Embodied Education and Online/Distance Learning — Some Preliminary Questions

James K.A. Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, purchase Worldview, cialis and Cultural Formation sets forth an argument for embodied, hospital wholistic Christian education. He argues that the dominant modern understanding of the human person is the human as primarily a “thinking person.” Christian worldview scholars, particularly from within the Reformed tradition, have cast humans as primarily “believing persons.” And while this is an improvement on “thinking person” it still casts the human as a primarily cognitive being. Smith suggests that the more wholistic approach is to adopt an Augustinian anthropology, wherein people are primarily “desiring people.”

In setting forth his case for the “desiring person” understanding of humanity, Smith explores the impact and power of liturgy or practices, be it secular or sacred, and how it impacts not only what we think (or believe), but also what we do and how we do it. Thus, humans are “liturgical animals” oriented by what they love (or desire). Our “thick” practices shape us, often in ways that we don’t consciously realize or acknowledge.

In light of this, Smith argues that Christian education should be primarily about formation, but in actuality, the majority of Christian education is instead merely about information. The result is that graduates from Christian and non-Christian institutions don’t really look all that different from each other. The college grad in North America gets a job, buys a house, gets married and lives their lives, becoming productive cogs in the wheels of the economy. And Christian grads don’t really look any different from their secular counterparts. Smith goes so far as to say that education that is baptized as “Christian” but is the same as secular education could in fact be “a way of domesticating the radicality of the gospel.” (218)

What does it mean to be Christian? Smith’s answer is to point us to the wise words of Stanley Hauerwas:

We are Christians not because of what we believe but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding but of becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices. (220)

Smith then offers some examples of what embodied learning could look like in a Christian college that adopted “a liturgically informed pedagogy.” Each of the examples are based on the traditional classroom model, but my question, after reading his examples, is this:

Can a “liturgically informed pedagogy” be used in an online learning environment? How could an online class foster formation of the whole student rather than just being a means of transmitting information?

I’ve taken quite a few online/distance education courses over the years. Some have been fairly low tech: read the required textbooks, do the assignments. Some have been “mid” tech: listen to podcast lectures or watch video lectures, read the books, do the assignments. Others have been highly interactive: required online discussions in a forum setting that promotes dialogue not only between the student and the professor, but also between the student and the rest of the class. But, no matter which format was used, the desired outcome of the course was always, “do you know and understand the course material?”

I can’t really say that any of the online classes I have taken have formed me, or have had an embodied component. If anything, online classes are inherently disembodied. Being in a physical class, on the other hand, has definitely formed not only my thoughts (beliefs) but also my desires and my educational posture.

And yet, there are other areas in which online discussion has had an embodied element. As I continue to blog and to tweet, community is being formed, and the liturgy of the online world shapes my practices. That leads me to think that it is indeed possible for online education to be an embodied practice. I think the key is to not come at online education from the perspective of “technology is the wave of the future, let’s be innovative”, but instead the key is for the educators and developers of online Christian education to keep the question of embodied liturgical pedagogy front and centre. That may mean that each online class will look just a bit different from other online classes. It may mean that a cohort model is employed, like IWU’s online M.Div program, or it may mean that there is an emphasis on collaborative group work (like contributing to a blog or creating an online encyclopedia on the course material). Either way, online Christian education should not simply be an adoption of generic, secular online education models which are then just “baptized” as Christian.


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Review: With by Skye Jethani

What’s it About: In With: Reimagining The Way You Relate to God, discount Skye Jethani outlines the four main postures or ways that most Christians relate to God.

Life Under God — moralism
Life Over God — Christian Deism
Life From God — consumerism
Life For God — ‘mission-ism’

Each of these four postures, according to Skye Jethani, end up being ultimately about our attempt to control God, and to control our lives. In these postures,

God is seen as a means to an end. For example, LIFE FROM GOD uses him to supply our material desires. LIFE OVER GOD uses him as the source of principles or laws. LIFE UNDER GOD tries to manipulate God through obedience to secure blessings and avoid calamity. And LIFE FOR GOD uses him and his mission to gain a sense of direction. (102)

The alternative posture that Jethani proposes is a Life With God. This, he suggests, is the more biblical, and more healthy way of relating to God. Life with God includes three things: treasuring, uniting and experiencing, and all three of these emphasize that a life with God is a life that doesn’t view God as an object to be possessed, but rather, it is a life that seeks to dwell with God. Jethani then further explores this ‘with’ posture by looking at a Life with Faith; a Life with Hope; and a Life with Love.

Notable Quotable:

The reason a great many churches and Christian ministries fail to see people obey Jesus’ instructions is because the people are not living in the LIFE WITH GOD posture. The teachings and commands of the Bible may be communicated powerfully, clearly, and repeatedly, but until people have their vision of the world changed by living in communion with the Good Shepherd, until they experientially know they are safe, they will be incapable of following Christ’s counterintuitive commands. (pg. 127)

Readability: With is written in a very conversational style, with plenty of stories and metaphors. The analogies used are contemporary, and there are quotes not only from spiritual classics (like Henri Nouwen and Brother Lawrence), but also from current blogs (e.g., Kevin DeYoung). Re-tellings of parables like the Prodigal Son are fresh and easy to read.

Who Would Benefit: This book would be great for new Christians, young Christians, or those Christians who have had little introduction to spiritual formation and discipleship. Included in this book are discussion questions for each chapter which would help guide discussion if this book were to be used for a small group.

Who Wouldn’t Benefit: For those who are familiar with spiritual formation books and immersed in strong Christian discipleship, this book may not be particularly helpful, as it covers ideas and concepts found in other works of the same genre.

Rating: 3.5/5

The review copy of this book was provided by Booksneeze. All opinions are my own.

Pastoral Advice: Helping a Young Family

“We’ve been going to this church for a year, and we really like it,” said the husband. “The service is great, the people are great.”

“There’s just one small problem,” said the wife, “and we don’t know what to do about it.”

“This church has a small Sunday school for kids 3 and older. For kids under three there is no nursery (it’s not just that they don’t have a staffed nursery, they don’t have a physical nursery space at all). There is a cry room at the back of the church, that is 8-by-8 and doubles as a staging and storing area for all the Sunday morning supplies for the service (communion elements, candle sticks etc). It’s a tiny makeshift space that is designed for short visits. For the last year, one of us has been in the cry room every Sunday with our oldest child who is too young for Sunday school, and too active to sit through the service.” The husband explained.

“And usually that someone was me,” smiled the wife. “What makes it worse is that part of the staging area has a sink, and the cupboard under the sink has cleaning supplies; the cupboard doesn’t have a lock on it, so guess where the little kids like to go get into mischief?”

“Our oldest child is just turned two, so it’s one more year in the cry room. And we’ve just had our second child, so by the time the oldest is ready for Sunday School, the younger will be no longer at the ‘sleep through the service stage’ and will need to be in the cry room.”

“So we’re looking at three more years of one of us being in the cry room for the majority of the service; and longer if we decide to have more kids!” Said the wife.

“And as soon as there is more than one or two kids in the cry room, it gets awfully crowded. It’s such a tiny space. Yes, they do pipe the service in over a speaker in the cry room, but over the noise of the toddlers it’s really hard to hear and follow along.”

The wife’s smile faded, “You know, by the time we get ourselves to church, and one of us settles into the cry room, it feels like it would have been easier to just stay home. Pull up a video of a sermon on the internet, throw in a worship CD and do church at home. What’s the point of going to church if I just end up sitting in the cry room every week?”

“We don’t want to have a consumer, church-shopping mentality, really we don’t,” said the husband, “but is it time to start looking for another church, one that has more child-friendly options?


Okay Cheese-Wearers, what advice would you give this young family?