Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #14 (The Six Über Skills of Seminary - Part 2 - Scholarship)

SKILL #2 – Scholarship: Mastering a Body of Work and Remaining Aware of the Rest

By the time you graduate from seminary, you should have “mastered” a bit more of the body of vast literature in biblical studies, theology, etc. than when you started. That goes without saying, right? Of course, “mastered” might be a stretch (you’ll soon find out just how vast the literature really is and how difficult a task this can really be) - but don’t miss my point – mastering stuff is what you are here to do, however imperfect your ability to do so. 

At the very least, you need to have begun the process of climbing the literature pile in seminary. This is where scholarship begins. Climbing a vast pile of literature related to the disciplines learned in seminary.

In terms of an Über Skill of Seminary – scholarship – which is mastering a body of work and remaining aware of the rest, is basically about reading for various levels of understanding. And I do mean reading, friend. One doesn’t become a scholar by mastering Call of Duty 3. In my opinion, if you don’t have a healthy desire and sense of curiosity that drives you to the library and the literature stacks on a regular basis, seminary (and the attendant fields one follows into because of the degree) may not be the right fit for you. Don’t let that scare you, just realize that this is a profession, and it involves lots of reading. Caveat emptor. 

I once heard a radio interview by Krista Tippets with the famed Yale church historian Jaroslav Pelikan, whose five-volume work, The Christian Tradition, you will likely encounter in seminary. In the interview, Pelikan made a very important observation about the Christian tradition – the tradition has said a lot. 

He contrasted the tradition’s need to say a lot with the Islamic faith, and it’s conquering of a larger portion of the world in the period between the 7th and 11th-centuries essentially with just one creedal pronouncement, the shahadah, “the testimony,” There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God. In contrast, Christianity has felt the need to say so very much. And you, dear reader, will need to ingest a small, and yet vast, portion of it in seminary. Exciting, right? Well, it is exciting, even if you don’t realize it yet. 

It reminds me of the time a close friend of mine, who had just been appointed to a church campus ministry as its campus pastor, called me up. He sounded concerned, with an edge in his voice, and needed my help.

“Matt, can you help me out?” he asked.

“Of course! What can I help you with?” I replied.

“Where is the book, or books, which contain a kind of succinct summary of what we believe? In other words, what do we believe and where do I find it?”

I chuckled to myself silently. 

After pointing him to the Bible (of course), a book containing the Creeds and more than several important Protestant confessions, as well as a couple of good, solid systematic theology texts, not to mention his church’s statement of faith, and a denominational book of order – he began to understand the truth that Pelikan was eluding to in his interview. Christians for the past two thousand years seemed to have never shut up about what they believe. They have written a lot.

So be warned dear son and dear daughter, of that truism spoken long ago by another learned one, Qoheleth: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh...” (Eccl. 12:12).


But I digress. Let’s chat more about this skill: scholarship. Scholarship, as mentioned above, is mastering a body of work and remaining aware of the rest

Another way of saying this is, scholarship is significant, creative, original engagement with ideas

Don’t miss this point, it will be your engagement with ideas, many of which you didn’t have any part in generating. In other words, you will be engaging with a conversation already underway, especially in seminary. Entering into the conversation intentionally is part of what I spoke about when I used the word mastery. And Mastery involves reading.

My advisor when I was still studying and working as an ecologist taught me that one reads in three different ways to accomplish (or at least attempt) mastery: 1) reading for gist; 2) reading for breadth; 3) reading for specialty. Let me give you examples of these different ways of reading. 

  • Reading for Gist is reading for the “substance” or “essence” of a text. So reading in this way is about quickly gleaning the substance or essence of a text. 
  • Reading for Breadth is reading for wide range or extent or breadth of knowledge. Meaning, this is reading that will expose you to more than just your chosen field so you can remain aware of the rest.
  • Reading for Specialty is reading in depth because the material is something with your discipline of field and you need to understand it and “grok” it more deeply than the materials you are reading for gist. More on “grokking” in a moment.
We’ll chat more about these ways of reading with more detail in the following sections. For now though, just realize that one of the primary skills of seminary is mastering a body of work and remaining aware of the rest…by reading.

Why emphasize this point about reading under the umbrella of two of the Six Über Skills of Seminary? It’s because, in my opinion, fostered by some observation of the times in which we live, students don’t read enough. 

There, I said it. “Students these days… (<he says in his best old codger voice>) … don’t read enough!” Why, I remember when I was a young student, simultaneously reading Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology while walking ten miles to school in a three-foot snow, all while knitting a cable sweater and rehearsing John’s prologue in Greek and Latin… 

OK, that didn’t happen, but I have for some time seen the value in reading as much as is practicable. So, go and do likewise, and engage in scholarship by reading your way towards mastery of a body of work, while you read and remain aware of the rest.

Read, read, read. You’ll have reading, with a side of reading, please.

That being said, scholarship is not just about reading. It’s also about other things, too. For instance, two of the most important things (though more could be said) should be noted:

Asking Good Questions

Knowledge and scholarship often depend heavily on the questions you ask (and the questions you do not ask). Doing scholarship and research is hard work, which consists of many tasks, which can often be difficult. Asking good questions is fundamental. Truth be told, unless you are already good at this because of some prior intellectual experience (perhaps you were a philosophy major at university, etc.), you will not likely be very good at it (initially) when you begin seminary. 

But do not despair; this is why you have professors. A significant part of their job is helping you to ask better questions by training you to think better. To ‘pop the hood’ on your mind and yank out the lousy questions and put newer, better questions back in there. Asking good questions is a skill that improves with time and practice.

Generating Good Hypotheses

Another crucial skill for doing scholarship is generating good hypotheses. The hypothesis is the pivot point around which scholarship turns, in my opinion. So what is a hypothesis? 

A hypothesis is a series of assumptions, tied together by logic, such that one can generate novel predictions. More generally, a hypothesis is an explanation that answers a particular question in a given field.

For example, several nights ago while I was sleeping, I was awoken by a loud noise somewhere in the house. Because I am a family man, the noise immediately had my attention because if it was an intruder in the home, my family’s safety could have been threatened. Even in the fog of a sleepy mind, the adrenaline the noise produced had my brain generating hypotheses – educated guesses as to the source of the noise.

That the noise had a cause was an assumption rooted in my knowledge of physics: objects at rest tend to stay at rest. Something had moved and made a noise, so something must have caused this movement. An external agent, perhaps? Something like an intruder? That was my prediction.

And I began testing the prediction. Since there are hardwood floors throughout the house, and even a mouse could not sneak around on these creaky floors, if it was an intruder was in the house, I would likely hear the person moving about long before he made it upstairs. I waited several moments and heard nothing. So, I decided to get up and investigate the sound. 

I found no intruder, but I eventually did find the source of the noise – especially after it happened one more time. My middle son, a reader, had several books with him in bed when he fell asleep. While shifting in the middle of the night, the books had dropped from his bed onto the wood floor, where they knocked over some toys. In the fog of sleep, my mind had generated the wrong hypothesis, one which was useful but ultimately falsified once I did some research. 

Nonetheless, you get the point. Hypotheses are important, and they attempt to answer questions in a given field. Most books and articles you will engage in seminary will have hypotheses. These come in the form of thesis statements, which are statements of theory put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved.

There are many example of creative hypothesis generation in biblical and theological studies in recent times. Think, for example, of the great Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar, Krister Stendahl, who hypothesized in a now infamous article, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” that the West, since Augustine, had been reading Paul the wrong way, in such a way that Paul himself would not have understood. It was quite a hypothesis, and it led to interesting things that you will likely encounter in seminary.

Or consider the hypothesis making of another scholar, Karl Barth. Barth had some interesting ideas about what election was all about and how the Tradition had gotten its understanding of the doctrine of election wrong. His work in the Church Dogmatics on the doctrine of election is now revolutionary and an important corrective, some would say, to the Protestant tradition.

So, hypotheses and scholarship. Good stuff.

You will generate your own hypotheses in papers you write in school. And in your reading you will encounter many interesting hypotheses from other scholars. Hypotheses, or thesis statements, are not always as easy to find as they should be. But if someone is doing good work, important work, they will be there.

Climbing the literature pile, a part of mastery, a part of scholarship, will take time, take lots of reading, asking good questions, and engaging good hypotheses. It’s a process, and very rarely a straight path. 

Hopefully you are starting to get a sense of why these are called skills. They take time to develop. It’s on that subject – time and time management – that we turn our attention to next.