Monday Book Review Special: Theologian Trading Cards!

Monday Book Review Special: Theologian Trading Cards! November 12, 2012

I first saw this idea some time back and thought Norman Jeune’s idea was fantastic. Not only because I loved baseball cards and had plenty of them — and that my mother threw them all away — but because some conversation around theologians by young theologians is important. I pray these cards will help educate students and then lead them to read the greats.

Theologian Trading Cards Q&A with Norm Jeune—Full Version

(conducted by Emily Varner, AcademicPS)

Tell us the story of how these cards came to be.

This is really quite a meandering story—let’s see if I can make the path straight. I first thought of the idea while in seminary. I was sitting in the seminary lounge, and as I was listening to some students discuss various theologians, it literally just struck me as funny that we often talk about theologians like they could be baseball players with stats (I loved collecting baseball cards as a kid!). Then I thought, Why not?! Then like many ideas, I left it alone for a few years. It was not until I found myself blogging on a few years later that I remembered the idea again and thought, Why don’t I make some samples and see if people really would enjoy Theologian Trading Cards? So out came Photoshop, and I started rolling out samples. People loved the idea immediately, with thousands of hits to the site. Then I started seriously thinking that maybe the idea had some real potential. I ended up talking with Dr. Jonathan Lunde, a professor I was working for as a T.A. during seminary, and he thought the idea was fantastic. He also happened to be editing a series for Zondervan at the time, and suggested I put together a brief sketch of my idea, so it could be presented to the team at Zondervan. They loved the idea, and the rest is history. It’s actually been five years of work, so being at this point is a little surreal. To see one’s idea go from a passing thought to this is amazing!

Even with around 300 thinkers represented, I suspect there were theologians it pained you to leave out. With unlimited space, who else would you have included? (Do you have any “expansion packs” planned?)

This is a common question, and really a challenging one. There are clearly many more people who could have been included. In fact, it was decided early on by the publisher that we needed to keep the initial list of figures below the three-hundred mark. My original list exceeded that number significantly, and I had to reduce the list by nearly one-hundred names. That was tough. I’ll answer the question this way; I think I would have included more modern theologians. On one hand, I think one of the unique features of this set is the fact that so many modern theologians are included. On the other hand, modern theology is so varied and eclectic, I think there were many more people that could have been featured- perhaps Stanley Hauerwas, John Webster, and Oliver O’Donovan, to name a few off the top of my head. 

In terms of your latter question, there are definitely plans to expand the set. We’re talking about additional packs that would place emphasis on certain areas and/or eras of theology- there is also a plan to release special editions of cards with original pieces of art created just for the set. I’ll let the details remain there for the next several months.

One fun—but also immensely helpful—aspect of the cards is their organization into “teams” such as the Munster Radicals and the Wittenberg Whistle-Blowers. Which groups were the hardest to pin down and/or name?

Naming the teams was one of my favorite parts of this project. I found that I had to wait for a moment of inspiration where a fun name just hit me! I also had the advantage of creative collaboration on the team names with the faculty at Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University. We had some fun exchanges bouncing potential names back and forth. My favorite team names are probably the “Orthodoxy Dodgers” (heretics), the “Geneva Sovereigns” (Reformed), and the “St. Pius Cardinals” (Roman Catholics).

The modern theologians were most challenging to name. Most of the modern theologians can be found in one of two teams, with a few exceptions throughout the deck. Modern theology is obviously quite eclectic and varied, so any notion that modern theologians can be gathered into two distinct “teams” or groups should be immediately subject to question. Nevertheless, we needed some loose grid as a means of categorizing these figures to carry the baseball card pun.

The two contemporary teams or groups are the Berlin Aggiornamentos and the Jerusalem Resourcers. The underlying (very loose) references are to the terms Aggiornamento and Ressourcement, terms usually understood within the context of 20th century Roman Catholic theology and Vatican II. While these teams are not composed of exclusively of Catholic theologians nor do they make reference to Vatican II, you might think of them (again, very loosely) as comprised of those who are more forward thinking/progressive (Aggiornamentos) and some who might tend more exclusively toward traditional constructs (Resourcers). 

Probably more than any other team, the Berlin Aggiornamentos have generated a lot of questions. The term “Aggiornamento” is pronounced (a-JOR-na-men-to), and the city of Berlin was chosen as “home field” because Schleiermacher has sometimes been referred to as the father of modern theology, and he lived in Berlin.

In the case of the Resourcers we chose Jerusalem, thinking that the city is obviously the oldest traditional place of Christianity, thus it corresponded well so for the modern team that may roughly be considered more traditional. Again, the decisions about teams and such are obviously a very subjective pun to be taken playfully.

Condensing the life and legacy of a theologian to text that fits on a playing card sounds to me like a fun but daunting task. What parameters did you set for yourself in putting these together?

This was, without question, the most challenging part of the project! Composition was key here- how do you say all the things that need to be said, and do it in an incredibly short amount of space? I had to be very clear and efficient with words- I also had to learn to adapt to the writing style that was needed for a project like this. I found it was a fantastic exercise for me personally, as I had to work through the research until my own knowledge could be synthesized into that small amount of space.

Practically speaking, there were a few parameters: the first was to make sure the choices regarding the summaries were relevant; I was obviously not advancing a new hypothesis or reading regarding some aspect of church history or theology, I was simply trying to provide a new learning tool. Consequently, each summary is the result of a process of working through significant primary and secondary sources, in search of the common themes and bits of information, discerning the crucial points that needed to be included if the cards were going to be effective as a study aid. For example, the publisher and I decided early on that every commonly used church history textbook would have to be surveyed to ensure that the portrayals on the cards were consistent with what students would actually be expected to learn in the classroom. In addition, theological faculty from the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University also reviewed the cards with that end in mind; the goal was to make sure that the cards fit with the real life learning experience. We all know that learning church history is a rite-of-passage for the Bible and Seminary student, and these cards are specifically targeting the needs of that experience.

Could you explain the cards that contain no image, but instead have a question mark in the image spot?

Finding images for all of the individuals in the set was a daunting task, even with an individual assigned by the publisher to assist exclusively with that piece of the project. In a number of cases, we were simply not able to find an image that could be used for the card. There were several reasons for this: in some cases it was simply a case where no image existed. This was true for some of the heretics in the very earliest era of church: People made images celebrating the lives of those who made tremendous contributions to the church, but they weren’t necessarily creating art featuring heretics. In some cases there may have been an image that existed, but perhaps not in a high enough resolution to be used. In other cases we might not have been able to acquire rights to use an image. Nevertheless, we needed to have something on the card that communicated our dilemma in some form. It was actually the silhouette one commonly sees in social media profiles when someone has not included an image of themselves that first inspired the current design. Perhaps there’s an art contest in our future to see what readers might envision as fun renditions of individuals who lack that artistic image on the front?

Tell us about the response to the cards thus far. Has anything surprised you?

It’s been wonderful to see some of the initial responses, which have been overwhelmingly positive. I have seen some discussion threads on the internet recently where I think people have been shocked to hear about the project—‘Theologian Trading Cards?! Really?!’ I think a lot of people are simply wondering what the project could possibly be about: Is it a joke? Is it irreverent? What will be on the back of the card? How will the cards be used for learning? What audiences will they be intended for? I’ve been encouraged to hear early on that people from a variety of different backgrounds are enjoying the fact that while the set is playful, even geeky-cool, the cards are also a serious learning tool. While it’s always a little nerve-racking to put your work out in the public spotlight, I’m excited about the release because I really do believe the set is original and creates a new sort of learning experience.  

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