Satan in Your Midst, or What I Learned about Teaching from Confrontational Situations

Satan in Your Midst, or What I Learned about
Teaching from Confrontational Situations

Michel Desjardins
2001 3M Teaching Fellow

here’s nothing divine in calm and predictability.

Picture this. It’s early January, about 8:00p.m., in the first university course I ever taught. I’m lecturing in an auditorium in Alumni Hall.

About 100 students are nestled comfortably in their seats, which rise gently in front of me. Two exits are behind me, one to my left, the other to my right. I’m explaining one of my favourite texts, the Gospel of Mark. This document is full of unusual narrative twists, and I’ve come to a story that I suspect my students have overlooked. They’re tired, I can see, and this story has comic elements, so I decide to play it up. “Do you remember,” I ask, stepping out from behind the lectern, “what happens in this gospel as Jesus is about to stand trial before the Jewish leaders, just after his disciples forsake him?” As the question hangs in the air, I see the faces of some students to my left break out in shock. Seconds later I hear a collective gasp to my right, and see the same situation repeat itself on the other side of the room. Then suddenly someone shouts, “There’s a guy up there mooning us!” … and the entire class erupts.

Here’s the twist. My problem is not the fellow mooning behind me, or the class in chaos in front of me. It is the text I was about to dramatize. Mark 14:54:52 presents a young man in Jesus’ entourage whose cloak is ripped from. his body. The man runs away naked. I stare ahead. Students jump out of their seats to chase the moooner.

After a break, I complete my lecture as though nothing has happened. I omit the story of the naked man in Mark.

End of story? Not quite. The “uneventful” part of the evening was, I realize now, the decisive one. I should have talked about the connection, however we might understand it, between the naked man of Mark and the moaner. I missed this opportunity.

The second university course I ever taught was an introduction to the first-century Jesus, “the historical Jesus” as he is called in the field.. The academic approach invariably undermines almost everything that Christians have come to believe about Jesus. Students taking a course like this are mostly Christians. Some become defensive, even angry, when the scholarly arguments become difficult to brush off.

In the third week of this course, a student stood up and declared to the class, “Satan himself is standing in front of you.” I was stunned, of course. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before and the incident, as far as I could tell, was not provoked by any single comment I had made. I was also upset since I was doing my best, I thought, to present a balanced view to the students. Later I chuckled over how anyone could imagine me as Satan, but at the time it was no laughing matter.

What faced me was how to respond to this direct, over-the-top challenge. At this point in my teaching career I had no quiver of experiences from which to pluck a tried-and-true retort, so I responded instinctively. I grasped for something that would give me time to think my way out of this situation. I said to the fellow: “OK. Tell the class what you’d like them to know, and I’ll hear you out.”

This took him by surprise, but he began to lecture his colleagues on the correct view of Jesus. He stopped; and sat down. As he spoke I had a few minutes to look around-enough time to see that other students were listening intently to him, and that at least some shared his concerns. When he stopped I had collected my wits enough to say, “Thank you. That was a coherent description of Jesus. Let me tell you what was traditional about it, then explain to the class exactly how it differs from modern scholarly approaches to Jesus.”

The man’s disruptions continued. Midway through the next class and the one after that, he stood up again, repeating his claim. I allowed him to have his say. Then he dropped the course, and I never saw him again.

The interruptions turned out to be a gift from heaven. In fact, the next time I taught the course I fantasized about contacting this student to ask him whether he’d like to enrol again.