Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bible Study Teaching Frenzy

I've got a real problem teaching my adult Bible Study. I have a hard time knowing when to quit, when to hold back on giving information. If I know it, and especially if someone asks a question, I'll give the answer, no matter how complicated and technical it may be.

The result is that I think I loose a lot of people. There I am discussing the Nag Hammadi texts, adoptionism, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (as opposed to the Nicene Creed proper), the rule of faith and Catholicity of the Church--all in a forty-five minute period, and I realize that some are there just want to know about some Bible stories.

I've got a problem.

In my defense, the reason I brought up those somewhat disparate topics was that people asked the questions. I have a very hard time not answering a question posed. A question deserves an answer if there is one. And since we don't have a set schedule or syllabus, I can't say, "We don't have time to discuss that in this class. Take H-340 next semester and your question will be answered."

Plus, I love this stuff. I want people to know what proleptic eschatology is and how the Fathers made use of typology. I want people to know about the Rule of Faith and Athanasius contra mundi.

I suspect some people simply put up with it. It's the pastor's Bible study and they are going to be there whether they like it or not. There are a few who really enjoy it, I know; they're the ones asking the questions.

So, pastors and other teachers in parochial settings, how do you "turn off the floodgates" or do you? How do you manage to keep the subject matter at the appropriate level? Do you intentionally keep it simple, or do you give 'em all you got?


  1. Chris Jones said...

    An interesting question.

    I'm neither a pastor nor a teaching in a parochial setting (or any other setting), but I certainly have been a student in such settings and I have some idea of what works and what doesn't work.

    The first thing that you owe your students is to have a coherent idea in your own mind of exactly what it is you wish to teach them. Hopefully that coherent idea will be based on your pastoral judgment of what it is that they need to know. Chances are that what you wish to teach them is rather more than the folks who just want a few Bible stories want to learn; and rather less (or, in any case, different) than what the folks asking all the questions want to learn.

    But in either case it is not the students who should be setting the agenda and deciding the content of the study. That is your job as the teacher and (a fortiori) as the pastor. So the question is, when you take the time to explain (for example) proleptic eschatology, does that help or hinder the educational goals you have for the class that you are teaching? Or is it really just a bit of intellectual cotton-candy for the entertainment of those few of your students who go in for that sort of thing (and, frankly, for you, since I bet you are the biggest Church history/theology geek in the room -- especially since I am not there). If proleptic eschatology or the life of St Athanasius would be a tangent that takes the class away from what they are really there to learn, it is perfectly OK to say "I'm sorry, but that is a bit off the point of what we are talking about now. Why don't you ask me about that after class?"

    As an aside, it would drive me crazy to try to teach folks in a Bible study who "just want to know about some Bible stories." The Bible isn't just a collection of a lot of interesting stories, and Bible study is not just for reading those stories qua stories. The idea is to impart to the people what St Irenaeus called the hypothesis of the Scriptures, so that the people can see how the individual "stories" hang together to reveal our Lord Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. If they just want to read "stories" they should get a subscription to the Readers' Digest. If they want to know Jesus Christ, let them engage the Scriptures according to the rule of faith. (This is why God does not allow me to be a teacher of any kind: no patience.)

    End of aside. If I may make a practical suggestion, you might try an informal "question list." If you have a blackboard in the classroom, when a question comes up that might sidetrack the lesson, you could decline to answer it but write it on the question list on the blackboard. Then reserve five or ten minutes at the end of the class to go back to the question list and answer them. That would give you the best of both worlds. The questions would not interfere with completing the lessons, but the more lively of your students would get the satisfaction of having their questions answered.

    BTW, I assume you meant the "Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed." The Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition are quite distinct. Besides, the Creed as it is in our service book (with the filioque) really should be called the "Nicene-Constaninopolitan-Toledan Creed."

  2. Marjorie Hall said...

    As one who often poses the question that takes us off course, I would say "keep answering them"!! I do, however, notice when you don't really answer my questions. As you know, sometimes I let it go (trust your judgement, realize it's not the appropriate time, etc.) and sometimes I press you on it. I suppose this may be frustrating for others who do not care about the answers to my (or others) questions. Too bad for them - you have to live with me :)!

    Just kidding, of course. I suppose it would be worth offering an alternate Bible Study for those of us with more intensive questions and a deeper hunger for the hard stuff of the faith. With that outlet, maybe we'd be more apt to pipe down during the Sunday morning Bible Study. Well, probably not, but maybe.

    Bible stories alone are nice as well and worth focusing on, especially if that's what others desire. But be warned that I'll probably have a few hard questions (as will Lori and Mary for sure). Maybe you should just ban women from your Bibly study?

  3. Christopher D. Hall said...


    Thanks for your helpful comments. At times I do have a "question list" and most certainly exercise the option of saying, "later for that answer."

    And I did mean the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed; it didn't look or sound right as I was typing it. :)

  4. Jolene said...

    Add me to the side that "really enjoy it", but I think Marjorie may be on to something with regard to a separate Bible study for those who want to dig a little deeper - if only we could add another day to the week

  5. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    The other day we started a study on Genesis here - and I spent 5 minutes talking about JEDP - simply to explain why it is bunk, and if they see it mentioned in a book, probably just put that book down.

    Did some people get the fuller discussion - probably. Did everyone get the conclusion - yes. Were some probably bored with the extra 4 and a half minutes of explanation - maybe.

    I think it is important not just to give answers to questions but also to show your work - if you give me a question I need to show you how I get my answer. Will some people care - no - but that needs to be done.

    Now, I need to make sure that I don't just live in showing my work - you and I both know we could spend hours shooting the theological bull - or "midrashing" if you are feeling old school. But that isn't the point.

    The question we have to ask ourselves is why we are bringing something up? I've talked about Nag Hammadi (or however you spell it) in my history class. What do I try to convey about it? We know and have rejected most of these books, so don't worry about what you see on the History Channel. We believe that Scripture is God's Word, not simply words about God - so we acknowledge that just because someone claims to speak to God, they could be off - and NH is what happens when you forget that. Sometimes other questions come up - answer those.

    Why do you give the information you do? Will it help them choose the good and avoid the evil better? If so - go for it. If not - help them choose the good and avoid the evil.

    And above all, as I have demonstrated right here - don't ramble - rather organize your thoughts carefully.