Professor Valerie Rempel

Last week I met a dynamic professor from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary who told me she visited this blog several times while she was teaching a course on spiritual memoir. I was delighted to meet her and to know that she used the blog as a resource. 

You know what I did, of course.

I asked her to add the syllabus to our collection of other resources for professors.

She agreed.  Check out this syllabus below (apologies for the formatting flukes that happened when her impeccable Word document converted to this text). Look over the syllabus. If you have any questions for the professor, raise your hand in the comment box below.

Have you ever taken a memoir class? Was it memoir-able?


Exploring Faith:  Spiritual Memoirs and Christian Formation

THEO 710 (1, 2 or 3 units)                                         Professor:  Valerie Rempel, Ph.D.

Spring 2011                                                                 Office:  453-2319;   Home:  453-9162

January 12-13, 6:00 – 9:00 p.m., MBBS campus                   E-mail: January 14-15, Retreat Days

On-line, January 17-May 1, 2011                                                     Assignments:  posted to class website

April 29 (or TBA) for meal and story-telling


This course will explore Christian faith formation in both classical and contemporary understanding.  It will seek to nurture an awareness of, and commitment to the practices of faith that deepen our relationship with God.  It will also serve as an inquiry into contemporary faith and the nature of theological reflection.   Through the stories of others (the spiritual memoirs), students will be invited to reflect on their own lives and to interact with the theological assumptions of the authors/books chosen.

This course meets the 2-unit Seminary requirement for Spiritual Formation.  Alternatively, it may be used as a theology elective.  There is no prerequisite and auditors are welcome to participate.


The Seminary curriculum is guided by a set of desired outcomes for each of the degree programs.  This course is designed to help meet the following objectives.  That every student shall:

Demonstrate commitment to live as a disciple of Jesus in Christian community

  • Practice spiritual disciplines that promote maturing authentic discipleship
  • Demonstrate self-awareness that promotes maturing, authentic humanity
  • Develop relationship with a cohort of fellow learners under the auspices of the Seminary
  • Witness persuasively to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a postmodern secular context

Interpret one’s own and other cultural contexts of ministry using theological perspectives integrated with social scientific approaches

  • Describe the missio Dei view of church as a people called and sent to represent God’s reign as community, servant
  • Utilize theological and social scientific tools and practices to understand and interpret the culture of a ministry and the cultural context of the ministry
  • Assess the significance of cultural context for interpreting Scripture within and across cultures


Required – All Students

Bass, Dorothy C.  Practicing Our Faith.  Jossey-Bass, 1997.  ISBN-10: 0787938831


Two Unit Students – One from each of the following pairings (must include books written by either gender)

Three Unit Students – Five titles from the following list (books are listed in the order of our class discussions)


Krivak, Andrew.  A Long Retreat:  In Search of a Religious Life.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.  ISBN-10: 0374166064

Winner, Lauren.  Girl Meets God:  On the Path to a Spiritual Life.  Shaw Books, 2004.  ISBN-10: 0877881073 (Older versions available – buy what is cheap!)


Steele, Mark.  Half-Life/Die Already:  How I died & Lived to Tell About It.   David C. Cook, 2008.  ISBN-10: 0781445523

Ilibagiza, Immaculee.  Left To Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.  Hay House, 2006.  ISBN-10: 1401908977


Lischer, Richard.  Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery.  Three Rivers Press, 2002.  ISBN-10: 0767907442

Taylor, Barbara Brown.  Leaving Church:  A Memoir of Faith.  HarperOne, 2007.  ISBN-10: 0060872632

Note:  All titles will be on reserve at Hiebert Library.  Cheap copies of the above titles are widely available at, and other websites.  Local bookstores carry some of these titles in stock as well.   The local public library system also has some of these titles available.



This course is designed with three components.  The first section (January 12-13) will serve as an introduction to the course, the practice of Christian formation, and questions related to the practice of autobiographical writing.  The aim is to become acquainted with the history of Christian formation (the classical disciplines of spiritual formation) and to explore the nature of theological writing that is oriented in personal experience (questions of perspective, truth, biblical faithfulness, universality, meaning-making, etc.).  The second section (January 14-15) will explore the practices of Christian formation in an on-campus retreat setting.  Together, we will explore some of the practices that have shaped Christian communities throughout the centuries.  We will also use this time to begin reflecting on our own stories of formation.  The third section of the course will be conducted as a kind of online book club.  Using threaded discussion on the class website, students will read, reflect and interact with the assigned material and each other.

2-units credit:  Section 1 and 2 (January 12-15), plus selected memoirs and related assignments

3-units credit:  Section 1, 2 and 3 (full syllabus)



All Students

  1. “Experiment” and Reflective Essay (8-10 pages).  Practicing Our Faith, edited by Dorothy Bass, offers perspective on twelve practices of the Christian life.  Each student is expected to choose one of the practices discussed in the book as the basis of an “experiment” lasting at least 30 days.   (Alternatively, you may choose to practice one of the classic spiritual disciplines such as fasting, reading scripture, journaling, prayer, silence, etc.)  In choosing a practice students are expected to try something new.  Please do not choose something that you are already engaged in as a regular practice.  You should expect to give roughly 15 hours of participation in this practice.  Your essay should describe what drew you to the practice and how you engaged in the practice [anecdote].   It should identify what you observed/learned/ enjoyed/struggled with as you pursued your experiment [analysis].  The heart of the essay should include significant biblical and/or theological reflection around some aspect of your experiment. [application/interaction with the Christian tradition]  You may also want to reflect on how your experiment is affirmed or challenged by your memoir reading.  And finally, how have you been shaped by this experiment or called to something?  [action]    “B” work will be basically descriptive of the practice and your engagement with it.  “A” work will show significant insight and self-reflection as well as theological engagement.  DUE:  April 30.  Submit electronically via class website.  Students will be invited (not required) to post their essay on the class website for others to read as well.
  2. Discussion Forum.   This class has been designed to run throughout the spring session in an online version of a book club.  Students are expected to reflect on the readings and to engage with other readers on the forum section of the class website.  Two-unit students are required to read three memoirs (one each from the three pairings and books written by both men and women).  Three-unit students are required to read five memoirs.  The forum is a significant component of the class and students are expected to spend 3 – 4 hours writing posts and responding to comments for each book read.  The discussion for each book unfolds over the course of a week (see course schedule).  There are four types of postings expected for each book:
    • Initial postings in response to each book by midnight Monday, Pacific Time.  See schedule for exact dates and their corresponding books.
  • Responses to at least two students’ initial postings by midnight Thursday, Pacific Time.
  • Comments (at least two postings) in response to any postings including at least one visit to the forum in addition to the previous two and your final posting.
  • Final postings by midnight Sunday, Pacific Time

Detailed description of each of these four postings follows.  Grading will be done on a cumulative basis for each book discussion, meaning that one grade will be posted at the end of each forum discussion.

Initial postings (40 pts):  Write an initial 300-400 word response to each book in the discussion forum. You may post this at any time prior to the Monday deadline but it is expected that you will not post until you have completed (or nearly completed!) the book.  Your post should do one of the following:  1) identify a theological issue raised by the author and assess his or her treatment of that issue, OR 2) identify and assess the way in which the author engaged with one of the “practices” of the Bass book, OR 3) identify some way in which the author’s story has challenged or affirmed your understanding of the Christian life.  You will be graded on clarity of thought and communication, depth of analysis and reflection, and the degree to which you engage with the material.  You will receive 30-35 points if you give sufficient evidence of having read the book and identified a question or issue for discussion.  You will receive 35-40 points for demonstrating some depth of insight, excellence in writing and for doing something extra—making connections to other authors, drawing on other biblical or theological material, or bringing in helpful content from another course. Please post on time.  Late posts will receive an automatic 5 point deduction in the week due.  Initial posts will not be acceptable after Thursday of the week.

Response and group discussion (30 pts): By midnight Thursday each student will respond to the initial posts of at least two other students in the discussion group. Please put “response” in the subject line.  Your response does not need to be long but should seek to drive forward the substance of the discussion. You can do this in a variety of ways: you might elaborate on something the other person said; you might ask a question that probes at a point the person made; you might enquire about the evidence used or the logic employed; you might even say that you disagree and give your evidence. In all cases you will express your ideas carefully and respectfully to one another—even when you strongly disagree.

Students are expected to further the group discussion by contributing at least two comment posts. These conversational posts may be responses to any of the other postings. Please put “comment” in the subject line.  The expectation is that you will visit the forum at least one other time in addition to your initial post, your two responses and your final post. You will receive 20-25 points if you fulfill the requirements for quantity of participation and make contributions that contribute to and enhance the discussion. You will receive 25-30 points if your contributions go beyond the minimum expectations in quantity and display excellence in “listening” to and understanding others as well as depth of insight and integration in your contributions.

Final postings (30 pts): write a final statement (150-200 words) to the group in which you describe how this author and the discussion has shaped your thinking about what it means to be Christian.  Put “My Final Posting” in the subject line of your post. This should be posted by midnight Sunday, Pacific Time.  Again, you will receive up to 30 points based on clarity, level of insight and your thoughtfulness in response to the author and topics raised throughout the forum discussion.  Five points will be deducted for missing the Sunday deadline.

NOTE:  The professor will read the discussion forums and may post an occasional comment.  However, the expectation is that students will conduct the discussion.  At all times students are expected to express their opinions in a way that demonstrates respect for others.


3-Unit Students

In addition to the above assignments, students enrolled for 3 units of credit are expected to write two (2) additional essays.

  1. Theological Reflections – Each student is expected to expand two initial posts into longer essays (5-7 pages each).  The essay should identify an issue raised in your reading of a particular memoirist (e.g., an assessment of Mark Steele’s understanding of suffering, or Barbara Brown Taylor’s understanding of what it means to be “fully human,”), or a recurring theme that you encounter in your reading (e.g., ascetic practices, understanding God’s will, what it means to be converted, etc.).  The essay should move beyond description to personal and theological engagement with the issue.  Good essays will engage the resources of the Christian tradition as well as your own response, experiences and reflection around the issue.  The essay should seek to explore how the author(s) are making meaning out of their lives and assess the faithfulness of their work to the Christian tradition.  “B” essays will identify an issue and demonstrate a basic level of engagement with it.  “A” essays will demonstrate the student’s ability to draw on biblical and theological material in their assessment/engagement with the memoirist.  As always, grades reflect a student’s clarity of thought, excellence in writing and depth of engagement with the material.  Due Dates:  First essay is due March 7.  Last essay is due April 4.  Submit work electronically to class website.

Workload and Grading

Two-unit course (90 hours)                                      

            Class – 20 hours

Reading – 35 hours

Forum – 10 hours                               (3 books x 25%) =       75%

Experiment & essay – 25 hours                                            25%


Three-unit course (135 hours)

Class – 20 hours

Reading – 50 hours

Forum – 20 hours                               (5 books x 12%) =       60%

Experiment & essay – 25 hours                                            20%

Theological reflections – 20 hours    (2 essays x 10%)         20%


Academic Policies

Seminary academic policies (as well as other school policies) are described on the University’s website.   These policies provide guidance on academic integrity and plagiarism, accommodations for disability, incomplete course work, extensions, dates for changing registration, non-discriminatory and inclusive language, appeals, grading templates, etc. Students are expected to be familiar with these policies and will be held responsible for adhering to them. If you have questions about how these policies relate to you or to a situation that you face in your studies, please speak to your professor or consult the Registrar.




Course Schedule


January 12      Introduction to class and memoirs

January 13      Making meaning and the practice of theological reflection

January 14      Exploring the practices of Christian faith (review Bass book)

January 15      All-day retreat (8:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. on campus) – schedule to be distributed

April 29 (or TBA) for potluck meal and story-telling


            January 31 – February 6        Krivak, A Long Retreat

            February 14 – 20                     Winner, Girl Meets God

            February 28 – March 6           Steele, Half-Life/Die Already

            March 14 – 20                         Ilibagiza, Left to Tell

            March 28 – April 3                 Lischer, Open Secrets

            April 11 – 17                            Taylor, Leaving Church


            February 28                            Theological Essay 1  (3-unit students only)

            April 4                                     Theological Essay 2 (3-unit students only)

April 30                                   Reflective Essay on Experiment – All students

Shirley Showalter


  1. Dora Dueck on March 9, 2012 at 9:21 am

    So glad you and Valerie connected! I’m on the MB Historical Commission with her and I agree — she’s dynamic. The course sounds wonderful — if only Fresno wasn’t so far away…

  2. Clif Hostetler on March 9, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Thanks for this information. I’m intrigued with the possibility of utilizing some ideas from the syllabus in an adult Sunday school class for our church.

  3. shirleyhs on March 9, 2012 at 11:50 am

    I hoped you might enjoy seeing this one, Dora. Maybe we can convince
    Valerie to come to the EMU conference and have coffee with us. So
    looking forward to meeting you in person!

  4. shirleyhs on March 9, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    What a great idea, Clif. You have four syllabi to choose from here. Also, consider the church newsletter idea Laurie Gray provided in the last post. Then come back and tell us what happened!

  5. Richard Gilbert on March 10, 2012 at 11:00 am

    I love this syllabus; what an interesting class. I am not familiar with these books. My everlasting favorite spiritual memoirist/writer is Annie Dillard. Just reread her An American Childhood, which qualifies, I think, as certainly does For the Time Being (and probably Teaching a Stone to Talk). With Dillard, though, the spirituality comes indirectly and suffused or in flashes.

    For the Time Being, however, is all about religion and dealing with the problems of existence, and overtly, but in an extended, astringent lyric mode. I hope Professor Rempel will consider it, perhaps as a capstone book. After the linear narratives, it will get them talking.

    • shirleyhs on March 10, 2012 at 1:57 pm

      Your suggestion is wonderful, Richard. Thanks. I will make sure Valerie gets it. I’ll go invite her to add her comments on the reading list and what assignments worked best, etc.

      I have read most of Annie Dillard’s books and have taught several of them with good success with senior English majors. But I never read For the Time Being. Sounds like I need to.

  6. Valerie Rempel on March 11, 2012 at 12:07 am

    It’s been fun to read the comments after Shirley posted my syllabus. Richard, I think Annie Dillard is terrific, too. I like Teaching a Stone to Talk (and use one of her essays in another class) and I especially like her short collection The Writing Life. Must reads for me – Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church and Sara Miles’ Take This Bread (not on the syllabus). As for the class, it’s been gratifying to have student’s read and react to the books, and then send me new titles as they continue reading!

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