That is often how we understand vocational theology. We equate theologians with academic writing. The fruit of theology is a book.
And certainly, those of us doing theology and biblical studies within academic domains are required to write.
Everyone in every job has to demonstrate some evidence of “output.” What do theologians have to show for their hard work? Books and journal articles. Academic theologians are assessed and measured by their writing output. In this model, the better theologian is the one writing the most articles and books at the highest quality.
Pastor-Theologians as Writers…?
But how well does this model work for theologians whose vocational domain is not the academy, but the local church? Are the best pastor-theologians those writing the most essays and books at the highest quality?
The hyphen in “pastor-theologian” creates quite a bit of vocational tension. To fulfill the “pastor” bit, there will be inevitably be less writing of books and articles. As Jason Byassee has commented in an interview on this blog, congregations should be allowed to beckon their pastor out of the quiet study to the hospital bed, graveside, or pulpit.
Does the “theologian” side of “pastor-theologian” therefore suffer because the “pastor” dimension limits the amount of theological writing?
The answer depends on how we define “theology.”
Congregations as Published Theology
I think we can agree that Paul could be classified as a “pastor-theologian.” As such, he did not publish theological tomes. One of the greatest Christian theologians of the early church, he did not leave us with sustained systematic reflections on the Incarnation of Christ or the Doctrine of the Church.
He left us letters. The media product of Paul the Theologian is a collection of his correspondences with localized churches.
But Paul seems to exalt another media product higher than his letters. The primary media product of a pastor-theologian may actually be a faithful congregation:
“You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.” 2 Cor 3:2
The strongest attestation of Paul’s work as a pastor-theologian was not a published monograph or collection of essays but a publicly visible community of Christians. He seems content to construct his vocational reputation not on his academic feats but on his pastoral work in forming congregations.
More could be said. And of course, the media product of a pastor-theologian need not be either theological writing or faithful congregations. It could well be both. And the disciplines of theology and pastoral ministry inform and enrich the other. As a writer, I am in no way interested in diminishing the task of writing in the pastoral office.
But as it turns out, today is my day in the chaplain’s office, and pastoral appointments await….
As 2013 winds to a close and Auld Land Syne and college football fill our ears and eyes, I (Chris) have always found it a profoundly beneficial and thanks-generating exercise to think back on the year and compile some lists. Don’t construe our lists as necessarily “best ofs,” there are plenty of those to be had around the internet, rather as favorites- moments or events or artifacts- where each of us has savored something of the goodness of the Lord. Without further ado…
Andy’s Favorite Hikes of 2013
Catbells, Lake District (England)
For our 15-yr anniversary, Miranda and I spent a few days in the Lake District. it may well be our favorite place on earth. We had a number of good hikes while there, but one that stands out is the hike up Catbells. Though not very high (500 metres or so), the summit affords a dramatic 360 degree view, with Derwent Water to the East, Skiddaw and Keswick to the North, and the Derwent Fells stretching up to Buttermere to the West. At the end of the hike we sat in our Vauxhall Zafire and listened to The Lumineers, a new find at that point. Later that day we ended up in a pub in Ambleside where we played Scrabble over a pint.
It does not get more romantic than that, folks (of course, at 15 years of marriage with 4 kids, just having an uninterrupted conversation is quite a romantic venture).
Loch Morar, West Highlands (Scotland)
Someone graciously gave us the use of their holiday home on the West Coast of Scotland over the summer. One of our favorite moments of our lives was hiking around the northern shore of Loch Morar. The vistas were of dark green, rugged mountains crowning the water… which is one of Europe’s deepest lakes. And legend tells that it is haunted by the aquatic monster “Morag” (though we escaped his clutches that day).
Camasunary Beach, Cuillin Hills, Isle of Skye (Scotland)
Possibly my favorite family hike of all time with my wife and kids was on the Isle of Skye during the same holiday trip. We took a ferry to this rugged, massive Isle and parked the car on the side of a narrow strip of road from Broadford to Elgol just after a downpour. We took a path over some gentle slopes and ended up on a ridge granting us views of what ma be the most jagged, rock-splintered skyline I have ever scene, that of the Cuillin Hills. These are not very high by the standards of the North American Rockies or the European Alps, but they are dramatic to behold and apparently quite difficult even for professional climbers. We took a sharp descent down into a valley where we found the abandoned Camasunary Beach. Yes, in blasting wind and 55 degrees F, my kids wanted to wade in the sea. And yes, I had to go with them. But it was glorious, ya know?
We ended the day at a hostel adjacent to The Old Inn in Carbost. Miranda and I were surrounded by our 4 healthy kids who had just skirted the Cuillins on a 5-mile hike. We were sitting at a darkwood table drinking pints of stuff brewed with water straight from the same hills, having just placed an order for fish and chips. It was one of those unforgettable Moments.
Chris’ Favorite Music of 2013
This Side of Jordan- Mandolin Orange
I first listened to this record in the car on the way to Black Mountain, NC for a very special trip before Titus was born. I’m not sure I could pick a better soundtrack for Piedmont road tripping than these delicate Southern sounds. Knowing Andrew and Emily, who make up the band’s core, and Jeff Crawford, who produced it (as well as plenty other of the album’s fine players), I couldn’t be more proud of them or pleased with such a gorgeous label (Yep Roc records) debut. I especially appreciate the third track, “There Was a Time,” (maybe a bit of a Neil echo?) with its lovely piano solo and crushing lyrics (“there’s no gold on either side of the Mississippi/no silver in this world left to find/precious metals and precious memories/slip away, slip away from your fingers and your mind”). In the midst of loss and sorrow, whiskey waltzes, and clovers, TSoJ is a redemption-haunted album, looking for and occasionally even finding hope on Jordan’s banks.
Haw- Hiss Golden Messenger
True story: a few months ago I sold Mike Taylor (HGM frontman) a bike. I’m thankful he paid me, but I’m also a bit gratified just to get to imagine him weaving apocalyptic tales as he navigates our fair Bull City on that single-speed. Haw expands on Taylor’s previous offerings of Southern transplanted Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk. With a voice like Van and kaleidoscopic writing like John of Patmos, HGM has become an office listening staple. Maybe, just maybe, Taylor’s bike commuting signals something the record also communicates, a love and a tie to a certain place (the album title shares a name with a river that snakes just south of town). I found and enjoyed in this album the unique merging of some pretty lofty ideas and concepts with mostly grounded, gritty, specific people and places.
Debris- Roman Candle
Roman Candle was one of the first “local bands” I got into when I moved to NC. Little did I know then, when I saw them en-trance the packed Cat’s Cradle crowd in support of Wee Hours Revue, that they’d grow into an outfit (now in Nashville, considerably less local) that would follow so closely alongside my own interests and forays into the intersection of theology and the arts. Skip and Timshel breathe the kind of subtle explorations into beauty’s fleeting power and revelation’s mystery that folks like Rilke, Eliot, and Ms. O’Conner articulate most artfully. Logan’s musicianship and production on songs like “Small Time” and “Not Strangers Anymore” doesn’t just prop up those lovely lyrics, but at times actually takes over the storytelling altogether. I can’t recommend this album more. Get lost in the title-track dream and perhaps you’ll find out you knew where you were all along.
Joel’s Favorite Books of 2013
Due to parenting a toddler, remodeling a new home, supporting an entrepreneur wife and some other personal craziness, my reading suffered quantitatively, but I don’t believe it suffered qualitatively. Here are some of my favorite reads.
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
I picked up this brilliant novel at the turn of 2012 to 2013, with a subsequent re-reading in the summer of 2013. Man oh man. I loved it for at least 3 reasons.
First, it is beautifully written. I found myself reading, and re-reading aloud just to hear the words roll off my tongue. I know that sounds weird, but trust me. I could easily fill an entire post of Robinson’s beautiful one-sentence masterpieces of language.
Second, Gilead is one of the most profound resources of pastoral theology I’ve come across. Robinson’s main character’s reflections on the work of the pastor were profound, moving, sobering and inspiring simultaneously.
Third, Gilead alludes to John Calvin often. I think this book presents a way of being theologically Reformed that I find to be beautiful, under-appreciated, subversive and right. Much more needs to be said about this. Stay tuned.
Unapologetic, Francis Spufford
I’ll join the bandwagon and add my accolades for this fascinating book. Spufford gives an “a defense of Christian emotions.” In and of itself, I find this approach refreshing and interesting.
Though I certainly don’t agree with every nuance, Unapologetic is funny, challenging, unsettling, moving, passionate, and witty. His re-telling of the Jesus story in the “Yeshua” chapter alone would be worth the price of the book. The refrain “more can be mended than you know” will reverberate in my mind’s ears for a long, long time.
TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age, Andrew Byers
Humor me for a second while I play for the home team. Andy Byers is a co-blogger at Hopeful Realism, a very close personal friend, and a mentor in ministry. In Andy Byers, I think the church has been given an absolute gift of a thinker/scholar and shepherd/pastor. I’m completely biased here.
Chris’ Favorite Moments of 2013
TITUS ELIOT BRESLIN
This year has undoubtably been (confirmed by Instagram!) the “Year of the Titus” for us. Since we found out we were pregnant in early 2013, through a hot summer pregnancy, to an early September arrival, and the last few challenging and precious months, we’ve truly known and experienced God’s love, generosity and grace in new ways. For this reason, the ‘Titus Event’ seemed too big to even belong on a list.
Mako & the Four Quartets (January)
Through some happy circumstances, the Gathering Church was blessed to host internationally renowned artist Makoto Fujimura in January. Mako was in Durham for the Four Qu4rtets exhibit at Duke and did us the pleasure of speaking to our congregation and sharing lunch with some of our artists. I cannot stress how inspirational his work with IAM, his humility and gentleness, and his imagination for creativity and generativity has been for me and our congregation.
Chickens Lay Eggs (April)
Last November Rach surprised me with a very special gift for my thirtieth birthday: three day-old chicken hatchlings. I thus began my illustrious career as a (sub)urban chicken farmer, by naming those three little ladies, born on All Saints Day, after saints (Ambrose, Augustine, & Basil…Brosey, Augie, & Baz respectively). After a tragic hawk incident (RIP Baz & Augie), and the addition of two new pullets (Jackie Joyner Kersey & FloJo!), we moved into spring expectant to hardboil our own Easter eggs. The amount of care, expectation, delight, and learning that took place over that time was really special to our family. It oddly put me and my one year -old girl Noa on similar footing as we went out to the coop day after day looking for the first egg, only finally (in April, pretty late for layers) to discover a lovely brown orb in the laying box that had been so empty for so long. Since, I’ve learned how to cook eggs about 10 different ways and we’ve enjoyed being able to gift eggs to neighbors. These hens have truly blessed our family and taught about everything from grieving to waiting to eating.
2 Funerals and a Wedding (Summer, November)
This year was a bittersweet year of firsts in my ministerial career. In the summertime, I was honored to officiate the wedding of my sister-in-law and now brother-in-law Ruth and Luke Taylor. What a joy to do their distance premarital counseling through Google hangout, and what an honor for them to entrust me with such a task as a newbie! I look forward to seeing God’s Love through their love continue to blossom and flourish in the years to come. Later in the year I was also honored to lead my first two funerals, the first for someone I never knew when she was alive, the second in November for my dear uncle Danny. Danny’s service truly encapsulated a remarkable and eclectic life of faith, hope and love. Following a packed church service with more eulogies than we had time for, we walked across A1A to the beach for a flyover (fitting for a career air traffic controller) and a paddle out (even more fitting for a salty lifelong surfer). The process of and preparation for these funerals has certainly been a source of God’s mercy and a reminder and vision of the sort of Hopeful Realism possible only by means of Christ’s Spirit and Resurrection.
Joel’s Favorite Parenting Moments of 2013
2013 was my first full-year as a parent. Here are some favorite snapshots.These aren’t so much flash-in-the-pan moments, but recurring moments. Sweet and beautiful in their own right.
My little boy looks at me, shocked, that I would allow such a thing. How often is it necessary to bring discomfort into your child’s life in order to do an ultimate good for them?
I chase Henry all around our house. There usually comes a point in which he realizes that he cannot run from me, that he will be caught. At that point, Henry stops and starts running toward me instead. There is a metaphor here.
Being loved by him
Henry is at the age where he desires to show love to us. Giving not just receiving. It’s been a difficult month (long story) and my wife Mandy was recently overcome with emotion. Henry stopped his playing, walked from another room, approached her, said, “hey” and gave her a hug and a kiss.
I’m learning a lot and enjoying a lot in this parenting journey.
Andy’s Favorite Fiction Moments of 2013
3) Thinking about the critique of media culture in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy.
2) Realizing the Triwizard Cup was a portkey while readying Harry Potter for the first time.
1) Revisiting Middle Earth after my wife bought me a hardback version of The Hobbit.
I was scanning the patristics section in my college library when I found this:
Gregory the Great (540–604) was one of the most influential popes in the history of the church. One of his legacies is The Book of Pastoral Rule (henceforth, “PR” ).
Pastoring is an ancient craft, one Gregory calls (borrowing from Gregory Nazianzus ) “the art of arts.” I grabbed the book off the shelf for holiday reading material.
What intrigued me is the pastoral crisis Gregory was writing into. As the translator George Demacopoulos explains in his introduction to PR, an interesting phenomenon took place after Constantine’s conversion. As the Roman populace suddenly began flooding into the church en masse, many Christians believed the collective spiritual maturity became increasingly more shallow. Living out the faith seemed more authentic back in the pre-Constantine days, when being a Christian was less popular and even socially quite challenging. So many of the more ‘serious’ Christians made an exodus from the congregations of the masses to join monastic communities and embrace a more ascetic life.
Gregory, however, was calling these ascetics back to the churches to become pastors.
Well… not necessarily all of them. He highly valued asceticism and the monastic life; yet he knew that many Christians gifted for pastoral ministry were fleeing the parish to the monastery, so to speak.
What St. Gregory had found in his own life and throughout the wider body of Christ is that the attraction of a more spiritual and studious life can actually deplete the church of her best guides and pastors.
This temptation is very real today. For some of us, the academic life seems to afford a contemplative vocation of rigorous theological and biblical study. Oddly, a love for God’s words can actually become the means by which gifted ministers leave the parish and the pulpit. (Though let us note that many an academic will say that such a contemplative existence is a gross illusion!).
I leave you with the challenge of St. Gregory’s own words:
For there are several who possess incredible virtues and who are exalted by great talents for training others; men who are spotless in the pursuit of chastity, stout in the vigor of fasting, satiated in the feasts of doctrine, humble in the long-suffering of patience, erect in the fortitude of authority, tender in the grace of kindness, and strict in the severity of judgment. To be certain, if they refuse to accept a position of spiritual leadership when they are called, they forfeit the majority of their gifts—gifts which they received not for themselves only, but also for others. When these men contemplate their own spiritual advantages and do not consider anyone else, they lose these good because they desire to keep them to themselves. Certainly, the Truth [Jesus] spoke of this to the disciples: “A city set upon a mountain cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a candle and place it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick so that it may shine for everyone who is in the house” [Mt 5:14–15]. Hence, he said to Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And when Simon responded at once that he loved him, he said, “If you love me, feed my sheep” [Jn 21:15–17]. If therefore, the care of feeding is a testament to loving, then he who abounds in virtues but refuses to feed the flock of God is found guilty of having no love for the supreme Shepherd….
…And so there are those, as we have said, who are enriched by many gifts; and because they prefer contemplative study, they decline to make themselves useful by preaching to their neighbors, and preferring the mystery of stillness they take refuge in the solitude of [spiritual] investigations. If they are judged strictly by their conduct, they are undoubtedly guilty for the proportion of their abilities that they applied to public service. For indeed, what is the disposition of mind when one could be distinguished by assisting his neighbors but prefers his own [stillness] to the assistance of others, when, in fact, the only-begotten of the supreme Father came forth from the bosom of the Father into our midst so that he might benefit the many? [PR, I.5]
 St Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule (tr. George Demacopoulos; Popular Patristics Series 34; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007).
 Gregory the Theologian, Apology for his Flight to Pontus, Or 2.
What is the best ecclesial context for doing theology as a “pastor-theologian”: a mega church or a small church?
This is the question of my previous post, and I take up on those thoughts here focusing on the small church context…
Theology in the Small Church
The vocational model of “pastor-theologian” sounds a bit too highfalutin’ for the “1st Baptist Church of Smalltown, USA” or for the village parish somewhere in rural northern England. High-brow theological training at multiple academic institutions can leave a minister feeling licensed for “bigger and better” positions in greener pastures (let’s just be honest… and the burden of student loan debt will certainly cause some of us to look for a certain salary range).
If we pastor-theologian-types can wrestle against our personal sense of ministerial grandeur, we might find that the small church setting can be a rather exciting environment for serious theological work.
Pastors of small churches cannot rely solely on their efficient management skills: they must relationally lead as well; nor can they rely on managerial executive pastors to run the church on their behalf while they devote the majority of their time to study: they must help balance the budget while reading Barth and Calvin. A small church pastor has to get into the relational, administrative, and political messes of parish life. There is no insulating layer of a highly qualified staff.
These messes may at first be viewed as distractions from the pristine work of doing theology.
Not exactly. In fact, theology that cannot engage and address a local church’s relational, administrative, and political messes is too shallow for the people of God and for the God of the people.
And when a pastor is personally wading in the muck of the parish, that’s when the parish will listen to theology and care about it.
I’m not sure yet whether I will end up serving a local church or working in a seminary/divinity school when I complete (Deo volente!) my PhD program. But when I was working on a Master of Theology degree a few years back, I was also pastoring a small Baptist church.
The rush and thrill of learning in a high-profile environment was exhilarating.
But if I didn’t have theology thick enough to sit in Jo’s living room after paramedics had just removed her husband’s body from her house, then the classroom experience was all for naught. If I didn’t have a theology thick enough to sit at a hospital bedside and help a nurse adjust the position of a sedated parishioner, then the impressive theological training was suffering a disconnect.
Of course, it is not entirely up to our theological instructors in the seminary and the div school to connect our theology to our ministerial labors. Ultimately, that is the job of the minister. And context helps make the connection happen.
In this regard, the small church setting was really helpful for me. It forced theology to leap off the pages and out of the libraries into living rooms, kitchens, hospitals, and graveyards.
For more on how I am envisioning this model of pastoral ministry, see here and here.
I want to be careful not to promote some elitist brand of “minister” by writing so often about the “pastor-scholar/pastor-theologian.” The current pastoral leaders of the church are differently gifted and a vast range of divinely-guided inclinations are shaping their individual ministries. In using the term “pastor-theologian,” I am loosely referring to someone who engages the work of theology with all the rigor and zeal of academic theologians, but within the specific context of the parish and the pews of local church life.
But what sort of ecclesial setting is more conducive for the pastor-theologian: a small church or a larger one? There is no easy answer here because churches differ in their leadership structures, just as ministers differ from one another in their range of gifts and interests.
Pastoral Theology in the Mega Church Context
In this post, let’s just think for a bit about the potential for doing theology from the pastoral office of a mega church.
Many of our larger churches are led by CEO-styled ministers who are effective at governing and inspiring a sizable institution. This managerial model does not seem that viable for the sort of sustained reflection and quietness that attends what we normally think of as the work of theology.
Some mega church pastors, though, are permitted to devote their ministerial labors primarily to the preaching and teaching office of the church. Many of those we normally think of as high-profile pastor-scholars spend 20+ hours a week on each sermon. Their schedules are carefully preserved for studying and writing, while other manager-type ministers occupy themselves with the business of running the church.
The problem here, however, is that a pastor-scholar who gets this much time safely for reading and writing can be shielded from the daily life of the flock. Such a pastor-theologian, therefore, may not be able to do theology pastorally. Of course, if all that prep work is devoted to a sermon, then there is a powerfully pastoral element at work. Homiletics is essentially pastoral. Those countless hours of reading are usually devoted not to producing an erudite essay but a message for Sunday morning. But it should be acknowledged that being confined to a study and immersed in the works of biblical scholars and great theologians can become as much an “ivory tower” setting as the office of the professional academic theologian on the university quad.
Advantages and disadvantages abound. Any thoughts?
[Next post will be up soon focusing on the Small Church Context for Theology]
While brewing a second cup of coffee to keep alert in my Greek readings this morning, I found Chris Spinks’ post “Avoid a PhD?” His reflections were stimulated by Anthony LeDonne’s most recent attempt to dissuade prospective PhD candidates from pursuing their vocational dreams (LeDonne offers such discouragement on a monthly basis).
The gist of the matter is that those of us in the throes of doctoral work are loading ourselves with ungodly gobs of debt to be qualified for jobs that simply do not exist. Universities are raising tuition and increasing enrollment, but theology and religious studies professors are among the least paid across all disciplines. More and more academic institutions are taking advantage of “adjunct” professors who teach courses for very modest stipends and for whom the institutions provide nothing in terms of healthcare or other benefits.
Spinks (aptly) summarizes the advice of one commenter on LeDonne’s post in this way: “If you are not independently wealthy, or if you don’t have the pedigree to get an advanced degree in the humanities paid for, then please leave these degrees to those who can afford them.” But Spinks is concerned about the fallout, that “advanced degrees in the humanities become attainable only by the privileged.” He goes on to suggest that “if these less fortunate folks avoid all of this [financial/vocational] mess (not an unwise decision, I’ll grant), we will end up with privileged people educating other privileged people. That would be a shame.”
I am certainly among the (partially insane) unprivileged who are taking on hordes of debt to study the Bible at the doctoral level (though, admittedly, just the fact that I qualify for a student loan plan and can even dream about a PhD evidences a hefty degree of privilege). To be honest, I would issue the same advice as LeDonne, while hoping with Spinks that some less-than-privileged folks will end up teaching Scripture and theology in our seminaries and Religion Departments. I could never recommend this vocational path to anyone without massive financial backing—my regrets are rather acute right now; but again, theology should not be the domain only of the financially backed.
Though I see no solution to the debt-problem, here is one silver lining that may well be at play: not finding a job in the academy, some Christians may be redirected from the academic lectern to the ecclesial pulpit. Perhaps the job market and the wider culture’s disinterest in theology will have the effect of proliferating pastor-theologians throughout the church.
Obviously there are drawbacks here. For one, ministry is a calling and the pastoral office is not well-served if filled by a disgruntled academic whose dreams in the academy have been dashed by an economic recession. Secondly, the sort of training one gets as a PhD candidate is not necessarily conducive for promoting the sort of theological and biblical acuity required in ministerial labors.
But “calling” is often a matter of redirection, isn’t it? What some people might retrospectively call “divine calling,” might be understood at first as a “divine cornering or redirecting!” Saul of Tarsus, for instance, never envisioned how God would put his intensive academic training to use. His vocation as an apostle arose out of the ashes of a Christ-exploded vocational dream.
As for the sort of academic training involved in the PhD… well, a lot of it is simply unhelpful in a church context, sadly. But the greatest benefit of doctoral work in theology and Bible may well be the skill of reading hard texts and the discipline of thinking about them with nuance and care. And we could certainly use the fruit of those skills and disciplines in our pulpits today.
Theoretically, Christians working on PhDs are already plying their craft to the glory of God and for the benefit of the church. When the doors of the ivory towers are barred shut during the job hunt, will they turn to pulpits and pews?
That begs another question: will the pews and chapel doors be open to academically trained theologians and Bible scholars?
Christianity Today has published an important essay by Matthew Lee Anderson on a movement of sorts now underway in American evangelicalism. Church leaders like David Platt, Kyle Idleman, Francis Chan, Shane Claiborne, and Stephen Furtick are calling for a radical commitment to the commands of Christ in their writing and preaching.
Their books are bestsellers.
And many of the churches they lead (or have recently led) are of the “mega-” variety.
Radical is marketable.
Now, radical is also quite biblical. My own preaching has comprised serious, hard calls to sacrificial discipleship. I am not interesting in calming down rhetoric emphasizing the totalizing demands of following Jesus.
But I have had some questions… and so has Matthew Lee Anderson.
I have written on the radical rhetoric before here at the blog:
And I also wrote a piece at Relevant Magazine called “We Need Boring Christians” (with an altered version appearing later in their print edition)
These posts and articles were my attempt at trying to think aloud about what made me nervous about the popular trend of “radical” Christianity, as well as what seemed good and true.
Anderson is doing the same thing, and I am impressed with his essay. He does not attack the “movement” of radical Christianity. But he does press some issues, including the awkwardness of the massive, megachurch platforms from which some of the movement’s leaders are promoting the cause. He also wonders about the standard feature of happy-ending narratives resulting from radical sacrifices without the inclusion of raw, sorrowful narratives… which are equally (and sometimes more) valid. And it seems a little suspicious that a faithful blue collar worker who rises every day to face the daily grind gets little attention.
In this post, I would just like to say that calls to radical obedience from megachurch pulpits or from a bestselling paperback require a significant amount of pastoral care and wisdom that those mediums cannot provide.
I spent three years as a college pastor in Birmingham while David Platt was preaching through the material that coalesced into his book Radical. A lot of my pastoral energy was focused on the fallout of those challenging calls: self-righteousness associated with going on mission trips or working with the poor; attempts to implement strategies for engaging serious socio-economic issues in the city without guidance from folks who have been silently working in urban contexts for years; guilt experienced by those whose vocational interests lie in the medical profession, teaching, or accounting—but not overseas mission.
I don’t blame Platt for any of this, of course. And what a blessing to get to work with people whose passion for Christ have been ignited!
I am just wanting to reinforce the point that calls to radical Christianity require extensive pastoral guidance. The prophetic outcries of books rouse souls. Prophetic preaching from megachurch stages stir hearts. But the ignited flames need to be properly fueled and carefully directed, a task left not to authors and popular speakers, but to uncles, parents, Sunday School teachers, close friends, and yes: pastors.
So if there is indeed a radical movement, let’s also start a complementary movement of wise, practical mentoring and pastoring.
Inspired by my fellow contributors’ Advent posts, I’d love to share a few items from my community’s Advent observation.
1) Each of the last several years, I’ve had some part in writing and/or curating a church devotional. Even though these reflections usually take place while there are still leaves on the trees and it’s not yet sweater weather, this rhythm of pre-Advent preparation has been a pastoral boon for me. Unlike some things, even some sermons, I’ve found this exercise to be preparatory rather than exhausting. By the time we’re lighting candles on Sunday morning (in an elementary school gym), I’m more prepared and excited rather than bored or tired. Here is this year’s devotional (available for free download). Clicking here will get you to some of the previous material, also freely given.
2) It has been really special as a pastor immersed in a community (both church and wider) chock-full of creative types to attempt to foster that creativity. To pastor people who consider (and some who don’t) themselves artists has been one of the most joyful, challenging, and favorite parts of my duties and the Lord’s provision. This season, I especially enjoyed the give-and-take that went along with commissioning this piece for our church’s Advent. I got the opportunity to work conceptually with the artist, Nathan Hood, on a work that would adorn our bulletins and the advent devotional.
When putting things together for this Advent imagery there were a few themes in my mind upfront, including the power of God in the helplessness of a human baby and the mystery of God made known in Christ. Reflecting on it now, two things come to mind most readily.
First is the awesomeness, the wonder, the amazing happening of the Uncreated becoming a created being, becoming human. The question always arising from that thought for me is, “If God himself were to walk among us, what would God do, what would God be like if we could see, touch, hear, taste, and smell him?” ”What would he be up to?”
Secondly, comes the thought that Christ is at once God and man, our King and our Servant, the Lion and the Lamb. There are many realities alive in Him at the same moment. There are many alive in us, and so many if we have received the love and the sonship he holds out to us.
What do you see? What are your thoughts during this time?
Ultimately in our expression of these truths words fail us, as does imagery. Forgive me for attempting both, and thank you for letting me be a part of this. May our capacity to receive the love of our Father grow, increase, abound. Peace to you church.
3) Finally, our music ministry at church decided to give some of our Advent music away. In 2010, this short record came together as a companion to our Advent devotion. At the time, we were (and still are) trying to figure out what it means to observe this season of waiting and how Advent tempers our unabated early embrace of Christmas (or at least the sentimental christmas-iness around us). The result is a “night-themed” collection of alternately chilly and warm devotionally-sprung, but missionally-minded tunes.
I’d love to invite you to take advantage of this here:
Hope, peace, joy, and love during this season. May God enable you through his Spirit to be an attentive and expectant wait-er. May we anticipate our Lord’s second coming with the “thrill of hope” that we experience and celebrate his first.
On January 2 I begin working as the Chaplain at St Mary’s College here in Durham. It is a real pleasure to be able to make that announcement. Everyone I have interacted with at the College have been so helpful and enjoyable.
For over a year now I have had the distinct delight of being a “layperson.” For the previous 11 years or so before moving to England, I had been serving as a minister in some official capacity. Since my vocational path has thus far tried to resist forking into Academics or Pastoral Ministry, the role of chaplain at a university college seems quite fitting.
My post will be part-time, with the bulk of my day-job energies still going to the PhD work. But I will now get to ply the crafts of academic biblical studies and pastoral ministry simultaneously. I have been in these waters before (Duke Div School/Mt Hermon Baptist Church), so the territory is not unfamiliar. What will be rather excitingly unfamiliar is that I will get to help lead Anglican-styled worship services every fortnight. This Baptist-ordained theology student has much to learn; but I am keen to soak up the wisdom of the students and staff I will get to work with.
When I took a preaching class in seminary, I never expected it to be such a creative launching pad for me. We listened and watched all kinds of preaching and preachers and focused on different, and sometimes novel, ways of communicating both clearly and compellingly. I went on to take another course, with professor Chuck Campbell, on Preaching, the Powers, and Principalities. It was here that my imagination was further sparked to see and speak to the captivities and spiritual powers at play in our daily lives and in our congregations. One thing I particularly enjoyed was Chuck’s playfulness; in the midst of incredibly serious material he never seemed to take himself too seriously.
When Baylor University Press sent me a copy of Chuck’s (along with co-author Johan Cilliers) newest preaching book, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, I took the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss. Throughout the book there is a notable chorus, “The gospel is foolishness. Preaching is folly. Preachers are fools.” This is a fairly unusual, possibly threatening, but certainly scriptural, statement for the average pastor. An odd line in our job descriptions. The book certainly struck a chord in regards to preparing and delivering sermons, but also, because of its surprisingly multimedia nature, it struck a chord in regards to the arts and their ability to embody and communicate this “gospel foolishness.”
In Friday’s post, Chuck spoke about preaching’s ability to unsettle us, put us in a middle ground, and change our perception. At one point he mentioned the book’s very title changing before his eyes: from a noun to a verb, being the fool to being fooled.
This second post explores some of the similarities and engagements the book has with the arts. We wind up talking about everything from the music of Derek Webb to Stephen Colbert to the upcoming American presidential election.
Hopeful Realism: So as preachers, it is an interesting position we’re in. Most people don’t want to hear that settling is a bad thing. In fact, most of the time becoming settled, is “arriving.”
I think there’s a good analogy with pop music. Is there any chance for pop music? To hatch a message that counters the dominant culture and ideology in a form that is so dictated by tastes and wants. We know what we want to hear and we know when we hear it. It’s a closed loop. How do you break in to that loop to speak in a language that is acceptable and interesting but say things that are potentially inflammatory or unsettling.
Chuck Campbell: Unsettling doesn’t necessarily mean inflammatory.
HR: Well, not necessarily inflammatory, but unsafe. Pop music is the safest of genres. It doesn’t change fast or much. It doesn’t cut very hard against what is dominant.How do you feed people the Bread of Life when they love a steady diet of junk food?
CC: Love? Well they’re used to it. We think we know what we want to hear.
That’s a huge question, let me try to throw a few things at it: We try to say fairly clearly in the book that this is not the only image of the preacher. We don’t want to claim that. There are clearly times in people’s lives where a different kind of word may be necessary. Though, I’m even wondering if in a situation of grief or loss, where life is quite liminal, if being unsettled is not a totally negative thing there. But I haven’t sorted that out pastorally.
The other side is, I think we have the tendency to automatically assume this kind of preaching is troubling; whereas I would like to think of it as inviting into a kind of adventure. Something that is much more interesting than simply being secure. I’d like to frame it in a positive, graceful way. Sure, there is going to have to be interruption, but a lot of times that is similar to the kind of interruption to our captivity to the powers; which is killing us! And a lot of people know it’s killing them. I think there are a lot of Christians out there ready for the Christian faith to be something a little more interesting than we make it sometimes. Maybe people might be more open to a vision of the faith that is a little more unsettled, that is moving, that is on the way…
And this is also a way to counteract the sort of Christianity today that lives in a sort of reactionary fear. We talk in the book about “circling the wagons” and “iron theologies.” There’s a lot of that going on in places and not just Fundamentalist places. Liberals can be just as rigid and draw those lines just as hard. It’s where these kind of ideologies happen that it does call for a sort of disturbing interruption. I don’t think those [ideologies] are what we’re about as Christians.
HR: I began to wonder about art as a medium, not just “high art” like Picasso, in the book there are political cartoons…
Image courtesy of Banksy.
HR: How did he not show up at the Olympics? [CORRECTION: He did!]
CC: Or in the book?! How did that slip by us?
HR: It’s really interesting that you mentioned reading Dostoyevsky as a fuel for this sort of imagination. Rowan Williams, who talks wonderfully about Dostoyevsky, writes about the “gratuity of fiction,” which I think applies to art more generally, in ways like the unsettling effects of foolishness and parody.
“The gratuity of fiction arises from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act if history is over.”
There’s so much in the book about the form of the fool. I think there’s a great analogy for the arts’ ability to incarnate, in some sense, the form of something while injecting surprise and challenge, especially alongside the sermon.
CC: When I was inaugurated into a chair at my former school, one of my very first lectures was on this material. That was ten years ago that I began work on this stuff. I did this thing on naked street preachers and for that occasion Brian Wren, who is a hymn writer, wrote a hymn on the fool for that. It is quite playful and very interesting in that regard.
Some other times we’ve tried to do services with jazz musicians, the perfect art form for this kind of liminality and movement and improvisation. I love to work with musicians that can come up with the kind of art that can unsettle things. For instance, just playing very different music while you’re celebrating Communion can completely change the expectations that we sometimes have at that table.
HR: There’s a Christian musician, Derek Webb, who seems like a particularly apt contemporary example of this. He has this song titled “Freddie, Please.” I’ve heard him describe his process as trying to write what he might say if he had an encounter with Westboro Baptist pastor Fred Phelps. After he realized that that wouldn’t be a very good song, he changed courses and wrote it as an encounter between Jesus and Phelps. What’s most interesting and surprising is that he sets it to a 50’s Doo-wop love song.
CC: The thing I really like about that and the thing that I’m really wrestling with, one of the dangers that can happen with the powers themselves, is that you can become so reactionary to them. Your life can become a kind of resistance that begins to be shaped by them, because you are always only reacting to them. So they’re setting the agenda. Even if you resist, you can inadvertently be caught up in them.
The thing that a song like this does, and what humor more generally does, is it breaks down the binary. It does something so creative and surprising that it opens up a very different kind of space than just “me against you.” And it’s interesting that Jesus is the one who’s singing. Jesus is the one who does that.
One of the books that we refer to over and over in the book, Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde, actually says that contemporary artists, musicians, and visual artists are the tricksters of our time that do this sort of interrupting. It seems to me, that while our book is a book about preaching, it is definitely applicable to people doing liturgy, music, and art.
HR: Speaking of contemporary jesters, I’d love your take on Stephen Colbert.
CC: We mentioned him in a footnote in the book.
What he did with Congress, that’s what fools do…they wind up speaking the truth. They have people off-balance and unsettled in a way that they can be heard. One of the things I like about him on his show is that he’s an amazing example of “bivocal rhetoric.” Everything he says has two meanings. It’s all basically irony in a sense. While he’s saying one thing, he wants you to hear something else. In that way, he’s much more complex than John Stewart. Stewart, in his humor comes at it directly, whereas Colbert has this double-voiced piece going on. This is why the book has a long chapter on carnivals, saying that we need to learn from these characters and how they work. These characters are here. They are around. We need to pay attention.
In terms of Christians, Will Campbell is one of the real interesting people doing this. And actually, I just got this article on P_ssy Riot in the Chronicle for Higher Education as “holy fools.” These women’s closing statements are brilliant and incredibly theological. I was shocked at how theologically engaged they were and how they knew pretty much exactly what they were trying to do. Even though the dance itself is silly, there really is a lot going on. Characters like that are all around.
HR: A last bit of encouragement and advice for us foolish preachers in the thick of a highly contentious American election season?
CC: You talk about an environment where we have two walled-off sides, how do you disrupt that?
As I usually say, the Powers are never just individuals. I think that the best preaching we do on these political things is not endorsing a particular candidate, but rather speaking to the powers that are holding us all captive. That might be deeper than even an issue. It’s going to be difficult, because there are economic powers, there are environmental powers, all related to these really huge issues. Pastors are going to have to be the fools to help congregations perceive things in some wholly new ways, because right now nothing’s happening.