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Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Blessed are the Balanced" (Paul Pettit and R. Todd Mangum)

TITLE: Blessed Are the Balanced: A Seminarian's Guide to Following Jesus in the Academy
AUTHOR: Paul Pettit and R. Todd Mangum
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2014, (112 pages).

What happens to one's personal faith in God when he goes to seminary? Are there cases where students enter with a hunger for knowledge leave with a battered devotional life? How real is spiritual burnout in seminaries? Very real, says authors Paul Pettit and Todd Mangum, who warn us that knowledge puffs up and students can "make the Scriptures as clear as ice, but just as cold!" They claim that abstract knowledge wears one spiritually down. Four signs point to an unbalanced spiritual life.

  1. Confusing one's identity (teaching more about Christ rather than becoming more like Christ)
  2. Privatization and Isolation in studies (entering more inward rather than outward)
  3. Lacking zeal and service
  4. Lacking prayer and reflection.

The key question is: How can one maintain balance in the academy? Such as balancing the head with the heart; knowledge and experience;  theory and practice; learning about God and living for God; and so on. There are six major thrusts in this book toward that end. First, it is about growing into maturity through higher education.  Maturity means acknowledging the inherent imperfections in all theological systems, Christian formation systems, and the perseverance to try to locate an appropriate balance between the head and the heart. Second, it is about walking the tightrope of learning about God and living for God. Beware of knowledge that puffs one up and hypocrisy that dumbs people down.  Beware of pride, vanity, and insecurity. Recognize that seminary environments are imperfect and the best place to know God is a "relational commitment, a submissive spirit, and a predisposition to trust even when understanding is lacking."

Third, both spiritual disciplines and academic disciplines are vitally important to ensure that learning is balanced with living. Celebration is used to reflect on the goodness of God. Chastity can be disciplined toward clean and pure thoughts. Confession requires humility. Examen is about the five steps also known as "praying backward through your day":
  1. Become aware of God's presence
  2. Review the day with gratitude
  3. Pay attention to one's emotions
  4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it
  5. Look toward tomorrow.
Other disciplines include fasting, feasting, fellowship, friendship, guidance, lectio divina, prayer, and more. Academic disciplines include attendance, citation, rest, study, exercise, openness, and even GPA scores.

Fourth, avoid "spiritual frostbite" by adopting wisdom from above in our studies. Fifth, be humble to serve in ministry amid the busy seminary studies. Sixth, cultivate relationships with family and friends to help us be connected to people on the ground and away from an ivory tower attitude.

So What?

Full of practical helps, this book gives prospective and current seminary students a needed reminder about the need to stay sane and balanced during the tough years of theological education. It is more rewarding to be able to enjoy studying rather than to simply see it as another pursuit of a paper qualification. It is tempting though to try to get at the top of the class at the expense of other things. Theological education is a ministry, but the wise student will beware of letting it bring misery and discouragement. Recognizing that theological systems are imperfect ought to keep us mindful and humble. What I appreciate most in this book is the list of spiritual and academic disciplines possible for the seminarian. As one who has spent many years in theological circles, I am keenly aware of the temptations to shirt circuit our own spiritual life. With time and financial pressures, GPA expectations, as well as serving in Church, the task can be daunting. Learning about one's identity is a key requirement which I had hoped the authors should have emphasized. For that, I recommend Parker Palmer's "Let Your Life Speak" and Henri Nouwen's "Creative Ministry." Another thing that could have been emphasized more would be community living, which I recommend Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Life Together."

That said, this book still has lots of promise as it puts down in writing the concrete steps one can adopt toward maintaining a balance between learning and living. One more thing. I am a little careful about using "balance" as the criteria for theological education. While it is important to try to make sure we do not become too extreme in either the theoretical or the practical, it is also important to recognize that not everything can be "balanced" until it becomes an absolute position to take. There are some things that are way too abstract to be practical, such as theological definitions. There are other stuff that requires practice in order for proper learning, such as counseling. So, while balance is a good initial guide, it is important to know ourselves whether we are more mentally charged or practice driven. Some are called to be philosophers and professors while others are called to be practitioners. In different contexts, we may be called to do one thing more than the other. The ultimate decision lies in how God is guiding us. Many years ago, I read about the three most important things in theological education: Humility, humility, and humility. This remains true today.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Kregel Academic in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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