Q&A: What Has Theology to do with California?

Thoughts on the new Theological Engagement with California Culture Project

Jun. 28, 2011 By Joseph Gorra

Biola University faculty are often involved in scholarly collaborations with other faculty worldwide. The Theological Engagement with California Culture Project (TECC) is a new multi-institutional, inter-disciplinary endeavor that merits attention and contributions from Christian thought leaders at a variety of levels. 

I recently interviewed Professors Fred Sanders and Jason Sexton about TECC's unique undertaking. Both Sanders and Sexton are members of TECC's core group. Sanders is Associate Professor of Theology in Biola University's great books program, the Torrey Honors Institute. Sexton is the Project Coordinator of the TECC Project, and he is presently Researcher in Systematic Theology at St. Mary's College.  He is also specializing on contemporary evangelical theology at The University of St. Andrews while nearing completion of the Ph.D. on the role of the doctrine of the Trinity in Stanley J. Grenz's writings.

What’s the basic objective of the TECC Project?

Sexton: The TECC Project is a collaborative academic venture engaging the most pressing issues in California’s recent history, providing interdisciplinary theological engagement in addressing its research questions. We’re basically setting out to develop theological accounts of the phenomenological development of specific cultural entities within California’s setting and California’s culture as a whole. In other words, we’re asking, “According to theology, what is California?” And furthermore, “What’s underneath it all?”

How did this Project come about? Why California?

Sanders: The basic idea developed from a summer class that I taught a couple of times over the past decade. I teach in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, where we read the great books, from Homer through Virgil and Augustine to Dante and Calvin and Flannery O'Connor. I wanted to apply that great books approach to California literature, about which I knew very little. I just had an instinct that the perennialist approach, in which we read the proven classics, "the best which has been thought or said" in the history of the western world, would benefit from a little dose of localism, where we investigate a regional heritage and get to know our own surroundings.

For a summer class with undergraduates, that project took the form of picking a few classics of California literature. The standard list includes novelists like Jack London and John Steinbeck, poets like Robinson Jeffers and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, essayists like John Muirand Ambrose Bierce, and a few outsiders like the polish-lithuanian writer Czeslaw Milosz who lived in Berkeley for decades and thought hard about the spirit of the place. The class worked really well, because even though California hasn't exactly produced its own Homers, Platos or Dantes, we do have an interesting and thought-provoking little literary heritage.

I could go on and on about California literary regionalism and the unique challenges of selecting great books from a state that has such a short history of literature. In fact, I did go on and on about it, in blog posts and such. That's when Jason Sexton got hold of the ideas and helped turn them into a project.

Sexton: As a fourth-generation Californian, having grown up in northern California but having lived in a number of places throughout the state, I often found myself trying to make sense of so many issues related to the state’s identity. Having spent a number of years working in a couple different churches in central and southern California, and as a church planter, I faced a host of issues on the ground that I felt myself constantly needing to give theological accounts of in order to make any sense of. These included the range of phenomena in California and its recent history—for example, activist issues like workers’ rights, unions, business, the marriage-debate and human sexuality, racism, immigration, politics, demographic shifts, economics, work, poverty, education, industry, entertainment, recreation, agriculture, drugs, gangs, prisons, religion etc., along with the church’s unique role in these and many other issues, and in cultural development. 

When I began Ph.D. work in systematic theology at the University of St Andrews with a theological faculty that places high value on biblical-theological analysis, interdisciplinary engagement and cultural assessment, I remained constant in seeking to identify ways that theology might serve to give an account for these dynamic and often contradictory features in California’s setting. I have observed and been encouraged by Fred’s work and approach to the theological task for a number of years, and when I saw him sketching lines for an account of California, I thought we had perhaps found a way to do this. So I approached Fred and began an ongoing conversation about how to pull together a collaborative project that could begin asking questions that many folks are addressing in ways that failed to give the coherence that only theology can bring assessing the shape California’s culture.

During my time in the U.K., where theology is a much more mainstream academic discipline than in the U.S. (and especially California), I have seen a number of projects that have successfully isolated regional locations for the sake of interdisciplinary empirical analysis and theological reflection. We’ve borrowed a format from some others to begin putting the Project together for the sake of serving to advance our understanding of California by employing the tools of our discipline as a means of making sense of what’s happening around us.

What are some of the Project aims?

Sexton: The Project plans to hold a series of gatherings between 2013 and 2015, bringing together theologians, historians, social-scientists and others to explore specific issues that can be identified as part of the particular cultural make-up of the Golden State. We want to involve as many of the best thinkers as we can to address and begin a serious dialogue over what is right and wrong with the state, over what is broken while pointing to solutions that are embedded in our descriptions of the issues. In this way, I would hope that we might be able to give accurate accounts of all reality that we set out to address, perhaps even having some short or long-term influence on public policy issues within the state, in encouraging dialogue amongst younger and established theologians and their academic counterparts within the other academic disciplines.

Sanders: The shortest description I've come up with for the overall intellectual task is that it's somewhere between "A Theology of California" and "Theology from California." Those would be the two bumper stickers. The former indicates that we're bringing theological reflection to bear on this entity which is California, to offer a theological account of its existence and character. The latter indicates that we're doing theological reflection about the usual subjects (God, creation, humanity, sin, redemption, eschatology) in this particular location, intentionally cultivating resources that are Californian.

Read the remainder of the interview here. 

Written by Joseph Gorra, Christian Apologetics Program. For media inquiries, please contact Jenna Bartlo, Biola media relations coordinator. She can be reached at (562) 777-4061 or through e-mail at jenna.bartlo@biola.edu.



  • Todd D Vasquez Jul. 1, 2011 at 6:52 AM

    A Systematic Theology of California. Nice! California also happens to be one of the few places on earth most geographically similar to the land of Israel. Lake Tahoe - Lake Galilee. Dead Sea - Mojave Desert. Both have Mediterranean climates, etc.

  • Rafael Danam Jul. 27, 2011 at 4:41 PM

    Dr. Todd D. Vasquez! You are certainly correct in that Israel is a mini-California. Both have ocean/sea shores facing the west, and the landscapes of north and south for both Israel and State of California are virtually identical in many ways. Tel Aviv is a combo of Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. As for topics of discussion for State of California, this should be excellent, pray the subject matter is used to shape policy and law for California!

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