I’ve written in the past about theologians. I want to start calling out the idea of what these people do as what it actually is: literary criticism with a narrow focus.

Whereas most literary critics will have focuses on relatively broad topics – periods in time, styles of writing, etc – theologians focus merely on single books. Granted, the books are often relatively large, but so is War and Peace.

Now, theologians do deserve slightly more credit than I’ve given them. They do have some background on the history of the cultures and societies in which their texts originated. But if that’s what one wants, then why not turn to textual critics? These are people who actually understand what authors (and scribes) were intending while also having a grasp on the history of the cultures and societies.

Theologians enjoy an elevated status in our society. But do they deserve it any more than literary critics of Shakespeare? The answer must be ‘no’.

I’ve taken far too many English courses in my time. I have constantly found myself encountering papers that are wide-open to interpretation. Hell, I made an argument that Utopia was about setting up a true hellhole, not anything glorious. It got an “A”. The argument itself was probably wrong, but Sir Thomas More isn’t around to say otherwise, is he? Theologians take the same liberties. They are free to interpret meaning and intention as they see fit. Is it any surprise that theology moves in conjuction with cultures and societal movements (even if it usually lags)?

In short, theology is certainly nothing more than literary criticism. What’s more, literary criticism shouldn’t enjoy an elevated status, especially when it is so narrowly focused. We can all interpret passages. Theologians are just the literate among us with more (narrow) dedication.


What it means to be a theologian

I found this blog post to be very well written and concise.

To understand the effects of religion on a wider scale, it’s absurd to think that reading a holy book would indicate anything beyond a peripheral understanding of the text itself. For behavioural effects, it’s best to look at neuroscience and psychology. For societal effects, there’s sociology and history. Being an accomplished theologian won’t teach anyone about the influence of religion on society, but the social sciences will and that’s the place to look to.

Now consider the parallel with something I actually do care about: gaming. One might ask the question “what are the wider effects of gaming on the individual and their role in the community?” Now if there was a study that showed a trend of violence among gamers, would it be more pertinent to question the controlling factors of the study or whether the psychologist in charge had ever beaten Quake on Nightmare difficulty? If there was a sociological study showing anti-social behaviour increasing among online gamers, would the controlling factors of the study be under question or whether the sociologist’s World of Warcraft character had reached level 80?

The parallel with gaming is there to show that knowing the content of a subject is not an adequate resource to deal with questions not relating to that content. Knowing the back-story of Zelda universe does not make that person any bit qualified to answer questions on behaviour associated with playing the game. Theology won’t answer questions of individual behaviour, it won’t answer question of the wider social effects of group behaviour and how that has happened throughout history. The best way to study the inquisition is to look at the historical evidence, not the bible.

This really is to what this argument boils down. There is often an attempt to discredit anyone who dare suggest the idea of a concerned or even aloof creator is a faulty one. No, it isn’t good enough to say that the notion of a god doesn’t hold up very strongly under scrutiny; it is necessary that we fully understand the specifics of what man has written concerning this notion.

What does reading the bible actually tell us? It’s like any other piece of literature, it has a message that the author(s) intended. Those who are adept at literary analysis would see even further into the book and be able to understand the authors themselves. But for the layman, the bible is a chance to get immersed in the world of the mythology. They are able to emotionally connect with the characters involved and try to understand the motivations associated therein. In essence studying theology has the academic scholarship of studying Lord Of The Rings.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a masterpiece in the fantasy genre, it’s influence today is seen transcending literary fantasy and into the pop culture. Admittedly the adaption to the silver screen helped bring it into the consciousness of an otherwise ignorant mainstream, but it’s success still speaks volumes for it’s quality. It doesn’t stop there either, the appendices, and further books all bring Middle Earth to life and give it a complete mythology.

I personally would have chosen All Quiet on the Western Front, but to each his own. Even if it’s the great literary work that is the Bible.