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Sunday, June 03, 2007
The Wood Between the Worlds-- a.k.a Seminary

This summer David and I are reading the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time. We started at the beginning with "The Magician's Nephew." Tonight as we were making our way through chapter 3 "The wood between the worlds," a piece of the dialogue really captured my attention. Polly and Digory are two of the main characters and they find themselves in a mystical place of being neither lost nor found. They want to get back home and something more familiar and yet they want to explore this enchanted place. The "pools" they speak of are apparently the doorways into and out of this place.

What's the matter?" said Polly.

"I've just had a really wonderful idea," said Digory. "What are all the other pools?"

"How do you mean?"

"Why, if we can get back to our own world by jumping into this pool, mightn't we get somewhere else by jumping into one of the others? Supposing there was a world at the bottom of every pool."

"But I thought we were already in your Uncle Andrew's Other World or Other Place or whatever he called it. Didn't you say--"

"Oh bother Uncle Andrew," interrupted Digory.

"I don't believe he knows anything about it. He never had the pluck to come here himself. He only talked of one Other world. But suppose there were dozens?"

"You mean, this wood might be only one of them?"

"No, I don't believe this wood is a world at all. I think it's just a sort of in-between place."

Polly looked puzzled.

"Don't you see?" said Digory. "No, do listen. Think of our tunnel under the slates at home. It isn't a room in any of the houses. In a way, it isn't really part of any of the houses. But once you're in the tunnel you can go along it and come out into any of the houses in the row. Mightn't this wood be the same?--a place that isn't in any of the worlds, but once you've found that place you can get into them all."

This exchange in some ways captures something of the season of seminary for me. It describes that rarefied, liminal place where so much transformation happens. Only seminary seems to be less and less and less that kind of place anymore. Thoughts about why? and if it even matters?

Photo: That's the FARMStrong Fam a few weeks back at the Beach between the Worlds.
posted by John David Walt | at 6/03/2007 09:48:00 PM



Blogger Dan said...

could it have something to do with "getting a degree/working towards a position" versus following God's leading. As I am ending out my first year here at Asbury, I am finding lots of transformation in my life, but not in pursuit of a degree. It's because I followed the call from God to be an ordained minister. Following God usually brings transformation (see Moses, disciples), where education (see rabbis, sadducees, and pharisees) sometimes does not.
Love the Chronicles of Narnia by the way, as well as the "Space Trilogy" which are much harder reads.

11:11 PM EDT  
Blogger gmw said...

Having Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus fresh on my mind, I would say that for me "the Asbury experience" was more formative than only academic. However, one is supposed to exit with a degree, so academic concerns may not be neglected. And, by the same token, it is not an ordaining body, so the locus of discernment concerning fitness for ministry is not situated with the exit process for the seminary. This puts a seminary in a tight spot regarding spiritual formation as an expectation from our churches/Annual Conferences. Spiritual formation is there to be had, but one must choose to partake of that offering of the seminary.

Nevertheless, this quote from Nouwen's chapter 3, "from leading to being led," seems pertinent:

"Thinking about the future of Christian leadership, I am convinced that it must be a theological leadership. For this to come about, much--very much--has to happen in seminaries and divinity schools. They have become centers where people are trained in true discernment of the signs of the time. This cannot be just an intellectual training. It requires a deep spiritual formation involving the whole person--body, mind, and heart. I think we are only half aware of how secular even theological schools have become. Formation in the mind of Christ, who did not cling to power but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, is not what most seminaries are about." (italics mine)

Hope this relates to what you're wanting to get at here.

12:22 AM EDT  
Blogger JohnDeere said...

nice quote guy. right on target. so do you think liminality is prerequisite for ministry/theological training? or can one just do it online-- squeeze it in on the margins of life and ministry and get the credential?

and dan-- say more about this dichotomy you draw between "following a call from God" and "education." you place transformation and "disciples" in one category and "education" and "rabbis" in another. how do you see Jesus disciples as out of the rabbi category and what different might it make to seminary tranining?

7:17 AM EDT  
Blogger Julie said...

I think the best of seminaries are still a "kind of rarified, liminal place of transformation" It is the people and what they are after that have changed.

I encountered so many people in seminary who were encouraged to finish as quickly as possible. These people approached the coursework as a necessary step along their professional path and little else. You miss something of the experience when you approach it that way.

I never took Lawson Stone for class, but something he said in chapel one day has always stuck with me. He said, "Seminary is preparation and preparation is ministry." I heard that early in my journey at Asbury and it replayed in my head throughout my time there.

I dare say the problem is not so much in the seminaries. The professors and the Deans approach it the way you've described it here (as a time set apart...a world between the worlds). I think the reason it might be becoming "less and less" that kind of place is more because churches and ministries have lost sight of the importance of a strong, intensive education...one that is transformative academically and spiritually. My question becomes...how can we change that?

10:39 AM EDT  
Blogger Julie said...

p.s. I love this picture of the family I love. I really want to come and visit sometime soon. We shall see...

AND one of the many things I love about the way you and Tiffani love on those kids is that you read to them. Beautiful...

10:40 AM EDT  
Blogger mizpeach said...

Hey J.D - missed seeing you- glad you got back safely. I can't seem to get thru on Tiff's email - would you please give this to her?

Dearest Tiffani - I can't seem to get to the phone before ten o'clock so I thought I'd email you.

We had such a good time with you and the kids. Jack wants to go to 'Tucky to see yall again. I do too.

Did JD get home in one piece? I did see that he got home, but wondered how exhausted he must be - wait - no kids for a week- he doesn't get to be tired!

Hey, I didn't get home with my seashell creation. Ask the kids to save it for me, ok? I totally love my crystal cross - it is a daily reminder of my sweet Tiff and nieces and nephews. Thanks for everything.

Next time we see each other, it won't be so hectic and we can have more down time. Hope I can get to a tee ball game or two.

Love you and miss you and can't wait to see yall again - love, shannon

10:59 PM EDT  
Blogger eli said...

in part i think it is that seminaries are preoccupied with gaining "part-of-the-house" legitimacy. because the world doesn't see the value in an "in between place," seminaries think they must prove they are a legitimate world. the problem is that all you end up with is another living room or dining room; or in this case, another academic institution.

12:02 AM EDT  
Anonymous john page said...

For some the MDiv is nothing more than a professional pastor's degree, like an MBA for a business person. For me the academic load in seminary really just confirmed what I had heard from the pulpit in the church I attended for years. The "Theological training" aspect of it came through talks with professors and students where we wrestled with issues and ideas and beliefs and doubts.
There were, and are, people who go to seminary to get the degree and move on. They become status quo pastors.
Others embrace the "between the worlds" idea - preparation is indeed ministry. I think you have to Want to be prepared, which means opening up yourself for transformation and accountability and brokeness and all that other good stuff.
Can it occur through online or distant learning venues? Yeah, I think so...requires a bit more effort, but it's happening for me now through Fuller.
My Asbury experience Was a time of preparation...because I wanted it to be...so I didn't take a student pastorate...I wanted to have a time in my life to be a student, a learner, a disciple as full-on as possible, without the distraction of "full-time work." I came away very much changed, for the better.

Hope this adds to the discussion.

4:33 PM EDT  
Blogger Dan said...

The picture I see in the gospels of the sadducees and pharisees is a group of people as a whole focused on learning and implementing the "law," while the disciples (knowingly or unknowingly) were following Jesus who was focused on a relationship with God the Father. Obviously, Jesus taught many things related to the law (ex: Sermon on the Mount- You've heard it said, I say...), but his goal was relationship with God. I would think that the religious leaders of Jesus' day also wanted a relationship with God, but it seems from the Gospels that they focused on the law to give them that. From seeing the results of both ministries, Jesus' seems to have the most transformative power.

Someone else mentioned that a seminary is an educational institution and not an ordaining body, so what is the main focus. Education does obviously play a part in transformation, but it seems that exploring and deepening your relationship with God, with other Christians, and your community have as much or more to do with transformation. At Asbury, I think this is valued in the community events, marriage/single bible studies, accountability, professors leading devotions during class, chapel...

Maybe as Julie and John Page said, it's also not as much about the seminary as it is the seminary student's motives and decisions while in seminary. Will we as student's make the effort to be involved in more than just educational learning? I am working towards that and trying to find how I can still be in relationship to the larger community of Wilmore/Lexington at this point- it's hard not to get closed off to anything outside of the seminary.

To spur on more thought, quotes and summaries from Brian McLaren's “A New Kind of Christian” on seminaries:
“My ideal seminary would be one part monastery, one part mission agency, and one part seminar” (150).
1. Monastery: live in community of some sort, sharing of life, spiritual practices. “Whether people lived in this sort of community for a year, a semester, a quarter, a month, or a weekend out of every month (kind of like the Army Reserves), I know it would be a good thing for them” (150).
2. Mission Agency: focus on our role as agents of God’s kingdom. Spend time traveling and experiencing places where mission is happening (from soup kitchens to orphanages).
3. Seminar: people learn best while talking. Read or experience something, discuss it with fellow learners, with a teacher (who acts as a moderator) present. “Information transmission should be handled in the most efficient way possible – through film, reading, lecture, Websites, interviews, whatever” (151).
Interesting to discuss and possibly learn to implement. This discussion is pushing me to evaluate my time here at Asbury as a seminary student, so thank you all for plodding through this with me.

5:05 PM EDT  
Blogger gmw said...

JD: so do you think liminality is prerequisite for ministry/theological training? or can one just do it online-- squeeze it in on the margins of life and ministry and get the credential?

I actually go back and forth somewhat concerning that question, JD. On the one hand, I respect some folks (Duke Divinity, for example) for saying, "we believe preparation happens within community and for us community is everyone coming to campus residentially for 3-4 years." That approach is probably most conducive to a liminal existence during preparation time.

On the other hand, there's this conversation about having an apprentice-type approach to theological training and formation for ministry. Pressing that, one could see liminality punctuated less by the life of the academic community (though somewhat there) and more by the process of candidacy for ministry (for those of the UMC variety), which actually locates the liminal time perhaps a little more squarely within the Church(?). That assumes, however, that persons are working on a church staff with intentional mentoring or are pastoring a church within the context of intentional mentoring. This seems rarely to be the case, though that would make those experiences considerably more valuable.

For me, I'm glad I experienced liminal time as a residential divinity student.

4:26 AM EDT  
Blogger JohnDeere said...

Guy-- i vascillate too in some ways. I increasingly believe the classic, academic-educational model is bankrupt. Sit in class listen to lectures, comply with assignments and get the grade. And yet you are right-- the apprentice model rarely happens in the local church simply because noone really knows how to do it and the demands of the local church are too high to interrupt the pattern and interject the practice. What is fascinating to consider is the way the church mimics the academy-- people show up in mass, sit neatly in rows and listen to a lecture (i.e. sermon).

I do think liminality is prerequisite for the kind of transformation holiness implies. does it have to be for three years at a seminary???? probably not.

what i have long been interested in is how the local church can establish a creative seminary dynamic. that's what i'm pondering. i took a crack at it back in the woodlands and we enjoyed success, and yet in retrospect i fear i imported and overlayed the academic model on the church.

my primary interest at asbury is in furthering the apprentice model we are building with students here. we employ 30-40 interns who both imagine and implement the ministry that makes for community life here. i work intensively with 7-8 apprentices on a worship design team each year. I wish this were in place when you were here as i would have loved to work with you in this capacity. what is gratifying is to see how many of those students i have worked with are now doing this same thing in their ministry contexts. i'm really glad to see you doing it there. and it looks like you are doing a good job so far.

7:32 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know incredibly gifted pastors and people who never went to seminary and others who did seminary 'in the margins' of life and ministry.

I also know people who went to seminary and who have been less than effective in ministry.

The key, I think, is being someone who lets God use life to teach you. Not just the big lessons, but the small little moments when God whispers. This is where transformation happens.

However, I do believe that seminary (not the online kind) is a natural breeding ground for this kind of transformation (but not a prerequisite, of course). I did ministry in the local church, and I even did a year of online seminary before coming to Asbury. And my experience has been that tranformational relationships and transformation in general is 'easier' in seminary.

Hopefully, my time here is teaching me to be someone who pauses for transformation along the way.

Andrea Summers

3:59 PM EDT  
Blogger gmw said...

good conversation, JD. a few random things...

1. I too wish this had been in place when I was there. Would have been all over it...but somebody had to break you in, so I'll take my role and be alright with it. ;)

2. I do have ways in which I would press back on the "academic" model, but I do appreciate much of what it does contribute positively--expertise on the part of professors, an emphasis on the life-of-the-mind as an offering to God, etc. But I do also wonder about ways to capture those pluses in alternate modes of holistic Christian ministry preparation. One of my interests for further study is the Patristics' use of Scripture in their activities of faith formation. What can we learn from the ancients about formation of persons, particularly in creative use of the Scriptures, and in particular: (a) Christian leaders, and (b) Christian communities as a whole.

3. One thing you apprentice model has going for it is that it does not remove the students from rigorous intellectual work that the "academic" model assumes. You seem to get both--academic rigor, apprenticeship in community, and ministry experience that is instructive for future minsitry.

12:57 AM EDT  
Blogger The Thief said...

For me (2001 grad), seminary was the liminal place for transformation to take place. I did not live on campus, but that didn't detract from the "apartness" I experienced.

I probably learned the most in the class in which I received my poorest grade - simply because of the research I put into the paper I wrote on Prayer and the Problem of Evil (where my resources were deemed to be "more devotional than academic").

I had challenging and informing courses, but the interaction with a Christian community (actually several Christian communities) sharpened me in different ways.

1:12 PM EDT  

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