Theological Education Bubble I : exegesis

As a visiting professor in an African school that taught to the Master’s level I was once confronted with student who plagiarized a paper and failed the class as a result.  The academic dean pleaded with me to give him a third chance after the student failed the mandatory remedial session with me.  Thus, I permitted the student to take an oral examination, but he gave the most absurd answers to the most rudimentary questions of biblical history, such as he could not tell me the order of the empires, Persians, Greeks and Romans.  Later, I was told that this student was a womanizer who spent as much time in the local neighborhood chasing skirt as he spent in class.  It was hardly any surprise that he couldn’t pass his course with me.  But to my chagrin, this student went on to defend his master’s thesis and graduated, while the course he had with me was pre-requisite to entering the final year at the master’s level–a course he never passed.  Now this man is apparently a Bible professor in the capital city of his country.

I present this anecdote only to say that sometimes the diploma from a school is a meaningless paper, inflated like so much fiat money that is printed endlessly to the point of being worth nothing.  Perhaps this story is a no-brainer.  What should we do with an incompetent womanizer?   Fail him of course.  He has no business having a theological degree.

But what if it is the case of an extremely brilliant but wrong-headed student?  I have become somewhat of a nemesis to PoserorProphet, a self-stylized biblical scholar who is finishing his Master’s degree at Regent College.  And yet he has serious problems in biblical interpretation.  But he is able to defend his point, albeit with subtle and specious arguments, with such brilliance that he could easily pass any academic program at a secular university.  So now it puts theological educators in an awkward position:  are we to serve the church and the Kingdom of God, or are we to serve secular academic standards?  If the student can put together a specious heretical argument for a position, does that mean he deserves to pass so that he can then serve his heresy to the world, but now bearing the recognition of a theological degree from a once reputable institution?  Or should the school risk legal sanction for failing a student who is brilliant, academically gifted and yet theological off-the-wall?  There is a great deal at stake here.  I don’t see that there is simple answer.  But as a teacher of exegesis and biblical interpretation I have some serious problems with what I see.

We have had lengthy discussions with this student, PoserorProphet, who though attending an evangelical school has openly advocated full equal rights to practicing homosexuals in the church; the acrobatics that it takes to get around the biblical prohibition against homosexuality is already reason to have grave concerns.  But this student, in his embrace of liberation theology, has also taken passages like “Thou shalt not steal” to mean something like, “Thou shalt not not share”, thus twisting the plain sense of the text.  But then he also has recently advocated vandalism, such as done by anarchist demonstrators, through the texts recounting Jesus’ cleansing the temple, Jesus’ allowing the demons called “Legion” to enter into and kill a herd of swines and Jesus’ tacit approval of the the digging up of the roof to lower the paralytic, thus doing property damage to the house.  The main difficulty is that the Bible isn’t teaching that it is ok for us to go out and vandalize to support a higher cause, i.e., the poor and marginalized.  It has another agenda about which PoserorProphet seems quite unconcerned.  Through his exegesis, the Bible serves his liberation agenda.  In a discussion over at the City of God, I said that his “exegesis” is like that of the Marxist in the Fiddler on the Roof:  He recounts how Laban cheated Jacob, causing him to marry Leah while the original contract gave Jacob the right to marry Rachel.  Now, Laban required Jacob to work another seven years to pay for Rachel.  The Marxist’s conclusion:  The Bible teaches us that you can never trust an employer!  See the clip at 1:07:

Even the milkman’s daughter can see through this Marxist interpretation.  It is a moment of light humor.  But PoserorProphet is not joking.  He’s serious.  And yet his interpretations are hardly less ridiculous.

As an undergraduate in Dr. Pecota’s Principles of Interpretation course, I was required to read James Sire’s Scripture Twisting: 20 ways cults misread the Bible (see this summary). Part of the art of biblical interpretation is knowing how not to do it.  So Sire’s book is a lesson in good interpretation by avoiding pitfalls.  PoserorProphet actually commits a fair number of these 20 ways of twisting Scripture:  I would mention: 11. Selective citing; 12. Inadequate evidence; 14. Ignoring alternate explanations; 18. Supplementing biblical authority (with such writers as Michel Foucault!); 19. Rejecting biblical authority; and 20. World-view confusion (confusing his anarchist views with the Bible).  Thus, a basic undergraduate course in theology already would provide the ability to see how PoserorProphet is twisting the Bible, and yet today, it is apparently ok for him to defend a Master’s thesis in biblical studies.  There is no questioning his brilliance.  It is his judgment that I challenge.  But is it the task of theological education to produce brilliant heretics?  Or are we rather to produce graduates who will serve the church and the Kingdom of God.  If we knowingly pass even one such student, does that not call into question the whole enterprise?

The recognition that a theological diploma establishes should not be considered lightly.  Since the early church, Christian heretics have sought recognition from authorities who stood in apostolic succession.  For example, according to Irenaeus, Marcion once approached Polycarp and made a request:  “Recognize me.”  Polycarp responded in a manner which I think was appropriate, “I recognize you; I recognize the first-born of Satan.”  Polycarp was following the example that Paul laid down (Tit. 3.10-11):

As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned.

The education bubble II: Cost vs. results

A couple of charts illustrate keenly how costs in education, both at the K-12 and post-secondary levels, have escalated.  The first is from Carpe Diem (hat tip: Business Insider):

The second chart is from the Cato Institute (via American Thinker):

Perhaps the writer who has most exposed this bubble related to higher costs vs. quality of results, is Glenn Reynold of Instapundit.  See for example, this article in the Washington Examiner.

A lawsuit? No way!

At the last Regent breakfast at the New Orleans SBL, I had the opportunity to share with some friends that I had become an investor.  After finishing my PhD in 1996, I was an adjunct for a year and a half, and after that I began to teach pro bono in Africa for period of eight years between 1998-2006.  During that period, my wife and I started the Barnabas Venture, so that we could raise funding for scholarships to make up for the lack of qualified African professors in French-speaking Africa.  Then, with some spare time on my hands between trips to Africa, I began to dream about how we could make more money so that we would be able to give even more than ever before.  That is when I began to take some serious risks in our personal and registered DIY trading accounts.

When I shared this with Prof. Rikk Watts who presided the Regent breakfast he was extraordinarily positive.  I particularly appreciated his encouragement to “thrive”.  I spent some time one evening with a number of Regent alumni, both men and women (Prof. Watts was there too), and I appreciated their joie de vivre, as we had a time of sharing in the apartment of an alumnus, and then we went to listen to live jazz music in New Orleans.  I took my leave after listening to some spirited trombone solos.  It was a great time.

Recently someone asked me in the comments section if I was going to sue Prof. Stackhouse.  I pretty much hold that as Christians we can be wronged because Christ forgives us.  This person then said that he/she was planning to sue Regent because of being forced to accept Intelligent Design. I find that unacceptable.  I am not interested in winning a battle in the courts.  The courts are predominantly leftist institutions and I am a conservative.  I hate it when those who can’t get their way through legislation force their agenda through court-made law.  This is an usurpation of democracy.  I would hope to be able instead to make cogent arguments for my views and hopefully win in the court of public opinion.

I am now told by a member of the Regent staff that my blog is being read with “great interest and passion”.  This surprises and daunts me.  And I feared that my blogs would be misinterpreted as the rantings of malcontent. But I admit that my recent postings are based upon a narrow experience with just a few from the Regent community: debates with the student PoserorProphet, interactions with full-time Prof. Stackhouse on his blog, and my recent reading of some writings of a summer-school professor, Dr. Diewert.  But this is an admittedly small sample of what Regent College has to offer and I am by no means writing off the school.   So I asked a few people what they thought, including a full-time professor at a theological school with years of experience in administration.  For the most part, they have encouraged me not to back down.  Indeed, I had the impression that as someone outside of academics, I am able to say certain things insiders might wish to say, but for various reasons are not permitted.  E.g., I can openly argue that the diversity created by affirmative action has seriously lowered quality–a position usually only maintained by retired professors who no longer fear repercussions for expressing unpopular opinions.  I can also see why students would be reluctant to criticize the administration or a faculty member, or why fellow professors would hesitate to criticize their colleagues.

I am an alumnus and an historical supporter of Regent College and no lawsuit has entered my head.  I am appalled by the person who suggests taking a lawsuit against Regent.   But I’ve questioned the wisdom of allowing certain anti-capitalist and anarchist tendencies to find a home at Regent because I am wondering aloud in the blogosphere how those who are making the money which supports theological education, through risk taking and hard work, should react when that education evidently promotes views which if implemented would undermine their ability to “thrive”–and this doesn’t apply to Regent College only.  Obviously Regent is a wonderfully diverse place and there must be some differences of opinions, at least I hope that there is.  And one could question why I would chose the public space called “the internet” to try to initiate a discussion.  Well the answer to that is quite simple:  It seems entirely appropriate to me to express the disagreements that I have with the views of Prof. Stackhouse, PoserorProphet or Dr. Dave Diewert, here in the blogosphere, because that is where I became acquainted with their views.

Discipleship vs. Seminary: the medium is the message

Discipleship and school are two different media for learning.  If we take the model of Jesus and his disciples and contrast it with theological seminary, we can see significant differences that may help us to address the malaise with which many experience seminary education.  The premise of this post is that the medium is the message.  This phrase, which was coined by the Canadian scholar Marshal McLuhan, means that the vehicle of the message is not irrelevant because it superimposes its own biases on the message’s content.

Seminary is curriculum-oriented and knowledge-based. Every seminary program has a set of core courses and electives which are designed to give the student knowledge related to their desired field.  Students spend the better part of three years increasing their knowledge.  No proximity to teachers is necessary, because it is the teacher’s knowledge which is being passed on.  A student may easily attain the professor’s knowledge through reading a book or from attending a lecture.  Students must write tests and papers in order to demonstrate adequate mastery of the material, i.e., to show that they know the curriculum.  The character of the professor is practically irrelevant, because it’s not about passing on habits but knowledge.  Discipleship is incarnational and relationship oriented.  Jesus is the Word incarnate who represents God on earth and shows what God is like to a world estranged from him.  Jesus called disciples to imitate him.  In order for this incarnational ministry to happen, Jesus called his disciples to be with him and learn to do the things that he did.  Discipleship training focuses on the character of the disciple. Direct contact with the teacher is indispensable.

Seminary is individualistic. Apart from a few discussion oriented seminar classes and group projects, which are rare, seminary learning takes place in isolation.  The student is alone in the large lecture hall as he listens to the professor’s monologues.  Question and answer time is limited.  The professors and students have little leisure time to sit and discuss the material.  Students receive assignments of reading books and research papers which are largely done in complete isolation.  Discipleship is community oriented. Jesus was with his disciples for three years.  They followed him as he taught the people and challenged the religious leaders of his day. Even when Jesus sent them out on a mission, he sent them two by two, so that they would not be alone.  Much of the learning takes place during meals and other intimate occasions.  Even the application process, “Master, where are you staying” (John 1.38) suggests that the potential disciples were asking, “Teacher, how can we spend time with you?”

Seminary is focused on diplomas.  The goal of seminary education is the reception of the prize, the MDiv degree, which will become the key to opening doors to church ministries.  The MDiv is not, however, an interchangeable degree, because every denomination has its own requirements and may require the student to take further courses in their own church’s seminary in order to qualify for ministry.  Unfortunately, the number of students with diplomas often exceeds the number of open positions.  So it is not uncommon for graduates to languish never actually attaining their goals despite jumping through the necessary hoops.  Discipleship is focused on mission. When Jesus finished three years with his disciples, he sent them once again on a mission that had the world as its focus (Acts 1.8).  The purpose of all the training was not the attaining of the title, “apostle”, but the construction of the church.  No one will ultimately languish in unemployment because the church’s mission has not yet been accomplished.

Seminary focuses mainly on theoretical learning. The seminary seldom teaches anything hands-on.  To be sure, MDiv students must go through an internship or practicum.  But this is church-based training that usually has little connection with the seminary, as it is farmed out to local churches.  Very rarely the students are exposed to a real situation, such as when Michael Green took Regent students on evangelistic missions to Victoria, UBC campus, and Penticton (I participated in both all three of these).  Many educational programs have similar emphasis on theoretical learning.  I was once surprised to meet a petroleum engineer who claimed that he never studied at University.  And yet today, four years of theoretical learning with no hands on experience is required for entry-level engineering jobs, and the graduate really begins to learn how to be an engineer in his first job.  The same is true of seminary.  The focus of the training is on the theory and the students remained oddly disconnected from the task.  Discipleship’s main learning method is supervised doing. Discipleship is an apprenticeship, where the apprentice first watches the master, then he practices the craft in front of the master, and finally he learns to work independently of the master’s watchful eye.  In the gospels, we see the disciples watching Jesus, doing and being sent out to do; and then finally at the end of three years (a fairly standard period for an apprenticeship in many trades), we see that Jesus departs and leaves it to his disciples to do the work.  To be sure, Jesus also taught theory, but this was in the context of doing.  So for example, he first taught the crowd but then fed them, using the disciples to distribute the loaves and fishes—the practical and theoretical were integrated in the training process.

Seminary leads to conformity. I asked my wife if she could add something to my list and she suggested this.  Schooling requires that everyone learn the same thing, in a structured setting.  This is difficult of course for squirming boys.  So much of the potential and vivacity of our young people is squandered in making them sit in conformity of the classroom.  The same is true even up to the seminary level; everyone is required to study the same core courses if they want the diploma, even those courses for which they have little interest.  Discipleship helps people learn how their particular gifting fits into the whole. Jesus’ disciples did not all function in the same way.  Judas was a treasurer, though he did a bad job. Peter was apparently groomed for leadership.  In a community it is natural for each person to find their niche and make their contribution because it is organic and living.

Seminary is expensive and runs as a business. Many of the choices that seminaries make are based upon sound business decisions.  Programs and courses may be eliminated because they are not cost effective.  The treatment of employees is related to budgetary considerations.  It also means that seminary admits students into the program that may have shown no demonstrable calling to ministry, because as paying clients the seminary has little choice but to accept them.  The seminary acts as a supplier of theological education and the student as the client.  Discipleship is inexpensive and is closer to the model of the family. Jesus didn’t charge his disciples tuition but rather allowed them to eat the bread bought from the community purse.  So essentially, they were paid to be his disciples.  Jesus taught that God was their Father and that he was their brother.  They were to see themselves as the family of God—it wasn’t a supplier-client relationship.


It should hopefully be clear now that there are aspects of discipleship training as modeled by Jesus that are clearly superior to seminary learning.  I believe that Ivan Illich was largely correct in his critiques about school (see esp. his classic, Deschooling Society), but our culture is stuck in the mud about school; the outlay of billions of dollars in education at all levels has unsatisfactory results and too little to show for the investments made.  Discipleship as a medium of learning recognizes one essential aspect of learning:  Education is more caught than taught. Having spent four years at Bible college, I was surprised to see so many of my fellow graduates contradict their college teachers and imitate the senior pastor of the first church for which they worked.  So even if the homiletics professor stressed good preparation before preaching, the senior pastor’s study habits instead became foundational for that graduate’s later career.  This is also true of how pastors handle money and a whole host of other issues.  It is as though the information learned during those four years of college went in one ear and out the other.

Furthermore, the seminary teaches not only through the curriculum but through its own actual practice of ministry.  So if the seminary underpays or otherwise abuses its workers, we should not be surprised if churches do the same.  If the professors are aloof, lazy, abusive or arrogant, is anyone surprised when their graduates manifest similar characteristics?  Discipleship training, by the bias of its medium, places far more emphasis on character—doing what the master does, becoming like the master, treating people the way the master does.  So when choosing a master, does the apprentice seek out the least successful of the town’s craftsmen? Do they want to study under the one whom nobody likes because he is ornery or a cheat?  No indeed.  An apprentice will seek out the most successful of masters, just as the disciples sought Jesus by asking him, “Master, where are you staying?”  The disciples will learn to do ministry the way the master does, and hopefully, they will be able to replicate their master’s success.

Further Reading:  John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing us down: The hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling, 1992. Neil Postman, Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business, 1985.

This post is intended as a response to a comment by Elderj at Wayne Park’s blog.

Hath not a half Korean eyes? Part V: Principled meritocracy (updated)

Prof. John Stackhouse sitting atop his endowed perch as Regent College’s Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology, wrote:

You certainly make it clear when dialogue is a waste of time. Your rage and bitterness simply render conversation impossible. I’m frankly glad you’re not in the academy where you can influence people. I hope you’re good at making people money as the “righteous investor” you advertise yourself to be, but I think we’re done listening to you on this subject.

Well, now that I know that I am not welcome in North America to teach, once again, I asked Dr. Daniel Kambou if he would have me at the francophone graduate school that he is planning to found in Burkina Faso.  He accepted my services without first asking me to get professional counseling for my rage and bitterness.  Since Kambou lives next door, I think he knows me better than Stackhouse.

In any case, Stackhouse’s pronouncement will not result in a global ban of my teaching services.  I often think about how academics and economics can be harmed by reverting to rewards systems other than meritocracy.  I’ve expounded seriously upon the failure of affirmative action but here are some other reward systems that are available both here and in other countries:

(1) Nepotism:  Students told me in Africa that they could take an aptitude test for a foreign scholarship and do well, but the president will send his nephew in the place of the high performing student.  It should be noted that nepotism in a privately held business is usually not unethical–but it can still frustrate other employees.  But in public companies, churches, universities, and public service, nepotism is extremely dubious and usually unethical.

(2) Sleeping one’s way to the top:  When, e.g., a woman sleeps her way to better grades.  One manifestation of this is the exploitation by male professors of women, but it can sometimes be ruthless women who use their sexuality for advancement.

(3) Old boys’ club:  To get into Harvard, e.g., it is helpful to be a child of a graduate of Harvard university.  Or in business, if you have the right connections, you can get the jobs.

(4) Affirmative action: This seeks to redress perceived historical injustices by preferring certain aggrieved groups in the decision making.  The problem is that it most often leads to a quota system and to a watering down of quality.

(5) Tribalism:  All the best jobs go to a single tribe or coalition of tribes; this usually leads to jealousy and resentment and sometimes to war and genocide.

(6) Plagiarism:  If not punished when caught, plagiarism allows unqualified students and professionals (e.g., journalists) to move up the ranks.

(7) Quotas:  This leads to the limiting of the number of qualified people of an identifiable group from attaining admission in schools or from being hired for jobs.  It was widely used in the 20th century to limit the number of Jewish people accepted into certain universities and is likely being used today to limit the enrollment of Asians.  The idea is that if a group is only 5% or so of the population, it is necessary to limit their numbers to something proportionate to their percentage in the general population.   Affirmative action often becomes a quota system in practice.

(8) Blacklists:  An individual may be temporarily or permanently banned because of bad behavior, but not always:  it could be because of a personal vendetta or an attempt at censorship.  Blacklisting may be accomplished by attacking the character of the person, such as by saying without justification that they are angry and therefore not suitable for a job.  Blacklists are usually not published, and the blacklisting of a person could in some circumstances be illegal in Canada under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).  The fear of being blacklisted discourages whistle-blowers.

(9) Corruption and bribery:  The wealthy and powerful have the means of buying themselves and their friends jobs and offices and this will not depend on their actual ability to perform the function.  This may take the form of a quid pro quo.  For example, if you help the Chinese government by divulging state secrets while you are president, they will pay you a million dollars to give a speech or two once you are out of office.

All such systems clash with a principled meritocracy that rewards talent, ability, hard work and results.

To ameliorate past injustices, such as apartheid or segregation, or a lack of qualified leaders in a diverse group, it may be necessary to promote education among certain groups more than others.  So, for example, we started a scholarship program for evangelical francophone Africans to help promote theological seminaries in that region.   But then this isn’t necessarily inconsistent with meritocracy.  I have no problem saying that Dr Daniel Kambou is more qualified to teach in Burkina Faso than say, Prof. John Stackhouse–he was actually more qualified from day one with only a Master’s degree–this is by virtue of his ability in French and his intimate knowledge of African culture, he is much more qualified to teach in that region than the most prestigious of North American born and trained scholars.

But one of the major failures of affirmative action is that it has largely passed privilege from white men to white women.  That does very little to correct past injustices.  So imagine that you decided that you would correct the injustice of apartheid.  You would just simply give white women the jobs that are held by white men?  How does that help?  Didn’t the white women also benefit from apartheid, or was it only white men?  As an Asian man, I am unimpressed with affirmative action’s correction of past wrongs because it is still mostly white folks that have jobs, it’s just that more of them are women today.  And this gets to the heart of the unfairness.  If you are going to try to correct past wrongs using the above systems, you will likely create new wrongs.  Meritocracy is therefore superior to all the other reward systems listed above.