Philip Clayton vs. Academic Theology: The Postman Revisited

Philip Clayton equals Kevin Costner as epic hero.

In recent conversations with Philip (listen to podcast here), and with others (see AAR 2009 or HBC podcast), Clayton has really begun to push against academic “ivory tower” theology as being too disconnected from the kind of theology that is really necessary or capable of meeting the needs of theology in the age of Google (and hereafter).

He is, in an very profound way, challenging not only the way in which theology gets articulated, but the very institution of which he has been a part for a long time. After all, if you check out Clayton’s CV online, he has close to 10 pages of books, articles, publications, and reviews. While most of these articles have fueled the fires of the institution he now critiques, that he has had a “conversion” seems not only authentic, but very very dangerous for those who find the tower cozy.

Can you imagine the kind of collapse he is really picturing? In our podcast he says, and I paraphrase here, “collapse is happening and the institutions that have long set the parameters for thinking about theology no longer have the credibility or influence they once had on the people doing theology.” And, as he would go on to suggest later (paraphrase), “we’ve got to figure out how theology is done when collapse is coming in the next 15 years.”

The collapse that Clayton is imagining is one which seems pretty akin to the one depicted by Kevin Costner’s The Postman. If not literally, figuratively. (You remember, the one in the lineage of Dances with Wolves and Waterworld in which a principle character, who is a drifter in the world of which he lives, stumbles upon a group of people in search of, or in need of help which they discover he can mediate for their benefit and the benefit of all.) In The Postman, all the institutions which once held together the “United States of America” have fallen. Corruption, division, and chaos have set in and the ancient stories of hope found in theater, community, and literature are now illegal or lost. What is worse, is that with collapse went the postal system; you know, the one regulated system through which people were unified in communication and community over long distances, with authority.

If the collapse that Clayton suggests genuinely takes shape over the course of the next 15 years (he’s mentioned several dates), then, as the song goes, people get ready. If seminaries will continue to lose funding, if publishers continue to struggle with publishing books in print, if learning continues to be revolutionized by the changes in global technology, then we must seriously ask what is next?

What will theology after google really be like?

What is more, we must begin now to understand the need to retell (to ourselves and our communities) the stories of the ones who were wandering folk-healers, local community organizers, and prophets in the ancient ages of institutional chaos and collapse (Clayton would suggest like Jesus or his mother, Mary). We must also question the degree to which our hyper-connectivity is both a blessing and a curse. Finally, we must think critically about the way in which we can nurture a theology of systems which, like the postman, form vibrant and intentional community while fostering a vision for some greater connection to those who are yet elsewhere, but longing for the same kind of hope which we locally experience, practice, and proclaim.

Academic theology, as one who is a part of your number, I stand with Philip Clayton, Tony Jones, and others to say: Beware! You are losing your grasp, your systems are failing, and you need to remember what Marshall McLuhan warned you of in 1964 in his work Understanding Media:

Education is ideally civil defense against media fallout. Yet Western man has had, so far, no education or equipment for meeting any of the new media on their own terms. Literate man is not only numb and vague in the presence of film or photo, but he intensifies his ineptness by a defensive arrogance…It was in this spirit of building bulldog opacity that the Scholastic philosophers failed to meet the challenge of the printed book in the sixteenth century. The vested interests of acquired knowledge and conventional wisdom have always been bypassed and engulfed by new media.

Let the revolution continue. Or, as my friend Peter Rollins might suggest, let us join the insurrection!


9 thoughts on “Philip Clayton vs. Academic Theology: The Postman Revisited

  1. Josh, you write with a prophetic voice. You’re right: if the old institutions go down, there will be need for many of us to be postmen and postwomen in the uncharted period that’s to come….

    — Philip Clayton

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