Q: What is the number one complaint of seminary students when they serve in the local church? A: What they learn in class they can’t teach in the local church. It seems that the quest for knowledge ends for many at the church door. A significant number of American Christians do not want to base what they believe on the best scholarship in biblical studies and theology. They don’t even like “theology lite” as presented by such popular authors as Marcus Borg and Bart Ehrman. Heaven help us should we bring in any heavyweights. Many in our congregations would die of apoplexy. Why is this?
Partially we have created it for ourselves. Poor translations like the King James Version and imprecise paraphrases like The Living Bible and The Message fuel the “the Bible should mean anything I want it to” mentality of the modern spirit. Susan Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason) and Stephen Prothero (Biblical Literacy) describe the anti-intellectualism that poisoned the Protestant church in the 20th century. The desire to make the Bible accessible to the widest possible population, including the least educated, motivated a movement away from scholarly study. The “me and my buddy Jesus” mentality at the heart of the “do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior” movement resulted in a massive “proof-text” support system where the Bible was interpreted as if it had been written by modern middle-class minds for the U.S. pop-culture. What the Bible said, and what it originally meant no longer mattered. The only thing of value was “what does the Bible mean to me?” Erroneously labeled “post-modern,” this view has a long historical precedent. It is a basic, somewhat lazy, subjectivity. We work for years to teach our children that they must learn to support their opinions and beliefs with evidence, information, and facts. This is known as education. But for some reason we don’t want to apply these standards to issues of faith. A few year’s ago, the “What Would Jesus Do?” phenomenon swept the country, but research overwhelmingly indicated that the question couldn’t be answered by most American Christians because they don’t bother reading the Bible. Not that this stopped any from voicing strong opinions anyway…
Check out the current furor over Bart Ehrman’s, Jesus Interrupted. There is nothing in this book that most seminarians haven’t seen a dozen times before. There is nothing revolutionary, new, profound, or shocking in the book to serious students of the Bible. Certainly, he makes a few assumptions and interprets some ideas that are still open for discussion — but there is nothing earth shattering here. Until, that is, it gets studied in the local church. Then, WHAM. Ehrman is drawing fire from every quarter for trying to destroy the church, destroy the Bible, tell lies, do Satan’s work, and perhaps even for being the anti-Christ. All because he is saying what has been said better by hundreds of others for hundreds of years…
People ask me why all this “liberal” interpretation doesn’t bother me more, and my simple answer is that I don’t worship a book, but a God and a Savior. I don’t live in a primitive, pre-modern, impoverished, oppressed, uneducated, militaristic middle eastern culture, so I am not overly concerned when a book written in such a context — inspired or otherwise — has contradictions and states as fact things that subsequent learning and revelation have proven to be inaccurate. My God is a living God, and my faith is a living faith, and someone who says something I disagree with really isn’t any kind of threat. I have studied long and hard — in Hebrew and Greek and Latin (and English) — religious writings from many places and many times. I believe that intellect is a gift from God, and we should apply our very finest thinking to our faith. Through it all, my faith survives, because my faith grows, and evolves, and strengthens, and matures. I love commentaries and theological treatises and church histories. The story they contain is so much richer, more powerful, intricately textured and convicting for me than the myths and tales I heard in Sunday school when I was a child. Those stories were lovely then, but they were adapted for my abilities as a child. As an adult, I need more.
My own experience taught me a valuable lesson. When I was a young pastor, I got fed up with the vapid, superficial, simplistic materials being produced by our denominational curriculum writers. They were an insult to common intelligence. So, I determined to teach a seminary level study in my local church. As was often the case, we started with about a dozen people (it was a church of around 120 members). Usually, the group diminished over time until just a handful remained. In this class, though, I assigned a text book to read. I gave weekly quizzes. I assigned essays. And an amazing thing happened. The class swelled from 12 to 20 to 30 until it topped out at 48 members who attended every single week. Yes, two or three got upset, angry, insulted, and they slammed the door on the way out. But for the rest of the church, nothing was ever the same again. People demanded to be taught seminary level classes. They were incredulous that they had never heard this before. They were angry that it had been kept from them. Yes, this is an exception. I was lucky. Not everyone wants what this group did. But it creates another dilemma: what do we teach to whom and why? Do we keep it simple, incomplete, and inaccurate to keep people happy? Do we nudge up the bar and try to introduce people to more challenging material? Do we try to live with a foot in two worlds — challenging some and keeping other comfortable? Do we focus our attention on those most interested in the best scholarship and the finest intellectual investigation? There is no easy answer, and no answer that will work in every setting.
Marcus Borg, bless his heart, has been a valuable lightning rod in this current generation. Borg writes nothing too challenging — well below what pastors learn in seminary, well above what most church curriculum offers — but he is the “love/hate” celebrity of Sunday school classes and small groups nation-wide. Every church that teaches Borg polarizes their groups. Some hate how uncomfortable he makes them feel, debunking myths, injecting good critical thinking and history, and forcing them to relinquish a children’s Sunday school understanding of the Bible for an adult engagement with scripture. Usually, some leave. However, in every case, some find their faith renewed and revitalized. A whole new frontier is opened to them. A solid, real, relevant faith built on a sound, balanced foundation of reason, discernment, dialogue, and a broad base of information. These people come away transformed (and isn’t that what we’re all about?).
Interviews with young adults indicate that 4-out-of-5 are not interested in anything less challenging or demanding than they had in high school or college. A growing number of laity are enrolling in and auditing seminary classes simply because they hunger for more than they can find in a local church. There is an elegant win-win situation available to most local churches — seminary trained theologians wanting to share what they know with a small core of Christians seeking intellectually rigorous engagement with the best scholarship and thinking available in the faith. It will never appeal to everyone — not even the majority — but it will serve to deepen the spiritual education of those ready for more.
Truth, information, reason, study, intellect — none of these should be a threat in the church (but they are). We need learning opportunities appropriate to many different levels of intellectual capacity — from the simple and easy to the demanding and ambitious. Churches were once known as centers of intellectual endeavor and pursuit. They could become so once again.
While the focus of this reflection has been on the intellectual side of spiritual learning, the same is true for the interactive/pragmatic side as well. In my last church, I had three people completely change their lives to pursue a Christian vocation — leaving job and selling homes to make themselves available to work in the community as servant advocates and community organizers. They did this for one reason: they were given the opportunity and the challenge. I have a letter in my files from a man who was inspired to sell his company, learn Mandarin Chinese, and move to China to serve the poor.
We have people in our congregations ready to do more, ready to make significant sacrifices, ready to dig deep — ready, in fact, to be like Christ, but they need guidance, encouragement, inspiration, and support. What a great church, where so much potential exists, just waiting for an opportunity. Too often we fear scaring people off or making them angry. We don’t want to see them stomp out the door. But if we don’t get serious, people end up stomping out for a completely different reason. Because they can’t take any more. What we need is a vision of launching people out the door who are equipped, educated, prepared, and passionate to change the world.