Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Ballard & Pritchard - Practical Theology in Action

The reading list said "an excellent guide to the fundamental task of theological reflection". Hmmmm...

The first thing that annoyed me about the book was the way that it read like all that social sciences stuff and educational psychology I read during my teacher training.

As a physicist, I like to understand things using models - simplified versions of reality that might or might not bear any resemblence to what is actually going on, but which produce much the same answers. I have a very arrogant and hideously unfair model of how social-sciencey types work. Here is it...

When people don't understand something properly, we (as a group) have a tendancy to come up with lots of theories. What this will actually consist of in practice is usually lots of individual people having their own flawed ideas and insisting strongly on them. Because the ideas work, at least in part (like all convincing lies), there are some things about them that are valid and true. The people who push those ideas are quite often, but not always, arrogant.

But there are other people too in the "interpretative community". Usually these are the ones who aren't quite arrogant enough to insist that their own way is the only truth, but also aren't imaginative enough to think of a better explanation and aren't discerning enough to realise that all the other ideas are partly true and partly false rather than just true in some nebulous post-modern sense. On the other hand, they are well-read enough to be able to regurgitate half a dozen contradictory views on any given topic and believe all of them. In my (arrogantly conceived) little conceptual universe, it's people like those who write books like this one.

So this book spends a large portion of its length, mainly at the beginning and end, merrily prancing through all kinds of ideas - all with something slight to commend them and all either hopelessly arrogant, stupid or naive. Some of the ideas say that it's very important to realise that some of the ideas we're sampling from all over the place might not be Christian. Sometimes they remember that, sometimes they don't, never do they apply it to their owm methodology, even when their failure to do so means they end up denying the uniqueness of Christ (2nd ed, p154).

There's also an annoying flawed-ness to many of the arguments and appallingly naive stereotyping of more conversative arguments. Here's an example (the one which ends up implicitly denying the uniqueness of Christ).

There were, not unexpectedly, some, though only one or two who took an 'exclusivist' position, claiming that Christianity was the only true religion. It was certainly an attitude found strongly in the independent evangelical congregation and, in a pragmatic, less doctrinaire way, in the black-led church. Not was it a stance... that should be lightly dismissed. Christianity had always made universal claims for Christ as the revelation of God. But it had not, until the emergence of what has been called Christendom, been absolutely exclusivist, assuming, in the West at least, no salvation outside the Church. Rather, there had always been a strong strand that had recognised truth and wisdom in religious and philosophic traditions other than its own.

That is wrong, naive and stupid. It assumes that if I recognise a non-Christian to be right on anything, I must think they're going to heaven. I recognise that a lot of physics, even the majority, has been figured out well by non-Christians using the brains that God gave them. Does that mean that I think they're somehow saved? No.

Quite often, the chapters are full of annoying waffle and comparing different wrong views, concluding that they are all correct and then summing it up in something mind-numbingly obvious that I'd have been happy starting with as an assumption.

Take, for example, the Pastoral Cycle, which is the key idea in the book. It's quite sensible actually - the idea is that if you want to know how to respond to something, you look at the situation, look at the priniciples involved, think about it, do something about it, then reflect on whether or not it worked. It's not exactly rocket science, even though rocket science is easy. (It's rocket engineering that's difficult).

Now the book does spend quite a while explaining it and applying it usefully to, for example, learning from placements at theological college. That was far and away the best bit of the book.

Personally, I think the Pastoral Cycle is incredibly obvious and what I'd have done anyway without thinking about it. But sometimes it's useful to have the obvious spelled out. It's just a shame that the rest of the book is such utter rubbish.

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