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My previous article, "The Seminary Bubble," certainly hit a nerve — remarkably so, given that it appeared here at Forbes.com at the center of financial journalism and not one of the usual church discussion watering holes. Critics fell into one of three camps.
First is the gender-cop camp. Self-described seminary instructor Sarah Morice-Brubaker writes, “Pssst. There are female seminarians. A lot of them. The fact that you fail to acknowledge this — and make it very clear that you have in mind hetero men when you think “seminarian” — simply makes everything else you say sound less informed and therefore less persuasive.”
Believe it or not, this was the most frequent criticism of my article, which tells me that things are worse than I thought. Liberal mainline seminaries appear to have turned into little gender police states whose denizens quietly tally your pronouns as you talk, calculating gender ratios.
Pssst, for the record, I did acknowledge female seminarians in paragraph four of the original article. Evangelical women who attend conservative seminaries which feed into denominations which are hostile to women’s ordination are among the worst victims of the seminary bubble. It’s tough to see everything in an article when one’s line of sight is blocked by a chip on one’s shoulder.
Does the fact that seminaries have succumbed to X chromosome/Y chromosome wars make them more attractive? It’s one thing to send me to a re-education camp; it’s something else entirely to try to charge me tuition for the experience.
Another common criticism is that enduring the financial privations of a seminary education is somehow a spiritual obligation. Some argue that pastoral service is a calling and that the called must “take up the cross” and follow Him.
But every calling is a calling. and I don’t see anyone arguing that career training in other areas ought to be rendered more expensive and burdensome than it needs to be. We don’t tell farmers not to use tractors because back breaking physical labor is spiritually beneficial. Sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof: being a pastor is hard enough on its own; there is no need to tie heavy loads of debt onto the aspirants back and not lift a finger to help, all in the name of spirituality.
Besides, where precisely did Christ call His disciples to seminary?
Jesus was not, Himself, a seminary graduate, nor did He establish an institution of higher learning. He certainly knew about such establishments. He grew up near a cultural center, the Hellenized city of Sepphoris. He almost certainly spent some of His formative years near an even greater center of Greek learning, the great library city of Alexandria. (Where else would one hide a little Hebrew boy in Egypt if not in the massive throngs of Diaspora Jews?) He appears to have been not only a Hebrew and Aramaic speaker but a Greek and perhaps a Latin speaker as well. He quoted Aesop and Aeschylus. He knew about the Greek model of the Academy.
But he chose the Hebrew rabbinical model of teaching: apprenticeship.
Rabbi (and that is a title He answered to) Jesus walked around Galilee and Judea with followers in tow and partied with sinners, healed their ailments (material and otherwise), told stories, gave alms to the poor, and answered his apprentices’ questions. He did, on occasion, engage in theological debates with the religious establishment, but typically only when they picked a fight with Him. Otherwise it was parties, stories, healings and alms. He built like no one had ever built before, through the hands of successive generations of the apprentices of His apprentices.
Seminary came much later, when church life became much more about one kind of Christian (Catholic) fighting against another kind of Christian (Protestant) Reformation and Counter-reformation formed theological armories from which the soldiers of the Protestant/Catholic Christian Cold War were armed. Eventually those wars calmed to the point of truce, or at least containment, but the armories remained.
In our day many of those armories have been captured by neo-Marxian liberation theologians, racial identity demagogues, deconstructionists and Gaia worshipers on the “left,” and on the right by a new breed of denominational fanatics who seem to adhere to the inerrancy of their own particular ecclesiastical founding documents, from the Catholic Council of Trent to the anti-Catholic Westminster Standards and everything in between. My own denomination is in the midst of a massive schism, theologically fomented in one of our more conservative seminaries. And the graduates of those institutions have not liberated their churches with their trendy theologies, but rather deconstructed them.
It’s time to go back to the original model: apprenticeship. I’ve been in seminary both as a student and as a teacher, but I’ve also followed my parish priest into hospitals and homes for visitations to the sick and the dying and assisted in the funerals.
I would say that time spent in tow to an actual working pastor is vastly more valuable than time spent at school. Leading a grieving family through the 23rd Psalm while at the death bed of their loved one is worth more than a hundred hours of class time. Why, then, do we put classrooms in the middle of pastoral formation and apprenticeship at the edge? Habit.
Some critics seemed to be under the impression that I thought that theology is not important. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I think theology is so important that I’d like to see it taught efficiently, at low cost, to far larger numbers of people. There’s nothing particularly theological about a load of debt which is excessive relative to income prospects. I’m a supply-sider who believes that a better system of theological instruction will produce more, not fewer theologians.
Theological education does matter a great deal, so get some — for free. Here’s a good course on systematic theology on I-Tunes. Here’s doctrine of God. You want church history? You got Church history right here. Those courses are from the Calvinistic tradition. The Lutherans have some great material for learning Biblical Hebrew here, and Biblical Greek here. The Baptists also have some great courses on Greek. Here’s a tutorial on Aramaic, the language that Jesus would have grown up with.
Apart from the pulpit, the work of a pastor is largely a matter of weddings, funerals, and visitation of the sick. I’m a little biased, but the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has all that stuff laid out in detail: what to say and what to do. Here’s a free on-line version. For study of the Scriptures, the Net Bible is a great, free search tool.
My daughter has been working her way through a course on the theology of C.S. Lewis, who is probably the most popular Christian writer of the 20th Century; enjoy it here. For cutting edge (but not trendy) insights in New Testament studies, here’s the web page for N.T. Wright with loads of text, audio and video. Want to run a meeting? Seminary doesn’t teach it, but Robert’s Rules does here.
In the battle to renew and rebuild the wobbling edifice of the Church in the 21st century, I’d put my money on the 30-something apprentice with an iPod, some business experience and a day job over the 20-something with a piece of paper and a huge load of debt every time.