Briefly Noted: History with a Beer Chaser; Or, Why Theology is Best Done in Community

Not at Southeastern Seminary, mind you, but at Ithaca College. That’s where they have a Beer’n’History club. So writes Michael B. Smith in a recent edition of The Chronicle Review (Dec 14, 2012). In the article, Smith tells the story of a small group of faculty members who get together regularly to dialogue about history, writing, and life. As Smith tells it:

Having ranged in size from four to six members, the Chapter House writing group—aka Beer’n’History—has helped midwife 10 books and nearly a score of articles and book chapters, a powerful testament that we have succeeded in our purpose. As publishing has become an ever more significant part of the reward system in academe, Beer’n’History has been indispensable to all of us, both for encouraging our scholarly productivity and for celebrating the craft of writing. But above all we value our gatherings for the way they embody what too often seems to be missing from academe: trust, honesty, and the absence of hierarchy.

Smith goes on to delineate the benefits of this small community of scholars. First on the list is the vigorous and rigorous exchange of ideas; the conversations are sometimes heated and often humorous as everyone at the table engages fully and honestly with the ideas being set forth. But equally significant is the friendships they’ve built that go far beyond the campus borders. “The camaraderie and trust forged around those tables,” he writes, “have not only enriched our lives as academics but also led to collaborations on home renovations and soccer fields, to an annual intergenerational family football game the day after Thanksgiving each year, to canoe trips to the Adirondacks.”

Smith is “spot on” about the value of a close circle of peers doing their scholarship and writing together and at the same time building friendships that go beyond their scholarship. The first time I remember reflecting upon the value of such friendships was years ago during my M. Div. studies when philosopher L. Russ Bush told the story of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ famous friendship, of the walks they took together, the hours they shared at The Eagle & Child, and the countless discussions and debates which sharpened them both. The second time I was forced to reflect upon this was during my Ph. D. dissertation stage, sitting in Stanley Hauerwas’ office. Dr. Hauerwas was my external dissertation adviser, and he graciously gave me upwards of 15 hours helping me with my dissertation. During that time, he mentioned several times how much he had benefited (personally and professionally) from the friendships he had built over the several preceding decades.

Since then, I’ve increasingly become convinced of the value of community for theology and scholarship. A sound theology puts our feet on this sort of path. First, God created humans to be relational beings. Second, our human propensity towards idolatry has deleterious noetic effects which can be lessened because of the positive influence of community. Third, God saved us for relationship with him and his church (universal and local). God created us to be thoroughly social and communal beings, and this need for relationships remains and is even enhanced in the aftermath of the Fall.

What does “theology in community” look like in practice? Each person’s situation differs, but for me, there are several ways this works out. First, I have chosen to co-author or co-edit many of my writing projects, including the manuscripts I am working on right now. If a book or essay is co-authored well, it might take more time to write than if one writes alone. The authors discuss, debate, write, re-write, and then discuss and debate some more. I am a far better theologian (or perhaps a “less deficient” theologian) because of the influence of friends such as Heath Thomas, Keith Whitfield, Craig Bartholomew, and J. D. Greear. Second, I’ve been blessed to hold informal “theology and coffee” or “theology and mission” discussion groups with students. Most semesters, this lasts from 6:30 a.m. until 8:00 or so, as we read through a book, discuss the ideas, and pray together. The lively exchanges we’ve had have benefited both student and professor.

Third, I am enjoying a Tuesday lunch appointment with 8-10 colleagues in which we discuss theology and life, and share more than a little laughter. Similarly, we have impromptu Earl-Grey-and-Chat meetings during some late afternoons in my office. Fourth, I thoroughly enjoy doing theology in my local church context. God’s church is in fact the primary context for receiving the word of God, and I remain profoundly grateful to my church and to certain friends in particular for sustaining me theologically. Fifth, I am grateful to global Christians (Asian, African, Middle Eastern) who teach me much about the gospel. Finally, I cannot fail to mention the great theologians of yesteryear who provide substantive and sumptuous theological fare for our benefit, and who help point out blind spots in our 21st century theologies.

So, if you’re a Baptist friend, I heartily recommend that you find a group similar to Smith’s Beer’n’History club. Maybe you can call it Milk’n’History. Or Cheerwine’n’Theology.

 

 

Briefly Noted: On the Benefits of Dissertation Defenses (Especially Ones that Involve Paige Patterson, Stanley Hauerwas, Andreas Köstenberger, and David Nelson)

Fetching topic, no? In an article entitled, “The Dissertation Defense: We’re Doing Something Right,” Leonard Cassuto, English professor at Fordham University, describes and defends the benefits of dissertation defenses.[1] His defense of the defense comes in the wake of a recent American trend toward doing away with the defense as a required portion of earning the Ph.D. In fact, Cassuto himself never defended his own dissertation. Rather, his two faculty readers signed a form approving it and he walked the bound manuscript to the registrar and submitted it. “That was that,” he writes.

Against this trend, Cassuto argues that American universities should retain (or in some cases, reinstitute) the dissertation defense as an integral part of doctoral programs. Building upon a 19th-century European tradition which emphasized face-to-face “disputation,” American universities traditionally have required dissertation defenses in order to test the candidates’ abilities and encourage them to make further progress. Cassuto writes, “the plan is not to roast candidates on a spit; they are instead gently warned, encouraged to elaborate on what they know.”

Detractors of the dissertation defense often argue that it is a tired old ritual that is continued merely for the sake of tradition. Cassuto counters, however, that the defense is quite practical. He offers three reasons. First, the committee gets the opportunity to reflect on the student’s work and offer insight on what might come next–publication, further research, etc. Second, defenses offer the soon-to-be doctor a formal welcome to the community of scholars. Third, the faculty gets the chance to tell the student thank you for the opportunity to share in the student’s learning. This last reason is overlooked, but one, Cassuto argues, that should be well remembered.

For what it’s worth, I’ll put my chips in with Cassuto. The dissertation defense is well-worth the three hours’ spent. I’ll never forget my own defense. At the end of my three years’ study in the Ph.D. program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, having written a dissertation entitled, “Wittgenstein’s Impact on Anglo-American Theology: Representative Models of Response to Wittgenstein’s Later Writings,” I now found myself in a room with three professors who set forth to determine the validity of my argument.

There I sat, at the head of the table in a conference room in the Jacumin-Simpson building, with the sweated anxiety of an Amish kid at a tattoo parlor. Even though my dissertation was sternly structured, detailedly documented, and fanatically footnoted, I was still nervous. There’s nothing like a live disputation, especially if your dissertation committee consists of Paige Patterson, Andreas Köstenberger, and David Nelson. Stanley Hauerwas was my external reader; he was unable to come to the defense but did send a four page, single spaced assessment, which had been placed neatly at his vacant chair.

In my mind, I had played and replayed worst case scenarios, in which my examiners said things like, “Mr. Ashford, after having read your dissertation, I conclude that you have an intellect rivaled only by garden tools,” or “Mr. Ashford, your ignorance is encyclopedic,” or “Mr. Ashford, you dissertation induces in me a catatonic sense of utter tedium. Every time I turned a page, I wondered if your train of thought had a caboose.” In fact, I wanted to open the dissertation defense by saying something like, “Good afternoon gentlemen. I’ve set aside this special time to humiliate myself in public, and I’m honored that you would attend and participate.”

But I digress. In fact, here is what happened: Dr. Köstenberger opened by asking me quite a few questions concerning the implications of Wittgenstein’s philosophy for hermeneutics and biblical interpretation. His questions were helpful because he interrogated me as one who had not only mastered the field of hermeneutics, but also had read the dissertation very carefully. Next, Dr. Nelson asked me questions which arose at the intersection of Wittgenstein and theological method. He pushed me on some of the connections I had made between Wittgenstein and the six major case studies (Lindbeck, Frei, Hauerwas, Kerr, Tracy, and Geisler). Then Dr. Patterson pushed me to evaluate Wittgenstein’s philosophical method, his view of the mind/body problem, and his epistemology. Finally, Dr. Patterson read Dr. Hauerwas’ evaluation, including the questions he would have asked me if he had been there.

In the end, I came away challenged and encouraged. My thesis had been evaluated by several seasoned scholars who helped me to recognize some of the weaker links of my argument, while at the same time pointing out the its strengths and encouraging me to push forward in my field of study. They encouraged me to publish on the topic, and suggested several publishers and venues. They formally welcomed me into the “guild,” the community of scholars who will research, write, and teach theology.

This sort of interaction is invaluable, in my opinion, not only at the PhD level, but also at the bachelor’s and master’s level. This is the reason The College at Southeastern requires our baccalaureate students to take four seminars in the History of Ideas. In these seminars, our 18- and 19-year olds are forced to read books by many of the towering thinkers of time past (e.g Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Kant, Marx), to write critical theses about those thinkers’ work, and then to defend their theses orally in a seminar with 14 other students and a professor. When it’s done well, these seminars are invaluable for the students’ education. Likewise, this is the reason why we offer master’s level elective seminars in the same format.

Cassuto is right. Something is lost when a community refrains from taking part in constructive communal disputations. Such disputations offer a valuable venue for constructive dialogue and debate, socialization, evaluation, and hopefully encouragement of the student.

 



[1] Leonard Cassuto, “The Dissertation Defense: We’re Doing Something Right” The Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 2, 2012: A47).

 

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (4): Theology is Not Primarily for Professors or Preachers.

At one point in my life, I thought “theology” was for only for eccentric religious professionals who wore hounds-tooth jackets with elbow patches, smelled like papyrus, smoked hand carved pipes, sported Santa Claus beards, and talked a lot about topics such as Second Temple Judaism and revelational epistemology. In other words, I thought they were weird. I thought it would be fun to stick a theologian in a room of normal people and play the game “Which one of these is not like the others?” (It would have been an easy game. In a room full of normal people, as I saw it, a theologian sticks out like an Amish kid with a nose ring.) Or so I thought. After I had actually studied theology at Southeastern, and had met a good number of theologians, I realized that theology is something that all believers do, and it is something that is done for many different audiences. That’s the question this installment answers. For whom do we do theology? For the church? For unbelievers? For the academy? Former University of Chicago theologian David Tracy is known for arguing that theologians must find ways to interact compellingly with three distinct audiences: academy, church, and society.[1] This blog will “one-up” Tracy by arguing that theology must address at least five audiences: God, family, church, the academy, and society at large.

Theology for God:

First and foremost, theology is done for God. Just as God seeks to bring glory to his name and increase his own renown, so we must do all that we do to glorify him and make his name great.[2] The biblical testimony could not be more clear on this count. God created humanity for his glory (Is 43:7), sent his Son to vindicate his glory (Rom 3:23-26; 15:8-9), will one day fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory (Hab 2:14), so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10). In the present age, we are to do all things for his glory (1 Cor 10:31). “All things” includes the task of theology. For this reason, Barth writes, “Evangelical theology is concerned with Immanuel, God with us! Having this God for its object, it can be nothing else but the most thankful and happy science!”[3] As theologians, we have the great privilege of studying God’s Word and, in so doing, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8), delighting ourselves in the Lord (Ps 37:4), seeking him early in the morning (Ps 63:1), and savoring his words (Ps 119:103). There is nothing more wonderful than attending closely to what our Most Loved One is saying to us, and then speaking it back to him, and telling others what he has told us. Theology is done, first and foremost, for God.

Theology for the Family:

Second, theology is done in the presence of, and for the sake of, our families. Family is the most basically human of all our vocations, the one in which God’s gracious love and his providential care are most tangibly conveyed through human beings. Moreover, God instructs all believers to talk about him and his word consciously and continually within the home. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:4-9). We are called to know and love God in the midst of our families, teaching God’s Word to our families diligently throughout the day, in such a way that it functions as blinders on a horse, keeping our feet on the path of righteousness.[4]

Theology for the Church:

Third, theology is done for the church, universal and local (Eph 4:11-13). Just as the apostle Paul wrote theological epistles that benefited particular local congregations as well as the church as a whole down through the centuries, so we should do theology consciously with God’s church in mind. “Theology for the church” can be done in many ways, but we will mention three. First, the pastors of local congregations are the lead theologians for their churches. They should preach theologically, orchestrate their services theologically, and counsel theologically. Well-crafted sermons, services, or counseling sessions are examples of theology for the church. Second, a group of university and seminary professors could collaborate to write an integrative theology (such as the present volume) which takes as its primary audience the pastors, missionaries, counselors, and other ministers whom they teach. Third, a pastor, university, or seminary professor might set forth to write or teach in a manner which is technical and academic in nature. Even though this volume is written for scholars rather than for typical members of a given local congregation, it can (and should) still be done with an eye toward knowing and loving God, and building up his (universal) church as a whole.

Theology for the Academy:

Fourth, theology can be done within the academy and for the sake of the academy. Unfortunately, in the past century, Western universities have increasingly shied away from recognizing theology as a legitimate academic discipline. George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and Stanley Hauerwas’ The State of the University speak to this situation in which Christian theology has been removed from the domain of “true scholarship” and in which Christian theologians struggle to be granted tenure.[5] We believe that this modern Western conception of theology is false. Christian theology is an eminently legitimate discipline. Theologians should do their scholarly work with excellence, constructively and critically engaging other scholars in theological studies, religious studies, comparative religions, and so forth. This task is not easy. “The dilemma for evangelical theology,” writes Clark, “is whether it can maintain intellectual integrity, as judged by the academic world, and still serve the needs of Christian believers…. This means that evangelical theologians want to do what many believe is impossible: both think critically and also recognize biblical authority.”[6] In fact, we would argue that the recognition of biblical authority should itself foster critical thinking. The rational, creative, and moral capacities necessary for intellectually rigorous theology are the very capacities through which the image of God shines. In other words, intellectual rigor is a part of spirituality (1 Pet 3:15).

Theology for Society:

Fifth, theology can be done for society at large. Theologians can do their work with an eye toward various publics, taking into account their questions and concerns, and communicating in a way we hope will be meaningful and compelling. C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer are examples of public theologians. Lewis was known for mediating Christian truth by means of radio talks, fiction literature, apologetics, and even debates. Schaeffer did theology in public by means of speeches, videography, and popular level books; he addressed existential and ethical issues which were immediately relevant to society as a whole, and used those issues to invite people to consider Christian truth. The point here is that the Christian faith is not something to sit back and stare at, but something to lean forward and look through. The Scriptures are like a pair of spectacles through which we view the world. The Christian theologian is uniquely positioned to speak truth about issues of interest to any person in any walk of life.

Theology with Faithfulness and Excellence:

For whichever audience a theologian intends to teach, preach, or write, it is incumbent upon him to do his work faithfully in the hopes that he might be able to do his work with excellence. Excellence cannot always be achieved, though faithfulness can. A theologian can always do his work faithfully, by lashing his theology to Scripture, and doing so in order to know and love God, and participating in his mission in this world. To the extent that he is able, he will also draw upon theology’s various sources, integrate its various sub-disciplines, and remain in conversation with philosophy and other fields of learning. Most importantly, he will work hard to evoke from his students a curiosity and excitement about the things of God. For, to be a lazy teacher, preacher, or writer is a sin. Although George Steiner was not writing about theologians, his words are instructive: “To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.”[7] Theology is done for the purpose of knowing and loving God, and equipping his people to join his mission; therefore theologians work hard to teach, write, and preach with excellence, so they can be maximally meaningful and compelling.


[1] David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 3-46.

[2] John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998). James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).

[3] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, 12.

[4] For a fine example of a theological text written to help parents teach biblical truth to their children, see Bruce Ware, Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009).

[5] George Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University, 1998); Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

[6] Clark, To Know and Love God, 200.

[7] George Steiner, Lessons of the Masters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 18.