William A. Dyrness on Teaching, Culture & the Christian Life

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Teaching is a form of research, observes William A. Dyrness, senior professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. To teach students well, we must always discover what they know and where they come from. Dyrness is the author of more than twenty books, including his latest, The Facts on the Ground: A Wisdom Theology of Culture (Cascade, 2022). After years as a pastor then missionary, Dyrness is most excited by his teaching not only in California but also in classrooms in Africa and Asia. Recently, he sat down with Didaktikos editor Douglas Estes to discuss teaching, culture and much more.

ESTES: What does teaching well mean to you?

DYRNESS: I look at teaching like a form of research. There are multiple ways to do research, including consulting books, articles, interviewing and surveying people, but teaching is also a form of research. For me, teaching is a kind of exploratory process. And I’ve been fortunate in that most of my teaching is among graduate students, so I can assume some amount of background for them. I look at the time I’m with them as a kind of exploration of various ideas, and I want to try to be open to learning new things and hearing what people have to say.

I think this is the way Jesus interviewed people: “How do you read the law?” He was really interested in hearing what people had to say. And I believe that when he was talking to that rich young ruler, that he was actually open to hearing what the guy had to say and maybe learning something about how people responded to the law. So I think we are authorized to look at teaching as a kind of exploration, a kind of research.

Now, there’s a downside to this because you sometimes don’t come across as being sure that you have the right answer. I’ve taught a lot of the third-world theology classes, for example, and I had the reputation of sometimes not being critical of ideas that come from Africa and Asia and that appear pretty radical sometimes to our students. But in a graduate class, I want to be open to new ideas and say, “OK, how can we learn from this?” There is a downside for that, as well, but in general I think it’s helpful. It makes the classroom a kind of conversation.

I’m interested to know how people receive ideas, how people process ideas. Theology is a lot about how it’s received and not simply an assertion of some normative truth. After all, throughout history theology has been a conversation, first of all, between teacher and student but also between periods of history when later theologians are responding or interacting or sometimes resisting ideas that came before. So I see teaching as a live version of that long-term conversation, where we’re exploring ideas.

Sometimes you throw out an idea that you’re just testing, and people believe that you actually believe it—and that can be a problem too. I had one student come up after we talked about orthodox theology and the use of icons in worship, and they said, “Well, I didn’t know you were orthodox.” And I said, “Well, I’m not; I’m Presbyterian.” They said, “Well, you were so sure and you were so clear on what they’re doing. I was sure that you believed that yourself.” But I was trying to lay it out so we could learn corporately from that practice.

ESTES: When you’re on the mission field and you’re interacting with majority-world students, some of the questions they raise are further afield than we are used to here in the US. Have those broader questions helped you to teach better?

DYRNESS: Absolutely. It’s what moves you into thinking about new things. My first experience in the Philippines, when we went as missionaries in the 1970s, was during [President Ferdinand] Marcos’s martial law in Manila. The reason for declaring martial law was what they perceived to be the threat of communism, which of course was in the air at that time for everywhere in Southeast Asia. Christian students provided the first invitation I had to speak to a university group, and they wanted to know what Christians say about poverty—because the communists, they’ve got answers for all these issues, but Christianity doesn’t seem to have answers.

Well, to be honest with you, poverty had not appeared in my syllabus in seminary or in my graduate studies. So I had to do some work and, actually, at Asian Theological Seminary, we ended up developing a curriculum around poverty, because once you start looking for it in the Bible, it’s everywhere. Now, after Ron Sider and John Stott and all the rest, we know that. But back then, it was something that was really new. It moved me into an area that I needed to go in, and it taught me a lot.

ESTES: I wonder if every generation, or every couple of generations, we have to re-research something. There have been segments of Christian history where poverty is a topic of importance, but then it kind of fades. How does our theology need to connect to our culture?

DYRNESS: Being a missionary helped move me into this area of thinking in my whole professional career about theology and culture. How does God show up at work, or how does God show up in culture? Well, of course, culture is something that’s fluid; it’s changing a lot. My colleague, Rob Johnston, said that back when he was in graduate school, literature really carried the burden of culture, and this is where people went to find out what was going on in the world.

But later, this changed from word to image, and so movies became the thing, and of course now it’s social media. Well, the previous generation’s theological reflection is not going to help us necessarily—not that we don’t read them, but we’ve got to ask new questions. And the classroom is the primary place where you ask those questions. Our students can teach us a lot because they’re digital natives; they grew up with it. And that’s where we learn.

ESTES: Let’s consider a scenario of a young professor who comes to Fuller, and you meet with them for the first time. What advice would you give them about teaching well?

DYRNESS: First of all, I want to find out what they’re passionate about. Obviously, they went into a field for reasons, and I want to find out what those reasons are, and I want to let them really explore the things they’re passionate about. A lot of times they have to do the introductory courses and things, but I want to be sure they can pursue their interests.

I had a PhD student who did a theology of fitness, so when he came back as an adjunct I wanted to be sure he had the opportunity to teach in that dissertation area where he did his research. That’s the kind of thing I would want to find out from a young teacher: What do they want to work on? Maybe they want to go into some new area; that’s OK too. Then I’ll provide opportunity for them to explore so teaching can also be, for them, a form of research.

A lot of times teachers get in ruts—and this is a problem for a lot of people, not just teachers. You want to be able to have people with cutting edges where they’re plowing up new areas for themselves. That’s why research, writing, and even publishing is important, because that’s where you’re putting out your ideas to a larger public and entering into a larger conversation.

The classroom is an important conversation, in the first instance. The second is your peers in your field, and that’s why you go to professional meetings—so you can attend papers that interest you and excite you, and you can give papers and enter into that larger conversation. And then, of course, writing and publishing is where that conversation is carried on.

People don’t just need to seek to publish their dissertation, although they maybe should do that. They need to have what is called a research program. In other words, they have to have an area they want to be working on. Publishing is a sign that they’ve been doing that exploration out there in that larger conversation—and if they’re not publishing, maybe that’s a sign that they are in a kind of rut. Maybe they’re not finding things that are really interesting to them.

At Fuller, we try to balance between writing for a larger audience, not just for the academy and scholars. That’s important, too, because we want the larger audience, which includes people in churches, to be part of our larger educational mission. We want to encourage the kind of conversations we’re having in our classrooms to be taking place in educational programs and churches, as well.

ESTES: It’s almost like a hermeneutical circle, where you’re researching for yourself, for your field, and then you go in the classroom, and that’s a form of research, too. And then that form of research speaks back to the scholarship you’re doing, right?

DYRNESS: Absolutely. Sometimes in the classroom, I’ve had this experience of saying something or trying out an idea, and as soon as it’s out of your mouth you recognize it’s a bunch of baloney. That’s just not going to work. But the classroom should be a place where those kinds of things could be said, and you could then say, “No, I don’t think that’s what I mean to say. Maybe I could say it this way,” and then you try something else. The students might say, “I don’t think that’s right,” and then you have a really good conversation.

ESTES: What kinds of personal ministry have you been involved in, and how did that experience influence your teaching?

DYRNESS: I was a pastor of a youth ministry in Portland, Oregon, before my wife and I went to the Philippines as missionaries, and that was a very rewarding time. That was significant because it taught me what it meant to have a pastor’s heart, to be really pastorally concerned about students. That’s not something you can learn in seminary in just a classroom. And then as missionaries, we also had to be at work in a church-plant project, so we were both involved in small group Bible studies and in planning worship. That was during a time when people started thinking that maybe we need a little liturgy, so it was interesting to see how worship is formational and guides people toward becoming mature in Christ. Those experiences were important.

ESTES: Let’s say you have a younger professor who comes to you and says, “I feel comfortable with theology and the Bible, but I don’t seem to be able to connect with students over culture.” How should we as faculty integrate culture into the classroom?

DYRNESS: First of all, we need to recognize that culture forms people in various ways. For better or worse, people are spending a lot of time now on social media, and they are exposed to various kinds of experiences in television and movies. As Christians, it’s not simply that we need to try to recover from that, as though the culture was a place we enter just to have entertainment. Rather, those are areas that we need to understand as Christians, in Christian ways—to see that, in the larger culture, God is present, God is at work, God is addressing people.

Even in movies and TV series, people are being moved in various ways. We need to understand how that spiritual movement happens and how we can encourage it. In our classroom at Fuller, we’re 13 miles from Hollywood, so in some classes, like the theology and film classes that my colleagues teach, almost everyone is in the entertainment industry, and in our theology and culture program, there were always people in the industry.

We don’t want them to sort of hold their nose while they’re doing their work. No, we want them to be a constructive influence, to say “this is a part of our lives that’s formative.” How do we make that into something that moves people in the direction of openness to God and faith? That’s the kind of thing we worked on in our classes. 

I think all young people, when they’re dealing with theology, have to recognize that theology is lived out, our faith is lived out, our discipleship is played out in midst of all these cultural processes. The challenge is not simply how to avoid being sinful. That’s part of it, of course, but the question is: How do we engage these various forms of culture in Christian ways? How do we see them as potentials for living out values of the gospel? And eventually, how can we use them as instruments of righteousness in culture and justice?

ESTES: How do we as teachers avoid fads or trends in the classroom?

DYRNESS: That’s a very good question, actually—especially in the area of theology and culture, because you don’t want to dismiss cultural trends, but on the other hand you don’t want to jump on the latest bandwagon simply because it’s a fad. In our classes on theology and culture, we would talk about what it is that makes something into a fad, into something that’s not very substantial for conversation.

And what makes it something you should pay attention to? There is current conversation about whether you should discuss race in classrooms or not. Is that a fad, or is that something really substantial we need to talk about? Is what happened with Rihanna at the halftime show of the Super Bowl worth having a conversation about? That in itself becomes a topic of conversation that you need to have, and we can talk about it from a Christian point of view.

ESTES: What is one thing that Christian faculty need to pay attention to?

DYRNESS: I would say that the challenge that all professors of the Bible and theology have is to develop a theology of everyday life, a theology of culture; to see everyday life—which people are living in their workplace, their entertainment, their family life, all of that—to see that as a place in which the gospel has to be lived out. And therefore, they need to have a theology of that.

How does God show up in these areas? It’s not simply a matter of whether you watch entertainment and then you turn it off, and you’re still the same person. No. You have been shaped by that in some way, and you need to be aware of that. How is God interested in that process of shaping? How is God at work? How does God possibly show up even in a great movie, to move people in certain directions?

I’m convinced that God is in conversation with everyone. Everyone lives their life before the face of God, whether they’re aware of it or not; therefore, they need to be alert to the ways in which God is at work and God is present, or not, in these various areas of life.

A typical mistake people make is that the response to this is only a matter of our spirituality. We need to pray more or we need to worship God more so that we’re protected from these things. Well, those things are all true, and I would never want to undermine any of that. We have to do those things, but those things do not address these issues that I’m trying to talk about right now—such as becoming a writer for a sitcom, for example, as some of our students have been.

They go into the writing room on Monday morning. They’ve got to live out their faith in that room. What do they do? How do they express that? How do they see God present in that space? It’s a theology of how God shows up in those cultural practices themselves. If I had one thing to say to all the professors I’d say, “Everyone needs to have a theology of God at work in those spaces.” My experience of a lot of Christian writing about those things is that authors immediately talk about how we respond in terms of Christian spirituality—and that’s good, but we need the other as well.

ESTES: What I hear you saying is that we have truncated the Christian life by putting arbitrary boundaries around our spirituality, in such a way that it hurts us when we’re out there in the world.

DYRNESS: Exactly. And so Christians are not out there even as they should be. There’s a Hollywood prayer network that I’m on, and it’s exciting to watch major figures in Hollywood praying for each other and asking, “How can we be more influential in the places where we are?” That’s happening, but people need to have a theology behind that. They have to have a theological reason for being in that room on Monday morning where they’re writing the script together for the next episode.

ESTES: Right, and that plays into the pedagogy as a faculty member, because we’re teaching the whole person. We’re teaching lots of scenarios, rather than just a few.

DYRNESS: Exactly. And we’re teaching people for places that we ordinarily don’t think of as being Christian or being spiritual or being theologically significant, but in fact, they are all of those things.

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This article was originally published in the April 2023 issue of Didaktikos. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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Douglas Estes

Douglas Estes is an author and Didaktikos editor.

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