theological lumping

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Friday, February 13th, 2009

theological lumping

recently, i had a conversation with a good friend (and regular blog reader) about my regular references to various names in the theological sphere of the emerging church conversation. he jokingly brought it up, but it was sort of a “ha ha…but seriously…” kind of conversation.

in essence, he was referring to citing authors, bloggers and thinkers in various posts here on my blog such as tony jones, rob bell, mark oestreicher, doug pagitt and many others. there are some blog readers—like the friend who engaged the conversation—who find positive connecting points with these guys and my thoughts therein, while there are many others who certainly do not. i thought i would share some thoughts on why i reference these guys and what the implications should and should not be of these references.
my blog is the place where i work through and share some of my own personal thoughts on theology (amongst other things). typically, these are things that i’ve been thinking through for many, many years, while there are also times that they’re things that i’m still working through and thinking through. i believe that theologies are always evolving, never static. inherent in that evolution is a “community of theology”. in isolation, theology is dead. we learn and grow and become in a community of fellow theologians and thinkers and friends and even theological antagonists.
so, as my blog is an extension of my “public” theological stream of thought, i am inspired by this community of theology. one of the things the internet has done is flatten hierarchies of theology that keep us from accessing this community. in the past, we could only “engage” brilliant theologians and thinkers from afar and in isolated moments such as conferences, sermons and books. these moments were sporadic and gave us only snippets of thought. in the culture of blogs, though, we have constant and immediate engagement with this community. i don’t have to wait for tony jones’ next book to hear what he thinks. i can just read his blog. while i certainly love rob bell’s books, i can go right now and listen to hours and hours of his sermons via the mars hill podcast. and so the list could go on.
so, as i read and engage with these thinkers, i react on my blog. while it may seem like i do it a lot, in reality, it’s been very little considering the volume of material these guys sift through on their blogs and podcasts and websites.
as the post title suggests, i have a term for what occurs based on these references. i call it “theological lumping.” basically, it’s the idea that if you agree with or quote or read a book by someone, then you must agree with every single jot and tittle of what they say and think and write. in other words, if you quote or reference brian mclaren, then you must adhere to every single bit of minutiae that he has to say. if you say you read doug pagitt’s book and enjoyed it, it must mean you’re a raging liberal who wants to marry gay people and reject all truth.
there’s a sad culture present (particularly in the church) where an “us vs. them” mentality has been created. it’s the idea that there is a strict theological dichotomy in which you’re either all or nothing. similar to political affiliations, we would rather simplistically divide people into false categories than to take the time to have a dialogue that aims to understand the complexities of people’s theologies and viewpoints. certainly, in my case, there are some things that people would accuse of my of being “conservative” for believing and some things that the “liberal” label would be applied to. theology is much more grey than it is black and white, so these false dichotomies do very little to further a healthy and helpful conversation.
let me offer a couple examples of the issue of theological lumping.
on one hand, i have quoted and reference tony jones several times. while i regularly read his blog and have read many of his books (and agree with many of his viewpoints), i regularly disagree with things he writes. they typically aren’t major disagreements, but there are certainly viewpoints that i wouldn’t take to the level he takes them and things that i feel much less passionately about than he does. the problem, though, is that some people believe that—because i enjoy his books and quote him—i must be the aforementioned raging liberal godless emergent type.
on the other hand, i’ve openly talked about my disdain for some of mark driscoll’s theological viewpoints. no doubt about it, i can’t overstate how much some of driscoll’s viewpoints really bother me, to the point of actually thinking they’re detrimental to the gospel. BUT, even though i can disagree with him on some things, there are other things that i really like about him. i love his commitment to church planting. i love his bold and raw communication style. i love his commitment to good design that aids in communication. the point is that i don’t have to agree with everything to agree with other points.
theological lumping, quite frankly, is lazy and simplistic. get to know a person before you lump them into a theological category. have a conversation. engage the person. ask for clarification. assume the best.
so, when i reference someone who you think is the next antichrist or satan incarnate, it doesn’t mean that i agree with everything they believe. then again, it might actually mean that i do. either way, theological lumping is unhelpful and, ultimately, only turns people off and does nothing but hurt the cause of christ.

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