I am coming out of an intense season of study. In that time I have found four amazing authors that I wanted to tell you about since I plan on referencing thier work a lot in the coming year.

My five qualifying exams were in the following areas:

  • Practical Theology (major field)
  • Religious Education (minor field)
  • Global Methodism (theology)
  • Critical Race Theory: Whiteness (practicum)
  • Social Imaginaries (cognate field)

In all of that reading, there were four thinkers that deeply impacted the direction of my work: Elaine Graham, Bonnie Miller-McLemore, Susan Hekman, and Sheila Greeve Davaney.

Sheila Greeve Davaney takes a critical and constructive approach to Christian theology that incorporates the most contemporary thought from philosophy, cultural analysis, and related fields to express an insightful address of the challenges that the church faces. In works like Theology At The End Of Modernity, Changing Conversations, and Converging On Culture she critiques historical approaches that have resulted in uneven, flawed, and unjust models of theology and church.

She is the writer whose work I highlight the most and I have even purchased a website in the hopes of doing a ‘summer school’ reading group of her work (more on that in coming weeks).

 Elaine Graham is the practical theologian whose work I want to emulate. She is in England and this gives her writing a unique tone from within a post-Christian context. Her books, like Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty and Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Public Theology in a Post-Secular Age are profound and challenging.

A unique aspect is the use of Judith Butler’s notion of ‘perfomativity’. Think of actions and the roles that we play in society like learning a language. The social structures and conventions that we participate in are both reproduced by us (as we utilize them) and they pattern us internally. We are formed by them as we conform to those expectations. She explains:

Practice is therefore structured behavior which follows certain rules or patterns. However, social actors are not unthinkingly rehearsing social conventions but purposefully reproducing them. Thus social structures are ‘reproduced social practices’ that endure to orient ‘the conduct of knowledgeable human agents’. (quoting Giddens)[1]

Graham is very clear that there are powers at work and structures that are reinforced as practices are adopted and transmitted through social relations and activities. Religion, like literature, medicine, and other structured activities, is both embodied and transmitted as we are simultaneously agents and actors within these given forms. “Practice is constitutive of a way of life, both individual and collective, personal and structural.” [2] In this way we both conceive of ourselves as free acting agents and are perpetually aware of the limited options on our menu and sense the perimeters (boundaries) that are heavily policed. “Practice both reflects and reinforces social relations and ideologies.” [3] Ideas come from somewhere, beliefs are grounded in some inherited framework, and practices (even religious ones) have effects both within us as participants and simultaneously reinforce the given structure.

Bonnie Miller-McLemore has written the three things that I quote more than anything else in my discipline of Practical Theology. Her four-fold definition of PT gives shape to the new (and massive) Companion to Practical Theology. She also wrote an article addressing the 5 Misunderstandings about PT that drew responses from far and wide and took up almost an entire issue of the International Journal. Lastly, she is a vocal spokesperson for the move from studying ‘the living human document’ to a more holistic and flexible understanding of ‘the living human web’. I will blog on all three of these next week.

Let me just say that this conception of theological refection was a significant move forward in recognizing the invaluable contribution that examining real lived experience could contribute to theological understanding. Human life is an interlaced, multifaceted, and complex set of connections and influences that are systematically layered with meaning and purpose that formulate a tapestry of significance and experiential material. The web is also living and dynamic – ever evolving and increasingly interconnected. You can see why I am attracted to this idea!

Susan Hekman is not a theologian but she has made a bigger impact on my theology than anyone else in the past three years. For those of you who don’t know, there is a significant fascination in much of theology with reclaiming Aristotelian notions of character formation and civil virtue. This desire makes me supremely nervous and theologically uncomfortable. Folks in this camp look to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and its Christian descendants like Stanley Hauerwas. I have never liked it but had difficulty putting my finger on the exact reason why, and until I found Hekman and Graham I thought that I may just have to concede this battle for lack of clarity about the nature of my discomfort. Then I found Hekman’s feminist critique of the reclamation project and I was able to see the depth of the danger that this desire to go back represents for the church. I have only made a tiny bit of my writing about this public so far – but this will be a major theme for me going forward.

Thank you to everyone who has reached out this past year with affirmation and encouragement. I just wanted to whet your appetite a little bit and give you a heads up about what was coming in the next month.

[1] Graham, Transforming Practice, 98.

[2] Ibid., 110.

[3] Ibid., 103.

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