Laughter from the lectern

Laughter from the lectern: making theology fun

Theology can be dry and boring, or maybe you'll smile. Which would you prefer?

Willie Hucks is the Associate Editor of Ministry.

Editor’s note: Our new assistant editor has come to us from Southwestern Adventist University, where he was associate professor of religion. Previously he served as a pastor in several congregations. This article is written from the perspective of a classroom lecturer, but the principles can be applied to other teaching situations, such as a church.

While sitting at the desk in my home office, I heard what sounded like running water. Disturbed, I arose to see where the sound was coming from. I went first to the kitchen, assuming my wife was cooking, but she wasn’t, nor was the water running there. I wandered through the den, then through the living room toward our bedroom. My wife was in the bedroom; the water wasn’t coming from there, either.

When leaving the bedroom, I saw water slowly flowing onto the carpet in the hallway. When I got to the doorway, I saw my threeyear- old son on top of the sink. He must have turned the faucet on and the water was flowing too forcefully to safely flow down the drain. And there he waited until someone, anyone, would rescue him. So I grabbed him with one arm, while using my other hand to turn off the water; then I gingerly stepped through the thin layer of water on the floor.

It took only a few minutes for the water to overflow and create a mess; it took a good 15 minutes to clean it up.

My students laughed as I told that story but grew pensive as I drew my conclusion. I referred to Malachi 3, where God says that He will open the windows of heaven and pour out so many blessings, there won’t be enough room to receive them. I said that, just as it took me longer to clean up what my son poured out, so also will it take us longer to gather all of God’s blessings than it will take Him to pour them out upon us.

And this is how I summarized my lecture on tithe and offerings. It was an attempt to add some humor and to lighten up my discourse.

Theology: traumatic or terrific?

Theology has been seen by many scholars and students in purely academic terms, which frequently leads to staid, stodgy presentations. Many students are left wondering why the study of theology must be so boring.

I contend that theology is as natural as life itself and it must be done responsibly. This, then, becomes the role of the theology professor: to assist the students, theology majors or otherwise, to safely navigate the pages of Scripture so they can properly exegete both the Scriptures and the challenges of life.

Teaching theology can be done with the appropriate utilization of humor. There is biblical precedent for this methodology; the Scriptures are full of humor, or certainly what might border on the humorous. Think of the imagery that Jesus employs in Matthew 7:3, when He cautions against focusing on the speck of dust in someone else’s eye, yet failing to see the blade of grass that just got into your eye (when, I suppose, you were mowing the lawn). Or the quizzical look on His face when, after the travelers on the road to Emmaus spoke of the events of Passover, He asked them what were they talking about (Luke 24:19). Or James’ illustration of a man seeing his dirty face while looking at a mirror, then deciding there was no need to do anything about it (James 1:24). When dramatized, these passages not only bring smiles to the faces of those listening but aptly illustrate the deeper theology that the Holy Spirit was revealing all along.

Why the traditional approach to teaching theology?

I admit it took me a little longer than it should have to learn how my students approached the learning event. I employed what I refer to as the conduit methodology of instruction, in which information is funneled from a source to a destination. In this model, learning flows in only one direction. Another term that I use is the suzerain method, in which there is an unrivaled authority that is indispensable to the entire process of learning. In both the conduit and suzerain methodologies, instruction is mono-directional, and too often lacks true interactivity.

Professors may find such models advantageous for several reasons. For one, because Western society is factsdriven and information-focused, it is easier to disseminate a body of data to be memorized. The second reason, especially beneficial in an academic setting, is that such objectivity is easier to evaluate. It is also easier for the student, who is already accustomed to memorizing a body of information that will be evaluated via objective quizzes or examinations. And it is safer for the professor in that this approach discourages dialogue, unless the students are seeking information via questions.

However, all this can be incredibly boring!

Why the fun approach to teaching theology?

Why do I promote a fun methodology? First, the mind thinks more easily in pictures, as opposed to abstract concepts. If painting pictures worked for Jesus, I suspect it will also work in a classroom. Illustrations are a teacher’s best friend. Like a window, illustrations serve two purposes: They let light in, and they allow those who are inside to see outside.

On the first cruise that I took with my family, we sailed from Miami, Florida, United States, to the eastern Caribbean. After taking into account the price of airfare, we had to cut corners, so we purchased an inside cabin. That’s the last time I’ll ever do that! Not only did we have to keep the lights on in the cabin whenever we were in the room, it was depressing to walk down the hallway, look into other rooms across the hall, and see outside. A window really made that much of a difference!

Second, the fun approach reaches the postmodern generation. I’ve noticed an interesting contradiction among today’s youth: There is a greater biblical illiteracy among today’s students than in the past; yet there is also a stronger hunger for relationships, for connection with God and with others. They may not know where certain books of the Bible are, but they connect with stories and other visuals that illustrate biblical truths.

Third, this methodology shows the lighthearted side both of theology and of the professor. Students can see that theology is within the reach of everyone. The God of theology is within their reach personally, and the professor is also within their reach, easily approachable, and wanting to be approached. As such, this methodology opens the door for serious conversations about spirituality, life, relationships, and a myriad of other topics.

How to make theology fun

From the first day of the semester, I attempted to give my students permission to enjoy the class—our journey through a systematized theology. I wanted to give them a reason to believe that coming to class was going to be worth it, because (1) they never knew what to expect next (that was a good thing), and (2) the topic was going to be discussed at a level that they could comprehend, and would be practical for their current and future experiences. I realized that I only had a small window of opportunity to bond with them, and I had to make the best of it.

So, how can professors make theology “fun”?

Tell your story. Classrooms (and pulpits) are awash with urban legends, oral traditions passed down from generation to generation. Be genuine, be unique. No one but you can use the illustrations that come from your personal experiences; and even if they tried to tell them, it could not ever have the same force!

Almost anything is fair game: marriage, children, hobbies, childhood, travels, vacations, just to name a few. Of course, you shouldn’t tell stories that would embarrass the objects of your stories. In fact, my wife and children have attained celebrity status, as it were, because of the stories I have told involving them. Anyone who knows me knows about my favorite American football team, my favorite form of vacation travel (have you figured it out yet?), my favorite vacation destination, and many other things.

In the classroom, students have even been fair game. If, for example, I had a student who lightheartedly teased me about the failures of my favorite football team, when we would talk about the sanctuary in Leviticus, I would draw my stick figure of a sinner bringing his lamb to the sanctuary. I would then name the sinner after that person. Now my student has attained celebrity status, and the class has had a good laugh for both that class session and every time the student is reminded of being a “sinner.” (Please know that I wouldn’t pick on students if I knew they couldn’t handle such barbs.)

Each story becomes an avenue for the sharing of theology. But be cautious, lest the point of the illustration becomes lost in the recounting of the story itself. If there’s no spiritual application within the story, don’t waste your time telling it.

Relax. College life is stressful enough. Through storytelling and relationshipbuilding, create a comfort zone that actively encourages the students to understand that there are things more important than the grade. Admittedly, that becomes a tightrope because the class is still an academic exercise, and the students must still meet some standards of evaluation that have been spelled out in the syllabus. However, in a religion classroom, there has to be something that supersedes the merely academic.

And when that comfort zone has been created, the learning will follow.

Eat with them. Not only must the students understand that the class is just that, a class, professors must understand that university life is just that, life. A part of life is fellowship—needed for context and balance.

The life of a professor need not be consumed with research and development and professional meetings; for with the semester over, students probably will not remember your work of research and development, no matter how brilliant. The common touch, the listening ear, impacts them the most. 

Take the time to go to the college cafeteria, eat the same food that the students complain about (it’s a rite of college life to complain about college food; after all, it’s not like momma cooks it), and converse at the table with a group of students while eating. What are the advantages? You avoid the “suzerainty trap” that separates some faculty from the students. You bond with the students, whether there are a lot of students at the table or it is a one-on-one encounter. The conversation may open the door to serious life-altering conversations down the road.

Keep your office door open. The demands upon professors always exceed the time available. However, for religion professors it is of paramount importance to maintain an open-door policy. Before we were religion professors, we were ordained ministers who vowed not to be served but to serve. It seems extremely inconvenient to have students constantly coming by, wanting to talk about everything from grades to sports to religion to the unimportant. But it comes with the territory. Every opportunity for contact with the students is a divine appointment that makes a statement about the professor and the God who called that professor to this special ministry.

Conclusion

Though written mostly from the perspective of a university professor, the principles in this article are applicable in other venues. The lively, interactive elements herein discussed easily apply to preaching, teaching Sabbath School lessons (even in the adult division), telling the children’s story (age appropriately, of course), even overseeing the collecting of the tithes and offerings (I’ve got stories and illustrations for that, too). I am convinced that, just as teaching can be fun, so also can preaching, without lowering the dignity of the pulpit.

Whether with the students in the classroom or the congregation at the church, the ultimate objective is to lead them into seeing a loving God who actually does smile. He even laughs and lets us know that laughter has its place in life (Eccles. 3:4). And when all is said and done, we will all be with Him, sharing peals of laughter around His throne, rejoicing forever in His victory.

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Willie Hucks is the Associate Editor of Ministry.

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