Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly

Having been asked to reflect on four books for my upcoming D.Min. coursework, the first I'll be reviewing here was written by two folks at Wesley Theological Seminary, one the Director of the D.Min. Program and the other a recently retired professor of Old Testament.

Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly explores the dynamics of leadership, and particularly church leadership, through the lenses of the stories to be found in 1 and 2 Samuel.  Those two books of the bible, in the event you aren't familiar with them, explore the history and theology of the rise of the monarchy in Israel. They lay out the narrative arc of transition from the time of "judges," those leaders of necessity who rose up out of the tribes in times of crisis, to the more structural, institutional, and centralized power structures of the Davidic/Solomonic royal lineage.

The book gets its title from two visual images from the rise of David in Israel.  The first is David dodging the spears that Saul would chuck at him when he was in one of his, you know, moods.  The second is the image of David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, right after Indy got it back from the Nazis.  No.  Wait.

As I read through this generally engaging book, I found myself having a series of reactions.

First, Birch and Parks make a point of resisting business-leadership hagiography.  1 and 2 Samuel are a realistic and clear eyed account of the struggles and foibles of the first kings of Israel.  Unlike the rose-colored theological glasses worn by the author of the books of Chronicles, these books include a "prophetic criticism of institutional forms." (p. 25)  What gives them value is that they do not present leaders as flawless paragons, but serve up the stories of Saul and David that portray them in nuanced human beings.  It's a useful reminder that leadership in any institutional structure isn't populated by perfect  souls.  This is particularly useful in the church, where charismatic leadership is often assumed to be without flaw.  That assumption is dangerous both for congregations and for the leadership, as it traps both in a nonconstructive, delusional expectation.

Second, the book makes an aggressive point of exploring the theology of call.   Oldline denominations are great at establishing "gatekeeping" structures, the hoops and requirements and committees that stand between those seeking ministry and congregations.  But call itself is a more dynamic and unpredictable thing, one that has almost nothing to do with the self-sustaining demands of institutions.  It is less about establishing protocols, and more about listening for God's voice in unexpected circumstances.  (p. 43)

Third, the book spends the entirety of the fourth chapter dealing with "call-envy," using the fierce/psychopathic jealousy of Saul as a framing narrative.  Call envy is that tendency of pastors to look at their vocation not in terms of God's claim on their lives, but in terms of whether they're in a more prestigious/larger/better paying "call" than their cohorts.   This is placed in terms of the story of Saul's relationship to David in 1 Samuel 18.  While most pastors don't lob pointy objects at those whose worldly attainment exceeds their own, there is plenty of bitterness and grumbling out there.  Just spend a moment or two on the Presbytery floor during the meeting when the comparative salary report is released...

Finally, I did find myself occasionally wishing that Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly had gone beyond the Saul/David narrative.  As rich a story as it is, and as full of characters as it is, the story of call and leadership in Israel and Judah is continued through 1 and 2 Kings.  That arc of the rise and fall of the Hebrew monarchy includes a great array of similarly illustrative leadership teachings, and might have added some additional depth and richness to this exploration of Biblical leadership.  Perhaps in their next book...

As it was, though, Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly is a tight little book, and worthy reading for anyone who has been called to congregational leadership.