A Critical (and Positive!) Review of Blessed are the Balanced, by Paul E. Pettit and R. Todd Mangum

9780825443459Introduction

Pettit and Mangum set out to provide, as the subtitle suggests, A Seminarian’s Guide to Following Jesus in the Academy. I must say, they have succeeded magnificently!  Having completed seminary-level biblical and theological training myself, I certainly wish I had read this book concurrently with my education.  Staying connected to the Living Word while learning to analyze the written and inspired word is not an easy task, which often comes as a surprise to those who have not pursued advanced theological training.  This reality, however, is very familiar to those “in the gild”, and the authors provide a helpful exploration of the issues involved along with insightful suggestions for a way forward. This book is simply fantastic.  If you are engaged or planning to be engaged in theological study on any level (and I believe everyone should be on some level), then this is worth your most thorough perusing.

One Main Criticism

I’m about to spend a lot of words on a criticism, and this criticism is coming from deep within me, but it is a critique that doesn’t extend to the entire book, but rather just to the introduction and first chapter. Indeed, as mentioned, I find much to commend and apply within its pages.  Regarding the following criticism, I welcome your interaction with me, if you’ve read the book, as I may be missing the mark in terms of what they’re saying.  However, I don’t think I’m missing the mark of something annoying that I sense as pervasive.  It lurks in our churches and homes, and you can call it by its family name, “Mr.  False Dichotomy”, or its given name, “Anti-Intellectualism.”  Here we go…

In their introduction, Pettit and Mangum state,

Yes, seminary can be a stimulating experience and a soul-enriching time. But it can also be dangerous. Seminary, believe it or not, can be hazardous to your spiritual health…Unfortunately a good number of students graduate with a head full of biblical and doctrinal knowledge, but with a heart that has grown cold to God (p. 7).

I agree with their assessment, as will most who have studied the Bible academically.  They go on to state their aim: “[T]his book helps explain how to avoid some of the common pitfalls that can lead to spiritual burnout when one enters into an academic study of God and the Scriptures” (p. 8).

It is at this point that the authors begin down a logical road that I simultaneously sympathize with yet dislike.  They choose to articulate the problem, right from the start, as one of “head versus heart knowledge.”  After finishing graduate school and leaving the intellectual Christian bubble of Wheaton, Illinois, I immediately grew sensitive antennae that are quite adept at detecting anti-intellectualism.  I see it all over in the church, and I don’t like it.  I don’t believe that is what the authors are promoting, but this “head / heart” dichotomy only adds to the problem, in my opinion.  Let me state it clearly from the outset: “Head-Knowledge” versus “Heart-Knowledge” is a false, reductionistic dichotomy that I believe is foreign to Scripture and Christian tradition and ultimately damaging to the Church

The authors go on to clarify what they mean by “heart knowledge” and “head knowledge” in several descriptions.  In one place, they seem to equate “head knowledge” with “rigorous academic scholarship” and “heart knowledge” with “growing piety/ healthy spirituality/ vibrant faith” (p. 8, 9).  In another place, they seem to identify “head knowledge” with “a concentrated effort at learning more about God” and “heart knowledge” with “balanced growth in Christ” (p. 18).  Of all the things I gained in my training, none has served me better than critical thinking skills, and among these skills, the ability to identify reductionism and false dichotomies has proved itself o’er and o’er.  This “head/heart” knowledge thing is a false dichotomy (“A false dichotomy or false dilemma occurs when an argument presents two options and ignores, either purposefully or out of ignorance, other alternatives”, from philosophy-index.com).  Academics and piety are not, as the authors suggest, two opposing forces on either side of a teeter-totter (see pp. 18-19), and our job is not to balance the teeter-totter so that neither outweighs the other.  This metaphor is fundamentally flawed, and I was quite disappointed that it was chosen for the title of the book. Does this mean the book is hopelessly disappointing?  Not at all.  After getting past my hobby-horse allergic reaction to reductionism, I was actually very excited about much of their thinking and many of their suggestions.

Before I get into what I liked, allow me a few more paragraphs on this head/heart dichotomy. Even though the authors repeat this idea a number of times in the first part of the book, I found myself able to look “under” what they were saying by rejecting their explanation and supplying my own explanation that I find more satisfying.  For you, dear reader, I am most pleased to submit my explanation, and welcome your feedback and pushback!  Here goes nothing…Knowledge without zeal and love certainly “puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1), and is hence sub-Christian.  But zeal and love without right knowledge is equally damnable.  Ghandi had it.  So do gay rights activists on the negative side, and universalist “Christians” on the less-negative side.  The fact is that study and piety are not at odds with one another; they are, rather, mutually-essential partners.  Without study, all the spirituality in the world is misguided.  I am reminded of the oft-cited explanation of leadership:  It isn’t as much about making sure things are done right (thats the domain of management), but rather making sure the right things are done.  Knowledge concerns both, and without it, how do we know that we’re doing things right or doing the right things?  We don’t.  All we know is that we have a good feeling about it all, which is tantamount to anti-intellectual idolatry and elevation of experience.  Sure, we can make an idol out of the intellectual, but we can also make an idol out of the existential, and both are to be avoided.  But, getting back to the book at hand, we don’t avoid these extremes by “balancing” the “head” and the “heart” on opposing sides of the Christian teeter-totter.  We avoid the extremes by carefully employing our intellect in the context of whole-person growth in Christ and worship of our triune God.

The authors ask the wrong questions when they ask,

[C]an our growth in Christ occur when a person undertakes an advanced study in theology? Is it possible to see growth in Christ alongside rigorous academic achievement? Can these two be balanced in a healthy manner? (p. 21).

As I hope I’m making clear, the two things (growth in Christ and theological study) are not meant to run “alongside” one another, to use the authors’ words.  Rather, theological study fits into the larger context of “growth in Christ.”  The teeter-totter is not the right metaphor; perhaps concentric circles would be better (picture “theological study” as one circle within a larger “growth in Christ” circle).  They define “Christian maturity” as “(a) putting away childish things and becoming an adult in Christ, (b) partnering with the Holy Spirit to produce good fruit, and (c) walking in the light of God’s truths” (p. 21). It is overwhelmingly obvious to me that theological study is one aspect of such growth!  It is isolating theological study from other areas of Christian growth that gets you in trouble, which is, unintentionally, precisely what the authors’  false dichotomy does!

Again, I get the sentiment. There is a problem, and the head/heart dichotomy is one attempt to explain and navigate the problem. But it creates another problem: pitting the head and heart against each other, when in biblical thinking the two are one in the same. I think it’s better to talk about “knowledge attained only” versus “knowledge attained, internalized, and integrated.” More of a mouthful? Yep. But in this case, homiletical expediency has sacrificed the intellect on the altar of a false dichotomy, and a more wordy description is a small price to pay to maintain a biblical, shall we say, balance?!

Highlights

I will now dismount my hobby horse and offer a very cursory overview, along with highlighting some strengths.  I’ve already discussed the introduction and chapter 1 enough in the preceding.  After defining “Christian Maturity” and “Higher Education” in chapter 2, the authors pose the question:  Can the two be balanced?  “The answer to the question,” they say, “is a resounding yes” (p. 23).  But they qualify their answer:  It is only a “yes” if you “adhere to certain principles, guidelines, and warnings” given throughout the book, which are simply outstanding.

The authors are quite helpful, for example, when they suggest, “One of the main sources of frustration for serious students is a growing gap between acquisition of knowledge and the experience of internalizing or living out the knowledge they have accumulated” (p. 9).  I also found the “Four Warning Signs of a Shaky Balance” to be insightful and true, and probably worth the cost of the book:

  1. “Confusing your identity in Christ with your identity as a vocational pastor, Bible teacher, or theologian” (p. 10).
  2. “A growing isolation and privatization in your academic studies (p 12).
  3. “A lack of zeal and service for God and others” (p. 13).
  4. “A lack of time for prayer and reflection” (p. 13).

This “checklist of an unbalanced academic Christian life” is perfectly in line with a healthy understanding of the intellect and piety of the Christian as mutually-essential partners, even if their language is sometime at odds with this understanding.

I found some of their warnings particularly valuable. For example, they pose the question,

Is the knowledge you are gaining, is the education you are receiving, cultivating a learner’s spirit or a critical spirit? Has your learning bred understanding and wisdom, or cynicism? Is your engagement with scriptural principles first and foremost for application to yourself, or has this become a tool of your trade, an instrument or your (vocational) ministry? (P. 35)

They go on to show how learning theology just to increase “vocational skill” leads to hypocrisy, which is very true. Without being aware of such pitfalls, the seminarian or bible school student are all too likely to fall into them. I saw it happen to many, including myself! There is hope of getting out of the pit of cynicism, and I think I’ve come out healthy on the other side, but it’s better to avoid it from the start. They’re advice is wise when they suggest,

Prepare for this while you are still in seminary, knowing that, even before you begin teaching what you are learning, the increased study in God’s Word and exploring theological principles is already setting you on a patter of either increased godliness or increased hypocrisy (or possibly both!). (p. 37).

They go on to speak quite strongly about the severity of allowing sinful rebellion to fester, suggesting that the aspiring minister get help immediately if they sense such patterns in their life (i.e. pornography, bitter grudges, anger issues, etc.). I appreciate this candor, as many a student seems somewhat cozy with their sin, thinking it will evaporate after Bible school.  They spill much ink on the topics of pride, hypocrisy, arrogance, etc. I can’t speak highly enough of their insight and advice in these matters.  They warn, for instance, against pursuing ministry or theological study in order to be an expert or hold authority.  After identifying the source of pride as one’s insecurity, they write, “Insecure leaders inevitably drive away capable co-leaders. Often what results is a team of yes-men…” (p. 46).  They compare seminarian’s “Who will be the greatest after graduation” conversations to the disciples immature posturing in the Upper Room, which is an incisive observation that cuts to my heart, having been there!

One more “side criticism”:  They pose a most interesting analogy when they suggest that seminary is to the church what the research and development wing is to the military (p. 53ff).  In some ways, they are insightful in drawing this analogy.  In one way, I found the analogy to reinforce another false dichotomy:  That theological discourse and reflection is thus implied to be merely preparatory, when in reality, theology itself is part of the “war”, not just preparation for it. It is similarly frustrating to me when they lament that seminary can “be a laboratory for creating products that no one really needs or uses” (p. 54).  This pragmatism made me wince.  I would ask the authors to define “needs or uses.”  I see theological reflection as more than a means to a product, but as part of a process of becoming a more fully formed disciple who understands the faith, once for all delivered to the saints.

I very much appreciated their extensive discussion, in various places, of how seminary and church are not the same.  So, for example, “the conceptual argumentation engaged in among seminary students [is not] a model for pastoral communication” (p. 55) and the emphasis on independent working and thinking in seminary is not always well suited to church ministry!  They write, “Constructing and asserting superior arguments is encouraged and affirmed in seminary, whereas collaboration with people, most of whom are less studied, less knowledgeable, and usually less concerned about tight logic, is a far more valuable skill in ministry” (p. 56).

In chapter 3, the authors give a annotated list of spiritual and academic disciplines that, when put into practice, are meant to keep the seminarian from becoming “cold hearted” in his/her study of the Bible.  I would recommend any student to deeply consider these items and apply them broadly throughout their training.  I agree with the authors when they write, “By practicing spiritual disciplines alongside academic rigor you will be better able to implement the advice advocated in this volume” (p. 64).

In chapter 4, the authors affirm the reality that there are dry spells in ministry, and life for the minister may often be mundane.  But at the same time, they give advice for how to avoid prolonged experiences of this nature that amount to what they call “spiritual frostbite.”  And they return to the theme of pride, which is quite fitting.  They write, “The vast gulf that should exist between proper pastoral nurturing and narcissistic power-grabbing is preserved by what actually may be a fine line in one’s heart” (p. 99). Wow…what a profound statement!  And again, “If the minster can use his or her knowledge and abilities to strengthen the voices of others, then that knowledge, ability, and skill can be a source of service, rather than a source of power or dominion” (p. 102).

These guys are sages, really.  I was so profoundly struck by so much of their insight. Consider the following wisdom:

Critical thinking is a scholarly quality that is both taught and encouraged in seminary. Independent thinking is encouraged in the academic environment. This is well and good, but it is for mature audiences only. A person who is in ministry but who has not matured spiritually may find that these skills of critical thinking can sour into something that becomes an instrument of the devil (p. 105).

I also appreciate their realism when they say, “Your vision of serving God when you first enter the ministry often just sounds more glamorous and ‘spiritual’ than what it is likely to turn out to be in day-to-day experience” (p. 108).  This kind of thing is what aspiring pastors and teachers need to hear, not to “burst their bubbles” but to prepare them to combat any disillusionment they will inevitably encounter after the “honeymoon” of ministry wears off!

My Favorite Part of the Book

I LOVE how the authors deal with the topic of Bible application in the life of the believer.  The section is entitled, “The Danger of Studying the Bible for Application” (p. 111).  There is a common approach that says, “I need to do something specific to obey every text I read.”  In contrast to this pragmatic approach, the authors offer the best account I’ve read.    In sum, they suggest that reading the Bible is less about what we’re supposed to do with it and more about what kind of people it forms us into…”character transformation.”  I will quote them at length:

Rigorous, concentrated study of God’s Word is a good thing. It is not an end in itself, but neither is the end entirely the “practical application” to one’s own or another person’s life. Part of the purpose of God’s word is to stimulate and cultivate one’s understanding of and love for God Himself. When this happens, our hearts are transformed, our characters are transformed, our entire outlook is transformed, made more mature, made more wise, and is more in accord with God’s goals and purposes” (p. 115).

I agree with the authors that “This is what Paul meant by having ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor. 2:16)” (p. 114).

They conclude the book with a section on “staying grounded” through family connections and spiritual friendships, to which I say “hear hear!”  I was a bit isolationist in graduate school especially, and it was not good for my education or my soul.

Conclusion

“Possessing a head full of facts and dogmas” is not at odds with “a heart filled with love for Jesus and a passion to serve the Savior” (p. 19).  The authors would agree with me here, but I think that the majority of Christians I encounter seem to feel otherwise–that all knowledge puffs up all the time and therefore we ought to quit focusing on knowledge at all.  For the sake of the average reader, I would have preferred this theme not run throughout the beginning book.  But taken “in balance,” I think Blessed Are the Balanced is as helpful a guide as I have ever seen.  I am truly excited to recommend this book to anyone considering it, and I will very likely purchase copies for anyone I know embarking on the journey of theological eduction.

I’m going to now re-saddle my hobby horse!  In daily practice, we tend to separate that which should not be separated and we create a false dichotomy between growth and knowledge.  However, in providing a solution to this problem, should we not join the two rather than reinforcing the false dichotomy?  Even though I hate the distinction between “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge”, I understand it is a practical problem.  I just think that the solution to this problem comes through uniting the two in their proper context rather than keeping them on opposing sides of the “Christian teeter-totter”, as though our goal is to help them “coexist.”

This philosophical criticism aside, there a treasure trove to gain from Pettit and Mangum’s work, and I commend it to you for its practical value in learning to behold The Word as you learn to analyze his words.

I don’t think there is a better book on the subject, as Blessed Are the Balanced is unique in its “guide-like” format.  You might “balance” it with the classic, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, by Helmut Thielicke, and its “offshoot”, A Little Book for New Theologians by Kelly Kapic.  Throw in Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God, by Bobby Jamieson, and Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, by John Piper and you’ll be all set! (Lord willing, I will discuss each of these titles in a future post)

Thanks to Kregel Academic, who offered me a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

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