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Social Media Pop Theology: The Need for Serious Theological Reflection

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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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11 responses to “Social Media Pop Theology: The Need for Serious Theological Reflection

  1. the trouble is that what folks take to be Serious Theological Reflection is generated located within–and significantly colored by–halls of power and whiteness. i have a religion degree and also value theological discourse and training, but are we making room for wisdom from the margins as much as the academy? i think it has to be both/and, but culturally, regardless of how many pop books sell, we’re still far more accustomed to hearing from and honoring experts over fellow pilgrims or "lessers", even though Jesus said and showed he was present firstly among not the credentialed but the least.

  2. Susannah … it seems to me … and I may be over-stating … but pop publishing/twittersphere etc. is extremely white. Those that write about justice/critique white supremacy/progressive justice/ being at the margins are rarely people living within that sociality … at these those that achieve a large following … I could be wrong … I’ll take examples …

    1. The focus on whether or not pop theology is good for us could be replaced with whether or not we are following Jesus’ lead into a non-credentialed way of life–"outside the camp," so to speak. This would eliminate the need to add fuel to the fire in a reflexive way.

  3. Hi David:

    Three points:
    (1) About Dr. Witherington’s review, or Searching for Sunday you remarked, "It was ostentatious. OK, I get that. But nonetheless . . . " and as it frequently does, the "but" tells the story. The sociological tide has turned, and the Academy, especially Baby Boomer academicians, have missed the sea-change. Would it be offensive if I suggested that the sub-culture of academia is every bit as much a backwater at the Southeast’s Bible Belt literalist culture? Boomer Theologians are tone deaf to the issues Millennials consider important. To suggest they need additional education and credentialing belittles their concerns. That’s one reason this generation is saying, "No thank you."

    (2) The church will always need serious academic inquiry, yet we are living in a time where the divide between praxis and theological theory is wide indeed. You are one of the exceptions, a theologian with hands-on experience as a pastor. I believe the voices that will have a lasting impact on the church will be those of Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, and N.T. Wright (and you, of course)–what do they have in common?

    (3) Popular Christian publishing is largely a child of capitalism, which is to say, sales trumps everything. Like you I’m grateful for the conversations initiated by McLaren, Evans, and others, but (there it is again) I have zero expectation that social media-driven world of pop publishing will serve the church in any meaningful way.

    Peace to you!

  4. I appreciate the cry for what I term "theologians of/in/from the church". I see that much of the difficulty with pop theology & academia is that they both suggest that some-"one" do theology, but not the average person. I believe theology is a four letter word equivalent to cursing God for most church goers. Second, David Fitch is correct that much critique on social media is "disembodied" by communities at large. Justice is easier confronted when it is not your injustice. Much like the critique of someone’s position/writing is easier when you have neither engaged its substance or its author (i.e. thoughts are disembodied representations of Platonist pure thinking). What is necessary is a model of ministry "preparation" (hate that word) that continually engages local ‘theologians’ without withdrawing them from their community. It is also necessary to lead congregations in desiring presence with God and with others. Without both theologian (not pastor/priest – although vital and needed) and community, transformation under the gospel is not possible!

  5. The challenge, as I see it, is that the kind of theological reflection you are talking about in grass-roots community is hard work. It’s like cooking a full meal from scratch. Social media pop theology is junk food. It’s not as nutritious – or as flavorful – but it’s cheap and quick. It takes a skilled organic intellectual to help people move from junk food to cooking from scratch (or from milk to solid food). It requires the organic intellectual to enter with a particular posture of presence that is informed by the academy and nurtured by the church.

  6. Agree on the comments about Ben Witherington’s post. When I read it, it came across as pretty paternalistic and slightly condescending…but spot on. The tone wasn’t necessarily offensive, but it was unfortunate. I doubt he meant it that way. But I think his point is well taken. RHE is coming across like these are brand new ideas to her/other and people need to hear about them. I think what Ben was saying was simply that these aren’t new, they’ve been discussed/debated about for quite some time and that in actuality, these views are much more nuanced when you take the time to explore them adequately (hence his thought for more education).

  7. As an academic, one of my goals this summer is to read every N.T. Wright article I can get my hands on. His writing is both scholarly and accessible – maybe not quite Rob Bell, but really readable. The Gospel Coalition generally has a pretty theologically literate audience; in a perfect world that would be helpful for engaging more deeply with non-Reformed audiences. But in my opinion, it’s far more important that academics figure out how to write as if they have some level of concern for readers, rather than writing as if their ideas were precious pearls to be mined out of the ore of jargon and torturous sentences.

    Also agree that the publishing business, being a business, might not be tons of help. For instance venting our anger at our fundamentalist upbringing sells, forgiveness/constructive theological ~work~ doesn’t.

  8. As a pastor who appreciates and longs to do more serious theological reflection in the context of a congregation, I’m coming to understand how deeply different the two kinds of reflective work are. The challenge is not for academics to write more accessibly or for practitioners to think more scholastically, but for more people to do the incredibly challenging work of attempting to speak both languages, translating them with humility, and bridging divides between the communities. That’s exhausting work, especially given the institutional claims on professional time, energy, language and expectations. And yelling at people attempting it (like Witherington does) is supremely unhelpful.

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