Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Is English Worth It?

I have a cousin who likes to argue that English classes (particularly at the university level) are worthless. As evidence, he submits the composition and literature courses he took – three different classes, at three different universities including West Point, all of which he claims taught him nothing at all. These classes were not even intellectual: academic discourse in English is apparently easy to mimic (although I find the real thing difficult enough, when done right). According to my cousin, English literature is interesting – and little more. It is certainly not an acceptable college major.

My cousin studies history, and so I like to remind him first of all that any claim levelled against a liberal arts major such as English redounds upon his major as well. At a deeper level, however, these claims trouble me deeply. Academics in particular demonstrate a peculiarly navel-gazing tendency when studying English literature. Honestly, does the world really need a novel about a physically-handicapped and dysfunctional family of circus performers? (Please note, this book actually exists in the K-State university library). My cousin claims that his instructors accepted the most ludicrous arguments with a straight face in his composition courses. Although the individual instructor may be blamed in part for both errors, the state of the English major is not reassuring.

At the same time, I would major in English again. I would encourage students to enroll in compsition courses or to take literature courses as electives, even at a state university. I would advise interested students to major in English, even without a secure job waiting at the end of graduation. And (most importantly), I would defend the consistent study of literature and writing in high schools today. Although partially corrupted as an academic major, the study of English holds the key – in my experience – to higher-level thinking and even to maturity and growth as a believer.

Think for a moment about what a book is. It is not just a stack of paper bound together with thicker paper. Nor is it (usually) a story that someone made up for the fun of it, or a story that someone made up with the deliberate intent to deceive someone. A book is instead a record (fictional or not) of the way that someone sees the world, a record of the truths and experiences prominent in the world – a record that we as believers would do well to know.

A favourite professor of mine told her classes that “all truth is God’s truth” – that everything correct originates from one who is himself Truth. Any truth discovered between the two covers of a book is a stepping-stone towards a deeper knowledge of the true God. Anything that is not true in a book has a reversed benefit: by comparing falsehood to the truth of Scripture, we recognize divine truth more clearly and grow in the knowledge of God. My first year in graduate school, I enjoyed Underworld by Don DeLillo. The author speculated that faith battens on and develops from signs that are essentially empty: words that have no tangible meaning, pictures of saints that do not correlate to actual saints. According to DeLillo, this essential emptiness makes faith beautiful and worthwhile – hope amidst a hopeless situation. According to the Scripture, faith does in fact develop from signs such as words; however, these words are filled with meaning. Christ is Himself the Word: both the sign and its meaning, the perfect communication of God in human form – a truth I realized out of studying (and exposing) the theological difficulties of a novel.

I see in my cousin’s experiences some of the problems plaguing the study of English, but I look at my own experiences and see a reason to solve this problems – not to throw in the towel. At the high school and college level both, studying English offers the believer a lens that focuses the truth of the gospel and aids in distinguishing between truth and untruth, mixed-up as they are in the contemporary world. Boiled down, English (to me at least) has the following benefits:

1) It exposes readers to multiple spiritual perspectives and worldviews and therefore prepares students to encounter these in the “real world” after high school and college.
2) It encourages students to appreciate alternative perspectives. Much as we are tempted, laughing at or mocking other worldviews is not an effective testimony. As students encounter unusual perspectives, they can also develop a mature, biblical response.
3) It encourages students to develop their own worldview in response to others. As I reached new biblical conclusions about faith subsequent to reading Underworld, students should respond to unbiblical positions with their own, more refined arguments.
4) It exercises under-used brain muscles and introduces students to new activities. Amidst the Internet, video games, and the increasing demands of mathematical subjects, students have less time for reading than ever before. Although one course in literature may not make a lifelong reading convert out of a student, it can at least introduce them to the pleasures of reading.
5) It demands professional language in writing and speaking. Many writers like to begin sentences with the word “which”, as in The dog chased his tail. Which made the girl laugh. More writers forget how to use commas in writing, and nobody knows how to use a colon mark correctly. As believers, however, professional language usage is crucial in our testimony to the world – and writing and literature classes can help improve that.

Are there any items that you would add to the list?

I provide this list as an ideal: not what English classes do, but what they can do if taught correctly. I also provide this list as a set of my own goals as an English teacher. My time in Prague is not intended as a unique overseas experience (I could get that by going to China), nor is it purely an educational experience. It is an opportunity to share Christ with my students by teaching English – a subject that I believe uniquely suited for the opportunity. Please help me to achieve this goal: I appreciate your prayer & financial support, as God leads.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

UPDATE / BREAKING NEWS:

A new monthly supporter has come on board, bringing my grand total (percentage) up to 24%! This is my first new supporter in two months (the previous two months were made a little busy by defending my thesis and graduating, important stuff like that).

As I reflected last time, God is always at work even while we are "still", perhaps especially while we are still. At times, His working may be invisible and quiet, but wait long enough, and His hand is evident in the circumstances of our lives. As I take another "baby step" closer to the ultimate goal of teaching in Prague, I believe His hand is evident here, showing us - showing me! - that He indeed is God.

Please continue to pray with me that God will bring together the remaining prayer / financial supporters necessary for me to leave for Prague - perhaps you will be one! :) Whether you are or not, I appreciate your prayers at this time, so stay tuned for the next edition of "Czecherboarding" - coming soon!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Welcome back! As you are still reading on the second post of "Czecherboarding", I hope that the adventurous tone of my blog, so well captured in the -ing ending, grabbed your attention, that you've returned for the second installation in the gripping story of my progress towards the Czech Republic.

Well, here it is: the only difficulty with writing dynamic blogs such as "Czecherboarding" is that the writer - in the case, me - prefers to update people on events and progress that is actually exciting. I would like to tell you that I've finished raising support and am on my way to Prague, or even that I've purchased my plane ticket. I would like to tell you how ministry paid off as my students have committed themselves to a lifetime of walking with Christ in His plans for them, and not their own. And I do hope to share these things with you some day soon . . . but not today.

What I would like to update you on today is much more subtle and muted, a mere whisper of an update. As Elijah learned, though, it is in the whispers that God speaks. As many of you know, my personality is an active one: I prefer to plan my schedule well in advance and take every effort to see that it is carried through, to actively seek out opportunities for jobs and ministries to keep busy, to direct and lead and not to follow. After all, I do climb mountains for fun (more on that later). As I learned long ago, however, sometimes the drive to accomplish something, to secure the future, needs to take a backseat to steady working of God.

My junior year at Bob Jones University, I directed a film for the Modern Language Club - a project that brought my active, organized personality to the fore. Writing the script, casting the parts, finding a support crew, organizing rehearsals - all of these was quite fun for me. What was not so fun were the hiccups in my project. A few hours before rehearsals, actors emailed me to say they couldn't make it. My response was, quite naturally, to panic. I sent out frantic emails trying to reschedule the film shoot or to schedule a different film shoot and waited on pins and needles in my dorm room to hear back. I often did hear back within a half hour - occasionally from the actor that had sent me the original panic-inducing email, saying they could make it after all. That semester, I learned that no matter how hard I work on something, how hard I try to fit everything to one perfect schedule, my own plans will change . . . and behind the scenes, working everything out as needed, there is God.

A verse meaningful that semester at BJU, Psalm 46:10 returns as a good reminder for me now (and indeed, "Be Still My Soul" is still one of my favourite hymns). There, God commands us to "be still and know that I am God". Notice that "be still" is a command, somthing to be obeyed. As I filmed the Modern Language Club piece, I had difficulty with this command, and often realized too late that had I done nothing, God still would have resolved my problems for me. Now, I look back to this experience and remember that though I cannot predict the future, though I cannot force my way over to Prague, God is still at work. Indeed, in this very stillness the Lord shows that "I am God" - that He is in control, working, when we can do nothing. As much as this stillness goes against the grain of my personality, it gives me the opportunity to share with you the most exciting update of all: that God is at work, as much in the quiet as in the busyness of everyday life.

And now, a few more detailed specifics about that work. Since I last wrote you, I have established several new contacts for my support team and made several appointments to share my ministry with fellow believers. Also, I have begun a short-term summer ministry at our local crisis pregnancy center. As I have been told, a soul in need is a soul in need - whether at the Christian International School of Prague, or here at the Salina pregnancy center. My official responsibilities there are termed "office work" - a rather generic title, imposed by the the necessarily wide range of work I do. I answer phones and assist clients with paperwork, but I am also working on special projects - currently, researching the requirements for an organizational Facebook profile. I am excited about the ways to participate in Christian ministry, even while I wait to leave for Prague.

As I close, I would ask for your prayers: for the Christian International School of Prague, as many teachers return Stateside for summer break; for the crisis pregnancy center, as it develops a strong online witness to families faced with unplanned pregnancies; for my own support-raising process, as I invite people (perhaps you!) to join me in prayer and financial support. And finally, pray that amidst the stillness God will work, showing Himself - as always - to be God.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hello all -

Welcome to the first post of Czecherboarding! As an English major, I would like to point out that the -ing ending at the end of the blog name signals action and movement - an adventure, if you will. Although Prague is still months away, the adventure of getting there sparkles in front of me.

All this simply because the original name - "Czecherboard" - had been taken.

As many of you know, I am planning to teach high school English at the Christian International School of Prague for two years. I intend to keep my friends updated on my progress using this blog, first as I raise support and then as I teach in Prague. Additionally, I also intend to let my English side spill over - perhaps a tribute now and again to Milton, or to T.S. Eliot. I will likely update the blog once every two weeks (or slightly less frequently) until I leave for Prague, at which point the posts are likely to increase.

For now, however, thank you for your interest in my plans for ministry. I want to leave you on this very first post with a story, about why I am pursuing this opportunity. Three years ago, I spent a summer assisting missionaries in Berlin. Any future plans were still hazy at that point, a mere wisp of cloud on the horizon. A church leader there challenged me to consider devoting significant time to overseas ministry (as opposed to a Stateside job), reminding me of Romans 12:1-2, which reads:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
All my life, Christian leaders have reminded me that having been redeemed "by the mercies of God" my entire life - body and soul - belongs properly to God as a sacrifice. In recent months, however, this verse has returned to inspire me - and with it, the memory of the challenge that my friend Dan gave me in Berlin. What God expects of us as believers is to "present" ourselves as a "sacrifice" - ready to give up our plans, our talents, our entire being for Him. What makes this possible is "the renewing of our mind" - a process in which we learn to think the way God does, trading the priorities of the world for the priorities of God.

All of us have opportunities to flourish physically and financially, here in the world (I have had these opportunities as well), but the question - the one that Dan left me with, that hot day in Berlin - is what course of action best supports our relationship with Christ, and His work in the world. Whether the choice is one aligned with the world's priorities as well, or not, this course of action is the best to take. And that is the course that I have tried to take, in committing to two years at the Christian International School of Prague.