Theology for the Church

Beth Felker Jones

Perhaps the most important thing I want my students to recognize about Christian theology is that it matters for Christian life, but we frequently bump up against the supposed divide between the academic work of theology and the things Christians do and believe on the ground. Ideally, Christian belief and life form one integral whole; however, there are spiritual obstacles that keep the divide in place. Pride is not least among those obstacles. Whenever jargon and pretension are valued over clarity and vulnerability, theologians, as part of the body of Christ, will need the power of the Holy Spirit in order to give up our pride.

We need to gain the courage to speak clearly and topically in ways that serve both church and world. This is one of the great beauties of the evangelical tradition. Deep in evangelicalism is a populist impulse, a desire to share the gospel with the whole world, to communicate the gospel in terms that meet people where they are, and to witness to the power of Jesus Christ to transform ordinary lives and ordinary situations. John Wesley insisted that his program of renewal was one of becoming “vile” for the sake of Jesus Christ. Vile is a strong word. Wesley is locating himself here within Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians, when he testifies, “God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are” (1 Cor 1:28, NIV). When a fellow preacher was critical of Wesley for flouting established conventions of contemporary Anglican theology, Wesley wrote back that he was “blessed” because he enjoyed “the reproach of Christ! O may you also be vile,” Wesley pleaded, “exceedingly vile, for his sake! God forbid that you should ever be other than generally scandalous; I had almost said universally” (cf. “Letter to James Hervey,” in John Wesley [ed. A.C. Outler; Oxford University Press, 1964], 73). The message from 1 Corinthians presses us to surrender pretension, to surrender presumption, in favor of the wisdom God offers us.

Because of what Jesus has done for us, our weakness can be used for God’s power, and we can understand vocation in both church life and academic theology as a vocation to vileness for the sake of the gospel. The evangelical tradition has always opted for engagement with culture over the temptation to separate from culture, and I see this as an ongoing mandate for evangelical theology. None of this implies anti-intellectualism. Paul speaks, in the same passage in 1 Corinthians, not against the gifts and pursuits of the intellect, but against those gifts and pursuits wrongly focused. He helps us understand that true wisdom is not that of the world, concerned primarily with prestige or pride of place. It is never wisdom that God destroys but only the wisdom of the world. Christ, after all is the wisdom of God, and God makes us new “in the attitude of” our “minds” (Eph 4:23).

The paragraphs above describe the basic stance I was operating from when I wrote a book about the Twilight Saga. I am always intrigued by popular culture, and when something is as much in the limelight as this vampire story has been, I want to know what it is that makes people care about it so much. Writing theology for the church, and engaging with popular culture is one way to do this. It engages skills that are not always honed in graduate school, but it is not unrelated to those skills. The following excerpts from my book, Touched by a Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Series (Multnomah, 2009) display something of my convictions about how theologians must attempt to speak in and for the church. The first excerpt is from the book’s introductory material:

“The [Twilight] books are massive bestsellers. The series is popular partly because it deals with issues most of us identify with. It’s about romance. It’s about finding, losing, and keeping love. It’s also about sex and desire. It’s about family. It’s even about the meaning of life. And the series is especially popular with girls and women because it’s about all these things from a girl’s perspective. There are important male characters in the books, of course, but it is through a girl’s eyes, Bella’s eyes, that we view the world of Twilight. It’s through a girl’s eyes that the story makes us think about these powerful subjects — romance, desire, sex, love, family, and meaning. I wrote this book because I am passionate about the way these themes matter in our lives. Because I’m a Christian, because my life is shaped by the love of Jesus Christ, I especially care about how we can think about these issues through Christian eyes.

This longer excerpt focuses on gender assumptions of the Twilight narrative:

“In Bella’s eyes, Edward is all a man ever could be. While she is ordinary, he is beyond extraordinary. He’s her ideal. Bella says, ‘I wasn’t’ interesting. And he was. Interesting…and brilliant…and mysterious…and perfect…and beautiful…and possibly able to lift full-sized vans with one hand’ (Twilight, 79). Edward is a knight in shining armor, a perfect superhero. While snuggling up to Edward, Bella compares him to Michelangelo’s statue of David, ‘except this perfect marble creature wrapped his arms around me to pull me closer’ (Eclipse, 439).

“All through the Twilight Saga, Edward protects Bella from her own clumsiness and stupidity and from the various monsters who want to destroy her. Edward says that protecting her has become ‘a full-time occupation that requires my constant presence’ (Twilight, 221). Edward is a leader; he’s the responsible one in the relationship, the one who takes on the tasks of maintaining Bella’s safety. He’s a fearsome hunter, a loyal brother and son, and commands his dark urges with formidable self-control. Edward is the dangerous bad boy who is attractive because he is supposed to be off-limits, and, of course, he’s incredibly gorgeous.

“…Edward is an impossible ideal. If we want boyfriends or husbands to look like Edward, we’re demanding more from those boyfriends and husbands than anybody can or should give. Demanding that someone squeeze himself into an Edward mold would truly be a cruel requirement.

“No real man is a marble statue of perfection. What’s more, no real man should be. Part of the fun of loving someone is in loving him flaws and all. A perfect marble statue can’t cry with you, or share your weakness for potato chips, or allow you to see if he is struggling or afraid. It’s disturbing that Edward has to shoulder all the responsibility for self-control in his relationship. Reading the Twilight Saga, I want Bella to take some of that responsibility too.

“…As Christians, we learn from the Word of God that we have to be suspicious of the ways we tend to see things. We live in a sinful world, under a condition of sin, and sin influences our viewpoints. It affects our ability to see what is true and what is false. It affects our ability to distinguish between what is natural — as God intends it to be — and what is sinful — the way selfish human beings want it to be. Paul talks about this in the first chapter of Romans. Because of sin, human ‘thinking became futile’ and ‘foolish’ human ‘hearts were darkened’ (Rom 1:21). God shows us how God intends things to be, but our ability to see those things clearly has been damaged by sin.

“Sin messes up our way of looking at the world, which means we need to be suspicious of ourselves when we’re convinced we know exactly how things ought to be. We need God to heal our abilities to see and know the world. Questions about women and men, about what it means to be male and female, are questions where we especially need to keep these two things in mind. Because being male and female is natural, because it’s a basic part of who we are, we tend to think we get it. When we’re overly confident, though, we’re likely to be deceived.

“Rules and ideals about what it means to be male and female have done a lot of damage in this world. For instance, ideals about thin female bodies are linked to anorexia and bulimia as well as to the feelings of self-loathing so many girls and women feel when comparing themselves to fashion models. Ideals about muscular male bodies are becoming more tyrannical, too. Ideals about male power and female weakness are linked to violence against women and the choices of many women to act weak, step down, and let men take the spotlight. These are just a few examples of the ways that stereotypes hurt people and interfere with both men’s and women’s abilities to serve God with all that they are. If a woman or a man doesn’t fit the mold for what people expect women and men to be, that person is often mocked or socially isolated.

“The self-erasure we see in Bella is a harmful feminine stereotype, a result of sin and not of what God wants for girls. The crazy demand to be a superhero that we see in Edward and Jacob is a harmful masculine stereotype, a result of sin and not of what God wants for boys. As Christians seeking God’s truth and asking God to heal our ways of seeing and knowing, we want to look for God’s perspective on what being male and female is all about. We can’t just buy into stereotypes and assume they reflect God’s will for our lives.

“…God’s Word also gives us encouragement as we think about challenging the way stereotypes cause harm in our lives. When we look at the way Jesus lived his life as a man, we see that some of our worst stereotypes about what it means to be male must not be true. Jesus is a savior who chose to accept death on a cross. When Jesus was being arrested, one of his friends cut off the ear of a servant of the priest. Jesus told the man to ‘put your sword back in its place’ (Matt 26:52). This flies in the face of our assumption that boys have to love violence. Jesus also interacted with women in ways that surprised his friends. He treated women not as lesser beings, but as valued friends.

“Paul affirms that what Jesus has done for us as Christians includes both men and women. So ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28). When the Holy Spirit is poured out on God’s people, Peter explains that a prophecy from the book of Joel is being fulfilled. ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy’ (Acts 2:17-18). Sons and daughters, men and women, male and female, all witness to God’s power.

“Figuring out how to love and give glory to God as the male and female people we are isn’t easy. It’s not as simple as saying, ‘look, we’re all the same, there shouldn’t be any difference.’ After all, God created us this way. It’s also not as simple as looking at the way ‘traditional’ roles dictate that we live and assuming that ‘tradition’ reflects God’s will. After all, tradition may well be sinful.

“We can work together, though, as sisters and brothers in Christ, to love and glorify God as we are created, male and female. We can work together to discover what that means, to challenge sinful assumptions, and to honor and care for each other in our differences. We can work together to learn from scripture and from the Spirit’s presence in our lives what it means to be who we are and to give glory to God.”

I hope this excerpt demonstrates my goal of speaking theologically to the church — in language that is accessible — without dumbing down the richness of doctrine. In the excerpt above, a theologian can perceive quite a bit about my commitments regarding doctrines such as revelation, Scripture, Christology, and sanctification. In my Twilight book, I am self-consciously interpreting big questions in contemporary theology for a “popular” audience. How shall we reclaim ecclesiology? What might an evangelical theologian make of questions raised by feminist theology? In the book’s last chapter, I have tried to interpret Augustine’s ideas on the way God orders our loves. This is not material that is frequently offered to audiences that include teenagers, but I believe that it should be. God’s people want theological thinking and solid doctrine, but they may not have the training or the self-confidence to begin by reading de Doctrina Christiana. Without condescending, without compromising, theologians need to meet people where they are.

(Portions of this essay were excerpted from Touched by a Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Series [2009] by permission of Multnomah Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.)

Posted Mar 01, 2012