A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Those "Irrelevant" Seminary Textbooks

My friend and colleague, John Byron, has written an excellent post on seminary students selling their textbooks. This is an issue that has troubled me over the years because the implications of it are many. John has voiced well my concerns. He writes,
I realize that not every book assigned in a course will have long term value. Sometimes a professor will require a book and then realize it didn’t work for the course. And I have sold some of my books over the years as I updated or moved into different areas of study. But I still keep many of them around for reference, to look up the answers that I need and to find the information that I require. I wonder, then, to where will these students go if/when they need information in their ministry, when they are trying to remember what it is we taught him or her? Do they assume they can get everything they need on the internet? Or do they think they only need their Bible? On both scores I have my doubts.

I remember hearing a saying about pastors many years ago. It went something like this: "You can tell when someone graduated from seminary by looking at when the most recent book on their shelf was published." In other words, too many pastors stop reading when they finish seminary. Perhaps some sold all of their books. I wonder where they will go when they need to look up a question. Do they look up anything? Do they have any questions?

I have to confess that I seldom get rid of a book. My library has surpassed the 3000 volume mark and keeps growing. I am not saying there is never a time to part with a few books and John notes the same, but I have a greater concern that pastors are well read because I think the life of study is indispensable to an effective and faithful ministry. Intellectually shallow pastors give shallow and trite sermons, and that's not the half of it.

If I were a parishioner interviewing a pastor as a potential candidate to shepherd my congregation, one of the questions I would ask is "What books have you read in the last year?" I dare say the answer more often than not would be quite disappointing.
Yes, there are certainly pastors who continue the life of study throughout their years in the parish. But I fear that there are all too many whose pursuit of the truth stopped once they received that seminary diploma at graduation. Yes, they may read a few things here or there, but they are more interested in spending the evenings watching reality TV than continuing to grapple with the great theological truths of our faith. Some may think that indictment is too harsh, but my experience tells me that it is on target.
I think we in the dominant nations do not realize what a gift it is to have such information readily available. There are pastors in the dependent countries who would jump at such an opportunity at seminary education and the resources it affords.
When I have traveled to Cuba to teach pastors there, they are itching to learn and grow. I remember on one occasion, I was teaching theology to a group of about forty Methodist pastors. I would stop occasionally at certain points in my lecture to see if there were any questions. After about the third time that I paused, one pastor responded, "We have no questions. We have never heard any of this before. Please continue."
In one town in Cuba where I taught, I would always bring in some books in Spanish-- theology, biblical studies, church history, reference, etc. because they can't get them; and if they were available, they couldn't afford them anyway. We actually started a small theological library at a Methodist Church in that town where the pastors in the area (from any denomination) could travel to take advantage of the resources. I would also bring an additional copy of whatever I brought for a pastor friend of mine, so that he could have his own small library. I will never forget the time I gave him a copy of Justo Gonzalez' two volume survey in church history. He had a hard time fighting back the tears. He thanked me and said, "These are better than gold."
I don't think my pastor friend in Cuba will ever be selling those books on the street; and he could really use the money.... And he would be shocked to know that some pastors in the United States are all too willing to part with what is "better than gold."


Oloryn said...

The one positive thing about those pastors selling their books is the blessing it can give to those of us who buy them.

I'm in kind of an odd place because I have a Bible degree (from Asbury), but I'm a computer programmer, not a pastor. One of the things I regretted after graduating from Asbury College was that I did't spend more time in the Asbury Seminary library across the street. I especially appreciated the multiple copies of Kittel they had, and determined to have my own set. I didn't have the money to buy a whole set, so over the years I put together a set, one volume at a time. Most likely, I was buying them from just those pastors you refer to.

Allan R. Bevere said...


You then benefited from buying those books. As I said in the post, there can be times to part with our books, but what I don't understand are pastors in active ministry who don't seem to think the life of study is important.

Anonymous said...

I mainly read books from the public library. To invest in a physical book to have your library, IMO, should mean that such a book will be still be relevant in 10 or 20 years. Most stuff out there doesn't pass that test, so I sure don't want to move it around from one parish to the other. Furthermore, e-books seem pretty clear to be the direction publishing will go, so it will become much more difficult to know what books a pastor has or doesn't have as traditional publishing fades away. However, I absolutely agree continued reading is essential to having a thoughtful ministry.

Anonymous said...

I've lately been thinking that the quality of one's sermons has a direct relationship to the quality of the books that one reads. That's why I bristle at the notion that I should be spending most of my study time reading the latest volume in the "how to save the UMC" series.

I think you friend rightly points out that many pastors simply quit asking questions; more often that we'd like to imagine, so have their parishioners.