Tuesday, January 25, 2005


Though we Seminarians are often quite hesitant to clarify the distinction... Princeton Seminary is not Princeton University. And who can blame us? When Granny says "Oh Johnny I'm so glad you got into Princeton!" is Johnny really gonnna say, "No, I actually I going into Princeton Seminary which is an entirely different institution, and though we can cross-enroll at the University, the selection criteria at the Seminary values ministry experience and church commitment as much if not more than scores and grades"? Probably not.

Nevertheless there are times when I, as a Seminarian, am quite proud of the separation between these two fine institutions.

Take for example, a recent Atlantic Monthly (Jan/Feb '05) article about life at the revered P.U.. Describing his experience there, Walter Kirn writes this:
With no stored literary material about which to harbor critical assumption, I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas disguised as conclusions that I'd reached myself... The need to finesse my ignorance with such stunts left me feeling hollow and vaguely hunted. I sought solace in the company of other frauds (we seemed to recognize one another instantly), and together we refined our acts. We toted around books by Jacques Derrida, and spoke of "playfulness" and "textuality." We laughed at the notion of "authorial intention" and concluded, before reading even a hundredth of it, that the Western canon was illegitimate, an expression of powerful group interests that it was our sacred duty to transcend or, failing that, to systematically subvert. In this rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors... we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we'd never constructed in the first place.

I came to suspect that certain professors were on to us, and I wondered if they, too, were actors. In classroom discussions, and even when grading essays, they seemed to favor us over the hard workers, whose patient, sedimentary study habits were ill adapted, I concluded, to the new world of antic postmodernism that I had mastered almost without effort. To thinkers of this school, great literature was a con, and I - a born con man who hadn't read any great literature and was looking for any excuse not to - was eager to agree with them (p. 146).
Later Kirn describes meeting a friend back home in the Midwest, who hearing he had been at Princeton, was eager to exchange ideas with a real thinker. But it turns out Kirn's friend had actually gotten a real education instead of learning how to impress. (The subtitle of Kirn's article is How I traded an education for a ticket to the ruling class)

The article ends with the author, after an education at Princeton and later Oxford gone by, finally picking up a copy of some real literature.
And so, belatedly, haltingly, and almost accidentally, it began: the education I'd put off while learning to pass as someone in the know (p. 154).
The reason, after reading this, that I'm happy to be at the Seminary is because here such a scenario is most often not the case (Although I can't speak for the University, nor do I assume there that Kirn's pattern is the norm).

But the article does serve as a warning for the P.T.S...

Deconstruction here serves as a valuable critique of the tradition, but has not replaced the effort necessary to learn that tradition in the first place. But because it's so much easier to haughtily dismiss than to actually engage, the temptation that Kirn yielded to is ever present. Some questions remain:

1. Will the pastors trained here somewhere down the line meet a minister who has been truly spiritually and theologically formed, and realize that they have not been?

2. Will the pastors here one day be living illustrations of the tortoise (the "no-name" Seminary graduate who actually learned) and the hare (the Princeton grad who merely postures)? As you recall, it was the hare lost the race.

3. Will someday pastors trained here pick some Augustine off the shelf - actually Augustine and not the secondary debunking source - and realize, twenty years into their ministry, that they've been duped?

I personally don't think so. This still seems to be a place where one learns the two thousand year old tradition, and not the twenty-year-old theories with which to dismiss it, and where praying is more important than posing.

At least for now.