Translating Book, Translating Online Bible Education

Over at a proximate bible, my friend and colleague, Michael Hemenway, has recently written something very interesting and helpful regarding the media cultural shift currently affecting Bible/book technology. I’ll quote just a few snippets, but you really ought to read the whole thing. It is an unfinished work, publicly displayed in its current state on purpose (a welcome look behind the curtain of academic workflow and production). There is a lot in Michael’s project to dig into, but what I am particularly interested in right now is how portable his work is for online theological education. This is, of course, wholly unsurprising: Michael currently serves at the Iliff School of Theology as Director of Academic & Information Technology. He is passionate about the possibilities of online education and, in the three years of our friendship, his passion has proved contagious.

Hemenway sets up his project like this: just as print technology is on the wane and books are in the transition from print to digital media, so, too, is the Bible:

Book is undergoing a major media transition as print wanes in its dominance and the internet and mobile devices transform our reading habits. With the ever entangled histories of bible and book, this emerging media age and its transformation of reading practices begs us to imagine bible as an anarchic interface, a space of contact where meaning is produced without the reign of an original.

This first bit—about the media transition of Bible and book from print to digital technologies—is especially pertinent to theological education. Just as print Bibles are giving way to digital ones (just try to eat a biblical Kindle, Ezekiel), theological education is shifting from brick-and-mortar to digital classrooms. Many of my colleagues lament this media shift in theological education. Brought up in the brick-and-mortar classroom, I share some of their concerns. But Michael gives us something to think about: media culture is shifting and “the original” media form—of the Bible or the brick-and-mortar classroom—need not dictate every future possibility for interface and engagement. The future is open; positively anarchic, even. Opportunities abound.

In a recent post over at the Digital Pedagogy Lab, Martha Burtis explores some of these opportunities as she considers the near-limitless potential of the Internet juxtaposed with the frustration of online education platforms. The best line in the whole essay expresses the excitement of possibility alongside the user-unfriendliness of certain Learning Management Software (LMS):

Most importantly, how could we not, in fact, see it as our job to shape this new medium [the Internet] and to help the rest of the world understand what it could do? As a platform for transformational teaching? As a space for public research and dissemination of knowledge? As a place for collaboration on scales never seen before?

And yet. Blackboard.

“And yet. Blackboard,” indeed. She could’ve lamented Moodle, even Canvas, just as easily.

Burtis’s piece and the interface in which it is presented, coupled with Hemenway’s plea that we “imagine bible as an anarchic interface,” though, gives me great hope that online education in the humanities (theological or otherwise) is not the swansong of a dying field but, rather, the invitation to reimagine text and education. There’s freedom in anarchy, despite the risk. Take, for example, the elegant user interface for Burtis’s essay:

DigitalPedagogies Page

(Click to enlarge)

Note the commentary interface here. Users may directly and publicly highlight the text (no annotation) as well as highlight and comment on the text in a side-bar. This interface seems borrowed from word processing software editorial features. When my professor comments on my papers, she usually does so digitally: highlighting the text, which then links up to a commentary side-bar on the right. GoogleDocs, MS Word, and Adobe Acrobat have this functionality; most pages on the Internet do not.

Most essays and blogs feature reader commentary in a separate bank below the main post. See, for example, the comments space on this blog entry: you have to scroll to the bottom of the piece, leaving it “behind,” and say your piece in a separate thread, unconnected to the text of this post. If you wish to take me to task on a specific point, you must copy-and-paste the quote, lifting it out of its native context, and then (finally) have your say. The same goes, I think, for most LMS discussion forums. To comment on a person’s post or a primary text, the user must copy-and-paste or use the forum’s quotation function, which is a somewhat fancier way of doing the same thing. I think that this kind of threaded discussion, especially for the teaching of primary texts like the Bible, is hopelessly outmoded.

But what if we looked to Hemenway and Burtis and worked to actively shape LMS interfaces for transformational teaching of biblical texts in our new and emergent digital media culture milieu? Imagine if we pillaged the user interface of the Digital Pedagogy Lab for use in online discussion forums? If, in a class on Romans, we loaded in the primary text reading for that week and gave students the opportunity to annotate the text based on their own insights, questions, and gleanings from secondary readings?

Most threaded forums I’ve participated in, as student or instructor, have been needlessly wordy and interfacially complex. To comment on Romans 3:1-8 in a threaded forum, students must make the choice to either (a) simply cite Rom 3:1-8, with the expectation that other users will look up the text (in print? online?); (b) link to an online edition like this; or (c) copy-and-paste the passage into their initial post. Users must then juggle screens and/or media (a printed Bible on the desk next to the tablet she is using to post). Their commentary is then about Romans but, if you’ll permit me some play with our prepositions, it’s not really on Romans. Romans is somewhere else, disconnected from the student’s comments.

Importantly, too, this sort of interface would free students up from the burden of writing and reading too-long comments. The side-bar annotation/commentary interface is nimble in ways that the bottom-of-the-page comment thread is not. User interaction can be broken up into smaller bits, creating more “surface area” and points of contact between text, students, and instructor.

It seems to me that digital media, among many other things, gives us the opportunity to bring primary text and student engagement closer together. To riff on Hemenway’s dissertation title, this sort of pedagogical practice would render a (more) proximate Bible: a Bible in closer proximity to student engagement through the emergent interfacial possibilities of digital media culture. I’m excited. This should be fun.

I’ll let Hemenway have (nearly) the last word:


In light of this process of material media translation as palimpsest, remembering bible’s rich media history will provide a helpful context and data for imagining how bible might be practiced as interface amidst the changing reading dispositions of our emerging media age. The material media translation of book from manuscript page to mobile screen already has and will continue to shape our reading practices.

I hope the “material media translation” of Bible and classroom continues to shape our teaching practices as well.

Education with No End in Sight: A Proposal for Continuing Education for Christian Ministers

While catching up with my bff in Michigan last week (the bearded senior minister of this church, Jordan Kellicut), I came up with what I think could be an interesting model for continuing education for ministers that would additionally bring church and biblical/theological scholarship into a closer, more cooperative, and (hopefully) more fruitful relationship.

The Shorter Version of the Pipe-dream

Either directly through or in partnership with a local Christian college or seminary, I would love to one day collaborate with others to construct a model for localized, fluid, and non-terminal continuing education for ministers who already hold a B.S. and/or M.Div. in Christian Ministry.

There would be no degree or certificate to earn. Since the students would already possess a degree (or two) in Ministry and related areas, the goal would not be to earn another terminal degree. The goal would simply be continued, high quality, and cutting-edge education for continued excellence in faithful ministry. Because there would be no degree, there would not necessarily have to be a set curriculum, either. Students and faculty could collaborate to pursue topics that are relevant and vital to their current ministerial needs. Say a group of ministers feels a little rusty on  their Greek or New Testament Textual Criticism; or they’ve been talking with parishioners with questions about the Christian Apocrypha; or they need a refresher on the OT Prophets in context; or they feel their churches might benefit from renewed theological reflection on communion/Eucharist—together with a faculty member (or two) with expertise in that area, they proceed to build a collaborative continuing educational experience based on the current needs of their ministries.

Because time and money will always be limited commodities, courses would have be constructed so as to be both realistic for both busy ministers and instructors, as well as low-cost, especially since all you get is the educational experience—not a certificate or terminal degree. Because there is no certificate or diploma, this model could be education with no end in sight: just as Bible colleges and seminaries seek to train up lifelong ministers, this model would promote lifelong education for lifelong ministers.

The Longer Version of the Pipe-dream

We were sitting on the end of the dock at my parents’ lakeside cottage in northwestern Michigan, Jordan and I, talking about our hopes: his to continue his education while in ministry and mine to one day foster a career of teaching in and for both the Christian college/seminary and the church. While we each have different goals, they seemed to complement one another. He wants more education and I want to teach in an institution that could provide it.

Jordan already has both a B.S. in Christian Ministry and an M.Div. from two good schools—Great Lakes Christian College and Emmanuel Christian Seminary—who share a common mission to train ministers of all kinds for the worldwide church. I have the same degrees from both of these schools and, like Jordan, benefited greatly from the foundational training they both provided. But if the goal is to train up lifelong ministers for an ever-changing worldwide church, can foundational training alone ever be enough?

First, a caveat: In my view, the foundation for a lifetime of ministry laid by both the B.S. and M.Div. is absolutely vital for faithful and effective ministry. I hold both these degrees, and I hope to one day teach at an institution that grants one or both of them, so let me be clear: I’ve got no beef with the Bible college or seminary and the degrees they each offer. Rather, my concern is that cutting-edge ministerial, theological, and biblical education ends for many students at graduation. This is a tragedy.

Neither the B.S. nor M.Div. could ever hope to be comprehensive preparation for a lifetime of ministry. As I understand them both, they each provide a foundation upon which the minister will spend a lifetime building. Yet my gut-feeling is that many students see either or both of these degrees as totally terminal: you finish the degree and then you’re done with school—forever. In fact, I knew some folks at both GLCC and ECS who were looking forward to never going back to school after graduation. At the end of rigorous degrees that take upwards of four years (each!) to complete, one can readily sympathize with being excited about closing that chapter and moving on.

But why would—indeed, why should—the minister’s education end after graduation? For many or perhaps even most ministers, it doesn’t: they never stop reading and learning about the Bible, theology, and ministry. But this education, I think, tends to be mostly self-directed and I think that’s really unfortunate. Our Bible colleges and seminary faculties are staffed by people whose job it is to stay up-to-date with and contribute to scholarship on the church, its Bible, and the whole of the Christian tradition. Thus I have to ask:

Why would you only tap those resources for four years? 

Why not continue learning from your Nugents, Howells-Douglases, Peters, Ramsarans, Perkinses, and Matsons for years to come? No matter how much extra credit you earned in your B.S. and/or M.Div., I guarantee you did not exhaust the expertise your professors have to offer. You have much more to learn and, speaking freely on their behalf without any sort of permission, I think they have much more to teach.

The Tragedy and Opportunity of Continuing Education for Christian Ministers

If it sounds like I’m being hard on B.S./M.Div.-holding ministers, it’s because I am: I am being hard on them because I’m one of them. I submitted myself with them to the long process of education and ordination in preparation for ministry. Furthermore, I care about the church. The church needs good ministers, and ministers have a better shot of being “good” if they never stop learning.

Now I’m going to be hard on the Bible colleges and seminaries, too: they don’t always do a very good job of providing avenues for ministers to pursue continuing education. Most of their students are in pursuit of terminal degrees, which leaves their alumni to fend for themselves after they graduate. This makes it all too easy for the M.Div. student to choose to end her education after graduation. For lack of opportunity, the minister does not pursue further education. This is tragic.

But it’s also an opportunity. Ministers need continuing education and Bible colleges and seminaries need continued interaction with ministers. The Bible college and seminary serves the church; to do so, it should be in contact with the church at multiple levels and not only in the capacity of teaching young would-be ministers. Older ministers could learn from scholars in the classroom, but I think scholars could also learn from those ministers in the same setting.

I’m not a college or seminary administrator and, at this point, I wouldn’t know the first thing about creating or implementing a non-degree program at a degree-granting institution. But I do know that there’s a real need for creative continuing education opportunities for ministers. In addition to simply finding a place to teach one day, it is a dream of mine to think creatively about ways to bring the church and its scholars into a closer and more mutually edifying relationship. This model I dreamed up with my buddy, at the end of a dock in Birch Lake, MI, might be a possible way towards that goal.

I toss this blog post into the ether of the Internet, among friends and strangers, ministers and scholars, in the hopes that it might drum up some positive dialogue about how best to promote lifelong learning among lifelong ministers and engender a more fruitful and vital relationship between Christian scholars and the church they serve.