Sunday, September 11, 2005

Math vs. The Creative Writer

The Christian Priority Of Language

Math is so round
As I lay on the ground
Trees call me

Baffled? I was, too, the first time I heard those lines. We were in pre-calc, sitting in the back row, struggling with some new math thing, when my friend leaned his head back on the chalkboard and spontaneously expressed his bewilderment with that three-line poem. Go figure…

Crazy as it is, this little bit of poetry sets me right up for what I want to say in this post. By bursting forth into verse, my buddy showed me something about himself at that moment—that math wasn’t his natural territory; language was. He was a pretty decent logical-mathematical thinker, but his “primary intelligence” was linguistic.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a little educational psychology. About 20 years ago Howard Gardner, an education professor at Harvard, recognized that different people seem to show intelligence in different areas. Some people are really good with words, others are good with numbers, others are musical, others are relational, others are visual, etc. His theory of multiple intelligences laid out eight different types of intelligence, eight different ways people receive and process information.

The result? Well-trained teachers don’t restrict themselves to the “I-talk-and-you-listen” method of instruction anymore. Thanks to Gardner, now we’ve got hands-on projects, music, group cooperation, art activities, role play, multimedia, inner reflection, and all kinds of other teaching techniques being used in the classroom for just about every subject. If you’re a visual learner who likes pictures more than words, that’s OK: we’ll teach you your way. If you’re more musical than logical, no worries. We won’t press you into our mold.

So far so good. In my last post I mentioned that I’m teaching math to my boys this year. In our first lesson, we played with blocks. We drew pictures. I talked; they listened. I demonstrated; they followed. I queried; they answered. I applied all the diverse methods I could. Why? Cuz I took ed psych in college, and I believe Gardner was right: different intelligences warrant different teaching methods.

Gardner’s influence doesn’t stop with schools these days. He’s also begun to shape how we do church, too, most noticeably in how we preach. A song inserted into the sermon helps drive home the point for musical learners. A video clip or a drama sets things up nicely for those who are visually oriented. Giving each worshipper a little item to represent the topic of the sermon offers those bodily-kinesthetic learners something to touch and manipulate.

But here is where I get a little more cautious. Here’s where I want to inject a little bit of sober reflection into our unrestrained enthusiasm for multiple intelligence theory. It’s not a matter of propriety or tradition or association. None of these reasons makes me balk at the new approaches to public sermon delivery. What makes me uncomfortable is the apparent assumption that all intelligences are equally valuable, equally helpful, equally desirable, and equally Christian.

I disagree. Christianity, it seems to me, places a clear preference upon linguistic learning. Why do I say that? Two main reasons:

1. God revealed Himself in a book, more precisely, a book of words and not pictures. Presumably, He could have waited until DVD technology was available; after all, He waited at least until paper was around. But His choice to reveal Himself in a book says something important about what sort of learning best suits Christian instruction. Historically, Christians have always recognized this, demonstrated by the phenomenon that where Christianity increased, literacy also increased.

2. God can be known most accurately and completely through words. No visual representation of Him could ever convey His glory completely. Subjectivity and ambiguity render images unsuitable for teaching us the most important things we need to know about God. This is the whole point about general vs. special revelation. We need words from God, not just images. In fact, the Second Commandment actually prohibits us from trying to depict Him visually, a clear argument for the priority of language in communicating about God.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me point out that Christian worship appropriately incorporates every one of Gardner’s intelligences in some way or another: cultivating relationships, observing the ordinances (baptism and the communion), singing, self-examination, etc. All of these are integral to Christianity. But there’s a clear priority on verbal, propositional instruction.

So what’s the point?

The minor point is that Christianity doesn't view all the intelligences as equal. We must hear words from God, and I think pastors would do well to uphold that understanding by prioritizing the spoken word over all other forms of communication when they bring the word of God to their people.

The major point is this: cultivate your aptitude for verbal thought. Read. Write. Listen. Work very hard to make your mind more receptive to logical, propositional thought. To my little math students I say, "Devin and Justin, learn your math well; but know that in the end, numbers serve words. We do math in order to do language better. And we do language in order to know God."

No matter what kind of learner you are, cultivate your ability to receive and process words. Why? Because Christianity would survive without pictures or music or numbers. But not without words.


Anonymous said...

Both neat posts, Josh -- was good you wrote them in a timely manner together b/c they fit together perfectly!

Anonymous said...

excellent deduction - someone I live with has always said that reading is much more important than figuring . . .