Thursday, January 8, 2015

Blogging the GOEs, Church HIstory: Riddle Me This

[Disclaimer:  You know, Crusty can be serious at times (well, often, actually) and here is a very special message from COD:  These  blog postings are really about me arguing with the questions, and are not intended to be any kind of GOE forum.  Crusty welcomes comments and feedback, but please DO NOT discuss answers in the comments section, since the GOEs are a double-blind process -- readers aren't supposed to know who you are, God forbid any of them should stumble across this site.  While Crusty thinks the GOEs need some pretty substantial if not radical revamping and restructuring, he's also a firm believer in them, or something like them, and feels we need to follow the process in place while having discussions about what changes might be needed.]

Remember a post or two back when Crusty said that he always recommended people taking the exam outline the question, because often the questions asks for specific and detailed responses?  Well, COD hopes all of you were paying attention, because that's exactly what we get in the Church History question for today:

Set 5:  Church History
OPEN RESOURCES
The Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th centuries produced effects that remain important today. Enlightenment thinking affected the Christian church as well as the Western world. Some of the hallmarks of Enlightenment thought include:
  • • The importance of individual autonomy rather than the authority of society and the state;
  • • The preference for human reason over received tradition;
  • • The importance of empirical observation rather than divine revelation;
  • • Progress as a result of human achievement;
  • • An optimistic view of the future.
1) Write an essay of about 750 words in which you discuss changes that occurred in the church as seen in the writings and ministries of Bishop William White of Pennsylvania or John Wesley as the result of the Enlightenment. Select three of the five hallmarks listed above and give one example for each hallmark as exemplified in White or Wesley (choose only one of the two).

2) Identify an issue confronting The Episcopal Church today and in approximately 250 words discuss how the influence of the Enlightenment contributes to the way in which TEC shapes discourse on this issue.

Normally when Crusty reflects on GOE questions, he usually jumps right into it; normally COD finishes these posts pretty quickly and then has to wait until the West Coast exam is over before posting them.  But this one was different: COD really had to ponder this question, balancing what he likes about it with elements he finds concerning.  Some initial thoughts on the question itself:

--Crusty always tells students that Church History questions very often will ask you to talk about something in the past and apply it to a more modern context; this question certainly falls into that
Thinking of incorporating this into GOE prep.
category, with the transition from essay #1 to essay #2.  In general, COD thinks this is a fine way to ask people to demonstrate competency in church history.  We're not trying to produce church historians (though, like Moses' words in Numbers 11:29, as a church historian himself Crusty wishes that all God's people were historians), but ideally apply insights and learning from the past to the current practice of ministry.  So, on a phenomenological level, COD likes this question.  The Enlightenment was undoubtedly an important movement (though what the hell, exactly, it is is certainly up for discussion and debate), and it clearly had an impact on the church at the time, and there are effects which still shape us today.  OK, no beef with that.

--We can again see here the place of Open Resources in shaping both the question and the response; Crusty sincerely doubts this question could have been asked in a closed resources question, since the Enlightenment is a complex phenomenon and the two exemplars chosen are not ones which many church history courses in the Anglican tradition devote significant portions to (though nobody takes an Anglican church history class from Crusty without reading at least some Wesley and White).

That said: the first essay students are asked to write brings this question close to receiving a WTF ranking.  Scroll back up and read what is being asked in the first essay.  Then come back down to this part.

OK, now continue below.

What are you being asked to do?  Did you outline it?  Crusty hopes you did.

A)  Thoughts on Essay #1:

You are not being asked how White and Wesley are influenced by the Enlightenment, or what ideas or concepts of theirs have been shaped by the Enlightenment!  Please, GOE takers, tell me you outlined the question!  Because you are actually being asked to discuss "changes that occurred IN THE CHURCH as SEEN IN THE WRITINGS AND MINISTRIES" of White and Wesley which are a "RESULT of the Enlightenment."  This is a pretty convoluted way of asking something.  Reading a GOE question shouldn't be like Batman interpreting a cryptic message from The Riddler.

--So you are being asked to talk about "changes that occurred in the church".  Specifically, changes that are a result of the influence of five aspects of the Enlightenment outlined.  OK, but when?  The "church" is pretty ambiguous.  If you mean in the 17th and 18th centuries, then say so. 

--Then, how those changes are seen "in the writings and ministries" of John Wesley and William White.  OK, unless people have read White's Memoirs (which are fascinating, to be sure, but not widely read) COD is guessing, hoping, that most have read White's "A Case for the Episcopal
His Memoirs were not a big seller.
Churches, Considered."  Crusty is pleased he assigns this in every Anglican & Episcopal Church
History class he teaches, though, if you're encountering it for the first time by virtue of Open Resources, you're a bit screwed because it's kind of dense.  On the other hand, there's Wesley, who has left an absolutely immense corpus of writings.  But remember: you're technically not being asked how Wesley or White shaped changes in the church because of Enlightenment influence, you're being asked how they reflect changes in the church because of the Enlightenment. You knew that, right?

--Therein is what bothers Crusty: the way Essay #1 is phrased bolloxes up a perfectly good concept.  For one, as noted above, it's needlessly confusing and complex.

--For another, perhaps more importantly, this marks the second year in a row that the church history question elides church history and theology.  Last year they had the history question be about a theological evolution of an understanding ordained ministry.  This year we have one on the impact of the Enlightenment on the church, but in the church history question, not a theology question.

--For example: say you chose Wesley.  You could talk about his organizational rules for Methodist Societies, establishment of classes, roles for lay preachers and women, as an example of how the church was impacted by "importance of individual autonomy..."  Then, you could, conceivably, talk about his theology of Christian perfection reflecting the overall impact of the Enlightenment emphasis on "progress as a result of human achievement."  However, Wesley's Sermon on Christian Perfection and his Rules for Methodist Societies are different documents, one is pretty clearly a theological text.

Please note:  Crusty is not opposed to this; history and theology are undoubtedly intertwined.  When Crusty took over teaching Anglican Theology and Anglican History at another seminary, he changed them from two separate courses into a two-part "Anglican History and Theology," because Crusty believes theology is always contextualized.  The Enlightenment, as a movement with roots in science (which at the time was called "natural philosophy"), philosophy, theology, and a number of other disciplines is a perfect example of how theology and history can be intertwined; aspects of this movement had real, tangible impact of the structure and development of the Christian Church.  Crusty has said previously in blogging this year's GOE that, really, you could make a case for arguing that any canonical area could be combined with any other canonical area.

So if Crusty has no problem with this pedagogically, why does he note concern about it on the GOE?  Several reasons.

--COD is concerned about the way church history might be taught, and whether students have been prepared to move back and forth between historical and theological texts; Crusty knows there are still seminaries which have separate "development of church history" and "development of Christian theology" courses.

--The canonical area says church history, just like we have separate areas for Theory and Practice of Ministry and Studies in Contemporary Society.  The place to change the canons is to change the canons, not for various groups in the church to decide on their own.  Two years in a row we've had a church history question that incorprates a significant theological component.  Not sure we want to start playing fast and loose with categories that are canonically defined.  At least Crusty is consistent on this, and feels this way about communion of the unbaptized (why do we get to ignore some canons and depose people for others?), and various groups of people trying to define certain things in contradiction to what is laid out in the Constitution, and pretending to accept renunciation of orders of bishops who didn't really renounce them http://crustyoldean.blogspot.com/2014/10/requiem-for-seminary-or-piling-up.html.  Crusty would support canonical changes to allow for greater flexibility, or to empower the General Board of Examining Chaplains to do so, so long as these are clearly communicated to students as to what to expect -- not that some years church history questions will be about church history, and other years they will be about historical theology.

B)  Thoughts on Essay #2.

Like COD says, he wasn't opposed to this question in principle, just thinks they have bolloxed it up.  Essay #2 isn't as bad as Essay #1 in terms of the bolloxing, but it's close.  The student is then asked, in 250 words (basically a long paragraph) to "Identify an issue confronting The Episcopal Church today and...discuss how the influence of the Enlightenment contributes to the way in which TEC shapes discourse on this issue."  Time out!  Another M. Night Shymalan situation here, with a totally new concept brought in at the tail-end of the question, like those damned plants in The Happening
As they said in South Park: That's not an idea, that's a twist. We need ideas.
(yes, COD has seen too many M. Night Shymalan movies): students are asked to identify "an issue" in the church and "how the influence of the Enlightenement" shapes the discourse.  They moved from very specific requests in Essay 1 to throwing the door open to, conceivably, any issue.  Frankly, COD would have preferred to err on the side of simplicity and simply asked them to point out where they see one of the five elements outlined in the question impacting an issue in the Episcopal Church.  This logically makes Essay #2 flow from essay #1, and allows for more emphasis on applying insights from studying the Enlightenment on the current issues facing the Episcopal Church than the other way around.


Crusty gives this question a "meh", but on the low-end of the "meh" scale.  When COD was at Yale Divinity School, they only had three grades:  Honors, which was basically an "A."  High Pass was anything from A- to a B- or thereabouts.  Pass was basically a C.  You can see in this grading system there's an incredible middle ground, with anything from B- to A- being the same grade.  This caused frustration among some students, as you'd bust your ass on a paper and fall just short, getting an A-, whereas if you half-assed something and got a B- on a paper, in the end it was the same result.  This resulted in the common phrase among students, "This, too, will high pass," when you were going through the motions and knew you could turn something in and still get a High Pass.  "Meh" is not that different, in that it encompasses question falling just sort of "Axios!" with questions that barely are a step above "WTF."

This question gets a "Meh" because it's needlessly confusing.  It doesn't get a WTF because the thing being asked is an important one: take a significant movement in church history, explain how it impacted the church at the time, and how it still effects the church today. But they took a potentially interesting question and bolloxed it up with how they chose to present it.

2 comments:

  1. I think a meh is probably slightly too high a rating for this question. I agree that the general concept of take a philosophical movement and talking about how it impacted the church is a good idea. I also agree that looking at the past and seeing how we can apply those lessons to our own time is a great idea.

    I think, though, that looking at those lessons as demonstrated in the writings of Wesley and White moves this into WTF land. I took more church history than any other discipline, but even I haven't read all that much White or Wesley (though I have read some of both.). Honestly, neither one of them is particularly foundational to Anglicanism, certainly not in the same way Cranmer, Hooker, or some others were. Obviously White was foundational in an institutional way, but we usually don't lump him in with the theological giants of our tradition. Wesley, on the other hand, while very important for an ecumenical standpoint, and while he was a faithful anglican, is best known for the movement he started spinning off into its own denomination. Not that they aren't important, just that I think it's a bit absurd to ask someone to know their corpus well enough to write about the impact the enlightenment had on their theological writing, even if open resources were allowed.

    I'm all for making people apply what they learned to today, but I'm not sure asking people to analyze what impact the enlightenment movement had on the writings of White or Wesley is a valid evaluation of their understanding of church history at all. If it had been a question aimed at evaluating what impact the enlightenment had on the broader church, citing examples from three of the five areas discussed I think it would have been an axios!, but when it restricts it to a literary analysis of the influences a movement had on the corpus of two lightly studied Anglicans I think this question moves from "meh" soundly into "wtf".

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  2. Daniel, I thought long and hard about this one, as I noted in the blog post…and what you write here was pretty much in my first draft as I initially considered giving this a WTF ranking. I ended up giving it a "meh" on the VERY low end of the "meh" scale, it barely scraped a "meh". This feedback is really important to me, at times I find myself wondering if I'm too hard on the church history questions because that's my field. Given that this was open resources, that tipped the scales in the end to scraping out a "meh" for this question.

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