Friday, 25 September 2009

Theological and biblical illiteracy in the Church

A couple of blogs have made reference to this posting over at soli deo gloria about the intersection between academia and the Church. The quoted text I will quote further (in a nested quoting sense that screws with your referencing software) is this.
Sometimes theological discussion in the churches is illuminating and inspiring. Generally, however, the culture of theological discussion in the churches has little patience with the kinds of protocols noted above. It is frequently reactive, often trapped in denominational and geographical parochialism, and seldom well-informed. It is often driven by the pragmatic and the contingent, and is thereby distanced from any patient quest for the truth which intentionally draws on a larger horizon of theological wisdom. All of this is intensified by the underlying theological and biblical illiteracy which characterises so much contemporary Christianity.
(emphasis is mine)

I sympathise with this view. Academic rigour is far removed from daily Christian life and is too often viewed by the non-academically inclined as being too theoretical and not nearly practical enough. Although it could be argued that this critique is based largely on ignorance about what theology is about, there is nevertheless a grain of truth in this.

Theology is often seen to be a purely academic pursuit without any practical evidence. What theology and theologians need is to learn the lesson of May '68: get active and violent. Active in the sense that theology should be existentially manifest in the theologian. Violent in the sense that love is violent as an interruption to the natural order of things. Theologians should be at the front of the protest march, with tear gas and batons and an arrest record.

On the flipside, the regular churchgoer equally needs to stop pretending to read the Bible and actually read it as a text that is from another time, from another culture, and translated from another language. The claim that theological and biblical studies are irrelevant to daily Christian life is flawed to say the least. By refusing to read the texts deeply (including knowledge of its milieu), the reader is left with only a few choices, most of which are vapid and insipid.

Reduce the text to a greeting card. Take any verse you like (especially the ones you like) and print it over a beautiful photograph of a sunset, or a tree, or the ocean. Feel warm and fuzzy. Wash, rinse, repeat. I know people like this and if you're one of them, stop it now. I already complain about you behind your back and will start doing it to your face.

Stop reading. Just turn up to the meetings. Sing the songs. Stand. Sit. Kneel. Put your spare change in the plate. Let the people at the front do the reading, praying and believing for you. It's no different to a sitcom: it has people to live for you, tell jokes for you and even laugh for you with a laugh track.

Read and obey mindlessly. The Bible is full of commands. If you don't want to understand them in any depth, then obey them all to the letter. Existentially, you'll be OK ... at least until you find a contradiction in the commands. And even then, you can be an aesthetic existentialist who denies the continuity of consciousness.

Apart from these options, the Christian who wants to take faith and the Bible seriously has to do more, and is in no position to feel smug about claiming that theologians are too theoretical, any more than a theologian can sit safely in a library, surrounded by books.

It's time for this foolish divide to collapse.


Anonymous said...

mmm...i agree - however in light of this what to do seeing as we "raging against the machine" aka the greater "church"? your comments are right however we all know that the slightest word of doubt against the pulpit deems one an outcast, leaving one in the gearshift position of neutral, partnered with the odd sense one is in the middle of the sahara with no supplies. what is the method of approach? or is the command: go, do, be. and to heck with the rest of the tide?

Andrew Smith said...

Just to be clear, I don't mean to say that the machine is the hierarchy of the church. Christianity has much to say in critique of contemporary society (treatment of aborigines, conditions for a legal war, unregulated financial markets, etc.) and that's where we should aim our rage.

And even if there is no support from the hierarchy, do it anyway. Christianity does not preach that God is mediated through the church hierarchy. The only mediation is Christ. Therefore, the "go, do, be" is based around whatever is Christ-like, and we know that this is summed up in the law of love. This might mean a lonely road, but it is Christ-like.

Ben and Tamara said...

Are you saying Jeremiah 29:11 WASN'T written for me?

By the way, awesome second paragraph in your comment above!