Reflecting on an Old, Inadequate, Now-Demolished Place

NBTS Zwemer
This edition of That Reformed Blog may just be a little too much RCA inside baseball for anybody outside the Reformed Church in America, and, for that, I apologize in advance. But I hope you’ll stick it out, because I hope the moral is more universally applicable.

Back in July, New Brunswick Theological Seminary moved into its new, debt-free, commuter-friendly digs, half a block downhill from where it had been housed for the last 158 years. Since 1966, that housing had centered around an unfortunate, poorly conceived bit of 1960s architecture, non-descript save for a preposterous chapel structure that seemed inspired by an upside-down wastebasket. There were also several bits of faculty housing that had outlived their usefulness, a married student apartment building whose most redeeming feature was its architectural drabness, and a library that was (and is, I am glad to say) a jewel that needed a good polishing. When I was a single student—before I married and moved into the drab apartments—I lived in an enclosed porch with an electric heater. For all of these faults, not to mention the fact that it was a campus designed for a residential seminary that no longer existed, this move and this new facility is both a blessing and a miracle.

And yet, even as I was one of those who cheered just a bit when the old chapel came crashing down, and I was among those singing and celebrating the new digs (full disclosure: I share a very nice office in the new place), I have been a bit bothered by some of the disparaging comments made about the now-demolished Zwemer and Scudder Halls and the associated housing. Yes, Zwemer was inadequate from almost the moment it was built. Yes, those of us who lived in Scudder could hear everything our neighbors did, and we froze in winter and broiled in summer. Yes, the chapel was an acoustic and liturgical nightmare. And yes, the new Seminary campus will probably facilitate the school’s ministry a thousand times better than its predecessor had for a very long time.

But this doesn’t make the old incarnation of the campus a bad place. I have been to other seminaries—even did graduate work at one—but it had never occurred to me to be ashamed of the leaky, dirty, difficult old place where I got two degrees. Because, despite the fact that there was so much wrong with it—or maybe because of that fact, given God’s fondness for underdogs—a huge amount of good teaching and learning was done in those hallways and classrooms, and a huge portion of the ministry of the modern RCA, as well as many other bits of the Church catholic and apostolic, was formed there.

There is, somewhere in the continental Reformed DNA, a bit of an allergy to being too slick and polished and flashy. We do things, and we try to do them well, but we are from small groups of small churches in smallish countries, we have doctrinal standards that constantly remind us how dependent we are upon God’s lavish grace, and we tend not to put on airs. Carol Hageman, a member of the first General Program Council of the RCA, once spoke of being at some ecumenical gathering where the GPC members had wandered in and chatted and joked with each other, and then the Presbyterians came in, single file, all dressed basically the same, and all sat in unison. But, somehow, the RCA has an aversion to such slickness and precision; yes, we have the occasional slick production out of our denominational staff or a phenomenon such as the Crystal Cathedral, but we are never quite comfortable with those. At its worst, our dressed-down sensibility can become an odd sort of reverse snobbery or an excuse to try to get by on the cheap, with minimal money or effort. More often than not, however, it takes the character of humility and straightforward simplicity. We are not fancy, and we do not try to be.

And so, in that leaky, unattractive, somewhat shabby and dilapidated place, there was a really rather special seminary, living out its mission, and even letting itself be transformed to a new ministry for a new time. I am reminded that according to Scripture, God uses the small and unattractive and generally not-special to do God’s most amazing work. That is what happened in the former facilities of New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Let us hope that such good work continues in the new place, even when it is no longer new, trendy, or shiny.

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