Theology after Google

Theology after Google February 15, 2010

Doug had Philip Clayton and me on his radio show to chat about the upcoming event, Theology after Google.  We also discuss what went wrong with the liberal church in the 20th century, and how we propose to fix it.

Here’s the conversation (in two parts):

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  • Thanks for sharing this – good discussion.

    I have a question that maybe you, Tony, or Tripp or Philip could help clarify. At one point in the radio broadcast Philip pointed out that Tripp’s podcast has 10,000 listeners whereas the dissertation he has been working on for nearly 6 years will have only 4-5 readers. Therefore, Philip concludes, the podcast is a far more valuable outlet and he said he is even recommending that people maximize the networks they are already in rather than spend the time and money on a dissertation that no one will read.

    I find this problematic for a couple reasons.

    First, it suggests the importance or goodness of something is based on numbers. IOW, might makes right. Tripp’s podcast is “good” and a more worthy pursuit than his dissertation because more people listen to it.

    Second, ironically it sounds as if intellectuals (Philip is a professor) are becoming anti-intellectual. Has it not occurred to anyone that maybe the reason Tripp has so many listeners is because of the time and effort he has invested in educating himself about theology? To suggest that any Joe living in his mom’s basement with an internet connection could bless as many lives as Tripp’s podcast does is (I would think) an insult to the dedication Tripp and and thousands of other men and women who have heard the call to ministry and have thought it worth the effort and sacrifice to become better educated about the things we dare to speak of.

    Third and finally, popularity does not mean something is worth listening to. I wonder if we are not reducing or entirely gutting the gift of discernment to nothing more than the number of blog visits. 777 hits in one day = a good source of theology. 4 hits in one day = not so good. Some things that are popular in mainstream culture are just a load of crap. And many times, the common denominator of the crappy ones is that they have not received any education nor have their gifts and graces been affirmed by people within their own context (local church, denomination, seminary, etc.).


  • Chad,

    Way to come out swingin’! Okay, I’ll admit it: I consciously and purposely overstated the case. I plead guilty. You got me.

    Now I’ll tell you why I’m not sorry: a huge number of academic theologians, maybe even the majority, still don’t get it. I still hear comments to the effect of, “Well, no one today pays attention, but 50 years from now people will realize how important our work is.” I know — I used to make comments like that when I was pursuing purely academic topics.

    I now believe that theology exists to be in service of the church (in the broadest sense; not just today’s institutions) and the gospel. In fact, though, academic theology generally serves the academy as its first master. The tragedy to me is not that Tripp Fuller has to learn some serious theology along the way. (Ask him: I’m a hard task master.) The tragedy is that much of what he’ll be asked to do will not equip him to be a church theologian; it will pull him in the opposite direction.

    When Brian McLaren published “Everything Must Change,” he overstated the case. He was right to do so. When there’s a ton of positive change going on and someone asks him, “did you really mean EVERYTHING,” Brian will say no. So do I.

    — Philip

  • Philip,

    I am glad to hear that. I tend to do the same thing as a means to provoke conversation.

    I would be saddened and somewhat surprised if it is true that MOST professors of theology in seminaries do not see their task as one of service to the Church (call me an optimist!) While I recognize that for a long time this was the case and we have created many an ivory-tower thinker, I think the pendulum is swinging. Again, speaking from my own experience at Duke Divinity and through hearing stories of other seminarians, *everything* I have been through at Duke has been to better prepare me for parish ministry. Now, some things I may not realize at the moment as such, but every teacher I have had has been quite explicit about their goals – to serve the Church of Jesus Christ.

    See, I don’t think that Tripp would have 10000 listeners if he didn’t first have some great teachers (like yourself) giving him a framework from which to work and speak. I think education is very, very important and I think you do as well. I think the worse thing we could do is advocate for a way of following Jesus that did not include rigorous academics. Can you imagine a world in which everyone saw themselves as a self-proclaimed prophet with their blog as their pulpit? I know you said you weren’t totally serious, but consider the implications if people took your advice to their logical conclusion and everyone everywhere ceased pursuing theological degrees and opted instead for the much easier (and lets be honest, more fun!) path of starting a blog? I can see only chaos if such a path were taken. Fortunately, I don’t think that will ever happen but I would hate to think that this is something Emergents would give a voice to.

    thanks for making us all think through this stuff a bit more…

  • Dave H

    Hi Chad. Your blog is in my RSS reader and I appreciate your contributions to this conversation.

    You say:

    “To suggest that any Joe living in his mom’s basement with an internet connection could bless as many lives as Tripp’s podcast does is (I would think) an insult to the dedication Tripp and thousands of other men and women who have heard the call to ministry and have thought it worth the effort and sacrifice to become better educated about the things we dare to speak of.”

    I think maybe Philip feels the need to overstate his case because of the “insult,” repeated by you above, commonly directed against Joe.

    I’m a college professor with a terminal degree as well, yet few things annoy me more than the presumption that living in a basement somehow disqualifies one from contributing valuably to the conversation. The conditions of life requiring a person to share living space with others in apartments with no windows are precisely the places where theological reflection are needed most, and places capable of generating extremely valuable insight.

    Neither Philip nor you invented the Joe-in-the-basement vs. Tripp-the-brilliantly-educated-sage dichotomy — it’s existed in academia for generations. By urging more people to consider blogging rather than leaping toward institutional imprimateur, i think Philip’s trying to explode this unhelpful dichotomy.

  • Dave H,
    Thanks for the feeback. I have to confess, it made me chuckle a bit. (I was thinking of Joe the Plumber nightmares….)

    Please know I am not saying we cannot learn anything of value from the “Joe’s” in basements around the world (although an argument could and should be made about the value of theological reflection in a windowless, social-less setting).

    My point is that if Philip’s remarks are taken seriously by many would-be-brilliant-Tripp-Fullers than we will have a world of Joe’s who have lost touch with the story that we have received – the tradition and context without which the work of theology just becomes my own personal musings.

    Perhaps this comment I just left on my own blog in response to Jonathan Brink’s comment will help:

    “Bigger platforms, such as what Philip and Tony and other leaders in the EC have, ought to require bigger responsibility in how we use our words. Theology, in the barest sense, is about words. How we use our words, what we say, matters.

    So as Emergence moves forward (or matures) it is my desire to see people think and speak theologically – taking into account that what we say on a blog or in a podcast is being read and digested by many who take you seriously – as authorities in the church (for good or ill). Therefore, when such a leader suggests that it would be better to go start a blog rather than invest time and money in theological education, someone needs to say something.”

  • JMorrow

    This sounds like a really interesting event. I particularly am encouraged by Phillip’s enthusiasm as an academic pushing against the ivory tower mentality.

    I’ve got a question though, what does it mean to be progressive, and what does it mean for that adjective to precede the word Christian when describing oneself? My concern is twofold. First I just cannot delineate the contours of progressivism very clearly, especially when we are talking about a multiheaded phenomenon with social, political, and theological connotations. Secondly, as someone with some knowledge of and experience in the political world, I’m concerned about the colonization of Christian perspectives by mostly political interests. How does the definition of progressive counter the possibility of abusing the faith as one that stands somewhat athwart, addresses not merely one ideology or culture, race, epoch or era, but all of them?

  • JMorrow


    I don’t want to come across as anti-academic, especially since I’m pursuing an MDiv too, but when you say this:

    “I think the worse thing we could do is advocate for a way of following Jesus that did not include rigorous academics.”

    I’ve got wonder if this will actually produce the result you want. I could see it holding for teaching ministries, but anyone following Jesus?
    Case in point the example of Fannie Lou Hamer during the American civil rights movement. Her story is compelling in the sense that not everyone with scholarly skill (like many mainline Protestant leaders during her time) is prepared to put that training into action. Perhaps nothing can put it into action except the leap of faith. But such counter testimonies should make us pause. It’s simply extraordinary that so many of the wise witnesses that come to us throughout Christian history did what they did without much academic training. I wouldn’t say this was a lack of education, but rather being “Other-Educated”. That’s the type of education I think is open to anyone whether an MDiv, PhD or graduate of the school of hard knocks.

  • JMorrow,
    Thanks for pointing that guffaw out. I didn’t mean to imply “anyone” who follows Jesus but meant to say that we ought to encourage anyone going into ministry, teaching, pastoral or otherwise, to educate themselves as much as possible. I think it would be irresponsible for any of us to advise people who wish to lead others to simply start a blog and try their best to be witty while they wax theological. I don’t think Philip Clayton is saying that, but I do want to point out that not all seminaries are the devil. Some institutions of higher learning DO see their primary if not sole vocation as being in service of the Church and training ministers for that task. I would not hesitate to tell anyone aspiring to be a pastor or a leader in the church at some capacity to pursue higher education.

  • Dave H


    Just want to mention that I’m appreciating your gracious engagement with these threads. Several of us are pushing back against you and you’re responding with clarity and care. Of course, this should be expected from those of us committed to the ideals of the academy, but we’re here on the bloggernets after all and so it seems noteworthy. Perhaps this observation adds support to your original point with which I took issue!



    • I would like to second Dave’s motion. Both Chad and Brian are thoughtful defenders of mainline denominationalism, and I’m glad to have them around here.

  • Thanks Tony and Dave – you guys make it easy, perhaps along with the fact we are entering into Lent. After Easter, during Ordinary Time, I can be quite an ass.

    peace to you