Christian Theology in Practice
Discovering a Discipline
Bonnie J. Miller –McLemore
Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan 2012
I have had a rather frustrating time of late due, in part, to a paucity of stimulating reading in the area of the theory of pastoral and practical theology. Most of the books that pass across my desk seem to have a rather tired feel about them and lack real intellectual skill and practical interest. At last here is a book that has lived up to expectations and one which really does do what it claims on front and back covers.
Miller -McLemore is Professor of pastoral theology at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. The key qualities of this particular book are its careful organisation, the rigour and clarity of the writing and its constant ability to be able to open up key questions in the area of both the theory and practice of pastoral and practical theology. Put another way this book got me excited again about the field and led me to ask more questions about my own thinking and engagement in the areas of gerontology end of life care and narratology.
The book is organised into three parts. The first part (living web: a subject matter) offers us an overview of the terrain as the author explores the state of pastoral theology, the concept of living document and web, the nature of pastoral theology as public theology which neatly leads into a chapter which offers a definition of Practical theology. The second part (practical wisdom: a way of knowing) further explores issues of epistemology showing us that pastoral theology can be subversive if we expose it to some rigorous criticism especially in the area of the relationship between the clerical and academic paradigm. Throughout this section the author asks us to think about how we know what we think we know! Finally part three (gender: a key category of analysis) reminds men and women of the importance of feminist studies on the field. In particular to essays look at the relationship between psychology and religion. While it is important to note that some of these essays have been published elsewhere Miller- McLemore pays meticulous attention to the context within which these previous essays have been written and published and stimulates the reader further by offering a critique of each piece of work as they relate to the whole.
The other key feature of this book is that it is well researched and the author gives a clear outline of the field and areas that deserve a further examination.
There are two particular issues that this book raises that I want to explore in a little further depth.
In a section that is given the provocative title violating religious and theological decorum (page 153 and following) the author invites the reader to think about resistance, conflict and confrontation.it follows from this perspective that the context within which theology is ‘done’ shapes the content. Adequate theological method in practical theology must attend to the messy, dirty, earthy side of life! The Church must be present in places where it can be weather-beaten, where there is inevitable edginess and risk. With increasing numbers of people attracted to religion for reasons of stability and conservatism it is interesting to ask how our decorum might be violated for the sake of integrity, passion and change.
Once upon a time (as they say in all best storybooks) there was a sense in which the task of Ministry or discipleship for all of God’s people was seen to be an application of the theory of theology of the body of knowledge. This knowledge was built up in the tradition of the Church through its understanding of Scripture and the tradition. For many years pastoral and practical theology was simply a matter of applying knowledge through worship, pastoral care and the engagement with individuals and families at key moments in their lives.
In the last few years, several people have begun to question the cognitive or cerebral definition of practical theology’s task. The most far reaching conversations relate to the re-conceiving of practice. Miller McLemore suggests that there is an impoverished understanding of practice and this is a serious part of the problem in theological education. There is a failure to include practice in the areas of Bible, history, systematic theology and ethics and to see that such disciplines are themselves a form of practice.
Picking up the work of Farley we glimpsed something of a redefinition of his heady concept of habitus. This refers to the profound, life orienting, identity shaping participation in the constitutive practices of Christian life. Education therefore especially in pastoral practical theology must take place in close relationship to practice. Habitus moves away from technological and abstract knowledge towards knowledge gained in community, through history, as a result of concrete, complex, holistic engagement in Christian faith as a way of life.
It would be easy to underestimate the radical suggestion in this argument both for the way we learn theology but also in the progressive view that knowledge can indeed be shaped by practice. This is a view of religion and religious truth stands in sharp contrast to much of the culture of today’s church.
Bonnie Miller McLemore is a skilled guide through this interesting geography. A clear and informative map to be both read and practised.