Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Large concepts writ small - Fr Andrew Davison

A book review of Participation and Mediation: A practical theology for the liquid Church by Pete Ward written by Fr Andrew Davison in a recent edition of Church Times:

Pete Ward rose to prominence with the publication in 2002 of Liquid Church. That book was par­ticularly influential in the world of “emerging Church” and “Fresh Ex­pressions”. In Participation and Mediation, he develops his earlier ideas in greater theological depth. Such work is very welcome: these ecclesiastical innovations are an important part of the church land­scape, but their own explicit theo­logy remains largely journalistic.

Ward sets out “to theorize practical theology as participation and mediation”. He could hardly have chosen better reference points. Here are two words with enormous theological freight, biblical and patristic, medieval and contempor­ary. The result, however, is a disap­pointment. This is “practical theo­logy” with lukewarm, ill-integrated theology, and a practical analysis that peters out just as it becomes most interesting.

The novelty of Ward’s work does not rest so much on ideas of his own as on the selection of influ­ences he brings together. There is something to be said for passing on the best of earlier work. Unfortu­nately, his sources are often at least one remove from the white heat of the most exciting current academic thought, and much that is most relevant is passed over. For instance, even given his basically Protestant outlook, it is surprising that he should have passed over without comment the recovery of “partici­pa­tion” as a central theme in Catholic theology over the 20th century.

The problem is that Ward is not clear about what he means by either of his central terms. From such definitions as they are given, they emerge as a shadow of the lofty theological topics they once were. Participation often means no more than “knowing how to join in”, and mediation is simply “cultural communication” through the “new media”. Once Christian theology expressed an entire metaphysics with these ideas. Now they suggest little more than using video projectors to make the Church accessible.

The “practical” part of Ward’s “practical theology” uses cultural studies to analyse contemporary Evangelical life. His worked example is the worship song “Shine, Jesus, shine”. Having laid down his method with reference to the Sony Walkman, he dissects the cultural significance of the song in a chapter of its own. Later, we find the eucharist analysed with reference to Kendrick’s song. This is a provoca­tive move, but, then again, what is to stop us from treating every feature of the Church alike, once “cultural studies”, not theology, has become the benchmark?

None of this, actually, is particularly engaging. Far more important is his suggestion that the ingrained practices of the Church might mediate the gospel, or indeed impede it. Here he is on to something; so it is frustrating that so little of what he flags up in intriguing lists (“objects, clothing, lifestyle, food” or “gravestones, church buildings, adverts”) is taken any further.

Ward’s style begins well, but takes a turn for the worse when he reaches his theology. By the end, sentences often read as a more or less random assemblage of key words: mediation, animation, production, participation, circulation, flow. Some books are obscure because of a surfeit of ideas. This one is unclear while having little decisive to say. “Fresh expressions of church” may have a strong theological justification — they certainly lack one as they stand — but this book is not it.