self-consciously “Evangelical” readings of Scripture.
2. Kevin DeYoung, “Christian Smith Makes the Bible Impossible,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, August 2, 2011, https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/08/02/christian-smith-makes-the-bible-impossible/ and “Those Tricksy Biblicists,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, (September 1, 2011), https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/09/01/those-tricksy-biblicists/; Peter J. Leithart, “A Cheer and a Half for Biblicism,” First Things, August 26, 2011, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/08/a-cheer-and-a-half-for-biblicism; Robert H. Gundry, “Smithereens! Bible-Reading And ‘pervasive Interpretive Pluralism.,’” Books and Culture, October 2011, http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2011/sepoct/smithreens.html.

3. Though in this case one side sometimes denies that this is the case, it is more charitable to recognise that both are reading and trying to follow Scripture. Though in this case for both sides the big picture rather than the interpretation of individual passages is usually the driver. 
4. Or even the comfortable padded seating that serves the “same” function today.
5. I plan to consider the terrible ten in another post, as I was surprised to find that I was more positively disposed towards the statements than DeYoung!
6. Sadly often without the discernment needed to distinguish “the Spirit” from “my spirit”.

Bible, Normative OR Negotiable a false dichotomy?

In an excellent post on the Aussie BS blog Mike Bird provides a neat helpful brief summary of things people need to recognise about the Bible. The post should be helpful for both believers and unbelievers alike, potentially dispelling ignorance and superstition in both camps ;).

His number six offers an interesting take on the Conservative-Liberal party divide. Mike’s approach helpfully sidesteps the shibboleths of inerrancy and infallibility with their focus on questions of facticity, and suggests in their place talk of Scripture as normative. So far so normal, and indeed to speak of Scripture as normative does more than proclaim its authority, it protects the Protestant standard of core or central authority.

What interests me though, is Mike’s other pole: negotiable. As Mike uses it, to speak of Scripture as “negotiable” means that it is merely “a human word about God to be selectively utilised insofar as it enables us to speak a transcendent word to our native context”. Indeed in a Facebook conversation the term becomes more clearly polemic:

…my idea of “negotiate” is not the complex hermeneutical reflection needed for proper application and obedience; rather, my concern is with a blaise dismissal of a text since it points away from values of the progressive tribe. For case in point, Paul was a sexist homophobic bigot, who cares what he thinks, stuff like that.

If your goal this is to distinguish “us” and “them” – at least if “us” is the Conservative wing of some denomination this understanding works really well. However, inherent (if sadly not inerrant) Middle-of-the-roadist that I am, I cannot avoid the thought that “negotiation” is precisely what Scripture, understood as both Mike and I both understand it (see his points 1-5 and 7) demands.

The Bible, or rather any part of the Bible that is currently in front of us and under discussion, requires negotiation. It needs to be brought from being merely an ancient text that is often metaphorical or emotionally non-literal that was written to and for people in very different circumstances than ours to being a word for today. Without negotiation, that is without a careful; conversation about the nature of the ancient message and the world to which it applied, and how that ancient message translates into today, without such negotiation application is merely your word against mine – all interpretations are valid and Scripture means nothing and has no authority.

For the Bible (and not merely its interpreter) to be normative Scripture requires negotiation. From where I sit, uncomfortably and dangerously, in the middle of the road, both the Conservatives and the Liberals in their such different ways reduce the Bible to an icon. 1 By this I mean a symbol to inspire allegiance, but with no real authority, the Conservatives delivering ultimate authority to those they recognise as inspired interpreters, and the Liberals doing the same but being perhaps more likely to claim that the speaker themself is among that blessed company.

For Scripture to be normative it must be negotiated. When it is both negotiated and normative then like John Robinson in his address to the Pilgrims:

I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.

Notes   [ + ]

1. By this I mean a symbol to inspire allegiance, but with no real authority, the Conservatives delivering ultimate authority to those they recognise as inspired interpreters, and the Liberals doing the same but being perhaps more likely to claim that the speaker themself is among that blessed company.

Small talk and biblical narrative: a challenge

I was grabbed by a question Derek Tovey asked on Facebook. He’s been reading the blurb to Peeter’s edition of Elizabeth B. Tracy, See Me! Hear Me!, Contributions to biblical exegesis and theology 75 (Leuven: Peeters, 2015). The blurb begins with an (unreferenced) quote from Fokkelmann: “The Bible does not contain one single instance of small talk.” Derek asked: “Is he right? Can you find an example of small talk in the Bible?” I think he is and I can’t, can you?

There is banter in the Bible, not least banter between strangers – the case of Jesus and the woman at Sychar (John 4) is a strong example. There are examples of a host’s gracious welcome – Abraham and the three men offers a classic example (Genesis 18). But no “small talk” (which I understand to mean polite by trivial or meaningless talk to oil the wheels of social interaction).

This seems to me not unexpected, I can’t think (though please let me know that I am wrong) of examples of small talk in literature before the modern period, and even then the earliest examples I think of are from Shakespeare (and I think drama works differently from prose narrative).

More than that though biblical narrative is well-known to be parsimonious with unnessary detail of all sorts. Descriptions are almost only given when some detail advances the plot, or characterisation, in significant ways. Indeed, often the silences and omissions are meaningful, “fraught with background” in Auerbach’s redolent phrase.

Fokkelmann, however approached the question differently. The quote comes from his introductory textbook and his concern is with the way characters’ speech is “existentially revealing”.

The other speeches in our pilot story show that the character’s text not only contains many forms of the present tense, but often also commands and wishes. This means that speech is often about the imminent future, and this is something the narrator himself can never manage. Characters may say that they want to have this or that, or want this or that to be done in such-and-such a way. Speeches are often excited or dramatic.The Bible does not contain one single instance of small talk; almost every word by a character is existentially revealing or rooted: the speaker is totally committed to the matter under discussion. 1 Jan Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative : An Introduction Guide (Louisville  Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999) 68.

This notion of speech in biblical narrative as “existentially revealing” is (I think) much more interesting than mere parsimony!

Notes   [ + ]

1. Jan Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative : An Introduction Guide (Louisville  Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999) 68.

Getting pictures to illustrate daily life in biblical times

Back in the 20th Century it used to be difficult and expensive for books or websites that seek to explain the Bible to get suitable illustrations (it was even hard to get pictures for classes. For the Hypertext Bible Commentary: Amos “volume” I had to travel to Israel and take photos myself. For an earlier print book Etudions l’Ancien Testament I paid an artist to produce line drawings to illusrate various aspects of the text.

Then with the advent of “Web 2.0” and sites like Flickr and Wikipedia finding photos of places became easy, many with Creative Commons licenses. Photos of ancient statues, wall plaques and other such large and impressive objects was also possible, though few people can take really good shots in a museum. However, since the average Jo or Joe who is visiting a museum is unlikely to shoot everyday tools and the like these are still hard to source.

Granary

Model granary with store chambers, grain sacks and scribe, Middle Kingdom (AD Riddle)

I was delighted therefore to read AD Riddle’s Three Things I Like About Egypt in which he writes about the usefulness of Egyptian museums with things like their tomb figures illustrating aspects of life like the model granery with its scribe (above).

I was even more delighted when Todd Bollen in a reply to my question in a comment said Bible Places are looking at producing a collection of such photos!

Legacy texts or e-commentaries?

Because designers of file formats and Bible software that uses them are print-centric in their thinking I seem to face a choice in envisaging a new generation e-commentary. Either I produce something that accepts the traditional limitations of print, but which would work within Bible software and so be available to people when and where they need it. OR I produce a genuinely electronic commentary, with links and media (pictures, video and sound), but that must be accessed apart from the Bible study tool.

In my previous post I expressed some frustration at the lack of tools for conveniently preparing a text marked up in OSIS (Open Scripture Information Standard). In this post I will look at OSIS from a different prespective. I am discovering that, as well as the practical difficulties of producing well-formed valid XML, I have  another deeper problem. OSIS is designed for marking up Bible and related texts, but it is designed for and from the print age. Its mentality is that of words written on a page. It is therefore quite good at rendering manuscript texts (after all print largely mimics manuscript). It is not good at producing e-texts.

To make matters worse, different front end 1 Think Bible software or websites that allow you to read and study the Bible. designers have different ideas about the importance of non-textual elements (like figures) 2 Photos, maps, diagrams, charts… or hypertextual elements (most notably links). Among those who can import OSIS text (often adapted into Sword modules) some support figures (though the ability to size and place images in text seem to be rudimentary), others support links – though learning the arcane methods reguired is problematic and on occasions the results are bizzare (Xiphos 3 One of the most developed Crosswire front ends. may jump to an internal link in a commentary module, but seems to reset the Bible text displayed to the start of Revelation each time, not quite the effect I am after!

At present it looks as if I have the choice of aiming for commentary that is as print-like as possible, producing such a print-like commentary augumented by links to Internet based materials outside the commentary itself, or producing an e-commentary that does not work inside Bible software.

If anyone can suggest ways to cut the Gordian Knot, or even a decent compromise, would deserve and recieve my deep gratitude!

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Think Bible software or websites that allow you to read and study the Bible.
2. Photos, maps, diagrams, charts…
3. One of the most developed Crosswire front ends.