When the Familiar Becomes Strange: Part 2 – The Academy and the Church

“I want to bridge the gap between the academy and the church.” If you would have asked me why I wanted to pursue more school a year or so before we left for Chicago, I would have confidently repeated those words. That phrase was scribbled on my mental sticky-note reminding me why I study. It was my raison d’être … of sorts.

The anti-intellectualism I encountered in various places growing up impassioned my motto. In the church and among some of my peers at OBU, I perceived not just a lack of deep theological reflection, but an outright distaste for it. As a former professor used to say, “Just because the tomb is empty doesn’t mean our minds need to be empty too.” My goal was to bring a biblical and theological richness to bear on all aspects of life – to help those both in the pews and behind the pulpit see the essential theological character of everything they do. No more checking minds at the door of the sanctuary – no more self-help bible studies and sermons – orthopraxy emerges rightly from orthodoxy, I preached.

The purity of academic rigor funded my mission. Immersion in the intensity of academia was meant to equip me with tools to build the bridge over the dark chasm that separates the church from the academy. The bridge-building was mostly unidirectional for me: what I meant when I announced my mission was that the church needs more academy in it. But my experience in the academy yielded a different perspective. By the time I was writing the last sentences of my thesis, I found myself looking from the other side of the chasm – realizing how desperately the academy needs the church.

Somewhere in the recesses of my consciousness I knew that the bridging was a reciprocal affair, but I didn’t really get it deeper down in my body. I had to learn it the way I learned not to squeeze the front-wheel brake on my bicycle while traveling rapidly downhill. After tumbling over the handlebars several times, I looked at my arms and legs decorated with blood, dirt, and rocks and realized that something wasn’t working. It took less than a year in the academy to get the sense beat into me, or better, to get the spirit beat out of me.

My awakening was prompted by what I lived and witnessed. In a meeting with the same professor who asked me about being Reformed (see Part 1), we discussed my plans and goals for a career in the academy. This time he asked about my undergraduate GPA. After proudly sharing my accomplishment, he stared back at me without expression and muttered, “We’ll see what your GPA is after this semester,” as if he already knew the outcome. I quickly learned what was required of a graduate student in New Testament who wanted a PhD. He must stand out. Standing out took every ounce of intellect and energy I could muster because the playing field was packed with other competitors who had more intellect, energy, focus, and time, and we were all vying for the same attention. Standing out also meant sacrifice. Most assignments had no real end – there was an indefinite amount of time one could give to preparing for class or completing tasks. Moreover, most syllabi had two levels of reading: the “required reading” level for the common seminary folk, and the “suggested reading” level for those aspiring for academic greatness. Throw in a part-time job and a family – something had to give. I wasn’t graded on those times I chose not to stay another three hours in the library in order to spend time with my wife whom I had not seen all day. But that did often mean a lower grade on the quiz the next morning.

I woke up to the nature of academics as a stumbled through this cut-throat world (I mean that with no exaggeration). I woke up to the reality that the system training people to be experts in Scripture and theology is often spiritually de-formative. It can easily push people out of rhythms of grace and into cycles of earning. And, frankly, it will make an ass out of you. It was becoming clear to me that the academy needs an ecclesial detox. But I realized this slowly.

In the third year of my program, the semester I was both studying for comprehensive exams and beginning my thesis, I journeyed to the annual Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) meeting. This event was a compact form – an intense, non-diluted version – of what I experienced only in bits and pieces the previous two years of my graduate career. It was total immersion in the system. If the character of the academy is most revealed in a particular place, it was here at this meeting. During this trip I finally peeked behind the curtain for an uncensored view of theological academia.

For the uninitiated, SBL is a gathering of the sharpest minds in biblical studies from around the world. Scholars make their yearly pilgrimage in order to listen to one another present their research in various theological disciplines. Two of the largest hotels in downtown Atlanta hosted the event that year. Attendees picked from dozens of presentations or panel discussions occurring in conference rooms simultaneously every hour, all morning and afternoon. In addition, there were two banquet halls packed with books – half priced books – and representatives from publishing companies present to discuss new contracts. After hours everyone gathered with their constituents at restaurants and receptions for more informal, but no less significant, schmoozing.

The previous two years prepared my eyes for that week at SBL. Had the ground not already been tilled in my heart, I might have missed it. What I saw, like Ebenezer Scrooge’s haunted visit from Marley’s ghost, were images of my death – a harbinger of the miserable future ahead if I continued unchanged. From my perspective, SBL was thick with the empty posturing and vain striving that characterizes theological academia when it exists for its own sake. Beneath the intellectual flurry was a malicious mechanism of success. In this world you make it by proving yourself, and participating in a conference like SBL has a legitimizing function in that system. Any aspiring scholar knows that a curriculum vitae without the proper signifiers (e.g. a paper presented at SBL) is debilitating for a career in academics. The problem is not necessarily what is required but the types of attitudes and postures formed by what is required. I could see it in the eyes, hear it in the tone, and sense it the body language of those formed by decades of making their way in this world: resigned desperation.

The realization that I wanted no part fell on me as I sat in a presentation from a scholar who is a veteran in my field of research at that time (the apocryphal NT). His countless hours of research and personal sacrifice (which I’m sure included time away from his family) culminated that day in a presentation before a total of eight people, one of which was there because she accidentally stumbled into the wrong room. I was struck by the realization that the kind of beating I received the past two years was standard fare for continued participation in academics. All of that for this?

I realize that the academy isn’t equally vicious for all who enter, but it is especially for those with a certain personality: one that has learned to find meaning in achievement and performance. The mixture of these variables without the proper vigilance or mechanism for critical, communal introspection produces a potent compound. For me the ratio was especially volatile, so the reaction was particularly violent and immediate. I realize now that God was gracious to me in this way. Not everyone is so fortunate to have his or her dreams quickly implode. If I had actually succeeded in this academic system, that would have been truly troubling. The system could have easily spit me out the other end feeling affirmed at the heart of my idolatry – set up to perpetuate that very evil in the name of theology. Although I would be climbing the ladder in all the appropriate ways that someone like myself does – all the ways of climbing promoted by the system – I would have become, like Jesus said, twice the son of hell I was before I started.

But the church saved me. I found (am finding) healing because the church subverted my attempts to earn acceptance there through the means I used in the academy by persistently opening avenues unto submission to Jesus’ Lordship. I was thus re-trained in the Eucharist, in the proclamation of the word, in the difficulty of practicing community, in the corporate confession, and in the working-out of reconciliation. The church was brought to bear on the academy in my life.