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Social Media Pop Theology: The Need for Serious Theological Reflection

There are over 3 ½ million books published in the world every year. There are about 500,000 people who complete a marathon every year. According to my calculations, this means it’s 7 times easier for somebody to publish a book than it is for that same person to run a marathon. When I meet a marathon runner, I am in awe.

It’s even easier to start a blog. If you’re skillful in playing into twitter fire, it’s really not hard to gain a following, a large following. It you can write? BOOM! You are now publishing books and influencing thousands (and making money for publishers). And the resultant pop theology forms hundreds of the thousands of the younger generations.

Is this all bad? Of course not. Twitter, Facebook etc. open up exchanges of all kinds for theological banter. I’ve had a few blog posts blow up as they say. But it still all leaves me asking: where is the place for serious theological reflection?

I remember when Brian McLaren came out with A New Kind of Christian in 2003. It was brilliant. It gave a voice to thousands. It made space safe for the kind of conversations everybody wanted to have. This is the magic of popular publishing and social media (back then it was blogs). Shortly thereafter,  came Generous Orthodoxy, Secret Message of Jesus, Everything Must Change. And I remember several conversations with teachers of theology within academia. They were shocked at Brian’s success and the speed by which his ideas were being hailed as revolutionary. For most of these academics, his work appeared to be using categories established pre Barth (before World War 2). They would ask, “How could something so old gain such popularity as if it’s new?” In the words of a friend, it was Adolf Harnack without the footnotes. Why were these books influencing so many people when its issues, problems and deficits had long been exposed within the history of not only WW2 Germany but US scholarship? Who would put this great book in its proper context? I remember getting a copy of Rachel Held Evans ‘s A Year in Biblical Womanhood. Its popularity surprised me. To me she targeted a hermeneutic of Scripture which was debunked so long ago I could not understand why anyone would care? Does anyone still actually view the Bible in this absurdly simplistic way? I asked.  Furthermore, I felt, when she went on CNN etc., promoting the book, it cast Christians as neanderthal idiots. But I hadn’t met someone who still thought in this hyperliteralist way about Scripture since my high school days, and that was in the 70’s. To me it created a fictional object of antagonism for post Christians to be mad at. I’ve since learned, that RHE hails from the heart of the Bible belt where Christians really do still think like this. I repent. The book makes a good point for these many people. It achieved a purpose. But whence comes the serious theological engagement, the exposure to the broader history of the way Christians have engaged the issue of interpreting Scripture

So we need spaces to have serious theological reflection among these very popular writings. We need to be able to provide the backdrop for popular theology. Pop theology serves a role in public discourse, but it needs a broader context or it may mislead. Where does this happen?

Recently Ben Witherington wrote a blog review of Rachel Held Evans newest book. He committed the unpardonable sin of disrespecting her theological credentials. He overtly wished she had “continued her education” in seminary, learned something about hermeneutics, got “better trained in biblical interpretation.” He got a lot of heat for that. Not cool. He was accused of wielding his theological credentials as a weapon. It was ostentatious. OK, I get that. But nonetheless there is a serious question here in Witherington’s questioning. How do we make space for serious theological reflection among the writings in popular publishing? Maybe Ben could have written a paper and delineated a serious historical example where Rachel’s theological mistake has been made before. Maybe he could spend some time in his blog on the doctrine of sanctification in the NT and how her book seems to ignore this. But he’d probably lose his audience quick. It would become a boring post quick. And no one would read Ben Witherington except the academics. And the question would appear all over again: How do we make space for serious theological reflection among popular publishing?

My sense is theology must return to local grass roots communities. My sense is local churches led by serious organic theologians will lead the way. These organic intellectuals will bridge the gap between the academics and the pop writers of our day. Twitter, facebook and blogs are fine, but it’s in serious local communities where ideas are sorted out and tested in the Spirit via a tradition of Scripture. Here ‘organic intellectuals’ do their best work. Here, writings are done face to face in live (not virtual) community.  Theology is more than the best musings of isolated individuals reacting to the ills of their past church experiences. This theology has flesh and bones on it, real lived life. This kind of ‘organic’ reflection must start in local communities of worship, teaching, and preaching as we inhabit the places, problems, issues of our day. I believe this is the kind of theology we must turn to once we leave behind the catharsis of venting our anger at our fundamentalist evangelical upbringing.

I really appreciate authors like Brian McLaren and Rachel Held Evans. I’m not just saying that. The space they make, the awareness they create is important. But we also need a more historically grounded theology, engaged with the history of arguments, generated by leaders on the ground, leading local church communities, engaging the cultural challenges, with a deeper sense of the history of the conversation they are speaking into. This kind of theology seems to be most prevalent among The Gospel Coalition and their cadre of pastor-theologian bloggers. It seems to go missing among the progressive Christian world where most writers like McLaren, Rob Bell, RHE etc. no longer hold a place of leadership within a ongoing church. I’m hungering for these kind of organic pastor-theologians to gain traction within the Wesleyan/Holiness/Centrist Baptist-Reformed/Anabaptist camp (what has now become Missio Alliance).  I’m hungering for this kind of theology to take root and pick up the conversation that McLaren and Held-Evans has opened for us. But is this possible in the social media driven, mass publishing frenzied world of theological conversation today? 

What do you think?  Where do you see this kind of theology happening?  Name your favorite writers in this vein? How does it intersect with/compliment the social media mass publishing efforts? 

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