Many books about books, guides to being a better reader offering the joys of being a life-long learner, advise you to sometimes read something a bit heavy for your typical style, stretching a bit, or taking up a topic or subject about which you don’t usually read. I’ve really enjoyed books about oddball stuff I wouldn’t usually think I’d have much interest in and I’ve found great value in reading about topics that aren’t (as the phrase goes these days) in my wheelhouse.
Theology is one of those genres that many simply avoid. A few of us geeks like to speculate and a few realize that healthy knowledge of doctrine is an asset to lively Christian living. But most of us avoid the T-word as we suspect there will be arcane and overly systematized textbooks about deep topics that maybe don’t seem to matter much. (And if one has been through seminary there may be good reason for a bit of cynical resistance to being a life-long reader of theology, not unlike the way some lit majors, after years of being immersed in researching competing literary theories end up not reading novels much anymore.) I get it. But, still, maybe you should take up a good book of theology from time to time, a serious one, even, just to regain a love for learning.
THREE VERY INTERESTING THEOLOGY EXPERIMENTS
In this post I’d like to highlight two rather unusual titles that do theology is some interesting ways, but that I think are very, very important and readable for those willing to work a bit, and a third that is innovative, but not unusual. If you perhaps are tired of conventional theology tomes, maybe one of these reviews will convince you to give it another try.
(If you’ve never, ever read an introduction to basic Christian theology, send me an email and we can suggestion some solid primers.)
If you sometimes read these kinds of books, though, and care about the theological formation of Christian pastors, teachers, leaders (not to mention the hoi polloi of the people of God) you will be excited to hear about these three.
I’ll tell you all about one, a little bit about the second, and make a quick announcement about the third. I’m still a bit banged up from my back injury, so bear with me…
BUT BEFORE ALL THAT: TWO OTHERS
Before all that, a quick shout out to two really important new books with almost identical titles and very similar concerns. I am suggesting in this post that any and all of us should read some theology, and that the books I’m going to tell you about have some interest and relevance for those of us who are not pastors or preachers. But I also want to note that a reminder to read theology is especially germane for pastors, who surprisingly do not tend to read much theology, if surveys about such things are to be trusted, and that there are two new releases which say why. I have not studied either, and can only mention them in a cursory fashion, but mention them I must. Oddly, these make the case that pastors should function as working theologians in their congregations, and, so these books, describing well this vision, might be useful to congregants as well as pastors. So for pastors and those who care about the role of pastors, consider these two:
The Pastor as Public Theologian: Recovering a Lost Vision Kevin Vanhoozer & Owen Strachan (Baker Academic) $19.99 Baker continues to be known as an important academic publisher, and this handsome hardback should get very wide distribution. Vanhoozer has written many books of thoughtful, evangelical theology, including extraordinary stuff on hermeneutics, reading the Bible, and the nature of knowing what we know as we enter into the drama of Scripture unfolding. His co-writer, Owen Strachan, has recently done a thoughtful book on the legacy of Chuck Colson, a fine example of an evangelical who worked in prison ministry, thought deeply about culture, and worked to bring God’s reform to theories of criminology, even, and the ways in which incarceration happens. These two are a great pair to write about the need to regain this lost vision, making it, as Timothy Keller writes, “an important book” and as Eugene Peterson puts it, “an urgent book.” We sold a few of these the day it came out in part because I did a simple Facebook post, noting it carried endorsements from Peterson and Keller. I also think it is notable that a very fine writer, and small-church pastor, Jason Byassee (who also writes for the Christian Century) has a good and clever blurb on the back, as does, not surprisingly, Will Willimon.
You can tell from the title that this book explores and invites us to reclaim the significant matter of having a pastor as a “resident theologian” and why the intellectual chops of the pastor and preacher matters so much to the life of the typical congregation. Byassee says the book helps bring together “the vital parish and the learned pastor.” The phrase “public theologian” in the title conjures up notions of a “public intellectual” (one whose scholarship is philosophically rigorous but aimed at matters of the common good and made accessible to thoughtful folk in the public square.) I am not sure, but I suspect that Vanhoozer & Strachan in this book do not mostly mean that the pastor should be an Christian intellectual or theologian for the community at large – writing public-minded op-eds for the paper, speechifying an the local university, or doing particularly heady sermons (although those may not be far from the calling of some Christian leaders) but uses the term “public” to suggest that the pastor’s theological chops are exercised not merely in his or her study or behind the scenes, but brings theological categories and ideas overtly into the mix of daily life in the parish. In this sense the pastoral and prophetic task of the church pastor-theologian is public, although I might wish for a less broad title if the thrust of Vanhoozer’s book is for the pastor to be a theologian in the public spaces of the local church, not the really public public. One of the ways this book does approach the “public square” is that it maintains that pastors should help their congregants reflect theologically on their own life in the world – from medical ethics to political concerns to the texture and values of their work-worlds and other social responsibilities. In this sense, the people of God are scattered as Kingdom agents in all corners of society, and if pastors are doing intellectually rich theology that is pregnant with public possibilities, they are serving their flock, who then, in turn, influence the public. I think this is going to be a great book, hopefully enduring, and am glad it is being touted.
The Pastor as Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson (Zondervan) $18.99 This is new book that sounds these same themes, and is a smaller paperback. I am pretty sure that it, too, is worth its weight in gold, and I am glad to suggest it as well as the one by the more famous Vanhoozer. (Mr. Vanhoozer, by the way, offers a lengthy and lovely endorsement on the back of this one saying it could “move institutional mountains and raise, if not the dead, then at least defunct concepts – like the pastor-theologian.”) Other significant thinkers endorse it, such as Richard Mouw, Peter Leithart (who notes that it is “ambitious “) and the esteemed church historian, Timothy George, who wrote a very good foreword.
Again, whether you are a pastor or not, understanding this older vision of the role of pastors as theological voices amongst the people, is good reading for all of us. If you are not a clergy-person, maybe you should give it to your own pastor, who I bet would actually love to be able to talk to somebody about these visions of vocational holiness.
I adore this colorful endorsing blurb from Jamie Smith, who writes of it,
If you’re looking for canaries in the church’s coal mines, consider our seminaries and divinity schools. In some cases, the seminary has simply become one more outpost of the academy, hijacked by the ideals of the research university, almost allergic to pastoral formation. In other cases, the seminary is reduced to a management seminar where the pastorate is confused with technique. The Pastor-Theologian is an antidote to both, a vision for ecclesial theology and a theological ecclesia. We need this book because we need pastor-theologians.
THREE EXAMPLES OF EXCITING THEOLOGICAL EXPERIMENTS
Fieldwork in Theology: Exploring the Social Context of God’s Work in the World Christian Scharen (Baker Academic) $19.99
This brand new book is the 9th in “The Church and Postmodern Culture” series edited by James K.A. Smith. We stock them all, and I’ve read most of them carefully, from Smith’s most recent study of relativism to Benson’s serious book on liturgics and the arts, to a very important one on economics and desire. Some are directly about postmodern theorists (Smith, John D. Caputo, and Merold Westphal did the honors) while others are more about the condition of post-modernity. I think Carl Raschke’s one called GloboChrist is stuck with a rather goofy title, but its exploration of the Great Commission in a globalized world is impressive. We look forward to the one coming by Norman Wirzba later this fall.)
Jamie Smith raves about this brand new one in his enthusiastic introduction, explaining that it nicely fulfills his original hope for the series, which brings very high-brow French and Continental philosophers into helpful conversation with North American church life. The subtitle of Smith’s lead-off first volume (Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church) gets at this quite nicely. And this is exactly what Christian Scharen does, making it great for church leaders of all sorts, but also, in so doing becomes a perfect example of the sort of book I mentioned in my led; you can enter a world you may not know much about and in a handful of hours, come to learn quite a lot about a lot.
I suspect most of you, like me, don’t know much about Pierre Bourdieu, one of the great fathers of the field of contemporary sociology (let alone his influences, interlocutors, and critics.) But what an opportunity to practice using your critical thinking skills, what a fresh way to bone up on some profound stuff. Dr. Scharen is a fine guide through some thick intellectual forests, and he helps us – if I can abruptly switch metaphors – and does much of the heaviest lifting for us. Fieldwork in Theology is an exceptionally stimulating book and even though it argues for a new way of doing theology (and, consequently, although he doesn’t say enough about it, seminary education) it introduces us not only to tons of sociologists and European scholars and urgent, contemporary intellectual history, it offers us helpful reminders of what it means to think creatively and fruitfully on God’s work in the world.
As Miroslav Volf says “If you are interested in learning to read ‘the world’ and discern how God is at work in it, this simple book by one of today’s finest practical-theologians is an excellent place to start.” (Aside: I love Miroslav, but, uh, his use of the word “simple” sure does illustrate the notion of contingency. One man’s simple is pretty darn complex for most others. Just saying.)
Allow me to explain something about Scharen and a great feature or two of his fabulous new book. And four different sorts of Hearts & Minds friends who should consider it.
First, I know that Scharen loves rock and roll. He’s written two previous books on music (One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God and Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God.) Even though this book guides us into the work of scholars as complex and prosaic as Bourdieu, Gaston Bachelard, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and a dude named Loic Wacquant (and his notion of “carnal sociology”) Scharen starts each chapter with an album review or description of a song or live performance. I wasn’t anticipating this, so it was a great delight.
For instance, in a prelude to the meaty of the first chapter (“Fieldwork in Theology: Waking Up to the World God Loves”) Scharen shows how John Legend, Common, and the Roots and their re-appropriate of the soul song “Wake Up, Everybody” helps us appreciate the theories and project of Pierre Bourdieu. In a really powerful page or two Scharen invites us to think about how Bad by U2 (a song about heroin addiction) helps us appreciate notions of empathy in the non-Cartesian philosophy of science of Gaston Bachelard whose work profoundly effected Bourdieu (not to mention other French luminaries such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and the American historian of science, Thomas Kuhn!) Scharen, who has written a whole book about U2 is nice to bring this pop song and its passion to the notion of “epistemological breaks” which is a key focus for that chapter. And, man, when he gets to Merleau-Ponty (and his significant work on the phenomenology of embodied perception) who is explored in light of Esperanza Spalding and his “Freedom Jazz Dance” it all gets really, really interesting! Being awake to the world comes to the fore again, by the way, in the next chapter – a study called “Practical Logic: Bourdieu and the Social Art of Improvisation” — when Scharen opens with a study of Arcade Fire. Since I’m on a roll here, I’ll steal the final surprise, and tell that Lauryn Hill comes alive in the final chapter, with her “Black Rage (Sketch)” piece which kicks off the sociological insights of Loic Wacquant, who was, we learn, “Bourdieu’s most famous and most productive student.”
The only other Christian scholar who is so good at using these kinds of evocative songs and artists for pretty important theological ends is my pal Brian Walsh, and there are shades of his insights in some of this, it seems. (I say this to assure you that Scharen is credible and astute about his readings of these artists and he truly sees the pretty deep connections; it is not a ploy to make the tough philosophical sledding a bit lighter, although I’d take a soundtrack like that even if it wasn’t that integrally connected. These songs make for a rich and exciting learning experience, and helped me connect the heavy theory of these mostly Continental philosophers and their abstract ideas with the down-to-Earth stuff these songs are about.
But here is what I suppose you should know most of all: Scharen is not only a music buff with good impulses about engaging postmodern thought, he’s a sociologist, a practitioner who has learned to be good at his craft. Scharen’s title about “field work” is to be taken pretty literally. He takes great pains to talk about the ways in which theology is situated, contextualized, and embodied, and should not be merely abstract. Some seminaries are allowing “field work” and the sociological practice of empathetic ethnography is increasingly seen as a way to learn how to discern God’s work among a people; social science skills (such as good listening, asking good questions, being attentive to the patterns of embodied practices, understanding indigenous customs and habits of a locale) can serve the localist theologian and pastor. Indeed, Scharen, inspired by historic Biblical doctrines such as creation, common grace, people being made in the image of God, the incarnation of Christ and more — he’s a Lutheran so I guess we should gesture towards the gospel of grace — we should care about these skills of the social sciences, a care about their discoveries.
We’ve seen several good ethnographies lately of religious groups, research projects pursued by scholars trained as cultural anthropologists who “go native” — but not in wild foreign jungles, but at places in typical American towns with names like First Presbyterian or Second Baptist or Christ Lutheran or St. Somebody Episcopalian or Such and Such Community Church. He tells us about some in this book. (One recent one, by the way, which we’ve raved about, compares and contrasts and draws together much insight about worship by studying (through involvement with) the liturgical practices of a Central Pennsylvania Evangelical Free Church and a more conventionally-styled, high-church Episcopalian one. See Liturgical and Evangelical Versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy by Messiah College grad and Harvard Divinity School prof, Melanie Ross, published earlier this year by Eerdmans; $17.00.)
Dr. Scharen has done this kind of work himself. Faith as a Way of Life: A Vision for Pastoral Leadership is his published account of his (Yale funded) conversations over a period of time with Christian persons in a variety of social arenas (taking up their callings as artists, citizens, home-makers, workers, and consumers of leisure time activities) and what he learned as he carefully listened to these folks as they narrated how their local church did or didn’t equip them to think about their fidelity to the gospel in these sides of life. So he has some history and expertise as a researcher and practitioner.
Further, he has brought together others who study this field. It may not be a huge seller here in an ordinary bookstore, but we can hope: we love stocking resources like this. He edited a large volume of academic papers about this very topic, called Explorations in Eccelsiology and Ethnography (Eerdmans; $40.00.)
He currently serves as Vice President of Applied Research at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. His own introduction to the field of sociology came from one of the great public intellectuals and social theorist of our time, Robert Bellah, to whom the book is dedicated.
So here are four kinds of readers who should order this book from us:
- If you are a curious thinker, wanting a good book to stretch your mind, engage some important scholarship, eager to learn a bit about something new, in this case, a considered and deeply theological framework for thinking about field work as a way to do theology. As do the other books in this “Church and Postmodern Culture” series, Fieldwork in Theology offers a rigorous but relatively brief introductory “French lessons for the church” and we’d all be better off if some of us knew this stuff. Life-long learner with a big curiosity, fan of Smith’s series, or just wanting to stimulate the old grey matter, this book will be rewarding for you, I’m almost sure of it.
- If you are a seminary executive or professor or involved in developing theological education, this book is simply a must-read. A. Must. Read. That’s obvious. But even if you are a not a seminary-related person not that interested in the future of theological education, or even that interested in theology at all, this may be useful for you. Especially if you are looking for ways out of the impasse between traditional theological methods and truths of a conservative sort and the way in which many modernist/liberal theological schools of thought and edgy thinkers get way out on a limb that doesn’t bear much fruit — this really does offer a third way, based on alternative understandings of what it means to know, to learn, to formulate theological insight. Theology as lived practice, informed by the best postmodern and continental thinkers, and studied in embodied, empathetic ways among the very people God loves, well, this “fieldwork” approach might be a game-changer for some, evangelical or progressive. Dr. Pete Ward is a Durham University professor (a “Fellow of Ecclesiology and Ethnography” – itself quite a thing, those crazy Brits!) and he claims that “Christian Scharen marks a turning point in practical theology.” So, there’s that going for it.
- If you are a sociology professor or serious college major, and want a theologically-informed Christian engagement with some of the key thinkers of the field, and you’ve mastered the classic Sociology Through the Eyes of Faith (Tony Campolo & David Fraser) and maybe Vern Poythress’ Redeeming Sociology, and of course a Peter Berger book or two, then this will be a significant read for you. Of course, Scharen brings in classic thinkers in the field such as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Bellah and others. It is a book about theology and philosophy, but the sociologists he cites most are passionate about the socially construed context and lived contexts – habitus you guys call it – of socialized people in our contemporary global village. In other words, if you are hoping to honor God by thinking well about the religious uses of the social sciences, this book will stretch you into fruitful intellectual work. In fact, if you care about the integration of faith and learning among any of the liberal arts, this book should be on your list.
- If you happen to be doing any field work of your own, this book which offers a philosophy of methodology is a must. In most fields, we proceed at our own cost if we fail to spend time looking at the a priori methodology that necessarily informs and colors our research. (Kuhn and Polanyi, at least, taught us that much!) That is, we have to look at our looking, study our tools; a proper philosophy/theology of method is critical, in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and in the doing of theology. FIeldwork in Theology: Explore the Social Context of God’s Work in the World shows you how it’s done. After a ton of critical theory and exploration of the impact of these significant scholarly influences, Scharen tells the tales. From descriptions of the ethnography Scharen’s man Pierre Bourdieu did among Algerian peasants to stories of Wacquant’s work among boxers in the gyms of the Chicago ghetto of Woodlawn (and “the diffusion of hyper-incarceration” he discovered) to Natalie Wigg-Stevenson’s professional work deeply engaging a Christian education program in a Nashville Baptist church (and “the particular bodily dimensions of belonging” which enabled her to deeper, more wholistic ethnography) these are nearly case studies, signposts, bearing witness to new ways to do science, with care and compassion and hopes of truly learning more about the human condition
The Epilogue of Fieldwork in Theology teaches us about “Understanding as a Spiritual Exercise” and it is nearly worth the price of the book. The entire book is well organized and offers clear introductions to what is going to be explored in every chapter, and so this ending piece, too, starts with some useful review and some helpful take-aways. Just like ethnographers and social scientists have to learn the art of their craft (observing, interviewing, and the like) we all can deepen our skills of faithful understanding. It will entail, Scharen reminds us with gravity worthy of the topic, “forgetfulness of self and conversion to others.” These sorts of spiritual gifts and fruits will be sorely needed, it seems to me, if we are to embrace, empowered by the grace of the gospel itself, the concern of Bourdieu’s most famous book: The Weight of the World.
Scharen reminds us of what he’s been doing in Fieldwork and why:
The church needs to look outward and ask challenging questions of how God is at work loving the world and how we can get involve. To do so, I’ve argued, leaders need the capacity to understand what is going on and how to think about how God is involved in the world. This book offers an introduction to a major social scientist under whose mentoring I learned to look with discipline and understanding. That discipline and understanding surely could be gained in a variety of ways. Here I have offered it through the mode of fieldwork drawn from Pierre Bourdieu. We’ve been able to understand his approach more deeply by attending to formative influences on his development…
He ends with a bit about Bourdieu counseling interviewers in field work to be comfortable with silence, to take time to really listen, as people eventually testify about their deepest concerns.
“Here,” Scharen writes,
in the holy moments of deep silence, listening to another find words for the experiences of his or her life – lovely or horrible or more likely some mixture of both – the whole practice of research is subsumed by our participating in listening as God does, the God who bends near to hear our cries.
The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art Luke Timothy Johnson (Eerdmans) $25.00 I started this very sturdy hardback the other day and was nearly stunned by how dense and yet rewarding a careful parsing of each section was. Slowing I’ve been pondering it, a heavy theology text interlaced with personal story and at times passionate argument. (His study of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is fascinating!) The blurbs on the back – from esteemed thinkers such as feminist Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham, Amy Plantinga Pauw of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and the always eloquent Walter Brueggemann – caught me up in great expectation. The major point by this rigorous Catholic thinker is that theology is more an inductive art then a process of mere deduction. Hmmm, think about that. Interestingly, Johnson — a relatively conservative New Testament scholar by training — insists that all theology (and all Biblical study and all determination of what is true and good) must start in our lived bodies. In a way, this is pretty self-evident: we cannot see or hear or know or feel without eyes or ears or brains or nerve endings. And, as the aforementioned James K.A. Smith often says, in mocking Descartes, we are not just “brains on a stick.” We are full-bodied, multi-dimensional creatures, in a good but fallen creation, and to know God and God’s revelation, we must somehow engage such truth with our selves. What else can we do? This is theologically thick and rich, and the consequences are more vast than you may realize. He will tell you about some of them.
Ms Pauw – who has written about Jonathan Edwards, by the way – says it is a winsome book which “invites readers to ponder the work of the living God in common experiences of bodily life. Here is biblical and theological reflection that discovers the revelatory in the ordinary.” This is true, as Johnson ruminates on all sorts of stuff – pain, pleasure, play, being exceptional at things, going to work, sex. But this is not a “practicing the presence of God” guide to seeing God in the beauty of daily life: rather, it is a theology text, at turns philosophical, Biblical, academic, and scholarly.
Yet, I like that Walt Brueggemann notes that The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art
exhibits Johnson’s deep learning, the largeness of his spirit, and the generosity of this theological sensibility… To write such a book requires a lifetime of awareness, to great benefit of readers.
Professor Luke Timothy Johnson says that “Scripture points to the human body and lived experience as the preeminent arena of God’s continuing revelation in the world.” Theologians must be willing to “risk engaging actual human situations – as opposed to abstract conceptualizations of those situations. He is not the first to lament “disembodied theology of the body” (although the phrase is worth remembering) and certainly not the first to ponder what we really mean when we talk about the spirit and the body. He draws on scholars and philosophers as academics do, most of them not those I’d know well. Marcel, Rahner, Mircea Eliade, even Marshall McLuhan.
Dr. Johnson teaches at Candler Theological Seminary (at Emory University in Atlanta) and notes that a simple premise underlies his convictions in this work:
Authentic faith is more than a matter of right belief; it is the response of human beings in trust and obedience to the one whom Scripture designates as the Living God, in contrast to dead idols that are constructed by humans as projections of their own desires. The Living God of whom Scripture speaks both creates the world at every moment and challenges the ways in which human freedom tends toward the distortion of creation – and indeed of the Creator. Among the idols that authentic faith must resist are the idols of human thought concerning God. Living faith remains aware that the most subtle and sophisticated of all idolatries might actually be the one constructed by theologians who claim to know and understand God.
Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology Darrell L. Guder (Eerdmans) $25.00 I suppose you can see that this very significant work — the latest in the Newbigin inspired “Gospel and Our Culture Network” series — has some considerable sympathies for the sorts of things discussed in both the Christian Scharen Fieldwork book and the Timothy Luke Johnson Body one. But neither of those spend much time directly explaining the details of God’s mission in the world. (Scharen more than Johnson, I’d say.) Those two are about methodology — how we can discern the redemptive work of God among the people, or in one’s own body. And both admit that this is done in the church, together, for the life of the world, so they both could be characterized as gently missional.
But here, here we have what some have been waiting for: Guder himself (seminal in perhaps coining the must-discussed, and over-used word) explaining how to do theology as part of the missional project. The blurbs on the back, here, are indicative of the early-Newbigin Network influence: George Hunsberger, Wilbert Shenk, Dana Roberts, even Craig Barnes, the President of Princeton chimes in affirming that this is a must read for anyone who is using missional lingo and strategies and techniques for church outreach. If Bosch were alive, his name would be on there, I’m sure.
Many of those colorful books that fill up to overflowing our “missional church” shelf here at the shop are very impressive. A few are a bit simplistic but most are meaty, big, relevant, long on cultural analysis and Biblical teaching. But few do theology as such
Here we have, by the author Hunsberger calls “the grand master of missional theology” the theological thinking that undergirds the movement. Or should, at least. In just 200 pages!
The first chapter is “From Mission and Theology to Missional Theology” and he takes off from there. We get to join him in studies of the missio dei, the nature of mission after Christendom (of course), the Christological formation of missional living, the church as a missional community, and more. There is discussion about the “Nicene Marks” of a “Post-Christendom Church” and insights and proposals about the authority and interpretation of Scripture. He writes about leadership, about “integrating theological formation for apostolic vocation” and ends with a bit on ecumenism.
Dr. John R.Franke, senior editor of the “Gospel and Our Culture” series of which this is a part — designed to “foster the missional encounter with the gospel with North American culture” — says many good things about Professor Guder and that “this volume will stand as one of his greatest contributions.” I think it looks excellent, and so glad it has arrived.
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