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The Intellectual Art of Tidying Up


If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are…    -Thomas Hobbes


Since the English translation of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing in 2014, she has become an international superstar. The book has sold over two million copies and has now been translated into more than thirty languages. She even has her own Netflix show. Kondo has struck a cord at a nearly universal level.

I’ll let the social scientists quibble over ‘why this book’ and ‘why this time.’ It most probably has something to do with our finally running the calculus on affluent consumerism: it turns out that the probability of endless happiness on (seemingly) endless stuff + the (seemingly) endless ability to acquire it is actually 0. It must also have something to do with our desire for a jailbreak from the self-imposed prison of what we rather ironically refer to as ‘our possessions.’ Of course, it has something to do with Marie and her method as well. There are self-help, tidying-up books out there by the dozen. Yet Marie’s, by what must be a mix of keen insight and entrepreneurial wisdom, has risen to the top.

Though I have no expertise on the KonMari Method, I can offer an observation about it. It struck me while perusing her book and watching a couple of episodes on Netflix that, at root, her method is driven by (at least) three basic principles: gratitude, proper order, discipline.

All this puts me in mind of the need for tidying up another kind of clutter: intellectual. Ours is a time when academic theology has sold its birthright—and hence, identity—for a pot of stew. We live in an age where consumeristic whimsies create intellectual cravings for some ‘new’ contribution to the ‘field’ of theology. The vast proliferation of theological books has made the theological landscape look rather like a Salvador Dalì painting. And budding theologians-to-be feel its threat: keep up or look like a simpleton and a dullard. After all, who wants to be caught embarrassed in that conversation wherein you have to admit to not knowing the ‘latest and greatest’ work, hot off the press? Clutter builds.

We’ve recently been given a very persuasive account of why to study theology. Let me here give some suggestions as to how. How about let’s call it the ConMary method, for tidying up theological studies clutter (con = “with,” and Mary, the mother of Jesus, who wonderfully demonstrates these principals of a theologian. Can I make that claim as a Protestant?).

The ConMary Method

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant…(Luke 1:46-48)

Basic to theological study is gratitude. The reason for this is that theology is first and foremost a gift from God. The Medievals were fond of saying “Scripture is our theology.” I am much inclined to agree with this. Scripture is God’s gracious revelation of himself to a limited and fallen humanity.

Cultivating an attitude of thankfulness is basic to theological study, then, for it puts ourselves in proper perspective (‘humble state’) and God in proper magnitude. This has the secondary effect of releasing us from the shackles of the ‘inner circle.’ Theological studies is no longer about keeping up appearances, but reception of the gift and how to make the most of it.

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart… (Luke 2:19)

One way to make much of it is to treasure it and ponder it. One naturally ponders what one treasures, I suppose. But the ‘pondering’ of theological studies is best accomplished in a particular way. In short, pondering the Scriptures means to properly order them. Let me be more precise. It is not that we take disordered and scattered Scriptures and impose an order upon them. God has already ordered them. He doesn’t need our assistance for that. Rather, the activity of pondering is  properly to order one’s own study and understanding of the Scriptures.

The place to begin is simply reading through the Scripture. It will take a few years, but you should become very familiar with the narratives of the historical books, for instance. You should gain a good sense for the various kinds of theological reflection present in poetic, proverbial, and didactic forms. This general and specific familiarity with the Bible is essential for progression in theological studies.

The next step will be to ask questions. This may seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t one begin with questions? Beginning theological studies straightway with questions is a bit like trying to find your way out from deep within the jungle without a compass. You really need to get above the canopy and gain some sense of the lay of the land and some sense of direction. That is what a thorough familiarity with the Bible gets you. You then know which questions lead in the right, and which in the wrong, direction.

The next step will be to master those good questions. You will need help with this. Thankfully, the history of the Church is a history of the people of God asking questions. Let them assist you. They will not only aid you in asking the right questions, but will help you properly categorize them. This, too, is very important.

We are finally ready to look at books. Now that you have a thorough familiarity with Scripture and a set of organized questions, picking out books will be much easier. To the consumer consumed with ‘options,’ picking out anything from the plethora becomes difficult. For the person who has a goal to accomplish and a specific need to accomplish it, picking out supplies is fairly cut and dry. You have your questions, now find that theologian who deals well with it. Read much of him or her; don’t worry about all the rest. Better to have a morsel of theological wisdom than a table full of theological pretense.

I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled. (Luke 1:38)…When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (Luke 2:22)

Now for the arduously fun part. Like Mary, who not only received the word of the Lord, and not only pondered it, but also obeyed it, so too the theologian-to-be must consistently respond. Discipline is key to so much in life. In the Christian studies, as in Christian life, discipline really amounts to faithful obedience in response to the summons and direction of God.

More could be said about discipline in theological studies, let me emphasize two important points. First, theological studies ought to be conducted with studiosity and not curiosity. Studiosity means remaining fixed and steady upon the course charted out from the previous steps. They are (you may have noticed) not easily accomplished. When the going gets tough, it will be a great temptation to leave off, skip some bits of the reading plan, or tackle some other questions. Be studious. You have your reading plan, stick with it. You have your questions, see them through.

Second, prayer is essential for this journey. In fact, it is essential to all the stages of theological study. Prayer is receptive of God’s gift, and central to the pondering of it. By prayer we commune with God and are thus strengthened to continue through the difficult times of theological study. And prayer is essential to discernment. One needs discernment in an age with a great many (even if not mighty) winds of doctrine.

Watching Marie Kondo’s Netflix show, I noticed that all those who had gone through the KonMari Method consistently testified to a new found sense of freedom. I think the ConMary Method promises much the same. It’s a long and narrow path, and somewhat counterintuitive. Yet, steady and consistent perseverance along it leads its pilgrims into that glorious liberty of the children of God. The late Eugene Peterson famously defined Christian discipleship as “long obedience in the same direction.” I’m not sure there is a better way to speak about theological studies.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is professor of theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT, where he lives with his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids.

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