Thursday, May 15, 2008


The most recent In Trust online newsletter includes a One-Minute Commentary on local church ambivalence towards seminary learning. The One-Minute Commentary is responding to a May 6, 2008 Christian Century article by Stephanie Paulsell from Harvard Divinity School who notes that, in America, ecclesial suspicion of seminaries dates back to the very beginnings when Increase Mather questioned the value of a Harvard education in 1723. Either seminaries are suspected of impracticality -- Paulsell evokes the image "of a bearded Victorian poring over his books while the needs of the world collect unmet outside his closed door" -- or they are suspected of subverting right doctrine with cleverly devised tales.

All of which can leave a theological librarian wondering what to do. Our stacks are full (if not overfull) of that dangerous fruit of theological learning apt to be so unsettling to the casual reader. Indeed, I'm unsettled by some of it myself. Quite apart from all the human ignorance that is distilled in a library, there are also resources that teach that humility is the end-product of true learning, that self-control is essential to service, that God's glory inhabits my neighbor whether I recognize it or not. Who in their right mind would want to read some of this stuff?

Part of my conviction as a theological librarian is that I am not in my right mind, and that great cloud of witnesses that has gone before me and that exists around the world in very different places from me has something to say about that. So I do what I can to preserve their witness and make it accessible, especially for those who are in training to be church leaders.

Our recent accreditation review involved much discussion of the mission of the seminary and how to assess our success in carrying out that mission. It would be interesting to track library usage with future success in ministry. (For the sake of argument, let's define success as not quitting in five years.) Maybe the bookish student haunting the lower level study carrels is a poor fit for the daily realities of pastoral life. Or maybe such a student is beginning to learn how much there is to learn, something that I consider to also be part of spiritual formation.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. After that, I would argue that theological education is a good next step. Exposure to a theological library is a significant part of that next step.

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