A journal of academic theology

September 2000 editorial

Ben Yagoda in his recent About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (Scribner, 2000) presents a fascinating account of how that weekly, sometimes associated with light fiction and sophisticated cartoons, came to publish in its issue for August 31, 1946, John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” Published one year after the bombing, the lengthy and harrowing account of the atomic bomb explosion in that city as experienced by survivors of the blast became arguably the most influential magazine article in the history of journalism. Hersey, born to two American missionaries in China where he spent his childhood, interviewed over a two-month period some 40 Hiroshima survivors, and eventually focused specifically on five Japanese and one German (including two clerics and two physicians) all of whose recollections formed his narrative. He and his invisible copy-editor worked on the article for six weeks. What no newspaper report or newsreel coverage had been able to accomplish, Hersey=s account achieved. It captured the sheer horror of the human suffering and destruction of the atomic bomb, and quickly promoted national reflection about the morality of the means America chose to hasten Japanese surrender. That November, his account appeared in book form and the Book-of-the-Month Club mailed a free copy to all its subscribers. The fact that it did not appear not in an esoteric academic journal guaranteed a more extensive readership. I can hardly think of a clearer example of the power of the written word for communicating shame, indignation, and a call for collective conversion.

Articles that appear in Theological Studies, I trust, contribute in some small way in a limited circle to raising consciousness and moral sensitivity to practices, attitudes, or negligences that cry out for critique. For instance, in this issue, the description and judgments by Patrick McCormick about the modern U.S. prison “experiment” especially as it affects the African-American male population, will, I hope, influence moral awareness. Last year, Peter Black touched on aspects of capital punishment, an issue that on which national attention is now being riveted because of official reports that expose major flaws in death row convictions in many U.S. states. Our journal has a distinguished tradition of debating difficult moral choices related to biomedical challenges such as the treatment of persons in a permanent vegetative state, or genetic engineering.

Not only articles touching on ethics seek to address our collective responsibilities. In this issue, articles in historical theology such as Frederick McLeod’s reinterpretation of Theodore of Mopsuestia’s Christology provide intellectual undergirding for the reestablishment of full visible communion between the East Syrian Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Also in this fascicle, Gary Macy’s detailed study of the meaning of ordinare and ordinationes in the medieval Church illustrate important continuities and discontinuities in the pastoral choices taken by the Church of the West. Articles treating theological methodology such as those by Neil Ormerod or Carl Starkloff are critical to the whole task of faith seeking understanding.

My urgent plea to all theologians, therefore, is to make their personal contribution to church renewal and theological understanding not simply by teaching undergraduate and graduate students, but by researching and publishing for the wider academic community and others so that the community of faith can be guided by its lived experience and recent insights. Theologians busy in universities and divinity schools often plead the familiar excuses: fatigue, heavy committee work, serious class preparation to ensure teaching excellence. But the production of the published essay, at all levels, is more crucial than ever for the Church today. It would be an indictment of the theological community if more consciousness raising essays today were to be published by humanists in secular publications than in our own journals, weeklies, or newspapers.

Criticism by Catholics of the poor state of preaching homilies in the weekly liturgies is widespread, yet this is rarely an agenda item that receives attention at meetings of bishops or religious leaders. Could it be that the spoken word suffers because we are rapidly losing the art of writing well? Have we failed to carve out sufficient free time to read as a stimulus to entering into dialogue with others through the written word? If not, are we effectively communicating the gospel?

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