The Dangers of a "Build-A-Bear" Theology

My wife and I were out shopping a few nights ago. The mall was jammed, but a family of four stood out with a little girl who was bringing up the rear of a family procession under the watchful eye of her father.

He obviously wanted to help. But it was also clear that his daughter had given him an emphatic, "No."

The look on his face was a mix of concern and resignation.

In each hand she was carrying a Build-A-Bear box. They were large enough that they barely cleared the floor, and every awkward step made the effort that much more difficult. The boxes either banged from side to side or dragged on the floor beneath her.

The scene was something of a metaphor for our contemporary obsession with crafting our own theology:

  1. We prefer to escape what we perceive as the burdens and strictures of the past.
  2. We favor the creative enterprise of fashioning a theology all our own.
  3. And, inevitably, we find ourselves making the journey alone.

It's a common American enterprise—arguably as old as the teddy bear. And, today, on the far side of the high-tide denominationalism of the 1950s and 1960s, we live there again—in part because we prize our religious freedom; in part because churches fail in their obligation to teach "the faith."

The struggle we have with Build-A-Bear theology is exactly what you would expect. We either cut ourselves off from collective wisdom about the work of God in the world, or we borrow so selectively on it that we isolate ourselves from one another.

We create something that is deeply meaningful to the one who crafts it, but predictably it lacks any deep relevance to others. Build-A-Bear theology is not something that has the breadth or depth to attract others. It lives in a disconnect from the past and the future. You can leave it in your will to another generation, but it will never amount to anything more than a curious keepsake from a relative.

There is little that the church can do to alter our cultural thirst for novelty or what Seth Godin describes as "neophilia." As Godin notes, our desire for something new and different has gained momentum:

A generation ago, a clever idea could run and run. We talked about Space Food Sticks and Tang and Gilligan's Island and the Batmobile for years, even though there certainly wasn't a lot of depth. Hit movies and books stayed on the bestseller lists for months or even years (!)

Today, an internet video or an investment philosophy or a political moment might last for weeks or even a few days. It's not unusual for a movie or a book or even a TV series to come and go before most people notice it. Neophilia has fundamentally changed the culture.

The result is that there's an increasing desire, almost a panic, for something new. Yesterday was a million years ago, and tomorrow is already here. The rush for new continues to increase, and it is now surpassing our ability to satisfy it.

What we can do is witness to the importance of a longer trajectory: the value of a community's witness to and experience of God over the centuries; the traction in history that shared texts, liturgies, and formulations of the faith lend to that experience; and the ways in which history speaks to the present, informs the future, and forges community.

In Godin's marketing world that means creating products with "a longer arc." In the church that means owning the value of "a long-established arc." If we fail to examine and critique our love of the novel, then we will fail both God and those who look to the church for guidance.

This is not to suggest that practices and theology are valuable simply because they are old. But it is to question our unqualified love of the new and novel.

Build-A-Bear is one thing. Build-A-God theology is something else.

11/29/2012 5:00:00 AM
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  • Frederick Schmidt
    About Frederick Schmidt
    Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: