Education Futures Podcast 23: Macy Johnson and building the Introduction to Christianity course

by | Dec 3, 2020 | Education Futures Podcast, Featured

“A lot of passages have a progression of thought, a train of thought, that you can’t just take a car out of the middle and expect it to be of any value. You’ve got to have the engine and every car in between in order for that thought to make sense.”
In this interview, we take you into our course creation process with Macy Johnson, the instructor for our Introduction to Christianity course. Macy was also our subject matter expert who helped organize and build the course. Macy and Rob discuss the major themes of the course and why it was important to create a course centered on understanding others.

Education Futures Podcast: Macy Johnson and Building a TEL Course

Full Transcript

Rob Reynolds:

Hi everybody, Rob Reynolds here with TEL Education ready for another podcast. I’m joined today by Macy Johnson. Macy does a lot of things for TEL and in her own life. More specifically for this podcast, Macy is the lead subject matter expert and editor for TEL religion courses and today we’re going to talk a little bit about our Introduction to Christianity course.

But Macy is also a faculty member with York College and actually teaches TEL’S Introduction to Christianity course. So we’re just delighted to have Macy here. She is a fount of knowledge and experience, and it’s going to be fun to have a conversation about this course.

This is a little bit different than some of the podcasts you’ve listened to that we’ve done in that Macy works with TEL directly and this had a big influence on the development of a course that she actually gets to teach. So this’ll be fun. So welcome Macy and thanks for joining us today.

 

Macy Johnson:

Yeah, thank you. I’m excited to be here.

 

Rob Reynolds:

I always like to begin these discussions, Macy, by having the guests tell us a little bit about their own personal education journey. I think it’s valuable for people to hear how educators and people interested in education went through their own journey to get to this point and why it’s important to them.

 

Macy Johnson:

Yeah, for me it started really young, honestly. I’ve got parents that really instilled a love of the Bible in me and in my siblings. We would do a Bible bowl every year, a Bible trivia competition, and it was always fascinating to me because we would read a story in the Bible that was full of all sorts of characters with weird names and places that I had never heard of and words that you don’t ever hear outside of church, redemption and tabernacle, and weird words that you never hear anywhere else.

You would read through the passages that you were going to be quizzed on and not really understand them. You would have no idea what they were saying. Then you would go and spend all this time memorizing who these people are and what these places are about and where they are and memorizing the definitions of words. It felt really tedious, but then when you read back through the story a second or a third or fourth time, suddenly the story came to life because you understood all of these other things.

So for me, realizing that you could read a text that made no sense whatsoever and then work on it and then understand it was fascinating. So I really developed a love of Bible really early on when my parents encouraged me to do this Bible bowl and studied alongside us for that.

So when I went to college, I went to York College, and thought, “Well I enjoy studying the Bible. Maybe I’ll study it some more.” So I did a lot of classes in Bible, got a degree in Bible, and there I really learned to ask questions about context. Certain passages, especially those that are not telling a story, it’s a lot harder to understand sometimes the progression.

A lot of passages have a progression of thought, a train of thought, that you can’t just take one car out of the middle of and expect it to be of any value. You’ve got to have the engine and every car in between in order for that one thought to make any sense. So learning how to read things in context was really important at York.

Then after that, I went to Harding School of Theology where I learned a lot more about the theoretical questions. I learned a lot of practical stuff too, but really the new stuff for me was a lot of the theoretical, like why do Christians value the Bible? Have Christians always interpreted the Bible the same way? Why do Christians read the Bible as authoritative? So a lot of tough questions about what the Bible is and why Christians value it. That’s my education to where I am today.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Well I think it’s interesting that you talk about that early experience memorizing information, some of it without a full context, and then trying to piece that together. In many ways, I unpack that, that’s similar to a lot of education, just general education that students go through. We tend to, as a society, to present our younger students with a lot of information but not with a full context and we do as teachers use words that our students don’t really understand and that we just expected them learn this stuff and spit it back to us.

 

Macy Johnson:

Yeah.

 

Rob Reynolds:

So I think that’s fascinating. But obviously one of the big pieces there is your parents being involved in tying everything to a narrative-

 

Macy Johnson:

Yeah.

 

Rob Reynolds:

That does provide the context and eventually with that narrative it does make a lot of sense. I love that.

When we started working on Introduction to Christianity at TEL, I know when I first started envisioning what the course would be, I worked within a couple of contexts and within some not constraints, but a framework. One of the things was our courses obviously are taught across a lot of different types of schools and institutions. So it’s a course that needed to be taught at a secular institution, a non-faith based institution, and a faith-based institution, maybe in a public school and a private faith-based school, et cetera.

So in approaching it that way, one of the goals was to try to give people an understanding of what Christianity is and whether you’re a believer or not, and to help people understand what this whole thing is about, why Christians ask the questions they do, what they do, what the Bible is and what their sacred text is like and how that’s important to them to give people some understanding. This is common, I think, across the world, when we regard any religion and any group. From the outside, I think the vast majority of people just say, “Oh, those are those people and I think their book is called something, and I don’t really know much about it, but I’m not sure if I liked them or not.”

So the goal was, regardless, to help people just get a better understanding. Then beyond that, if you were someone who called yourself a Christian, ideally you would gain a better understanding of what you really believe. You might’ve just grown up and just be someone who the only context for Christianity you have is your own family and your own church where you grew up, and there’s a lot more to it than that. We wanted to present that, and if you didn’t to gain an understanding and a respect for what this whole thing is and not to judge Christianity necessarily by the actions of some particular groups of people, even across different periods of time.

That was the goal. You came in after we had just gotten it going and took over as our lead. That was a long introduction there and I apologize for that.

 

Macy Johnson:

No, you’re good.

 

Rob Reynolds:

But start telling me some, or share some of your experiences getting into this and what you think about the course and how you think it’s turned out.

 

Macy Johnson:

Yeah. Well it’s tough because describing Christianity, depending on the era in which you’re describing it, it can be a totally different beast, depending on the century in which those Christians are living. The social settings that they’re responding to and the cultural settings that they’re responding to and the political settings that they’re responding to are going to be totally different. So Christianity morphs and changes in some ways, and then there’s parts of it that stay consistent.

So how do you define Christianity? It’s a tough thing to describe even to people that believe in Christianity. So when I inherited the course, I inherited, I guess, outlines, just topics in order from several different outlines that I pieced together. My job was responsible … I was supposed to go through and just decide which topics are actually important enough to keep. If somebody doesn’t know what Christianity is, what do they absolutely need to know in order to understand when they run into a Christian person on the street?

So my goal in developing the course was to not only describe Christianity, but to make it make sense why it is what it is today and why Christianity is what you hear when you interact with a Christian, having known nothing about it previously. So a lot of it was just picking which topics are most important, which teachings are so central to the Christian faith that no Christians go without those teachings. There’s a very small bunch.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah.

 

Macy Johnson:

There’s a lot of teachings that depending on what denomination you’re from might be different, then there’s which people are most important, which Christian thinkers, which emperors that were persecuting are most important, which philosophers affected the way Christians viewed their faith the most, so that it shapes what Christianity is today and then which historical events. You’ve got the life and death of Jesus, but then after that which historical events most shaped Christianity as it is today.

So a lot of it was just determining topics that were most important and which ones I think personally are most interesting. A lot of it was my personal choice, like, yeah, maybe that is important, but we have limited stuff to talk about so I’m going to pick the more interesting topic. So a lot of it was just what do I think would keep people’s interest? What would be most helpful with somebody who’s never interacted with a Christian if they run into a Christian, what kinds of conversations might come up and how to prepare them best for those discussions.

 

Rob Reynolds:

I think that’s good. I think one of the things in there is for people to realize who haven’t looked at one of our courses, we divide things into what we call lessons, which each one is a self-contained concept that we cover. There are usually 60 to 65 of those in a traditional TEL Course. That means you’ve got about 65 topics that you can cover and make it through in a given semester and these are all of a certain length.

You’re talking about, in this particular course, starting with the creation and you’re giving 16 to 18 of those lessons up to just getting to the founding of the church. Then you’ve got the rest to cover from, we’ll just say roughly 100 CE to today. So you have a couple thousand years, and now you’ve got to try to do that in about 45 lessons and that’s an awful lot of history and culture and philosophy and science and everything to cover in that period of time. It’s like world civilizations crunched into that brief period of time. So yeah, that’s tough.

So there was a lot of choosing, and I think that is the approach. I like the question you said, so what will make the biggest impact for people who don’t know what this is and can explain best who these people are today-

 

Macy Johnson:

Yeah.

 

Rob Reynolds:

And what they believe and how they are. So let me switch gears just a little bit, because let’s talk about the present time. We could talk about the impact and the importance of Christianity in a lot of different ways in the 21st century. People living in the United States are probably sensitive to some particularly different ways that Christianity has developed and in some of the different factions that exist, whether you’re a mainstream Protestant, a Catholic, whether you’re an evangelical, et cetera, conservative evangelical.

So as you look back now and you go through the course, how do you think the course will help people deal with the real differences that people see out there and hopefully help them not say, “Well, I don’t really agree with what that person is doing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what Christianity is.”

 

Macy Johnson:

Yeah. A lot of it I think has to do with learning to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. We try really hard to paint a picture of the setting that Christian is facing or those Christians are facing in a historical setting.

You might not like that Martin Luther broke away from Catholicism. You might think that there should be one church and that unity is the most important thing. But look at the Catholic church that he’s trying to be unified with. You look at the corruption. The lesson on the papacy and the corruption among the Popes reads like a soap opera. Just some of the stuff they do is horrible. They’re not good people and they’re demanding unrighteous actions from a lot of people.

So if you’re in Martin Luther’s shoes, maybe it’s not the best choice, but it might be the only choice. So trying to put people in those historical characters shoes and get a feel for the kinds of situations that they’re facing, the kinds of controversies that they’re facing and why you might choose one over the other, trying to help people understand the setting in which these decisions are being made. It’s not like these people are just picking topics out of thin air to pick a fight about. They’re real on the ground issues in their daily lives, a lot of them.

You look at the liberal Protestants, where they basically throw out everything that is uniquely Christian and still call themselves Christian. But they’re trying to make Christianity applicable for the modern man. How do you make a text that’s 2000 years old or older in some parts relevant for people today? They’re trying to figure out how to apply their faith.

So a lot of it is just recognizing you don’t have to agree with all these people, but recognize that every Christian throughout history has had to wrestle with how do you apply an ancient faith to a modern scenario, to a modern life, and trying to figure out what you value most and what things need to be emphasized most in a culture that may or may not appreciate those things. So a lot of it is just trying to get people to see those historical settings and those historical decisions through the eyes of the people that lived through them.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah, and I think our goal with the course, again, as we continue to evolve and do revisions, the idea was to have this initial set of modules and lessons that introduce people to what do Christians say, what do they believe in general. Then start with the sacred texts that it started with and their beliefs and their teachings and their history as this foundation, then saying from that foundation, every generation trying to deal, as you said, to make it applicable to where they are, they’ve made tough decisions. Sometimes they made decisions looking back that we’d say that was a really bad decision. You should not have done that. But realizing-

 

Macy Johnson:

Sometimes they develop on those decisions.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah, exactly. Then how-

 

Macy Johnson:

Sometimes they go further in the same direction.

 

Rob Reynolds:

That’s right, and how it evolves. Switching gears just slightly, you’re one of our editors in subject matter experts who also then has to come in and teach the course she worked on, which is fun. I guess that’s good. Sometimes when you inherit a bunch of other stuff, you can always blame it on the other people. I didn’t write this text. You didn’t write everything, but you do know what’s in it. So as you’re now in the role of the instructor, and you want to share things but also look at some of the assignments that students are doing, what would you point to, what would you say that stands out or is a driving goal that you have in doing that?

 

Macy Johnson:

A lot of it is just to get them to read the Bible critically, and by critically I don’t mean negatively. I just mean using their brains. Because it is, a lot of it is so weird and we don’t use those kinds of words, we tend to take just one verse out of context. A lot of it is getting people to read it and then think about it.

So one of the things we do is we have a couple of discussions that they have to read through a scenario and then decide out of multiple choice, how would I respond to this scenario? One of them, we’re dealing with multiple Bible verses that seem to contradict each other. So how do you as a Christian, supposing you’re a Christian, the scenario puts you in the shoes of somebody who’s a Christian even if you’re not. But how do you decide which verses are most important? How do you decide which verses help you to interpret the other versus? How do you decide which verses are authoritative and which ones are just situational, and trying to decide when the Bible doesn’t always seem to agree with itself, how do you decide what it is that Christians actually believe and how Christians should act?

Then there’s another discussion question that we look at one passage that doesn’t seem to contradict any other passages but that could be interpreted multiple ways. I think that one’s on the governing authorities. Christians are told you need to be submissive to governments basically. Well what do you do with that when you’re in Nazi Germany? Does that go along with all of God’s calls for justice? If you’re submitting to the government in Nazi, Germany? What about in civil rights era USA? Is it just or right for you to submit to a government that is treating people unfairly? So there’s a lot of questions.

But then there’s also times that you’ve got Christians in empires that are killing them, that are persecuting them and they’re saying, “You know what? It is my job as a Christian to present the faith in a good light and therefore I’m willing to die in order to not look like a bad citizen. I’m going to do my best to be a good citizen, but I’m not going to raise my hand against an empire even if they’re killing me.” You can see both arguments.

So I think it’s fun to read those passages and go, “Okay, what does this look like in real life? How do you think about this passage today? What does it look like to live out this command?” So a lot of it is getting people to think critically, getting people to ask questions about Bible verses and try to think about them a little deeper, not just at face value. Because sometimes we can be misled by our first instinct when we read a verse.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Right. No, I think that’s great. You’ve mentioned this several times, but the real value, one of the real values of a course like this is critical thinking. You teach people … For example, if you’re taking this course and you happen to be a Christian we’re asking you to think critically about your own beliefs and about the texts that you do and to really ask questions and to try to have a deeper understanding and to really internalize that.

If you’re not someone who is a Christian, we want you to look at this and say, “Okay, I can think beyond the slogans and the headlines, et cetera, that I may have read or what I heard from someone else and come to my own rational decisions and understanding of this, and if nothing else have an empathy and an understanding for these people and what they believe and what they’ve been through and what they do.”

So two quick questions as we wrap this up, probably not quick actually. I lied. There’s something in the commandments about that.

The first one is, and I’ll ask this one first, as you look out as a person of faith and a scholar, and you look out at where we are in the 21st century today and what you see happening in Christianity … I’m not asking you to be an expert on everything happening in Christianity all over the world in the thousands of different groups, but as just what you see for at a high level, what do you wish for Christians as an organization, as a faith, as a religion, that you think, that one thing that you think would really help people move forward and to be more and to be more fulfilled, more successful, whatever.

 

Macy Johnson:

Yeah, that’s a good question. I would say if I had to pick one thing, I would probably say that Christians today tend to have an over reliance on politics on both sides of the spectrum. A, I think that’s divisive. I think people who share a common faith disagree politically and therefore don’t fellowship with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. So I think that is divisive.

But B, I think we tend on both sides of the aisle to assume that the government needs to do what the church is called to do. That my job as a Christian is to vote in people who are going to do what the church needs to do rather than just doing what the church needs to do myself. I think as Christians we’re called to care for the poor, we’re called to care for the unborn and that is on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

But I think that as Christians we can cut politics out and just say, no, this is a Christian belief and therefore I’m going to act on it. I still can vote my conscience, but I don’t necessarily need somebody in political power who’s going to accomplish what the church is called to do, because that’s my job. I’m the church and therefore I’m going to do it whether the politics of the day are doing it or not. That would probably be the big one in my mind is thinking, okay, I think we need to be less political.

 

Rob Reynolds:

No, I like that and that’s very well said. I’m thinking back to from in the course where we take from whether it’s the people of Israel and the phases they went through to become a nation and then the divided kingdom. But the whole time, the teachings they were getting and what they were doing were, while they often, if you wanted to see a message related to that, well they often were crying politics, politics, politics, the message coming back to them was you’re misunderstanding what the purpose is. What makes you the nation of Israel isn’t politics.

 

Macy Johnson:

Yeah.

 

Rob Reynolds:

It’s a higher calling and something you’re supposed to be that’s beyond the constraints of time in this particular situation. So no, I really love that.

So last question, you’re also helping us as we develop these next two courses. We’ve got Old Testament coming up and then New Testament, and it’s fun to think about in terms of we did Introduction in Christianity and now we’re going really straight to the sacred text and doing that. So how do you view those courses, just quickly, and think of all three of them together, but what do you think is important in developing those courses out in the general education sense?

 

Macy Johnson:

Well a couple of things. One, I think it’s important to tell the story in a simple enough way that it’s understandable. Because the story that the Bible covers is thousands of years of history and all sorts of weird names and weird words, same reasons I didn’t understand it when I was reading through a lot of it the first multiple times.

I think a lot of it is telling the story in such a way that it’s simple enough to understand and that it captivates people. I want to tell the story in such a way that it’s interesting and that they want to know more, especially the story of Jesus.

So for me, a big thing that I’ve been working on in developing these courses is being sensitive to cultural concerns. What I mean by that is missiologists, people that study mission work. I’m sure you know what that is but I don’t know that your audience does. People who study mission work tell us that the cultural values of people affect which parts of the Bible, which parts of the story of Jesus are most important to them.

In the West, there’s been a massive cultural shift in the last 30 or so years. Younger generations don’t think like older generations do. That’s not good or bad, it just is. There’s a massive cultural shift. So when we tell the story of Jesus, we need to be sensitive to a culture that we were not teaching to 30 years ago.

So particularly, one of the things that I have found to be most influential in my own life is when we talk about honor and shame cultures. Traditionally in the West, wrongdoing was always viewed as you’re a generally good person but you’ve done some bad things and you need to be forgiven and Jesus takes the punishment for those bad things so that you can live a righteous life.

That’s not a wrong way to talk about scripture, but younger generations tend to view wrongdoing a lot differently. Wrongdoing is seen as I do bad things because I am a bad person deep down inside. I do shameful things because I am shameful. So a lot of the questions that we’re going to be asking in the Old Testament and New Testament courses are what kind of person are you? Okay, what kind of person is God? What kind of character qualities does God have? Is he loving or hateful? Is he generous or stingy? Is he spiteful or compassionate? What kind of a God is he? What kinds of character qualities does he have and how does that compare to your character qualities? Are you always loving? Are you always gracious? Are you always compassionate? Are you always slow to anger?

So asking what kind of person you are, and then when we get to the story of Jesus, what does that look like? Is it possible that Jesus could change who you are deep down inside? That he’s going to be able to change those character qualities that you have that are not so honorable into more honorable character quality so that you come out on the other side as somebody who is loving, who is gracious, who is compassionate.

So I’m getting really excited for the Old and New Testament courses, actually. I’m getting really excited.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Well I think one of the things, and that’s a wonderful response by the way. I think one of the things that excites me is either way, whether you’re a Christian or not, having the big picture, understanding this is what a group believes and this is their story to coming to those beliefs and here’s how they apply them.

Even at a high level, one of the things I love about the Old Testament is, or sometimes not, is that when you ask someone who’s a believer about the Old Testament, generally speaking, their eyes glaze over except for a few particular little stories they remember when they were a kid growing up. They never got, and this is people who sometimes went to Christian colleges and universities and took a bunch of courses, they never really walked away with a sense of, and you had this and this and it’s about one minute or two minutes of saying, and this is how the story and all the way past the divided kingdom.

Then the exile, coming back and how they prepared for that, and then the fall of Jerusalem, the whole thing. But why that matters and that how that is representative and how that affected people’s faith and what they thought about themselves. In fact, there are so many things in the Old Testament that actually answer, and we see direct examples of what you just talked about, how different generations saw their relationship to God, to the law, et cetera, and how they interpreted that either as we’re bad people or we did some bad things, hey, cut us a break, et cetera.

This is nothing new. This has been going on forever and it’s great. I think when people can get that, and really get it in a digestible and understandable nugget, they can say, “Wow, I’m not alone out here. People who’ve been struggling with this for centuries and millennia and I am part of this tradition and can do that.”

So I’m super excited that you’re doing this with us. I appreciate it, and I think this is a real opportunity to put something out in front of people that they can get just a better sense of what this is all about.

My concern, and this is pretty much not just for Christianity, it’s for other religions, it’s for history, it’s for so many things, is that we’ve come to a point where people aren’t willing to learn more, to think critically and to understand. People just say, “Well I’m not interested in that,” or, “I don’t like that.” They don’t know anything about it, but they’re willing to say that.

So I’m hoping that with your work, that at least Christianity, we can get people to take that next step and say, “Well what is it?” You don’t have to like it, but what is it? Make sure you really understand and think critically about it and understand your neighbor better because your neighbor may believe in that. How do you learn to get along with them if they think a little differently than you do?

 

Macy Johnson:

Yeah.

 

Rob Reynolds:

I appreciate everything you’re doing with this, Macy, and the work is terrific. I got a call from someone today who had been going through one of the lessons in Introduction to Christianity. They had been reading on the web. They said, “Yeah, I really liked your stuff on the early church. That’s really helped me understand something.” I go, “Okay.” We win. That’s exactly what we want to do.

 

Macy Johnson:

That’s what we like to hear.

 

Rob Reynolds:

That’s what we like to hear, is that people can read through, they can get it and go, “I now have a better understanding of what this is all about.” Well we let you wave your magic wand. I hope that actually that will happen, that people will think more critically and not be as political.

But in the meantime, we’ll keep on developing more courses for them to take and understand. Hopefully in the future, one of the ones we want to do is we want to move more into biblical languages.

 

Macy Johnson:

Yes. I’m very excited.

 

Rob Reynolds:

And I think we a lot of ways to do that, so we’re excited to keep going. So thanks a bunch, Macy. I appreciate all your help.

 

Macy Johnson:

Yeah, thanks a bunch.

 

Rob Reynolds:

All right.

 

Macy Johnson:

Talk to you later.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Talk to you later.

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