Newspapers and theological education

newspaperfolded

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.

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2 Comments on “Newspapers and theological education”

  1. Drew Gibson Says:

    In passing, most of what you say could be said of preaching, but that’s another story.

    I’ve had a few students over the years who have come to me and said something like, ‘I’ve had a great time here, studying theology. I see things more clearly; my faith has grown and I’ve made good friends from other denominations, but…’ There then follows a broken-hearted or fearful claim such as, ‘… I can’t go back to the church that I’ve come from.’ Sometimes this is because the student has moved on and will feel more comfortable elsewhere but, tragically, sometimes it is because the student feels that he or she won’t be accepted by their home church. This is a species of ‘making the comfortable, uncomfortable’ that has a very different flavour. Sadly, it has to be done and the churches from which these great young people come are all the poorer for not being inclusive enough to retain them.

  2. Perry W Shaw Says:

    Thanks again Graham. Too true.
    Your reflections point to the need for strong pastoral support. Too often teachers walk into the classroom, deliver challenging material, and walk out, unaware of the deep damage they do through this style. All theological schools need pastoral care for students, but excellence in teaching demands that teachers themselves see their students as real human beings and consequently teach out of relationship. “Parakletic” education is a great answer both for those who need comfort and those who need shaking.


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