The Theologometer

Given that we've been talking about theological quality and church I thought I'd share with you an idea I had at church a few weeks back. (On a different note, this post will let you in on how my mind functions during a typical Sunday.)

Okay, I'm sitting at church and the varying theological quality is making my head spin. We're moving from sappy praise songs to a prayer about "signs concerning the end times" to a communion meditation full of penal substitutionary atonement to a sermon stuffed with Cartesian dualism and thanatocentrism. My head is just buzzing. And I'm having trouble concentrating.

So a write a note (yes, I write notes in church and sometimes read books) and hand it down to my friend Mark Love:

What we need prominently displayed on the wall is a theologometer, where we are getting a real-time readout and immediate feedback concerning the theological quality of the service.

For that particular service, beneath my note, I sketched out something like this:

I won't draw a picture of Mark's guess at the theologometer readout for the service (let's just say my patient at least showed a heartbeat; Mark's was flatlined).

My hunch is that the theologometer would work like biofeedback. In biofeedback you get readouts of your physiological arousal. This feedback allows for conscious control over previously uncontrollable unconscious processes (like heart-rate). Psychologists have even worked with neurofeedback, where you are given displays of your brain waves. I chaired thesis at ACU where neurofeedack was used to treat ADHD.

So, all I'm suggesting is why not give theological feedback? I think it might work.

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9 thoughts on “The Theologometer”

  1. Okay, I'm sitting at church and the varying theological quality is making my head spin. We're moving from sappy praise songs to a prayer about "signs concerning the end times" to a communion meditation full of penal substitutionary atonement to a sermon stuffed with Cartesian dualism and thanatocentrism. My head is just buzzing. And I'm having trouble concentrating.

    Do we go to the same church? LOL...this could be a description of many services at an evangelical chruch in the U.S. unfortunately. My theologometer would probably look more like your friend's on most weeks...which brings up the question...would we each have a theologometer? It seems like it would be difficult to do a community one as, my guess is, most people in my congregation would be spiked in the very places that I would flatline. Perhaps at the end of the service we could bring our individual "readouts" to Sunday School and discuss the differences amongst the community? It might be an interesting exercise for people to keep track of where they "spike" or "flatline" than attempt to understand and articulate why they do in those places.

    Hmmm...the questionnaire could be fun to develop (I'm assuming there would need to be an initial measurement of a person's "theological baseline") with questions like "rate how close you feel to God when you see a powerpoint slide with a solitary individual on top of a mountaintop with their arms thrust in the air while singing Above All"?

  2. Richard, Ron,

    My first response to your church diagnosis both was to say: "Preach it, brother!" But as I reflected more, my response is: "So . . .?" When has the church been without its numerous warts?

    It seems to me that taking the time to measure or chart the "theological" quality of a particular church "service" not only requires a tremendous amount of energy but would also increase the frustration of the one(s) doing the charting. What is going on in contemporary quasi-fundamentalist church services is rather superficial meaning-making. But in some ways, it always has been with varying content. My guess is that it will continue until the very things you cite run their course: bad 1980s pop, vague and not so vague "apocalpytic" rhetoric, penal substitutionary atonement, and sublimated thanatocentric (what big words, grandma!) fears. The Way of Jesus, of course, saves us from all that. And it allows us to transform those mantras as well.

    Probably the best you two can do as teachers is to turn your frustration into lament and to love your church--and to teach it and your students to think with the loving, merciful, hospitable, open and discerning mind of Jesus whenever you can. Remember Henry Adams' epigram: "A teacher affects eternity."

    I am learning with struggle and some weariness to go to church in order to be lovingly available. Excellent sermons are a rare blessing, music and singing and praying are inconsistent, and yet folks keep coming. We cognitive types are all too often "gnostic" and in need of cautioning ourselves against judgmentalism and look in other places to fill our longings. We would do better to learn how to be prophetic.

    Allow me to be reflective for a moment: less than a month ago, my father died. I sent my twice-monthly Bible study group (which loves me almost unconditionally) the following email which I think bears on this post:

    “Brothers and Sisters,

    Early yesterday morning shortly after mid-night my father died painlessly in his sleep at the assisted living facility where he resided for the past six years. He was eighty-eight, a paragon of integrity who imitated God’s mercy, compassion and faithfulness throughout his life. As a young man he acknowledged Jesus in baptism but was always skeptical of Biblical literalism and the behavioral humbug and legalistic harshness in the Church of Christ he knew. His church attendance was very spotty but he seemed something of a practical mystic, preferring to see God in honest labor on behalf of those in need. He adored and doted on Mom and us kids. His sense of humor was off the wall, occasionally passive-aggressive, and sometimes we kids experienced the full impact of it—like the time he made a miniature Noah’s Ark out of a Budweiser beer case for my younger brother to take to VBS. He told my brother to tell his VBS teacher that he would make two dinosaurs to put in it if she wanted them. Her red-faced response was: “Well, I never . . . .! You tell your Daddy he is a heathen and is going to Hell.” Dad said to my brother a one-word response: “Figures.” He had signed over his body to UT Southwestern Medical School for research purposes. When they called him at eighty and told him that they would still take his body but only to dispose of it, he replied: “Well, if it’s still good enough for me, it ought to be good enough for you.” He spent his last years deaf as a post and without much short-term memory.

    Dad was a World War II Army veteran, one of many we are very rapidly losing these days.

    We shall miss his laughter and his gentle spirit. Because he has outlived his family and friends, we’ll honor his request and have a private family service on Saturday in Frisco. He told us he wanted us to go have a party after his funeral and remember him with a bowl of crawfish gumbo, cornbread, and a beer. We will honor his request. I suspect the beer will be Budweiser.” Every member of the group responded with such an outpouring of affection and mutual mourning that I my loss has been filled in ways I cannot imagine. Love can do that if we trust Him.

    Anyway, let's have fun making our charts. But not taking ourselves too seriously.


    George C.

  3. "(yes, I write notes in church and sometimes read books)" -- if it's acceptable in church, can it be done during your academic classes as well? ;) <-- in efforts to avoid any misunderstandings in my blog comment, the tone and content displayed through the use of my emoticon is to indicate a joke. I'd NEVER think of writing notes or reading random text during one of your classes! HA HA!

  4. George,

    You dad sounded like a cool guy. Looks like he left some big shoes for you to fill.

  5. George,

    Your response is exactly why I am so hesistant to post things on blogs...without the face-to-face, without the knowledge of each other it seems like things always get misconstrued. It makes me not want to post anything again and does not seem very speakeasy friendly. In an effort to continue to talk about this, though, I will try to articulate my reaction to your post and the thoughts behind my initial post.

    Your post sounded very preachy and chiding (of course without the face-to-face this is just my projection) with phrases like "in need of cautioning ourselves against judgmentalism" and "not taking ourselves too seriously". I'm just wondering what led you to those conclusions without knowing me? While you couched your post behind "us" language, I took it more as a "judgment" against me and that my post was out of line (again, this is just my projection at this point, as I don't know you)And, by the way, I totally agree with you about the need to learn how to enter in a loving, self-emptying manner into church situations that disappoint and think that lament and speaking prophetically is important as well. I make no claims to know how to do any of these things well at all...I am still very much in process of living into my baptism.

    In an effort to try and "redeem" an impersonal style of communication let me take you through my thoughts and reactions to Richard's post and my response to provide you with my context. When I read Richard's post, I laughed out loud. I thought it was a funny idea and it was nice to know that there were other people out there who felt about church like I do. I find it incredibly isolating teaching at a conservative Christian college to constantly be labeled as the "radical" or the "liberal" or viewed as having some sort of "dangerous theology" because I am not a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian. So it is nice to know that I am not alone. I felt like Richard's post was playful and I thought it would be fun to join him in playing with the idea. As I thought about it though, the idea intrigued me and the first part of my post is more of a "serious play", that is, I think it would be interesting for us to reflect on and articulate our highs and lows during a service and attempt to understand the "whys" behind it. I also was intrigued with this idea because of the manner in which it might open up conversations between people who have very different theological assumptions. I would love to have this type of open exchange and dialogue with the other folks in my congregation and in a church where divisiveness and fundamentalism seem to constantly be an issue, I was thinking about the hopefulness of such a conversation.

    My last remark was certainly intended with sarcasm (and I suppose there is a certain judgmentalism there) because I have seen that slide too many times and find that song hollow. In the midst of being surrounded by praise and worship songs constantly, it was nice to know that someone else thought there were some sappy ones as well. I happen to also think that there is a place for a prophetic criticism that needs to dismantle current assumptions, but sarcasm probably isn't the best way to do it. But it also led me to think about how one might try to measure people's "theological baseline" and how those beliefs may change in the process of spiritual transformation. A question I am very interested in.

    Your dad sounds like the kind of person I would have loved to sit down and talk with, I'm sorry for your loss.

    I hope this helps to explain some of my thoughts that went into my post and the "playful" intentions behind it. I would love to hear more about what went on in your thinking, so that I can move beyond the projection and try to make this more relational (you could email me if you like).

    I want to believe that there is a speakeasy place to be found

  6. George (and Ron),
    I think your letter about your Dad is the best thing ever posted on this blog. I'm honored it is here.

    To clarify, along with Ron, the post was meant to be humorous. To vent a little. But your reminder is very timely.

    I don’t want you and Ron to argue because I think I know where you both are coming from. Internet communication is emotionally glitchy (I actually wrote about this a few post ago) and it is unfortunate that misunderstandings occur.

    But beyond blogging reconciliation, your note reminded me of a breakthrough with my dad. My dad’s a great person but we don’t see, theologically, eye-to-eye. For years my dad would always tag “if the Lord wills” onto any talk of future plans. As in, “Son, we’ll see you at Christmas, if the Lord wills.” For years this drove me, theologically, crazy. I was constantly thinking, “If the Lord wills? What do you mean if the Lord wills? That if we all die in a car accident driving home this year God wills that? That God is picking and choosing who will or will not travel safely over the Christmas holidays?”

    Then in dawned on me. My dad really isn’t speaking theologically. He’s speaking humbly. All he’s saying is that his time is not his own. That time is a gift. And that each day is a blessing.

    The point is, I do (and forever will) lament (and will make fun of) bad theology. But I’ve also learned these two things. People’s hearts are often better than their theology. And, secondly, as I learned with my dad, “bad theology” might be in the mind of the beholder (i.e., me).

    So, I think it good to laugh with Ron and to reflect with you. To paraphrase Whitman, “We embrace multitudes.”

    PS-the story about the beer can ark is just about the best thing I’ve ever heard.

  7. Ron,

    Mea culpa! You may be on to me. You speak of your projection: my sermonic chiding was probably subconsciously directed more at me (or at least toward a place I once was and sometimes return to) than at either you or Richard--a warning to me if you will. I presummed that my own experience is parallel to yours. I spend a lot of time taking in and ruminating about ideas and opinions but socially and vocationally am in anti-intellectual or non-intellectual settings. Such settings set me up for frustration. Sometimes, I often feel unheard and isolated relationally. That is precisely why posting on blogs like yours and Richard's IS helpful to me, even if my reading of the written document is weak exegesis of the "human document" who wrote it. There are also other choices I have made and am making and attempting to make to help me with my "intellectual" needs. The Bible study group I mentioned is helpful as are other venues I've found.

    Thanks for your kindness about my Dad. His degree was in psychology and he relished saying in polite settings that Freud was "anal as hell."

    By the way, speaking of who is chiding whom (is that passive-aggressive?) have you seen the prequel to "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes"? It is titled "The Attack of the Killer Projections."


    George C.

  8. George,

    Thanks for helping to redeem this posting on blogs thing for me...hearing your perspective of where you are coming from really helps me understand a little bit more of how my own projections get in the way of authentic communication (as you so nicely put it, a weak exegesis of the written words of the "human document"), as well as a better understanding of where you are coming from. Plus, what probably got me a little defensive was that your "subconscious warning" is very similar to my own and yet here I was ignoring that warning and not being charitable. Stupid convictions! :-)

    Freud most definitely was "anal as hell" I really wish I could have met your dad!

    I have not seen "Attack of the killer projections"...sounds like one I should look into!

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