The chair was established to allow a scholar to carry on Bruner’s legacy in a practical way. Every fall and January session, Neder teaches a regular course load. But from February until the following fall, he’s meant to be “doing work that would benefit the church and the world and the academy”—writing and speaking, crafting his research and reflections into lessons that can reach a wider audience.
Forty-odd years separate the men, and their pedagogical styles are not the same. Where Bruner prowls the platform, Neder steadies himself behind the lectern. Where Bruner draws cartoons, Neder passes out lists of questions for interactive discussion.
Watching Neder teach in the wake of Bruner in the Great Hall, you can see why Neder sits in Bruner’s chair. But the same spirit hovers over both teachers: the spirit of teaching, breaking things down, helping us understand.
On this morning, Neder describes teaching the history of theology to the young students at Whitworth today, and watching their eyes glaze over. “I had to get them to think about Jesus” in all the surprising ways that the church fathers thought about Jesus, to address all the questions early church theology addresses about the nature of Jesus.
So he came up with a list of questions for them to answer. Questions like:
If LeBron James stepped into a time machine, traveled back to the year 30 AD, and played Jesus in a game of one-on-one basketball, who do you think would have won? And why?
What does Jesus look like? (Not what did he look like, but what does he look like?)
Is Jesus still a human being? If so, where is he?
These questions may seem silly. But if you think about them seriously and begin to talk about them with others, you realize what Neder has done—inspired you to get behind all your assumptions about Jesus and consider the building blocks of your theology. Before you know it, you’re doing the same thought work that the early church fathers did. On that retreat weekend, for a few minutes, the Great Hall was something like a scene from the Council of Nicea.
“Who is Jesus?” is a simple question. It’s also an endlessly complex question, one that will never finish being answered (well, almost never). Taking it, considering it, opening it up and seeing all it has to offer—this is the work of good teachers who care about talking to the people.
“The temptation to elitism,” says Neder, “has always been with us: We belong, and you don’t, and we help you see that by using language you don’t understand.” Bruner and Neder are models of resisting that temptation, and of how to turn spiritual things into a conversation that is for all of us—the laity.