This collection of essays grew out of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. The editors explain, “With more than a decade of workshops, conferences, seminars, and site visits, which have convened theologians, biblical scholars, sociologists of religion, historians, ethicists, pastors, and community development workers, the time seemed propitious to take stock of the lessons learned and insights gained” (vii). The participants in this publication are only a fraction of the people who have been part of the project.
The editors observe, rightly, that “as an academic discipline, theology has often ignored the lived consequences of its commitments” (vii). This is the case in many academic disciplines. Bible study and preaching cannot end without application. The study of history should not end with the ability to reproduce disconnected facts. Ethics must produce action. The goal of an academic exercise should be transformation and life change. This is particularly true when the discipline is performed by people with religious convictions, particularly Christianity.
According to the editors, “by affirming the methodological centrality of faith’s redemptive practices, shared spaces of collaboration emerge across the ecumenical and theological spectrum. Lived Theology clusters around the conviction that the revitalization of public theology in America needs a theological culture that is both robustly public and confessional” (viii). By public theology they mean “the generous sense of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conviction that grace-formed and authentic discipleship fortifies ‘civil courage’ and ‘ultimate honesty’” (ibid.). Many of the essays in this volume explicitly engage with Bonhoeffer. Even when he is not acknowledged, Bonhoeffer’s shadow is still there.
Most of the essays in this book summarize or reflect on the author’s works published elsewhere. They introduce the reader to a variety of perspectives while also showing where to read more if one’s appetite has been whetted. Since the essays encourage an active and public lived theology, the final chapter by John W. de Gruchy, “Epilogue: Lived Theology Is Being Led into Mystery,” is a helpful reminder of the mysterious nature of the theological task as DeGruchy reflects on the tragic death of his young son. This chapter should be required reading for those who desire to know how to grieve with those who grieve. He writes, “In owning my grief and counseling others I soon discovered that . . . questions, rather than neat answers, became part of the quest, an opening up and a deepening of the mystery into which I was being led. . . . Those of us who are theologically trained may think we know the answers, until we shift from being Job’s comforters to being Job himself, from sitting with others who grieve, to being those who grieve” (250). Later, he writes on grieving in hope, “Believing in the resurrection of Christ means that in the darkest times of personal tragedy or political violence, we affirm that God’s purpose for the well-being of creation will not finally be thwarted” (252). Thanks be to God!
This book is a helpful introduction to a conversation that has been going on for some time. It will likely raise more questions than answers, which will drive the interested reader back into the literature behind these essays, and presumably that is what the editors and authors intend. The authors assume some understanding of the theological and biblical foundations for their positions. Readers who expect extensive interaction with the Bible will be frustrated, or perhaps, they should be encouraged to dive back into the literature behind these essays. The participants in this project come from a variety of Christian traditions. Those who desire to learn how to do lived theology would do well to watch these scholars at work.
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