Ed Moore: Against virtual theological education

We can learn to read texts online. But what about reading (and caring for) people?

 The second of two posts on web-based theological education. Read the prior post in favor of virtual theological education.

There’s no denying that technology occasionally drags the church behind it, some of the faithful bewailing the latest invention’s portending the disintegration of the received tradition. The struggles of Galileo come readily to mind. He was tried for heresy in 1633 after peering through his telescope and suggesting that the solar system was heliocentric. On the other hand, the Protestant Reformation spread quickly because of the concurrent invention of the printing press, technology enabling the dissemination of Luther’s writings. The mainline denominations have traditionally lagged behind other workers in the Lord’s vineyard in understanding the power of newfangled gadgets. It was the Pentecostal Aimee Semple McPherson who grasped the potential of radio back in the 1920’s, not the leadership of the Methodist Episcopal Church. They assumed printing presses were still state of the art.

Those of us with mainline DNA come by our ambivalence toward technology, then, with a respectable historical pedigree. We’ve been vacillating for centuries and find it as natural as artisan Jell-O at a church supper. Online M. Div. classes set us aquiver for some easily predictable reasons. We’d prefer our pastors be educated on traditional campuses with identifiable classrooms, library, faculty offices and sturdy oak trees. We assume the face-to-face of the seminar to be critical to the intellectual polishing we covet in our pulpits. And, frankly, imagining a proto-pastor linking to an on-line lecture on Augustine’s “Confessions” while lounging at home in PJ’s, Guinness in hand, violates some canon of propriety we can more easily sense than define. We stipulate all that while claiming to cherish the moment when we shall move beyond these prejudices. We have no desire to be among Galileo’s accusers.

All that said, it remains the case that local congregations are intensely communal, and these are the places most pastors will be serving. Among the offices a pastor occupies in her local church is that of translator-in-chief of the sacred story. She is expected to muster the education she got in seminary, distill it through her strangely-warmed heart (and, we hope, mind), and offer the congregation a compellingly powerful presentation of the Good News, nuanced in the local mother tongue, as on the Day of Pentecost. It is this nuancing that can be learned only in community, and it is a critical skill.

In “Ministry In An Oral Culture,” Tex Sample suggests that “about half the people of the United States . . . work primarily out of a traditional orality, by which I mean a people who can read and write -- though some cannot -- but whose appropriation [of] and engagement with life is oral.” In this oral culture, nuanced storytelling is high on the list of gifts cherished in a pastor, and mastering it depends upon acutely honed sensitivities to the dialects, facial expressions and body language of others. This storytelling is not limited to the content of preaching and teaching, but also includes gesture, touch (or not!), eye contact, style of dress, permeability of conversational boundaries . . . the list could go on. The guy with the Guinness and PJ’s may be exceptionally bright, a first-rate exegete of Augustine, but still crash and burn in the local church when he hugs Aunt Carrie.

I agree with Jason that some seminary education bears little resemblance to the idealized community we prefer to imagine. It is possible to be alone in the crowd on many campuses, picturesque oak trees notwithstanding. And it is undeniably the case that improving technology will enable us to create academic community of considerable depth and common experience. But that community will be of the like-minded, sharing similar aspirations and bringing to the on-line experience similar levels of education. It will by its nature share a common dialect.

For the practice of local church ministry, a critical issue remains where, and how, the pastor-in-formation masters critical skills for her role as translator-in-chief of the Good News. If I’ve learned to read your true feelings across the table in a seminar of twelve students by noticing your movements, grimaces and sighs, I’m well along the way to ministering to Aunt Carrie.

Can I do the same in even the best on-line learning?

Ed Moore is the Duke Clergy Health Initiative's director of theological education and conference relations.