On Thursday night we attended a conversation at the Brooklyn Museum, coordinated by Todd Lester of the Lanchonete project, which discussed gentrification and globalization. Sarah Schulman was a panelist. In response to one question she spoke about the gentrification of the arts, with specific reference to the current reality that an MFA degree is now almost a necessary prerequisite for a career as an artist or writer. She said that while in previous eras the way to become a writer was to read, talk about other people’s work, and write, now the route is through one of a few, prestigious MFA programs. In her opinion this has led to a homogenization of artistic and literary work and perpetuates a mentality wherein a few small groups of similar-sounding people control the discussion.
The following day a few group members noted the similarities between the M.Div. and the MFA degrees, one noting that both degrees require an artistic approach to the material. In the case of the M.Div. degree, PSR students are expected and encouraged to engage with theological material, our own personal relationships with God, and community relationships with God in ways that require discernment, creativity, energy, excitement, contemplation, and critical thought. At PSR we are trained to think with hermeneutics of suspicion (but also grace), to consider context in all cases and situations, and to apply our work toward social justice in the world. While we may not all share any one “PSR theology,” we none the less share a PSR perspective. I assume this is the same across the country, each M.Div. degree program with its own emphasis which produces graduates who think in similar ways.
One colleague on this trip also voiced concern about losing his own voice in this process, that he has in a way “sold out” and lost touch with that which inspired him to pursue ordained ministry. As a musician I can relate to this, as I wondered after four years of music school where my passion went for music and how I missed that it had been somehow washed away in an effort to teach me to sound like other piano players. Even as our education encourages us to think freely and arrive at our own conclusions, we none the less think in similar ways to our PSR peers and teachers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is important to be aware of this and remember when to question our own training as much as we question the wider cultural discussion. In addition, we must be aware of the way higher education skews our relationships with our church communities and with God. There must also always be a multiplicity of voices in theological dialogue, including those untrained in theological thinking, not just a few groups of similar-thinking folks with degrees from a small number of M.Div. programs.
An experience in the subway earlier in the day on Thursday helped remind me how important it is to remain in touch with the roots of my relationship with God. After lunch Frances and I made our way to the New York Public Library, taking the #3 train to Times Square. The #3 runs as an express train in Manhattan and, with long stretches between stops, it is an ideal space for performers. Between 96th street and 72nd street we were treated to a dance performance, and between 72nd street and 42nd street we enjoyed a group of four percussionists. Hearing the percussionists reminded me of my own musical education, and the best advice I ever got about pursuing music: if you really want to work as a musician, you don’t need a degree – you just need to be able to play.
I think, in some ways, the same holds true for ministry. While I am invested in the system of theological education on many levels, a part of me must be regularly reminded that if I want to work as a pastoral minister I need to be in touch with my relationship with God. This means remembering what it was like before I began my seminary education. It is vitally important that I keep my relationship with God alive just as I keep my critical thinking skills in working order. Like the percussionists we heard on the subway, a clip of whose playing you will find below, it is just as important that I am able to think and talk about God on the subway as in the sanctuary or in a seminar. It is necessary that the spark of life, which I hear in the music below, is present in my relationship with the divine.