We’re welcoming Dr. Mark Eckel back to the Teachers Lounge podcast and the Curriculum Trak blog today. Dr. Eckel is a longtime friend at Curriculum Trak and is both a direct and an indirect influence on many Curriculum Trak schools and educators. We did a series of podcasts with Dr. Eckel a few months ago, and so I’ll encourage you to check those out here, but we’re bringing him back today to focus on a specific topic.
Michael Arnold: Thanks for doing this again, Mark. Welcome.
Mark Eckel: Thank you so much. I’m glad to be back.
Michael Arnold: Last time we talked about a wide range of things as I mentioned, and today we want to focus more on being wise in our approach to instruction. Paint the picture for us. Why should we use wisdom in our approach? Or what does that look like?
Mark Eckel: Sure. Everybody knows this. Our world is changing rapidly, so we can talk about this in terms of ethnic issues or sexual issues, or cultural, governmental, educational–it doesn’t really matter. These shifts are tectonic. That is, these plates literally exist under our feet and they are moving as we speak.
There is a constant barrage of new information, of new approaches to life. One example would be Chat GPT, the artificial intelligence learning system, which also allows us to write as well as to speak, which means that I won’t have a job soon because they’ll just plug in chat GPT and kick me out of the classroom.
Although I don’t think that’s going to happen, ultimately what was once accepted in the past is now passé and it’s considered outdated. These kinds of changes have shifted so rapidly in a culture that really begs for ethics. If we mention something culturally inappropriate, if we even question something, just asking a question can put us in the line of cancellation. So the question I think for Christian educators is, how do we navigate this? How do we prepare ourselves to instruct in the classroom and prepare our students for living and working with others with beliefs that are so different from their own? What kind of content and methodology do we employ to help students think biblically about those kinds of ideas and issues?
Michael Arnold: I think it goes to the heart of what a lot of teachers are concerned with right now: How can I prepare my students for what’s next when I didn’t even see what I’m dealing with today? How do you define this term, “wisdom of approach”??
Mark Eckel: The centerpiece of those words is the word from which we get our generic word wisdom, and it was a word that was used throughout the ancient near Eastern world. So when the Hebrews were using it, everybody else knew what that meant. And I think that little principle by itself is instructive.
When we talk about education, we need to think more about how we can connect the wisdom of scripture. And of course, that ends in that wonderful statement at the end of Proverbs 1:7 that wisdom and knowledge begin with the fear of the Lord.
I think that’s where we begin. We begin to see the wholeness of life from a Hebrew point of view. And let me expand that idea of wisdom before I get to the word approach. The word wisdom in the ancient world literally meant order. Nobody wants to live in chaos unless, of course, you’re the Joker in Batman. Then everything is open and things get bad quickly. But generally speaking, we like order. We like stop signs at the end of a street. We like general laws that limit people’s opportunities to hurt us. So all of that I think is important.
Michael Arnold: You refer to the Hebraic Christian worldview, which I think is somewhat different from the term we commonly use as biblical worldview, which is the buzzword right now in Christian education. Would you just compare the two terms and let us know why you prefer Hebraic Christian worldview?
Mark Eckel: I don’t necessarily see the distinctiveness between the two. When we talk about a biblical worldview, we’re talking about the 66 books of scripture, Genesis through Revelation, and the source of wisdom coming from that. But the reason why I use Hebraic Christian is because I want everybody to understand that there’s a First Testament, which is where God communicated His word to a group of people called the Israelites, His nation of Israel. The second group that He communicated with is the Christian group. That’s why I use First and Second Testament when I talk, instead of old and new.
I think it’s important to highlight the Hebraic aspect of this first because all of our basic understanding of thinking properly as Christians in 2023 is based on Genesis 1-11. The wholeness of the scriptures and the wholeness of life was communicated in Genesis 1-2, and then of course the degeneration in Genesis 3 and following shows what we’re still living with today. I want people to understand that it comes from a Hebraic tradition and that that can be found in the first books of the scriptures.
Michael Arnold: Biblical worldview is very valuable as a term, but I think sometimes we fall into this trap of using the Bible to proof-text our way through our beliefs, whereas I think your term, sends the message that we need context.
Mark Eckel: Yes, I absolutely agree and it’s the reason why I use it. In fact, I was just writing this morning in another venue on social media, and somebody was asking me about the veracity or the truthfulness of something as it relates to scripture. And I was pontificating a little bit in my response and I said, all interpretation comes down to context. And then I said, the three most important principles of context are: 1. context, 2. context, 3. context. So if you want to find out about something, you need to find out about it within the setting in which it took place. That’s why when we study scripture, we need to find out what did it mean for them back then before we find out what it means for us now.
So Bible studies that only ask, What does this mean to you, are really not the way to study scripture. The way to study scripture is to go back to the text and find out what it meant to the people on that day.
Michael Arnold: Sorry for the distraction. You were telling us about the wisdom of approach, and you’re about to tell us about approach.
Mark Eckel: From approach, I actually do a whole session in my reading, writing, and inquiry classes at public university by helping students to understand how to come at communication or how to have a discussion with somebody. And I literally use Emily Dickinson’s poem “Tell It Slant.”
So for those who may not know the poem, I’m actually going to share it because I think it’s really valuable.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Now, the key to that is that we don’t force feed people. We don’t come at people with a preaching mentality and set up our pulpit. Rather, we find ways to come at discussion points or opportunities for conversation where we’re looking for a way in. And sometimes it’s a word, and sometimes it’s an attitude, or sometimes it’s a news item or some event that’s just happened.
A good example of this in scripture is Luke 13 where Jesus is accosted by some Hebraic people, and they say, “Pilate just killed a whole bunch of people down here and this is really bad. What do you think about it?” (Now that’s Eckel’s free translation, of course. Go check it out. Luke 13, the first few verses.) And Jesus’ response is absolutely amazing. He says, “You ought not to be too concerned about what’s happened to somebody else, but I tell you the truth, unless you repent, you too shall perish.” And then He says, “What about the people down in Siloam where the tower fell on them and 17 people died? I tell you the same thing, unless you repent, you too shall perish.” The whole point of that passage is that we’re all living on borrowed time and what we do with time is what’s most important.
So back to the term approach. When we talk about approach, we’re talking about a method, a way in, a bridge that gets me and my message to an audience that may be totally different from who I am.
What I pound the pulpit on all the way through my course is to tell stories. The more you can tell stories that make a point, the better off you will be.
Michael Arnold: I think most of us feel like Christianity is a minority in our culture, at least here in the United States. Yet stories could be disarming and inviting, and so I think that’s great advice. But what biblical principles establish a more Christian response when we do disagree with people?
Mark Eckel: Let me pick up on your idea of minority because that certainly was true in Second Testament teaching. We certainly find that the church was in the minority, certainly persecuted throughout the first 300 years of its existence, and of course since then as well, right up through today.
I think what’s important for us, though, is to read books like I Peter, where we understand what it was like to live as the minority. Remember that I Peter was written under the hobnail boot of the totalitarian political system of Rome. So you just couldn’t do anything that you wanted to in the nation of Rome. This was nothing like the United States of America today. If you were told to do something, then you had to do it, and if you didn’t, then you might lose your life because of it. So what does Peter say? He’s very clear about being ready to have an answer to everybody who asks of you the hope which is in you. But the key words are at the end, which often get misplaced or at least not read: And that is with gentleness and respect. So how do you come across to people? What tone of voice do you use? What body language? What facial expression do you use with people? What word choice do you use?
So many stories to tell about this. This semester, I had a young man who was the only Christian in both of my classes that I taught, and he wrote this piece, which was very much pro-life, and it was fine. But he kept using the word leftist all the way through it. I brought him up and I said, “Look, if you’re going to have a conversation with somebody, you don’t want to turn them off by calling them a name. And that’s a name. That’s going to turn people off. Where did you hear this word? Why did you use it so much?”
He said he hears it all the time at his home. And I thought, if there’s a lesson here, certainly it is this one: the kinds of words we choose to use even at home are important.
It is not our job to bring someone to a place of conviction. It’s just our job to communicate effectively. It’s the Spirit’s job to close the deal, but how are we kind, how are we winsome? How are we attracting people to the gospel? What kind of message do we give off, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 3:2, that we are epistles known and read of all men. So what are people reading in us when they talk with us?
Michael Arnold: And I think it’s important to underscore for our listeners here that we’re not just talking about the strangers that we might meet when we’re on an airplane or out at the mall. But these could be the very students we have in our classroom.
The Christian school is not the bubble that it was even 10-15 years ago because our culture is less and less biblical or Christian than before. So these kids are coming from homes that have a very different perspective. Reaching out to them and preparing them can be a struggle. How do we prepare our students for what comes next when we have to, first of all, figure out maybe what false ideologies they’re embracing through the homes that they’re coming from?
Mark Eckel: All of that’s very important. I really do highlight this idea that somehow we bear the responsibility as communicators. I see older Christians sometimes disparage or give dispiriting comments about young people. And quite frankly, we only have ourselves to blame if they’re the ones who are bringing forward these ideas. Where’d they learn them from? It wasn’t just TikTok. They live in our home, so that makes a difference.
Michael Arnold: And we can’t teach the students that we wish we had. We have to teach the students that we actually have. But how do we go about preparing the students so it’s not just the changing culture that they’re coming from, but the changing culture that they’re going into.
Mark Eckel: Yes. I honestly believe that one of the great theological concepts that we need to employ is the idea of common grace. So when we think about some of the ancient texts, this comes out of the book of Exodus, but also mirrored again in Matthew 5 and then Acts 14 where Paul says that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.
We need to find ways to communicate the common grace that’s essentially embedded within creation itself. Let me go back to the book of Genesis again. In Genesis chapter one, the verses highlight at least 15 principles that we can find that establish baseline ideas. So I mentioned one of them earlier, the idea of order. The idea is that there are certain things like the sun and light, for instance, that have certain jurisdiction over certain periods of time and things, and so each one is designated a task to do. When we find those generic, common things, and we know from a biblical point of view that they are literally embedded in God’s creation, I think that’s the way that we help train young people to think about this.
A classic passage in this regard, I think would be Proverbs 8, beginning of verse 12 through the end of chapter, where wisdom is actually personified. It literally comes to life and it begins to speak. God is saying, “Look, this is the way I made My world to work, and you’re better off by actually following the way My world works in the way I made it to work.”
Michael Arnold: So those truths that are embedded in creation, the way God has designed His world to work, can lead us to some common ground. I like that. I think the skepticism and the agnosticism that we’re going to have in our classrooms. It seems to rear its head a lot when you’re starting to talk about scripture. Some teachers are a little bit afraid of losing control of their class. How do we offer grace? How do we make a safe place for doubt, for skepticism, for concerns that students are naturally going to have? If we open the door to that kind of questioning, then we lose control of the narrative. We lose control of the conversation. What are some of the difficult questions that you would encourage teachers to anticipate or to be prepared for? What are some of the questions that you have a hard time answering?
Mark Eckel: I’ll answer the last question first, and then I’ll get back to the classroom. The two questions I think that are most difficult for me are how and when. I pretty much know what I believe. From my vantage point, I know why I believe it. Some Christians don’t, and I would certainly encourage that process. If you don’t know why you believe what you believe, that would be a concern for me. But knowing what and why, just assuming those two, my concern is the method that I’m going to use, the how am I going to communicate this if I’m in a conversation, if I’m in a classroom, if I’m speaking to an assembly of people. And then the when, that’s hard with the timing of communication.
But let me get back to the classroom because I think this is going to be more helpful for teachers. In the classroom when I was teaching in the nineties, let’s just take that place where you were at Lenawee Christian School in Adrian, Michigan. I was there for 10 years, 1989 to 1999. And when I was there, one of the things that I was doing was bringing in pop rock music and playing the songs. Let’s say for instance, if we were talking about the purpose of life, we would play these songs, and – these are ancient days, of course, when we’d use the overhead projector – I’d project the words up on the screen for everybody to see while they’re listening to the music. I think you create a safe space for people by saying, You know what? I listen to this music. I want to understand it from a Christian vantage point.
I think the worst thing we can do in the Christian school classroom is to be afraid of engaging the things that our students are involved with. If we don’t give them that safe space, then where else are they going to have somebody listen to them? Maybe you might be the best Christian influence they’re going to get. I think there’s the crux of the matter, that we show care and generosity to students. There’s no problem with that. This is what Jesus did. He went to the publicans and the sinners. He was with the prostitutes. If he was in our world today, he’d probably be frequenting a bar to have a conversation with somebody. I know that might be jarring for some Christian teachers to hear, but nonetheless, when you read Jesus within the context of the places where he was, He wasn’t going to church services. He was with the people. That’s really important for us to recognize that the people who are our closest neighbors are going to be in our classroom.
Michael Arnold: Meeting the students where they are and being willing to engage with the culture– how valuable is that?
What other advice would you give to help a teacher just be more wise in their approach to engaging their students?
Mark Eckel: Let me just pick up on something you just said because I think it’s the crux of the matter, and that is meeting people where they’re at. Who did we learn that from? We learned it from Jesus because that’s what He did. And so we’re literally mirroring His discipleship processes. When you think about Mark 10, for instance, when Jesus is meeting with this person who is obviously a pagan thinker, who’s obviously concerned more about material wealth than he is about anything else, and Jesus tells him, “Go sell everything and then follow Me.” The guy can’t do it. I have great respect for that. It would be really hard if your whole life was wrapped up in material wealth and somebody told you to get rid of it all and go be poor someplace. Wow. That’s tough stuff. So Jesus taught us to meet people where they’re at, and I think that’s really a crucial concern.
But let me fast forward to answer your question here. The questions that are hard for me are the how and the when I mentioned, but I would also suggest to everybody that Acts 17:11 is really powerful. Here, the Bereans are compared to the Thessalonians and it says that the Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonians because they went to the Old Testament to see if what Paul was saying was true. The ultimate one word definition for me of education is ownership. I have always striven to get my students to own their belief system. My job is not to proselytize. My job is to help students to own what they believe.
I was always designing ways that would get my students to do project-based learning. I could tell you lots of stories about different ways that I did that, but I’ll just give one example of this. In my students’ senior year, I would have them go to the public university and they were supposed to ask college students questions like, What is truth? What is real? Who is Jesus? That kind of stuff. And they would come back and they would communicate this in the class. Everybody would do a five minute spiel, maybe do a little clip from their video, and then talk about what they learned.
It was then that students realized, Hey, this isn’t just coming from Eckel. This is real world stuff. These are the kinds of people I’m going to be working with and living with in the future, and I better get ready for this. Bible teachers bear a real responsibility in the Christian schools, not only to set the precedent for modeling what it means to do biblical integration, but also to come forward with their own specific personal and relevant applications to how to do this with unbelievers.
I think it’s really important that young people get a sense that we shouldn’t be afraid of the world. Understanding, yes, we’re the minority, but there’s nothing new about that. Just read the Bible. Don’t be afraid of that and then learn how to communicate in a way that’s going to be attractive to people.
Michael Arnold: That idea of ownership is so powerful. What is true? Let’s own it and let that shape our thinking and our values and our morals and our future.
Mark, I appreciate your wisdom and your experience. I always drink deeply from the water that you’re pouring out here. So thank you for that. Let’s shift. We’ve talked about a constant state of change that we’re living in the world today. What about the future? As you look ahead, what would you see as the future of Christian education, especially as teachers embrace this role to engage their students where they are, and prepare them for an ever-changing future. What would you say to teachers today?
Mark Eckel: I would say all you have to do is look at the period of time between the testaments. So you think about this, Malachi was the last prophet and the next prophet Matthew was not speaking until 400 years later. What should we learn from that? If there is nothing else we learn from that, we should learn patience. So are we expecting this thing to be done in our lifetime? Are we going to see fruit from our labor in our lifetime? Maybe not. Maybe the thing that we are doing right now is going to be something that’s picked up a hundred years from now.
My responsibility is to serve God’s purposes in my generation. That’s it. Whether I get to see the fruit of that labor or not. I desperately want to! I’m like everybody else. I want to see something that’s come out of my labor at the end of the day besides graded papers, which by the way, I’m actually doing right now with students.
We need to communicate both resolve and restraint in the world. For example, I have very strong political beliefs and positions, but I don’t stay there because I don’t think that’s where Jesus was coming from.
When I think about the ultimate end of Christian education, I would say it rests on the two words that I believe in, that I operate on, and that is excellence and benevolence. So do I do my work really well so that when people look at the work that I’ve done in K-12, in university, in higher education and my dissertation, they can say, that stacks up with people from Cornell, from Harvard, from Princeton. That piece of writing could be read any place and appreciated. I think that’s what excellence is.
Benevolence is, how do I care for people? How do I show them great generosity and grace, even when they don’t deserve it? Some of my students don’t deserve it, but my responsibility is to give it nonetheless.
So I think if we operate in the arena of excellence and benevolence, generally speaking, then we not only bear the responsibility of what scripture is teaching us to do as teachers, but ultimately then this forms a pathway forward for anybody who is in our classroom.
Michael Arnold: Thank you very much, Dr. Eckel. This has been informative, encouraging, and helpful. We appreciate your time today.
Mark Eckel: Glad to be here anytime.