Jason Byassee: Ministry is not the 'front lines'

Can we drop the war imagery when we compare the parish and the academy?

“So you’re going to the front lines?”

If the number of times I’ve been asked this question is any indication, trench warfare has a remarkable hold on our imagination about the relationship between the academy and the parish. The image suggests that the academy is made up of the army’s officers, eating regular and hearty meals and divining strategy from the safety of headquarters miles behind danger. The church, by contrast, is made up of World War I style “trenches” (another powerful image), full of rain and mud and blood, from whence soldiers spew forth in response to the officer’s whistle to be mowed down by machine guns or minced up by barbed war in no-man’s land.

It’s not a pacific image.

It’s also wrong. As many things as the faculty and staff at Duke Divinity School disagree on, not a single soul here is uncommitted to the church. And they’re not committed to the church the way a multi-starred general is committed to the army, sipping tea from china well outside of mortar range. They’re committed in an “in the trenches” way: teaching Sunday School, preaching when asked, going out of their way to shape their lives in discipleship so that the world might be blessed and believe. It’s a tired old stereotype to describe academicians as out of touch, aloft in an ivory tower, unconcerned with the world “out there.” Thankfully I’ve not found it to be true of the lives of my colleagues here at Duke, or for that matter at Wheaton, Northern Baptist, North Park, Garrett, or other places I’ve taught or lectured.

Further, I’m not sure parish ministry is “the front lines.” Parish pastors don’t strike me as those who are getting mowed down, machine-gun style, in brutal frontal assaults. They’re doing hands-on ministry for sure: in the pulpit, behind the table, in the hospital, in parishioners’ homes, at gravesides. Yet they seem to emerge from that work stronger, not dead. Further, I’m not sure whose machine gun nests we’re storming, what Maginot lines we’re trying to budge, what “war to end all wars” we’re fighting.

The strength of the “front line” image is that it honors parish ministry and puts the academy in its place. The church can exist just fine without the academy, but not vice-versa. I suspect this evaluative aspect of the metaphor is why it survives. Yet it runs the risk of being patronizing, and its rhetoric may let academicians off the hook of their first vocation, which is to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

So let’s put that image to rest, please. Forever.

The problem is I’m not sure of an alternative, certainly not of one with the imaginative power of the bellicose one we’re now rejecting. The best I can do is a medicinal one. The academy is like a laboratory where we try new things. Some blow up, some disappoint, others contain promise to offer cures. Then the pastor is the physician that Origen discusses in the “Philokalia.” The physician must know all the herbs in the garden, and she must know the precise malady of the patient. Then she can mix up the proper cure for whatever illness she faces. The herb garden is the Scriptures, the concoctions are their mixture in the tradition (a little Esther, some Revelation, and voila!), and their proof is in the health of the church. Both lab researcher and general practitioner are trained as physicians and aim to be healers.

This image still ranks the parish and the academy appropriately. It also judges the academy by how innovative it is in bringing forth new (and old) things for the sake of the church. And its telos is in the health of the body for which we all care.

It’s far from perfect, I grant. What do you think would be better?