Rules of the Game

(rev. June 30, 2021)
College is a time of change.... If it is any good, it will come down on you like a ton of bricks. It will make you question every conclusion you have ever reached. It will lead you to deny acres of assumptions and remake them. It will refuse to answer many of your questions, because you are asking the wrong things. It will shake your strong places and blow cold air into all your warm hideouts. It will laugh at your emotions and cry at your humor. It will crowd you into the best you think you can do, and then mock the results and crowd you further. For the first time in your life, you will know that learning can be soul sized.
—Rev. Timothy Healy, S.J., former chaplain, Yale University (via student Julieanne Faas '05)

I teach my classes with several assumptions in mind.

We are a team.

Look at the vision statement on your syllabus. I know that vision statements are the stuff of parodies like The Office and Dilbert cartoons, but I really mean what I say there. We are working together to learn and grow in our common educational task. Your contributions, your silence, your attendance, your absence, your integrity, your failings, and your attitude affect the whole.

You are players.

We are not honeybees or worker ants; we are people. In human organizations, including the Church, success is a matter of leadership and teamwork. Even Jesus, the one truly indispensable figure in any healthy human organization, radically delegated responsibility for the affairs of his Kingdom to his disciples, and promised radical accountability on his return (Matt. 24:45-51). I structure my classes accordingly. We will depend on one another this semester.

Other teammates may serve as helpful standards of comparison by which to assess your own progress; but the point is how we do our task, not how you compare with them.

We are following Jesus Christ, whether or not we trust in him.

What a challenge: to teach the Christian faith in a way that is true to it! Here is how I try:

Jesus challenged everyone, whether or not they trusted in him. I teach this course to challenge everyone too, regardless of how much or little we trust in Jesus. Above all, his challenge is for us to follow him. After all, learning from a teacher demands that a student follow the teacher — perhaps critically, perhaps cautiously, and perhaps only for a time; but following nonetheless. It demands that students practice the subject — perhaps unenthusiastically, perhaps awkwardly, perhaps artificially; but practicing nevertheless. If this were an art class, you would need to pick up a brush, even if you were not an artist. As this is a class in Christian teaching, you will need to follow Jesus, even if you are not sure about him.

This demand may feel wrong to you. How can I ask people to "pretend" they are something they are not? And how can I ask people to open themselves up to ways of life that don't seem right to them?

I am not asking you to pretend you believe something you do not. That would be hypocrisy. I am only asking you to follow: to come along as a fellow traveler and go along with what we are doing for a time.

Besides, stepping into a role with which we are not yet comfortable is something we do all the time. It is how we learn to speak, walk, write, dance, drive, date, marry, parent, lead, teach — to do anything that puts us in a new role.

Christian faith requires what philosopher of science Michael Polanyi calls "personal knowledge": a knowledge gained by participation rather than mere observation. Not to require your participation would teach you something else than the actual teachings of Christian faith (perhaps the watery substitute called "the Christian worldview"). To keep you comfortable would misrepresent my discipline.

Following Jesus is challenging for everyone. It certainly still challenges me! Believers do not automatically have an edge. Veterans do not automatically understand the subject better. The teacher does not automatically have the last word.

We practice what we teach.

At a place like this we are teaching the Christian faith to each other all the time. If I am shallow, then I am teaching that God (or at least a God-follower) is shallow. If you are willfully ignorant, then you are teaching that God or his followers are intellectually vapid. If your roommate is catty, then he is teaching that God and/or his children are cruel. If your classmate is apathetic, then she is teaching that God is irrelevant. (By the way: What are you teaching your fellow students about God?)

Many of us become confused along the way about what Christian faith actually is. Many students have picked up judgmentalism, hypocrisy, heresy, uncritical affirmation, selective ignorance, apathy, compartmentalization, and a legion of other bad habits that they consider part of authentic Christianity. And why shouldn't they? They were paying attention!

All these are serious obstacles. But God is an even more serious remover of obstacles. This class will really work if we exercise the boldness to show healthy faith to each other, the humility to acknowledge and repent of unhealthy faith where we discover it, the discipline to persevere as the good news slowly changes our living and thinking, and the forgiveness to make fresh starts when things go wrong.

You are leaders.

On a team, every member has opportunities and responsibilities for leadership. My American culture respects the benefits of decentralization and delegation in many ways, and it is one of our greatest strengths. But the insight is ancient, and woven into Israel's history:

Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses' father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?" Moses replied to his father-in-law, "It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God." But Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone" (Ex. 18:13-18 JPS).

As God intends that Moses be only one prophet in a kingdom full of prophets (Num. 11:26-30), so I intend that I be only the head of classes full of teachers. After all, "two are better off than one, in that they have greater benefit from their earnings. For should they fall, one can raise the other; but woe betide him who is alone and falls with no companion to raise him! ... A threefold cord is not readily broken" (Eccl. 4:9-12). Your group work together will be critical to our success as a class. Find roles that build each other up.

Some of your groups will gel better than others. Some of you will assume more than your fair share of the work. Others will start free-riding as the pressure grows. Some of you will encounter unforeseen challenges that will burden both you and the rest of your group. Don't run away from the problems! Much of the history of God's people has involved pressure, frustration, issues, and failure as well as relief, joy, resolution, and victory. Don't worry if you feel underqualified. You'll grow in the job. Jesus' disciples did.

I am your coach.

The most intimidating task I face as a professor in a Christian liberal arts environment is to model faithful Christian scholarship. It might ease that task to clear up some misconceptions:

  • I am not an expert and you the ignorant who sit at my feet to absorb my learning. Your startling observations and my carefully hidden blind spots show me I really do not know so much more Christian tradition than you.
  • I am not a captivating orator and you my rapt audience. Your faces and eyelids tell me I bore as often as I inspire.
  • I am not an evangelical genius and you the simple for whom I do the heavy intellectual lifting to defend the faith. Your intelligence and cleverness often exceed mine — to my delight. And theology is about much, much more than just defending the faith.
  • I am not a holy man and you my disciples. We are fellow sinners and (many of us) fellow disciples, and many of you are above me in our school’s latent spiritual hierarchy.
  • I am not a dispensary of grades and academic credit to be satisfied, appeased, gamed, or defrauded so you get what you want or need. I do assign the grades that you earn, but I'm here to teach and I treat you as here to learn. Credit and grades are real but secondary.
  • I am not your personal trainer and you my personal clients. My water polo coach didn't hover over us all season grading every pass and every lap. Often he would give us a task and then return to his office, spot-checking occasionally but waiting until scrimmages or game time to see how well we were doing. His absence gave us space to became responsible. My courses work the same way.

Those are what I am not. I am called to be a teacher – a trainer, coach, and leader in the traditions of my disciplines – and you are called to be players, at least for a season. (If you cannot bear calling me "Telford," how about "Coach"? Students began doing that in one of my classes a long time ago, and I have never felt more honored.)

As your teacher, my goal is to help you learn how to "play" in this tradition. My classes are designed to cultivate a love of the game, sharpen its skills and practices, explain its written and unwritten rules, channel enthusiasm, and encourage faithful creativity.

If (and only if!) learning to play also suggests you that this practice is involved in God's call for your life, — and I think it probably is for most of you — then I have further goals for our time together: conversion, transformation, and sanctification. My leadership aims then to show you how to become a player — someone whose life is characterized by involvement in this tradition — not just for a short trial season, but for a lifetime.

If you keep challenges in your life to acquire and extend these skills — not just for a semester but for, say, ten years — you will become more than players. You will become experts. According to the work of K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University (profiled in an article in Scientific American called "The Expert Mind"),

Motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. It is no accident that in music, chess and sports — all domains in which expertise is defined by competitive performance rather than academic credentialing — professionalism has been emerging at ever younger ages, under the ministrations of increasingly dedicated parents and even extended families. Furthermore, success builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child's motivation. ...

(The jab at "academic credentialing" is well placed. If school were more like music, chess, or sports than school, it would be a lot more effective not just for today's students but especially for tomorrow's.)

The Bible's many stories of unlikely people who became pivotal figures in salvation history bears Ericsson out. Was talent the key to Moses' success? David's? Paul's? Jesus'? It was part of the package, but the biggest part was sheer faithfulness. We who belong to the body of Christ are called and equipped to join them.

Our subject is an activity, not an idea.

Our culture has driven a wedge between what it calls "theory" and what it calls "practice." This allows some people to twist academic learning into irrelevant "head-knowledge," experience into unassailable "heart-knowledge," and unreflective practical living into authentic "body-knowledge."

Divorcing these things is a mistake, and a heretical one at that. To love God with all our heart, mind, self, and strength is one love, not four.

What we are studying is a life, not just a set of facts. It is a tradition. Practice comes first, but it never comes alone. Course material, tasks, and readings will return us to our churches, the world, Scripture, and our own relationships and devotional life. Then they will call us back into the classroom to reflect together on what we have learned. We will challenge the compartmentalization of heart, mind, and strength that debilitates our generations.

Our subject is a challenge.

All this takes work — hard work — because it means we are rowing against the cultural current. The easiest thing in the world for me to do as a teacher would be to reduce these courses to some list of facts you would dutifully duplicate in your notebooks and reproduce on exams in the few days before you forget it all. I refuse to surrender to that temptation. It would both betray my academic field and withhold your education. Ericsson argues that

what matters is not experience per se but 'effortful study,' which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence.

You will get a semester's worth of this, and it will be enough to teach you quite a bit. I hope it does more, though. I want it to kick-start a cycle of rigorous theological spirituality in your life in which you stay challenged long enough to become more than just an amateur theologian:

Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance — for instance, keeping up with one's golf buddies or passing a driver's exam — most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind's box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.

Rather than just heaping facts upon you, I try to train you in ways of seeing and living that are substantiated by rich detail, in the hope that you will grow to see how the little pictures show the big picture and how the big picture gives meaning to the little pictures. As time goes on the details may fade, but the habits and big picture will remain. (If you stay with the subject, the details won't fade, and the habits will get stronger and stronger until you are a new person.)

I choose readings to challenge you, not just inform you. Some will be relatively accessible, others more difficult. Some will contradict each other and even contradict my lectures. All will offer constructive challenges to move you into greater maturity.

This may take some getting used to, because we are used to intellectual fashion rather than genuine intellectual challenge. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, exiled from the Soviet Union as a dissident, had this to say to the faculty of Harvard in 1978:

Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the [communist] East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development. I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era.

Things are so much worse now than they were in 1978.

My class readings confront you with faithful challenges from evangelicals, postmodernists, liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics, atheists, and others. Listen to these voices! Whatever they are, they are not a herd. Christians see things in wonderfully different ways, and unbelievers have much to teach us. Get used to hearing different opinions! People often disagree for very good reasons. Don't flee to either the easy certitude of absolutism or the easy agnosticism of relativism. Those are dead ends, as well as cop-outs. (Yes, there is something else besides these two. You have been relying on it for your entire life. Look at yourself and you might discover what it is.)

I search for well written texts, because the hours you spend reading should bring you delight, and because you will write better if you read better material. (Sometimes I assign my own material anyway.)

Class time focuses on changing you, not just informing or amusing you. In this dark age, college degrees are passports to success, courses are commodities that consume tuition in order to fulfill graduation requirements, assignments are hurdles to be overcome or bypassed, class time is entertainment to be enjoyed or detention to be endured, and an academic transcript is a credential that doesn't necessary signify a true education. All this is a pity. It certainly isn't God's will for education.

In the light of the Kingdom, class meetings are priceless settings that bring us into each other's actual presence and gather us for a common purpose. I try to make these moments of corporate transformation. In class I want us to inspire each other, help each other, learn from each other’s mistakes (mine included), and discover together the significance of our topic.

All my courses involve intensive written and oral communication, whether or not they get GE credit for it. In my lower division classes I require a lot of in-class one-on-one student discussion, and assign regular written exercises in a variety of genres. My upper division courses involve regular student presentations and discussions, and hold writers accountable for writing well, citing sources properly, introducing and organizing your answer, answering the entire question, and drawing on all the requested sources. They also make you edit rather than merely write, and judge fellow students' arguments rather than simply develop your own. So editing makes for more conscientious writing. I strive to ask questions that force you to engage the material in deep, even life-changing ways.


Learning requires lots and lots of practice. Remember, "'effortful study' ... entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence." This article explores the fact that we forget what we learn unless we practice it beyond the point of mastery. Our tasks do what problem sets do in math and science classes: they give you sustained experience in the discipline.

I have been inspired and moved by the sheer dedication of my students in meeting the demands I place on you. After you get over the shock, you seem to love the challenge and appreciate the respect it implies.

Grades measure outcomes, not efforts.

The experience itself matters more to me than the precision of the grades your exercises receive. On the work I evaluate, you will receive much more feedback from group members than from me. The point is not for your work to earn credit; the point is for you to learn and remember the Christian faith.

A typical remark I receive on end-of-semester course evaluations of my grading is "tough but fair." I take this opinion as a high compliment (though many students think I am tougher than I do).

Still, occasionally a student will object that he or she has put in so much effort — (hours! days! even coming to class all semester!) — that a higher grade is in order. Would I please look over my gradebook and see what I can do?

Alas, Karl Marx's labor theory of value — the theory that value is a function of how much work goes into a product — is not how life works: not in America, not in Russia or China, not even in the Wonderland of academia. (Actually, "fortunately" rather than "alas", for if Marx were right there could be no true labor saving devices and productivity could never really increase.)

I sometimes offer extra-credit assignments that explicitly award effort, but I generally measure a student's progress by quality, not quantity, of thinking. Your grade reflects how well you have done, not how hard you have worked. This means that if a lot of hard work still "earns" you only a low grade, you can still be proud of yourself.

As for requests for a re-grade:

If you catch a mathematical or administrative error, by all means please bring it to my attention. I like to fix these!

If you believe the quality of your work has been unfairly graded, feel free to bring an assignment back to me for another look. I warn you in advance that a second look sometimes reveals problems that go unnoticed in the context of a whole stack of similar essays, and if I find them I may lower your score as a result. Not many people come away from an IRS audit owing fewer taxes. You should probably re-submit work only if you are truly confident that I have failed to see its strengths.

If you are just disappointed or frustrated with a grade and you suspect that you have been mistreated, then feel free to see me or write me an e-mail — but I recommend that before you press the "Send" button you wait until some time has passed and you have given both the assignment and your message a second look. You may also want to run your case by your small group to see if they agree with you.

After the semester ends, please do not ask me to raise your course grade by somehow conjuring additional credit out of assignments whose grades you have already seen and accepted. I am not an alchemist and I am not corrupt. Requests like these really ruin a professor's day and reflect poorly on the students who make them.

Our subject is serious.

I try not to take myself too seriously, but I take the course topic very seriously. Every course I teach matters to me, and I want it to matter to you.

Yet this course is not just about you. In fact, it is not even primarily about you or me. It is about the reign of God.

Why am I here? For transformation. Not just my own transformation, and not just yours – and not just any transformation, but the specific transformation of all God's creation in the Kingdom of his Son and Heir.

"Do not be conformed to this age," Paul tells a church he has not yet met, "but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:2). What keeps me going is the sheer joy of the chance to facilitate that transformation. You are offered this gift every day of your life, and right now you are highly favored to be given it in the form of a Christian college education. But transformation must be received as well as given. It demands hard work, patience, diligence, courage to face seemingly insurmountable challenges, personal and collective discipline, cautious submission to the authority of mentors, confidence to step into physical and theological adulthood, trust in the truth, openness to its variety, wariness about its rivals and deceivers.... all you have, in exchange for all you might become.

"Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them ... in proportion" (Rom. 12:6). I am not asking for more than God has given you; but God will not settle for less. The Kingdom’s economy offers us the extraordinary satisfaction of unworthy servants who have still done their work well and faithfully.

We are at war.

There is a reason that in the New Testament military imagery for Christian life is even more popular than athletics. Even after the victory of the cross, Christian life is a battle. We don't walk it so much as run it and fight it.

We don't just fight an enemy "out there." More often the enemies are within: Sloth, boredom, apathy, frustration, incompetence, ignorance, insecurity, cynicism, pride, shame, envy, prejudice, distraction, heroism, cowardice, and impatience. Lackadaiscal standards pervade our educational system to the point that they are often considered cool. Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist, was asked how teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy was different from teaching at his own Cal State school. He replied:

It's been a nice change of pace. In 20 years of teaching, I've never had everyone come to class. Here, nobody misses class. They are all on time, and they all stay. In California, 20% of the people don't come to class. Of those who come, 20% leave early. And another 20% come late. So that's what is different. I'm teaching just 40% of my students.

With Christian life a battle, Christian schools should be more like that military academy than that state school. Yet many Christians have simply deserted the battle scene rather than defeat these enemies from within. No wonder western Christianity is so weak! No wonder outsiders don't take it seriously! Why should they?

The irony is that the enemies are eminently defeatable, because God has given us the incomparably powerful Holy Spirit with which to fight. These enemies prosper not because they are more powerful, but because we refuse to take them on and even lend them our own power.

Don't let the movies fool you: Fighting a war is much more than just engaging in combat. An old military saying goes, "Armchair warriors study strategy, lieutenants study tactics, and generals study logistics." Prioritize your time here on getting equipped, not just fighting with what you already have on hand.

The Christian tradition is always one generation away from extinction, and today many of our churches are closer to that extinction than we have been in a long time. Yet every new day is a fresh opportunity to get our act together and do the work Jesus entrusted only to us as we wait for his return in glory. Every new day the Spirit is here among us to turn the tide in the war already won. What more could we ask for?

Welcome to my class. If a grade is all you want, then when our time together is over and your assignments are all submitted, you can go in peace with a new letter on your transcript and with my blessings. I took classes myself in college that I felt that way about. But if you're after a transformation, an education, a preparation for the only battle that finally matters, then quit thinking of these readings, assignments, and class hours as demands put to you by an overbearing administration and a fanatical professor, and start thinking of them as sacrifices for exchanging who you now are for who God intends you to be — and through you, the whole creation.

Count the cost, and prepare to be changed.