On January 22, 2013, Barack Hussein Obama was inaugurated for a second term as President of the United States of America. The inauguration itself had been the subject of some evangelical controversy. On January 9, Think Progress posted a sermon by Pastor Louie Giglio that he had preached in the mid-1990s. The sermon’s title said it all: “In Search of a Standard – Christian Response to Homosexuality.”
Giglio, the founder of the Passion Conferences and pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, promptly bowed out of the inauguration on January 10. He was then ridiculed by the secular media, defended by evangelicals, and finally given The Last Word‘s “Rewrite” by progressive Catholic and MSNBC news host, Lawrence O’Donnell.
The evangelical drama wasn’t over yet. After the Giglio débacle unfolded, Obama announced that he would put his hand on two Bibles as he took the presidential oath: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Bible and Abraham Lincoln’s Bible. That went pretty smoothly.
But then, there was this tweet from within the heart of the evangelical world from Pastor Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Church:
Praying for our president, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.
— Mark Driscoll (@PastorMark) January 21, 2013
Of course, Driscoll might contest that he could be characterized as being “the heart of the evangelical world” because he is from Seattle, but suffice it to say that it seemed like the Giglio drama was reignited. Driscoll perplexed the secular news media, was defended by fans on his social media pages (while called expletive names by others), was deconstructed by the Naked Pastor, and provoked not-a-few facepalms from Christians who deemed themselves thoughtful. Here’s Eugene Cho, just across the bridge from Driscoll, for example:
On MLK Day, you want me to honor his legacy by responding to a privileged white dude pastor who rarely-if ever-engages civil rights? No thx.
— Eugene Cho (@EugeneCho) January 21, 2013
What was fascinating was that, in a piece completely unconnected with these incidents, the same Mark Driscoll posted a response to a young man seeking to know whether he should major in ministry during his undergraduate education. Driscoll’s answer, using the typical Driscoll-isms of masculine appeal to “men are like trucks; they drive straighter with a load,” turned into an all-out exposé of the contemporary seminary as a debt-inflating institution with which young men exploring a ministry option should be very cautious to engage.
True as Driscoll’s advice may have been, however, I found myself wondering about Driscoll’s musings on theological education in the context of the public pastoral débacles of the last two weeks. I mean, it seems these days that it might be better to read a few books than spend money on seminary curriculum built around Scriptural exegesis, church history, systematic theology, and a few practical ministry courses, plus an internship in which you pay the seminary to work for a church. I mean, if you can teach yourself these things, why waste your money and four years of your life? But I wonder if Driscoll’s advice, as responsible as it sounds, might be short-selling his readers.
Indeed, had Driscoll himself received broader exposure and critical pedagogical guidance to a wider set of theological traditions, his critique of Obama might have been more acute. Of course, I am assuming that one receives a broad exposure to a wide array of theologies in seminary, which, from my experience as a dropout from two theological institutions, is probably not a safe assumption to make about many schools. However, there may be a case here that it is precisely pedagogical guidance to the breadth in historical and contemporary theological conversations that should be the added-value of a seminary education over reading a book and that seminaries should be making sure that they are providing this service if they aren’t doing it already.
Take, for example, a hypothetical situation in which Driscoll, instead of being only narrowly exposed to a narrow system in evangelical theology during his theological training, might have critically engaged critiques of Obama and his theological guru, Reinhold Niebuhr, launched by James Cone and Cornel West, both faculty specialists in African American theology at Union Theological Seminary. (Sure, Driscoll has occasionally confessed to reading feminist theologians and not enjoying them, but one wonders if more pedagogical guidance here would have been necessary.) West’s critique of Obama sounds eerily similar to Driscoll’s, but with a bit more teeth.
I mean, that sounds so similar to Driscoll: West is saying that if Obama does not carry out policies of justice for the least of these in poverty-stricken America, he doesn’t have a right to put his hand on a Bible that is filled with verses of justice that speaking of a God of justice in which King believed. If West critiques Obama directly, Cone takes on Obama’s major theological influence, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, where he suggests that being influenced by Niebuhr does not equate being rooted in the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Yes, that sounds like Obama-style pragmatism to me too. No, I’m not saying that Driscoll needs to become African American; that makes about as much sense as when St. Paul tells circumcised Christians not to seek to be uncircumcised (one wonders: were they really thinking about it?). I am saying, though, that in light of Eugene Cho’s response, Driscoll might have some theological reflection to do about the connection between his neo-Reformed evangelicalism and racial justice. As radical as this may sound for an evangelical, it is not impossible. Witness, for example, Tim Keller’s attempt that was itself a response to John Piper’s attempt.
There was, however, an important difference between Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr. that partly accounts for why King became a martyr in the civil rights movement while Niebuhr remained safely confined in his office at Union Seminary teaching Christian social ethics, never risking his life in the fight for justice. Unlike King, Niebuhr viewed agape love, as revealed in Jesus’ cross, as an unrealizable goal in history–a state of perfection which no individual or group in society could ever fully hope to achieve. For Niebuhr, Jesus’ cross was an absolute transcendent standard that stands in judgment over any human achievement. The most we can realize is “proximate justice,” which Niebuhr defined as a balance of power between powerful collectives. But what about groups without power? Niebuhr did not have much to say to African Americans, a 10-percent minority, except to recommend nonviolence, which he believed might advance the cause of civil rights, while never winning full justice. Niebuhr’s moderate view was not one to empower a powerless group to risk their lives for freedom. That might have been why he did not talk to militant black groups or black nationalists in Harlem. He had very little to say to them. (James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011, p. 71.)
Recalling Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s (2000) Divided by Faith, the Cone and West aficionados may wince a bit at these appeals to personal repentance and blunt critiques of ethnic churches that come out of an evangelical obsession with individual responsibility at the expense of structural forces. But come on; at least they’re trying, and maybe we should encourage them…especially by helping young clergy reflect on this in seminary.
In addition, getting back to Giglio, one wonders if a more intelligent exchange might have been had if only he had been exposed to feminist and LGBT theology during his theological training. Indeed, the fact that Giglio felt that he had to bow out of the public stage meant that he didn’t know how to think anything else except for what the Gay Christian Network founder, Justin Lee, calls the “gay-vs.-Christian” dichotomy.
Again, in the same way that I juxtaposed Driscoll with Cone and West, I’m not saying that Giglio would have to become a feminist or LGBT theologian, or that he even needs to change his view on sexual ethics (he could remain what Justin Lee calls a “Side B” Christian). I’m saying that if he might have had a few more tools in his theological toolbox than what he had already, that is, if he had been aware of the fabulous work out there, say, written by Patrick Cheng, James Allison, and Sister Margaret Farley (I mean, after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did their thing, who in the theological world hasn’t heard of Margaret Farley), Giglio would at least know that he has to engage this stuff. Or, on that note, what about thinking through what evangelical ethicist Lewis Smedes at Fuller has to say about homosexuality as an identity not actually being found anywhere in Scripture in the revised edition of Sex for Christians? I mean, the sermon is about “biblical standards,” which suggests that at the time, Giglio thought of homosexuality as a loose lifestyle funded by a wealthy lobby to make some kind of sexually hedonistic Epicureanism an acceptable alternate lifestyle with no real moral standards or constraints on pleasure-seeking, which in turn has to be confronted with the truth that there are moral standards and those are found in Scripture (although the moral standards bit was probably learned from Part I of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity). I mean, whatever one’s theology of the body is, with the passage of two decades and a bit more reading, a bit more clergy development, and a bit more counseling, one should know that that portrayal was probably a tad too monolithic. Had he had a few more tools, his response to being called out by Think Progress might have at least been a little more interesting.
In other words, what I’m saying is that there is a very broad theological conversation that is happening, and that part of the point of theological education is to induct people entering ecclesial service into that dialogue. Sure, OK, some people may think I’m dreaming; after all, isn’t pastoral work about walking with the people, counseling them, providing pastoral care, being part of the major events of their lives (birth, baptism, confirmation, wedding, funeral,etc.), and equipping them to live Christian lives? Yes, it is, and part of that happens to be precisely to equip them to be the church, and part of being the church is to be in communion with the church catholic that is having these conversations. And part of the way of training young ecclesial leaders on how to get in on the conversation is pretty standard pedagogical practice: give them a road map to the literature, make it required reading, and make your assignments about critical engagement! Of course, is this how theological education currently works? Likely not. I’m just saying that it’s an imperative.
But, of course, Driscoll’s post on theological education highlights three things that probably need to change before this is possible: 1) the cost of theological education, 2) the utility of theological pedagogy that would be of added value to personal theological reading, and 3) the support of churches for young clergy pursuing theological education. In other words, can theological education actually be available to young clergy who will likely not be able to repay their debts? Might churches be able to pool resources, even relying on the church catholic instead of struggling along as autonomous congregations, to train young clergy? Will seminaries be able to demonstrate that they can provide theological training that cannot be obtained by simply reading a good book by themselves?
Come to think of it, these questions may well strike at the heart of our ecclesiology. They inquire as to whether our belief in debt forgiveness as in the Lord’s Prayer, the parables of forgiveness, and the messianic announcement of the Jubilee actually matches our practice. They probe our models of congregational autonomy when, say, Paul’s collection for the church in Jerusalem appealed to anything but congregational autonomy; those who disagree will find 2 Corinthians a very challenging read. They challenge our understanding of education altogether, making us wonder when information accumulation replaced the discipleship and formation that seems to have been a long point of orthopraxy in the Christian tradition (thinking beyond Paul and Timothy, for example, one finds examples in Justin Martyr, Origen, Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales, Basil Moreau, etc.).
That said, the Giglio and Driscoll débacles of the past two weeks highlight once again the real problem of evangelical leaders who are thought to be able to do theology until they are challenged on theological grounds. This is a problem because for all that is said about the persecution of Christians by a secularizing public sphere, to be martyred for less-than-informed remarks isn’t exactly how martyrdom in Scripture works, at least not in the Acts of the Apostles. Sure, OK, out-of-context soundbites were twisted in efforts to drag Stephen, Peter, John, and Paul before synagogue leaders and the Sanhedrin. Stephen, for example, was taken brutally out of context when the Freedmen’s Synagogue said that he was telling Jewish Christians to abandon Moses. But Stephen did not resort to whimpering about being taken out of context because he was too busy being a deacon-waiter or saying that that was not the focus of his message in the first place. No, he faced the Sanhedrin and retold the entire tradition through the hermeneutic of the people of God embodying stiff-necked opposition to the Law and the Prophets so that they ultimately lynched the culmination of the Scriptures. Acts 7 is actually a fascinating theological read, and ultimately, it suggests that people like Stephen were martyred because they understood the breadth of the tradition so well that they told such convincing theological stories with such an acute, subversive, and creative Christian hermeneutic that they couldn’t be silenced except by brute force. I’m not convinced that Giglio and Driscoll have done that.