Making theology available to congregations

Over on Pisteuomen, Michael Halcomb has published a conversation with Chris Tilling of Chrisendom fame. In between discussing significantly less biblical issues, they touch on ways that we can begin to bridge the gap that exists between the academy and the Church. Chris suggests that we don’t try to suggest that everyone needs to read academic tomes to sort out their faith. I agree, but I also think that we ought to make sure that congregant/parishioners are aware that it is both OK and possible for them to read academic tomes if they’re interested.

I’m reminded of a Computer Science doctoral candidate who used to come and talk to me on a very regular basis. He had grown up in an atheist family where he had been told that only a fool believes in God. His previous contact with Christians had reinforced this notion but he was fascinated by the fact that I was clearly intelligent and also clearly believed in God and wanted to know more. (I know this because he told me so.)

One day he wandered in and I needed to finish something before I could talk to him, so he browsed my bookshelves. He found a copy of Jürgen Moltmann’s Creating a Just Future and asked if he could borrow it. I somewhat hesitatingly said yes, because I thought it might be rather complex for someone with no church background. The next morning he was in my office, blazingly angry. Why, he wanted to know, had no-one ever told him that you could be a Christian without putting your brain into neutral? Why hadn’t anyone told him that Christians were interested in more than just converting you? It had taken him over an hour to work out how to look up the Bible readings in the Gideons’ New Testament that he had at home and he hadn’t understood some of the finer points of Moltmann’s argument, but he was fascinated.

He took to systematic theology like a duck to water and read everything that Moltmann had ever written that was available in English translation, and then went on to Pannenburg, Bultmann and Elisabeth Moltmann Wendell (the last on the basis that anyone sensible enough to marry Jürgen must have something worthwhile to offer). I found this very challenging, having been much more interested in biblical studies, ethics and pastoral care when I was studying, but I think he found an on-line community that was more able to enter into the discussion with enthusiasm than I was.

I left the university at that point and lost contact with him, so I don’t know whether his enthusiasm for Moltmann resulted in a conversion experience, but it did suggest to me that churchgoers might find academic writing difficult to understand because they expect it to be difficult. The student had no idea that Moltmann was supposed to be difficult, so he didn’t find him difficult.

Of course, some theology/biblical studies is difficult. Some of the people in academe use such arcane language and such tortuous sentences structure that they’re almost impossible to follow. I suspect they think that they are showing how clever they are, but I tend to think that it simply shows what poor communicators they are, and I don’t bother reading them. I am often prepared to make exceptions for people who have published in a language other than English and who I am reading in English, on the basis that they may be suffering from poor translation. Ernst Käsemann is a case in point – some of the English versions of his books are much more readable than others and the more readable ones are translated by different people to the less readable ones.

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