Two Challenges Collide: Popular vs. Esoteric / Seminal vs. Derivative

By John Drury

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Geeks like me are always getting challenged by our colleagues in ministry to communicate in a clear, accessible way. I feel up to the challenge, as I hope my preaching as well as my blogging attest. I also aim to write some popular works in due time. Nevertheless, I do ask for patience while I give time to more "esoteric" matters that serve to sharpen my mind as well as help me jump through a few guild hoops.

This June I heard what seemed to be an unrelated challenge. My brother suggested that I take steps to ensure I do not become merely a derivative theologian but seek to be truly seminal in my thinking. I have been poindering a lot about what this might look like, but I haven't got very far, mostly because graduate studies in theology are designed to teach you that every great thought has already been thought before and you just need to learn how to find it. Yet becoming a seminal theologian is certainly an option, if after learning all this one has enough energy left to pick up the mantel of the masters and develop their ideas beyond what they themselves would have done.

Suddenly this week these two challenges collided with each other. I realized that these two goals may very well be contradictory. How can one be truly seminal without also being a least a little esoteric? How can one be a "popular" theologian without "translating" and thus being derivative? How can one develop the thoughts of the masters without joining in their esoteric conversation? How can one develop original ideas without fashioning an original nomenclature? Can these two challenges be reconciled? Or must I choose?

Of course, I can imagine be able to speak and write in two different styles according to context. But then problems arise of balance, priority, stewardship of time, loss of a distinct voice, and the possibility of leading an intellectual double life. The question remains: how does one forge a simultaneously popular and seminal theological style?

Any thoughts?


At 9:25 PM, August 11, 2005, Keith.Drury said...

Is there any theologian who has done so? Who gets close?


At 10:52 PM, August 11, 2005, pk said...

In response to Keith's question, would N.T. Wright be an example? Seems that maybe his Origins series (The New Testament and the Community of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, etc.) is written at a 'seminal' level, whereas The Challenge of Jesus is not. And even more so the Matthew for Everyone, Luke for Everyone, Paul for Everyone series is CERTAINLY written at a popular level. Is he living the double-life?


At 1:00 AM, August 12, 2005, Ken Schenck said...

I think some paradigm shifts do have the character of a breath of fresh air and "how did everyone miss this for so long?" The only thing that makes the Lutheran paradigm more easy to explain than the "new perspective on Paul" is the fact that most Christians have a head start on the former. But those who are "unschooled" have no real problem understanding what I know are newer paradigms.

But so much of the ongoing discussion seems dialectical in a non-linear way. Is the difference between "seminal" and "derivative" really a matter of "thesis" (derivative) vs. "antithesis" (better) and synthesis (the real seminal work)? As you suggest, because the "thesis" has often had so much time to gain in complexity, the antitheses and syntheses can be complex indeed.


At 3:16 PM, August 12, 2005, JohnLDrury said...

Q: Is there any theologian who has done so? Who gets close?

A: I think Luther may be one of the few who gets close to this. Very seminal, yet in pamphlet form.

Yet even he wrote in different styles in different contexts, and certainly the theological field of inquiry has expanded and increased in complexity since then.


At 3:17 PM, August 12, 2005, JohnLDrury said...

Is it posibble that something can be esoteric and be "popular" at least in its practical significance. E.g., lawyers have an esoteric knowledge of the law, yet we rely on their knowledge in certain crucial circumstances. Just a thought.


At 3:21 PM, August 12, 2005, JohnLDrury said...


The complexity question hits the nail on the head. To really sift through contemporary problems one must work at a relatively complex level. But then it necessarily cuts certain readers out (or at least makes demands on them that they choose not to fulfill). Should we just abandon the complex questions?


At 7:26 PM, August 12, 2005, Ken Schenck said...

For a long time I have felt that given my calling to IWU, the complexity of my field has largely been irrelevant to my day to day responsibilities. That is not to say that a person could not be seminal in some way on the level of complexity I teach (Emperor's New Clothes type innovation...).

Nevertheless, my primary engagement with biblical scholarship has been on the side. I would strongly affirm, however, that some Christian biblical scholars should have such engagement as their primary task. Probably not nearly as many, but definitely some who know Sub-Achmemic and Akkadian. :)

Interestingly, I suspect that IWU is moving into a phase where it will have a smattering of "jedi complexity masters" in all its fields in the not too distant future.


At 4:06 PM, August 13, 2005, JohnLDrury said...

Maybe these are just the tensions of life. I am simply struck by the fact the thinkers with the greatest legacies are often the more opaque, and sometimes intentionally so as to make demands on their readers to take an active role in the interpretion of their thought. Could it be that writing in a popular, accessible style can actually perpetuate and worsen ignorance rather than remedy it??? (this is obviously meant to be a provacative question, but alas it is quite pressing in an age of the internet where information is more available than ever and yet people just as uninformed as ever ... hmmmmmm