Not long ago, I met with an old friend of mine who is a “swinger.” For those of you who don’t know, swinging is when both partners in a committed relationship agree to have a sexually open relationship. This guy was married and came in to talk to me about – you guessed it – marital problems. The idea behind “swinging” is that things never become mundane. Sexual monogamy, according to swingers, is nothing more than confining yourself to sexual boredom. Being with the same partner becomes cliché and uneventful. Swinging keeps things fresh and novel at all times so the high produced by provocation is always maintained.
As problematic and destructive as marital swinging is, that is not what I am writing about. I want to talk about what I call theological swinging. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest problems in theology today (and probably of any day). Let me explain.
Before going to seminary, I was given a set of books by my pastor. At the time he was, to me, the smartest person living on planet Earth. I salivated to get a peek of his notes each week. I wanted to record everything he said. And just to get to see his library – the source of the very sun! – was just about too much excitement for me to handle. That is why I was speechless the day he gave me two books, one blue and one red. I knew these were precious books to him due to the amount of notes and stickies that covered the dog-eared pages. What were they? Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Volumes 1 and 2 by Josh McDowell. Upon receipt of these books I read them over and over. The wisdom and knowledge that filled the pages was almost too much excitement for this 20-year-old wannabe apologist to take. It was so provocative to me. The provocation came not from learning the Gospel for the first time, but from seeing with my own eyes, for the first time, an attempt to defend Christianity. “Are you kidding me?!” I said each time I read about a new topic. This guy, Josh McDowell, must be a giant of the faith, demanding respect from everyone. He was my new hero.
It was not until I hit seminary that I found out the “truth.” You see, at seminary, among all the students “in the know,” I came to find out very quickly that these kinds of works are frowned upon. I came to find out that McDowell’s apologetics were called “pop” apologetics. In essence, pop apologetics is cliché defense of the faith performed by cliché apologists. Translation: it was naive. It was not kosher. If and when I quoted someone like McDowell in a conversation with fellow students, there would be some snickering. The idea conveyed was that there were certain works, written by certain authors, that were “little league” and not respectable. Whether is was Lewis Sperry Chafer, Josh McDowell, Wayne Grudem, or R.C. Sproul (all of whom were my self-proclaimed mentors until that point), they were, at best, milk from the breast of my mother; at worst, they were naive teachers who simply parroted the simple and sheltered faith of evangelicalism. If you wanted to run with the “big boys” you had to read yourself some Barth, Multmonn, Hauerwas, or one of the liberation theologians such as Boff or Gutierrez. Why? Because, quite frankly, they did not fit the “stupid” evangelical mold. These were the “cool” people to read. They were the trump cards that, when played, left other students feeling inadequate and inferior. I thought I could read Dwight Pentecost’s Things to Come and be prepared for any discussion on eschatology. Who knew that quoting Theology of Hope by Jürgen Moltmann at Dallas Theological Seminary would be more prestigious than Pentecost? Who knew that saying that you had been reading A Theology of Liberation would score you more points than reading Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie? Who knew that the greatest danger for any Christian leader was to be labeled cliché?
Let me try to illustrate this another way before I get back to the swinger thing: I remember in fourth grade, there was a girl who held the near-unanimous vote for being the prettiest gal in school. Everyone was in love with her. Everyone wanted to sit by her at lunch or go across the monkey bars with her at recess. If you gained either of these honors you were, by extension, the most popular guy in school. She held that much power. However, things changed. By the time our same group of friends entered high school, she was no longer held in such high esteem. In fact, thinking she was pretty was somewhat passé. Suddenly, it was the random loner gal (who everyone previously thought was weird). Suddenly it was the one who hung around with the skinheads and listened to Violent Femmes who everyone liked. On paper, she was not as pretty as our former love, but she was exotic. She was outside the box. She was different. If she were to lose her exotic “off-limits” appeal by joining our crowd (which some did), she was no longer the one. The primary qualification for appeal became novelty. Fresh appeal that comes from being obscure and mysterious went further than the meat and potatoes of good looks and charm.
Theology is a lot like this. If it is exotic, out of the norm, and less known, it does not matter how “pretty” it really is, it is what is “cool.” You see, in theology, for many people “in the know,” once something becomes mainstream, it becomes disqualified. Once it becomes too popular or normal, it becomes naive. Once everyone thinks it is correct, it is no longer qualified to be anything but a foil for the correct. We become theological swingers whose end is not to find the truth, but simply to swing to the next partner.
For theological swingers, referencing the unknown, obscure, rejected, Violent Femmes-loving theologian becomes a heavy-handed power play. It has power because most people don’t know how to respond. A statement like, “I used to be premillenial like you until I read Moltmann” leaves people speechless. They don’t know who Moltmann is, much less have they read him, so they are left feeling inadequate to stay in the conversation. Mystery, intrigue, and novelty become placeholders for truth. Pastoral ideals of theological stability are replaced with looking smarter than the next person. Truth is not the goal, but rather self-image. And theological swingers just don’t want to be bored, liking the same gal that everyone else likes.
I have been a theological swinger. In fact, I am only now beginning to graduate from this way of thinking. I am only now beginning to see that this method is itself naive. For a time, I would not read anyone who fit the mold of my conservative evangelical theological culture. I felt that was my duty. I loved to quote those who were less known and exotic. I still have the tendency to belittle (at least in the back of my mind) people who reference and quote theologians, biblical exegetes, and philosophers who are too popular within the evangelical sub-culture. I am ashamed to say that many of my heroes, who inspired me so much before, became to me an embarrassing distant relative who only discredits my “scholarship” and reputation with others whose respect has fueled my swinging habit.
However, I am recovering. The first thing we all have realized lately is that one person’s cliché is the next person’s provocation. Dealing with people who come out of other traditions has taught me this. Those whose culture is accustomed to learning from liberal theologians find conservatives provocative. Those who are accustomed to Eastern Orthodoxy find evangelical writings out of the box. Those who are fundamentalists rebel and swing with those who take a more progressive stand.
Theologies and theologians come and go. Provocation is a great thing, but if we are committed to provocation and swinging more than truth, the journey will be unending and ungodly. We will never be satisfied, as our compass will be broken. Divorce, adultery, and eternal convictionless theological swinging is all we can expect. Remember, there was a time when all the “pop” theologies and apologetics that you might look down upon now were not mainstream. They were the mysterious, obscure ideas. They were the novelties. However, their value does not come in their newness, but in their substance.
I do want to say that all of those thinkers I referenced before have been very much worth my time and attention. Whether with popular theologians or the less popular ones, we all need to broaden our horizons. And we should read and learn outside the norm of our culture. We don’t need to accept mainstream because it is mainstream and we don’t need to reject it because of this either. The exotic, novel, and provocative are worth our attention so long as truth, not novelty, is our goal. However, sometimes there is a reason why the gal who hangs out with the skinhead is obscure and unknown . . . and it is not because she is prettier than the others!
I write this for myself. These are confessions of a theological swinger. However, I know so many theologians and young “emerging” thinkers out there today who are completely unstable, swinging away and trying to get everyone else to swing with them. Swinging is not theologically “cool,” much less does it evidence any intelligence. It has no profundity and is the furthest thing from a pastoral approach to stabilizing people’s faith. Once we realize that one person’s cliché is the next person’s provocation, we will disengage in this endless search for something new. “Novel” is not synonymous with “profound.” Realize this: that which is new today will be passé tomorrow. All one has to do is look into much of the Emerging movement and see this swinging mentality displayed. Ironically, authors in this movement who were thought to be the most profound ten years ago are now thought of as simple.
And, to put this into perspective: Theological swinging is nothing new itself! There were a bunch of these boys in Athens.
Acts 17:21 “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.”
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]