I must confess something: I love seminaries. Other than the obvious — teaching and training pastors and missionaries and evangelists and the like — what I like most is the rhetorical level. Using theological words brings me pleasure, the kind of pleasure an artist feels when he or she can say to a fellow artist, “The perspective evoked so-and-so but the color conflicted with both perspective and tone.” And therein lies a problem that may have come home to me more than anything else last weekend at Westminster.
When I left TEDS to teach at NPU, and I promise I’ll blog on why I did that someday, I knew that teaching college students would change my rhetoric — for the good. Back to my first observation: I love the rhetorical level of seminaryspeak. Now back to my point: that rhetorical level is not for the local church nor for lay folk. More professors need to learn to write for lay people.
I want to reach the church; theologyspeak won’t get us there.
What I like most about teaching college students, particularly first year college students, is what it has done to me as a communicator. I’ve learned to drop the theological rhetoric — “eschatological presence” — and learned to relate in studentspeak — “God is with us now.” The difference is enormous, and I fear seminaries intoxicate students with the pleasure of theological rhetoric and it takes a good long while to unlearn that stuff in order to speak to lay folk.
I made a commitment about 15 years ago to learn to speak to lay people, and in a way that “worked.” I am persuaded that the essential philosophy of seminary professors doesn’t work — to wit (to use professorspeak), “We’ll teach pastors and the pastors will pass on our ideas to the layfolks.” (Now I’m not criticizing WTS profs; no, I’m criticizing nearly all seminary profs.)
The simple facts are these: lay folks aren’t learning what seminary professors are teaching their students-who-have-become-our-pastors, at least not as effectively as seminary professors sometimes think. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again — hoping I’ve got some new readers or some who skipped previous posts: there was a day when seminary professors and Christian college professors wrote books for layfolks, and layfolks read seminary and college professors. At that time, very few pastors wrote books — they preached and pastored.
Times have changed. Seminary and college professors are intoxicated with their rhetorics and they have learned the game, the fun game, of writing for their peers. So, they now write learned monographs — and I’ve got a little satchel of such books myself. A Light among the Gentiles and Jesus and His Death. All of this proves that we — evangelicals — have fulfilled Carl Henry’s dream or Mark Noll’s warning — that we make a contribution to culture, to theory, to education, and to intellectual history. I believe in such work.
But, not at the expense of the church. And that’s exactly what has happened. (I happened to write the other day to a seminary president about this, a person I’ve never met but whom I’ve read, and he said, “Let’s talk.”)
Here’s the truth: people have asked me if I’ll lose my reputation as an academic if I write for lay people; and I’ve been told not to write on a blog (because that is non-academic). My response has been the same: what I do, I hope, is for the glory of God and for God’s people. I love academic theology, but the academic theology that is truly designed to do what it can do better end up in the Church.
Back to the observation: theological rhetoric is intoxicating, but our task is to communicate the gospel to our world in such a way that it “sings and stings.”
And the time is now for seminary professors and college professors to re-learn what our task is all about. We might teach seminarians and students at advanced levels, but the fundamental goal of all Bible knowledge is to communicate that truth to ourselves and to others so that we can live it out. Not just so that we can communicate within the guild and to fellow pastors, but so we can talk to Emily Johnson and Fyodor Czechin about their issues so they can learn to live as Christians today.
How do we learn to do this? I will tell you what has happened to me. This process began with a New Vision for Israel and Turning to Jesus. Neither comes close to what I was aiming at: both are too dense, too abstract, and too arcane. But I tried.
Then came Jesus Creed. My goal was to write a book about Jesus so that average Christians could grasp what Jesus was like and what he was teaching in his world, but in such a way, too, that the book could help them live Christianly in our world today.
What helped me the most was reading writers who have learned to communicate to the average person — and you can look at sales levels to see who is reaching normal people. Arcane books don’t sell; readable books do.
Here are some names, and I don’t give a rip what you think of their ideas, of those who have figured it out: John Ortberg, Anne Lamott, Richard Foster, Lynn Hybels, Phillip Yancey, Beth Moore, Brian McLaren, et al.. If you spend your time reading academic monographs, you’ll learn to speak and write like that rhetoric. So, give yourself a constant exposure to good writers — like EB White or Joseph Epstein.
Learn your theology; teach your theology; but learn to teach that theology to the average person — the person who might not give a rip about theology — in such a way that it sinks home.
It is said, though I have no idea if it is true, that William Barclay’s first job — after his PhD — was to a coal-mining community where there was a low percentage of readers. So, he learned to talk to them and preach for them, and that is why dear old Barclay’s books sit on lots of pastors shelves — not because they like everything he says but because he can bring it home. NT Wright is one of the few today who does this well. He’s the natural successor to Barclay’s Study Bible.
One of the reasons crowds flocked to Jesus was because they could understand his clear teachings and his pleasurable, world-spinning, and power-upending parables. Learn from him how to communicate.