The Kind of Teaching We Need Most

I posted these thoughts three years ago, but they came to mind again yesterday during carol-singing at church, and I realized anew how much I am in need of this kind of teaching:

dscn5774While most churches don’t crack open hymnals anymore (if they even have them), the ones I’ve been part of typically still sing an array of songs found therein. (This is probably a contributing factor to my membership at said churches.) But I love books, so even when the words of a hymn are displayed in 2-foot letters at the front of the sanctuary, I like to hold the hymnal and sing the words sandwiched in a grand staff.

As a lifelong churchgoer weaned on the hymnbook, I notice when the lyrics are changed (or at least when a different version surfaces). Some changes are theologically good,1 and some, sensitive to changing language and culture, attempt to remove unnecessary barriers to the greater message.2 Sometimes making a needed change requires mangling the lyrics, so it’s better just to delete the song from your church repertoire or to skip the offending verse.3

But some changes aren’t necessary or good, and they can dilute the message – like the one I encountered a couple weeks ago singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The version of this familiar carol that I grew up singing has a verse that reads as follows:

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.

But the verse being sung around me was…

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

The difference is subtle, but it is significant. I like “my” version better, and here’s why.

As a professional teacher of many years, I can say with complete confidence that I taught reams of material to my students that they never learned. It goes with the territory, unfortunately. 😐 Teaching does not equal learning.

Back in the day when I was being educated about being an educator, I learned about three types of learning: cognitive (like passing your history test or like memorizing these three types of learning); psychomotor (like swinging a bat that actually hits a ball); and affective (like appreciating art, music, and the person sitting next to you). Folks engaged in religious instruction also talk about a fourth category – the “formation of right tendencies” (Wolterstorff) or “dispositional” (Issler and Habermas). This fourth category involves forming the student’s will – that is, helping them learn to desire and to do the right things.

This is the kind of learning I stand most in need of. Teaching me the way to go – that is, helping me cognitively learn it – is a good place to start. After all, you can’t do what you don’t know. But (perhaps because I’m a worm), I need the Spirit to change my heart, to make me want to do the right things and then to help me do them – or, in the words of the carol, “to cause me in the way to go.” O come, o come, God-With-Us. We need You.

  1. Like the last line of “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed”: Alas! And did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?, which is widely changed to for sinners such as I. It’s true that we’re utterly – by which I mean absolutely, inarguably, hands down – undeserving of Jesus’ sacrifice, but “worm theology” tends to minimize the goodness of God’s creation.
  2. Like changing “man” to something explicitly gender inclusive, like “all” or “people.” If you grew up singing “man” in all these hymns, it probably doesn’t matter a lick to you. If you are hearing the songs (and the message) for the first time, it can smack unnecessarily as sexist.
  3. Like the verse of “And Can It Be” which problematically proclaims that when Jesus left His Father’s throne above, He emptied Himself of all but love. You can nuance this in your head so it doesn’t bother you, but Jesus most certainly did not empty Himself of “all but love.” If He did, there’s dangerous space for denying His divinity. He did not leave behind His “Godness.”


5 responses to “The Kind of Teaching We Need Most”

  1. jeffrey askanazi Avatar
    jeffrey askanazi

    I would put number 4 to the forefront, my observation is Christianity is too full of hymns and that’s about it. Very few practice what the hymns preach; more often in fact the hymns are used as judgement against others. To a large degree Jesus came for social justice and in my opinion focus on hymns without emphasis of the same is an error. A great cartoon showed up on Facebook, it was Jesus feeding the 5000 and demanding a drug test first.

    1. True enough, Jeff – but the other kinds of learning can be foundational for the fourth…especially the cognitive. Right knowledge is necessary, otherwise we are prone to follow anything that feels or looks good. Hope you are well!

  2. jeffrey askanazi Avatar
    jeffrey askanazi

    Yea, doing ok, preparing my posting for my planned victory in the wagering dept, you have taken me for chocolate twice, this time I plan to come out ahead!!!!!!!

    1. I hope you didn’t spend too much time on that post… 😉

  3. I totally agree with you Wendy that the wording of the older hymns that we sing is very important indeed. As you know, many of them are sermons in and of themselves. If we really “think” about the words we read and sing, they are indeed an encouraging and useful means of getting the Truth. I am truly amazed at what my very young grandchildren have learned because of their weekly exposure to theologically “sound” hymns. I believe that God has certainly blessed us with this enjoyable way of repeating back to Him praises and Biblical truths. We just need to be sure that the hymns we choose to sing are true to the Scriptures!

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