Newspapers and theological education
Finlay Peter Dunne’s character “Mr Dooley” is reputed to have said the following
“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.
He didn’t quite say it like that but this is the way Gene Kelly quoted it in his film Inherit the Wind and it has been remembered this way ever since.
It seems to me that this is a good description of the task of theological colleges and seminaries.
We have afflicted students who need to be comforted. More and more, students are coming to us out of a broken society with stresses, problems and difficulties. We are not hospitals and cannot accept candidates primarily so we can straighten them out. However, my experience is sometimes (certainly not always) time invested in helping such students mature and change creates servants of God who learn to cope with their own wounds and weaknesses and do a good job for the kingdom.
And theological education does its part in afflicting students. In 2008, Barbara Walvoord wrote up a fascinating analysis of first year students in religion and theology courses (Blackwell). It describes the coping mechanisms Christian students employ when faced with critical thinking patterns in theology and Biblical Studies for the first time. Intense Christian community has been known also to be a burden. Expectations seemingly beyond the capabilities of the student in their lower moods, are destructive. Unless the right comfort is offered at key points, our colleges and seminaries can be bad for the spiritual and mental health of some of our students.
We also have comfortable students who need to be afflicted. Sometimes, students come to us to do their first degree, from comfortable middle class backgrounds. They attend our chapel services where they sing warmly, sometimes with their hands in the air, words and phrases of total love and devotion to God, write essays for us on mission and Christ’s sacrifice, feel the emotion but do not end up doing the deeds. We send them on placements overseas and when they come back, we ask them if they enjoyed their time.
Words of affliction are quite in order in our job, challenging a culture and set of attitudes that need to be reformed in the minds and hearts of our some of students. It is all about implications. Maybe we have forgotten the tough implications of what we teach – the work of Christ, the claims of God, the command of mission. Maybe we are more comfortable expounding the exegetical problems of a text than letting it hit us between the eyes in its implications for our lives.
As you know, student bodies are often a mixed bag. There is no blanket task of comfort or affliction. The discernment of when to comfort and when to afflict is a needed gift. It speaks of the dual duty we have as theological educators of lecturing a class and also building relationships with students where these things can be discerned one to one.
In this respect, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, colleges and seminaries are like the best newspapers.