Category Archives: academia

Theological Education in Skete (part 1)

I was pre-law in college. Took the LSAT and did very well on it.  But I couldn’t apply to law schools because of the financial trauma. The application fees were expensive, but so was Wheaton, and I couldn’t get ahead of those bills, which tied up my transcripts until well after graduation.  I worked, and my family was more than generous as they were able, but every time I’d start to catch up, there would be an emergency draining bank accounts.

The delay allowed me to catch up to myself and consider my passions and real interests. I wanted to be a lawyer because of an idealism about how I could help people, including my family.  But then I kept meeting lawyers, none of whom liked their jobs.  And in my free time I increasingly was going back to the books I discovered at Wheaton: Eugene Peterson, John Wesley, JI Packer, and many others.  It wasn’t a time for peace for me, as I was still recovering from my time at Wheaton, which enlightened me intellectually but crushed me spiritually and socially. I felt alienated from life and all my hopes and plans were cut off by chasms in every direction.  I knew God had led me there but I couldn’t see that it was a good thing.  My pursuit of God made everything worse in my life.

That’s troublesome language, there, I know. “It wasn’t God,” people want to say.  It was God.  And I say this more confidently than ever.  Why? Because of all that reading I was doing.  I found light in the midst of deep darkness by discovering the place of darkness in the lives of people who found the light.

To live is Christ, I prayed deeply my junior year, teach me to understand this.  I assumed the way to life was through mountain tops and achievements and discovering great insights and transforming the world. I didn’t expect the place of hurt, the place of abandonment, the forsaken experience of crying out to a silent God who made things darker the closer you got to the entrance, at every step defeat, and every victory accompanied by even greater loss.  Needless to say, I wasn’t a very good evangelist during this season.

That which should work out didn’t. That which shouldn’t work out also didn’t.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t do anything right. It was that I could do everything right and it didn’t make a lick of difference.  There was a storm in my life and a storm in my soul, pursuit of peace in one erupted the storm in the other. God would not help me but would not leave me alone.  WalkatDuskpres

In finding the glimpse of light in writings of long ago, I knew there was something still to discover. I was being drawn onward not pushed away.  My casual reading turned more serious when I quit my seasonal job at the post office and bought the 10 volume set of the ante-nicene Fathers.

No one I knew had read them, I didn’t have access to discussion groups. All I know is that I found depth and life and hope in them. Even more, I found this emphasis on love that rocked my experience of church.  Reading through these started a turn in my life, but a turn like a supercargo ship. It wasn’t a quick process.  I found life. I found the profound emphasis on love. But I hadn’t yet found myself.

On a cool for California day, very early in 1999 I walked over to a nearby county park. I was filled with anger and I found that every time I went to church my anger and depression worsened.  Attempts to share, to open myself to possibilities, to try to find guidance was met with confused responses and attempts to put me in the box of programs that were set in stone.  My one light, my one release, was playing saxophone in the worship band, but the day came that I couldn’t even do that without my inner being raging inside.

Did you know that historically, the followers of Odin who  took his name for themselves were Berserkers? Boiling over with rage is not often socially acceptable, especially in church, so I just left before the service started without mentioning it to anyone.

Anger and depression are two sides of the same coin in my experience. The one outward the other inward, a storm that raged at the world, God, myself; a cyclone of indeterminate blame and exhausted frustration.

I skipped church, bought a Sunday LA Times, walked over to sit by the lake at the park. and read the paper. The reading turning to contemplating, the contemplating turning to praying, the praying turning to listening.  Stop obsessing about money and letting it drive sac and more 074

What would I do if money wasn’t an issue?  How would I spend my time?

Clearly, even without money, I found myself making rather irresponsible and socially confusing decisions to read books written by long dead Christians.  This inclination was part of the stirring that I found alternately invigorating and infuriating.  I wasn’t able to make sense within a life that wasn’t making sense.  My depression would blossom and I would turn back to solace in the saints.  I liked studying Scripture, Church history.

“Have you thought about seminary?” the little whisper asked.  So I started looking into seminary. For the first time, we were able to save money without an emergency draining the funds. My transcripts were freed, my application submitted, my application accepted, my time at seminary beginning in Fall of ’99.  I traveled to Berlin Pasadena for my studies.

Fast forward to early 2003.  I finished my coursework the previous summer. My last internship was officially done in early December of 2002, but was drifting on. I had worked on a number of projects, led a small young adults ministry, played in the worship band.  But the previous years had not progressed smoothly.  Everything I could do, I did well and as far as I could tell I even did right.  But nothing clicked and that which clicked clacked soon after.  Church upheavals and dysfunctions deepened. The dynamic reality that was NewSong was caught in all sorts of competing tensions.  A pastoral search that should have gone quickly after the lead pastor resigned (well after he should have), dragged onward.

I was caught up in the politics of church life and despised it.  I found light and life with the people in my ministry and a number of others, but couldn’t find light or encouragement with those who were defined as leaders and elders.  I finished seminary with strong acclaim by professors and others, with encouraging creative instincts in ministry, but when I looked for mentoring there wasn’t any to be found.  I was left adrift and my depression broke free from its constraining chains.  I tried to join the army.  I tore my ACL after starting the process.  I sought jobs. Not even interview. I couldn’t afford to pay the gas to drive the 20 miles east to the church. I had to drop out of ministry life.  I tried holding on to making sense but there was no sense to be found.baldy01

Once again I turned to my books and to writing. When I wrote I felt alive, I felt free.  I read John Cassian, and spurred on by my interest in John Wesley, I discovered Evagrius and others.

I started reading a lot of monastic works and finding renewed hope, if not life, in their words. I found the volumes of the Philokalia, and I fell in love with beauty.  There was something living beyond the horizon of my experiences.  So after finding all my funds and all my interest in regular living falling away, and finding life and hope in reading and writing, I decided in late 2003 to move to the mountains.

I turned 29 that same month.  I lived with my parents, helping out as I could. I wrote a lot. Wrestled with God and myself a lot.  Realized that God wasn’t calling me to do but to be, and to be me with God. Realizing the passions and frenzy in my soul were constant clamor, undermining my peace and contentment. In the nothingness I found something.

I found theology.  I discovered the city of Skete.

I realized I had already been in Skete, between my time at Wheaton and Fuller. Now I was back, and I was back for a long stay.

More on Skete in the next post.

Posted in academia, education, seminary, teaching, theology | 5 Comments

Theological Education in “Azusa”

In my last theological education post I described the model of Azusa proposed by Cheryl Bridges Johns.  Again, the name is a bit misleading. When I think of the city Azusa, I think of the closest movie theater to my hometown growing up, and an example of a concrete/asphalt suburb that developed in the 50s and 60s before civic landscaping was a priority.   Split in half by the 210 (Interstate 210), it’s more of a working class town with recent renewal projects. Route 66 is a straight arrow through the northern portion alongside which sits Azusa Pacific University.

In my experience of formal theological education, it was on my commute to Fuller. It was the city before Irwindale and after Glendora, the east half of the drive before getting to the 605.  More recently, now on the other side of theological education, it is the city where I first taught theology full time. Teaching at APU radically influenced my experience and understanding of theological education. But that’s not what Johns is referring to.azusaacrepair

She’s not talking about the city of Azusa in her framework. At least I’m pretty sure she’s not.  She’s talking about the Azusa St. revival, which started in the city of Los Angeles on Bonnie Brae Avenue. The revival that began on one street moved to Azusa St, which is about 25 miles from Azusa, California.

So, really, she should call her model “Los Angeles.”  Given that the Pentecostal movement more formally began in Topeka, Kansas that might be the most fitting name. That said, Azusa is much more evocative than Los Angeles, and entirely more so than Topeka.  Sorry, Topekans. Bias against the fly-over states predates the ability to fly over them.

Yet, Azusa St (if not Azusa, CA) still does fit because while the movement itself began in Topeka, blossomed on Bonnie Brae Ave, it took root on Azusa St as a theological movement that spread throughout the world.  As a model of theological education, it seeks after holistic learning and expression.

Cheryl Johns notes, “Its paideia would enculturate students into an inviting and yet dangerous landscape of education where the disciplines of science and the humanities interact to formulate new paradigms. At the core of the curriculum would be an all-consuming passion for God and the kingdom. Visions and dreams would be honored as well as highly technical scholarship.”

That’s a handful of a description.  What it comes down to is orientation. What is the orientation of a theological education? Is it about becoming better citizens in a given society? Is it about becoming esteemed within the structures of academic life? Is it about being a faithful participant in an established ecclesial tradition? Is it about drawing others into the life of Christ?   Each of the cities we discussed so far orients in one of these directions.  azusastreet

The Pentecostal emphasis focuses on becoming whole in light of the dawning Kingdom of God.

If that sounds outside the realm of theological education, then that’s another indication of how the Modern project has so totally dominated contemporary discussions. In this project, we look for objective knowledge or pragmatic expression. In the Pentecostal approach, learning about the world coincides with expressive participation in it and for it.

This is ultimately pragmatic, but not always immediately so. It enters into the mystical and transcendent as it radicalizes hope in a new way of encountering life.  We become who God has made us to be in the fullness of our particular gifts in the context of a community.  In effect, the Pentecostal model adds a “lab” requirement to theological learning, in which all that a person is becomes honed and sharpened.  A person is invited to risk utterances and expressions in the rhythm of the Spirit, a risk that should be coupled with discernment. This discernment isn’t about negating a person, however, it is about helping them best determine the ways in which God is using them to contribute to the whole community.  Ideally at least.

This has been a worthwhile discussion for me personally as it has pushed me to think about my own theological influences and journey.  Most of what I’ve shared so far has been part of long-term reflection. But this discussion on Azusa (St.) got me thinking about the importance of my informal theological education, especially prior to going to Wheaton.

Growing up, my family had a lot of financial and health issues. Pervasive. These led to a lot of less than voluntary moves, assorted other upheavals, constant encounters with crisis.  In one of the brief relatively stable times of my life we lived in Santa Barbara where my dad was a branch manager for a security company. We had moved up there from eastern LA county and where my mom had gotten involved with a flock of charismatics.  We had been going to a Wesleyan church but then in the new place started attending an Assemblies of God church.

LFC-FBI don’t remember a lot about the theology of the church, just the assorted odds and ends that stand out to a 9-10 year old boy. My first clear memory of speaking in tongues was at what I think was a Mario Murillo event at the church. I could be wrong about it being Murillo, but I do remember speaking in tongues, probably around age 10 or 11.  I felt a call to ministry not long after that.  But life twisted and turned, forcing us to leave the sun-kissed Santa Barbara area in summer of ’87, and returning back to less than ideal circumstances in La Verne, CA (about 12 miles east of Azusa, CA and 37 miles east of Azusa St.). Less than ideal because both financial and health issues entered into even sharper crisis for a extended time.

We went to church, but I don’t remember having any connection with church.  If there ever was a time in my life where I just felt a non-relationship with God this was it.  Probably a lot of clinical depression and other issues in the mix but a major part was the upheaval of a community.  While my parents worked at a boys home in the city, we lived for a year on that campus, which was located in an upper-middle class neighborhood.  We found a place to rent across the street where we lived throughout my time in high school. But we were in desperate straights. I have a wonderful immediate family who I love very much, as good as a family as a person can ask for in terms of love and commitment.  But everything else in life was caught in turmoil. The youth groups I attended tended to be of the entertain ’em and sneak in a bit of Gospel approach, targeted for upper middle class kids.  I had zero connection with that life and with that message.  I had good friends and a loving family, and even a renewed life with God borne out of constant lament, but my connection to church was tenuous.

While in junior high, I became friends with a guy whose dad was a Foursquare pastor in town. After floating along in various churches, which had various problems of holding on to good pastors, we started attending this Foursquare church. FourSquare_church_logo

And it was here that I had my first real encounter with Azusa (st.) theological education.  Now the basics were that of most youth groups at the time.  Fun, games, a bit of singing, bit of teaching, very young youth pastor, still attending Life Pacific at the time.  Deeper than the basics, however, was the freedom and investment this pastor gave.  We were invited into an exploration of depth of our understanding and expression. We were given space to take risks, some of which bore fruit and some of which still haunt me with their awkwardness. I was invited into discovering the Spirit’s work in my life, a work of developing leadership, prophetic, prayer, music, expressive exploration that wasn’t always profound but was allowing me to hone listening to the Spirit’s work in my life.

After high school, I began attending another church, one that was not formally Pentecostal, but which I think was just as interested in fostering this Azusa (st) approach. It was the Flock that Rocks. NewSong is now considered one of the proto-emerging churches, launching the Gen-X ecclesial movement, and otherwise expressing a postmodern style, though with Modern framework behind it still. It was Conservative Baptist in formal connection, though hardly anyone would know this.  This was my home church during some radically different phases in my life and in its life.

The early experience was the most vibrant, where everyone was under thirty, most everyone was single, and the church had manifold ministries in all sorts of directions based on the interest and passions of those involved.  I was part of a setup-teardown crew (it met in a gym) and part of a small group, one that was really a holistic house church in the way that it transcending a weekly meeting and became a community in life together.  I got a chance to teach, to experience transforming worship, to see the vibrant nature of a body of women and men expressing and learning the life of Christ in the context of eastern LA county.

Then I went to Wheaton. Where life was Athens and that had little room for Azusa.  The freedom and vibrancy got packaged back into a box. There was certainly spiritual growth for me, but it became highly isolated as I just didn’t fit well into the model of Midwestern Reformed ecclesial assumptions. I didn’t know how much freedom and learning I had prior to Wheaton and how it radically shaped my responses to my time there, disappointing and frustrating me while I learned what Athens could teach.

To be sure, my time at Wheaton was far from entirely negative. As I’ve written before, I met God at Wheaton, but I wasn’t able to process this learning into a positive embrace of joy and renewed life. I certainly was not able to express it freely and as the particular person God was forming me to becoming.

My critique of Azusa, however, is that in emphasizing the subjective side it can prioritize the expressive over the contemplative and intellectual. It can become unmoored from tradition and then get caught up in the more dramatic, more glittery, kinds of Spiritual moves.  People are still people and people tend to want to show off, appear more mature, do great things for God while not grounded in God.

As my mom suffered from severe health issues, a lot of people saw her as target, a way of somehow proving their own spiritual adeptness. They were oriented in competition and performance, not love.  My wife had encounters with Pentecostals when she was younger who likewise were spiritual bullies of sorts, insisting on a narrow range of expressive spirituality rather than understanding the broad work of the Spirit in a person’s life.  Neither of these experiences are uncommon. There is a certain elitism and performance expectation that if not pursued results in alienation or diminishment. If expressive spirituality is a sign of faith, then lacking particular, expected results becomes a sign of unbelief. Only that isn’t the case, not whatsoever.  Spiritual expressiveness does not always indicate spiritual maturity or Spirit-endowed wisdom, both of which seem a priority for true theological education. And the work of the Spirit can often be profound in non-dramatic expressions.

I’ve not been a part of a formal Pentecostal institution, but my impression has been they tend to be a hybrid of Berlin and Azusa, with the classroom formal education not fluidly interacting with the expressive.  Fuller Seminary has some history with an attempt at integration, with its “Signs and Wonders” course becoming a lab for expressive experimentation. That was not without its own problems and critiques, however, to say the least.

Azusa type theological learning gave me a sense of my calling, propelled me into a confidence of exploration, but gave little depth in continuing to navigate through dark nights and deep valleys of the soul and life’s continued crises.

It was in a dark night that I first heard told of another city, and it was in that “city” that I found restoration and renewal.  This city isn’t unknown, but it isn’t included in these frameworks of theological education, so I’m going to add my own creative contribution to the framework.  Next up: the city of Skete.

Posted in academia, education, personal, seminary, theology | 3 Comments

Models of Seminary

I haven’t posted on my seminary musings for a while, but this doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned this topic. Indeed, as I’ve traveled, conferenced, worked on current classes and future courses, the theology of a seminary education has continued to burrow into my daily thoughts.  So much so that my problem isn’t as much what to say as it is where to start.

I’m tempted to jump into my own ideas about what a seminary education of the future should look like–and I do have some developing ideas–but that wouldn’t show any of the background to my thoughts nor the much wider conversations about a theology of seminary education. And as I’ve poked around the topic, I have found much of worth indeed.  So, in this post I’ll offer a brief summary of key themes and ideas I’ve encountered now in various directions.

First some key books. First is Between Athens and Berlin: the Theological Debate by David Kelsey.  In this book he offers two main types of theological education that exist in North America. The title of the book indicates his terminology. I’ll get to those more thoroughly in a little bit. Quickly, Athens is more concerned with personal formation and Berlin is more concerned with intellectual training.

Second, there is Reenvisioning Theological Education by Robert Banks.  In addition to the two suggested by Kelsey, Banks suggests “Jerusalem” as a third model. This model prioritizes a missional approach to theological education. It is worth noting that the first edition of Paul’s Idea of Community by Banks was a central text for me as a sophomore in college when I began to seriously wrestle with the purpose of the church. A number of theological impulses that later landed in my dissertation began with the research I did at that time and with this book in particular alongside Lesslie Newbigin’s works.

A third key resource is an article written by Brian Edgar titled, ” The Theology of Theological Education.” He summarizes the first three I mentioned and adds a fourth which he, following the pattern, calls “Geneva.” This model approaches theological education from a confessional standpoint, in which the student in taught initiated in a particular theological tradition, learning to live and teach within it.  Tradition is seen as the key avenue for knowing God, and so this model invites the student into the relationship with God and with the history of God’s particular work.

Here’s the helpful diagram Edgar uses in his article:
Theol_ed_diagramEach of these is helpful in different ways. That’s my struggle as I think about it.  And I continue to wrestle not only with these models but also how any such model might also be best established in a given context.  How do we approach these models in light of a global and connected world, where students may enter into seminary with different vocational goals, different theological traditions, different experiences and priorities of ministry?  Is it best for a particular seminary to specialize in one of these modes and leave other seminaries to carry the mission of the others?

And more particularly, I continue to wrestle with the way Fuller Seminary can best carry out its own mission, which does not fit neatly into any one of these categories while involving all of them. Here’s the current mission statement:

Fuller Theological Seminary, embracing the School of Theology, School of Psychology, and School of Intercultural Studies, is an evangelical, multidenominational, international, and multiethnic community dedicated to the equipping of men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his Church. Under the authority of Scripture we seek to fulfill our commitment to ministry through graduate education, professional development, and spiritual formation. In all of our activities, including instruction, nurture, worship, service, research, and publication, Fuller Theological Seminary strives for excellence in the service of Jesus Christ, under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father.

In reflecting on the context of Fuller in light of these models, I think about how best we can prioritize our time and resources to fulfill our mission. I am not an administrator at Fuller, I am a teacher, so my interest is more in those pragmatic directions.

A few things come to mind in light of this that contribute to my theological musings.

Theological education has to be relational, we are formed as persons in the context of a community.  It has to be transformational, otherwise why put in the time, effort, and money. This transformation should include the whole self, including the mind.  It has to be contextual, as students are not objects intended for a general setting but are formed in a context of a particular community located in a specific time and place. Without reflection on and from these contexts, the education will be unmoored and irrelevant.

We are participants in the Christian tradition called to help communicate and shape this tradition in light of current concerns and present struggles.  Becoming creative participants in this tradition is the only way we can balance the many strains placed on us from one side or another. We need to teach discernment and we need to teach engagement, both in light of Scripture, history, and current reality.

Does this mean picking one of the models and digging into it? Whether or not this is even possible, it still doesn’t help answer how any one or all of these models may best be applied in light of current technology and current cultural shifts. Which is why I’ll keep musing on a theology of seminary for a while longer.

Posted in academia, teaching | 13 Comments

Conceiving a Fuller Seminary

As I think about the possibility of a theology of seminary education, I thought it worthwhile to revisit  a core text in my early musings on seminary: George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism.  Indeed, I read this well before I considered attending seminary, while I was at Wheaton and still intending to go on to law school.  It and Marsden’s companion book Fundamentalism and American Culture formed part of my research in my American Church History class project on my family religious history.

Though it wasn’t an immediate factor, I strongly suspect Marsden’s book influenced my later decision to attend Fuller.  That and Fuller was down the 210 freeway from where I was living.  But mostly the book, I’m sure.  I didn’t choose Talbot, after all, and that was down the 57, about the same distance.

It has been 20 years and three degrees since I last read it.  I’m a little worn and so is my copy of the book. A mouse found the stored box of books a nice place to spend winter and chewed up the edges of its furniture.

No great damage done and a lot of very worthwhile information inside.  I think it especially interesting to note how Fuller described itself early on. Three passages from Marsden stood out to me in my continuing musings.

The first three catalogs included these three purpose statements (quoting from Marsden, 55-56):

 First, “no interdenominational theological  seminary of outstanding academic and evangelical qualifications” existed in the rapidly expanding “budding culture’ of the far west.

Second, “naturalist modernism had invaded many old line seminaries.”

And third, other independent seminaries, (meaning Dallas, Westminster, and Faith), were “too often associated with a particular doctrinal emphasis which limits their usefulness.”

Thus early on Fuller tended towards being apophatic in its self-understanding, emphasizing what it was not and who it was not like.

In more positive terms, Fuller understood itself as interdenominational and independent in the pursuit of both academic and evangelical goals.  It was West coast in expression and context, serving a specific developing region.  Pasadena had a population of 104, 577 in 1950 and Los Angeles had a population of 1,970,358, most of the surrounding area was farmland (cf. my family religious history link above).

Fuller (both the school and the man) sought a school that could be be a training center for evangelism and apologetics while pursuing a rigorous academic culture by both faculty and students.  As Marsden (p56) notes, Fuller’s first press release described it as a “research center for Evangelical scholarship.”

A well-to-do, famous radio evangelist got a group of well-regarded and highly educated pastors and scholars together to help ignite a renewed expression of conservative Christianity.

This emphasis on academics became a priority for Fuller Seminary, which makes sense given the rather low social and academic reputation of mid-century Fundamentalism. To be heard, to make a difference, they realized they had to be rigorous in scholarship and education.  Ockenga w Faculty at Old Campus.1

Alongside this emphasis on scholarship, there was also a strong initial push towards social involvement and, of course, pastoral expression.  Evangelicals were characterized by wanting to engage broader culture rather than feeling a need to separate from it, to bring back social action as part of a more holistic understanding of the Gospel.

John Wesley, of course, was not alone in seeing how evangelism and social reform went hand in hand. A significant number of social reforms were led by conservative Christians during the 18th-19th centuries. It was in the early 20th century that social action became identified with liberal theology. The Social Gospel was put in contrast to evangelism, liberals adopting the first and rejecting the second, fundamentalists prioritizing the second and distancing from the first.  Sadly this division defined religious development throughout the century.

Those who started Fuller knew their Bible and their history, so wanted to put aside these divisions.  However, without a specific advocate for this aspect, social engagement was not emphasized in practice.  Marsden (p82) notes:

“In 1947 the call for more social involvement among fundamentalists was little more than that–a call. In reality, this theme received relatively little attention at the early Fuller. The two overwhelming priorities were remaking the modern mind and evangelism. The school was to be a great center for scholarship; and it was also Charles Fuller’s school, a place for training a generation of missionaries and evangelists.”

Fuller was thus conceived as an expression of new hopes and goals for Evangelicalism, rising out of its Fundamentalist limitations to embrace, indeed return to, a more historic pattern of conservative Christian belief.  This embrace was to happen in a new context, a developing and highly dynamic context far away from the established centers of traditional seminaries back East.

I focused on the early understanding here, but it is worth noting that over the last couple of decades Fuller has very much developed in emphasizing social involvement.  This can be seen in various ways, such as engagement with the arts and social justice concerns.  Some may see this as a turn away from Fuller’s early priorities, but it is certainly not. Such emphases express some of the earliest, and long undeveloped, ideals of Fuller and Evangelicalism.

After almost 70 years, Fuller is still coming to terms with its own initial impulses.

For more on Fuller’s history, in addition to Marsden’s book I heartily recommend David Allan Hubbard’s 1979 lecture.

Posted in academia, education, seminary | 6 Comments

Reconceiving Seminary

Ever since Fuller announced they are closing their Sacramento campus, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of seminary education.

The stated reason for the closing was financial, but in financial decisions there are also philosophical and strategic assumptions.  We were the fastest growing campus. Recently given approval to offer the MDiv degree from our site (in fact this long process of approval concluded almost the same time they decided to close us down).  But, with a need to refocus the budget changes were made based on perceived future value.

Events suggest our perceived value.  Colorado Springs campus was similarly assessed.  Houston, Menlo Park, Seattle, Phoenix, Orange County have experienced varying levels of reduction in budget, course offerings, marketing assistance, and uncertainty. Even the main campus at Pasadena has seen a drop in classroom numbers, even as the overall student body continues to grow (albeit not as full-time students)

Online is the growth area in higher education. Regional campuses are not seen the same way.

I taught both online and at Sacramento this past year. My online courses would fill up and have waiting lists within a few days of open registration.  This is not uncommon.  My Sac classes would never fill and would take a while to get to a satisfying number.  Indeed, theology classes were often cancelled because of low enrollment prior to my arriving here and getting a favorable reputation.

Students take online classes in abundance.  Regional campuses were created prior to the internet, to offer students the ability to attend classes within a reasonable distance from their home and work. With online classes, students can attend classes within their home or work.  Convenience reigns.  Classes fill.  Education advances into the Information Age.

And yet…

In the recent commencement at Menlo Park, I read this in the program:
“Fuller’s mission is to equip men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his Church.”

That’s a paraphrase. The official mission statement:

“Fuller Theological Seminary, embracing the School of Theology, School of Psychology, and School of Intercultural Studies, is an evangelical, multidenominational, international, and multiethnic community dedicated to the equipping of men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his Church. Under the authority of Scripture we seek to fulfill our commitment to ministry through graduate education, professional development, and spiritual formation. In all of our activities, including instruction, nurture, worship, service, research, and publication, Fuller Theological Seminary strives for excellence in the service of Jesus Christ, under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father.”

Thoughtful, purposeful, and powerful concepts.  These orient the practical directions of seminary: about what we should cut, where we should focus, what we should do.

More than that, however, I think about the possibility of a theology of seminary education.

What is the place of seminary education in a coherent Christian systematic theology?

Not what theology should a seminary teach, or how many theology classes a seminary should offer.  Rather, is there a “theology of seminary”?

I think yes, and I think this is a part of a broader ecclesiology (the study of the church). How we understand seminary shapes and is shaped by our understanding of Christian community. How we understand seminary shapes and is shaped by how we understand the role of education in and for the church, in and for this world.

Rather than try to plead the cause of the Sacramento campus, or regional campuses in general, or otherwise argue for a way to help navigate severe budget crises, I think it more helpful to explore this potential theology of seminary.  A seminary is part of higher education but should operate according to a unique narrative, the Way of Christ.  We cannot jettison our theological mooring even if we are facing a financial crisis in the midst of a massive ecclesial transition.

I argue that a stronger theological mooring in light of our mission statement is precisely what will contribute to Fuller’s continued creative approach to mission, theology and ministry.  In this, we will participate more fully with the work of the Spirit, who is already raising up men and women for service in all sorts of places and all sorts of ways.

I’m not saying this isn’t happening or that I’m a lone voice crying out in the wilderness on this topic. There’s a lot of people thinking about these issues.  Because of my indeterminate circumstances, however, I want to dig deeper into it myself. I’m not an expert on higher education. But I am a good teacher (so I’ve been told) and I am an expert on ecclesiology.  I have experience in various campuses and have recently had a wonderful experience in Sacramento come to a rather abrupt and disappointing conclusion (albeit a very abruptly slow conclusion).

Again, over the rest of this summer, I want to consider a “theology of seminary.”  This isn’t devoid of practical suggestions, but just won’t start there.

After thinking about this a while, I wanted to start with that most basic of questions: what is the purpose of seminary.  And I invite anyone who is interested to muse along with me.

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On June 10, I gave the invocation at the Fuller Seminary Sacramento commencement. As part of this, I was asked to add a few thoughts on the topic of education at Fuller. 

Here’s what I had to say:

In Matthew 25, Jesus gives this command to his followers:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Make disciples. What is a disciple?  Someone who understands and lives the teachings.

How do we make disciples? We learn, we teach, we reflect our salvation in Christ in a transformative way, so that in the power of the Spirit we are growing in Christ as a community in this world.

That has, then, been a key goal for the church since its beginning. Learning, teaching, enacting.

Very early in the church’s history, leaders realized the need for formal training, to teach those who were missionaries, ministers, teachers. Those who are sent out into the community, throughout the world, need training, so that they could train—could disciple–others. Education has thus always been a major part of the mission of the Church, an education that is not only learned but also lived.

In 1947, a group of Evangelists, pastors and scholars established Fuller Seminary to help continue this mission. Founded as the flagship institution for the new movement of Evangelicals, Fuller has trained men and women to serve as ministers, teacher, missionaries, and many other roles.  Alumni have gone all over the world to make disciples.  You are now part of this spreading story. 13528238_1193350570688948_1226412045210159905_o

Our goal at Fuller was not to teach you everything, that’s impossible to do in a ten week quarter, and too hard to do even in a small number of years.  Our goal was to initiate learning about our historic faith, to teach you about Father, Son, and Spirit, about Scripture, about the history of the Church, about how we can best use our gifts and calling in service to this church and God’s mission in this world.

Fuller comes alongside men and women who have been called to ministry, some vocationally, many not, to help propel their—your—calling forward. As teachers our goal is to introduce you to the depths and breadth of our faith so that you can then continue this work in your setting, wherever God calls you. And now, having done what we can do, we celebrate your accomplishment of graduation.

Though you are now finished with your classes, this graduation is really a new beginning. This mission of the church, this mission of Fuller, continues to carry on in the mission in your life. This mission is to continue to learn what we introduced here, continue to teach what you have learned to others, continue enact in your life and your context the life that Christ calls us to live.  Go and make disciples.

Let us celebrate this beginning, praising God for what he has done in your life, what he is doing in your life, and what he will do in your life as the Spirit continues to do a good work in making disciples here in the Sacramento area and throughout the world.

Let us celebrate with great hope because Christ is indeed with us, to the end of the age.

Posted in academia, education, seminary | 13 Comments

A Brief Guide to Surviving Seminary

Back in 2011, the fine folks at Fuller Seminary invited me to teach a class called ST511 Orientation to Theological Studies. The course was a requirement for students who were accepted to Fuller on a probationary status. Maybe they had low grades, or didn’t finish their undergraduate degree, or some other reason. The main goal was to teach writing and research skills. I adapted it to be more of an introduction to the main topics in seminary with the writing and research skills developed through exercises along the way.

We spent a couple weeks focused on Biblical Studies, a couple weeks focused on theology, a couple weeks focused on church history, and a couple weeks focused on ministry. Each week I also wrote a short reflection on an issue or theme related to the exercises, the topics, or general seminary issues (like navigating seminary faith challenges or how to read a book).
Even though Fuller doesn’t let me teach this class anymore (it’s for PhD candidates not PhD graduates), they have graciously invited me to teach other classes, more advanced. Yet, I continue to have students in these classes who would benefit from taking ST511. Fuller does not require a background in Biblical/Theological studies and allows students to take their theology/church history courses in any order and allows students to begin their studies in any quarter.

Because ST511 is not required for most entering students, I regularly have students who have little experience with the topics and even little experience with writing essays. They’re not dumb, they just come into their courses with passion but not training in how to do well in the tasks. Students often need support with more than the technical aspects of seminary.

Even those who are good writers, whether from previous education or by being at Fuller for a while, encounter troubles in their studies: too much to read, too much to write, too little time to rest, material at odds with their assumptions about the Bible, theology, society. Navigating the emotional travails can be as taxing as navigating the course work.

So, I’ve continued to post my some of those ST511 musings in my theology and church history courses. Not as required reading but as optional support material for students in need. Over the last few years I’ve been asked about material to help students navigate research, writing, spirituality and I’ve sent my musings onward in those directions. But, it’s been somewhat scattered and disorganized. I figured it was worth putting into better shape. So I put these musings together in a book.

Here’s the table of contents:

Introduction 2
Writing in Seminary 3
Practicing Writing 7
Citing Sources 9
Spiritual Life while in Seminary 11
Writing as an Art and a Craft 1551j2JmyvGHL._SY346_
A Brief History of Fuller Seminary 18
Motivation and Writing 23
Sources for Research 28
Faith Crises in Seminary 30
How to Read in Seminary 33
Choosing and Prioritizing Sources 38
Writing an introduction paragraph 41
Thoughts on studying theology 46
Footnotes 51
Writing a conclusion 55
Time, Life, and the Temptations 60
Writing a research paper 67
Why we study theology 70
Theology and Ministry 82

So, a short book on big themes. It’s an introduction, an introduction to seminary. I call it A Brief Guide to Surviving Seminary. Available at Amazon as a Kindle e-book and now as a print book. Different covers, same content.

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My job is teaching and writing theology. But I tend to be moved significantly by movies about artists. I’m not an artist at all, but find resonance in these stories. The movie Rivers and Tides is one of the few movies that I watch repeatedly, it’s one of my soul-cleansing movies for whenever I feel particularly parched.

Maybe theology really is much more than it is a science, a way of bringing out beauty and learning how to notice, bringing to light that which others may see without knowing what they’re seeing. Theology has turned into lectures, content to deliver, rules to keep, arguments to arbitrate, the insights of all of gathered reality formalized and structured. Maybe theology is about helping people see better, hear better, feel more, think deeply, awakening in them a sense of hope and life they never before new existed. Maybe theology is better conceived as art, paintings with words and using language to explore the bounty of truth all around us, initiated by God, exemplified in Christ, sanctified through the Spirit, drawing us all back into the swirling, dangerous divine.

I just finished watching a 2006 movie, Local Color, and it got me to thinking, encouraging and inspiring me in my own, well yes, art.

Posted in academia, art, writing | 2 Comments

Same (in which I talk about Subarus and Star Wars)

Same is same. Not exactly. In common conversation we know how same can mean different things. Unfortunately we’re a lot more adept at talking to each other about daily life than talking to each other about God, and tend to make all sorts of inexact absolutes when it comes to talk about God.

Why? Because we’re very protective about God and wouldn’t want wrong things said about him. Which is a funny thing for someone who has specialized in talk about God. Because people say all sorts of wrong things about God in all sorts of places.

Talk about God is a bit like traffic laws, if a person wants to find something wrong, they’ll find something to charge you with.

That’s my continuing frustration with the situation at Wheaton. I can understand both what Dr. Hawkins meant and why people are outraged by what they think she meant. What I don’t understand is how Wheaton College–a premier academic institution–was unable to do the same.

The same, there’s that word again. Some examples came to mind the other day of how same is same but not the same as every same. We mean something different by “same”. Yet we find a way not to get outraged by each other or insist a person means one thing when they intended another.

I often drive the same car as Amy. It’s a Subaru Outback. Before we got our Outback, we drove a Honda Civic. She drove the civic, I drove the civic, it was the same Civic. Now I drive that Civic still when I commute to work. Same Civic. She rarely drives that car now, but when we look at pictures of road trips we talk about driving the Civic. The same Civic I drive now. Same is same. We had some friends at Fuller who had the same car, a Honda Civic. Not our car, of course, I mean it was also a Civic.

We were in a parking lot a while back and Amy pointed out a Subaru that was a 2007 champagne colored outback. Same car that we own. So, I got out and took it home. No, I’m just kidding. It was the same car, but not our car.

If I said to someone that I have the same car, they wouldn’t assume that I meant we share the same exact car in the way my wife and I have the same car. We know what we mean when we use the same word to describe different kinds of sameness.

Same, but different. “Same” can have a range of meanings.

Back in the 80s, my family had a tan colored Outback that we drove all the time. Same car as I own now, but a different year. Well, not the same car of course; same make and same model, but that car finally died in the 90s and my dad got rid of it. It was an Outback, we own an Outback now.

I got the same car for my family! Only it’s not the same car, but you know what I mean. Because we know that same can mean different things depending on the context. When I told my dad we got the same car, an Outback, he didn’t assume I meant that I hunted down the same exact Outback my family owned in the 1980s.

Did Dr. Hawkins mean there are no differences between Islam and Christianity? No. Did she conflate the theology of the two? No. Same can mean same when we’re talking about a similar set of properties and history, even as there may be quite a bit of difference between two actual examples. Absolutely. We do it all the time.

My 2007 Outback is very different than the 1980s Outback of my parents, and I imagine a new Outback is yet still different than theirs or mine. But it’s the same car even if I can’t walk onto a car lot and drive away a brand new one. “But I have this same car!” I could tell the salesman. No, no you don’t, he would reply.

I did tell the salesman when I bought our 2007 that we had the same car when I was younger. He knew I didn’t mean the exact car on his lot that we were trying to buy. That would be silly if I had to clarify that I meant the same model not the same car.

We’re a lot more generous to each other when we talk about cars. What about a more serious topic? Star Wars.

Same Millennium Falcon is in both the original trilogy and the new Star Wars. Same is exactly the same. I liked they didn’t try to modernize the electronics. It looks exactly the same. Same is same.

Luke Skywalker is the main character in the original trilogy. In the early 90s, Timothy Zahn wrote a series of Star Wars novels that took place after the time of Return of the Jedi, called the Thrawn triology. Luke Skywalker is a character. Same character as in the original trilogy.

The new movies aren’t based on the Zahn novels nor any previously published story set in the Star Wars universe. Luke Skywalker is in the new movie, the same Luke Skywalker who is in the original trilogies. The same character who is in the Zahn books.

But that’s impossible because the new movie is very different than the books. Luke Skywalker is in both, but isn’t the same, because it’s a different story, with different events and revelations.

The new movies supersede any books. The movies are called canon. Here’s a bit from Wikipedia:

The Star Wars canon is what is officially regarded as “canonical”, or officially part of a story, in the Star Wars media franchise. The official Star Wars canon consists of the six released Star Wars theatrical feature films, the Star Wars animated film and television series The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and every other material released after April 25, 2014, unless otherwise stated.

So, the Zahn books have the same Luke Skywalker as in the original trilogy but are not considered canon. The official telling of Star Wars uses the movie. But, if someone were to read the Zahn books now they wouldn’t be wrong in saying that it’s the same Luke Skywalker.

Same but not exactly the same. Same, but still having varying qualities of accuracy. Same, but one is considered true and one is considered extra-canonical. Both share the qualities of being a telling of Star Wars. One is right, the other is now not right. One is canon, one is not. But it’s the same characters in both. Same but different. Same even as one is better and the official telling of the character. I appreciate the way Zahn told the story but the Star Wars universe now doesn’t have Thrawn or Mara Jade or those force draining Ysalamiri. Luke Skywalker is a character but does different things and acts in different ways and responds to different situations than in the new movie. This is only going to get more different as more movies are released.

Different Luke Skywalker? Yes, but no. Luke is the same, but there is a different revelation about what Luke Skywalker said and did. We can speak about sameness while acknowledging there is a canonical version in contrast to other versions. Same while different.

When Dr. Hawkins says there is a same God, she was not speaking with theological rigor but in common parlance of a shared history and understanding. There’s a perception of a same quality of God’s being, even as God is actually rather different in Islam and Christianity. Which is why I don’t see Dr. Hawkins as violating the Statement of Beliefs at Wheaton and think it rather anti-intellectual for Wheaton to accuse her of doing so. We can, and should, have conversations about the differences between Islam and Christianity in both practice and theology. The revelation of Jesus makes a radical difference and the understanding of God as Trinity is vitally important.

Though, of course, if you asked the great majority of Christians to describe the Trinity, they’d likely fall into one of the classical heresies. Even if they claim to be theologically conservative, they wouldn’t be talking about the exact same God as the one the church believes in.

Maybe that’s why I hear Dr. Hawkins statement with a lot of grace and respect the attitude and purpose in which it was said. People say all sorts of wrong things about God, even and often from pulpits. Heaven help the person who is always looking to be offended when no offense was intended or implied. I would guess that anyone at Wheaton, including the President, could be accused of violating the Statement of Faith based on a particular interpretation and exactness of that statement. That way lies chaos, of course.

Which leads to a good lesson: Hear others as we would like to be heard.

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Put more simply in light of Wheaton’s statement:

“You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”

This is Hagar’s response as noted in Genesis 16:13, speaking of God, in light of God’s looking after her and her son Ishmael.

Does Wheaton College believe the Bible is true in regards to Genesis 16 and 21?

Is Wheaton committed to its actual statement of faith or to contemporary biases?

If there is more to this story that relates precisely to Wheaton’s statement of faith, I very much would value hearing about it and will be happy to update any responses I have.

Otherwise, I can’t see how Wheaton can keep its decision to put Dr. Hawkins on leave and still maintain its statement on the authority of the Bible.

Does Wheaton see the God who saw Hagar?

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