Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

A Stunting Pragmatism

I’ve been bothered for a long time by the impatience that many Christians seem to show about the intellectual content part of the faith.   Since I’m a college professor, I could be a suspect for the “intellectual elitism” charge.  I hope it’s not true of me, and I think it is not.  

I’m reading a book about St. Augustine, just good and started.  In describing Augustine’s spiritual vision, the author, Thomas Martin, writes, “Augustine concludes his arguably most profound theological exploration, On the Trinity, with a prayer, one that serves as a vivid reminder that for [Augustine] not only are spirituality and theology inseparable, but that both are deeply plunged into the mystery of God,” (Martin, Our Resltess Heart, p. 51).   

Theology and spirituality are inseparably linked.  I totally agree.  Our pragmatism, our hurry, gets in the way of effective Christian spirituality.  You don’t have to be a “great theologian” to think deeply, theologically.  Slowing down to think cannot but help.  

I’m not interested in turning everybody into contemplatives.  Some people are just plain doers.  But even they need to slow down and think.  I believe, if we did/do, we’d have a more productive Christian life.  And maybe gain some self-awareness.  And maybe even become better witnesses.

Slowing down to think actually has a beneficial practical effect.  That’s the irony.  

What do you think?  Are American Christians too pragmatic?

January 30, 2009 Posted by | The Church | , , , | 1 Comment

Re-forging a Broken Link: College and Seminary Curricula

For quite some time, I’ve been puzzled by the lack of attention the college years receive when UM church leaders talk about theological education. This comment, from Resurrecting Excellence, by Greg Jones and Kevin Armstrong, is on target with why I’m baffled: “Indeed, one of the problems of training contemporary clergy is that formal education often has to do so much with ‘remedial catechesis‘ (emphasis added) that it is unable to do the work it is actually best equipped to do.” You can find this remark on page 114.

I wholeheartedly agree. Seminaries should not waste time with remedial catechesis. Their curricula are graduate-level. They rightly assume an already-established foundation of faith and knowledge. Furthermore, “graduate-level” means more than academic skill. Seminary is not the place to find oneself spiritually or work out one’s problems. It’s certainly OK if people go to seminary for these reasons, but the main aim, like medical school or law school for those professions, is to prepare people called to lead the church. Therefore, seminary students ought to have an adequate degree of spiritual maturity, wisdom and theological understanding when they arrive. Their hearts should be already clearly shaped by the Gospel and they should be advancing toward Christian maturity.

The college years are the perfect time for what Billy Abraham calls “university level catechesis.” If we paid more attention to this period in students’ lives, there would be no need for remedial catechesis in seminary.

So, how do we improve the situation? As usual, the proposal is much harder than the critique. However, I think it would surely help to start a conversation between interested college and seminary faculty, along with Deans. For example, let’s talk about what college curricula should provide and what seminary curricula should not duplicate. And let’s agree to a plan that works toward this kind of curricular clarity.

To take any step in this direction will require some institutional and denominational courage. It would mean, perhaps, that seminaries will have to say no to more applicants. Many seminaries (most?) admit almost all applicants. The seminary for which Greg Jones is Dean is not one of them.

I realize that my suggestion has certain financially ominous implications. In the short run, it would adversely affect some seminaries’ revenues. It likely would shrink the pool of available clergy to supply parishes. I think it’s better to go this way, however – to tighten academic requirements and expect more from colleges – than to continue with the current broken system.

January 15, 2009 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education | 2 Comments

A Lesson on Decency from NPR

If you catch National Public Radio at certain times of the week, they do a little segment on what listeners are saying in response to some feature they’ve done. The one I caught today took on their coverage of the Israel/Hamas tragedy (war is always tragic).

Poor NPR can never get it right. One listener heard one story that spotlighted Israel’s struggles. Another heard a piece a day later (or the day before, I don’t remember) on the plight of the Palestinians. Neither heard both and both lambasted NPR for “biased reporting.” Hm.

I’ve heard NPR do this segment many times. They simply report the comments of the listeners, acknowledging (sometimes with a bit of whimsy and sometimes with a tinge of irony) the limitations with their reportage and always thanking listeners for the comments and always inviting more.

One can take the cynical route and conclude that NPR is simply using this tactic as a sophisticated form of marketing or something. Still, as a Christian who is quite willing to share his opinions on any number of topics – even ones about which I know practically nothing – I find this NPR action very instructive.

NPR knows the business they’re in. They accept without rancor what goes with the territory. They’re courteous to their listeners and they don’t get defensive with unfair characterizations of their reporting. And most importantly, they do a great job of resisting the temptation to have the last word.

In media such as radio and TV, where constant sarcasm has replaced humor, where people are exposed and defamed on an almost daily basis, where pundits second-guess everything and call it “analysis,” where verbal violence is accepted as a matter of course, NPR (whatever you think of their biases) is a steady, faithful witness to plain, common human decency.

Christians, let us learn the lesson. Jesus told us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute or despitefully use us. When the high school valedictorian makes the news for suing the local school administration because they made her drop the God-talk from her valedictory; when we vociferously protect our rights while lambasting the ACLU for trying to uphold someone else’s; when we cut up somebody who doesn’t agree with us then cry foul when what goes around comes around, we do not honor the One whom we say we love.

Many good and useful outcomes might arise if Christians – opinionated ones like myself – would learn this lesson of decency and humility in our witness. We should engage the culture. We should state our opinions, using all the appropriate means available. We should even use sarcasm and satire, but always with the NPR lesson in mind: let us never cross the line of common human decency.

January 7, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality | Leave a comment

Barnes & Noble Reality Check

The Sunday after Christmas, I was browsing the religion section at a Barnes & Noble in Oklahoma City. The “Christian Inspiration” shelves were a hodgepodge of darn near anything, going light years beyond what I think of as inspirational. Some good books, I found there, several I’d like to read (e.g. Scot McKnight’s Blue Parakeet). Some other books that I’ve read (e.g Tony Jones’ The New Christians). And then, of course, a spray of all sorts of books, from smarmy sentimentalist glop to apocalyptic rants (e.g. John Hagee) to the enlightened conspiracy theories of various Dan Brown knock-offs.

Then I ran across this book, with a cover that seemed to fit, entitled Dirty Word: The Vulgar, Offensive Languages of the Kingdom of God, by Jim Walker. I scanned the back cover. “He’s the pastor of Hot Metal Bridge,” I thought to myself with some excitement. I had heard of Hot Metal Bridge, a cutting-edge United Methodist ministry in Pittsburgh, PA. Then I looked at the publisher: Discipleship Resources. “Wow!” I thought. “How unusual it is to find a Discipleship Resources book in Barnes & Noble.”

(Just in case you don’t know, Discipleship Resources is the imprint of the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship. They publish all manner of books on various – you guessed it – topics related to practical Christian discipleship.)

And then I caught myself listening to myself: “How odd to find a Discipleship Resources book in a Barnes & Noble.” How odd. How sad.

How do I say this? My little “moment” reminded me of just how out of it we United Methodists are when it comes to impact outside our denomination. I don’t know how many titles from Discipleship Resources that you have found at a Barnes & Noble. My very superficial quick-search turned up exactly zero additional ones. If anybody can show me otherwise, I’d be happy to have you change my mind.

Many United Methodists talk as if our legacy of influence (the 19th century up to the middle 20th century, mostly) were a reflection of the way we are now. But outside of United Methodists, who listens to United Methodists? Who is reading our authors? Our scholars? We have some outstanding scholars and some great church leaders who are also authors. But really, who is reading them outside the denomination? By comparison to other, national-level Christian authors, we are vastly under-represented.

We’d better wake up. We have to quit just talking to ourselves. I’m not at all worrying about denominational prominence or even survival. Frankly, I don’t care much about either. But we do have something very important to share – and to share it broadly. We have stuff to say that people need to hear. But we have to find a way to say it that connects.

January 2, 2009 Posted by | Books/Publishing | 2 Comments