Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Spiritual Relevance of Theological Training, Part 2

In my previous post I considered the relevance of theological training to the spiritual life. If the call of Christ is to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves, why study theology? I granted it a certain but limited value--my attempt to commend it to those who think it doesn't matter and to relativize it to those who think it matters too much. These posts also represent my attempt to work through these issues myself. I wanted to find out what I thought and should think about these things, and so I set about writing my thoughts down this way. Writing is my means for organizing and processing my thoughts, and this blog has only ever been a glimpse into my thoughts and thought process, never a display of polished writing. This post is part two of my miniature investigation into the relevance of theological training; here I turn my sights from the spiritual life of the individual to the communal responsibility of the Christian leader (by which I mean anyone officially active in the oversight of or ministry to a Christian community, ordained or otherwise).

From a leadership perspective, theological education in biblical studies, systematics and church history has one primary and invaluable function: protecting and articulating the apostolic faith and understanding how it interacts with unbelieving host cultures. This function does not constitute the core of basic Christian discipleship, but it must serve discipleship’s ends by creating and protecting a safe and stable environment where basic discipleship can occur. Without this telos, academic theology and its by-products are, spiritually, a collective waste of time. Basic discipleship, on the other hand, without intellectual and ecclesiological structure tends towards petty cultism, schism, anti-intellectualism and historical rootlessness. The former will lose Christ in the halls of the ivory tower, the latter will become socially irrelevant as it sinks further and further down the rabbit hole of Christ-culture and mind-body dualism.

Academic theological training will not provide many things to the Christian leader. Integrity, diligence, public-speaking, pastoral skills, administration, and so on—these must all be gained elsewhere (not to mention the "basic discipleship" I have been speaking of--a life built on the foundation of love for God and love for neighbor). However there remain some essential skills which come with academic training and should not be underestimated:

1) Critical thinking! Christians known for pursuing personal relationships with God are not known for their logical consistency and general intelligence. This is a shame. Rather than shunning secular universities and institutions as godless enemies, Christians should be fully engaged with secularism, armed with robust faith, flexible minds and fearless confidence that God can and will redeem human society through the salt and light of the church. This will require creative ways of integrating the mind of faith and the mind of science, and a re-evaluation of old battle-lines drawn through issues such as evolution, post-modernism and politics.

Furthermore, Christians need to read things that challenge their minds, stretch their worldviews, and undermine their presuppositions. A vital, orthodox faith in Christ is no reason not to be well-read.

2) Exegesis! Christian leaders need to know how to read, interpret and apply the Bible consistently and holistically. Evangelicalism has far too many topical, eisegetical and emotionalistic sermons. Sermons should be Christocentric and reflect the import of a Scriptural text, rather than constructed from random Bible verses to make a point apart from text and context. Consistent exposure to exegetical preaching is not only good stewardship of God's word, it also fosters a church body which respects God's word and interprets it carefully.

3) Systematics/Biblical Theology! Christian leaders should have a basic grasp of the bible and know how to synthesize its content in response to practical concerns and questions. Whether someone wants to know how a Christian should manage their finances or why there is suffering in the world, Christian leaders should be able to respond with holistically biblical wisdom. It wouldn’t hurt them to also have some fundamental grasp of the history of theology either (nor philosophy, if they’re so inclined).

And finally—this is not a skill, per se, but still relevant—Christian leaders oughht to grasp at least enough of church history* that they understand their role and denomination as one niche in a globe-spanning and millenia-long redemptive mission orchestrated by the God of the universe. Good church history instructs us in humility, empathy and, not least, the exemplary lives of the saints who have lived for Christ throughout. Woe to those who conceive of it as a mere chronological succession of theological ideas.

Presumably, all these skills would be added to people who live by the Jesus Creed. Because without the core of basic, Jesus-oriented discipleship, all these professional skills are but dried grass blown away by the wind. Also, these considerations have been made in the ideal; the exigencies of Christian mission will always contend for the same time and money that might be spent on theological training. It is up to church and seminary leaders to determine the balance; please God, let them continue to hear you and always find ways to integrate mission and training.

I conclude with a plea for prayer. I assume that those who read my blog have at least some passing interest in my life as a seminarian, so please petition the Lord that I would be able to embrace first the Jesus Creed and also the discipline of training and theological formation. My hope and desire is to be an integrated leader—fully devoted to “basic Christian discipleship,” successfully trained in the intellectual disciplines relevant to mission of Christ and the community of his church.

*For this task I recommend Mark Noll's Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. It is not a long book, especially considering it spans two thousand years of church history, and it is just enough information to begin to hint at the shape of the story of the people of God since Pentecost.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Spiritual Relevance of Theological Training, Part 1

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” ~ Jesus (Matthew 22:37-39)

Two posts ago I related some of my struggles with seminary, especially related to the emphasis on professional training for ministry. Some recent back and forth with a friend has stoked some further thoughts about seminary, specifically my attempt to gauge the relative spiritual importance of academic theological training. For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to consider biblical studies, systematics and church history, as my basic questions have to do with the spiritual relevance of the academic disciplines. In my opinion, the spiritual relevance of an applied disipline such as pastoral theology, leadership or practice is self-evident, provided that the pastor ministers in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit. This is not to say that that field does not need re-evaluation and reform in certain ways. Additionally, the relevance of liturgical instruction goes unquestioned provided that both instructor and student have an integrated grasp of liturgy and the imperative to love God with one’s whole being.

I see two Christian perspectives from which to evaluate academic theological training. The first and most important concerns basic Christian discipleship and formation, the second Christian leadership and pastoral responsibility. Either way, I believe its relevance can be considered through one lens: the commands to love God and to love our neighbors.

Scott McKnight calls Matthew 22:37-39 “The Jesus Creed.” These commandments, construed Christocentrically, constitute the distilled essence of Christian praxis. Anything which does not accord or strive to accord with these imperatives cannot be justly called “Christian behavior.” These calls to love underscore the whole ethical thrust of the New Testament and outline what it means to follow Jesus. Throughout this essay I will refer to living by these commands as “basic discipleship.” How then does theological education fit the Jesus Creed? I will attempt to answer this question by going through the “creed” line by line.

Theological training can and should cause its students to love God more deeply from the heart by more intimately acquainting them with the grand redemptive narrative of the Bible and, in particular, the redeeming work of the cross and the powerful victory of the resurrection. The seminarian must come to more clearly understand the God who prefers mercy to judgment, and so be filled with love. However, it is unclear, and perhaps improbable that the relentless specificity of academic theology is necessary for or essential to this task, except insofar as these basic ideas need articulation and defense over and against those who would appropriate the Bible to tell a different story. For those called to the apologetic task, this is no small order.

As for loving God from the soul, the psychological and emotional healing required for this are unlikely to be gained through academic pursuits. Moreover, the spiritual disciplines required to sustain soul care—meditation on Scripture, prayer, rest, community, celebration—neither require academic precision nor certification. Professional Christian counseling, however, should require academic training in both Christianity and counseling, although these disciplines will affect those receiving counsel only indirectly.

The imperative to love God with all one’s mind will often be cited as the Jesus mandate for theology and its professional training. I would argue that, while this is not an invalid application of the Jesus Creed, left alone it is a woefully narrow construal of the call to love God with our minds. For not only do we need care for logical consistency in our God talk, but also a consistent habit of turning our thoughts towards God. As Paul writes, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). Theological sophistication and precision can never replace this; affirming orthodoxy will not, by itself, effect the mental transformation that God desires for us. Only the spiritual habits of Scripture meditation, prayer and corporate liturgical worship will do the trick.

Love of neighbor will be partly addressed when I consider the relevance of theological training to Christian leadership. Theological knowledge will be used to love others mostly through Christians' attempts to satisfy others' theological problems and conundrums. Basic questions like "Why suffering?" and "Doesn't the Jesus love and the Old Testament God hate?" can only be addressed by someone with at least rudimentary theological training, even if it's only congregation-based catechesis. Helping people in a particular cultural and intellectual setting become intellectually receptive to God and the gospel is of no small value. Even so, intellectual concerns are relativized by the hierarchy of needs, especially when the majority of the world waiting to hear the good news are poor and hungry.

All considered, I find theological training to be of limited value in the life of the lay disciple. Non-academic catechesis might go a very long way in shaping thoughts for God by training disciples in basic doctrine. It does stand to reason, however, that loving God with our minds means being lifelong learners: as much as our station, vocation and capacity allow, Christians should be growing in intellectual knowledge of God. For some that will mean academic theological training; for the vast majority it will not. However, considering the relevance of theological training vis-à-vis Christian leadership in my next post will, I think, reveal considerably more benefits to basic Christian discipleship, albeit in a somewhat indirect way.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Only A Single Mom Could Have Written This Fantasy Epic

"Where your treasures is, there your heart will be also."
~ Matthew 6:21

"The last enemy to be destroyed is death."
~ I Corinthians 15:26


I had the strangest experience watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 this evening. I was filled with a deep appreciation and love for my mom, who has loved and sacrificed and prayed my sister and I through the past two decades. Strange, not because it's inappropriate to feel this way towards my mom, but rather because through all those years she has also been a vocal opponent of all forms of fantasy fiction. To her it is all too tolerant of the occult, grievous to the Holy Spirit and a dangerous gateway for sparking interest in the demonic and the mystical. As a schoolteacher, Harry Potter and his tales have been especially worrisome, given their massive popularity with students and teachers alike. Strange then that a Harry Potter film would so powerfully and forcefully remind me of her Christocentric motherhood.

During this evening's movie-going experience, I was struck by how much J.K. Rowling's experience as a single mother had shaped the series' conclusion. Obviously, that Rowling would make Lily Potter's motherly love the mythological foundation of the most powerful magic in Harry Potter's wizarding world betrays her sympathies. It is the recurring theme of the series, and Deathly Hallows is its swooning thematic crescendo. Several of the leading adult ladies of the series vividly illustrate such love in the epic's climactic moments.

First off, Professor MacGonagall's face-off with Snape in order to protect Harry seemed to me a capstone to her quiet and dutiful stewardship of him over the years. She fought as surrogate-mother, as one of the many who have stepped in to fill the family void left by the murder of Potter's parents. Her fierce determination to protect Harry and all of the other students revealed this usually reserved and proper school-marm as the lioness she has always been.

Concordantly, Narcissa Malfoy's role in the series seems to have been to show that, even in the most despicable of families, a mother's love will trump all else. After Harry returns from King's Cross, she reveals that her devotion to Draco goes far beyond whatever she gives to Voldemort. If Potter will confirm Draco's life, she will not betray Harry's resurrection. It is Draco's life and well-being that matter, not the dark lord's. Her pact with Snape in The Half-Blood Prince also underscored and highlighted this concern.

Bellatrix Lestrange, on the other hand, is the anti-Lily and the anti-Narcissa. Her devotion to Voldemort is absolute, her emotional compass as intelligible as the Joker's. She has no family, no discernible friends, and no relational inter-connections to establish her as a psycho-social being. Bellatrix embodies the nihilistic consequences of Voldy's will-of-death, a dehumanized freak and a picture of what might have become of a humanity enslaved to an immortal demon. Helena Bonham Carter tweaks the character performance to 11, and, while never boring, I think she mistakes cartoonishly outlandish evil for dehumanized amorality.

As far as cinematic high points go, Molly Weasley's face-off with Lestrange far outstrips Voldemort's demise--the audience cheered for "Not my daughter, you bitch!" and Neville killing Nagini in roughly equal amounts, but not nearly so much for the final defeat of the dark lord. When she defends Ginny and defeats Bellatrix, Molly both embodies and makes bad-ass the same motherly love evinced by Lily so many years before. Her defeat of Lestrange is Lily's first vindication: motherly love defeating evil without the sacrifice of martyrdom.

Lastly, even the somewhat-derided "19 Years Later" series coda demonstrates a mother's touch. Rowling has said that this epilogue was written at the same time as The Philosopher's Stone, meaning she always had a kind of boring normalcy in mind as the fruit of all their labors. A man (or a rabid fan or sequel-hungry studio head) would have come up with something like Harry's life being filled with a series of ongoing adventures and derring-do. A single mother understands, however, that to have life and a functioning family that you love is all the reward one needs.

In Harry's epic tale, it's motherly love that serves as protection against the abyss. And experiencing its conclusion in full sight and sound this evening reminded me just how much I owe to my mom for serving the same purpose. I have walked away from the charismatic fundamentalism of my past for myriad reasons I won't describe here. But I am forever indebted to my mom, charismatic and fundamentalist if anyone else is, and for the prayers she prayed and the tears she shed to shield me from the will of death which sought to destroy me. It almost did; I was almost lost to radical unbelief and nihilistic amorality forever but she never stopped praying. She never stopped fighting for me or my sister.

I know that, ultimately, it is God's faithfulness which holds me secure and has kept me for his purposes all these years. But I am no less convinced that my mom has been an integral part of his means for doing so. God has chosen to partner with and work through human beings on this earth--essential to his very purpose in creating us was to grant us dominion over creation. So thanks mom; thanks for wielding the mythic power of God's love, the deep magic from before world began which is rooted in the sacrifice of love. And thank you, Jesus, for laying your life down for us, for making a way out of sin and death and into an abundant and eternal way of life. You deserve all the honor, all the glory and all the praise.

And Jesus, thank you for Joanne Rowling. Thank you for allowing this woman to glimpse your love and refract it through the dark glass of fiction in such a moving and powerful way. Please continue to reveal yourself to her and all who love the story she has told, because it's always been your story, the only one we want to hear again and again, where love wins, evil passes away, and all the things that were wrong are made right again. Lord Jesus, let these tales stir our hearts and imaginations, spur us to live lives not for ourselves but for others, and provoke us all until we continually seek to fill our beings with you, the man who lived.

If you enjoyed this, I recommend "Harry, the Hallows, Love, and Life" by my friend RebbieJaye who knits and blogs @

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Seminarian Identity Flux

It's easy to lose sight of what matters. I have been preoccupied much of this year with anxieties and fears having to do with success and competence in ministry. There's something to the internal logic of seminary and its culture that pushes this emphasis; the incessant process of evaluation almost demands it. Theological training is a crucible, and from what I understand it is not unusual for those receiving it to find their faith tested even as they are being trained to shape the faith of others. So I do not here make a fundamental criticism of seminary, but I must contend that it is in and of itself a very different kind of thing than normal Christian discipleship and formation.

Part of my test, part of what seminary means to me, is coming to understand the Christian leader that I will never be. I will never be a driven, self-organizing, energetic community-creator continually spawning new ministries. I have to say this to myself because I perceive that ideal to be prevalent in contemporary Christianity and close to what people are looking for in a church planter--a vocation currently receiving much attention in my denomination and school. It is cognitively dissonant (and, therefore, emotionally distressing) to me to train to serve God's kingdom with mannered, workman-like competence as the guiding principle.

But I recognize my own baggage at play in resisting such a curriculum. I know that I need this training, but the fierce core of my soul will ever resist the notion that professionalism will suffice. This serves as a convenient excuse to disregard professionalism's qualities--neatness, timeliness, diligence, consistency, etc.--as the phony trappings of a bourgeois clericalism. I must find the third way betwixt fleeing such responsibilities and embracing them as the essence of churchmanship. It's my internal struggle between the feisty legacy of the Jesus movement and the slow-to-change ecclesiology of Anglicanism. Moreover, it's my nasty, cheap-trick fight between my sloth and the gospel demand that I roll up my sleeves and do some work.

I am deeply grateful for a friend who recently, through no intention of her own, reminded me of what matters. She has often had this function in my life, and has accomplished it most recently by preparing to move to India in order to be Christ among orphans there. It is the rarest kind of friend who through simply living their life in Christ recalls for you what most deeply moves and energizes your faith and being. For me this is loving God purely and from the heart, and actively bringing his love to "the least of these." If only every day at seminary were a lesson in this truth, saintliness might spread like wildfire.

Recognizing this alone does not accomplish the hard work of growing in love for God and love for others. However, prioritizing these objectives may very well be my ticket to negotiating a proper balance between my personal spirituality and public professional responsibilities. If I can consistently treat the latter as irrevocably important but always relative to Christ's prime directive ("Love the Lord your God with all your heart... Love your neighbor as yourself") then perhaps I can find a way to healthily channel my charismatic passion through Anglican ecclesiological structure. If not, then I will at least have grown in the core of what it means to be like Jesus and will not have wasted my heart trying to live by the dictums of professional competence.

I've got to level with the world of theological education: In my heart I never wanted to be an exegete or a scholar, nor a simulacrum of Tim Keller exuding white collar competence and theological sophistication from the pulpit. I just wanted to love Jesus and love people, and be in a community where that could be lived out in faithfulness to the word but apart from flaky, anti-intellectual fundamentalism. Gaining Anglicanism has been a welcome and fruitful gain in that process, but integrating my core passions while yet struggling through the cycle of sin and forgiveness has made for a bumpy road.

I need prayer. Prayer that the Lord will help me to live simply and from the heart. I want to be able to possess the integrity of love while not disregarding the obligation of professionalism. I want freedom from sins which so readily ensnare my body, heart and mind. I want to live in to the hope and purpose that God has for my life.