Sasquatches, Unicorns, and . . . the History Assignment that Works
The Fountain of Youth. The Pot of Gold. The Holy Grail. Every professor can add to this list one more legendary object of desire—and indeed, this may be the most elusive and valuable of them all:
The Assignment That Works.
This is the piece of coursework that seems quite regularly, really almost magically, to elicit from students their best, most engaged and thoughtful writing.
I've been teaching church history at Bethel Seminary for five years, and I think I've finally found one of these mythical creatures.
About a year ago, faculty members teaching certain core courses were tasked with creating assignments for the newly designed "integrative portfolio." This is a dossier that now accompanies each Bethel M.Div. student through their program, helping them to track their growth personally and professionally.
The assignment I developed to fit this need is the final paper in the church history survey course. I have assigned it three times, and each time it seems to have that grail-like quality of drawing from many students a high level of thoughtfulness and engagement with the historical sources.
In response to this prompt, my students have written papers such as the following:
• A comparison of Andrew Carnegie's turn-of-the-twentieth-century "gospel of wealth" with the modern "prosperity gospel"
• A look at open theism in light of the Apostles' Creed
• A critique of evangelical support for American militarism based in the thought of such church fathers as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen
• A paper on whether the Lord's Supper should be given only to baptized believers, with the winsome title "Table manners: Washing our children before they eat."
Students doing this assignment are coming up with so many great ways our history illumines our present that it's become a pleasure to sit down and grade the resulting papers. And that's something you won't hear a professor say very often!
Here's the assignment. Maybe you could try it out yourself:
Final Paper (Integrative Portfolio Assignment)
- Find a single issue in the church today that concerns you personally. This should be a problem or opportunity that shows up in some single branch or area of church life today. There are two ways to go on this. (1) You can choose an issue facing (with particular acuteness) a single denomination or even a single congregation—perhaps your home church. Or (2) you can choose a single, tightly-defined practice or idea that may show up across a variety of churches, say within the orbit of "modern American evangelicalism." In either case, you will think about what is at stake for this particular church or what is at stake in the area of this particular idea or practice as it affects a broader group of churches. How would resolving the issue you have identified benefit the church?
- Find a single historical crux—that is, a single document, single event, single person's idea, etc.—from church history in which some version of that same issue emerges, which you feel could help today's church wrestle with that issue upon which you briefly editorialized. (You will probably need to find your modern issue and your historical crux at the same time—before you start writing either the editorial or the historical portions of this assignment.)
- Study that historical crux (document, event, person's idea, etc.) by reading a balanced bibliography of primary and secondary sources—at least two and preferably three or more of each. In other words, you want to know both what people of that time thought was going on in that crux, and what historians since that time have said about it.
- Now you will write a three-pronged, 8- to 10-page paper, following this format:
- Describe your issue in the church today in detail, as if you were writing a brief editorial article for Christianity Today. That is, write in the first person—ideally basing your remarks on your own observations and experience. Again, you want to show your readers exactly what the issue is, who it affects, and how the church would benefit from resolving this issue.
- Using the best canons of historical writing (see, for example, the chapters of Gordon Heath's Doing Church History on how to write historical essays), write a summary/analysis/interpretation of how that issue played out at your chosen historical crux. Very important: you must acknowledge ways in which the contemporary issue differs in how it is playing out today from how it played out at your historical crux. Different times and contexts entail different presuppositions that people find convincing in making an argument. Your summary/analysis/interpretation should follow this format:
- Start with the who-what-where-why-when. We need names, years, places. Historical writing falls apart without these.
- Set up the context of your crux, the stakes and stakeholders, the reasons why people did what they did as the crux unfolded.
- Now analyze your single document, event, idea, etc.: Outline the logic of how the issue played out: what argument or solution prevailed, and why? What grounds did the players use for deciding in favor of that argument or solution? From what agreed-upon warrants and shared presuppositions did they reach their conclusion?
- Now show how that conclusion played out concretely in the flesh-and-blood church of that historical moment: in belief, practice, organization, worship, or other appropriate aspects of church life.
- Give your interpretation (assessment) of the way your crux played out: was it beneficial or harmful for the church? Did it make sense in terms of Scriptural teaching, human psychology/sociology, theological integrity, etc.? (Choose your own criteria).
- Finally, return to your Christianity Today editorial style and write a conclusion on the issue in the church today based on your research into the historical crux: How can knowing the ins and outs of the historical crux you have just presented and analyzed help us resolve this issue that faces us today?
* * *
I conclude the prompt by suggesting that for good examples of writing about contemporary issues that draw from historical analysis, students should look at Christian History & Biography issue 94: Building the City of God in a Crumbling World. I ask them to note the care taken by the historian-authors in this issue: they do not impose today's perspectives on the past (that is called "presentism," and is anathema to historians). Rather, they seek an accurate picture of the past, from which they can extrapolate lessons for the present. That is the kind of care and historical integrity, I say, with which you are to write this integrative assignment.
From those of you who have taken courses in Christian history, I'd be interested to hear about any assignments you may have written that got your "usable history" juices flowing. From those who have taught Christian history—what has worked with your own students?
And if you have some spare time and decide to give this one a shot, I'd be delighted to read the resulting essay.
Just don't ask me to grade it. :-)
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