Download PDF: RV Moschella, Reflective Research
Invitation to Research in Practical Theology
By Zoë Bennett, Elaine Graham, Stephen Pattison, and Heather Walton
New York: Routledge, 2018. 194 pages. $140 Hardback; $39.95 Paperback; $39.95 Ebook.
Imitating Christ in Magwi: An Anthropological Theology
By Todd Whitmore
London: T&T Clark, 2018. 400 pages. $44.99 Paperback.
Women Leaving Prison: Justice-Seeking Spiritual Support for Female Returning Citizens
By Jill Snodgrass
Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2019. 254 pages. $95 Hardback; $90 Ebook.
New texts in qualitative research in theology and religious practice emphasize reflection and reflexivity in methodology, research practices, writing, and teaching. They challenge researchers to engage in a rigorous level of self-examination and transparency. They also inspire both creativity and collegiality in the course of such challenging work. A recent volume from the UK plumbs the depths of practical theological research: Invitation to Research in Practical Theology, by Zoë Bennett, Elaine Graham, Stephen Pattison, and Heather Walton (Routledge, 2018). Other recent works foreground reflective pedagogy and feminist practical theology. In terms of exemplary reflective studies, Todd David Whitmore’s Imitating Christ in Magwi: An Anthropological Theology (T&T Clark, 2018) stands out, not least for the author’s clarity in identifying what he calls his “theo-social location.” Another notable new study is Women Leaving Prison: Justice-Seeking Spiritual Support for Female Returning Citizens, by Jill Snodgrass (Lexington, 2019), a book that uses social science and qualitative research to identify practical guidance for congregations ministering to the growing number of women leaving prisons in the US. I will consider each of these contributions, in turn, showing how they enhance and enlarge our understanding of the purpose and possibilities of reflective research in practical theology. While these texts complicate and challenge the field, they also demonstrate a diversity of approaches that meet these challenges.
In Invitation to Research in Practical Theology, four distinguished scholars—Bennett, Graham, Pattison, and Walton—offer a truly collaborative volume that takes readers deep into the journey of research in the field of practical theology. Relying on their extensive troves of knowledge in the field of practical theology, these authors draw readers into their on-going conversation. The authors begin by individually reflecting on the lives, social locations, and scholarly trajectories that brought them to their current views on research in practical theology. They then set out a list of shared theses, stressing the revelatory potential of research undertaken in the here and now. The authors initiate a discussion of reflection and reflexivity in research that challenges simple definitions and assumptions that these practices are easily understood or implemented. For example, Stephen Pattison reflects on his experience of researching chronic shame, which he came to define as “toxic unwantedness.” This research led him to the interdisciplinary study of shame theories, therapeutic practices, and Christian theologies of atonement. He also had to come to terms with his own experience of shame. Yet he claims that working through this complexity brought him to a new understanding of theology and practice (24). The authors augment their discussion with many such examples from their own work, their students’ research experiences, and the literature of the field. Through these examples, readers gain an appreciation for both the challenge and the wonder of reflexive research, likened here (as elsewhere) to a journey.
The first chapter demonstrates how a researcher’s patient attention to the self—the whole embodied self—cannot be avoided or treated lightly. If a researcher feels uncomfortable, for example, while participating in a ritual practice, this discomfort must be examined lest it results in an unwitting tendency to objectify the other, such as by projecting a description of something strange or exotic onto research partners. The level of self-reflection that is required—some even engage in the more formal practice of auto-ethnography—may seem daunting, and the discussion of this becomes dense at times. Helpfully, the authors also offer lists of concrete questions that give students and other researchers a way into the practice of reflexivity. Questions such as, “How does my personal history influence my approach to this topic?” and “What is my own entanglement in what I am trying to understand?” invite readers and researchers to embark on the journey of reflexivity (42). The recognition that knowledge production is always a political act underlies the importance of not only reflexivity but also what the authors call connectivity, by which they envision “research as a spiritual journey towards the ‘other’” (53). Research in practical theology, the authors assert, “should be participatory and dialogical to the core” (51).
Chapters 3–6 explore the concepts of religious practice and performance; communities of practice; and tradition. The discussion of practice is particularly illuminative for understanding the ways in which theology is instantiated within practice, both shaping it and being shaped by it. The authors explain how practices constitute our lives, how practices both construct and maintain certain social realities that we might otherwise think of as natural, such as concepts of gender. We learn through various culturally embedded practices how to define our identities. By engaging in reflection and reflexivity, researchers may find some “disruptive self-knowledge” to be the historical root of taken-for-granted concepts and identities. The authors assert that the lived quality of religious practice is value-laden; practices perform certain values that may or may not match professed beliefs. Critical reflection on the practice of faith can lead to both new theology and new, potentially more faithful practices. While many points in this discussion are not new, these ideas are deepened here, especially through vignettes that illustrate researchers’ struggles with and intuitions of the limits of reflexivity.
Bennett, Graham, Pattison, and Walton explore the notion of “communities of practice” that are committed to phronesis or practical wisdom in chapter 4. Such communities may form among researching practitioners, who inhabit both academic and professional spaces and must negotiate resulting complex identities. Although others have noted the need for communities of accountability in research, a more robust concept of communities of practice is offered here and is explored in a thorough and candid way. Communities of practice are needed, the authors claim, to encourage critical thinking, which is enhanced through diversity in the community and mutual encouragement to reflexivity (90). The authors also highlight the challenges of collaborative approaches to research: although collaboration adds richness and integrity to the work, it is frankly difficult in practice. The varying styles and schedules of colleagues require negotiation, as does the work of discerning meaning and agreeing upon phrasing. Despite these challenges, dialogue between authors is a practice that can interrupt closed systems of thought in favor of more open and responsive narratives.
In a chapter on “Finding a Critical Space,” the authors explore the meaning of tradition in research and the researcher’s challenge to find a place to stand in relation to tradition. The authors employ the idea of “home” and all its imaginative associations as analogous to the shifting yet stable weight of tradition: “The word ‘home’ here indicates several things of importance about our relationship to religious and other traditions: recognition, belonging, emotional investment, ambiguity of feeling and of relationship, the dialectic of leave-taking and return. . .” (105). A researcher’s journey into a study of religious practice can involve all these dynamics. Rich examples from the authors’ own studies are supplied here, illustrating the work of wrestling with tradition that is characteristic of research in this field. This wrestling may involve obedience to the past, some kind of organic development of tradition, “resistance, refusal, and revision” of tradition, and/or “a call from the future” that anticipates a new kind of faithful response (117–123). The authors conclude their discussion of tradition by returning to four provocative themes noted earlier as characterizing research in practical theology: “rooted, changed, lost, and claimed” (129). This chapter highlights the challenge that reflexivity presents to all researchers, that of recognizing how much we are part of the social worlds we study. By engaging in theologically grounded qualitative research, we raise the stakes. The need for clarity and transparency about our social and theological locations is heightened when we interpret situated faith claims and practices.
A chapter on method, “Framing the view,” plumbs the connections between worldview and research strategies, noting, for example, tensions between feminist scholars and proponents of empirical theology (136–7). Mundane and practical matters also have an impact on research design. Bennet et al. note a more recent emphasis on ecclesiology as the locus of research, which they find salient. However, the authors assert that “the divine calling frequently addresses us from unexpected and ‘unholy’ places beyond the Church as we currently understand it” (147). Bennett and her colleagues also lift up more creative approaches to research, such as arts-based research, including auto-ethnography and other forms of generating knowledge by making something new. As one who has grown weary of evidence-based approaches to all things spiritual, I heartily welcome this “poetic turn,” with its emphasis on practice as “creative making” as a counterbalance to “notions of useful doing” (155).
This rich and thoughtful book concludes with a chapter on research ethics, arguably the most difficult and important topic for any researcher to consider. Rather than providing a list of rules, the authors offer many questions for researchers to ask themselves at the start of and throughout the processes of researching, writing, publishing, or in other ways presenting their findings. Reflexivity is again brought into focus, not only in terms of understanding the researcher’s role and influence on the research but also in terms of understanding the larger socio-cultural issues at stake. The authors explore the themes of trust, complexity, relationality, and vulnerability that run through researchers’ efforts to seek the good in and through their work. Questions of costs and benefits, and of whose interests the research serves are pertinent throughout. Social inequalities of race, gender, class, and so on must be considered at every point along the journey. Risks to all parties must be considered, including risks to researchers and their families, as well as risks to research partners and especially to vulnerable groups. The authors lift up the importance of a community of practice at the point of analysis and before publication. They recognize the time and space that such ethical considerations require but note the critical value of this work if research in practical theology is to promote individual and communal flourishing.
This book may serve as a handbook for both new and experienced researchers. Indeed, reading it has renewed my sense of appreciation for the wonder of the work, despite (or because of?) the critical challenges met along the way. I am left with a sense that clear-eyed companions are coming along on the journey, pointing out both the pitfalls and possibilities of such travel. Reflexive researchers always keep an eye trained on power dynamics, both within research relationships and in wider cultural and political spheres.
One example of a reflexive researcher (as described above) is Todd Whitmore, whose recent study, Imitating Christ in Magwi: An Anthropological Theology (T & T Clark, 2019) is exemplary. The book is the first in a new series, T & T Clark Studies in Social Ethics, Ethnography, and Theology. Whitmore, who teaches at Notre Dame, is both a Catholic moral theologian and an anthropologist. His research is with the Acholi people in northern Uganda and South Sudan, who negotiate life in war zones and post-war zones. Whitmore describes himself as someone attempting to do theology, which means, for him, to live the Gospel. Thus, divides between systematic and practical theology do not obtain for this scholar seeking to understand what it means to imitate Christ. Whitmore glimpses mimetic faith in his fieldwork in South Sudan and Uganda, and his awareness of it stays with him long after he returns from the field to his life as an academic at a prestigious university. Following Bourdieu, Whitmore turns his reflexive lens onto himself in relation to the research field and to the academic habitus that shapes scholars, but he adds a third dimension to such reflexivity, that of his theology. Whitmore calls this his theo-social location, which he describes as “not just an account of our social location relative to those whom we are studying, but of all of that in relation to God” (15).
Whitmore organizes his project into four categories or movements: attention, discernment, commitment, and return. He begins with attention to the history of the region and to the ravages of British colonialism and its practices of indirect rule, which trade on notions of “primitive” vs. “modern” people. Such distinctions have become excuses for brutal oppression and violence toward the Acholi people and their efforts to resist. Aware of this history and of himself as a white researcher coming into the region, Whitmore learns to tread lightly. Living with a family in a refugee camp in Northern Uganda, he learns their ways of communicating and the terms upon which a relationship can be built. He names two practices—“originating hospitality” and “approaching softly”—as key to his research. Originating hospitality has to do with recognizing the hospitality of one’s hosts, to whom the researcher is in debt. For the researcher, this involves recognizing yourself as a stranger in this setting and that, as such, you are also the researched. Approaching softly has to do with patience in research. When Whitmore realized that his initial interviews were not yielding much in the way of helpful and honest responses, he changed both his tactic and his original research topic. He learned “to go drink the wind,” a translated Acholi phrase meaning “to walk about, to meander, to greet whomever you happen to see, and if asked, to hang out a bit with them.”
One night a group of teachers at the Pabbo refugee camp asked Whitmore, “What are you going to do for us?” From his fieldnotes, he writes:
Olum is the macro-theorist among the teachers. To him, it is not a matter of the rebels versus the government. “The white man gives us guns so that we keep busy killing each other.” The others look away, or take another sip of their mash, but none say anything in disagreement. Perhaps they are uncomfortable because they might lose a potential patron. I have promised to see their school tomorrow before heading to Gulu. Olum is undaunted. “Then you come and steal our knowledge. You steal our culture. You come and talk to us about our knowledge and our culture and then take it all back with you. And we have nothing left. Look at us. You see how we live. What are you going to do for us?” (19)
Whitmore clearly takes the question to heart; in some ways, it seems to hover over his whole project. Upon asking the people what they needed and being told, “cattle,” Whitmore decided in 2008 to audit a course in non-profit management, train as an ox drover and co-found a small non-profit, PeaceHarvest, that provides livestock and training in agriculture and peacebuilding to the local people (23–4). This effort at recompense is only the beginning of Whitmore’s commitment to his research partners; the harder and riskier commitment comes much later.
Whitmore also pays attention to the religious history of the area, including the history of the Camboni missionaries who first evangelized the region, and who were the forerunners of the Little Sisters of Mary the Immaculate of Gulu, who currently serve the region. Complicated as this history is, the Little Sisters appear to Whitmore as among those who fully embody the Gospel in their willingness to die for the people they serve. Whitmore allows the Sisters to speak for themselves, quoting large portions of their interviews so that readers can be drawn into their mimetic witness.
Whitmore’s erudite prose is punctuated with vivid passages from his field notes that convey both the wisdom of the people and the atrocities, stark poverty, and political dangers that they face. While the public narrative blames the madman Joseph Kony and his henchmen for all of the killing, raping, and pillaging of the people, Whitmore hears a more complex story from the people. They narrate the moral culpability of the government headed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, which is supported by Western powers, including the US. Whitmore is challenged to come to terms with what he learns. The people beg him to share their story openly—something they themselves cannot do. Stereotyped as the “backward” Acholi, they simply do not have the social capital needed to tell their story of the genocidal violence of Museveni’s regime and be believed. Informants pass extensive documentary evidence to Whitmore before he leaves the region, and he must decide what to do with it.
Whitmore asked, “How is a Western scholar to try to follow Christ in this situation?” (34). After three years of research, and weighing the risks and consequences, in 2010 he published an article describing the atrocities that the Museveni government had committed against the Acholi people. The article caused a stir in Ugandan news publications, and Whitmore participated in the conversation, knowing that this would mean he could not safely return to Africa for some years and that this would delay the publication of his book. Other consequences, perhaps unanticipated, included critiques from colleagues and administrators at Notre Dame, who seemed more concerned about the reputation of the institution than about what it means to follow Christ.
Whitmore eventually returns to Uganda and Magwi, South Sudan to complete his research, encountering the people’s ancestral spirit world and its syncretistic blend with Christianity. Whitmore suggests that this spirit-filled world is closer to the cultural world of Jesus, and thus might become a bridge to the gospels for those of us in the West. He elaborates upon on his experiences in the field and his return, a difficult transition, during which his learning from the field continues. He adds an appendix entitled “From Gospel Mimesis to ‘Theology’: How a Discipline Lost Its Senses,” in which he narrates the history of the textualization of culture and its implications for the scholarly discipline of theology.
Whitmore’s theo-social reflexivity, in concert with his extensive knowledge of Catholic moral theology, his historically grounded, multi-year anthropology, and his searching biblical scholarship make this an exceptionally reflective study. Reading it is a stretching and enriching experience, one that poses new questions for researchers and co-religionists alike. If research and writing are understood as the practice of theology, reflexivity then requires such rigorous self-interrogation as well as the plumbing of social and political histories, in the field and the academy.
A very different form of reflective research is displayed in Jill Snodgrass’s Women Leaving Prison: Justice-Seeking Spiritual Support for Female Returning Citizens (Lexington, 2019). Although her two research studies are smaller in scope and take place closer to home, the author demonstrates an approach to research that is, like Whitmore’s, theologically grounded and motivated. Snodgrass, a pastoral theologian at Loyola University Maryland, considers the situation of mass incarceration in the US and, in particular, the plight of the nearly 700,000 persons per year who, upon leaving prison and reentering life outside, struggle to survive and to avoid re-arrest and re-incarceration. Snodgrass brings a considerable review of social science theory into conversation with her findings from two qualitative studies. In these, her focus was on identifying the lived experiences of female returning citizens as they themselves describe them in the first study and as faith-based mentors report in the second study (see appendices A and B for respective descriptions of these studies). Snodgrass uses a methodology known as interpretive phenomenological analysis. She culls from this research, recommendations for a model of ministry that congregations can use in order to support returning women’s successful reentry. The model, dubbed Project Sister Connect, is designed to address the twin goals of justice and care for this population that Snodgrass, after thoughtful reflection on her use of language, decides to call, “returning sisters.”
Snodgrass identifies her political and theological positions early in the book. She is in favor of the abolition of the political-industrial complex. She approaches this material as a Christian, believing in the mercy and justice of God. Her analysis is both feminist and intersectional. She begins with attention to the broad issues underlying the incarceration of women in the US. Reviewing the social science literature, she chooses to focus on studies based on a feminist perspective that emphasize distinct pathways to prison in women’s lives. Snodgrass notes that many incarcerated women are multiply marginalized by social factors including race and ethnicity; experiences of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse; substance abuse disorders; mental illness; poverty; and the challenges of motherhood. She notes that these “intersecting social locations and experiences ensnare them in a web of structural injustices, [which] contribute directly to their pathways to crime” (25). Snodgrass shows how combinations of these factors constitute distinct pathways to prison. For example, one pathway termed “battered women” involves women who engage in criminal behavior as a result of or in retaliation against abusive partners (26). Snodgrass also delineates the differences in the kinds of crimes women most frequently commit, often drug-related or minor property crimes as opposed to violent crimes, and shows how these are largely related to macro-level injustices and experiences of victimization. She stresses the need for political and advocacy work to challenge the macro-level injustices, including racism and culturally sanctioned violence against women.
With this background, Snodgrass describes the religious and spiritual landscape of life inside women’s prisons, tracing the historical roots of religion in the US prison system. She then highlights passages from her interviews with nineteen returning sisters. The sisters describe their religious practices and spiritual lives in prison, which are complex and varied. Analyzing her interviews, she identifies four superordinate themes in these women’s accounts: God’s role in incarceration (39), whereby God is understood to “sit down” a woman in prison in order to get her attention and possibly get her to change her life; the benefits of faith behind bars (40), whereby participants describe the helpfulness of religious programs, ranging from a feeling of calm and peacefulness to a way to stay out of trouble; corporate and individual faith practices (42), which involve things like worship but also private prayer, Bible-reading, or the reading of the Moorish Science Temple of America’s divine principles; and the role of relationship in faith behind bars (47), which includes relationships to chaplains and outside visitors, as well as inside sisters’ relationships to each other. This comprehensive account helps readers understand the complex backgrounds that provide pathways to prison and the ways in which religious and/or spiritual practices may be a part of the women’s lives while they are incarcerated and as they move toward reentry.
Chapter 2 depicts the experience of release from prison, highlighting the many barriers to reentry that women typically face. Barriers to housing and employment are often steep and present immediate practical concerns. If a woman has nowhere to go and is forced to return to an abusive home, old patterns, including those of intimate partner abuse, may re-emerge. The barriers to reintegrating with family also include the challenge of reconnecting with children who have grown and changed in the intervening months or years and the legal burdens involved in regaining custody. Medical issues such as diabetes, asthma, and HIV/AIDS, especially if untreated during incarceration due to the lack of availability of medical services or the poor quality of health care afforded to prisoners, can often present significant problems (66). Mental health disorders and substance-use issues also frequently spike in the context of the stress of transition. Snodgrass enumerates the barriers to satisfying parole conditions, which might require a woman to find a job within a very short period of time. This, too, causes stress, especially when the stigma against ex-convicts is so pronounced and frequently prevents their hiring. In interviews, returning sisters explain how hard it is to come home, how overwhelming all of these barriers to reentry can be. Snodgrass also cites excerpts from her interviews with faith-based mentors trying to assist returning sisters. They, too, attest to the challenges and also help delineate the factors that support successful reentry.
Snodgrass summarizes: “Returning citizens need a network of support comprised of caring individuals that can help them overcome the barriers of reentry and become an integrated member of community in a way that many of them have not experienced before” (94). She goes on to describe returning sisters’ “faith beyond bars,” which is often characterized by a search for a church home, and a need for mentors and caregivers who will stay in close touch and offer practical, moral, and spiritual support.
In light of this, Snodgrass crafts a well-informed, gender-specific program for reentry ministry: Project Sister Connect. This project is “grounded in practices of radical acceptance, connection, and righteous indignation in the face of structural injustices, as exemplified in the ministry of Jesus” (141). This congregation-based approach combines a partnership model of direct service to returning women citizens before, during, and after their release, with a guide to political activism needed to challenge and change unjust aspects of the system. It is designed to involve a 6-member team or “sisterhood” for returning sisters who want spiritual support, though there is no requirement of any profession of faith. This circle of justice-seeking support is designed to closely accompany returning sisters, utilizing best practices identified through this research. Sponsoring congregations supply financial and spiritual support for the work of the sisterhoods. Evaluation is built into the project so that the needs of the particular returning citizens in differing groups and locations can be met.
This a wide-ranging study of the holistic needs of women leaving prison. By listening attentively to the stories of the sisters themselves and those of their mentors, and reflecting on the themes and insights that emerge from her analysis, Jill Snodgrass arrives at a sense of the breadth and depth of care that returning sisters require. Snodgrass brings her practical wisdom to bear on a creative program design for ministry that involves both sensitive support and justice-oriented work for structural change with an often-forgotten population.
While Snodgrass does not describe her practices of reflexivity in great detail, she does include summaries of her research plans and procedures. She explains her member check processes, whereby study participants could review summaries of their interviews and offer feedback, corrections, and so on. The researcher also used a process called bracketing whereby she wrote memos after each interview attempting to identify “vested interests, personal experience, cultural factors, assumptions, and hunches that could influence” her analysis of the data and added more comments to the memos after analyzing her transcripts (178). I think that these studies can be deemed participatory and dialogical. Perhaps more importantly, the author is open about her theological commitment to justice, and her goal of using research to improve the plight of returning female citizens. Thus, Snodgrass fulfills the constructive task of pastoral theology as a discipline “growing out of the exercise of caring relationships.” The author models the kind of critical reflection on practice that Zoë Bennett et al. require, especially in her research choices and in her commitment to the well-being of her research partners.
These three contributions to the literature lift up the possibilities and promise of theologically-rooted research projects and research-rooted theologies-in-practice. Research in practical theology can serve many aims, including but not limited to informing and improving the ministries of local congregations in an age of mass incarceration. Anthropological theology challenges us to look more deeply into political situations that we might otherwise choose to ignore and to re-imagine practices of mimetic faith. Arts-based research can re-inspire us, spurring the creation of the good, making a way toward the love and mercy of G-d. These three volumes encourage further reflection on the range of purposes, methods, theologies, theories, and practices researchers employ. The complexity of such research projects may seem staggering, yet the challenge of reflexive research is one that spurs us on in the quest to understand human life and, in particular, religious life, more deeply. Reflexive research can motivate us to grow in self-understanding even as we strive to live out our values in and through our work. These volumes demonstrate both the need for more reflective theologically based research projects and a variety of approaches to this challenge and offer clarity about the purposes such projects can serve. These authors model ways of practicing one’s faith in and through relationships formed in fieldwork and back home in academic and ecclesial communities. These books thus contribute to the interdisciplinary and international conversations needed to increase our common trove of practical wisdom in the conduct of truly reflective research.
 See Mary Clark Moschella and Susan Willhauck, eds. Qualitative Research in Theological Education (London: SCM, 2018); and Nicola Slee, Fran Porter, and Anne Phillips, eds. Researching Female Faith (New York: Routledge, 2018), respectively. These books are beyond the scope of this article.
 Stephen S. Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
 See Mary Clark Moschella, Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice: An Introduction (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2008), 108–109. Institutional Review Boards offer one form of accountability, but ethical questions arise in the midst of research that require explicitly theological reflection and discussion. See Elaine Graham and Dawn Llewellyn, “Promoting the Good: Ethical and Methodological Considerations in Practical Theological Research” in Qualitative Research in Theological Education, Moschella and Willhauck, eds., 39–59. Theological Action Research, with its use of advisory groups, also offers structures of accountability. See Helen Cameron, Deborah Bhatti, Catherine Duce, James Sweeney, and Clare Watkins, Talking About God in Practice (London: SCM, 2010).
 These reflections are found in: Todd David Whitmore, “The Askesis of Fieldwork: Practices for a Way of Inquiry, a Way of Life,” in Qualitative Research in Theological Education, Moschella and Willhauck, eds., 76–99.
 Ibid., 88.
 A version of this article is reprinted in chapter 7 of Whitmore’s book.
 Jonathan A. Smith, Paul Flowers, and Michael Larkin, Interpretive Theological Analysis: Theory, Method and Research (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009).
 Stacy L. Mallicoat, Woman and Crime: A Text/Reader (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2015).
 This language comes from the Mission Statement of The Journal of Pastoral Theology, Taylor & Francis Online; see https://www.tandfonline.com/action/journalInformation?show=aimsScope&journalCode=ypat20.