As part of my D.Min. degree I read Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory Vol. 1: Prolegomena. It is a massive book of 650 pages and is only part one of a multi-volume set. It was hard work to understand, but it was worth it because it put language to many of the hunches, gut feelings, and sentiments that had been floating around inside me.
But it made me wonder about the wider influence of Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Church. Or, for that matter, any highly academic multi-volume series of theology. How much influence could these grand works have if the only people who had the space to read them had to be working toward an advanced degree? Most people who read theology—pastors and laity alike—read books that are short, accessible, and haven’t been translated from the German.
The answer came to me where all answers do: a particularly juicy Meryl Streep performance in The Devil Wears Prada.
I can imagine this same scene in a seminary (or church, college, or group of friends), but instead of Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep talking about clothing, Anne’s character makes the mistake of, after being forced to read some complex theological text saying, “What does all this stuff have to do with real life?”
Meryl Streep, playing the seasoned professor would say,
“This stuff? Oh, ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your bookstore and you select out, oh I don’t know, that latest book by your favorite blogger, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you’re so hip and original. But what you don’t know is that book isn’t original—it’s actually a repackaging of Aquinas. You’re also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002 Timothy M. Renick published Aquinas for Armchair Theologians. And then I think it was Denys Turner, wasn’t it, who wrote about Aquinas in 2014? And then Aquinas quickly showed up in the footnotes of eight different theologians. Then it filtered down through the churches and then trickled on down into some tragic blog post, where you, no doubt, fished it out of some comments section. However, that book represents thousands of hours of research and countless hours of debate. And so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the theological trends, when in fact, you’re reading a book that was selected for you by people in this room. From a pile of “stuff.”
My point is this: when you’re reading the latest book by Jen Hatmaker (as my wife is currently) or Rob Bell or Francis Chan or (fill in the blank) you may not see the fingerprints of people like Hans Urs von Balthasar…but don’t assume that you’re beyond their influence.