More than 3.5 million books are published in the world every year while around 500,000 people complete a marathon.
This means it’s seven times easier for somebody to publish a book than to run a marathon. It’s even easier to start a blog.
If you’re skillful in using Twitter, it’s not hard to gain a large following. If you can write, you can publish books, influence thousands and make money for publishers.
In the religious realm, the resultant pop theology that emerges forms hundreds of thousands of the younger generations.
This is not entirely negative, as social media opens up exchanges of all kinds for theological banter. Yet I wonder where is the place for serious theological reflection?
I remember when Brian McLaren came out with “A New Kind of Christian,” which made space safe for the kind of conversations everybody wanted to have. Shortly thereafter, came a series of his books that were widely discussed.
I recall having several conversations with teachers of theology within academia who were shocked at McLaren’s success and the speed by which his ideas were being hailed as revolutionary.
To them, his work appeared to be using categories established prior to Karl Barth and World War II.
They asked, “How could something so old gain such popularity as if it’s new?” In the words of a friend, it was Adolf Harnack without the footnotes.
Why were these books influencing so many people when its issues, problems and deficits had long been exposed? Who would put this great book in its proper context?
I remember getting a copy of Rachel Held Evans’ “A Year in Biblical Womanhood.”
Its popularity surprised me, as she targeted a biblical hermeneutic that was debunked so long ago, I could not understand why anyone would care. “Does anyone still actually view the Bible in this absurdly simplistic way?” I asked.
When she was promoting the book, it cast Christians as Neanderthal idiots. I hadn’t met someone who still thought in this hyperliteralist way about Scripture since my high school days, and that was in the ’70s.
I’ve since learned that Evans hails from the heart of the Bible belt where some Christians do still think like this.
But we need serious theological engagement and exposure to the broader history of the way Christians have engaged the issue of interpreting Scripture among these very popular writings.
We need to be able to provide the backdrop for popular theology. Pop theology serves a role in public discourse, but it needs a broader context or it may mislead.
When Ben Witherington wrote a blog review of Evans’ newest book, he committed the seemingly unpardonable sin of disrespecting her theological credentials.
He overtly wished she had “continued her education” in seminary, learned something about hermeneutics and was “better trained in biblical interpretation.”
He received many negative responses and was accused of wielding his theological credentials as a weapon.
Nonetheless, there is a serious question here in Witherington’s questioning: How do we make space for serious theological reflection among the writings in popular publishing?
Theology must return to local grass-roots communities, with local churches led by serious organic theologians leading the way.
These “organic intellectuals,” as I’ve called them, will bridge the gap between the academics and the pop writers of our day.
Social media and blogs are fine, but it’s in serious local communities where ideas are sorted out and tested in the spirit via a biblical tradition.
Here “organic intellectuals” do their best work, as their writings are done face to face in live (not virtual) community.
Theology is more than the best musings of isolated individuals reacting to the ills of their past church experiences. This theology has flesh and bones on it, real lived life.
This kind of organic reflection must start in local communities of worship, teaching and preaching, as we inhabit the places, problems and issues of our day.
I believe this is the kind of theology we must turn to once we leave behind the catharsis of venting our anger at our fundamentalist evangelical upbringing.
I appreciate authors like McLaren and Evans. But we also need a more historically grounded theology, engaged with the history of arguments, generated by leaders on the ground, leading local church communities, engaging the cultural challenges, with a deeper sense of the history of the conversation they are speaking into.
This approach seems to go missing among the progressive Christian world where most writers like McLaren, Evans, Rob Bell and others who no longer hold a place of leadership within an ongoing church.
I’m hungering for these kind of organic pastor-theologians to gain traction, but is this possible in the social media driven, mass publishing frenzied world of theological conversation today?
David Fitch is the Betty R. Linder chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. A longer version of this article first appeared on his website, Reclaiming the Mission, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @fitchest.
David E. Fitch (PhD, Northwestern University) is the B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and the cofounder of Missio Alliance. He is the founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community, a missional church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and is currently on the pastoral staff at Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois.