Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Bridging the Gap between Academy and Church

A bridge is a powerful metaphor for the ministry of teaching.

Suspension Bridge at Bowl &
Pitcher State Park, Spokane, WA
(photo: C Imes)
I'm no civil engineer, but I'm certain that a stable suspension bridge must have a firm foundation on both sides of whatever chasm it's designed to cross. For me, that means having a solid grasp of the material I'm teaching from a rigorous, scholarly perspective but being able to explain what I've discovered in ordinary language.

Getting a PhD helped me to drill down deep into bedrock. I left no stone unturned in my quest to understand my central passage. I also thought about implications for a range of other issues.

But my Freshman students would glaze over if I waxed eloquent about the obscure sources I consulted in doing my work. They need to hear how the Scriptures matter for their own lives using words they (mostly) already know. They need something more accessible.

And so I build a bridge. Using stories, I tell them what I've learned and why it matters, bringing scholarship across to the shore where they live. Using their questions, I lead them back over the bridge to access scholarly sources for themselves.

Crossing Bridges
Bowl & Pitcher State Park
(photo: C Imes)
Being a "popularizer" doesn't usually earn one points in academia. Sometimes it undermines credibility or arouses suspicion. Thankfully, that's not the case at my institution.

I feel a strong passion to communicate with those who want to understand the Bible but will never enroll in seminary. It's why I'm writing a book with InterVarsity Press that will tell the big, wide world what I learned in grad school. It's also why I keep blogging.

I once heard Lauren Winner speak at an academic conference on writing for general audiences. She recommended that academics publish their scholarly work first and then produce down-to-earth books. This ensures that they are taken seriously by the academy, while remaining helpful to the wider culture. I'm following her advice. My dissertation came out in print in March. Another scholarly essay is nearing publication. Most of my attention this summer has been on my new down-to-earth book.

I don't think every academic is called to build bridges. Some are uniquely wired to spend longer hours in their "ivory towers," away from the tyranny of the urgent, producing good work that will benefit other academics over the long haul. This, too, is an important calling. (See Jen Pollock Michel's great article on this topic in Christianity Today). We must carefully discern our own gifts and our own limits, investing our time where it makes the most sense.

We need ivory towers. Each generation must wrestle anew with truth and beauty and meaning.
But we also need bridges, lest the insights of careful study fail to meet people where they live.