Teaching Christian Culture: An Interview with John Goerke of Bishop Sullivan High School
Last month, Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School published an impressive video letter to Bishop Barron featuring a group of smart, joyful students working on videos for their “senior evangelization project.”
Matt Nelson recently caught up with John Thomas Goerke, the teacher who led that project, to learn more about his effective approach to teaching Christian culture and evangelization in the classroom.
First of all, can you give our readers a brief description of the “senior evangelization project” that you assigned your senior theology class at Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School?
Students are to produce a five-minute video documentary about something relating to Catholic thought and culture (about which phrase, see the answer to #5 below). They are placed into groups of three-to-four students, and their first task is to choose a topic. I give the students a primer list of possibilities (Catholic Architecture, music, art; Catholic writers, novelists, and poets; saints; theological principles; etc.), but they are free to choose what they want so long as I approve. We have had videos about the real St. Nicolas, the Last Judgement portico, videos about the founding of the University of Notre Dame (and, yes, “Touchdown Jesus”), Evelyn Waugh, the bleeding host of Argentina, and on and on.
Then comes the work. Research. Show me your notes. Write the script. Let me read it. Re-write the script. Let me read it. We constantly re-worked the scripts to remove any pretentious diction (which students often use out of fear of sounding stupid) and theological error (one group spoke about “capturing the Transubstantiation”—my comment: “Jesus is not a Pokemon”).
As for filming, we go over everything from “how to hold an iPone steady” to “shooting with the rule of thirds.” The students have to show me their footage (kind of like Hollywood’s “dailies”), produce a rough cut (again, like the pros), and then re-shoot certain scenes (like Suicide Squad or Solo—this year’s obvious examples of chaotic productions), and then produce a final cut (which they inevitably procrastinate on, but which—again—is just like the pros: the film reels for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King were still wet on the night of the premiere, editing had taken so long).
How was this year’s project different from past years? What inspired you to focus on film as a medium of evangelization?
I have always focused on film for our evangelization projects, though I think we are the only high school in the diocese that does. Other schools do Mass cards or pamphlets, I think. Film, in my opinion, fits Catholicism really well. God comes to us in the Incarnation: in human flesh. As a result, so many things of the faith are fleshy. Water. Oil. Wax. Marble. Gold. Smoke. Body. Blood. Even our music. A piano is a piece of furniture; an organ is a piece of architecture. These things need to be seen. So we do the video project because film is visual.
As you and your students know, Bishop Barron has famously rallied against “dumbed down” Catholicism. He has simultaneously urged Catholics to rediscover the rich intellectual tradition of the Church, as you and your class have done. Tell us about your curriculum throughout the year. Which books did you read? Which films did you watch? Which among them had the most profound impact on your students?
We worked our way through chapters from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Newman’s Idea of a University, St. John Paul II’s Fides et ratio, the entire Gospel of Luke, René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian, Simone Weil’s essay collection Waiting for God, and C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, with other smaller selections along the way. As a rule, I don’t show films in class (when we watched the G.K. Chesterton episode of Catholicism: The Pivotal Players, we did so in the evening, in the school’s theater). My own high school theology classes were so clogged with mediocre movies (Bill Murray’s The Razor’s Edge stands out particularly) that I just can’t do it.
Certain books helped certain students. While working through Girard and his explanation of scapegoating, for example, I could see the wheels turning in the heads of some of the more, er, socially aggressive students. They knew scapegoating from the inside. They did it. They didn’t so much after Girard. A pleasant surprise to me was how many students took to the Gospels—especially some of the weaker students. Last year we read the Gospel of Mark, and a young man with average to below average grades (who had never shown much interest in my class) was suddenly consumed. I broke the spine on my Ignatius Critical Edition of the New Testament answering his questions. I had always known that the Gospels were written for the little ones. And that they remained absolutely impenetrable to arrogant snobs like the young Augustine. But to see a young man toward the bottom of the class understanding things that the valedictorian was missing, that was a surprise. And a blessing.
Of course, the arguments for the existence of God (particularly the argument from contingency) brought home the reality of God to a number of students. One girl had recently converted to Catholicism and was particularly grateful to know that Catholicism wasn’t merely a matter of belief, but that some things were also knowable by reason.
In your video letter to Bishop Barron, your students showed an impressive grasp of some pretty dense texts written by the likes of Chesterton, Newman, and St. John Paul II. Did your students run into difficulties with the course materials? If so, how did you overcome those obstacles?
Did they run into obstacles? All. The. Time. The key as a teacher is to remember what it was like to be a high school student, and to adjust accordingly. For example, most of my classes in high school (back when I was a student) followed the predictable script: teacher assigns massive quantity of reading (half of Heart of Darkness in an evening, say); students don’t read it; teacher asks questions about said reading; students respond in the vaguest of terms (“I think the river is a metaphor for the flow of life...?”); teacher gets excited because a) he actually thinks the students are doing really deep thinking, or b) he himself is in on the whole stage play that is school and really just wants to go home.
You’ve got to take it slow. Some days I will just ask: “How many of you actually read Chesterton?” When only one third of the class raises their hand, then I stop my planned lecture and I give them fifteen or twenty minutes to read it. Once that happened, we could actually move on and discuss specific details of Chesterton’s argument, and work out misunderstandings. Of which there were plenty. Chesterton writes in a topsy-turvy way. (You can easily imagine him grinning as he writes this stuff.) There is one sentence in Orthodoxy that discusses a man skinning a cat. It took two days before everyone understood what he was saying and why. But that diligence paid off. The skinned cat is now an occasional joke among the students and myself.
Teaching the great classics of Christian culture can be intimidating for both teachers and students alike. What advice can you offer fellow educators who wish to teach the classics, but aren’t sure where to start?
My first piece of advice—and I swear this is not some kind of sponsored message—is to track down a Catholic Studies program near you and to take some courses. For those unfamiliar, Catholic Studies was founded by Don Briel at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN (my alma mater, my hometown). Unlike other catechetical or theological programs, Catholic Studies is inter-disciplinary, meaning that it looks to theology and philosophy and history and literature and law to see “the impact of the Incarnation on human thought and culture” (Dr. Briel’s words). The basic idea is that if Christ has truly entered the world, then all that is human has little hints of him. The advantage of this kind of approach (or one advantage at any rate) is that it situates theology in relation to other forms of knowledge. In other words, a student at Catholic Studies knows how theology fits with literature, history, etc. The practical benefit of this is that I (as a theology teacher) can talk to my colleagues in other departments and understand how their work fits with and complements my work. For example, last year I had a brilliant student who was both an atheist and a killer mathematician. During a visit to our school, Leah Libresco told him that he couldn’t be both, that “mathematicians can’t be atheists.” Not being particularly good at math myself (I only ever got as high as algebra), I sent this student to the chair of the math department. Because I understood the theology, and my colleague understood the math, and I knew where the former left off and the latter picked up, we could help this young man see that the mere existence of mathematical truth was evidence of the existence of God. By the end of the six-week process, he (the student) converted to Christianity. Enthusiastically.
My second piece of advice if you want to teach the classics is to read the classics yourself. Taking half an hour four days a week (I do 5:30 to 6:00 am) to just sit and read something difficult is essential. The list above (in answer #3) is a good place to start. But I would be most remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for the five books that most deeply formed me and my teaching. They are: Fr. Robert Sokolowski’s The God of Faith and Reason, Henri de Lubac’s The Splendor of the Church, Flannery O’Connor’s nonfiction and letters, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and (of course) Newman’s Idea of a University (the long version, with the extra lectures included). Work through those five books and you will be well on your way.