Writing Theology Well
That, my friends, is the question of the day…at least the question of the day in my writing class. The true answer is: I have never thought of myself as a writer of theology. Until I began this class, if you had asked me the question “What kind of writer are you,” I would have said that I was an observational one, a commentator on life as it swirled around me and on myself as I moved through life. After all, wasn’t “theology” a big word that applied to the work of scholars and deep thinkers? Doesn’t writing theology mean creating exegetical essays on the meaning of one pivotal word in a Psalm text? Doesn’t writing theology mean outlining in great historical detail the arguments about the Incarnation and then building your own case textually with your own interpretation? Doesn’t it mean writing a sermon that both instructs and moves?
Of course all of those things are theology. But apparently what I do is writing theology as well. The question is, do I personally do it well? When have I done it well, if ever? And what do I need to do a better job of it.
Until recently, I would have told you that music was the medium through which I communicated my theology to those around me. Writing was a sideline, a personal development tool (even though I put most of my writing on blogs that anyone with an Internet connection can find and read). But that idea changed the day I spent time in a class about Baptism with Lisa Kimball and Roger Ferlo. That day, I learned the words practical theology. Those words changed my thinking about myself, my skills, and just what I had been doing for the past several years.
So, I guess I had been writing theology after all. And it looks like I may have a lot more to write about as time goes on. But do I do it well? I have no idea. If, by “well” we mean do I seem to communicate something that people need to read, then the answer would yes, on occasion I write theology well. On more occasions, I do not. I will let you form your own opinion of my writing as we walk this path together. But to get you started, here are some writing that might just pass for theology:
The next part of today’s question is this: what are my strengths/weaknesses as a writer of theological reflection, and what skills do I have or do I need to develop. I am always uncomfortable stating my perception of my strengths, so I will decline to answer that portion of the question. My biggest weakness in my eyes is that I have yet to be able to lift myself out of a very personal voice. I write best about what I observe or what I think or what I feel or what I have just read or where I have just been. I think that the development of a perspective that was not, well, so Susan-centered, might improve and expand my writing palette. And I really need to take more time to edit and check spelling before I post. And, on occasion, I do ramble while getting to my point. To some, the fact that I write in the same manner as I speak is a gift. To others, I’m sure it is something that needs to be fixed (and immediately).
I will admit that I am still struggling with the idea of writing “theology” and that might just have to do with my Baptist identity. The reason I started this blog was to ponder (publicly) my experience as a Baptist in an Episcopal world and believe it or not, the question of where I fit as a writer of theological reflection touches that experience. So I thought that I should take this moment and share what I know about Baptists and their concept of theology. These beliefs will inform my writing as we move forward, I am sure. And I’ll add a disclaimer here: the following is my own interpretation of being a Baptist (of course, having my own opinion about it is, indeed, very Baptist).
While the Progressive Baptist affiliations are peopled by those far from the stereotype of Baptists in the deep South, theology is not really a word you hear very often in Baptist life. If there is a discussion of theology, it is usually at the individual congregational level. And, the most truly Baptist among us do not even impose a congregational theology…while we may have larger beliefs around which we gather, such as social justice or hospitality and inclusiveness, theology is a very, very personal matter. We are, after all, not a unified denomination but a collection of local autonomous congregations who affiliate generally for the purpose of combining resources for mission work and occasionally for educational and evangelical activities. We do tend to affiliate with those that share some theological commonality (progressive vs. conservative, etc.). We have no theological doctrine that we refer to as we worship; we are often referred to as a non-creedal church because of that; we have no combined worship practice that you would recognize in any Baptist church that you might visit (although one might be able to write an interesting theological discussion of the altar call in Baptist life).
You will most often hear Baptists talk about their Baptist Identity and, if they are talking about the set of beliefs that leads them to define that identity as Baptist, you will hear them talk about the Baptist distinctives: the authority of the Bible; the autonomy of the local church; the priesthood of all believes; the symbolic ordinances of adult baptism and the Lord’s Supper; the separation of church and state; and the belief in individual soul liberty (the individual as interpretative authority of Scripture and calling, sometimes referred to as “a personal relationship with God”). Much of the argument today between the Southern Baptist Convention and the rest of the Baptist world has to do with their attempt to impose a unifying theological statement which they call their Statement of Faith. This is a very, very un-Baptist thing to do, and is at its core more troubling than even their positions on the ordination of women and inclusiveness.
You see, I ramble sometimes. And you might think that none of this has anything to do with the question at hand but I have a suspicion that it will as we move forward. I suspect that things that are very clear to those of you from another tradition will be quite puzzling to me. But as we continue together, I’m going to hold on to that definition for the word theology offered Rowan Williams that open the first chapter of our reading: “Theology is a language used by a specific group of people to make sense of their world.” (Yaghjian, Writing Theology Well, pg. 3). That is a definition that even this Baptist can live with. I’m looking forward to writing some more as I figure it all out.