Parking Lot Mystogogy

Last week the NuDunkers hit the ground running with our first Hangout of the fall. I have been in school so long, that I expect to start something new each fall. So in a way, getting back into the rhythm of blogging and having robust theological discussions seemed only right.

Sister Dana got us started off well with a question about how we Brethren do our God-Talk. And true to form all the blogs that led up to the conversation carried our individual styles, tones, and perspectives (which is what I really enjoy about this style of conversation across many blogs). At the same time, it was clear that we shared a desire to put our theology on the ground- give it legs so to speak. We also acknowledged that Brethren are in dire need of good thinking and language. I agree with Laura that we need more contributions from Brethren in the wider theological discourse and good reflection in our own tribe. In a way, we Brethren theologians need to be bi-lingual- making sense in our congregations and in the academy.

Thus, I think Laura also nailed it when she referenced Mystogogy. Having followed up the discussion on Twitter, that was a new term for some NuDunkers. Good thing we defined it quickly!   For those who missed the Hangout (you  can still catch the recording here) Mystagogy is the teaching that followed the rite of baptism. Just as many famed early preachers had catechetical sermons (those sermons they shared with those about to be baptized) they had collections of sermons that outlined the sacraments after the newbies were still dripping from baptism and had tasted their first communion.

The early baptismal process could extend for years in some cases. In the catechism they would hear the scriptues read in church, and then would be excussed before the Eucharist for further, moral instructions. They would not have experienced the last half of the liturgy, what some have called the Liturgy of the Table. (Imagine excusing new comers from your congregation today before communion!)

On the night of baptism (often the night before Easter) they would be baptized, confirmed by the anointing with oil, and then receive their first communion. They then entered a time of Mystagogy. Like the time of catechesis, they would hear teaching on this other half of the liturgy. Basically, the preacher would stand up and say “You just did this” and outline the meaning of the rites of baptism and Euchasist. Hence, the word connects Pedagogy, or teaching, and Mysteries, or the Sacraments. It is almost the prime example of Practical Theology- Here is what you did and this is what it means.

Church leaders are more familiar with the meeting after the meeting. Some times they are privy to these ad hoc gatherings, and more often they find out about them after the fact. These gatherings have a kind of pejorative name- The Parking Lot Meeting. Its the time when the board or even just a select few leaders continue the conversations of the meeting long after everyone has left- often times in the parking lot. Some might say that is where the real decisions are made. (Although, since I work in the area of Congregational Ethics, I hope that none of the decsions are made in these Meetings after the Meeting.)

I wonder if what we are talking about as Brethren Theology is a kind of Parking Lot Mystagogy. The friendly, after the fact conversations about God-Talk that begins to fill in the vocabulary and understanding of the whole church. Some pastors already do this with Coffee House or Pub Theology sessions where all the guards are down and people are just talking. Sunday School often seems too formal a place to actually talk about what we think and mean when we talk about God. It has connotations of being correct, or offering the right theological response when the questions come. Yet, after the fact- around kitchen tables, sharing a cup of coffee, or even (GASP) a pint- the “rightness” of Sunday School disappears and people are more free to ask questions and learn new things.

I wonder if we what we need more of is less Sunday School Theology and more Parking Lot Mystagogy. This seems to me, to be the place where the organic intellectual is in her prime- able to speak from experience and learning in a normal conversation away from the trappings of doing “church.”

I know some, like Matt, do this already with dinner and conversations or Theology on Tap gatherings. In a day when pundits like Bill O’Reilley can write a book about the Historical Jesus, it seems like we need to drop the false humility and actually get out and do some theology. When people can turn to any book store, and grab mediocore tomes and half-witted spiritual autobiographies we need to get out of the ivory tower and do some mystagogy. “This is what we just said in prayer and worship, why would we believe anything different.”

I am not talking about an elitist theological vocabulary and conversastion with a few friends in pub. I am talking about hearing the theological reflection of our fellow worshipers and asking how their ideaologies and practice line up. Asking how their self-sufficiency or American exceptionalism relate to the Jesus we read about in scripture. Or even naming things that have been out right heresies for millenia that now seem common place in generic American=ist theology- such as escapist spiritualism that disregards the body and the clear confession of faith that it is precisely this body that will be raised again. At some point, we need to put all this book learnin: on the ground. At some point, we need some good Ol’ Time Mystagogy.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Parking Lot Mystogogy

  1. Scott Holland

    I’m all for your parking lot theology, Josh. In fact, I’ve been experimenting with this again this fall while doing some preaching and consulting for a congregation between pastors. This is a growing urban church, full of young professionals, artists and intellectuals. Congregational members over fifty-five are in the minority.

    If you NuDunkers truly enter a theology of the parking lot, cafe, tavern, gallery or other gathering areas you might not like the new spiritual vocabularies you hear! I’m finding, again and again, that the God-talk or guild-talk we at the seminaries and church agencies find so fascinating — the dance between Anabaptism & Pietism, missional models of church, the tensions between Christ and culture or clinical terms like mystagogy or neologisms such as theopoetics — are rather quickly dismissed as irrelevant by the saints of the new spiritual-secular city.

    What then? Can the new organic intellectual really transgress the narratives, vocabularies and theologies we have worked so hard to construct, compose and master?

    • Joshua Brockway

      So, what do you make of this trend? Where does it come from- a lack of interest, a kind of anti-intellectualism in regards to theology, or a new kind of tribalism among our groups?

      I am working on a follow up post, so I won’t say too much more here. But I did have a great walk through a bit of prairie land in Iowa last week. We were walking along with a botanist who specializes in native plants. It was fascinating to be “on the other” end of the conversation with a specialist. Funny thing was, it was good to hear her reflections as an expert. I am wrestling with why I want experts in many of the fields I work with day to day, and yet people find such a lack of interest in “theological intellectuals.” In some ways, I wonder if some of these folks even see “church” as theological at all.

  2. Scott Holland

    Good questions and reflections. The young adults to whom I refer and not “anti-intellectual.” In fact, they are artists, musicians, graduate students and professionals. Yet they seem to distance from even progressive articulations of “theology proper.”

    Since you are on your way with Fitch to the seminary, you might be interested to know that our partner seminary is debating whether or not to post an opening for the theology vacancy created by the departure of David Johns when he became the dean of another institution. The question seems to be if there is a need and audience for “theology” or if perhaps a different disciplinary focus might be in order. In fairness to the conversation, others of us on both faculties have PhDs in theology and given student interest, or disinterest, this might be quite enough. It was, however, not enough even five years ago.

    Interest in ministry studies, spirituality and biblical studies remains consistent, but one wonders if these disciplines don’t require some serious grounding in theology and historical theology?

    I’m off to Leuven to do some theology!

    • Joshua Brockway

      I guess a secondary question then is this- are we talking about “theology” under different names? How much can we actually say that Spirituality, Pastoral Care, and even Historical and Biblical Studies are not doing a kind of theology?

      We had this struggle at Catholic U. When the school of theology was combined with the Arts and Sciences department of religious studies they maintained the fields of Church History and Historical Theology. The interesting thing was that many of the Church History students were Protestants and the Historical Theology students were mostly Catholic. Certainly, these fields contain differing methodological assumptions, but as my director is quick to say- How much can we actually say a historian is not doing theology?

      As I read through Coakley, I am reminded that even Systematics (as classically conceived) runs into this question light of other divisions within “Theological Studies”- Liberation, Feminist, Constructive, and even Theopoetics. Often I find that the difference, while based in some nuance of methodology, is really a matter of who these theologians are reading.

      Safe Travels!

      • Scott Holland

        Good observations. Cultural-linguistic context matters here. Although I shall likely make the claim in Leuven that “Theopoetics” is one answer to the question of what comes after theology proper, if I couldn’t also hold forth in dialogue and debate on systematic, constructive, liberationist, Continental and classical theologies I wouldn’t be taken very seriously in my claim. Yet I do think this model and methodology of God-talk is fading away even in seminaries.

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