Why Bother with Theology?

Alex Wright calls for theologians to take the richness and insights of secular life far more seriously, to "speak" to us and to upcoming generations with integrity and authenticity. Author-turned-publisher David Boulton reviews a book by publisher-turned author Alex Wright. Click on the cover icon to purchase this book online.

Poacher turned gamekeeper is a cliché. More interesting is publisher turned author. Authors notoriously think they could do a better job of publishing than the publishers. Publishers secretly believe they could write better books than their authors. Now two leading publishers of religious books have become the latest to cross the line. First we had John Hunt’s highly recommended Daddy, Do You Believe in God?, published by O Books of John Hunt Publishing (co-publishers with SoF of Time and Tide). And now the new director of SCM Press, Alex Wright, whose chosen career is publishing theological books, asks Why Bother with Theology? It’s as if Lord Sainsbury were to ask publicly "Why bother with groceries?"

Wright tells us that, when he tried his question out on his "non-theological" friends, every one of them answered "Why indeed?" or "Right: waste of time". The vast majority in Britain has long ceased to bother with theology, regarding it as no more comprehensible or relevant than the hieroglyphs in the British Museum, and less interesting than the astrologers’ predictions in their daily paper. Wright doesn’t blame them: the fault, he says, lies with theologians themselves, and with the Church. The Church lives in the past, doesn’t begin to know how to engage with the present, and remains hierarchical and authoritarian in a profoundly anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian age. Theologians persist in talking only to each other in their own private language.

Wright tells us he is not himself a churchgoer—not since his compulsory attendances as a schoolboy—and was "brought up in a context... of questioning agnosticism". Yet he has made a career publishing theological books (at Cambridge University Press, SPCK and Blackwell before SCM Press, and he is a member of the External Advisory Panel for Oxford University’s Faculty of Theology)? He bothers with theology, he says, because "only theology... seems to have a large and serious enough remit to get properly to grips with the meaning of life and the meaning of us".

But if that’s the remit, theology is failing miserably. It needs to engage with life as it is lived, not as we might wish it were lived. "Theology needs to get a life before telling us how to live ours". It needs a new vocabulary and a new humility. It needs to listen before it speaks out, to learn before it presumes to teach. It needs to engage with our postmodern condition. It could learn from popular spirituality and, above all, it could learn from contemporary culture. Fitting itself for a secular world, it should turn itself into a "secular theology".

Two important chapters look at "resources for a secular theology", one in contemporary fiction, the other in film. Wright finds powerful theological themes in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in Ursula Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, and Colin Thubron’s Falling. Each, he says, has "an entirely secular operative framework", while "asking deep and painful questions about the meaning and end of human beings". The films he selects (Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Fifth Element and Alien 3) also pose the Big Questions: "Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?" Contrast this with "the liturgical post-office that the Church of England has become, as it dispenses vacuous pronouncements with no sense of the appropriateness or otherwise of their promulgation, or of their relevance to the challenges and ambiguities of real life".

Good stuff... But I am left with some questions of my own. First, Wright’s "secular theology" seems to me to be still constrained within an exclusively Christian framework. The novels and films Wright has chosen to illustrate his thesis all draw on explicitly Christian themes. In Blade Runner, "the Christian overtones are... explicit". The Matrix is "explicitly Christian", and his secular writers are those who "revel in theological storytelling". Wright comments, "there is a growing sense that film is actually good for theology, in that it allows the Christian tradition to be mediated in exciting and creative new ways". But this leaves me with the sense that he has chosen these particular films and novels, not so much because they are indicative of a brave new secular theology but because he wishes to co-opt them to rejuvenate theology from within the Christian tradition.

My own perception would be that the Big Questions are being asked and the Big Themes are being pursued not only in explicitly Christian or overtly religious novels and films, but that they are to be found in all our culture, "high" and popular: in novels, plays, films, television, soap operas—the lot. That is the function of art, culture and science. But if that is so, and if our contemporary storytellers—our novelists, poets and screen-writers—are, in Wright’s words, "tackling hugely important and meaningful subjects in a manner with which people can richly identify", and doing so "in language which is empathic and respectful", then we really do find ourselves asking "Why bother with theology ?"—a discipline which has lost the plot.

Those of us who do still bother with theology, to the bafflement or embarrassment of our friends, do so, I suspect, not because we are convinced it is "only theology" that is up to the task of "getting properly to grips with the meaning of life", but because we find, to our surprise, that it still works for us as just one way of making meaning: one of many. We bother with it because we learned its language and its funny little ways in our youth, and despite its antique vocabulary and outworn categories of thought, we find it still capable of doing the business. So we use it alongside Friends and Neighbours, Sex and the City, Atonement, The Blue Room, Shakespeare’s plays, The Simpsons and this morning’s paper to explore what it means to be human and to be alive. But we know that we are a vanishing breed, and that ever fewer of us will bother with it as we do.

I hope it will face professional theologians with their own ineffectiveness, and the Church with its own amateurishness. That’s why I’d love to see this thought-provoking book in the hands of every theology student in the country—and, better still, of every theology teacher. But the test will be whether he can find the writers who have something to say to today’s generation, and can say it in a comprehensible language, free of dogma, churchianity and supernaturalism—and without the unconscious arrogance implied by the assumption that only their own discipline of theology is up to the task. If he can pull it off, publishing as well as he writes, he could change the face of theology—and perhaps persuade a post-Christian and post-religious generation to bother about theology, with or without the theo.