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Archive for May, 2008

Insufficiently Theological

I’ve been slowly making my way through Douglas Harink’s Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology beyond Christendom and Modernity (Brazos, 2003)—slowly, not because I am digesting it deeply, but because I have little time for reading these days and so I can only get at the book in fits and starts.

Harink writes well and clearly. And, his project is impressive, crossing disciplinary boundaries easily. He is able to address issues with both the traditional and the new perspectives on Paul. The criticisms of the traditional perspective are well worn. Harink’s criticism of the New Perspective, on the other hand, is fresh because he does not march out the old soldiers from the traditional view. Instead, he writes things like the following:

Such, I believe, is one of the persistent shortcomings of some of the work from the “new perspective on Paul.” E. P. Sanders, J. D. G. Dunn, N. T. Wright, and others often borrow from the repertoire of historical, sociological, and religious studies to name the terms of Paul’s theological concerns. It is supposed that he is wrestling with questions about the conditions for “getting in and staying in” a certain religious group (i.e., the covenant people of God); or with group “boundary markers” which distinguish and separate groups from one another, but which in Christ are eradicated, making all groups into one; or with “inclusion” and “exclusion,” that is, the difference between “Jewish ethnic nationalism” which is by definition “exclusive” and the new message of God’s gracious “acceptance” of all in Jesus Christ and which is therefore “inclusive.” Without denying the element of truth in these and similar construals, they are insufficiently apocalyptic/theological. They miss the crucial point that in Galatians Paul is concerned to affirm “the singularity of the gospel”—that God’s relationship to and purpose for the nations and all creation is exclusively determined by and through God’s cosmic-eschatological-healing in teh cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit

Why shop at Amazon?

I’ve wondered whether Amazon was evil and I’ve made an appeal to book reviewers to link to publishers and not to Amazon. Now, I want to point to a well-reasoned argument for shopping with independent Christian booksellers instead of Amazon. I think the argument could be applied to doing business with religious publishers as well.  Also, many Christian booksellers do business on the web, so even if there is no independent store in your area, there is no reason not to shop with someone for whom “profit isn’t — or shouldn’t be — our driving force: we are called be a prophetic presence on the high street, not simply another profiteering one.” For a related story see the recent article in Christianity Today, “How to Save the Christian Bookstore.”

If you are ever in Eugene, OR, get yourself over to Windows Booksellers. And, when in Pasadena, CA find your way to Archives Bookshop and Fuller Seminary Bookstore. All three stores will gladly take orders online and over the phone.

For a nice list of theological and biblical studies publishers, complete with links, see here.

Is seminary for everyone?

Atlantic.com carried a story today by an anonymous adjunct, Professor X. Prof. X questions the notion that college is for everyone.

The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty. No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.

We may look mild-mannered, we adjunct instructors, but we are academic button men. I roam the halls of academe like a modern Coriolanus bearing sword and grade book, “a thing of blood, whose every motion / Was timed with dying cries.”

I often feel like Prof. X when I teach an introductory course for new seminarians, many who, because of poor undergraduate scores or other such circumstances, must show above average work (B- or better) to continue with seminary. I very frequently wonder if seminary is for anyone who enrolls and pays tuition. Another layer of reflection is added when many of these students believe they are, by going to seminary, pursuing God’s call. And yet another layer is added when these students question my and/or the school’s Christian generosity upon receiving their less than average grades. Though, I have not had occasion to fail 9 out of 15 students as Prof. X has, there is almost always at least one student each quarter for whom my course is the only one they get to take. Once grades are released and they have below the needed grade, there seminary career ends (at least at the seminary where I teach. I am sure some other seminary will take their tuition dollars).
But there is a larger question, really. I am pretty sure a good many seminarians shouldn’t be in seminary. The bigger question: “Is vocational ministry for everyone?”
Jim tipped me off to a nice post by Scott entitled “Future Pastors the Church Does Not Need.” Scott recalls a seminar with a mix of university and seminary students. He was haunted by the allergy to “being a theologian” the seminary students seemed to have. Before describing three categories of seminary students in the seminar, Scott writes:

It is my contention that if you call yourself a Christian then you are a theologian; the only question is whether you have a good theology or not. It’s OK if you disagree with me (you would be wrong of course) but I would assume that at the very least we want our pastors to be theologians.

Commenting further on the issue, Jim writes:

Years ago one of my own Professors walked into class one day and said “if you don’t think theologically, get out of the ministry right now. Pastors are theologians first and foremost and every aspect of life is grist for the theological mill.” Unfortunately many of my compatriots didn’t listen to him.

I concur with Scott and Jim, wholeheartedly. But, I am disturbed by the reality that those students whose seminary careers I’ve dashed will still become pastors, ministers, etc. For the Church’s sake, this worries me. So, larger than the questions about everyone being fit for college, seminary, or ministry, is the question concerning the Church’s role in helping people discern God’s call. For just as many colleges and seminaries depend on those tuition dollars from even the least capable of students, so many believe that in order to “save souls” or “do kingdom work” or (pick you favorite Christianese saying) the Church ought not question anyone’s call to “the ministry.”

[Disclaimer: I am thinking through these things as one from a free church perspective. I realize many denominations have filters in place. But, I would contend a good many of their “drop outs” find their way to some sort of ministerial role elsewhere.]

[And, for what it’s worth: I think too many PhDs are being awarded these days as well. I often wonder if I should have one.]

Progressive Evangelicals

This intersection of politics, religion and activism from within religious groups has the power to change, but it can also find itself mired in a world of politics that disregards norms of right and wrong.

Read this very good essay on the obstacles the progressive evangelical movement faces.