Saturday, 17 January 2009

Advice for theological students: ten steps to a brilliant career

1. As a theological student, your aim is to accumulate opinions – as many as you can, and as fast as possible. (Exceptional students may acquire all their opinions within the first few weeks; others require an entire semester.) One of the best ways to collect opinions is to choose your theological group (“I shall be progressive,” or “I will be evangelical,” or “I am a Barthian”), then sign up to all the opinions usually associated with that social group. If at first you don’t feel much conviction for these new opinions, just be patient: within twelve months you will be a staunch advocate, and you’ll even be able to help new students acquire the same opinions.

2. At the earliest possible opportunity you should also form an opinion about your favourite theological discipline: that is, you should choose your specialisation. To communicate this choice to others, you should dismiss as trivial or irrelevant all other disciplines: the systematic theologian should teach herself to utter humorous remarks about the worth of “practical” theology, while the New Testament student should learn to hold forth emphatically on the dangers of systematic theology; and so on.

3. As far as possible, you should try to avoid all non-theological interests or pursuits. All your time and energy should be invested in reading important books and discussing important ideas. (Novels in particular should be avoided, as they are a notorious time-waster, and they furnish you with no new opinions.)

4. Every successful theological student must master the proper vocabulary. All theological conversations should be peppered with these termini technici (e.g. “Only a demythologised Barthian ontology can subvert the différance of postmodern theory and re-construe the analogia entis in terms of temporal mediation”). The less comprehensible and more sibylline the sentence uttered, the better. There are some stock-in-trade terms that are de rigueur (e.g. perichoresis, imago Dei, Heilsgeschichte, Bullsgeschichte), but the really outstanding student should find creative ways to deploy a wide range of foreign polysyllabic words. Phrases of Latin, Greek or German derivation are particularly prized. (Those of Hebrew of Syriac extraction should be used more sparingly – they are usually greeted with some puzzlement, or with cries of “Gesundheit!”)

5. Now that you’re a theological student, you will discover that the world is filled with people who don’t share your new opinions. Every conversation should thus be viewed as an opportunity to persuade others of their simple-mindedness and to convert them to a better understanding. If you’re feeling shy about this, you should start by practising on your family and closest friends. And it’s not always necessary to engage in a full-blown discussion; at times a single Latin term or a knowing smirk is all that’s required to demolish another person’s argument.

6. Were you raised in a conservative Christian family? If so, your theological education provides you with the perfect opportunity for rebellion. The benefits of theological rebellion should not be underestimated: rejecting all your parents’ religious opinions allows you both to assert your independence and to imply that your parents are backward and naïve. In this respect, theological education can be every bit as effective as smoking cannabis or moving in with your boyfriend: but without all the bad smells.

7. Every true theologian is an avid collector of books. The day you became a theological student, you entered a race to amass a personal library larger and more impressive than those of your peers. Books should be acquired as quickly and as indiscriminately as possible; second-hand books are even better, since they give the appearance of having been read, which can save you a great deal of time.

8. When you are asked to preach in a parish, you should take the opportunity to display the advantages of theological education. Every good sermon should quote the words of some great theologian (a “great German theologian” is even better). And the phrase “the original Greek says…” should be used sparingly but effectively – perhaps just two or three times in a sermon.

9. The goal of theological education is a good career: preferably an academic career, although in some cases you might have to settle for pastoral ministry (or worse, just a regular job). It’s never too early to get your career on track: every essay, every conversation with a professor, every question you ask in class – these are the opportunities to show the professor how deeply you share their opinions, and how superior your own insights are to those of your classmates. In all circumstances you should revere, admire and emulate your professors. Even if they are neither wise nor virtuous, your goal is to become their perfect reflection, mirroring back to them their own opinions, preferences and prejudices. To show that you are the professor’s true protégé: this is the beginning of wisdom, and the bedrock of any good career.

10. Under no circumstances should you resort to old-fashioned pieties like daily prayer and Bible-reading. There are far too many important things to be thinking about, and far too many important things to be reading. (Church attendance is acceptable, however, since it gives you the opportunity of improving your pastor’s theological education.)

61 Comments:

Andrew Faris said...

If only I would've known sooner. I wouldn't have wasted all that time listening to music and trying to do both biblical and systematic theology.

Brandon Jones said...

Ben, thanks for the laugh. When I saw the title in my google reader, I was hoping it would be full of sarcasm. As Barth would say, the meaning of life lies not in collecting ore reading books, but in loving God and neighbor. Unfortunately, the traits above can all too often fail to contribute to such a pursuit.

I'll admit my ignorance of Bullgeschichte though. Although I think I've read some works from that school :)

John Santic said...

brilliant! Just what we needed, true guidance and wisdom!

Revd. Kim Fabricius, MA said...

What, no advice on plagiarism?

PS: For using the number "ten", you will be hearing from my lawyers.

Josh said...

Why is one of the labels "humor?"

Joshua said...

both funny and indicting.

bruce hamill said...

Ouch. Should I laugh or cry? For once I am lost for an opinion

Logan said...

I'm in my first year of a MTS program at [famous divinity school] and unfortunately the pressure to conform to number 1 and 2 are very real and readily adopted by a wide range of my peers. I'm glad I read this, because I have been trying to resist the temptation to become a "I am a progressive/evangelical/process/systematic" robot.

They still make you declare a program focus though... Ah well.

Jason Goroncy said...

Brilliantly clever.

gracedependent said...

This is too funny - and accurate. Thanks for posting it!

Ben Myers said...

Oh yeah, Kim: I forgot to mention plagiarism ("most theological research can be drawn from Wikipedia...").

But you'll be glad to know that I've tried to provide a model of plagiarism: Oliver Crisp wrote #4 for me, and I've reproduced it without any acknowledgement. Yep, that's how easy plagiarism is — let the theological student take note!

patmccullough.com said...

Excellent advice!

Halden said...

I actually just read this after counting all the books in my library to see how far over 1,000 I was...yeah.

Bec said...

Wondering how many of those I can incorporate into essays for Intro to Theology at UTC this semester!
:)

Anonymous said...

Alternatively, and since theologians are too rebellious to follow a ten point plan, read this little book once a year.

Peter Carey said...

Beautiful!!

Just great, I think THIS should be required reading for seminarians all over!

Peter+
http:/santospopsicles.blogspot.com

WTM said...

Ben,

I had a deep, intuitive sense that #4 wasn't yours: Bullsgeschichte and termini technici? I just couldn't see these words coming out of your keyboard!

Anonymous said...

Surely "launch blog and begin pontificating..." deserves mention?
Luke

roger flyer said...

Failed professional theologians could make for good stand up comedy writers...

Tia said...

HAHAHA.
(for undergraduate religion majors who are required to take classes like biology)

In your non-theology classes, have conversations with other religion majors about the theological implications of whatever the subject matter is. It is even better if you vehemently disagree with one another and end up wasting class time. Alternatively, if you can't figure out what the theological implications of protein synthesis might be, just discuss theology in general before, during, and after class, since your major is clearly superior to all others and you shouldn't be taking biology classes anyway.

...not that I have ever had a discussion about the theological implications of something with a fellow religion major during a science class. nope. never.

cynthia r. nielsen said...

Brilliant, simply brilliant.

roger flyer said...

Blog axiom: the more latin phrases the theologian uses, the less expainin' the theologian needs to do.

roger flyer said...

Blog axiom: the more latin phrases the theologian uses, the less explainin' the theologian needs to do.

Christopher said...

Brilliant and tragic. Hits way too close to home.

Chad said...

Ben,

My guess is that your therapist (or pastor/minister, depending on how you answer #1 on the list) might have recommended this list as a bit of post-Princeton detox? A healthy way to shake the PTS dust off your sandals, perhaps? It was both entertaining and painful to read, though I won't say in what proportions. I might have included the following as well:

1. Cultivate the ability to talk about sin (you might know this variously as "Sin", "S-I-N!!!!!", or "oopsies", again depending on your answer to #1) with a high level of sophistication and detachment. Should you find this a difficult discipline to master, it's probably due to the sinful church culture in which you were unfortunately reared. Just try to remember: "personalizing" sin is an exercise in spiritual indulgence. It's sinful, really.

2. This one is very important: learn to suppress any lingering doubts you might have about whether the world needs you to start that blog you've been thinking so much about (especially if you've already come up with a clever blog name in either Latin or Greek). You might be tempted to think that starting a blog (especially so early in your theological training) is sheer presumption and egoism. Nonsense! These doubts are not the mark of wisdom but of insecurity! They are the Devil's work (or remnants of your troubling upbringing bubbling to the surface; see above), which as you know has already been defeated on the cross. Besides, it's not like YOU actually care whether anyone reads what you write. Writing has always been the way you express yourself -- spiritually, that is. Remember, the only necessary difference between blogging and keeping a personal journal is whether or not you decide to hoard all those nuggets of theological profundity with which you are blessed on a near daily basis. It can't be right for all those extra bits of insight -- you know, the ones left over after just a few term papers each semester -- to never see the light of day. Didn't Jesus say something about hiding things under a bushel?

The Truth, should your chosen theology suffer such a concept, is that your prophetic calling demands no less of you than granting the world access to your each and every theological thought. Didn't Barth average like six publishable pages/day? And that guy never even earned a PhD! No, the world should not have to wait until you're "theologically trained." Even to make is wait for "peer review" would be unfair. What are you waiting for? It's never been easier to launch your theological career!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Probably applies to most advanced degrees, doesn't it? One of my philosophy professors, probably aware of a simiarly list, said, "Don't be an epigone." It's been a favorite word every since.
-Ann

J. R. Miller said...

Other than collecting a lot of books, I have failed at all of these suggestions.. that may explain why I am having so much trouble finding a teaching job :-)

bobby grow said...

Nice, Ben! And all so true, unfortunately :-(.

Dan said...

Ben,

I find it difficult to be humble, knowing that I discovered and followed this path before you could even recite your Latin declensions. But I feel confident that you will do well.

Simon said...

I do not agree with number 3. There are so many novels reflect the human situation that students need to know in order to reflect theology for the church today and to understand people's struggle.
I am sure that a good novel has even deeper articulation of human soul and their fallen situation then any systematic theology on sin and humanity.

Simon said...

Furthermore, the major aim of seminary students (no matter whether they will be pastors, theologicans in seminary, or a para-church leaders) is not to accumulate opinions; for they are not engineers who only follow the rule nor the advisors who only follow the objective facts. They are the shepherds of God's people. Thus, the major aim for them is to cultivate their conviction of faith through their mind (intellect) and heart (will and love).

prudentplatypus said...

Simon's laugh-o-meter is clearly not working. He needs to trade it in for a new one.

Logan said...

Whoops. Someone's a tiny bit thick.

prudentplatypus said...

...unless, of course, he is teasing the rest of us with a subtle sort of reverse humor...

Logan said...

doubtful, i'd say

Chris TerryNelson said...

Ben,
This wonderful list is clear evidence to me that being a theologian in academy requires just as much spiritual maturity and trust in God as any minister of the Gospel. You're a great example of someone who lives the Gospel in your blogging, in your scholarship, and in your family life (which you were so kind to invite so many of us into).
I hope the transition back home is going well.
Yours,
~Chris

Brad said...

What a phenomenal post. I actually thought after #1 that it was serious, but my increased worry dissolved into regrettable recognition (with laughter included). How sad that the humor is in the fact that these are 100% true!

Grant said...

In the words of Homer Simpson "It's funny cos its true".

Its good to be able to laugh at yourself. Your last point hit home as I have recently been challenged to read the Bible as much as I read other theological books.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that Simon took this to be a serious list. I don't think that makes him thick, it just shows that the post hits very, very close to home.

Matt Oskvarek said...

Matt votes for Simon as probably the greatest asset to this particular blog community (not including Ben, of course. He is exempt, as this is his blog space).

Simon, you got it among us "head" cases. Please continue to speak your sanity in our midst.

Peace to you,

Matt<-----has experienced the dialectic but has learned to stay on the good foundation, theologically, epistemologically and otherwise...

Simon said...

Ooop! I did not realize the label 'humour'. But I keep my serious comments (you are right Anonymous). Indeed this is not humour, this is playing: not until after reading the long list was it stated 'humour' at the labels section.
My theological refection is that, next time, I need to read this blog eschatologically: read the content according to the last line, the labels.

Henrik Engholm said...

Brilliant post! And as numerous commentators have said - far too true. So help us God!

Kevin said...

A comment on the first item: one of my highest aspirations as a teacher of theology is that each of my students would find his or her theological "voice" or vocation. An indispensable means to this end, it seems to me, is for students to test-drive the ideas of a particular theologian, to hear how that theologian's views sound coming out of his or her mouth, to see how those views hang together, and so on, and I would hate to think that item (1) on this list would discourage anyone from engaging in this practice. The problem isn't with borrowing another's opinions, per se--and I suspect Ben would agree with me on this--but with doing so without taking responsibility for those opinions. It's difficult to say this correctly in the space of a comment, but the issue isn't whether one borrows the opinions of another, but in what relationship one stands to those opinions: does one advance these views as one's own--"use" them, that is, rather than simply "mention" them--and so undertake responsibility for them? If not, it would appear that one is guilty of "bullshitting," in Harry Frankfurt's sense. Again, could one reason one's way back to these opinions and so see them as one's own, as due to one, rather than opinions that one simply finds oneself with (by accident of reading one theologian instead of another)? If not, it's not clear the extent to which the views in question count as one's own (which is not to say that they are not one's own in such a case--as I said, it's exceedingly difficult to say these things correctly in a brief post). I take it, then, that the issue is (more nearly) one of responsibility: one ought to recognize that, in uttering the views of another as one's own, one undertakes responsibility for that which has been borrowed. Each of us bears some responsibility, moreover, to hold one another responsible for such utterances, though there is another danger lurking in this direction, namely, the vicious practice of trying to "unmask" or otherwise humiliate someone who is earnestly trying to find his or her way theologically...but that's a comment for another time.

I should reiterate that I see this comment as a clarification of item (1) rather than as a disagreement, as I am confident that Ben would agree with most of what I have said here (though not, perhaps, with my way of saying it).

Thanks for the list.

Kevin

Anonymous said...

This would be a much funnier post if the theology professors admitting students into doctoral programs didn't use your "Top 10" as a checklist for admission. I would put less blame on the students and more on faculty.

Erin said...

Wonderful post, it had me laughing! I must admit I am partial to the comment above me, so perhaps a new series on how higher education creates such a person would be interesting?
Or not.
I think laughing is more spiritual for me :)

willohroots said...

If you guys think this is humor, the laugh may be on you. It is amazingly descriptive! Please add, "And do nothing to prepare you to lovingly lead people who believe the above list to be true!"
We gotta laff!

Anonymous said...

Stay away from the personal company of living Realized saints, yogis, mystics or sages, from any Tradition.

Why?

Because by their very strength of their Spiritual presence and lived demonstration they will inevitably demonstrate how absudly besides the point all of your babblings about the Divine are.

Drew Tatusko said...

One could also call this "How academics tend toward the irrelevant and absurd" ;-)

It's totally trans-disciplinary.

Anna M Blanch said...

So, I plan on sharing this link with almost every PhD student i know, (thankfully) most of them are going to find this both very amusing and sobering! We all need to be reminded that arrogance and postulating can take many forms...Thanks Ben for making me laugh out loud (and for reminding me once again that pursuit of knowledge must be done in the (right) spirit.

Anonymous said...

In music ministry we have "the spirit knob." When I choose to turn up or down "the spirit knob" is when you will be prompted/moved to raise your hands, bow your head, fall to your knees, weep in tears, etc. I have the power via "the spirit knob" and I am not afraid to use it.

Marvia said...

And to think I spent so much time reading novels. No wonder!!

Reformed Baptist said...

It would be funny if I knew that almost everyone of these points were not true of myself. However, I can identify with most of these which makes it painful. Thanks for the post I realize how much of a jackass I am.

Maja Leonora said...

This is brilliant! You are so right, and this is so funny :)

My whole first year as a theology student, I felt bad when ever I read fiction. That is no more, I say! Give me a novell any day.

Kanzelschwalbe said...

Bugger! Made a big mistake by learning about theology and life more from life than from university.

I´d better get the "Kirchliche Dogmatik" read by the End of the month- if there is any hope for me at all!
;-)


Wow- great "advices". Love it!

Debbie said...

If you are Nazarene Seminary student, one must not tell other peers about the great beers you drink. Nor should you brag about the Saturday night out at Hooters.
And most important, ALWAY'S use condoms. Knocking up a good Nazarene girl could cost you a prize pastorate.

Clay Knick said...

This was great! Had I only known these practices who knows where or what I'd be today? :) Too funny.

Ruben de Leeuw said...

As a great German theologian once said...

...Oh, I give up.

This made my day. Thanks for reminding us what not to be.

Gorazd Andrejč said...

Enjoyed this advice thoroughly, thanks! :)

Ondrej from Good Books to Read said...

Oh, I don't really think that just theological students should become familiar with as much opinions as possible. No judging, only listening, making notes and analyzing.

Maria said...

Cool

Anonymous said...

"10. Under no circumstances should you resort to old-fashioned pieties like daily prayer and Bible-reading." - What about your spiritual formation as a theological student? Is it not daily prayer and Bible-reading that help you to grow spiritually?

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