A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Theological Precision and Narrative Imagination

Anyone who knows me knows that as a Christian I proudly stand in the Nicene-Chalcedonian tradition. Every time I confess the Nicene Creed in worship I do so with deep conviction. I am unapologetically trinitarian and I resist any attempts at modern modalist reconfigurations of the essential Christian doctrine of God. I firmly believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and I strongly object to any attempt to have a resurrected Jesus without his actual earthly body.

I love theology and I love the necessary precision of theological language. But I also love the imaginative narrative that displays theology in ways that speak to the head and to the heart, which is why I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, The Shack, many months ago, and found myself rather baffled at so many of the very negative appraisals of the book on theological grounds from other Christians. Casting aside the not-to-be-taken seriously aspersions of the book as juvenile and sophomoric literature (I suppose one would have to be juvenile and sophomoric to know), what I loved about the book was that in a wonderfully imaginative way it dealt with doctrine, relating it to the always deeply relevant and timely philosophical and theological matters that relate to the problem of evil, forgiveness, the nature of God, and God's work in this world by God's very presence. To be sure, there were times when I didn't agree with a particular narrative move the author, Paul Young, made in a portrayal, but then again, I have yet to always agree with every scholarly constructive theological treatment I have read.

Without precise theological language, the great doctrines of our faith have no boundaries that give them their distinctive character. Without narrative imagination our doctrines will appear to many to be somehow beside the point of life. Theologians may prefer to read something more substantive like Karl Barth, and I love Barth, but they need to know that the folks in the pews (and outside the pews as well) are not reading the great Swiss-German theologian; they are reading Paul Young.

I heard Paul Young speak yesterday at Ashland Theological Seminary. If you ever get an opportunity to hear him you must make the effort. As I listened to Paul, I became rather angered at the charge of heresy that has been leveled against him by those, who may know their theology, but know little about the nature of true heresy, as well as having no idea how to express theological truth in a way that makes a difference in people's lives. C.S. Lewis often complained that the biggest problem with theologians was that they lacked imagination. If Lewis were still alive he would know that little has changed.

There are times when I have wondered if Jesus was accused of "heresy" when he compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed. On occasion I have considered the possibility that Jesus was charged with a less than orthodox doctrine of God when he, in story form, compared God to the father who gladly threw aside his dignity and self-respect to welcome home a wayward son. There have been times when I thought that perhaps Jesus was ridiculed by the trained theologians for his portrayal of God as an unjust judge.

I love reading theology. I enjoy parsing terminology and honing the sharp edges of doctrine into something finely tuned and precise. But I also enjoy reading the imaginative narratives that help me think theologically about life and faith in ways I had never considered.

I am an unapologetic Nicene-Chalcedonian trinitarian theologian; and I applaud Paul Young for his portrayal of the Trinity and his narrative display of some of our most significant beliefs and convictions in The Shack.


Jonathan Marlowe said...

I agree 100%. There may be some quibbles over this or that in the book, but on the whole, I thought it was wonderful -- and a great way for lay folks and clergy to discuss theology together. I have certainly used this book in my local church. I encouraged our UMW to read it, and we had a wonderful discussion of the book one evening as our program. It opened up lots of avenues for discussing our faith.

PamBG said...

I love the distinction between theological precision and narrative imagination - thank you for this.

I read the book when I was still in the UK and recommended it to a number of people one of whom had what I call a "touchstone moment" as a result of the book. And, yes, I suspect that Jesus probably was accused of heresy at different points in his teaching ministry; didn't one group in the synagogue try to stone him after he expounded from Isaiah?

Clay Knick said...

Allan, spot on as always.

Your point about people outside the pews is quite good. One of my members has a spouse who does not attend worship, but the spouse read the book. Loved it.

If you have not already done so, you might want to read Roger Olson's, Finding God in the Shack." Good little book by a theologian. Another is a e-book you can download for free from the web page of John Mark Hicks, a theologian from the Church of Christ tradition that I like very much (have you seen his, "Yet Will I Trust Him"?).

Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks for the confirmation, everyone. It is good to have such from three of my theological heavyweight readers.

Steve North said...

It's funny. I think that if one were to portray the characteristics or attributes of God (depicted in narrative form and imagist language in The Shack) in purely theological terms, many of the people who make the charges of heresy so lightly would probably say "Amen," instead. I think some who engage in theological thought and talk seldom consider how the concepts in which they so delight might "look," if projected onto the screen of human life or psyche. Some are purely married to specific language and abstractions. Too bad. There's a real life in which to live and experience life with God.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Allan R. Bevere said...


I welcome anonymous comments as long as they are not critical. If you are going to be critical you must come out of the shadows. Therefore, I deleted your comments.

Integrity demands that you make yuordelf known.