This is the 2nd part of our interview with Jason Byassee (for part 1, scroll down or click here). We have written quite a bit on the idea of the pastor-scholar / pastor-theologian here at HR (see previous posts for some links). Jason’s pastoral and writing ministry seems to hug the edges of the (sometimes over-emphasized, sometimes under-acknowledged) divide between the church and the academy. We are glad to feature some of his wisdom here at the blog….
Church, Academy, and the Pastor Theologian
HR: You used to have an office ensconced within one of the most esteemed academic institutions in the land (oak-lined quads, Gothic-style architecture, and a state-of-the-art library, even!). What do you miss about the academic setting? And what about the parish setting has been most freeing or most constricting?
I really miss the library. Appalachian State University, the institution without which Boone would not exist, has a good one, but trying to borrow the obscure stuff I need for my work is really hard. The interlibrary loan people see me as a guy off the street, which technically I am. It’s almost tempting to adjunct just for the library card or use of the school’s sports palace.
App is a growing and strong academic institution that’s comfortable in its skin. It hitched its wagon to the green economy stuff before it was cool. It serves its region beautifully. And it’s growing in sustainable ways. Duke is constantly unhappy with itself. It was founded in 1920 to catch Harvard, founded a third of a millennium before. You have to hustle to do that. That hustle makes Duke great. It also makes Duke constantly dissatisfied with itself, and that affects how people treat one another.
At Duke I was surrounded by brilliant people with worldwide reputations in their (very narrow) fields who rarely even spoke with one another. In the church I’m surrounded with brilliant people, not all of them academics blessedly, and I usually get to have conversations with them much more easily than in Durham. But we talk about their work—in business, medicine, parenting, academia etc. The range of conversation is so much wider. The academy is great at going deep, not broad. The work I’m doing now often goes both deep and broad. It’s more intellectually challenging in some ways, with less bluster.
I do feel less shielded from the culture now. Broader culture has become more coarse, more outraged—outrage is the only coin in fact. FoxNews and talk radio are to blame for this. People deal with me as though those are appropriate ways to do so. And the church is made up of really kind people who aren’t good at standing up to their fellow members when they’re being bullies. Who is good at that really? Sometimes that’s my job, to stand up to people when others won’t. And I don’t like it anymore than anyone else. Surprisingly academia can be more civil than that.
HR: Suspicion towards intellectualism and academic institutions persists or even flourishes in many local churches (and sometimes for good reason, of course). How can pastors inclined toward rigorous intellectual pursuits promote a healthy vision of the “pastor-scholar” within local churches and the wider community of faith?
Maybe my parish is different in this—I don’t find my folks anti-intellectual at all. They don’t want me to hide in jargon not designed for them, and I don’t blame them for that a bit. We do have town-gown tensions that come out in church. Someone thanked me once for praying for Boone’s businesses. Seems obvious—they’re struggling, like everyone’s. But what she really meant was that I’m sometimes solely focused on the university in my preaching and prayer. There are other industries in town. She was gracious in pointing out a genuine oversight.
One way this comes out is in how the church receives historical criticism. On that I find folks all over the map. Some want me to affirm historical accuracy on every point; others are reading Spong. This doesn’t trouble me. I don’t trust in historical criticism either, and it’s not my job to pass judgment on ‘what really happened.’ My job is to bring Spong readers and other fundamentalists of all kind closer to Jesus. They both want to be close to Jesus in their deepest selves, under the tarnished imago dei. So I think some of the strain between theological academy and parish in modernity has been something like this, “How come they don’t want to hear about Q or deuetero-Isaiah in my preaching?” Answer: because historical re-creation cannot save. Neither should it be feared.
Counsel for the seekers…
HR: Granting that everyone’s situation is different, what general counsel would you offer for young women and men in the church who are intellectually gifted and dreaming of doctoral work in theology or biblical studies, yet simultaneously sense a call to ministry?
Eugene Peterson borrows from Denise Levertov a description of a dog walking, “intently haphazard.” That’s been my life. There is no single job on which to land. Pursue what lights you up. That’s a sign from God, a healthy, gospel-shaped ambition. Do it as a servant to increase love of God and neighbor. There will be more kinds of jobs in the future, not fewer, with social media’s proliferation and new forms of church and the academy’s bubble perhaps bursting on the horizon (its funding model can’t be sustained, and competitors will move in that aren’t as stupid as the for-profit industry). So study hard as an expression of love of God and neighbor. I had no idea 2 of the 3 jobs I’ve had existed. This one, which I did know about, I was both hopelessly overtrained and underprepared for. That makes it really, really fun.