An Education

Warning. If you have not seen the movie An Education, the following post may contain some serious spoilers. Consider yourself alerted.

I don’t normally write about movies, but few weeks ago I saw a very interesting film. It’s a lovely little British production called An Education. You may remember it from earlier this year, when it was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. Though it lost to a very deserving film (The Hurt Locker), An Education was still excellent in its own right. A tight script written by Nick Hornby keeps the film light and witty, and a breakout performance by Carey Mulligan (who you can see in the upcoming film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) combine to create a fantastic and philosophical romp through the coming of age of a young girl and her experiences of education, both formal and otherwise. Set in England in1961, the story revolves around a young girl (Jenny) just finishing up primary school and studying to take her A-levels so she can enter Oxford. Along the way, she meets a debonair older man named David, falls in love, rebels against her overbearing father, quits school, wrestles with teenage angst and, in the end, discovers the real value of a proper education. And do you know where she discovers this true value of a proper education? At Oxford, where she finally ends up at the end of the movie. Having tasted life where most people are educated in that same school, Jenny finally realizes that Oxford has more to offer her than simply books (though she does plan on reading English when she arrives). She recognizes that college is the next step in growing up, that she isn’t yet a woman grown, and that the education she can obtain at Oxford is far more valuable than the street smarts she was learning during her time with David.

Watching this film reminded me of the dilemma I’ve watched many friends and colleagues face during their first years of college. As a ministerial student, I’m pretty sure I have a disproportionate number of friends who are pursuing the same calling, in some form or fashion. And, for whatever reason, it seems that many of them, especially the younger ones, spend many days questioning whether or not that call allows them to even attended college or pursue any advanced degrees. Something in them forces them to question the reliability and even the usefulness of a college education and gives them a desire to replace that education with an education that people tend to call “hands-on,” “experience-based,” “leadership-focused,” or any other number of cheesy, hyphenated words. They, like Jenny, challenge the establishment because it often feels stifling and unfulfilling, never pausing to think about its long-term benefits and instead jump into the sports car of the next experience that comes along.

I must admit, I enter this discussion as one thoroughly engrossed in the academy. I plan on pursuing a career as a university professor, and see that as essentially the other side of the coin that is ministry (at least for me). But at the same time, I’ve wrestled with this same question. I’ve had well-intentioned ladies at multiple churches tell me I should forget the whole school thing and just become a pastor right now. I’ve had well intentioned pastors tell me that I shouldn’t pursue a graduate degree because all those liberals in the universities will mess me up. I’ve had M.Div students tell me I shouldn’t get a PhD because it makes me too academic and inaccessible to the layman. So it’s an issue I deal with as well. There are even rare moments in my own life that make me question my own decisions, doubt my own path. But, having dealt with this topic and firmly decided that I’m going to pursue a PhD, let me offer my own advice (such as it is) to those of you struggling with the practicality of a university education.

The main objection I often hear is a pragmatic one, one of time spent. If a young minister devotes substantial amounts of time to an education, that time is subtracted from his or her time in the ministry field. This is especially a struggle, I’ve found, for those who want to pursue missions work. For some reason, they want to get into the field as soon as possible, and the classroom is often simply a hurdle to jump through until then. I must admit, I admire these. They want to get out into the field and do as much good as they can, as quickly as they can.

I must, however, advise them all to stay the course of their education. Any good that can be attributed to expediency will almost assuredly be negated by lack of experience and training. I compare them to doctors. I know many young pre-med students who want to get out in the world and do serious good, and yet I wouldn’t let them operate on me until they have been fully trained and vetted by wise and experienced medical professionals. In the same way that an untrained doctor will make a fatal mistake, an untrained member of the clergy can make devastating errors. A lack of a nuanced understanding of scripture, a lack of knowledge of other cultures, an underexposure to modern and post-modern critiques of Christianity, a lack of language skills, a lack of a support network, and a lack of simple practical skills for being independent can all be the result of skipping a formal education, and all can be devastating to the young missionary.

This is primarily because college is not simply a time of book learning and biblical education. College serves to teach undergraduates how to communicate (with peers and with those in authority), how to think critically, how to be (semi) independent, how to interpret texts (and not just biblical ones), how to make and maintain healthy relationships, how to deal with adversity, and foster a sense of maturity. All skills that can be more painfully obtained outside the academy, no doubt, but why not pick up these important skills and a healthy dose of religious knowledge along the way?

And let us also consider the many examples scripture gives us regarding the education of leaders. The verse that comes most readily to mind comes from 2 Timothy 2.15: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by Him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” The worker who has no need to be ashamed is the one qualified to do his or her job to the very best of their abilities. Without a solid education, a member of the clergy simply cannot make this claim. The letter to Timothy also applies the metaphor of the athlete. No one runs in a race without training, just as no one runs seeking to do anything other than win. Education is a big part of the training of the clergy, and it gives them a big advantage when angling for that win, whatever it may be for them.

But the life, not only the writings, of St. Paul illuminate our topic still more. As Saul, Paul was born a Benjamite and chose to study to become a rabbi. He admits to studying under Gamaliel, the most respected rabbi of his day, and he claims in several places to have an extensive knowledge of the Torah. The style of his letters is very fine, indicating that either Paul had a commanding grasp of Koine Greek or he was smart enough to hire an amanuensis who did. He was skilled enough to argue theology with James and Peter, and he was able to skillfully exploit his Roman citizenship to carry on his mission. The face of modern Christianity would look much different had this man never been educated.

Even Christ himself provides some clues. The end of Luke chapter 2 places Jesus in the Temple, listening to, questioning, and undoubtedly learning from the religious teachers there. Like most young Jewish boys, he would have been taught to read Hebrew, and , at a certain age, participate in the reading and interpreting of texts in synagogue worship. That same passage records that “Jesus grew in wisdom, and stature, and favor with God and men.” Jesus clearly waited until he was ready and the time was right to being his ministry. If learning and growing were not important to the life of the clergy, Jesus probably would have begun ministering as soon as he learned to talk. But he didn’t. He waited and he learned, and we must seek to emulate his model.

I want to make myself very clear on this point. I do not mean to sit here behind my computer screen and deny the ability of the Holy Spirit to work in amazing and powerful ways among those who may not possess much formal education. The book of Acts makes it clear that Peter and John were “ordinary, unschooled men.” The Spirit can move powerfully to give those who are lacking the skills they need to be effective in certain scenarios. But we must not tempt the Spirit with our contempt of education and skill. We must not wait on the Spirit if the opportunity is for education and advancement is open to us. If we can to seminary and learn how to more effectively communicate God’s message to God’s people, we will learn a great skill.

In the end, let us be like Jenny. Let us realize that the lessons so called “real-life” has to teach are valuable ones. But let us also realize that we still have a lot of growing up to do. In our eagerness to do good, let us also obtain an education that will help us also do the least amount of damage. Let us acquire not only the facts and theories of our majors, but also the intangibles of a college education. Let us no longer flaunt our lack of credentials like a badge of evangelical honor but instead, in keeping with the model of Christ, use our education as a time to grow “in wisdom, and in stature, and in favor with God and men.” Let us seek an education.

Note: this post was not originally intended to be a two-parter, but it has become such due to the depth and breadth of the ideas which I wish to discuss. Expect a part two in the near future, that one focusing on the relationship between orthodoxy, education, and the apostolic succession.

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  1. August 5th, 2010

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