Reading to Inhabit our Theology
A Feature Review of
Reading Theology Wisely: A Practical Introduction
Reviewed by Israel Kolade
In Reading Theology Wisely, Kent Eilers presents the reader with a vision for reading theology which is completely contrary to a stale, lifeless, strictly academic exercise. “What if reading theology was about expanding our view of God, deepening our delight in his fellowship, moving us closer to our true selves in Christ, seeing our neighbors more as Jesus does, and propelling us into God’s works of justice and mercy?” asks Eilers (ix, emphasis in original). This book is a positive vision for reading theology that will help the reader move in such a direction. To reframe it in historical-theological terms, this work is an exercise in Augustinian hermeneutics (see Augustine, On Christian Teaching) applied to the discipline of theological discourse, where the goal of the double love of God and neighbor is front and center in the task of reading theology.
The book opens with a letter to the reader, orienting her to the purpose and flow of the book, and it closes with a sending – a sort of blessing to ‘go and do likewise.’ In between the letter and the sending are seven chapters which makes up the bulk of the book. Each chapter opens with an original illustration from Chris Koelle (an award-winning illustrator) that captures visually the core idea of the chapter. Beside the illustration, the reader is also presented with a quoted passage of scripture and a quote from a well-known architect. A quote from the scriptures makes enough sense, but why a quote from an architect? Simply put, Eilers wants to argue for an analogous relationship between architectural spaces and written texts. “Books, in ways similar to buildings, are spaces to inhabit” (xi, emphasis in original). Each chapter closes with a prayer – after all, what is theology if it is not devotional and doxological? The prayer is followed by a summary of the chapter, a set of questions for reflection and discussion, and a theology lab which invites the reader to a practice that embodies the ideas of the chapter.
In Chapter 1, Imagination for Readings, Eilers suggests that in order to begin reading theology wisely one must first train her imagination for reading theology. He briefly notes why the imagination is important for reading, before breaking down his understanding of reading theology as “a living encounter with an author’s world of meaning, as fellow members of the church who are being conformed to Christ’s image” (5). In Chapter 2, Vision for Theology, Eilers offers a vision of theology that is “faith seeking to know God and everything in light of God” (36). The term ‘vision’ is to be preferred over the term ‘definition’ since the idea of vision can include a continual expansiveness, whereas the idea of a definition can often assume a sort of final understanding. Eilers provides the reader with four fundamental characteristics to this vision: (1) theology’s object is unrelentingly different from every other; (2) theology’s object turns out to be theology’s active subject; (3) theology’s knowledge involves our selves; and (4) theology involves everything (43, 44, emphasis in original).
In Chapter 3, Reading as Inhabitation, Eilers begins unpacking his architectural approach to reading theology. Drawing from the architectural metaphor, and borrowing from musical metaphors, Eilers invites the reader to see theology as space. This space, as in the case of physical space, invites the reader into the author’s (architect’s) world of meaning – creating a movement towards intimacy and love rather than domination and mastery. Each work of theology has three worlds; the world behind the page (the author’s world), the world of the page (the text itself with all its linguistic characteristics), and the world in front of the page (the reader’s world). In Chapter 4, Settings of Theology: Behind the Page, the reader is shown how to consider the world behind the page (the author’s world) in terms of the author’s time period, geographical and social setting, as well as their place in God’s providential ordering of world history. The reader can only engage a work of theology well if she attends seriously to the author’s world rather than superimposing her world upon the author’s.
In Chapter 5, Sources of Theology: Of the Page, Eilers attends to the first of two aspects to the world of the page – the sources of our theology. There are five sources of theology (slightly adapting the Wesleyan quadrilateral); (1) scripture, (2) tradition, (3) reason, (4) experience, and (5) culture. While one could argue that culture should be included within experience (where experience is communal, we find culture), it is helpful for culture to be explicitly named and made into a separate category. In our particular historical moment of mass globalisation, urbanisation, and multiculturalism in the west, the reader must become more aware of how culture acts as a distinct source of theology.
In Chapter 6, Architectures of Theology: Of the Page, Eilers considers the second aspect to the world of the page – the approaches to, forms, and modes of theology. He unpacks several approaches to theology, such as historical theology, practical theology, and contextual theology. He highlights various forms of theology from prayers and sermons to confessions and fiction. He then gives particular attention to the modes of theology (worship, witness, and critiques), wherein the reader can ascertain the author’s intentions and goals.
Finally, in Chapter 7, Invitations of Theology: In Front of the Page, Eilers offers the reader guidance for navigating their own world in light of their engagement with works of theology. How can one wisely navigate her world of rival narratives competing for her attention? Eilers suggests three pieces of wisdom for the reader, in relation to reading theology: (1) the wisdom to read by the rules (of scripture, faith, and love), (2) the wisdom to form virtues (of receptivity, hospitality, and empathy), and (3) the wisdom to discern the risks of empathy.
As one reads this book, the impression is developed that Eilers is a detective of sorts– a detective committed to finding the answers to the question of how a reader can engage in the practice of reading theology wisely. In the quest to find such answers, Eilers is willing to look under every theological rock within his reach, and to excavate every theological ditch along the road. What is the result of this detective’s investigation? A vision for reading theology that is saturated in wisdom because the writer has heeded the words of the sages of Christian history– from early Church figures, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Augustine of Hippo, to medieval thinkers, such as Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena, and contemporary theologians, such as Sarah Coakley and Marilynne Robinson. The reader would be wise (pun intended) to not only learn from this work, but to excavate its endnotes (we’ll forgive the publisher) and follow the breadcrumb trails to these figures. The book is not merely a practical introduction to reading theology wisely, but also an index of works of theology written in the spirit of wisdom.
Israel Kolade is the Director of Faith Formation at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, California. He is a MDiv Student at Fuller Theological Seminary, and a graduate of the University of London.