So Augustine, Calvin and Barth are at the Pearly Gates…

My pastor here in England told me a good theological joke (yes, there is such a thing).

Augustine, Calvin and Karl Barth are standing before the Pearly Gates, awaiting entrance into heaven.  Augustine’s name is called and he goes in.  A half hour later he returns.  Overjoyed, he reports that he has conversed with God “and I now understand fully the doctrine of the Trinity and the complete meaning of the Incarnation of Christ!”

Calvin is next.  He enters and returns another half hour later and exuberantly tells his fellow theologians that he has seen with his own eyes the glory of Christ “and I now understand everything about divine sovereignty and election!”

Barth then enters after hearing his name called from the Gates.  A half hour later God comes out and says, “I still don’t understand him.”

Pastors, Preaching, and the Academy’s Process of Peer-Review

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers,

for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

(James 3:1)

After almost a decade of pastoral ministry, I am now firmly ensconced within the academic world, getting my feet wet in a New Testament doctoral program.  Being situated quite deeply within both realms of the church and the academy has given rise to many curiosities for me, leading me to wonder how those of us in either setting could learn from the other.  I have written on this in “Post-SBL (1): What Pastoral Ministry Can Learn from Academia” and “Post-SBL (2): What Biblical Scholars Can Learn From Pastors.” I want to re-visit here what I suggested in that first post.

The process of peer review is something that is largely lacking among pastors.  For academics this review apparatus is a gauntlet of sorts that seeks to ensure some form of quality control within the guild of biblical studies (or any other academic field).  Though both scholars and pastors spend most of their time addressing non-specialists (students in the classroom or laypersons in the pews), scholars are heavily pressured to operate horizontally among their peers by presenting papers at conferences and submitting high quality essays to journals.  Reading the journals and attending the conferences are rigorously trained experts who are usually unafraid to point out any inconsistencies or inaccuracies.

It is true that that this peer review process leads to an overly critical atmosphere at times.  That scholars will critique and poke and challenge makes the academy an intimidating world.  Entire publications, like book review journals, are devoted to the genre of the scholarly critique.  But while I was sitting in the New Testament seminar here in Durham, hearing a fellow doctoral candidate respond to a series of difficult questions, I found myself quite pleased with the accountability provided by peer review.  Invective and personal bashing have no place whatsoever in the academy, but since my fellow PhD students and I are hoping to teach future leaders of the church and to possibly even write commentaries that will guide their understanding of Scripture, then most certainly, someone had better be asking us hard questions!

Peer review is built into the structure of the academic discipline, but I feel as though pastors lack any sort of equivalent in that field.  When fellow pastors ply their craft of preaching, their peers are all doing the same thing at the same time on Sunday mornings and thus unable to pop in to evaluate one another or offer critical feedback.  Ordination provides some peer review, of course, but once ordained, pastors are cast into pulpits with very little structure for accountability in their teaching.  As I wrote in that previous post, peer review is actually biblical: Paul says in 1 Cor, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (14:29) and “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (14:32).  But most of us slogging away in the pulpit every week are preaching to a lay audience with a wide range of competencies, but probably not competencies in Greek, Hebrew, ancient rhetoric, Greco-Roman background, theological interpretation, or Early Jewish eschatology.  And there are few opportunities for pastors to present their work among peers.

I am not suggesting that denominations and churches install academic structures.  Pastors do not need to look like academics to demonstrate relevance—the theological academy, I believe, exists to serve pastors (and certainly not to disparage them!).  But some sort of accountability in our ministries for teaching and preaching is surely needed to ensure that we obeying the words to Timothy: “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim 4:16).

Any suggestions for how pastoral teaching and preaching can be held to higher standards by some sort of peer review?

Here are the suggestions I offered to fellow pastors in that prior blog post I mentioned above:

1] If you are serving with multiple staff members, include a time of critique (and affirmation!) in a staff or elder meeting for the sermons presented in the past week or month, humbly opening the door for your ministry co-workers to provide some accountability.

2] Find a group of fellow pastors and agree to listen to each others’ podcasts, or at least commit to listening to one podcast per month so that the pastors in that group know one of their peers will be listening to them at some point.

3] Find ways to allow the congregation to provide more feedback, perhaps picking a few mature lay leaders and charging them with the job of taking careful notes and thinking through suggestions for improvement.

4] Devote yourself to training up a congregation into such maturity that they become effective peer-reviewers.

5] Learn to acknowledge that our ultimate accountability is provided not by laypersons or peers but by God Himself.  Fear and trembling should accompany any approach to the lectern or pulpit.

Any other ideas?

Johannine Scholarship: It’s Personal

My doctoral thesis at Durham University focuses on narrative and theology in the Gospel of John.  For the past decade I have been reading Johannine scholarship and attending the sections on the Fourth Gospel at SBL.  For the past few days, I have been reading through essays in What We Have Heard From the Beginning: The Past, Present and Future of Johannine Studies, edited by Tom Thatcher and published by Baylor University Press. 

This is a rare book.

Wayne Meeks captures its rarity by describing the book in his endorsement as “a unique composite of two disparate genres: the history of research and the professional memoir” (from the back cover).

What Thatcher has done with this book is to collect essays from senior scholars in the field of Johannine research to which younger (though strongly established) Johannine scholars have been allowed to make brief responses.  These senior experts (gargantuan leaders in the field like D. Moody Smith, J. Louis Martyn, Raymond Culpepper, and Francis Moloney) seem to have been asked to provide an aerial view of sorts of their own experiences as students and teachers of John’s Gospel and the Johannine Epistles.  As any aspiring scholar knows, entering into the guild of biblical studies is enormously intimidating.  When you brush past such eminent scholars in the bookstalls at SBL, there is a rush of excitement, but also dread!  What I appreciate so much about Thatcher’s volume is that these men and women who I have been reading for so long now have been permitted to get personal with their own labors in the field, admitting shortcomings, changes of mind, and sharing how their insights arose and were perhaps even crushed.

I remember D. Moody Smith referring to the gathering of John scholars at an SBL session as “the Johannine community.”  There really does seem to be a sense of community among these researchers (in spite of intense disagreements!), and What We Have Heard From the Beginning allows readers to enter their ongoing dialogue.

Something else I appreciate it is that there really is a strong sense of responsibility for posterity in the field.  The book is an inter-generational exchange of the tradents of the discipline.  Three generations are included when I read those essays—the generation of those eminent, and mostly retired (at least officially) scholars, their younger respondents whose works are filling the pages of Johannine scholarship, and then there is me, representative of other aspiring Johannine specialists who have much to learn… and who may want to add a few pages themselves one day.  Biblical studies is a field that truly requires the mentor-apprentice relationship for the responsible maintenance of the craft.  You can see that dynamic at work in this book.

So from one of the apprentice-types: thank you very much, Dr. Thatcher and company….

History, Media, the Bible, and the Poor

“Open your mouth for the mute,

for the rights of all who are destitute.

Open your mouth… ” (Proverbs 31.8-9a).

Whose stories survive the wheels of time?

The stories of the powerful.  The stories of the famous and infamous.  History is the reconstruction of the past based on extant media, that is, the words and pictures that have been preserved over the long, slow trawl of time.  But the extant media was either produced within halls of power or was at least focused on the happenings spawned out of those halls of power.  So, do we have access to the history of the poor?  Are we able to know the historical realities of the bulk of our race who have gone before us, those who lacked access to expensive media accoutrements like ink and vellum?  And if we do not have confident access to the way of life for the majority of humankind over the years, do we really understand our history?

Okay, it is true—the above paragraph sounds dark and perhaps even cynical (a disposition I try to avoid since I have a book out against it!).  It is probably also true that the preceding statements are overly simplistic and verbally painted with brushstrokes a bit too broad.

But surely we can detect the disturbing scent of truth oozing from between the words, can’t we?

I came across this quote yesterday:

“What passes for history is merely the propaganda of the victor transcribed by different hands and described from different angles.” [1]

The words belong to Malcolm Muggeridge from his second lecture on media for the 1976 London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity.  The long-time media veteran delivered these lectures at All Souls Church (under John Stott’s leadership), and they are preserved for us (as extant lit!) in the medium of a little book, Christ and the Media.  His comment above conveys the dark truth that media has been primarily the domain of the powerful.

Now, admittedly, history is not entirely uncovered from the past by sifting through literary remains.  Archaeology discovers more than just ostraca and papyrus scrolls.  But the building materials that survive are mostly masonry or stone.  The straw and wood strips of rural shacks are not as easy to unearth as the foundations of a palace.  And, admittedly, the surviving media from the ancient world are not all from the hand of the rich or their commissioned subjects.  The notes and lists of everyday folks have turned up in the sands from time to time.  The haunting sight of scrawled depictions of hunting and gathering show up in caves that were probably not considered very posh even back in the day.  Even so, Muggeridge has a point.  Much of history has been recorded for us by those who had access not only to the costly tools of the ancient media trades but also to the great luxury of time, the time required for the laborious process of producing posterity.

Media has not been very democratic.

Ah, but the winds of change and human progress are all astir, right?  The Internet!  Thus the democratization of media, as it is sometimes called.  Media has been extracted from the elite and placed in the palms of normal folk.

There is a lot of truth to this.  But we should still be aware that iPhones in those palms cost a pretty penny, that Internet cafes across the globe are not free, and that media-access does not equate to media-control.

In an attempt to reach out to local youth while serving as a pastor of a small church with very few local youth in attendance, I permitted myself the rather embarrassing indulgence of playing one of their video games.  The particular game is one of the most popular online gaming systems in use.  I was annihilated at every turn.  But more disturbing was the occasional appearance on the screen of a dark world map.  Tiny dots of light were all aglow.  The teenagers kindly explained that before me was depicted the current global scene of those playing the game at that same moment, each light representing a gamer.  My stomach churned a bit when I noticed that the lights were concentrated in the US, Europe, Japan, and South Korea.  Entire swaths of the planet—the geographical realms inhabited mostly by the world’s less affluent—were covered in darkness where this global game had yet to extend its reach (which, I gather, is a good thing in this case).

Not everyone has access to media.  And access to media is quite different than the control of media.  Throughout history, and still today, media marginalizes.

So what about the Bible?

Christian Scripture is a collection of extant literary remains from ancient religious cultures.  The Bible is media.  Were those documents the production of the powerful?

In some cases, most certainly.  But think about the cries of the oppressed screeching so brutally out of the Psalter.  Think of the aching laments of exiles whose homes were left smoldering.  Think of the prayer of Hannah in her infertility, the pleas of the outcast prophet beneath a broom tree, the gasp of surprise by a poor virgin in Nazareth, the horrific outcry of a naked man nailed to a cruciform post.

Could it be that another distinguishing feature of the Christian Bible is that it tells the story of the ancient poor and distressed, that it voices to us the history of those to whom history has allotted such little press?

We do not read Facebook status updates from the poor today, but we can read the cries and prayers of the ancient poor in Scripture.  What astonishing media the Gospels are—accounts of a poor brigand’s flash-in-the-pan itinerant teaching and then inglorious death.  How could such literature survive?  Muggeridge offers an answer—

“The reason the Bible can never become irrelevant or outmoded is that, unlike all other histories, in its case, the victor is God.” [2]


[1] Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1977), 59.

[2] Ibid.

A Cynical Donkey

photo from

Since writing a book on cynicism, I have been wondering about the portrayal of cynics in literature and film.  So far the list is quite short: Melvin Udall in As Good As it Gets (played by Jack Nicholson) and Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  Holden Caufield of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was suggested by a reader.

I have a new cynical character to add—a donkey named Benjamin.  I just read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a brilliant work of satire that darkly criticizes totalitarianism.  Benjamin is the old cynic who seems unimpressed with the flowery rhetoric of progress so persistently flowing from the lips of the pigs (the one fittingly named Squealer is responsible for the propaganda).  Benjamin has a heroic moment when he tries to mount a rescue operation to save Boxer, the beloved workhorse on Animal Farm.  But in the end, Benjamin is cynically resolved to the disastrous fate of the so-called “liberation” from human rule (ultimately exchanged for pig rule).

I think Orwell has to allow a cynic to be the (almost) hero.  “Almost” because Benjamin is really not very heroic.  There can be no actual hero on Animal Farm because totalitarianism eliminates all heroism.  There can be no daring individual acts.  All such acts end in death.  On Orwell’s Animal Farm, it may well be that cynicism is not just a optional disposition.  For the wise like Benjamin, it is a duty.

“Hopeful realism,” is a disposition that somehow penetrates beyond the implacable barriers of oppression.  Totalitarianism cannot be total if God is indeed King.  Imagination beyond the realm of the see-able, feel-able, and know-able is required, but the hopeful realist believes beyond the tyranny of the current status and, in an almost desperate stretch of faith, lunges toward some hope in the deep, black, darkness.

For Orwell’s purposes, Benjamin seems to do his job.  He perceives the reality of tyranny, at least somewhat, which allows him to share in the knowledge of the reader.  But he cannot see beyond that tyranny, a character dynamic that evokes the reader’s pain and sympathy.  As an old cynic, he has been accustomed to accepting harsh reality.

The faith required for seeing beyond the parameters of a totalizing power is enormous… seemingly impossible at times.  As I write, I am aware that many today are hoping and believing in God’s in-breaking power under the grip of such apparently insurmountable forces.

The only God who will do as the object of that sort of imaginative (yet real) hope is a God who can raise the dead (2 Cor 1).  Only a God of empty tombs suffices for the prisoners on Animal Farm… and for the prisoners of sin, empire, and the Evil One.