I have to admit that I enjoyed reading an optimistic book, even one whose optimism I don’t always share. In the closing pages of Coffeehouse Theology, Ed Cyzewski, a seminary graduate who apparently read all the same books I did while he was in seminary (I found myself guessing at the further-reading list as each chapter progressed and usually guessing right), issues the following two-statement manifesto about the study of theology: “Theology isn’t about constructing an arsenal of knowledge that we can use to shoot down the beliefs of our ‘opponents.’ Theology is about loving God and one another more perfectly” (214). Along the way to that hopeful rallying call, Cyzewski provides a nice introduction to missio dei as a framework for doing Christian theology and lays out a theology simultaneously conservative and willing to hear from those outside of traditional evangelical circles. In short, he has distilled the experience of attending a relatively traditional seminary for the Sunday school teacher, the youth minister, or the person in the pew to enjoy, and the ride is a smooth one.
Cyzewski’s project in Coffeehouse Theology is to render in readable terms what literary types (like me) call the hermeneutic circle: the assumptions that one brings to the text affect the way that one reads the particulars of a text, but then that text’s particulars stand to alter the assumptions that one carries away from the text. Cyzewski, though I don’t remember his using the word hermeneutics at all (he might have, but I don’t remember it), discusses this circle in terms of culture and conversion. Every reader brings the assumptions of the reader’s culture to, say, the letter to the Romans, Cyzewski argues, but the text of Romans does not (or ought not to) leave the reader unaltered but itself asserts a certain sort of world that the reader must embrace, reject, dismiss, or otherwise incorporate into what was there prior to the text. Along the way Cyzewski notes repeatedly that the Scriptures ultimately stand as uniquely inspired texts, that although listening to the voices of global and historical Christianity are crucial to a full understanding of these sacred books, the books themselves stand as authorities over church history and over global Christian thought. Since Cyzewski does not offer any extended discussion about how those relationships between texts, readers, and communities operate, I won’t speculate or attribute theories of such things to him.
The book, of course, has its strong runs and weak runs: especially helpful was Cyzewski’s discussions of the split between modernists and Fundamentalists in the nineteenth century (118-120) and the vocabularies that Christians bring to bear on questions of faith and understanding (122). His section on the nature of Christian faith (102) is not nearly as strong, but overall the book asks interesting questions about living in a late-capitalist world (I hesitate to call it “postmodern”) and does not attempt to answer those questions without the struggle that such things require.
Throughout the book Cyzewski does a good job of introducing these sorts of questions to a literate but non-specialized reader, and I would recommend the book heartily for small group Bible studies, Sunday school settings, and personal reading.
For the sake of disclosure (since I’m usually far more venomous than this), I did receive a copy of this book as part of the Ooze Viral Bloggers book review program, but the receipt of the book did not affect this review.