Educational Technology’s Inflated Promises

gmsdig_cov_400I recently came across a slender book that aims to redesign liberal education using digital technologies. Titled Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem, it certainly tackles an important question: how should liberal arts colleges use new technologies to fulfill their traditional mission? Unfortunately, the book is riddled with the jargon and assumptions of tech boosterism; it’s full of the kind of prose that only makes sense within the echo chambers of technology trade shows.

I don’t mean to berate the authors or undermine the good work that the publisher, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, does, but any honest assessment of the role digital technologies should play in learning needs to be more responsible to the actual powers and limits of these technologies. Such responsibility begins with a language that tries to be understandable. Unfortunately, however, the prose of this argument obscures important questions about the purposes of learning and whether digital technologies can further these ends. Continue reading

Am I Rubbish? On Academic Impostor Syndrome

A Guest Post by David Russell Mosley

I am the worst theologian there is. When I find myself in a group of my “peers” I feel imposter.pngtotally inadequate, as if I can be nothing more than a mere popularizer of theology, but not a serious student of it. My language work is pitiful and I’ve not read half the people I should have. I don’t get the jobs I apply for. My proposals don’t get accepted at conferences. I am the worst theologian there is. Frankly, this is how I often feel, particularly on bad days and particularly online. I see or digitally interact with other theologians from around the world and I feel totally inadequate. Many academics, I believe, feel this way. It’s called impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome isn’t a mental disorder, let’s be clear about that. Therefore, it doesn’t have a clear definition. Worse still it doesn’t have a clear treatment. For me, and for those other academics, primarily theologians, with whom I’ve discussed this, impostor syndrome leads to feelings of deep inadequacy. I feel as though any moment someone is going to realize I don’t deserve my PhD and they’ll take it away from me. Sometimes, rather than feeling like an impostor, I simply feel inferior. Maybe I do have some intelligence, maybe I’m not a total fake, but I’m not half as good as everyone else. This is not humility or even actual recognition of one’s ability. Those are good things, they keep us from overvaluing ourselves. This is a feeling of such inferiority that you have no peers because everyone is above you. Continue reading

At the Intersection: Thinking and Teaching at the Intersection of Theology and History

 This is the first entry of an ongoing series called “At the Intersection” that profiles the work of academics thinking and teaching at the intersection of two or more academic disciplines. We here at Christ & University believe that all branches of knowledge are naturally integrated. One of the chief tasks of the university is to explore these branches of knowledge in both their integrity and their integration with each other. We hope this series contributes in a small way to healing the fragmentation of knowledge that characterizes what Clark Kerr calls the modern “multiversity.”

Our first contributor is Dr. Timothy J. Furry. I am pleased that he took the time to get this series off the group. Dr. Furry is Instructor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School, a preparatory boarding school,  in Bloomfield Hills, MI. He completed a PhD in newpicTheology from the University of Dayton in 2011, writing on the intersections of theology, history, and biblical exegesis in the Venerable Bede.  When he’s not fishing, rooting for the Detroit Tigers, or trying not to fail at holiness in domesticity, he is working on a book influenced by and written in a Wittgensteinian spirit that clarifies the grammar of historical writing and thinking. His larger scholarly interest is to find ways to make ancient modes of reading Scripture intelligible and persuasive again in our contemporary world.

C&U: How would you define your project, both in Allegorizing History (AH) and your current research? What inspired this project?  What questions and sources brought you to this project? 

TF: My “project,” if that’s the right word, is pretty simple to summarize: my goal is to get clear on history, specifically as knowledge of the past. History is ubiquitous now; it’s reflexive for us to think historically; this strikes me as fascinating and a historical development itself. For example, you don’t see many early or medieval Christian theologians doing historical theology, at least not the way we do it now and seemingly must do it now, and many know of the figural and allegorical readings of Scripture that were popular for centuries. Questions regarding the possibility of recovering ancient modes of reading are a primary impetus driving my work, and part of that must involve reckoning with modern historical thinking and the rise of what we call historical consciousness, which, in short, is an awareness that we have a past that matters or shapes who are now; we tend to think historically about identity and community before anything else, even if it’s bad history.

Put another way: why are the first questions we ask when reading Scripture usually some version of: “But what did that mean in its original, historical context?” I’m asking, why is that our first question now? And why do we attribute so much importance to the answer to that question? I’m not saying it’s a bad or irrelevant question. I’m simply asking why do we ask this first and believe we must know the answer to it before anything else can get off the ground. The ecclesial and spiritual consequences of this position are significant. If that question must be answer before we say anything about the bible and what it’s saying, then, to speak provocatively, the new priests of modernity are historians who mediate God’s verbal revelations to ignorant laity and masses. One could call this as a new kind of elitism—a move from what has been considered to be clerical elitism to academic elitism. The question quickly becomes why trust these new experts over the old ones? Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t. What’s important, I think, is understanding this needs argued, not merely accepted, which seems to me our current default position. When the academy assumes a privileged position of brokering revealed knowledge, Christian spirituality risks becoming primarily intellectual since we must get our cognitive knowledge right before doing anything else. This strikes me as quite different from the liturgical and ritual based spirituality of earlier Christian ages. I want to stress that while my sympathy lies with earlier expressions of spiritual practice, I’m not intentionally being polemic here. I’m trying to describe our situation and demand an argument for its support. It’s entirely possible that the current arrangement is better, but that would need argued, not assumed.

C&U: Why focus on Bede specifically?

TF: I thought that Bede, as a historian and prolific biblical exegete would be a good place to start. Scholarship on him has grown rapidly over the past decade. My interest in Bede was primarily about having a partner from the past, prior to the rise of historical consciousness, to think through some of these questions with and see how he handled relating history, Scripture, and theology. Of course, I could have gone to Augustine or Eusebius as well, but they’re better known, and, in truth, I wanted to ride the wave of surging Bedean scholarship, both to keep the secondary sources more manageable and to contribute to a growing niche of scholarship around Bede. In the end, my main interest is not Bede per se, but in a set of questions and problems for which I thought Bede would be a helpful guide to get me started.

Regarding these questions and problems, the first issue one encounters when trying to think about history the way that I am is figuring out how not to beg the question. That is, a mere historical account of history will not do as this presumes the authority and persuasiveness of historical knowledge, which is precisely what I’m wanting understand and account for. Thus, my latest work is a grammar of history that is deeply indebted to Wittgenstein and Constantin Fasolt, a University of Chicago historian, who brought Wittgenstein and the philosophy of history together in The Limits of History in fascinating, important ways to show history functions as a specific form of knowledge with rules determining what counts as historical and not. I think Fasolt didn’t go far enough in his analysis, and I don’t agree with the way he uses Wittgenstein, but the idea of history and Wittgenstein definitely comes from him. As pretty much all my publications attest, my work has always been influenced by Wittgenstein, but my current revisiting and rereading of him is indebted to my close friend Ethan Smith and his recommendations of secondary sources like Cora Diamond, Stanley Cavell, and James Conant to name a few.

An example for what will be forthcoming, one argument I’m finishing right now is making the case that the sentence, “Octavian was the first emperor of the Roman Empire” is not a historical description that is subject to being thought otherwise (What sense does “Roman Empire” have in “Octavian was not the first emperor of the Roman Empire?”) but a grammatical claim and a necessary way of speaking both about Octavian and the Roman Empire.

C&U: The thesis of Allegorizing History, it seems to me, is that the writing of history is necessarily “figurative” because history itself is both “descriptive” and “representational.” If this is a good summary of your claims, can you 1) define these terms as they figure in your argument; 2) distinguish between an “allegorical”, a “figurative”, and a “typological” reading? How do you distinguish between geschichte and heilsgeschichte?

TF: Your description of my book’s thesis is on target. I use the work of Frank Ankersmit, a philosopher, to distinguish between historical descriptions and historical representations. A description is the kind of claim subject to truth or falsity based on historical evidence. That’s pretty straightforward and what most people think of when they think of historical writing: making claims about the past based on the evidence.

There are other kinds of claims that are necessarily part of historical inquiry as well. One of these Ankersmit calls representation, which is something that is rooted in the historian’s language, not the past, and therefore is usually not subject to claims of truth or falsity. I used a couple examples in the book, so I’ll use a different one here. “Martin Luther inaugurated the Protestant Reformation.” Few, if any, would find serious fault with a sentence like that. Even if one could and might want to nuance it to account for what led up to Luther and his conflict with Catholic authorities, it’s still a rather rudimentary historical claim for us now. “Martin Luther” obviously has historical content subject to truth and falsity. We can read his writings and read about others’ responses to him during his life. Thus, it’s tempting to think the initial sentence is a historical description. Yet the sentence as a whole is actually a representation because of the predicate “Protestant Reformation.” What would it mean to say the Protestant Reformation, historically speaking, is false? One can formulate theological objections to Reformation theologies, but it’s hard to imagine what it would mean to negate the Reformation historically. (Importantly, I could have said “…but it’s hard to imagine what it would mean to negate what we call the Reformation historically”). I use the language of temptation here purposefully (and from Wittgenstein) because we really want to go look for evidence to consider the Reformation historically. It is language used by historians not to describe the past but to represent it. Once we see this, our problems of searching in vain for historical content (subject to truth or falsity or something we can go point to, like Luther or the 95 theses) to the “Reformation” are not as much solved as dissolved.

So, what’s the lesson here? It’s certainly NOT that history is bunk and not as reliable as we thought because it doesn’t always offer us empirically based truths. Instead, the lesson is to recognize what we’re doing and saying when we speak historically. Representations are part and parcel of historical language and writing, and this is all fine; there’s no need to change how historians write and speak. The payoff for historians is clarity—to know the grammar of the language they use and therefore to be less prone to make mistakes. The mistakes I’m referring to here are conceptual confusions, not empirically based errors, which lead historians to not recognize how they draw boundaries on what counts as history.

In my book, one notices that I don’t seek to correct the empirical record on Bede in any way. Instead, I try to argue that Bede is a historian in the same sense as modern historians, despite Bede scholars wanting to distinguish Bede as theologian and historian. This is a conceptual issue, which is included in the realm of historical thought and writing, but historians often equivocate on what counts as history by focusing on strict empirical matters and failing to notice that conceptual matters, like representation, constitutes historical thought as such. Therefore, historians don’t need to change what they do or write, the language game of history is fine insofar as describing and representing the past is what they do. Yet, by being attentive to what they’re actually doing, historians can see the broader conceptual and philosophical side of that game and avoid assuming the superiority of modern history over against earlier historians like Bede. I’m demanding that historians give an account of why Bede narrating history according to the world ages is categorically different from using the representational language of “Reformation,” “revolution,” or even better “classical, medieval, and modern.”

Here, your question of history versus sacred history comes to the fore. I’m asking under what conditions such a distinction even makes sense and what is conceptually in place to have that be an intelligible distinction. My argument basically calls that framework into question by showing how such a distinction is conceptual, not empirical. If I may go further than my book does, such a distinction only has sense when one believes there is something like pure (i.e. secular) history that doesn’t rely on representation, which I’ve tried to show is deep confusion. All historical writing and thinking is representational. Again, I want to demand (and I repeat that word intentionally) that historians say why one representation is more historical than another? That needs argued, not assumed based on so called disciplinary boundaries.

On the theological side, I find the reality of how historians are pressed by evidence and human language in general to describe and represent in their work theologically and philosophcally interesting. On this score, I’m impressed with Rowan Williams’s The Edge of Words and have found myself returning to it. I find it incredibly profound as I continue to wrestle with what he’s up to. And now I’m getting into your question about nature and grace.

C&U: Much of your argument seems grounded in Henri de Lubac’s controversial claims about nature and grace. Lubac (in)famously said that nature is already graced. He was criticized for collapsing the order of nature into the order of grace. To defend his theological position, Lubac (and others) maintained that nature has a “porous integrity.” It had integrity in itself (i.e. it was not grace), but it was open to grace. How do you understand your project in light of this theological debate? How does your book contribute to an analogous Lubacian position viz. history both as “events that occurred in the past” and as the academic narration and construction of that past?

TF: If nature—or creation—is prepared for or open to grace—or is a different kind of grace, which I’d prefer to say—then we should be able to find places of this openness or analogues to salvific grace in our world, ways of life, and modes of speaking. In other words, what is it about historical ways of speaking and narration that show this openness? Put differently again, if time and history are indeed gifts, which is to say a kind of grace, then our ways of speaking about and with them should reflect that giftedness, and we should be able to find particular kinds of necessity in our ways of speaking that reveal our timely and historical existence as gift.

C&U: What would the “pedagogy” of your book’s argument look like? How would you apply the insights of your book to the concrete practices of teaching history and theology?

TF: Regarding pedagogy in the classroom, I see two main benefits. One is clarity. That is, to be able to articulate in precise ways how the language of our descriptions and representations function in history. As a result, students (and teachers for that matter) can see something of the limits of historical knowledge and how historical knowledge itself isn’t neutral or objective since it’s a specific language game itself with very specific purposes and rules. Again, this isn’t to dismiss history, only to get clear on what it does. Nowhere have I suggested that historians or theologians must alter their language in doing their work. I’ve simply inquired into what we already say and write. Wittgenstein’s comments on philosophy as being descriptive have influenced me on this. Consequently, and to loop back to what I’m working on now, I’m also trying to show how our ordinary ways of speaking about the past logically precede history as a discipline and why that’s important. I’ve been spending some substantial time in On Certainty to help guide my thinking. A second impact on teaching is teach students to pay attention to language—to focus and think for more than say 3 seconds about the mystery of language. The fact we can communicate at all strikes me as miraculous. That I say some sounds or draw some lines on paper and other people know what I mean and that all this happens, most times, without problem and instantaneously is downright mind blowing. So, I guess, I’ve stumbled upon a third upshot for teaching as I write this: inspiring awe in students regarding the existence and our use of language.




To My Students: I’m Proud of You

PATHMy job as a writing teacher means I give a lot of constructive-criticism type feedback. This is a necessary part of the job, since you wouldn’t improve if I only praised your writing.

But praise is important too, so I want to take this public space, here at the end of the semester, and tell you how proud I am of your accomplishments, both academic and personal. You are smart, godly men and women who have made excellent progress this year.

You may not believe that you’ve made a lot of academic progress. After all, not all of you got As in my classes, and what else signals progress so clearly as an A? And writing and literature are hard; it’s difficult to feel accomplished, when you still struggle to think critically and articulate your thoughts after months of work.

But having difficulty with a subject is not a sign that you’re bad at it (For instance, right now I’m having difficulty putting my thoughts into words, but I do not believe that struggling with one blog post makes me a terrible writer.) And receiving Bs and even Cs can still be a sign of making progress.

Some of you started out the semester getting Ds on your papers; that big red B- on your final paper showed that you’ve made tremendous progress.

You integrate quotations with your writing and explain them in your own words now. You structure paragraphs in a way that makes it easy for me to follow your ideas. You think analytically about literature, identifying its themes or worldviews and discussing those in depth. Whatever grade you wound up receiving, you’ve made real, observable progress. You’ve worked hard, and I am so proud of everything you’ve learned this semester.

But even more importantly, I am proud of your personal growth. You have become diligent, godly men and women this year, and that’s more important than whatever shows up on your transcript.

When you didn’t understand something about class, you took the initiative to come to my office and make sure you were doing your best.

When you were confronted by a thorny new problem, like prison reform or the death penalty or overspending on short-term missions, you studied it carefully, and tried to think about it as a Christian.

When we read The Great Divorce in literature class, you didn’t simply go through the motions of reading the book and discussing it in class; you applied what you learned to your spiritual life and grew because of it.

When I encouraged you to speak up in class more, you did, even though that was really outside of your comfort zone.

When I asked you whether you’d cheated on your final paper, and told you I trusted you to be honest with me, you were. You owned up to cheating, and you made it right.

In your actions this semester I see the working of the Holy Spirit in your life, transforming you into Christlike men and women.

I don’t know how much I’ll see you again. Some of you are returning to school in the fall, though I probably won’t have you in class, since I mostly teach freshmen courses. Some of you finished your academic program, and some of you simply aren’t coming back. But wherever the Lord leads you, whether you finish a college degree or not, whether you “make it” in life or not, you have made great progress this semester.

Yes, you’ve learned what I set out to teach you: the proper structure of a paragraph and of a quote sandwich; the definition of image and symbol and theme; the way to analyze a poem. But you’ve also learned what the Lord had to teach you, and if you keep following Him, I have every confidence that you will continue learning and growing in the future.

God bless,

Ms. VB






Pentecost, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Next week the Western church celebrates the feast of Pentecost, the birth of the church. On this day, the church became the embodiment of Jesus on earth, and we celebrate the Holy Spirit’s power to transform ordinary people into members of God’s body. Reflecting on this transformation seems a fitting way to conclude my series of posts on various illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible. The visual images in this Bible are, after all, efforts to transform the written Word of God into visual forms, so both Pentecost and The Saint John’s Bible bear witness to the power of the Holy Spirit to breathe divine life into new mediums.

Continue reading

Raising of Lazarus


Raising of Lazarus, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Jesus’ most spectacular miracle, one that forced witnesses to either believe in him or violently reject him, was raising Lazarus from the dead. John’s narration of this miracle focuses on the various spectators: Jesus’ disciples wonder why he returns to Judea where the religious leaders have been trying to kill Jesus; Martha and Mary ask Jesus why he didn’t come when they sent him word of Lazarus’ illness; many of the Jews who witness this miracle believe, but some go to the Pharisees and begin the plot that will culminate in the crucifixion; Lazarus becomes so popular that the chief priests plan to kill him as well as Jesus. Yet while John describes all these reactions to Lazarus’ resurrection, he never tells us how Lazarus responds to what must have been an unsettling experience. The illumination from The Saint John’s Bible, however, invites us to consider this story from Lazarus’ perspective: what would it be like to wake from death, sit up, and look out from a dark cave into the blinding light? Continue reading

Vision of the New Jerusalem

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Vision of the New Jerusalem, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2011, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The last full illumination in The Saint John’s Bible celebrates the New Jerusalem that will descend to earth as the fulfillment of the redemption set in motion by Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection. As this illumination suggests, this redemption is intimate and personal, but it is also universal and communal. John writes that the New Jerusalem looks like “a bride adorned for her husband,” yet this personal image is counterpoised with the divine declaration that “I am making all things new.”  Continue reading