The Classroom and the Crucible

My semester class schedule is now finalized.  I’ve already completed the initial online course consisting of nine brief online lectures introducing us to the Southern Baptist Convention and its main funding mechanism, the Cooperative Program.  On Thursday I completed the helpful Graduate Research Seminar, the introductory course for all doctoral and Th.M. students which centers on research and writing.  And Friday, I selected my final courses for the fall semester.

First, I’ll be participating in the New Testament Colloquium (look it up and learn something!) with Dr. Mark Seifrid and several other members of the New Testament faculty.  Ph.D. students are required to take five colloquia during their coursework, which will mean one per semester for me.  In this installment, each student will read one of the articles from a recent multi-author book on salvation history entitled Heil und Geschichte: Die Geschichtsbezogenheit des Heils und das Problem der Heilsgeschichte in der biblischen Tradition und in der theologischen Deutung.  Yes, that’s German.  No, I don’t know German.  Yes, I can still participate.  Those of us who haven’t yet taken theological German will read the English article by James Dunn, which means we will be the envy of the class.  But we’ll all join in the discussions on the other articles.  I’m not yet sure how I’ll participate intelligently without having read the articles, but all I can do is dive in and go for it.  I won’t be alone.  Most beneficial is the fact that biblical theology and salvation history are precisely the areas I want to study, and Dr. Seifrid is known to look frowningly on evangelicalism’s recent excitement over the storyline of Scripture.  I look forward to having my area of interest critiqued and challenged, and having my thinking provoked.  Even if I’m unable to read a given German article for class, I can at least buzz around with everyone else when the hive is stirred.

Speaking of German, my second course is Theological German, also with Dr. Seifrid.  Any Ph.D. in theological studies requires basic working knowledge of at least two research languages for the purpose of comprehensive dissertation research.  German is standard, usually followed by French or Latin, and then other less-common languages.  So much has been written in German, French, and Latin over the centuries that ignoring relevant foreign-language works in a dissertation just isn’t acceptable.  Knowing a field doesn’t mean knowing the English field.  It means knowing the field.  Certainly no one comes close to exhaustive knowledge and comprehensive insight, but that’s not the point.  The point is reasonable, fair, accurate engagement with the sources that directly address a chosen topic, no matter what language those sources represent.  That being said, the requirement isn’t written and verbal fluency, but reasonable reading knowledge, so passing the final at the end of the semester is considered adequate preparation.  Oh, and you might be interested to know that the 350-page softcover textbook retails for $95.00, for no reason that is anything close to apparent.  It’s not big.  It’s not a hardback.  It’s not in color.  It’s not bound with calf-skin leather.  It’s not inscribed by hand on ancient Egyptian parchment with a reed hand-picked from the River Nile.  But it’s not negotiable.

Last but by no means least, my third course this semester and the first of my eight required Ph.D. seminars (small, interactive, research-oriented courses) will be Peter Gentry’s Intertestamental Language & Literature: Jewish Historians.  Dr. Gentry is a noted linguist, a world-class Septuagintal scholar, and the unanimous recipient of the hardest-professor-at-the-school title.  An old TMC classmate who’s entering his dissertation stage admitted that when he took the course, he sat scared throughout every class period as he awaited his summons for oral translation.  Today I was told by another third-year doctoral student that Dr. Gentry possesses the unique skill of asking questions until he figures out what you don’t know, and then drilling deep.  I doubt that even the most extensive preparation on my part will be sufficient to avoid the exposure of vast areas of ignorance.  But the first step to furnishing an empty room is kicking in the door and realizing that it’s empty.  If no one pushes you beyond your limits, you will stay within them.  So along with reading and a major paper, we will be translating 2 Maccabees, which means there will be no familiar English version playing in my mind as I attempt to decipher the original text.  If this blog goes the way of all mankind, Peter Gentry is likely to blame.  But if my mind sharpens in the way I am praying it does, give Peter Gentry much of the credit.

I suppose this might sound self-congratulatory, as though my choice to take Dr. Gentry merited either pity or praise.  But my point runs deeper: To be challenged and pushed in such ways is a high privilege, and one that should not be avoided by those who have any sense of calling.  I count it a rich blessing to study under a man of Dr. Gentry’s academic stature and Christian commitment.  Understanding God’s Word is no cheap gift, and if the sharpening of the necessary tools requires the blacksmith’s furnace, that furnace should be named a blessing.  When the pressure-packed deadlines and the indecipherable sentences and the late nights and the early mornings begin to alter that attitude, I pray for the perspective to remember that the boot camp is for the battle, and the battle is for the Lord.

This leads me to one final reflection.  After twelve years in higher education as a student, teacher, mentor, and staff member, one of my foremost concerns is the ruthlessly pragmatic mentality with which the majority of students approach their education.  I’ve already heard this mindset half a dozen times here in Louisville.  Transfer students have said, “I got through most of my gen ed classes at community college.”  A fellow Ph.D. responded to my past studies by affirming, “That’s good that you already knocked out your Th.M.”  And my own heart has already tempted me to dodge the rigor of this program by taking any number of legitimate (and even sanctioned) shortcuts.

To be frank, I can sum up the educational perspective of the current generation of college students (especially men) with five words: the path of least resistance.  The same mindset echoes throughout grad schools.  Just do it.  Get through it.  Pass the class, get the grade, grab the diploma.  Sure, I’m oversimplying and stereotyping.  But not by much.

I understand the reasoning.  “Employers don’t care what or how you studied, just that you started and finished something.”  “The gen ed courses here are irrelevant to my future.”  “I won’t remember any of this anyway, so why invest any effort beyond what’s required to pass?”  “I’ve got a lot going on and I have to prioritize, so those classes just can’t take much of my attention.”  “It’s pass/fail, so I should be fine.”  There’s some legitimacy sprinkled through these mindsets, but on the whole they reveal deeper issues.  Some of these issues are systemic, exposing serious problems with the current model of education.  But many are personal issues of the heart, the attitude, the motivations — problems with the very forces that drive us to study in the first place.

Without delving too deeply into all of this, I want to offer a self-exhortation as I launch out on my own educational journey this week:  Clarify your mission and then do whatever it takes to prepare for that mission.  Never take shortcuts for the sake of ease.  Never avoid a hard professor just because he’s hard.  Never do less than the best you can do with the time that you have under the circumstances in which God has placed you.

Practice dictates play.  You cannot perform better than you prepare.  Do you really want a pastor who just cared about “just getting through” seminary?  If so, how do you know he’s not just “getting through” his devotions and his counseling and his sermon prep and his Sunday message?  Do you really want your brother’s brain surgeon to brief your family with off-handed comments about joy-riding through med school?  If you’re OK with that, maybe you’ve never had to fly home to usher your older brother into brain surgery.  Do you really want a real estate agent, or a politician, or a lawyer, or a mother, or even an athlete on your favorite sports team to approach their lives and vocations with the kind of minimalistic mindset that we bring to so many of our educational opportunities?  Is this how we’re to treat the precious talents we’ve been given?  Is this even a satisfying way to live?

I’m not coming here to “get through” my classes and “just pass” my comprehensive exams and “knock out” my Ph.D.  For years I explicitly wrestled with the idea of a Ph.D. precisely because it felt like the industry was set up for just that sort of pursuit.  But despite these convictions, I know (and I have already seen) that I will be tempted throughout the program to embrace the same lazy mentality which I deplore.  I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again, without God’s grace.  So if you pray for us, please pray for a pure heart, and for the discernment to see when I’m wandering onto the path of least resistance.

You can’t checklist your education.  If you do, call it a checklist, not an education.  True education is about sharpening your mind, cultivating your heart, widening your perspective, narrowing your convictions, deepening your discipline, clarifying your communication, fashioning your worldview, and training your head and heart and hands to meet the mission of Christ in the world.  That’s a high calling — one that deserves our most noble efforts, and our most ardent preparation.


4 thoughts on “The Classroom and the Crucible

  1. hey, thanks for the post, Gunner! those thoughts about mission and pursuit of growth and shaping instead of mere success and achievement of a degree are pertinent to me…I start TMS w/ orientation on Monday (with eventual goals to transfer to Southern) and I’m a very goal-oriented person. so, i’ll be praying that you and I both have our over-arching goals be growing in godliness and relationship with God through our studies. God bless you and your family!

  2. Awesome post. I will at once hope that Gentry’s class is very sharpening, and that you will continue to post in kind. Thank you.

  3. Gunner,

    I am excited for you as you begin your PhD journey. Reading your posts about classes, etc. have been an encouragement for me as I continue on in my MA in NT studies at Talbot.

    Also, what is the German text you are using? If it is what I think it is, I know the price very well. I have begun to study German during my free time and have encountered several grammars that are ridiculously priced, so I am sure I have come across the one you mentioned.

    Cliff Kvidahl

    1. Cliff,

      The text is Jannach’s German for Reading Knowledge (6th ed.) by Korb. April Wilson’s text is widely reported to be better, so I’ll probably supplement with that.

      Gunner

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