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  • A Reply - Of a sort!

    Thanks Julie, Ben and Andy for your comments.  To reply in a comment would probably need way too many lines, so I'll try in a post!

    Julie - I am sure you could do and pass a PhD if you so desired, and maybe one day you will.  So long as you keep doing theology (as you do) then that's more important than a few letters (says she who could start a shop with all the letters she has!).

    Andy - practical theologians of the world unite? Absolutely!

    Ben - thanks for making me think.  It may not have helped write my paper (yet) but it has helped nudge my neurons out of atrophy (I think!) :o)

    On academic writing - absolutely it needs to be clear, and of the required quality.  A couple of thoughts.  Firstly, there are MASSIVE style differences between the arts and the sciences and my poor, long-suffering supervisors are still trying to teach me to use longer sentences and paragraphs.  I think I'm getting "better" but it is sometimes disproportionately hard work.  A friend of mine (a physicist) is trying to help his son to rewrite his undergrad dissertation in music (which has to be resubmitted).  Said friend keeps complaining that son writes first person, long sentences and paragraphs which he then 'corrects' to third person, bullet points and snappy prose.  More than once I've had to yell 'Nooooooooo' when he tells me this!  Secondly, I certainly did not intend to equate academic with turgid.  I have read some amazingly dynamic, exciting and even outright funny academic writing (not often in PhD theses, granted!) and some dire 'popular' stuff.  I just wonder if there is sometimes a bit of academic snobbery over words which hinders accessibility.  Sometimes it is necessary to use a specific word to capture a precise or nucanced meaning; sometimes I think it comes down to personal preference.  The really, really clever people seem to know which to use when: I'm not one of them.

    The really interesting point you raise - I think - is about theological communication.  And this is probably the bit that has been the most helpful in cranking up my grey matter.  As I understand it, central to the concept of practical theology is that theology is 'done' not 'received.'  It is not that theologians 'do' the work and everyone else signs up to a kind of 'end user agreement,' rather it assumes that anyone can, and everyone should, do theology.  That doesn't make academic theologians redundant (at least not yet!) because the work they do acts as a resource for other people to aid their own 'doing' of theology.  Does that make sense?  One of the big differences (in theory) about practical theology is that the theologian or minister is not the expert who teaches others the answers, rather he or she is a participant in the process who brings with them certain knowledge that can inform thinking/praying etc.  This can be quite a challenge for local churches who have been accustomed to seeing the minister as the expert and doctrines as things to learn and appropriate rather than explore and wrestle with.  I did once hear a minister say, in a sermon, that he'd gone to Bible college to wrestle with what scripture meant so that he could tell the people the answers.  Had he taught the people to wrestle with scripture he might have done them more favours, but that's another story!  I guess if I stick with the engineering analogy, then I would be saying anyone can do engineering and everyone should do engineering.  Not everyone will be a professional engineer, but everyone can to some degree master some aspects of engineering and should be able to put it use.

    Tomorrow I really will get something written (to add to the 3k or so words I already have) and it will hopefully form the basis of some helpful discussion when I present in 3 weeks time.

  • Elegantly Simple or Pretty Trivial?

    This is a ramble, be warned!  In fact it arose last night as I was pounding out my daily pre-long-distance-footpath training miles so maybe its a rambling ramble.  Certainly it plays word games.

    I was contemplating the paper I'm trying to write on history and theology (and rapidly running out of time for - has to be done by Saturday or I won't have the opportunity to do it), a significant aspect of which relates to accessibility.  Essentially, what I am wanting to say is that history as a resource for theological reflection is largely inaccessible (in my view, of course) but what do I mean by this? There are questions about the purpose for which published stuff is written, the use of high-level diachronic/chronological cause-and-effect trajectory-based accounts rather than small scale, possibly synchronic, narrative accounts. There are questions about the fact that stuff that is more interesting/useful is locked away in libraries and archives. There is also stuff about language (How many people stumbling across this have a clue what I mean by a diachronic cause-and-effect trajectory based account?), presentation, style and delivery.  One of the things that I think needs to be challenged is the rather dry, pseudo-academic style but without dumbing down the content.  And here is a BIG challenge - for I am trying to work in the constraints of academia which expects complex language and a specific writing style (pace, kind supervisors).  Now and then I read bits of feminist or liberation theology which talks about challenging this kind of expectation, but never actually does it: beyond a few neologisms it is pretty standard academic prose.

    So, my brain wandered off, via thoughts on engineering and risk assessment (!) to think about this challenge.  There is a connection, you just have to wait for it!  Firstly risk assessment, the means by which I earned a living for many years.  The techniques involved are really simple.  A bit of arithmetic and boolean algebra are all that is needed to set up and analyse numerical risk models.  Even qualitative risk assessment is mostly just common sense.  As a result people are derisive about it as a field of expertise. But the fact is that whilst the techniques are straight forward, good risk assessment is highly skilled: there are some *&%$^^* awful examples out there, especially done by people who don't know what they're trying to do and maybe did a half day course.  Just because it is simple does not make it easy, they are not the same thing!  Simple, properly used means uncomplicated not unsophisticated.  There's a difference! 

    Then engineering - and maths, which was always really the bit I was good at. Odd though it may be, I have a deep love of Victorian industrial architecture.  I love the elegance of the designs, the attention to detail (especially those wonderful brass oilers) the smooth lines, the hiss of steam, the greens, reds nad golds of the paint... ok you get my drift!  But the secret here, again, is simplicity that results in elegance.The same is true at the level of the physics/maths: good science, expressed mathematically is both simple and beautiful - it has symmetry, there are no odd balancing constants, rarely are the functions 'odd.'  This doesn't make the subject facile (I never did get my head around two-phase heat transfer!) but it means that the sophistication, even the complexity, is masked by its accessibility.

    So, because if you've read this you are intelligent and interested, you'll have already worked out where it's headed: how does that relate to my work as a practical theologian? Practical theology, like risk assessment, employs simple methods, you don't need a PhD to understand or undertake theological reflection.  And like risk assessment, the simplicity of the method belies the sophistication of good practical theology.  There is plenty of the awful stuff around which can result in people considering the approach is trivial, shallow and not 'real' theology.  Practical theology is probably the 'engineering' of the 'theology' world (I guess that would make 'systematics' the 'physics') - it is done with aim of producing something that can be used by real people who don't know all the theory or the maths.  What comes out of it is probably no more (and no less) remarkable than a beam engine or electricity at the flick of a switch but it will have the same quiet beauty - an elegance, symmetry, balance that belie the depth of thought behind it.

    How does all this relate to what I am trying to research and write?  I think there is something about language and style here.  Whilst technical terminology is needed, the language should retain an 'ease' not always evident in learned papers: sophistication is not measured in fog-factors!  But it goes beyond that - I was struck at the conference I recently attended that mine was the only paper that was not read verbatim, rather I presented a summary of it.  This is undoubtedly a throw-back to my engineering days, when people read the paper after they'd heard the presentation.  Ordinary folk in churches- even highly intelligent and educated folk - do not live in a world where people read papers to each other.  Such an approach is just not accessible for them.  I feel that in my work I have to move past those theologians who say accessibility is an issue and actually model it - and if that is unacceptable to the academy, well hey better fail with integrity than pass without it!  That doesn't mean wilful refusal to comply with regulations, but it does mean pushing the boundaries a bit.

    I'm not sure that this helps me much with writing my paper, though it helps me a little with why I'm finding it difficult.  The whole question of accessibility is complex and multiplex and there's a long way to go with it.  Some people see practical theology as pretty trivial, and maybe, sometimes, they have a point. Good practical theology, like good engineering, needs to be elegantly simple.  My challenge is to work out and deliver that which is elegantly simple rather than something that is, ultimately, pretty trivial.


  • It makes you wonder...

    This morning's post brought me a replacement ink reservoir for one of my fountain pens - seemingly Parker vector use a non-standard size so you have to buy their own product.  Not very exciting - except I bought it on Ebay from Australia which, including air mail postage, was cheaper then driving to Leicester to buy one.  Probably not very green, although the plane would have flown with or without my item, but less cost, less time and less hassle: how daft is that?

    Anyway, my pen is now fully functional again (and as I bought of said items I have a spare in case of need) so I'm happy.

  • The Omnicompetent Octopus aka the Baptist Minister

    I am this week prepraring no less than 4 services, though two are essentially identical (home and away on the same day the day I get back from hols) and one is largely a copy of one I've used locally that is being taken to my 'sending' church where I'm doing a guest preach part way through my hols.

    In preparing one of them, which came with requests for lots of songs, I've now been told there will be no musicians as they're all on holiday and there is some uncertainty over sound and projection.  Now I can do all of the above, I am a 'get by' church-level pianist (albiet out of practice) and can strum a guitar or play a recorder if needed, I can drive a laptop, a data projector and a simple sound system but, alas, I'm not an octopus, so I can't do them all at once.

    I feel very sorry for the preaching secratary of the church concerned (who booked me last year) and now has to check if there will a keyboard for me to play, whether I need to supply my own technological wizardry and even if there willpeople there willing to read the Bible passages.

    In the meantime, it's back to practicing F#m7 and other delightful bar chords and wondering if people will be able to sing the things I've selected with only my rather reedy mezzosoprano for a lead...

  • Homiletic and Hermeneutic Exprimentation

    Yup, I swallowed a dictionary this morning.  OK I didn't really.

    Anyway.  This Sunday this is what will be happening in our service. We will be hearing the 2 Kings 19 passage of Elijah at Horeb and then the Matthew account of Jesus (and Peter) walking on water.  The people will be told to close their Bibles and try to identifiy any themes or ideas that connect the two passages.  After a couple of minutes thinking time, they will be invited to share - briefly their thoughts.  Once we've done that, I will move into the "sermon" (?) which will begin with Baptist declaration of Principle (naturally enough!) on liberty over interpretation and from there into some of the challenges of hermeneutics (interpretation) and discerning whether we hear God, received wisdom or culture in our Bible reading.  Lastly I'll share my thoughts from doing the exercise myself (albeit over somewhat lnger than 2 minutes, but without consulting commentaries this time around).  The hope is that it will encourage people to recognise that 'different' is not automatically 'wrong,' that the Bible isn't an easy book to interpret or understand and that communal hermeneutics and homiletics actually have some merit.

    And as I leave straight after the service for three weeks off (yeay!) they have plenty of time to discuss my heresies before I return!

    It is also a great excuse to sing one of my all time favourite hymns (below) alongside selected verses of 'K' from Rippon's collection and my recent discovery 'Open this book'


    We limit not the truth of God

    To our poor reach of mind

    By notions of our day and sect,

    Crude partial and confined

    O let a new and brighter hope

    Within our hearts be stirred:

    The Lord has yet more light and truth

    To break forth from his word.


    Who dares to bind to their dull sense

    The oracles of heaven?

    For all the nations, tongues and climes,

    And all the ages given?

    That universe, how much unknown!

    That ocean unexplored!

    The Lord has yet more light and truth

    To break forth from his word.


    In faith our forbears boldly went

    The first steps of the way;

    It was the dawning, yet to grow

    Into that perfect day.

    And grow it shall, our glorious sun,

    More fervid rays afford:

    The Lord has yet more light and truth

    To break forth from his word.


    O Father, Son and Spirirt, send

    Us increase from above;

    Enlarge, expand all Christian souls

    To comprehend your love:

    And make us to go on to know

    With nobler powers conferred:

    The Lord has yet more light and truth

    To break forth from his word.

    George Rawson (public)

    George Rawson


    I learned this hymn (~30 years back) to the tune Ellacombe which can be found at 297 in BPW or in any good hymnbook! I don't know the set tune, and the metre identified in BPW (DCM) will not take you to Ellacombe (76 76 D), but trust me, it fits.