Theology, Politics, and Rhetoric

July 7, 2016

So, I’m writing a book on how to read and understand the Bible.  The book is for undergraduates, not for theological professionals, so rhetoric becomes an important consideration–how to find the right way of saying things so that communication actually occurs.

Communication in theological  subjects is a challenge for several reasons.  The nature of the subject matter is one, but another is that often the teacher or writer inhabits a different culture from the learner or reader.  This difference of culture assumes a sinister character in today’s political climate.

There is an excellent editorial by David Brooks (“Revolt of the Masses,” June 28, 2016, in which he describes the two cultures that are driving this year’s presidential campaign and why neither understands the other.

The articles focuses on what he calls the “working-class honor code” and makes several incisive observations (relying, in part, on the research of other people).  My attention was caught by one comment in particular: The working-class honor code “has been decimated lately. Conservatives argue that it has been decimated by cosmopolitan cultural elites who look down on rural rubes.”

Red state blue state

Map of the Christian Church in the United States

The red state-blue state cultural bifurcation that afflicts American politics today is mirrored in the Christian church.  I doubt that my church has many “cosmopolitan cultural elites,” but there is a cultural divide; it is to some extent generational and to some extent educational.

Under these circumstances, theology is no longer simply an intellectual  task.  Instead it becomes a political matter of negotiating the differences among various cultures.  It’s not unlike the task facing a presidential candidate, who has to find a message, or a way of presenting a message, that the various factions within his or her party can be happy with.

For instance, several years ago I was writing a textbook of theology.  The section on sanctification required two thorough rewrites, demanded by the various layers of ecclesiastical editors.  The rewrites were required because I had to find a way of stating the idea of sanctification that would not offend or irritate the most conservative readers.  Rewrites were necessary to find the right rhetorical tone for a potentially wide audience of varying theological cultures, including the culture whose members are acutely sensitive to departures from the hallowed tradition.

This means that ecclesiastical leaders have a nearly impossible task.  My church, like most others, contains at least two distinct cultures, one socially conservative and the other not.  The leaders of my church have the unenviable job of keeping this mixed multitude together on one ecclesiastical ark (I resist the temptation to use here the image of clean and unclean animals on the ark) and of articulating our theological heritage in a way that allows the multitude to inhabit the ark with some degree of harmony and shared vision.  (Not that our leaders do this very well.  From my location at the far edge of the denomination, they seem to excel mostly at traveling and administration.  They and their bureaucratic acolytes appear to have nothing in their theological toolbox except hackneyed platitudes satisfying an increasingly small number of zealots.)

Unfortunately, the need to preserve unity and avoid conflict results in a culture of pervasive fear and in risk-averse conduct.  A similar situation obtained in ante-bellum America, when the debate over slavery was so acrimonious that it threatened to split churches.  As a result, many churches for several decades tolerated slave-owning members, believing schism to be a worse fate than tolerating slavery.

In a context of political anger such as we experience today, when fury has become a Christian virtue, church leaders will understandably be reluctant to expose themselves to the vitriol of the aggrieved culture and to run the risk of schism.

So what is a theologian to do when the church is populated by differing tribes, differing cultures?  What is the theological task in a situation in which segments of the church react with near hysteria to changes in the social and intellectual landscape?  It’s not necessary to adduce gay marriage as an example–portions of the Christian community are still fighting over the theory of evolution and the ordination of women, and I’m confident that somewhere in the church there are lingering doubts about the civil rights movement.

I’m tempted to regard this situation as generational and to hope that time will reduce the conflict between the cultures.  My undergraduate students mostly come from conservative, non-denominational churches.  Nonetheless, on social issues such as homosexuality they hold views that are far different from and less militant than the way in which Evangelical thought is commonly portrayed–a portrait of  representatives of conservative churches who are usually typically pretty old.  Even students who oppose homosexual marriage exhibit a rhetoric that is considerably milder than the alarmist speech characteristic of Evangelicalism’s spokespersons.

A stubborn sense of realism, however, intrudes into my hopes and forces me to acknowledge that the difference between cultures is not simply generational.  It is in fact deeply ideological.  The Christian community in America today simply possesses contrary views about the church’s relation to culture and nation.

In this situation, where theology inevitably acquires a political dimension, rhetoric becomes important.  It becomes, in other words, important to attend to means of persuasion.  Theological scholars and intellectuals have only words, but words can persuade.  The task is to find the right words and to place them in the right order.  Behind this task lies the whistling-in-the-dark confidence that there are Christians in every political culture who can be persuaded.  Whether this confidence is warranted is a matter of debate, but Christianity is, after all, a religion of hope.

“Pictures at an Exhibition” and Theology


Modeste Mussorgsky 1839-1881

Two nights ago Terrie and I heard a presentation of Modeste Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition” by the San Diego Symphony.

(Here’s a Youtube link to a performance:

The piece itself was well worth the price of admission.  It’s very stirring and uses the full range of an orchestra’s resources.  But what was especially fascinating was that the performance was preceded by an hour long presentation about the piece–the composer, the circumstances of the composition (it was an homage to a deceased friend, an artist), what Mussorgsky was trying to accomplish, and the process by which Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) transformed Mussorgsky’s piano piece into an orchestral arrangement.  The talk was interspersed with bits of “Pictures” illustrating points made by the talk.  There was also extensive use of photos and paintings.

While listening to this well-executed presentation, I was irresistibly drawn to the idea of presenting theology in a comparable way.

What the symphony’s presentation reminded me is that music is always the product of a particular situation–in it the composer is trying to accomplish something.  It may be a technical musical issue or it may be the expression of a feeling or desire or it may be the need to make a public statement, but music is never simply an instance of supposedly eternal laws of musical composition.  The music always arises out of the composer’s life and circumstances.

Theology, like music, always arises
out of particular circumstances

The same is true of Christian theology.  There is a great temptation to assume that theology–true theology–never changes because it is simply putting into human words the eternal word of God. What this assumption overlooks is what becomes obvious to anyone who teaches theology, namely that it is not an abstract system of ideas but is instead the verbalization of the theologian’s struggle with God.  The theology of the greatest of modern theologians (easy examples include Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth) gives abundant testimony to this fact, but it is true as well of theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther and Friedrich Schleiermacher.  Too often the logical form of theology masks the existential circumstances of its composition.  When this happens we have a theology that is something to be learned in the way in which school children learn the multiplication tables.

Theology is not a
timeless system of ideas.

What the Mussorgsky presentation suggested to me is that perhaps the best way to present theology is not the traditional mode (a plodding journey through ideas in an artificially logical form) but is instead biographical and circumstantial–an approach that takes seriously the situation of the theologian and, of course, the communities of which he or she is a part.

Coincidently, I’m teaching this semester two sections of a general education course, The Christian Tradition. I had already decided to take a mostly biographical approach this semester, focusing on the lives of Augustine, six medieval Catholic women, Martin Luther, and John Wesley. My hope is that students will feel the urgency and greatness of Christian thought by seeing its connection to living human beings.  Of course, given our culture’s aversion to history, I face a daunting task.  But the presentation of “Pictures from an Exhibition” gives me some hope.