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

My Theory on This Theory

Written by: on October 29, 2014

In theory, being a student and teacher of Christian theology ought to be one of the most dynamic and exciting fields of study. However in the words of Alister McGrath in his text, Christian Theology: An Introduction, “In practice, both student and teacher often find the teaching of the subject to be difficult , and occasionally rather depressing. The student is discouraged by the vast amount of material it is necessary to grasp before ‘getting to the good stuff.’ … Teachers find the material difficult for two main reasons. First, they want to introduce an discuss advanced ideas, but find that students are simply unable to appreciate and understand these, due to a serious lack of background knowledge. Second, they find that they lack the time necessary to introduce students to the substantial amount of basic theological vocabulary and knowledge required.”[1]

As a student and a teacher of Christian theology, I could not agree more with both sides of this coin. As a student, I am so hungry to learn and grow in the conception, knowledge, and framework for which I hold the greatest thoughts in my life about the greatest questions in my life. I feel like I am on a high dive at the public pool on a gorgeous day that is sunny, hot, full of blue sky above and nothing but a blue pool of cool refreshing water below. The setting is so beautiful that it is calling me to launch myself high into the sky until I come to a slight stand still before the natural force of gravity pulls me down into the life-giving “theological” waters below that I enter with an all-consuming holy and enlightening splash.

Unfortunately, having left the high dive as gravity brings me to a halt at the apex of my springboard leap, I begin to look downward only to notice that what looked like a cool refreshing pool of life-giving water actually turns out to be more of a thick, life-sucking pond of quicksand.   As I come into sudden contact and become slightly submerged I begin to gap for air and suffocate as I wiggle and trash about realizing, this is not what I thought I was diving into.

Similarly, as a teacher, the metaphor that comes to mind is seeing myself as an aspiring Olympic soccer coach desiring to work with the elite talent of the world to help them hone in their life-purposed craft of European football. The investment in these lives would be incredible as the greatest concepts of the game are fleshed out through skillful nuances of a group of individuals melting away into one team of synchronized order and solidarity. Achievements of heights not ever reached before would become accomplished because of the inspiration, tutelage, and wisdom that is artistically dispersed across to the team.

Again unfortunately, as I step boldly into the locker room of life to meet the team, I only find a squad of misfit six-year olds who appear to be soccer’s equivalent of the Bad News Bears. After initial dialogue with the team I realize they have as much of a particular interest in soccer as about one hundred apps on their iPods and whose grand total of a team-timed-attention-span is that of a single gnat.

Somehow there is a significant disconnect between the dynamic and exciting experience that it looks like studying theology can be as opposed to the actual experience. While I would agree, McGrath makes a best effort to write and structure the content into the historical perspective, sources and methods, and finally the doctrines, which he claims to have intentionally designed to engage the interest and help elevate some of the disconnect, I was surprised at how quickly it became difficult to stay engaged. I jumped around from section to section. I read reviews (which questioned McGrath’s layout quite a bit) to find better angles from which to approach my reading. But I really could not engage in this text for more than short windows of time and attention.

So ultimately my theory on this theory is this:

  • This book is not designed to be read in a week, nor is theology to be studied as a microwave meal.
  • This book is not designed to be read in a week that you have another major project due in your seminary class, nor is theology to be a small side distraction in your life.
  • One should not base their whole opinion of this book on a week that they tried to read it while having a major project do in one’s seminary class, nor should one base one’s whole view of studying theology on a short, distracted period of time in which one attempts to learn it all.
  • And lastly, since one doesn’t actually have to read books in order to write about them, just learn something about the book that can be taken from the book and realize, as McGrath himself put it, “To study theology is to set out on a voyage of discovery that is at times enriching, at times challenging, but always profoundly interesting.”[2] … and call it good!

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: an Introduction, 5th ed. (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 1.

[2] Ibid., p. xxii.

About the Author

Phillip Struckmeyer

10 responses to “My Theory on This Theory”

  1. Jon Spellman says:

    Phil, you analogies bring to mind what i experienced upon returning home from our first Advance. I was riding the high of having been in an environment where everyone understood all of the words that I was saying, or at least they did a good job of pretending that they did. Then after just a couple days of re-entry I realize that I had to return to my long-ago learned practice of pre-screening all my significant words so that I can make sure the listener understands me. It’s exhausting at times but vital to the overall development and discipleship of people that I have in my world… I want to swim in the deep end, dive from the high-dive, but not many people want to join me there.


  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Jon, I had not thought of the re-entry from Cape Town in a while but I know exactly what you are talking about. I almost feel like our chats and posts are done in a closet or a wardrobe where no one in my real world know I go to play. That is so funny and possibly scary or maybe sad:). There is definitely something to the culture we live in that affects our ability to engage in becoming who we are called to be. Do yo feel that? Like if we were all on a campus for three years together surrounded by “like-minded one anothers” we would come out of the experience very differently than this long distance, stay in our own world while we try to become something more or different thought this journey. I think I can pretty quickly see some pros and cons to both ways of study. What do you think?

    • Jon Spellman says:

      I think that’s a good analogy. Another would be the “secret meatball sandwich” enjoyed by Eddie on the sitcom “’til death.” But at the same time, there is a rawness to the contrast that I think is important. If we holed up in the ivory tower of the academy for three years and re-emerged, like Gandolf (no longer “The Grey”) we would be ill-equipped to find real-world connect points for our theology.

      But I agree it makes the pure academic pursuit more difficult at times.

  3. Nick Martineau says:

    Thanks Phil…it’s one thing to go off to college, graduate, and enter the “real world.” But it doesn’t seem right to now leave our community to study together (as fun as that would be.) It seems to me the challenge we should all strive to step up to is taking our cohorts conversations and learning and share. I’ve always thought some of the smartest people I know have the ability to share deep truths but with simple language. Surely it’s possible to do the same with theology?

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Nick, hear hear! That’s difference between a PhD and a DMin. Most PhDs don’t really care if you comprehend a word they say or not. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is the goal in that world. (NO OFFENSE JASE IF YOU’RE EAVESDROPPING!)

  4. Travis Biglow says:

    Its all good Phill,

    I can understand how you feel about the sometimes lengthy things that McGrath’s book has in it. I agree that it is not to be just read in a week to just do an assignment. We forget stuff so fast anyway so just trying to digest such an exhaustive and doctrinal work probabley would not last two minutes any way. Taking away the things that are good to you is probably the best thing and the only thing you might remember. I really did not like theology at Azusa Pacific University. I felt it was too Philosophical and had very little revelation to it. Theology was my favorite subject at one time until i became disgusted with it because sometimes it did not seem like it was important when we face reality. But looking at the early church fathers and their need to guard Biblical truth and they suffered for it, makes me take another look at it. Without the work of the early church fathers the word of God as we know it would never have reached us in its pureness as it has. I believe that God is in everything. So although the quicksand sucks you in, just look for a rope in it that can pull you out if you start going under! lol Blessing Phill

  5. Dave Young says:


    Yes there is a difference between what we perceive going in and the reality of the experience. I’m encouraged that we’re making our best effort. Plus McGrath’s book has got a great index!

    Phil, I just wanted to add that I really enjoy the dialogue between you and Jon, and I appreciate the image of going off to play in the wardrobe – into Narnia. Right now I feel so pulled by both worlds that I’m wondering if I’m any good in either. I want to pour myself into my studies but every-time I do that it feels like its at the expense of my church family or my wife and daughters. I guess the trick is integrating Narnia into my real world and it not being and escape. That said from a person who is stealing away time at a mens retreat, 10 hours away from his family to enter Narnia.

  6. Brian Yost says:

    Phil, nice analogy of the high dive. My experience is that even when there is clear water, it can still be a disaster. No matter how many times I watch an expert make it look easy, I still do a painful bellyflop. Perhaps we need to approach theology at a more basic level before advancing to the high dive and pay attention to what we are jumping into.

  7. Mary Pandiani says:

    I’m reminded of Peterson’s book “Subversive Spirituality” when I read what you’ve written, Phil. How do we engage people with something that is as exciting as that high on the high dive yet soon thereafter feels like murky quick sand? It seems that the simplicity offered by Nick’s reply and the use of your stories (which are always engaging) are parts of that subversive approach where people don’t know what hit them until after it happens. I recall how many times Jesus explained things again and again and again which must have been so frustrating. Fortunately, he didn’t know what a microwave was (or did he? – now that’s a theological conversation) so perhaps he had more patience than we have. Then he was/is God, one substance of three in one…oh oh, here we go again, talking theology.

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