Teaching Liturgy to Undergrads

Perhaps it is of interest to Pray Tell readers to get a window into how my thinking continues to evolve about teaching liturgy to undergraduates. (I’ve been doing it for 20 years now.)

This fall I’m teaching “Christian Worship” to undergraduates at the College of Saint Benedict and St. John’s University. The first Christian theology course required of all students at CSB/SJU is an intro; the second requirement can be in one of several areas of Christian theology, such as liturgy in my case.

Openness. Over the years it has become increasingly important to foster an attitude of openness and of respect for all students, no matter where they come from or where they are in their search for meaning and purpose. It’s become clearer to me that we’re not in Christendom (where everyone is Christian), nor are we in preconciliar ghetto Catholicism (where all the students are Catholics church-goers). My task is not to rage against the forces of history and strive to reconstitute what is forever gone. It is to present the content of Christian theology, and give witness to my own Christian convictions (and doubts), as a resource for students of all beliefs and levels of interest to make use of as they wish. Clarity with the students about all – and about expectations and standards – is helpful. For the first time this fall, I put together an introductory PointPoint to show the students. I’ll share it with you: CW Fall 2018 Intro PowerPoint

Paperless. I’m perhaps one of the last people in the Western hemisphere to make this move, but I’ve moved almost entirely online and stopped using printouts unnecessarily. For the first time this fall, I didn’t hand out the syllabus – it’s online. I don’t need to print out the roster to take attendance – our online learning management system Canvas is the place to do this. “Handouts” are projected on the screen, then posted to Canvas for students. It still feels funny to walk into class without a stacks of handouts. (I still print out my class plan though. And I think I’ll print up and hand out quizzes when we get to that.)

Putting meaning and values up front. I used to do just one introductory class, then dive into the course content – history, theology, etc. I now spend six class sessions at the beginning of the semester on questions of meaning, values, purpose of life, how people’s beliefs differ, how people arrive at their beliefs, how people can be inspired and challenged by those with differing beliefs. Students do polls and studies (not scientific, but impressionistic) in which they interview CSB/SJU students not in the class about their beliefs, their worship practices, why they do or don’t go to church, what they get out of worship, what aspects of Eucharist are important to church-goers, and the like. Students are asked to interview one atheist (it’s hard to find one on campus though so I allow them to ask anyone they know, or to do a google search to find a first-hand account of an atheist) to learn more about how people have arrived at this stance. We do exercises on what Christians can learn from atheists and agnostics, and vice versa. Students are assigned articles and studies in correlation with these assignments. My hope is that this context at the beginning of the course will help students to be interested in and to appropriate the content of the rest of the course.

Texts. I use three primary texts, which are supplemented with many other resources:

Ramshaw is an excellent  introductory text. It does something that is hard to find in theology textbooks: it is rooted in Christian faith, but presumes nothing and is accessible to students of all faith backgrounds. It is ecumenical. I will tell students that it is mainline, perhaps slightly left-leaning (which judgment perhaps says more about me than the book), to help them make their own judgments about the material. Cooke is thoroughly Rahnerian: existentialist rather essentialist, starting with human experience (including experiences of faith) more than with neoscholastic categories. LeGall is a bit traditional(ist) in his Catholicism, and his book provides beautiful color images and poetic reflects that provide an aesthetic entrance to his topic.

I really think about content and assigned texts in terms of Rahner and Von Balthasar. I see value in both. I find that more Rahnerian approaches are well-received by students, and they appreciate beginning with very human experiences of relationship and meaning. But I harbor concerns that such an approach, in the hands of latter-day followers of Rahner, can degenerate into overly subjectivist anthropocentrism that falls short of confronting people with the full reality of the Gospel’s claims. (I have a good bit of Barth and Von Balthasar in me.) I consider the LeGall book to be more Balthasarian – it simply asserts the beauty of the message on its own grounds, “from above” as it were. The reader is invited to contemplate something which is perhaps foreign, but also alluring. The danger here, I suppose, is that the message is made to seem archaic or irrelevant. It’s a risk worth taking, and I’m curious how students receive the LeGall text, including the assignment to spend time contemplating the glossy color images.

Moral Therapeutic Deism. I find Bernard Cooke’s Rahnerian project to be compelling, and he has helped me think more deeply about my own Christian convictions and attempts to worship God worthily. But I can’t decide whether his approach is the way to make sense of sacraments in our day, or whether it is rather a coping mechanism for those (like me) who grew up in the Catholic ghetto which gave them their commitment to Christianity, but are on the lookout for a contemporary rationalization for their convictions once they’ve seen their classical and neo-classical presuppositions collapse. If it is the latter, then Cooke is just the thing for older Catholics but useless for young, searching, faithful Christians. I don’t think it is that, and when I’ve used Cooke before I have found him engaging and helpful for young Christian (and other) students. But I harbor some concerns that students’ appropriation of Cooke will reinforce a loose, flabby Moral Therapeutic Deism. So why not take on the topic directly? This semester, for the first time, I’m doing a unit on MTD. We’ll discuss what it is, why it seems appealing in our cultural context, what its strengths might be, and why it is problematic from the standpoint of orthodox, liturgical, sacramental Christianity. My hope is that this unit will help clarify students’ thinking, and to make clearer what is at stake in the claims made by the Church that God in Christ is acting – powerfully and effectively – in the Church’s sacraments.

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Each class is unique, and it is always interesting to see each semester what the group dynamics are like this time. It turns out that the group of young people I have this semester are all Christians, all coming from church-going background, 2/3 Catholic and 1/3 Protestant, almost entirely Lutheran. (I invite students to share this information anonymously if they wish, but never ask them to identify their personal beliefs unless they choose to. Almost all of them do so freely.) Because so many in this class grew up attending Sunday Mass plus weekday Mass at Catholic school, or Sunday worship plus mid-week Praise and Worship, the class as a whole grew up attending worship more than five times a month on average. Now, as college students, their average is about half that – in several cases, because churchgoing Protestants do not have Protestant worship available to them on campus and choose not to attend Catholic Mass. So: they are much, much more church-going than most young people in the U.S. They also seem extraordinarily interested in the topic of Christian worship and ready to learn about it and discuss it. I look forward to a great semester! We start Ramshaw on Monday.



  1. A couple of comments:

    I’m largely paperless, but any readings that I post online (which are generally not many) I require students to print out and bring to class, since I don’t allow the use of computers in class. On the plus side, they submit all their papers electronically, so they save printing costs that way. I also give online, open-book quizzes before each class, as a way of encouraging them to do the reading.

    On the question of whether the Rahnerian approach speaks to younger people, I share your concerns. Though I think in some ways Rahner is a better theologian than Balthasar (he’s much more dogmatically careful—coming up to the line but rarely stepping over it—whereas Balthasar is pretty doctrinally freewheeeling), his project strikes me as a kind of “internal apologetics” intended to help those who were brought up in a robust Catholic culture retain their faith now that that culture has collapsed. Balthasar is, I think, more likely to spark the interest of the postmodern nihilist (i.e. the typical 21st century undergrad).

    1. Thanks for your reflections, Fritz. I totally agree about “internal apologetics,” which I pointed to in my comments about whether Cooke is mostly for old people like me rather than searching young people.

      I’d rather go more Balthasarian in the mix of what I typically do with undergrads. But in my experience it doesn’t stimulate interest or curiosity as much as I keep expecting it will. When I share Gregorian chant recordings, videos of ‘high church’ liturgy, etc., I hear things like “boring, outdated, off-putting.” Maybe it’s a regional difference, Midwest vs. East Coast? I don’t know. I also find that most of the Catholic and mainline Lutheran students are not impressed by super-relevant megachurch approaches either. They honestly seem to respond best to what most of them are still familiar with – a fairly standard, predictable, not-too-exciting video of a Catholic or Lutheran liturgy with fairly soft contemporary music, maybe just a bit of rhythm but not too much.


    2. Hi Fritz,

      A note on paperless. I’ve always required students to print out and bring assigned readings to class. (I got about 80% compliance at best.) I’m playing with not doing that this semester, tied to a pedagogical shift about student learning outside and in class.

      In the past I did too much of assigning long readings (which college students should be able to do), but I sensed that many of them didn’t do the reading it so I’d use class time desperately summarizing a reading they didn’t do. (I also did other, I hope more helpful, things during class.)

      I’m now trying to be more intentional about the learning they are expected to do outside class. What’s the goal, what are they expected to learn, how is their out-of-class time a good time of learning? I use up to 15 minutes at the end of class preparing for the out-of-class experience, raising questions, arousing curiosity, giving background, clarifying what students are expected to do. Then, I use the first part of the next class almost entirely unpacking their submissions about the reading in which they demonstrated that they understood the reading but also analyzed, applied, critiqued it.

      I intend only to do limited review of the reading. (I’m still doing surprise quizzes so that a bit of fear will motivate them to read.) For this review, they won’t need the entire printout. I will project on the screen important passages in the reading as a springboard for clarification of key concepts – especially those which I noticed need clarification based on their online submissions.

      Today I’m projecting a quote from Emerson and a poem by Dickinson from ch 1 of Gail Ramshaw, 100,000 Sundays, to talk about 19th c. transcendentalism/individualism. We’ll talk about possible relationships between spirituality and religion. I will drive him that the concept of mediation by church and sacrament is the central thing rejected by the transcendentalists.

      We’ll see. I may adjust my plans as the semester progresses.


  2. It doesn’t surprise me that people like what they are familiar with. Traddies can talk all they want about the Traditional Mass, but for most people “traditional” means what they grew up with, and for most Catholics under 30 that’s David Haas and Marty Haugen.

    1. I don’t think it would actually surprise a lot of traditionalists either.

      I will say that recordings of traditional liturgy are not really the way to go if you truly want honest opinions. Traditional liturgy is very sensory and needs to be experienced so that it can “wash over you” and “sweep you up into it” (to borrow phrases I’ve seen others use). While I’ve met people for whom it “just isn’t their preference,” or who like it “once in a while,” I’ve never personally met anyone who didn’t appreciate traditional liturgy who wasn’t already ideologically predisposed to disliking it.

      Also, at least in Catholicism, it might seem too visually foreign since traditionalists and “high church” types tend to shun a lot of post Vatican II aesthetics due to understandable historic reasons. The most unusual – but perhaps accessible – Traditional Latin Mass I ever attended was a one-off put on by a local church for a Marian feast day shortly after SP was issued. It had virtually no “traditionalist” influence in the way it was conducted. The priest wore the type of glittery drapey vestments I grew up with and all the music came from a standard hymnal (I forget which one, but a Gather or JourneySongs sort of book). There were no “little red missals” or headcoverings. The hymns were traditional (Hail Holy Queen, Immaculate Mary), but that’s standard in the Midwest for a Marian feast. The Mass setting was the “Jubilate Deo” setting found in every hymnal (and the choir didn’t realise you are supposed to sing the Kyrie nine times rather than six) with psalm-tone propers. The most unusual thing is that they did the Alleluia verse as it would be done at an OF Mass: the cantor sang a typical “Alleluia” three times, the congregation responded three times, and it was followed by the Latin verse. It might have been the Celtic Alleluia, but I forget.

      Not the most startlingly beautiful Mass or anything, but the beauty and numinosity of the old Mass still shone through.

  3. View from the Pew:
    Regarding: “(… And I think I’ll print up and hand out quizzes when we get to that.); reference to note taking in class from the syllabus.
    – Hurrah! Any practice at penmanship (not necessarily cursive) is a good thing. It is still a necessary form of communication especially when someone is annotating, by hand, for latter photo copying, a liturgical text for choir, or other participants.
    Regarding: Exams.
    – Perhaps replace an exam with a project (group or individual) where the students consider a writing a liturgy to be used in a space station where there are no ordain clergy. Or, compose a liturgy for beings for whom organic substances are poison.
    Regarding: Two topics for which there is probably not enough time…
    – Jewish origins of the Eucharist liturgy.
    – How does modern physics, such as quantum physics, affect our understanding of liturgy and sacraments?

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Anthony. I am curious about one statement in the PowerPoint: Use of laptops is not allowed. For the sake of your more effective learning, I ask you to take notes by hand.

    Do you allow students to take notes on a tablet, using a stylus, for example? Or does “by hand” mean “pen(cil) and paper”? And can you expand on why laptops impede effective learning? (I think they can interfere with it, both for the laptop user and for those nearby, annoyed by the clicking keys — but would like to understand your experience here.)

    On a more substantive note: can you say anything about what you cover on the nature of symbols — symbol-making, symbol-using, humans as the makers and communicators and readers of symbols? I would think that undergraduates who live partially in a virtual world, who swim in a sea of symbols, might find that discussion interesting.

    1. I would imagine that the reason is simply to avoid distractions. If you’re using a laptop, notifications of new emails, new posts on social media, etc, will be flicking up frequently. Students may have their attention diverted to look at these things instead of listening to the lecturer, answering emails instead of taking notes, and there’s no way of policing that.

      1. Yes, that’s the reason – emails come in, people will be checking Facebook, etc. So I require note-taking by hand on hard paper.

        Some professors take the route of allowing students to use social media during the class session and expecting them only to use it appropriately for the sake of learning. I can see the value of this approach, and it does make some learning experiences possible. But I’m not there yet and it’s not my approach.


  5. Hi Fr. Anthony!

    Now I have to go back to my bookshelf and see which (if any) of the three primary texts from this semester were also used in the semester I took this class (Spring 2005). It would be interesting to take this again, just to see how it has changed.

    Also, at least if you still offer it, one thing that can be vastly helpful for your students and that I was particularly impressed with from when I took your class was your offer to discuss anything/answer any questions we had (even if they didn’t relate to the class topics). You even offered this through email to a former student (me) the summer after this class; in case I didn’t say this before (and if I did I want to reiterate it) thank you so much for that; I am ever grateful for this gift of going above and beyond!

    1. Oh, and I forgot to mention, I still have my binder full of handouts from class. It would be odd to not have them; although I do understand choosing to stop printing them (and also feeling as if you’re missing something coming to class without them).

  6. Thank you for sharing these insights about your liturgy classes. As a CSB parent, I appreciate all the thought you have put in to how to best engage the students on this topic. I’m looking forward to diving in to a few of the topics/books you mentioned.

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