April 14, 2016

How to Save Seminary: an uncommon proposal.

Alan Rudnick is an American Baptist pastor with some good ideas about seminary.  In a series of posts here and here, he engages with an Atlantic article about the crushing debt and poor job prospects.  His solution is novel and practical; take the degree online and reduce the M.Div degree to 45 units.  I do not know if this is possible according to the accrediting agencies, but the idea has merit, and seminaries are struggling.  It is an important discussion, and one that leads me down a different but related path of thought; maybe seminary should not train for ministry at all?

I am struck by some of the comments in the comment sections of such posts about seminary and church (to be clear - not from Mr. Rudnick himself,)  and those I hear elsewhere that it has become too academic and does not train ministers to minister.  I think it it is worth examining whether or not seminary can actually do that.  Perhaps seminaries are not too academic, but rather, they are the wrong vehicle for raising up local leaders.  Perhaps they should be more academic, and ministerial formation should be returned to the church, locally, as the responsibility of the denomination.  Why might this be true?

Seminary exists as a rationalist institution disconnected from the minister's context; it is not equipped to work through local issues.  I know folks are stifling guffaws right now, but there are no classes that neatly address the kinds of problems people have in their lived diversity; no singular principles that, when applied, solve all the problems, yet this is what our current model presupposes.  The seminary model exists as a modern(ist) institution –a place where experts who are largely aging white men teach general truths that somehow relate, explain, and equip you for your local context.  To be honest, I'm not sure how many of my ministerial professors could  even understand my situation.  The current institutional model is increasingly inappropriate as our society comes to terms with its postmodernity*so far as it remains a detached place teaching general truths about how to specifically minister.  It is a Cartesian delusion that seminary can tell us how to minister in situations that the institution itself does not reflect.     

Denominational mentoring should take seminary's place in ministerial formation and training.  Instead of outsourcing training, related churches might gather in to learn together.  Within denominations, the possibility for deeper local influence and thinking that aligns with larger group values should be possible.  It should be possible to emphasize shared learning for the sake of shared mission and practical debate. which would further force us to think about how we live and work together.  If denominations were able to take more practical theological responsibility for ministry it could free seminaries to be unashamedly academic training that would enrich local practical discussions.  My own American Baptist experience is that denominations are largely administrative, for which I am grateful, but theological development and practice has been outsourced to seminary.

Therefore, get rid of ministry classes in seminary.  Focus on what seminary does best; academic inquiry.  I do not ever again wish to spend money on the inane "everyday spirituality" classes and "leading a small group" courses that were required.  Those are things we can figure out at home., for free, with one another.  I hear pastors lament all the that "seminary never trained me for this.." but maybe the problem is that we ask them give us something they cannot. 

Instead, require seminary to challenge our thinking.  There is not enough intellectual diversity nor theological accountability in the evangelical protestant world to my mind.  This varies by denomination and pastoral requirements, but in general, I feel most pastors hold a vaguely American Evangelical posture towards things and do not think much further than that.  And why not?   In the wild, pastors are treated more or less like middle managers and small business owners: and this is the social structure assumed and passed on through seminary, intentionally or not, to the degree "Here's how to lead a small group" is taught as "here's how to build a widget."  This is regardless of all the "pastor as visionary leader" rhetoric.

But what a gift for a pastor to be challenged by Pannenburg and Cone; Yong and von Rad.  What a gift to be able to think clearly through challenges, aware of alternatives.  A firm background in these things might illuminate the local discussion further; bring new issues to the fore in church discussions.  This, instead of funding seminaries to teach things we complain aren't working!  A degree might affirm that a pastor understands what is at stake in their practices instead of communicating someone knows how to minister to their church.  Seminary can do this. 

So that's my proposition - seminaries and denominations need to change seats.  All this might be peculiarly American Baptist, and there are bound to be a number of solutions, but now is the time for some new thinking. 

*postmodern- I use this term as a white man aware of the loosening hold of whiteness on society, recognizing that those outside of society’s endorsement; the oppressed and abandoned and racialized have always been outside of this categorization. 

-4/15/16 edited for style
-4/16/16 edited for clarity: make clear not attributing any position to Mr. Rudnick.

April 5, 2016

7 Ways I screw up Sermons

-been thinking about preaching for 2 decades now.  I had hoped to be better, but at least I have been consistent.  These days my inner critic helps steer me away from making the same mistake in every sermon, but I am still learning how to be present in the midst of a message.  Like many skills, preaching is a hard thing to learn well because you start by imitating other great preachers the best you can but you must also move to find your own voice.  This is really hard.  Only now do I feel like I am able to be myself and still speak with conviction.  (People love unwavering conviction...)  It takes lots of practice though.  So here are the 7 sermons I try not to preach anymore; kind of a map between Scylla and Charbydis: 

7 Sermons to move on from:
  1. The Cool Chat Talk.  This is the how to live life, self-helpy stuff.  Very "talky" with my bros.  Finding moralism in innerlife management skills.  skillz to pay billz

  2. A Punishing Exegetical Recitation.  In the name of being “biblical” this passionately points out what everyone already knew in painful detail.  Line by line for all 66 books, the more severe the conclusion and dismissal of people doing it wrong, the more authentic it is. 

  3. A Theological Cow Trail. This one wanders lofty hills to make a theological point that should make a difference but, um, I forget. (Maybe a fill-in-the blank outline could help!)  The 1000 verse citations are mosaic pieces largely unrelated to the picture being painted, but they are pretty. 

  4. The Spirit-filled diaphragm.  Devoid of a point or preparation, this sermon works very hard to get hyped as self-evidencing Spirit-filledness.  Alternately yelly and whispery.  Interestingly, despite losing sight of a destination, often runs too long.

  5. The Fine Essay.  Better read then said.  Look up already.  Somebody is there and it isn’t your old professors.  And stop saying “perichoresis”’

  6. The I'm Uncomfortable, So You're Uncomfortable, So Let Me Say a Few Things That May or May Not Apply So I Can Leave Now..  (TIUSYUSLMSAFTTMOMNASICLN, for short)

  7. The secret decoder ring.   I am claiming my point comes directly from the text, but really I have a point to make and I guess I'll use this text because I have to.  The point may be fine.  The scripture is fine. They just haven’t met. 

March 31, 2016

Jesus, race, and the scandal of particularity.

NB: edited for style 4/4

Jesus does not transcend culture.

This is another way of stating the “scandal of particularity”: Why was Jesus Jewish?  What is the meaning of his Jewishness, aside from fulfilling earlier promises?   

For Jesus to be a human means he must be a particular human like you and me; born into specific circumstances with specific family relationships and assumptions.  To be like you and me, He too, had to live as limited and defined by cultural possibilities.  If he came as some proto-man, he would not have taken on our humanity in meaningful way, let alone saved it, because we exist as people who are products of our environments.  To be human means to be a people with minds and emotions shaped since birth by culture.  A regular person is someone who lives in a specific time and location and circumstance, who is shaped by their environment.  Christ has to be born into a culture to be truly incarnate.  

To save us, Jesus could not transcend our cultural existence.

To be particular, specific, and limited like we all are, was not an impediment for God's saving work through Him, though. When the Temple curtain was rent through the obedience of this specific man, Jesus, the Holy Spirit was made available to inhabit anyone.   And the work of the Spirit is now also always a specific work: it is the Spirit of God at work in regular, particular people like you and I.  It's instructive to remember that when the Spirit is "poured out on all flesh" in Acts, people hear their own tongue, not one universal language.  Language is the primal cultural artifact that shapes our selves and the Spirit inhabits these various tongues instead of insisting on a new, generic language.  And so Cornelius is welcomed into the faith because the Spirit can then inhabit gentile flesh, and Paul would go on to argue that Gentiles needn’t become Jews to be saved.  They are fine as people with a different culture. 

He redeems culture, making a way for the Spirit to inhabit it.

Some implications:

Unity:  Because Jesus inhabits particular life, Christian unity will always look diverse.  There must be differences that are recognized and valued in the larger Church because our confession is not that Jesus has absorbed us, but rather that he has come for every local, specific person.  

“I don’t see race”:  Simply, if you can’t see race and cultural differences, then you can’t see Jesus at work, either.  You must insist on a generic humanity that Jesus does not bear witness to in the incarnation.  Denying cultural differences by an appeal to something more fundamentally Christian or human underneath our cultural trappings is a subtle way of insisting that we are a different kind of people then the kind Jesus came as.  He came as a local, specific persons whose options and vision were in part limited by his location.  We must be wary of appeals to a "generic" human being because upon examination, it turns out we all have slightly different versions of what that humanity looks like, because they are all in part, projections of our own cultural understandings.

It might be further argued that the racialization of the United States (as opposed to culture and ethnicity) is the enforcement of an ideal of humanity that is really just a cultural ideal of whiteness.  In only measuring the work of the Spirit by behaviors familiar to whiteness, connected with socioecenomic habits, this racialization actively ignores and suppresses the work of the Spirit; even blasphemes it to the degree it considers other particular flesh  less-than.  This racialization is a denial of what Jesus has done.  Also it is unjust.  Which is also a denial of what Jesus came for.  And that's in the Bible, too, so there's that..

Anti-Semitism:  The Scandal of Particularity should highlight the incarnation as the way Christ inhabits Jewishness without attempting to escape it or deny it.  Jesus does not supersede Jewishness , so why would the church?  Since Jesus can exist fully contained as a product of Jewish identity, and a blessing for all, then there is hope that we, too, can be faithful and redeemed and accepted by God in the midst of our own individual cultural locations. -Not because all flesh is the same, but because God can live in specific people.   AntiSemitism in the church, then, is a denial of the work of Christ because it claims a transcendent Jesus who is beyond culture.  It is a deficient view of incarnation.     

Culture Wars:  We need to stop asking people to be “Christian” first.  Certainly we must ask people to be loyal and faithful to Christ first and to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  But you have to be careful not to subtly ask people to ditch their culture because they are somehow generic- human underneath.  It gets pretty iffy if you somehow perceive yourself as Christian first – that’s a great way to divinize your own viewpoint and become rigid. 

Asking people to deny their culture by being Christian is the beginning of building another earthly power, another system of domination.  Culture is the container our selves are formed in.  Language, relationships, stories and practices all shape who we are before we are even conscious of their existence.  To ask people to leave one cultural existence and join a church culture because you think it is the “right” one is another way to hide how particular, specific, and ultimately contingent the culture of a given church is.

The real danger here is that we politicize our specific existence as the Divine one instead of understanding our own faith as a testament that  faith can be in other places, too.  We generalize ourselves instead of the work of Christ.  This is the beginning of an imperialism that must suppress others cultures and insist on itself as the norm, unable to the Spirit at work in particular ways. 

Faith is not an escape from our cultural location but reclamation by God.
We are not Christians first, but rather people with culture who Christ has accepted.  Repent and believe!

March 25, 2016

Good Friday, 4:30, a poem

Good Friday , 4:30

The tack that holds the wire
falls out.
I push it in
and next when I look,
it's gone.

I have hammered
the point
and pressed my thumb
even knuckled 'til blood came;
no luck.

The sinew in the office
will not
lie still, can't be
I'll stash away this hammer
and leave,

still dripping.

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Good Friday, 4:30 by Erin Hamilton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

March 15, 2016

Coffee Preaches. A poem

Coffee preaches

each click
of the keys
the snap of plastic
cracked back

work's movement crawls;

a fingertip tempest
bled out of meaning
like so many of the best

after rumbling,

Creative Commons License
Coffee Preaches by Erin Hamilton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.