An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Beyond Numbers by K A Loop - a review

Beyond Numbers
A Practical Guide to Teaching Math Biblically
Katherine A. Loop
Fairfax, VA: Christian Perspective, 2nd edn 2011
ISBN Second Edition: 978-0-9773611-3-7
Available here

'Teaching Christianly may well be the hardest job in the universe' according to John Van Dyk [1]. Teaching maths Christianly may be even harder!

Katherine Loop's view of mathematics changed when she read James Nikel's seminal book Mathematics: Is God Silent? She agrees with Nikel that God is not. Many Christians think that God is silent, that maths is neutral and that it is eternal or at least exists in the mind of God. And this, sadly, includes many Christian mathematicians. Loop does not succumb to these myth and she presents much good introductory material here to subvert them.

Loop starts by rightly emphasising the created-ness of mathematics. If God creates all things then that must include numbers, addition and the rest. 

She writes:
Math is not a neutral subject. God’s invisible qualities are clearly seen in math. If we are not worshiping God in math, we are unconsciously worshipping the creation, in this case, math itself. We are exchanging God’s truth for a lie. Our attempts at neutrality only harm us and open up our hearts to worldly, independent thinking. p 27.
The strength of the book is its simplicity and accessibility. That is also its weakness as some of the arguments are glossed over and they wouldn't convince a skeptic, but then that probably isn't the aim of the book.

She examines some erroneous ways of teaching maths 'biblically'. These include adding in a Bible verse - she rightly points out:

 Simply adding Bible verses or thoughts to our math lessons does not make math biblical. Math still comes across as independent from God.
She discusses some common textbook approaches to division and shows how they are lacking and then develops her own approach using 'cookies' and splitting them (dividing) them into groups and then concluding:
Guess what? Because God holds all of creation together so consistently, if you take twelve objects and put them into three piles, you will always end up with four objects in each pile! God’s consistency makes it possible for us to do division without actually touching the objects we are dividing. Just as we did with multiplication, we can memorize our division facts and be confident they will always work because of God’s faithfulness. (p. 32)
The book is obviously geared to a North American context. This is obvious by the use of terms like math and cookies but also for example we have statements such like 'Most students learn the long division method without really understanding why the method leads to the right answer.' This rote learning approach is very much frowned upon in the UK (not to say such a pragmatic approach doesn't exist this side of the pond), the emphasis in the UK is not on learning by rote but more on understanding and encouraging students to use their own methods - and this approach is advocated by those who aren't Christians as well as Christians. Such an approach that Loop rightly criticises is merely bad maths pedagogy.

In one place (p. 35) she states:
But a biblical math presentation will always introduce the concept as a practical tool dependent on God’s continual faithfulness. [my emphasis]
This is stated rather than justified. In what way is this biblical? And why always? What if there is (at present) no practical application to the maths? What image of maths does this give us? Is it merely a tool - an instrument? This approach could lead to a utilitarian view of maths.

To be fair, in a note she does clarify this:
Just presenting math practically does not teach math biblically. What a tragedy it would be to know how to use math practically while remaining blind to the One who makes practical math possible! Yet practical math is the natural outcome of a biblical view of math.
So, practical maths is necessary but not sufficient for it to be a Christian approach.

For Christians teaching maths in a home school or Christian school context this book will be invaluable. For those teaching in a non-Christian context it will be useful, but the ideas and explicit Christian approach will need to be made more implicit. It does raise the important question can we teach Christianly in a state school without mentioning God? The other question left unaddressed is, could a Moslem teach a Moslem approach to maths using this method? (For example by using the name Allah instead of God on p. 32) If so what implications does this have for this as a distinctively Christian approach?

I'm puzzled why Loop continually refers to this approach as 'biblical math'. I much prefer the term Christian maths. The danger with the term 'biblical math(s)' is that it could encourage an encyclopaedic fallacy approach to reading the scriptures. What is the biblical value of pi? 3 if we are to go by I Kings 7:23-26. Does it mean that we should return to measurements in span and cubits? But again I'm being pernickety.

I have perhaps been overly critical - but I hope in a constructive way. There is much wisdom in this book. The emphasis on God as the creator of maths, the ways maths reflects God's faithfulness, maths as a tool for understanding (and I'd want to add developing) the creation, that maths is not neutral is excellent; they are all important truths.

She makes some good suggestions for teaching maths. These include:
  • show how the concept reveals God's character/ design
  • teach using a real-life principle 
  • use the concept practically
  • use the history of maths to show how the concept has been used in the past.
The book deserves a wide audience. It will be a shame if that potential audience is put off by some of the un-subtleties and unsubstantiated assertions. That said, however, Loop's book and her many practical suggestions may well help make teaching maths Christianly a little easier.

[1] Letters to Lisa: Conversations with a Christian Teacher - back cover.


1. Where did Math Come From, and Why does it Work?     1
2. Math Points us to God     7
3. Math’s Practicality     11
4. Math Is not neutral!     19
5. Harm to the Heart     25
6. Adopting a new Heart Toward math     29
7. Preparing to Teach math Biblically     45
8. Teaching math Biblically
9. Ready, Set, Now What do I do?     61
10. Curriculums and resources     67
11. Overcoming the difficulties     83
Parting Thought     87
Appendix A: Idea notebook     89
Appendix B: Bibliography     95

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