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Fieldwork in Theology

Exploring the Social Context of God's Work in the World

series: Church and Postmodern Culture, The

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In this addition to the acclaimed The Church and Postmodern Culture series, leading practical theologian Christian Scharen explicates the relationship between theology and its social context. He engages with social theorist Pierre Bourdieu to offer helpful theoretical and theological grounding to those who want to reflect critically on the faith and practice of the church. Church vitality requires looking outward to inquire how God is at work loving the world and acting for its good amid real burdens and brokenness, says Scharen; in Fieldwork in Theology, he integrates theology and ethnography to articulate a vision for the church's involvement with what God is doing in the world. The book provides concrete examples of churches living out God's mission to help a wide array of readers understand the social context of doing theology.

Fieldwork in Theology will benefit professors and students in philosophy, theology, and ministry courses, particularly those undertaking ministry internships or fieldwork assignments. Students and faculty who want to integrate theology and ethnography will also find it of interest. Brief and engaging chapters work well for the classroom and substantial footnotes and bibliography provide ways to explore the issues more deeply.

About the Series
The Church and Postmodern Culture series features high-profile theorists in continental philosophy and contemporary theology writing for a broad, nonspecialist audience interested in the impact of postmodern theory on the faith and practice of the church.

Series Editor's Foreword James K.A. Smith
1. Fieldwork in Theology: Waking Up to the World God Loves
2. Rigorous Self-Reflection: Bachelard, Science, and Sin
3. Embodied Perception: Merleau-Ponty and the Incarnate Body
4. Practical Logic: Bourdieu and the Social Art of Improvisation
5. Surrendering to the Other: Wacquant and Carnal Sociology
Epilogue: Understanding as a Spiritual Exercise


"If you are interested in learning to read 'the world' and discern how God is at work in it, this simple book by one of today's finest practical theologians is an excellent place to start. Together with Pierre Bourdieu, whose work he tries to make fruitful for theological ethnography, Scharen argues that reading the world well requires 'conversion of the way we look at other people in the ordinary circumstances of life.'"

Miroslav Volf, director, Yale Center for Faith and Culture, Yale Divinity School; author of A Public Faith

"Fieldwork in Theology is remarkable in originality and scope. It combines a sophisticated parsing of social science theory with deep theological reflection to produce something that transcends both. Christian Scharen delivers an impassioned call for a carnal theology that seeks a disciplined understanding of the social world. Fieldwork in Theology deserves to be read by all who would seek to ground theology in the complexity of lived context."

Omar M. McRoberts, associate professor of sociology, University of Chicago; author of Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood

"In Fieldwork in Theology Christian Scharen marks a turning point in practical theology by arguing for the central place of qualitative empirical research in the study of the Christian church via a detailed engagement with continental philosophy. This book is an essential read for all of those embarking on ethnographic research in theology."

Pete Ward, professorial fellow in ecclesiology and ethnography, Durham University; author of Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography

"Christian Scharen's book helps us see how postmodern culture stretches from the Sorbonne to the urban ghettos of the West and across the majority world. This book is not only for practical theologians, Christian anthropologists, and missiologists but also for all working in the guild of theological studies who realize that reconstructing Christian meaning today is impossible without somehow going fully 'native' in the many concrete contexts of our contemporary global village. Beyond understanding 'the field,' our continental philosophical interlocutors may even activate theologically informed practices that make a redemptive difference in the present time."

Amos Yong, director, Center for Missiological Research, Fuller Theological Seminary

"Scharen's book does the seemingly impossible--combine a presentation of Pierre Bourdieu's work with an introduction to ethnography from a theological perspective. Doing one of these would have been achievement; doing both well while having each feed the other is a double gift. It is sure to be a touchstone for theological ethnography for some time to come."

Todd Whitmore, associate professor, Department of Theology, concurrent associate professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame

"Contemporary theological work inevitably involves assumptions about the world and the people in it. We cannot avoid importing our understandings of human beings into our theology. Yet many theologians conveniently ignore this fact and rely on speculation and anecdote to accomplish their work. Fortunately, scholars like Christian Scharen acknowledge the crucial importance of adequately grasping the social world. By treating disciplined observation as a spiritual exercise, Fieldwork in Theology forces us to see immersion in the world not as a secular academic assignment but as a profound responsibility to discern the movement of God in our midst."

Gerardo Martí, L. Richardson King Associate Professor of Sociology, Davidson College; author of The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity

"Christian Scharen has produced a truly interdisciplinary book that models a theology rooted in the social realities of life. Combining empirical case studies and a careful, reflective approach to social theory, Scharen addresses a range of topics at the heart of both the theological enterprise and the broader human drive for meaning. A valuable contribution to ongoing debates about how theology and social science may enrich one another."

Mathew Guest, reader in the sociology of religion, Durham University

Praise for the Series:

"[This] series is not just a good idea; it is actually essential. If mission, liturgy, and pastoral care are to be effective today, then churches need a better understanding of so-called postmodern culture as something to be reckoned with and sometimes resisted. Increasingly, there is an educated interest in religion, but there is also a need to be well-informed about postmodern thought and its very complex relation both to postmodern culture (to which it is often actually hostile) and to religion. Again the need is for a critical appreciation--not dismissal and not empty adulation. This series aims to provide this in an accessible manner. I am convinced that the main ideas of postmodernism are actually not as 'difficult' as people suppose and that a clear and simple presentation of them actually assists wider cultural discussion. An additional purpose of the series is to introduce to a wider audience theologies that are already trying critically to assimilate the postmodern turn. Since some of these are intensely focused on the importance of 'church,' it is crucial that this occur. Although it is already happening, it needs to crystallize. This series may be just the thing to bring it about."

John Milbank, University of Nottingham

The Author

  1. Christian Scharen

    Christian Scharen

    Christian Scharen (PhD, Emory University) is vice president of applied research at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. He previously taught at Luther Seminary. He has authored a number of books, including One Step Closer and Faith as a Way...

    Continue reading about Christian Scharen


"Scharen has exemplified the best of the Church and Postmodern Culture series by expressing difficult thinkers in accessible and practical ways. The book exemplifies its own value by being remarkably self-aware. Scharen writes with crystal clarity, but refuses to write as though the concepts are obvious and reminds the reader that the concepts are not simple. The presentation is clear and compelling but the reader knows that undertaking fieldwork in theology will be a challenging task. . . . I look forward to every installment in this series, believing that each lesson will help me to address and consider current events from a different angle. Baker Academic and [series editor] James K. A. Smith are to be commended for the series. I hope they keep teaching."

Aaron Perry,

Asbury Journal