Are Academic Theologians Useless?

I’ve posted on that question over at Religion Dispatches.

We’re at a turning point, right now, because of a confluence of two
events: 1) the MSM has finally figured out that 3/4s of American’s are
religious, and 2) the Religious Right has lost its monopoly in the
public square.

Read the rest.

"Have you considered professional online editing services like ?"

The Writing Life
"I'm not missing out on anything - it's rather condescending for you to assume that ..."

Is It Time for Christians to ..."
"I really don't understand what you want to say.Your"

Would John Piper Excommunicate His Son?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Your Name

    I’m not sure how one can advocate a turn to purely practical matters when the theoretical aspects of theology seemingly suffer from intractable problems. Doesn’t academic theology provide the basis that practical theology works with? If there’s no tenable theoretical basis for one’s theology then how does one responsibly ignore that and just go off and attempt to update the well worn stock of Christian platitudes for mass consumption?
    There isn’t even such a thing today as Christian theology, there are merely many theologies which supposedly have something to do with Christianity, whatever that is. All have their problems. So how does one just start “spreading the good news” if there’s not even any consensus in the Academy as to what that good news could possibly be?
    I just don’t see how anyone can propose this. It’s like a physicist saying “even though we still are unsure of how reality is constituted, let’s just write popular science books and stop doing research.”

  • Your Name

    And to clarify, I’m not proposing that some perfect theology will ever be found, it won’t be. Obviously academic theology is currently a mess and I only see it getting messier. This underscores however that practical theology is in trouble too. Practical theology is not an island, it derives its content largely from academic theology. But academic theology just manufactures endless ideas with no weight or authority behind them, and the sheer variety of ideas just demonstrates that no one knows anything.
    We are quickly approaching the day, if we’re not already there, when everyone will have their own “individual” theology and few will argue because most will acknowledge that they literally have nothing to prove.
    So where will practical theology, or for that matter any theology be then?

  • “Now we who are theologians proper have been supplanted by political pundits who occasionally rise to the defense of religion.”
    …or by Kirk Cameron.
    Preach, Tony. Preach.

  • Colin


  • What counts as an “academic theologian”? How far up the pole do you have to climb? MDiv, DMin, MA, PhD? Or are you talking specifically about professors in seminaries and religion departments?

  • The Jesus Seminar has picked up on this a while ago, which is why they engage the popular press. They got tired of watching their research read only in seminaries and ivory towers. They wanted to share their findings with a much wider audience. One member of the Jesus Seminar, Marcus Borg, has made a conscious decision to write books specifically for a lay audience. Borg even blogs and has a few videos on BeliefNet. I think all of that puts him over 100 points, so I think he should get an iPod from you!
    Liturgical theologians Ruth Duck and Christopher Grundy write worship songs that express progressive theology. This kind of work is especially important since hymns and liturgy frame the worship experience of a congregation. For some people, hymns are the best teachers of theology. They may not get up to 100 points for this work, but they deserve an honorable mention.
    Bruce Epperly also deserves an honorable mention. He has been doing the “impossible” for many years. He has been making Process Theology practical and useful for a wider audience. His most recent book, “Holy Adventure,” is a great devotional book written from a Process perspective. It’s basically “Purpose Driven Life” with Process Theology. Epperly should get mad props for engaging Process Theology with the popular culture.
    But, overall, the lack of engagement with the popular culture remains a systemic problem for liberal and moderate theologians. They are at serious risk of “eliteizing” themselves into oblivion. This needs to change. We need books that can rival the popularity of people like Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, John Piper, etc. We need alternatives on TV, radio, blogs, etc.
    We need to ask ourselves Harry Emerson Fosdick’s question: Shall the fundamentalists win [the modern media battle]?

  • Alan K

    In what way do you imagine that there could be a beneficial conversation with popular culture? And why must it be the academic theologian or biblical scholar? I get the sense you do not have confidence that the church knows what its mission is and who is the God that it serves, and thus we desperately need a knowledgeable, reasonable, faithful, secure, humble star witness to the gospel. In essence, you are asking for a saint to come along. Well saints are not made in the academy, nor on the internet or TV. They are made in the slums of Calcutta picking up dying people off the streets and in concentration camps where one person offers to take the place of another condemned to starvation to death. The fact that God is hard to find in the popular culture may be an indication of judgment upon it. My sense is that since saints are formed in the marginal culture perhaps that is where God is as well.

  • In my mind the issue is not simply one of how often “Acedemic Theologians” are mentioned in Newsweek, cited by Sullivan, how often they blog and twitter. If that were the case, Al Mohler and Pat Robertson might qualify (minus the twittering).
    Public Intellectuals such as Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson self-identify with the black freedom movement and locate themselves vocationallly as truth-tellers seeking to confront and relieve forms of social misery. I believe that this is part of the reason that their work is so potent in a sense that goes beyond mainstream notariety.
    At the risk of stereo-typical oversimplification, what “Academic Theologians” do you know of that situate the locus of their role as an intellectual in the confrontation and relief of social misery. Perhaps the issue of engagement goes beyond mainstream notariety into the territory of prophetic truth-telling. Perhaps these “public-theologian” wannabes are either unwilling or unable to speak prophetically with regard to public interest in the potent ways that West and Dyson have been both willing and able.

  • Alan K

    BTW, Tony, you were at Claremont. Have you looked at what is going on at a place like Duke? Or Regent College? Nothing less than the shaping of humble leaders after the likeness of Jesus Christ. Perhaps this is what God wants the academic theologians and biblical scholars to be doing.

  • Sara

    Maybe academic theologians need a “prophetic distance” from popular culture in order to be able to “speak truth to power.”

  • Sara

    Have you bought an iPod for Marcus Borg yet?

  • I too was at the conference (breaking cameras). And while I believe your words are very pertinent to the content of the conference, I want to add a bit more value to the academic theologian as an academic theologian. It was N.T. Wright’s highly academic corpus on the historical Jesus that gave flesh and bones to my faith once again. He gave me reason to believe what I long thought unbelievable, helping to re-ground me in a compelling, life-changing faith. In other words, I think academic theologians can re-discover the reasons, motives, and (most importantly) hope behind philosophical and doctrinal developments. Moreover, they are sometimes able to capture that hope and redistribute these hopes in terms approachable in today’s vernacular and intellectual climate. But this task is really no different, at the end of the day, to what you’re prescribing, even if it does not always take the form of a blog (one of which I started).