Bad News, Good News at Denver Seminary (1993)

Exploring the Gulf Between Seminaries and Mass Media

For the Assoc. for Comm. and Theo. Educ.

I have some good news and some bad news. Actually, I have lot of bad news and a seed of good news, which I hope can bear fruit in the future.

The bad news is that the attempt to start a program blending media and popular culture studies into core classes at Denver Seminary has failed. I will teach the main media-driven course we discussed during the meetings at Yale Divinity School — the course called “The Contemporary World and the Christian Task” — for the last time in the Spring quarter.

(In the fall, I will begin work as assistant professor of journalism and communications at Milligan College in Johnson City, Tenn. Milligan is a member of the Christian College Coalition and has begun work to encourage more undergraduate students to double major in communications and Bible.)

The leadership of Denver Seminary insists that my work here has opened eyes and that the faculty’s decision to discontinue this program should not be seen as a negative critique. The role of mass media in American life and culture is important, but the faculty decided that this subject could not be given full-time attention at this time, or by me. Thus, I was let go.

I believe the seminary’s leaders are sincere in saying that some attention will continue to be given to issues of media and popular culture. This work will be done by a seminary-trained theologian — not someone from the media.

I am grateful for the chance I was given at Denver Seminary. I offer the following comments as lessons I learned on this campus, with the hope that others in our new association can learn from my experiences.

Why did this effort fail? Three reasons were given. (1) Tight finances. (2) As an Episcopalian, I could not sign the seminary’s Baptistic doctrinal statement. (3) My subject was “too narrow.”

Each of these reasons is, I believe, valid to one degree or another. It’s hard to debate finances or denominationalism. But what about reason No. 3?

Here is the heart of the bad news, and the academic land mine that all of us face. I hope I can explain why I believe this point is so crucial to future attempts to promote this kind of work in other theological settings.

I knew, when I came onto the Denver Seminary campus, that we would never be able to justify a full-time position teaching highly-specialized courses in media and popular culture. This was not my goal, nor that of President Haddon Robinson, who was my mentor and strongest supporter.

(Shortly after my arrival, Dr. Robinson was hired by another seminary. Clearly, the loss of his vision for my work was one of the primary reasons — if not the reason — that this experiment is over.)

As I said during the Yale meetings, my goal was to help create classes in the basic seminary disciplines — BUILT ON TEAM TEACHING. I knew I was not qualified to do this work on my own. I might be able to teach a few specialty courses, but this was not to be the “bottom line” of my work. I hoped to see team-taught courses in preaching, Christian education, youth work, counseling, missions, etc. I wanted to work with others to help them focus work in their disciplines on trends in modern culture and to address the strengths and weaknesses of a culture built on mass media.

I was naive. I thought this strategy would be welcomed by the faculty. After all, I was not trying to set up my own little kingdom. I wanted to be a team player. Over and over, I stressed that media studies must not be seen as a threat to other basic subjects on the campus. My goal was to pull into the seminary community new questions and information — new “signals” from the real world of secular life. It would take the efforts of everyone, especially members of the faculty, to look for answers to these questions. In my opinion, this would only make the core subjects of seminary education more relevant and vital.

It seems that few on the faculty understood this concept. It is also possible that my strategy was much more threatening than I could have ever imagined.

Why? I stressed that I did not want my own kingdom. Perhaps others heard me saying that I wanted to invade each of their kingdoms. I said I didn’t want to replace core courses in the curriculum. Perhaps others heard me saying that I wanted to change the agenda for many of their core courses.

Here is my bottom line, for better or for worse. I believe that we must not settle for tiny little classes on the distant borders of campus life. We must find a way for this material to be blended into the core classes and issues of seminary education.

I believe that team teaching is the answer. However, seminary faculty may resist team teaching — especially if they are asked to teach with someone whose training is not in a traditional seminary discipline.

But note: communications is not a traditional seminary discipline. To use an image from popular culture, we face a true “Catch 22.”

No one would consider sending missionaries overseas without teaching — as a part of their core studies — courses to help them interpret the language and culture into which they are going. Right? As an evangelical, I find it hard to believe that we are sending pastors, educators and counselors into ministry in modern America without intentional training in the language and culture of this mission field.

As a specialty subject, the field of media or popular culture is “too narrow” to justify a full-time position on the faculty of all but a few large seminaries. I remain convinced that the door into the broader world of the seminary curriculum is through team teaching and inter-disciplinary studies.

Will this strategy work elsewhere? Will faculty members at other schools see this strategy as open-handed, or invasive? I do not know.

And what is my good news?

The good news is that my most enthusiastic students were men and women who were already involved in active ministries in today’s homes and churches. Believe me — it is not hard to convince these women and men that mass media matter, or that popular culture is a subject of theological and moral importance! For example, students in the doctor of ministry program were extremely enthusiastic. They see the impact of media every day, because they deal with the people who sit in pews. They also try to talk to the unchurched.

Meanwhile, most students had positive reactions to my courses. But since I was only teaching one core course, very few students were able to find a way into my “elective” classes.

Where will we find support for core courses blending theology and the issues of modern media and popular culture?

In pulpits, pews and living rooms.

How will we convince seminary leaders to listen and to help us wrestle with some of the most powerful cultural forces in modern America and the world?

I do not know.

 

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