New blog well worth adding to your lists

While I have been away fromn home, and so busier than usual, Brian Harris has started a blog. Since Brian is a clear, creative thinker with a sense of humour his blog is well worth following. I have not read all his posts – I’m sure I could find something to disagree with if I did/when I do, I’ve read enough to know it’s an exciting addition to the blogsphere, with already lots of solid content.

How odd of God, or the LORD works in mysterious ways

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr

Offering a course, and preparing the material and then having no students enroll is not an outcome any teacher desires.Add in the bonus that the course was being offered is about 19h and 55mins from home, and the situation seems set to categorise as a disaster. However, that would neglect events around the time when we were waiting on tenterhooks to see if students would enroll. During the waiting the prospect of a series for Swarga (a local Christian TV station) began to be seriously aired. The series will use the material I prepared for the NZ Baptist articles each month in 2014. This is material I am really keen to make more accessible and useful in church contexts. By shrinking our holiday a little and with hasty preparation while Barbara (she has a chock full class) I should be able to record six half hour programs before we leave.

In conversation with the principal and the academic dean today another project has been added for after I return to NZ. I will prepare an enlarged version of the articles with more practical examples and fuller explanations which people here will take and adapt to the local context. This localised English version could also be translated into Sinhala and Tamil. The material would then form a basis for introductory courses in practical hermeneutics for some of the programs here. This too is so exciting.

The LORD does indeed work in mysterious ways, and from time to time enlivens our staid lives with rollercoaster rides.

Why leaders fail, and what (not) to do


I could not think of a good title for this post, not least because it has no content except to link to Peter Morton’s excellent post: “When Leaders Fall“. In it, responding to the fall of another “successful” pastor, Peter with wisdom and grace suggests how such disasters can be reduced and how they should be dealt with. Every pastor and leadership team should read it.

Bibliophilia: the pastors’ besetting sin?

Too many books?

This networked socially-mediated world is fascinating. Despite all the shallowness (e.g. people “liking” a post that speaks of mass deaths of Rohingya refugees while knowing little of the horrific facts of their tragedy), I also get to see deeper inside friends and colleagues.

Some (of my friends at least) are grammar nazis, determined to keep us all on the linguistic straight and narrow. Many are incensed or delighted (or more often both in opposing turns) at the latest issue. But I discern a worrying trend among pastors and Bible teachers. Bibliophilia gone mad.

Pastors have always been bibliophiles, or at least have been since the adoption of moveable type (in the Guttenberg revolution) reduced the price of books. When I was a trainee pastor (back in the 1970s) we compared libraries, and eagerly debated which were the essential commentaries to buy on this or that Bible book.

The advent of e-texts and computer Bible software has, in some ways, had little overt impact as yet. Many pastors are innately conservative, and prefer the pleasures of a print book to the cheaper but less conspicuous e-texts. Many still brag about the physical endowment of their libraries. Size sometimes is everything!

Yet waiting on the margins is a slowly growing colossus. Top of the range deluxe Bible software (like Logos or Accordance) the array of reference works and secondary literature one can acquire for Logos is mind-blowing. Everything from the Patristic writers in original languages or translation to the latest “Christian classic”, alongside lexicons “for Africa” (as they say).

And there’s the rub, these goodies are NOT for Africa, or any other place that is poor but still perhaps (despite this fact) in need of the gospel and of good preaching. They resource only the rich and comfortable of the world. Still, forget the poor for a moment, there are base packages for everyone, for Baptists they range all the way up to the magnificent “Baptist diamond” package at just US$3,449.95 (don’t be put off by the price, it includes more than 2,500 “resources” and you can pay on the never never, just 24 payments of US$148.75 per month). Perhaps you are not a “platinum pastor”, you can always settle for three steps down and the measly “Silver” (at just US$999.95 it still has 700 resources to enliven and enrich your preaching, and it to can be acquired on tick, 18 payments of US$60.55 per month).

Pity about all the good those dollars could have done to support Christians were life is less good than here! Still they are used to hardship, they’ll cope. There is no choice, my congregation demands top notch preaching, and so I NEED those “resources”…

Well no, you don’t! Unless you are doing academic research for publication in esoteric journals the free Bible software STEP Bible has all the Bible texts and links to original languages (that probably you have not actually learned) that you need. It’s easy to use, and what’s more will not demand that you “upgrade” your hardware every couple of years like the “top notch” software does.

Commentaries? True STEP has no built in scholarly commentaries. But there are plenty available on Google books (as long as you can stand not having the “very best” in every case, but can settle for mere “jolly good scholarship”). Just think the $100 (or more?) you save on this not quite so essential Bible software might train a pastor, provide clean water for a village…

Why not explore STEP, it has more Bible study goodies than Calvin, Augustine, Paul or your favourite theologian or evangelist could begin to dream. Search Google Books for “commentary BIBLE BOOKNAME” with “preview available” under search tools/any books.

Travel plans

View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

I realise I have not posted here about our travel plans for later this year. We will be visiting and teaching in (at least)1 two places:

  • View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

    View across the hills near Baguio – envy us!

    Asia Pacific Theological Seminary, Baguio Philippines. Where Barbara and I will each teach a course (OT Intro for me and Pastoral Counseling for her). I visited APTS as Menzies lecturer last year and am really looking forward to returning to a lovely place and people. Since Barbara will be going too, this time we hope to see a bit more of the northern part of the Philippines as well.

  • Sri Lanka produces much of the best high grown tea in the world.

    Sri Lanka produces much of the best high grown tea in the world.

    Colombo Theological Seminary, Sri Lanka. Where again both of us will teach, in my case on 1 Samuel as an introduction to reading biblical narrative texts. We’ve both visited CTS before and had a lovely holiday seeing more of the country last time. Christians in Sri Lanka (though still smarting from loss of status following the colonial period) have a special place as a religious minority that includes both ethnic groups in a strife torn land.

We will leave towards the end of July and return in late September. We have a nice family (with experience on a lifestyle block in the UK) from Bethlehem College to look after the house and animals while we are away.

  1. Teaching in Thailand is also possible. []

Theological librarian needed

Colombo Theological Seminary, a fine interdenominational seminary teaching in English, Sinhala and Tamil both in Colombo (the capital) and in centres around the country (in both Sinhala and Tamil areas) is looking for a theological librarian to work in their Colombo main building.

Colombo Theological Seminary is a fine institution and Sri Lanka a really beautiful island full of friendly people so this would make a dream appointment for someone that would also enable them to serve the church in a place where Christian churches are one of the few community institutions that really cross the ethnic and political divides that led to the many years of civil war.

If you know a theological librarian who is willing to travel and work in a beautiful tropical location please pass on these details:


Wayback machine: Theological education and outdoctrination

Here’s a post from five years ago that I wish had generated more conversation… I wonder if it will this time ;)

Linking to Geoff’s “Creativity in Theological Education” post and then watching the brilliant presentation (in just 20 minutes) by Sugata Mitra the Indian “Hole in the Wall” man (on TED) “Can kids teach themselves?” has got me thinking (again) about how we do theological education the wrong way round.

[By the way if you have only heard about Sugata Mitra’s work it is well worth spending 20 minutes to watch the man himself, whether you agree with him or not, he is a fine presenter!]

He calls his suggestions “outdoctrination” because they are the opposite of indoctrination. In indoctrination a teacher who “knows better” tells a student the answers. Most theological education is built from the ground up on an indoctrination model. Teachers (or possibly the school boards who govern the teachers – quis custodiet custodes) decide the curriculum. They then decide how it is to be taught and how success is to be measured. Students then are fitted into this mold. Evidently, despite our efforts to steer clear of “imposing” our conclusions on students, this is indoctrination. After all, though we may seek to avoid imposing answers, we did impose the questions!

Why not a system designed the other way up. Start from real issues and situations and get teachers to asist students to learn what they need/want to approach these issues. There would be severe difficulties creating “suitable” learning outcomes, and perhaps worse ones working out how to measure them – but I suspect the real measure of success would be seen when students “leave college” and really start to learn!

[I suspect Dr Mitra, a professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle, thinks his work only applies to kids, and that adults are too far calcified in the cortext, but I wonder, humans have more capacity to make do and adapt, I believe that even “mature students” can still learn if we offered them “minimally invasive theological education”!]

What’s wrong with higher education?

Since I signed up as a MOOC student, I’m seeing MOOCs everywhere ;)

Clay Shirkey, always a provocative and often a prescient commentator has an interesting take on the state of higher education. His starting point is cost benefit. In the USA the cost of a basic bachelor’s degree rose 75% in the first ten years of this century while the income of graduates has dropped 15% (both figures adjusted to 2000 dollars). That’s hardly a powerful selling-point! In NZ a Statistics NZ report in 2007 found that already then “Debt [was] increasing proportionally faster than income”, this is not merely an American tale.

At this point, having established that bachelor’s degree study is under critical economic pressure Shirkey turns to MOOCs writing:

This is the background to the entire conversation around higher education: Things that can’t last don’t. This is why MOOCs matter. Not because distance learning is some big new thing or because online lectures are a solution to all our problems, but because they’ve come along at a time when students and parents are willing to ask themselves, “Isn’t there some other way to do this?”

MOOCs are a lightning strike on a rotten tree. Most stories have focused on the lightning, on MOOCs as the flashy new thing. I want to talk about the tree.

He points also to a changing student demographic, this may not yet be paralleled across NZ, but it is a familiar picture at institutions like Carey:

If you want to know what college is actually like in this country, forget Swarthmore, with 1500 students. Think Houston Community College, with 63,000. Think rolling admissions. Think commuter school. Think older. Think poorer. Think child-rearing, part-time, night class.

It is no wonder, given this context, that there is rising interest in MOOCs:

Though educational materials have been online for as long as there’s been an online, and though the term ‘MOOC’ was coined half a decade ago, it was only last year that they stopped being regarded as a curiosity, and started being thought of as a significant alternative to traditional college classes.

His conclusions run like this:

I’ve been thinking about the effects of the internet for a couple of decades now. I’ve watched industry after industry forced to renegotiate their methods and models, in the face of a medium that allows for perfect copying, global distribution, zero incremental cost, ridiculously easy group-forming: The music business. Newspapers. Travel agents. Publishers. Hotel owners. And while watching, I’ve always wondered what I’d do when my turn came.

And now here it is. And it turns out my job is to tell you not to trust us when we claim that there’s something sacred and irreplaceable about what we academics do. What we do is run institutions whose only rationale—whose only excuse for existing—is to make people smarter.

Sometimes we try to make ourselves smarter. We call that research. Sometimes we try to make our peers smarter. We call that publishing. Sometimes we try to make our students smarter. We call that teaching. And that’s it. That’s all there is. These are important jobs for sure, and they are hard jobs at times, but they’re not magic. And neither are we.

The competition from upstart organizations will make things worse for many of us. (I like the experiments we’ve got going at NYU, but I don’t fantasize that we’ll be unscathed.) After two decades of watching, though, I also know that that’s how these changes go. No industry has ever organized an orderly sharing of power with newcomers, no matter how interesting or valuable their ideas are, unless under mortal threat.

Instead, like every threatened profession, I see my peers arguing that we, uniquely, deserve a permanent bulwark against insurgents, that we must be left in charge of our destiny, or society will suffer the consequences. Even the record store clerks tried that argument, back in the day. In the academy, we have a lot of good ideas and a lot of practice at making people smarter, but it’s not obvious that we have the best ideas, and it is obvious that we don’t have all the ideas. For us to behave as if we have—or should have—a monopoly on educating adults is just ridiculous.

For background on the more cultural and less economic reasoning that led me to think similar but different thoughts see my:

Tim Bulkeley, “Back to the Future: Virtual Theologising as RecapitulationColloquium 37,2 2005, 115-130

What I did not quite factor into the discussion then was MOOCs. Now I must think about if or how they might change things…

All Black church leadership (lesson eight)

World War I recruitment poster (1915)

Ian Foster’s eighth point went like this:

  • Courage is contagious
    you doing something right/well can inspire others
    at times we need heroes/role models to follow

In some ways this is the positive opposite of #6, and underlines the real importance of leaders modeling the behaviours they want to see in others. I think in churches this applies particularly in finding ways to allow/encourage people to share with each other what they do. Unless John knows how Jim manages to gently speak about Jesus over lunch at his work John may never try…

All Black church leadership (lesson seven)

  1. Trust your plan/each other
    review regularly
    open and honest communication
    if you are all to trust you all have to do your job reliably

There are obvious connections here:

  • Churches often fail to “really” review their objectives, or the extent to which they are actually working towards the stated goals.
  • Open communication, which “should” be one of our strengths is often a weakness, and in its absence the rumour mills seem to work overtime (the problem here is that often the people making decisions forget (or don’t really think about) who is “in the loop” and/or how to ensure the others are up to date. (This ties back to the vision thing, and how often this needs repeating and reinforcing in different ways.)
  • If we want to rely on people doing their job reliably, we need to reinforce their value and the value of what they do. This does not need a major production, but more frequent small reinforcement. Too often the non-public or less visible workers can feel taken for granted…