Should We All be Theology Nerds?
I realized that, when I watch other church groups haggling over some obscure point of Christian doctrine, I tend to shake my head and think, “that’s so stupid, that doesn’t matter at all!” But if it’s something that I am disagreeing with someone about, I always think it’s the most important detail in the world (this really matters!). Now, I’d be the first to admit that there are a lot of stupid disagreements within Christianity, but I think it’s good to be aware of my own bias towards the discussions I personally am involved in. Are all these other discussions that I’m judging really about angels dancing on the head of a pin, or is it some area of Christian thought that I undervalue because I know nothing about it?
It’s funny how we have a tendency to push large areas of Christian knowledge to the category of “unimportant.” One of the most common responses I get, when I tell people that I’m going to study theology, is, “Ok, so you are, you know, actually interested in all of that?” And, “I’d like to know more, but it’s just so much detail—it’s just a bit overboard for me.” And, “That’s all good to know, but it’s not really essential, is it?” These are the responses I get from Christians, I mean, not secular people, who tend to go, “Good for you.” And I nod to these Christians and say “yes,” and feel like some weird egghead academic who is insistent on living in an ivory tower.
So there seems to be a level of detail in theology that most people accept is a bit much—a level of theological nerdiness, if you will. But if there’s one thing that modern culture has taught us in recent decades, it’s that nerds have taken over the world. “Nerd” and “geek,” once such potent insults, are now labels of pride that people apply to themselves. And “geeking out” over a topic—once considered a bad thing to do—is now celebrated. Nobody cares if you know all the roads in Westeroes, or how many parasecs it takes to cross the Star Wars galaxy. Or rather, a lot of people in a niche fanbase located somewhere on the internet do really, really care if you know these things, and you won’t have to work hard to convince yourself it’s worthwhile to know them.
I thought of this because on Tuesday we had our first Old Testament Background class, and we have to memorize prominent roads in Israel. Now, the roads in Israel are something I never thought about before. When the Good Samaritan saved the man by the road, I never thought much about the road itself or where it was going to. I never thought this might’ve been the very same road that the Israelites fled down away from the Babylonians at the end of 2 Kings, or that the men who killed Ishbosheth took Ishbosheth’s bloody head down this road to David. In other words, it was just an isolated text plucked out of the Bible, and not a concrete place in spot filled with the history of a particular nation. I never imagined the unpaved, dirt path avoiding the loose gravel and deep fissures in the ground to wind down into the Jordan valley, or pictured the dusty dangers of that path, or thought the travelers may remember the fates of the people who went down that way before them. But suddenly, after hearing the description of this place, the land that the stories took place in felt very close and real.
A storied place in an unfolding drama...
It brought me right back to my childhood, curled up over The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, trying to orientate myself to where exactly the characters I was reading about supposedly were in their fictional world. And I know this is an odd comparison, to say the Bible’s similarity to a work of fiction made the Bible feel more real—but then, does not fiction borrow these elements of real stories in order to appear more convincing? And do not so many fans enter into the game of knowing all these obscure details about an imaginary world in an attempt to enter that world more fully? So, in fact, there may be merit in achieving a greater level of knowledge of obscure biblical details.
Maybe we ought to wonder why so many throw themselves into being nerds of fictional worlds, but find the real world tedious. It could be that Christians lack passion for their faith. Or it could be that Christians don’t realize there is a whole wealth of knowledge that is known about their beliefs, which they could geek out on (in which case, passionate and knowledgeable teachers can open doors). Or there may be more to this observation of mine...
On the Edge of the Knife:
Because if I guess right, many of you who read this are thinking about my opening paragraph and the arguments that rise up between Christians. If all Christians were passionately devoted to even the most obscure details of their faith, then wouldn’t arguments between Christians get out of hand? The briefest glance at online fan culture demonstrates how utterly toxic some of these fan communities can be. The backlash at the conclusion of both Game of Thrones and the last two Star Wars movies demonstrates how inconsistencies in details such as what the Force is capable of doing, or whether Daenerys’ character was properly set up to commit a massacre, lead to torrents of outrage from people who “know” these worlds better than the people tasked with creating stories about them. If passion about fictional worlds leads to such anger, vitriol and at times even abuse, then what can we expect in Christianity if people become passionate about details? You even see, sadly enough, a whole host of Christian blogs by people claiming to be theological nerds that basically seem to exist to pour flames on any thought voiced by other Christian in the public sphere. It just looks ugly.
People shrink back from this. It appears to be better to not feel any personal connection to these debates, to stand back and observe as if some monk was arguing about the precise weight of a human soul, and think, “This doesn’t really matter. This is not important.”
The church is balanced on a knife’s edge here, as we tend to be in so many areas. On one side of the edge is a deep ditch of apathy and lack of passion. On the other is a sea of venom and anger and church splits. Often we weigh up the two sides and feel if we have to veer towards any side at all, we’d rather be just a little closer to the apathetic side. After all, if we’ve fallen in the apathetic ditch and are struggling to climb out, it’s all too easy to launch ourselves right over the balanced edge into infighting, more infighting and infighting.
But, as in so many things, we have to strive for the ideal, not the “better” ditch.
Why We Need More Theological Nerds:
So yes, my conclusion is that we should all be theology nerds. I don’t think we should allow our knee-jerk reaction to be That doesn’t matter, but rather that we should evaluate this knee-jerk reaction and understand where it stems from. Instead of holding back and feeling superior to other debates, we should look at ourselves and think about why we feel superior because we don’t care. Are we right to not care? Maybe on this particular subject, we are right to not care (there are many stupid debates as well as worthwhile ones). But let’s be less quick to jump to this conclusion, because it might be possible to really get something out of knowing whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father.
Now, we can’t all have the same level of theological nerdiness—I can hear the howls of protest at the idea everyone should know all the roads in Israel. I’m not one to talk, either, as my eyes tend to glaze over when people ask if there was one, two or three covenants, or whether I’m infra- or supra- lapsarian. But no, I’m arguing for more theological geekiness, not for an enforced program of subjects all Christians must memorize. I'm not arguing to identical, uniform Christian passion in all areas. We are all individuals, and we don't all have the same level of interest in obsessive detail. But we can look at what theological geekiness a bit closer, before we dismiss it.
If you’re still wondering what on earth theological geekiness could be, think about what we call geekiness in general, especially the kind of geekiness that is now considered a positive thing. Individuals geek out over different things, but the wide variety of individual passions (one for drawing maps, one for creating lists, one for doing material calculations, and so on) drive the whole fandom forward - people eagerly share the “good stuff” found or created by others that relate to their shared fandom. Geekiness is an enthusiasm for collecting knowledge, for fleshing out the full picture of a subject, to find value in facts that other people overlook, for imposing organization on the knowledge found and to work together to do so (think of wikis and so on). It’s people who enjoy putting forward an opinion, constructing an argument for it, and working out the implications of it with others (and deciding if it fits the rest of the story well). And lastly, there’s this fascinating definition of geekiness found online that might be incredibly relevant:
“A person who displays the willingness to bear the public shame of liking some weird thing and not caring who knows it.” (Jim MacQuarrie)
There’s a lot more that can be said—a lot about whether someone can fall down an unproductive rabbit hole, or the value in exploring areas of interest one doesn’t have a passion for, or the danger of becoming a theological crank instead of a theological nerd. But let’s leave all that aside for now. If we see a complete absence of theological geekiness in ourselves or others around us, what does that say?
We need more theological geekiness overall, even as we recognize not everyone has a mind that thrills over every obsessive detail. Don’t allow yourself to play this card, while looking at biblical information, this card that allows you to flip by it all while thinking, this is not essential, this is not essential, this is not essential... Passion revels in the utter joy of something, rather than the strict judgment of precisely how useful it might be.
A lack of theological geekiness leads to endless repetition of big-picture, encompassing summaries that skate over the actual depth of Christianity—ideas like, Christ is the Lord of your life, the Lord’s strength is revealed through your weakness, only God’s fullness can fill your emptiness.... —these ideas are all true, but they lose so much of the immediacy by retreating into such a grand, over-arching summary that gets repeated until people's ears can't grasp what it means anymore. This is when an advance into detail can really dig in and demonstrate how all the pieces do fit into this overall theme, how this idea has been demonstrated at a micro-level over and over in salvation history, and therefore actually refresh your understanding rather than dull your ears.
What’s the benefit to you, or finding a seam of theology that your mind dig into, of finding a topic that’s like a feast to you? What about it is worth the risk of your passion making you overzealous? Well, you’ll feel alive, for one thing.
Maybe you’ll feel that old feeling of excitement as you bring out treasures new and old to share with those in faith around you.
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