Brief Reviews

Trey Ferguson – Theologizin’ Bigger [Review]

Theologizin BiggerEmbodying our Theology

A Review of

Theologizin’ Bigger: Homilies on Living Freely and Loving Wholly
Trey Ferguson

Paperback: Lake Drive, 2024
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake

Pastor Trey Ferguson has become one of the most interesting and provocative people on X (formerly known as Twitter). He seems to have a little fun riling people up – something easy to do when you speak in vernacular to question tightly held beliefs like penal substitutionary atonement – but mostly he sounds motivated to help his followers find a more abundant life. His first book, Theologizin’ Bigger, carries the full force of his pastoral personality, but never at the expense of his deep curiosity and insightful commentary. His commitment to questions and imagination, and of course his faith, should serve readers in a variety of situations, particularly those who feel some nagging discomfort in their Christianity.

Understanding Ferguson’s mission requires understanding the idea of “theologizin’.” He spells it out most clearly in a tweet, saying: “A theologian is good at knowing stuff about faith. It’s a passive, theoretical endeavor. A theologizer makes it applicable. It’s active.” Theology means you put together a systematic explanation of religion, but in the real world there’s no test that makes you a good Christian or gets you into the age to come. Theologizin’ isn’t simply about practical activity. It includes deciding “to value the art of speculation… to wrestle with the attributes of God… It’s the pursuit of a truth you’re confident you’ll never fully capture” (xv). This approach becomes a life of inquiry. Ferguson is concerned that we’ve established certain right answers (usually drawn from the Reformation) and that there are guardians of that tradition looking to keep anyone with questions in their proper place. Ferguson writes, “I am committed to serving the church in a way that encourages the guardians to explore the wide world of questions. I am committed to showing up in the world in a way that encourages the questioners to entertain the possibility that some of what they seek might be found among the guardians” (11). In his book, as on social media, he does both.

To set the terms for his conversations, Ferguson explains his view of the Bible over the first few chapters. More precisely, he explains his view of reading the Bible. He says, “Reading and interpreting the Bible often tells us more about ourselves than it tells us about God” (16, italics in the original throughout). Since the Bible isn’t simply the spiritual equivalent of a “car manual,” we have to understand what we bring to the reading process as well as the challenges of discovering what it has to say to us. Without denying the Bible’s importance, Ferguson explains that reading it “requires critical thinking. It requires risk” (21). He continues, “In addition to ‘what does the Bible say about…’ we must also ask, ‘and how is the Spirit of God directing me today?” (22). That process (including its hints of Bonhoeffer) is all part of theologizin’, and when we feel comfortable with asking the big questions and looking for God rather than for the culturally right answers, we’ll find spiritual freedom.

With those ideas in place, he engages areas of Christian culture likely to raise some hackles but worth interrogating. One large section of the book deals with “the tension that I’ve experienced in my life as a Black man in the United States and a Christian in the West” (xxii). This section includes some autobiography, some history, and some current cultural commentary. Ferguson provides examples of the ways that not all religious experiences are accepted or even accounted for. He discovers that his first seminary wasn’t a good fit for him. At one point he explains, “I just never had a reason to know white theology before. Coming across it did not strengthen my faith because it made no room for my reality” (57). These chapters point out not only the challenges of dealing with race in American Christianity, but of understanding the limitations we can place on the “other,” a concern Ferguson addresses directly in a chapter on deconstruction when he writes, “I cannot speak to the validity of the beliefs that many of us… shed. I can speak to the value of community and humility. If deconstruction does not engender an appreciation for the other, then you’ve merely become a peddler of a different form of toxicity” (75). All the questions that Ferguson guides us to should be good news, not a redefining. Ultimately we discover not only a bigger God than we might have expected, but a bigger everything.

The process can be challenging. Perhaps the chapter that Ferguson has seen the most resistance to is the one on shame. Quoting his own tweet, he says, “Shame is a healthy part of a society…. some of us need to sit with shame” (101). That the chapter has gotten some blowback is itself a demonstration of the challenges of culture and language. In many evangelical circles, “shame” has become a dirty word. Christians speak of being “convicted,” but “shame” has more to do with unhealthy guilt, the trappings of the past rather than God’s forgiveness. Ferguson clearly uses the terminology differently, seeing shame as something connected to accountability but not abuse, part of a relationship within a loving community that can help us. He writes, “This shame has not rendered me incapable of growth. It has liberated me from the captivity of a way of being that served no one well. This is a good shame” (105). Seeing a new perspective makes us ask new questions: What do we mean by shame? What is the purpose of a healthy community? How do we experience sanctification through vulnerability in relationship?

Ferguson doesn’t stop simply with questioning. The point, after all, isn’t intellectual play for its own sake– hypotheticals to stretch our mind just because. Instead, Ferguson sees it all as part of an optimistic movement into the future. Freed from the strictures of tradition and encoded propriety, we can begin to imagine wonderful things within our faith. As Ferguson writes, “We were made to imagine things so that we can call them into being and call them good” (185). He builds his book to a strong finish by recognizing, “Theologizin’ bigger keeps us excited about the future…. It expands our capacity for redemption and renewal…. Theologizin’ bigger is an act of love” (188). That’s good news for all of us, both the guardians and the questioners, and for everyone else. Ferguson’s book has deep importance for those who know (or don’t know) they’re stuck, and for anyone who feels the questions bubbling up, even those who hadn’t realized it was okay to ask them.

Justin Cober-Lake

Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.

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