Teaching your students to dance

Posted October 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Teaching your students to dance

Many theological teachers would admit to having two left feet when it comes to dancing but bear with me a little. It is not easy to find an analogy for the practice of teaching that combines a delivery of the understanding necessary in a subject with the relational and creative elements we want for our students. What about dancing?

Creativity within structure

Every dance whether it be a waltz, a jive or something more often seen in clubs, has a basic structure which has to be taught. This is provided by the particular music which underlies that particular dance, the standard moves, the understanding of the nature and the history of the dance (especially important in dances like the tango). This is similar to theological subjects such as Old Testament, Missiology, Doctrine, Pastoral Studies and so on. There is a basic agreed structure and history that the student has to know and within which (usually) discussion takes place. There is the “music” of the discipline and we have to teach it.

Yet, as with dancing, it does not stop there. A good dancer, working with the music and the structure becomes creative and exciting in his or her interpretation. A good dance tutor, or a good theology teacher, needs to encourage that creativity within structure, a fresh critical negotiation with the history and the interpretation.

Individuality within relationship

Not all, but most dances take place between two people, especially classical dances, but in certain ways in freer dances also. There is therefore in most dance situations, a relational element as there is in teaching. In some dances this is a leading and a following and in others, the relationship is more equal. But one person must not stifle the individuality of the other. There are times in hold and times out of hold when each dances free from the other.

This blog has often talked about the type of relationship which needs to be present in a classroom for good theological education to take place. Like dance, it has to have elements of leading and following, but not to stifle individuality or impose yourself or your views rigidly on students. They must be encouraged to dance free, to study and think individually, enjoy the subject as a separate scholar.

So, whether you can dance or not, maybe you should see your classroom a bit like a dance studio. Teach the structure, create the music, provide the relationship but encourage your students to go “out of hold” and be creative in the dance of theology.

And if you are still not sure about all this, go out and do some dancing yourself, like theology, it is fun.

Walking Through the Library to the Chapel

Posted August 22, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

library to chapel

Walking Through the Library to the Chapel

There is a spirituality not consciously based on academic work and it deserves our respect. How can we look down on Francis of Assisi, Thomas A Kempis or even some of our own students who will have read less than us but are closer to the Lord?

However, one important job of the theological educator is to provide a solid theological and biblical basis for the spirituality of ourselves and our students. Why?

  1. It lays a reliable basis for the Christian life. The myths, evangelical mantras and simple untruths by which so many of us have tried to live as Christians need exposure by careful study. The publishing trade seems to work on the basis that only good scholars can write commentaries on scripture but anyone can write a book on the Christian life.
  2. The study of theology, especially historical theology and church history, locates the Christian in the great sweep of historical thinking and variety of the Church. It provides a sense of belonging to all of God’s people. It gives us a richness as we learn godliness from those different from ourselves but equally committed to God in Christ.
  3. Broad and deep knowledge of scripture and theology creates balance. For instance, to those bought up on a surfeit of guilt as the most important Christian emotion, it comes as a blessed relief to see that the Bible and the history of its interpretation has as much to say to the Christian about love, comfort and joy.
  4. It is the basis for rich worship. Initially, a loving marriage is high on emotion and low on knowledge. As the years go by, the knowledge of the other person increases and can make the love richer and deeper. Knowledge of God enriches and deepens love to God. Of course, there are some who know a great deal but love little. They have just missed a wonderful opportunity.
  5. Study gives perspective. Christians are so often encouraged to concentrate on “the sins of the times” and “the issues of the day”. Unfortunately this is sometimes to the neglect of the great eternal issues of Christ, the Gospel, the mission of God, faith and love. Indeed sometimes we get so carried away with responding to the current issues that we do so in a way that damages the eternal ones. Study restores a biblical and historical perspective.
  6. Learning opens up scripture. “What does this passage say to me?” is the second question. The first question is “What does this passage say?” And with some passages, that is not at all easy to determine without knowledge of the culture of the time, the whole pattern of scripture and sometimes a reasonable knowledge of the original languages. How can you dig up treasure without a spade? How can you expound all scripture without the tools?

To engage in deep and effective academic study of bible, theology and related disciplines is not an alternative to spirituality, it is the best basis for spirituality. Our students will need to lay this foundation for others in their ministry. We need to lay this foundation for them.

Take them for a walk through the library on the way to the chapel.

PS. This post is coming early to allow me to take a much looked for holiday before the new academic year begins.

A Devout Scholar

Posted August 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


A devout scholar

Few teachers in theological education subscribe to an enlightenment view of theology and biblical studies – that it can be done correctly regardless of a faith commitment. This is what sets theological study apart from other disciplines.

But the next question is important, and not often asked. How do we construct a spiritual relationship to our studies? Here are a few suggestions;

  1. Identify with the New Testament writers. These are people we study in our work but they were all apostles, missionaries and pastors, interpreting scripture and doing theology for the benefit of the spiritual lives of the church members. It would be strange for us to use them as sources for our theology but not their lives for examples.
  2. Recognise the powerful connection that moves from our lives to our studies. As liberation theology has pointed out. If you are not feeding the poor, you will construct a theology that does not require you to feed the poor. The same could be said for prayer and holiness.
  3. Acknowledge that often spiritual experience is part of the basis on which we do hermeneutics. Study of the Hebrew words will get us some way to understanding the psalms but spiritual experience akin to that of the writer will be essential for us to understand them deeply. It requires more than taking apart the piano to understand a Beethoven sonata.
  4. Understand that we do our academic work in His strength and with His guidance. Here is a prayer from a theologian greater than those who walk the earth today, Anselm (Prayer to Christ).

“Hope of my heart, strength of my soul, help of my weakness,

By your powerful kindness complete what in my powerless weakness I attempt”

          He was in fact, primarily, referring not to his academic work but to his love for God.

  1. Aim that, in some way, our work will contribute to the coming of Christ’s kingdom, the furthering of the task of the mission of God in this world. Looking for how our studies do that is fundamental to motive and a sense of usefulness. And we must help our research students to choose subject areas with this in mind.
  2. Remember that we read and speak about God in the presence of God. We certainly discuss someone in a different way when they are present and listening, so with God. Studying privately and teaching publically in his presence is our job. Which makes it a very special job indeed, and in some ways a scary one. Which leads on to my next point;
  3. Look to a time when God will judge our work. This is a fact for all Christians but, because of the greater responsibility, teachers, says James, will be judged with greater strictness. One part of a spiritual attitude is carefulness.
  4. Live our academic life as a central part of our discipleship because it is our calling. No other reason comes close. We do it for the one who has asked us to do this and who has done so much for us.

Living and working as this sort of teacher, we pass these attitudes on to our students for their academic life. Devout scholars birth devout scholars.

[This may be a useful little article to discuss as a faculty. There is plenty of space for the three “d”s – debate, develop and disagree. Why not suggest this to your academic dean?]

Faculty Space

Posted July 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Sportsmen-parashutist soaring in sky

Faculty Space

Many of us have encountered the work of Henri Nouwen and Parker Palmer on the idea of teachers creating a free and hospitable space in which students can learn – not a literal space but a created pervading atmosphere. The concept deserves an extension into the culture of the faculty in a college or seminary. While teachers are each members of the wider community of the institution, which includes students and administrative staff, they also compose their particular sub-frame within that community which has its own rules and culture, is powerful in influencing its members and also in forming the wider community of the institution, for good or ill. So what sort of faculty space do we need?

Firstly, it will be a space of mutual acceptance and respect, not just as scholars but as believers. Whatever our differences of emphasis, desires, subject, abilities, weaknesses and sins, we have been welcomed by God in Christ and given a task to do together for his kingdom. It involves a joint and common calling.

Secondly, it will be a safe space leading to open-ness. Faculty members need the freedom to make mistakes within the safety of the group, to voice their intellectual views and even struggles on difficult issues which divide Christians, to disagree as to the outworking of the corporate vision, without penalty, but with an acknowledgement of accountability to the team.

Thirdly, it will be a spiritual space, including real diakonia, worship together, prayer for each other and the common task. Staff retreats, staff days, as well as weekly times together all help, but even more important is the intention to grow spiritually together, helping each other closer to Christ. This is often best realised in the wider group which includes the administrative staff.

Fourthly, it will be a space where love rules the relationships. There is bound to be tension at times within a faculty team and we are not required to agree with or even like each other all the time but, as many of us have experienced, the basic rules of Christian love – preferring the other, self-sacrifice, acts of love, make a vast contribution to peace and effectiveness.

Fifthly, it will be a sharp intellectual space where each member challenges and sparks the other into deeper and wider thought. Inter-disciplinary work is more and more necessary in our specialised faculty teams and, although friendly rivalry will always exist between Old and New Testament scholars, theologians and missiologists, a desire to learn from each other and study issues together is enriching,

Sixthly, often this develops into an enabling and prophetic space for the churches and society in which the college or seminary is placed. Churches struggle to cope with the stream of new ideas and attitudes occurring in society, from postmodernity to debate over the latest medical procedures, legal decisions or films. It is the faculty teams of the colleges and seminaries which are best placed to guide the churches’ thinking and speak into society on these issues – and should be encouraged to do so as a prophetic group together fulfilling their mission.

The faculty space of many seminaries and colleges often falls far short of the ideal but, if this is the sort of space you would like to work in as a teacher, it is worth expending energy and resolve to help create it in your college or seminary.

Preferring Paul to Jesus

Posted June 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Preferring Paul to Jesus

Only foolish people think only foolish people have heroes. We all look to role models for guidance and inspiration and this is certainly so for theological educators.

We may look for models in those who taught us, or those we have read about in history, but who in the bible are the most useful for us? The contention of this post is that, although Jesus is, of course, our great example and inspiration for the Christian life, the apostle Paul is of more use to us in our job.

At first sight, this may appear strange. Did not Jesus bring together a class of future leaders of the church, teaching and training them for a three year course? Can we not emulate his pattern? We can, very usefully, in certain ways. Of course, both Paul’s and Jesus’ examples need to be handled carefully because of the cultural distance, but there are good reasons for looking especially to Paul.

Firstly, Jesus trained the twelve to be his own disciples. We must never do that. We, like Paul must train our students to be the disciples of someone else. This is a trap people have fallen into in the past in church and college.

Secondly, Jesus was not touched by sin, failure or culpable weakness. Our own weaknesses, failures and sins are a part of teaching our students. They need to know from us how to get up again after failure; how to obtain forgiveness and carry on; how to be spiritually weak yet useful. We can see this in Paul (indeed, Paul used his sin and weaknesses in his teaching), but not in the perfection of Jesus. Again, we easily fall into the trap of presenting a wonderful, successful front to our students which is false to us and not helpful to them.

Thirdly, Paul was a product of some of the best academic training of the day and his teaching reflects that. He models to us the work of a teacher-minister with a background in the schools. OK, Jesus knew better, but we feel a kinship as Paul struggled to both use and be suspicious of his academic background.

Fourthly, Paul wrote widely on his concept of ministry. He uses pictures of clay vessels, models such as farmer, mother, father, and great declarations – such as the seminal statement in 1 Thessalonians 2, where he says that he did not only share the Word with them but his very life also. He develops an understanding of the gift and role of “teacher”.

Paul will never supplant Jesus in our hearts, in our desire for an example as to how to live to please God. We are not grateful to Paul for our glorious salvation.

But Paul is worth a good long look as the best role model for our job of being a theological educator.


Posted May 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized



When I was a student at college, I was a young man in love. I lost my heart to a beautiful woman, to theology and to the Lord and His cause. There had been pale reflections of those loves before but this was the time of full blossom, reality.

We have to guard against the hyper-rationalisation of theological education. It is not just about thinking. It is about feeling and committing as well, it is about love.

So where does love come into theological education? Speaking in more general terms, are not the three great loves of the theological teacher; people, subject and God?

If we do not love students, we should not be in the job. For sure, you can deliver information from the front, even make them think, but it is unlikely that the connection between you and the students will be made if you do not love, and it is that connection which promotes real learning.

If we do not love our subject, we are teaching in the wrong area. Theology, Bible, Church History, Mission and so on, need to be landscapes we enjoy wandering in, workshops we enjoy creating things in, areas we want to show to our students so they will love them too.

If we do not love the God we serve, what is the point of it all? Without this as the main reason for teaching, our job becomes a selfish exercise, or at least a bit of benevolence to poor empty students.

Now, of what use is this little meditation on love to a hard working theological educator?

  1. It asks the question as to whether, amid all the administration, marking of papers, faculty meetings and emails, we have lost our first love – the emotion and commitment to our students, our subject and our God.
  2. It helps us assess applications from those who wish to teach in our institutions. It suggests that we do not only ask what they know but also what they love.
  3. It guides our staff development programmes. They have to be targeted towards the restoring and developing of love as well as knowledge. Principals and academic deans have a responsibility in this area.
  4. It gives a new perspective on the concept of integration in theological education. We seek an emotional integration as well as a conceptual integration We each only have one heart. Our loves cannot be kept entirely separate. We love students for God’s sake, we love our subject because it is rich in God-issues, guides and prompts to discipleship. We love our students and our study as an outlet for our love to God.
  5. It helps to define our objectives – helping our students to love others, the truth and God with an un-divided heart.

So can we say with the Beatles “Love is all you need”? Not quite, but theological education would be a miserable calling without it.

Thought is conduct

Posted April 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Thought is conduct[1]

Theological educators tend towards living in a dichotomy between thought and conduct. As teachers and researchers we are skilled at categorisation. We like to do the thought and send our students out to do the conduct. We separate the academic from the practical, the head from the hands and locate our job in the first so they can do their job in the second.

Or we link the two together as cause and effect. If we are traditional evangelicals, we say “get the theology right and the conduct will follow” (though it often does not). Or, if we are more liberation theology inclined we say the opposite “Get the conduct right and the theology will follow”.

But we do not consider thinking as conduct itself and that is a pity. What would be the result of affirming that our thinking is a part of our conduct?

  1. We would consider bad thinking immoral. Careless thinking becomes as bad as careless living in other respects. To break the laws of right thought becomes as evil as breaking the laws of right living. Yet spinning politicians, disingenuous advertisers, careless preachers and sometimes theological educators are guilty of what we falsely assume is a “lesser crime”.
  2. We would want to think as enthusiastically, openly and passionately as we want to live – the complete opposite of how we “thinkers” are thought of in society and even the church today. Some teachers are passionate thinkers and the students know them.
  3. We would consider the way we think as much a part of our discipleship as the way we live in other ways. If how we act is a part of worship to God, so is how we think. It is also what we owe God.
  4. We would realise that, if it is right to live in such a way as to love and benefit others, so also this as an end and objective of our thought life. It does not mean that we only discuss “useful” theology, but it does mean that we have no mandate for an ivory tower mentality for our thought life. We must have an eye for the value to, and effect on, others as we do in other forms of conduct.

Is there a theological undergirding to all this? Yes, in creation and redemption. Our minds were made as an integral part of us, to be used rightly as any other part, such as hands and eyes. And, for all the effects of sin, we please God, says Paul, by the renewing of our minds.

Teachers have to do a lot of thinking so, if thinking is conduct, it is a very large part of our conduct before God. Perhaps that is why James in his epistle says “Not many of you should presume to be teachers my brothers, because you know that we who teach with be judged more strictly”[2]

On the conduct of our minds.

[1] Clifford Geertz, quoted in Fred Inglis “Thoughts Unbecoming” Times Higher Education, No.2196, 26th March 2015, pp44-47, 47.

[2] James ch.3 v1.NIV.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 214 other followers

%d bloggers like this: