April 3, 2009 / David Fitch

Tony Jones Asks: Are Academic Theologians Useless?

Tony Jones asks in this article “are academic theologians useless?” The picture above is not of Tony, but from his article. He accuses theologians “of falling asleep at the wheel, of giving up the populist agenda, …of caring more about tenure and academic guilds than about changing the minds of the people in the checkout line at Wal-Mart.” He dared to suggest that the academic theological guild is becoming irrelevant and challenged theologians to market themselves and learn how to reach/affect the broader public.

I think Tony is right to raise this issue. In relation to Tony’s challenge, I have three comments for those entering academic life who wish do serious theology yet impact the concrete life of the church and culture.

a.) The problem of the Tweener book. The tweener book is a book which is neither an academic monograph nor a trade book written for a broader untrained audience. These ‘tweener’ books are written for pastors, the theologically interested and well read, the leaders in the church who communicate regularly to the lay person/ who is not theologically trained or motivated. The problem is these ‘tweener’ books don’t sell 40,000 copies, never mind 20,000 copies. They cannot be priced as a monograph reference text for other professors/libraries that usually buy these books. They fall in between. They are risky and not as economically feasible for a lot of traditional publishers. Yet they fulfill probably the most important educational task. For it is among this audience of leaders – pastors-theologically interested readers where the significant changes are cultivated through books. The economics of these books make it imperative that serious theologians become more creative in marketing and writing publications that are in essence tweener publications.
b.) There is a need for more Ph.D. pastors. There is a need for people who think, lead and pastor out of the church context and then write seriously out of this same context. These pastor theologians are in the position to write some of the most impactful theology. (Think Augustine (bishop of Hippo), Luther, Wesley, Barth (early on), Yoder (ecumenical engagements, post WW 2 Europe reconstruction peace church activities) theologians who were active pastors. But too often, too quickly, academic Ph D’s are swerved into pursuing an academic job at all costs. Yet in a time when seminaries, and religious departments in universities are shrinking, there are less and less of these jobs available. And those that get those jobs find them suffocating and extremely inhibiting in terms of offering little time to think, write and minister. Writing theology then becomes a task reserved out of the guild for the guild. I therefore urge Ph.D.’s to consider ministry and adjunct teaching as a vocation. You can still participate in the guilds as much as before. Seminaries need these kinds of teachers. And you’ll get more time to write, a better context from which to write and you’ll also probably (all-tolled) make more money .
c.) The Publishers Have Become the Pope and we need to deal with it. It bothers me that for the reasons cited above by Tony, that the church in America is being theologically led more and more by the publishing houses who can market their books to the most people in a young age group. The new pope of especially American evangelicalism and progressive evangelicalism are the publishers and the media empires behind them. They are dictating theology and direction of the upcoming church. Meanwhile the history of the church’s theology and Scriptural interpretation, the understanding of the history of doctrine, is too easily left to the side. We have gurus who travel and write on the fly. They write well, some do excellent work, but many never engage in the dialogue and conversation that has gone before them in the history of the church. What results is unreflective blundering into many of the same dilemmas we’re writing to correct or advance beyond. And then, the academic theologians end up wining about it. We need more theological academically trained pastors/writers who can enter these conversations and subvert the publishers from always equating good theology with what sells.