On Being a Seminarian: Enjoy the Process of Rejection…

Over last weekend I was privileged to attend a couple sessions for the West Coast Qumran Study Group, which felt like a miniature conference with scholars from the west coast of the U.S. and Canada gathered to share ideas, research, and give tips on utilizing Bible software. Or, at the very least, those were the topics of the sessions I was able to attend (the bulk of the study group was held on Saturday – the same day I had my eight hour class). After the final session on Sunday, we went to the Stickmen Brewery in Lake Oswego for lunch.

What was really cool for me was to see my former professor from U of O, Dr. Daniel Falk, talking with one of my new professors at George Fox – my advisor, in fact, Dr. Steve Delamarter. What I found even cooler, though, was having the opportunity to chat with Falk after everything was over. I had told him that I had just finished my first year of seminary and am hoping to continue on for a PhD thereafter. Somewhat to my surprise, he seemed excited and after sharing a couple tips here and there, we got to talking about how scholarship – that is, the advanced study of a particular subject in a particular field – works. He had told me that if I spent my time researching and presenting a topic that doesn’t get rejected, then I haven’t really done much for scholarship. However, if I were to find something – preferably something that hasn’t been tried before – that does get rejected by other scholars, then I actually have advanced – however minutely – scholarship. By ruling something out, one is actually moving the greater pursuit forward.

As I ruminated on this while heading home, I realized there are a few things that I must focus on even as I pursue my Master’s. First of all, however studied one may be, one must never fall in love with their thesis or their particular methodology. Should this happen and that thesis become utterly rejected, then one will feel that they have failed – even though, as just discussed, one has done something for the field. Ultimately, then, my focus should be on being proven wrong; to do as much research as I can and as well as I can with the hope that it gets knocked down. It will not be for naught; it’ll be an opportunity to try something new.

Secondly, I must never carry myself as though I’m always right. In fact, I ought to do the opposite: invite my professors and fellow students to prove me wrong, even in the littlest of essays. Our culture, of which I am very much a part, has become so engrained and fixated against criticism that we’ve become blind to the benefits of criticism – of our work and ideas being out-rightly proven wrong, unsupported, or too steeped in presuppositions. My first paper for writing 121 in college received an ‘F.’ Had it not received such a low, demoralizing grade (with extensive commentary in the margins), I highly doubt that I’d be as motivated to try harder and rework the incorrect areas until they were right – or at least closer to being right.

Thirdly, I must lower whatever expectations I might have about being an influence in scholarship. As Dr. Falk told me on Sunday, nobody really sends waves throughout the rest of the scholarly world for nearly fifteen or twenty years later. There are the rare exceptions, sure, but they’re the geniuses of the scholarly world. I still ought to strive to change the world, but adjust the scope toward something very, very small with the major focus on being utterly rejected and sent back to the drawing board. This, of course, leads to the last thing I realized.

Enjoy the process. Studying more and more is less about acquiring knowledge and more about creating more questions and unraveling one’s knowledge. My experience in seminary has ultimately been a journey of epistemology – of learning and relearning how I know what I know, which requires unraveling one’s knowledge and asking more questions instead of giving more answers. Such a process seems hopeless, if not annoying. But perhaps, once again, this is because our culture has misled us into believing that success is in finding more answers than questions – in being right more than wrong.

Dr. Falk’s words could not have come at a better time. I just finished my first year, have already signed up for classes this fall, and have begun deciding where I’d like to explore for my Master’s thesis (or if I even want to write a thesis). Having my understanding of what defines successful scholarship flipped around allows me to see that the thirst for understanding thrives in an environment where things are proven wrong rather than right. Even as I head into more coursework and build ideas for a thesis, I am shifting my focus not onto proving my arguments right, but to boldly push small, new ideas to rule them out and keep trying. I mean, after all, it gives me an excuse to read more books.


On Being a Seminarian: Can We Bridge that Gap?

Part of my influence in attending seminary was to help bridge the gap between the academic realm and the realm of the average congregant. In the four classes I had taken at U of O, I saw so much value in scholarship and wanted to help find a way to bring it all to those who are doing other things, but still showing up on Sunday mornings. I wanted to break it all down into little nuggets that people could take with them and look into in their own free time. Yet after one year of being in seminary, I am left wondering if it is even possible to fill that gap.

I know most people are not like me; not interested in the Bible more than a little reading each day and a sermon on Sunday, not interested in thinking critically about our beliefs and theologies, and not interested in the original languages of the biblical text except for a few Greek and Hebrew words. Yet I also know that one doesn’t need to be interested in all these things to learn a little more about them. But what I have found is that when it comes to theology and thinking critically, those less exposed to the biblical criticisms of recent scholarship (or even within the last century) seem much more hesitant to try on a new idea. I get that. New ideas are hardly ever comfortable ones, especially if it means changing the way one perceives a “near and dear” text as the Bible. But that hesitancy often turns into resistance, which is leaving me feel quite exhausted in my endeavor to bridge that gap.

No, I don’t mean to imply that scholarship is always more correct than one’s pastor or congregation. Nor do I assume that I’m smarter than the average church-goer in subjects pertaining to the Bible. Yet I have had more exposure and know that different ways of viewing a text – even if one disagrees with that view – is healthy for understanding, which is healthy for finding ways of sharing the gospel. But more often than not, it seems as though discussions of scholarly ideas run either to prove one idea false and therefore heretical or true and further support for a church doctrine. Treating scholarship this way, though, seems to limit our understanding of the biblical text and of God, which I find also cripples whatever growth we might have made toward God.

In your experience as a seminarian, pastor, professor, or biblical scholarship enthusiast, how has scholarship shaped your understanding of God? Has this shaping had a positive or negative influence in your ministry or instruction of others? Do you think the gap between scholarship and the average congregant can be filled? What are some ways you see as potentially helpful for filling that gap? And do you think I’m being too cynical or have you shared a similar experience?

This is part of a weekend series I’m writing for Near Emmaus. Be sure to check out other posts by other bloggers, especially if you’re interested in biblical studies.

On Being a Seminarian: Balance Between Faith and Scholarship…

This is my second post as a part of a series for Near Emmaus. Feel free to view it there or view other posts by the other bloggers.

I mentioned in another post it was possible, but ever since I’ve been wondering exactly how? How are we to dive into texts written by scholars who may not share the same faith that we do and would therefore feel no reluctance to unravel the biblical text? And in that process of unraveling things, how do we press on in believing in Jesus when the very things we believe about Him are brought under critical light?

This process of finding a balance between faith and scholarship has become much more important in recent weeks. At George Fox Seminary, one professor is set to retire at the end of the year and we’ve been hearing from potential replacements every now and then. I can share no further details beyond that, but I can say that one thing I’ve come to realize is that in order for a seminary professor to have an impact on the students they teach – students, mind you, who are being trained for church leadership, ministry, and academia – they must have a strong balance between walking with Jesus and teaching leaders how to critically engage the biblical text and their surrounding cultures.

It means for me, the seminarian, I’m in the process of developing said balance. It’s one I began a long time ago at the U of O, but one I know is not quite finished, yet. Nearly every class I encounter a new perspective, a new challenge that stirs my thoughts and rattles the cages of my neatly-formed beliefs. If I was just now beginning that process of developing a balance, I am not sure how I would react. I might start doubting everything I was ever taught about Jesus and maybe even walk away from seminary. I am not saying that this is what you will go through if you are now beginning that process as you enter seminary; I’m saying this is what I might have done had I not begun that process long ago. So why am I not walking away?

Finding the balance I think is different in exact details for everyone, but ultimately boils down to being comfortable in engaging new ideas. Allowing those ideas to rattle the cages and shake up one’s beliefs will not only test the durability of those beliefs, but perhaps replace the beliefs that don’t hold up. Such a process is sometimes exhausting, but sometimes instant. Sometimes someone in class says that one thing and all of a sudden the light bulb goes on and a theological alteration (perhaps only a subtle one) takes place.

Long ago, I read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. At the time, I was wrestling with a supposed controversial doctrine and felt a lot of pressure to simply believe in it. Yet, I wasn’t convinced. The new idea was rattling the cages and the old idea, the one I was pressured to hold onto, wasn’t holding up. When I read this passage, I felt at home in allowing the new idea to replace the old:

“God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all. But, fortunately, it works the other way round. Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself.”[1]

In your journey with God, where have you found comfort and solace in processing new ideas? Where is your balance point between faith and academics? Or are you like me, still developing one?

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, 2003), 78

Wandering Through the Fog…

Finding the time to compose a blog hasn’t been easy lately. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had enough free time (I started and finished Sherlock – both seasons), but harnessing that free time into some form of intellectual activity outside of schoolwork hasn’t seemed worth the effort – mostly because I’m lazy, but partially because I want to walk around Portland pretending to solve some sort of crime by nothing but a shoelace or a piece of gum stuck to a doorknob.

It’s a miracle I’m still in school, really.

But there are things to blog about; Thanksgiving was wonderful (thanks to the Stoppers and Bri), Christmas is a few weeks away, and, little by little, I’m falling in love with the academic world.

Yesterday afternoon I drove over to George Fox University’s Newburg campus to check out their bookstore and, well, to see the main campus. As I walked amongst the buildings and through the courtyard, I felt I was on familiar territory – even though I had never been to this campus before.

Strangely, I felt home.

Not “home” like Lincoln City is home (or even Eugene) – not in the sense of “Oh, I recognize almost everything about this place and recall so many fond memories.” I mean “home” in the sense of the atmosphere; that even though I had barely a clue where the bookstore was, being in a place where people are asking questions, discovering perspectives, and becoming more fully themselves is a place I can call home.

For one of my classes last night, we were asked to bring a picture that best explains, with few additional words, how God speaks to us outside of Scripture (like the “totems” in Inception; not that the picture itself is the totem, but what the picture represents). What I chose as my picture was a famous painting (at least, I think it’s famous) entitled Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (by Casper David Friedrich).

Where I feel closest to God...
Where I feel closest to God…

I didn’t know who painted it or when, but I picked it because at many points in my life, I have felt like the “wanderer”; standing alone up high on some ledge peering out to the grand mystery before me. And being overwhelmed with awe at how beautiful it all is.

To me, the fog represents the things in life that we don’t know or can’t explain. What little we actually can see (the small hilltops peaking through the fog) depicts what little we actually know (or at least the bits that we think we know). In order to journey through the land – maybe to the mountains in the distance – we must travel through the fog patches, the seasons of uncertainty (even only to get to the places we can see). After describing how God speaks clearest to me when I’m able to survey all the confusing parts of life (the sea of fog) mixed with the few parts of life that aren’t so confusing, I quickly realized this is what draws me to Scripture.

For as much as I know about Scripture, there is much more that I don’t’ know. As in the painting; the parts the wanderer can see the clearest are overwhelmed by “the sea of fog” – by that which isn’t clear. Scripture provokes and prods me towards the fog; I am compelled to seek even if I never find. Like Sherlock becoming restless until he has a complex case to solve, I feel restless until I’ve begun wandering through the fog of Scripture.

By no means am I suggesting that I’m some genius, “high-functioning sociopath” who can tell you your life story just by the way your tie is arranged. But I am saying that my clearest moments with God are when I am immersed in His mysteries – when I’m enveloped by the foggy parts of life and Scripture.

Such a realization of such a love for God’s mysteries in Scripture has left me considering something beyond a Master’s degree: a PhD. Of course, I know next to nothing about how I’m supposed to get one, where I’m supposed to begin, or what I’m supposed to even study. But I know that I love the academic environment and that the only way for me to remain in such an environment is to study enough to be able to teach, which I think involves earning a PhD.

Or becoming a janitor and secretly using the hallway chalkboard to solve Scriptural riddles that have never been solved before (i.e. Good Will Hunting).

So I guess that sums up my last week and a half; Thanksgiving was great, Benedict Cumberbatch is the man, and I love the academic side of Scripture. I can’t promise any more blog posts between now and the end of the semester (December 20th), but I’ll try my best. I’ve been reading another book by Kent Nerburn (The Wolf at Twilight, sequel to Neither Wolf, Nor Dog) and it’s absolutely wonderful, so I might crank something out of there. But we’ll see.

In the meantime, stay warm. Stay curious. And DFTBA (“Don’t Forget To Be Awesome” – Green brothers).

God bless.

Shut Up and Lead…

In a post I wrote a month ago, I talked about my frustrations with biblical scholarship – lack of heart-felt belief underneath the opinions, focused more on their arguments than encouraging one’s faith, etc. In that post I said that when it gets right down it, poetry still speaks clearer to me than scholarship. After reading poems from Taylor Mali and subsequently writing a few of my own, I’d have to say I feel as though I’m just now beginning to find my stride as a writer.

Four years ago, almost to the day, I read Blue Like Jazz for the first time and found myself itching to write. Donald Miller speaks with such brutal honesty that I no longer felt uncomfortable putting words to paper – words about my pain, my sins, my errors in life. With the content of that book and also the way in which it was presented, Don made himself a relatable person. He wasn’t teaching, preaching, or pounding anything into our heads; He was simply revealing deep, possibly embarrassing parts of his life. Like the Navy SEAL he writes about in BLJ, he sat down beside us, got cuddly-close, and showed us being a follower of Christ doesn’t have to be an intimidating or militant or dogmatic experience. It just requires you.

Every last bit of you.

When I read Don’s blog a couple days ago, I liked it. He brought out an ever-important and often-ignored point: Jesus doesn’t require the best of the best to lead His people; He requires the willing. He requires those who don’t want their lives to be about their names, their books, their arguments, their ministries; He wants those men and women who realize they aren’t blessing the world with their presence, but instead simply want to serve, to lead, to guide people in God’s ways. Jesus does not want religious bickering.

It didn’t take long, though, to find many on the blogosphere explode with emotional responses to Don’s post. I read a couple and must agree, there were some points that Don didn’t seem to address. But what I found lacking in almost all of these responses to Miller is what he was really talking about: leadership. Jesus’ 12 disciples were not by any means the kind of people society would want leading them, but He changed them around and look what happened: We have church today because of their work then.

Yes, scholarship is helpful; yes, opinions matter; yes, the intellectuals and theologians have done so much in keeping the faith strong. But one only needs Jesus and to be led in His ways. When Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, they left everything and followed Him; they came to Him empty handed, with nothing to offer the world but their service. And He taught them how to serve.

I’ve been briefly reading up on some major issues going on within our own government. Disagreements have gotten so bad within the White House that there might be a government shutdown, which says to me that things stop moving forward until an agreement is reached. Imagine what would happen if Christianity got so caught up in our disagreements, our arguments, our religious bickering that everyone stopped until an agreement was reached? Who would be left to lead?

No, there won’t be a global-church-wide shutdown like our government’s (at least I hope not), but that doesn’t mean certain people who are called to lead won’t venture away into the religious arguments and scholarly debates. Yes, Paul was a scholar who argued a lot, but we would be wise to realize he argued because in many cases, his life literally depended on it. Here in America, we don’t face the same challenges he faced. And while he did a lot with this theology (as scattered as it comes out in Scripture), he did more with his leading. He did more with his serving. He saw people hurting around him and did something about it. He brought them to Jesus.

A couple nights ago Tony Overstake, leader of Cross Training and a pastor at my church, gave a message about two things: compassion and action. In Scripture, especially in Jesus’ ministry, these two walk hand in hand; He had compassion and then He healed. He led the people in need. We are a people in need. We don’t need the arguments and debates; we need Jesus. We need His love, His guidance, His Being. Those stupid fishermen that Jesus picked out at the beginning of His ministry are the ones who sacrificed their lives bringing just that: Jesus. We don’t need Pharisees; we need fishermen.

Many have asked in response to Don if he might be exalting heart above head; that we need more of our hearts than our heads in order to follow Christ. From what I’ve read of Don, he says we need our hearts above our intellectual arrogance. There’s a difference. Jesus commands us to love God with all our hearts, souls, strengths, and minds – not our intellectual arrogance. If anything, our arrogance is part of the problem. It needs to die. Throughout Scripture we’re encouraged to explore God’s wisdom, God’s knowledge, and to seek His understanding; but we’re not encouraged to lord our opinions about that wisdom, knowledge, or understanding over others. That isn’t leadership; it’s idolatry.

Poets speak closer to my heart not because they speak solely with their hearts; but because so many thoughts are packed into so few little words. The two poems I’ve posted (here and here) took roughly an hour and a half each to write. It wasn’t just my emotions leading my pen; it was my mind making sure each word was right, each syllable was deliberately placed, and each letter had a purpose. Religious bickering tends to disregard the content and quantity of one’s words, and yet Jesus said, “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned,” (Matt. 12:37).

Our words, just like our lives, cannot be careless. There is too much pain, too much suffering, too much sickness in the world for us as followers of Christ to sit with idle hands and flapping jaws. Scholarship is very helpful insofar as it helps us love God with our minds; but scholarship is not a prerequisite to follow Christ. If anything, we’re to come empty handed, ready to work.