Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Walking and Reading and Ruminating

We are passionate about adult education in my home church.  It's no big secret that most Christians in the United States, of whatever stripe, possess about a fifth grade understanding of the Bible, and less of one when it comes to theology and other religions of the world.  In fact, in our Bible study courses last fall, it became clear that many adults lack a grasp of basic world history and are therefore unable to place the Biblical narrative in context.  But we are, as a congregation, very interested in remedying that situation, for ourselves and for our church community, and we work hard at it.

A couple of days ago, immersed in my cold weather reading, I came across a column by David Brooks on adult education which I immediately sent to one of our pastors.  She responded that she'd already received it from the current chair of our education ministry (my successor and yes, QG, another lawyer!) and that, like me, she thought it affirming of what we try to do.  Take a look:

". . . This [Erica] Brown woman was leading Torah study groups and teaching adult education classes in Jewish thought, and was somehow inspiring Justin Bieber-like enthusiasm. Eventually, I went to her Web site to figure out what all the fuss was about. 
. . . 

Then I invited her to coffee, and it all became clear. Brown has what many people are looking for these days. In the first place, she has conviction. For her, Judaism isn’t a punch line or a source of neuroticism; it’s a path to self-confident and superior living. She didn’t seem hostile to the things that make up most coffee-table chatter — status, celebrity, policy, pop culture — she just didn’t show much interest. As one of her students e-mailed me: “Erica embodies Judaism’s stand against idol worship. It is actually true that she worships nothing other than God, which is particularly unusual in Washington.” 
 . . . 

In her classes and groups, she tries to create arduous countercultural communities. “We live in a relativistic culture,” she told me. Many people have no firm categories to organize their thinking. They find it hard to give a straight yes-or-no answer to tough moral questions. When they go in search of answers, they generally find people who offer them comfort and ways to ease their anxiety.

Brown tries to do the opposite. Jewish learning, she says, isn’t about achieving tranquility. It’s about the struggle. “I try to make people uncomfortable.”
. . . 

She writes about the fear adults bring into the classroom: the fear of looking stupid; the fear of confessing how little they know about their religion; the fear teachers have of being unmasked in front of students. With prodding and love, she tries to exploit those fears and turn them into moments of insufficiency and learning. 

Her classes are dialogues structured by ancient texts. She may begin with a topic: “When Jews Do Bad Things” or “Boredom Is So Interesting.” She will present a biblical text or a Talmudic teaching, and mix it with modern quotations. She may ask students to write down some initial reflections, then try to foment a fierce discussion. 
. . . 

All of this sounds hard, but Brown thinks as much about her students as her subject matter. “You can’t be Jewish alone” she told me. So learning is a way to create communities and relationships. 

I concluded that Brown’s impact stems from her ability to undermine the egos of the successful at the same time that she lovingly helps them build better lives. She offers a path out of the tyranny of the perpetually open mind by presenting authoritative traditions and teachings. Most educational institutions emphasize individual advancement. Brown nurtures the community and the group. 

It’s interesting that her work happens in the world of adult education. Americans obsess about K-12 education. The country has plenty of religious institutions. But adult education is an orphan, an amorphous space in-between. This is a shame, but it also gives Brown the space to develop her method.

This nation is probably full of people who’d be great adult educators, but there are few avenues to bring those teachers into contact with mature and hungry minds. Now you hear about such people by word of mouth."

Or, I might add, on blogs.  Read the whole piece here.

Ready for another image of Cedar Key?

I've finished reading a novel (see tab above), and drafted the basic outline of a syllabus for next semester and of two sermons for January.  I was able to do five miles of walking yesterday, and I'm doing a lot of stretching, and finding a lot of quiet time.

And best of all, I glanced up from my writing this morning to see about ten great egrets fly over our deck.  Look at this one and imagine ten!

I wish that I had one of those massive telescopic camera lenses.  I leave you with a more pedestrian (pun intended, I suppose) view:


  1. Wonderful link, Robin. Thanks so much. Isn't it ironic that the role of a Christian Educator in the PCUSA is fast going the way of telephone landline?

    Adult CE is sadly neglected in most congregations and needs much more emphasis than it gets!

    Also love your gorgeous photos!!!!

  2. As our temple's executive board member responsible for education (early childhood-adult), I find a lot in this article about which to ponder and consider. Thanks for sharing it. And Robin, just so you know, Christians need to save some room on the "I don't know much about history (religious) bench" for the Jews!