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October 2017
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Theologians in the academy today often work with official religious texts as sources for intellectual production, and we tend to treat other potential sources (like art) as misrecognized books, as texts in nontextual form.

But I have become convinced that such an approach to theology, uninterrupted by the complexities of the socio-cultural-political effects of theological discourse, tends toward decadence (albeit sometimes useful academic promotion for the particular theologian). That is a “bad” kind of decadence, not a “good” kind, because it proceeds to pile up research that selectively buttresses the reproduction of one form of life (academic), at the expense of other learning and other interventions that impact the cultural worlds that produce the texts in the first place, that academics later use for our theological surgeries.

This is a convoluted way of saying that, due to academic socialization among other things, we have a difficult time understanding where our work comes from and what it is for. I count myself among those caught in these thickets and have tried in recent years especially to explore and resist that particular kind of theological decadence.

As one alternative, we can turn to the streets and see what people want to hear and what musicians want to play. And work theologically from there in a way that does not immaturely discard a tradition, but resituates it critically with respect to the present. Just today, I read in America magazine that the International Theological Commission recently put out a study titled “Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria,” which includes the statement that “Theology should strive to discover and articulate accurately what the Catholic faithful actually believe.” As the America editors write, “dialogue with the world is a distinguishing characteristic of theology today.” (Note to self: write a future post on going beyond the ‘church-world’ polarity in descriptions of theological research.)

A few suggestions about where to look for how people are finding material that is of theological significance “on the street”: Here are two examples of popular musicians playing recently at Occupy events.

First is Tom Morello and Ben Harper and “I Believe There’s a Better Way.” An anthem that manages to be both aggressive and demure, calling on a yes to a world that perhaps cannot even be envisioned. In a word, hope: