September 22, 2017
Professor Dennis Olson in the Live Experience! studio teaching our Certificate of Theology and Ministry online with students from around the world
Professor Olson talks about the Certificate of Theology and Ministry: Inside program (C:TM + INSIDE), the importance of taking theological education beyond the classroom, and what students learn from each other.
C:TM + INSIDE is the inside cohort of Princeton Theological Seminary's C:TM + ONLINE–Certificate of Theology and Ministry. Composed of community and incarcerated students, this cohort meets inside the New Jersey correctional facility weekly for 14 weeks, to study Old Testament, New Testament, Theology, and World Christianity with one another under the guidance of PTS faculty and teaching fellows. The Fall 2017 cohort held their first session on Friday, September 8.
Q: Why is it important to bring together inside students, members from the community, and the Seminary’s teaching staff?
A: The mix of inside students, students from the local community, and the Seminary’s teaching staff creates a rich learning environment. As an Old Testament professor, I bring resources from Scripture that touch their lives and concerns. The many psalms of lament and complaint to God in Scripture, for example, give voice and permission to share their deepest feelings with God and with one another. The regular discipline of the Sabbath day, a day of rest and reflection on God’s word, offers an island of peace in the midst of an often challenging environment in prison. Biblical stories of revenge and forgiveness offer students a space to reflect on their own lives and interactions with others in light of flawed biblical characters, moments of reconciliation, and the overarching love and forgiveness of God for whom mercy is always the last word.
The inside students contributed to the table of learning by sharing their own real-life engagements and struggles with the topics of God, faith, justice, and life. Prison is an intense environment in which freedom is lost, human dignity is constantly under attack, and access to loved ones and family is severely limited. Yes, these young people have committed crimes of one sort or another, and their crimes affected victims as well as the students’ own families. They asked, however, that we see each of them as unique individuals whose life stories and personalities were fuller and more complex than the simple label of “criminal.” Because of the intensity of the incarcerated life, their questions and insights about their faith and life were fresh, substantive, earnest, sometimes raw, and often surprising. The inside students were hungry to learn and deepen their knowledge of the Bible, God, and the world. Inside students often said the weekly class sessions were the highlight of their week, an oasis of calm and deep community reflection in which they found themselves being formed and transformed in new ways of thinking and acting.
Inside students often said the weekly class sessions were the highlight of their week, an oasis of calm and deep community reflection in which they found themselves being formed and transformed in new ways of thinking and acting.
The group of outside students from the community was another important part of the class mix. Each of them had volunteered to come into the prison in order to study the Bible, theology, history, and the practices of faith alongside the inside students. These outside students contributed greatly to the atmosphere and sense of community in the class. The inside students knew they were not alone and that these “outsiders” cared deeply for them. The outside students provided a network of support and a commitment of friendship during the rigorous course of study together. The outside students tended to be more mature in age and thus often functioned as mentors to their younger colleagues in the class. They were able to offer the wisdom of considerable life experience as people of faith.
The mix of academic and theological learning from professors, the reality-based life experience of outside students, and the eagerness and openness of the inside students made for a rich learning environment that was often transformational for all of us.
Q: Why is C:TM + INSIDE important?
A: Any academic institution, including a seminary, may be tempted to become an ivory tower of learning far removed from the realities on the ground. Programs and strategies that get our students and professors out into the real world of congregations, work places, neighborhoods, hospitals, and prisons help us link our academic study with the concerns and struggles of everyday people. The setting of a prison is certainly a real-world place that is challenging but also deeply linked to our biblical story of faith.
The cross of Jesus Christ testifies that God is most present in places of suffering, pain, and bondage. Jesus himself was executed as a convicted criminal, and he reminds us that we will find Christ among those who are imprisoned: “I was in prison, and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36). The defining act of God in the Old Testament was that he brought the enslaved Israelites “out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). Jesus promised that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). In light of the larger witness of Scripture, that promise may well be especially fulfilled in the context of a prison.
The number of people in prison in the U.S. has grown by four times in the last three decades. The country spends $70 billion on corrections each year with unusually high rates of recidivism in comparison to other developed countries. African Americans and Hispanics make up well over half of our nation’s prison population, far out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. Teaching in a prison brings us face-to-face with the hard reality of systemic racism in our judicial system and the eroding effects of mass incarceration in our society. It puts a human face, often a face of color, on a deeply sinful part of our nation’s judicial and corrections system.
Teaching in a prison brings us face-to-face with the hard reality of systemic racism in our judicial system and the eroding effects of mass incarceration in our society. It puts a human face, often a face of color, on a deeply sinful part of our nation’s judicial and corrections system.
Q: How is C:TM + INSIDE preparing students to be Christian leaders?
A: The C:TM + INSIDE curriculum exposes students to a deeper study of the Old Testament, New Testament, theology, history, and the practices of faith and leadership. In my Old Testament course, I choose texts and topics that will be useful to a leader of a group or community. Practical responses to human suffering in the Bible will be useful in giving pastoral care and support to those who are in pain.
Students gain an appreciation for the Sabbath as God’s gift of time and rest that offers leaders regular opportunities for Bible study, prayer, and time to refuel our spirit to do our ministries. The human dynamics of revenge and forgiveness inform our wisdom in dealing with conflict and reconciliation in communities. Biblical resources that help us negotiate our relationship with people from different cultures and faiths is another topic that is relevant in our multicultural and multi-religious world, whether in or outside of prison. Finally, a careful study of a prophetic text dealing with God’s judgment and God’s mercy helps students better understand how Scripture moves from being an ancient word to a contemporary word for people of faith today. Christian leaders need to practice the art of interpreting the Bible for the sake of the communities they lead.
Q: Why have you been so supportive of this program?
A: As a teacher, I draw energy from students whose eyes light up with excitement as they discover new knowledge or insight. I am encouraged when students eagerly dive into a lively discussion around a challenging question I have posed about an interesting biblical text. I delight in times when I sense a class has evolved into a caring community of fellow learners who share honestly, who disagree civilly, and who grow together in love. I have experienced all of that in the C:TM + INSIDE classroom. I have received much more from my teaching in that prison setting than I have given.
As a teacher, I draw energy from students whose eyes light up with excitement as they discover new knowledge or insight.
I recall a celebration marking the completion of the course that we had for one set of C:TM + INSIDE participants. Each student went around the room and shared what the class had meant to them, and everyone spoke of its positive impact on their lives and faith. One student’s testimony was particularly poignant. He said that he grew up in a context in which he never really had a family of any kind. He was passed from foster home to foster home and ended up out in the street at a young age. But, he said, the yearlong C:TM class had become a true, loving family. He came to know what it felt like to be a beloved brother to his peers and a beloved son to his mentors. The spirit of community and friendship within the class is truly a gift to behold.