Training Like Doctors

[SCRUBS] remains one of my favorite shows. Never as big as Friends or Seinfeld, the quirky single-camera comedy maintained a loyal base of fans throughout its run. It’s one of the few series or movies I’ve bothered to buy, and when I need entertainment, it’s the first thing to which I turn.

There’s reasons for that. I appreciate the goofy humor, the surreal sequences, the dramatic turns. Seldom cliché, I really appreciate the creativity with which the [SCRUBS] team manipulates story and discourse in the service of complex and subtle plots, all well employing rich intertextual allusions to other series and films. (It’s like my dissertation, only Abraham’s not sacrificing his son Isaac in a ritual manner.)

I think it appeals to me for another reason: [SCRUBS] is basically about two interns-turning-residents-turning-attendings who are highly qualified but who doubt themselves and have all the personality issues most people have but try their darndest never to show.

It’s basically like me and many of my friends in grad school.

That, I think, is the key to my dedication to the show. Between learning ten languages or so (I lose count, and it depends how many times you count varieties of Hebrew — Biblical Hebrew, rabbinic Hebrew, and then Aramaic and Syriac, etc.), trying to master the Western intellectual tradition while also making sense of French and Bulgarian theory all in relation to the Bible, scrambling to come up with an original, game-changing dissertation topic dealing with one of the most read texts in the history of the world, all while doing some teaching and realizing there’s way too few jobs for way too many PhDs, even good ones — well, it’ll shake one’s confidence, won’t it?

My friends and I, we all made it. A couple had hiccups, but now we’re several years out, and most of us thriving, either in academia or ministry. How’d I do it? Beverly Gaventa of Princeton Seminary gives her doctorands some earthy, practical advice I can’t quote in full here, but it amounts to Just Write The Thing. I set her precise phrase as the header and footer on every page of my dissertation file, and how freeing: I must have written several thousand pages, when you count edits and cuts, and kept 300 decent ones, handed it in, and got my hood.

J.D. and Eliot make it too — as does Turk. Without killing too many patients along the way. Doug’s another story, so he becomes a pathologist. Having killed a number of patients, he’s a wizard in the way of autopsies.

Being that as it may, in the world of the story the young doctors are really smart. While getting stuck from time to time and making their share of mistakes, they rip off obscure diagnoses of multiple polysyllabic words lickety-split while working the occasional medical miracle. Aside from the comedy and drama of the series, [SCRUBS] reminds me that doctors (and nurses) have a lot to know. To master. And if they don’t know what they’re supposed to, people suffer and die for it.

Here comes the mutatis mutandis. The humanities are not the sciences, but perhaps theology shouldn’t be thought of as belonging to the humanities but rather to the sciences, because theology was once considered a science, a real way of knowing a real thing, God. And so St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica, which few theology students today read beyond a few excerpts and which intimidates most students today due to its sheer size and complexity, was actually intended for beginners, a starting point, not an end point. Mastering the Summa, I would think, would be like mastering the human body in gross anatomy. Or, if one’s Reformed, then Calvin’s Institutes, and Barth’s Dogmatics, if you prefer.

But ministers and theologians aren’t expected to train very hard, really, relative to professionals in the fields of medicine and law. A big part of that is sociological and economic; ministry has always been the third profession behind the other two of medicine and law in terms of prestige and pay, and so human nature being what it is many of the best and the brightest go the med school and law school.

This should not be; if theology is some sort of science — if it has an object, whether God, or dogma itself, or human experience of the divine — then there are things we all should know cold. We should be training as hard for the ministries of teaching and preaching as physicians train for their ministry of healing, no?

Which means I should end this post, turn off iTunes’ stream of [SCRUBS], and get my sorry self deep into Pegis’ two-volume abridgement of the Summa.

But before I go: Enjoy some bizarre physical comedy, and see if you can guess my train of thought when I tell you this scene reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s The Misfit:

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