Let’s Have Some Fun, Church History

article-new-ehow-images-a00-07-pc-become-college-professor-800x800One of the great things about being a professor is that you have great latitude–indeed, almost total control–over the shape of the course content, assignments, and means of assessment.  It is a great responsibility but almost a tremendous privilege.

Among the classes I teach here at Northwest University is our two-semester Church History course.  Because it is a General Education history elective and is recommended for our ministry students, the course has a good mix of students…and every now and then, even a few history majors!  Understanding, therefore, that we have a lot of non-specialists in the course, I am trying this semester in “Church29085669 History I” to make the material accessible and engaging to all of those enrolled.

One of the major ways I am doing this is through our upcoming end-of-the-term project.  Students have had to select a historical topic (person, place, idea, etc.) and do some research during the semester.  They are then required to write a 10-page research paper OR develop a creative means of sharing the material.  In advance of the students turning in their final semester work, they will be presenting a thumbnail sketch of their findings and an introduction to their projects next week in class.  I’m excited to hear what they’ll have to share.

Some of their project ideas include:

  • A series of blog entries (imagine that) laid out and written about some of the “Doctors of the Church” (Augustine, Aquinas, et al.)
  • A scrapbook detailing some of the major themes and events of the life and ministry of St. Francis of Assisi
  • A possible film documentary about the life of St. Athanasius


  • A pop-up book about Thomas a Kempis and the Imitation of Christ
  • A lecture and Powerpoint presentation about the roles of women in the early Church
  • A group of songs written from the viewpoint of someone in the Fourth Crusade
  • A possible diorama (!) detailing the martyrdom of Polycarp
  • A research paper about John Wycliffe

I am well aware that the writing of a traditional research paper–while an important exercise in its own right–is not the best way for every student to engage the material.  By being flexible and letting them decide the format their work will follow, I hope students will truly be able to make Church History their own…and carry it with them after they leave.  We’ll see!


Flip-Flopping Now

With President Obama’s reelection, Republican members of Congress have had to come to terms with the fact that at least a part of his economic plan includes raising taxes.  In recent years, the very thought of increased taxation of any kind seemed particularly abhorrent to GOP adherents (nevermind the fact that all this “closing the loopholes” business we’ve heard so much about was basically a de facto tax hike..but I digress).

For most Republicans, it seemed irrevocable party doctrine that taxes not be raised in any fashion.  At all.  Some of this has to do with lobbyist Grover Norquist and his organization Americans for Tax Reform.  According to our friends at Wikipedia, “Prior to the November 2012 election, 238 of 242 House Republicans and 41 out of 47 Senate Republicans had signed ATR’s ‘Taxpayer Protection Pledge’, in which the pledger promises to ‘oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and to oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.'”  Those are impressive numbers.

Since the election, however, there have been cracks in this unified front, as some Republicans are adjusting themselves to the twin realities of a second Obama term, deep domestic economic issues.  Both parties put forward their ideas on taxation and spending during the campaign, and one side lost.  Deals, it seems, are coming.

I have two thoughts on this state of affairs:

  1. I have no doubt that some will accuse those Republicans who are changing their minds of either flip-flopping or opportunism.  It is unfortunate, I think, that we love criticizing politicians for altering their position.  For what it is worth, I believe that changing your mind isn’t a bad thing at all.  In many cases, doing so can be a great virtue and a sign of deep-seated maturity and willingness to do the right thing despite how difficult a break from the past might be.  If the needs of the day are such that going back on a former position is the only way to do the right thing, then by all means we ought to do it.  Even if we will look silly for doing so.  Even if we will be criticized.
  2. For a long time I have marveled on the sometimes intransigence of both parties to make needed changes.  They can each, it seems, be doctrinaire in their own way.  Republicans have been more rigid in recent years with their refusal to raise taxes, but many Democrats and/or progressive leaders can at times seem equally unwilling to consider any substantial cuts in the American domestic budget (remember the fury over Big Bird?)  Within a family household, this would be like earning an insufficient income while expecting to be able to buy more things.  That’s silly.  To be conservative and wise in a family budget means to carefully trim and manage your spending, but also to make sure that you are making a sustainable amount.  Failure to do either or–worse–an embrace of both would lead to ruin.  I know that large-scale economics may work very differently…but still, doesn’t that just make sense?

With a Republican House of Representatives and a Democratic President, we will hopefully see helpful compromises from both sides in coming weeks.  Honest pragmatic leadership is needed…and I think that we are moving towards a deal.  If we are lucky, the decisions made might just be the wisest course and not merely the most politically expedient.  We will see.

Understanding the Story, Part III

As with historical reflection, honesty is essential in my writing and practice of theology even as this same forthrightness is delivered in such a way that helps reframe the Christian life.  Appreciation and celebration of the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition is essential to helping students within our milieu understand the relationship of that particular story to their own.  Beginning in this place provides this vibrant spirituality a platform from which to speak even as it allows “insiders” to feel safe as they begin to explore deeper faithful perspectives and realities just beyond their current understanding.

If mine is truly a “faith seeking understanding,” then such a Weltanschauung must impact all that I do.  My reflections on the place of stories—mine, adolescents’, and those of the world—are vital, as is the deep Christian conviction that their bounds remain set and based upon one’s place in the story of Christ.  Such a faith is at once secure and flexible, unified and open.  In my scholarship this means a deep connection with a practical theology of (his)story; a simultaneously informative and transformative understanding that may just link the apparently disparate patterns of my academic life.  Historical reflection and our personal stories of faith are both revelatory and demonstrative in their own ways and must be continually probed and nuanced to stimulate growth.  The reality of God in Christ precedes and goes beyond both, yet the work of the each is vital in the “in-between.”  Being allowed the opportunity to devote time to such scholarly and practical enterprises at the university I serve is a privilege for which I continue to be thankful.

Understanding the Story, Part II

A “faith seeking understanding” in the field of history means that the discipline is not an all-powerful explanation of everything, but rather much more limited in its scope.  History properly conceived is meant to be read as story, powerful and descriptive.  It invites discovery more about the world around us, leading towards understanding of our existence in light of the existence of God.  Humble yet engaged, we must maintain an awareness of faith that considers it to be the base of all history.  Even so, there must be an openness to honest discovery and growth in the midst of these and related investigations.

With regard to my scholarship in both practical theology and Church history, I feel that taking the perspective of the storyteller fits well with my own “faith seeking understanding.”  Historiographically I feel it is my goal to help others develop an understanding of the past even while being aware that full comprehension is something beyond our grasp.  The writing and retelling of history is often a very personal endeavor as I seek to understand and broaden the narrative in which I find myself.  This personal relevance for me (and, I suspect, all historians) takes the form of those issues which I feel are important: not only religious history understood broadly, but the narrower field of Pentecostal and Charismatic history in which I completed my doctoral research.

Similar desires carry over into my work in the practical theology of youth ministry, where working within and amidst students’ stories is imperative.  As ministers of the gospel we have been charged with announcing a Story that envelops all of Creation–and invites us to join our stories to it.  This alternative to the divergent paths we often trod at once redirects our wanderings even as it values important elements of the paths with which we have been gifted.  Theological reflection on youth ministry for me means working within the biblical worldview and our Pentecostal tradition to think about how students can both gain and maintain a faith seeking understanding, be it at the moment of salvation, during the long process of discipleship, or in the midst of desiring the part of our story that helps define the rest: a teenager’s divinely authored vocation.

Understanding the Story, Part I

A few years ago, I spent around six months with my youth ministry delving into the stories of Scripture.  Borrowing from a curricular approach known as “storying,” the goal was to help students grasp the great narratives of the Bible.  Each week a paraphrased episode was read (i.e. Creation, Noah, David and Bathsheba) and students were asked to creatively retell or interpret it.  They were then asked a number of questions about the text, including their unique observations and reflections on the place of God and humanity within.  I found the freewheeling discussion fruitful and encouraging as it allowed students the space to discuss the Word in their own terms and find their places within and connection to the story of God.  This singular insight is helpful to me as I consider how to bridge the two disciplines in which I teach and write.

When I consider the way in which my faith informs my academic discipline and scholarly work, my mind gravitates to Anselm of Canterbury’s famous dictum fides quarens intellectum.  I take as an axiom the notion that ours is a faith “seeking understanding.”  As such, the starting point of my life and its work is the reality of God in Christ and the story into which He has drawn me.  Perhaps influenced by the Neo-Platonic ideas of Augustine and his inheritors as well as the Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth, I take a relatively dim view of the place of reason in establishing belief and the propositional apologetics that often goes along with such assertions.  This personal understanding of faith is one that seeks not to prove but explain and discover more about the foundation of my existence in Christ.  My story in the midst of God’s story is therefore the starting point for this explanation.  Such a narrative approach has implications for both of the academic fields in which I operate and promises to be fruitful in scholarly work in these areas.  Considered under this rubric, youth ministry as practical theology and Church history both share an emphasis upon faith-full narration that brings them together in a unique way.

As I reflect on the academic discipline of practical theology, within which I understand youth ministry to be a subset, I must admit that the place of the Christian story—and our related stories—is never far from the surface.  If youth ministry is about the various narratives competing for students’ allegiance then it is truly a most vital example of “faith seeking understanding.”  Like all practical theology, it is a discipline that seeks to explain and understand how our faith and theology—truly “words about God”—relates to our practices as believers.  Individual faith stories and larger religious traditions have important roles to play in this conversation.  Within Pentecostalism, for instance, the specialized role and place of the Holy Spirit is but one of the characteristics that will help explicate and define the way in which practical theological reflection upon youth ministry will take place.  From the viewpoint of narrative, therefore, practical theology has a way of both describing and directing adolescent stories towards new ends.

Let’s Get Back to the Good Old Days…By Raising Taxes?

I was blown away yesterday morning after skimming through a column by the NY Times’ Paul Krugman.  In the middle of the piece, he announced that the top marginal income tax rate in the 1950s was 91%.  91%!!!  I had a very hard time believing this, so I did as any red-blooded American would do and “googled” it.

It turns out Krugman was right.

According to fascinating data compiled by the Tax Foundation, if you filed jointly as married in the 1950s the top marginal tax rate looks to have been around 91%.  91%!!!  After the early 1930s, rates don’t seem to have dipped to 50% or below until the middle of the Reagan administration.  Take a look at the chart below (by way of Visualizing Economics):

What is most interesting is that the top marginal tax rates were astronomically high during the very same time period (1950s-1960s) when many consider America to have been doing its best, economically speaking.  Corporate rates were pretty high then as well.

This definitely gives me pause to consider during our current national debate about tax rates and the “fiscal cliff.”

There are, however, a few caveats to my findings.  First, a healthy reminder that the “top marginal rate” is only paid on income that is earned over a certain amount.  So, for instance, in 1955 the 91% rate was paid only on income earned over $400,000.  Adjusted for inflation this is $3,348,950.  A relatively limited pool of people would have earned this much and the only portion of their income taxed at 91% would be that which was earned above the bracket’s threshold.  Others with more normal incomes would pay a much lower percentage.   In addition, I’m certain that–just like today–there were numerous loopholes/deductions that allowed some very rich people to earn a lot of money without paying the rate in question.  This is the way, I suspect, it has always worked.

Yet the fact remains that there was a 91% tax rate in the first place.  Throughout a significant portion of time, the tax rate brackets did not cap out at around 35%, like they do today, but kept increasing in percentage as income increased.  This, apparently, in the “good old days.”  Take a look at the bracketing in 1955 (inflation adjusted) and 2011:

The data is compelling, and may suggest that the Republican argument (which makes sense in theory) that higher taxes inhibits growth may not be true.  Yet because I’m not an economist, I’m certain there are numerous issues involved of which I am not aware.  I look forward to input and discussion on this topic as we look at the numbers together.

By The Measure You Measure…

A few weeks ago, I publicly questioned a fellow minister’s stance regarding politics and the local church.  During the intervening period I’ve received a good amount of feedback, both on this blog and elsewhere.  Last week I even had the opportunity to sit down with the pastor in question and talk through some of related issues.

A detailed list of the contents of that conversation are not the topic of this post.  Instead, just a few words about my reflection on the controversial issues into which I have waded:

After receiving some pushback related to my initial critique, I took a look at words I used and realized that I was not as careful as I ought to have been.  Some of what I said could quite readily be construed as an attack upon a fellow pastor’s entire congregation and all the work it does in our local community.  I have long since removed any potentially contentious lines from the post, and apologize for any offense.  It was not my goal to invalidate an entire faith community, simply to question some parts of the philosophy and actions of its leader.

For those who have read this blog, you know that the catalyst for my original post had to do with how closely I felt that a pastor ought to align him or herself with partisan politics.  I took a very dim view of pastoral political endorsements and the like, feeling that getting too involved in the divisive and often compromised world of the political was not a wise  or helpful pastoral move.  Having reflected on the situation, it has come to my attention that by entering this very conversation and critiquing a fellow minister I myself may have entered the very political world I was deriding.  While the stakes are certainly different, it isn’t as if I am completely innocent of the very thing I am critiquing.

Lastly, after receiving some negative feedback about my post, it became very apparent to me that my words were not simply seen as those of private citizen Joshua Ziefle, but Dr. Ziefle, Associate Professor at Northwest University.  While the school does not endorse or authorize anything that I say on here, as a faculty member of the institution I am considered by many to be a representative of the school and quasi-public figure.  Rightly or wrongly, in the eyes of some I speak for the school…and that means I need to be a little more careful in how I conduct myself publicly.  Interestingly, this was a part of the very argument that I was making against my fellow minister and his particularly vocal brand of politics.  This was a rather embarrassing realization of hypocrisy…but it definitely made for a helpful and hopefully formative discussion with my ministry students.

I look forward to continued conversations about ministry and politics here and elsewhere.  There is even the potential for an on-campus debate at some point.  In any case, I am thankful–and humbled–to be reminded of my own shortcomings in foibles, and look forward to what I hope will be a wiser approach to such matters in the future.