Year 10 of the Karl Barth Reading Group!

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This fall marks the beginning of the 10th straight year that I have run a Karl Barth Reading Group here in Caronport. Each week from September to April or May, a group of students, staff, and pastors get together once  a week to discuss a small portion of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. On average, it’s taken us three years to complete a single volume. I’m convinced of the value of “slow reading” of Barth. You can only process the material from 5-10 pages at a time, and we’ve rarely (though occasionally!) found it difficult to get a discussion going from these few pages.

In 2005, we began with the famous Doctrine of Election (II.2), in 2008 proceeded to the Doctrine of Vocation (IV.3.2), and we just finished the first part of the Doctrine of Creation (III.1) this past spring. At that point, we decided together as a group to “begin again at the beginning” so this year we will be reading the first volume of the Church Dogmatics, the Doctrine of the Word of God (I.1).

Our format is simple: We open with a reading from Scripture (I usually work our way through a biblical book throughout the year). We then spend just a few minutes sharing prayer requests and we pray together. Then we launch into the discussion of the week’s assigned reading, usually about 6-10 pages. When we are done (about 75 minutes later), we close in prayer, go our separate ways and begin our day.

From the start, I’ve loved the Barth group. It is a bit of a respite from the busyness of the week. For me, it is a kind of a middle ground between work and rest. It isn’t quite work because of how enjoyable it is, and it isn’t quite rest because it takes a degree of dedication to arrive at a 7 am meeting in the dead of winter in Saskatchewan!

But I suppose the surprising thing is this: 10 years of reading Barth together hasn’t yet brought me to the point where I wanted to quit or do something new. Barth has a way of getting us thinking, getting us back into Scripture, and keeping us growing in our intellectual and spiritual lives.

Now here’s my question for the day: How does one properly celebrate 10 years of a Barth reading group? (I’ve dreamed of having a little reunion of all the past and present members of the group, though I suspect we are all a little too far flung to make that happen). Any suggestions?

P.S. If you are local and want to join the group, we begin September 11, 7:00 am, in Seminary S104! Bring a copy of CD I.1 and have the preface (xi to xvii) and pages 3 to the top of page 10 read.

P.S.S. You can still get a great deal on a complete set of the Church Dogmatics from Christian Book Distributors here.

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“The Wandering Evangelical”

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Two things worth looking at:

1) I’ve been alerted to what appears to me to be a high quality online magazine called, Religion Dispatches or RD (not to be confused with that other religious journal, Reader’s Digest!). On RD’s “About” page, the online magazine is described as follows:

Religion Dispatches is a daily online magazine dedicated to the analysis and understanding of religious forces in the world today, highlighting a diversity of progressive voices and aimed at broadening and advancing the public conversation.

It is noteworthy that unlike some online magazines that may look to be a major operation but produced on some schmuck’s laptop while sipping Cappuccino’s at Starbuck’s, RD boasts an impressive advisory council of scholars, artists, businessmen, and public servants.

2) In light of #1 above, take a look at this fabulous article by Phil Majorins entitled, “A Wandering Evangelical.” It’s fabulous because Phil is an alumnus of Briercrest Seminary. (Ok, it would be a fabulous article even if Phil wasn’t one of our alumni. Just go read it.)

I happen to think that Phil puts into words what many evangelicals are struggling to articulate. Here’s  a sample paragraph to whet your appetite…

We [evangelicals] are now all grown up and own Mac laptops. We find Stephen Colbert mildly prophetic, read the Huffington Post and we eagerly awaited every new episode of Lost (even though many of us cringed at the ending). In short, we are culturally savvy. At the same time, we despise attempts to make the Christian faith cool or relevant. The faith is counter-cultural, but not cool. Rome and Hollywood don’t need each other in order to survive. We are more likely to possess a subscription to Rolling Stone or First Things than Relevant magazine. Some of us define ourselves as part of the Emerging movement, while at the same time we find it suspect—many of its branches too focused on individual spirituality and experience.

Ok…just go read it for yourself now...

Thanks, Phil!

Why a theology reading group? (final)

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Today is the last pastoral reflection on the value of being involved in a regular theology reading group. Our last reflection comes from Fr. Allen Doerksen, who is an Anglican priest from St Aidan Church in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.  Allen has been part of our reading group for one year and is planning to continue in the group this year.

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1)    What is the “value” to you of a “theology reading group”  as a pastor?

The questions you raise cut to the heart of clergy formation.  Nowadays if you want to inculcate the habit of reading good theology and getting serious about biblical studies you have to avoid an M.Div like the plague and take a couple of M.A.’s or M.A. and Th.M. instead, (though I’m sure this is not the case at Briercrest 🙂 ) At the core of “practical theology” (the guts of an M.Div) should be the most “practical” of all pursuits: the intelligent reading of the Bible in conversation with the Great Tradition.

The value of a reading group is that it forces you to:

  • push through excuses and the “urgent” and attend to “loving God with all your mind…”
  • interact with colleagues which exposes “blind spots,” prejuidices and weaknesses
  • share a mutual passion that often was the reason we felt called to ordained ministry in the first place and that often seems to be left out of our “job description”: the knowledge of God

2)    What is the top reason you would give for why a pastor should engage in long-term reading of theology, especially theology that is “unrelated” to the specific preaching and teaching you are doing?

Eugene Peterson says one of the wisest things a pastor can do is pick a theological mentor (pick someone who’s dead, he says!) and stick with him/her throughout the thick and thin of ministry.  Pick someone, he says, who is orthodox, enamoured with God [and] the Scriptures and [who] cares deeply about the Church and the World.  In other words pick a capacious theologian whose not afraid to rattle the cages and who might be outside our own denominational purview e.g. The Cappodocians, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Barth, Jenson etc.

Over time regularly reading a great theologian will help the reader/pastor become more capacious and large-hearted him/herself; in other words they will gradually come to be shaped/mentored by the theologian often in very unintended ways.  One of the ways this has worked its way out in my life has been to give me a larger frame of reference from within which I ply my craft; this, in turn, has allowed me to become a much less anxious presence in the midst of the vissicitudes of parish/congregational life; something that was very difficult for me to imagine I could ever be given my typically anxious/quick to anger nature.

Why a theology reading group? (cont.)

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Here’s the third series of pastoral reflections on the value of a theology reading group. Today’s reflections come from two former pastors, both of whom are now involved in Christian academic setting.

First is Steve Elich. Steve has pastored two churches and is now serving in our Briercrest Distance Learning division, and is also the program Coordinator for our Master of Divinity at Briercrest Seminary. Steve holds a DMin from Western Seminary in Oregon.

1)      What is the “value” to you of a “theology reading group” (such as the Barth group) as a pastor?

When I graduated from seminary and took a pastorate in rural Saskatchewan, I resolved I was going to keep fresh on theological and biblical issues.  I had just come from four years of swimming in these things and wanted to continue thinking about these things.  I was going to read through each issue of JETS and BibSac that came to the house.  I was going to maintain a healthy reading plan.  Then the reality of regular sermon preparation showed up.  The daily routine of driving the school bus took over.  The responsibilities of church activities and ministries soon pushed aside that level of academic resolve.

  • A reading group provides a structured excuse to set aside the regular things and make time for that level of personal development.
  • The value of such a group is the opportunity to be involved with like-minded people who are willing to be stretched in mind and heart through the investigation of theology.
  • The pastor of the rural church deals with a fairly narrow-minded group of people (pardon the generalization).  They are conservative, cautious, at times judgmental, and quick to point out any differences to their opinion (a reflection of my experience).  It is easy as a pastor to shut down any sense of exploring the outer limits – other voices, theologies, theologians.  A reading group would keep the thought processes flexible.  The ability to stop and consider alternative expressions, interpretations, and ideas is more easily cultivated in such an environment.

2)      What is the top reason you would give for why a pastor should engage in long-term reading of theology, especially theology that is “unrelated” to the specific preaching and teaching you are doing?

The top reason reflects the last point above, the benefit of remaining flexible, wider, broader, and deeper in thought, outlook, and expression.  A pastor needs to do more than think about the issues of the church, the elder board, the sermon series, the Wednesday night prayer meeting (if it still exists), and the senior’s Bible study.

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Second is Randy Nolan. Randy was a regular part of our reading group this past couple years. He just defended a PhD from Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland on the theology of learning.  Randy has taken up a position in the Distance Learning division at Horizon College & Seminary in Saskatoon, SK. Randy has also pastored in a rural setting.

From what I’m learning in my project, attention to how the brain functions shows us how formative is the matter of pattern formation. Barth & post-lib[eral]s would put it in terms of dwelling in the world created by the biblical text. The hard work of reading theology, especially when done with others, creates background patterns of thinking to which we are more likely to default in the rest of our lives & ministries. I appreciate the Barth group mainly for that reason, but there have been practical, measurable results, too: I now am much more careful to think & speak theologically (Christologically) in my preaching.

Why a theology reading group?

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In the next few posts, I’ll continue on with pastoral reflections on why a theology reading group can be of benefit to pastors.

Today, we’ll hear from two relatively recent students of mine, both of whom were involved in my Barth reading group and both of whom were pastors before coming to Seminary. First is Jon Coutts, who has served in two Christian and Missionary Alliance churches and is now completing a PhD at Aberdeen under the supervision of Dr. John Webster.

Second is Clayton Puddicombe, who is now serving as associate pastor at a Baptist Church in Whitecourt, Alberta.

Jon Coutts

1)    What is the “value” to you of a “theology reading group” (such as the Barth group) as a pastor?

Well, pastors need to get together, but so often we feel like it needs to be for accountability or intercessory prayer or strategizing. But this is often forced. Accountability can arise naturally, but usually we already have that in place. Intercessory prayer: Which people get prayed for? Strategizing has been overkilled already.

Why not gather under the heritage of Bible-focussed writers of the past to love God with our minds, be replenished, have our preconceptions and directions challenged from someone outside our “target group” and even our time and place. It helps us to think clearly, to hear the Word better, and even to believe in the “one Church” that our ancient creeds attest to but which I’m not sure any of us believes in so much.

And a reading group, especially with a good book, is no pressure on anybody. It disciplines you to read something not either for the church directly or merely devotional. And you have to put your ideas out there to be tested. That doesn’t happen much.

2)    What is the top reason you would give for why a pastor should engage in long-term reading of theology, especially theology that is “unrelated” to the specific preaching and teaching you are doing?

Oops, did I already answer that? I think it is precisely because it is “unrelated”. It is so easy to pulpit counsel, to preach in a way that reflects the perceived needs of the people or the culture, or worse yet simply to appeal. And if the reading all goes toward the preacher, at worst you are eventuallly just a regurgitator of what is being sought. Reading outside the preaching cycle puts whatever your current study is into a perspective that makes you grapple with how it fits the whole of the gospel, which is very important.

Clayton Puddicombe

1)    What is the “value” to you of a “theology reading group” as a pastor?

So much of the pastor’s life can be lived in the urgent and by that I mean much more than crisis.  People often demand immediate, succinct, black/white answers for life’s problems.  They don’t want to think through the tensions and paradoxes of faith.  In the anxiety of these encounters, a pastor is tempted to default to trivialize the problems and solutions as the inquirer wishes.  The value of theology reading groups is their ability to transcend the pastor/studentinto the tensions which, in a strange way, becomes therapeutic against the ‘cheap’ trivial answers which eventually disappoint.  I think exposure to such reading challenges these pastor-congregant conversations . . . to slow down, to consider the complexities of life and faith, and to learn new postures of living in the incomplete which in the long-run strengthens our faith/relianc in Christ and His Word over and above human answers.

2)    What is the top reason you would give for why a pastor should engage in long-term reading of theology, especially theology that is “unrelated” to the specific preaching and teaching you are doing?

The temptation in shepherding God’s people is becoming consumed with human-to-human relationships at the expense of our vertical relationship with our Lord where the working out of our call is irreplaceably affirmed and challenged.  In other words, long-term ‘unrelated’ reading better ensures a proactive rather than reactive posture.

Barth Reading Group – Year 5!

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I’m planning to carry on with my fifth annual Karl Barth reading group this year for those local to Caronport. I’ve been hosting this group which meets once a week for about 75 minutes to discuss a small portion of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. (Imagine a group of theological nerds all gathered together at the coffee shop at 7 am on a dark, -30 or -40 degree Saskatchewan winter day for the purpose of talking through a paragraph of Barth’s dense prose…if this doesn’t sound exciting, you probably never will understand!)

The first three years, we worked through volume II.2 (the doctrine of election). Last year we started in on Barth’s doctrine of vocation in volume 3.2–which we will carry on with this year. Our group consists of an interesting mix about 10-15 Briercrest faculty, staff, local area pastors, seminary and college students.

For those in Caronport or area that wish to join the group, we will be having an organizational meeting on Monday September 13 at 11:40 am. The main agenda is to determine the time we will meet. Normally, we have met Friday mornings at 7:00 to 8:15 am. I suspect we will carry that out again this year, but that won’t be confirmed until after September 13. If you have questions, please do contact me! (dguretzki  @  briercrest.ca).

One more thing: Last year I asked several of our pastors (or former or upcoming pastors) to write some thoughts on the value of becoming involved in a local reading group, such as I have been hosting for the past years. In the next few posts, I’ll be posting some of their reflections. If you are a pastor reading this, perhaps these “guest pastor-bloggers” might motivate you to get a reading group of your own together.

Today, I’ll start with thoughts from my own pastor, Dr. Blayne Banting, who is pastor of Caronport Community Church. The questions I asked him (and the others) to reflect on were:

1)    What is the “value” to you of a “theology reading group” (such as the Barth group) as a pastor?

2)    What is the top reason you would give for why a pastor should engage in long-term reading of theology, especially theology that is “unrelated” to the specific preaching and teaching you are doing?

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Pastoral ministry can degenerate into a descending spiral of disconnected tasks designed to put out fires, keep the discontented content and the organizational wheels greased.  Without a ‘time out’ to ponder something beyond the regular rountine, pastors often become pragmatists by default.  Regular participation in reading and discussing the work of a notable theologian is a check and balance on the tyranny of the urgent and the pastoral predisposition toward people-pleasing.  A theology reading group offers disciplined time to interact with others on themes that are foundational to the life of the church.  It offers good, substantive fellowship around matters that matter and it reminds the  pastor of his/her responsibility to be a theologian as well as an administrator, leader, counsellor, preacher and mower of the church lawn. Personally, I value meaningful conversations on issues outside of personal worship style preferences and the other peripheral matters we have made primary in a rather consumeristic church culture.  Besides all of this, which sounds a bit elitist and slightly cranky, I enjoy these times because they serve as ‘gut check’ opportunities where I can measure my pastoral practice against my pastoral theology.  Both of these (i.e. theology and practice) can benefit from what I learn in a theology reading group. The discussions around the table have deepened my understanding and widened my appreciation of varying viewpoints.  I no longer have the excuse to dig my own ruts even deeper. As a result I find participation in a theology reading group an invigorating experience.

The top reason I would offer to pastors encouraging them to join a theology reading group is the opportunity it offers them to reflect on substantive matters of the faith in a collegial environment.

Digital Reading: A Kindle Review (Part 1)

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My family recently gave me an early birthday present — A “Kindle 2” from Amazon!

First off, you gotta understand that I am not a techno-geek. I just entered the late 2oth century by getting a basic cellphone this past year (a “pay as you use” model that I rarely turn on). I don’t have an I-Pod (only a cheaper Mp3 player). But I was convinced to take the Kindle plunge after holding and using one for a few minutes by a friend who had one.

In the next two posts, I’ll provide a bit of a review of the Kindle. This first post will be pretty practical–a basic pros and cons of the technology. But in the second post, I’ll try to make some theological observations on e-reading and theology. Here’s some practical thoughts on the Kindle in no particular order:

1) Try it before you buy it. If you are thinking of taking the Kindle plunge, try to find someone who has one first and give it a try. I admit I was skeptical until I tried it. Once you try it, you have to admit, it is pretty cool. It is easy on the eyes, and for those with some minor sight problems, you can even expand the font incrementally to make it even easier.

2) Remember, the Kindle is an e-Reader. It’s not an “e-Researcher”; it’s not a “mini-laptop”; it’s not even a cheaper version of the I-Pad. It has very few features beyond what it is designed for: READING. If you expect anything else out of it, you will be disappointed. (Yes, it has free basic web features and I have even used it once to find an address of a restaurant in a city, but I wouldn’t use it for much else than that).
However, as an e-READER, the Kindle simply EXCELS at helping you to read more than you may even read now. I am an avid reader, and I have read a ton more since getting my Kindle than ever. The downside is that it is a bit addictive!

3) The Kindle is lousy for research. I wondered at the outset if it might be an useful research tool, but I quickly found out it isn’t, for a couple of reasons. First, oddly enough, there are no original page numbers on the texts. Yes, you can quickly return to a particular “location” but the Kindle editions are not paginated to the original book editions. (It also keeps track of each book you are reading and returns exactly to the spot where you left off). So citing a Kindle, in my mind, is kind of useless in research writing. Second, if you are at all like me, a book enables you to flip to certain sections quickly, and to scan forward and backward with ease. Yes, you can take notes with the Kindle, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be bothered with its minimalist keyboard. Again, the Kindle is a READER, not a research tool.

4) Tons of classic stuff is available free. I wanted the Kindle because I was intrigued by the MILLIONS of classic texts available in the public domain and wanted to do some more reading in these areas. For example, I had never read Aesop’s fables (at least not all of them) and I found a free edition with an introduction by G. K. Chesterton. (By the way, his erudite distinction between a “fable” and a “legend” is fantastic!) This was one of the first books I’ve read. (By the way, not all of Aesop’s Fables are that insightful, in my opinion. But there are a lot of good ones!) Within the first couple days, I also finished War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells and I re-read Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

5) For skeptics, remember that you are reading this review on a blog. If you are skeptical about the Kindle, you were probably also skeptical (as I was) about blogs. Those who thought “blogs” were going to replace book reading were wrong, and those who think the Kindle (or other e-readers) will replace books are also most certainly wrong.  I really don’t believe the book will disappear,  nor do I wish that it will. Like committing to reading newspapers on the web, or reading blogs, committing to reading on the Kindle is a commitment to reading on a new medium. You don’t have to be a “book anarchist” to enjoy the Kindle. I still love my books, especially the old ones. Nothing replaces the smell, feel, and look of a book. (I happen to own what was previoulsy Brevard Childs’ set of Karl Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik, including one volume signed personally by Barth! You can’t replace that with a Kindle!) But frankly, I don’t have to own a “hard copy” of The Invisible Man (another H.G. Wells classic) to enjoy the story or even Augustine’s Confessions to benefit from reading through it on an electronic reader.

6) The “free sample” feature is great, but could be better. If you do want to buy Kindle books, of course you can do this wirelessly wherever you have basic cellphone access. This is one of the best and most amazing features of the Kindle and there is no additional charges for using the service. Along with that, most of the Kindle editions available at Amazon are cheaper (some much cheaper) than the print versions, and you can ask for a free sample to be sent. Within seconds you receive a good number of the first pages of the book, often enough to get a sense of whether you’d want to buy the full edition, though sometimes they just don’t send enough to decide–this is where standing in the bookstore looking at the full book has greater appeal to me and where the Kindle just doesn’t cut it.

7) The Kindle is superior for reading in bed. Seriously, it just is. Maybe it is just me, but holding a book open while laying on my back is tiresome, but the Kindle makes this a non-issue. The only thing is: If the turning of pages bothers your spouse when he or she is trying to sleep, the “click click” of electronic pages turning is probably no better! (Hint: Wait ’til he or she is asleep…then Kindle away!)

8 ) The Kindle was made to travel. One of the appeals of the Kindle is taking your reading with you while travelling. I’ve already traveled once with the Kindle and loved having it on the plane. Amazon  tells us that the Kindle can hold 1500 books on the thing. I’ve only got about 60 on it so far and it seems to be a long ways off from even making a dent in the memory. So it is nice to know you could bring that all along with you.

The downside is that the person beside you on the plane may ask a lot of questions about that “thing” you are reading from. I even had to let a fellow sitting next to me on a recent trip hold it and read from it a bit because he was so intrigued! So at least for a while, you might not get much reading done on the plane after all!

9) The Kindle’s screen…isn’t. The Kindle is called an “E-Reader” and so you might assume that you are reading off a “screen,” which isn’t exactly technically correct, especially if you think of a screen in the way you think of a TV or computer monitor which uses electrical current to create the image. In contrast, the technology on a Kindle is called “e-Ink” which you can think of as somewhat the reverse of an “Etch-a-Sketch.” Electr0statically charged particles of ink “stick” to the “screen” so it really does like look ink on the page. (It is called “electronic paper“). The “screen” has very little glare as well, so you can read even in bright light without interference. So, if you think of an “Etch-a-Sketch” as having a screen, then Kindle has one; if you don’t, then it doesn’t.

10) Uploading and converting documents is easy. I’m currently working my way through a doctoral dissertation related to an area of my own theological interest. I was also recently at a meeting where I uploaded the documents and just had the Kindle in front of me for reference. The Kindle allows you to upload personal Word docs, PDF’s (even images and MP3 files) to a free Kindle address which converts the file to Kindle format and can either be set to deliver the document wirelessly to your Kindle (for a small charge) or email it back converted, allowing you to upload via a USB link.

11) Bells and whistles? There aren’t a lot but there are a few. There is free access to the Web (using the pda adapted websites for use on cellphones and Blackberries is best), but don’t bother trying to watch Youtube! There is an electronic voice that can read documents back to you, but you’ll probably tire of it in about 27 seconds. You can take notes and highlight documents, but again, to me at least, this is just far too clunky to be useful. You can listen to Mp3 files either through built in speakers or through headphones. You can subscribe to major daily newspapers. You can back up the whole thing to your computer just like a USB flash drive. (Drag and drop).

That’s it for the practical perspectives.

In my next post, I plan to go a bit deeper and give a theological reflection on the nature of e-Reading.

P.S. For those of you in Canada, Chapters-Indigo has recently released their version of the Kindle called the Kobo e-Reader. It is a fair amount cheaper and I played with it a bit in Chapters a while back, but I was glad I made the Kindle plunge. I think the Kindle format will win out, mainly because the capacity of the Kindle is much greater and the wireless is unavailable on the Kobo.