a radical solution re: theological education

I hear a lot of complaining about seminary education. But it's worth noting that the complaints come mostly from a particular place. I also hear a lot of questions -- from the same place -- about what creative solution will solve the financial and other problems the church faces around theological education. I've got a radical solution, but I think it's worth reflecting more generally for a bit first.

I get an average of 800 - 1000 emails per day Monday - Saturday (so much is from clergy that Sunday the volume goes down considerably). I've heard from hundreds, if not thousands of clergy in countries in the Two-Thirds World who were not able to go to a residential seminary and who would give anything to be able to go, even if it required them to be away from their families. Their families would support their going, even though the absence of the person who might be the strongest male in house makes them more vulnerable to crime and makes them work much harder in their daily lives.

The only nations in which I hear a significant number of complaints about seminary education as unnecessary and not worth funding are from the richest nations in the world, and most especially the U.S. The only nation in which I have heard anyone suggest that experience in commerce teaches anything that seminaries ought to teach is the U.S.

In much of the world (I would suspect most of it), Christians see the opportunity to engage in intensive theological education as a great honor and a wonderful opportunity. These Christians see pouring over the scriptures and reflecting on their meaning in community all day and into the night as an exciting and immeasurably rewarding experience, and their communities are willing to do serious belt-tightening so they can have a pastor who's done that every day and not just Sunday (the whole community engaging in all-day worship and bible study on Sunday isn't unusual in a lot of places).

In the U.S., from the playground to presidential campaigns, there's a lot of suspicion and sometimes persecution of achievement in education. In the Episcopal Church, I hear that expressed often as suspicion of the need for any full-time theological education, the need for serious funding for it, or both. And those who still want some forms of community formation for clergy-to-be involving minds and words, if not the physical presence of, people beyond local are hoping that someone (usually someone else) will come up with a distance learning or other program that will get it all done cheaply, without real sacrifice.

The bad news is that distance education is not, on the whole, cheaper for institutions to provide or students to get. The good news is that if: a) we did our job in theological education for ALL such that we didn't rely on seminary to teach what the seminarian could have been learning from her parents from kindergarten on, and every Episcopalian had personally experienced the value of theological education; and b) we were willing as a whole church to tighten our belts by a minute fraction of what my friends who live on annual budgets of under $1000 do to get formal theological education for their clergy, I think our hard-working theological educators working with people from kindergarten through Ph.D. students would get more than enough resources to do their jobs via distance learning and/or residential seminary.

But if Directors of Christian Education/Formation are paid less, hired more reluctantly, and fired soonest when the budget contracts, and if thought is widespread that running a bank is better preparation for ordained ministry than intensive and extended study of scripture and tradition in community, then I think it's a given that seminaries' resources will dwindle. In that case, not only will we see fewer clergy getting seminary training, but we'll also see shrink even further the proportion of Episcopalians studying theology enough to teach it and to work with highly trained theologians from elsewhere in the Anglican Communion.

The bottom line? Maybe seminaries are no longer the best way to provide theological education for leadership. But if seminaries are no longer the solution, whatever else we do is still going to require that the whole church give sacrificially. Why?

1) Time is money. If we want people to have time to study and time to teach and mentor, they need hours in which they're not expected to be eating, sleeping, worshipping, engaging in private and/or family prayer, or earning money.

2) Learning takes time. The kind of learning we currently depend on seminaries to provide takes even more time than merely factual learning. We need our clergy not only to know the words of scripture and a bunch of factoids about church history and what various theologians have said, but also serious experience wrestling with how to interpret our scriptures and tradition, ways to tackle ethical problems and where different approaches' blind spots tend to be, for example; we also need our clergy to have some experience in providing pastoral care and the chance to process with solid mentors what they learn from those experiences. So we have to come up with enough money to give both students and mentors the time to do this. We could distribute the process of theological learning over more time (say, starting from preschool) and over more mentors (say, making sure that those who ask for their children to be Baptized are willing to commit time to their formation and that the parents and godparents know this will require spending time on their own formation too), but I would say the net time and effort needed isn't less, and the whole church doing this would be a MASSIVE cultural shift, if statistics around this are anywhere near right.

3) Books and journals -- including electronic ones -- cost money. When I lived in Frederick, Maryland, the local libraries didn't have much in the way of theological works, and what they had was woefully out of date (and that can be a BIG problem, for reasons I can blog about separately if people want explanation of it). I was lucky enough to be within an hour's drive of two seminaries that, because I was employed in a parish, were willing to give me limited borrowing privileges. That meant at least two hours of driving within library hours every time I needed a book. If I hadn't been employed by a parish, though -- and volunteering didn't count -- I wouldn't have had access to those libraries, let alone a weekday when I could drive there. A good biblical commentary generally costs about $30. Reference books generally cost $100 or more per volume. Something like the Anchor Bible Dictionary will set you back at least $500. If I didn't have access to a library with these kinds of resources, writing a single exegesis paper would set me back about $100 in commentaries alone. If I wrote three papers per biblical studies class and took four classes (which is the minimum accredited seminaries require), that would be about $1700 in books alone for biblical studies alone. Add in the cost of books for church history, theology, and so on, and subtract access to a local library and textbooks on reserve, and you get thousands of dollars students have to find.

Furthermore, solid online resources that are usually "free" to students are often "free" to them only because their seminary or university pays a big annual fee to subscribe. Take the seminary out of the equation and your diocese (or parish, or EFM group, or someone else) gets to look for that money.

4) You need a lot of time and a lot of books and journals to get to and stay at a point at which you can teach things such as biblical studies and theology to clergy-to-be and DCFs-to-be, for example, who have already learned well what every parish should be teaching every member. Not only does it take years of study (and rooms full of books) before you're ready to teach your first class; you also have to have time and books and conversation with other well-informed people to be able to stay well-informed. Again, let me know in the comments if you think I should explain why this is important. And in TEC we provide even less support for people who want to pursue a Ph.D. or Th.D. than we do for M.Div. students on the ordination track.

5) Who will teach those Ph.D. and Th.D. students? That's something you really can't do unless you've got 40 hours per week (likely you'll need more) to keep up with the field, to teach classes, and to provide good feedback on students' work. If we eliminated seminary education, we'd probably end up just relocating this work in an incredibly wasteful shuffle of books, people, and buildings (these people can't sleep, teach, and keep their books on park benches). And if you think that non-TEC seminaries will do this for us: a) many of them are no better off financially than TEC seminaries; and b) if you think there's anything distinctive about Anglican approaches to scripture, theology, liturgy, or anything else, we'll be stuck hoping that our top theologians manage to stumble onto it mostly on their own.

Do I think that both seminaries and the church need to get creative and make changes to provide theological education for all and sufficient training for our leaders? Definitely!

But do I think that we can get our leadership the theological education they need, let alone get the whole church the theological education they deserve,  without substantial expenditures of time and money? Nope. Nothing -- not the Internet, not a program or curriculum, and definitely not shouting at the seminaries -- short of serious gifts of time and treasure as well as talent will do the job.

That's my radical solution: sacrificial giving. It might not sound all that creative, but I don't really hear anyone else suggesting it; a lot of the public wailing about the doom of seminaries seems to come from a theology of scarcity rather than abundance. And then the generous resources we have as the church can go to theological education through a variety of means. Maybe those means won't include traditional seminaries, or they'll involve seminaries less often. But all of those means will take ongoing and substantial gifts of time, talent, and treasure from across the church. And offering those will in itself be an important means of Christian formation for the whole church.

April 6, 2010 in Churchiness, Religion | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

quick reflections on Executive Council

I'm in the hotel restaurant in Omaha for a quick brunch before I get on a plane to come home from the Executive Council meeting, so I thought I'd dash off some quick notes for the Episco-curious.

The most important thing by far that happened at the meeting, I think, is the pledge Council made unanimously on behalf of The Episcopal Church to give AT LEAST an ADDITIONAL $10 million for the rebuilding of our sisters' and brothers' communities in Haiti. These funds are extrabudgetary -- i.e., on top of any funds in the church's 2010 budget for Haiti -- and are on top of the excellent and extensive work Episcopal Relief and Development is doing there. $10 million is essentially a tithe of the church's entire budget.

Mark Harris, you are as much a genius as you are a rascal, and that's saying something. (Mark is the initial proposer of such a tithe.)

And, by the way, as the resolution inspired by Mark's suggestion was first being proposed by Ian Douglas (soon to be the Bishop of Connecticut), it was our Presiding Bishop who suggested a making the resolution pledge AT LEAST $10 million rather than just saying $10 million. Bishop Katharine, that was truly inspired.

Folks, I know times are tough here in the continental U.S. for a lot of people. I'm unemployed myself. But you know, the wages of my wonderful and supportive high-school-teacher spouse still put us as a household in the top 1% of wage earners worldwide, according to the Global Rich List. We have a roof over our heads, clean water to drink, and something to eat other than boiled dirt, which is what a lot of people in Haiti are eating now. We're not in any danger of getting cholera.

In my view, this situation is essentially a medical emergency in the Body of Christ and the family of all humanity. When I had a gallstone a while back, we quite rightly went to the hospital first and figured out how to pay for it later. Karen (my partner) has suggested that we should do the same with donating to help rebuild Haiti, and she's absolutely right.

Please consider the same -- for yourself, for your worshipping community, for your company or club, or pub trivia crowd, or wherever you are and gather. 

On other matters people have asked about:

Church Center employment: I am and Council as a whole is deeply concerned about the cleaning staff recently laid off. There are nuances to the story that are important, and that were missed or distorted, in the New York Post's story about it. The employees let go were not employees of the church, but of a company the church contracted with for cleaning services -- the Church Center didn't fire a bunch of people, but switched cleaning companies after a process that, Chief Operating Officer Linda Watt reported to us, was open to non-union companies as a way of being able to solicit bids from more women- and minority-owned businesses.

I appreciate that report, but it does not dispel my ongoing concern for workers' rights and human decency, nor does it ameliorate, in my opinion, that communication about the situation was (to say the least) very poorly handled. I expressed that view, as did others, and I and others will be continuing to monitor the situation and strive to support workers' rights. I want to thank those people who hold my and others' feet to the fire about this. Keep it up! This is important stuff.

It's also not the only Church Center employment matter about which I and others are concerned. The layoffs of 2009 continue to hurt. There are faces of people that still, when I look around at meetings, I'm subconsciously expecting to see. There's expertise and passion missing from people who used to work for the Church Center and don't. And I still think about and pray for employees and their families. Remaining staff are doing a heroic job striving to cover the territory, and are working together in truly creative ways.

But I'm not going to pretend that the reduced budget -- especially the personnel lost and reduced support for dioceses of Province IX in Central and South America -- isn't really painful. I and wiser heads than mine on Council are continuing to wrestle with figures, pray, and keep eyes, ears, and hearts open to count the human (and environmental) cost of our decisions even or especially when those decisions are difficult.

Which makes me all the more pleasantly flummoxed that the proposal to come up with $10 million more for Haiti swept with such immediacy and awe to take the room when it was offered. That for me is evidence -- as if I needed still more evidence -- that God really does show up where people gather seeking to ride the wave of what God's mission, of what God is doing in the world.

And with that, I think it's time to catch the shuttle to the airport.

Oh, just one more note: I was going to start listing the specific people I was particularly glad and grateful to see and hang out with, but the list got so long as to be silly. So I'll reduce it to just one for now, since it's someone for whom this was the last meeting of Council and whom I will sorely miss there:

The soon-to-be Rt. Reverend (and therefore still the Not Quite Right Reverend) Ian Douglas. I'm only drinking iced tea, but I'll still raise the glass to you. Thank you. I'm glad you're going to be in the House of Bishops, much as I'll miss you at Council and in Boston.

February 23, 2010 in Churchiness, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals (MGDs), Religion | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

how not to argue for sequential ordination

Episcopal Café has blogged a two-part series arguing for "direct ordination": ordaining people called to be priests directly to the priesthood without the current practice ("sequential ordination") of ordaining them as deacons first and then waiting six months to a year before ordaining them to the priesthood. It's sparking a lot of dialogue on the email list for bishops and deputies to the Episcopal Church's General Convention, and I'm finding it extraordinarily interesting to see how people in favor of the current system argue for it. Here's what I posted to the bishops-deputies list on the subject:

Our church's current practice of sequential ordination has the weight of tradition behind it, but I think the series on Episcopal Café has an excellent point in how odd some of our arguments for upholding sequential ordination are.

For example, I could envision residents of some alternative Anglican universe saying things such as this:

"My time as a transitional deacon has vastly enriched my ministry as a layperson. If Confirmation did not require a period of preparation in which I served as an ordained deacon, I would never have had so many rich opportunities to engage in intentional servant ministry, which today help to remind me that my work as an accountant and volunteering in the soup kitchen are equally a call and set of opportunities to serve the 'least of these,' the poor and the marginalized."

"My time as a transitional priest has vastly enriched my discipleship as a layperson. I will never forget those times at the altar when I was praying the epiklesis as a transitional priest during my fifth year of EFM, and I think of those every time I receive the elements as a layperson. My transitional priesthood continues to underscore for me that it is the entire congregation and not just its presider that truly makes the Eucharist the Lord's Meal, and I don't know how people managed to understand the priesthood of all believers before we instituted transitional priesthood as preparation for key lay ministries."

"I rejoice daily for my time as a transitional bishop. It reminds me as a CEO that oversight is not for lording over others, but is a ministry of guarding an order of life for communities that nourishes the whole and that brings out the apostolic gifts of every member. As it happens, both of my next-door neighbors are also Episcopalians who have served as transitional bishops, and they too value the experience in their very different contexts. Jolene, the high school algebra teacher, tells me that it helps her to see that her vocation as a teacher is fundamentally shepherding and drawing out leadership qualities. Sharon, the motorcycle mechanic, says it helps her to look at the neighborhood, the PTA, and the county, state, nation, and world as fields ripe for harvest, and underscores her authority as a layperson to exercise her gifts for oversight to get them all humming together like a well-tuned engine. And we agree that the practice of ordaining transitional bishops has strengthened the ministry of permanent bishops as well. We can't imagine how, under the old system, bishops managed to avoid temptation to see their ministry of episkope as a lifelong entitlement."

The argument for direct ordination meets its biggest challenge, I think, on grounds of tradition, which are strong. In contrast, "it works for me" is prone to counter-examples of "it doesn't work for me," "this other way could work for me," and "if transitional ordination is your call, that's great, but it isn't mine."

January 13, 2010 in Churchiness, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

low-cost tip #3 toward more and better theologians

Low-cost tip #3 toward more and better theologians: stretch critical thinking skills for all ages in congregations.

No one should go off to seminary without having done SOMETHING like reading the Gospel According to Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Thomas in translation (a translation by someone other than Elaine Pagels), reading one Elaine Pagels popular book on Gnosticism, and then discussing in a supportive group whether Pagels' characterization of these documents is helpful and where it seems at least a bit off.

That's just one example, which I picked because I've found that too few people in congregations feel empowered to examine the evidence, talk about it with other people, and come to a conclusion when they have a theological question. There are lots of less arcane-sounding examples: for example, take the oft-quoted statement that "Matthew is the 'most Jewish' of the gospels," read Matthew and, say, Luke, and talk about: a) what does it mean to be "more Jewish" or "less Jewish," b) how, if at all, does this statement help us to better understand Matthew and Luke, and c) is this really something that's helpful enough to be worth repeating?

We should be helping one another do this kind of thinking as a whole church.

If seminary is the first place a postulant is asked to engage critical thinking skills, s/he will not be able to make the most of seminary.

And if a congregation doesn't do this, they're prone to being misled by every fad and every person willing to claim authority, however poorly informed s/he is.

So let's try this on as a minimum standard: mature disciples read their bibles, think and talk with one another about what they read, and use their brains plus what they read to test theological claims. And I'm not just talking about adults; children are fully capable of doing this too. A Sunday school class could:

  • Start with the questions, "Do you think Jesus was ever angry?" and "What do you think might make Jesus angry?"
  • Read one of the stories of Jesus overturning tables in the Temple.
  • Ask whether Jesus was angry in this story and why.
  • Ask the class questions such as: "Do you ever feel like this?" "What makes you feel like doing this?" "Is it OK to be angry?" "How do you want to react the next time you're really angry?"

Voila! Critical thinking, bible study, and original theological reflection! So much better than trying to tell kids what they ought to think and then having them glue cotton balls on pictures of sheep. And this very exercise, perhaps with a few more long words, has been helpful in a lot of adult classes and retreats I've done.

Some congregations do this, but I've found many that don't, or that do it only in programs such as EFM, which will only reach a tiny minority of the congregation. That's not healthy.

Introducing people to these skills is not the job of seminaries; it's the job of every Christian community. And if every Christian did this kind of "read-think-share-think some more" work from, say, third grade on, the quality of seminary education would improve dramatically, as seminaries would be freed to spend those precious and limited hours of instruction on the things they're uniquely placed to do.

Cost to your parish/diocese: $0. Cost to seminaries: $0.

January 12, 2010 in Churchiness, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Low-Cost Tip #2 Toward More and Better Theologians

Low-cost tip #2 toward more and better theologians for the church:

Have your parish and diocesan newsletters regularly run a brief profile of a living theologian and her/his current work. Make at least some of these about theologians currently doing or recently having finished their Ph.D. With their permission, include an email address or somesuch where people can, if they are so moved, send an encouraging word and/or a small PayPal donation or Amazon.com gift card. This would not only provide encouragement to current theologians, but would raise awareness that theology is a valued field in the church. Parishioners may as a result deepen their theological reading and conversation -- and some who are being called by God to serve the church as a vocational theologian will become aware for the first time that there IS such a thing as a vocational theologian!

Cost to your seminary/diocese: $0. Cost to seminaries: $0.

January 7, 2010 in Churchiness, Religion | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Low-Cost Tip #1 Toward More and Better Theologians

Low-cost tip #1 on forming better theologians: Make sure they have actually read the bible and are broadly familiar with it BEFORE they get to seminary. Have them do bible STUDY (not just lectio divina) as part of the process. Give the seminaries less remedial work to do. Cost to your diocese/parish: $0. Cost to seminaries: $0.

January 7, 2010 in Churchiness, Religion | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Theology Bingo!

For those of you who are going to church conventions or meetings you fear will be boring beyond your worst fears ... for those of you dreading that final seminary paper ... for those of you who have lost motivation to write that sermon ... and of course, for those of you taking GOEs soon, never fear:

I have heard your cries!

Yes, all of these experiences can be taken with all the gravity that they're worth, and then some, while also providing a fun challenge to your own and your colleagues' wits.

Just download these bingo cards! You can play that whoever hears a word on her or his card may cross it off, but I think a special prize should go to anyone who actually USES all of the words in a row, column, or diagonal in a single motion or speech.

Please let me know about any winners you come across, and happy playing! (Also let me know if you want me to provide you cards with a different heading and/or for a different context.)

December 16, 2009 in Churchiness, Just for Fun, Religion, Silliness | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

how do you get unchurched/dischurched people in your inquirers' class?

An email list I'm on for those interested in evangelism had someone ask, as we were talking about various curricula for people inquiring about Christianity and/or church membership, how a congregation can get people to attend other than the same faithful members who go to nearly every church program already. This is what I wrote in response, and I thought it might be helpful to some people.

In it, I talk a lot about 'Klesis.' Klesis is a three-part curriculum I wrote with John de Beer (one of the founders of EFM, for those familiar with that). It starts with 'Connect,' a six-session course that mature Christians have gotten a lot out of, but that is designed to be friendly to unchurched and dischurched people wondering whether they want a spiritual home in which to explore Christianity, discover more of where God is calling them, and find nourishment to pursue that call with joy and peace. Klesis is released on an 'open-source' basis, meaning that you don't have to pay a thing to download and use all materials -- though of course we appreciate donations so that, among other things, we can build and maintain a user-friendly and lively online community for people to share their adaptations of, experiences with, and questions about Klesis. All we ask is that: a) you share with us and with the user community feedback about and adaptations of the material; b) you don't claim adaptations of the material or another's version of it as your own wholly original work; and c) you never charge anyone for Klesis materials or your adaptation of them.

That said, here's my answer to the question, "How do you get people who don't already go to church to go to Connect (or whatever your inquirer's class is)?":

Other curricula could be launched, pitched, adapted as necessary, and run to offer the things I'm talking about below, but here's what we did to to help reach unchurched people with Klesis:

We assumed that the first time we did the course we'd most likely have only people who were currently going to the parish. We did have some inquirers sign up who were just checking out the congregation and Christianity in general, as I recall, but we didn't advertise the course in media outside the parish. We also had the vestry take the course on its first offering. That meant that for subsequent offerings of the course we had: a) a bunch of mature Christians who had taken the course and could serve as table leaders or in the cooking/cleanup crew in the future; and b) a bunch of people in the parish who could talk from personal experience about how good it was for them and, when they invited a non-churchgoer, could say specifically why they thought that particular person would enjoy it. We also had a chance to smooth out any kinks in its implementation.

In subsequent offerings of the course, a *huge* part of how 'Connect' enticed people who did not consider themselves Christians and/or members of the parish was that we offered:

a) a NICE, if fairly simple, dinner (for the whole family, and with good and free child care) for which participants were not expected to cook, set tables, or shell out money.

A lot of people balked initially at signing up for the course, thinking that it was too much of a time commitment for busy people -- until it was pointed out to them that it often takes as much time as the course does to get, cook, serve, eat, and clean up after a nice dinner. The community was full of chronically busy and stressed out folks, and the invitation was "You're too busy and stressed out NOT to give yourself an evening in which you don't even have to think about dinner and you do get to de-stress, reflect, and have some real, nourishing conversation." Which brings me to the other enticement the course offers:

b) an opportunity to connect and be nourished in an experience of real spiritual community.

Klesis works well for older generations, but also it is, so far as I know, the first GenX-native curriculum for inquirers, and it tends to have an immediate and intuitive appeal for 'next generations' (and I'm not talking about 'youth ministry' -- the President of the U.S. is a GenXer!). I find that Alpha and similar courses appeal mostly to the head, asking questions like "Have you ever wondered about the meaning of life?" That doesn't tend to resonate with 'next generations' nearly as much as "Are you looking for spiritual community?" and "Come share your story with a great group of people and form some connections."

Klesis was built around the fundamental assumption that Christianity is about connection -- about God's mission of reconciling all with one another and with God in Christ -- and that a fundamental part of forming disciples is helping people discern where God is calling them AND form relationships in community that will sustain them as they pursue that call. I do a great deal of ministry with completely unchurched people (I'm currently part of a community of rock musicians in which I and one other member are the only people who have ever set foot in a church building), and I can say that that invitation to personal connection is really powerful when it's issued to a friend.

As far as getting members to invite unchurched or dischurched friends, I like to turn to the story of the calling of the first disciples in Luke, with its miraculously abundant catch of fish. The question on a fisher's mind every day was always, "Will I catch enough fish today for my family and me to survive, with all the strains on us?" When Jesus called, the catch of fish threatened to swamp the boat -- a serious matter, as the fishers could have lost their lives as well as their boat! The urgent question then shifted from "How will we catch enough?" to "How can we gather enough people to take in this abundance?"

We need to form church members who experience spiritual abundance in community such that they feel a natural need and excitement to share it with anyone else within shouting distance. That's why I think success in reaching out to unchurched people is predicated on having serious, ongoing adult formation. Otherwise:

a) the community won't be able to handle the inevitable changes that come with new members, especially new members from other cultures, social classes, and generations; and, more importantly ...

b) the community won't be the kind of spiritually vital, nourishing, exciting place that we promise. "Come prop up our dying institution!" is not an appealing invitation. "You're welcome to join us!" is only Good News if the community issuing the invitation has experienced and embraced Jesus' radical welcome and can offer deep lifelong spiritual nourishment. In my experience, that requires a strong core of disciples mature enough in their faith to serve as apostles.

Sorry this post is so long, but I hope at least some of it is helpful.

Blessings,

Dylan

October 18, 2009 in Churchiness, Religion | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

an interview with Phyllis Tickle: oy veh.

Blogger Kimberly Winston has published an interview with Phyllis Tickle about her most recent book, The Words of Jesus. The book removes words attributed to Jesus in the four canonical gospels from any narrative context and then prints them with reflections from Tickle.

I like Phyllis Tickle, and am a great admirer of her previous work, but this sounds like a project that, if not misbegotten entirely, is at the very least built on the shakiest of premises. She seems to think that when you remove text about Jesus' actions and setting, you "get rid of the author" of the gospels and get direct access to Jesus himself. "And when you get rid of the author," she says, "you have removed the filter" of previous interpretation of Jesus' words (and, I'd add, actions). "You can be stripped naked," she says, "of all the preconceptions and the conditions that you have come to the scriptures dressed in or robed in or anaesthetized in and meet here stark naked what your God is."

How on earth could she think that the writers of the gospels aren't exercising their authorial voice in their selection, ordering of, and, yes, the wording of speech attributed to Jesus? Anyone who reads Matthew's version of the Beatitudes alongside Luke's version would have a hard time making that claim, I'd think. And how on earth could she think that we as readers can shed our skin and read anything without our reading being shaped by the lense of OUR cultural, social, and historical context? Reading communities shape our views of texts. That's not a bad thing; it's just part of the package of being human and making meaning. If we did get "stripped naked of all the preconceptions," as Tickle says her book will do for us, we wouldn't be able to interpret texts about Jesus at all -- they'd be nothing to us but a bunch of chicken scratches on pages had we not been taught to read, and in a particular context that inevitably shapes what we think of what we read.

Oy veh.

And besides, I think that Jesus' actions -- particularly his healings, confronting oppressive powers, and most importantly his willingness to suffer death on a Roman cross rather than undermine his prophetic ministry or retaliate with violence -- are a crucial part of the frame through which we interpret Jesus' words. Would it matter if he said "love your enemies" if what he did when people came to arrest him was to hack several of them to death with a machete? And what would it do to Jesus' words, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing" had he said them about someone getting his order wrong in a cafe in Jerusalem rather than as he faced his death?

I'll probably read this book, and I hope it turns out to be better and more helpful than it sounds. But at the very least, I'm rather sad about how it's being presented by the author.

January 20, 2008 in Books, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"I'm not a theologist."

... that's what Titanic film director James Cameron told the Associated Press during his bid to convince the public that it's BIG NEWS that a tomb was found in the 1980s in which about ten people, including one named Yeshua bar Josef, or "Jesus (or Joshua), son of Joseph" -- or it might be Hanun bar Josef, a different name entirely; scholars disagree on how to read the script. Because OF COURSE, there was only one guy named Joseph in the ancient world ever named his son Joshua.

By the way, my name is Dylan, and I'm a singer-guitarist-songwriter and occasional poet. Anyone who believes Cameron's line on this tomb who also wants to buy my autograph, guitar picks (since surely there's only one singer-guitarist-songwriter named Dylan), or copies of A Child's Christmas in Wales that I've signed (since surely there can be only one poet named Dylan) should drop me a line. Maybe this new line will put me through seminary. If I study hard, I might even become one of the "theologists" whom Cameron hopes his REVOLUTIONARY DISCOVERY will inform.

February 27, 2007 in Current Affairs, Religion | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack