Klaus Issler, professor of Christian education and theology, Biola University
In the Oikonomia Network program at the Talbot School of Theology, one of the best ways we have found to help seminary faculty become more aware of issues related to a theology of work and economics has been a faculty reading group. We sponsored our first reading group in spring 2014. Feedback indicates that the group has been very fruitful for its participants. (The quotes in this article are taken from anonymous evaluation forms from all six faculty.)
“I think the main take-away, for me, is that there’s a lot more theological work that evangelicals need to do on these fronts” one faculty member shared. “There really does seem to be a complex set of dynamics between economics and theology.”
Dean of Faculty Scott Rae issued the initial invitation in October 2013, and the response was so strong that the group filled to capacity immediately. Six faculty joined this small-group discussion experience, which I led. The seven of us met monthly over lunch four times during spring 2014, and we held a final lunch meeting in September 2014 as a wrap-up.
“Regarding conveying content in a church setting, it is extremely important to convey the theological importance of work to people who are not working in vocational ministry,” a participant noted. “Despite the fact that this was a fairly central issue in the Protestant Reformation, it seems like we have forgotten a lot of this lesson. That was one of the places where the readings we had really shined.”
Scott and I selected reading materials for each of the five meetings, which included four books, two journal articles, and the Economic Wisdom Project vision paper, “A Christian Vision for Flourishing Communities.” The books included Amy Sherman’s “Kingdom Calling” (2011), Tom Nelson’s “Work Matters” (2011), six chapters from Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley’s “For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty” (2014), and John Schneider’s “The Good of Affluence” (2001). To aid the reading process – because seminary faculty are busy! – I developed two-page guide sheets for each book, summarizing key points. “In terms of conveying a positive perspective on the value of human work, and the goodness of the material creation, I think the readings were great,” one participant commented. The reading and reading guides were distributed a month before each meeting.
We also distributed to each participant the set of six Poverty Cure videos produced by the Acton Institute, and had the participants view them on their own before the final session. “The highlight of the Kern materials and lunches was the material on the Poverty Cure (especially the earlier videos),” one participant said. “It made me think more critically about what is truly helpful for people. For example, I was particularly struck by the readings and videos which talked about how charitable giving could actually do harm by creating dependency and entitlement, interfering with the development of local economies, etc. As Christians, we want to be able to help, but we are also responsible to make sure to the best of our abilities that we are not simply following an emotional compulsion to do something while not thinking carefully about the ramifications of our actions. In other words, we may actually be acting more to assuage our guilt rather than out of a truly compassionate response.”
As part of our conversations, we often considered how the seminary could help local churches regarding this matter of a theology of work and stewardship. On this front, the Economic Wisdom Project vision paper prompted much dialogue. “It is just a very interesting theological issue by itself, but I was struck during one of our discussions how our churches often do not act intentionally and in an informed way based on deep theological introspection,” said one participant. “I appreciated the effort to ask how we might bridge this gap between church and the academy regarding this particular social issue (based on materials created for the church).”
As a final assignment, each participating faculty member wrote a short essay of reflections on the topic for Talbot’s “The Good Book Blog.” Thus far, four have been posted:
- Aaron Devine, “Wealth and Following Jesus”
- Aaron Devine, “Sharing the Material Resources of Home to Embody the Gospel“
- Michelle Lee-Barnewall, “Some Thoughts on Work”
- Uche Anzior, “A Theology of Inequality through Jonathan Edwards”
Of course, a pervasive theme among faculty feedback was appreciation for the opportunity to gather over a meal for stimulating dialogue with colleagues. In response to an evaluation question about encouraging other faculty to participate in the next reading group, one wrote: “I would say yes, absolutely do it. One of my favorite things about participating in academia is having the opportunity to talk about things of importance with other like-minded people in a structured and enjoyable way. This was an incredibly well implemented example of those opportunities. It also brings people together from different departments in a way that doesn’t always happen, so it creates opportunities for integration.” Another said, “I have patient, wise and thoughtful colleagues – i.e., this kind of group is only ever going to be a good thing for us faculty.”
The seven of us filled our time well in each meeting. Conversations never lagged. We all agreed more time would be helpful, yet we’re aware that we want to be sensitive to faculty responsible and schedules. Other evaluation comments offered some helpful questions and suggestions that Scott and I will ponder as we plan our next reading group for spring 2015. I also have some ideas to help improve our next offering. But Scott and I are greatly encouraged that this first reading group yielded such encouraging feedback.