The Theologian and the “Section Man” (Or, Franny and Zooey Go to Seminary)

franny and zooeyContinuing my foray into literature, I’ve begun reading Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (mostly because it’s on the shelf, Alan Noble is a Salinger fan, and I don’t feel like picking up Cormac McCarthy yet). Of course, this is a huge change of pace from Austen. It’s a different air we’re breathing–much smokier and angst-ridden. As a college pastor only a few years out of school myself, in some ways it’s all a bit too familiar. All the same, I’ve found it illuminating and enjoyable. But not in phony way.

One particular interchange early on between the young couple, Franny and Kane, got me thinking about the nature of theology; or rather, the character of the theology student. Kane is telling Franny about some critical literature paper he’s thinking of getting published. He’s obviously very proud of it, while at the same time trying to act cool, detached, and dismissive about the whole thing, and it provokes Franny’s ire. Later on in the chapter we learn that Franny’s become sick of all the “ego”, all the self-aggrandizing attached to the pursuit of a name through petty accomplishments in the world she knows. Upon seeing Kane caught up in the same sort of preening, ecocentric concerns, she responds by saying that he’s acting just like a “section man.”

When pressed on it, she explains further:

“Well, I don’t know what they are around here, but where I come from, a section man’s a person that takes over a class when the professor isn’t there or is busy having a nervous breakdown or is at the dentist or something. He’s usually a graduate student or something. Anyway, if it’s a course in Russian Literature, say, he comes in, in his little button-down-collar shirt and striped tie, and starts knocking Tur-genev for about a half hour. Then, when he’s finished, when he’s completely ruined Turgenev for you, he starts talking about Stendhal or somebody he wrote his thesis for his M.A. on. Where I go, the English Department has about ten little section men running around ruining things for people, and they’re all so brilliant they can hardly open their mouths—pardon the contradiction. I mean if you get into an argument with them, all they do is get this terribly benign expression on their—” –Franny and Zooey, pg. 14

Most of us who’ve spent time in a couple of discussion sections run by a fresh grad student can probably recognize the picture. Or even if you’ve been to seminary for that matter. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my philosophy TAs and my time in seminary, but this sort of thing can happen. It’s a particularly good picture of the way that “knowledge puffs up.”

Which brings me to the point. As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but reflect on the practice of theology and think to myself, “Theologians, we are not to be ‘section men.'”

You see, while everyone is a theologian of sorts, there are others–pastors, and theology students, usually–who become “theologians” in the technical sense. They set aside time in their lives, to study, grow, and become experts, knowledgable in their fields. They become familiar with the names, the history of theological discussion, the important categories, and so forth, that go along with that. As you might expect, in the course of things they develop opinions, convictions, passions, likes, and dislikes just as other men and women do. Expertise in any field will produce that and that’s fine.

We should be sure, though, that we do not turn in a “section men”, or “section women.” Theology students pursue these activities and specialized knowledge in order to know, love, serve and worship God, as well as to equip and prepare the church to know, love, serve, and worship God.

But this is not for our own name or prestige as an expert.

For various reasons, it’s all too tempting to enjoy being consulted as the expert in a given area. Some of us derive our justification by approval as an “expert” or a theologian rather than simply as a child of God. Others find it tempting to take pleasure in being “in the know” about these things, the inner circle of the wise, and quashing the opinions of the theologically unwashed. There is a sort of individual who loves crushing pop theology, not because of a love of truth, or because its destructive of souls, but because they love crushing things and this is the way they know how. This is not being a theologian, but rather a “section man.”

It’s not for nothing the old theologians used to say theology was impossible without prayer. Attempting to study theology without prayer is a contradictory endeavor. It’s attempting to learn and say something about the God upon whom all existence depends, all the while acting like you’ve arrived on your own steam. This can only lead to pride, self-justification, and other such folly.

Pastors, theology students, and others of the general species homo theologicus, heed that counsel. Theology is only to be studied with prayer, otherwise, you may just look up from your textbooks one of these days and see a section man staring back at you in the mirror.

Soli Deo Gloria

One thought on “The Theologian and the “Section Man” (Or, Franny and Zooey Go to Seminary)

  1. A great reminder to me, thank you. I just started plans for self directed “seminary” / theological study, and I can’t hear this enough. 1 Corinthians 10:12. Have been following you for several months and am consistently encouraged by your thoughts. Solo Del Gloria in your ministry!

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