Writing Methods in Theological Reflection
Heather Walton, London: SCM Press, 2014
Most readers of this journal will be book collectors. They are necessary tools of our trade as teachers, seekers after wisdom, researchers and writers. Having recently moved house the task of downsizing a library is certainly a demanding judgement. For example it was relatively easy to let go some of my cookery books. With very few exceptions most of these books were simply not useful. Some of the recipes looked attractive but were much more complicated to prepare and deliver in ever increasingly busy lives.
Apply this analogy to our theology library. Which of these books have abiding value? How many of the books organised on our shelves are of any practical use? There are some indications in the developing culture of the church that theology is not tool to be drawn on for the enlarging of our minds and the nurture of human flourishing.
Heather Walton is one of the most innovative of our practical theologians and this volume of collected pieces of writing comes out of her teaching in the University of Glasgow but especially influential (I think) as co-director of the Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts.
The book begins by acknowledging a wide range of influences (including especially the development of the multi-centred Doctorate in Practical Theology) and offers an excellent introduction on reflective theological writing. Four parts follow dealing with Autoethnography; Journalling; Life writing and finally Poetics, Theology and Practice. There are seventeen chapters which are completed with a bibliography and name and subject index.
It is Walton’s ability to craft words and organise theory which give this text a particular quality. The writing is engaged, earthed and seriously reflective as it grounds itself in the vulnerabilities and strengths of Walton’s own life (infertility, motherhood, politics, teaching and writing). In ecclesial communities whose focus seems to be ever self preoccupied and inward looking Walton demands that we consider the validity of religious discourse within an understanding of the complexities and ambiguities of faith. Above all she shows her reader how to integrate some of these uncertainties through creative writing. She both models and embodies a truthfulness which has an energy and life affirming vibrancy. If the church has a future it may be that the shape of a poetic which is incarnational, public and subversive may be part of a reshaping of an integrity and validity which might be prophetic and transformative.
This is a good book and deserves its place on a carefully selected bookshelf of key volumes in practical theology. In all texts relating to theological reflection there is a significant ‘so what?’ factor. Despite the development of the discipline over the past 10 years there remains some disconnect as far as putting theology into practice through an integrated approach to the interrelationships between life experience, reflection and theology. Without skilled presence and facilitation we may run into the danger of sending the discipline into an enforced early retirement. To return to my analogy theology runs the risk of remaining a tempting set of recipes which seem incapable of being ‘cook-able’ into nourishing meals.
Unrealistically therefore what might be needed is the empowering and releasing educational skill of Walton in the room to bring the book alive. Accompaniment and facilitation become key parts of the enabling of the practice of theological reflection. Walton offers us a guide but there is a great deal further work to be done to empower a wiser, creative, and integrated practical theology.