The Accidental Theologian

I’m stepping far outside my theological pay grade today so you will need to test and weigh the words of this post.

After forty years of knowing Jesus, I find myself challenging my assumptions about many things on a regular basis, attempting to see myself as God sees me. What attitudes do I have that should change? What comfortable positions do I have that are more self-deception than God’s truth?

It can be a little unsettling, but after all, God is not a tame lion.

Every person is a theologian. Some have formal training in the field, some are self-taught and others simply develop a personalized theological stance to make themselves feel better by explaining the world on their own terms.

Even atheists are theologians. They look around and see nothing supernatural. Their god is random chance and meaningless existence, but it is a theology, and they believe and worship it deeply.

My intention today is to carefully and gently (I hope) point out how Christian publishing people can accidentally fall into some theological traps in the way they approach their work and interact with others.

And maybe I am preaching to myself as well.

What brought this to mind was cable TV programming. I like watching the various programs where older homes are rehabbed. The work is really quite amazing and exhibits the talent and vision of some highly skilled people. Some of them are Christians and the rehabbed houses could be a metaphor for the redemption of a life in Christ. But accidental theology pervades those shows.

True contentment, happiness and joy come from having a really nice house.

Writers of Christian books carry a heavy burden. Not only do they need to write a creative story, a well-written narrative, or something that communicates well to people they have never met, they need to be sure what they write is consistent with God’s truth. And not all Biblical truth is fun, inspirational or exciting.

For instance, an author writes a novel that includes a character needing God in their life. They clean up their act, stops doing bad stuff, go to church and are saved, living happily ever after.

The accidental theology – Salvation is a result of our actions, not God’s grace    and happiness and joy are a function of circumstances.

 Most accidental theology is just that…an accident. Entirely unintentional. An author creates a wonderful sequence of scenes in a novel, but stepping back from it, the story might communicate that a person is saved if the good out-weighs the bad or that certain sinful behavior is okay as long as the character is likeable.

This is why every author needs a “theological editor” who can see those things that are unintended…the accidental theology.

But theological accidents occur in the way we conduct ourselves as well.

You have probably heard publishers and agents do not like being told “God told me” or “God gave me” type of statements from authors.  While the intent is to eliminate the appearance of being manipulative, we need to be careful we don’t ignore the hand of God in the process either, otherwise…

The accidental theology – That God doesn’t inspire and gift people to write.

Authors can fall prey to a related trap.

You believe God wants you to write and be published. You are rejected along the way by agents and publishers. You are really angry at the whole system of gatekeepers.

The accidental theology – God is not in control. Mere mortals can stifle God’s     sovereign will. God is a small, powerless god and I need to take control.

That opinion might never be spoken out loud, but frustration and anger testifies to the belief.

Or, your book is published, but doesn’t sell particularly well, in your opinion, due entirely to the publisher dropping the ball at various points in the process.

The accidental theology – God needed your book and now there are people not helped or not going to heaven because of a poor book promotional plan.

Really?

Authors, agents and publishers can lose their temper and verbally destroy someone. They are in a battle for the hearts and minds of unbelievers and the target of your anger got in the way of that mission.

The accidental theology – Without me, God is powerless to change the world.

Good or bad, we all communicate our theology of God and life every day by the way we work, interact with others and how we write. I’ve been pondering what sort of theology I am “preaching”. It has been a little unsettling.

Probably a good thing to check my compass once in a while.

Like every day.

35 Responses to The Accidental Theologian

  1. Jackie Layton June 23, 2015 at 4:04 am #

    Hi Dan,

    I live in Wilmore, KY. Asbury Theological Seminary is located in our little town, and I know many students and professors. It is a humbling, and awesome, experience to rub shoulders, and be friends, with many of these people. They sacrifice to come here and spend years preparing to proclaim the Good News.

    I’ve never considered ‘accidental theology’ before. I know Who I believe, and I know the spiritual thread in the stories I write, but I never considered a misleading theology. Thanks for cautioning us to watch for this as we write.

    • Tim Burns June 23, 2015 at 4:43 am #

      Excellent post Dan. When we write or publish, we are partners and stewards w God. He doesn’t “need” us, He chooses to work through his creative gifts. And if we do the work poorly, we’ll… It says more about our stewardship than God’s purpose.

  2. Jessica Neson June 23, 2015 at 4:12 am #

    What an interesting post! Very true.

  3. Kathy N. June 23, 2015 at 4:27 am #

    Yikes! Now I have another step to add to my revision process. While I’m looking for pet words and passive sentences, I’m also going to be checking for accidental theology.

    Thank you for this excellent challenge in all areas of life.

  4. Peter June 23, 2015 at 4:47 am #

    Paul had his share of AI’s – a number of examples come to mind. Its one of those things. People will always interpret subjectively. By the way Peter was hopelessy unqualified by human standards yet his writing are so eloquent and deep that theologians still ponder his thoughts.

  5. Peter June 23, 2015 at 5:04 am #

    Actually I think bible is incredibly serendipitous. I have found different meaning in similar verses all my life. Rabbinical theology sees 4 layers, from superficial to mystical, all of which appeal to different audiences.

  6. Dina Sleiman June 23, 2015 at 5:37 am #

    Wow! Awesome post and definitely something to keep in mind.

  7. Sharon Hinck June 23, 2015 at 5:43 am #

    Brilliant! Thank you. I needed this reminder to confront poor theology that slip into stories, but also into my daily thought life.

  8. Judith Robl June 23, 2015 at 6:09 am #

    Dan,

    Thank you for a new yard stick by which to measure our writing. I’m printing it for my “kick-in-the-kiester” notebook. It’s a keeper!

  9. Heidi Gaul June 23, 2015 at 6:14 am #

    When I first started writing, I believed wholeheartedly our God had called me to that purpose. Time went by as I waited on His perfect timing for my work to be published for all to see. Smaller pieces were printed, and I signed on with a sensitive intelligent agent, but still no book contract. Now during times of self-indulgent pity, I sometimes question if He did indeed call me. It’s hard to remember that everything that ever happens is according to His will and His purpose, when it seems so far off track of what I want.
    The industry is suffering. It’s possible my books may never be published and that I am writing for an audience of One. It’s possible that He gave me writing as a gift to calm my soul and bring me closer to Him. Through this process I am discovering the freedom of waiting on Him and relearning trust daily.
    Thank you, Dan, so much for yet another thought-provoking essay!

    • Dee Kincade June 23, 2015 at 9:12 am #

      Heidi, I think you said it very well. We don’t know what God has planned, even for our writing. It may be a book for one, as you said, or possibly for someone in our writers’ group, or a beta reader, or a friend. We never know, we just do what He wants.
      Thanks

      • Jenelle. M June 23, 2015 at 9:37 am #

        Dee, I agree.

        Last weekend I was emailing with a wise man about writing and publishing and our duty to be obedient come what may about the outcome. This quote from him sums it up well.

        …”we were called to be “faithful”, not necessarily successful. If you make faithfulness your goal, that will bring true success — some may recognize it down here, but they may not. But if you chase after success; most likely you will end up sacrificing something far greater in effort to achieve something that will be fleeting at best.”

        Personally, I just show up daily and take it all one step at a time.

  10. Carol Ashby June 23, 2015 at 7:43 am #

    Another great post to remind me that I need to think about my message at multiple levels. Accidental theology is a great term for a perennial problem. Any time I start to get complacent about what I believe, it can start to creep in.

    What truly forces me to think about God and the differences between Who He really is and what I believe and say about Him? Trying to share with someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. It goes without saying they don’t believe in the Bible. Even though the Bible is the absolute revealed word of God, quoting chapter and verse to prove a point does nothing except elicit a yawn from a person who thinks it’s just a bunch of redacted writings by mere humans too ignorant to know what we know today or, worse, by a bunch of chauvinists who wanted to control their society using fear of a deity. I know everything I say and do is being watched (no, I’m not paranoid, but then does a paranoid person ever think they are?) and might be read as a message about my God. We all know the too-true saying about us being the only Bible many people will ever read. I want to be a faithful representation.

    How to find the right words? I remind myself of Jesus’s promise that the Holy Spirit will teach us what to say when we stand before opposition. We always need to ask Him to direct us. Does that mean God really does do what we are forbidden to say to agents and publishers? Yes, God really does direct nd even write the best parts of our work when we let Him. It was never my intention to write fiction until God told me to, but you’ll never see me put that in a query letter.

    And when I forget to ask the Holy Spirit to guide me first? How many have joined me in the desperate prayer, “God! Please fix it so what I just said does no harm?”

  11. JeanneTakenaka June 23, 2015 at 8:14 am #

    Wow, what a thought provoking post, Dan. Accidental theology isn’t something I’ve considered before. I guess our lives and our words (spoken and written) speak of the theology we–I—believe and live out. People read the books of our lives and learn what we truly believe by how we live. Convicting, challenging. Needed.

  12. Dee Kincade June 23, 2015 at 9:20 am #

    Dan, excellent post. I never thought of it that way, but it makes sense. I’ve read many books where the main character accepts Christ and lives happily ever after. A fairy tale ending. I want to go back through my manuscripts and make certain I don’t have any Accidental theology lurking somewhere.
    Thanks again.

  13. Jenelle. M June 23, 2015 at 11:01 am #

    Dan, thanks for being vulnerable with us today. Not sure if it was difficult to be honest, but it’s comforting to know I’m not alone with certain struggles. Trusted community. It’s quite a powerful source of support.

  14. Sandy Faye Mauck June 23, 2015 at 12:05 pm #

    Interesting post. I wrote the book. When I started praying about how God might use it in people’s lives, I started seeing a multitude of ministry. This was what I wanted but I did it from the heart not purposed. What is in our heart will inevitably come through; what we believe, what we hope, what we love—even hate will come through story. So I guess we just need to keep our hearts right with Him and all will come out His way.

  15. Kenneth Kinghorn June 23, 2015 at 12:42 pm #

    Thanks, Dan, for your thoughtful (and profound) comments about theology and theologians. You are certainly on target. Well written!
    Pax Christi,
    Ken Kinghorn. Ph.D.
    Professor of Church History
    Asbury Theological Seminary

    • Dan Balow June 23, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

      Some of my best friends are theologians so I have a healthy respect for them!

      Thanks for not laughing….

  16. Lon Allison June 23, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

    “Accidental theologies”. Very good Dan. Like an illness, we pick them up without knowing. And, like illness, they hurt.

  17. Lisa Taylor June 23, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

    Nice. Good challenge.
    If the agent thing doesn’t work out for you… you could be the founder of a whole new movement — accidental theology detectives 😉

    • Dan Balow June 23, 2015 at 2:50 pm #

      First, I am not that smart. Second, that sounds like a job where I would spend a lot of my time delivering bad news to people.

      Wait, I already have that job.

  18. Beverly Brooks June 23, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

    Accidents do happen. Recoveries are possible.

    Corrected course to avoid future accidents:
    Word of God created theology fueling a humble heart writing.
    Trust God with the results – they are His anyway.

    Practical thoughts for writers are always welcome – thanks Dan!

  19. Marlene Anderson June 23, 2015 at 3:59 pm #

    Excellent post. And it reminds us to remain in the Word every day.

  20. Bill Hendricks June 23, 2015 at 4:14 pm #

    I always remind people who ask me to give them some input about writing a book: it is altogether possible that God wants you to write the book but not necessarily to publish the book. Writing and publishing are two different things. So make peace with that, and do whatever God calls you to do (or not do).

    Here’s another accidental theology: You write a book, it gets published, it flies off the shelf, and you make some pretty good money. The accidental theology – At last I have evidence that I’m a pretty good person and God must really be pleased with me.

    • Dan Balow June 23, 2015 at 4:16 pm #

      Very good point Bill. Life is filled with accidents!

  21. Barbara M. Britton June 23, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    What a thought provoking post, Dan. Now I have a new lens in which to look at Christian literature.
    As a writer who signed her first contract in March after eight years of trying to sell a novel, I claim Ecclesiastes 3:1 as my mantra. I would not be published one day later or one day earlier than God ordained. And if I didn’t get published? I knew I would keep writing because it is so much fun and God has been faithful to keep giving me stories to type.

  22. Rachel Newman June 28, 2015 at 12:43 pm #

    Dan,

    I get your updates by e-mail, and I’m finally getting some time to go through my e-mails. So I realize I’m a little late in the game, but I just wanted to add my thanks for this great post.

    Stories are one of the best ways to convey an idea. You can see, especially this week, how our culture has been reached by the messages in our favorite movies and TV shows.

    Jesus used stories frequently to convey the truth to the culture of His time. The role of an author is powerful. What is in your heart will come out in what you write (Luke 6:45).

    As an editor, I have been able to minister to authors through my doctrinal analyses. It is rewarding to work with authors to identify the messages that are being conveyed in their stories and how those compare to who God is. We need more stories that will help our culture understand that sin is dark beyond what we have known but God’s love and grace are infinitely greater.

    Thank you again for this post and for provoking us to deeper relationships with the One who loves us!

  23. Linda Riggs Mayfield June 28, 2015 at 8:53 pm #

    Dan,
    If we write and publish accidental theology, we must then be accidental theologians. Isn’t that a really scary thought? Putting it out there might be somewhat easily dismissed and excused due to ignorance and lack of malice. Or realizing we’ve been guilty of it might be just a prompt to do better next time. But what if putting our un-examined, unintentional, accidental theology before readers who may absorb it without critically examining it or even realizing it, makes us not only accidental, but false theologians? James’s warnings in Chapter 3 about the greater strictness with which teachers will be judged comes to mind–and isn’t there some teaching intended in most of our writing? Thank you for the timely reminder!

  24. tom yarbrough June 29, 2015 at 2:00 pm #

    Ok Dan, I get your point. But remember, there are no accidents with God since its all happened before.

    Keep on discovering the pilgrimage and your good work.

  25. dorothy de kok July 24, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

    I have only just stumbled into this room and already I love it here.
    This is my non-accidental theology about my divinely-inspired writing:
    As much as I want to be published blah blah. I, even more so, want to write for eternity. So I am practising my craft on earth in preparation for the gazillion years that I will spend writing. You can’t tell me there are no books in heaven besides the Big Book.
    So, at some point, my writing is gonna get good. So I may as well start NOW and enjoy it NOW.
    Imagine, we are really going to have enough time to read all those books we can’t squeeze in now. And there will need to be writers because we will soon be running out of pages to turn.
    Be seeing you around. Love your posts!

  26. Rebekah Love Dorris July 12, 2016 at 6:22 am #

    This is great exhortation. Novels have such a potential for good or evil; I can only imagine the burden publishers must carry.

    I especially liked what you said about agents decrying the “God told me to write this” line. I completely understand now, but when I first heard people mocking those who said it, I was confused. Did agents really believe God doesn’t tell people to write?

    So many great examples of accidental theology. How we need Jesus’ grace to cover our human gaffes!

    God bless 🙂

  27. tom yarbrough July 12, 2016 at 8:13 am #

    Hey Dan: I can see a book in “accidental theology” for you. And as you know, there are no accidents with God. Thanks for your brain.

    tomyarbrough.net

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