What Is Practical Theology? Part Eight

After an all-to-lengthy excursion into interdisciplinary method,
it’s time to get back into the four core tasks of practical theology.
Having been through the descriptive and empirical moments, the third
moment of PT is the normative moment.

It is now, after gathering data and using the best of several
disciplines to interpret that data, that the practical theologian makes
normative claims for the life of the church. Often, practical theology
is in conversation with the other volumes of the “theological
encyclopedia” at this time, consorting with the likes of biblical
studies, systematic theology, and church history.

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What Is Practical Theology? Part Seven

OK, this is the final part of what was meant to be a brief tangent. But Jimmy brings up an important caveat in his comment
below. My not-so-hypothetical situation of a troubled teen in the
school counselor’s office was sanitized of the real-life complications
of power. Being a trained
social worker, and a special ed. teacher, Jimmy knows the power
dynamics at work in a situation like this. It should come as no
surprise that the pediatrician will come out on top in this hierarchy;
not only does she have the most schooling, but physicians — and the
scientific reasoning they employ — are highly regarded in our society.
In contrast, social workers, psychologists, and youth pastors are often
seen as dealing in data that is “soft,” over against the “hard”
scientific data of a physician.

However, the postmodern, hermeneutic turn has done a great service,
for it has leveled the playing field. Even the “hardest” scientific
data is rife with agendas and money from pharmaceutical companies. In
other words, no one is capable of delivering a straight, objective
account of what’s going on with this boy.

There’s been lots of good work done by postmodern theoreticians about power dynamics. The most famous theorist of power is Michel Foucault; I think that Pierre Bourdieu
also deserves serious consideration. Both attempt to deal honestly with
power dynamics at play whenever human beings are attempting to
negotiate a situation, and both are downright pessimistic about the
possibilities of getting through power to the other side. Of course,
they’re both lacking the Christian hope that God might have a hand in
this negotiation…

Christian Book Expo: My View

I’d been waiting for Publisher’s Weekly to file a report on the Christian Book Expo of last weekend, and now they have.  Marcia Nelson begins with this ominous lede,

Stacks of unsold books and glum publishers stood for three days inside
the cavernous Dallas Convention Center this past weekend at the
Christian Book Expo, a first-of-its-kind event designed to connect
publishers and authors directly with readers in the evangelical
Christian market. Only problem was there were few readers to connect
with, despite the show’s location in Dallas, the buckle of the Bible
Belt and a top market for Christian publishers. The show, sponsored by
the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, attracted 1,500
consumer attendees; it had hoped for 15,000-20,000. 

My experience there is reflective of Nelson’s report.  I was on a panel about the “emerging church” sponsored by Christianity Today and moderated by Mark Galli.  My fellow panelists were Scot McKnight, Kevin DeYoung, and Alex & Brett Harris.

We were in a room with probably 700 chairs, and there might have been 100 people in attendance.  The discussion on our panel wasn’t all that energetic, with the only real juju coming when Scot accused Kevin and his co-author, Ted Kluck, of being “uncharitable” in their book on why they’re not emergent.  Galli interjected that McKnight was crossing a line in calling DeYoung uncharitable, but McKnight persisted, arguing that by knowingly misrepresenting their opponents, DeYoung and Kluck are, by definition, uncharitable.


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What Is Practical Theology? Part Six

OK, I’ll start with a concrete situation in order to illustrate the promise of “tranversal rationality.”

[UPDATE: This is a hypothetical
situation; the “boy” is meant to represent a concrete situation or
problem. Another analogy could be, for instance, all the people who
together had to decide what to build on the site of the World Trade

You’re a youth pastor, and you get
a call from the guidance counselor at the local public high school; she
wants you to come to a consultation. There’s a boy in your youth group
who is really struggling in school — and in life — and the school is
calling together a group of people to brainstorm about what can be done
to help him.

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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.

A Conversation at the Christian Book Expo

Following my panel discussion, about which I will report soon, I was approached by a well-dressed guy wearing name badge that identified him on the staff with the Institute for Creation Research, an organization with which I was not familiar.  Here’s how it went:

Guy: Did that other panelist say that you think gays can be Christian?

Me: I’m on the record on my blog. I believe that gay marriage is a lifestyle that can be biblically virtuous.

How can you say that?

Do you make women wear head coverings in your church?

Well, I’m not married and I don’t have daughters, so I’m not in authority over any women.

Seriously, did you just say that?

But if I were in authority over women, I guess I would.

Well, if you were a pastor or elder at a church, would you make women wear head coverings?

I have a friend who’s a pastor…

I’m asking you.  Not your friend.  It’s a yes or no question.  If you were a pastor or elder of a church would you make women cover their heads to pray, remove their braids, and not wear gold?

I guess I haven’t really studied that, so I don’t know.

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What Is Practical Theology? Part Five

How does one navigate the pluralism of our world today?

There’s a lot at stake in this question. Currently, there are only
a few options available to Christians in a
globalized/pluralistic/postmodern society: liberal accomodationism,
conservative retreatism, Hauerwasian sectarianism, and the newcomer:
Milbankian (Radical Orthodoxy) withdrawal into the liturgy.

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What Is Practical Theology? Part Four

OK, I was all brewing up a great intermezzo post with a provisional
definition of PT, then I got this anonymous comment that blew me away:

Practical theology is that
theological discipline which is concerned with the Church’s
self-actualization here and now – both that which is and that which
ought to be. That it does by means of theological illumination of the
particular situation in which the Church must release itself in all its

This practical theology is a
unique, independent science, a fundamental one in essence in spite of
its reciprocal relationship with other theological disciplines, since
its business of scientifically critical and systematic reflection is a
unique quantity and its nature is not deducible. For it is reflection
oriented towards committal.

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What Is Practical Theology? Part Three

Practical Theology is a self-consciously hermeneutical enterprise. Now, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I think that all of life
is, essentially, a hermeneutical endeavor. Each of us is an
interpreter, of our surroundings, our traditions, our conversations,
the media we engage, etc. In the words of one philosopher,
“Interpretation goes all the way down and all the way back up.”

PT engages hermeneutical theory constantly, especially in an effort
to mediate between the empirical-descriptive moment (as described
below), and the normative theological moment (to be described in the
next post). Thus, with a hermeneutical understanding, practical
theologians will work with an interdisciplinary “dialogue partner,”
like a particular school of thought in psychology, sociology, social
theory, political science, etc.

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What Is Practical Theology? Part Two

Practical theology (PT), as a discipline, takes a great deal of
interest in empirical information. In fact, there is an entire school
of thinking within PT — found mainly in the Netherlands and Germany —
that’s called “Empirical Theology.” Practical theologians, because of
the importance of the groundedness of the discipline, are often
well-versed in a social science, the way James Fowler was in
developmental psychology when he developed his Stages of Faith Development.

(An aside: to all of you pissy commentors, I never said that practical theology was the only
type of theology that is grounded, just that it is the most committed
to being grounded. Contextual theologies like liberation, feminist, and
black theologies surely blur the line between systematics, PT, and
biblical studies.)

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