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Faculty and Staff: Stephanie Sandberg

Statement on the integration of faith and teaching
Stephanie Sandberg

As a Christian and a teacher, I find no greater satisfaction than when I am able to teach and integrate my faith with my discipline. This is actually the reason I chose to come to Calvin. I was wholly dissatisfied with the compartmentalization of University teaching. I was forced at the University of California Santa Barbara, to treat each student as a number, just another cog in the machine. I aim to see each student at Calvin as a unique individual, created in the image God. But I also know that these students have struggles, are sometimes grappling with issues of faith, and searching for their vocation in life. As I teach and work with students, my goal is to listen and to advise, to guide them through some of these difficult questions. For example, two years ago I was teaching Communication and Culture to a group of honors students. We deal in this class with difficult questions concerning the paradox of nature and nurture. The question is often asked as to how religion and faith fits into a cultural perspective on life. A student in this class raised the tautological question: "Are we not just purely cultural beings, determined by our socialization?" This is a longstanding query in the field of cultural studies, but his raising of this issue prompted a fruitful and interesting discussion about faith and culture which I now use as a cornerstone of the course. This student continues to struggle with his faith and while I cannot make up his mind for him, we can have the difficult discussions and I can be a witness to him through my own belief.

I once had a parent ask me at "Friday's at Calvin" how it is, exactly, that I integrate faith with teaching. When I was put on the spot, in front of parents and students, I realized how complex this issue is. It's not just beginning class with prayer and devotions, but it goes much deeper­ from the way the course is organized to the level of discussion, to our manner of approaching critical interpretation of texts. It affects absolutely everything in the class. In addition to this, it is not a fixed process, but is constantly changing from semester to semester. Every time I teach a course, I recognize new ways to integrate faith with teaching, as with my example of the discussion of faith and culture.

Even more specifically, my Christian Reformed perspective influences all that I do in the classroom. In each course it is my pedagogical goal to help my students understand this world, this culture in which we live. In addition, it is my goal to help students see how the disciplines of theatre and communication fit into a Reformed liberal arts education. When I arrange the syllabus for my Introduction to Theatre course, I create a series of discussion questions for each play or essay we are reading and/or seeing. These questions are designed to focus not only on issues related to dramatic structure, aesthetics, and genre, but also on faith. We study the nature of tragedy in relation to Christianity asking questions such as, "How, in tragic structure, do we see God's design?" The same can be said for the genres of comedy, tragi-comedy, satire, parody, farce, and non-traditional styles. There is never a class period that goes by without focusing on some issue of faith in relation to the topic. However, I will say that such issues are not always overtly stated. I see what I teach as so specifically integrated with my faith, that I don't feel the need to preach a Reformed perspective in class. Instead, I direct the discussion not only to disciplinary issues, but also to issues of faith. It is my goal that these discussions deal with these aspects simultaneously rather than separately. Issues of faith should be full integrated with issues of disciplinary study.

With each separate class, the same goals are relevant although executed differently in each case. I mentioned the struggle I continually have with integrating issues of faith into my advanced Theatre History seminars. As I was preparing this course just this past summer, I came upon these words from Our World Belongs to God:

The rule of Jesus Christ covers the whole world.
To follow this Lord is to serve him everywhere,
without fitting in,
as light in the darkness,
as salt in a spoiling world.

Theatre too has often defined itself, historically, as both light and salt to the world. I realized in reading this passage that I should teach not only the struggles between Christianity and the Church, but also the areas where the goals of the theatre and the Church overlap. This is much easier to do when teaching Medieval and Renaissance theatre where the connections are sometimes quite obvious. It becomes more complex when we reach the beginning of the Modern period in the mid-Nineteenth Century. Just this semester I tried an approach where the students read excerpts of autobiographical material by playwrights dealing with issues of faith. We discussed these excerpts along with the play. The result has been some very exciting discussions about issues of faith in relation to the development of theatre. As a specific example, we read George Bernard's Shaw's preface to Major Barbara where he condemns the church for not teaching the power and majesty of Christ's life. While Shaw's words might on the surface be a direct challenge to the Church of England, our discussion in class centered around Nineteenth Century ecclesiastical legalism, Victorian moral virtues, and scientific inquiry leading to a profound loss of faith for this playwright. I plan to continue searching for such fruitful avenues of discussion where the theatre can enlighten us about cultural and historical issues that are central to an understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

On Faith and Scholarship

As with my teaching, my faith informs every aspect of my scholarship. My life belongs to God, so as I work for Him, I try to choose scholarly projects that will fulfill His will. As a writer, I have chosen to work on a book on the integration of faith with theatre. This has been a particularly fruitful project not only for my career development, but as a teacher and director. In my research, I have learned more than I ever imagined possible about the history of the church in relation to theatre and I've been invited to speak several times on this subject since starting the project. This benefits my teaching directly, enabling me to better integrate faith and learning. On a different level, it has set apart from secular scholarship. This has proven quite difficult at times when, for example, my graduate school advisor told me this past summer that I should choose a more "scholarly topic" ­ that somehow issues of spirituality and faith were not scholarly. I feel, sometimes, separated from my secular colleagues and yet I know that this is a part of my calling as a Christian.

Directing for the theatre is also a great portion of my scholarly endeavors. There are two ways that the Reformed Christian perspective influences my work in this area. First, it informs what plays I choose to direct. I try to choose works that are both instructional and entertaining ­ works that challenge the status quo and enlighten us about the problems and pains of living. On the same level, I try to choose plays that are under-recognized in the canon ­ works by women and playwrights of the past who have been traditionally overlooked. The reason for these choices the great cultural mandate of cultivating God's creation. God created history as much as he created the land, the animals, and the earth. In my vocation, it is my duty to cultivate the past, to dredge up lost texts and new texts that speak to us in a fallen world. This doesn't mean that I'll direct any forgotten historical play or any new play just because it's new. Each work I direct must first be a strong work of art, one that probes a human problem with wisdom and clarity.

Then, as a director, it is my task to cultivate that play as well as the students and designers I'm collaborating with. My goal is to draw out the meaning of that work through the collaborative process of creating theatre ­ working intensely in rehearsals and design sessions to create the best possible production. In the theatre, diverse (and sometimes difficult) personalities come together for the same purpose. The director's job is to create an ensemble environment, onstage and off. This involves the work of creating a strong sense of communication, sorting out conflicts as they arise, and learning to love even the most difficult people. There is no easy way to do this, but I believe God has enabled me with the gift of directing. While the end might be rewarding, the process is very often a struggle ­ a struggle both to collaborate and to see each person as an image of God.

Let me end by saying that my scholarship and my teaching go hand in hand. It's difficult to separate them from one another in any distinct manner because I feel that I am doing scholarship in the classroom and yet I also feel that when I direct or write, I am also teaching. The element that draws all of my vocational activities together is my faith in God, the loving creator of Universe who has given me these gifts to use in His service.

Background

As part of the reappointment and tenure process, Calvin College asks faculty members to reflect on the relationship between the Christian faith and their calling as a professor. Professor Sandberg's primary area is theatre.