“But I talk about my own life because if, on the one hand, hardly anything could be less important, on the other hand, hardly anything could be more important. My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”
Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets
Thursday, September 6, 2001, was my first day teaching Christianity and Western Culture (CWC) at Bethel College. As I sat in front of my first class of 17 students, I read these words from Frederick Buechner. I tried – in the bumbling and passionate way that is native to all first time teachers – to explain to my students how this quote unlocks why we take a class like CWC, why we study history, and why it is important that we collect, recover, and hold on to memories. I’m not sure that any of the students knew what I was trying to say, but I hoped that they would at least feel in the moment that what I was trying to say was something that mattered.
In the years that followed I have continued to teach CWC and continued to read these lines and make this speech. And as each year passes, I continue to mean it more and more.
One of my teaching heroes is Kevin Cragg. Kevin taught ancient history at Bethel from the early 1980s up until his retirement in the spring of 2013. Kevin was one of the four professors who created CWC in the mid-1980s, and he was already a decade into teaching the course when I first encountered him as a student in the class in the fall of 1995. As a teacher, Kevin was a storyteller. Stories mattered to him. And not just the stories of the historical people and groups we were studying, but also the stories of the people we encountered in our own lives.
When I attended my first CWC summer planning meeting in June of 2001, I was initiated into yet another aspect of Kevin’s focus and interest in stories. As a new faculty member, I was asked to tell my intellectual autobiography to the other nine members of my teaching team. Kevin wanted me to tell everyone else about who I was and how the sources and trajectories of my life led me to teaching this course at this school at this moment. Who was I? What was I interested in and why? What questions shaped or drove my life? When I was finished telling my story, he asked everyone else on the team to tell their intellectual autobiographies too. His idea was simple: “How can we teach as a team if we don’t know each other? And how can we know each other if we don’t know each other’s stories?”
Each summer as new members were added to our teaching team, Kevin would again invoke this ritual, and we would spend the better part of a summer morning sitting in a circle and telling our stories. This always seemed to me to be something approaching a sacred rite. It mattered to me. I loved hearing the stories – even the ones that I had heard before.
That is the purpose of this podcast. I want to sit down and talk with the people I know. To collect their stories and their wisdom. I want to be open to what I can learn about teaching, and God, and life.
I don’t really care if anyone else ever reads these words or listens to these podcasts. This is about me learning to listen, to pay attention, and to remember. I want to try to create a record, to keep track of the people I’ve met along my way, to be open to what these lives and these stories can reveal to me. If you’ve made it this far, perhaps you might be willing to dive a little further. I hope that these podcasts can be instructive to both of us.