Thursday, March 14, 2013

The PCA, seminaries and the future really ain't what it used to be.

(I did it again. To anyone outside my reformed evangelical subculture this will be as coherent as a Windows 95 user manual. Look for these kinds of posts to find a home on a more appropriate blog.)

During my third year in seminary a denominational official came to speak in chapel and interview several "key" students. I was anointed one of those students. The criteria for making the key student cut was never made clear. I think it may have something to do with me being the accidental cover boy for the seminary that year. I knew how I made that cut. One morning during the first week of the semester a photographer set up outside the library. I was the first student to walk by and when he saw me he asked me to stop, look at the camera, smile and imagine "you see a group of good friends in the distance." It seemed as bizarre then as it sounds now. I obliged and went on to class. This was the result. In my defense, this was taken during the two weeks in 1986 when a mullet was considered fashionable.

I received a note in my mailbox when I was to sit for the interview. I was flattered but puzzled about the purpose. The official in question was a warm, friendly man who had earned his ecclesial stripes with some well-known struggles in the denomination most of our churches had come out of. He began by keeping the conversation to general questions about my family and background. Soon the direction became more diagnostic. He quizzed me on my attitude toward specific issues that were hovering around our church. At some point he decided I passed as the tone once again changed, this time to a sort of collegial "we're in the same club" feel. He told me we needed to stay in touch and there was an "important place" for me in our denomination. Just as I was about to swoon from this inner-ring imprimatur, I was jarred with how he ended the interview, "You know Tom, it's important for me to meet sharp seminarians because, I'll be honest, men going into ministry now are just not as high calibre as they were in my day."

It took considerable effort for me to hide my astonishment. By then I had spent a good bit of time around men "from his day" and I had come to the opposite conclusion. A conclusion I had shared with my peers. Often. As it turned out, that man and I never kept up with each other.

My attitude was, of course, full-boil arrogance. I was too young, stupid and full of crap to make that judgement. But looking back on that day I'm not prepared to give my interviewer a pass either. His pronouncement was every bit as facile and uninformed as mine. And all things being equal you'd expect a man at that age-stage-experience to avoid that. But all things are not equal and as I reluctantly perambulate beyond "middle-age" I've noticed this the-older-we-get-the-better-we-were thinking lives on.1 But this time it comes in stealth form as different tribes in the Reformed world use our litter of seminaries as a way to project insecurities and circle the wagons around our largely sociological and dispositional land claims.

1 As for middle-age. I just turned 55. I don't know anyone 110 years old.

The current discussion about the role of grace and obedience is an important one. As is confessionalism and ecclesiology. But we trivialize these when particular institutions are viewed as either the font of error or the lone sentinels of right thinking. It's just way too easy and lazy. 

And it operates with the working assumption that seminary students are morons.

My vantage point here is, I think, more direct than most. For the past seven years I have been part of a yearly process to assess people who have interest in doing campus ministry with Reformed University Fellowship. The great majority of these have been students from the full roster of "our" seminaries and beyond.2  There is the expected reading of resum├ęs and letters of recommendation (of some use). We listen to sermons (marginally more use). The most useful part is spending a week with students and their wives in directed but informal settings.

2 There is a view held by some that RUF is largely an extension of Covenant Theological Seminary. This is simply, and demonstrably, untrue.

This experience has left me with two distinct impressions.

First, seminary students these days are, on balance, way ahead of the curve in just about every area I can think of compared to "my day". I'm not feigning humility and I have no explanation for it. They have more self-awareness, less spiritual/theological bravado (as in "I'm more reformed" or "I really understand grace"), considerably less parochial in their thinking, and much, much clearer in their sense of call to ministry. This is across the board from theology nerds to former frat boys, those who skew conservative or progressive, the socially skilled and the introverts. Yes, there are exceptions. And because these are men interested in RUF that may tilt the sample a bit. But the sheer number of students we've seen corrects that.

The second impression is they are very clear-eyed about the limitations and peculiarities of the schools they attend. The ones most guilty of positioning seminaries as specialized movement leaders are the seminaries themselves (the most concise explanation for that is given here.) Of course, many choose their seminary for that reason. But by the time I get to see them most have either gotten past that or at least seen the man behind the curtain. No seminary could live up to the claims on their brochures or ideological cheerleaders. Yet most aren't cynical about it. Just realistic.

So the idea that seminaries are churning out foot soldiers for what-is-threatening-the-church may fill up space on message boards but it will not stand up under scrutiny. I continually meet young men who completely confound the carefully crafted image of their theological institutions. In a good way. I used to think that after a five-minute conversation or five-minutes listening to a sermon I could tell where a man was trained. And often I could. Not any more.

I'm not suggesting seminaries are all the same or they have no issues. Just not the ones many think they do.

This also runs counter to the increasing and near hysterical howls about the alleged young generation of narcissists. I started college in the still choppy wake of the Watergate era. With my work in ministry I stayed in the campus environment almost continuously up until a few years ago. There's a reason why in all that time I never (not once) noticed any significant difference in the level of college-age egotism. There wasn't any difference. But just google the words "narcissist" and "college student" and you'd think otherwise. 

In 1979 Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Since then, calling out a generation as self-absorbed has become a publishing cottage industry. Following Lasch, the general claim is that a generation so steeped with ideas of self-esteem and entitlement disables them from living realistically, being happy and meaningfully contributing to society (or worse.) The latest merchant of doom is Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University professor and author of Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Twenge has become a media darling and summaries and snippets of her writing and sound bites are on endless loop via Facebook and Twitter sharing. Especially among Christians, who love her stuff (well, those over 35 do).

Less known is the significant body of work which calls into question (actually pretty much eviscerates) the premise, research methods, language and conclusions of this movement. A good, comprehensive example of that is found here. It's got some techno-babble but well worth the read. This piece is a good shorter summation. I'll only point out one fatal flaw in Twenge's work. The research sampling. Which is, wait, college students.

Seriously? You ask a sample of college students about their attitudes and you're shocked to find they're self-obsessed? And then you project that to mean Big Trouble For Society. Really? The American university has not been an adult world since the early 20th century (and designed by adults to be and stay that way, see the second chapter of Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media by Quentin James Schultze). It has for over a hundred years been a carefully crafted petri dish of late adolescence. Which means late childhood. Which means if Solomon is right, foolishness is "bound up" in that world. And it's been that way for a long, long time.

The form and language of their foolishness may be unfamiliar. And as Twenge skeptic Brent Donnellan says, "It might simply be that older adults...overlook the personality changes that they themselves experienced as they matured into full-fledged adults." You're being polite Professor Donnellan. There's no "might" about it.

But they do grow up. A few weeks ago the New York Times noted how even hipsters (the despised poster children of extended adolescence) eventually become adults...and move to the suburbs. And every year I see how young men come out of that petri dish and now they're all grown up, their hearts warmed by the gospel and called to serve Jesus. I don't look at them and think they don't measure up. I'm fairly certain they'll be more faithful and effective at this than I am.

So relax. The kids are alright.

27 years later. Even beter:


  1. First, I found Waldo! Top row, seventh from the left. Bit of a fiber challenged group, judging by the crunched eyebrows. My seminary pics would fair no better. But I went to WTS and they weren't even in color...

    Second, isn't your haircut still the same?:-) For 1986, it could've been worse.

    Third, you're obviously not aging into a dyspeptic and fussy old Presbyterian. This sounds like you believe God is at work!

    1. I'm currently going for the 70's high school yearbook hairstyle. I still have hair, so I figure what the heck.

  2. I wonder how much Boomer perspectives shaped this pessimistic attitude about the young. That generation (no offense) seems so self-obsessed that anyone not focusing on them is labelled "self centered." My mind goes to the discussion on Soc Sec. Xers and younger seem fine with notion of reforming it. Boomers... not so much even if reform promise not to touch those near retirement age. Maybe that's just the Xer chip on my shoulder.

    1. Daryl - Started long before the Boomers. Didn't start with them and it won't end with them. Don't flatter your generation by thinking they won't be as whiny as the Boomers are. They will. Trust me.

  3. Tom.
    Stuck home on Sunday morning with a sick kid. Found your blog, right on. It's not that "the kids" are worse its just that they feel the need to put it all on the Facebook.
    I hope all is well with the clan.