Some Thoughts on Academic Dishonesty and Instructor Clarity (or possibly the lack thereof)

True story: the first time I ever dealt with plagiarism in the classroom, a student plagiarized something from my own blog (the same one you’re reading this on, incidentally. Link to follow, below). It was a course on New Testament, and I had assigned a novel called The Shadow of the Galilean to give students a bit of a different perspective into the historical Jesus and Roman-occupied Judea. (It’s a delightful book, by the way, and you should read it if you haven’t.)

The assignment was relatively open ended. I told them I wanted to “review” this book. That’s it. “Review.” At that point in my career, I believed an assignment as unspecific as this one would allow students the freedom to explore, and to focus on aspects of the book that they found interesting. I was so incredibly wrong.

The day after I gave the assignment, a number of students showed up at my office asking what they were actually supposed to be doing in this assignment. They had been reading the book for the past few weeks and so had a good grasp of what was going on in it. They simply didn’t know what I meant by “review.” So we chatted about the types of things that go into a review: give a brief summary, point out some of the good, some of the less-than-good, and give you assessment. This seemed helpful to most who stopped by.

(Important reminder: I’m currently describing an assignment that I now consider bad.)

The due date arrived, and students came to class with their essays. I sat down that night to grade a portion of them, and one of the first that I picked up began: “Gerd Theissen’s Shadow of the Galilean is one of the finest books on Jesus that I’ve read.”

My first thought: how many books on Jesus have you read?

My second thought: this sentence sounds eerily familiar.

As it turns out, it was familiar to me because it was taken from a blog post that I had written a few years previous. The title of the post is The Shadow of the Galilean (review), and I discovered that (at the time) if you did a Google search for “Review of Shadow of the Galilean,” it was one of the first results that appeared. My student had unknowingly plagiarized his professor. 1*Rit-GtU_K_aEsV06_x-Ilg

I e-mailed the student, and we set up a time to chat the following day. As I told him what I had discovered, he sat staring at the ground. I asked him if he had anything to say, and he responded (paraphrasing):

“Honestly? I fucked up. I had no idea what you wanted us to do in this assignment, and I was afraid that asking would make me look stupid. So I went and found a review and I used it. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t even realize you had wrote the review I found, but obviously the situation wouldn’t be any better if I had copied something else. It’s my fault.”

I appreciated the student’s willingness to own up to what he had done, of course, but more than that I actually appreciated his willingness to implicate me. The assignment that I gave wasn’t clear, and while I didn’t force him to go and copy and paste something from the internet, my lack of clarity contributed to a thought process that ultimately spiraled to this place. Saying that to my face took some serious chutzpah, to be sure, but it was a good learning opportunity for me.

We come up with all sorts of reasons to make sense of why students plagiarize: they procrastinate and run out of time, they’re lazy, they lack a sense of self-efficacy, etc. But in my experience we are generally not willing to be self-reflective enough to share some of the blame, at least on occasion. Maybe a student turns in someone else’s work because they have no idea what you want them to do in an assignment? Maybe your expectations are vague. And maybe, just maybe, you aren’t nearly as “accessible” to students as you think you are.

I’m thinking about this today because as I’m working on prepping my “HyFlex” courses for the fall semester. And as I’m going through assignments that I gave the last time I taught these classes, I’m realizing how much I depend on in-class time to go through assignment details and clarify expectations. I circulate handouts for all writing assignments, of course, but because I have that time in the classroom to go through them, I don’t have a whole lot of motivation to be super precise on every point. But in a HyFlex model, the time we spend together in the classroom is even more precious because there’s less of it. And so we have to be far more intentional about how we use it. And if we’re using it to explain assignment expectations, we’re wasting it.

I’m also thinking of ways that we can make sure students know that we are available in a  hybrid context (or, for some, a fully online one). After all, those conversations that happen after class, in our offices, or over coffee will be less common this semester. So how do we remain available? And how do we make sure that our students know know that asking questions about assignments is ok. That’s why we are here: to answer questions, to give feedback, and to guide the learning process. Yes, that’s the case even if you ask a question that’s answered in your syllabus. Oh, and speaking of your syllabus: how clear do you imagine that puppy actually is? But that’s a post for another day.

(If you’re curious, the student referenced above rewrote the assignment for partial credit and did a fantastic job. He finished the semester strong.)

I Asked Twitter About the Bible, and It Responded.

This past Tuesday, I posed a question to Twitter: “What’s your favorite example of something that people see in the biblical texts but that isn’t actually there?” Forty eight hours later, and that tweet has been seen over 65,000 times, and has garnered thousands of responses. As I write this, the conversation is actually still going.

In my tweet I gave two of my favorite examples of things that people see in the biblical texts but that aren’t actually there: an apple in the Garden of Eden and the image of Moses floating down the Nile River as a baby. A couple words on those.

In Genesis 3, where we find the famous story of the “fall” of humankind, the author does not specify that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil produces a specific type fruit, much less an apple. But, thanks to a number of factors (artistic, linguistic, etc.), when people read the story involving the tree, they often see an apple because that’s what they’ve been conditioned to see.

Likewise the story of Moses: nearly every Hollywood production involving Moses begins with his family floating him down the river in a basket. But if you read the story in Exodus, you see quite clearly that Moses’s mother doesn’t float him down the river; she places him near the bank of the river, among the reeds. People see Moses floating down the river when they read the story because that’s what they’ve been conditioned to see by the cinema and, more likely, their children’s Bibles.

These are two relatively insignificant examples, of course, that in the grand scheme of things have little impact on really anything. They’re favorites of mine because I see them pops up regularly in my classrooms.

But I was curious to see what other examples people could come up with, hence my tweet. My question gained a lot of traction quite quickly thanks to two commanding voices on Twitter. First, Nyasha Junior responded with what I continue to think is probably the best response to the question: white people.

And second, the tweet got the attention of Chris Stroop, who then amplified it to his 40,000 or so followers. The past couple of days have been busy to say the least.

When tweets becomes as popular as this one did, it’s easy to lose control of them, and to lose track of who’s responded and what those responses were. But as I’ve been scrolling through the thread, I’ve been struck by a number of responses that seem to appear over and over again. There were two in particular that stuck out to me: one doctrinal and the other moral. A few words on each of those, beginning with the doctrinal.

By far one of the most common responses to my question was “the Trinity.” And there’s nothing terribly controversial about this. After all, the theological definition of the doctrine of the Trinity did not occur until the early fourth century, long after the texts of the New Testament had already been written. As such, those who find the doctrine of the Trinity spelled out in clear terms in the New Testament are wishful thinkers at best. But it’s also interesting to note the extent to which the ideas that would lead to the doctrine of the Trinity are present in someway in the New Testament. Relevant here is David Yeago’s important distinction between “judgments” and “concepts.” While the concepts of the Trinity and the eternal coexistence of the Son with the Father are not present in the first century, the judgment that Jesus is somehow God most certainly is, at least in some New Testament texts. One does not have to read too deeply in John’s Gospel, for example, to see this spelled out relatively clearly. So while the Trinity is certainly not present in the New Testament, I think that it’s important to acknowledge that the seeds that would grow into this doctrine almost certainly are, at least in some form.

Another extremely common response to my question was “condemnation of homosexuality,” or some variant of it. This one struck me because it is really only a half truth (don’t go anywhere – keep reading). There are, in fact, a number of places in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament where homosexual acts are spoken of in less than positive terms. The most famous of these is found in Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (NRSV). But Paul also probably had a few things to say about it (see Rom 1:26-27, 1 Cor 6:9-10).* So in one sense, the idea that “the Bible” doesn’t condemn homosexuality is untrue.

But, on the other hand, the statement that the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality is also actually quite true. Because while the biblical authors do have some things to say about homosexual acts, none of them probably have any conception of sexual orientation, our understanding of which developed in the twentieth century. Would Paul’s thoughts on the topic have been different had he had a concept of orientation? Maybe, or maybe not. It’s a fascinating question that is relatively impossible to answer. The bottom line regarding this and other moral/ethical issues is that it’s unwise to presume that the authors of the biblical texts are necessarily addressing the same issues that we (in the 21st century) are.

In addition to these common threads there were also a number of responders who revealed through their responses that they had spent little time actually reading the texts themselves. One gentleman, for example, responded: “the idea that God is love.” Well, regardless of whether you think that to be true, that’s a claim that the author of 1 John makes. Others responded with: “the idea that the gospels are written by eyewitnesses.” My own opinion as a biblical scholar is that the gospels were not, in fact, written by eyewitnesses. Luke goes so far in his prologue by distinguishing himself from eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2). But at least one of the evangelists (John) does claim to be an eyewitness account. Does this mean that it actually is? Of course not. A claim is not necessarily true just because an author says it is; to think otherwise is madness. But, if the question is “what do people see in the texts that isn’t actually there?”, then in order to answer that question, you first have to be aware of what is actually there in a plain sense. The question of whether you “agree” with or “believe” what’s there is a question that you answer later.

At any rate, those are some thoughts on the last 48 hours. And now that I’m finishing this post up, I see that the original tweet has been retweeted by Rachel Held Evans, so it looks like things will get more interesting before they get less.



* Some have suggested that Paul’s language here and elsewhere is meant to address exploitative sexual relationships like pederasty rather than homosexual relationships more broadly. See, for example, the work of Victor Paul Furnish, Dale Martin, and Robin Scroggs, among many others.

Why I Started Having Students Schedule Office Hours

Where I teach, most students do not like visiting faculty during office hours. Athletes who need progress reports signed will typically approach faculty before or after class, and random questions about course material or assignments will often be posed during random run-ins with students in the library or coffee shop. Most of my colleagues have experienced the same thing.

During my first year of full-time teaching, I met with ten students in my office. (I know this because I keep track of every student who comes to visit me; it’s a quirk.) During my second year, that number rose to twelve. At the end of my second year I started asking students in my classes why they don’t use faculty office hours more. I received two answers time and again:

  1. They are afraid that when they just “drop by” that they are going to be interrupting something, and
  2. Many of their professors actually aren’t in their offices during office hours to begin with (presumably because not many students stop by, because of the reason noted above).

As I entered my third year I decided to try something different: set aside office hours as I had always done, but request that students make an appointment before dropping by. To
accomplish this, I used a scheduling app called “YouCanBookMe” (see image, below). There are a few other options out there, but this one is free and it works well enough.

Screen Shot 2018-08-22 at 7.34.39 PM

With this app, you set up what times you want to be available, connect it to your iCal or Google Calendar, and then anyone with access to your scheduling link can reserve a meeting time in ten or fifteen minute increments. When they set a meeting, the app adds the event to your calendar and sends you and them a notification e-mail. It works flawlessly and instantaneously.

The first semester I used this app, I met with over forty students over the course of the SEMESTER (compared to a total of twenty two over the previous TWO YEARS), and many of those came to meet with me several times. The second, third, and fourth semesters that I used this app brought the same or even better results.

At first, a number of my colleagues expressed concerns that having students set appointments for office hours would make me seem less “accessible.” But the data would suggest the exact opposite: this practice makes faculty more accessible, not less. I’ve since converted a number of colleagues to this app, and every one of them has seen similar results.

Nowadays, my office hours availability is posted on my course homepages so that students can check, week by week, when I’m going to be available to meet with them. On the first day of class I show them how they app works, and I have a few students set fake appointments during class while I broadcast my calendar page on the classroom projector. They like seeing how the process works, and it affords me the chance to emphasize that I want them to stop by, and that this makes it easier for that to happen.

I still advertise “drop in” office hours on my office door, and I’m always clear with students that they are more that welcome to stop by unannounced. But I remind them that the best way to ensure that they have my undivided attention is to give me a heads up that they’re coming.

I Deleted My Twitter Feed (on Purpose)

For the past few weeks I’ve been noticing more and more people on Twitter talking about wiping out their Twitter feeds and starting over. At first I considered it a ridiculous idea. Why would anyone do such a thing?

But the more I thought about it, the more it fascinated me. I started on Twitter back in 2011, and at first I used it as a means of just promoting blog posts; I didn’t really interact with anyone for the first year or so. But since then I’ve used it for a number of different things: networking with colleagues, sharing news, communicating with students, ranting about politics, etc. Suffice it to say that my Twitter history was a bit of a mess.

What finally pushed me over the edge the other day was an anonymous troll who responded to a post I made two years ago. That’s right: someone that I don’t know tried to pick a fight with me over a random post that I made two years ago and had totally forgotten about. To be fair, the post was pretty inflammatory (it was political), so I guess it got the reaction that I had hoped for initially. But I had no memory of writing it, and it got me thinking about how much else I had posted that I had forgotten about.

Rather than wade through ca. 14,000 tweets and delete one every now and again, I decided to just wipe the slate clean and start over. Like ripping off a bandaid.

There are a number of ways to do this. I ended up using a service (recommended by one of my Twitter colleagues) at It worked perfectly.

They recommend first downloading an archive of all your old tweets and then uploading that archive – something about the Twitter database limits them otherwise to only wiping your 3,000 most recent tweets. I did this, clicked go, and watched my history disappear. The process was remarkably quick and entirely painless.

I’ve also just discovered another service called Tweet Delete that keeps your history clean by deleting old tweets when they reach an age that you specify (3 months, 6 months, 1 year, etc.). I’m considering setting this up as well.

Curious to hear if any of you have done similar things.

To Ban or Not To Ban (Technology in the Classroom)?

Lately it seems as if the dawn of each new semester brings with it an opinion piece on laptop/smartphone/tablet/tech policies in the classroom. The most recent one that I’m aware of ran a couple days ago in the New York Times (here). Its title (“Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom”) leaves no doubt as to the author’s position on the matter: screens are not welcome, and for a number of reasons.

Pieces like this ignite numerous fires whenever they post. On the one
hand, you 70959205have those who claim that on the whole students are more effective learners when technology is absent. And this is true, for the most part; there are a number of studies that support the conclusion that we learn better when we are not distracted by a screen.

Yet on the other hand there are many who claim that a blanket ban on technology is draconian, uncreative, and problematic pedagogy. To note but one example: What about students with documented learning challenges who have learned to use their laptops to take notes more efficiently? The author of the article linked above addresses this group of students, actually. He refers to them as “medical exemptions,” and these “exemptions” are, presumably, allowed to use their laptops (or similar) in class. Basically: if you are using a laptop in class, it is because you have some flavor of learning disability. This puts some students in an awkward position, to say the least, and it amounts to an enormous breach of privacy.

Truth be told, I’ve gone back and forth on my technology policies for years, and I’m still unconvinced as to what the best solution is. I understand the rationale for banning it, for allowing it, and even for encouraging it. I’ve done all of these things, and each brings different results: some good, some bad, and some just, well, different.

My current policy is to permit technology as long as it does not distract me or others. My students are adults, so I try to treat them as such. Do some students get sucked into social media and fail to pay attention? Sure. And because they are adults they will also experience the real consequence of not doing well in the course.

But in my experience, many students use their technology in positive ways, to take notes, to look up words that are unfamiliar to them, etc. Most, I think, occupy a middle ground between diligence and distraction. These students might take notes by hand but occasionally pull out their phones to check in on the outside world. I do the same thing in faculty meetings (sshhh), so I can’t in good conscience be too hard on this group.

Another reason I’ve chosen to permit technology in my classrooms is that I find enforcement of a strict ban to be itself distracting and problematic. Most of my classes have between twenty and thirty students in them, and if I stop what we are doing every time I see a phone, it disrupts the flow of things. It punishes students who are following the rules. But there’s also the far more central issue (noted above) of students who use laptops or comparable devices because of learning difficulties. Students should be allowed and encouraged to use the tools that they need in class without fear of judgement from their peers.

All this being said, I make every effort to discourage students from using their devices purely for distraction’s sake. And I don’t do this by giving them a rule, but by giving them a break (a literal one). During longer classes (more than one hour), I let students take a five-minute respite at the midpoint so that they can check their phones, go to the restroom, or talk with their neighbor. I started this last semester and it seems to have been successful. More than a few remarked to me at the end of the semester that they were less antsy to check their phones or open Facebook on their laptops because they knew they would have an opportunity to do so before too long.

I also try to break up the content of class so that it’s not just me yammering on at the front of the room. If I had to listen to me talk for an extended period of time, I would try and distract myself as well. I’ve found that moving away from traditional lecture and more towards discussion-based and interactive class sessions encourages students to be more engaged and attentive to what’s going on around them. And technology can be an enormous help here. Put students into groups and have them use their devices to find artwork or news articles. Allow students to “live tweet” class discussions using a special hashtag so that others can revisit the conversation later. Find ways to incorporate technology into your classes in ways that show students how to use it productively, and not just as a diversion. When students are more engaged and attentive, they are less likely to seek distraction.

Of course, the dreaded “laptop culture” that develops in some classes is a reality, and it can be an enormous problem. Classes form distinct personalities over the course of the semester (many would say these personalities are cemented in the first few meetings), and I’ve had at least one in which electronic devices became toxic to the learning environment. Screens everywhere, and none of them displaying anything relevant. In this class I opted to ban electronic devices at midterm; I’m not convinced that it was the right decision (for all the reasons noted above), but it certainly woke the students up and changed our trajectory for the better. Looking back on that experience, I’m inclined to think that a discussion about what it means to be “present” in the room might have worked just as well. After all, a huge part of what we do in the classroom is help students learn how to learn. And a huge part of helping them learn how to learn is helping them learn how to use the tools available to them, and to do so appropriately.

I’m still experimenting with technology in the classroom, and as I said above, I go back and forth regarding its merits (or lack thereof). At the end of the day, I do think that it is an issue that needs to be addressed with a degree of complexity far greater than just “ban it.” Simply telling students that screens are not allowed is in many ways the equivalent of “abstinence only” sex-ed: it doesn’t work, and it often encourages the type of behavior that you are trying to prevent.

Teaching Biblical Archaeology and Numismatics

Teaching Biblical Archaeology in a classroom is, in many ways, a superficial exercise. You can learn a lot about methodology and this or that artifact or site, of course, but there is no substitute for actually “getting your hands dirty.” With this in mind, I thought it might be good to start my Biblical Archaeology course this semester with a hands-on exercise to help students understand one facet of material culture: numismatics, or the study of currency.

I brought in a few small baggies of old United States coinage ranging in date fromimg_3397 the 1840s to the 1980s. In my younger days I was into coin collecting, so I had a pretty good selection of vintage coins on hand (see image). But you could easily do this exercise with a handful of random change from a gas station.

When class started I split students into pairs. Each pair got a bag of coins and some instructions:

Empty the contents of your bag onto the desk, and arrange the artifacts you find in chronological order, oldest to newest. Examine these coins carefully, and on a sheet of paper, make a list of all the symbols that you find. Which symbols appear most often? Which appear least often? What “story” do these coins tell?

I gave them about ten or fifteen minutes to work, and then we reassembled for discussion. Overall I was quite pleased with what they found.

Their lists of symbols were impressive, all groups noting such prominent imagery as the eagle, stars, olive branch, arrows, shield, etc. And when I asked them about the “story” that these coins tell, they were eager to share some of the anecdotes that many of us learned as children.

6791The eagle on the back of the Kennedy Half Dollar, for example, has an olive branch in its right talon and a bundle of arrows in its left, and it gazes in the direction of the olive branch. If the olive branch symbolizes peace, and the arrows symbolize war, then the fact that the eagle faces the olive branch suggests that we value peace more than we do war. Yet the fact that he retains his grasp of the arrows suggests that we are also capable of violence.

Nearly every student had heard this “story” growing up. I asked them if they considered it to be “true”? Some nodded, but most shook their heads. One student noted that because our country has spent more years at war than we have at peace, our history would suggest that our preference is actually the opposite of the eagle’s. This astute observation gave us an opportunity to talk about coinage as propaganda, as something that instills and creates a sense of identity even more than it reflects it. That is to say that the symbols on our coins shape how we understand ourselves, and they frequently do so in ways that are incongruous with actual reality.

I also spent some time underlining the contextual nature of symbols. Nearly every group in the class noted, for example, that when there are stars on United States currency, there are frequently thirteen of them. When asked why, students respond almost instinctively: Because there were thirteen original colonies. If you asked a student in Europe that same question, they probably won’t have as quick of an answer. This is not because they’re stupid, but because the “thirteen original colonies” aren’t part of their narrative. And this is one of the many reasons why interpreting ancient coinage can be difficult. The “narrative” that is reflected, built up, and reshaped by numismatic symbols is frequently patchy and, in some cases, altogether foreign to us. So, when we interpret ancient symbols, we often do so with a degree of educated guesswork.

The payoff of this exercise for the remainder of the semester was enormous. Whenever we encountered talk of ancient symbolism in our readings, our discussion of US currency often served as a helpful, clarifying touchpoint. And students frequently brought up examples from this session as illustrations in their writing assignments and in class. A slightly modified version of the exercise proved valuable in my (introductory) Literature of the Bible course, where we spoke about such symbols before covering the Apocalypse of John.

Thanks for reading, and if you use this exercise, please let me know how it goes!

I Made a Bible Bot: How and Why?

I’ve long been fascinated by Twitter bots — those seemingly-autonomous bits of
programming that retweet, follow, compose and respond to messages, etc. Truth be told, I’ve always wanted a bot, but since I have little to no knowledge of coding/programming language, I always assumed that creating my own was just a pipe dream. Turns out I was wrong.

In this post I’d like to first introduce you to my bot and then I’ll tell you how I made it.

After experimenting with a few different iterations over the weekend, I launched a “Bible bot” that is currently alive and well in cyberspace, tweeting its little digital heart out and gathering followers (an impressive amount so far, actually). What is it tweeting, you ask? For the most part, just gibberish that it puts together at random from the text of the King James Bible. But occasionally it comes up with something that (unbeknownst to it, of course) is really pretty clever. Here are a few examples:

I’m not sure what, if anything, I will do to hone or improve the bot in the future. It is currently doing exactly what it was designed to do, namely, amuse people in general and me in particular. It’s only been live for a few days now, so I suppose we shall see what the future holds for it.

So how did I set it up?

From start to finish, the process was actually much easier than I thought it would be, mostly because I found someone else who had already done the “heavy lifting.” That someone is Zach Whalen, an Associate Professor of English, Linguistics, and Communication at the University of Mary Washington.

Thanks to a push in the right direction from another of my Twitter pals, I stumbled upon a helpful post on Zach’s blog where he walks you through creating a Twitter bot using a Google spreadsheet that he designed. (Note that this sheet will only allow you to create a bot that posts; if you are interested in building a bot that can retweet, respond to tweets, or follow accounts, you will need to look elsewhere.) Zach’s post is remarkably clear and detailed, so I will refrain from reproducing a step-by-step here (if I can follow it, then trust me, so can you). All you need to get started is a Twitter account for your bot and a Google account for the spreadsheet.

After the initial linking up of the spreadsheet with Twitter (which can be a tad tricky, but stick with it), there are only a couple of parameters to set: frequency of posting and “data sheet.” Frequency is straightforward: how often do you want your bot to post? Every hour? Twice per hour? Once per day? Etc. “Data sheet” refers, essentially, to how you want your bot to compose its tweets.

lfmU5E0pThere are a few different options in this data sheet category, all of which are useful depending on your goals. I chose the “markov” option, meaning that my bot uses an algorithm to generate random text from a supplied body of text. The supplied body of text can be anything. The spreadsheet comes with the full text of Sense and Sensibility so that you can experiment before copying and pasting in your own text.

The text you supply the markov algorithm can be pretty much anything (I think). Because my bot is a Bible bot, my text is the Bible — King James translation. I chose King James for two reasons: 1) because I thought (rightly) that it would be funnier; and 2) because I found the King James Bible in spreadsheet form online, which meant that I could copy and paste the whole thing in about twenty minutes. Win.

With all of the text inputted, I set my bot to post a new tweet every thirty minutes (every fifteen minutes strikes me as excessive, and I got impatient having to wait an hour to see new content) and hit “start.” The results so far have been quite amusing.

And that’s why and how I made a Bible Twitter bot! Follow (or just observe) it on Twitter by clicking here.

And follow me by clicking here!

Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 5)

This post is part of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. You can get caught up on our progress so far by reading the posts from Week 1Week 2Week 3, and Week 4.

For this week students read the fourth chapter in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character — “The Church and Liberal Democracy: The Moral Limits of a Secular Polity.” This chapter’s central claim is that Christianity and Liberalism are characterized by competing and irreconcilable ideologies. I therefore anticipated that it would generate some pushback from students, and it did, but not to the extent that I had feared (or hoped?). Discussion at the start of class was fruitful, and I found that many students seem to appreciate the line that Hauerwas draws.

One of the things they seem to have found most compelling in this chapter is its analysis of Liberalism’s emphasis on personal freedom and self-interest as cardinal virtues of sorts. Hauerwas notes that in the early days of Liberalism (liberal democracy in the United States, specifically), the assumption underlying liberal ideology was that people were, in fact, virtuous. Yet as time progresses, the situation will change. Now, Hauerwas argues, “people feel their only public duty is to follow their own interests as far as possible, limited only by the rule that we do not unfairly limit others’ freedom” (79). “Liberalism,” Hauerwas maintains, “thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; a social order that is designed to work on the presumption that people are self-interested tends to produce that kind of people” (ibid).

Below is a word cloud generated from student essays on this chapter.

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Over the past few weeks one of the things I’ve noticed in essays and in our class discussion is that students have started asking serious questions about what precisely Hauerwas envisions when he speaks of “the church.” In a previous post I mentioned that one student went so far as to argue that he seemed to be advocating for a sort of “secret clubhouse” mentality.

As we’ve moved further into the book, questions about the relationship of the church to the world have become increasingly more common. Many found the section at the end of this chapter on contrasts between Liberalism and the church to be helpful, and we spent some time at the start of class going over this section.

After some preliminary discussion we watched M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004). To be honest, I actually don’t care much for the film; it’s quite tedious at points, and it’s far from Shyamalan’s best work (in my opinion). But it’s a fantastic illustration of what a truly sectarian society looks like in practice, and in my mind it is a perfect antithesis to how Hauerwas conceives of the church.

“The Village” is made up of people who seem to be living in the late-nineteenth century, deep in the forest and far from civilization. The woods that surround them are said to populated by vicious monsters who are drawn to the color red. Toward the end of the film it becomes clear that these monsters were created by “the elders,” the group of people who started the community. The stories of the monsters function to keep people in the community and to keep them at peace with one another.

At first glance the village seems like a suitable analog for the church. The people are loving, peaceful, and faithful, and they consider money the root of evil and don’t use it in their society. It is only when you consider the means by which the society is maintained that the serious issues with it become clear. In contrast to Hauerwas’s insistence that the church be formed and sustained by narratives/stories that are “sufficiently true/truthful,” the village is a society built on a series of elaborate lies.

What is more, the story of the monsters is in fact contrary to the values that the elders wish to instill in their progeny. They want their children to be peaceful and loving, but they teach them to be peaceful and loving people by surrounding them with threats of violence: “The monsters are drawn to the color red, so if you cause someone to bleed the monsters will come and get you.” Even though this threat of violence is intended as a preventative measure, it nevertheless instills in the people the belief that violence is a legitimate way to solve problems. And this ends up having disastrous consequences for more than a few characters.

Our post-film discussion was rich; students seemed to enjoy the film, and I was impressed at how effectively they were able to grasp its mythology. One of the critical differences they identified between the village and Hauerwas’s conception of the church is that the former in no way benefits the world that it has chosen to exist apart from. The elders seek to build a society of faith, hope, peace, and love, but they do so in radical isolation from the world that they perceive as violent. The church, on the other hand, seeks to cultivate similar virtue in its members, but this is always done in the context of the world. The church is an alternative to secular polities, but if it is to be a true alternative, then it must exist within sight of the polity to which it is serving as an alternative.

More next time!

Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 4)

This post is part of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. For helpful background, please see the posts from Week 1Week 2, and Week 3!

Students arrived in class this week having read Chapter 3 in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. Entitled “The Moral Authority of Scripture: The Politics and Ethics of Remembering,” this chapter’s focus is on uses and misuses of biblical texts in contemporary moral decision making. To be fair, Hauerwas would likely take issue with how I just framed the matter, as he argues in this chapter that talk of how to “use” biblical texts in Christian ethics is to fundamentally misunderstand their purpose. “For to put it in that way,” he contends, “assumes that we must first clarify the meaning of the background … and only then can we ask its moral significance” (55).

At the start of class we spent a significant portion of time noting some of the difficulties inherent in the “moral handbook” approach to biblical texts, which Hauerwas argues (rightly, in my view) is always arbitrary and selective. That is to say that persons who claim to be doing “what the Bible says” are always picking and choosing what portions of the Bible they are willing to claim as authoritative for their own lives. A good (albeit overused) example is homosexual relationships, which would seem to be explicitly condemned in Leviticus. Some cite this prohibition as evidence that homosexuality is morally wrong, and universally so. Yet the code in Leviticus condemns a host of behaviors that might be considered (at best) morally neutral by the same group: wearing clothing of mixed fabrics, tattoos, having disheveled hair, etc.

Hauerwas reframes the matter by emphasizing the role of the community that reads these texts as scripture. For this community the texts are not revealed morality but revealed reality. The relationship is a cyclical one, for the community that is formed by these texts is the same community that gave rise to them in the first place. This is to say that the canon of Christian scripture is a product of the community’s ongoing process of reflection and self-definition. Below is a word cloud (generated from student essays on this chapter) in which these themes emerge clearly.Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 1.52.24 PM

Our film for this week was Finding Neverland (2004), which is loosely based on the story of the playwright J. M. Barrie’s creation of his magnum opus, Peter Pan. In this film Barrie fosters a close relationship with a recently-widowed mother (Sylvia) and her four boys (Jack, George, Michael, and Peter). His experiences with this family inspire him to write his hit play, and the process of writing this play in turn affects his relationship with them and the others in his life. It is this cyclical relationship that drew me to Finding Neverland as a fitting illustration for what Hauerwas is getting at in Chapter 3.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film occurs near the end, during the first stage performance of Peter Pan. In preparation for this big night, Barrie requests that the owner of the theater set aside twenty-five seats scattered throughout the room. As the start time draws near, the seats begin filling up with orphans that Barrie had invited to view the play. The scene is quite moving at first, of course. Inviting orphans to a live performance of Peter Pan? What could be cuter? In short: nothing!

But as the play begins, we see that the invitation was in fact quite practical. The orphans are the ones who respond to the play and thereby invite the “regular” theatergoers to experience the story with them, laughing at the subtle humor and waiting alongside them in anticipation of what will happen next. The orphans, in a sense, teach the theatergoers how to “read” the play, and in doing so, beckon them to abandon their adult ways and become like little children again. And it works, but not because of the play itself. It works because of the unique intersection of the play with the community that has ears to hear and eyes to see.

This illustrates well Hauerwas’s point regarding the relationship of biblical text to community. The scripture,” he argues, “functions as an authority for Christians precisely by trying to live, think, and feel faithful to its witness they find they are more nearly able to live faithful to the truth … The moral use of scripture, therefore, lies precisely in its power to help us remember the stores of God for the continual guidance of our community and individual lives” (66).

Stay tuned for more next week!