The first taste of a meal should make you hungry for more. We want theological education to be that way too. So we have created a course that every master’s student will take in her first quarter. The course will introduce her to the flavors of the school and prepare her palate for the meal ahead.
When academics talk about education, they want a metaphor that is sturdier than the tastes of a meal. So they talk about constructing an education like it is a building. The Bible uses the same kind of metaphor when it talks about Jesus as the cornerstone and about how the stone that the builders rejected has now become the head of the corner. In like manner, we academics refer to an education using terms like a touchstone course. The touchstone is the foundation—literally, the stone that touches the ground. It is the stone on which everything else stands. If the touchstone is wrong (or if it is erratically laid), then the whole education is misaligned.
In the updated curriculum, every master’s student will begin her course of study by taking what we have called simply the Touchstone Course. Structurally, the course goals are to engage the student in spiritual formation, theological reflection, and character formation. In other words, we want to start the student off by becoming closer to God, by understanding her world in spiritual terms, and by becoming a better person. Those are the larger goals. But how does a student spend her time in such a course? We have been prototyping the course for a few years now and here is what we do.
At the center of the course is the basic question that poets and philosophers in the West have chewed on for five hundred years. It is the question of the human condition. The way I describe it to students is this: “What keeps people awake at night? That’s your preaching and teaching agenda.” At night, when a working mother falls into bed bone-tired, she does not go right to sleep. Instead, all the big questions that drive her life—the ones that she was too busy to think about during the rush of the day—come flooding into her mind. Issues about health, money, family, work, and justice. Those are the issues that drive a person’s life. And if the gospel we bear does not envelope those issues, we are just making noise. And if the education that we construct for our students cannot bear the weight of those issues, then it will collapse in an embarrassed heap.
How then do we encounter the human condition? Through stories—stories of real human lives, and the stories that cement our culture. A century ago, when students wanted to experience the human condition, they may have read Shakespeare or Dickens. To access the most resonant stories in our culture, we may begin with a movie from Pixar studios. At the heart of every Pixar movie is a question of the human condition. For example, the first ten minutes of the movie Up detail in wordless pathos a couple’s story. They meet, they marry, they live, they love, and eventually one of them dies—leaving the other alone. We use this sequence to teach students to look for the basic questions at the heart of the human condition: questions of longing and loss. The human aspirations and disappointments about the things that matter most in life—that is what drives our lives and what gives shape to this course.
How then do students learn to address the human condition? By weaving a response with stories. Specifically, I give them my definition of vision. A vision is a shared story of future hope. And our job as Christian leaders—whether a leader is standing in a pulpit or walking through a neighborhood in Nairobi, whether he is a youth minister or a businessman—our job is to listen to people’s stories, especially their stories of longing and loss. And then I take your story and my story and weave it together with the biblical story to create a shared story of future hope. And that is what drives the course. Each week’s work is built around a case study where a person tells her or his story. And all the readings and lectures that week are designed to help the student weave a response. And by the end of the course, the student has a portfolio of responses to the questions that matter most in people’s lives.
But that is not the only thing a student takes from the class. Education should prepare a student for her vocation. And each student builds in the class a specific plan of courses to take that allow her to prepare for her particular vocation. But to do that she needs to know what her calling is. So we have built into the course a range of psychological testing and guided reflection that invites the student to understand herself well enough to plan a course of study that prepares her for her specific calling.
As you can see, there are many layers to this course, just as there are many stories in a building. The Touchstone Course creates a foundation for a student’s education. It points her to the human condition. It teaches her to weave a biblical response to the basic questions of that dilemma. And it enables her to make a course plan that prepares her for a vocation that addresses the deepest needs of the human condition. But this course is only the first taste. When it ends, we hope the student is hungry for a meal.
Scott Cormode is academic dean, responsible for implementing the updated curriculum . . .