Saturday, September 02, 2006

To Teach as Jesus Did

When I was first recruited to teach religion in a Catholic high school, I was told to read a document entitled "To Teach as Jesus Did". It was put out by the USCCB and is still available from their website. The description reads:

"The bishops outline the themes of message, community, and service in this timeless statement. Discusses educational ministry to people of all ages and encourages planning and collaboration in developing educational programs."

Like so many other documents of the type, the well chosen words, the neat paragraphs, and the appropriate references give the reader a sense of grounded and noble direction. There's a sort of "well here's what the Bishops say" feeling one gets upon reading this kind of authoritative missive. But it's a feeling that disappears quickly upon opening the classroom door...nay, upon even thinking about opening the classroom door.

The chasm between the sober, well-scrubbed, air-conditioned offices that produce these noble directives and the challenging chaos of the everyday life of the average classroom is vast. The Bishops’ words quickly become a dim echo amid the din and drone of classroom life and the once inspired teacher is reduced to figuring out a creative way to make it to Friday...if not just hanging on til the day's final bell.

I was one of those teachers. I marched into my classroom armed with the clear and authoritative directives of no less a body than the U.S Council of Catholic Bishops and promptly fell into survival mode. A few minutes into my first day and I wasn't even thinking about Friday, or even the final bell. I was just thinking about making it to the NEXT bell. If the terminology reminds you of a boxing match, you could easily be forgiven for drawing the analogy. The goals and objectives outlined so clearly in the course syllabus were forgotten as the goal and objective quickly deteriorated into a sole focus of just staying on one's feet from bell to bell.

I stray here, I suppose, into some bad memories, but I would wager that my experience is not unlike many teachers, especially those who hope to impart the truths of the Faith in the context of a "religion class". And the sort of “searching” look I see on the face of teachers who prowl my Catholic bookstore looking for some sort of magic activity book that will keep their students busy for the rest of the year attests to validity of my suspicion.

A few years ago I heard a motivational speaker refer to the early self-help staple THINK AND GROW RICH. He pointed out that the whole deal was in the title: THINK…and grow rich. The obvious implication was that most of us don’t think, we just do…which is why most folks are broke.

The answer to our catechetical quandary is similar: the whole deal is in the title: TO TEACH AS JESUS DID. As a teacher, I didn’t need more academic discussion and reverencing of high-flown themes. I needed a process, a working model, something I could use, that I could immediately implement, and I needed it TODAY, as in RIGHT NOW!

Well, in fact, the answer was in the title and is still in the title. So how DID Jesus teach… at least insofar as religion class is concerned. Ever watch Mother Angelica on EWTN? She does it. She sits there with her Bible, reads a little from it, and then teaches from what she read. It’s not a Bible study she’s doing, it’s Catechism class. She teaches the Catholic Faith from the Bible. But she first uses the story, the Bible story.

That’s how Jesus taught. He told stories, employed metaphor and analogy, even riddle. And then, he drew out the lesson, the principle, and the application.

By happy accident I came across a book entitled A PRACTICAL COMMENTARY ON HOLY SCRIPTURE, first published in Germany in 1923. The book isn’t really a commentary, it’s a catechism built on Scripture. Here’s a note from the preface:

“Bible History may be made to render most valuable service in religious instruction. The illustrative light it throws on doctrinal truths makes them more easily intelligible. They become invested with a concrete form, are clothed with flesh and blood, breathe the breath of life, and move like living truths before our eyes. In the Catechism, they appear as cold abstracts and mere outlines. Thus Bible History becomes an object-lesson in faith, a veritable pictorial Catechism”. (Example: “The Catechism tells us, indeed , how and why Christ suffered, but Bible History gives a full and detailed account of His suffering, and so enables us better to realize the infinite love of God and the enormity of sin.”)

“A veritable pictorial Catechism” are the key words. Humans think in pictures, not in words. It’s why Jesus used pictures (stories), and it’s why we gravitate towards that which is illustrated, be it pictures, theater, television, or the big screen.

But the answer is not more coloring books about Jesus. The answer is more stories about Jesus, and the stories Jesus told, and all the stories in the Bible, for they all point to Jesus.

What impresses me is that children - and the book is written to be used in the instruction of children - must have been a lot smarter back in 1923. A brief reading of the first few pages of this book will verify that impression.

Rather than launch into a lengthy dissertation on that tangent, let me encourage you to get A PRACTICAL COMMENTARY ON HOLY SCRIPTURE and re-catechize yourself. You'll find it a lot easier then to "teach as Jesus did".

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