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Seminary Education and the Absorbed Reading of the Text

June 2, 2008

Russell Rathbun at Post-Rapture has absoultely nailed contemporary Christian culture (the CCC, as he calls it).  Contemporary Christian Culture is (in his opinion, and I agree completely) overly individualistic, inherently consumerist, fearful of that which threatens their traditional piety, and arrogant about their uncritical orthodoxies.  Religion in America is less genuinely Christian and more civic religion (I refuse to call it civil religion because so many Christians are anything but civil in discussions).

You’d have an easier time in an awful lot of churches blocking the cross with a projection screen than you would removing the flag from the sanctuary.  And that’s a problem.

I have a few theories about it.  Like Brian McLaren, I fear the church interprets Jesus through Paul rather than interpreting Paul through Jesus.  (Some of us could rightly be called Paulians more than Christians).  During World War II Christianity and patriotism got lumped together in part because American churches with German heritages had to prove that they weren’t sympathizers with the German (Axis) cause.

But I digress.  In short, Christianity is in trouble in America and part of the problem is the Christian culture itself.

Part of what Rathbun skewers in understanding Contemporary Christian Culture is what he calls the absorbed reading of the text.  Read this post in full to truly understand what he’s talking about.  Here are some excerpts:

It is remarkable that someone growing up in the C. C. C. can hear the same Bible stories and have them interrupted in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Youth Group, Summer Camp, Youth For Christ, Young Adult Studies, Adult Sunday School, Bible Studies, Retreats and Sermons—and hear the same thing said about the same verses every time.

There is no significant variation.  It might start out being told by puppets and flannel graphs and end up being told with acoustic guitars and finally by boring or exuberant white men, but it is always the same.  Over time nearly every text is covered. It is like a vaccine. It contains just a little bit of the truth; it is given over time until the hearer is inoculated against being infected be the Good News in any text.  By the time a Contemporary Christian is an adult any one of them could teach a Bible Study or lead a Youth Group or preach a sermon.

They have absorbed the Contemporary Christian Culture reading of the text.  One might not even remember studying a particular passage but when they encounter it the Absorbed Reading surfaces.  What is remarkable is that they still are able to continue to think they are encountering something new or something valuable.

Part of what bothers me about Contemporary Christian Culture is that it de-values a seminary education.  I have encountered a great number of pastors who emerged from the CCC who are intellectually lazy and uncritical about their belief systems who consistently say things like, “I don’t know what they’re teaching in seminary, but it sure ain’t Christianity,” and “Just write their papers, tell ’em what they want to hear so you can get your degree, then forget that stuff and go out and preach the good ol’ gospel.”  And of course the classic, “I tried seminary for a semester, but they’re just waaaay too liberal.”  (Be sure and sneer the word liberal like it’s a curse word or another name for the devil).

Don’t get me wrong here.  I’m not saying that everyone who finds a seminary too liberal is intellectually lazy, or that pastors who are not seminary-educated are bad.  There are scads of truly effective and excellent pastors who needed to emerge from more conservative seminaries or from no seminary at all.  What I find offensive is those who feel the need to disparage and dismiss academics altogether, as though critical thinking, rigorous study and asking tough questions about faith are the enemies of faith.

I’m not caricaturing.  That attitude is out there, and it’s more widespread than you might think.

Truth is, I can’t imagine doing what I do without my seminary education.  Eden taught me a ton that is truly helpful and useful in parish ministry. And part of what I learned in the process was that I was a product of the CCC to some extent.  I once believed that Christianity had more to do with what music one listened to and what books one read than with feeding the hungry or giving a voice to the forgotten.

The CCC Jesus who lived in my head needed to be crucified, and a more powerful and meaningful Christ rose from his grave.

I can’t blame anyone for having a crisis of faith in seminary.  I had one myself.  But when I surrendered myself to the process I learned that it only made my faith stronger and more meaningful.  Now I have sure and certain hope in resurrection because I have truly experienced it.

Because of that, I am passionate about religious academics.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Becca Clark permalink
    June 2, 2008 1:16 pm

    Wow, Will, this post is powerful!

    And I issue you a hearty Amen. I found that initially, my studies in philosophy and religion challenged my faith and my assumptions about God, Christ, and a whole lot else (I began my stuies in undergrad at the tender age of 19– I don’t think I was ready for Crossan!). But, over time, the process made me so much stronger in as a person of faith and certainly as a pastor. As I’ve said in some of my blog posts, there have been times when I’m so glad I was made to reflect theologically about every stinking thing for seven years, because when the time came and I had to respond in a pastoral moment, I had words to speak that came from boththe Spirit and the knowledge and learning I carried from those studies.

  2. June 7, 2008 9:23 am

    I was at a student conference this past February (the focus of which is how to be a Christian in the modern world) and the speaker decided to spend two out of three sessions discussing different arguments for the Christian faith. He repeatedly stated that he would never do this in his own church, but he felt we, as college students, were smart enough to comprehend what he was saying. So he started speaking and I sat, listening, and then it hit me. Every argument he presented had been presented in both my intros to philosophy and religious thought. And every single one of them had been discussed, back and forth, in more detail than the speaker was presenting. He was only giving us the pros – not challenging us, the “college students who could handle the depth of his talk”. He then urged us to go out and read everything Ravi Zacharias had ever written. The third and final message is when he finally admitted “You can’t win anyone for Christ with apologetics.” and said that he loved modern praise music because it allows us to approach God in our own little bubbles.

    Which makes me wonder, if apologetics isn’t the key to making disciples, then why did he spend two-thirds of the conference giving us a high-school level crash-course in it? And if we are smart enough to understand what he’s talking about, why didn’t he challenge us by discussing the responses to the arguments? And is Ravi Zacharias really the ultimate authority on apologetics? And why in the world would Christians, called to worship God in communion with one another, want to approach God in our own little bubbles?

    I’ve been thinking, unfortunately, the same things you present in this post. A year ago, I took Intro to Religious Thought and it challenged my faith more than any other religion/philosophy classes I had taken up to that point. And it was scary – the felt boards of Sunday school had lied! But after struggling with it during the course, I came out with much stronger faith on the other side. And isn’t that what Christianity really is? Putting to death the old things to come out more glorious on the other side? Be it faith, love, or God himself.

    I wonder when the rest of the Church will catch on.

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