Practical Theology: Seeing the Flaws

We got the authors of three recent books of practical theology together and asked them to bang their ideas around to see what interesting overlaps and contrasts emerged. Andrew Root of Luther Seminary recently wrote Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross. Mark Van Steenwyk, founder of the Mennonite Worke Community, wrote The UNkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance. The guys from Two Friars and a Fool, Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson wrote Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get to Work

by Two Friars And A Fool

NeverPrayAgainWe’re going last in this second round of our series on Practical Theology. The object here is to use the excellent books that Andrew and Mark wrote to critique our own work in Never Pray Again. This strikes us as a difficult undertaking which Andrew and Mark both pulled off with aplomb. Difficult, not because our book is so above approach, but because it is tempting to list all the things we love about Christopraxis and UNkingdom, and indulge in criticism of a bunch of books that Never Pray Again is not and was never intended to be. It’ll be much more interesting if we can manage to think critically about the book that Never Pray Again actually is and how it could be more that taking lessons from our friends’ books.

Lets look first to Andrew Root’s book Christopraxis. As we already mentioned in the first round of this series, Andrew focuses in on divine action, particularly taking people’s experiences of divine action in their lives seriously as a subject for practical theology. We’re skeptics about most of what people call miraculous or mystical experience and we were specifically aiming for a book that was laser-focused on neighbor-centered active faith. For most of the book we bracket out divine action to focus exclusively on the actions of the practitioner. We conclude our chapter on intercessory prayer this way:

Your intercession is too urgently required for you to waste time on your knees, whispering words to a deity you imagine to be distant. God is right beside you, right now. Not in some mystical otherworldly sense, but in the hungry person you have a chance to feed; the thirsty person you could give a cup of water to; the naked person you could clothe; the sick person you could care for; the prisoner you could be visiting… For the sake of the everyday hero that lives inside you it is best if you assume that God will not intercede without you. There is no one about to come down out of the sky, cape fluttering, and relieve you of your responsibility to do what must be done.

After reading Andrew’s book we think our own is insufficiently theological, and there is a way we could improve upon it while keeping our focus on active neighbor-centered faith. It’s right there in our quote above: we locate God in our neighbor. We spent the entire book writing about how we should act given the conviction that God is found in our neighbor and we didn’t really ask, what might God being doing in and through our neighbor to minister to us?

Andrew’s interest in divine action as an expression of God’s ministry to us isn’t disembodied or supernatural of necessity. If it is true that what we do to the least of these we do to God, might it also be true that some of what the least of these do to us is the work of God? At the very least it seems an interesting question, and one we leave unexplored. Guess we’ll have to keep writing.

UNkingdom is a book with an aim and style more similar to ours making it easier to compare, and easier therefore to notice where we went horribly, shockingly, embarrassingly wrong. Mark’s book is politically subversive. He takes aim at the ideological foundation of the reader with the goal of not only changing the reader, but changing the society. The trajectory of Mark’s own story told in anecdotes throughout the book bear witness to this. His journey leads him from a certain kind of Christian community through repentance into creating a different kind of Christian community, the Mennonite Worker.

When you read Never Pray Again (yep, we’re just gonna assume that), you will probably glean things about our politics, and if you were to engage the practices we suggest it would have broader social ramifications on your life, but for all that the book is tragically individualistic. It’s a relational book in the sense that we’re concerned with how you should treat your neighbor, but it almost exclusively focuses on what you (second person singular) can do as an individual. We don’t really discuss communal action.

The irony here is that we fell prey to one of the problems with prayer. We criticize prayer as being too individualistic. Our goal is to draw the reader outside of themselves and to get them focused on their neighbor. Yet by dedicating the entire book to what an individual could do which is better than praying we never quite got out of that gravity well.

What would it look like to engage the experiments we include at the ends of chapters as a community, rather than as an individual? There are communities founded on prayer, what would communities founded on feeding, or healing, or expelling, or interceding look like? Even as we type this, already existing communities which are examples of these behaviors are springing to mind. Communities we could have, and should have, explored.

No book is ever perfect, and the only reason a book is ever done is because otherwise it would never be printed and read. We’re proud of Never Pray Again and glad that we’re still thinking about it, and seeing ways it could be even better.

Two Friars and a Fool is the result of a heady mix of alcohol, sleep deprivation and the kind of hubris that makes blogging seem like a good way to contribute to society. Aric Clark is religious but not spiritual, and inflicts that religion on a congregation in Fort Morgan, Colorado. He is an over-functioning Enneagram 8 shouting at the universe from his pulpit. Doug Hagler is a deep-water Facebook argument-trawler who wants to open up the canon and add the collected works of J.R.R. Tolkien. As a fatbeard-at-large in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, he lives out his calling to design role-playing games and write things on the Internet while pretending to actually work. Nick Larson is a post-doctrinal, post-modern hipster who messes it all up by wearing Star Wars shirts non-ironically. He is always reading every book he can find with the word “Toward” in the title, and is currently teaching rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock to disciples in Columbia, MO. These three published a book entitled Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get to Work, which aims to turn individualistic internalized spiritual practices into concrete neighbor-focused habits. They tell themselves that only one of them is the Fool, but they are wrong.

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