Lived Theology

New Perspectives on Method, Style, and Pedagogy

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Charles Marsh, Peter Slade, Sarah Azaransky
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


 Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style, and Pedagogy is the fruit of a two-year collaboration of the Project on Lived Theology [PLT], exploring issues related to two governing questions: the first asks “how might theologians engage the lived experience of Christian persons and communities with the same care and precision given to reading and interpreting texts?” and the second asks, “How might storied accounts of life with God inform the methodology, style, and teaching of Christian theology, and in turn illuminate a new model for bridging the widely lamented and discussed division between the academy and the congregations?” (vii). Charles Marsh’s Introduction then orients the reader to the idea of “lived theology.” It is a path of inquiry that addresses the disconnect between the academic study of theology and the ambiguous and chaotic world of lived experience—the theory-practice gap. Lived theology views practices as communicative, meaning that they permit discernment of theological truth concerning God’s presence and activity (6-7).

Part 1 attends to method in lived theology. Ted A. Smith suggests that descriptive writing can support theological or ethical claims (31), in part by writing transparent histories, stories of negation, wishful thinking, and prodigal narrative (38-41). Through these, lived theology can intimate redemptive life, signify hope, prayerfully imagine, and discover redemption leaking even through problematic narratives. Peter Slade follows this with  four convictions that guided his research in rural Christian communities: academic theology must be in conversation with the lived theology of Christian communities; the work should be accessible to the subjects of study; theology must flow both from the theologian and from the community; and writing lived theology is telling the truth with the hope of reconciliation (50-51). Willis Jenkins then uses Christian responses to climate change as the basis for “ethnographies of absent action” that could inform theological accounts of denialism (58), in order to craft pragmatic ethics to address those deficiencies (61-64). Part 1 closes with Willie James Jennings’s exploration of how disfigured Christian identity in early American history served as the historical root of the current crisis in Christian theology’s identity-performing character (67). He envisions merchant, soldier, and missionary as perichoretic social agents in the New World that mutually fostered a performative distortion of Christian identity (69-70) as dislocated, ahistorical, and non-relational identity (82). He concludes with the hopeful perception of a fragmentary resistance by which Christian identity might be re-conceptualized and performed as an existence that demands “flexibility, adaptability, and translatability” (83).

Part 2 opens with Susan R. Holman’s suggestion that to write lived theology involves not only the various potential genres of theological writing, but also the act of writing itself as lived theology. Writing became, for Holman, “a way of living theology, a way to embrace theological action itself” (97). Sarah Azaransky then argues that Pauli Murray’s (1910-1985) activism illustrates the interests of lived theology. Murray’s work, she argues, supports the assertion that practices cannot be divorced from theological reflection (108-109), and that theological boundary crossing is essential to lived theology (112). Mary McClintock Fulkerson argues that “the sources for theological reflection must be broader than texts about texts” (126). Indeed, the very messiness of the believing community as well as the academic production of theology are both “places where the Divine may be discerned,” particularly through ethnography (127). John Kiess then shares three narratives from his research that depict civilians not as voiceless victims of war, but as active agents whose stories provide vital and underexplored resources for peacebuilding strategies. He concludes that lived theology can bring such voices and agencies to light (135). David Dark’s chapter continues this attention to narrative as a theological resource through an “instructive caricature” that helps illustrate how religion is both the opiate of the masses and the “poetics of the people” (158). Such an approach, he argues, fosters the sort of illuminative fiction that transforms data into the “actionable intelligence” of metaphor (160-63).

Part 3 opens with Lori Brandt Hale’s description of engaging students with the claim “what we believe matters” in relation to reports of vocational calls that are, at times, starkly at odds with one another. Student responses commonly betray an uncritical relativism (181). She sees lived theology as vital for addressing this given that “there is too much at stake … to work hypothetically” (186). Jacqueline A. Bussie then reflects on the benefits and challenges of service learning. Conceptualizing her pedagogical role as that of a “doula,” she sees service learning as uniquely capable of fostering tikkun-olam (192), through resurrection practices, ethnocultural empathy, awareness of privilege, and lamentation (192-196). Jennifer M. McBride then re-conceptualizes academic theology as discipleship (210), and argues that lived theology can foster pedagogies that prioritizes the discipleship’s action within the context of academic engagement (220). Finally, Susan M. Glisson looks at community organizing, noting its potential to foster liberative pedagogical action consonant with the concerns of lived theology through the unique gifts of its Judeo-Christian heritage (230). Thus, rather than imposing agendas on others, it can provide space for self-determination (239-240). The book concludes with an epilogue in which John W. de Gruchy suggests that mystery is essential to a hope that leaves room for grief and pain while enabling eschatological anticipation (254).

I wondered about the choice of “lived” rather than the more common “practical” theology, which names an academic discipline at least deeply resonant with lived theology. I would have welcomed a discussion of what this choice of terminology signifies. Nevertheless, this diverse work should prove engaging for any theologian interested in practices. It coheres through shared conviction that the lived realities of faith constitute a rich and primary focal point for theological inquiry. Together, the authors illustrate and explore this conviction well. I sensed an implicit camaraderie in their loosely united contributions. Their diversity provides a broad and engaging introduction to the work of lived theology while gesturing toward a much larger conversation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew S. Beal is a doctoral student in practical theology and teaching fellow at Boston University School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles Marsh is Commonwealth Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Peter Slade is Professor of Religion at Ashland University.

Sarah Azaransky is Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.




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