In Isaiah 6, God calls Isaiah to be a prophet. Most of us, if we try hard, can recall the scene: Isaiah walks into the temple and gets a fright - the LORD God of the Universe is there! (gasp! in His own temple!) Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me, I’m a man of unclean lips living among unclean people!” and an angel comes and puts a burning coal to his mouth…apparently for the purpose of burning out of the sinfulness of Isaiah’s lips. And then God says, “Who shall I send? And who shall go for us [using the “royal we”]?” And every seminarian and missionary knows the next line, “Here am I! Send me! Send me!”
Professional church workers freakin’ LOVE this section of Scripture because deep down inside we all imagine that we’re Isaiah every now and again. But we often forget what God says next:
"Go! and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’" Ugh. Really? And it’s not like we can just sweep this one under the old "that’s only found in the Old Testament" rug. Jesus quotes this verse as well in the Gospels (Matthew 13, Mark 4).
That “ugh” tells us something. It tells us that we can talk about Jesus and about God and it can get lost, misunderstood, or just ignored. It tells us that “understanding” is important - but to what end? and what is “understanding” anyway?
According to the educational brilliance of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, essentially “understanding” is the ability to transfer a thought unit or idea into a new situation in which it hadn’t been contextualized into before. So, when I apply Isaiah 6 to educational theories about understanding, it shows at least SOME understanding of Isaiah 6.
Normally in churches, we see this sort of understanding at play every week in the sermon. The pastor demonstrates an understanding of the text and attempts to bring people into that understanding through the words and devices of the sermon. There are likely other things that the sermon writer is trying to do (inspire, build trust), but this attempt at what Wiggins & McTighe would call “transfer” is one of the key elements…at least in most of the sermons I hear preached.
A typical “Goal Malady Means” sermon structure (popularized in Lutheran churches by Richard R. Caemmerer) will attempt this transfer of the text as a unit of thought in three ways through the duration of the sermon:
1. Goal - Transfer of the text as “what God wants”
2. Malady - Transfer of text as “humanity’s failing”
3. Means - Transfer of text as “Redemptive value”
The desired transfer is the Scriptural text, which is aided by the pastor attempting to show how the text is understood on a conceptual level in every day life. If the sermon fails to do this, to transfer the Scriptural text, the sermon fails to do what a sermon should set out to do.
I was interested in a quote from the Wiggins/McTighe text (Understanding by Design):
"…he [an outside evaluator] asked the class, ‘What would you find if you dug a hole in the earth?’ Getting no response, he repeated the question, again, he obtained nothing but silence. The teacher chided [the evaluator], ‘You’re asking the wrong question." Turning to the class, she asked, "What is the state of the center of the earth?" The class replied in unison, ‘Igneous fusion’"
The quote shows what happens in many churches through many sermons and other teaching events. While the classroom displayed the ability to recognize and repeat jargon, there was no transfer of those thought ideas into real living, such as if what would happen if you dug a hole. Similarly, pastors and other church workers can inform congregations on doctrine and theological jargon, and pat themselves on the back, only to find that there is no real life transfer.
A recent example from University Lutheran here showed that I have some learning to do in this regard. We recently read Luke 10 and the story about the “Sending of the 72” and I specifically asked the question of how this sort of thing still happens today. Most of the responses I received had only to do with foreign missions and the occasional oddity, but not with the lives of the Christians in the room themselves. This can be scored as an epic failure of transfer, and thusly the lack of understanding of the text.
I could probably go on for quite some time as I try to think this through, but what are your thoughts? Where have you seen this sort of “hearing but not understanding” at work in your vocation and/or in your church?
Posted on Tuesday, January 28th 2014