Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, Michael J. Sleasman, editors Baker Academic, Grand Rapids March 1, 2007
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Vanhoozer is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The other two editors of this excellent book are his students. Sleasman is a Ph.D. candidate at Trinity and Anderson a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge. Apart from the opening two chapters by Vanhoozer, the essays in this book were written by students in his Cultural Hermeneutics class, taught annually since 2001.

In an opening chapter, “A Reader’s Guide: How to Use This Book,” Vanhoozer defines “everyday theology” as “the reflective and practical task of living each day as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Theology is not for Sundays only. Disciples must walk the Christian way the whole weekend and throughout the workweek. Theology is an everyday affair: to live to the glory of God is a full-time privilege and pursuit” (p. 7). It “not only articulates beliefs but suggests ‘designs for living.’ . . . Everyday Christians have to learn to negotiate their way carefully, following the one way of Jesus Christ through a variety of cultural byways” (ibid.). Faithful disciples and disciple-makers must understand the world of the biblical text and the world in which they live. Vanhoozer explains, “If theology is the ministry of the Word to the world, it follows that theologians must know something about the world to which they are ministering” (p. 8). He, of course, is not the first to observe this. For example former Dallas Seminary professor Haddon Robinson put it this way: “To expound the Scriptures so the contemporary God confronts us where we live requires that the preacher study his audience as well as his Bible” (Biblical Preaching [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980], 79). The great contribution of this collection of essays is that it explains and illustrates a set of methods by which to interpret the world of the audience.

In his essay, “What Is Everyday Theology? How and Why Christians Should Read Culture,” Vanhoozer provides an apologetic for everyday theology and explains his method. He cites Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees and Sadducees: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matt. 16:3, NIV). Vanhoozer explains, “Jesus’ words were probably directed at the Jewish leaders’ willful refusal to see what God was doing in Israel through his own person. Yet it is reasonable to extrapolate from this that Christians today should similarly be alive and awake to what God is doing in our own time through the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (p. 17).

Among other reasons why everyday theology requires an understanding of the world in which theologians minister is that “it is impossible to construct a culture-free Christianity. The Christian faith is incarnational, after all, and even God became not a generic but a culturally located human being” (p. 34). Communicating biblical truth and incarnating the Savior in the world today requires an understanding of the cultural context in which such ministries occur.

Vanhoozer’s method is hermeneutical, recognizing that cultural texts and trends need to be interpreted. He proposes that they be read “in light of the control-script,” the biblical story of Creation, the Fall, and recreation (p. 41). Theologically these readings must be based on the doctrines of the Incarnation, general revelation, common grace, and the imago Dei. “How should Christians read culture? By offering theologically thick (e.g., multiperspectival, multilayered, multidimensional) descriptions of everyday texts and trends, products and practices” (p. 55).

The second major part of the book illustrates the application of this hermeneutical method, with examples from music, film, the grocery checkout line, church architecture, the Internet, funeral practices, and weddings. Not every chapter will be helpful to every reader, nor will everyone respond in the same way, but the chapters serve as representative applications of the method. They help to make concrete the theory Vanhoozer describes. Each chapter includes several sidebars, pointing the reader to other sources and raising related questions for consideration.

This book is highly recommended for pastors, students, evangelists, Sunday school teachers, and other church leaders. Being an effective communicator of the Word of God requires interpretation of both the Word and the world, both the Scriptures and the audience. This book is an effective, practical, and user-friendly introduction to an important task. This is not the final word on the subject nor is this method the only legitimate approach, but this book is a helpful introduction to this important topic.

—Glenn R. Kreider

April 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2009 vol. 166 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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