Why a Seminary Degree Doesn’t Have to Make You A Jerk


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Not too long ago, I was at a dinner party and was asked by the hostess if I’d been embroiled in any intense writing projects lately. (I suspect my slightly dazed, what-is-this-thing-called-sunshine? look was something of a giveaway.) I laughed and told the group about Searching for Sunday—perhaps the most challenging and rewarding creative project of my life—which at the time was a mere 10,000 words away from completion. 

Barely had the familiar elevator pitch, “it’s a book about a doubter’s search for church, arranged around seven sacraments,” left my lips when a young, seminary-trained man at the table interrupted me and launched into a 15-minute lecture on sacramental theology, suggesting I google Alexander Schmemann (whose book, For the Life of the World, I’d already read three times) before “attempting a popular treatment” of the sacraments. 

I received several apologetic glances from the hostess, who finally managed to wrangle the conversation away from the young Calvinist and turn it to the topic of asparagus, which, miraculously, he did not seem to have an opinion about. We never returned to the sacraments, whose beauty and power had been lighting up my imagination for the last fourteen months. 

The truth is, my lack of seminary training is something I’m deeply insecure about. Every writer struggles with self-doubt, and the refrain most commonly caught in a loop in my brain is: Who do you think you are? What do you know about God or faith or church? You haven’t even been to seminary! What could you possibly teach anyone? 

This insecurity gets reinforced by people like my dinner companion, who seem especially perturbed that an undereducated woman like me has built a platform from which to write and speak about faith.

Regardless of how well they know me or my work, these guys tend to approach our conversations with a paternalistic familiarity that makes me uncomfortable, immediately rendering me the student and them the teacher.  I am not criticized; I am “lovingly corrected.”  We do not discuss where we agree or disagree; I am informed of  what I got right and what I got wrong.  It’s not a peer-to-peer conversation; it’s a session of “pastoral counseling,” initiated by a man who is not, in fact, my pastor. 

What they don’t realize, of course, is that I am intensely aware of my lack of theological qualifications, which is precisely why I read a lot, cite my sources, ask questions, listen, apologize when I get stuff wrong, and refuse to fake my way through Q&A sessions when the honest “A” is “I don’t know.” It’s also why I invite comments and critiques from faithful collaborators—pastors, scholars, artists, scientists, doctors, parents, blog commenters, and editors—who often know more about a given topic than I and whose insights improve my writing by miles.  My gifts and training are in creative writing. My interests are in matters of faith. I know I am not entitled to respect,  but on my better days, I am of the conviction that regular people can talk about God too, and perhaps even prophesy. 

It would be easy to turn this post into a rant against the much-maligned phenomenon “mansplaining,” which is certainly real, though perhaps too liberally invoked on social media. What I’d rather do is tell you about the alternative, about just a few of the people who treat me and nearly everyone they encounter with respect, openness, and humble teachability, even as they carry around an armful of credentials. 

A seminary degree doesn’t have to make you jerk. You can be an expert on ancient Hebrew without fancying yourself an expert on everything.  In fact, the people who have taught me the most in life do not view themselves as teachers, but rather as perpetual students, always eager to learn more and always open to changing their minds.  

Perhaps the closest example of this in my life is Dan, who is an insatiable and avid learner and who has as one of his life’s mottos, “always assume there’s someone in the room who knows more about the topic at hand than you do.” He says he learned much of this from his sister-in-law, Maki, who is smart, curious, entrepreneurial, and who will “listen your mouth off” if you let her.  Like Maki, Dan responds with the delight of a child whenever he encounters some new and interesting idea, and like Maki, Dan is no respecter of persons when it comes to seeking out teachers—whether it’s the grocery bagger, a theoretical physicist, or an eleven-year-old nephew. Dan doesn’t have to prove himself an expert on everything because he's secure enough in what he knows and what he doesn’t know to engage other people as peers. As we were talking about this post today he said to me: “Tell them that if they’re in a conversation where they are the expert; they ought to change the subject. Because what fun is that?” 

When it comes to matters of faith, my father is like this too—open, curious, and humble. As a kid I believed his degree from Dallas Seminary made him an all-knowing expert on Jesus and the Bible and I bragged to my friends that he was a “Master of Divinity.” But when my questions evolved into the kind without easy answers, Dad refused to respond with empty platitudes or weak apologetics, and instead simply took my hand, walked with me through all the pain and anger and fear that accompanies religious doubt, and said, “I don’t know, Rachel. Let’s find out together.” 

I’ve been fortunate, too, to have pastors who respect the people in their congregations as peers rather than sheep in perpetual need of guidance. In Searching for Sunday, I write about Brian Ward, who even as a youth pastor at a church that forbade women from teaching and leading was the first to tell me I had gifts for teaching and leading. Just a few months ago, I met with the rector of our new church who, though he sat in an office lined with heavy commentaries and some of his own published work, said, “We’re so glad you’re a part of this community. You have so much to teach us!” 

And then there are the people with whom I’ve had the pleasure to converse and collaborate as a result of my writing, people with big brains and fancy degrees who have every right to shrug off the musings of small-town author, but who instead engage me with enthusiasm, interest, and mutual respect…even if we don’t always agree and even if they offer useful, critical feedback. 

Richard Beck is one such person. The man is one of the smartest, most well-read people I know, armed with a PhD in experimental psychology and years of researching and writing. But Richard is also one of the kindest, most encouraging people I know. He’s someone who engages in conversation in such a way that you walk away feeling both smarter and more confident, like you’ve both learned and contributed. Richard will recount with enthusiasm and specificity all the things he’s learned from me, from other bloggers, from his students, from his wife Jana, from the Bible study he leads with fifty inmates at a maximum security prison each week. The world is his lab and he’s a joyful, engaged observer, taking notes on it all. 

The same could be said of credentialed people like Peter Enns, Scot McKnight, and Walter Brueggemann, who have graciously offered their encouragement and insight to me through the years, and of course to the many credentialed women—Nadia Bolz-Weber, Christena Cleveland, Lauren Winner—who have done the same. 

Brueggemann recently displayed his trademark humility in acknowledging, “Until the middle of the twentieth century scripture study was essentially white males. And white males --including myself -- always walked under the flag of objectivity. 'We are objective scholars!' Now what we are discovering in the presence of many other voices is that what we thought was objectivity is simply white-male-experience." 

Even Walter Brueggemann….WALTER BRUEGGEMANN, PEOPLE… knows he doesn’t know everything. Even Walter Brueggemann values the insights and perspectives of other people, especially those whose gender, race, or socioeconomic status means they see Scripture differently than he. 

Whenever I catch myself looking down my nose at a first-time author with a new book or a blogger who has yet to learn the term “intersectionality,” I think about people like Walter B., my dad, Dan, Richard Beck, Maki and Nadia, people who aren’t so quick to let on how much they know, people who delight in learning from others, even from me.  And I pray that I become more like them—curious, humble, awe-struck, and kind. I pray I grow secure enough to listen and learn as a student of the world. 

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