Thursday, November 03, 2011

Neither Seminary Nor The Church But Tired, Stereotyped Cliches Put Forward By The Flavor Of The Week Is Our Problem

Anytime someone insists they have "the answers", that is the moment you need to change the channel. By and large, "the answers" are actually statements the person has repeated over and over again, creating questions afterward that make "the answers" sound really good. They aren't really answers, anyway; they are marketing points, ad copy for folks to show the world how smart and clever they are and why they should be paid a whole lot of money by others just to show up and talk.

Such, I would submit, is Brian McLaren. His self-description from Google for his eponymous website is "author, storyteller, and theologian". Sounds marvelous! You get to his website and you find . . . Brian's books, reviews of those books, and Brian's recommendations for books. Plus Brian's sermons, Brian's talks, links to articles Brian has written.

For someone who is ordained clergy, Brian seems to work awfully hard to make sure the world knows all about Brian.

In any event, McLaren has written an article as part of a symposium on theological education that, to my mind, does nothing to advance any agenda other than making sure Brian McLaren's name continues to circulate as the latest snake-oil salesman to tell smart folks in the church how much they need to pay him to reward them for being smart.
[T]oo many seminarians step out of seminary and straight into a brick wall. When they arrive in a local congregation, they experience nearly the opposite of their positive seminary experience. Church members seem to want:
1. A familiar closed environment where old answers to outdated questions are repeated in predictable ways, and no new questions are allowed to disturb the peace.
2. A rigid sectarian environment where the boundaries between "us" and "them" are constantly reinforced and celebrated.
3. A superficial environment where spiritual vulnerability is dangerous and where institutional and/or doctrinal maintenance trumps spiritual hunger and thirst.
4. An insular environment which maintains aloofness, fear, or disdain toward the world and its problems.
5. A demanding consumerist environment where people seek religious goods and services tailored to their exacting standards and tastes.
Except for the last item, which merely restates the obvious point that American Christians are going to act like Americans in the way they view any social or cultural institution - one among a variety of choices that are sought to fulfill certain needs or perceived wants rather than a way of being an alternative community gathered around a shared commitment to an external authority - the list above is so old and stereotyped, I'm surprised it hasn't been copyrighted.

The body of McLaren's text continues:
[R]ecalling that Jesus himself was unable to transform the Temple establishment of his day, and remembering that Paul was run out of a good many more synagogues than he was welcome in, I'm not sure that any amount of training can equip seminarians for transformation in churches that are quite happy with how they are—or were, thank you very much. It may sound harsh for me to say, but I think it is unethical to send gifted, idealistic, and high-potential young leaders into intractable, dysfunctional congregations that will grind them up, disillusion them, and damage them for life.
And I have met many who fit this description.
To the first part of this, I would say that Jesus did indeed transform the Temple establishment, just not the way they feared. Apparently, McLaren didn't quite get what Jesus said when he talked about destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days.

To the last sentence, however, I would ask just this: Who? Who are the gifted, excited clergy whose professional lives have been destroyed by churches? What are the congregations? Where are they? What denomination? What are the statistics on clergy burn-out, on overhead-versus-ministry/mission ratios in church budgets?

It is almost too tiresome to ask the simple questions. We can reward ourselves for all the marvelous things gained through a seminary education without ever considering whether or not the one thing we haven't really gained is either wisdom or perspective. The kind of disdain for the local church on display here, a disdain that forgets an important part of what it means to be church, is breathtaking.

Does McLaren not understand that the church is full of sinful, broken people? Does he not get that even at our best, local churches do a pretty piss-poor job of incarnating the Spirit of Christ in the world, yet somehow it has managed to survive, even thrive? Does He not understand that folks like St. Paul, the author of the epistles of St. Peter, and of the Revelation of St. John the Divine all addressed the fact that some local congregations just weren't up to snuff?

Seriously, dude. You want to comment on the future of theological education, don't set up straw arguments about straw congregations, insist you know some of this first-hand, and then not even have balls enough to name some names. You could comment on Edward Farley or David Kelsey. You could talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the professional graduate school model as applied to ministry. You could look at a sampling of seminary curricula from denominationally affiliated schools versus non-denominational (say Duke Divinity School versus Harvard or Vanderbilt). You could examine the relationships between theological schools and local churches, forged through student-pastor relationships that allow students attending seminary to also serve local churches.

You could do a whole lot of things you didn't do. Instead, you rewarded seminarians for going to seminaries and chastised local churches for being congregations of sinners. Without actually providing any data to back up any of the claims you make. Not even a single anecdote. For a self-professed storyteller, that's pretty lame.

There are many challenges the churches face. Seminaries, too, struggle to come to terms with shifting paradigms in education, as well as the fundamental relationship of theological higher education in service to the traditions both of free inquiry in a research university and the church which called the seminary in to being. There is the general decline in religious affiliation in America, and the decline in particular among the old mainline Protestant churches, who nevertheless continue to fill seminary desks with students and pulpits with clergy.

McLaren didn't address any of these things. Instead, he made up some stuff that folks have been saying for years about all those energized seminary graduates getting chewed up and spit out by dysfunctional local churches, without once putting a face or a name or some numbers to the claim. He told seminarians they were just too good for the local church. He told local congregations they weren't good enough for the wonderful people coming out of seminaries.

Honest to God. What a crock of shit. The only thing that makes it worse is some folks whom I respect think McLaren's take is right on target.

Virtual Tin Cup

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