Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #3 (Tips 5-6 on Preparing the Mind for Seminary)

TIP #5 – Read hard books, not so many easy books

Embracing this tip begins with a switch in your mind being flipped. And here’s why. If you are anything like me, I used to enjoy perusing the local Christian bookstore and purchasing Christian books. In many ways, this has not changed. But what I reach for on the shelves these days has changed greatly – and it’s time for it to change for you as well. What I mean is that it’s time to switch from reading easy stuff to more challenging stuff.

Let me level with you – it's time to start reading hard books. It’s time to start reading academic books with nice, meaty content. It’s time to embrace the fact that hard books are for seminary students and seminary students are for hard books. Reading them, even before school begins, will start preparing your mind for what’s ahead. 

Sure, that latest book from Chuck Swindoll, Brian McLaren, Francis Chan, or Beth Moore is nice. But you are not really the target audience for these authors. They are targeting folks who are not pursuing master’s level work in biblical or theological studies. Also, you won’t be supporting the papers you write with lots of bibliography from these kinds of authors. Read them in your free time if you so choose, but accept that to enter the world of seminary thought and intellectual expansion, you’ll be reaching for academic stuff.

Are you done with the easy stuff altogether? Nope. This week I’m reading a bit of easy stuff for my role as a pastor. In fact, I just read James Killen’s Pastoral Care in the Small Membership Church. It was a nice, easy read and was fantastically inspiring. It has made me more conscious of pastoral care and it’s importance for my role as a pastor. But alongside Killen’s book I’m currently reading N.T. Wright’s 1600-page Paul and the Faithfulness of God and Bruce McCormack’s intellectual biography of Karl Barth, titled Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectically Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936. Both of these latter books are meaty, intellectually demanding, and helping me grow as a thinker. I’m balancing easy and difficult stuff – and note – both kinds of books are helping me. You’re not done with easy stuff, but like sugar and sweets, in seminary you’ll want to digest them sparingly.

So, to prepare your mind properly, you need to embrace the hard stuff. It’s time – you’ve arrived grasshopper. Of course, conveniently, your professors will begin assigning nice, dense textbooks full of hard stuff very soon (if they haven’t already). So this tip might be a moot point. 

Something else is relevant to this tip: read the primary literature too. You know, you can now choose to read St. Augustine. I mean, not just a digest or a second hand account of Augustine, you can read the man himself, his actual words. The same goes for Luther or Calvin. You can read what they wrote, not just what someone else wrote about them. Don’t forget to read the primary stuff! 

Reading older stuff from another age is a GREAT way to prepare your mind too. While you’re at it, read some classic literature. Years ago, I purchased a set of Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World edited by Robert M. Hutchins and friends. I’ve been reading these books for years, some of the greatest literature ever produced, and I am convinced it has helped me be a better thinker and reader. Classic literature will help you develop and possess a more prepared mind. You’ll soon be on your way to being a great thinker.

TIP #6 – Learn to start making arguments

Remember back in high school and college when you had to make persuasive arguments in written papers or in oral defenses? Perhaps you did this a lot or not very much. Well, you’re going to do it a lot in seminary. Nearly every paper you will write will possess a thesis statement, which is a proposition to be argued. Note that I said argued. Sure, arguing is something we all understand. But I’m talking about a more formal process than the often brainless disagreement we all engage in on a daily basis. I’m talking about ‘argument’ in the sense of logical and evidentiary-supported defenses of clear propositions you will make in writing and public speech. I’m talking about argument in the context of academic essays and academic talks.

It’s what we do in seminary!

So start learning and thinking about making academic arguments. Dust off those old debate textbooks you had in high school. Look up ‘thesis statement’ in your favorite dictionary. Perhaps it would be better to go to the library or your favorite bookstore and purchase some books to help you in this area.

Because most of your argumentation will take place in written form, I recommend getting two books in particular that will help you write and make effective arguments in your seminary papers:
  • Brown, Scott G. A Guide to Writing Academic Essays in Religious Studies. New York: Continuum Pub. 2008.
  • Heidt, Mari Rapela. A Guide for Writing About Theology and Religion. Winona, MN: Anselm Academic Pub. 2012.

These books will serve you well and can help you begin to think about argumentation in your papers. But what about thinking about argumentation – that is, making arguments and supporting your statements with facts – in general? Well, there are lots of ways that you can hone this skill. One way is by reading a good daily newspaper. Perhaps The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. The analysis and argumentation in the articles or editorials in a good daily newspaper will help train you to think better, to make arguments and support them. When reading them, you could even practice disagreeing with an editorial, or the slant or bias of an article, in order to practice your debate and argumentation skills.

Another way to think well is to view a news analysis show like Meet the Press or Face the Nation on Sundays. I enjoy watching the Charlie Rose show and the PBS NewsHour. On these programs, debates and analysis on some of the most pressing concerns of our day are routinely unpacked and debated. Watching these programs can get your noodle going and will help you analyze arguments and construct your own arguments better. It will also allow you access to people who routinely make good and bad arguments. You’ll learn to recognize sloppy thinking and argumentation – especially on the political shows!

Perhaps the best way to learn how to think like a debater and make better arguments is to read philosophy materials. You can consume philosophical arguments in a variety of ways – through books, specialist journals, podcasts, or blogs. Perhaps you might want to approach a professor at your seminary who teaches subjects like ‘philosophy of religion’ or ‘philosophical theology’ and ask them what they would recommend. Go to your local library and search on books with terms like “How to think.” Even a cursory search on with the search term “how to think” revealed lots of books that purport to help you think well and make arguments in a more principled way. There’s lots of help out there for making this tip happen. By the way, if you have nothing to do the summer before entering seminary, and you’d like to get some nice exposure to philosophy, consider chewing your way through Frederick Copleston’s eleven-volume A History of Philosophy. I know it might sound a little crazy, but the volumes in that series are very readable and Copleston wrote expressly for seminary students who not been adequately exposed to philosophy in their previous studies. And besides, all that reading would be a great warm-up for seminary, too.

So there you are – six tips for helping prepare your mind for seminary (see tips 1-4 here). Let’s move on now. Next time, let's think about what academic study of the bible is and isn’t.