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The Blandness of Theological Small Talk – reflections on the Borg/Blomberg interaction at NW ETS

I hate small talk. Prattling inanely with someone you barely know about things you find only marginally interesting, just doesn’t rank very high on my list of things to do. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy a good conversation. On the contrary, give me a meaningful conversation, some significant dialog, or even a lively debate anytime. But, stick me in a room thick with the stench of small-talkiness, and I’m looking for the nearest exit.

Unfortunately, there’s a theological equivalent of small talk, and I think I saw it on full display just yesterday.

Let me explain. A really meaningful conversation requires at least four things.

  1. Unique identities. For a meaningful conversation to take place, you and I need to be different enough to create a “space” for the conversation. I don’t really need to dialog with someone who agrees with me. I already know what I think. At the same time, those involved in the conversation need to recognize the uniqueness of everyone else. In a good conversation, I’m not simply try to replicate myself by turning you into a (less adequate) clone of me. Instead, in a good conversation, everyone sees the other as valuable and as contributing something meaningful to the process.
  2. Owned perspectives. At the same time, everyone needs to have a perspective on the issue(s) and to “own” that perspective sufficiently to want to retain it. Have you ever tried to have a good conversation with someone who doesn’t care about what you’re discussing? It doesn’t work.
  3. Respectful pushback. The first two combine to form the third. If I respect you as a unique and valuable individual and if I respect the importance of the issue were discussing, then I need to push back if I think you’re wrong or misdirected on some point. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I have to be rude. But, it does mean that I’m not just going to let differences slide. I might do that with someone I have no interest in – the person in line behind me at the coffee shop, for example – but not someone whose unique value I claim to respect.
  4. Teachability. Finally, in a real conversation, all parties are looking to learn something. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re willing to jettison our own perspectives – we “own” those, remember – but it does mean that we see everyone else in the conversation as having something beneficial to contribute, to which we should all pay close attention.

If you think about the most dynamic and engaged conversations you’ve ever had, I’m guessing that you’ll see most (hopefully all) of these elements represented. At least, I hope you’ve had conversations like this. They’re fabulous experiences that should be repeated as often as possible.

Unfortunately, when Craig Blomgerg and Marcus Borg met at the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I was hoping for some real dialog. Instead, I think all we got was small talk.

Borg and Blomberg clearly have their own perspectives. No problem there. Indeed, they went out of their way to affirm the “other” in the conversation, and they were remarkably polite throughout. Unsurprisingly, they each “own” their perspective. They’re professional scholars who have written and debated these issues extensively. So, they clearly know what they think and hold to it with conviction.

The problem came with the lack of respectful pushback. Indeed, the problem is that there really wasn’t any. With two high-powered scholars like this, you’d expect to see a pretty dynamic give-and-take, as each takes a stand on issues that they feel strongly about. Instead, it felt more like the kind of get-to-know-you small talk that typically happens in the lobby before the session starts. They both explained what they think on a wide range of issues, and sought to clarify the positions of the other person. Indeed, Borg even said at one point that “understanding” was their real objective. Neither really stepped out and said what we all know they were both thinking, “You’re wrong.” Apparently we’re not allowed to say that anymore. And, sadly, without it, you can’t have real dialog. Understanding the “other” is fine, but by itself it is insufficient and unsatisfying.

The closest that we got to this was Blomberg making it clear that he thinks a future physical resurrection is fundamental to adequate Christian theology. Amen! For a moment I had a glimmer of hope that we’d see a real dialog take shape. Instead, he let it stand as a clarification of his own perspective. And, we lapsed back into “understanding.”

Let me be clear. I think good conversations need to be polite, but they also need to be respectful. And, those are not the same thing. Politeness says that I will not be rude and offensive in our conversation. (Yes, I realize that many historical theologians broke this rule regularly. I think they were wrong. See, I said it.) And, Brian LePort is right that everyone at the meeting was remarkably polite.

Respect is different. Respect says that I value you and this issue enough to take a stand and wrestle toward greater truth and clarity. Respect demands more than just understanding. Respect requires us to take a stand and say “no” when necessary, while still seeking to grow and learn through the interaction. If I truly see you as “other,” I respect you enough to tell you that you’re wrong.

I’d have liked to see more respect yesterday.

Indeed, I’d like to see more respect in theological dialog as a whole. What I think we often see today is politeness without respect, which is the perfect recipe for theological small talk.

At which point, I’m looking for the nearest exit.

Flotsam and jetsam (10/15)

  • John Armstrong offers some interesting reflections on postmodernism and Christianity. (I noted this post particularly because he references Merold Westphal’s “Overcoming Onto-theology,” which some of us are reading for a class this semester.) HT
  • Over at Per Crucem ad Lucem, Jono Ryan discusses the importance of having a transformative encounter with truth, reflecting on Paul’s counsel to Timothy in 2 Tim. 2:18-19.
  • Russell Saltzman deals with mean Lutherans. (Actually, he’s talking about civility in online theological discourse, but “mean Lutherans” sounds so much more interesting.)
  • The Guardian has an interview with Insane Clown Posse, which may be among the more disturbing things I’ve read in a while. The two rappers confirm that although they’ve been producing some of the most violent rap music in the industry for the last 20 years, they actually claim to have been active (closet) Christians the entire time. As Gangster J explains, “You have to speak their language. You have to interest them, gain their trust, talk to them and show you’re one of them. You’re a person from the street and you speak of your experiences. Then at the end you can tell them: God has helped me.” Oh, so the rampant violence, profanity, and misogyny in their songs, were just ways of gaining access to and credibility in the world of gangster rap. I guess that makes it all okay then.

Blogging as theological discourse

Ben Myers’ recently published article “Theology 2.0: Blogging as Theological Discourse,” Cultural Encounters 6.1 (2010) is a fascinating discussion of how different forms of communication shape us, and the formative nature of blogging in particular.

He begins by noting the growing importance of blogging in theological education and asks an important question:

What does it mean for theology when blogs go mainstream – when blogging is no longer just a fringe activity, but a practice woven into the fabric of students’ theological formation? (48)

He goes on to use Foucault’s “technologies of the self” to address the formative nature of communicative media. With respect to writing in general, he says, “You write in order to mold and transform yourself. With such writing, it is not the content that matters so much as the mere act, the askesis of writing. You record yourself, write yourself, publish yourself” (53). Thus, blogging in particular “is not merely a medium, a channel through which information is communicated. It is fundamentally a practice, a work that cultivates particular ways of being and particular forms of human sociality” (53).

The latter half of the essay focuses on five specific ways in which blogging is shaping theological discourse:

  1. Speed and Flexibility: I appreciate his comments here on the fact that theological blogging is more tentative than traditional theology. I still struggle with this. Academic writing is so focused on producing polished and final-form writing, that it’s difficult to appreciate the strengths of a more free-form and tentative mode of discourse. But, it is a tremendous strength when ideas can be articulated and explored in community, rather than trying to work everything out on your own before making them known. In this way, blogging takes the best that academic conferences have to offer, but makes it available year round.
  2. Scope and Participation: Everyone recognizes the increased participation that comes with Web 2.0, but I especially liked his argument that blogging increases the range of topics a person is willing/able to address (scope). I know I’ve written on this blog about things that I never would have felt qualified to write about in another forum.
  3. Reading Together: Here, Ben connects blogging to the ancient practice of reading in community. I like it.
  4. Individualization and Coolness: In this section, Ben offers his strongest warnings about the possible drawbacks of theological blogging. He’s particularly concerned about the danger of developing theological niche communities isolated from other perspectives and seeking to “fit in” with the normative perspective of the community.
  5. Play and Irony: The playfulness of theological blogging has certainly been one of my personal favorites. I’m sure it gets us all into trouble at times, but that’s part of the fun too.

The article concludes with the hopeful note that theological blogging might lead to theology becoming “a somewhat friendlier discipline” (60). I would have liked to see Ben engage more the possible drawbacks and potentially negative effects of Web 2.0 on theological discourse, and I think we can all point to examples where theological blogging was anything but friendly. But, at its best, theological blogging does lead to the “community, inquisitiveness, and open conversation” vital to good theology.

This is an excellent article for understanding the formative nature of writing and the impact that blogging is having on theological discourse and education.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/20)

The role of ridicule in religious rhetoric

This cartoon was posted earlier today on the First Thoughts blog, but it was subsequently removed after a couple of commenters questioned the appropriateness of lampooning a theologian like this. I’m curious what you think. Take a look.

The cartoon was taken down both because of the two comments that it received and because the poster felt that it “may have been more mean than satirical.” Now, I can understand the desire to protect theological discourse from degenerating into pure meanness and descending into ad hominem attack. And, satire is a tool that should be wielded very carefully. As I discussed in my review of Imaginary Jesus, you need to be careful not to cross the line.

Nonetheless,  removing a cartoon like this still annoys me. Does theology always have to be so serious? Personally, I like to make fun of people (as long as they don’t do it back to me, that makes me sad). Like any good caricature, it can be a very effective way of highlighting what you think are the most distinctive characteristics (i.e. flaws) of the person/position you’re trying to describe.

What do you think? Am I off here? Do we need to be more careful in using satire and such things in our religious discourse? Or, is there a legitimate role for this kind of rhetoric?