Monday, November 17, 2014

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #5 (This Isn't Sunday School, Pt. 2)

Part of what makes seminary unique and challenging is that it is unlike any other religious educational environment you’ve encountered. That can be both exciting and nerve-wracking once you get into your studies. Hence the title of this chapter – this isn’t Sunday school. Seminary is different from bible classes at church for a number of reasons, which I think are important to review (for differences 1 and 2, click here).

Difference #3 – Much more will be required of you as a student

Again, perhaps your bible class experience at church has been more robust than my own, but rarely have I been assigned reading outside of bible class.

Well, seminary will be a bit different. OK, a lot different.

You’ll be required to read a lot of assigned material and then (egads!) write a lot about it. In fact, I think of seminary as one continuing stream of reading, thinking, writing, and speaking ad infinitum. If, like me, you enjoy these kinds of activities then welcome home, baby. You’ve found your happy place. If however you find these activities to be a bit grinding (or boring, painful, hateful, hellacious, dreadful, etc.) then you’ll want to start preparing yourself mentally for what’s coming up in your education. And just remember, perseverance is the rule of the day. And remember too - an old dog can learn to love new tricks, despite what the proverbial wisdom says. Don’t fret – activities like reading, writing, and speaking are disciplines that can be developed. In other words, work at them and practice and you will get better at them.

Though it probably doesn’t need to be said – let’s go ahead anyways and articulate the kinds of things that will be required of you as a student, just so we’re clear and you will better understand your role as a seminary student:

  • Come to class prepared. 
  • Do the reading. 
  • Try to sleep. Yes, I know the professors are assigning so much work it appears they’re out to steal your REM cycles, but fight the power grasshopper. Rest! 
  • Get some exercise. Yes, I know the professors are assigning so much work it appears they’re out to get your exercise cycles too, but fight the power grasshopper. Pump iron (or some such heart rate elevating thing)! 
  • Write good papers (more on this in a bit). Turn them in on time (more on this in a bit, too). 
  • Ask good questions. Of course, we’ve all been told for a long time that there aren’t any bad questions (except that there are…and people who say there aren’t are lying). But try to ask more good questions than bad questions. Your professors will help you figure which are the good questions. 
  • Spend time thinking. No, Netflix binge viewing does not constitute ‘thinking.’ 
  • Get thee to the library. Yes, Starbucks is a great place to chat with friends and drink coffee…and perhaps even read the latest copy of The New York Times. No, it is not the greatest place to work through anhypostasis-enhypostasis Christology. I’ll probably get mail on this one, but use the library. It has lots of books, and theological librarians, and the latest copy of the International Journal of Systematic Theology…well, you get the idea. And it has the quiet kind of spaces which let you think (see previous point).
  • Use office hours (see above).
  • Pray
  • Participate in your local church. Every week. These last two things should probably go at the top of the list.

Difference #4 – You’ll be studying the bible academically

One of the most obvious distinctions between the Sunday school and the seminary experience is in the area of biblical study. Whereas I teach bible at church primarily to edify, encourage, and challenge congregants to grow in their faith, I know the academic study of the bible will proceed along different lines and have different aims, though edification and encouragement often still occur. Granted, the experience of academic study of the bible will vary depending on your institution, but its contours are roughly similar from one school to the next.

An academic approach to the bible will focus primarily on the text and significant classroom time will not be devoted to our own lives. Though this might sound obvious, you’d be surprised at how often we focus on ourselves in the context of Sunday School (e.g. “…let’s skip the exegetical detail Ms. Teacher and just get to how this applies to my life…”).

Application and integration are not necessarily high priorities in the seminary classroom when things like Greek parsing and exegesis, rhetorical analysis, cultural background study, or pericope analysis, etc. need to be done. Because these kinds of analyses of the text will command so much time in the classroom, you won’t often be guided to the process of integrating how this relates to your life. That’s not to say that you won’t ever have discussions along this line, but the aim of academic study of the bible is better understanding the text and generating good interpretations. This will of course have an impact on your life! But any subsequent understanding and impact on our faith is a bonus, and in the end, a secondary priority. The integration portion of biblical study will happen indirectly in the classroom, and can certainly happen in subsequent conversations with fellow students, your pastor, even your professor (perhaps in office hours!), etc. but that won’t be the highest priority in the academic classroom.

By definition, the academic study of any subject will proceed along the lines of detailed analyses and questioning. That is certainly true of the academic study of the bible, too. But let’s face it: we don’t do a lot of deep questioning of the bible very often in Sunday school. You will do it a lot in seminary. So you need to spend some time soul-searching and meditating on how you will process this way of studying the bible emotionally. Depending on the church tradition you are from, this might feel comfortable or uncomfortable. For those folks who feel uncomfortable, there’s often a feeling that they are somehow being unfaithful and disrespectful to the bible. That’s not necessarily true though (in fact, the process can be very faithful, as you’ll learn) and your professors and your program will likely help you grapple with the spiritual (and even psychological) aspects of the process. That being said, you need to begin preparing yourself and be ready to deal with this aspect of your training.

When I arrived at seminary, I had spent the previous ten years as a student in the sciences. Questioning things was such an integral part of the process of science that it felt natural for me to do academic work on the bible and immediately begin asking critical and probing questions. But along the way I learned to appreciate how this process can make people (initially) uncomfortable. As a scientist, no one rebelled against me if I proposed the idea of changing the species identification of an insect previously identified in another category. But in the world of the seminary, if you challenge the Pauline authorship of a text, it might be time to step outside and have a duel with one of your fellow students who are not quite ready to give up Brother Paul’s authorship of Second Thessalonians!

OK, perhaps it won’t be as dramatic as that – but you can imagine how challenging people’s biblical paradigms can carry a lot of emotional weight. There are a lot of sacred cows in biblical study, my friend (pun intended). Everybody has them. Know yours and be prepared to have them challenged. That’s what academic study is all about.

Difference #5 – People in seminary will have deeper and better-informed agendas

Sure, people in your bible classes can have agendas. Perhaps your Sunday school teacher is a closet charismatic that thinks your stodgy, non-charismatic denomination could use a good dose of Spirit-filled infusion and his every lesson somehow ends with an exposition of the Spirit’s gifts to the church. But the agendas in the seminary will be more deeply rooted and generally better informed (N.B ‘agenda’ here is neutral and not meant negatively). Realize that everyone has a perspective (somewhat akin to an agenda, right?) and will analyze things through their perspectives. This happens in seminary too, especially when it comes to biblical studies. Perhaps you're a Calvinist who reads Romans chapters 9-11 a certain way. Or your professor is a Barthian who can’t stand your very non-Barthian understanding of election. Whatever the agenda, know that they exist and will sometimes be more deeply entrenched and better-informed in seminary than in other environments.

This means people in seminary – professors and advanced graduate students –will advocate and sometimes passionately argue for what they think is important. In the academic environment, we all strive to be as objective as possible and not create straw men of our opponents. But we are educated, passionate folks devoted to the life of the mind and its work in the scriptures. The very intentional nature of analyzing arguments (whether our own or others) and the lenses we use when pursuing such a task is vastly different and advanced beyond the average church bible class. It’s one of the things that makes seminary such a rich experience.