A Good Political Read for Professional and Lay Theologians

Larry Greenfield


A Good Political Read for Professional and Lay Theologians | Larry Greenfield, It's Even Worse Than It Looks

"It's Even Worse Than It Looks" is not just balanced but also alarmingly revelatory, Greenfield says.
If theology has more to accomplish than opening up the truth of the Scripture, it probably has to do with how the truth of the Scriptures and other sources of revelation (for example, nature, tradition, experience, reason) relate to what's happening in the world.

In that sense, theology is a dynamic discipline since things keep happening in the world.

And it's a practical discipline, too, since it is assumed that knowing about God and how these truths about the divine relate to the ongoing life of the world should help people of faith live their everyday life in all of its dimensions – whether it be the intimately personal, even sexual, or professional, or public and political.

If theology is both a dynamic and practical discipline that relates divine truth (from all of its sources) to all aspects of everyday life, then rigorous and useful theology also needs to know as much as possible about the ongoing world in which everyday life takes place.

That sounds good in theory, right?

But how does even the professional theologian, to say nothing of the lay theologian that every person of faith is expected to be to some degree, stay on top of all this?

Or maybe better put: How do both the professional and lay theologian begin to scratch the surface of accounts about both the dynamic divine and the dynamic world that have to be dynamically and practically related in order to be a responsible person of faith?

Twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth supposedly said that this can be done best by two-handed people of faith: reading from the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other – and, we can suppose, letting the human brain bring those two sources together for thought, prayer and action.

But surely even Barth would have to acknowledge that modern scholarship about the Bible also has to be handy, just as deeper and more extended accounts about the world have to be at hand.

What then to do?

I leave it to the biblical scholars to inform us on how to get a handle on the scholarship that will open up the Scriptures more fully and carefully than ever before.

To refuse or avoid making use of this scholarship today is simply to invite and accept historically and culturally conditioned interpretations of the past for the living of faith now.

And I leave it to theologians that concentrate on the personal and interpersonal, or the professional and organizational dimension of life, to direct us to the literature that will help us better understand those areas and how faith can relate to them.

But if, in this election year, there is a text the public theologian and the citizen of faith should read in order to attain a manageable understanding of what is happening in the dynamic world of politics, at least at the national level, I would venture to make a recommendation of, yes, required reading.

The book is the relatively short (just over 200 pages of narrative) and very accessible: "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism" by Thomas E. Mann of The Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, and published by Basic Books.

Because the authors represent the traditional divide in American political philosophy and yet manage to be critical of their own kind as well as discerning about the shared dysfunctionality of the American democratic system, the book is not just balanced but also alarmingly revelatory.

(A July 22 review in the New York Times Book Review describes the authors this way: "Mind you, Mann and Ornstein are hardly partisan polemicists. They have studied the federal government for decades from perches at starchy Washington research organizations … and are considered straight shooters.")

Part I of the volume analyzes the problem – the dynamics that have led to the crisis they see – while Part II attempts to suggest what should and should not be done to address the issues they have identified.

As the subtitle of the book suggests, the crisis is constitutional, thus at the very core of what it means to embrace a dynamic democratic polity.

In my own theological judgment, it won't do just to treat "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" as required reading.

As much and no doubt even more, we professional and lay theologians will need to spend more time with the required reading of our Bible and the scholarship that illumines that sacred text.

Those required readings together make doing theology in 2012 dynamic, practical and imperative – if, that is, we care about both our faith and our public life.

Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.