Dec 7 2012

Who is a theologian?

This is a question I never cared to ponder until seminary. I have a business background as well as an ecclesial one but defining a theologian was never a concern … until now. Who constitutes the classification of theologian? Before coming to Candler, I may have answered that question with a list of erudite scholars, many of whom are no longer living.

A theologian is someone who dedicates her or his life to the scholastic vocation of seeking after knowledge of God and the things of God….

For some, that may have been a sufficient answer but life has taught me differently. While I have learned a great deal from the noted theologians of the past, I have learned, perhaps most deeply, from the theologians who would never classify themselves as such. Some of the most impactful learning experiences I have had over the course of my time in seminary have not been from books but from lived experiences.

Voices of HopeA few weeks ago, the Voices of Hope Gospel Choir of the Lee Arrendale State Prison for Women came to sing during chapel service. The ways the songs soothed my soul and the way the melody wrapped me in comfort is something words cannot adequately convey. Excuse my colloquialism but you just had to be there. One song in particular struck me in a way no scholarly reading ever has. The choir full of women who were incarcerated for crime sang the words I AM FORGIVEN, I AM A CHILD OF GOD. It was as if all of the theological discourse in my being came to an abrupt halt to listen again to these words of truth. What does it mean to be forgiven? To belong to God? To be children of grace? By singing these words, these women became for me at that moment, theologians, encouraging me to learn something new and think about God in new and fresh ways.

I am teaching a class this semester at the same prison the women in the choir are from. On the first day, I began class by saying – “whether you know it or not, you are all theologians.” I wanted to affirm the voices of these women relegated to the outskirts of society. I wanted to do for these women what my theological education has done for me – affirm the voice within. God in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit speaks to me, in me and through me…and to these women as well. I have a voice, I have something to say and my words matter. So do theirs. So does yours.

The pursuit of theological education is a blessed one. It will often times lead you to the wonders of great writings and texts and if you are patient enough, it will lead you to the lives of people whose experiences will stay with you for a lifetime. These people will never call themselves theologians but you and I know better.

- Rachelle Brown

Rachelle is a second year MDiv student from Cincinnati, OH and a Candler Student Ambassador.

You can see an earlier blog about the Voices of Hope here.


Oct 26 2012

The God Variable

I find the question, how did I get here? utterly fascinating. As a person of faith, tracing the myriad trajectories of my past becomes a theologically important exercise. How can I make sense of my life thus far? Where do I see God’s hand? See, we Christians are not free to believe that our lives are merely the sum of our choices. We really believe we worship a God that intervenes, even intrudes into our lives in subtle, unexpected ways. I cannot answer how did I get here? with, “because I as a free, moral agent willed it.” Sometimes, the chief culprit is most likely “the God Variable.” I recently became acutely aware of its influence, but only in hindsight. Let me explain.

How did I get here? The question comes rushing at me. I scan the classroom of uniformed women and glance at James, my teaching partner, dear friend, and fellow MTS student at Candler. We are in prison. Namely, the Arrendale State Prison about an hour’s drive from familiar, cosmopolitan Atlanta. Coming from California, living in the South is strange enough; teaching at a women’s prison in rural Georgia only compounds the strangeness. We’re also reading a strange story. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson. It’s a story about a pleasant, homey town that holds an annual “lottery” in which the “winner” is immediately stoned to death. The reader doesn’t find out until the end of the story—which is now rapidly approaching. I chuckle nervously. The story suddenly seems inappropriate. I’m not entirely sure how the women will react to the story’s bizarre, violent denouement. Seriously, how did I get here?

See, being here at Candler is unsurprising. My father is a religion teacher, I majored in religious studies, Candler is a good school, I didn’t want to find a real job after college, etc., etc. But teaching here in prison—that is unprecedented. I just don’t do things that interesting. I came to Candler to get on the fast-track to a Ph.D; dusty scholarship was in my future. But something happened, or better yet, somethings happened, and the future is suddenly more mysterious than if I had been left to my own devices.

As it turned out my worry was entirely misplaced. The women in our class attacked “The Lottery” with gusto, incisively assessing the text from all angles. But still, how did I get here? The question lingered. I could point to a few things I remember: the women’s choir performance from the prison at chapel last year, James and I excitedly discussing classes we would want to co-teach some day in the future, seeing the ad soliciting teachers in the Candler Chronicle—none of these adequately explains how we got here. Only something as radical, as wonderful, as grace-filled as “the God Variable” can account for our presence here in this prison. The truth is, about a million different coincidences had to occur to lead me to this very moment. And like Jesus’ signs, if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Mathematicians may insist that attempting to detect patterns of divine prescience is absurd—what I imagine I’m seeing is merely the unraveling of an infinite series. Ergo, an unlikely event (even one as unlikely as a California boy teaming up with a North Carolina mountain man to teach literature at a women’s prison) is actually likely to occur. This illogical habit of theological retrospection is what makes me an “innumerate,” colloquially and pejoratively speaking. As the great Plutarch observes, “It is no great wonder if, in the long process of time, while fortune takes her course hither and thither, numerous coincidences should spontaneously occur.” I respectfully disagree. The God Variable is always present.

- David Ranzolin

David is a second year MTS student from the Bay Area of California and a Student Ambassador.