Culture Life Theology

Book Review: Redeeming the Routines (or theology for the ordinary majority)

In Redeeming the Routines, Robert Banks argues that a major task of Christian leaders should be to help close the gap between theological reflection and the everyday lives of the people of God. Ultimately, he calls for a re-examination of what it means to be Christian in western culture.

The Irrelevance of Theology

Martin Luther’s 16th-century reforms acted to redefine the work of ordinary Christians by declaring all work, whether “sacred” or “secular,” to be holy and worthy in God’s eyes. However, almost 500 years later, Banks argues that many evangelical Christians appear to “have little sense of a Christian approach to regular activities” (p.54). Many personal problems that Christians face today—whether spiritual, emotional or interpersonal—he believes are rooted in the “apparent meaninglessness of so much routine activity” (p.55). He argues that the primary problem can be traced to the fact that many “Christians do not view theology in a positive light” (p. 43). This negative view of theology has come about, Banks contends, because of the professionalization of theology and the secularization of western culture.

Banks maintains that for most Christians, theology comes across as esoteric and otherworldly, bearing little significance for their daily lives. Similar to the medieval era, theological reflection has been restricted to “sacred” institutions like the Church and seminary. Many Christians in our culture see theological reflection as a task that is done solely by the academic theologian or church pastor. Indeed, “part of the problem the average person has with theology stems from the fact that it seems to exist in a specialized world of its own” (p.44).

On the other end, as secularization emerged from the Enlightenment, theological reflection and Christianity in general have been increasingly dismissed as private matters that receive little attention in the public realm where reason and scientific development reign. When it comes to education for instance, secularization has reinforced the professionalization of theology as an academic undertaking confined to the university, causing the chasm between theological reflection and our everyday routines to widen. Furthermore, although one might think that the various dimensions of ordained ministry should be at the center of disseminating theological insight to God’s people, Banks argues that it is the “home, workplace and community which are often more relevant” spaces for people to be able to integrate theological reflection into their lives (p.49).

Knowledge-Practice Interplay

Just as theological reflection and application should extend beyond church buildings and into the home, workplace and local community (the where component), Christian leaders need to realize that most learning “takes place through the constant interplay of reflection and action, each oriented toward the other” (the how component) (p. 134). To put it in philosophical terms, Banks is arguing that Christian leaders need to place a greater emphasis on the epistemological (knowledge)-praxeological (practice) interplay that takes place in the process of theological understanding and formation.

Democratizing Theology

Banks’ insistence on interactive learning is not an original idea. The concept is found in the Bible. In fact, “the meaning of the word know in the Bible,” Banks says, “binds understanding and doing inextricably together” (p.134). The problem, he points out, is that this knowledge-practice interplay is “often commented upon by theologians but rarely influences the way they teach.” (p.134). This analysis leads Banks to call for two reforms that he believes will help close the theology-life gap in western Christian culture: (1) the “democratization of theology” and (2) the “deprofessionalization of the theologian” (p.148).

Banks asks the question: “How high on our agenda…is the creation of space for informed and critical conversation on matters of importance?” (p.88). From my own experience, creating space for Christians to engage in critical conversation on relevant topics that impact their daily lives is low on church agendas.

The Invasion of Secular Values

What’s usually high on Church agendas in our post-modern age is providing worship experiences that are relevant, entertaining and appealing to a culture consumed with technology. We can all agree that things like mobile devices, social media and computer-generated imagery (CGI) are not “evil” in and of themselves. However, it is clear to some leaders in the Church that the values some forms of technology inherently reinforce in society are directly opposed to the Christian worldview. Banks affirms that “Christians are unaware how much they are influenced by the basic assumptions, such as individualism, on which our society rests, or by its attitudes, such as increasingly having a consumer attitude, even toward the church and God” (p.56). It becomes apparent then, that in order to help close the theology-life gap, Christians need to learn how (and where) to respond to these secular influences. In other words, we need to follow Banks’ call to democratize (or even popularize) theology; we need to make theology accessible (and interesting) to ordinary Christians and teach them how to engage with, rather than be shaped by, secular attitudes and influences.

Ultimately, Banks calls Christian leaders to help God’s people think about the world theologically, communicate to the world articulately, and respond in the world faithfully. Banks highlights three secular influences which I think are most pressing for Christians to address in our culture today: (1) Technology (2) Consumerism, and (3) Busyness.

Technology

In 1993, when Redeeming the Routines was published, the internet had just been introduced to popular culture. It would be years until technologies like Facebook, YouTube, and smart phones would enter the market. However, Banks foresees how the onset of such technology would impact people’s lives in drastic ways. For instance, he sees that technologies like the computer and television, among others, “receive an enormous amount of attention” in western culture yet “surprisingly little attention from Christian thinkers” (p. 91). He writes, “In the West we have a particular fascination with objects. In fact, we tend to value things more than people” (p.90). He warns that this consumerist mentality is having “many disruptive and harmful effects” on western culture, turning a variety of technologies into dangerous idols (p.90). In order to bridge the theology-life gap, Banks calls on the church and Christian leaders to develop a comprehensive theology of technology; he calls us to redeem technology and to harness it not solely for personal consumption, but also to help God’s mission move forward in the world.

Consumerism

Consumerism is wide spread in western culture. Banks writes, “Shopping malls are the new cathedrals of the suburbs, increasingly dominating the geography, roadways, socializing and politics of local communities” (p.78). Billions of dollars are invested by companies every year to encourage consumption. In fact, economists measure the general health of an economy by the amount of goods people consume and the amount of income that companies generate. People are regularly referred to in the media as consumers and income earners. We are living in the era of the economization of people. For instance, “The architecture, layout, color scheme, and atmosphere of shopping malls,” writes Banks, “are all carefully calculated to entice us to spend” (p.79). Not only is there an economic benefit received by companies through the consumer economy, but Banks argues that people actually find spiritual significance in activities like shopping. Shopping malls and consumer products, for instance, are “designed to take us out of ourselves, transcend our routine lives, and give us a sort of religious experience” (p.79). Thus, as Christian leaders, we are also called to develop a comprehensive theology of consumerism; learning how to think theologically about the economy and how to respond faithfully to these secular influences in ways that engage the world from a Christian perspective.

Busyness and Time Poverty

Finally, as technology influences the busyness of our lives and the way we spend our leisure, Banks asserts that we must approach this issue more intentionally as Christian leaders. I think his insight is profound on this point, especially considering he was thinking of these issues over two decades ago. He states: “We may not be poor economically as the majority of people are in the Two-thirds World, but we are poor in terms of time, whereas they tend to have an abundance of it. What we have gained in terms of material things, we have lost in terms of disposable time” (p.72). Is it true that western culture is time impoverished? If so, Banks calls Christian leaders to develop a theology of how we use our time.

Final Thoughts

Banks contends that a major theology-life gap exists in western Christian culture. To resolve this dilemma, he proposes that the church in the West should move to popularize theology and train people to be theological practitioners. By doing so, many of the secular influences that are shaping Christians (in the image of the world) can be redeemed and used for God and His mission to renew people and communities in the image of Christ. He calls Christian leaders to avoid the pitfalls of religious fundamentalism, but rather, to engage the world where it is most dark and disordered, following the example of Christ and Christians since.

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