The Class of 59 reunion: Of community, Bible, and liturgy

By Mariah Martin ’10 M.A.R.

A fiftieth year class reunion is, in a sense, like visiting a community we once lived in.  We go back, look around, and see that some things have remained the same, while other parts of the landscape have become almost unrecognizable.

During the four days of Convocation & Reunions 2009, there was plenty of time for the fiftieth reunion class, the Class of 1959, to poke around the Quad and see what has changed—particularly as a result of the $39 million renovation of Sterling Divinity Quadrangle that culminated in a rededication in 2003.   But, however interesting it may have been to see seats in Marquand Chapel in place of pews, or to walk down one of the corridors that now connect all of the Quad’s eight pavilions, one of the highlights of the class’s sojourn on the Quad had nothing to do with architecture: a faculty panel discussing life and academics at YDS five decades after members of the class received their diplomas.

Three senior faculty members comprised the panel: Emilie Townes, associate dean of academic affairs and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology; John Collins, the Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation; and Thomas Troeger, the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor of Christian Communication.  The three addressed the challenges facing YDS in effectively reaching out to a multicultural society, in defining church community, and in strengthening its commitment to the community and world at large.

Townes, who recently completed a one-year term as president of the American Academy of Religion, described exciting outreach programs being conducted under a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund aimed at supporting various opportunities for YDS to explore the understanding of ministry in the new century. The initiative focuses on three areas: expansion of the Leadership In Public Ministry program, which teaches leadership skills not only for future ministries in the public realm but also for more immediate work as campus leaders and interns in a variety of ministry settings; a mapping project that will provide a comprehensive inventory of New Haven’s religious communities and institutions; and curricular innovations and focused engagements, including the “implicit curriculum” of outside-the-classroom experiences that are needed for ministerial competence.

Townes specifically cited the initiative’s after-school program for high school and junior high children, aimed at teaching conflict resolution and offering a gathering space that is “neutral.”  Said Townes, “This is a program that was successful right away and is growing because the kids know that they can be safe and comfortable. [It is] is a model for us at the Divinity School as well, so we can also become that safe place for various groups.

“The kids are relaxed, candid and open. We don’t tell them who they are or what they should be. We listen to them as much as we want them to listen to us. We have found that the kids who are participating in this program are experiencing less violence. It is really making a difference.”  Under the program, YDS students are taught the skills to go into the community and do this work, which, Townes noted, involves “working as a symphony instead of one note.”

The church is not a static institution, and the Bible is not static, either, Collins asserted in his remarks.  “I believe you were the generation defined by John Bright’s A History of Israel [first published in 1946].  And in this time an historical approach was assumed to be correct and unquestioned. Am I right?”

But many of the assumptions of biblical scholarship from the mid-20th century must be reexamined, he said, particularly in light of the finds of archeology, which he suggested “has helped us to know the difference between fact and fiction and gives us some historical reliability.”

He went on to underscore his concern over the dangers of viewing the Bible as a prescriptive text for contemporary values, pointing out that many of the biblical texts reflect the attitudes of a civilization that existed 3,000 years ago and should be understood in that context [one of Collins’s recent books bears the title Does the Bible Justify Violence?].

 “There have been major ground shifts in biblical studies,” said Collins.  “We are faced with a kind of deconstruction of an old biblical image. The Bible’s roll in education is to show human nature in its complexity and to make us think.”

Troeger struck a light note when he quipped that he had asked, unsuccessfully, for the title “Professor of Imaginative Theology.”

Now the Lanz Professor of Christian Communication, Troeger reported on several collaborations he enjoys with other YDS faculty:  with Yolanda Smith, associate professor of Christian education, on exploration of multiple modes of cognition; with Nora Tisdale, the Clement-Muehl Professor of Homiletics, in the teaching of preaching skills; and with Patrick Evans, associate professor in the practice of sacred music and director of chapel music for Marquand Chapel, in liturgical music.

A talented musician himself, Troeger offered a special treat when he handed out copies of a brand new song he had written, “Learn from All the Songs of Earth,” and announced a soon-to-be-published book with Oxford University Press, bearing the working title Wonder Reborn: The Place of Beauty in Preaching and Worship.