Candace Kohli brings her Luther passion to LSTC
Perhaps it’s fitting that in seminary Candace Kohli was so obsessed with Martin Luther that in the middle of the night she’d wake up thinking about Luther and his ideas.
“I would lay in bed racking my brain trying to figure out how Luther was saying the things [he was saying]. I don’t know why of all the weird things to just grab you…” she said, her voice trailing.
Fast forward: Kohli became a Luther scholar and in July joined LSTC’s faculty as assistant professor of Lutheran Systematic Theology and Global Lutheranism.
As a kid she thought she’d be an attorney. “In retrospect, I would have been a very good lawyer,” she says; but no one pushed her toward that vocation or a school that would have fostered it. Instead, she attended a small Christian liberal arts college [Montreat, in N.C.] and found herself in the religion department because it was what interested her. Her initial aspirations didn’t include a PhD and becoming a professor, but by time she finished college, that’s where she was headed. She went to seminary to figure out what she wanted to get her PhD in. “And that’s how I got myself into the academic arena,” she says.
Her experience at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts was challenging. She was the only woman in her theology program and was told that, as a woman, her chances for PhD admittance were not good. Opportunities presented themselves when she cross registered for a class at Harvard Divinity School, which connected her to a professor who introduced her to Luther. That professor later became her academic advisor at Northwestern University, where she received an additional MA and achieved her goal of a PhD.
But PhD work resulted in burnout, just as she saw friends who were miserable in their teaching jobs. Prospects in academia were slim and usually involved uprooting oneself for temporary positions or taking adjunct positions with no benefits and small salaries, she recalls. She took a detour through medical education as an education consultant for an accrediting body, which became a plus for LSTC.
She heads up the LSTC distance learning committee made up of faculty, staff, and students. The committee is in the process of launching distance learning programs to make LSTC degrees accessible for new audiences. What is exciting, she says, is the possibility for hyper-contextual education, internships, etc., where distance learners get to engage the very communities where they live and plan to minister.
But her first love is teaching. And she brings to LSTC all that has shaped her along the way. Kohli grew up in Ohio’s Amish country, where she witnessed how theology shapes culture and vice versa.
First impressions, teaching methods
LSTC’s community emphasis and ethos remind her of a small liberal arts college. She appreciates the close relationship between faculty and students, compared to research universities, for instance, “where faculty were in their offices with the door closed and you had to make an appointment.”
As if to prove the point, a group of spirited students stops by our table in the Grand Hallway just to visit. She’s clearly made the transition to this small seminary.
Teaching hybrid classes has put her usual teaching methods in flux: “Activities I used to do—that got people up and moving around, with lots of small groups—don’t work as well when some students are remote and others are in the room … I like to use technology like Google Jamboards so people have a collaboration tool that everyone can be working on and they can be working together.”
Hybrid teaching/learning has challenges and rewards. In her current class are students calling in from Colombia, Nebraska, the north side of Chicago, and Kansas. One breakout group included a student from Colombia and another who was fluent in Spanish. She was delighted to overhear their discussion was in Spanish. “The beauty of modern society is that it’s heterogenous,” she says.
One way she motivates students is simple, she says: “Letting students see what gets you excited and why you think a topic is really cool is important for helping them buy in.” Not unlike how she got hooked on Luther as a graduate student. “Somebody showed me ‘this is fascinating!’”
Another way she motivates them is ensuring they wrestle with “why?” and “so what?” questions. “The same is true for the classes we’re asking them to take …They’re asking questions like ‘Why should I care?’ and ‘Why am I spending time on this?’” Wrestling with those questions helps students with application, with how the content will matter for the congregations or communities they will go on to serve.
This semester she’s teaching “Luther and Modern Society,” similar to what she taught at Northwestern. At LSTC, she has added contemporary Lutheran theology to previous teaching of Luther’s ideas in modern philosophy and modern political thought. It has more religious connotations to it rather than cultural, she said.
Her Luther class has a modern society focus because she wants students, particularly as Lutherans, to see his relevance. “Understanding Luther and what drove him and his method … is something they can imitate. Seeing how Lutheran theologians actively appropriate Luther to address issues that are contemporary to us.”
Luther a fit for public church
Kohli’s background in religion, global politics and service learning is a good fit for LSTC’s Public Church curriculum. Although her classes don’t teach community organizing, she hopes she teaches students to “think in a public church way.”
“How to think: ‘If I construct this idea in my sermon the implications for this community are going to be this. Helping them get that meta narrative in their minds that helps them be self-critical and look at their own impact. So, I hope [she knocks on wood] that we can build in some protection and insulation from harms that Christian theology has done to certain populations in the past.” These harms, she says, were not necessarily done out of ill will, but because people didn’t possess critical ways of thinking about their own impact on those unlike themselves.
“I see myself as trying to help students get that critical way of looking at themselves as much as anything.”
Kohli on why Luther is ‘cool’
Kohli admits there are challenges for an instructor to articulate why students should care about Luther, who died 500 years ago.
“He’s cool for multiple reasons,” she says. “Unlike other theologians he’s animated and you get a sense of his personality. He’s rude, he’s bawdy, he talks about excrement and there’s something amusing about him. You get a sense of him as a person.
“His ideas are totally revolutionary and literally changed the world. I don’t know of another figure with that level of impact. The brilliance of some of his ideas like freedom also have this dangerous edge to them…They’ve done real harm to some communities historically.
But [this] complexity makes him interesting—how do you extract and leverage the brilliance while safeguarding against the potential harm?
This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of the Epistle magazine and was written by Julie B. Sevig, Epistle editor and communications manager.