Friday, May 28, 2004

Why I love teaching in Taiwan

Although I got to bed at 3:30 AM or so, and woke up at about 6:30 AM, I have had a great day. I've been praying more. I'm excited about this summer and I feel more secure about the coming year. I'm also very stoked about my new blog and the nigh infinite leaps in HTML savvy I've made since yesterday. I do feel an inner fatigue lurking and slowly rising, but so far I've stayed ahead of it.

My three Viator classes today went remarkably smoothly. This was a huge relief after such an inexplicably grueling week of teaching. Today the students were docile and I had a good sense of what I wanted to teach them, where I wanted us to go. Wonder of wonders, I used my noise control reed only a smidgeon in one class.

The hits kept coming when I went to teach at Chongde. I decided rather spontaneously not to do the usual work with Amazing Stories. Instead I decided to tell -- not read -- my dear students Jesus' parable of the lost son (lost sons?). Before narrating I taught them a few key words: parable, sin, forgiveness, party, etc. I had fun telling it and they were fairly rapt.

I stopped where Jesus leaves us: uncertain whether the older son goes in to celebrate or stays outside sulking. I then explained the deeper meaning of this parable: we are the sons, God is the father. We have abandoned Him for His gifts; we keep ourselves from Him out of contempt for His scandalous mercy. We are far from God, but by and through and with Jesus we can and will be brought near, to rejoice with God -- and all other repentant younger brothers -- forever.

Then I asked my students to discuss two questions in small groups. First, did the older son go in? Second, if you were him, would you go in -- would you go back to God? At the end of class, we took a poll for each question. The results? 19 to 1 the son would stay outside. 14 of 6 would have gone back in (and presumably would be willing to return to the Father). I encouraged them to consider where they'd like to live, both now and forever. With the resentful older brother, outside and as alone as a polished stone? Or with the hapless younger brother, inside, embraced in a love that none shall ever fully grasp? (Different words, mind you, but the same idea. ;) )

I love teaching here for many reasons. Depending where and whom I teach, I'm a celebrity (of sorts). That's nice, as far as it goes. But even better, I can share the Gospel with people for whom such concepts as total human sin and total divine mercy may be truly novel. The best -- or, I suppose, sweetest -- part of teaching today was walking from group to group, asking each student what the older brother did, and why; what they would do, and why. To see their innocent, young faces set so intently on such serious matters -- it was as riveting as it was humbling.

At this point, I can imagine some of my non-Christian peers and coworkers would see such a lesson as a cheap means to religious ends. But since my students inarguably heard and used English, what is the problem? This is not some slippery matter of the means justifying the ends, or vice versa. (As if declaring God's love for all people needed justification.) The means of (good) teaching are themselves the ends of teaching. Teaching is like cutting: the essence, the achieved aim, of cutting is not to reach the cutting board, nor to use only a certain kind of knife, but to cut. Cutting, from a strict philosophical perspective, does not mean a thing is cut clean through; teaching does not mean students learned. Cutting subsists in the act of cutting as totally as teaching subsists in the act of teaching. Teaching, at least in the immediate context of each lesson, does not derive its value from how or what or how much the students really and totally learn (a mysterious idea in itself, total comprehension).

Teaching is valuable because it is an effort to expand people's minds and hearts. Insofar as I did that today, and aim to do that in every class, what does it matter to a fairminded, non-religious teacher what I teach? As a Christian, I have my own reasons to object to certain lesson material. But leaving aside such stale, exclusive, prudish, Christian narrowmindedness, what does it matter what I teach? If propagandizing helpless, "non-Western" -- what a baffling distinction that term is for anyone with a sense of the ceaseless biological and historical intra-permeability of the human race -- if deluding students with arcane, imperialistic dogmatism is so reprehensible, would it be better to teach them about pornography and incest and torture methods? "No, of course not," someone objects, rolling their eyes. "Don't be so melodramatic. Just teach a straightforward lesson with normal, neutral material." Pardon my big pointy white hat, but I'm afraid from here in the dunce's corner I don't know what "neutral material" means. Nothing is neutral. I mean that literally. Literally only Nothing is neutral; Everything Else, and every other thing, is decidedly partisan. Nothing can be Anything because it is not Something. Something cannot be Nothing, but only Something or Something Else. Things know exactly where they stand. A book is a book, not faceless "neutral material." A spoon is a spoon, not amorphous "neutral material." You can not, by definition, teach, think, say, write, do, or be "nothing in particular." Everything that is, is particular. Each lesson is what it is; and if the lesson cuts through a student, it succeeds. If the lesson happens to be made of the golden iron of the Gospel and also cuts, it succeeds all the more.

God, forgive us, we the familiarized.
God, forgive us, we the well aware.
God, forgive us, we the glib spiritualists.
God, forgive us, the equally glib hedonists.
God, forgive us, Your sons and daughters, inside and outside Your joyous house.

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