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by Laura Lehman Amstutz
The class at Eastern Mennonite Seminary began as usual: students entered, opened books, turned on laptops. The professor prayed for the class. And then, she left.
Students began discussing the chapter of First Corinthians assigned for the day. “I’m obviously in favor of Paul,” said one student. “I am his convert and a poor member of this Corinthian congregation.”
The other four class members begin expressing their opinions. They were preparing for Dorothy Jean Weaver, the course professor, to return to the classroom as Phoebe, the deacon of Cenchreae, the port city next to Corinth.
For the last two months on Tuesday and Thursday, Dr. Weaver's class has been mining the book of First Corinthians - not just digging into the content of the New Testament book, but for at least a portion of each class period doing a simulation of the church in Corinth.
Each student chose and researched a character, either real or imagined - usually some of both - to impersonate during these simulations. And then they discuss the issues within the book as though they actually are these characters. Often the debates become heated, depending on whether the characters are Jews or Greeks, women or men, poor or wealthy.
“I wanted to capture students’ imaginations by attempting to put them in the mindset of a first century person,” said Weaver. “I wanted them to think the thoughts and decisions a person in the church in Corinth would have to make.”
Student Rene Hostetter said the exercise did just that. “The simulation made First Corinthians more real,” she said. “It opened up a whole new way of understanding the issues and how deep the conflicts really were.
“It also gave me a greater appreciation for Paul as a leader,” Hostetter continued. “It’s easy to become irritated with Paul on certain issues, but I’ve gained a lot of respect for him. He was trying to form a church in a pagan culture amid ingrained social customs and practices of both Jews and Gentiles.
“Now I realize that Paul’s radical call to change in ethics and discipleship was revolutionary in the first century context,” she said.
Weaver said she hopes her students gained some insight into First Corinthians, both from a contemporary point of view and a first century perspective.
She plans to use this method again next year when she teaches the book of Romans.