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