COLUMNS

Volume 45 - Issue 1

‘The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business’

By Daniel Strange

In Cameron Crowe’s 1996 film Jerry Maguire, the eponymous successful sports agent, played by Tom Cruise, has an epiphany whilst on a conference about the state of his industry. Through the night he feverishly writes a long mission statement (‘not a memo’), the essence of which centres around the importance of personal relationships, fewer clients and less money. He entitles it, ‘The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business’. The next morning, and having distributed glossy copies to all the delegates, a nervous, hesitant Maguire enters the conference lobby to light applause which gradually becomes whooping and hollering. ‘Finally someone said it’ can be heard as he receives a standing ovation. The camera pans to two ‘enthusiastic’ colleagues at the back of the room, all smiles and claps. ‘How long do you give him?’ says one, ‘About a week’ says the other holding aloft the mission statement to Maguire and with clenched fist punching his heart.

Having returned from some large theological conferences in North America last November, I want to offer some brief personal comments to one of Themelios’s main audiences: theological students (pastors and scholars can listen in). These comments concern the business of which I believe I am a part, in terms of theology, sociology and technical ‘membership’. I want to be very clear from the outset that these comments are not to be heard as cheap shots aimed at the States per se, nor are they really about the specific gatherings I attended. As a Brit, and so in a minority at said gatherings, I don’t want to be accused of the arrogance of evangelical cultural superiority, because I recognise all too well the failings, foibles and indeed ‘inferiority’ of my own evangelical culture. Rather, I would hope these musings might be an example of a slightly different voice making some observations that might lead to mutual growth and edification.

As the director of a theological seminary in the UK—one that is very small by US standards—I don’t get to attend these gatherings every year. But when I do, it’s always a rollercoaster of love and loathing in such-and-such-a-city. The states I cycle through on repeat go like this: a sense in which I just love it; then on reflection, a loathing that I love it; and finally a supercilious love that I loathe it which takes me back to just trying to love it again. I can’t work out whether this lands me in a vicious circle or virtuous spiral. Whichever it is, it’s pretty discombobulating.

In my country where evangelicalism, let alone conservative evangelicalism, is such a minority, is culturally pretty irrelevant, still retains a stubborn strain of anti-intellectualism, biblicism and pragmatism, and is often embattled, under-resourced, and all with a ‘half glass empty’ air, I always marvel at the size, scale and sheer brio of thousands, yes, thousands of evangelical scholars getting together to do stuff. This year, in one random thirty-minute session of people watching, I’m sure I witnessed Guinness World Record amounts of confident back-slapping, and I mean that literally and non-pejoratively. Not only that, but all of us meeting in facilities that can comfortably (in more than one sense) accommodate such numbers. I probably need to get out more and/or am easily pleased, but meeting in the flesh people whom you’ve only previously read in print always gives me a frisson of excitement. The phenomenon of double-taking a name-badge to a face is a common sight. And, of course, the genuine and sweet Christian fellowship of reacquainting yourself with old friends, and the making of new ones. And so many choices of papers to attend, however good, bad or ugly they actually turn out to be. And I’ve not yet mentioned the Exhibition Hall and the books … all those books: piles, heaps, mounds. This year one new title had been made into a tower which was, well, towering. All I can do is liken my expression to that of the gawping Charlie Bucket when Willy Wonka opens the door to present the children with the ‘Land of Candy’. As Gene Wilder crooned in the definitive film version, it’s a world of pure imagination and I confess, I find it intoxicating. Joking apart, I have no doubt that during those days there are indeed many instances of the fostering of biblical scholarship through the provision of a medium for the oral exchange and written expression of thought and research. I thank God for the opportunity to be part of it.

And yet the intoxicating contains within it the toxic. Even though biblical scholarship is being fostered, so are a number of other less desirable qualities that I witness in myself and observe in others too. Temptations abound and the traps seem to be set wherever there are selfish, self-focused and self-centred people. First, in what to me are these gargantuan surroundings, is the gargantuan pressure to impress and the need to preen. In conversation, I want, no, I need, to be able to say something about me and I’m looking for every opportunity to manipulate conversation onto this favourite topic. And no matter what we’re talking about, if I detect a more appealing name-badge walking by, I’ll be immediately distracted, working out exit strategies from the current conversation to pursue my next target. Don’t tell me it doesn’t happen. I’ve done it and it’s been done to me. But oh, that internalised punch in the air when someone has heard of me or read something I’ve done. That can keep me going for a good few hours before I crave another fix. Vain-glory is always lurking around every cluster of conversation.

Second, is when good and healthy respect and honour cross over into a sickly and sinful obsequiousness and sycophancy and where the entourage is quickly formed. As Mangis notes,

The sin of obsequiousness leads one to passively invest authority in others and to make decisions based on how they might affect relationships rather than on discernment of right and wrong. Obsequious people allow others and even themselves to deny and disrespect the image of God with them. They allow their God-given voice to be silenced.1

Such relational power dynamics are unhealthy for all parties. In an interview about their study Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy,2 Deborah and Mark Parker answer a question about how one recognises the sycophant:

This is often difficult. Plutarch has a wonderful essay on topic, ‘How to tell a friend from a flatterer.’ He suggests a few tests. One might vary one’s opinions or contradict oneself: a flatterer will shift as one turns. A flatterer will support ignoble, mean-spirited, or vicious actions. A flatterer will undermine one’s other friends. But ultimately, the best defense against sycophancy is to eradicate the flatterer within—our own self-conceit. Plutarch reminds us that we often flatter ourselves, which makes us less resistant to the flattery of others. We meet sycophancy halfway.3

Of course, earlier and more authoritative than Plutarch are the plethora of Proverbs that deal with flattery, e.g., ‘A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin’ (26:28); ‘A man who flatters his neighbour spreads a net for his feet’ (29:5).

Third, is a competitiveness sometimes manifest in the questions people ask in sessions, the purpose of which is certainly not about group edification. Indeed, many of these utterances don’t even qualify under the definition of ‘question’. At the college where I teach, I call this R.S.S. (Rutting Stag Syndrome).

As well as the plethora of Scriptural passages and patterns I need God’s Spirit to bring to mind to crucify this horrible stuff, I’m thinking of distributing to all delegates in the ubiquitous tote bag, a free phylactery containing C. S. Lewis’s ‘The Inner Ring’, an essay we make all our first-year students read at our college but which we could all do with marking, reading and inwardly digesting several times before, during, and after these gatherings. Let’s heed Lewis’s conclusion: ‘To a young person, just entering on adult life, the world seems full of “insides,” full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities, and he desires to enter them. But if he follows that desire he will reach no “inside” that is worth reaching.’4

It would be simplistic only to address the individual human heart here. There is a sociological and institutional issue which can encourage such behaviours. This has to be faced square on. One of the reasons for our self-promotion and sycophant tendencies is that people are desperately looking for academic posts to fulfil their vocation, or more mundanely, to feed their family: and demand is vastly outstripping supply. I am not the first to note this and I won’t be the last.5 And I’m just giving reportage when I someone referred to our gathering as the annual ‘cattle market’. As someone who is responsible for recruiting new faculty in, I repeat, a very small college in the UK, the deluge of applications we receive for every opening, many of them North American, is eye-popping and makes for sobering reading. Surely we need to look at our business and ask some hard questions—for example, should we even be calling ourselves a business, and if so what responsibilities do we have in thinking through the ethics of our economics when it comes to scholar generation?

Fourth, is not so much the problem of puffing-up but rather a conflictual breaking-down. Maybe it’s the need to put the ‘youngster’ in his place. Maybe it’s a long-standing professional rivalry and feud between academic heavy-weight titans which is reprised every year with an eager and even baying audience waiting for the spectacle, and afterwards enjoying post-match analysis over a coffee and pastry. Whichever instantiation it is, it’s combative rather than collaborative. It’s not constructive critique and proper refutation, and certainly in terms of theological education seems far removed from the images of the hospicium and paedagogium brought out so well in David Smith’s recent book On Christian Teaching:

The image of the paedagogium hints that a pedagogy might rather be a house, a home, a shared dwelling place…. When we teach, we design learning, we offer a temporary home in which students will live for a while, and we shape patterns of life together within which they will grow. A pedagogy is a home in which teachers and students can live together for a while, a place to which students are welcomed as guests and in which they can grow.6

How could our hotel not be made a little more homely? Pedagogically what are the ‘unintended learning outcomes’7 that we are forming in ourselves and our brothers and sisters around us in the way that we conduct our gathering together, not merely the ‘character or quality of relationship, but the design of the task, the structure of learning resources, and the patterns of practice.’8 How is Christian pedagogy being formed and fostered in these meetings? It seems a little odd that we might think deeply about these matters in our ‘normal’ educational settings but not so much when we come together.

Finally, I want to observe an abstraction from ecclesiology and the evangelical mission of mission. In our God ordained and God prescribed scholarly and academic pursuits, which surely do entail meeting together as a guild, and which surely do entail the pursuit of excellence and necessary specialisation, how as a body, do we stop becoming hermetically sealed? How do we prevent a compartmentalization where the wood is lost for the trees? How do we stop becoming that world of pure imagination which has lost connection with the messy contingencies of the real world? How does what goes on every year in those hotels over those days, relate to what goes on out there? Again, I’ve been asking myself this question first. My own epiphany was the result of an encounter on the Sunday of this year’s meetings. I had given a paper in the analytic theology group on the Friday which was a response to a forthcoming book on post-mortem salvific opportunities for the unevangelized. I have no doubt this is an important and worthy topic. My perception was that the session had been profitable and the panellists had been able to dig down quite deep into soteriological, hermeneutical and methodological issues. Therefore, I was in that nice post-paper relaxation mode and had arranged to go to the church of childhood friend and former youth group member who had emigrated to the States a while back, and who, after some years of spiritual wandering and homelessness, had recently become part of a new evangelical church-plant. Encouragingly, I could discern that very slowly she was beginning to grow in her faith but it was fledging and faltering, having been pretty much nowhere. I had not seen her for many years and so we had much to catch up on about the ups and downs of life, health and relationships. Because this lady is still very close to my younger sister, she vaguely knew that I taught at a Bible college but, shock horror, she had no absolutely no idea that the premier gathering of evangelical theologians was on her doorstep. As we chatted she admitted that she was having to learn a new vocabulary which was rather confusing: ‘Dan, you can help me here? Someone came up to me in church last week and asked me whether I was a Calvinist or an Iranian….’ In that very moment, I realised that if I, if we, have no way of articulating my part in the chain that connects our often rarefied business of evangelical erudition to the ordinary business of discipling and evangelising within the visible church, then we’re in trouble. The theologising of disciples and the disciplining of theologians surely belong together. How do we create or re-create structures and institutions that allow this mutual flourishing to occur?

There, I’ve said it. Thanks for the applause. And if this is to be my last editorial, can I say it’s been a blast.


[1] Michael Mangis, Signature Sins: Taming our Wayward Hearts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 39.

[2] Deborah and Mark Parker, Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017).

[3] Howard Lovy, ‘Interview with Deborah and Mark Parker’, Foreword Reviews, 16 August 2017, https://tinyurl.com/tg58dgn.

[4] ‘The Inner Ring’ was Lewis’s Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, in 1944. It can be found online (https://www.lewissociety.org/innerring/) and in Lewis’s The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 141–57.

[5] Peter Enns has written a number of posts on this topic over the last few years. For example see, ‘The Moral Irresponsibility of PhD Programs in Bible and Theology’, Pete Enns, https://peteenns.com/phd-bible-theology/.

[6] David I. Smith, On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 12.

[7] Smith, On Christian Teaching, 6.

[8] Smith, On Christian Teaching, 6.

Daniel Strange

Daniel Strange is college director and tutor in culture, religion and public theology at Oak Hill College, London and contributing editor of Themelios.

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