Being a Public Theologian: Perils and Possibilities (Bruce Epperly)

To be a public theologian is an interesting calling, for it can be a risky venture.  I myself have chosen to enter this arena (as you can tell from reading this blog).  It requires discernment because you have to know where the problem areas lie and know whether or not you want to enter in.  I've gotten better at it as I've grown older, but still have room to grow!   In this piece, Bruce Epperly shares his own recent experiences of entering the public square as a theologian, including a stop on Eric Elnes's Darkwood Brew.  [Oh, and Eric, we need to talk]. He also shares about a visit to a hard right Radio Program.  Always interesting these exchanges from beyond the comfort zone.   I invite you to engage him in both the perils and possibilities of this venture.  Perhaps you, the reader, can share your own experiences that we might learn from each other.


Being a Public Theologian: Perils and Possibilities
Bruce G. Epperly

I regularly write short essays for a variety of websites, most often for Ponderings on a Faith Journey and  I also do lectionary commentaries for a few months each year for Process and Faith and occasional on-line pieces for JesusJazzBuddhism and Progressive Christianity. Occasionally I appear on radio, webcast, and television programs.  I receive a fair number of comments and when I’m able, I acknowledge them.  I have a few conservative friends who always make it a point to counter my more progressive religious-political blogs and we have fun bantering about our respective candidates.  We feel comfortable disagreeing and in our own way model the way public discourse should be, honest and respectful, recognizing that red and blue make purple.  I find that, despite our differences, we agree on a great deal and rather than describing our differences as “oppositional,” I call them “contrasts.”

Well, Sunday and Monday could be described as the adventures of a public theologian.  A public theologian, or public scholar, as my friend from Claremont School of Theology Monica Coleman describes, is one who leaves the placidness of the ivory tower to enter the whitewater rapids of public conversation.

Sunday afternoon, I put my oar in the waters of web broadcasting with “Darkwood Brew,” hosted by theologian and pastor Eric Elnes.  This program joins jazz and theological reflection from a progressive and open-spirited perspective. Described as “renegade exploration of the growing edge of emerging Christian faith,” it provides a great forum for progressive theologians and spiritual guides like myself.  Given my interests and the recent publication of my book, Healing Marks (Energion, 2012), the focus was prayer and healing.[1]In my segments, Eric and I had a great theological free for all on the dynamics of prayer, faith healers, the difference prayer makes, and the challenges of intercessory prayer.  The discussion was lively and challenging, but good spirited and collegial.[2]  I was pleased to share the good news of healing and wholeness from a process perspective that honors the healing stories of Jesus, affirms the power of prayer, and recognizes the positive value of spiritual practices from a naturalistic, multi-factorial perspective.  I believe creative and healing energies emerge in our lives when we participate in a lively, open-ended divine-human synergy.[3]

But, Monday was a different story.  It exemplified the spirit of the Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times.”  Late the previous Thursday, an engaging producer and I spoke about being on the Jesse Lee Peterson Program.[4]  She told me that he was interested in one of my books, written with Kate Epperly, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.  I must admit I made a mistake in accepting the interview without researching the radio program.  The weekend had been busy with study, preaching, and time with students and I didn’t research the program till Sunday.  As I looked at the website, my first response was “Oh…..sugar!” what have I gotten myself into.  The host has done great work with programs with boys and men within the African American community, but he is also very conservative and aligned with the Tea Party Movement.  For a few minutes, I was tempted to bag it altogether.  But, I chose to go into the lion’s den, seeing it as an opportunity to share a different perspective with his viewers, proclaiming the good news without polarizing.  I anticipated good faith on his part – I was promised a spiritual fellowship and discussion about Tending to the Holy.   

After asking me about my theology, which I described as progressive, that is, open to a variety of perspectives and willing to grow by dialogue with others, the next few questions which took up the majority of the program were basically in and out, true and false, orthodoxy and apostasy quizzes:  “Are you the head of your house?”  My response about egalitarian relationships of women and men, and in my marriage, didn’t satisfy him and neither did my response to “Are you the spiritual head of your house?”  Those were the easy ones, and in his mind, I am sure I flunked both.  I suspect, smelling a chance to publically defeat or shame another apostate, the next question was something like “Do you approve of same sex marriages?”  I responded “yes” and that led to the typical comments about biblical authority.  We proceeded to go into the issue of abortion and my refusal to describe it as “sin,” despite my attempt at a nuanced answer involving social policy and economic justice, was also unsatisfactory.  Needless to say, I fielded a barrage of questions from the host and callers about the validity of my call to ministry, understanding of scripture, and spiritual leadership.  I made a good target and am sure that I was the type of progressive that was “red meat” for his audience. 

I maintained a cool presence, but as one of the theme songs for his show from Tom Petty asserts, “I won’t back down!”  I tried to find middle ground and share my appreciation for his work, but none was to be found, nor did my attempts at spiritual fellowship among Christian brothers go anywhere.  The sad thing about dealing with many conservatives, members of the Tea Party, and Biblical literalists, is that everything is black and white and true and false.  There is no middle ground, for meeting in the middle ground means surrendering the truth.  I have always found a different approach more helpful, one that I first read in Reinhold Niebuhr, to the effect that we should look for the truth in our neighbor’s falsehood and the falsehood in our own truth.  I didn’t continue listening after my segment ended.  I took a walk around the seminary neighborhood to release my adrenaline.  I am not particularly curious about whether my orthodoxy and call to ministry continued to be a subject of discussion.

Being a public theologian can be fun.  I suspect that in the future I will research my invitations a bit more carefully before agree to go on the air.  Sharing your vision in the media can lead to challenges and also the excitement of adventures in ideas and spiritual growth.

[1] Healing Marks is one of four texts I’ve written on healing and wholeness.  The others are God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus (Westminster/John Knox), Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice (Pilgrim); and Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus, written with Kate Epperly (Northstone).
[4] You can the podcast link at

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process:  Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church.   He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith Lectionary and   He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.


Brian said…
Thank you. It has taken me some time to realize that people will read motive into what a minister writes/speaks. "He's seeking attention." "He's trying to look smart." etc. Would it really hurt to give people the benefit of a doubt?

I feel frustrated when people insist that I'm a false teacher just because I see things from a progressive point of view. I thank God for Rev. Dr. Epperly. I'm looking forward to his book on healing.

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