Ordinary Theology Ordinary Theology
Looking, Listening and Learning in Theology

Jeff Astley
ISBN 0754605841
Ashgate, 2002

Category: Doctrine and Theology

I found myself drawn to this book from the blurb in the publisher's catalogue:

"Ordinary Theology" is Jeff Astley's phrase for the theology and theologizing of Christians who have received little or no theological education of a scholarly, academic or systematic kind. Astley argues that an in-depth study of ordinary theology, which should involve both empirical research and theological reflection, can help recover theology as a fundamental dimension of every Christian's vocation.

Astley sets forward such a simple concept; it's one of those things that seems so obvious once you've heard it that you wonder that you never thought of it before.

The concept is to ask about the way people pick up their theology when they haven't had any formal theological training. The answer to the question 'where do they get their ideas from?' is pretty easy, but to think about the way that people sift through the range of concepts and interpretations that come at them (mainly in a very unsystematic fashion) is quite a different matter. Now, the fact that most church-attending, untrained Christians are probably heretics—if we get them to actually try and explain things such as Christ's dual nature or the Trinity—is more than familiar enough to me. Astley heads in a different direction though, and asks us to think about the way people actually learn anything, and therefore how they end up picking up their theology.

At the same time, Astley wants trained Christians to value the theology of the untrained. That's quite different from agreeing with it, but unless people feel treated with respect they will be less willing to open up about their own ideas, and equally less willing to accept the alternative proposals. So he's calling theologians to consider this approach alongside others.

Ironically enough, this is not a book for untrained Christians! This is technically argued throughout, and thoroughly investigated. In keeping with his own speciality, the focus is kept solidly on how people learn, not on what they learn.

Being relatively new to the subject I have not found it an easy read, but I think that's down to unfamiliarity with the subject rather than any suggestion that Astley's writing style is difficult to follow. It is a subject that I want to know much more about, since effective communication demands an awareness of where the audience is already at. I suspect I need to do more background reading before I'll benefit fully from this.


John Wilks, November 2003

Dr John G F Wilks is the Director of Open Learning at London School of Theology and is a regular contributor to the Book Comments pages of the School's monthly webzine, Eis.

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