Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Books Worth Reading (11): Rachael Keefe's Barefoot Theology: A Dictionary for Pilgrims, Priests and Poets

Raechael A. Keefe, Barefoot Theology: A Dictionary for Pilgrims, Priests and Poets (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2013),

Notwithstanding its title this is not the usual sort of theological dictionary. In fact, it's not really the kind of theological book that academic theologians are terribly comfortable with. There are no long historical, exegetical, doctrinal or philosophical discussions. The entry on 'hemenueutics' extends to only four lines. On the other hand, the entry on 'questions' runs to three pages. And, gosh, there is no entry whatsoever for homoousious! Still, I think many theological students would profit from having this book sitting beside their more usual dictionaries, encyclopedias, and textbooks. This dictionary defines through poetry.

Theology is necessarily discursive, analytical, exegetical and historical. But theology is ultimately an imaginative discipline. Precisely as a technical discipline - or set of disciplines - it shapes and reshapes our imagination. In other words, it shapes and reshapes how we imagine God, creation, salvation, Jesus, the Spirit etc. Sadly this is not always immediately apparent to theology students as they engage the technical disciplines required of them. But I think it is one of the responsibilities of a theology teacher to help students grasps the imaginative functions of theology. And that requires providing diverse points of entry into theological work to match the diverse ways that people cultivate their imagination. I know that my imagination is actively engaged and stimulated by engaging with ideas, concepts and texts. But I recognise that this is not the case for many others. That does not mean, however, that we obliged to set aside the conceptual and analytical. It does mean that multiple points of entry into them need to be developed. This is not to deny that the poetic and the artistic do not have an integrity of their own. But as well as that they can helpfully open the imagination to the technical discourses of theology.

If pressed, I would ultimately place this book in the genre of the devotional, but it is devotional in a way that is intentional about speaking to the mind as well as the heart. Let me cite just two examples.

The entry on 'kerygma' is actually built around a mediation on Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman. The last stanza of the 'definition' runs as follows:
If we really want that early church preaching
then maybe we should get ourselves to the well
with all the sinners who thirst for Living Water
and are afraid to drink in the presence
of the Word who comes to us
in the fullness of grace and truth
until our testimony pours our
new life
And on 'redaction', after several lines  reminding readers of form and grammar, and original languages, the poem, written in a chiastic structure, concludes
These are good to tools to use lest we forget that
every writer has an agenda, a goal, a reason
to spin a story in a certain direction,
especially when politics and
religion are twisted together
lie they were in the
church's very
early days
as they

Not all the 'definitions' sit comfortably with me, but the approach Keefe pursues does. Whilst this book could only accompany and not replace other more conventional theological dictionaries, I think for a theological student (regardless of how right- or left-brain they are) to have the meanings of some key theological words expanded by poetry is important. After all, it involves the same kind of imaginative shifts involved when we move from doctrine to prayer and hymns in worship.


This (very occasional) series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.


Rod Horsfield said...

As one who has always found poetry a fruitful portal into the theological, I like this approach Geoff. But you'll have to stop this series - I'm spending too much on books you recommend.

Geoff Thompson said...

You can't blame me for the purchases, Rod! There's probably won't be another one in this series for a while, so your bank account can take a breather. But I'm glad that you're finding the posts helpful.