The Un-Romance of “Radical”

I work with college students in Birmingham, AL.  Many of them sit under David Platt’s teaching, and have read his book, Radical.

I have also read it.  I am so appreciative of David’s ministry in our city, so impressed by what God is up to at the church he leads down the road from my house.  I am very grateful for the challenges God is supplying us through David’s preaching and writing.

As a guy with a book out there, and as someone who also regularly preaches, I know that the writer and preacher cannot fully control how the words from pen and pulpit are received and applied.

One of the problems I am noticing while working among young people is the romanticizing of the “radical.”

“What are you doing this summer after classes?” asks a student to another student late in Spring semester.

“Well, I’m working with an electrician.”

“Oh, okay.”

“What about you?  What are your summer plans?”

“I’m actually gonna be living in an orphanage in Africa, loving on those kids and doing some community development stuff.”


I have engineered this brief dialogue, but conversations like the one above occur on college campuses, and it is likely that the 19-yr old working with the electrician will feel spiritually inferior to the 19-yr old who has plane tickets in hand for Kenya… and there is also the tendency for the guy with the ticket to feel as though he is a bit more sincere in his devotion to Jesus.

Believe me, I do not wish to discourage young people from boarding flights to Africa.

I also do not wish to disparage electrical work as spiritually insignificant.  I do not wish to eviscerate tedious, less “spiritually” glamorous tasks of their meaning in God’s Kingdom.

But mowing lawns seems so much less radical than spending the summer in an orphanage.  Waiting tables seems so much less radical than digging wells for remote villages.  Less radical, and also less romantic.

My impulse is to be radical.  Especially when it comes to my faith.  And I have done some pretty radical stuff—trying to heal a quadriplegic on a busy street in Brazil (he was not healed); refusing to work after college so that I could just pray and read the Bible all day while trusting God for my needs; beginning a round-the-world trip with only enough money for 180 degrees of the planet (not 360); tracking my girlfriend down in some village in the Andes Mountains to propose to her….  Radical is on my resume.

But I have also worked for four different lumber yards and for two little construction companies.  I have mowed many a lawn and dug many a ditch with two little landscaping companies.  While tossing lumber onto my forklift or pulling Bermuda grass out of some rich guy’s flower beds, I wanted to sprout wings and bolt off into the glorious blue.  I wanted to fly off to something more awesome.  Something more significant.  Something epic.

Something radical.

(Something biography-worthy).

(Something that would get me some press).

(Something exotic and, well… impressively cool).

Now, I am confident that David Platt would discourage the unhealthy motivations underlying the romanticization of the radical.  This romanticizing is happening, though, so those of use with his book in hand must be responsible recipients of the challenges.

Right now in my life, I am finding that radical is quite unromantic.  In fact, being radical is quite ugly.

My perception of God’s call in my own life is directing me to an overseas move.  I am taking my family of 6 and moving them to England for me to begin doctoral work in biblical studies.  I want to teach and preach, pastor and shepherd, with the highest degree of training possible.  I want to be able to assist in theological education for untrained but God-called pastors in developing world villages.  I want to prepare seminarians for a life of faithful pastoral ministry.

But doing the PhD in England is costing so, so much.

I used to view a sacrificial move overseas as spiritually romantic.  But the romance is gone for me.  There is nothing romantic about ripping your little kids out of the elementary school they love  There is nothing romantic about hearing your wife reason that we may never be able to own a home again.  There is nothing romantic about trying to look your 93-yr old grandmother in the eye and say, “I am leaving you, and will likely never see you again.”

(Is God really calling me to do this?  Is “calling” part of the luxurious speech of middle- and upper class Westerners whose social status permits us to daydream about what we want to do when we grow up?)

The de-romanticizing of “radical” is not a bad thing, though.  The spiritualized exoticism of our life-decisions really needs to be obliterated.  In a society that is enamored with the extreme (Bear Grylls) and captivated by the audacious (Lady Gaga), it would be easy for Christians to neglect faithfulness in the small things, persistence in the ordinary, devotion to the local.

So… a prayer to close—my Lord and God, you can have my romantic ideals of serving You.  You can have my fantastical daydreams about my calling.  You can have them and break them apart.  Amen.


[CLARIFICATION 1: For the record, this post is in no way designed to be a Platt-bashing or Radical (the book)-bashing post.  Just want to make sure that is clear.  But some readers have already expressed some struggles re: their reading of Radical.  As my wife says, no book can say it all or cover all the bases (other than Scripture).  So books need to be complemented with other writings/sermons/etc.  My good friend Joel Brooks has an article that might be a good complement for Radical over at Gospel Coalition… good stuff if you want to check it out.]


[CLARIFICATION 2: Note that in this post I am not saying that serving in an orphanage is a bad thing.  I am just concerned with de-romanticizing dangerous motivations.]

The Intended Audience for Faith Without Illusions (Pastors included)

I work on a church staff with ten other pastors.  These guys are amazing.  As I penned a note in the copy of Faith Without Illusions that our senior pastor was kind enough to purchase, I realized afresh that there has been a shift of sorts in my conception of who I was writing to.

When you write for a potential publisher a “book proposal” (a 5-7ish page document freighted with angst, anxiety, and often ludicrous hopes!), you are supposed to supply a note about the “intended audience” of the book.  At first, I envisioned an audience of college students and 20-somethings.  The more I wrote, the more I thought about 30-somethings and 40-somethings.  Then, as the writing process continued, I began to think that the primary audience would be seminarians.  I was pleased to read someone suggesting somewhere that Faith Without Illusions should be required reading for seminary students—much of the material I address surfaced during my experience in two different divinity schools.

But the more I wrote, the more I realized that I was also writing (perhaps preeminently writing?) to pastors.

We sometimes associate the pastor with “The (Wo)Man.”  We assume that the pastor is the one behind all the churchy stuff we experience and do not like.  We assume the pastor is responsible for all the petty issues in the pews that so annoy us and make us cynical.

Let me say, after a decade or so of pastoral ministry, that there may be no one more likely to be disillusioned with God and the church than the pastor.  The laity on the fringes are often stereotyped as the primary cynics in the church.  But this fringe existence often protects these cynics from seeing the grimy underbelly of the congregational funk in which the pastor lives and breathes.  And yet the pastor is not permitted to be disillusioned.  The pastor must put on the happy face, shake the hands, offer the kind words… even if the gut reaction is to fly out the church doors before those with the freedom to claim cynicism can get to them.  You think laity have a hard time listening to the sermon?  Sometimes the pastor can’t wait for the end of the sermon either.  But the cynicism of the pastor is not permissible.  So it lies dormant, seething, souring… becoming more and more dangerous.

I wrote Faith Without Illusions not just for edgy, jaded 20-somethings, not just for struggling seminarians, not just for college students needing spiritual elbow room, but for pastors.

I conclude the book with Paul.  If anyone waded in the filthy, messy, disillusioning waters of pastoral ministry, it was the great apostle.  But Paul did not seem to suffer from cynical “burn-out.”  His apostleship was denied by the Corinthians, his teaching was flatly rejected by the Galatians, and racism, materialism, social elitism, and sexual immorality abounded in those early churches under his apostolic guidance as much as churches do today.  But Paul persisted in the pastoral labors, from behind prison bars, while under house arrest, and while sailing on sea-tossed ships.  He was a hopeful realist.  Resurrection undergirded his potentially disillusioning experiences as a pastor… and somehow infused him with a refreshing sense of liveliness as he labored and loved.

So to you pastors out there—here’s to hopeful realism from another guy in the ecclesial trenches.  Thanks for all you do.

Some wise words re: “pornography culture”

My good friend Brian Maiers sent me the link to “The Pornography Culture” over at a blog dedicated to the theology of David B. Hart.  The essay is almost four years old, written on the occasion of another legal blow against the Child Online Protection Act (COPA).  It appeared at The New Atlantis in 2004 and it is written by Hart.  The wisdom, however, is as fresh and urgent for today as yesterday.   The author (listed as “Pliny”) is clearly brilliant, with astute observations about civil liberties and the erosion of Western society.  Since I write occasionally on pornography, I am listing some quotes directing pertaining to that issue below…

…it is difficult for me to grasp why the Court works upon the premise that whatever means are employed to protect children from Internet pornography should involve the barest minimum imposition possible upon the free expression of pornographers.

The damage that pornography can do—to minds or cultures—is not by any means negligible. Especially in our modern age of passive entertainment, saturated as we are by an unending storm of noises and images and barren prattle, portrayals of violence or of sexual degradation possess a remarkable power to permeate, shape, and deprave the imagination; and the imagination is, after all, the wellspring of desire, of personality, of character. Anyone who would claim that constant or even regular exposure to pornography does not affect a person at the profoundest level of consciousness is either singularly stupid or singularly degenerate. Nor has the availability and profusion of pornography in modern Western culture any historical precedent. And the Internet has provided a means of distribution whose potentials we have scarcely begun to grasp.

The spectrum of wit explored by television comedy runs largely between the pre- and the post-coital.

[What the Internet offers]:

…an “interactive” medium for pornography, a parallel world at once fluid and labyrinthine, where the most extreme forms of depravity can be cheaply produced and then propagated on a global scale, where consumers (of almost any age) can be cultivated and groomed, and where a restless mind sheltered by an idle body can explore whole empires of vice in untroubled quiet for hours on end.

…as imaginations continue to be shaped by our pornographic society, what sorts of husbands or fathers are being bred? And how will women continue to conform themselves—as surely they must—to our cultural expectations of them? To judge from popular entertainment, our favored images of women fall into two complementary, if rather antithetical, classes: on the one hand, sullen, coarse, quasi-masculine belligerence, on the other, pliant and wanton availability to the most primordial of male appetites—in short, viragoes or odalisks. I am fairly sure that, if I had a daughter, I should want her society to provide her with a sentimental education of richer possibilities than that.

I do have daughters.  I say Amen.

Forestry + Theology

from photobucket

Before creation ethics was a top publishing topic, before ecological theology was hip, I was a forestry major at the University of Georgia.  And I wrote a senior thesis on God and Creation Care.

(It was not very good.)

I remember that at my paper presentation I was mildly attacked by one of the professors (not physically).  I took it as a given that the Bible encourages our appreciation of the natural world.  I had read about St. Francis and his affection for brother Sun and sister Moon.  But this gentleman was openly frustrated with ugly skeletons in the church’s closet with which he was more familiar than me.  Christians have had a rather checkered track record of emphasizing a responsible concern for the environment.

That was one of many lessons I now draw from my semesters as a forestry major.  Now, I am plotting a course into PhD work in the New Testament, reading theology and writing about the church.  But God is not wasting my forestry degree.  Sure, Religious Studies or Ancient History would have been more obviously relevant choices.  Theology, however, cannot be isolated as a tidy, encapsulated discipline—God encompasses all things, right?

Here is a hermeneutical lesson from my forestry training.  Consider “dendrology.”  In this course we studied individual trees.  While chemistry and biology majors spent their “lab” courses under hanging flourescent lights and amidst the nose-wrinkling smell of chemicals, my “lab” course for dendrology was always outdoors in an expansive forest.  The lab instructor would walk up to a tree and say, “Ok, this tree is question # 1 for your quiz.  Identify the tree and give its Latin name.”  We would study the leaves, the buds, the bark… sometimes taste a twig or sniff a snapped branch to figure it out.  Fun.

Then I took a course on forest ecology.  This is the study of the broader environment in which a system of trees and plants grow.  Dendrology is helpful for understanding a particular tree.  But without a grasp of its ecological context, much will be missed.  For instance, if you find a chestnut oak on a floodplain, you know something curious is afoot—chestnut oaks grow on ridges.  If a musclewood sapling is enjoying the company of chestnut oaks on the ridge, then you are faced with another curiosity—musclewoods like stream and river beds.

For many of us, our reading of Scripture is more like dendrology.  We read a verse or paragraph here and there.  Perhaps we memorize it.  Maybe we get really motivated to pick apart all the syllables, chewing on that verse, soaking up all it has to offer.  But without an ecological understanding, without a grasp of the broader context of that passage, then we are bound to miss something.

The ecology of Paul’s letters is a vast, complex webwork of Jewish-Gentile tension, Greco-Roman travel dangers, Diaspora Judaism, imperial propaganda, etc.  The ecology of the wider New Testament is a sprawling, epic tale of God working salvation through a particular race of people on behalf of all races.   Dendrology is easy in that it has a limited scope.  You pick a tree and look at it.  Pull out the microscope if you want, take soil samples from among the roots.  But studying the ecology of the entire forest plot is much more difficult.  There are ridges and gullies, multiple soil types in multiple locations, a variety of fauna along with the flora.

But we need more ecological readers of Scripture.

Okay, enough fun with my forestry metaphor.  I couldn’t sleep, ok?  Thanks for listening in….

SAET: The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology

Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology

I was graciously invited to participate as a guest in an ongoing conversation that, in my view, is of pressing urgency.  This conversation centers on the topic of “ecclesial theology” and on the vocational identity of the “pastor-theologian.”  Dialogue of this sort is underway in a number of circles these days, but hosting the particular chat I got to be a part of is SAET (pronounced “sat”): The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology.


The organization comprises two “fellowships,” the first of which meets in the Fall with the second (which I attended) meeting in the Spring.  Each fellowship consists of around 15 youngish pastors who are grieving a number of ailments they see as rampant within the church.  These problems include widespread theological and biblical illiteracy, the intellectual brain drain of the church’s brightest ministers into the academy, the anti-intellectualism so common among our pews, and the gaping divide between the scholarly disciplines of biblical studies and theology.

Each fellowship includes a “Senior Theological Mentor” (Dr. Scott Hafemann for the first fellowship, and Dr. Douglas Sweeney for the second).  Joining the fellowships is also a senior theologian whose written works set the tone of the discussion at the annual meetings.  Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer has been serving in this capacity.  We read his magnificent work, The Drama of Doctrine, to set the stage for the dialogue.  And that dialogue is both informal (over coffee and meals) and formal (through paper presentations and responses).  The pastors in attendance have a number of graduate degrees, many of them doctorates, and all of them are committed to writing on behalf of the church.

“Ecclesial Theology”

Central to SAET is the conviction that theology is most true to its form and intent when it is done not only for the church but also within the church.  Over the past few centuries, theologians have sensed their discipline becoming evermore irrelevant within the sphere of intellectual inquiry—who needs theology when biochemistry yields vaccines, when business management yields increased profit margins, and when theology seems to promote little for humanity beyond petty disputes?  Most of the oldest, most prestigious Western universities were originall founded to train clergy, but the academy and church have long since divorced, to the marginalization of theology and the secularization of biblical studies.  To ensure theology’s place within the expanding range of courses on offer at the increasingly secular university, theologians began plying their craft in such a way that the concerns of the academic classroom overrode the concerns of the church sanctuary.

Ecclesial theology is theological work done within the context of the church.  SAET is not calling for the end of academic theology—there is a strong appreciation among these young pastors for those believing theologians who are serving Christ’s kingdom in universities, seminaries, and divinity schools.  But for SAET, theology is most robust and helpful when conducted within the chapel than the ivory tower, within the parish than the campus.

A theologian whose instruction occurs in the university classroom and whose students are 20-somethings will inevitably have to address a certain range of concerns dictated by that unique (and rather artificial) context.  A theologian whose instruction occurs amidst the struggles and joys of a multigenerational community of faith called to live out their faith in the world will inevitably have to address concerns pertaining to the inherent realities of local church life.


The relocation of theology into the church also occasions a redefinition of who it is that is most competent and qualified to do theology: the “pastor-theologian.”  Gerald Hiestand, SAET’s Executive Director, has an interesting piece on the social location of the pastor (in the church) which is uniquely qualifying for theological work.

The idea of a pastor-theologian draws from an older model of the ministerial vocation.   The role of pastor today has been expanded to include a range of responsibilities that reflect a variety of secular, Western concerns.  This expansion of the pastoral office (to involve fund-raising, program coordinating, business managing, etc.) has in some cases diluted the theological competence of those of us leading churches.  Pastors are not often hired for their expertise in understanding Athanasius, Augustine, biblical Hebrew, early Jewish eschatologically, or the historical creeds of the church.

But as a number of studies are suggesting (see Christian Smith’s Soul Searching and Kenda Creasy-Dean’s Almost Christian), our younger Christians are growing up in church then leaving for college or the work-force without a compelling enough vision of God and without the ability to articulate the the theological wonders of their faith heritage that Christianity gradually recedes from being a meaningful part of their lives.

Our churches today are in dire need of pastors who can provide competent theological leadership, who can preach the texts of Scripture with excellence and with the interpretive traditions of our greatest theological forebears and exegetes ringing clearly in their ears.

The pastor-theologian should also embrace the role of “public intellectual.”  This was suggested by Vanhoozer who recognizes that the pressure for specialization in the academy has made the competent generalist an endangered species.  Since theology encompasses every fiber and every star, every twig and every skyscraper, then the pastor-theologians should have a wide-ranging grasp of how God enlivens (or impinges on) every dimension of life (politics, literature, sports, language, pop-culture).

I am so honored to have been SAET’s guest this past week.  My own conceptions of pastoral ministry, biblical scholarship and theological studies are quite in line with theirs, and being able to interact with them has given sharper focus and deeper passion for my own vocational pursuits.

Article on “Hopeful Realism” at

"How to be a Realist Without Losing Your Soul"

I am so grateful for the folks at Relevant for posting another article.  This one is on  the idea of “Hopeful Realism,” the namesake of this blog and the main objective outlined in my book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint.

The challenge on writing on the topic of cynicism is that I will inevitably have cynical readers.  This is the idea and hope, of course—as a recovering cynic I am hoping to address this issue in those for whom cynicism is a daily reality.   But cynics are critics, so to write on cynicism is to invite a considerable degree of critical scrutiny, perhaps also to display a gluttony for punishment!  Even so, I certainly try in my writing to avoid oversimplified, over-reactive assaults on cynics.  I believe in the idea of a “cynic-saint,” that is the cynic in the redemptive process of healing and restoration for the sake of contributing (painfully gained) insights for the church.  I will be interested in reading the comment streams….

So, are you cynical toward God and the church?  I would love to hear glimpses of your story.  So post comments either here or at Relevant!

The tension in the hyphen of “Pastor-Theologian”: An Interview with Jason Byassee

Dr. Jason Byassee is the pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in North Carolina.  Joel and I do not know Jason personally, but we have found his writings very impressive.  We were intrigued to hear of his plans to enter the pastorate considering his staggering credentials as an academic scholar and a scholarly writer.  At Hopeful Realism, we want to contribute in some small way to bridging the divides between the academy and the church.  In Dr. Byassee, we’ve found ourselves another noble role model in such labors.  Pass this along, dear readers.  Many of us are in dire need for the wisdom below…

Hopeful Realism [HR]: Jason, we know you are a writer.  How will that give shape to your work as a pastor?

Byassee: I’ve thought of myself as a pastor for longer than I’ve thought of myself as a writer. I’ve long been struck by the deep similarity between the pastoral and the writing life. A pastor needs to be, above all, a first-class noticer (I’m borrowing that line, but can’t remember from whom!). That is, a person on the hunt for grace as she searches the scriptures, the life of the congregation, the body of Christ through time and space. A writer also has to be a first-class noticer. It’s no accident so many pastors have written so beautifully lately—Rick Lischer, Heidi Neumark, Lillian Daniel, Martin Copenhaver, James Howell. They’re exercising the same skills in their writing they’ve long used in their pastoral ministries.

Praise Seeking Understanding

Perhaps the most important skill for a writer is a sense of the comic, the ironic, the way the world is out of kilter and so deserves deep attention, and wry evaluation. It’s the greatest joke in the world that a crucified rabbi rules the cosmos. Deep attention to that cosmos-shattering truth is the foundation for ministry, or for me, for writing.

HR: One of my (Andy) struggles as a writer and an aspiring scholar is that I sometimes feel as though local churches do not particularly value those gifts or understand their function, so I have struggled at times with guilt when devoting energy to those labors while “on the clock.”  How can those of us with a perceived calling to sophisticated theological writing ply that craft within the pastoral office?  And how might the pastoral office strengthen our capacities for doing theology?

Byassee: A rich and complex set of questions. One way I put it is this—both the academy and the parish are rightly jealous of one’s time. It can take an entire lifetime just to get started being a faithful scholar or pastor—for us who treasure the hyphen to think we can do both easily is more than a little arrogant. Churches can pick up on this arrogance and feel disrespected by it. Gregory the Great, among others, speaks of the way we pastors will be accountable for the souls of those under our care on the day of judgment. Perhaps there’s a bit of the sensus fidelium in lay people wanting all of our attention.

That said, you’re quite right that pastors are charged to be theologians on behalf of the congregation, and often the congregation doesn’t understand or really want that. Those of us for whom gifts of theological erudition are part of our vocation need then to figure out a way to exercise those gifts  without getting in a tug-o-war with our congregations. That is, there has to be some way to show that our gifts are for the good of the church, not just of ourselves. Eugene Peterson negotiated this at his parish early in his career by telling his congregation they had his attention in the afternoons. In the morning he was reading and writing. If there was an emergency they could find him. But if not he asked them to respect his study. Now it wouldn’t have worked if they didn’t see the fruit of his study in his preaching. But indeed they did, and subsequently the whole church has in his spiritual theology, his biblical translations, his wise and raucous new memoir. Every parish is different, but my sense is for it to work it has to work like this—where the church takes a sort of ownership and then pride in the deep exercise of these specific gifts.

At the same time, the church has the right to ask us ministers to do things that aren’t our first gifts, or our preferred sort of work for the time being, and we have to respect that sort of request, even if it turns out to be a form of cross-bearing for a time. Even then we’ll be doing first order theology as we break open the scriptures to preach, teach, preside, order, evangelize, and if we’re in the scriptures in those ways that’s sufficient intellectual exercise.

The Gifts of the Small Church

HR: What practices or disciplines have you observed as a scholar that have kept you bound to the life and ministry of the church?  And what practices do you intend to observe as a pastor that will maintain your devotion to “the life of the mind” and enhance your competence for speaking/writing in academic, as well as ecclesial, circles?

Byassee:  The primary one has been involvement in local congregations. My wife is a Methodist pastor, and has worked on ministries of mission and discipleship at Duke Memorial UMC here in Durham. So I’ve spent the last few years as a Methodist pastor’s spouse, trying to keep the kids in order, getting them to Sunday School on time, gazing on her adoringly as she preaches or leads small groups. I’ve also taken Stanley Hauerwas’s advice, which he credits to John Howard Yoder—anyone who asks me to do anything for the church I try to say “yes.” I’m struck by the degree of ecclesial commitment among my colleagues at Duke Divinity School, staff and faculty both. Whatever else we disagree on, we’re all committed to the local church and its flourishing. That said, I’m not sure it’s been sufficient for me. I’ve still felt too far removed from the local church, which is why I’m heading back into it.

As for the local church and the life of the mind, I guess I don’t know yet. The best-read people I know are usually pastors. They work hard to stay up-to-date in a variety of fields, not only in theology and church, but also in politics, fiction, the works. I’ve often been impressed to see the peers my age in the academy, if they want to read a new book, they have to assign it for a class they’re teaching. Otherwise they don’t read. The demands for academic performance in their field, the need to publish for tenure, teach for class, serve on committees, and then see about their own lives are so great there’s no time or energy left for simply reading. Surprisingly the academy may not be a great place to deepen the life of the mind.

The academy is so fractured now, even more than when I started as a graduate student. In the early 90s one could identify clear trends in theology—Radical Orthodoxy for example. Now we’re in such balkanized camps with no agreed upon canon there’s no way anyone could keep up across the board. Ecclesial disciplines at least give one a focus in reading: if something’s not useful for the life of the church why spend time on it? Of course that criterion holds true for the academy too, it’s just easier to forget it there for some reason.

Reading Augustine: A Guide to the Confessions

HR: Some intellectual pastors must fight the tendency to view the grass as greener across the campus fence.  In your experience, is the grass truly greener in the academy than in the practical, messy fields of the parish?

Byassee: One has to be careful generalizing about the academy. Some academic settings are in real financial trouble, others are not at all. Some make space for a vibrant life of the mind and some much less so. So I wouldn’t say academia as such is better or worse. It’s like parish life that way—generalizing in a way that lumps together, say, an enormous and innovative parish like Redeemer Pres in New York with the small rural parish I once served in rural North Carolina is probably a mistake. When we’re grad students or considering being grad students we imagine working at a place where the resources are limitless, but even wealthy institutions have limitations. I remember talking to one school that wanted me to apply for a job, and they promised they would try to get me a used computer sometime after I’d been there a year or two. Lots of friends who have tenure-track jobs at reputable places still have to ask their parents for money for things or work second jobs. Grass: not so green.

Having warned against generalizations I’ll now make some. There might be more benefits in some ways (Will Willimon told me he asked where his expense account was once he became a UM bishop—to buy books, take students out. They laughed at him and pointed out he makes a salary…). In some academic settings the drinks are still free. But then again in some parish settings they are too—tall steepled pastors often make a great deal more money than the vast majority of academics. Academic life can be so fractious (the old joke: why are academic fights so contentious? Because the stakes are so small). Academia can be enormously siloed (another joke: the university is a community of scholars united by a common sewer system). At its best the academy allows us time, space, resources to explore the deepest challenges to human community and draw on all the best thinking of various disciplines to innovative service precisely there. At worst it’s a set of fiefdoms people are bound to protect. That’s true of the parish too—at best we love God and neighbor well and organize our efforts for all the baptized to exercise their gifts in the body. At worst we’re a pious club of judgmental hypocrites.

Of course the academy and the church are somewhere between extremes all the time (simul justus et peccator). The problems in both places may have more to do with the fall and human pride than they do with being the academy or the church. God has only sinners to work with after all.

What I want to fight against pretty strongly is a view that the smart seminary students should go into the academy. I often tell students they’re too smart for academia—we need them in the church. Sarah Coakley tells would-be students to do academic work only if there’s an intellectual problem they can’t work out in the parish. That strikes me as an appropriately narrow rationale. So many of us want to do academic work to prove we’re one of the smart kids. That’s not such a good reason. Of course we’re all a mash of good and bad motives on whom God will have some work to do at the Judgment.

HR: How can seminaries and divinity schools inspire a deeper appreciation for the pastoral office without compromising scholarly rigor?

Byassee: By telling better stories. A friend of mine, when she told her seminary dean she was going to take a parish and not do PhD work, was told, “What a waste.” That’s an outrageous story—but we’ve all heard it and been depressed by it. What about the pastor who spends his free time reading the Church Dogmatics, not trawling for sermon material, but wanting to love God with his mind more deeply? Or the academic whom students approach for pastoral wisdom because the love of God fills the room whenever she enters to lecture? There are such people, but we seldom hear or tell stories about them. Willimon likes to say he was immediately impressed by the specifically intellectual difficulty of being a parish pastor. In the academy you’re responsible for a narrow set of intellectual questions—you eschew breadth to burrow down deep. That’s good. In the parish you do precisely the opposite: you have to be able to say something deep about an enormous breadth of topics. In my first meetings with the lay leaders of my new church I was asked questions about why Gen X’ers aren’t joining, about how to pay for both cell phones for staff and for missions in Guatemala, about how the order of service should look and when and why to have communion . . . and they don’t even know me yet! These questions suggest not just pious niceties, they suggest a people committed to loving God with their minds, and to asking for help with doing precisely that.

HR:  Finally, we know you have done a lot of work on Augustine.  How might his writings and example inspire and guide you and your wife as pastors in local churches?

An Introduction to the Desert Fathers

Byassee: I’m impressed with the enormous intellectual demands Augustine made on his congregations of largely illiterate north African peasants in the late 4th and early 5th century. He preached sermons on the admirabile commercium (granted, their Latin was better than ours…), on the Trinity, against heresies, and on every possible scrap of scripture, and he did it to lay people stopping off for morning prayer on their way to work. One way to think of these sermons is to imagine him preaching to his mother Monica—the person whose spirit and intellect he respects as deeply as any other, yet a fully three-dimensional person he’s willing (obliquely) to criticize. He takes her seriously in the fullness of her person and would never dare not bring the heat intellectually when she’s in the congregation.

Not a bad model for the sort of intellectual and pastoral interface you’re asking about.



Jason’s Bio:

Jason Byassee is senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, North Carolina. He is also a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School, a program dedicated to funding the imaginations of Christian institutional leaders. He writes for LEADD’s web-based magazine, Faith & Leadership, and especially its blog, Call & Response ( He is also a Research Fellow for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary in New York (

He previously served at Duke as Director of the Center for Theology, Writing and Media and Special Assistant to Dean L. Gregory Jones. He was also an Executive Director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

He is a contributing editor to Christian Century magazine, where he was an assistant editor from 2004-2008. He writes there on such topics as theology, church history, politics, liturgy, popular culture, and spiritual practices. His work has also appeared in Christianity Today, Theology Today, Books & Culture, Sojourners, United Methodist Reporter, and First Things. He serves on boards for The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, the School for Conversion, and The Other Journal. His work has been recognized with several awards from the Associated Church Press and in 2007 with the American Academy of Religion’s first place award for newswriting for outlets with circulations under 100,000.

He is the author of four books: Reading Augustine: A Guide to Confessions (Cascade, 2006), An Introduction to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cascade, 2007), Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine (Eerdmans, 2007), and The Gifts of the Small Church (Abingdon). He is presently working on a volume with Westminster’s new Interpretation series on the history of biblical exegesis.

He holds a B.A. from Davidson College, an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a Ph.D. in systematic theology and church history Duke University. He has taught at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary, Wheaton College, and Northern Seminary, all in the Chicago area, as well as Duke Divinity School. He is an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. His wife Jaylynn serves as a pastor of Valle Crucis and Bethelview UMC’s. Jason and Jaylynn have three young boys, 8, 6, and 3.