Books reviewed by James Woodward

What ought to be going on?

Practical Theology: An Introduction by Richard R OsmerPractical Theology: An Introduction, Richard R Osmer
Eerdmans, 2008 (ISBN 978-0-8028-1765-5) 246 pp

The Atlantic Ocean is vast. Although it connects significant groups of English speaking countries that share much in common it is easy to underestimate the sheets strangeness and differences that exist. The academics that share in the work of RRT bridge some of these differences but it is worth being reminded of what soil nurtures Christian theology in North America.

Despite facing some of the same challenges of decline and change as the UK, America remains a persistently strong Christian nation. The numbers of churches, ministries and lay people support an industry of theological study and writing. In particular, practical theology has a stronger coherence and firmer foundation of research than elsewhere. It supports theological education and the growth of professional qualifications for Christian ministry. Most seminaries have highly developed Doctor of Ministry programmes. There is a culture of life-long learning where lay people are often more theological articulate about both their discipleshipand their faith communities or congregations.

It is against these general comments that I commend this articulate, sensitive and intelligent book about theology, theological reflection and the theological leadership of congregational leaders.

Osler’s book, written from the Christian Education department of that centre of excellence, Princeton Theological Seminary, is an introduction to the field of practical theology aimed particularly at congregational leaders. In four long, but well recognized chapters Osmer develops a framework for practical theological interpretation by asking (and, in part, answering) four key questions: What is going on in a given context? Why is it going on? What ought to be going on? How might the leader shape the context to better embody Christian witness and mission.

The introduction opens up the reader to the four tasks of practical theology. Throughout the text Osmer makes good and appropriate use of experience and case studies. He asserts, ‘My goal to teach you a way of approaching situations… good ministry is never merely a matter of solving problems; it is a mystery to be ventured and explored.’ (page 3). The four tasks of practical theology are opened up in the subsequent chapters: the descriptive – empirical task (chapter 1): theinterpretativetask described as sagely wisdom, (chapter 2): the normative task – described as prophetic discernment (chapter 3) and the pragmatic task – described as servant leadership (chapter 4). The book offers an interesting epilogue through a discussion of some of the issues and challenges that face the teaching of practical theology in schools of theology. There are two brief indices of names and subjects.

A number of parts of this book deserve particular commendation: the outline of metatheoretical perspectives from contemporary social sciences (page 74-78); the discussion of the only UK pastoral theologian mentioned in the book, Elaine Graham (pages 154-60)  and the useful guide for students to research design (pages 47-78).

Osmer’s use of the Bible us clear and insightful as is his handling of the Christian tradition. The result is an importantcontribution to the discipline of practical theology that is useful in its application.

I doubt whether a British publisher would entertain the possibility of reprinting this book for a UK audience for reasons outlined above. However, there is much t learn from the quality and rigorof Osmer’s writing for practical theology in the UK. The commitment to the area of theologyoffers the possibility of a discipline that can be a force for intelligence in theological thinking – a call for all theology to be practical. If this aspiration has any opportunity of being realized then we certainly need a greater investment in theological education and in a leadership that is intelligent and open to the important scholarly vocation that Osmer manages to embody so creatively in this book.

James Woodward

Published in Religion and Theology Volume 17 - Issue 3 - July 2010 pp 410 -412