Jesus the Master Teacher

Roy Pitcher. Jesus – A Master Teacher: Translating Jesus’ Generic Teaching Strategies and Methods from the 1st to the 21st Centuries

(Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2013)

Long before the phrase What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD) became popular as a motto inscribed on bracelets, a young teacher of religious education and of skills for students with special needs in Lincolnshire, England, began to ask himself how would Jesus teach the topics he was teaching to these students. He was Roy Pitcher and, although he was probably not wearing a bracelet with the motto HWJT, he started on a search that he tells us has lasted over 40 years – so far! The book Jesus – A Master Teacher is the product of those 40-plus years of reflection as a teacher and teacher-educator.

The sub-title of the book is Translating Jesus’ Generic Teaching Strategies and Methods from the 1st to the 21st Centuries and this very succinctly expresses the author’s aim.

The book is divided into three parts. Part A is entitled ‘Illustrating the master teacher’ and looks at the origins and cultural roots of Jesus’ approach to teaching and concludes with a chapter-by-chapter study of Matthew’s Gospel that focuses on the teaching styles of Jesus.

Part B looks at Jesus’ teaching styles from the perspective of contemporary social psychology and discusses the topics of leadership, perception, motivation, memory, socialization, cognition and emotions. It concludes with another chapter-by-chapter study focusing on Jesus’ teaching style, this time from John’s Gospel.

Part C is entitled ‘Making it happen today’ and goes into more detail on eight of Jesus’ teaching strategies and on how spirituality can be taught through these strategies. It contains the third of three chapter-by-chapter study of Jesus’ teaching style, this time from Luke’s Gospel.

A brief appendix to the book discusses personality factors and invites the reader to identify from a long list those that apply to Jesus. Then follows an extensive bibliography, helpfully sub-divided into titles that relate to each of the 18 chapters of the book and to the introduction and appendix. There is also a helpful index at the end.

This is, in many ways, a unique book, dealing as it does in such amazing detail with teaching styles, methods and strategies and relating them to Jesus as a teacher and illustrating them in such chapter-by-chapter detail from each of three of the four Gospels. Almost every one of its 269 pages also has a challenging question at the bottom. It is replete with diagrams and suggested activities for the classroom. Such detail means that it is not a book to read through but rather one to dip into and find ideas to take time over and reflect upon.

I found the many charts, tables and lists with bullet points a little off-putting but perhaps that is because I am more a big-picture person than one for detail. To be fair to Roy Pitcher as author, this is a possibility of which he is aware and he invites readers like me to “bypass the bullets and tables and see what remains that will enhance the everyday” (p. v). I also found the number of typographical errors off-putting but this is probably because I have spent too many years in an editor’s chair!

Portions of the book are freely available online as a Google book. The URL for this is very long so I suggest you just click here or put the book’s title into a search engine. The online portions will give you a real taste of the book so that you can judge for yourself how helpful it would be for you to order a copy. (It is available as an e-book as well as in hard copy.)

There is a question about the validity of any exercise that seeks, as this book does and as many of us seek to do as we take Jesus as a model teacher, to translate his teaching strategies, styles or methods into our twenty-first century context. The author is aware of this and he refers briefly to a disagreement about this between two eminent philosophers of education (Nicholas Burbules and the late and much-missed Terry McLaughlin). This was published as the first two chapters of a book entitled Spirituality and Ethics in Education: Philosophical, Theological and Radical Perspectives edited by Hanan Alexander. The text of Burbules’ chapter (‘Jesus as a Teacher’) is freely downloadable from the website of the University of Illinois at but, sadly, McLaughlin’s characteristically gracious and carefully nuanced reply (‘Nicholas Burbules on Jesus as a Teacher’) does not seem to be available without purchasing or borrowing the book.

In his chapter, McLaughlin makes a distinction between ‘exegesis’ and ‘appropriation’ which I think could be very helpful to all of us who ask how would Jesus teach our subject in our classroom to our students. ‘Exegesis’ in the context of studying Jesus as teacher is defined by McLaughlin as “involving an attempt to offer an account which, as far as possible, provides a full an accurate depiction of … the original ‘realities’ involved”. He defines “the contrasting activity of ‘appropriation’” in a way that he says is not intended to have negative connotations as “involving an attempt to offer an account of Jesus as teacher where the criteria for adequacy of the account are not primarily related to the extent to which the original ‘realities’ have been faithfully depicted, but to the extent to which Jesus as a teacher has been ‘brought alive for’ and applied fruitfully to particular persons or situations”.

Turning to Burbules’ study of Jesus as teacher, McLaughlin finds it to be primarily appropriation rather than exegesis. That in itself is not a problem but what McLaughlin questions is Burbules’ “explicit pursuit of a secularised interpretation of Jesus” by setting aside his religious teaching and presenting him in secularised terms as a moral teacher. This leads to a view of teaching that is harmonious with, and attractive to, contemporary approaches to education but inadequate as an account of Jesus the teacher. McLaughlin argues for “a fuller and more complex picture of Jesus as teacher” which “raises questions about the extent to which his (Burbules’) ‘appropriation’ is devoid of elements of distortion”.

In his brief reference to this discussion, Roy Pitcher says that his own approach follows that of Burbules rather than McLaughlin. However, I think he is in fact much closer to McLaughlin than he seems to think. For example, he positively endorses a didactic approach in teaching spirituality as being one of Jesus’ strategies (pp.194-5). This contrasts sharply with Burbules’ presentation of Jesus as a moral teacher whose teaching was “almost entirely devoid of explicit moral directives”. He also shows awareness of how the big picture of reality, human beings and God that we have makes a difference to our theoretical approaches as, for example, when he writes (regarding motivation), “whilst Jesus would not have denied crucial elements in the findings of Maslow, Murray and Rath etc. he could not have shared their view of man because Jesus envisaged the basis of motivation to be God the Father” (p. 99).

I have given space to this discussion of exegesis and appropriation because I think that, in reading a book like this or in our own attempts to follow Jesus as a model teacher, we should be aware of the possibility of appropriation in a way that distorts the realities that exegesis seeks to uncover. We should also be aware of the views of God, his world and human nature that underlie contemporary approaches to educational psychology and philosophy and look for the extent to which they resonate or clash with a Christian world-and-life-view.

There is much of interest and value in Jesus – a Master Teacher for any Christian teacher who asks how Jesus would teach in her classroom and much to learn from the master teacher himself through the fruits of Roy Pitcher’s forty-plus years of reflection.

Review by John Shortt


Another review of the book by Gill Robins can be found under: