Deep and Wide and Webbed Theology

I’ve taken a similar trajectory with most of the writers and speakers who have been most influential in my life:

Phase 1 – Introduction & Interest

I heard someone speak and felt a certain connection to what they were saying, or I heard about their life and work and was intrigued, or I read something they had written and was moved or challenged.

I will always remember the first time I heard Rob Bell speak.

I’ll always remember the first time I read a John Wesley sermon and got a glimpse of what he was trying to say. (For what it’s worth, that came years after the first time I read a Wesley sermon. Sometimes it takes a few times for an introduction to take.)

godinI remember an early phase when I was introduced to Seth Godin and started compulsively e-mailing his posts to people.

In that introduction phase, there’s a connection and an intrigue. There may be points of disagreement, but the way the person has framed their argument, I at least want to know more. How is (s)he arriving at such a different conclusion than I am?

Some of those I’ve been introduced to give me the sense that they’re thinking what I’m thinking and seeing what I’m seeing – even in places where it seems hardly anyone else is. It’s like someone is finally telling me, “You’re not alone…”

Others give me the sense that they’re way ahead of me. They’re introducing me to things I’ve never considered, but now I want to consider those things. Or they’re living in a way that seems like they’ve figured something out — or committed to something — that I still don’t have worked out.

Phase 2 – Discussions and Arguments and Growth

I begin with some level of intrigue, but I know I don’t fully get these people yet. Could anyone fully “get” you in just your first introduction? Of course not!

So I begin a process of dialogue with these people.

Perhaps that’s an odd way to frame it. I can count my actual conversations with Rob Bell on one hand, my actual conversations with John Wesley on less. But I still think of what happens as a dialogue. Perhaps more of an interview — because this isn’t asking these people to understand me. It’s me trying to understand them, with all my questions and arguments along the way.

So I see John Wesley say, “he that is, by faith, born of God sinneth not […] by any wilful sin.” And I chafe at it. “Surely you don’t mean that, Wesley,” or, “Well that sure isn’t my experience,” I argue. So I go to some of his other sermons: “On Sin in Believers,” and “The Repentance of Believers,” and “The Great Privilege of Those that Are Born of God,” and “The End of Christ’s Coming” (to name a few).

And the more I argue with Wesley, the more I realize that he really does mean it. The more I argue, the more my disagreement and fear and dislike of what he is trying to teach me becomes an agreement and an assurance and a love for exactly what he is saying.

And so, in this second phase, I begin to grow as I understand what these people are really saying. Throughout this phase, a big part of what I’m doing is learning these people’s language – their grammar. At the beginning of the phase, I was interested in them, but the best I could do was tell someone else to go read/listen to them. I didn’t yet have their language. But through this process, I start to progress to a new phase…

Phase 3 – Speaking for them

Okay, I can never really speak for any of these people. But after a while, I feel like I’ve gotten to the point that I can say things like, “Well, you know what Robert Webber would say about that…”

[Webber has also been an enormous influence on me. This interview spurred me to start this blog and originally title it “Enterprise to Movement.” At some point I’ll write about that.]

I can do that because I’ve been in enough discussion and argument with Webber that I think I finally “get” him. I get what he’s saying, how he’s saying it, and why he’s saying it. Surely not perfectly, but pretty well… [1]

Phase 4 – Extending, Refuting, or Applying what they’ve said

It’s only once I understand these people well enough to speak for them that I can begin honestly and confidently doing more with it.

I can work on communication/marketing and begin to imagine how Seth Godin would handle my situation. And since he has never been in my exact situation, I can extend what he has suggested and have a sense for whether I’m doing it in the spirit of what he’s after or whether I’m going against what he advocates. I might decide my context proves him wrong, and I need to do something different. (That would be a decision not made lightly.) I might decide what I want to do doesn’t fit with Seth’s philosophy and, well, he’s right, I’m going to screw it up if I don’t stop and listen to him.

The Overlapping Circles of What We Say and Exciting New Possibilities

A friend called me today and said, “So I think I get what you’re talking about with all of this discipleship stuff…” He had actually read something by someone else that made it all click. [2] It was an exciting moment for me. “Yes! That’s exactly what I’m getting at!” And then he started making a number of other connections. Ones I hadn’t made yet and are some exciting new possibilities.

overlapping circles blueSo if you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed I keep coming back to some of the same ideas. But there’s a reason for it. That’s how most of our ideas work if we’re really going to move somewhere. We take something and pull a bit in one direction. Then we take that same idea and pull in a bit of a different direction. And it takes us (or me, at least) several times of seeing it pulled into a few different situations before we start to really understand. Once we start to understand, we can start pulling in more directions of our own.

I think today’s communication technology is allowing us to do this better than we ever have before. Those overlapping circles don’t create a linear pattern. We can identify lots of overlapping points, but there’s no single clear starting point, and there’s certainly not a single, clear progression to take.

That’s why I keep finding myself writing things like, “That’s what I was trying to get at in [insert link to some other post].” In fact, there are some especially sensitive topics that I keep beginning to write about and stopping, because I realize I’m getting too far out on the edge of a circle. I have too many other pieces that are closer to the center that I need to have in place so I can reference back to them before I push further.

It’s all pretty exciting because I think we can present theology now in a way that’s more fitting than the linear fashions our previous communication media allowed. I dream of a “webbed” theology that has all sorts of internal links. There is no single entry point. We’re all theologians, but our stimuli for doing theology are all different.

A webbed theology might have someone starting with questions of ethics and another with questions of metaphysics. Which comes first? That’s really hard to say. [3] There may be some most-common overlapping points, and points that would be considered non-negotiable (e.g. Trinitarian belief), but the progression out from them is by no means linear.

Because of this, we need to be careful not to pass judgment on a theological claim too quickly until we see all the other connections that claim is touching. Similarly, if we see a claim we really like, but we realize it’s connected to a number of other things that seem off, we might need to question the claim we really like (see my post on Christians, Capitalism and Ayn Rand for an example).

Why do I write all this?

First, I think it shows some of the benefit to going really deep. If you constantly survey – take a little bit of what everyone says – you miss the growth that comes from really getting to understand someone/something.

Second, I hope it will at the same time encourage you to go a bit wider. We usually pit deep and wide against each other. When we do, we usually prefer depth. That’s why there are derisive sayings like, “miles wide and inches deep,” and “jack of all trades, master of none.” But sometimes going a little wider will help us go deeper. Those circles that hit on new areas also make us have to think more clearly about the old, overlapping pieces.

Third, I think it shows a bit of what I’m up to myself – hoping to keep laying circles on top of circles, each one expanding just a bit in a certain direction, but also intentionally saying some of the same things over again. You may not ever agree with my perspectives on the church and money, but if you hang with me, I think you’ll at least start to understand a bit more deeply where they’re coming from.


1. And to be sure, I call my friend Jonathan, who gets Webber perfectly.
2. That’s how it works for me sometimes, too. Someone else finally says something that makes it all come together. So I think having read Lindbeck and Murphy and Smith [affiliate links] has helped me understand what Rob Bell is doing a bit more clearly, even though I don’t know if Bell has ever read Lindbeck or Murphy or Smith.
3. Unless you’re a metaphysicist.

4 thoughts on “Deep and Wide and Webbed Theology

  1. Is this why I have begun a blog of my own? It does seem to help me focus on a topic or idea that probably sprang from a life experience. Four family or close friend deaths in less than a year make for deeper understanding, or at least deeper probing. I also have authors I consider significant influences on my theology and life in Christ. I’m moving from phase 2 to phase 3 in my relationship with Wesley. Others include Michael Card and C. Peter Wagner; Eugene Peterson is on the rise. I’m widening the circle of blogs that I follow, but yours is closest to where I’m at right now. Thank you for an articulate encouragement to go deep AND wide.

    1. Hi Deborah,

      There’s no doubt that writing helps that focus. I’ve had a number of topics I thought were clear in my head until I started trying to write (or other times speak) them. I’m not very familiar with Wagner, only a bit with Card, but Peterson’s pastoral theology is brilliant.

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