Stories, Not Theology, Move Believers Now

Article excerpt

Where have all the theologians gone?

Graduate schools are filled with them, but they are not quoted from the pulpit much. People don't stand in line to hear them as they did in the 1950s.

They've been replaced, in popularity at least, by storytellers, said America's best-known theologian, Martin E. Marty.

The laity prefer stories to theory, he said.

They seek wisdom in fiction by religious writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Flannery O'Connor, John Updike or Sue Miller.

They read Flannery O'Connor, though she is a pre-Vatican II Catholic, for her "parables of grace."

That is not enough for Marty, a Lutheran minister.

"Reading stories about grandmother and how she made it through life won't do it," said Marty. "You have to read something theoretical."

Marty, 67, is professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He was in St. Louis recently to deliver the 14th annual Thomas Aquinas Lecture sponsored by The Aquinas Institute of Theology.

Marty has written 40 books. He is senior editor of the Protestant weekly "The Christian Century" and editor of two scholarly journals.

Marty has a neatly trimmed fringe of white hair. He was nattily dressed in a Harris tweed vest, a black suit and red bow tie. He keeps his 5-foot-8 frame lean by hiking.

Marty is not one to advocate dry theology or rigid dogmatism. Churches need to coexist with secular forces to thrive in our pluralistic society, he said.

Theology can be "enterprising and related to modern life," Marty says. He recommends essayist Gary Wills, Harvard child psychologist Robert Coles and Holocaust expert Eli Wiesel. "That's where the energies of theology are going," he said.

Today, intellectuals - clergy and lay persons - overlook theology to read Bible studies like those by the Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann, formerly of Eden Seminary, Marty said.

Along with the new interest in storytelling, a pendulum is swinging away from the top authorities of organized denominations, he says. When church congregations want to start a new project for the homeless or the elderly or victims of HIV, they don't wait until orders come from the bishop or other regional leadership. They just do it.

A part of this pendulum swing is intensely personal and essentially diffused spirituality, he said. This trend has been building since about 1969 when the media started reporting tales of near-death experiences. It gained followers with New Age spiritualism, guides to holistic living and what Marty considers more serious research into Buddhism and medieval mysticism, he said. The popularity of guardian angels is the trendiest realization of the movement, Marty said. …