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The Old Testament in the Heart of the Catholic Church

Preface for Teachers and Interested Others

The Old Testament in the Heart of the Catholic Church

an incremental approach

an introduction to the Old Testament
for any student who is capable of adult-level academic tasks

copyright (c) 2001 John Kelleher

Preface: To the Teacher

This course merely points the way. It devoutly wishes to be replaced by far more learned and effective courses as soon as possible. However, for now, this is a different kind of introductory Old Testament course. First, it is not only pedagogical but also devotional. It encourages a deep and continual interaction between teacher and student that an adroit and holy teacher may well be able to use for active catechesis.

Second, it consciously and explicitly allows itself, in whole and in part and forever, to be put to the question by objective reality: the sacraments, and the actual magisterium of the actual Catholic Church. Both teachers and students must always recall that no course can hand on the faith of the Catholic Church. Only the Holy Father, and bishops in communion with him, do that.

Third, this course is not for children, but for those soon to enter, or who have already entered, an advanced technological economy sustained and driven by intricate research and sophisticated knowledge. It promptly, directly, even insouciantly introduces students to some of the most difficult ideas and controversies impinging on the Catholic study of the Bible - just as if these ideas and controversies actually existed in the real world that those students will soon have to confront.

Thus this course is not silent about some of the more common cultural and academic errors of the day but instead actively inoculates against them. For example, in this course students will learn both that Holy Orders is a sacrament, and that at times Catholic bishops have been fools, heretics, and even murderers. Students will learn inclusive language - in order to understand the possibility of academic crazes, even within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the United States.

So, this is by no means a course for children, for bishops with low self-esteem, for teachers who still think that everything they were taught to be offended by in school is the truth, or for those Catholics who don't want to know how sausage is made. It is for Catholic students who wish to live consciously in a sophisticated modern culture, while learning the difference between the sacred, and sacred cows, while professing a wholly orthodox faith, living an upright and charitable life, and consciously thirsting for the sacraments with real reasonableness and without apology.

Fourth, as will become evident, this course is consciously designed to leverage the strengths of teachers who are literate, holy, and highly competent as teachers, so long as they can discover and trust the slow depths hidden in this course's unfamiliar method. There are no stories, posters, anecdotes, projects, lectures, or worksheets. All you have will be: yourself, your students, the ideas in this course, and the time to unfold them as the course directs. Teaching this course is very challenging - there is a kind of nakedness to it - but it will draw out the best in the best. If excellent and holy teachers can find their way into this "simple" course, they will discover a powerful ability to use their finest attributes in the service of their students. However, if what it would be like to teach this course sounds to you like a description of facing a firing squad, do not attempt it. It is not meant for you.

Fifth, the method by which the biblical matter in this course was chosen could be the subject of a monograph in itself. As the title of this course suggests, the premiere goal was to introduce students to what the Catholic Church keeps in her heart about the Old Testament. One sign of this is that, throughout the course, the student is asked to read both the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and both in the light of the other.

It is fair to ask whether this choice is unsophisticated. The old approaches have the virtue of defending both philosophical realism and the quintessential realism of the faith, but they make the implicit but no less remarkable assumption that no truly new question can exist. Instead, the set of all possible relevant questions is reducible to the set of questions that the old approaches can, at least in principle, conceive of, formulate, and answer. One does not have to be a relativist to inquire into the Catholic bona fides of a claim from any theory, however venerable, that it is beyond death. In any case, from this assumption the tightly logical argument, that the current marked unpopularity of the old approaches is due entirely to the faithlessness or errors of everyone else, follows like the chicken and the egg.

On the other hand, post-Gödel and post-postmodernism, "modern" Catholic scholars are not quite as hip as they like to present themselves. Autonomous rationality is neither inevitable nor scientific; in fact it is a mirage. The assertion of its inevitability in spite of this leads our culture to gift us all with our very own version of Sartrean "bad faith"; which, as Sartre pointed out, always disguises a political project, a project of power. To assert that reading the Bible and the Catechism together is inevitably unsophisticated unless it allows the two texts to be "in tension" with each other is to lay bare the deepest epistemological and hermeneutic trouble of our age.

As will be evident, this course also undertakes to present in some limited form the fruit of current scholarly inquiry regarding the Old Testament - an inherently quicksilver and controversial task, but no less important for all that.

Finally, this course is also distinctive in its method. It makes use of some of the best-established findings about human cognition and learning from the dreaded natural sciences. Due to the bastard provenance of these research results, American Catholic educators both traditional and progressive can of course safely ignore them.

For those teachers who remain unfazed even after this final and most severe departure from convention, the methods employed by this course may work better. The remainder of this Preface will introduce these methods to the teacher.

For the teaching of fundamental concepts and their interrelation, neither lectures nor lists, neither stories nor coloring, work as well as presenting those concepts in a direct, focused manner a little at a time, over a long period of time. However poorly the present course does that, it does do it.

To put it bluntly, lecturing before introductory students (orally or in print), however brilliantly, is typically far easier on the teacher than on the students. It is a matter of psychological fact that assumed but unstated background knowledge is the fundament of all communication; but this is precisely what the introductory student lacks. Lectures are typically devastatingly effective only with audiences who already thoroughly understand ALMOST everything that will be said. That is, being able to profit from a lecture is a reward for already having learned a great deal about the subject prior to the lecture.

Good lectures at least have the virtue of being crystal-clear and highly organized; this virtue can not be attributed to pedagogical four-color printed hodge-podges that are said to "engage the student." The good teacher implicitly knows that students do not need to be "engaged" so much as hypnotized, against their will if necessary, into focusing on the matter that needs to be learned. Good teaching narrows attention, it does not broaden it, and for an hour makes the universe appear in a drop of water.

Psychological researchers have established that no student is a blank slate. To the contrary, knowledge builds on prior knowledge. A student learns principally by connecting something new to something he already knows. But what happens when the student's prior "knowledge" is not knowledge, but active misunderstanding?

Here, too, the answer is known. Prior misunderstanding serves to actively prevent real knowledge from being learned. Information not readily connectable to prior "knowledge" - even when the "knowledge" is actually misunderstanding - tends to be rejected, not learned. For instance, a typical person's half-formed, half-conscious, and inconsistent "common sense" ideas about matter, energy, and motion actively make it harder for him to learn even classical physics, let alone modern physics.

Would that beginning physics students really were blank slates! Instead, their prior misunderstandings very actively impede their ability to learn better ways to think about matter, energy, and motion. Deep, deep down, they already "know" the "right answers," which no mere memorization of equations is going to overturn. Agreed, it took mankind thousands of years to understand that many of these "right answers" are in fact, deeply inaccurate; yet they are still inaccurate, however "naturally" we have come to feel that they are correct. Thus, although still much more done in the breach than in reality, the first task of the science teacher is to slowly and lovingly collapse the edifice of misunderstanding so much preventing real learning. And theology too is a science.

All this being said, the teacher, the tutor, or the student working alone must thoroughly understand that many of the questions in this course are meant to prompt considerable conceptual interaction. Some are hair-trigger bombs of knowledge disguised as innocent multiple-choice questions.

An adroit and holy teacher will find them of assistance not only in teaching concepts but also in slowly quieting vaguely-formed but no less firmly held preconceptions about "religion" that the student likely brings with him from the culture, or even unfortunately from a "Catholic" classroom or two.

Although this course was written explicitly to allow a student to work alone, without a teacher, in theory that is the most impoverished way to use it, since it does not allow the student to profit from the ideas of others. This course was explicitly written to be taught by someone who knows more than the course teaches directly. Even working with a friend or "study buddy" would probably be better than working through this course entirely alone - it really is meant to be interactive. Some students must work alone, and other students choose to do so, sometimes with good reason. Nonetheless, the theory is still sound - good classrooms will teach this course more slowly, but also more richly. The following explains the method as if a class were being taught; the tutor, or the student working alone, will make the appropriate adjustments to its advice.

The course consists of multiple-choice questions, occasionally interspersed with brief "lectures" that are meant to clarify or expand on concepts that recent questions have made fresh in the student's mind. As to the actual method of this course, the "lectures" should be read aloud by one student, with the rest of the class reading along silently, and may conclude with or without additional comments and reflections as the teacher wishes. As to the questions, treat each question as an entire mini-lesson:

Active student engagement
Full exploration of content
Articulation of full content

The entire question and its three possible responses are read aloud, with all others in the class reading along silently. For example, take this question:

2 + 2 =

a. 2
b. 4
c. 6

The selected student will read aloud, "2 + 2 equals a. 2, b. 4, c. 6."

Active Student Engagement
All students individually but publicly decide on an answer. Each answer is noticed, and it counts. Please observe that the format for teaching this course is not "class participation" - it is not calling on one student out of the class. It is an intensive, unremitting tutorial for each member of the class individually. Thus the teacher must find an efficient way for each member of the class to give an individual, public answer to every single question, one that is noticed, and that counts.

One possible way to do this is to provide each student with three cards on which is printed a large "A," "B," and "C," respectively. To answer each question, each student selects one card, and then at a given time all students simultaneously hold up their selected cards with the printed side facing the teacher, so that the teacher but not the class can see each card (so that all answers are individual, not group, responses), and can quickly record it. There could even be a "game show" flavor to this, with a sort of "full audience participation." If it could be done rapidly, the total "votes" for each of the three possible answers could be counted and displayed to the class, providing an ongoing basis for a mild competition, etc.

A high-tech solution available in some classrooms would be electronic "votes" made by each student individually from his desk, which (after all "votes" are in, thus avoiding "group voting" - i.e., cheating) are then tabulated and displayed on a large computer monitor in the front.

If something like this proves unworkable, too primitive, too undignified, too raucous, etc., the teacher must still find some way to satisfy the four conditions: individual, public, noticed, counted answers to each question. These four conditions provide the basis for a kind of ongoing joint and yet individual tutorial for the entire class and all its members. A teacher of this course must find some way to satisfy these conditions and thus create the possibility of such a tutorial.

American students are typically taught through lectures, "class participation," small-group projects, and individual seat work. None of these are the proper method to teach this course. The class should work through this course publicly and together with the teacher, and yet with full individual engagement from each student, focused on the teacher and the question at all times. Because the method to teach this course may be unfamiliar to teachers, it is worth repeating that the teacher must find a way for each student to provide individual, public, noticed, counted answers to each question. In this way the teacher creates the possibility for a kind of ongoing joint and yet individual tutorial for the entire class and all its members.

Full exploration of content
Now the fun is over and the teacher reveals the correct answer. Then a second very important task begins, one that is far more difficult and conceptually complex. The teacher must engage the class in rephrasing both of the wrong answers to every question so that they become true statements.

For example, a question reads:

2 + 2 =

a. 2
b. 4
c. 6

The rephrasing of the wrong answers to this question are: "2 + 2 does NOT equal 2"; and "2 + 2 does NOT equal 6." Thus: the stem of the question is restated, and then the wrong answer is changed and added to the stem so that the entirety can create a true statement.

These two restatements per question are not a trivial part of the method, and may not be skipped under any conditions. In this way students will learn answers in a fuller context. Thus students will achieve a deeper conceptual understanding than is otherwise predictable - but only, of course, if the two restatements per question are actually done.

The first few questions in this course will seem so breezy and easy that they do not really require "conceptual" restatements. This, of course, is why they are there: all conceptual problems have been relegated to the background, so that the only problem remaining is the mechanics, the formal problem of simply getting the method done correctly. The first few questions are there so that you and your class can practice doing the entire method that needs to be performed for each question - which very much includes the two restatements per question - without any giant concepts distracting you. The initial questions are there so that all of you - you and them - can learn to get along and work together on each and every question in exactly the right way.

Thus, just prior to Question 1, Lesson 1 is the precise time to lay down the law: this is what we are going to do with every single question, the first few questions are very easy to allow us to practice working together using the method, this course forces us to all work together as a class all the time, I am going to insist that we all work together and learn how to do this together, if you don't do it my way every time I will flunk you - in other words, the usual opening speech. Then start. Go slowly. Do not whip through the first questions. Practice learning how to stand each other's mannerisms and work habits. Get the hang of each other, as much as the method.

Also, take it for granted that even in an ideal world, you may have to be the Iron Leader for at least several weeks before your students will enter your classroom actively prepared and willing to work together in the way this course forces them to work. By and large, however much they profit, the method will be unfamiliar to them, not reinforced in other classrooms, and in any event all students can always think of something more interesting than class, remember?

The teacher will soon learn that many students find these restatements quite difficult. This is not lack of intelligence on their parts; this aspect of the exercise is indeed much more difficult. There are two reasons for this. First, it is inherently more difficult to make a negative. It always places a greater "cognitive load" on the mind to formulate and process the sentence, "2 + 2 does NOT equal 2" than to formulate and process the sentence, "2 + 2 equals 4."

Second, the act of making a negative out of the wrong answers requires the mind to try understand what is wrong about those answers.

Thus, the teacher can take it as read that a student who is able to restate the wrong answers to a question as required has begun to understand the ideas presented by the question.

It is not necessarily true that a student who can not restate the wrong answers as required has a poorer grasp of the ideas presented by the question; that is only one possibility - though it is a strong possibility. It could be, for example, that the student's facility with language is too weak to allow accurate restatements of complex and extended ideas.

To say it again: Warning! This course is not for children. Its matter is not for children, and its method is not for children. Although this course introduces the Old Testament as if it were new to the student, the student new to learning should not attempt it. The cognitive load it places on students who have never handled adult-level literate and cognitive tasks is just too great.

The restatements of the wrong answers in each question are the conceptual heart of the entire method. The task of restating the wrong answers to make them true statements is meant to be a far more difficult cognitive task than reading the questions and answers as written, but it is also meant to be possible. Let's be blunt: this course is not designed for students who can not do these restatements. If a student is unable to do the restatements accurately, he should not be using this course.

Again: why are these restatements required? Because they force the mind to try understand what is wrong about the wrong answers. That is, restatement begins the process of developing in the mind the ability to see the right answer in a fuller context, and thus helps the mind achieve a deeper understanding of the meaning of the right answer.

As these restatements are the conceptual heart of the method of this course, it goes without saying that the teacher must ensure that all students have performed them for a particular question before moving on. In a class of any size, individual written restatements - then corrected as needed - are probably necessary, even if tedious. Again, for this course, there is no "class" to be taught, for which the teacher's responsibility is to "cover the material." Each mind in the class must be taught, so each mind must struggle to restate the two wrong answers individually, and then any errors need to be fixed before proceeding. This course is not to be covered, it is to be learned, by the very real minds that happen to be in a particular class as it actually exists. Given that all students begin this course already literate, then your motto must be "all for one, one for all" - you all sink or swim together - and you wait for each other, question by question. That is the way of this course.

An adroit and holy teacher may also find in this phase of each question: full exploration of content, and in the phase following it: articulation of full content, brief opportunities for further discussion, reflection, and even catechesis. That was a hint! Examine the lesson beforehand; plan for these moments. Listen for them. Wait for them. Let them come. This course will gradually give your students a broader and deeper intellectual context, within which even more can be said and thought. The more learned, articulate, and holy you are, the more profit here for your students - but only when those moments come and your students signal that they are ready for them. Listen to your students. Say a very little something, and then see if they want more just now. There can be a kind of calm to sincere academic work together that can encourage these things.

Articulation of full content
Finally, "tell them what you just told them." Re-read the entire question aloud, but this time include in your reading both the correct answer and the corrected incorrect responses. In other words, say aloud the entire true context of the question. Do not skip this step, as it greatly helps to anchor the full context (and thus the point) of the question in the mind. The good teacher will also not forget that the eventual goal is for the student himself to do this articulation.

Our sample question again:

2 + 2 =

a. 2
b. 4
c. 6

Its full articulation would be something like this. "2 + 2 equals 4, it does not equal 2, it does not equal 6." For most questions, there will be a variety, even a multiplicity, of ways to make correct full articulations; any correct full articulation will do. The point is to make certain that the full context of the question is presented all at once to the mind. The keys: the full context of the question, presented all at once to the mind. This allows the mind's "working memory" to receive the entire context of the question as a whole. Those few moments are the fragile, delicate beginning of true learning. Don't neglect them.

To follow my own advice and tell you what I just told you: treat each question as an entire mini-lesson: introduction, active student engagement, full exploration of content, articulation of full content. This complete structure, if followed, will be good medicine for the mind; the adroit and holy teacher will not only find the moments of potential catechesis in it, but will also delight his students with a spoonful of sugar, to help the medicine go down.

IMPORTANT NOTE. The student will encounter most of the questions in this course more than once, even several times, interspersed with others. This is because the goal of this course is mastery and deeper understanding, not "covering" material. It is not this course's fault that current Catholic introductory courses on the Old Testament implicitly base their educational methods on ideas about how human minds learn that are known to be incorrect. By no means is this to say that this course is wonderfully effective. It is only to say that the wonderfully effective courses that it hopes are coming soon will of necessity be more effective because they will do a better job of implementing some of the ideas behind this course, including but not limited to simply ignoring the theories of learning and cognition implicit in current courses.

When ideas are at a student's fingertips, they can be closer to his heart. Further, the ideas at his fingertips are what form his "learned treasure," the concepts he has ready to hand and relies on when he encounters something new. There is a magic elixir that makes these two powerfully worthwhile goals actual in the student's mind. It is time.

Lo and behold, the most astute natural science of our day reveals that our brains are nothing like electronic computers. There is no royal road to geometry, because our human way is not the way of one-time high-speed core dumps to a Central Memory Unit. It is true that memorizing things through short daily periods of drill is a highly effective way to learn certain things and should be used. It is an insult to the student to force him to "discover" addition facts that he needs to have at his fingertips and could learn more perfectly in a much shorter time through memorization drills. Yet even memorization drills rely on accuracy plus speed plus - repetition. It is our human way.

Even more relevant to this course is the fact that our brains learn concepts only through meditation and contemplation; that is, not by encountering ideas but by re-encountering them, over long periods. (This is true even for beginning students learning the concept of "addition"). Ideas are different to us each time they are called to mind. Recent brain research suggests that this is no metaphor. We may not "access" memories so much as recreate them in the very act of calling them to mind. No, we are not very much like present-day electronic computers at all. No doubt this course does a terrible job of honoring these truths, particularly by comparison to the wonderful courses that are coming; but it does at least try to honor them.

Be warned: students are almost inevitably going to consider re-encountering the same questions inexplicable, even degrading to them; boring, and an insult to their intelligence. Thus the first thing the teacher will immediately reflect upon is how instinctively alien and repulsive to the student the current educational system now automatically makes the repetitions of prayer and the solemn repetitions of the Sacred Liturgy.

"I'm glad you remember seeing that question before; now your mind needs to see it today." - a mantra of some sort may help. It may also help the teacher to understand that our minds are much more like our bodies than we had previously thought. Most students and teachers readily see that someone who objects to the repetitions of football practice or dance class or chorus is - well, an idiot. Even more, recall how it feels to do an exercise drill or a dance position or song again. It feels familiar, but still not the same as any of the times before. This is similar to what our minds experience each time we re-encounter an idea. Also, recall that in these physical activities it is the combination of repetition and elaboration over a long period of time that most increases both the sensation, and the reality, of mastery.

The teacher must always remember that this course is by no means the perfect example of the method it urges. Future courses done by others with aims similar to this one will make student practice much more varied than this one can. Their questions won't quite repeat; the ideas will appear in slightly different contexts, even slightly more complex contexts, each time; and so forth. However, these far better texts are in the future, even as one hopes that they are coming soon. For now it will be up to the teacher to provide the additional motivation, and new reflections and ideas, as the questions in this course re-emerge and students call them to mind again.

Finally, the RSV Catholic edition (not the NRSV) and the NAB (not the revised version of it) are approved English translations of Sacred Scripture that are (for reasons this course will shortly make clear) more suitable for use with this course.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

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copyright (c) 2001 John Kelleher. All rights reserved.