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Bulk-Standard Theology

By Mike Smith.

It was David Blunkett, during his time as Secretary of State for Education, who, in referring to a certain class of comprehensive school, popularised the phrase 'bulk-standard'. I want to put in a plea for 'bulk-standard theology'.

I will immediately put my cards on the table. I am an ordinary pastor of an ordinary church. I read a few learned journals, and have had some pretensions in the past to be a theologian. For the most part, however, I am involved in the normal duties of a pastor, during which I face every day the tension between academic theology and "how then should we live?". There is, it seems to me, a huge gulf between what happens in academia and my own normal experiences. What we need is 'bulk-standard' theology.

Somewhere, long ago, I read of a scholar who proclaimed proudly that he wrote his books for the benefit of five other scholars, who alone had the time to read them and the intellect to understand them. I confess that, as I read book reviews, I often wonder if some books are still written with a similarly small potential audience. They focus on the minutiae of their subject (especially in the discipline of philosophy), and would probably be totally incomprehensible to the majority of graduates, even in their own subject area. Their practical effect for living in the 21st century is likely to be zero.

Surely the test of whether a 'Christian' book should be published is whether it actually helps people live better lives as Christians in the world? Now I know I will be accused of mere pragmatism here, but surely academia should have some foothold in life. No-one can live totally in an ivory tower. There must be a link to the 'hoi polloi' who make up the majority of this world - or at least the 'hoi polloi' who still inhabit the visible churches.

Let me give an example. I have heard enough about post-modernity to paper whole rooms with the articles. But has it ever attracted notice that many people are still resolutely modernist? They still want proof. They still have standards, even if they ignore them. They still have some absolutes. Why? Because it is impossible to live as post-modern men or women. Post-modernity is fine for the lecture room, conference address or pub argument, but as soon as you go outside to start your car, you have to be a modernist again, or you will still be in the car park a week later!

So 'bulk-standard' theology has to be simple. In past times, great theological movements, orthodox and heretical, had simple slogans. The Scots covenanters contended for 'the crown rights of the Redeemer'. Arianism made its way because it provided a theology which could be sung by the manual workers of the Alexandria docks. Methodist life-style could be described - or parodied - as 'becoming serious'. Even within living memory, Billy Graham was remembered for phrases such as 'the Bible says' and 'I want you to get up out of your seats'. This is 'bulk-standard' theology, but it is the only sort of theology which the great majority understand. In communication, the acronym KISS stands for 'keep it simple, stupid'. Perhaps it should be inscribed on a card and presented to everyone who ever has the duty of teaching.

At this point I must readily admit that even 'bulk-standard' theologians can be guilty of losing contact with the congregations. There is the old joke about the non-conformist minister who is invisible for six days of the week and incomprehensible on the seventh. Is this perhaps the result of the college sermon-class, where the object of the exercise was more to impress your peers than to communicate with the masses?

And how many times has a minister sweated for several days over a sermon, only to be told after a Sunday service that "I really enjoyed your children's talk"? The preacher may scorn the immaturity of the listeners, but perhaps he/she should ask: "Was I a bit too complicated?"

Indeed, it could be argued that if preachers had given more children's talks to the congregation, they would have been better fed. After all, didn't Paul and the writer to the Hebrews feel that their hearers still needed basic instruction (1 Corinthians 3.1-3 and Hebrews 5.11-14)?

Maybe if the phrase 'bulk-standard' theology seems rude and pejorative, could we not plead for a 'volkstheologie' - a people's theology? How about an outline of the Christian faith which is understandable to the readers of the Sun and Daily Mirror, but also to those Times and Guardian readers who are not theologically trained?

And if we opt for this, and stick to simple truths, we might actually communicate. We may have to admit that there are things we do not know, or that we cannot fit all our certainties into a coherent system, for God is far greater than our limited minds. But in the day of the 'sound bite', we need a 'bulk-standard' theology which all can understand - even if they may not like or accept it.

The Revd Mike Smith is Minister of Golcar Baptist Church, Huddersfield

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You are reading Bulk-Standard Theology by Mike Smith, part of Issue 28 of Ministry Today, published in June 2003.

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