Friday, October 23, 2009

Calling on Academic Theologians to Engage The Popular Culture - And Increase Their Relevance in the Church and World

Academic theologians write important books and thoughtful journal articles. But who cares?! Seriously. Nobody reads that stuff. The books end up covered in dust, decomposing on some random shelf in a seminary library. The journals end up bound together somewhere in the back of a library, never to see the light of day again. It's sad, but true. The only people who bother to read academic theology, if anybody, is other academic theologians. Okay, maybe a few seminary students read some of it too - but only if it's a required reading assignment for a class. Outside of those people, academic theology is completely ignored. We'd estimate that 99.9% of clergy and laypeople live their lives happily without ever cracking an academic book or journal. Academic theology - especially the progressive kind - is almost completely irrelevant to almost every person alive. And this is not hyperbole. If this were American Idol, progressive academic theologians would already be voted off the show. Honestly, who can even name these people or the stuff they've written!?

Progressive academic theology has been relegated to the sidelines of society – and the Mainline Church itself. The Mainline Church in general has quickly become sidelined. Part of the problem is that the Mainline Church is so diverse that it has no united vision or identity that people can rally behind. Another aspect of the problem is that the Mainline Church has lost its ability to inspire passion and reflect powerfully on the issues of the day. The result is that the Mainline Church has ceded things like excitement and populism to the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. And these more "conservative" groups have taken the ground and run with it, leaving Mainliners in the dust of irrelevance. To make matters worse, there is a growing chasm between lay theology and academic theology in the Mainline Church, which leaves academic theologians increasingly sidelined even among their own people and congregations. Progressive academia is concerned with the German model of “the academy” that emphasizes theoretical scholarship over practical implications. This, in turn, leaves congregations interested in everything except what Mainline academic theologians have to say or write. And this causes a defensiveness in the academic theologians that inspires many of them to hide in their crumbling ivory towers instead of engaging the culture like we need them to be doing. They don’t care about Joe the Church Plumber, and Joe the Church Plumber doesn’t care about them.

The major result of the sidelining of academic theologians is that progressives have been decentralized in popular theology and public life while conservatives have been centralized. In other words, you could say that conservatives have won American Idol for the past few years. Go to the religion section of any bookstore and you’ll see tons of books by people such as Joyce Meyer (prosperity gospel), Jerry Jenkins (theo-political right-wing escapism), Max Lucado (conservative spirituality), etc. Listen to the radio and you'll hear people like James Dobson (patriarchal fundamentalism). Watch TV and you’ll see people like Joel Osteen (conservative self help). Gone are the days of massive crowds showing up to hear progressive, academic preachers like Harry Fosdick. Gone are the days of US presidents seeking counsel from progressive theologians like Reinhold Neibuhr. Gone are the days of the progressives being the “Mainline.” But that doesn’t mean progressives should disappear quietly into the night. There is still hope for progressive, academic theologians. They must reclaim their right and responsibility to engage the popular culture. And allow us to hope-it-up by saying, yes they can. It’s possible. And we need them.

So, here are some tips for academic theologians:

(1) Start a blog that explores the intersection of progressive theology and pop culture.

(2) Use Twitter to comment on regular, daily stuff from a progressive theological perspective.

(3) Write op-eds that explore issues of public interest from a progressive theological perspective.

(4) Write music, devotionals, comics, fictional novels, or children’s books that incorporate progressive academic theology in more relatable, enjoyable forms.

(5) Take the time to learn from your kids and students about how to use the latest forms of multimedia and social networking – then start using it.
The list could go on and on. Start somewhere. Anywhere. And then go with it. The important thing for you to do is to bring your wise theological insight to bear on the popular culture. We need you. We don't even know we need you - but we need you. We need your groundbreaking, innovative theological ideas. But you gotta bring your ideas into conversation with the popular culture in much more concrete, practical, and interesting ways. It’s going to take some work. We know it’s an uphill battle. But we need to hear about all of your vitally important postmodern, multicultural, justice-advocating theology. You're doing cool stuff. Keep it coming. We just need it translated into words and forms that we can actually enjoy, engage, and employ.

And heck, while we’re asking for things, we could use a “John Stewart” or “Stephen Colbert” of academic theology. Just picture it. On TV we would see a witty, satirical theologian who deconstructs problematic issues and promotes progressive theologies. This person would make us think, pray, act, and laugh all at the same time. S/he would speak truth to power with humor. It’d be great. In fact, that’s what we want for Christmas from the academy!

Props to blogs like Homebrewed Christianity, organizations like Transforming Theology, and authors like Phyllis Tickle for helping to bring progressive theological insights to the masses. We just need more people doing more of this kind of work. It’s part of an academic’s right and responsibility. Bring on the engagement with popular culture!

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