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The Idea of a Christian College by [Arthur F. Holmes]This little work, revised in 1975, distills the thinking of one of the most profound conceptual minds behind the modern history of Illinois’ Wheaton College, arguably the flagship of the North American ‘Christian Liberal Arts College’ fleet. Phrases like ‘all truth is God’s truth’ and ‘the integration of faith and learning’ subsequently became common and even anodyne slogans of Christian liberal arts colleges throughout North America.

But in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Holmes was breaking new ground in defense and cultivation of the Christian college. The desire to break free from an inward-looking and fearful Fundamentalism never lay far from the surface. The book still expresses itself with an almost alarming lucidity and is perhaps as much a counter-cultural manifesto in these pragmatic times as it was when Wheaton’s great philosophy teacher was holding forth with his English accent and scribbling the lines of this book with his forceful pen.

Two of the book’s nine chapter titles are questions. The first makes its query in the broadest possible terms: Chapter 1, ‘Why a Christian College?’.

In this opening salvo, the author alleges a veritable jungle of ignorances and misconceptions about what a Christian college is actually for. In this spate of ground-clearing, Holmes is already arguing against a protective and certainly a defensive purpose for such an institution. Holmes finds the answer to his ‘Why?’ in the interpenetration of two distinctives, the educational and the religious. Educationally, the Christian college exists not in order to indoctrinate but rather to educate in ways that are both deep and daring. Religiously, such a college does not keep its piety separate from the other disciplines that come in for research and teaching. Rather it engages all appropriate disciplines from a faith commitment that is articulated and foundational.

From Holmes’ perspective, theology is bound to exercise a sort of queenly function in this endeavor, even if the author is at pains not to allow his queen rights of tyranny. Significantly, ‘Theological Foundations’ is the title of the book’s second chapter and, in a manner of speaking, of its first declarative chapter. Holmes discerns four theological pillars for the project of the Christian College. First, the fact of creation means there is much to be explored and investigated, all of it coming from a Maker’s good hand. The bugbear here is Gnosticism, which would counteract Holmes’ program by placing that truth which is worth one’s while in the sphere of the esoteric, far removed from the creative sphere that humankind is invited to and charged with investigating.

It is perhaps unfortunate that Holmes capitalizes ‘Gnostic’, inadvertently pointing his reader to a defined religio-intellectual movement that can be historically located rather than to the general disdain for the created physical realm that he clearly intends. The gnosticism he wishes to rebuke is with us today as an unorganized and largely unreflective set of mind whose exponents know little both of the historical Gnostics and of the family resemblance that Holmes glimpses in them.

The second pillar is the human person, a complex and rich feature of creation who is at his or her best when curiosity ranges wide across the created plain. Indeed, ‘(T)he educator’s task is to inspire and equip individuals to think and act for themselves in the dignity of persons created God’s image.’

Third, the fact that the realia that present themselves to us are the work of a single, benign Benefactor means, first, that all truth belongs to God no matter where it is found (that is, not exclusively nor even principally through the lens of theology) and, second, that truth is a unity no matter how beguiling its complexity. Faith, then, does not impede one’s quest to engage and understand truth; it empowers it: ‘Faith is neither a way of knowing nor a source of knowledge. Faith is rather an openness and wholehearted response to God’s self-revelation.’

Holmes’ fourth theological pillar is the oft-referenced ‘cultural mandate’. Human beings are cultural creatures. As such, we imitate God as we engage with and create culture. ‘To confess God as Creator and Christ as Lord is thus to affirm his hand in all life and thought. It is to admit that every part of the created order is sacred, and that the Creator calls us to exhibit his wisdom and power both by exploring the creation and developing its resources and by bringing our own created abilities to fulfillment.’

The Christian College’s theological foundations, then, fuel a robust and fearless education enterprise.

In his third chapter (‘The Liberal Arts: What and Why?’), Holmes traces the historically shifting lines of what has come under study in the enterprise to which we now refer as ‘the liberal arts’. But he is more concerned to move beyond this ‘extensional definition’ to an ‘intensional definition’: ‘the liberal arts are those which are appropriate to persons as persons, rather than to the specific function of a worker or a professional or even a scholar’.

One might consider Holmes’ person as person here to be the second accusative often attached to the verb ‘to teach’. That is, one teaches something to or for someone. His emphasis upon the formation of a person sets his approach and indeed the practices of a ‘liberal arts college’ off from vocational and other forms of education. There may be no more violent rupture than this between the author’s program and the pragmatic spirit of the age that renders unremarkable proposals to assess the value of an educational institution principally or even exclusively by counting the dollars its graduates earn within, say, ten years of their departure from it. Holmes believes that educating the person represents a larger and more compelling ambition than that, nor will he concede that to do so is not to attend to matters of a graduate’s employability.

When we ‘make a person’, in Holmes’ view, we are dealing with a multi-faceted though integrated creature. He or she is a reflective, thinking being, a valuing being, and a responsible agent. There is a place for other kinds of education, Holmes avers, but it is the particular remit of liberal arts education to provide ‘an opportunity to steward life more effectively by becoming more fully a human person in the image of God, by seeing life whole rather than fragmented, by transcending the provincialism of our place in history, our geographic location, or our job.’

Because the entire trajectory of Holmes’ apologia for liberal arts education tacks towards the formation of a person rather than the transmission of skills, Chapter 4 (‘Liberal Arts as Career Preparation’) flows as something other than the rearguard maneuver to which it might otherwise have been reduced, particularly in the face of prevailing notions that any education worthy of one’s dollar must demonstrate a short path to a (well-)paying job. The author is entirely convinced that the liberal arts education is solid preparation for a vocation, but not via a mechanical or short path. Rather, Holmes argues, such education forms a complete person who is eminently employable precisely because she has been pressed into significant scrutiny of her attitude towards work, exposure to a wide breadth of education, and development of conscious values that are patient of articulation. In a day in which one’s vocation may include serial dedication to a sequence of jobs, this—in Holmes’ view of things—is the kind of applicant that any employer should be loath to overlook.

Although an unsympathetic reader might by this point have begun to conclude that Holmes wants the church qua church to keep hands off the education of its young, his deep dive into how faith and learning integrate suggest otherwise (Chapter 5: ‘Integrating Faith and Learning’). Here Holmes argues that if a mature faith does not lie at the root of a Christian liberal arts college’s shared life, then it ought to abandon the adjective ‘Christian’. Yet this centering of Christian faith at the core of the college does not take us back to the notion of indoctrination.

Sometimes even interaction (reviewer: between faith and learning) has been repressed in favor of indoctrination, as if prepackaged answers can satisfy inquiring minds. Students need rather to gain a realistic look at life and to discover for themselves the questions that confront us. They need to work their way painfully through the maze of alternative ideas and arguments while finding out how the Christian faith speaks to such matters. They need a teacher as a catalyst and guide, one who has struggled and is struggling with similar questions and knows some of the pertinent materials and procedures. They need to be exposed to the frontiers of learning where problems are still not fully formulated and knowledge is exploding, and where by the very nature of things, indoctrination is impossible.

Holmes moves on from a soaring paragraph like the one just quoted to survey four approaches to the integration of faith and learning: attitudinal, ethical, foundational, and ‘worldview’. He finds a thoughtful Christian appropriation of each of these approaches as the needed, if composite, thing. The volume’s chapter four is, as one says, worth the price of this little book all by itself. Nearly fifty years on, this propositum rings remarkably undated.

It is patently obvious that ‘academic freedom’ is nowadays either a push-and-pull activity within Christian educational institutions—and not merely the Christian liberal arts college—or a topic of derision by secular critics who regard it as impossible within a religious framework or both. Holmes recognizes the dilemma that the alleged existence of the thing surfaces. His sixth chapter, entitled simplify enough ‘Academic Freedom’, addresses ‘(1) why academic freedom is important in the Christian college, (2) how it may be conceived, and (3) some criticisms it meets.’ His discussion is prefaced by a simple definition of his principle term: ‘Academic freedom is the recognition that faith and intellect, like love, cannot be forced and must not be, if each is to play its part in relation to the other.’

Holmes is also cognizant of the damage that is achieved in its absence.

To deny academic freedom is historical suicide. Rather than confirming men in the truth it will drive them from it. Rather than cherishing orthodoxy it will render it suspect to every inquiring mind. Rather than developing the intellectual resources essential to Christian thought and action it will stifle them. Rather than launching a strategic offensive into the citadels of secularism it will incarcerate us in the ill-equipped and outdated strongholds of past wars.

Holmes’ summons to professors to attach the words ‘responsibly’ and ‘carefully’ to their practice of academic freedom will not satisfy all trustees and all alumni, nor indeed will it be applauded by all professors. But it does set off academic freedom in the context of a Christian college context from that intellectual unaccountability which imagines itself devoid of presuppositions and is in other ways painfully and historically naive. One imagines that Holmes would agree that academic freedom is a core principle that in practice is a matter of constant negotiation. 

If the book’s high-water mark has been reached by its fifth or sixth chapter, this does not imply that subsequent chapters represent a winding down. Rather, for example, Chapter 7 (‘College as Community’) anchors all that has been said in a realistic—one might even say unsentimental—view of the college community. Perhaps today more than at the time of writing, ‘community’ is patient of a number of interpretations. Holmes would doubtless reject the most romantic of them, for he is convinced that community is not easily achieved and is built around the reality that the college community’s common cause is educational. One belongs to and participates in this community because one has chosen to learn and to do so in the company both of teachers and of other student learners. One can imagine elements of community that Holmes would happily discard on the grounds that they make little or no contribution to learning. 

Having suffered through chapel services in which the speaker appears to be on a mission to discredit learning, this reviewer finds Holmes’ take on college chapel to be particularly helpful:

So can the college chapel service that is a regular part of community life in the Christian college. It should not be peripheral to the educational task but should constantly renew the vision of a Christian mind. When the well-intentioned speaker discourages intellectual pursuits or cultural involvement or political action, he turns off many students. Chapel speakers should realize that a Christian college exists to cultivate the intellect and involve people in their culture, and that it is therefore more than a conserving influence in the world. A college is Christian in that it does its work in a Christian way, not by encouraging an unthinking faith to counterbalance faithless thought. If education is God’s present calling to students, then no question arises about whether God or studies comes first, for God is to be honored in and through studies. Compartmentalization has no place on the Christian campus.

Holmes constructs his penultimate chapter (8, ‘Experience is not Enough’) around two premises. First, ‘experience alone is not understanding.’ Second, ‘Education requires understanding.’ About a half-century after the book’s first printing, it is challenging to recognize Holmes’ erstwhile antagonists with completely clarity, though it is not difficult to name their daughters and sons. One can surmise that he was battling a reduction of education to quasi-educational ‘practical experiences’ as well as the corresponding diminution of rigorous reflection that accompanies this, as other, reductionisms. Regardless, the chapter’s final paragraph suggests a certain baring of teeth at the approach of adversaries, whether intramural, extramural, or both.

Liberal education develops the person. It is an open invitation to join the human race. Christian liberal arts education is an invitation to become increasingly a Christian person. But neither the excitement of traveling in Europe, nor the trauma of living in a ghetto, nor simply looking at paintings or making them, not unexamined religious experience and service activities can develop an educated person. Experience must be humanized if it is to be educational; to be humanized it must be educated. In the final analysis that is why raw experience is not enough; uneducated experience cannot educate. Experience alone is not education.

This reader was drawn inexorably towards the final chapter with its promised personification of the author’s argument for a certain kind of education. In his ninth chapter—‘The Marks of an Educated Person’—Holmes considers two fictional but highly recognizable individuals who have enjoyed the benefits of a liberal arts education but in fact have not emerged from the process with the desired qualities. His final page is dedicated to a description of another. Her name is Pat, and Holmes’ profile of her is worthy of quotation in full though it will easily signal the five decades that have passed since he conjured her image.

Pat is widely read. She has read Plato and Augustine, Shakespeare and William Faulkner. She’s acquainted with both Bach and Bartók, and enjoys Monet and Picasso. She thinks of them all as her friends. But she does not brag: she wears these friendships lightly.

Pat is alert to the issues of the day: she feels the injustices of apartheid and admits there are ambiguities in Nicaragua. She listens to the other side, rather than reacting with an outburst of ridicule or anger. She measures her judgments before she acts, and before she votes. Her vote, in the end, is the kind of vote a democracy needs—informed, principled, and caring—not just blindly partisan. Her friends tell me she always gets to the heart of an issue.

Pat is aware of some new developments in science and technology, biology in particular, and the moral dimensions of genetic research both interest and concern her greatly—even though her major was literature. She continues to read, to learn, to grow, for she realizes that however large the circumference of her knowledge, just as large are the borders of her ignorance. Yet she doesn’t worship either knowledge, or art, or influence, or even her relationships with her friends. She worships the One from whom all blessings flow, the One who gives but also takes away. Whatever her abilities, whatever her development, whatever her accomplishments, she blesses the name of the Lord.

Pat, I say, is an educated person.

Beyond longing for the increase of Pat’s tribe, what ought one to do with a little and old book like The Idea of A Christian College?

One might begin by placing it at the center of intentional conversation in any number of Christian educational institutions, whether or not they aspire to the moniker ‘liberal arts’. The work is accessible, compelling, and remarkably up to date in the light of its age.

Holmes never insists that the kind of education he describes is the only or even the best kind of education. One suspects that he would wish a thousand flowers to blossom, though he would tenaciously resist any attempt to uproot his particular plant. What he persistently—and by this reviewer’s lights, effectively—combats are the short-cuts, the settling, the mere self-preservation cum indoctrination, the gnostic alternatives to engaging the world as it comes to us, the vicious and purblind pragmatisms that claim to know what is ‘relevant’ and what is not. 

One might wish to query Holmes as to whether the Christian liberal arts education he admires is, is not, or can be made accessible to more than a sliver of the globe’s inhabitants. Alas, he is not present to respond. One guesses, however, that the response we cannot hear would begin by a gently persistent probing of the assumptions behind such a question.

This reviewer, feet firmly planted in a South American context that no one would call privileged, is convinced that—no matter where we begin—Arthur Holmes’ little apology for something larger, more beautiful, and more enduring would move us higher, move us closer to a shared life of learning and teaching that is worthy of all our sweat and tears.

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What have we heard?

ICETE Triennial Listening Team report

2 November 2018

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein. (Ps. 24.1 ESV)

This is the note that has been sounded, at least as the psalmist might well have expressed it were he listening in, during these days together in Panama.

While that note has rung, in plenary addresses and workshops and mealtime conversations and walks along this ocean that YHWH has created for his enjoyment and for ours, a group of your friends has been listening in as well.

I think I’d better explain … (more…)

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What have we heard?: Twelve Stones

(David Baer on behalf of the Consultation ‘Listening Group’)

ICETE C-15: Engaged and Effective

 

As the program for this consultation was taking shape, Riad Kassis tasked me with delivering in this final plenary session a report under the working title ‘What have we heard?’

I confess that, over the past five days, I have had one or two unkind thoughts—mere fleeting spasms of rage, really— about my dear friend Riad. We have heard so very many things. After all, how am I to know what we have heard! I am hard of hearing and torpid of speech. I bring to this consultation more than my share of my own treasured biases. They not only motivate and empower me; they also filter and distort what I hear.

As I was writing these opening lines yesterday afternoon, a large flock of birds converged on a rooftop near the balcony where I was sitting. They came not from one direction but from many, returning all at once to their rooftop home as thogh upon some inaudible signal. Only half in jest, I decided to take this as a sign.

Let me see whether I can tease some of the words we’ve heard from the many directions to which those sounds have taken flight back into a common place, like birds near sunset returning from their day’s many activities to their community roost.

But first, a word about what this report is, what it is not, and how it comes to be.

I was assisted by a Listening Group that I selected on shamelessly selfish grounds. Quite simply, these are people whom I know, whom I consider discerning, and whom I guessed would not say ‘no’. They are: Ashish Chrispal, Mariel Deluca Voth, Lori Drexler, Mardochée Nadoumngar, Ivan Rusin, Wojciech Szczerba, Rana Wazir, John Jusu, Jane Overstreet, Mark Royster, and Jung-Suk Lee.  We met each evening to ask each other, ‘What are we hearing?’

However, this report is my own responsibility. Even these Listening Team members are likely to be surprised—though I hope not dismayed—by what I have left out and by perhaps some thoughts of my own that I have witlessly placed upon their lips.

What did Listening Group members attempt to accomplish as we served you by listening to plenary sessions, workshops, conversations at all hours, the delightfully barbed banter of old friends, and musings and comments overheard in passing?

Well, we did not understand our job as simply rehearsing or summarizing for you things that people said. This is not a Summary of the Proceedings of ICETE C-15.

Rather, we have attempted the audacious task of discerning what we have heard from God, that is, what God might be speaking to us through those plenary sessions, workshops, conversations, musings, and overheard conversations.

We have attempted to perform a theological task on the assumption that our Lord has been present in this gathered community, and that he has desired to makes us wiser, to move us forward.

I make no claim that we have heard exhaustively. In fact, I’m sure that we have not.

This is not an assessment exercise.

But here, offered to you as a service lovingly rendered, are some things that I think we have heard.

Twelve stones, if you will, to mark and memorialize the portion of our journey that is just now completed.

 

*   *   *

  1. The tide has turned.

The assessment of what we are accomplishing in theological education is no longer the hobby, the crusade, or the mania of the social scientists and the educationalists.

Please hear carefully what I am saying. I am not saying that assessment can no longer be dismissed as those things because in some political sense the assessment enthusiasts have outnumbered those of us who, as one long-serving missionary teacher told me, never knew the word ‘impact’ back in the day.

I am saying that outcomes assessment is no longer the province of its native enthusiasts. The tide has turned decisively. Assessment has gone mainstream. We may be infants at the execution of it, but global theological educators have developed either a sense of obligation or an appetite (or both) for outcomes assessment. I do not believe this movement-in-the-making will lose its steam or fade away.

There are without doubt rear-guard actions against this new thing, and these may continue for some time.

But they will be ineffectual.

We are all assessors now. Let’s get on with it.

 

  1. An assessment culture begins and ends with humility.

On Monday of next week, when my legs are banging into the seat in front of me on hour eight or nine of Turkish Airlines Flight 7’s trajectory towards Washington, DC, my heart will still be rejoicing about several features of this Consultation.

One of these is the decided emphasis upon humility.

This is no small thing, for idolatries lurk like wolves behind the rubbish bins and broken-down vehicles in the Assessment Neighborhood, waiting for their moment to spring forth. Humility will keep them in their place.

This is no small thing, because assessment takes in its unforgiving hand what for many of us has been one of the most cherished privileges and passions of our lives and exposes it to reality’s sometimes harsh critique. We who have loved teaching and learning, we who have thrived as students and teachers and administrative leaders of seminaries … we whose hearts respond to every harsh critique of the seminary with a bit of pain and with the sense that this is not the whole story … we must now exercise the humility of taking this precious privilege and exposing it to the light. We must ask if what we have done … in fact what we have been … is what we believe we have done and been. And we must let others provide us with the answers.

Only humility will sustain us in that place.

But humility will not have done its work only when it has given us the courage to engage a culture of assessment. Humility will be required when our expanding expertise in assessment tempts us with the Pelagian delusion that, if we only perfect our systems, we will accomplish God’s will for Him. I find Chris Wright’s observation that some of us come to this theme with suspicion and others with enthusiasm particularly helpful here. I myself come with a degree of suspicion, for life and conviction have both alerted me to how quickly we arrogate to ourselves divine prerogatives when we have acquired just a little knowledge … just a little competence.

I rejoice that the note of humility has been sounded so clearly during this Consultation.

And while I am rejoicing … here’s a third stone for our little pile of remembering.

 

  1. We can begin with Scripture!

I am exhilarated by the way we have begun with Scripture and how we have seen our deliberations infused with the voice of Scripture. Messieurs Wright, Ott, and Parro come particularly to mind as I reflect on this, but they have hardly been alone!

In fact, I feel quite blown away by this.

When I think of the things we have heard, I thrill to register the fact in this report that more than anything we have heard God’s own Word: read, honored, scrutinized, and explained.

My own modestly suspicious reservations drain away as I observe this gathered community gathering around our Father’s Word to us.

 

  1. Expect unexpected outcomes!

A Canadian brother of a certain age fell into stride with me as we made our way to the group photograph … which by the way was conducted in an amazingly orderly fashion for a bunch of theologians and educators. He said something like this: ‘Why do we think we know what’s going to happen as we minister in Christ’s name?’ Then, with reference to his own long ministry, he mused, ‘All the best things that we ever saw happen were completely unintended consequences. We were never trying to do that.’ He gave me some stirring examples.

I have heard during this Consultation—and we must continue to remind ourselves—that the Lord will use us as his instruments to accomplish small glories and perhaps some large ones that we never saw coming. And that he will do this regularly just when we feel our intended outcomes have wrought nothing but frustration.

On that sad day when surprise has been drained out of our list of outcomes, we can be sure that we have created our own monster. It will devour us.

When we can no longer be surprised by the joy of unexpected outcomes because we have become too earnest about our intended ones, we will know that we have wandered off the gospel path.  Only repentance will help us find our way back.

 

  1. A question: In our zeal to serve the Church, does the tradition still speak? Or in this day of constant adjustments, has the tradition died?

In addition to the pull of ‘what our churches and communities want from our graduates’, does biblical wisdom … does the gospel …does the accrued wisdom of the theological tradition push subjects that ought to be mastered? Just as we read books written far away and long ago in order to attenuate our cultural myopia, is it possible that we do not know all that we ought to learn and know, and that the tradition itself can be our teacher here?

I confess that I have not heard this question posed as often as I could have wished.

And here is a corollary:

 

  1. Does the seminary have anything to teach the Church that the Church may not have an appetite to learn?

In a moment of frustration, a long-time colleague in Latin America once observed: ‘You know, churches and groups of pastors can be self-preserving mafias too. It’s not only the seminary …’

I think he was right.

Similarly, an African brother this week recounted that pastors routinely fault his seminary’s students for wanting ‘to think things out for themselves’. He smiled and continued, ‘This is when I know that we have served them well!’ … though perhaps the pastor and his church would have preferred to have been served with a more docile crop of emerging leaders.
If the seminary is ‘where the Church goes to think’—as we have heard in these days—then does the seminary know some things that the church ought to learn?
Again, hearkening back to the dialect of a certain moment in Latin America, does the seminary have an uncomfortable prophetic voice that the church needs to hear, even if it would rather not?

If so, then perhaps the seminary’s entire loving vocation vis-à-vis the Church is not captured merely by 92% satisfaction results on survey and assessment instruments.

I would like to see this topic explored further.

 

  1. We need each other!

In the venerable tradition of bell curves everywhere, impact assessment in theological education has its beady-eyed fanatics and its burro-like intransigents. We need each other.

In the body of Christ, we cannot afford to demonize or ridiculize the brothers and sisters at either edge of the bell curve. What is at stake is too important and people are right now feeling the earth move under their feet. This is unsettling. I am unsettled!

Let us show grace to each other in this season.

I was deeply moved when veterans of change management towards an assessment culture within their respective seminaries, narrating their experience within our Listening Group, spoke of their affection for doubting and reluctant faculty members. They spoke pastorally of the need to preserve and honor the sacrificial service of such people. One of our case study presenters used the strong word ‘devastated’ to describe how faculty can experience the critique that an assessment culture necessarily brings.

As a community of theological educators in deeply uncertain times who fervently bear our own passions, we must exercise the judgment charity with those who see things differently.

Some of you enthusiasts will need to repent of attitudinal sins against the suspicious in these unsettling times. And some of us who are suspicious will need to repent of our sins against the enthusiasts.

I certainly need to.

 

  1. It is difficult, but not impossible, to measure a graduate’s faithfulness and effectiveness

 

Our Listening Group was struck by how widespread was the struggle to come down to particulars in measuring faithfulness and effectiveness.

Yet what I’ll call a healthy anti-gnostic impulse among us wouldn’t let us give up.

In my view, we would benefit from looking at the best research and the best practices in this area rather than reinventing the wheel. Having said this, a persistent undercurrent of conversation insists that these things will vary widely with context and therefore hew to the particular rather than the universal end of the spectrum.

I myself wonder how impact is to be measured in oppressive contexts where survival of the Christian community itself occurs against all odds and is itself an achievement to be celebrated.

I detect something of a heart’s cry at this stage of our journey: ‘Yes, Lord, we want to assess … Help our non-assessment … !’

 

  1. Clarity

I perhaps should not have come this far without mentioning the pressing matter of clarity, a topic that raised its hoary head at every turn of every day.

Clarity about vision. Clarity about mission. Clarity about intended outcomes. Clarity about actual outcomes. Clarity that trues our aim. Clarity that devastates. Clarity that empowers.

There were times when I though this consultation might have best been subtitled In Quest of Clarity.

Yesterday morning, I found myself tapping into my notes my own quasi-Logic Chain:

Humility … honesty … clarity … (repeat)

Humility … honesty … clarity … (repeat)

For some years, I have steadied my own soul in leadership with a small sticky note that appears on my laptop screen. I see it every day. It contains just three words: Don’t look away.

‘I keep hearing the word clarity … ‘

… one Listening Group colleague said.

Indeed. We’ll be the better for that.

 

  • Messiness

 

But clear does not mean clinical.

One brother working in Mexico, contemplating the Book of Acts’ assessment of outcomes under Maestro Parro’s baton, mused: ‘I’m amazed by how messy it all was … and is’.

Whether our logic chain is scottcunninghamesque and linear … or johnjusuesque and spiral … the business of assessing the outcomes of our life’s labors and then responding to that assessment is messy and imperfect.

In my country, we have a statement that is hilarious in its context: There’s no crying in baseball!

To which we might add the dictum: There’s no whining about the messiness of outcomes assessment in theological education. It just is.

 

  1. The thing is, just begin!

 

In outcomes assessment as in most things that matter in life, the hardest thing is simply to start.

We heard this over and over again this week.

The one thing that makes me proudest of my own Overseas Council team’s role in this assessment project is the speed with which our partner seminaries in the project have progressed from ‘we need this so badly’ to voices of humble and confident authority in the practice.

For me, Ivan Rusin—leading the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary—is the poster child for this phenomenon, though many more could stand in for him. 24 to 18 months ago, such schools had only the deep conviction that they were standing on a burning platform and needed to do things differently if they were to survive, let alone thrive in the accomplishment of their ministry.

Over the last four days, school leader after school leader became our instructor in how to move humbly from confusion to clarity about what they were attempting to do to clarity about what they are doing and what they are accomplishing and on to the work remains ahead of them now that they know these things.

The corollary here: This is not as hard as it looks. You should try this at home.

The thing is, just begin!

 

  1. Tell me the old, old story!

 

Testimony and anecdote are God-authorized and contain metrics.

From Chris’ beginning to Elizabeth’s beautiful Colombian-accented exhortation, we have reveled in and perhaps even remembered how to remember the power of story, indeed the power even of the small stories that our stories as part of the Great Story of YHWH’s redeeming love.

I myself find it easier to love you who are enthusiasts of assessment when I realize that you will allow me to tell you my story.

Story matters.

 

Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,

Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.

Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,

For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.

 

Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,

That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.

Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;

The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.

 

Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;

Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.

Tell me the story always, if you would really be,

In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.

 

Tell me the same old story when you have cause to fear

That this world’s empty glory is costing me too dear.

Yes, and when that world’s glory is dawning on my soul,

Tell me the old, old story: ‘Christ Jesus makes thee whole.’

 

Tell us the ever-new story of emerging Christian leaders who caught a holy, humble fire by rubbing shoulders with frail and fallen theological educators like us. Tell us how they went on from our classrooms and private conversations to—through faith—conquer kingdoms, enforce justice, obtain promises, stop the mouths of lions, quench the power of fire, escape the edge of the sword, become strong out of weakness, become mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Tell us how some received back their dead by resurrection, how some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Tell us how others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment, how they were stoned, and even sawn in two. Remind us how the world was not worthy of them … and how they surround us now as a great cloud of witnesses.

Count, measure, and assess, so that we can serve them still better and take our places alongside of them with humility, honesty, and clarity.

For this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.
This is our story. This is our song, praising our Savior all the day long.

 

I hope these reflections—these twelve stones, if you will—have in some small way helped that far-flown flock of ideas return home after an almost frenetically busy ICETE Triennial Consultation to their common roost, prepared to take wing again when flight is needed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An address delivered to the triennial conference of the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education
Sopron, Hungary
October 2009

A concert is a lovely thing.

Whether the Hong Kong Philharmonic touching just last week such disparate notes as those composed by the early classical Haydn and the late Romantic Berlioz or U2 rocking Chicago’s Lincoln Park or a band of street musicians in Cuba turning lunch three-dimensional by adding sound to the day’s taste and sights or the sheer joie d’vivre of a South African children’s choir causing our jaws to drop and making us feel momentarily a little younger—a bit more like them—a concert is about the pleasing and productive synthesis of otherwise individual and cacophonous sounds.

And speaking of cacophony, you can have solo or cacophony at the drop of a hat. A concert, though, requires that its participants subjugate aspects of their own ambition and ability to a larger, greater, more beautiful project.

There’s the rub. And there’s the magic.

A good concert—like the proverbial news from afar or the fruit of the grape—gladdens the heart. A very good concert draws us closer to transcendent truth, even to our Creator himself. A superb concert causes us to feel, to think, to imagine—indeed to become—something that our mere individuality could scarcely ever produce.

The very best of concerts is tribute. It is worship. It draws our attention beyond the artists to the One who alone is capable of creating a world where such nobility and beauty—where such sounds—are possible. (more…)

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We need thoughtful people in the pulpit.

Around the dinner table, a friend and his wife decry the insipid aridity of much that passes for Christian proclamation. These are not cultured despisers, these hosts of mine. They are decades-old friends who have been around the block and around the world, have celebrated life and been beaten up by it, have served and been served in proportions that overweight the first of the two.

They are veterans. All of their life together has been lived out under the sound of a voice from a pulpit. Whether in San José or Aberdeen or Wheaton or Cambridge, Christian preaching has been a contextual envelope for the grit of getting on with things. They have always lived within range of the pulpit’s voice.

Much of it has been very bad. (more…)

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In the last two decades, the wily old PhD has been challenged by a feisty upstart, the Doctor of Ministry. High-achieving individuals dedicated to some field of theology, biblical studies, or pastoral ministry often hop back and forth between the two, wondering which better fits their needs and life situation.

First, some terminology. Let’s begin with the Doctor of Philosophy. In North America, this research degree is usually abbreviated Ph.D, while in Great Britain PhD is more common. There are variants, of course. Harvard University and Harvard Divinity School, for example, offer both a Ph.D. and a Th.D. The latter abbreviates Doctor of Theology. Although there are fierce debates inside Harvard regarding the equivalence (or not) of the two degrees, people on the outside generally regard them as two variants of the same course of study. On the other side of the Atlantic, Oxford University offers the DPhil. (more…)

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As the owner of a doctorate in biblical studies, I am regularly asked by one aspiring doctoral student or another whether I think he or she should walk the same path. Nearly always, I am taken aback by the vigor and ambition of such people. In my own life, the studies that led up to doctoral work, the immersion in biblical texts and languages that the experience itself made possible, and the skills and network of scholars that it percolated into my life have congealed into a profound blessing.

I believe the endeavor to be capable of fostering deep acuity with regard to matters biblical and theological. Furthermore, I’m convinced that both Church and society urgently need thought leaders schooled and shaped in just this way if they are to experience discernment rather that vulnerability, wisdom instead of folly, and faithful maturity instead of vacuous striving after whatever wind blows most strongly at the moment. With good reasons, certain traditions value their ‘doctors of the Church’ for the critical niche ministry they exercise in her midst.

Why, then, does the joy of such conversations mingle with a touch of apprehension and even reluctance? Reflection on this question persuades me that my mixed emotions come from a veteran’s and observer’s awareness of the deep, unspoken costs that doctoral work in biblical studies and theology inflict upon those who pursue it and those who love them. Most worthy things do just this. (more…)

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