Friday, September 10, 2010

On Generalists

My pastoral mentor always took great joy in being a generalist and commended that to me. I must admit there is an appeal to it, although I personally would still like to specialize in New Testament Studies myself.  As a pastor I need to be aware of a whole range of issues and topics from apologetics, attacks against the New Testament that are in vogue (say by Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels), to current church and leadership trends.

The tendency is for academics to lament that pastors are not conversant enough 'in my field'--which one sneakily suspects means read my book, or Ph.d. dissertation. While it is noble to push pastor to read and reflect on current theological issues or sociological issue in this or that specialization, as a pastor, I often cannot help but want to drag such arguments out to the woodshed. More than once I have thought to myself 'I will master your field" when I see you becoming conversant with at least one of the vast arrays of literature on one thing outside of your field. Maybe I have just a bit of sour grapes. 

Honestly, I wish was more well read. I've dabbled in Barth, I've toyed with Muller's Post-Reformational Dogmatics and what this has done for studies in Reformed Orthodoxy. I tried to stay current on the emerging church when it was still emerging, and worth having on one's radar. Last year I enjoyed teaching Sunday school on the early church from the first century through the fifth because I dabbled in the works of Irenaues, Tertullian, and Nicene Orthodoxy. I love wrestling with issues in the New Perspective on Paul, or Old Testament historiography. If I were Pauline I might say "If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more." I however, in a sort of Augustinian/Lutherain guilt (what Stendahl called the 'Introspective Conscience of the West), fully admit I am not near the widely read generalist that I would like to be, yeah, even need to be at times.

Enough of my lamentations, it is simply nice to see Carl Trueman, a specialist in church history, lauding the need for generalists. It is possible for the pastor to become so specialized that in pride or in ignorance he looses the ability to speak at everyday level with every day issues. We forget that the issues we are wrestling with--like the challenges of postmodernism to the issue of meaning in texts--probably isn't a question that a person every day asks themselves. This is of course not to deny that your people need to know and hear that the Bible is true.

Ironically, in a single conversation with two individuals who were with an English major at a local university and a career newsperson, respectively, I asked a question about how the recent ideas of postmodern literary theory that questioned objectivity challenged their job since we had been talking about presenting news reports objectively. To me, this is a nice issue, and one that my study of presuppositional apologetics, as well as a layman's familiarity with postmodernism and philosophy prepared me for. And while I got a descent answer, I can't help but think my question came out as more than a bit esoteric. 

I wholeheartedly concur with Carl Trueman. It is possible to overspecialize. Consider though how a little knowledge of status quaestionis and some astute cultural observations an unmask pretension, in a sort of 'emperor has no clothes moment'. Trueman writes:
Ironically, this cult of the specialist has arguably been enhanced by some of the attempts to dethrone it.  Take those strands of postmodernism that sought to expose truth claims and specialist guilds as masks for power bids and manipulation.   On one level, such criticism often had a certain validity to it: experts can sometimes operate as little more than a playground bully with PhDs, using qualifications and institutions to  throw their weight around willy-nilly; but at another level, the postmodern critics were vulnerable to two obvious criticisms.  First, perhaps more than anyone else, they developed their own highly technical vocabulary and barbaric prose style which served to do little more than obfuscate and confuse those outside the circle of  the illuminati and keep themselves beyond the type of critical scrutiny to which they so mercilessly subjected others.  Second, in relativising everything, they ironically left everything exactly where it had been before: the people in charge were still in charge, since relativism provides no solid foundation for revolutionary change.
The implications of all this -- the cult of the specialist, enhanced as it is in an ironic twist by postmodern impotence and intensified by the deluge of information and the pressure to publish in academic circles -- poses an acute problem to the church: how can we respond?     My belief is that part of that response needs to be the reassertion of the importance of the generalist, both in the church and in the seminary. One does not necessarily have to be a Milanese fashion designer to see that someone in the street is badly dressed, or even completely naked. 

Issues like postmodern theories of truth(s) are important. Pastors should think about them. Pastors should be ready to interact with college students who are facing atheist professors who have hardly questioned their own presuppositions. Pastors should be able to commend the Scriptures as historically reliable. But pastors need to be generalists in fields that include counseling in order to 'bind up the broken hearted.' He has to be able to eulogize a deceased parishioner in a way that gives the clear simple comfort of the gospel without being in love of the sound of his own voice. Pastors need to be able to talk to five year olds as well as seventy-five year olds. This is essentially the point that Trueman makes in part 2 of his essay. "Rather, my focus is on what we might call the catechetical aspects of the Faith or perhaps less pompously: the basics of Christianity.   In my experience, questions that touch on, say, how to understand the Bible relative to guidance, suffering etc. are always more common than questions on Scorsese."

So here's to being a generalist. Should pastor read and study: yes. Should pastors neglect warm devotional communion in favor of rigorous academic wrestling? May it never be. In the end, a pastor has to be prepared for a wide array of challenges.

Read Trueman's essay, and watch for the continuing series.
Here is also part 2.

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