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Recommended Books for Recent Seminary Grads

Every spring, and often in the fall, our seminaries are turning out new crops of graduates who hope to enter some role in pastoral ministry. Hopefully, during seminary, each graduate has developed some reading habits that will last them for the rest of their lives.

What are some particularly helpful books for recent seminary graduates to read to help make the transition from academic life to pastoral ministry?

After having read some substantial theology for the last several years, there are five recommended books that some of my fellow ministers have recommended for recent graduates:

A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by Helmut Thielicke. This was one of the first books recommended by a seminary professor for graduates. It is the classic text that, in a concise 57 pages walks recent seminary graduates through the transition from academic discussion to application within local church ministry. Others have attempted to match it but this is still the classic text.

Brothers, We are Not Professionals by John Piper. Arranged in 36 chapters, Piper’s text develops a practical pastoral ministry for pastors who are both new to ministry or are veterans. Piper’s paradigm for pastoral ministry seeks to rediscover the shepherd’s task and heart and move ministers away from the professionalization that has lost its connection with biblical ministry.

They Found the Secret by Raymond Edman. Moving towards a more devotional topic, one of the questions that I’ve had for established ministry leaders when I am able to take them to lunch or sit and talk with them, is “What books impacted your life the most?” One of the books that I’ve consistently heard from so many was this one by Edman. It is a classic on finding the “exchanged life” that can help each of us focus our ministry trajectory at an early stage.

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell. Seminary does many things well, but one of the challenges that we see all too often is that there is a lack of actual ministry preparation. We learn plenty of wonderful things about theology and biblical studies, but actual pastoral ministry has less to do with those and so much more to do with leading people. Maxwell’s text is, in my opinion, the best at helping us understand several key leadership rules to will help us, along with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, motivate people to life change.

Good to Great by Jim Collins. Obviously this list is less theological, but as we all find out in ministry, the pastorate is less theological than we hope. When I first sat and read this text, in my first church out of seminary, it shook my world and help refocus my leadership goals. Collins has brought together some of the best practices of making good organizations great. When I’ve asked that question about who pastors read, Collins’ text has also made that list of some of the most dynamic pastors who have built Jesus loving, God glorifying churches of all sizes.

Certainly there are a number of other texts I could put on this list, but I wanted to keep it slim. Every year when I organize my yearly reading schedule (outside of seminar and research texts) I try to read three of these five.

Seminary prepares us so well for the rigor of ministry and these texts will, hopefully, add to the practicality of ministry. While some might decry the lack of substantive theologies, in reality for most seminary graduates we need a dose of reality in our first pastoral role that familiarizes us with the beauty of our parishioners.

So, what other books would you add? What practical texts have help mould you for ministry?

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Who is More Qualified to Write on Jesus?

At this point I think we can agree any topic related to Jesus causes a firestorm.

This weekend a new controversy has sprung up as it relates to Dr Reza Alsan’s interview on FoxNews about his new book Zelaot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Now I’m not going to comment on his text, however the controversy around his interview has gotten a conversation going. Over at First Things, Matthew J. Franck has put together a post about the challenge of Dr Aslan’s purported credentials. Whether or not Dr Aslan has a PhD which allows him to say he’s a historian is not my point. I generally support the view that to be considered a critical scholar on a subject one needs to have “a terminal degree in the specific field of their inquiry with relevant research and peer reviewed articles published while holding a relevant academic position at an educational institution.”

This definition should enough to begin to answer this question about who is more qualified to write on Jesus. Jesus is popular stuff and if you write a decent book and have the backing of a smoothly operating propaganda machine you should be able to sell some books. Western culture still loves to talk about Jesus.

So, does being a   (insert religious or non-religious moniker)  make one more credible or less credible when it comes to writing on Jesus?

From a position of academic scholarship, so long as someone has a relevant degree and has done quality research to answering a question, however one fills in the blank in the above line doesn’t matter. Academically, a Muslim with a New Testament degree is just as qualified as an evangelical Christian with the same degree to write about Jesus. Now, whether they have done a good job will be determined (not by 24-hour news channels) but by the scholarly community at large.

Scholars submit their work to review (both peer review and review articles) and it should withstand a healthy conversation that is either positive or negative. A writer who isn’t prepared, or willing to do so, isn’t a scholar and isn’t credible.

In our contemporary age, too many of us operate with an approach of suspicion when encountering a sympathetic scholar, or writer, who produces a work about a controversial topic. Surely the convinced Christian has less to offer than the critical atheist when asking historical questions about Jesus. Apparently there is a lack of credibility that comes from being affiliated with the group you’re critically engaging.

Now this might just be a product of our age.

I, for one, welcome Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Mormon, Buddhist, atheist, and agnostic inquiries into the picture of the historical Jesus developed by orthodox (small “o”) Christians since the establishment of the post-Apostolic church. Let’s get our cards on the table and have a generous conversation. Let’s use the same historical methodology to evaluate all of our leaders by which we evaluate Jesus. Let’s compare the historical Jesus against the historical Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Siddhartha Gautama, and others.

Now, the larger question for Muslim scholar such as Reza Aslan, does he welcome appropriately credentialed Christian scholars to investigate Mohammed?

It’s easy to write a book about Jesus. Dan Brown stole material from another book and now lives in a very large house after writing a very bad book about Jesus. But he’s not a critical, or any kind of, scholar.

The challenge is writing a good book about Jesus that authentically and critically engages the historical scholarship in a quest (no pun intended) to answer the author’s primary question about Jesus. It’s been done, but only in limited form and usually in a manner that doesn’t interview well on the 24-hour newsfeeds.

Finally, we shouldn’t miss the point that Reza Aslan has provided a critical interaction with the theme of resurrection and how it would have reflected a political and religious reality of the historical Jesus. This seems to be, obviously, completely missed by the interviewer. Now that is an interesting topic. One of the challenges Islam brings to Christianity is a denial of the crucifixion. I believe that is one of the more historically established events in antiquity. If Dr Aslan is offering a new perspective, I’d be willing to hear it.

Of course, we must point out that any scholar going on any of the 24 hour news channels (or Comedy Central) shouldn’t expect to be received with any respect for critical nuance. That’s probably more of a statement about the journalistic torpor of our days than a commentary on the failures of scholarship. Long gone are the days when scholars would be interviewed by learned journalists who probed their insights and helpfully developed the discussion. This FoxNews interview is a blight on our culture and the interviewer misses the entire point. Since Foxnews has a history of failing to critically engage scholars, I simply think they don’t have much to offer in this conversation.

So, Who is More Qualified to Write on Jesus?

First, we must consider the qualifications (academically) of an author. No offense to my Christian brothers and sisters, but if you have a high school diploma with no additional undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate study, you aren’t as qualified to write on Jesus as someone who has those degrees. Also, any of these degrees of collegename.com diploma mill doesn’t qualify you either.

Second, just because someone is a Christian (including us terrible evangelicals) doesn’t mean our opinion is less suitable than a non-believer. If an evangelical has done the work their voice should be heard.

Third, just because someone isn’t a Christian who has the requisite academic work, doesn’t mean they are more worth hearing by the population at large. Critical inquiry demands peer review. It demands the qualified conversation of specialists who can review and consider the piece.

So finally, let those who choose to write on Jesus be subject to the process of answering the question about their credentials and then let their work stand (or fall) on its own.

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Snap Judgments: Social Media Challenges

The past several days saw a flare up in the blogosphere over a possible attribution error involving the venerable theologian, N.T. Wright and a book he was purported to have written or at least given a contribution.

This was first posted by Michael Bird who brought up an issue concerning a soon to be released book titled Breaking Beautiful: The Promise of Truth in a Fractured World. Though the item has been pulled from the Amazon.com (thought still up on their UK site) you can go see a page over at Barnes & Noble’s site. According to a loose reconstruction of events, it appears Bird saw this release and contacted Wright who was not familiar with the text. Bird then sent off the later redacted post questioning the reliability of the book in light of his conversation with Wright.

Well, this fired up the social media world and soon we had a number of blogs and twitter discussions going on about this issue. Soon Brian LePort over at Near Emmaus noted the discussion and soon also had its resolution. By the afternoon (US Central Time) Bird had posted a resolution post after Tim Suttle had offered a “confessional” post detailing his side of the situation. Apparently, Suttle had been under contract with a publisher, The House Studio, to provide groups content behind Wright’s videos on the topic.

Soon enough Elizabeth Perry, editor at The House Studio, offered a public statement to Bird’s piece and ChristianityToday’s Liveblog had a chronicle of the situation. It seems the situation arose out of confusing marketing, a quick decision to post a perception of a situation, high level intellectuals were involved, and the pire of fire that is social media was soon ignited. My purpose here is not to assess blame or who is right or wrong. In fact, I think the comments fields of the many posts above will give any reader a better view of this. However, it does serve to remind us of a few lessons:

  • Always proceed with generosity and be willing to fact check before quickly posting. We’ve all seen what happens when news organizations post unfounded stories. Theologians and church leaders have a higher calling and that means we take intentional steps to seek resolution before making assumptions.
  • Publishers are not above reproach and can slide too often towards pushing celebrity over substance in the process. Though I am uncertain if The House Studio did conspire to do anything wrong, they appear to have done the proper thing in removing this initial marketing. We can and should be thankful for their discernment here.
  • We should all be equally vexed and thankful for the power of social media. Though it provides ample opportunities to exacerbating problems, it also can provide quick resolution when cooler heads prevail. This episode, I think we can honestly assess, is a good example of both. Imagine what would have happened 25 or more years ago if this had gone to a major professional journal. It would have taken years to unwind and reputations would have been irreparably sullied. Now, within one day, we have resolution and peace.
  • For my purposes here and elsewhere in my writing, I believe Matthew 18:15-17 mandates that I personally attempt to call, message, or contact a person before I personally question something about their motives and actions. Perception across so great a divide as the internet is dangerous.
  • Along these lines, when it comes to professional discussions I am in agreement with Dr Carson on matters concerning published matter, in personal ministry discussions I am challenged by Scripture to inquire privately first and publish publicly second.

 

We all must share a burden of openness and generosity. When we do not we fail to uphold the character and calling of Christ. This episode is, hopefully, instructive. I am thankful for theological leaders like Michael Bird who have a passion for truth and academic integrity. Without excellent leaders like him our churches would be worse off. I am also thankful for writers and ministry leaders like Tim Suttle who willingly partner with leaders to bring wonderful resources to our churches to help grow our people and who speak publicly about their own questions on publications. I am also thankful for publishers like The House Studio who are willing to seek out leading edge curriculum to help our people grow.

Ultimately, we can all be thankful for the grace and charity that go before us all and help unite us in our own shortcomings while serving the Kingdom of God.

33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. 34 Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:33-34

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May 2013
POSTED BY Garet
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