Book Review: Becoming a Pastor Theologian

Becoming a Pastor Theologian
Ed. Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand
IVP Academic, 2016. 217pp.

“Pastor-theologian,” especially as a hyphenate, is perhaps as unhelpful a term as “public intellectual.” So often, it gets bogged down into the mire of (on the one hand) bad academic work and (on the other hand) poor pastoral vision. Even more often, and this is the true misfortune, it can easily degrade into an excuse for theologically-minded pastors to neglect their pastoral duties on the behalf of a misconstrued picture of their theological duties, which, at the end of the day, harms the local church.

And yet, for those more theologically-inclined pastors (like me), the term holds allure that goes beyond a mythical (and, at times, perverse) desire for scholastic isolation. There are pastors who hope to be both successful in their local ministry and in their academic- / theological- work. There are pastors whose theological prowess has something to contribute to the academic discourse. And then there are pastors who find informed theological discourse a vital source for their pastorate. It is for the sake of advancing this latter vision that Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand put together the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) and have compiled the essay collection Becoming a Pastor Theologian.

A Useful, Balanced, and Articulate Vision

The vision of the CPT is (from their website):

a broadly evangelical organization dedicated to recruiting, networking, and resourcing pastor theologians to provide faithful written, intellectual and theological leadership on behalf of the church, in light of the cultural challenges and opportunities of the late modern world.

Such a vision, “intellectual and theological leadership on behalf of the church,” is refreshing in an individualistic epoch. In Wilson and Hiestand’s own essays, they cast this vision with articulate precision. For those seeking to become pastor theologians or to navigate the nuances between the pastor theologian and, say, the academic theologian, these two essays (and the overarching architecture of this book) are incredibly helpful. They steer the issue away from the “pastor who writes theology” kind of vision and the “pastor who’s really just a theologian” one, and firmly assert, instead, a kind of theological ethnography picture of the pastor theologian. Instead of the pastor theologian being holed up in his or her study, working to write some dense and complex treatise, Wilson and Hiestand envision the pastor theologian as a theologically-empowered thought leader, tasked with engaging their particularized locality with the Gospel in the unique ways demanded of their context.

In short, Wilson and Hiestand rebuke the abstract, ideational picture of a pastor theologian, one that is sometimes portrayed by the prominent pastor theologians of our day (John Piper, A.W. Tozer, and R.C. Sproul all come to mind). Instead, they commend a practiced, local, contextualized, ethnographic, sociological vision of the pastor theologian, where theology is no longer a matter of simple discourse but, as it ought to be, “how now ought we live?”, that is, an ethics, a wisdom, a prophetic challenge to the powers-that-be, a local voice. This vision is articulated consistently throughout, and Wilson and Hiestand have clearly given a lot of time and thought to it.

 

Center for Pastor Theologians

Editorial Issues: Weak Essays with Narrow Diversity

That being said, two major issues harm Becoming a Pastor Theologian‘s effectiveness, and both serve as existential challenges for Wilson and Hiestand’s bigger project. The first is that a handful of the essays in this book are weak. Perhaps this is magnified by the organization of the text, which puts three academic theologians (Peter Leithart, James K.A. Smith, Kevin Vanhoozer) front-and-center, followed by Wilson and Hiestand’s essays, followed by the rest. But magnified or not, some of the essays written by pastor theologians show the rhetorical and stylistic sloppiness that plagues the field.

I’ve already written about how much I disliked Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God (not to rehash an unpleasant experience). One of the major problems with that work is how poorly organized it was, how clunky its rhetorical structures, how disheveled its writing. When I discovered, later on, that Boyd was a pastor theologian, I simply shrugged and thought “Ah, well that makes sense. How would he have time to edit a dissertation like this?”

Given that Wilson and Hiestand’s explicit goal is to reject this assumption, to assert that pastor theologians can indeed write good theological work, the presence of anemic essays in this collection serves as a threat to the vision of this project. To be clear, none of the weak essays in particular are useless; they just show the signs of weak writing, signs that are evident enough to those who read a lot of this kind of work, like pointless footnotes or citations that divert from the thesis or citations for citations’ sake or disorganized thought. Whatever the weaker essays contribute in terms of content, their form is a problem that Wilson and Hiestand must address.

But, returning now to content, there is another considerable hurdle that hampers Becoming a Pastor Theologian, and it is editorial bias. Whether this bias was explicit or implicit, intended or accidental or even incidental, there is a clear, sub-denominational trend amidst the writers of these essays. There is a tendency (and a lean) towards Neo-Reformed thought, and, with that, a tendency towards complementarianism.

Becoming a Pastor TheologianWhereas such leans and tendencies, even biases, are not in themselves a problem — I tend to commend a writer or writers for sticking to their viewpoints instead of obscuring them — they do constitute a challenge to Wilson and Hiestand’s vision in the way they manifest in this book. The CPT, in word and in practice (judging from their fellowship lists), aims to work ecumenically, to advance a more inter-denominational vision of the pastor theologian. How can they do such without enlisting more diverse voices for their writing work? One essay referring to the Catholic John Henry Newman and one essay written by a woman discussing women’s theological role (but not, notably, their pastoral theological role) are simply not enough to constitute theological diversity; a that lack of reasoned theological diversity is problematic if the CPT purports to be “broadly” evangelical. Even the image of CPT fellows (shown above) is entirely white and entirely male.

What makes this lack of diversity problematic is, at the end of the day, that it harms Wilson and Hiestand’s stated vision. If the pastor theologian is, indeed, to be a social-, ethnographic-, and local- theologian, informed by the spaces he or she inhabits, then the future of good pastor theological work requires a diversity of inhabited spaces. Without that diversity, the work becomes narrowed and limited in its effectiveness. These two troubles, the poor writing in the weaker essays and the lack of diversity, are both serious threats to Wilson and Hiestand’s project as a whole, and they injure the effectiveness of Becoming a Pastor Theologian as a book.

Standout Essays on Local and Social Theology

That being said, there are more than a few standout essays to be underscored that make Becoming a Pastor Theologian more than worth its weight. Aside from Wilson and Hiestand’s articulate vision-casting essays and the opening salvos (written by three academic theologians whose works are already universally admired), there are three particularly engaging essays that bring a well-roundedness to the CPT’s work that I wish to highlight.

The first is Scott M. Manetsch’s essay on John Calvin’s Geneva. This historical reflection discusses the unique ways Calvin’s theological community impacted both the social and the political in Geneva through regular theological reflection. Whether we like Calvin or not (and whether we agree with his magisterial political theology or not), the essay provides a powerful “social imaginary” for considering the role of the pastor theologian in his or her city, as well within the network of ecumenically-committed churches in that city. What Manetsch’s essay does most successfully is cast a vision for new constructive orderings of theological-, social-, and political- community, and reveals the role of the pastor theologian(s) in ordering and endowing life to that vision.

The second great essay is Chris Castaldo’s reflecting on the life of John Henry Newman. Mentorship is an all-too-often neglected gift of the church and, given that the stereotypical vision of a pastor theologian is “the scholar in the study,” re-considering mentorship from a theological and pastoral perspective is incredibly valuable. Castaldo’s intermingling of biography and mentoring wisdom provides a jumping-point for reinvigorating this long-lost gift of the Church.

Finally, the conclusory essay by Douglas Estes on the letter of II John and the pastor theologian’s call to write was fantastic. Beyond deftly navigating the postmodern understanding of écriture, Estes reflects on the phenomenology of writing in a way that is absolutely crucial for the task of the pastor theologian, reminding us that writing is the mediation between the theological work and its effect, manifest in an audience. Even further, Estes raises the same challenge I raised earlier in this review, that pastor theological work ought to be well-written. As a closing note, Estes’ essay gives me hope of better and brighter things for the CPT in the future.

Final Thoughts

Altogether, Becoming a Pastor Theologian is a suitable starting-point for those considering what pastor theological work looks like. It provokes certain assumptions and challenges certain selfish desires, and it prioritizes, rightly, the role of the local, the ethnographic, the social, and the ecclesial in the work of the pastor theologian. Despite their well-articulated vision, Wilson and Hiestand’s editorial decisions constitute a challenge to their work, with essays that need further refining before publishing and a lack of diversity in the author-base. Still, their essays, the essays of the three well-established theologians, and the three essays I highlighted above all make the work more than worthwhile, and I look forward to seeing more fruits of their labor with the CPT. The problems are not so big as to be insurmountable, and I am hopeful that their vision will bring about more and more change to the understanding of the pastor theologian’s role in the Church for years to come

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

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The Pastoral Problem with Theological Statements

With the recent (ill-timed, it would seem) release of a theological declaration regarding human sexuality, signed by the likes of J.I. Packer and D.A. Carson and folks from their respective camps (British evangelicals and Gospel Coalition American Calvinists), the Christian news sources have been all a-flutter along the same lines that they tend to be with all these such statements and all these such discussions. The (broadly speaking) traditionalist Right* has made the typical claim that they feel adequately communicates their historic orthodoxy, while the (broadly speaking) progressive Left* has responded in typical outrage and frustration, even crafting a reflective statement of their own (courtesy of Nadia Bolz-Weber). *Left/Right, notably, are horrible terms to use when speaking of theology. Continue reading “The Pastoral Problem with Theological Statements”

A Pilgrimage to New Cana

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Richard Lischer’s “New Cana Lutheran Church” as of December 2016

Open Secrets
Richard Lischer
Broadway Books, 2001. 239 pp.

In December of 2016, my wife and I drove “[out] of Upper Alton… up a state road…” in our 2009 Chevy Malibu. We had been visiting families for our first Christmas with our son (Theodore) — hers in Godfrey and Collinsville, mine in Gillespie — and on that day we had one small pilgrimage, of a kind, to make before we left for our home in Chicago. We were on-the-hunt for “New Cana.”

About a month earlier, one of our pastors gave a message in which she quoted from a moment in the memoir of a Lutheran minister named Richard Lischer. She told how he had entered into his first pastoral appointment, at a small rural church in southern Illinois, with the high aims of using all his theological training to its utmost ability. He sets up, at his first event, a small group discussion for talking about how the church is engaging with their new pastoral appointment; the first (and second) responses are muted, stiff “Well, I didn’t vote for you, but I know we will have a very good church with you as our pastor.” Our pastor weaved this narrative as an example of how we (as American evangelicals especially) often think of ministry strategies before thinking of the people we aim to serve.

But, if I’m an honest parishioner, I was a little distracted by her description of Lischer himself. A memoir about a pastor in small-town Illinois? As a son of small-town Illinois who had married a daughter of small-town Illinois, and as a person who had recently received a call to pastoral ministry, I knew that this was one of those books I would need to borrow. While walking to lunch after church, I grew curious: I wonder where in small-town Illinois Lischer preached? Then I read the opening chapter via an Amazon preview and saw the above quote of him driving north out of Alton (where my wife and I had lived our first year of marriage) into the country. Immediately, I began comparing Lischer’s words with my mental map of Madison and Macoupin Counties (which is, if I say so myself, pretty accurate), and soon I had narrowed down the location of his “New Cana” parish to a small sub-region of the north-of-Alton, east-of-Jerseyville region.

It was in this context, that my wife and I ended up outside of “New Cana” Lutheran Church, the world of Lischer’s memoir Open Secrets.

 

Our pilgrimage itself was not precisely “exciting.” After all, we are long-time Madison-Macoupin County residents who have only recently made residence as urbanites in Chicago.

Open Secrets
Open Secrets‘ 2001 cover; the “small town” pictured here is far too populated to be “New Cana”

We have been lost in the middle of a cornfield many-a-time before. And “New Cana” Lutheran Church is literally “lost in the middle of a cornfield,” in a way that was utterly familiar to us. Hannah ended up taking one of her better photographs of the church (as my photograph, above, is, characteristically, angled and unprofessional) and using her graphic design wizardry to produce a better book cover, since the edition we had clearly represented a “small town” on the Atlantic seaboard, not southern Illinois. Our small “Lischer-circle” at church (which was us, our pastor Tiffany, and our local Hauerwasian theologian Kevin) were ecstatic about such an update. But the church itself, however mythic as told by Lischer, was no surprise to us. It was, in many ways, a part of us already. The stories that Lischer tells in his memoir could have just as easily been some of the stories my grandmother tells me about growing up on a farm in Shipman. Actually, I’m not entirely sure that somewhere in her family there wasn’t some offshoot that married into or joined the “New Cana” Dullmanns and Bufords and Semanns at some juncture. I’ll have to investigate the Caveny family line at some juncture.

But we didn’t pilgrimage to the “New Cana” church for the sake of excitement. Rather, I think we pilgrimaged there for a sense of “home.” In December, it was becoming ever-clear to me and Hannah that we longed to return “home,” to “our world.” Our inability to see the sunset or sunrise in Chicago was wearing on us; our distance from family was difficult for us; and our new “city-like” busyness was, honestly, “not our thing.” So, however blessed and joyful our time in Chicago had been, we visited “New Cana” with the strong sense that someday soon we would live again in this world. Our world. And in the same sense, we didn’t read Lischer’s memoir to view, as though visitors at a zoo, a “different culture and society,” but, in part, to learn again and learn anew our own home.

 

Lischer’s pastoral observations are some of the most profound on the topic that I have ever read.

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Richard Lischer is a Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School

Instead of confronting, as most theological-praxis books tend to do, us with theological controversies in the church or practical concerns about preaching or leading Bible studies, Lischer addresses the real “meat” of pastoral work: arguing with the cemetery committee about an unnecessary expense that would overburden a poor widow, learning how to receive a beer offered by a parishioner when the subtexts of the convention are concealed, attempting (unsuccessfully) to “be tough” while half the church watches a pig be butchered prior to dinner. Or, more difficult, wrestling with how to effectively marry a passionate couple with no sense of responsibility or commitment, baptizing an infant that will surely die, consoling a mother whose only son fell in the pond and drowned, or taking a young man to the Cardinals game in the wake of him both losing his father (to a heart attack) and his pastor (to a job-move).The book is a holy excursion into the work of pastoral ministry, and one that expounds on a far more interesting (and far more important) layer to how one thinks of “pastoring.” Too often in American Christianity, the “pastor” is really seen as a “preacher-teacher,” whose “ministry” is all words, words, words; theology without any weighty living behind it. In some sense, Lischer also had this preconception upon arriving at “New Cana.” But Open Secrets divulges a different kind of pastoral ministry, a different aim of a philosophy-of-pastoring, that is desperately needed in our day. Ministry, in Lischer’s memoir, does not occur primarily in the pulpit but at fences, post offices, hospitals, and garages. And, yet, (and this is crucial) it is not the flimsy thing that happens when a person smacks the word “ministry” on top of something else (“Brother, I feel called to do a cassette tape-to-CD transfer ministry,” etc.). Lischer’s ministry is something holy, that manifests the divine in the day-to-day. It is Sacramental, perhaps in its purest form.

Lischer’s insights on rural thought are also extraordinarily valuable. He uncovers the concept of “Gossip” as a form of knowledge (even, I think, an epistemology), and considers how he, as a pastor, can use that “Gossip” for the sake of God’s Kingdom. He reveals the power-structures of committees and sub-committees, of the elders versus the cemetery committee. He observes the tensions of interfering with abusive families, wrestles with his own methods of accomplishing what he feels is right, and, more often than not, discovers that he does not understand how this German farming community actually communicates. If anything, Lischer’s “outsider” view of downstate Illinois rural life helps one to consider any number of “outsider”-“insider” dynamics within churches; and, furthermore, underscores the need to observe traditions and values before moving too quickly in changing them.

 

If Hillbilly Elegy reminded me of the rural world “falling apart” (as I’ve written about before), then Open Secrets encourages me about all the good of rural communities, all the possibility that exist in them, and all the tensions that come with doing effective Christian ministry in that context. In the time since Hannah and I made our pilgrimage to “New Cana,” we have been considering a pastoral opportunity at a church in small-town Illinois. It isn’t a job offer yet — there are, as always, various hurdles to jump over — but we have still, nevertheless, been considering the possibility in a way we hadn’t when we first picked up Open Secrets. As we finished reading Lischer’s memoir last night, I think we both felt a strange sense of preparedness for wherever the Lord is taking us. Lischer’s misadventures in “New Cana” have changed us, equipped us, even prophesied to us, of some new adventure of our own.