Connections: Scholarship and Teaching

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Guest column by Mark D. Baker, Ph.D., professor of mission and theology, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary

How does my research and writing enhance my teaching?

Sometimes the connection is obvious. For years I worked slowly on a commentary on Galatians in Spanish, and as I progressed in the commentary the quality of my course on Galatians improved. Sometimes the connection is very direct. Students read my latest book, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, in the Issues and Theologies of Mission course that I teach to undergrads and seminary students. Yet to say that providing a textbook was the connection between my scholarship and teaching fails to capture the breadth of the contribution. My knowledge about honor and shame increased significantly and I became even more aware of those themes in the Bible. In one way or another content from that book enhanced every course I taught this year.

I could list other, obvious, connections between my scholarship and teaching that are important and significant. What especially excites me, however, are surprise connections. For instance, a former professor of mine, Bill Dyrness, invited me to write the article on “salvation” for the Global Dictionary of Theology. I was honored by the invitation and glad to help him out in this project. I did not, however, foresee any contribution to my teaching, since this was not new material for me. Bill and his co-editors, including Juan Martinez, were committed to make this book truly global. Not only did they invite authors from around the world, they brought together authors from different contexts to work on the same topic. In some cases this meant having two articles on the same subject, but in my case we would have one joint essay. Bill instructed me to write a draft and send the manuscript to South African theologian Clint Le Bruyns for his input.

Although I had sought to include themes from other global contexts, my Westernness was still apparent—or perhaps better to say my lack of Africanness. Clint inserted words and sentences throughout the essay such as “life in its fullness,” “communion,” “all of creation” and, the most frequent addition, “community.” Although humbling to see things I had missed, it also excited me since he emphasized just the sort of things I tell my students characterize African contextual theology. I got even more excited when I thought, “I will have my students in Global Christian Theologies read the manuscript that, thanks to Track Changes, highlights everything he added.” I asked the students to observe what he added and reflect on how it relates to our differing contexts. Anyone can read the published essay, but my students have had a special learning opportunity through seeing an earlier draft.

Yes, scholarship enhances my teaching, but it is not unidirectional. Students’ questions stimulated what will be my next research project. And, it is not just research and teaching, but also practice. The three intertwine. Partnership in mission is something I worked at as a missionary, and a theme I teach on. Several years ago I was doing research on the particular area of money and partnership. I wrote a book review on John Rowell’s, To Give or Not to Give? Rethinking Dependency, Restoring Generosity, and Redefining Sustainability. The review is a line in my curriculum vitaescholarship. But it is so much more. That summer I went to Peru and applied new ideas from the book as I worked at partnership with a small Peruvian ministry. While scholarship and practice are intertwined, it does not stop there. A few weeks ago I used the Peruvian experience as a case study in a class. Students read a narrative of the history and complexities of my relationship with the Peruvian ministry before my 2008 trip. Then, after my lecture on Rowell’s and others’ ideas, they developed a set of recommendations for what they think I should have done. Then I tell them what we actually did—the partnership covenant we established—and what has happened since.

Just as I advocated in that instance for interdependence in mission partnership, there is interdependence between my practice of ministry, my scholarship and my teaching. Each one benefits from the other two.