My MTV Unplugged Moment

I don’t even know how to begin to explain this:

Okay – first, I’m co-coordinator of GES130 Christianity and Western Culture (CWC), a course on Western Civilization, church history, philosophy, and theology that about two-thirds of Bethel students take in their first year. In addition to a team of 8-10 professors, the course is taught by a number of undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs). One of their responsibilities is to help grade the objective sections of our unit exams. Considering that hundreds of students are taking three exams every single semester, that’s a lot of grading. And a lot of chances for minor grading mistakes.

To encourage the TAs to be assiduous, my co-coordinator Sam has taken to developing increasingly generous incentives that reward perfect grading. Unfortunately, what began innocently enough with him offering the TAs supper at his house, ended this semester with him promising something that he really had no right to promise: a free concert featuring me.

Why would I play a concert? (you would perfectly reasonably wonder) Here’s where the background gets deeper and weirder…

Over the last few years, Sam and I have amused ourselves by producing videos meant to enliven the course. It started with Sam making a cartoon music video of “The Reformation Polka,” a song about Martin Luther written by an Iowa Lutheran pastor and set to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”; a student played piano and I sang.

Next, we revived an old CWC tradition: to teach students the life of Augustine of Hippo via rap. I rewrote and recorded the rap (“Tha Confessionz”), then Sam and I filmed a video that featured our game-for-anything colleague Kevin Cragg and a set of puppets.

Completely out of control, we each tried our hand at writing songs for two videos that have yet to be produced: to teach the Council of Nicea, Sam spoofed the Schoolhouse Rock tune, “I’m Just a Bill”; and to teach the scholastic debate between the ontological and cosmological arguments, I wrote a “Ballad of Anselm and Aquinas” in the style (I thought) of Johnny Cash covering “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.”

They were never recorded, and (with the exception of one performance of the Augustine Rap last spring when I couldn’t bear to show students the video again) none of these have been played live and in person. Until Sam promised the TAs that I would play the whole set if they didn’t make any errors grading the second exam this spring.

Of course, I’ve never seen them work more diligently on any task, so yesterday afternoon, I took twenty minutes to play an unplugged set featuring all four songs (plus a special request from a TA who had heard me sing a semi-famous disco song about Russian history in my World War I course).

Sam, of course, had his recording equipment out, and (after a suspiciously short turn-around) posted the whole thing on YouTube this morning. And e-mailed links to everyone at Bethel with the slightest connection to CWC.

Since the cat’s out of the bag, I thought I’d spread the humiliation around and invite blog readers to make what they will of all this. You can watch the entire concert (embedded at the top of this post) or individual songs at his YouTube page. I’ll just embed one more: the Nicene Creed spoof, since it really is Sam’s brainchild (and features some fine voice acting from our TAs Ben and Tara).

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