Discussion Point #2: The Core and the Edge
on October 14, 2011
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Barth is good, if I'm in the academy, but it doesn't do me no good in the street.
—Keith, pastor, 30s, African-American, Washington DC
I went to the University of Michigan and one of the things that really attracted me and still does about Fuller is that it is highly academic. I had no background in biblical studies at all coming to Fuller. So that's a very important component of why I'm here.
—Karen, musician, 40s, African-American, Pasadena
I've loved my experience here, going to Sundance Film Festival and these classes that really integrate [theology and culture]. Between door number one, the classical theological disciplines, and door number two, the integration classes, I think I would have originally said number two. But I'm finding out how much learning church history—which was not why I went to seminary!—has shaped and developed me as a thinker. I love the scholarship side, learning to be good thinkers. Having to take the theology does make us more interdisciplinary so that we are engaging with people who don't necessarily get the arts. Because if we are to be the bridges, we need to be exposed to both sides, and it's been so rich. I do get nervous thinking that I may need to get a Master of Fine Arts after this to make sure that my art is sophisticated and skilled and serves as a good bridge. Because I think we're all aware that Christians who have great theology, we don't always produce great art.
—Lin, visual artist, 30s, European-American, Pasadena
One of our goals that we've set [at our national parachurch ministry] in a 10 year span, is to have 50 percent or more of our staff of seven years or more, have a theological degree.
—Alberto, parachurch ministry regional director, 40s, Mexican-American, northern California
In my preaching, I'll refer to Athanasius, right after I refer to Tyler Perry, right after I refer to the Los Angeles Lakers!
—Michael, pastor, 20s, African-American, northern California
There are three core components to any seminary curriculum that no seminary can do without, and that make a seminary what it is—biblical studies, theology, and history. No other educational institution addresses these three fields in the comprehensive and interrelated way that seminaries seek to do. These are not the only important, or even unique, areas that seminaries address—but they are at the very heart of what a seminary education provides, a three-legged stool that is the foundation of graduate theological education. Students who do not receive excellent preparation in these fields during seminary will carry truncated and inadequate understandings of the Christian gospel into the next phases of their careers and leadership. A student who has not wrestled closely with the biblical texts will only have facile, shallow, culturally bound bromides to offer. A student who has not thought through the major topics of theology is likely to rely on unexamined assumptions in both praxis and proclamation. And a student with no real exposure to church history will make too-easy assumptions about their own moment in time, be too vulnerable to the fads of the present moment, and have shallow resources for assessing current church conflicts and opportunities for mission.
Our focus groups delivered very good news indeed for those who care about the health of these core disciplines. Members of groups as diverse as artists in Pasadena, African-American church leaders in Chicago, and young professionals in New York City all went out of their way to express their interest in and benefit from training in these “classical” fields. A number of them, like Lin quoted above, described being unexpectedly engaged and excited by courses in these disciplines.
This finding can hardly be taken for granted, because it contrasts so strongly with another reality for seminaries at present and for the foreseeable future: much entrepreneurial energy, prospective student demand, and donor interest at growing seminaries focuses on efforts that might be considered at the edge of traditional seminary education.
We believe that no seminary can expect to grow in the coming decades without investing in these kinds of “edgy” efforts. Almost all organizations grow best at their edges, by empowering people to experiment with new ideas and structures that can, if successful, inform and leaven existing ideas and structures.
At Fuller and other institutions these ventures often take the form of “institutes” that address the arts and theology, integration of faith with “secular” vocations, science and religion, and so forth. These institutes are often situated literally at the edge of campus and established with governing structures (sometimes even fully independent boards) that distinguish them from ordinary academic departments. The work they do is often more accessible to wide audiences than the scholarship practiced in the core disciplines, and its value is more readily apparent to important constituents. Indeed, many of the other sections of this report indirectly make the case for the value of these “edge” activities. A culture that values film will quickly appreciate a program in theology and film while it may puzzle over a requirement that students learn ancient Greek, a language no one now speaks. Ethnic minority and recent immigrant communities see the immediate need for programs that help them address the practical and theological challenges of contextualizing Christian faith in particular cultural settings, but might wonder about the value of studying the history of Christianity during the period when it was dominated by Europeans. At the most visual—and therefore visceral—level, it is often much easier to document the work of these institutes with compelling images through video and photography.
We believe that no seminary can expect to grow in the coming decades without investing in these kinds of “edgy” efforts. Almost all organizations grow best at their edges, by empowering people to experiment with new ideas and structures that can, if successful, inform and leaven existing ideas and structures. And yet the surprising and consistent response from past, present, and potential students we talked with was that the “core” is surprisingly important, even for groups that might be attracted to seminary by features of the “edge.” For example, we asked a group of students from the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts how they would choose between two options: a rigorous course of study in the foundational fields of Bible, theology, and history with relatively little direct work on worship and the arts, or a highly integrative program with relatively little direct instruction in those traditional disciplines. While there was a range of opinion, and a predictable reluctance to choose one or the other, what was striking to us was how many students, like Lin, who had come to Fuller explicitly and only because of its integrative programs, were inclined to choose “door number one.” Likewise, many of the pastors in African-American churches with whom we spoke who had attended dominant-culture seminaries expressed a high level of satisfaction with the theological education they had received and its value for their ministry—just as high as those who had attended historically Black institutions that presumably were more effective at contextualizing ministry within Black culture.
The question, instead, is how seminaries can connect the energy at the innovative edge with the depth of the traditional core—and how the edge might become just as rigorous and deeply rooted as the core, while the core might become just as entrepreneurial and vivid as the edge.
Again, this observation is not meant to suggest that innovative, boundary-extending and boundary-blurring work is not needed, between traditional disciplines and between academic disciplines and the world of practitioners and leaders in the world outside the theological academy and the church. To the contrary, this is where tremendous energy can be found for the work of theological education and where seminaries can provide visible, tangible value to the wider community. The question, instead, is how seminaries can connect the energy at the innovative edge with the depth of the traditional core—and how the edge might become just as rigorous and deeply rooted as the core, while the core might become just as entrepreneurial and vivid as the edge.
Seminaries that invest too heavily in the exciting new projects at the edge, without committing to deep excellence at the core, are likely to find that students (and even faculty, institute staff, and donors) who arrive excited about interdisciplinary work will leave feeling that their seminary career was like the seed sown among the rocks, springing up quickly but then withering without depth of soil. Seminaries that neglect the need to experiment and explore how to serve new audiences and address pressing questions in church and society at the edge are likely to find that students (and eventually talented faculty, staff, and donors) will never arrive and thus never have the chance to discover the richness at the heart of theological education. The seminary of the future will nurture deep roots and expansive and innovative branches at one and the same time.