Thursday, May 31, 2012

Another Use for the Athanasian Creed

Many moons ago, young Vicar Anonymous was assigned to teach his first confirmation class.  There was no pre-packaged curriculum from a church publishing company; the pastor's instructions were "Come up with something good, and get 'em ready for me," meaning for his line-by-line exegesis of the Small Catechism the following year.

Vicar A. came up with a straightforward tour of the best-known Bible stories, supplemented by some homework and weekly quizzes.  Not the most creative format, but easy to understand and familiar.

The class consisted of six or eight kids.  They were ten or twelve years old.  None seemed like intellectual powerhouses.  There was one in particular -- let's call him Jimmy; a sweet little boy being raised by his granny -- who had a learning disability of some kind.  He could read, but poorly, and seemed to have no comprehension of what he did read.  For obvious reasons, he spent most of his class time clowning around (which we encouraged; clowning around together has always struck as an important part of the bonding process).

What we discovered, though, was that when we assigned homework, he would come back the following week brimming with details about the reading.  Obviously, Granny was reading the stories to him, slowly and patiently and over and over.  But Jimmy brought more than that to the table.  He brought questions, ideas and insights. He was, easily, the smartest kid in the room, and the one most interested in what we were teaching.

The problem was those quizzes.

They were designed to test the kids on what we had learned that particular day -- the idea being to make it as easy as possible to get a good grade, bolster some self-esteem, and feel good about coming back.  The problem was that the same setup which made most of the kids look good had the perverse side effect of making the one really motivated kid look (and feel) bad.

There were any number of ways around this problem, the easiest of which would have been to can the cockamamie quizzes.  But, for reasons which elude us now, we settled on the same strategy our junior high teachers had liked:  giving out extra credit.  It was hardly necessary; it's not as though we were going to flunk these kids in the ordinary sense, and deprive them of their year-long Catechism class.  (Had the offer been on the table, they might have begun giving wrong answers, in the hope of escape.) Nothing was at stake beyond bragging rights, but we wanted all the kids to have equal access to those.

So one day, Vicar A. announced that there would be extra credit available to anybody who memorized the Apostles' Creed.  A few kids tried, and struggled; Jimmy nailed it in a week.   After that, we announced more credit (a lot of it) for anybody who could recite the Nicene Creed.  Two weeks later, Jimmy came back, and rattled it off perfectly.

Then he wanted more.

Half-joking, we told him that he would get a massive super-dose of extra credit -- a guaranteed "A" in this ungraded course, probably along with a sports car and 72 virgins in Paradise -- if he could learn the Athanasian Creed by heart.

And Jimmy went to work.

Summer break was our enemy.  There simply wasn't enough time between the beginning of his project and the end of our time together.  But by gum, Jimmy got pretty far.  Our memory has grown faint with age, but we think he actually made it through the Trinitarian confession, running out of time only before the Christological section.  This is pretty good.

We don't know if the kid ever got his car or his virgins; we don't even know how he did the following year, learning which things were or were not most certainly true.  But he earned our undying respect.  And we sleep just a little better knowing that there is at least one person out there who will never be fooled by Modalism.

1 comment:

mark said...

Wonderful story.