Esau McCaulley, public theology, everday faith

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Instructions for the Oft-Named, Rarely Defined Work of Public Theology

By one of the guys who does it best.

A conversation with Esau McCaulley.

Esauntial Reading

His public theology — in book form.

Reading While Black

(IVP Academic, 2020)

Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal

(IVP, 2022)

Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit

(IVP Kids, 2022)

You see plenty of talk about public theology right now. A good amount comes from academia, and you get more than a few instances from guys who just tweet. It’s a term that appears to originate from the 20th-century historian and Lutheran minister Martin E. Marty, who used it as a contrast to civil religion — as an answer to it, you could say. The idea basically is this: words about God written or spoken for a wide(r) audience. Or is it about what God has to do with the public square? Turns out, the internet doesn’t offer a consistent definition. But when it comes to both of those aspects, you may not find a more tangible example than the work of Esau McCaulley. You may know his award-winning book, Reading While Black, exists amid one of the most immediate conversations of the last decade, and his regular opinion writing for one of the world’s widest-read publications gives him an audience comically larger than you’d expect from an Anglican New Testament teacher. Yet here he is.   

In June, McCaulley talked about theology for the public and what it looks like with Aaron Cline Hanbury.

You’re a New Testament scholar, but you’ve been doing more popular-level writing — your columns for the New York Times and, recently, a children’s book. What is the connection between the two forms?

Part of my vocation is as a writer. I don’t see them as being two separate careers. If I feel like there’s something academic I need to say, then I write it in an academic voice. If I feel like what I have to say is for children, I write to a children’s audience. I think that too often we try to put people into categories.

There might be something to be said about who we feel is worthy of our time. What I mean is we tend to think, “If I am an intellectual, then I need to spend my time speaking only to other academics.” But children bear God’s image just like adults do, so maybe they’re worthy of time spent thinking about how to treat them. Or, how do you take ideas that may begin in the church and make them accessible and understandable to a secular audience? Those are important things, and too often, as academics, we only feel value when we’re arguing with each other.

Your type of writing and speaking seems increasingly to fall into this loose category we call “public theology.” What is public theology?

Probably the biggest difference for me between theology in public and in the church is, when I’m writing for the church, there’s a shared consensus within which I am working. I can just say, “Hey, the Bible says it” or “the Christian tradition says it”  and “therefore let’s live in this way.” When I’m doing theology in public, I can’t rely on that consensus to make an argument. I’ve got to have to try to make Christianity intelligible to someone who doesn’t share its principles, or I can show how the principles of Christianity speak to issues of the day. 

Now, I am bound, in both situations, by the great tradition. I feel like as a Christian, it’s my job to deliver onto the next generation what we received — but the ways in which that is communicated has to change according to the audience. 

What does that kind of work require?

You don’t need different sources. You need a different disposition. One of the virtues that you can have as a Christian is empathy, to imagine and feel what someone else might be feeling. For me to be doing public theology, I need to have at least enough cultural awareness to understand the fears and anxiety of someone who might share a different way of looking at the world than I do — and to speak to that person without being unnecessarily combative. Now, sometimes you have to challenge people, but you want to challenge people so that you’re engaging with who they are, not what you imagine them to be. Public theology really requires some understanding of the fears, the hopes, the virtues, and the vices of a particular culture — and being able to put those in a dynamic conversation with Christianity.

It’s a matter of temperament and the ability to be patient. Because it’s really hard to do public theology if you fundamentally hate the culture. 

You have to be able to see that every culture has a mix of glory and fallenness. Culture bears the marks of being created by those who carry the image of God, and culture bears the marks of being created by those who have fallen. That mix is in every culture. The hints of God’s creativity that has been passed on to humanity and the hints of our brokenness that have been passed down the generations, too. You have to be able to see culture as this beautiful mess within which God works in order to speak sensitively enough to be able to speak persuasively to those who don’t believe. If you just hate it, all you see is evil, and you can’t see its potential to be more, then it’s hard for you to be a public theologian. The prophets did a bit of both. They both said, “Israel, this is not who God called you to be; you’re falling short, but here’s what you could be if you’re redeemed by God.” For us to do public theology, we have to offer both critique and the possibility of hope within it.

How should churches be involved?

I think that every pastor, at some point in a sermon, is doing public theology. In other words, if you preach a sermon, part of expositing the text is saying, “This is what the Bible says.” The other part is thinking about someone who’s skeptical about what the text says. A good preacher is going to say, “Well, you might be tempted to say this.” That pastor is bringing into the sermon an interlocutor. You can see the apostle Paul do this. Every Christian communicator needs to consider how Christianity touches the lived experiences of people and what difference it actually makes in their live

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