Ben Myers has recently started a series of Theology FAIL posts where egregious specimens of Christian oddity or incompetence are highlighted for readers. The first post, on an essay arguing that Christians should feel free to enjoy killing under circumstances of warmaking, was well received, and so two more posts have gone up... one on Richard Swinburne's philosophical theology, and one on imprecatory prayer against President Obama.
My only question concerning this series is one of genre. Forgive me if I'm nitpicking, but this thought crosses my mind often enough, and I thought I'd mention it. I can understand the critique of Swinburne as being a "theology" fail. The critique of the "Onward Christian Soldiers" piece seems less a theological fail, although as an essay I suppose it is a piece of popular-level theological work about the ethics of war. The imprecatory prayers of a handful of uneducated pastors doesn't strike me as at all a matter of theology, however. In a very vague sense it involves the exegeting of Scripture, but if we're going to call every usage of Scripture "biblical studies", I think we lose more than we gain in determining exactly what a particularly scholarly instance of such usage entails. Should we call Oprah's book club literary criticism? Should we then consider it a failure when it fails to act like the literary criticism that goes on in university language departments?
Is something that is liable to theological critique- something upon which theology might comment- itself "theology"? Or is anything that happens to come up in the life of faith a matter of theology?
My concern is that in attempting to becoming everything, "theology" (or any other discipline) becomes nothing. And I'm not trying to assert that certain things are devalued because they don't qualify as theology. Quite the opposite, I'm trying to push against the professionalization and specialization that tends to view all things through an academic lens. I think that a blurring of the lines is often done with good intentions- with a concern for egalitarianism or a democratization of knowledge and of discourse. But knowledge and discourse don't self-evidently gain anything by being subsumed into a university discipline, nor do the disciplines necessarily gain anything by trying to become "political" or "ecclesial" or "practical" or "applied".
I remember a class discussion from last year when the text under scrutiny was something by Nietzsche, and a classmate (an MDiv student, I believe) asked something like, "Well, okay, but how can I apply this in my sermon on Sunday?" My (unvoiced!) response to this was, "Good Lord! Are people really taking home from these courses the idea that we should be preaching with Hegel, or Kant, or Nietzsche simply because we should be thinking with them?" I can sympathize with the impulse to identify theology as something that matters for the Christian life, but that doesn't mean that something that is thought-provoking or edifying in theology will necessarily be similarly important for the context of public worship. The same applies, I think, to sermons that read like a critical commentary. It's not that the academic field of biblical studies isn't important for teaching the Scriptures to a congregation... it is. But there needs to be a recognition of genre distinction and an acknowledgment that the biblical studies guild is its own community with its own raison d'être. The same goes for philosophy, or theology. Ben's previous post on theology as research also gets into some of these problems, and I responded in the comment section with some thoughts that are similar to what I've offered here.
These are just some musings on the purpose and scope of theological work, of which I think people often try to make both too much and too little. Don't take the above thoughts as any sort of blanket critique of what Ben is doing with his FAIL series... this just happened to be what suggested the issue to me. I'm not questioning whether these things deserve the "FAIL" stamp, but whether they all deserve the "Theology" stamp.