Phyllis A. Trickle

Across all the old barriers of class and circumstance, cumulative literacy has provided readily accessible, expertly annotated facts and probable facts about both the objective and subjective world, facts that by their very nature impact constantly on the “big questions” that are god-talk in any era or culture.

The immediate effect upon American god-talk has already been inestimable; it will be at least another two decades before we can fully gauge the total, reformative impact cumulative literacy has had on American beliefs, spirituality, and theology. It has empowered ordinary people with unprecedented banks of information from which to draw down reasoned conclusions and with which to buttress decisions. But by providing those tools cumulative literacy has also become a kind of imperative toward personal responsibility that has changed the roles of credentialed professionals and a popularly informed laity in almost every domain of life.

With such a wealth of new, newer, newest information, the lay man or woman feels compelled to re-credential every professional whom he or she meets or whose services must be engaged. The professional becomes, in this strange new paradigm, almost an artisan bidding for customers; the lay person becomes subtly but effectively a consumer “shopping,” in this case, for the best theology or soundest religion. The professional and the lay become codeterminers of conduct, credos, and decisions, with the lay person making the final choices and the professional, to a large extent, now becoming the worker bee who effects them.

The influence upon conversational content of a bidding-war mentality, the disjunctures of more fact than can be processed and evaluated, much less incorporated, the consequences in a mass-media milieu of bias or distortion in information delivery: they are but three of the more obvious parts of cumulative literacy that are both furnishing the content of our god-talk while, at the same time, sculpting the discourse.

That content and conversation are being shaped as well by a pervasive nostalgia that has almost set, in fact, the parameters within which inspiration can be received or belief exercised. There is, however, a third powerful factor, the democratization of theology—a process that, while it is to some extent the result of both cumulative literacy and nostalgia, promises to be as great as they, perhaps greater, in its ultimate effect upon American god-talk.

The democratization of theology is in reality several processes. The most pervasive is the mass dissemination of generic god-talk. Ironically, such standardization is the most visible component in our new mix while appearing to be the one most underappreciated by invested professionals. In fact, many teaching theologians and practicing clergy seem pleased to disparage and then summarily dismiss the standardization of the tenets of popular god-talk without serious regard for its implications.1 Few things could be more foolhardy.

The vast majority of the folk watching CBS’s “Touched by an Angel” series have tuned in for the sake of entertainment, not for the purpose of thinking about theology. But a large part of that entertainment is the show’s presentation of ultimate, loving goodness as being the eternal in creation. Viewers do, however, engage Della Reese’s sense of God and her intimate, authoritative (she is an angel, after all) talk about him. And if by theology we mean definitions of God and of his relationship to Creation, then more theology is conveyed in, and probably retained from, one hour of popular television than from all the sermons that are also delivered on any given weekend in America’s synagogues, churches, and mosques.

The show and collective sermons differ sharply in their originating source and tradition and in their medium.2There is a worlds-apart difference between the two in the relative overtness or didacticism of the theological presentaton and in the nature of their respective receivers’ intention toward the content. But another difference is far more substantive.

Della Reese’s rendition of God is the same one regardless of the homes and heads it goes into. All viewers are equal and equally receive. And that integrating rendition is going, not only without variations but also without proselytizing vigor or sectarian specifics, into millions of evening homes and relaxing minds on a routine basis once every seven days—and on the hallowed “day-off” to boot!

While almost every sermon or sermonizer may claim the same seven-day regimen, few can claim to employ it for addressing millions routinely and simultaneously and with any uniformity of message or worldview. Those who can make such a claim cannot command the size or cross-section of audience that commercial television offers, the subtle power of addressing a relaxing audience whose private defenses are down simply because no agenda beyond entertainment is present or at least obvious.

As entertainment, “Touched” or “Promised Land,” or books and shows like them, transcend not only the doctrinal and religious lines that restrict even the best telepreacher, but also the social, educational, class, economic, and geographic barriers that likewise confine the sectarian in any guise. A piece of storytelling in whatever medium is successful in proportion to its ability to elicit points of similarity and therefore of connection between its characters and its audience. Sectarian presentation presumes its truth and seeks to move its audience toward it; nonsectarian presentation seeks to reflect in its characters where and who its audience is and unite them with it in the narrated experience. When the latter happens on a mass-medium stage across all barriers among millions of people, the result is the homogenization of theology or the creation of a foundational theology that is homogenized and/or standardized.

This homogenization happens because a particular entertainment experience accurately captured, processed, and then gave back, reinforced and in coherent form, a theological zeitgeist consistent with the lived and perceived values and needs of an audience. With few exceptions, Della Reese’s theology is going to win out every time over that of any sermon that runs counter to it because it is more immediately contextual and more easily employed.

Standardized Substratum
A standardized theology is the substratum of all god-talk today. Doctrinally specific and defined faiths that would take part in Americans’ god-talk are going to have to accommodate themselves and their expression to the presence of a theological lingua franca that we didn’t have fifty years ago. Either that, or they will degenerate into self-referencing communities of speakers isolated from each other and the larger conversation by doctrinal idiolect and holy patois.

Those who see the discovery of a base common to all our multiplicities as the vulgarization of theology are absolutely correct in their assessment, but not in their evaluation. It is the vulgus that has always heralded religious change. The recognition and employment of common totally theological givens that are the new syntax in American god-talk constitute the first, opening conversational wedge leading toward full democratization. Another that reveals and reinforces the attitudes of democratization is this:

When a televised series is concerned exclusively with the book of Genesis and involves twenty-five or thirty professional theologians in conversation on camera only about Genesis, that is intentional theology. A programming effort such as the 1996 “Genesis: A Living Conversation” series by Bill Moyers can happen only because people want to watch dueling theologians and dueling traditions have at each other and at a sacred text in public.

Moyers’s watchers, being cumulatively literate, assumed their own competence—and for many, their moral obligation—to listen with employable comprehension to differing and often blatantly conflicting interpretations of the one sacred text that is most central to the monotheism of Della Reese theology. Such an evaluation is very different from listening to an authority who, judge-like, conveys how matters are. The difference is one of empowerment; and individual empowerment—gift of cumulative literacy—is an important subprocess in democratization, especially of god-talk.

Shifts in Popular Belief
Second, the success of such popular, intentionally theological events as the Moyers series rests on a radical shift in popular belief about the authorship of the text under debate and in the resulting attitude about how and by whom the text may be safely and effectively used.

The attraction of the mythopoetic and the power of nostalgia constitute the major impetus behind the Genesis flood. But even more fundamental in its theological ramifications is the shift that enabled us to accept (without necessarily acknowledging it to ourselves) that Genesis was of human rather than divine authorship. There could have been no Moyers-type free-for-all without it. A belief in its human composition allows Genesis to become mythopoetic theology, not literal doctrine; that permits human dissection as much to discover the humanity as the divinity recorded there; that makes it safe for us as ordinary individuals to do theology with it.

Third, the unstated notion of religious and theological commonality among all the traditions pervades PBS’s “Genesis.” So too does the corollary that the commonality is holier and far more desirable than are the specifics of the divisions that have evolved out of it.

Democratization appertains across media and across the whole spectrum of socialization and intentionality.In the movies, it is “Babette’s Feast” or “Field of Dreams” or “Shadowlands”; and it is as much the later conversational referencing4 or the small-group discussions that meet to parse the films as it is individual lives that are won to the films’ theology and then cumulatively become the prevailing culture’s. In audio it is the nation’s librarians reporting in 1995 that the most frequently requested book-on-tape is the Bible, just as it is the release of commercial tape after commercial tape about the Bible.5

In books the theology and the intentionality in texts like Chicken Soup for the Soul and its myriad spin-offs are kissing kin with Della Reese’s angels.6 Jack Miles’s God: A Biography won the Pulitzer Prize in Biography in 1996, in a creative, not a religion, category. Miles’s God is what the empowered, with absolute confidence in both their right and their ability, chose to devote their energies to considering. And it is almost as often as not, nowadays, not a sitting down alone that happens.7 Nearly four out of every ten Americans are currently meeting on a regular basis in small groups for purposes of religious study and experience. In effect, the small-group discussion meeting has become the new seminary—or one of its most active departments, perhaps—and a totally democratized one, at that.

1 My concern for the consequences of this attitude and my agitation over its ubiquity are so keen that I would do anything to try to call attention to the problem. Further, in conversation I rarely if ever encounter this attitude of scornful nonengagement among our more pastoral and respected theologians.

My favorite, newest case in point is a lunch I shared with Martin Marty in Chicago. While the conversation around the table ranged fairly widely, the recurring leitmotif of many of Marty's comments was his ongoing concern with this very issue. He expressed, in fact, a poignantly pastoral grief over the popular American confusion (which he attributed directly to homogenizing, abundantly accessible media) between generic faith and actual religion. It was not the first time I had wished for a tape recorder instead of a fork when in Marty's company.

2 In the case of Touched by an Angel, televison show and sermon do not differ in one very important way. Della Reese is herself a preacher complete with her own pulpit and congregation. We also must acknowledge that image is always more powerful than word. This dominance-of-image principle has led to other interesting media applications. For instance, Visual International is now translating the entire Christian Bible into video. Three of the books are on the market, and the results are spectacular. Visual's own preproject research found that, even among the interested, 20 percent of us are more likely to look than to read.

3 Nor do I mean to suggest that all established or formal religion is pleased to ignore or discredit the importance of these media expressions of faith. Probably my favorite "official" religion magazine for laity is St. Anthony Messenger, a Roman Catholic family publication that I read every month. One of the columns that attracts me to such faithfulness is James Arnold's Movies/TV, in which St. Anthony goes so far as to review theologically television's commercials as well as its programming; the kind of clear-eyed, hard-headed religious realism that always deserves kudos in my opinion.

It would be impossible, I suspect, to exaggerate the role that referencing plays in any group's ability to speak cohesively to one another over a sustained period of time or the shock to every cultural system when the citations and fixed terms of referencing undergo abrupt change. This is exactly what happened in the decades of our mid-century and it has bombarded our god-talk ever since. Nor is this abrupt interruption in conversational referencing as it appertains to god-talk just a matter of new cliches from films. The theology of referencing a Yellow Submarine instead of the Land of Nod just east of Eden is as different as it is informing.

In many ways, the cultural literacy that E. D. Hirsch captured and then championed so persuasively in his 1987 book by the same name; Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know was, alas, already moribund when Hirsch paused to celebrate it. The younger the body of speakers, the more apparent that truth is today, not just on the streets, but also in homes and businesses and even many schools and colleges. It certainly is apparent in god-talk.

5 For a sense of just the Judeo-Christian side of this phenomenon, interested readers may want to look at Evergreen Audio Favorites, by Terri Castillo (Publishers Weekly's Religion Bookline, July 1, 1996, 3).

6 At the time of this writing, the original Chicken Soup for the Soul, by Jack Canfield and Victor Hansen, has sold 5,450,729 copies, to be exact. Multiply that figure by the number of readers per individual unit for this type of book (probably five to seven). Add to that figure the fact that there have been nine additional Canfield and Hansen spin-offs. The result should give even the most dubious pause to consider.

7 So great is the perceived impact of the small-group movement, and particularly of the small-group movement in relation to Moyers's Genesis work, that Library Journal, the professional journal of the library industry, published a major pre-airing article, Something to Talk About, by Barbara Hoffert et al., featuring Moyers's work and reviewing other similarly appropriate titles (September 1, 1996, 140-43). One of the more delicious subnotes in this whole thing, of course, is that Moyers got the idea for his Genesis when he himself stumbled upon a small-group discussion of Genesis at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York several years ago.

Anchored Perspective
By Jeremy Langford

As a Catholic publisher I not only respect Phyllis Tickle and find her work essential to my own, I make it my mission to feed the minds of the literate lay people she describes.

Over a century ago Friedrich Nietzsche’s madman went to the marketplace and discovered there was no more “god-talk.” Stating what others were afraid to admit, he declared: “God is dead!” Today, Tickle has gone to the marketplace and learned that god-talk is not only ubiquitous but also reveals a pervasive nostalgia, a literate, well-informed laity “shopping” for the best theology or soundest religion; and a movement she describes as the democratization of theology. God is alive and well, but exactly what God are we talking about and what paths do we follow to access the sacred?

That people today are literate, better educated and informed, more discriminating and demanding, coupled with the fact that they are seeking a connection to God, are good things. So too are prime-time television shows, movies, magazines, and books on or about God, religion, and theology that spark conversation, reflection, and even prayer.

But so much of today’s “religious stuff” is intentionally vague so that it will sell to the greatest number of people. It is business more than theology. Therefore, the democratization of theology, most readily affected by the dissemination of generic god-talk, must be carefully considered in light of the various religious traditions that strive to serve the needs of today’s seekers without compromising the integrity of the tradition itself. How we talk about God really matters.

Working from Tickle’s own description of today’s educated laity, I would argue three points: First, people watching Reese’s show do, in fact, have some “theological intentionality,” for they choose an overtly “religious” show over all others. Second, all viewers are not equal and do not receive equally; the average viewer is not a tabula rasa but instead watches the show with some preconceived notions of God, whether that viewer is an active participant of a religion or not. Third, viewers do not limit their quests for God to what Reese’s show says week to week.

When I dream up book ideas or speak to people—primarily young adults—about faith, I first focus on people’s restless seeking for God. Then I offer a Catholic perspective. People today are more comfortable identifying themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious.” But, as Martin Marty has said, “Unrooted spirituality tends to come as it goes. There is a momentary satisfaction, but without anchor it leaves one adrift.” I think people feel this.

Tickle is right: many people today are engaged in a standardized theological discourse. Moreover, they want to be entertained, to hear stories, to be inspired. Therein lies the challenge: not only must teaching theologians and clergy acknowledge and use today’s lingua franca of generic god-talk while maintaining the tenets of their faith, they must focus on being superb preachers and entertaining, on appealing to people’s intelligence, making the faith relevant today, and challenging people to act on their beliefs.

Jeremy Langford is a student at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His work as editor of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s memoirs, The Gift of Peace, led him to deeper commitment to his own faith.

Thinking Believers
By Stanley J. Grenz

“More theology is conveyed in, and probably retained from, one hour of popular television,” writes Phyllis Tickle, “than from all the sermons that are also delivered on any given weekend in America’s synagogues, churches, and mosques.” An overstatement? Perhaps. A reality we can ignore? No!

The North American religious situation is changing. The “mass dissemination of generic god-talk” is resulting in a democratization of theology.” Driving it are the popular media and small discussion groups. Allow me to focus on the former.

The entertainment industry has emerged as a potent shaper of the theological convictions of North American society today, rivaling the church itself. Thus, Tickle’s poignant appraisal is not far from the truth: “With few exceptions, Della Reese’s theology is going to win out every time over that of any sermon that runs counter to it.”

Does this mean we should stop training pulpiteers? In a sense, yes. The emerging situation ought to galvanize us into rethinking theological education in general and the teaching of theology in particular. Today’s sermonizer can no longer expect hearers to lap up the eternal truths dished out in hour-long expositions that make no connection to contemporary life.

Yet our pedagogical approach so often conveys the very opposite.

The older educational model prized the professor who could deliver a plate of intellectual goodies to a room filled with students eager to feed on such cognitive delights. The new situation alerts us to our real role—to be empowerers. We ought to be doing for our students precisely what we want future pulpiteers to do for their parishioners: empower them to engage theologically with life. One important aspect of this engagement is taking seriously the prevalence of theological talk in our society by learning how to perceive its presence, evaluate it, and respond to it constructively.

If television, movies, and videos propagate the “homogenized theology” developing in our society, why not harness them? Why not press the entertainment industry into the service of theological education?

How? One way I have found helpful is by bringing “cultural artifacts” into the theology classroom as exemplifying the beliefs of people today. Together we “tease out” the theological agenda at work in the artifact, evaluate it, and engage with it from our distinctive theological perspectives.

This requires, however, a shift in our understanding of theology itself. Gone is the day of the one overarching transcultural, theological summa emerging from the professor’s deliberations. Instead, theology is a working discipline. We engage in constructive theology, of course. But increasingly construction serves theology’s critical task. For ultimately the goal of theological education is to train thinking believers—both clergy and laity—who are able to bring to light the theological convictions that lie behind their own attitudes and actions as well as those of the people they serve and the society in which they live.

Stanley J. Grenz is professor of theology and ethics at Carey/Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lombard, Illinois.

Readymade Experts
By R. Kevin LaGree

Phyllis Tickle has helpfully mapped the connection among cumulative literacy, the rise of the video culture, and the democratization of theology.

What strikes me about her analysis is that, from my perspective, cumulative literacy and the rise of the video as the preferred means of receiving information have not had a similar democratizing effect on other professions. Take medicine, for example. From “Dr. Kildare” through “ER,” we have been immersed in what one might term a “standardized medicine” (to borrow Tickle’s terminology). But where standardized theology leads to the kind of democratization that empowers each viewer to consider herself or himself an arbiter of theology, standardized medicine has not similarly led each viewer to consider himself or herself to be an arbiter of medicine. Fewer still will take up a scalpel after watching knee-replacement surgery on the Discovery Channel.

It must be easier to make the move from “Touched by an Angel” to theological expertise than from “ER” to medical expertise. Why? There are a variety of possibilities, but I want to focus on a single one—anti-intellectualism in American religious life, especially in American Protestantism. Hardly anyone questions that there are certain concepts, theories, facts, and a body of knowledge and practice that one must learn and that one must commit oneself to continue learning in order to practice medicine. But I encounter many folks who have serious doubts about whether such a body of knowledge and practice must be learned to practice theology. From those who fear that attending seminary will take their faith away to those who ask us simply to tell them what courses they should take to get their degree (and thereby credential their call), I meet people consistently who are ill at ease with learning as it applies to religious life and practice.

For these people experience is the medium of transformation and growth far more than rationality. They would understand readily the need to know chemistry to study medicine, but would be less likely to comprehend the need to know philosophy (or Greek) to study theology.

Of course this has long been the case in American religious life, especially among those of us in the pietistic branch of American Protestantism. Early Methodists, for example, not only doubted that seminary training was necessary for effective ministry, they thought it an impediment to effective ministry. So, just perhaps, the democratization of theology is not that new a phenomenon, but is rather the latest expression of an anti-intellectualism that has been part and parcel of American religious life for nearly two centuries.

R. Kevin LaGree is dean and professor of divinity at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta.

God However Met
By Doris Buchanan Johnson

Phyllis Tickle appears most concerned about what she terms the homogenization and democratization of theology due to the effects of popular media attention. I would contend that democratization in any form is an indication that God utilizes means other than the institutional church (which Tickle admits is steadily declining in membership) to bring the world of God to the attention of the unchurched. I would also contend, as a future priest in the Episcopal Curch, that I want people talking about God! At least, perhaps their interest will lead them to learn more. Granted, television would not be my first choice of venue, but our churches don’t seem to be meeting the needs of the people.

The only television show mentioned with which I am familiar is the Della Reese program, “Touched by an Angel.” I cannot help but believe that a conversation about God begun (even when the impetus is a fictional television show with simplistic theology) is better than no conversation at all. People thus show their desire to know God in their lives. A parallel can be made here between the reformation that occurred when Luther provided the German people with access to the Word. Is a reformation called a democratization any less a reformation?

Theology at the level Tickle would seem to encourage is not for the masses. I would be looking at blank faces if I were to speak of the “perichoretic interpenetration of the Trinity.” First, access to God must be understood. If the only place God can be made simplistic enough for others to understand is television, so be it. One of the first things learned in a seminary in Christian theology class is that God cannot be limited in any way. Would Tickle try to create that limitation?

As for the substratum of homogenized theology, I would offer that ordinary people understand what denominational churches do not: that God is God no matter where God is encountered. Rather than denigrate the efforts of those television programs where God is not theologically explicit, perhaps we should applaud the fact that for every quasitheological program, another program dealing with appalling death scenes, violence on the streets, and drug addiction is denied a time slot!

Likewise, the power of the Bible has never been totally in God’s authorship but rather in its ability to withstand all attempts to denigrate the Word. The return to the discussion of the Bible in small house studies takes us right back to our subapostolic roots. With that in mind, perhaps Tickle would recall the Great Commission of Jesus: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mk. 16:15). Jesus never said how.

Doris Buchanan Johnson is a second-year student at Virginia Theological Seminary.

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