Religious war in Africa?
McClendon on . . .

Biography as Theology

Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today's TheologyBiography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today's Theology by James William McClendon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Looking for the follow-up to William James' Varieties of Religious Experience and a book that speaks more directly to and from a Christian theological perspective, then this is the book.

James McClendon has been my favourite theologian for most of the last decade, since I began to read his three volume systematic theology. Those volumes were essential in refining my theology as a full-time practitioner of parish ministry. I had intended for some time to read this early volume and am glad to finally get to it.

First published in the seventies (I read an early nineties edition), this was one of the first works of narrative theology and argued that theological content could be derived from studying the lives of people. He examines Dag Hammarskjold, Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Jordan, and Charles Ives. In his systematic theology he covered a handful of other folk, including Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and more.

One feature of this book is that he calls for a revision of the church's doctrine of the atonement based upon how these persons embodied atonement in their lives. I had not realized the book would cover the atonement -- I'm preparing for a class on the atonement in 2012. His approach is radically different from that of Weaver and other recent revisionists of the doctrine. He focuses on atonement as embodied in efforts to create unity across race, class, etc.

The chapter I most enjoyed was that on Charles Ives, the composer. It not only reveals McClendon's biographical approach, but another feature of his work that I really enjoy -- theology of the arts. In his systematic theology there is a wonderful theological exploration of the Hudson River school of painting and a discussion of Melville, among others. Here he develops Ives' theology of music. It is quite enjoyable. The discussion of New England Congregationalist camp meetings made me wonder how we could re-invent this tradition of ours for the 21st century.

McClendon follows James in that the doctrines that matter are those which can be embodied -- those convictions that give shape to a life. This is a very different approach than theology has taken throughout its history. The radical revision McClendon proposes has yet to fully develop or come into its deepest influence (I hope he becomes even more influential).

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