Review: Transforming Fire: Imagining Christian Teaching

Mark D. Jordan, Transforming Fire: Imagining Christian Teaching. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021, viii + 164 pp., £15.99/$19.99 cloth.

Mark D. Jordan’s Transforming Fire: Imagining Christian Teaching—a new book in Eerdmans’ series Theological Education Between the Times—is a welcome resource for Christian teachers grappling with theology’s uncertain future with the modern university paradigm. Jordan, the current R.R. Niebuhr Professor of Divinity at Harvard, argues that the future of theological education does not principally lie in institutional reform. Rather, it lies in reigniting transformational Christian teaching—and in encouraging ‘robust exercises of imagination and the kinds of writing that go with them.’ [p.155]  Transforming Fire  exposes the weaknesses of modern, institutional learning paradigms on an expansive of ‘scenes of instruction’ drawn from sources as diverse as John Bunyon and Simone Weil. For Christian teachers, especially those schooled in modern universities or seminaries, it is a welcome pillar of light that illuminates a new path forward for the future of theological education.

While I said pillar of light, the better metaphor for what Jordan assembles is a constellation of stars against which we find a way of mapping where we are, where we have been, and where we might go. Most people no longer know how to read the night sky or recognise its constellations. So, too, we have forgotten how to read the ‘scenes of instruction’ bequeathed to us in the Christian tradition—patterns of life, embodied rituals, spoken enigmas, recast stories, letters, and more. Jordan warns, ‘The loss during recent centuries of a full range of genres and styles in theological writing might be a greater threat to Christian teaching than institutional contraction.’ [p. 12]  More than ‘books about  teaching’, we need ‘books that teach’—alongside theological discourses, we need biographies, essays, meditations, fairy tales and science fiction, and more. [p. vii].  But we also need to learn how to read them in ways that ‘reactivate’ them—that is, that ‘restore the powers of persuasion to the text…in the changed languages and historical circumstances of [our] present.’ [p. 23]

Jordan proposes that learning to read ‘scenes of instruction’ in ways that ‘establish and cultivate the relations through which transformative teaching takes place’ [18] involves attending to their implicit dynamics: their real or imagined setting, temporal aspect, power dynamics, and how characters ‘figure’ a lesson and ‘teach action through the affective relations they enable for the learner’. [18]  Each dynamic conveys a tacit message. The setting, for instance, may tell readers whether the teaching is ‘public or private,’ how it ‘connect[s] to the sites of daily life,’ or what the ‘condition or preparation for admission’ is. [p. 17]  He notes that in Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle, for example, the castle’s fluid architecture suggests that no two paths to God are the same.

Even our discomfort or resistance offers a potential locus of learning.

Jordan is unusually conscientious to the kinds of instruction his own book models. Juxtaposing texts in five three-chapter movements on the themes of Bodies, Sciences, Moving Pictures, Children, and Barriers, Jordan prompts to reconceptualise their assumptions about how Christian learning is (or should be). His section on ‘Bodies’ was particularly memorable and provocative. Jordan reads Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina together with Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology  to prompt readers contemplate how bodily lives figure as sites of Christian learning—sites often ignored within classroom learning and its restrictive bodily disciplines. While Nyssa and Althaus-Reid offer two very different interpretations of how we ought to relate to our bodies—the former commending an ascetic purity and the latter advocating that we write ‘theology without underwear using our sexual lives as cases’—Jordan resists the urge to close their paradoxes, resolve their contradictions, or dissolve their inconsistencies. ‘Let the opposition stand,’ he writes: ‘both of the texts before us push us to think better about the body in teaching’ and’ [p. 49] and ‘all of that must be engaged by any teaching that wants to call itself Christian theology. [p. 52]  Even our discomfort or resistance offers a potential locus of learning.

If ‘we don’t need books about teaching so much as books that teach’ [vii], then Transforming Fire  admirably straddles this line. On the one hand, it is unapologetically a book about books. Scenes from texts such as Bonaventure’s The Mind’s Path to God  or Simone Weil’s letters and essays are re-presented as scenes of instruction and readers are invited to learn from them. Yet, by juxtaposing texts and resisting easy syntheses—as with Nyssa and Althaus-Reid—Transforming Fire  creates imaginative space for theological educators to find (or recover) potential sites of theological learning. Given how central the idea of ‘reactivating’ texts is for Jordan, I wonder what more he might have to say on how reading practices might similarly be transfigured to ‘re-member’ (or bring to life) scenes of instruction—a subject that David Smith’s On Christian Teaching  so admirably tackles. But that would be a book about  teaching.

Instead, Transforming Fire  is as much about learning as educators as it is about teaching: learning to listen to the witness of texts within the Christian tradition and let them transform our pedagogies. In debates about the future of theological education, it is a valuable road less travelled.

 

Author

  • Margaret McKerron is a doctoral candidate at the University of St Andrews, where she studies two unconventional, nineteenth-century theological pedagogues: Thomas Erskine of Linlathen and Alexander John Scott. She is originally from Ontario, Canada but now calls the north-east of Scotland home.

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