Although students often enter into theological education for information, their journey should be marked by formation, with the end result being transformation. This call to transformation animates the pedagogical life of Robert K. Johnston, senior professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Johnston has served theological education for the last forty-five years not only as a professor, but also as provost at both Fuller and North Park Seminary. He has written, edited or co-authored a number of books on film and theology, including Deep Focus (Baker, 2019), and is a past president of the American Theological Society. Johnston recently spoke with Didaktikos editor Douglas Estes about the role of the theological educator in student formation.
Estes: With such a distinguished teaching record, what does teaching well mean to you?
Johnston: Teaching has to do not only with scientia but with sapientia—not only with knowledge but with conveying wisdom. It has to do not only with information, but teaching well has to do with formation—even transformation. I can remember when I started teaching at Western Kentucky University. I taught three sections of Old Testament introduction, and I loved doing that even though it was my second area of expertise. When I stood up the first day, I would always say, “You’ve taken this course because, in some sense, you know that the Old Testament is important—at least to other people. Yes, the Old Testament is a dangerous book. It has changed and continues to change lives. I’m going to try to teach the power and the center of meaning of that text. Whether you are Buddhist or Jewish or Christian or nothing, I think what you want to know is why this book has been important and transformative in the lives of others. But I need to warn you: it might actually change you.”
That was in a state university, but that is, in fact, a great introduction to teaching a book. You need them to know that if they take it seriously, they will risk transforming their own lives. Maybe that brings us to a second area of teaching well: you need to be both passionate and humble. You need to be able to show that it matters. The teacher needs to be able to communicate that what she or he is teaching has significance for the teacher. But beyond that, you also need to be humble. You need to be able to say, “Great question. I don’t have any idea.” You need to be open to learning. “Thank you for that insight. I’ve not thought of that before. I will remember that.”
Perhaps the third area is that good teaching needs to be concerned not only with what it says, with content being clear. Some people talk about that in terms of competence, but that’s only the first stage. Teachers also need to know and communicate what it means, to be able to contextualize it, to enlarge that focus. And finally, they need to be able to say, to communicate, to encourage what that means to me as teacher and perhaps to you as students—why it matters. So that basic little trilogy has to do with any good teaching. It’s not just content. As we know with content being available everywhere, content is in some sense the least important. The content needs to be both contextualized and recontextualized. Both the first and second horizon need to be taken seriously, or why bother paying the tuition? You can get mere content by looking on the Internet.
Estes: OK, let me ask a follow-up question. One of the common ideas I hear is that students entering today have less information than students years ago about the Bible, about religion—whatever the issue is. Assuming you agree with this, how does the lower amount of information affect students’ formation and transformation?
Johnston: I think there’s no question that the students we get today in seminary come from a wide range of backgrounds, and many of them are inadequately prepared for graduate-level teaching and learning. When I was doing accreditation visits at seminaries across the country for twenty years, I remember going to Boston University. This would have been thirty years ago, and that school was basically spending the first year of the three-year master of divinity program doing remedial work, in order that students would be better able to become scholar-pastors. I understand that reality, and seminaries need to take that seriously.
It is not clear, however, how best to remediate. I think entrance exams have tended to be failures. How to sort out, or how to refocus, continues to be an important challenge. But if information is all we’re about, we have failed to prepare the next generation of Christian leaders. Perhaps we need to focus our attention on a small enough area, even in our introduction courses, so that the information can be used to consider formation, and it can be presented in winsome-enough ways that it invites transformation as new ideas, new approaches, new questions, and new possibilities are encountered. If we do anything less, we simply have failed the task of seminary education.
If I can risk perhaps a more controversial question, I believe the current push toward online education risks altering the balance between formation and information. We are providing students with a body of information and pretending that that is being formative and perhaps even transformative. But, in fact, we have little evidence of that being the case.
I’m not against online education, but one of the huge challenges for theological education today is how to create a community of learning. How, with limited resources, can we make the online learning experience interactive and substantive, rather than having students simply filling in the squares and doing their 250-word responses—and not disagreeing with their fellow students because they want to
We need to think through what a community of learning looks like as we move forward. When faculty mainly teach online, it’s not only the community with their students that suffers, but also the community with fellow faculty. How do you create that mutual learning environment when you live hundreds or thousands of miles apart from each other? How do you get to know one another beyond faculty meetings, which have a certain artificiality? At least at our seminary, that might be one of the biggest questions we presently are dealing with. How do we make sure that our community of learning remains robust? I know this is a question not only among faculty but also among students.
I get excellent reviews in my theology and film class that is online. The class is really first-rate. Three of us have developed it together—Catherine Barsotti, Kutter Callaway, and myself. But last summer, at the end of co-teaching two sections with sixty-four students, even the “A” students I didn’t really know. Three years later when they ask me for a recommendation, all I have is, “Well, they got an ‘A’ on this paper.” I have very little sense of their being, their person, their vocational intention, their family. Teaching in person, all of that would have come naturally as I talked with students at break, as I interacted with them in my office, as I spent time getting to know them. As we move forward, I fear that the rise of online learning will reduce seminary education to content and information in the classical disciplines and Bible, and that we will be looking for apprenticeships and church clusters or other means to prepare students for ministry in the church.
At Fuller Seminary, where I am, we want to be a world seminary. In the theology and film class I just mentioned, I had students from Mauritius, Macao, Singapore, Germany, Canada, North Carolina, and Southern California—all in the same class. That is simply wonderful. But the downside is that the class can easily become more focused on information than transformation.
I personally believe there’s no greater challenge than how to maintain a community of learning. That speaks to the very soul of the faculty person. It’s absolutely necessary for the life of the seminary that education become formational and transformational rather than just informational. This has to do with creating a communal context for students in which they want to learn and in which they are pushed beyond themselves by the gift of others. That can happen in an online context, but I fear it doesn’t happen as often as it needs to.
Estes: We used to say, “Just because you get a PhD doesn’t mean you can teach”—and I almost would add, “And it certainly doesn’t mean you can teach effectively online, given the various trade-offs and limitations we currently have.”
Johnston: I certainly agree with that. The difficulty is that most seminaries are small, most seminaries have limited budgets, and therefore, even if there is a consultant or an online learning specialist, the major responsibility for designing the class remains with the professor. And though that professor might be an expert in systematic theology, that professor is an amateur when it comes to designing online courses. Or if, in fact, they become experts, faculty are needing to spend an inordinate amount of time on the process rather than the product, on how you set it up rather than how you go deeper in your material. So there’s been a refocus of energy for many faculty. Perhaps that’s temporary, but that certainly is one of the issues at present. Too many of my colleagues are worn out.
Estes: I couldn’t agree more. When we shifted to online classes at my previous school, I assumed I would have more time to do research and publish. But helping to design online classes and learning how to teach online actually turned out to be a greater load—and that made publishing even more difficult.
Johnston: Correct, and so we have had to work on how to maintain faculty scholarship. I know that in some of your earlier Didaktikos interviews, my colleagues have talked about the problem with overemphasizing scholarship. I really think that is not the issue in most seminaries. It might be the issue with some research universities where some faculty are great researchers and terrible teachers. In most seminaries, the great majority of faculty take student counseling, course preparation, and interaction with the community very seriously. Where time runs out is establishing a rhythm in which ongoing scholarship feeds the teaching and nourishes the endeavor.
At Fuller Seminary, we have just instituted a young scholars fellowship in which faculty doing their first sabbatical (after three years) can apply for a year rather than only a quarter of leave, so they can write their second book. After having done research on their dissertation, many times the faculty person is overwhelmed with course preparation, teaching, and getting used to being a seminary faculty person, and they need desperately to recover that rhythm of teaching and research, with each feeding the other. So we have set this up to help young faculty rediscover the importance of digging deeper into their discipline, even while they continue to teach future practitioners in ministry.
Estes: You have extensive experience teaching both in state universities and in seminaries. Do you feel that teaching well means something different in those two contexts, or is it basically the same?
Johnston: I think it’s basically the same. A part of teaching is knowing your context, knowing your school’s mission. You obviously have a different set of students in a state university than in a seminary, and your teaching will change in that regard. But you still should be interested in formation not information; you still should be passionate about your subject matter while being humble; you still should be concerned with getting to the power and meaning of the material; you still should be interested in being a learner along with the learners in your class; you still should be interested in sapientia, not just scientia; you still should be hospitable, saying “Thank you” as often as you can.
In both university and seminary, when I would ask a question and a student would raise their hand, I would often look at the student and say “Please.” And even that small act of hospitality was repeatedly mentioned as one of the highlights of the course when students gave their evaluations. They were being treated as people with worth, with ideas that mattered. Even when students’ ideas were crazy, whether in university or seminary, the teacher’s job was to take that nonsense and make sense of it in a way that encouraged others and created a community of learning. So for all the differences, the similarities are greater.
Estes: What advice would you give a young professor today about teaching well?
Johnston: I already mentioned the importance of showing hospitality, of respecting all, of saying thank you, of recognizing the multicultural context of any classroom, of being generous. I think a second piece of advice is that one needs to use a variety of teaching styles. I remember early in my teaching careeer reading the research that came from UCLA, a husband-and-wife team in education who studied teaching effectiveness for years. Interestingly, their data showed that women were much better than men at having a variety of teaching styles. Men, at least in the old days, were more likely to just stand up there and say “I know something, and you need to know it.” But whether men or women, we need to have small groups, lectures, class discussions, use of video, guest experts—a class needs to allow for that variety as we help people learn.
Thirdly, I think we need to actively demonstrate to our students that we continue to be learners as well. Part of that is not being afraid to say to a questioner, “Good question. I really don’t know that answer.” It means explaining why and how you changed your mind. It means sharing that mistake you were able to correct for the following reasons.
I think maybe, at core, the advice I would give is this: don’t be afraid to give your best wisdom. Don’t hide behind neutrality. Don’t leave it at “Here are options” or “Here’s what other people have said.” Students have paid money to take your course because they want to hear what you think. So that needs to be done generously and humbly, but it also needs to be done straightforwardly.
Perhaps the greatest gift you can give your student is helping that student to sift through the information wisely, to weed out that which is unimportant, and to criticize that which is wrongly argued. For years, one of the assignments I often gave would ask students to read a certain article and then write a one- or two-page response as to the fatal flaw in the argument. I thought one of the gifts I could give my students was to help them to be more critical in their evaluations, and to begin to look for the way an argument was shaped rather than just to look for the conclusion and assume it was correct.
Estes: Can we say that neutrality and objectivity are really just euphemisms for information, and that moving on to formation requires much more than that?
Johnston: Yes. And, as we know, those specializing in the sociology of knowledge over the last thirty or forty years have encouraged all of us to realize that neutrality is impossible. At the same time, it certainly is possible to suspend judgment and to listen well before you respond. I think the greatest gift I give my students in classes on theology and culture is the gift of learning how to listen to the culture before you jump in with dialogue from your Christian perspective. We are so quick to give answers that we often don’t hear the beauty or the possibility or the real mistake in that which is presented to us. And that’s also part of the teaching experience.
Estes: Shifting gears, can you share briefly about your personal ministry experiences over the years?
Johnston: Sure. When I was in junior high, the question that haunted me was this: Why is the good news of the gospel heard as bad news by most of my friends who don’t go to church? This question has remained my passion and my ministry focus. I almost went on staff with Young Life, the high school ministry organization—which, I think, has some answers to that question. But I felt God calling me to help explore new responses, to push the envelope and see if there weren’t other ways of engaging the Christian faith with the wider culture.
One formative experience was my class as a freshman at Stanford from the Presbyterian minister Robert McAfee Brown. I took the class during his second year at Stanford, and there were 573 people in the class. His first year there had been seventeen! There were fewer than 5,000 undergraduates, so more than 10 precent of the student body was taking that class. We read Robert Penn Warren, Ignazio Silone, Albert Camus, Arthur Miller. And Brown would stand up and say, “Let’s listen to what’s being said in that story,” and would begin to unpack it. And then he would contextualize that and say, “Not only does it say this, but here’s its meaning. Here’s why probably it was portraying that.” And then he would say, “As a Christian minister, here is what I have learned from Arthur Miller.” And finally, he would then say, “And here are questions that I have to ask of him as we meet him in Death of a Salesman.” And we, as students, would go back into the dorms and spend half the night discussing and arguing about the meaning of life and the possibilities of faith, given life.
That was a wonderful model of ministry for me—one that I have maintained. So whether teaching at Western Kentucky University or at North Park University or at Fuller Seminary, all that I teach is ministry. My only goal is to help students’ lives be transformed. It’s not ministry always in the church—I can talk about that in a minute—but it’s ministry. One of our mistakes as the church is to somehow think that ministry is that which has to do only with work within the church. We forget Luther and his concern for the milkmaid. We forget that vocation has to do with furthering the mission of God both in church and in the world.
So that’s a long way of beginning to answer your question. I’ve always been in ministry since even before I was called to intentional ministry as a college freshman. Having said that, it is also true that all people should actively be involved in their churches and use the gifts they have in that context. I have tried to do the same, so that I have been at times an interim pastor filling in until a new pastor can be found; I have taught Sunday School at times; I have led junior church for first- to third-graders. I’ve also used some of my administrating gifts to chair the board of our denomination that oversees our dozen or more retirement centers, our hospitals and health clinics, and our homes for adult developmentally challenged individuals. Just as I would expect the lawyers in our church to use their gifts and to volunteer and to support the church, and just as schoolteachers should use their time in the church as well as in the school, so the professor at seminary should be actively engaged in a local church using his or her gifts.
I saw this modeled by my father. He was a structural engineer. His business designed the structures of perhaps 30,000 buildings in the Los Angeles area. But he also gave his expertise to the church whenever it was going to do a new building. He gave his expertise to the conference of churches as they looked at new building sites or as they built a camp. He wanted to use his expertise and training to help build up the kingdom of God—and that included helping the church thrive through its buildings.
Let me give one other example. When I was at North Park Seminary, one of our faculty was a distinguished ethicist—perhaps was the leading scholar of oral history concerning Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He knew personally all of Bonhoeffer’s living family and associates. But because he was involved in the church, because he liked to speak, when I sat down with him the first year I was dean and asked, “How can the school help you, and what would you like your profession to look like?”, he explained that he wanted desperately to write down some of what he knew about Bonhoeffer, but he didn’t have the time. And when I inquired why, it turned out he was still speaking over 180 times a year at churches throughout the denomination. He was doing that in part because the seminary historically had not paid very well and he had five children, but he also was doing it because he loved being up in front of people. The best thing I did for him was to help wean him off that schedule. I said to him, “Let’s try 120 for the next year. Let’s try 80 the following year.” And his Bonhoeffer writings are a gift to the church.
My response to your question is that we all should be involved in our local churches, and we all should be giving of our gifts and talents and training. Some of us will be more involved than others, but our ministry is much broader than whatever we would give to the church. Our ministry has to do with furthering the kingdom of God in all that we do.
Estes: We already talked a little about the importance of publishing. Especially for a younger scholar, why is publishing critically important?
Johnston: Here, I think the question is answered differently in a seminary context than in most university contexts. Very few seminaries have a “publish or perish” dictum. Most seminary faculty I speak with, whether as colleagues or when I was dean or provost, want to share their ideas with colleagues and get feedback. Most seminary faculty I have encountered think they have something to say but are often frustrated that they don’t have the time or occasion to further their research and to get wider interaction from the larger public and from their peers.
Teaching is rooted in learning, and learning is rooted in teaching. The research/teaching dichotomy is a false one. They should, in fact, inform each other, so if a faculty person is finding it impossible to find time to write a book, they should begin by writing a book review in their area of expertise that is critical and engaging. If a faculty person is teaching classes, one of those classes should be in an area of personal growth where the class becomes the research for a future book. I would say a half-dozen of my books have come directly out of my experience of teaching. After three or four years teaching a new area, I have a body of ideas and a direction and an outline, and on my next sabbatical or grant I can focus fairly quickly on my writing.
Estes: Right—because if you’re not publishing, where are you growing as a scholar?
Johnston: Growth happens in the classroom. But that growth also happens as you dig deeper or you contextualize more broadly an area that you are interested in or are teaching. Therefore, research is central to your success as a teacher. Again, there’s a great variety, so we don’t want to put everybody in one box. There are those persons who seemingly can write a book in their sleep. Who? Joel Green at Fuller has thirty, forty, fifty books; Amos Yong has two or three books a year. Not everyone is of that ilk. Not everyone’s an introvert; some are extroverts. But all should have a research component, and all should seek peer engagement as part of their larger teaching responsibility. That’s what keeps you growing over a lifetime. The students see that, and that helps with your integrity quotient.
I’m convinced that integrity is the single most important factor a student looks for in his or her faculty. They might disagree with what you think, teach, believe, but if they know you’re committed and you’re bringing that to them with all good intention and deep commitment and careful preparation, they’ll respect it and they’ll learn from it. One of my best faculty, when I was a student at Fuller a long time ago, was Dan Fuller. I disagreed with his premise for the class, but there was such a commitment and a wrestling and an integrity about what he was doing that I took away a lifetime of new ideas that I still mine.
Estes: Right—and I would say the integrity of the faculty speaks much more to formation than just merely information.
Johnston: Oh, absolutely. And without that integrity—well, God can do what God wants, so transformation can happen in all kinds of ways. But in general, transformation will depend on a high quotient of integrity from the person.