I sort of missed out on the blog tour for Ed Cyzewski’s Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life due to a shipping delay that saw the book land in my lap a little late and at a busy time. I considered doing an interview with Ed instead, but that’s harder when you haven’t read the book. Both are too bad, because the book is quite good, and I want to ask him how to pronounce his name. Nevertheless, it’s still appropriate for a mention or two to appear here on my interwebs haunt. In that vein, I thought I’d offer an excerpt that helps give a sense of the book’s direction. This occurs early on, pages 19-20:
Beliefs about God change depending on context. So as we seek information about this God we want to know and to make known, we need to understand the often undetected influences of cultural context. The inescapable conclusion is that we’re products of our times and locations, an these influences create a lens for our study of God.
All is not lost. In fact, culture is a good thing to understand. Christians in the U.S. do need to hear Jesus’ teaching about humility, and Latin American Christians do need to hear the hope of Jesus’ message about blessings promised to the physically poor. In this case, we can easily see how context becomes a valuable tool. And as we understand the values and challenges of our contexts, we can study the Bible with a greater willingness to hold our culture up to the scrutiny of God.
Of course, the danger occurs when we mistake our biblical interpretations from an isolated context as the definitive word. So we need to challenge ourselves to learn about God with an awareness of context — what we can call contextual theology — while at the same time making sure we value different insights from other cultures where Christians are learning about God in their own particular situations.
In brief, that’s where we’re headed together in this book. Coffeehouse Theology will help us form and live out contextual theology by helping us to understand who we are and by including perspectives outside of our own in the midst of our study of Scripture. Together, we’ll explore where our beliefs about God come from: our context, the Bible, our traditions, and Christians from other cultures.
Now, the thing that struck me here is the observation that all of us are already engaged in contextual theology — we just may not realize it. There are those who will label this as relativism and reach for a cross, a vial of holy water, or a clove of garlic when the subject comes up. But what Ed starts to get at here is vitally important. Our beliefs about God, our theology, has already been shaped by such things as culture and context as well as the Bible. If you ask us, we’ll say it’s all biblically-based, but is it? Call it Pagan Christianity or Blue Parakeets, the heart of the matter we’re trying to correct (or need to be) is the same: our reading of the Bible has been so informed by our cultural context that we can’t even sort the two out anymore. This is the curse of Christendom and its pairing with modernity.
And on that subject, I think Coffeehouse Theology includes one of the better glances at the modern/postmodern shift than many similar books that need to hit the topic as background for its thesis. Quoting now from pages 72-73, where Ed introduces the subject; he has just finished describing his exit from the theater after seeing The Two Towers, coming from a land of myth and magic into a grey concrete parking lot and into the suburbs.
Now imagine we lived in a world similar to Tolkein’s land of magic, where unusual events in the heavens held supernatural significance: God controlled weather patterns, priests turned ordinary bread into the very body of Christ, diseases appeared and departed for unknown reasons, and the church infiltrated just about every areas of life from the earthly government tot he rules governing who escaped purgatory and who remained trapped. Your acts of penance might even help a long-dead relative enjoy a better life in heaven.
And let’s imagine that, drawn out over the course of several hundred years, we see a gradual shift from this world–one alive with God and other supernatural forces–into another where people call into question and even replace many of these beliefs and values. The world of magic gets left behind for a new world that only believes what it can see.
If you can imagine this kind of shift, you might have a glimpse of the changes that occurred in Western Europe from the Middle Ages (ACE 500-1500) to the modern age (ACE 1500-1970). A world that believed in God’s direct intervention and looked to the supernatural to explain the events in everyday life gave way to a more scientific approach that valued proof and the wielding of orderly and rational thought.
You might say that the modern age sucked a lot of the magic out of life.
Here lies some of the problem. When you’re in the midst of an era that lasts 4-500 years, it’s easy to stop seeing how the philosophy of that era affects your beliefs. Things have been this way as long as anyone can remember, of course, and the ideas of the era before are simply archaic and, in a word, primitive. In your own era is where truth must lie, and the assumptions and philosophies that underlie it automatically inform our beliefs, our theology. What a cataclysmic shift it is to move from one era into another.
Well. That’s a snippet of some of the themes in Coffeehouse Theology and some thoughts as I read through it. In my view it would be good reading for anyone coming to understand that their theology just may be a little on the ethnocentric side, and/or who wants to explore how culture shapes theology, for better or worse. The explanation of the modern/postmodern shift is very good, and this alone makes it a good read for anyone coming to grips with its effect on how we must do theology.
You can pick up a copy at CBD: Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life — and Ed’s blog, In A Mirror Dimly, is worth following as well.