Monday, February 28, 2005

God Working in Serendipitous Ways

Yesterday, I was killing some time with a friend in NYC between our visits of two churches, Mosaic Manhattan in the morning and Redeemer Presbyterian in the evening. After a great omlette a The Cupping Room on 5th Avenue, we walked a few miles north (so I could smoke a cigar), and then we jumped on the subway. We got off around 98th and walked south along the eastern border of Central Park. (Yes, we saw Christo's saffron "The Gates.")

We went into the Met to find a place to sit down and read for a couple hours until Redeemer started. Well, it turns out that yesterday was the last days of "The Gates," so the Met was the most crowded that it's been in years -- I mean it was crawling with thousands and thousands of people. Chris and I found our way to an atrium in the building, and, although there were people everywhere, a couple of chairs opened up just as we were walking around. So we sat down across from one another.

As I was getting out my book, I looked at the book laid across the lap of the guy next to me. It was The Search to Belong, an emergentYS book by Joe Myers. The guy looked like a Viking -- like the big guy with red hair who is Mel Gibson's right-hand-man in Braveheart. And he was asleep.

When he came to a couple moments later, I asked him, "How do you like that book?"

"I like it so far. It's really good. Why?" he asked.

"I'm actually on the editorial board that publishes that line of books," I told him.

"You're a part of Emergent?"

"Yeah, I'm on the Coordinating Group," I said.

"I love you guys!" he exclaimed.

Turns out his name is Jeff Kursonis, and he's feeling called by God to plant a church for artists (actors, musicians, visual artists, etc.) in NYC. He's a YWAM alumnus and moved to NYC a few years ago to be a professional songwriter/piano player. He's recently been involved in The Haven, a weekely parachurch ministry gathering of artists, and it's this experience that has led him to consider planting a church. He's been reading Emergent books, reading websites, and wondering how he could ever get connected to us.

And he wasn't sleeping. He was praying that God would give him a clear sign that he is on the right track in planting a church.

We talked for over an hour about Emergent, church planting, events, and connections. It was really great.

One of the things that talking with Jeff confirmed for me was that Emergent's role is likely a temporary one: to carve out a space in the institutional Christian church for artists, lovers, and mystics to take it the next step. We're using words, publishing, and logical arguments; they'll use dreams, art, and beauty.

So, join me in praying for Jeff and his dream of planting a church.

[UPDATE: Jeff came to our NJ Cohort last night and has commented below, and he's planning to start a blog. If anyone wants to email him, click here.]

Friday, February 25, 2005

What Is Practical Theology? Part II

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.)

Other practical theologians take other disciplines as their dialogue partners, often social psychology, social theory, and sociology. All of these are important to the practical theologian who is trying to determine what's going on in God's world. Thus, we turn to social scientists who specialize in figuring out the "what's going on?" question. And more and more, practical theologians are taking up the instruments of empirical research and gathering data themselves.

This does lead to two interrelated questions: 1) What is the practical theologian's mode of interdisciplinarity? It's intellectually dishonest to raid other disciplines for their fruits, especially when they're saying what you hope they'll say. So one must enter humbly and respectfully into dialogue with a field that is not one's primary are of expertise. And 2) Who sets the agenda for theology? It seems odd to let psychologists or sociologists dictate what we should theologize about. On the other hand, when a dramatic social change happens (e.g., globalization), or something happens in the natural sciences (e.g., discovery of the "gay gene"), it does seem incumbent upon theology to respond. Again, these are not decisions to be entered into lightly.

Ultimately, this is what it means for PT to be "grounded." It means that there's a descriptive moment to PT that does, indeed, set it apart from other types of theologizing.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

What Is Practical Theology? Part I

I do get asked on occasion, "What is practical theology?" Lots of people are pretty sure they know what systematic, dogmatic, and biblical theology are, but less are sure exactly what practical theology is.

At Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Richard Osmer has developed a model of doing practical theology that is extremely helpful in this regard, so I'll describe it over the course of a few posts. His is what a philosopher would call a "wide, reflective equilibrium model" -- that is, he's not trying to reinvent the wheel but to describe the field of practical theology as it currently stands.

But before that, a little history: the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher "invented" practical theology in the 18th century. At the time, the German research university model was being born -- that's what all of our higher education now is reflecting, for better and worse -- and the work of theology was being broken up into what is called the "theological encyclopedia." The volumes in that encyclopedia were 1) biblical studies, 2) systematic theology, and 3) church history. Schleiermacher proposed that a fourth discipline be added, called "practical theology," that would develop "rules of art" for Christian life and ministry.

Over the course of three hundred years, however, practical theology devolved into, basically, application of the findings of the other three disciplines. That is, you'd take all your weighty courses in seminary from the other three, then you'd get a class on preaching or Christian education or pastoral counseling that was basically a "nuts and bolts" class.

Since the middle of the 20th century, there has been a renaissance in practical theology, spurred on by the University of Chicago Divinity School, Princeton, Emory, and several European universities. During this time, practical theologians have staked their claim as doing constructive theology, not merely applying the findings of other fields of study. What sets practical theology apart from the other three disciplines in theological education (and what I find most compelling) is that it's grounded theological reflection. In other words, practical theologians attempt to deal with issues that are a part of life in the world, not to solve abstract theoretical problems.

So here's a working definition: practical theology is theological reflection that is grounded in the life of the church, society, and the individual and that both critically recovers the theology of the past and constructively develops theology for the future.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Hell Exists

Word on the street is that Brian has gone soft on hell in his latest book. Well, while I may agree with him on the otherworldly hell, I have just been told, "Welcome to hell," by Andy Root, who's a year ahead of me in the PhD program at PTS.

You see, on Wednesday, the practical theology faculty approved my research topic proposal for my dissertation, which clears the way for me to take my comprehensive exams in May and September.

"What are comps?" you ask. Well, on the appointed day, I need to show up with an empty hard drive on my laptop (and paper and a pen if my computer breaks down). I'm given an envelope and an empty room. Then I open the envelope, which reveals three questions. I have six hours to answer the three questions. No books. No notes. Most people write 30-40 pages in the six hours.

I then turn in the answers. Overnight, I can edit the essays for grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but not for content. Then I turn in the final version the next morning.

This entire process happens five times.

The five exams are on 1) the history and theory of practical theology, 2) the history and theory of Christian education, 3) practical theology in dialogue with systematic theology, 4) practical theology in dialogue with social theory, and 5) practical theology in dialogue with psychology.

A week after the fifth exam (sometime in September), I have a two-hour oral defense of my answers in front of a committee of the faculty.

If I pass, then I have a couple months to get a 20-30 page dissertation prospectus to the PhD studies committee for approval.

So maybe you can see why Andy said, "Welcome to hell."

And maybe you can understand why I get a little ornery when people with D.Min. degrees insist on being referred to as "Dr." OK, I get a lot ornery. So does my brother, the surgeon, when he meets a chiropractor.

(Before all you D.Min. holders rip me, I think it's a fine degree. In fact, I imagine that I'll be teaching some D.Min. classes in the near future. I just think the degrees are substantially different and should have a different appellation.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

In Praise of Christian Smith

We just finished up a two-day consultation here at Princeton that brought together some of the best minds in the study of American religion, people like Cynthia Woolever, Diana Butler Bass, Dorothy Bass, and Don Browning, the dean of American practical theology. Really, it was great to talk with these people, some of whom very much had emergent on their radar, while others did not ("I've been meaning to read that Christian Century article," a few told me).

But the highlight for me was both getting to know and hear a presentation from Christian Smith. Smith is a sociologist at UNC-Chapel Hill, and he is a preeminent sociologist of American religion (in the post-Wuthnow generation). I've already blogged about his excellent book, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Today he presented the findings from a massive multi-year study on American teens (13-17 years old) and religion. The book to come out of the project is called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teens, and much of the research from the stufy is available at the website of the National Study of Youth and Religion.

Smith's overall work, it seems to me, is to investigate how religion and religious institutions can develop and even thrive in a postmodern/pluralistic context. The way that so many kids in America are Christian -- and a vast majority are -- is disturbing. Their Christianity is so nebulous, so watered down, that Smith calls their religion "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." That is, they believe in God, they believe God wants us to be "good people" and to make "good choices," and they believe that God is available to answer them or help them out when they need him. Other than that, they can articulate exactly nothing distinctive about the Christian faith.

Listen, you can read the book. And the fact is, you should read it, and read it right away. Even if you don't care about teens (which you should), the study basically shows that all these kids are doing is reflecting their parents' faith.

It's very disturbing stuff, and it's a harsh indictment on the state of the church, youth ministry, and Christian parenting.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Death to Spanking!!!

Here's some logic for you:

Teach your kids not to hit... hitting them.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Send My Kids to College!!!

Dear Friends,

I beseech you to click here, and help a struggling Ph.D. student pay the bills. Seriously, diapers, baby food, swimming lessons -- you can help!

And for all of those pro-homeschoolers who think that I'm the spawn of Satan, this may show you that I'm actually someone who believes in wholesome, family values like prayer and the Bible (you may want to skip the chapters on the labyrinth and icons).

C'mon, let's get that Amazon ranking into the four-digits! (And feel free to leave overwhelmingly positive reviews on Amazon.)

Love ya,


[UPDATE: My kids thank Jenell for the kind review!]

Thursday, February 03, 2005

American Evangelicalism

One of the biggest problems facing contemporary sociologists, especially since the collapse of the secularization thesis, has been if and how religion can survive in a pluralistic/postmodern context. Several theses have been proposed, including 1) the sheltered enclave or "sacred canopy theory" (Peter Berger, James Davidson Hunter), 2) status discontent theory (Richard Hofstadter, Joseph Gusfield), 3) strictness theory (Dean Kelly, Laurence Iannaccone), and 4) competitive marketing theory (Roger Finke, Rodney Stark).

In his excellent 1998 book, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving Christian Smith offers a look at the one strand American religion that seems to be vibrant in the pluralistic American context, and that is evangelicalism.

The Good
By a set of six sociological measurements (including robustness of faith, saliency of faith, and participation), evangelicalism is indeed thriving. Smith and his team performed the most massive empirical study of evangelicalism ever done, including 2,591 telephone surveys, followed up by hundreds of face-to-face interviews and dozens of church visits. The results show conclusively that evangelicalism is doing well in America -- that is, its adherents are committed to it, and it is growing.

The Bad
The reason that evangelicalism is thriving is that it has, since the evangelical-fundamentalist split of the 1940s, developed a relationship of "difference, engagement, tension, conflict, and threat." One one end of the spectrum, fundamentalists have withdrawn from culture, developed a retreatist attitude (see comments on homeschooling post below), and are have not negotiated a sustaining relationship with culture. Mainline and liberal Christians (Protestant and Catholic alike) are accomodationist, and there is simply not enough difference between them and culture to make a difference to much of anyone. In other words, why join something that looks exactly like what you're already a part of. All three -- fundamentalists, liberals, and mainliners -- scored significantly lower that evangelicals in all six characteristics of strength.

Smith then proposes a subcultural identity theory of religious strength in the face of pluralism. "In a pluralistic society, those religious groups will be relatively stronger which better possess and employ the cultural tools needed to create both clear distinction from and significant engagement and tension with other relevant outgroups, short of becoming genuinely countercultural." Those are the very tools that evangelicalism has employed, and this has led to a love-hate relationship with culture.

For instance, evangelicals rail against the secular media, and yet they relish every possibility to get a major evangelical figure on Larry King Live. They repudiate modern rock and rap music, yet they relish contemporary Christian music which is wholly owned by the same mammoth corporations that own the secular labels. I think you get the picture.

The Ugly
Smith goes on to conclude that the very thing which makes evangelicalism strong in a pluralistic society also dooms it to failure in making any kind of positive change in that society. That is, evangelicalism will never achieve its goals for the redemption of society because the tools in its toolkit don't work on societies.

For example, evangelicals have an atomistic view of society. In other words, they see society as nothing more than the sum of the individuals who make it up. When asked about social problems, evangelicals overwhelmingly state the answer to these problems is personal relationship. Here's the theory: if a father is beating his kids, a Christian man should befriend that man, and lead him to Christ, then he'll stop beating his kids; and once we do that with every child abuser, then the problem of child abuse will vanish from our society. One of the obvious problems with this line of reasoning is that child abuse, alcoholism, divorce, etc. are just as prevalent (or more) among evangelicals as among any other group.

When confronted with the obvious lunacy of this logic, the evangelicals interviewed had a hard time seeing that it was a problem, and when they did, they were often left speechless as to any other response to a social problem (several interviews are printed in the book).

For another example, when polled, the very things that evangelicals are most proud of about evangelicalism are the things most hated by non-evangelicals -- not a ringing endorsement from those the evangelicals are trying to convince.

Finally, it actually serves evangelicalism's purposes to have this conflictual relationship with culture. If culture gets more and more evangelical, then evangelicalism will no longer be a distinct sub-group and, like mainliners and liberals did a couple decades ago, they would gradually lose their identity.

So What?
The emerging church has clearly been attempting to negotiate a different kind of relationship with culture than evangelicalism has. Some have claimed that we're nothing but accomodationist liberals, while others have said that we're nothing but evangelicals with soul patches. The fact is, we're hoping to be Christian in a new way in this pluralistic context -- maybe to remain in the tension but lose the conflict. To have our eyes open about the cultural forces that shape us, and to realize that electing a Christian individual to a political office, for instance, actually does little to effect social change.