Thursday, October 13, 2016

Eliminate the Undergraduate Degree

A common question with regard to preparation for ordained ministry is "How much can we live without?"  Several emergent circumstances prompt this question -- decline in seminary enrollment, the difficulty of church bodies to subsidize their seminaries, the crushing burden of academic debt on people who have been painstakingly prepared for a profession in which full-time work is becoming scarce.  Naturally, churches ask how to control the cost of preparing their ministers, a question which leads just as naturally to the follow-on: which aspects of the present preparatory routine are dispensable?

For those who do not know, the preparation of a Protestant minister, in the United States, typically looks like this:

  • a four-year undergraduate degree in any subject, although the humanities are preferred; 
  • a three-year graduate program in "divinity," which quaint word indicates a combination of Biblical, historical and theological studies; 
  • practical work, normally taking the form of field work while in seminary, Clinical Pastoral Education and (for all Lutherans, at least) a year or so of (very lightly paid) parish internship.  
  • Lutheran students who have  graduated at a non-Lutheran school may also be required to complete a year of residential study at one of their own denomination's seminaries.

It amounts to nine or ten years of study, the last few of them 12-month years during which postulants have no vacation time in which to earn any money.  They are all but guaranteed to graduate penniless, hungry and in debt.

In fairness, churches have not mindlessly insisted upon adherence to this general program.  For years, they have experimented with variations.  Especially popular these days are "terminal internships," in which a candidate completes the entire classroom course of study, and is then placed in a parish as "vicar," under the periodic (but not daily) supervision of a neighboring pastor.  The expectation is that after ordination the vicar will became pastor to the same parish.  Other less popular variations include distance learning, which allows the student to continue working and avoid the costs of residential study,  and programs that simply waive some academic requirements for older postulants from "emerging ministries," meaning especially minority communities.

None of these is bad, but none of them is a magic bullet, either.  Terminal internships may place new pastors in difficult situations without adequate mentoring, and in any case save them only the costs of the internship year.  TEEM and similar programs save a lot more money, but create the very serious risk of burdening congregations with pastors who are not intellectually adequate to the task, or whose adequacy is limited to the very specific location to which they were ordained, and do not transfer well to other parishes.

Over and over, it comes back to "What can we cut?"  Is a decent grounding in Biblical languages more or less important than a summer of hospital chaplaincy or a year of daily supervision?  Is a grasp of Reformation history more or less important than an a third semester of homiletics?  All of these things matter; all of them are important to the effective conduct of pastoral work.

But do you know what is not important?  A degree in biology.  Or aeronautics, or even "religion" as that discipline is understood by the modern academy.  These are undergraduate studies, of great interest by themselves and in some cases of direct value to potential employers.  They are not, however, subjects absolutely required for pastors and theologians.

So let's make studies in divinity an undergraduate subject.  

By which I mean: let us agree upon a course of study which can, in four years, prepare a capable high school graduate to carry out the duties of a parish pastor.  Teach them, in the course of four years, the things we now teach them in three, and add to that a smattering of "elective" subjects -- music and art would be the most professionally useful, but such matters could be negotiated. So might an optional fifth year of study, in which an advanced degree (rather like the Th.M. or S.T.M.) could be granted.

Such a plan might give new life and purpose to our moribund seminaries.  The course of study could not be as diffuse as those which lead to the typical BA and BS degrees -- and this degree would be neither of those.  It would have to focus more narrowly on theological subjects, which most colleges are unprepared to teach, but at which seminaries excel.  Therefore, a seminary is the natural institution to offer such a degree, perhaps  after enlarging its faculty a bit or in conjunction with a larger school.

But the chief virtue of such a plan is that it could potentially save a fortune for those with an early vocation.  Of all the costs incurred in the "typical"process, the undergraduate education is surely the greatest for most people, and yet paradoxically it is the one with the least obvious practical value.

Oh, downsides are obvious.  Pastors prepared this way would be less mature in years, and likely emotions, than those to which parishes are accustomed.  Moreover, they might lack exposure to fields of study -- especially sciences both natural and social -- with genuine, if secondary value for a theologian. Second-career pastors gain nothing from this plan, although they do not lose anything either.  There are no doubt other difficulties as well.  But still:  It. Saves. A. Fortune.

What do you think, readers?

Friday, October 07, 2016

"Wrangling Over Words"

Saint Paul -- or, if not Paul, then whoever actually wrote the Second Letter to Timothy -- uses a curious expression, and one which may excite the imagination of a few preachers.  He advises young Timothy on how to encourage God's People to endure as Paul himself has endured for the sake of the Gospel.  First, he quotes a now-lost hymn (paralleled in Polycarp's Letter to the Philippians) about dying with Christ in order to live with Christ; then he says:
[W]arn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. (2:14b, NRSV)
"Wrangling," which makes Americans think of horses, may not be the best translation.  Nor is the KJV's "strive," with its undertones of ambitious effort.  We would prefer a more mundane "warn them against bickering over words."

This is good advice, especially in an Hellenistic context.  Greeks were notorious in the ancient for their love of philosophical argument.  They would talk a subject to death, it was commonly said, rather than kill it like men. Even Greeks themselves grew impatient with the endless hairsplitting that seemed to cast doubt upon the received wisdom of religion, family and nation.  Hence Socrates' unfortunate final cocktail.

Theologians, who are first cousins to philosophers, have also been known to talk a subject to death, and extract from a close reading conclusions opposed to the "common sense" of the average hearer.  For the most part, this is a good thing; the average hearer does not know what he is listening to.  It is astonishing to us how many Christians manage to leave Sunday service, having spent an hour hearing the Prince of Peace blessing the peacemakers, convinced that Jesus wants them to kill Mooslims or build a wall against immigrants.  The task of theology is to challenge sloppy religious thinking, and the first tool in its box is attention to the actual language of Scripture.  Words matter.

But as any indulged child will admit after too long in an ice-cream parlor, one can have too much of a good thing.  Many Christians, including some of the educated and articulate, tire of speculation that does not lead to action.  Too much talk, or worse yet the wrong kind of talk, will douse the coals once lit by the Spirit.  We have all seen it; indeed we see too much of it, as passionate believers begin to doubt that their belief has either a firm basis or a logical conclusion, and so slip away into the rolls of the "inactive."

A Greek warrior kills a centaur
Anyway, back to Paul.  What we render as "wrangling over words" is in fact a single word, logomacevw.  It has an English cognate, logomachy, an argument over words.  Its use in English is rare and generally jocular. The Victorians played a board game by this name; Roger Angell once asked how best to measure the effectiveness of a baseball pitcher, and concluded that "here, as in other parlous areas of the pastime, the answer must be left to the writers and the fans, and to the thousand late-night logomachies."

Do not be fooled by the appearance of playfulness.  Greeks used -macevw combinations strategically, to tell a story about their deepest values. It was not always a very pleasant story, either.  Two common tropes in Greek art are the "centauromachy" and the "Amazonomachy."  Each shows the pitched battle and ultimate triumph of Greeks over their monstrous opposites -- beastly men and warlike women.

While we moderns may romanticize both centaurs (think of noble Firenze in the Harry Potter books) and Amazons (Wonder Woman, or any of a zillion other warmings-over of the Bachofen thesis), the Greeks were having none of it.  Such things were monsters, the funhouse-mirror reflections of their own values: reason and masculinity.  Their conquest, if only in art, was a victory for the self-image of Greek men.
Amazonomachy, from a Roman sarcophagus

So what does it mean when Paul, or perhaps his slightly more Hellenized follower Pseudo-Paul, applies this rhetorical strategy to words, rather than horses or women? Perhaps the idea is to encourage Christians in a life of what is today called praxis: faith active in love, rather than in disputation and speculation.  And the point is sharpened by all those Parthenon friezes; as pagans labored to defeat the temptations of brutishness and femininity, so we Christians must defeat the temptation to argue amongst ourselves over the fine print of our confession.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Prayer of the Day: A Case Study

The collect for this coming Sunday provides an interesting look at how traditional prayers are rendered for modern worship books.  We are looking, specifically, at the prayer for Lectionary 28 C (formerly known as Proper 22 C) found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship and related publications of Augsburg-Fortress Press.

Here is the Latin original, from the Gelasian Sacramentary:
Omnipotens et misericors Deus, universa nobis adversantia propitiatus exclude: ut mente et corpora pariter expediti, quae tua sunt, liberis mentibus exsequamur. [Alford, Liber Sacramentorum etc. (1894), p. 232.]
Like many of the medieval collects, it is a bit tricky.  Father John Zulhsdorf, a far more accomplished Latinist than we at the Egg, offers this "slavishly literal" translation:
Almighty and merciful God, having been appeased, keep away all things opposing us, so that, having been unencumbered in mind and body equally, we may with free minds accomplish the things which You command.
We would render quae tua sunt more literally still as "your things," as in the ELCA's popular slogan, "your things, our hands."  But close enough.

Here is the traditional Book of Common Prayer version, which was used among Anglophone Lutherans at least through the life of the Service Book and Hymnal (for the 19th Sunday after Trinity):
O almighty and most merciful God, of thy bountiful goodness keep us, we beseech thee, from all things that may hurt us; that we, being ready both in body and soul, may cheerfully accomplish those things which thou commandest; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Notice a few key translation choices.  Propitiatus, the root meaning of which is in the favorable disposition that comes from having been soothed or, as we say in English, propitiated, is rendered "of thy bountiful goodness." It marks a change in grammar, and perhaps a dilution of the original idea, but it results in good English.  "Cheerfully," on the other hand, sounds almost trite, especially against the inspiring idea of doing God's work "with free minds."

The Lutheran Book of Worship does not seem to have used this collect (or if so, we cannot find it), but ELW's ambitious three-years cycle of Prayers of the Day requires all praying hands on deck.  Here is the current version:

Almighty and most merciful God, your bountiful goodness fills all creation. Keep us safe from all that may hurt us, that, whole and well in body and spirit, we may with grateful hearts accomplish all that you would have us do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen. 
It's not bad, as ELW collects go.  God is addressed in conventional language, and no manatees are mentioned.  We will certainly pray it without hesitation. But please do notice a few points of difference from its models.
  1. Far from having been appeased, God's favorable disposition, or "goodness," is now said to "fill all creation."  Apparently universa has been read in relation to propitiatus rather than nobis adversantia.  Our command of the grammar isn't good enough to criticize, but ... we are suspicious.
  2. Christians are said to be "whole and well," rather than "prepared," i.e. for work.  The delightful image of the baptized marching expediti, like lightly-burdened soldiers, has been set aside.  Wholeness and wellness are certainly Biblical ideas, and fit nicely with this week's lessons about leprosy cures. But they are also, it must be said, modern preoccupations.  It is not fair to look at this substitution and cry out "therapeutic religiosity!" -- but neither does that make the choice a good one.
  3. Our "free minds" -- or hearts, or even souls; we won't fight you on that -- have been changed yet again.  We are no longer merely "cheerful," but now "grateful."  Again, the concept of gratitude meshes nicely with the recent direction of the lectionary (although the Samaritan leper, technically, does not give God thanks so much as praise).  But again also we see a modern preoccupation replace an ancient one.  Gratitude is much spoken about in modern churches, especially with reference to stewardship; we are to do good works because God has done a good work for us.  But changing the focus this way, we lose the subtler point that in Christ we have been set free not only from sin but from obligation; we can now pursue goodness for its own sake, following its path back toward the Source of all that is good.
All this touches upon both the beauty and the limitations of ELW.  On one hand, it is a massive repository of prayers, many of them very old.  Yay!  The Egg loves old prayers.

On the other hand, its editors have often made questionable decisions in their handling of the old material, feeling especially free to substitute their own theological and cultural concerns for those of the ancient and medieval communities that created them.  That's not a crime; the Reformers did a lot of the same thing.  But the Reformers were working with texts that they considered grossly corrupt on account of neo-Pelagianism, and so removed petitions to the saints and so forth.  These modern changes seem both smaller and more arbitrary.  In some cases, although not this one, they result in prayers whose terse Latin character has been diluted by the intrusion of foreign ideas, making the whole thing longer and less pithy.

We don't hate ELW.  Really we don't.  (Except for the Psalter, which we do hate with a Psalm 139-worthy perfect hatred).  ELW is a physically beautiful book, the result of more hours of work than we can ever imagine.  But from the Mass settings that simply stop halfway through to the arbitrary re-translations of classic prayers, it is a frustrating book for us to use. We hope for better next time.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Our Big Day

Jules Joseph Lebebvre
It comes but once a year, and we so often forget to mark it.  But today, 22 July, is the feast day of our patroness, St. Mary Magdalene.  (Technically, it is a Lesser Festival for us Lutherans, which places it below a Principal Festival and above a Commemoration.  But we digress.)
After Pompeo Batoni

As we have often said, and you have often heard, she was not a prostitute, nor was she Mary of Bethany, nor was she even a "sinner" except insofar as we are all sinners.  At least Scripture does not tell us so.  Nor, by the same standard, do we have reason to believe that she retired to a cave to live out a life of penitence, whether in Britain or France or anywhere else.  Even the story of the reddening egg (alas!) is pure myth.  (Much less the Da Vinci Code balderdash.)
Robert Lenz

A pity, really.  The legends of Mary Magdalene, in their full medieval glory, compose a treasury of beautiful and exotic speculation, adorned by a vast gallery of painting and sculpture.  They are adventurous, sexy, pious and at the same time just a little subversive.  For many people, it is these legends -- these exotic speculations -- that are the Magdalene's chief attraction.  (Here's an introduction).
Gregor Erhart

Mind you, the little that we actually learn from Scripture is interesting enough.  Jesus cast "seven devils" from her, she was part of the group of women who provided for the disciples out of their own living, and of the smaller group who had been "healed of evil spirits and infirmities."  Above all, she is the one figure placed by all of the four Evangelists at the empty Easter tomb.

The significance of this is hard to overstate.  Few figures are mentioned by name in all four gospels; not the Blessed Virgin, nor her husband, nor some of the Twelve.  It leads some scholars to speculate that the Magdalene, as perhaps also John the Baptist, may have been a spiritual leader of some independent authority, whose followers (and whose story) were gradually integrated into the master-narrative of the Jesus movement.  This may well be a feminist fantasy -- but it is no less plausible than her retirement to a Provencal cavern.
AA Ivanov

What we can rely on, however, is this:  that she was a central figure in the story of the Resurrection -- the first witness, and the first to carry the story.  The Orthodox are right to identify her as one of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, but this does not go nearly far enough.  She is rightly called Apostle to the Apostles, and -- although this is rarely mentioned -- a model for preachers, for all those who share the good news of the Resurrection, for all those who proclaim a Christianity with new life at its center.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

SIlence of the Lambs

Regular readers of the Egg -- to the extent that there ever were any -- have perhaps noticed that we post a great deal less often these days.  There are many reasons, a new and rather busy parish chief among them.  But one reason in particular stands out for its sheer darkness.

America has gone mad.

Writing with a jaundiced eye about our nation has never been difficult; HL Mencken and Sinclair Lewis made their bones by picking low-hanging fruit.  Teasing booboisie and boosterism is easy, so long as you have even the least bit of critical distance from them.  For our own part, lobbing softballs at our favorite targets -- the Bush Administration, drunken bishops, Protestant groupthink and Catholic revanchism -- has always been a pretty straightforward business as well.

Here's the thing:  the sort of armchair criticism in which we have indulged depends upon a fairly thick portfolio of shared convictions, both with our readers and with our targets.  At some level, even Dick Cheney knew that torture was wrong.  Likewise, Bruce Burnside knew that drunk driving (and texting) was stupid, the UCC knows that both tradition and Scripture actually do matter, the SSPX knows that at a certain point the Pope is the Pope and they are not.  All we have had to do is remind them of these shared convictions, and invite them to behave accordingly.

But the times they are, as always, a-changin'.

Over the past year or two, it has become evident that America's police departments are terrified of the people they nominally exist to serve and protect.  So, with government collusion, they have armed themselves like military units, and declared war on ... well, anybody who looks at them funny, especially while black.  Meanwhile, America's well-armed civilians -- the Constitutional "militia" which has so powerfully resisted all efforts to regulate it -- have risen to the challenge, procuring and using their own weapons, both against the police and against their unarmed compatriots.

At the same time, our Congressional gridlock has become so exacerbated that it has spread to the Supreme Court.  The justices, divided 4-4 on a handful of major decisions, have even begun declining to hear cases they know they cannot decide.  Two branches of the federal government are now unable to function properly.

As for the Executive Branch -- well, goodness!  As the November elections approach, the two principal political parties have both nominated candidates who are strikingly, intensely, passionately unlikeable.  This is a bold move, but also a stupid one. While Richard Nixon proved that it is possible for a person with poor social skills and a paranoid (or grandiose) personality disorder to win the nation's highest office, this remains an exception.  The rule favors candidates whom people actually like.  However much we may disagree on matters of policy with a Reagan, a G.W. Bush, or a Bill Clinton, they were all the sort of person you might enjoy eating lunch with, or taking in a ball game, or sharing a few beers at the office picnic.  They could kiss a baby without frightening the parents.

The presidential campaign, which would be comical if the apparent madness of Donald Trump did not raise the stakes quite so high, is frankly terrifying.  But it is just one symptom of our society's seeming rush to the bottom.  Racial and ethnic hatred, explosive violence, an unreliable justice system, and a national government that is unable to govern (and don't let's get started on the states):  these are just a few of the profound challenges facing America at this moment.

Worst of all, we are plagued by the sense that we no longer share a set of common values, not only with the people running for president but with many of the people preparing to vote for them.  What kind of country could create, not to say tolerate and even in some corners celebrate, Cliven Bundy and his family?  In what world is the answer to gun violence a wider dissemination of guns?  When did Joel Osteen become a public representative of the Christian tradition?  It is madness; and indeed, our Facebook news feed offers a daily glimpse into the Abyss.

It is hard to write about current events.  To make jokes seems callow, while to say what one really thinks sounds alarmist or even unhinged.  So we at the Egg have found ourselves paralyzed, unable to say what we think -- and often unwilling even to think it.  More and more we take refuge in a careful exploration of antique rubrics, or considering the best punctuation of seventeenth-century sermons (literally; these have been our chief leisure pursuits lately).  We are, in short, hiding from the world, because the world is a frightening place.