The word “theology,” for me, evokes images of dusty piles of books and bibles with phyllo pastry-like pages, flaking apart between my fingers.
The word “culture,” instantly brings to mind vibrant images of skin tones varying from mine, music and rhythms—some familiar and some foreign and various languages and dialects. Each entity highlights the differences when juxtaposed to mine. Each gives new meaning to my own paradigm because of the differences they highlight. In a less extreme way—merely comparing two Americans in Seattle—our own individual culture plays into every interaction imaginable. The way I hear a statement, the language I use—each of these play into my picture of God and the way I theologize. D. Stephen Long acknowledges the depth and breadth of culture and its impact upon how we understand who God is. He asks the reader to consider what role our culture plays in how we interpret life, relationships, and our surroundings. Long asserts that Jesus Himself was nurtured by a culture so, of course, culture is relevant to us today, informing how we can see and know God.
Long raises important questions about the task of interpretation. He asks whether it is possible or not to think and speak intelligibly about anything outside of our culture and language. Culture and language are closely wed; we cannot practice theology outside of a cultural paradigm and it is essential to use language to do this. Long asserts, “theology is using language to speak about God.” He goes on to say that one of the perils of using language to speak about God is that it will always fail to fully describe who God is. In essence, you will fail no matter what you do, but this is not a good reason to not begin the task.
According to Long, a significant problem about the connection between theology and culture is the question of whether or not God is anything other than a product of our culture and language. After all, tribes in sub-Saharan Africa, surviving trauma of war, genocide, and famine have a very different view of who Jesus is than a white American suburbanite does. What each of these people groups need in God, ask of God, and give to God are different. What does this mean? How do we ascertain truth about who Jesus is, given that our viewpoints are so very different?
I remember a conversation I had last year with a child in Uganda. We were sitting under a mango tree talking and the topic of the Trinity came up. He was searching for words to explain the specific entity of God he wanted to talk about. Finally, he said, “it is not really a man or a woman. There is not a word in English for it.” The moment was so breathtaking and an intense reminder of the mystery of God. The fact that there could be a word for God not found in English, caught me and reminded me of the vast, glorious universe in which we reside. Long reiterates this for his readers. Rather than seeing differences and incongruities as evidence of our futility to interpret accurately, I think it is possible to read Long and to be called into a more thoughtful, curious way of seeing and knowing God. Long invites his reader to “taste and see;” to look at differences and not to be shaken by them, but rather to experience a fuller picture of how we can see God when we compare other peoples’ definitions to our own.
In an age where it is both trendy and important to talk about culture and context, Long has created an inviting avenue by which to do so. Theology and Culture seeks to guide the reader into a discussion of how we ought to relate these two entities. How much do they inform one another? How does language fit into our beliefs about culture and who God is? The simplicity and to-the-point nature of the title truly encapsulates this work. Written in merely 111 pages, the style and brevity lends itself to being simple to follow.
Long outlines various theological paradigms’ perspectives on theology and culture. These categories include Post-liberal Theology, Analytical Theology, Post-modern Feminism, Radical Orthodoxy, Communion Catholicism, and Anabaptist Witness.
Long acknowledges that apart from culture, theology on its own is a difficult subject. Theology after all, is a sort of science about an entity which is “infinite, inexhaustible, and perfect.” Though this study may be classified as science, we cannot use the typical means of study. God cannot be placed in a category, studied against the scientific method, and then experimented upon. Additionally, Long asks his reader to look at the key person at the center of the Christian faith: Jesus.
Long asserts that “no realm of culture can escape bearing witness at some level to or against Christ.” In order for us to worship and love God above all else, we must use the things that make us uniquely “us.” So, our culture is not a by-product of who we are, but rather, essential and necessary as a means by which to worship God. “This is why we must finally bring together ‘theology’ and ‘culture.'”
Theology and Culture follows Long on his own quest for understanding the cultural landscapes upon which he has tread. From the villages of Honduras to the classrooms of Duke University to the mountains of Appalachia, Long invites his reader to accompany him to other lands and places that have been his personal seminary. He brings the reader into encounters with words and ideas in the context within which they are spoken, where they have significant difference in meaning. It is the jolt of these various meanings and interpretations which compel the reader to ask, “who then is Jesus?” and realize that we really do need each other. Gleaning for meaning cannot be done in isolation—it is a shared task.
Long raises great questions for discussion at the end of each chapter. Rather than giving hard and fast statements of what he sees as truth, he instead poses questions that live into the ambiguity of this topic. He refrains from telling his reader what to think, but rather invites the reader to think for him or herself and enter into the discussion.
Long is a scholar who approaches this topic more as a pastor or teacher. His simple and thoughtful language is not dumbed-down but is still accessible to general audiences. It is broken into short, palatable chapters that may make it seem like dessert for more learned audiences while it allows those less practiced in reading theological texts to persevere through the pages.
 D. Stephen Long, Theology and Culture: A Guide to the Discussion (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2008), 5.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 110.
 Ibid., 3.