Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How seminary is ruining church

After putting such a shocker post title I should start out by saying this isn't an indictment of theological education in any way.  I'm just talking about how studying Bible and theology is affecting my experience of worship.

"Cognitive dissonance" would be a top contender for seminary phrase of the year, if such a distinction existed.  It's certainly one of theology instructor Malinda Berry's favorites.  For me, it's one of those buzzword phrases that I use with a frequency not warranted by my level of understanding of what it actually means--you know, kind of like "exegesis."

Until now, that is.  According to Wikipedia, "cognitive dissonance" is "an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously."  Basically, theologically, it happens when we experience something contrary to our own truths.

I have a confession: I used to like praise music.  Actually, I used to love praise music.  It's why I learned to play the guitar.  Which I played in the praise band for Intercollegiate Ministries (ICM) at Manchester College.

Most praise music is now ruined for me, because I can't just sing and enjoy it.  No, now that I eat, sleep and breathe theology, I must deconstruct the theological claims present in the lyrics.  And I have to say, they do not nourish my theological intellect.  Most often it's just a lack of the song actually saying much, though there is the occasional bit of questionable theology.  Plus, at seminary I've become used to a lot of inclusive language type stuff (we're all "autumn wind" and "breath of giving" and such), and I get really distracted by songs that are loaded with "father" this and "lord" that.  In one way or another, though, I'm constantly finding myself evaluating the theology of our music.

The other distraction is that I now know too much.  This past weekend I was at a wedding in which both the pastor and the person reading the scripture identified Paul as the author of Colossians.  Now, while the authorship of Colossians is cautiously called "disputed," my understanding and belief is that it was written pseudonymously by one of Paul's later followers, not by Paul.

I squirmed in my seat.

I then picked up the pew Bible from in front of me and turned to the introduction to Colossians.  My Bible is a HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible and is chalk full of critique.  I sort of forgot that there were non-critical Bibles, and that pew Bibles were likely to fall into this category.  So I was surprised when I saw the introduction to Colossians uncritically discussing the circumstances under which Paul wrote it.

Okay, I told myself.  Maybe Colossians can be a gray area.  But what about the pastorals?  Scholarly consensus pretty much rejects Pauline authorship of the pastorals.

I turned to First Timothy.  Again, the introduction talked unquestionably about Paul as the author.  I felt some cognitive dissonance rumbling in me.

Why, though?  My personal faith favors speaking of things that may not be literally true, as if they are true.  I find it unlikely that Mary was a virgin, or even that Jesus turned water into wine.  Yet I have no problem telling these stories.

I think, for me, telling scripture is a statement of faith.  It is a story, and the truth it bears is inherent.  But when we talk about who wrote the letters that make up that scripture, we get into history and fact.  And it bothers me that we fudge over this in worship.  I do understand that for some--many--Pauline authorship, too, is a matter of faith, but I have to say that just isn't how I see it.  In fact, for me, talking critically about the Bible makes it all the richer and more valuable to me.

There has been some resistance, in our tradition, to theological higher education.  And I can understand the frustration of feeling like some priestly class (i.e. those with seminary education) is telling everyone else how to do church.  This is, after all, a Church that recognizes the priesthood of all believers.  Yet my solution wouldn't be to do away with seminary; it would be to open up the kind of discussion we have here to everyone.  Bring it more into our worship.  I was talking to a friend last weekend who noted that a year of seminary would be valuable to anyone who is the least bit interested in theology.

Rabbi Louis Finkelstein said, "When we pray, we talk to God.  When we study, God talks to us."  As I get deeper into theological study, I certainly find it to be where I can hear God.  And I won't go so far as to claim it's for everyone, but I would like to see more connection between those doing scholarship and those doing church.

Of course, then everyone would be distracted by having to evaluate the theology of our songs.  But I guess that's the price you pay.

-Nick Miller Kauffman


Matt said...

I have a hard time with praise music, and to be honest, a lot of music of the church, as well. It's part of what led me to challenge a lot of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist point of view, because while praise music is certainly problematic from a progressive side, from the fundamentalist side it's almost worse. For the most part, it borders on, if not outright strikes, a Universalist stance of salvation. While I don't have that much of a problem with Universalism (falling into the Universal/General Restoration camp), Fundamentalism does.

That, and I have to becareful which sermons I listen hard to. Not at Bethany, mind you, but when visiting churches. I will invariably disagree with either a theological point or a translation/interpretation of a scriptural passage.

~Matt B

bekah said...

good stuff Nick. I don't really have much of a comment because you wrote so many things I am thinking (and stated them much better, too, I might add). Thanks, brother.

I used to say BVS ruined me for life (and it still has!) but so has seminary. :)

Brian Gumm said...

You certainly caught my attention w/ your title, Nick! Thanks for such great and honest reflections. Your concerns stated here and your background playing praise music put you and I in very similar territory. I'm just finishing up year 2 of seminary at Eastern Mennonite U. and continue to sit in the midst of such tension and dissonance. I've found it to be disconcerting at times, but am learning to just soak in it. Seminary is, after all, a season of life and eventually the season changes. And when that season changes you get to learn how to do something with all that crazy stuff you digested!

It's certainly true that there is plenty of tripe in praise music, but I've found a few artists that seem to have enough theological content to make me comfortable with going into the chapel (when it's empty) and belting out a few praise songs now and again. As a musician, it's also important to remember that the words themselves are just a part of the whole. The non-verbal qualities of music play a part in the praise, the act of worship. This is the ageless quality of music in/for the church and its praise, defying all styles.

With praise music, too, I always want to bring in the materialist/capitalist critique. That's one area where praise music does differ from, say, Bach. Bach was not part of a purportedly Christian media/industrial complex worth (isn't that a funny word?) millions and millions and millions of dollars. So that's a conversation worth having, which I'm sure many people probably wouldn't want to have.

Re biblical studies ruining things like weddings. Been there with you, for sure. I guess I've settled on the sufficiency of Scripture to be the normative text for the church. This doesn't negate critical scholarship by any means, but kind of sets it in perspective. It seems much more interesting (and accessible for non-intelligentsia) to let the Bible tell its wonderful story into our crazy little lives/stories. And when the moment's right for the critical scholar to pipe up (an art more than a science) to nuance the interpretive work of the gathered believers, well, then that's great and good and right!

Thanks, Nick. You got me going...