Locked Down Theology
by Ed Cyzewski
While speaking to a room full of prison inmates, I realized I had a big problem. I had just told them about my book Coffeehouse Theology, and they wanted to know about it. Some even wanted a copy. As I started to explain the basics of my book, I realized that a significant part of my book wasn’t going to help them. That is, unless they were interested in postmodern philosophy and able to connect to the internet.
While I could teach them a lot about studying the Bible, three chapters of my book diagnosed the cultural situation of present-day North American students of scripture, analyzing how postmodern philosophy colors our reading of scripture for better or worse. But, what did I have for these men?
Most of the guys in that room could probably do a lot more with a pack of cigarettes than my theology book.
I’d so immersed myself into the particulars of my beliefs that my grasp on their relevance to everyday life had weakened, especially for people who most needed God’s redemption. While my book attempted to create a well-rounded, practical approach to theology, I realized that I had lost my grip on the practical side of theology in the year following my book’s release. If I couldn’t help these men draw near to God with my theology, then was it helping anyone at all?
While discussing modern and postmodern philosophy can be illuminating within its limits, I needed to go back to the basic premise of Coffeehouse Theology—that all theology takes place in a context. Therefore I had to begin with where these men were: prison.
I’ve never been incarcerated, so I asked, “What is prison culture like?”
Everyone seemed to take a deep breath, and one guy spoke up, “Everyone’s looking out for himself. It’s you verses the guards and anyone else.” Some men nodded. No one wanted to add to that. They all knew that the prison ethos ran counter to Christianity.
As we continued our discussion that evening, the inmates talked about the adversity in prisons and the virtual war between the inmates and the guards. The playful jabs they shot at the guards who dropped by our church meetings for headcounts were just the tip of the iceberg. Vulnerability, peace-making, meekness, and mercy were the last qualities one would use to survive in prison. In fact, these would be seen as liabilities.
How could I help these men persevere and embody the love of Jesus in such a hostile environment? What good was my theology to them?
The best I could offer that night was a frank discussion about the expectations that arise from their context, and then study the scriptures with these limitations in mind. I could see in their eyes that something connected—they understood how far their circumstances were from an all-powerful Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples.
Who in his right mind would squander that kind of power?
Some were hungry and desperate. They knew they needed God’s power to help them overcome the crushing obstacles around them. Others remained tough and obstinate, unaware of any need for change. They would continue to seek God’s way and their own simultaneously. But then again, aren’t we all guilty of these disconnects at one time or another?
The intensity of prison ministry has put my theology to the test. Theology can help us ask good, hard questions that lead us to live as faithful disciples of Jesus who love God and love others. But we can lose sight of God’s life-changing love and power sometimes when we immerse ourselves in debates about the mechanics of salvation, the impact of philosophy on our beliefs, and speculation over controversial topics.
We don’t study God at arm’s length. He’s not a tame deity who stays put in His holy book. He’s soaring over the mountaintops, crashing in like waves, and burrowing deep into our hearts. Perhaps “studying God” isn’t the way to say it. Seeking to understand God is a life-changing pursuit.
I’m grateful that the inmates forced me to remember that theology is supposed to sustain us in a high-stakes, life and death struggle against sin and the forces evil and injustice. These men need to know how to love those who abuse them verbally and physically, while seeking restoration for their own crimes. Our own circumstances may appear tame in comparison, but we all have the same need. We need a God who can sustain us, redeem our broken parts, and use us to advance the work of his Kingdom.
Can our theology thrive when it’s locked down in the most hostile environments? May God make it so by his power and grace.
Ed Cyzewski is the author of Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life. He blogs on Christian living and theology at www.inamirrordimly.com.