I have come to a depressing, but inescapable conclusion.
No one wants to be exceptional anymore.
With very few exceptions (sports, maybe the arts), no one wants to stand out above their peers, and certainly no one wants to be accused of being exceptional in their field. Mediocrity has become the new obsession. Viva la vanilla.
I am reminded of a scene in one of my favorite movies. I cannot remember the script verbatim, but I can come close. The movie was “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and this particular version (I’m told there is more than one) is told through the eyes of an English fop who goes about rescuing members of the French aristocracy during the French Revolution. The scene is a lavish party in which the Englishman arrives impolitely late. He excuses himself with his usual bravado and over-the-top grandiosity by saying, “Sink me, if you Frenchmen are all not so equal that nobody wants to do the driving anymore.”
Americans have become so indistinguishably equal now that no one wants to drive anything anymore.
The debate about “American exceptionalism” over the past decade is just one, although a troubling one, example of this relatively recent development. Why is it that to suggest that the United States holds some sort of “primacy among peers” role is some sort of blasphemy? American soldiers were primarily (although clearly not solely) responsible for the winning of two world wars. American farmers feed more people than dozens, if not hundreds, of countries combined. When disaster strikes, American reserves and very often American lives are the first to alleviate the resulting misery. American ingenuity and technology drive the world’s economies.
Now – before you get your shorts all in a knot – I am not saying that America is the only country that feeds the homeless, fights in wars to free the oppressed, sends money, material and soldiers to rescue victims of disaster, and that invents all kinds of cool and beneficial products. What I am saying is that, at least for well over the past 100 years, the world has turned to the United States time and time again for help, and the United States has responded positively in virtually every case (alas, many times too late). Why is it considered anathema to be proud of those accomplishments, and our place of power in the world?
Ah, that mean, nasty, ugly, word power. Being exceptional means you have power, and most likely you use that power in an oppressive, unjust manner. Or, the only reason you are exceptional is because you are part of the power-system, which oppresses those who are clearly not exceptional.
Do you have straight “A’s” on your report card, are you on the Dean’s Honor roll? It is because you are privileged, and you are part of the oppression of the average student. Have you climbed the corporate ladder to reach the highest level of management (heaven forbid you become a CEO!)? It is because you have stepped on everyone underneath you, you have built your status with “the man” on the backs of the “people.” Have you worked hard, saved wisely, and can now retire with some measure of financial security? It is because you have stolen your future by oppressing those who do not have what you have. At every turn, those who have worked to obtain some level of exceptionalism at all are denigrated and sometimes attacked, whether physically or by words.
I was reminded of this phenomenon recently in a conversation with a new acquaintance. In a conversation regarding teaching at a university, he said that the concept of the “sage on the stage” is dead. That is, a professor is not supposed to hold his or her advanced knowledge in front of his or her students as some kind of virtue, but rather the professor is supposed to “flip the class” and let the students learn and explore the subject for themselves. Supposedly, this creates smarter students.
Hogwash and poppycock, I say! I am grateful, and increasingly so as I get older, that I was taught by some monumental “sages on the stage.” In fact, as I progressed through my education, those men only climbed higher in my estimation, not lower. They were brilliant – not only in what they had achieved academically, but in the manner in which they presented that material at just the right dose and at just the right time. I thank God none of them tried to “flip the class” while I was learning from them. There is a reason some men and women are exceptional scholars and teachers – and it is not so that they can make their precious little snowflake students feel like they are important!
Strive for mediocrity if you wish. Aim to be average if you must. Set your goal to “boring” and get off the highway to personal improvement at the next exit. As for me, I choose to aim for the exceptional, and then if I fail (ahem, when I fail) at least I will have challenged myself to be the best I can be. I will probably never be thought of as exceptional (except maybe by my dogs, bless their hearts) – but I refuse to acquiesce to the accusation of being mediocre (that’s what my cats are for, just to keep me humble).
May God bless all the exceptional people in my life, and may He bless you with the burning desire to be exceptional in His kingdom!
[By the way – in 1931 Dietrich Bonhoeffer skewered the American education system (primarily the theological educational system) for this exact problem. Compared to his education in Germany, he was shocked at how the American system was designed to be a “cordial exchange of opinions than an undertaking on behalf of knowledge.” So, maybe the drive for exceptionalism in the United States has always had its opponents. However, in some fields it was expected that students would not only strive to be the best, but would actually achieve that goal. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English) Vol. 10, Translated by Douglas W. Stott, p. 305-307.]
Another day, another urgent summons for the Churches of Christ to be less judgmental, less condemning. These sermons and blog posts and on-line articles are ubiquitous these days. It would seem that if you are a minister within the Churches of Christ and you want to become popular (or maintain your popularity) you need to hop on the “bash the church” bandwagon. Pardon me for being a knuckle-dragging troglodyte, but I’ll just let that cart go on by.
It may just be me, but I find it funny (in a serious way) that if a financial advisor corrected our faulty thinking about our retirement plans we would be most appreciative. If we were working with explosive chemicals in a science class and our teacher warned us before we made a pyro-technic mistake, we would say, “thank-you.” If we were applying for a music scholarship and a master musician took us into his or her personal study for an hour’s worth of instruction, we would not be able to stop thanking him or her. But, you let one word of spiritual correction or constructive criticism come from a preacher associated with the Churches of Christ and he is immediately tarred and feathered as a judgmental Pharisee. “Quit being so condemning” is the shrill response. “Don’t you know everyone that says they love Jesus is saved, and who are you to say you know everything about the Bible.”
I won’t be the first to admit that our heritage is full of characters that had more fist than finesse when it comes to biblical conversations. Neither will I be the first to condemn that behavior. Regrettably it is still visible today. Every family has its cranky uncle Joe, and there are are a number of reasons why combative individuals are drawn to independent congregations (and Churches of Christ are NOT alone in this regard!!)
But I truly fail to see where teaching some basic Bible doctrines should be considered judgmental, unless the person listening refuses to accept those teachings, yet recognizes the seriousness of the issue under discussion.
Actually, every person – unless they are a true universalist – will draw some line at some place in regard to what makes a person a Christian, what constitutes acceptable worship, and how a person ought to live a life committed to Christ. Why is drawing one line at baptism considered judgmental when drawing that line at the “sinner’s prayer” not considered judgmental? Why is adult believer’s baptism considered judgmental when infant baptism is not? The same point could be made with acapella worship, praise teams but no instrumental music, acoustic instruments but not amplified instruments, classic or contemporary songs, high church/low church or just about every other issue that causes conflict in a congregation.
I do not need, nor do I want, to be told that I need to be “more accepting” of individuals who disagree with me on basic, fundamental teachings in Scripture. The only words I need to accept are the words of the inspired authors of the Bible. Do I need to study, to learn, to read, to hear other points of view – absolutely! I try to do so as much or more than many ministers within the Churches of Christ. But the point of reference that I use to judge if what I am hearing is true is a convergence with the Bible – NOT some touchy-feely idea such as “they love Jesus.”
“Come, let us reason together” is a solid biblical concept. If I disagree with an individual there can be only one of three conclusions – either I am right and the other person is wrong, I am wrong and the other person is right, or we are both equally right and equally wrong. If I am willing to admit my culpability in drawing wrong conclusions from Scripture, I cannot be blamed for suggesting that those who disagree with me can also possibly be in error. I may seek to teach, and perhaps also to confront, but that does NOT make me a judgmental, hypocritical, Pharisee.
Unless, of course, you believe that Jesus was a judgmental, hypocritical, Pharisee as well. As I read the gospels, he had to try to straighten out quite a few twisted twigs during his ministry. Although he corrected, he never condemned honest error – but he was quite emphatic in his rejection of obstinate dismissal of God’s will.
As I have written numerous times – if I am wrong please show me my error! I never want to teach something that is false, either knowingly or unwittingly. And I promise I will not call you judgmental.
Book Review – Recovering the Margins of American Religious History: The Legacy of David Edwin Harrell, Jr. (Waldrop and Billingsley, eds.)
The Churches of Christ have not been known historically for producing giants in academia. There are notable exceptions, to be sure. It is interesting that the majority of scholars recognized by their peers as being at the top of their field has largely been limited to church historians – Lemoine Lewis, Everett Ferguson. A few come from the ranks of New Testament / theology scholars – Abraham Malherbe, Tom Olbricht, Jack P. Lewis, Carroll Osburn. Far fewer have come from the ranks of Old Testament scholars – John Willis is the only name that immediately comes to my mind.* Of course we have a large and reputable stable of Restoration History scholars and theologians – Bill Humble, Richard Hughes, Douglas Foster.
Standing among a much smaller group, although perhaps not all by himself, is David Edwin Harrell, Jr., historian and biographer extraordinaire.
This book, Recovering the Margins of American Religious History: The Legacy of David Edwin Harrell, Jr. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 125 pages, is a collection of essays written in Dr. Harrell’s honor, a festschrift if the term is appropriate for American historiographers.
As mentioned in a previous post, I had the extraordinary experience of getting to meet Dr. Harrell as he was researching his book on the Churches of Christ in the 20th century/biography of Homer Hailey. I was sort of in awe, and little did I know while I was running around the third floor of the Brown Library at ACU just exactly the kind of man I was assisting. I sure wish I knew then what I know now. Oh, well – story of my life.
Anyway – this collection of essays honors this giant of American historians. For members of the Churches of Christ it is an important record of not only the scholarship of Harrell, but also of the times in which he lived, and especially of the attitudes he displayed throughout his life. A couple of descriptions that I found to be particularly noteworthy:
His pugilistic spirit could be lethal toward academic peers or graduate students who substituted opinions for information and personal preference for thoughtful analysis. He does not suffer fools gladly. (p. xi)
I came to appreciate the tough love he administered in very large doses: lifelong support and encouragement in return for maximum effort, withering criticism for laziness and foolish obstinacy. (xi)
And, perhaps the coup de grace –
For those who measured up to his standards but disagreed with his conclusions, there was never a better friend. For those who agreed with his conclusions but sought thereby mainly to curry his favor, he proffered neither respect nor support. For uneducated people who were both sincere in their convictions and faithful in their proclamation, he offered charitable understanding and genuine affection. For politically correct academics who refused to subject their own beliefs to the same rigorous scrutiny they expected from others, he expressed scorn and ridicule. (xi-xii)
In some ways David Edwin Harrell, Jr. taught me more about writing than any of my other professors, and I never had him for a class. His writing is meticulous – painstakingly researched and documented to within a gnat’s whisker of perfection. As I was writing papers for my doctoral degree I kept asking myself, “How would Harrell document this paper?” I cannot say that I even come close to his “standards,” but I can say without equivocation that my academic writing would not be anywhere close to where it is today without the influence of Dr. Harrell.
Dr. Harrell influenced me in a number of other ways as well – demonstrating that the divisions within the Churches of Christ are caused as much by, if not primarily by, social divisions as much as doctrinal disagreements. Once again tying this back to my doctoral work, some of the most glowing compliments I received from Dr. Glen Stassen (Fuller Theological Seminary) related to ideas that came straight from Dr. Harrell. One does not truly understand Lilliput unless he or she has stood on the shoulders of giants like Stassen and Harrell.
This book probably would not be of any great value unless you have read some of Dr. Harrell’s works (some listed below). If you are interested in Restoration history, or in the Churches of Christ, especially in the 20th century, this would be a good book for you to have. It is not terribly long, and as it is a collection of essays, some will obviously be of greater value than others. For obvious reasons, I heartily recommend it.
*My apologies for this tremendously abbreviated list. I am working off the top of my memory right now, so to those devoted students of our other scholars, my sincere apologies if I did not mention your favorite mentor.
Just some of Dr. Harrell’s books (in my personal library) – Quest for a Christian America: A Social History of the Disciples of Christ in America, vol. 1., (Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1966); Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ, 1865-1900: A Social History of the Disciples of Christ, vol. 2., (University of Alabama Press, 1973); The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith (University of Alabama Press, 2000); White Sects and Black Men in the Recent South (Vanderbilt University Press, 1971); Pat Robertson: A Personal, Political and Religious Portrait (Harper and Row, 1987).
A feature story in the July, 2016 Christian Chronicle (www.christianchronical.org) explains a rather severe exam could be in the offing for colleges and universities that have traditionally been associated with Christian churches – any college or university with a faith-based charter or by-laws. After steam-rolling every other opponent it has faced, the LGBTQ movement has now set its sights on institutions of higher education that (a) refuse to accept the demands of the LGBTQ movement, and (b) receive federal funding. The attack at this point seems to be focused on removing the federal funding, and in an interesting twist, denying these colleges and universities the ability to participate in NCAA governed athletic activities.
The mechanism that is allowing this particular attack is the piece of legislation known as “Title IX” – a law that guaranteed there would be no discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded educational institutions. Originally, the law was designed to provide for equal educational, and just as important, athletic opportunities for females. For every sport limited to males, there needed to be an equal opportunity (same sport, or a different sport) for females. The law had the unfortunate effect of having schools remove some male sports teams (high school wrestling was particularly hard hit), but now that seems like a minor bump in the road. Now the real target has appeared – remove federal funding from these hate-driven, homophobic bastions of conservatism, or at least kill their football programs.
The main channel of federal funding for most Christian colleges and universities is through federally guaranteed student loans. Take away those loans and you take away the greatest likelihood that a student can afford to attend a private college or university. That would eventually kill the institution, and force all students into state funded colleges and universities where the LGBTQ dogma has been firmly entrenched for years now. A lesser goal, although no less juicy for emotional reasons, would be to prohibit Christian colleges and universities from participating in NCAA governed athletics. That would, in effect, cripple a large majority of Christian college and university athletic programs, as the NCAA governs three different levels of competition (Division I, II, and III).
A Christian college or university can apply for certain exemptions regarding provisions of the Title IX law. While all Christian colleges and universities I know of offer full athletic and educational opportunities for females, there are other issues of compliance which lie beneath the surface, but would create significant moral issues for these institutions. Take housing for just one example – many (if not most) colleges and universities offer housing both for single and married students. Currently, Christian colleges and universities can limit males to male-only dorms, females to female-only dorms, and limit married housing to heterosexual couples (male/female married couples). Take away those exemptions and there can be no gender-specific housing – and in regard to married couple housing, now that the Supreme Court has legalized homosexual marriage, homosexual and lesbian couples who are legally “married” could apply for university sponsored housing. Although apparently many would celebrate this development, to an overwhelming majority of alumni from some institutions, this would simply be unacceptable.
So – a test of epic proportions lies not too far on the horizon for these institutions. Some who claim a Christian heritage are only too willing to comply. (I need only mention Baylor University, a Baptist institution, which knowingly shielded a practicing lesbian basketball player to enhance the chances of an NCAA title. As the Christian Chronicle article makes clear, Pepperdine University, a university once associated with the Churches of Christ, proudly proclaims that their policies are in full compliance with the stipulations of Title IX – and see no need to ask for exemptions). Abilene Christian University (thinly associated with Churches of Christ) has just spent millions of dollars transitioning from NCAA Division II to Division I, so I seriously doubt they will jeopardize any NCAA standing with a request for Title IX exemptions.
It will be very, very interesting to see how these colleges and universities make their decisions. Do they forgo federal student loan money and find creative, alternate methods of assisting students to attend? Do they give up their expensive sports programs in favor of joining athletic associations governed by groups other than the NCAA? Or do they comply with the progressive LGBTQ demands and surrender the right to make institutional decisions based on the teachings of Scripture?
Please fasten your seat belts and return your tray tables to their upright and locked positions. The ride ahead promises to be turbulent. I do not envy the administrators of these institutions. I do pray, however, that they have the courage to stand with Scripture and refuse to be bullied into submission over this issue. Those of us who hope that another generation of young Christians will have the opportunity to study at a college or university committed to Christian precepts must stand shoulder to shoulder with the administrations of those institutions who refuse to bow the knee to this form of legalized blackmail.
** Update – just today I came across this blog by Ed Stetzer that documents a legislative agenda in California to limit Christian based education strictly to seminaries and college programs focused solely on Christian ministry. In other words, those preparing for Christian ministry can be educated in Christian principles, but no one else can.
Sometimes I wonder what people think about me. At other times I’m fairly certain, but I try not to think about those times. Specifically, I wonder what people think about me when I stress the significance of the meaning of similar, but ultimately different, words. I imagine most people think I’m a nut. Who cares what words mean? A word means what I want it to mean, so just get over it.
Well, I am an inveterate lover of words, so I cannot just “get over it.”
So, I was reading a commentary today in which the author made several references to Jesus “accepting” sinners. Every time he used the word “accept” or “acceptance” I cringed and made a little comment in the margin of the book. (I am always correcting authors when they make mistakes. Hopefully, none of them will ever see my corrections.) Something made me pause and ponder for a moment why it was that I was so put-out with the word “acceptance.” I realized that I was reacting against what I perceive to be the modern connotation of the word. When I hear the word accept used today it is virtually always used in the context of approval. When someone suggests that I “accept” a particular viewpoint or choice of behavior, they are not suggesting that I simply recognize the behavior and move on. That person (or persons) want me to approve the behavior or ideology. So, when I read the author’s continued use of the word “accept” for Jesus’s association with sinners, all I could think of was that the author was trying to communicate that Jesus saw nothing wrong with the behavior of the people he chose, or allowed, to be around. That grated on my nerves – and still does, for that matter.
The meanings of words change with time. Take, for one tragic example, the word “gay.” It used to mean “happy, carefree, exuberant, joyful.” Now it means – well, you know what it means. I fear that the word “acceptance” or “accept” has changed as well. Maybe it is just me, but I cannot accept (pardon the pun) that a lifestyle of sexual depravity is normal or – to use a word to define a word – “acceptable.” In other words, I cannot approve of a lifestyle that is condemned in Scripture – and that would include lifestyles marked by any of the “works of the flesh.” Sin still has to be sin; otherwise the sacrifice of Jesus becomes far less than divine, indeed it becomes positively diabolical.
I want to acknowledge that Jesus freely associated with those that the Pharisees referred to as “sinners.” Some of those people were truly rebellious against God – and some probably just did not wash their hands before supper. But I struggle with the modern connotation of the word “accept.” He recognized sinners, freely associated with sinners, even perhaps welcomed sinners – but in absolutely no way, shape, or form did he ever approve of their sinful behavior.
Maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill, straining a gnat while trying to swallow a camel. As one whose life depends upon the correct usage and understanding of words, however, I must urge caution when certain words are used in relation to the life and teachings of Jesus. We may intend to mean one thing, and our audience may hear something entirely different. I suppose to a certain degree this is unavoidable – but we do not need to carelessly compound the issue.
Thanks for flying in the fog today – I hope you will excuse me, I need to get back to correcting some more authors.
Just a bunch of thoughts going through my head as I wrap up what appears to be my final semester of teaching . . .
~ As opposed to what a many people are thinking and saying, I am not terribly optimistic about the generation of students now in college and just entering college. Every week students presented the most inarticulate, grammatically butchered, and incoherent writings I have ever had the displeasure of reading. I know my experience relates to one tiny slice of one small school, but if my experience is anywhere close to average, the educational system in the United States is in an abysmal condition.
~ On a related note: identifying this rising generation as the “Entitlement Generation” will not be far off. Simply being registered in a course, and submitting the most banal of intellectual production, should guarantee a superior grade. Students who cannot follow the most simple (and direct) instructions as given in the course syllabus will raise Satan from his tomb if they are given the critique their work deserves.
~ I won’t even get into the issue of “helicopter parents.”
~ From the “intellectual whiplash” department – I absolutely despise the concept of allowing high school students to take university level courses. If the purpose of high school is to prepare a student for college, logic must follow that said student is not prepared for college until, wait for it – – – after graduating high school! So, imagine my great shock when I discovered that the #1 student in one of my courses this semester was a high school junior. That situation deeply disturbed me. First, I must congratulate the young scholar because she obviously takes her education seriously and has parents that are equally involved in her development (I know the family, and no, they are not “helicopter parents.”) But, what does that have to say about those who are 2, 3, and sometimes 4 or more years older than she is? Honestly, when a high school junior can write with greater clarity, and with more intellectual acuity, than a second, third, or fourth year collegian, something is seriously wrong!
~ In New Mexico this issue is compounded with the state mandate that a high school student must graduate with at least three hours of college course work. Mandated!! This is pure insanity!! Why should a student, who is not qualified and has no interest in college, be forced to take, and complete, a college course? All that is accomplished is that the college course they are enrolled in is watered down so the unprepared and unmotivated high school students can pass. Oh, but the high school looks good, the college gets the tuition money (from the state, no less), and everybody is happy, happy, happy. Actually, everybody is either drunk, drunk, drunk or disappointed, chagrined, and perplexed.
~ Do you realize that in the state of New Mexico, it is possible to graduate from high school with the equivalent of an Associates Degree from a college? Am I the only one who can see the absurdity of this??
~ In the midst of all this woe, misery, and administrative flagellation, I have been blessed to have come into contact with some of the most wonderful, amazing, and talented young people. As a generation as a whole, I am utterly depressed when I think of this crop of offsprung. Individually, however, there are some amazing young minds – and hearts – among this generation of “millennials” or whatever their sociological moniker is. The hurdles they face in life are epic – not only the garbage that my generation has dumped in their lap, but also the profound difficulty they will have in overcoming the lethargy and narcissism of their peers. As with any generation, some will succeed, and some will fail.
~ Finally, I really must tip the old Fedora to some truly amazing people – the high school teachers and the university professors who daily have to fight an inept and dangerously ignorant legislative process that has crippled the American educational system. It will only be when local school boards have their full power returned to them (read: parental control!) that this debacle will be fixed. I honestly do not know how many teachers survive. But, I know some teachers, and I have been mentored by an amazing administrator who cares so deeply about her students that she can (somehow) fight the ignoramuses off of her back long enough to enter the classroom and do what she loves to do. Such is the story in every school everywhere. My daughter’s teachers are my everyday heroes. What they are asked to do, with what they are given, in the time constraints to which they are limited – is simply unbelievable.
~ Sorry for all the pessimism and negativism. Maybe tomorrow I’ll share how I would fix all of this if I was to be elected king for a day. Until then, thanks for flying in the fog and please return your tray tables to the upright and locked position – it’s gonna be a bumpy flight…
Funny that something so basic can be so misunderstood. So much of what is passed off as “education” today is nothing of the sort. This is how I have come to understand education.
First, all education begins with a challenge to what we have previously known or accepted as true. You simply cannot learn something that you already know or believe. You can be reminded of something that you once learned and had forgotten, but to use the terms learn or education concerning something that you already know is to misuse the terms.
Second, one takes the challenge of the new thought or idea and puts it to a critical analysis. Here is where the student says, “I’ve never thought of this before, or in this way. I wonder what others have to say about this.” In elementary school the final source of truth might be our parents, but usually we confirm a new idea before we accept it as our own. If we do not have an “ultimate authority” we keep knocking the idea around with others until we can confirm or deny the new concept.
Learning does not stop with critical analysis, however. A third step involves returning to that which I already know, and either assimilating or rejecting the worth of the new idea. Most of what I read concerns thoughts or ideas that I have not previously experienced. I can confirm that those thoughts and ideas are, indeed true and correct as far as they go. Much of that, however, are thoughts and ideas that are not important to me and I basically ignore or forget them as soon as I learn them (sort of the study, test, and dump that most students practice on a regular basis). Yes, you can say that I have learned a great deal about the grammar of the Greek language – but I can assure you I have assimilated very little of it. I have to go back repeatedly and remind (there’s that word again) myself of concepts I have previously learned. On the other hand, if I need to know something, and can use it immediately and repeatedly, that fact or practice becomes a part of my life. Thankfully I did not have to remind myself of the principles of landing an airplane every time I took off. I learned it, and it became “second nature” in a very real way.
The final step in education then returns to the first step, and we are prepared to challenge ourselves, or be challenged by, another thought, idea, concept, or practice. The circle, or spiral, continues as long as we live, or at least as long as we aspire to learn. It is certainly true that we can remind ourselves of a great many things – and a great many things are worth our time to pull out and remember from time to time. But, to expand our mind we must challenge, analyze, assimilate and challenge again.
I fear the misnaming of education is a mistake that is all too frequently made in church settings. In far too many Bibles “classes” challenge is not accepted. The only thing that can be discussed is what is already known, approved, and accepted. Not even the teacher is allowed to study things that are new or challenging, for fear that some of his new “learning” might infiltrate his presentations. If there is no challenge there can be no critical analysis. In fact, there cannot be any critical analysis of things that are already accepted and approved. There can be no “what” or “why” questions – unless the subject involves an outsider, and we wonder what or why “they” think the way they do. If there is no critical analysis, there can be no assimilation, no “building” upon a previous foundation. Only that which is approved can be approved. That is circular thinking, and that is not education.
My greatest mentors over the first half of my formative years were all devout (and brilliant, by the way) members of the Churches of Christ. I learned from men such as Everett Ferguson, John Willis, Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, Bill Humble, Lemoine Lewis, and Eugene Clevenger. These are men who epitomize education to me. Most, or at least many, of them obtained their doctoral degrees from the pinnacle of Ivy League (and, not to be redundant, liberal) universities. Yet, they remained true to the Restoration plea that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the ultimate authority to which all new ideas and concepts must be compared. My greatest mentors over the last few decades of my life have been outsiders to this circle of faith – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, and even more recent, N.T. Wright. Having a solid foundation, I can compare what is new, unfamiliar, and in some cases unsettling, with what I previously learned to be true. I have come to learn (pardon the pun) that much of what these “outsiders” teach is actually true – true in the biblical sense, but perhaps not true in the sense of my tradition. Not all, to be sure – I do have to exercise my critical analysis muscles quite a bit!
I am distressed by those who refuse to be challenged, and so to expand their education. I am equally distressed to read, and to hear, of those who claim to be leaders in the Churches of Christ today who begin with the challenge, and then jump straight to assimilation without the critical analysis phase. How did Everett Ferguson come away from that bastion of liberalism known as Harvard with such a conservative understanding? Because his feet were well grounded, and he was not swayed by “every philosophy” that blew his way. Suffice it to say that our pulpits are full of preachers who catch wind of a new idea, and, embarrassed by their suffocating “tradition,” blithely follow that new idea where ever it blows, even if it blows up. Jumping on every new and sexy idea is not education. Forcing your congregation to follow you into your folly is not leadership. However, I am afraid we have idolized those who are the least worthy of our following, and we have mistakenly identified blind allegiance as true education.
I am, by nature and by nurture, an educator. I simply adore teaching. I love it when my students “get it.” But I don’t want it to be easy. I want there to be some struggle, and I do not necessarily want them to accept every “i” and “t” as I present them. I want my students to get an education – and some day it would be a great honor for one of them to teach this old dawg a new trick or two.
*Note: Arrrrgh. I just realized I posted under this exact title some time ago. That is the thing about my memory – it works so irregularly that almost everything is brand new to me. Sorry for any whiplash that folks might have experienced.
Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together. Paul R. House (Crossway:Wheaton, Illinois, 2015) 197 pages.
One thing that you can say about my book reviews is that I am NOT generally on the “cutting edge” of literary publications. Chances are I am reviewing books that are anywhere from five to fifteen years old – or maybe even older. Every once in a while, however, I do get ahold of a book that has been published in the preceding twelve months, and luckily for me this book is one such example.
Paul R. House has given words to something that I feel very deeply. The fact that he did so by incorporating the theology and practices of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is just icing on the cake to me. In fact, I initially bought the book because of the connection to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I am hopelessly enthralled with Bonhoeffer, and the title of this volume piqued my interest). However, I quickly came to realize that the real value of this book lies in House’s critique and solutions he gave to a critical issue facing seminaries and schools of theology.
I write from my own perspective, and so others may have a very different opinion based on their experiences, but I will go out on a limb and say that, with few exceptions, Churches of Christ do not do a very good job of preparing ministers. The Bible departments in our colleges and universities, our graduate schools, and our schools of preaching do a passable job in teaching the content of what a preacher needs to know (and some do that better than others), but on an over-all basis the schools that are tasked to prepare the next generation of congregational preachers do not do a very effective job of forming the life of the minister. There is a kind of silent code that states, “our job is to provide a student with the skills he will need to be a preacher, it is up to the candidate to be the kind of Christian he will be.” This was certainly the case when I was in school 30+ years ago; I am not sure how true it is today. Just a hunch based on some very unscientific observations, but things have not changed much in the product, however much has been changed in the theory end of the equation.
If my observation is valid at all, that would mean that the Churches of Christ fare no better, although probably not any worse, than the situation House describes. He challenges the notion that ministers of the gospel can be trained in sterile, “academic” settings exclusively. He especially challenges the idea that a minister can be shaped or formed through the process of “on-line” courses which basically amount to nothing more than the transfer of data between two computers. House is no neophyte – he has a Ph.D from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has been involved in seminary education for over 30 years. His academic credentials are impeccable. What he says needs to be heard, whether you ultimately agree with him or not.
Basing his argument on two of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s more popular (and readable) works, Discipleship, and Life Together, House defends his argument that theological education – at least the kind of theological education that shapes and forms a minister’s life – needs to be done in community. While rigorous academic work must be a part of the seminary experience (the part I think our schools excel at), there must be a high level of face-to-face mentoring and spiritual formation that occurs as well. House demonstrates that Bonhoeffer had his greatest impact on the future of the church through the experiences he had with his seminarians, beginning at Zingst, and then moving to Finkenwalde and ultimately to the collective pastorates in Kosslin and Gross Schlonwitz. Bonhoeffer was a demanding educator – he expected a high level of exegetical acumen from his students, but he was equally concerned with who the young men were, and what they were training to become. Bonhoeffer did not just want to share information or pass along esoteric tidbits of theological trivia. He wanted to form ministers who could go out into one of the most demanding, and physically terrifying, situations in church history and not only survive, but to thrive and help their church members to thrive.
The fact that a majority of Bible majors in universities and colleges associated with Churches of Christ do not plan to or even want to enter into congregational ministry* is a devastating indictment against the education they are receiving. Various reports are suggesting that there are not enough students enrolled to adequately serve the number of congregations who presently need ministers, and with the baby boom generation of preachers getting ready to retire or are no longer able to serve the congregations, the need for additional servant-ministers will soon become acute. The ultimate answer to this need is no doubt far more extensive than the suggestions in this thin volume, but if you are looking for a place to begin, the wisdom in this book would be my first suggestion.
*Based on a personal report of one prominent university dated some years ago. Other colleges and universities may have a much higher proportion of students who not only desire, but are actively planning, to enter into congregational ministry. My apologies if my brush is painting with too broad of a stroke.
Yesterday I added to an already oversized series of rants against our education system in the U.S. (I did not realize just how oversized until I reviewed what I had already written. Yikes). But I am passionate about education. I guess it is in my DNA. So, just so that I can not be accused of only being a complainer and not one who offers any solutions, I offer the following solutions to repairing our broken education system. Will any be implemented? Probably not, but I would love to see some, if not all of them at least attempted.
- Get all politicians out of the education system. There should be NO elected officials higher than the immediate, local school board. School board members should be a part of district (or districts) that they oversee. They should shop in the same shops, eat in the same restaurants, attend the same churches and pay the same taxes. They should be held accountable by those who elect them, and terms should be short enough so that the weak and ineffectual can be removed. There absolutely should not be any county, state or federal level of education oversight. The higher the level of elected (or appointed) education officials the greater the mismanagement and damage done to the local classroom.
- Parents have to assert their authority in the classrooms. For far too long parents have abdicated their God-given role in the rearing of their children to the “specialists” and “professionals” in the education system. No – children have been entrusted to parents, not the state or the federal government, and parents should be intimately aware of what is being taught the classroom, and how it is being taught. Any time a “specialist” or a “professional” tells a parent, “I know more about what your child needs than you do” that person should be removed from the school or classroom as far as physically possible.
- All administrators, from the superintendent of the school down to the principal, and from the president of a university down to the deans and department chairs, must be in the schools and in the classrooms. That means that the administrators’ offices should be in the schools, not some separate “administration building.” NO! Put the office of the superintendent in the schools – and if s/he is the superintendent over a number of school campuses, then each school campus should have an administrative office and the superintendent should rotate among those campuses on a regular basis. Every administrator, including superintendents, principals, university presidents, vice-presidents, and deans should be required to teach one course every 3 – 4 school semesters or quarters. That’s right – if you are not teaching then you should not be considered a school “administrator.” If you are not dealing with intractable discipline issues, if you are not working with obsolete or incoherent textbooks, if you are not having to deal with leaky roofs and inoperative plumbing, then get out of your position. If you do not know the names of your teachers, and as many students as possible, then you are not an educator. And especially if you are not even qualified by the state or district in which you live to be in a classroom, then you are not qualified to be an administrator. We have far too many professional administrators who have forgotten, or perhaps who have never even been in a classroom. This is especially true of university presidents and vice-presidents. Get in the classroom or get out of education.
- Discipline must be re-established in the classroom. The unruly child cannot be allowed to hold the rest of the class hostage. Minor infractions should be dealt with swiftly and certainly. Repeated or more significant infractions must be dealt with by the principal or other duly empowered employee. After appropriate measures have been taken and the child is still unruly – kick them out of the classroom. Education is a privilege, not a guaranteed right. If a child, and especially if the parents of an unruly child, will not submit to the authority of a teacher (and higher school authority), then the child does not belong in the classroom, period. If necessary, create a special room with trained personnel to handle those with behavioral issues, but get those students out of the main-line classes.
- A college education is another privilege, not a constitutional right. Many children do not need to, nor do they wish to, attend college. Many professions do not require a college degree. College is not the place to “find oneself.” If you do not want to push yourself to the absolute extreme of your capabilities, do not attend a four-year college or university. Take a year or two and travel the world. Work in a soup kitchen or join the military. Dig ditches or clean sewers. Discover your life’s calling by actually getting out and trying a few things. Then, if a college or university degree is what you want, you will actually apply yourself and earn that degree.
- Let’s eliminate “guaranteed” school tuition scholarships and low interest loans. Free money is slowly killing higher education. A person’s birth does not entitle them to a bachelor’s degree. Let’s make a university education worth something again. That means raising, not lowering, entrance standards, and it means judging a university based on the quality of their graduates, not the quantity of students enrolled in their programs.
I could probably go on – but those are probably enough to get started. Our education system is broken: it is top-heavy, inefficient, caters to the disobedient and built on the idea that education is an entitlement and not a discipline. Parents have abdicated their primary role in education, and teachers have been stripped of their ability to maintain discipline in their classrooms. Teachers must be held accountable, but they must also be given the freedom to exercise their love of teaching.
And, for the love of everything pure and special about education – let us please get politics and politicians out of our schools!
To begin, I am not an “expert” in the field of education. However, I have had more than the average experience both in learning and teaching. I just completed my Doctor of Ministry degree – not the highest peak on Mt. Academia, but it was a hefty hike. I have about 4 years (give or take a month or two) as a flight instructor, both on the ground and in the air, and that qualifies as some pretty unique educational opportunities. When you have a student and a classroom in which death is a very real possibility, you learn to teach effectively pretty quickly. I also have now been teaching in a community college or university setting for four years (one semester at a community college, 3 and 1/2 years at a university). So – Ed. D. I am not, nor am I a retired public educator. But – I have been around the block a couple of times. And, I have a daughter in elementary school – so I can see what is happening from the bottom-up, as well as the top-down.
Everyone is worried about the demise of America via the path of immorality. While I share everyone’s worry about the collapse of biblical morals in our country, I am not convinced that America will fail (or fall) because of lax morals. To be perfectly honest, during the “Roaring 20’s” the crime rate, examples of racial animosity, and, yes, sexual perversity makes our present age look pretty tame. I certainly would not want to be transported back to that time period. Granted, much of the sexual perversity was hidden, but I seriously doubt it was as invisible as many would have us to believe.
No, the reason I fear for America is because of our stunning – almost inexplicable – rejection of the basic concept of education.
I love my students, I really do. There are a few I would like to strangle, but in a good way. I just do not think they are working up to their potential. My frustration with the students in today’s university is that they have been so utterly and completely cheated. They have been told they are the most brilliant, smartest, and most over-achieving generation to grace the world stage – and many of them cannot compose a coherent sentence, let alone an argumentative paragraph or essay. They have been lied to, mass promoted, babied, and coddled ever since they entered kindergarten.
My wife hates it when I get on these rants because she is a substitute teacher, and she is all too familiar with the stresses of teaching. In no way do I want to disparage the well-meaning and hard-working teachers in today’s classrooms. As in any profession there are a lot of bad apples in the barrel, and they certainly give the rest a bad reputation, but 99% of the teachers in today’s classrooms are hard-working, dedicated, education professionals.
The problem with education today revolves around a group of people who, to borrow a phrase, should not even be trusted to be left alone with a pack of matches. They are called “politicians.” Their only job is to raise obscenely huge amounts of money and then to turn that money into votes. They know nothing about education, and except for the occasions when they must address the issue, could care less about education. Professional politicians have gutted the education system here in New Mexico – and they appear to be utterly oblivious to the fact.
Closely related to the politicians are the professional administrative staffs that, as with the politicians, know little and care less about classroom teaching. Those administrators who work their way up from the classroom are generally good administrators. However, those who have nothing more than a higher degree in “Educology” are disasters in the schools. All theory and no practical experience, they take what the politicians hand them and force the teachers to follow. If we had a few more administrators who were willing to stand up to the politicians, our schools would be so much the better.
I am intimately aware of a state university that has been told – get this – that its library holdings are too large. Yes, you read right. The university has to cut its library holdings by upwards of 50 percent because there was simply too many books and journals on the shelves. There must be room made for the foofy coffee and deli bar. And no library would be complete without a commons area where students can gather and plot their next demonstration against the administration. Oy vey. I guess you get what you pay for.
At its core, education is really a very simple process. You start with the absolute minimum that is necessary, and you add piece by piece, drilling and memorizing and practicing and rehearsing, until you have a principle or a concept mastered. Then you add another piece, and you drill and memorize and practice and rehearse until it is mastered – and on and on you go. There is something wonderfully egalitarian about the fact that in English subjects almost always precede verbs, and the fact that 5 x 4 = 20. The social issues faced in an inner city school in Baltimore cannot be compared to the social issues faced on the reservations of northwest New Mexico, but nouns and verbs and multipliers and divisors are always the same. For all the variables in social contexts, education itself is wonderfully fair. If you work hard, you learn. If you play all day, and if your teacher’s hands are basically tied behind their backs – you don’t learn. And that, my friends, is what is happening all across our beautiful fruited plain.
Employers are experiencing a greater and greater difficulty in hiring qualified workers. Simple tasks like writing a report or giving a public presentation are impossible when the employee is used to communicating with sentences like “y are u l8??” I have students that think Wikipedia is an academic cornucopia, except that they would not recognize what the word “cornucopia” actually means unless they “google” it.
America is at risk – and not necessarily from immorality. America is at risk because young Americans are not being pushed to be the most highly educated workers in the world economy. We are in the process of dumbing down our educational system to the point that our graduates will simply not be able to find good jobs, and those that do end up being employed are going to have to be re-trained and re-taught by their employers at a staggering cost. Those nations that insist on basic, fundamental education are going to pass by the United States like we were standing still, if they have not already done so.
The United States put men on the moon learning how to spell and cipher and speak intelligently using techniques that are now considered passé and, in some circles, even damaging. I wonder why that is? Are we actually afraid of success? Do we actually fear accomplishment? Why do we reward mediocrity? Why is everyone so content with this trend?
I give a huge shout-out to my peers who genuinely do care about their students and the process of education. I hope you serve long enough to see the trend reversed. I know you care – and I thank my daughter’s teachers who care about her and her classmates. I know how you are limited – and I see your frustration. Maybe, just maybe, sanity will return, and you can begin teaching the way your heart and your head tell you is the best way to teach. We can hope, anyway.