Monday, October 29, 2007

Lessons from Sem 3: Classmate disappointment

I went to a secular, state run University for my undergrad. I really didn't know what to expect, what with the drinking, drugs, and partying displayed by the media, but in college, I met many wonderful, Godly students. These friends were wonderful, and I've blogged about them before. They were sharp, they were committed to Christ, and constantly seemed to want to go deeper - to see how deep the spiritual well of Christianity goes. Well, as much as girl or boy crazy college students could. They challenged me and I challenged them. We weren't perfect by far, but when I think about what Christian community should look like, I often think of this group of college friends, struggling with God in their quest to find Him. At least, on the days I remember them favorably. I'm flighty that way.

A couple of years after college, when I entered Seminary, I expected to be greeted by students who reminded me of the Christian friends I had made at my secular university. I expected to find students who were sharp, well thought, interested in piercing the depths of what they didn't know, and excited by the new things they learned. I expected to find good students who read the assigned material and came prepared to discuss it, students who knew how to use the stacks and write good research papers, and who worked to integrate their reading and research into their Christian context. I, as a modestly read Engineer who had been away from college life for a few years, was prepared to be intimidated by my classmates.

Now, before I go any further, let's be clear: I'm more like the tortoise than the hare. I'm not quick and sharp and perspicuous, but I'm not dull, either. I am a hard worker, and continue to work things over until I get most of the wrinkles smoothed out. For some reason, I expected most of my classmates to be hard workers, too. (Or at least naturally gifted.)

I was disappointed. Just to give you an idea of the average student with which I interacted, here are some of the titles I thought about using but rejected because they were too harsh, even though they are intended to be a little tongue-in-cheek:
Matriculated Maladroit
Students are Stupid
My Kidney are Uncalculating

In general, I found that seminary students tend to be on the bad end of the bell curve. I was disappointed in how easily confused most of my classmates were, how fearful they were of new ideas, and how poor their own sense of self was. I was also regularly disappointed as to how well these students did in class. Frequently, they neither read the material, nor turned their assignments in on time, nor knew how to use the library resources.

There were exceptions, of course. In my 7 years in seminary, during which time I should have seen 2 full groups of students graduate, I can only remember maybe 10 people who seemed to be able to intellectually function at a graduate level, and half of those were elitist. I would call those elitist "In the club" to Melissa, because evidently you had to know the secret handshake to qualify for meaningful interaction with them. But I digress.

A couple of years ago, I was listening to a speech by Stanley Hauerwas (a well-known professor at Duke who holds chairs in both theology and law) on the ethics of death and dying for Christians. Hauerwas casually peppered into his talk that seminary students these days tend to be people who have failed at their secular vocation, and think that God must be calling them into ministry. And, being the good Christian folk most professors are, these students tend to get softened requirements for making the grade.

I wish it weren't so, but Hauerwas' observation seems to be accurate. During classroom interaction, many student's couldn't reason through their own thoughts and would assert things that led to logical contradictions, conflicts of interest, or worse. Those who actually read the assigned material frequently couldn't find the real meaning of the reading and would be baffled about the themes we were discussing, or would find the bogeyman in everything and be afraid of the ideas being presented. Those who didn't read the material would surf the internet during class.

In any case, seminary taught me something important about grad school: dull people get master's degrees, too. This has led to a sad realization about the pastors our seminaries are churning out: they seem to be incapable of doing the intellectual work of the church.

In the early church, pastors were the ones who defended the faith against those who would undermine it with ideas that were logical contradictions, or conflicts of interest, or worse. People like Iraeneaus, Athanasius, the Cappodocians, or Augustine were defenders of the faith because being a pastor meant running a church and thinking about THE Church. But, I wonder, would our modern pastors be up to the task of refuting the heresy of the gnostics, or of Arius, or the the Pelagians? Are our modern pastors up to the task of redefining our ancient Christian ideas so that they can communicate the good news of Christ? Instead, will our pastors sit confused and baffled while heresy grows, or perhaps be fearful reactionaries to any ideas that are new?

I'm partially comforted by the fact that Jesus' disciples seemed to be a bunch of dimwits, but turned out to be powerful agents of Christ in the world. That comfort is tempered, however, by the general decline of the American church.

What do you think? Are there ways in which you feel church leadership has been a disappointment?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lessons from Sem 2: Languages are Important

Dovetailing with the lesson that hermeneutics matter, Seminary also taught me that languages are important.

Even before I went to Seminary, I knew that languages were a big deal. The Christian tradition in which I was raised holds that scripture is inerrant in it's original form, which includes the original language in which it was communicated. For most of scripture, these languages are Greek and Hebrew.

The more I learn about other languages, the more I appreciate how distinctive they are from each other. I spent some time in Merida, Mexico when I was in college. I had learned the word "simpatico" in my spanish classes, and it meant something like "nice", or perhaps "friendly". When I got to talking with my Mexican hosts, I realized that there is no English word that captures the meaning behind "simpatico". Simpatico, properly translated into English, would mean something more like "friendship between people that is so profound that these people fit together as if they were designed to be in relationship with each other". Best friends are simpatico. But, as I was taught by my Mexican friends, simply calling a person "simpatico" because they are friendly or nice is a misuse of the term. Simpatico is much more intimate than friendliness, and it could be seen as offensive if you call someone simpatico when you only casually know them.

Another example is with the English word "predicament". I saw a video interview with Paul Tillich (a prominent 20th century German theologian) once, and he mentioned that there is no equivalent word for "predicament" in the German language. Predicament, he said, was a wonderful English word that described so much about humans and their relationships. Using a concept like "predicament" in German, he continued, required much unpacking.

Even though we have excellent English translations of the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, seminary gave me a better appreciation of what is lost when translators try to cram complex foreign words into simple English equivalents (or vice versa). On top of that, word plays and poetry lose much of their power when translated.

For instance, one of the first passages I translated from Greek was John 3:16. In English, it goes something like "God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life." Now, what does it mean to say that "God so loved the world"? Most people who speak english thinks it means "God loved the world sooo much that he sent his only son....". That's what I thought it meant before I was taught Greek. But it's wrong. In fact, the word "So" is the greek word "houtos", which means "thusly; in this manner". The translation then becomes, "God THUSLY loved the world..." -or- "God IN THIS MANNER loved the world..." At least in this case, the Bible doesn't teach that God loves us sooo much, as if the gospel message is similar to Romeo and Juliette. Instead, it teaches us HOW God loved us, and how we should therefore love others.

Makes a difference, doesn't it?

Wordplays make a difference in Genesis 1:1. In the Hebrew, this verse is highly unusual in its structure, and there also seems to be a word play. The word for "In the beginning" seems to be carefully chosen (and slightly mispelled) to simultaneously mean "begining" (reshit), and "create" (bara). Many people think that Genesis 1:1 is meant to be historical fact about the ordering of creation. The fact that the first verse (and many others) in Genesis is a tricky, artfully crafted sentence that has defied precise translation lets me know I shouldn't be so sure this was meant to be a story of historical fact.

Languages, as viewed from the standpoint of translations, are important.

As an American, I love the English language. Not only is it flexible, being both precise and beautiful, but it is also spoken almost everywhere. But when I hear English-speakers insult other languages, or declare that everyone in their community needs to speak English, I become concerned. The way I see it, the last time too many people got together and all spoke the same language, they tried to glorify themselves by building the biggest structure they could. For some reason the Bible doesn't make clear, God found this group of people speaking the same language lacking, and chose to confuse their language. Whether or not this story is symbolic, it does tell me something important - languages are a tool used by God.

What if, I wonder, that Latino who lives down the street and speaks bad English actually teaches me about simpatico in a way that draws me into a new way of thinking of Christian community? What if, as that Bavarian with whom I work describes his understanding of predicament, I realize how profoundly different from God I really am? Speaking English makes me feel proud and accomplished, as if I can make a name for myself that everyone can read and understand. Realizing the nuance of language tempers my pride.

Languages, as it comes to understanding our place in creation, are important.

I find it immensely wonderful that Christ sent me a Spirit that intercedes for me in ways that are beyond words. The language of my prayers are insufficient to capture the core of what I am trying to say to God. As much as I might be proud of my education and command of the English language, it is still a flimsy tool that I use to describe reality. The coming of the Spirit takes my attempts at articulation and translates them into a language beyond the inadequacies of creaturely language. The Spirit says for me what I am incapable of saying myself. The language it speaks get to a deeper reality than words ever can. It is amazing and humbling that God finds my finite being - my needs and my praises - to be beyond the very means I use to describe it.

Yet the Bible also teaches that the Spirit plumbs the depths of God, and reveals those depths to me. If my finite nature is beyond words, how much more complicated is the language the Spirit uses to reveal God to me? The language I am being taught, day after day, as I strain towards the mark, is the language of the divine.

Language, as it comes to understanding the infinite God, is important.

My prayer is that the words of our spoken language are continually colored by the unspeakable language of the Spirit. By that language which is beyond words may we find what is truly important.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lessons from Sem 1 - Hermeneutics Matter

Probably the single most important lesson I learned in Seminary was the role of hermeneutics.

I thought I knew something about interpretation and cultural embeddedness when I entered school. I was wrong. The depth of the chasm between our modern day way of living, thinking, and writing and the Biblical contexts is huge, and has changed much of how I conceive of God, Jesus, Christianity, the Church, and scripture.

In my Christian upbringing, the Bible was considered something not tainted by cultural or historical forces, that stood on its own apart from any serious interpretation issues. In short, the Bible was this thing that was clear and plain for anyone to read. Disagreement about interpretation of the scriptures meant that you were wrong, and needed a little more submission to the "clear and plain" commands of God.

As I've rubbed elbows with Africans, African Americans, Hispanics, and Chinese Christians, I've come to realize how heavily interpretation depends on the place we come from. For me, it comes from a white, middle-class background in which education is a given, democracy is given, and individualism is highly valued; my hermeneutic is borne out of the legacy of freedom. For the older African Americans I worship with, their framework of understanding scripture is borne out of the legacy of oppression. Based on these legacies, the differences in understanding what scripture is saying can be stark and harsh.

I've come to realize that this cultural and temporal experiment in which God has placed all of us is valuable in understanding the many aspects of God, but horrible for understanding this a-cultural scripture I was taught about.

The lessons of hermeneutics, though, tells me that the authors of scripture were part of the same grand experiment that we are. I can't just jettision middle-class america and think I can interpret scripture as if it is "plain and clear". Instead, I must slowly and painstakingly transform my understanding to be a first-century Jew, the remnant of the Chosen People of God, oppressed by Rome, and witness to this Messiah who ripped to shreds every notion of what I thought a messiah should be. I must transform my understanding to be like the ancient Hebrew who thought that gods were things particular to a geography, or to be like the Israelite who is part of the kingdom of David. The distance between me and them gets greater the more I work to understand the Biblical authors, and the more disturbing and radical scripture becomes as I understand what those Biblical authors may have really been talking about.

Clear and plain, I have learned, is a myth prescribed by those who don't understand the true gulf between the modern "us" and the ancient "them".

One of the places I have come to appreciate the New Testament better is through the image of Kingdom. The overwhelming majority of scripture speaks of Jesus coming to set up the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Not to save me, as if His only goal was to take me from hell to heaven. Instead, His goal was broader than my individualistic culture - it was a kingdom, a people, an extended community - the problem Jesus was trying to solve wasn't answered by me getting "saved", it was answered through a kingdom!

What on earth can this possibly mean for the way I (we?) do Christianity?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Does this gown make me look fat?

This June, after seven years in Seminary, I finally graduated with my M.Div. Now, before you snicker at how long it took me to graduate with a degree that can be done in 3 years, is billed as a 4 year master's, but usually takes students 5 years, keep in mind that I also worked 40+ hours a week during my seminary tenure. Seminary was my part-time love.

Many seminary grads I have talked with over the years didn't feel like they learned much in seminary, but I feel like I learned a lot. Over the next few weeks I'll be talking about some of the lessons that I learned in Seminary. Some are great academic lessons, and some are more stark realizations about the nature of things. Both were valuable.

As I mentioned in my last post, the overwhelming majority of my life has been spent in school. Even though I was a part-time student, I spent the majority of my "free time" these last 7 years reading, researching, and writing. These, as is common knowledge, are very manly activities.

Let's face it, I'm not the manliest man there's ever been. At least, not in the whole "I spend all Sunday afternoon watching sports" or "I rode my Harley from here to Mexico City without taking a shower or using the bathroom" sort of way. But, I still enjoy manly fare. Occasionally smoke a cigar? Check. Work on my own car? Check. Chop a whole bunch of wood because it's there? Check. Shoot firearms because of the loud bang? Check. Mow the yard in a wifebeater? Check, sorta.

Reading, writing, and research doesn't really fit on that list. Does it make you feel intelligent, accomplished, and superior? Check. Does it make you feel like a hunter/gatherer with cunning and skillz? UnCheck. And you know, I think I could be okay with that - this emasculating they call "higher education" - if only the whole thing would end in a really big bang. I don't know - with a ropes course followed by explosions or celebratory gunfire or something, followed by roasting a pig over a fire we made with our bare hands. Just something.

But instead, how does it all end? They make you put on a hat shaped like a pizza box, a silky see-through gown, and then they make you kneel on stage while they put a shawl (a.k.a., a "hood") on you. Oh, and if you did really good at reading, writing, and research, you get special "accessories", like a golden ribbon to tie around your neck. I thought it would be cool to do some face paint or something to show how pumped I was about this whole thing, but I was told in no uncertain terms that face painting was not allowed. Though, I could swear some of the women painted their faces...

Now, don't get me wrong, I really appreciate my seminary journey more than you can know. But at the end of the day, I wonder if some of the problems the church has communicating with 20 and 30-something men has something to do with the way in which our church leaders are taught. I have a hard time understanding how reading Iraneaus, Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm, Descartes, and Tillich helps anyone penetrate the modern masculine psyche.

But I did get my party. Many wonderful old friends and family came to celebrate with me. We ate meat - lots of meat. With barbecue sauce and baked beans. Which led to another manly activity that shall not be spoken of out of politeness.

I love Ecclesiastes 7, though Ecclesiastes is often grossly misunderstood. This seminary chapter of my life closes, and I can honestly say, "The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience better than pride...wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and befits those who see the sun."

Here's to leaving the reading chair empty a little more often, and going out to see the sun.