Liberal and Conservative Publishers Agree: Placher's Texbook Essential Reading
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"If intellectual reflection is a part of every aspect of your life, but not of your faith, then something will likely go wrong sooner or later."
Bring in some of the country’s most respected theologians. Assign them, two by two, to present their differing views on nine critical issues in Christian theology.
It sounds like an ideal class to help theology students and lay people understand, discuss, and even debate the fundamentals of Christianity.
So you’re probably not surprised to learn that 2002 American Academy of Religion Excellence in Teaching Award-winner Bill Placher cooked up a print version of just such a class in his introductory textbook, Essentials of Christian Theology.
What is surprising, no matter how respected Placher is among peers, is that 18 top theological scholars took the time to contribute.
The resulting work—with illuminating background and introductions by Placher—accomplished a rare feat in the oft-politicized world of theological books: Essentials of Christian Theology was among 22 books honored in 2004 by the conservative magazine Christianity Today, while the liberal Christian Century also chose it as "one of the year’s outstanding books."
WM talked with the Wabash professor about the book and what it means to his long-term goal of bringing theological reading, reflection, and discussion to pastors and the public.
Why does this book appeal to editors with perspectives so diverse as those at Christianity Today and The Christian Century?
Placher: To some extent, that was the idea. The book didn’t have one voice, because I don’t think there is any longer one voice that can speak for even Protestant American Christianity. Things are so divided.
I wanted this book to have many different voices that students could hear and consider.
It seems to have worked. Teachers from various positions can read it and think, Well, there’s some stuff in there that I don’t agree with, but some of my friends are there, too; so this book is something I could find helpful.
Was it difficult to get so many prominent theologians to contribute?
Placher: Almost everybody I asked said, "Yes." Given how high I was aiming, that was surprising. These are busy people. I believe there’s a shared perception of a real need for a book like this, so they were willing to stop doing whatever else they were doing and do this.
So what was difficult?
Placher: Getting them to do it on time!
The way you structured the book seems a teacher’s approach. It’s not typical in this sort of book, is it?
Placher: No. The field is very politicized, so it’s hard to choose a theologian to speak on a particular issue and whom most teachers will be comfortable with as being the person they want their students to read.
Having two essays on each question seemed a fairly obvious way of avoiding that "authoritative" view.
The two-essay approach also gives teachers more options on how they want to use it. Your students can study the strengths of each argument.
You also open up the possibility of people outside of the classroom reading it on their own and using the different essays to think about the other view.
Sometimes, the first time you think about one of these issues, you read someone who is pretty smart and pretty eloquent and by the time you’re done, that view seems kind of right. Sometimes you need to read another perspective to realize that there’s a different way to think about an issue.
You mentioned "people outside the classroom." I’m reminded of what seems an ongoing mission of yours—to engage lay people and pastors in theological conversation. With that goal in mind, the acclaim this book received must be encouraging.
Placher: Actually, I’m discouraged at that task.
Placher: I don’t think anyone knows how to do it. There are individual churches where the pastor does it. But denominations are, by and large, not interested in it. I think seminaries are turning out people who don’t think of that as something they do. They may do it themselves, maybe not, but they don’t think of themselves as the encouragers of reading among their congregants.
Not encouraging them to look more closely at the foundational beliefs of their churches?
Placher: I’m not saying good things don’t happen. But Lilly [Endowment Inc.] gave me a grant a while back to try to think about these things and I tried. It works at the local level. But I don’t think there is a way to jump over the local systems when they are not working—when people have a pastor who is not willing or able to help them think about or find good reading about theology.
How important is it for the average person in the pew to take time to study what he or she really believes—to understand what has been believed through history, written, debated?
Placher: Some people are not book readers, and they don’t see much value in intellectual reflection, so it probably won’t be very much a part of their faith, either. I don’t think that’s a problem.
I do think if intellectual reflection is a part of every aspect of your life, but not of your faith, then something will likely go wrong sooner or later.
The sociological data today suggests that mainline denominations are not losing members to conservative churches, but are losing members who don’t go to church at all anymore. And I wonder if some of that’s because it just didn’t seem very interesting.
Placher: Or credible, even.
You don’t take the fact that this book was named on both of these lists as an encouraging sign?
Placher: Well, I’m very pleased about that. But my dream is that there should be a more structured way of getting theology to lay people.
I think there are a lot of interesting books about the Christian faith out there that Christians would like to read; yet we lack the structures to help them find those books. And that’s too bad, because I think they’d benefit from them.
Read an excerpt from Professor Placher’s introduction to Essentials of Christian Theology.
Contact Professor Placher at: firstname.lastname@example.org