Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

From Sketch Map to Relevance

Written by: on October 30, 2014

After teaching Western Civilization to 15-16 year olds for a number of years, I learned that history, like theology, can easily cause a syndrome called, “Roll-the-eyes-back-into-the-head because I can’t take it anymore” which usually resulted in this question, “Besides, what relevance does it have in my life?” While they, like so many today referencing theology, might say “I’m bored;” it was merely a reaction to feeling overwhelmed with too much information. Using an analogy, can you see the cat in the midst of the trash heap?Big Picture Little Picture Apparently, if you can, then you are good with details. If not, well then, I guess all of life is like a garbage dump. Actually, I found the cat (it’s in the middle to the left) not because it was easy to find, nor because I’m a detail person. The reason I found it was because it drew my eye, and it was attractive to me.

Alistar McGrath’s Christian Theology could very well overwhelm anyone with considerable yet brief segments of description (not prescription) in theology about “Landmarks” in its historical context, debates over the origin, and various arguments over doctrines.[1] However, McGrath’s intent is to do just that: offer pieces in the entirety of theology. He wants to paint the big picture so that the eye can land on what engages. Then the learner has the responsibility to take the next step to discover through further research and exploration what that subject may reveal. For it is in depth within a bigger picture, learning remains within the mind’s memory through its context and story. To remember through breadth can only breed breadth; a list of dates and names has little to do with that initial question: “What relevance does it have in my life?” When something becomes a part of one’s own life story, then the meaning and understanding become much more pertinent. For then, as McGrath offers, theology ultimately can be a place of understanding that is based on taking the time to explore for “Knowing is not learning, it is remembering”[2]

For instance, after reading Ford’s Theology: A Very Short Introduction, I became curious about my placement in his framework of the five markers on a theological spectrum, particularly in trying to understand a bit more about Paul Tillich with regard to culture and faith. After exploring the Table of Contents, Glossary, and Index, my next engagement with McGrath’s book involved searching out his description of Tillich’s contribution to theology. In that context, I was able to place Tillich alongside other theologians who have also contributed to the modern conversation around “the sense of longing to understand more about God’s nature and ways – and the transforming impact that this could have on people’s lives.”[3]  Referencing the word “correlation,” McGrath and Ford both reinforce Tillich’s legacy among the theologians as indicating that “faith need not be unacceptable to contemporary culture and contemporary culture need not be unacceptable to faith.”[4] My eyes see the cat, but I need to know more.

Now it’s time for the research to begin. Like a taste of a really good cookie, I need more information to find out a fuller understanding (or to truly enjoy the rest of the taste of the cookie). Tillich needs more explanation for me to decide if I want to line up in the Tillich camp. McGrath doesn’t have to do that. He does his intended work by drawing the initial picture with the intrigue of what happens next; he accomplishes his goal as a teacher to “awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge” (Albert Einstein).

Another place of placing the cat in the middle of the garbage heap (which ultimately has its own chaotic beauty, if you ask me) was the conversation around the French theological soul searching of ressourcement. In the statement of “rediscovering and reappropriating the original sources of theology,”[5] I’m brought into the dialogue by wondering about the quote by the author (Daniélou), his context as well as the culture’s, and the intended provocation with a new (or renewed) way of looking at theology. Is that not the task of the educator, as McGrath seems to demonstrate as a consummate teacher, to want me to learn, know, and remember more?

Looking at McGrath’s explicit intent to do a “sketch map,”[6] I continue to be curious about researching more on what grabs my own interest and desire to understand theology in its complete context. As well, I find it fascinating that for McGrath, after years of laying a foundation of theology, his texts now seem to center around living out the theology with such books as The Living God: A Guide for Study and Devotion as well as reflecting on those who have influenced him in his own theological understanding with Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal and C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. As I continue to determine my prolegomena[7] and name my theology in the dynamic process of discovery, I hope, like McGrath, that I can continue in the study and devotion of God while emulating those who have gone before me as a demonstration of the relevance of theology in my life.

[1] McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. (4th Ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), xxiv.
[2] “Knowing is Not Learning, it is Remembering,” Manataka American Indian Council, accessed October 26, 2014, http://www.manataka.org/page1150.html.
[3] McGrath, Alister E. Theology: The Basics. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), viii.
[4] McGrath. Christian Theology, 76.
[5] Ibid, 87.
[6] Ibid, xxii.
[7] Ibid, 111.

About the Author

Mary Pandiani

Spiritual Director, educator/facilitator, follower of Jesus, a cultivator of sacred space for those who want to encounter God

13 responses to “From Sketch Map to Relevance”

  1. Jon Spellman says:

    So, Mary, would you say that it is less the job of the theology teacher to teach all theological concepts in depth and more his/her job to stimulate in the student a desire for knowing and studying God?

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      Great question, Jon. In fact when I read it, I took time in the day to wrestle with it. At the undergrad level which is where I think McGrath’s book is best suited, it is the responsibility of the instructor to give an overview while stimulating further thought on behalf of the student. Enough depth is needed to intrigue. But as the student deepens his/her understanding at higher levels of learning and education, the instructor does need to provide guidance in specific directions that enable the student to see the fault lines in his/her thinking…it’s really what I believe our advisors do as well as Jason. Does that answer your question?

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Mary, I could not find the cat! I tried but was unable. I am not necessarily excited about that, but it doesn’t really bother me because I have always considered myself, “not a detail” person. I was struck similarly by McGrath on the tension between depth and width of theological understanding. The other books we have read on theology grab my attention, pulled me into wanting to think deeply about theology and for some reason McGrath’s work woke me up to the reality of what thinking deeply about theology looks like. I think this is a great balance to our other reads and helps us “sketch map” and honest picture of what a true journey of theological discovery and learning looks like. I really appreciate you pulling the “sketch map” idea to the surface and using that to frame the value of reading this text!

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      Actually while you may not consider yourself a “detail person,” you seem to pick up quick well on the details of how people think, respond, and function in this world.

  3. Nick Martineau says:

    Mary, I spent more time looking for that cat then I should but eventually found it!

    Thanks for bringing Mcgraths later books into the conversation. Not everyone has the giftings to write a book but I would hope it could be said of all of us that after spending significant time laying out our own theological foundation we would spend our time living out our theology.

  4. Travis Biglow says:

    God’s Blessing Mary,

    McGrath has alot of things he is presenting in this book and it is for those who are really interested in seeing it just like you were able to see the cat. Theology could be like that and in a lot of ways things that were done by the early fathers and the rules of the canons may add to doctrine which is piled very high to begin with. Im just realizing though that those tenets and rules are not to rule us but to give us a sound bases for doing Theology. Doctrine and scripture has to be protected from heresy and false doctrine. Im sure you know this. I just think its a good idea to have Thelogian scholars to help interpret things that are not inerpreted in scripture. We know that Jesus was not a spirit and that he was a man and God at the same time. Sceptics can change this so quickly and explain away a vital truth that has alot to do with our salvation. Even though the pile is high we have to see through what is really important and whats there, like the cat!

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      Your words make me think of theology as the scaffolding that allows us to explore what God is creating in and through us. Which reminds me, are you starting to build again?

      • Travis Biglow says:

        I really want to start building again trust me! May be next year it would be great. But more then anything i want to do well in school so keep me in your prayers. Football season is almost over, i am the regional chaplain for Azusa (and students need alot of prayer) and pastoring my church. I got a lot on my plate but i love it. As long as i dont get behind in school work. Always love your posts!

  5. Dave Young says:


    I appreciate your perspective, McGrath’s book awakens a desire to know more of the history of doctrine. It’s when we know that history that we can learn from it and make application for today. And no I did not find the cat either. Thanks, I always enjoy your posts. A bit rushed for time on a Men’s retreat this weekend.

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      Hope the Men’s Retreat went well for you and those who attended. I’ll be curious if it proved to “look” a bit different to you in light of our studies.

  6. Brian Yost says:

    Mary thanks for the graphic. I have to admit that after finding the cat, I actually spent more time looking for “valuables” in the pile. It is a treasure trove of scrap metal and many people would get rid of the cat to get to the metal.
    You present a great question, “what relevance does it have in my life?” As with the trash heap, we need to help people see the value hidden in the chaos, whether it is a cat or the money made from scrap metal. When someone understands the personal value and treasure to be found in theology, it no longer becomes something to roll the eyes at.

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      What a great perspective on looking for more than the cat – what other valuables are there in the heap? More treasures show up if we take the time to explore. Sounds like another part of the metaphor for how valuable theology can be by taking the time to sit with it for awhile.

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