Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Big Eyes: a theological reflection (on the power of fundamentalisms!)

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for May 2015, of Big Eyes.

Big Eyes

Big Eyes is a feel-good biographical drama, based on a true story, drawn from the life of contemporary American artist Margaret Keane. The title is a reference to Margaret’s approach to art, in which her subjects, mainly women and children, are painted with oversized eyes. While, it was a distinctive style that brought mainstream applause in San Francisco throughout the 1960s, behind the big eyes was a darker story that needs to be heard.

Big eyes are not only an approach to painting. They are also a posture. Two key scenes in the movie involve big eyes looking down the camera lens. In one, two males eye the paintings of Margaret and her husband Walter, debating their quality. This “big-eyed” scene sets up the early plot tensions, including the gatekeeping role of galleries and the patriarchal male gaze that would trap Margaret for much of her creative life.

In a second scene, toward the end of the movie, Margaret Keane eyes her art works. She is alone and this scene, in which pairs of women’s eyes gaze intensely, painfully at each other, artfully captures the big-eyed lies in which Margaret finds herself trapped.

Big-eyed is also a theological theme, a way to understand the movie’s portrayal of faith. As the movie reaches for its feel-good climax, Margaret finds herself lonely in Hawaii. She is befriended by door knocking Jehovah’s Witnesses. In a pivotal conversation, Margaret’s daughter (Madeline Arthur) asks the Jehovah’s Witnesses if their God is OK with suing.

The question results in the climatic court action, through which truth is told and justice enacted. It is a reminder of the ethics that result when one has faith in a “big-eyed” God who is understood as speaking up for the rights of the widow and orphan.

Director Tim Burton, his skills honed over forty movies (including Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland), continues to showcase his movie-making skills. Big Eyes offers some lovely directorial moments, including the appearance of the actual artist, sitting on a park bench in the background, as Walter and Margaret first meet. It provides an ethical reminder that this story is being told with Margaret’s approval, unlike the web of lies spun around her by her first husband, Walter.

The script writing of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewksi offers some memorable dialogue. These include the multiple levels of irony in Margaret Keane’s statement, that the eyes are a window to the soul and Walter’s delighted cry, “We’ve sold out” at the end of another successful art show.

The movie, in dialogue, plot and character explores the moral complexities of art and celebrity.
Alongside the fine performances by Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), Big Eyes provides a heartwarming, yet revealing, window into the soul of contemporary culture and an object lesson in the Christian affirmation that truth shall indeed set you free.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He is the author of The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan, 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 07:31 PM | Comments (0)

Monday, May 25, 2015

Activist research: an examination of lived practices Conference paper accepted

Delighted that my conference paper for the 2015 Ethnography and Ecclesiology Conference, September 15-17 has been accepted.

In this paper, I will be trying to unpick some of the complexity around studying the living church. Picture this – Augustine withdrawing his approval for you to use his Confessions in your research, because the letter belongs to him. The Ethiopian Enuch shuffling into your sermon on Acts 8, and putting up his hand at the end to ask a question of your exegesis of his community. Such is the complexity that surrounds doing ethnographic research on the church today – when our participants are still shaping the research process. I want to explore the limits and opportunities that result.

It will be my 3rd conference visit to Durham, having been there in 2010 (for the Fresh Expressions Research conference) and 2011 (for the first ever Ethnography and Ecclesiology Conference) and I’m looking forward to being in that beautiful, historic and compact city again.

Here’s the full abstract –

Activist research: an examination of lived practices in ethnography and ecclesiology

Implicit in the project known as ethnography and ecclesiology is a reconceived epistemology. The turn toward lived experience, along with a commitment to both empirical and theological understandings, ushers in a set of ambiguities. These tensions, while disturbing Enlightenment notions of objectivity, hard facts and replicability, if conceived accurately, can become a rich source of data.

One set of tensions is between researched and researcher. To focus on these interactions is consistent with the argument by Paul Fiddes that empirical-ecclesiological study is a shared habitus characterised by relationships in which Christ can be embodied (Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Studies in Ecclesiology and Ethnography)). It is also consistent with the particular complexities of empirical-ecclesiological study, in which, unlike historical-ecclesiological study, the researched are active agents.

The interaction between researcher and researched will be examined through the lens of activist research. Charles Hale defines activist research as distinct from pure and applied research, with implications at every stage of the research process.

This category of activist research as it applies to the interaction between researched and researcher will be examined in four different sites. The sites will include practices of both research and teaching, since both are essential to the academic “habitus.”

First, the research by Paul Bramadat of the activities of an Evangelical Christian Group on a Canadian University campus (The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Religion in America Life)). His theoretical commitments are disturbed as Bramadat realises that the community has welcomed him because of their desire to convert him.

Second, the research by Steve Taylor of an emerging church in New Zealand. During the research, the attempt to locate the researcher as objective and detached was challenged in a focus group as unhelpful for this community.

Third, the research by Robert Orsi of contemporary Catholic religious practices in USA (Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them). He finds himself questioned by a participant. How can he as a researcher understand the researched unless he shares their beliefs regarding the practices (of prayer) being studied? In each study, the researcher is challenged by the “activism” of the researched.

Fourth, the teaching of an undergraduate University topic, reshaped in light of the epistemological demands inherent in ethnography and ecclesiology. Changes included bringing activists into the classroom to present their research in a case study format and expecting students to engage in the class as “activist researchers.” Feedback demonstrated increased levels of student engagement and a redefinition of their understandings of ecclesiology. However it also indicated that the “activist” shift resulted in a more contested space between individuals within the classroom.

What becomes evident in each of these four studies is that activist research is a helpful lens by which to understand ecclesiology and ethnography. Categories of pure and applied are contested as the researched asks fundamental questions in the research of the researcher.

This provides a way to theorise the relationship between social science methods and theology. The turn toward ethnography and ecclesiology is based on a reconceived epistemology, in which research is relocated as a set of “activist” practices in, with and among communities.

Dr Steve Taylor, Senior Lecturer Flinders University and Principal, Uniting College for Leadership and Theology

Posted by steve at 08:32 AM | Comments (6)

Friday, May 22, 2015

the ever evolving bullet blue sky: U2′s innocence and experience

The U2 innocence and experience tour began last weekend in Vancouver. It included Bullet the Blue Sky, a song which had disappeared from the U2 360 tour.

This is fascinating given I have previously written about how Bullet the Blue Sky as a song has evolved over time. In “Bullet the Blue Sky” as an Evolving performance (in Exploring U2: Is This Rock ‘n’ Roll?: Essays on the Music, Work, and Influence of U2) I focus on a number of evolutions.

  • “See the Sky ripped open” describes the origin of the song, back in 1986. Bono asks the Edge to put the conflict in Nicaragua and El Salvador through his amplifier. They stuck pictures around the studio and the song emerged, as a contemporary psalm of lament.
  • “And I can see those fighter planes appears” on the Elevation tour, in Dublin, in 2001. It evolves from a psalm of lament to a moment of confession. A spotlight shines upward, searching for fighter planes, then focuses on both the crowd and Bono. Graphics note the worlds five biggest arms traders – USA, UK, France, China, Russia – which are then linked to the IRA and the British army. What was a song focused on American influence in Central America is now focused on all countries that traffic in bullets that rip on the skies of Ireland.
  • “Outside it’s America,” occurs in Chicago in 2005. A number of song samples (Jonny Comes Marching Home, Gangs of New York) are used. Bono adopts a number of theatrical postures, that reference prisoners blindfolded in the Iraqi war, while a fighter jet is projected behind him. This is followed by a prayer “for all the brave men and women of the United States.” It feels like a prayer of intercession, in which the impact of the war in Iraq is considered.

I then use theory of installation art to understand this evolving performance. I note the use of samples (song snippets, visuals, performance posture) and how these create connections and awaken communal memory. The work of De Oliveria, Oxley and Petry (Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses) is a rich resource. They talk about the creation of an experiential space which allows “a viewing of the self contemplating the external world.”

I apply this to the evolving performance of Bullet

The self can lament at the external world at Paris; the self can confess at Slane Castle and the self can both confess and petition in Chicago. U2′s use of sampling crafts an experience that allows introspection with regard to how one should act in the relation to the wider world.” (Exploring U2: Is This Rock ‘n’ Roll?: Essays on the Music, Work, and Influence of U2, 94).

The reappearance of Bullet in the new U2 Innocence and experience tour is thus yet another, quite distinctive, evolution. The lyrics undergo a dramatic change, with new verses written to reference not the conflict in Central America but talks in Davos and the use of cell phones. There is a song sample, which needs further discussion. What is most intriguing is what seems to be an interplay during the performance of Bullet between young Bono (19) and Bono (now). He seems to be “patting himself” down. The adolescent is engaging with the rock star, including the rock star so mocked for his social justice activism (including going to Davos).

This adds another whole dimension of “a viewing of the self.” It is a contemplating of the self in the external world, when young, and now middle-aged. This is perhaps what is at the heart of the innocence and experience tour, a self looking back. This introspection can allow a contemplation of what has become. Whether this is lament, confession or intercession depends on the actions of the self.

Importantly, having reflected, having “patted oneself down”, one is now freed to consider not only what one has become, but what one is becoming.

Posted by steve at 11:10 AM | Comments (6)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Trinity worship, breath prayers and researching Lonergan

I led chapel today and had the sense that it worked brilliantly, offering a space that for many, provided a deep sense of connection with God. It connected with a range of senses, including seeing (contemplating the icon), touching (choosing a symbol of vocation), hearing (each others breathing), tasting (the communion elements). Let me explain.

After referencing Pentecost Sunday and inviting a call to worship, I introduced the icon, “Holy Theologian Bernard Lonergan in the Mystery of the Eternal Processions of the Most Blessed Trinity,” painted by Fr. William Hart McNichols.

Lonergan Icon

I gave folk a few minutes in silence to consider it.

I then offered some explanation. I introduced a quote from Fred Crowe’s biography of Lonergan.

. . . in the welter of words that with other theologians it was his vocation to utter, Lonergan never lost [the insight] that theology can be done, must be done, that when it is done, we are confronted with mystery and bow our heads in adoration. Fred Crowe

I noted that I have been reading Bernard Lonergan as part of my missiology research in recent weeks. I described how research involves lots of reading and how as part of my research, I had discovered the icon. Which I have pinned to my desk. And how it then provided another dimension to my research, inviting prayer along with my reading.

I noted a few features of the icon. It references a painting by Lawren Harris, with Canadian landscape in the background. The light around the pine trees expresses a sense of God’s encounter with Lonergan’s vocation.

On the floor of the chapel I had placed books, pens, pads, name tag holders, white board markers, Bibles. I noted how in the icon, Lonergan was bent down in front of a book, a symbol of his vocation. I invited folk to pick up something from the floor that expressed their current vocation – as student, as lecturer, as administrator. Once collected, I invited folk to return to their seat and lay it down at their feet, much like Lonergan had. I then invited us, as Lonergan was, to look up, expectantly, attentively.

Suddenly each of us were engaging with the icon not just as something visual that we were looking at, but as something we were physically participating with. Our bodies were becoming more deeply connected.

I noted how in the icon, the Spirit spoke as Lonergan looked up. So what one word might the Spirit be wanting to speak to us, as we looked up from our vocations? Which meant that we all as a group had now moved into a time of lectio divina. We had move from sermon to prayer, from explanation to worship.

I maintained this space by introducing a series of breath prayers. We breathed in strength, freedom, hope and love; and breathed out exhaustion, self-doubt, distrust and hate. That sense of looking up, expectantly, attentively, was maintained through the in and out of our breathing. There was by now a palpable sense of God in the air as together, looking up from our individual and diverse vocations, we continued to connect with God.

A seque into communion then occurred, by inviting folk to place their symbol on the communion table. Our vocations were recentered by bread and wine. We continued to breath together as we encountered grace in the sacraments.

There were many people expressing thanks at the end, for the richness and depth, for the dignity given to the practice of theology, for the space to breathe in God. In just over 20 minutes, we had worshipped, prayed, participated in the sacraments, in a way that connected our ordinary and everyday vocations with Divine presence.

Posted by steve at 11:31 PM | Comments (0)

Monday, May 18, 2015

growing leaders by growing teachers

Now I know they will be read, I’ll do a better job!

Uniting College exists to grow life-long disciples and develop effective leaders in mission. In order to do that, we must begin by growing ourselves. This includes our skills and abilities as teachers.

Here’s one way this process works for us at Uniting College. Most higher education involves student evaluations. These are completed by students. The results are summarised and provided back to lecturers. Generally this is where the process stops. The feedback is useful. But what happens next? How do you encourage intentional growth as teachers?

First, along with the student evaluations, each lecturer is also provided with a response sheet, which they are invited to fill in. It has four questions.

  • Summarise the positive responses
  • What concerns did students raise about their learning in this unit?
  • What improvements will you make to address these concerns?
  • Any other comments or quality improvements for unit curriculum, teaching and learning?

Four simple questions that invite us as teachers into appreciative inquiry and to think more intentionally about how we can grow as teachers. The four questions that can be answered as simply, or as deeply, as an individual wishes too. The questions invite us as teachers to think about growth. Lecturers are invite to return these to myself as Principal.

Second, I read them. I reply to each one. I affirm the strengths I see, celebrating the commitment to the skill and craft of teaching I see. I provide comment on the concerns raised, sometimes suggesting they are being too hard on themselves, sometimes inviting deeper reflection. I remark on the desired improvements, noting trends I am observing – themes that emerge across the range of topics an individual teaches. 

I am wanting to individualise and contextualise, to let each lecturer know I care about their craft of teaching. Some of these emails replies are over two pages in length, as I engage with their desire for growth.

Third, all these individual email responses that I make to lecturers are de-identified and summarised. This report goes to our Ministry Studies meeting. As an entire teaching team, we consider the report. It is a snapshot of our collective strengths as a teaching team. It is a mirror on potential areas for growth. Together we wonder what we might do as shared and appropriate professional development.

Fourth, this information is fed back to students. They who have taken the time to provide feedback, are informed about actions that are being taken as a result of their feedback. We hope it encourages them by saying something about our commitment to grow as teachers.

It was this process that took up a good deal of my time today. It was this process that generated the comment with which I started this post; “Now I know they will be read, I’ll do a better job!” Because growing leaders begins by growing teachers.

Posted by steve at 09:25 PM | Comments (2)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mission and the Church “more information please”

I’m teaching a 4 day Mission and the Church intensive here in Adelaide, 16-20 June. Someone asked this week for more information, to which I responded:

I will focus the 4 days around 7 disciplines of mission (based on some integrative work by Bishop Steve Croft, former Fresh expressions Director, after he spent 3 weeks with the Catholic Archbishops in Rome talking mission)

1. The discipline of prayerful discernment and listening (contemplation)
2. The discipline of apologetics (defending and commending the faith)
3. The discipline of evangelism (initial proclamation)
4. The discipline of catechesis (learning and teaching the faith)
5. The discipline of ecclesial formation (growing the community of the church)
6. The discipline of planting and forming new ecclesial communities (fresh expressions of the church)
7. The discipline of incarnational mission (following the pattern of Jesus)

So there will be an introductory morning around what is mission. Then a half day each per discipline. I am using this framework in order to focus on mission as practise based, an integration of theory and practice.

The 5th day will be done in the persons own time. This will involve visiting a case study of their choosing, from around their context, in order to explore a grounded example of mission.

The assignments will focus around

  • the preparing of a set of Lenten Bible studies based on the WCC new statement on Evangelism and Mission (2012). This will ensure linkage with the most up to date mission thinking of the global church, in a way that is useful for ongoing leadership in mission in the church
  • a mission storytelling from across cultures. Each participant will be given a missionary from another time/culture and will be invited to “tell their story”. Again, this will provide a relevant resource for those involved in leadership in mission
  • applying learning to a case study, in which the course input and attached reading will be integrated

The classes will be shaped interactively. I will come with some stuff, but will work to ensure that needs of the participants will be a shaper of the direction of the class.

I will be involving two visiting lecturers, in order to broaden and enrich the experience. One  has completed PhD study on congregations and agencies and how those relationships might be enhanced. They will help us explore the discipline of incarnational mission, with particular application to how social justice and mission projects integrate with the life of the inherited church.

The other is doing PhD study on people coming to faith in Australia today. They will use this data to help us explore evangelism, by weaving in their cutting edge research into conversion today.

I want to find a way to reference every single thing I’ve written while in Australia in the last 5 and a half 5 years, so that an integrating thread through the time is my own mission thinking, whether in indigenous communion practices, community gardens, U2 concerts or art and spirituality spaces.

For more information or to enrol, contact the Adelaide College of Divinity.

mission of church updated

Posted by steve at 05:18 PM | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

accessible formation for transformation: Graduation 2015

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It was such a great night on Monday at the annual Graduation service. I came away deeply grateful for the organisation I’m part of, and reminded of the privilege of being involved.

Several things struck me that I continue to ponder.

First, the diversity of the student body. We graduated Certificate, Diploma, Degree, Masters and Doctorates. We graduated people who came to use having left school at aged 15. We also graduated 6 doctorates, which is a fantastic achievement over one calendar year. This suggests a very rich learning community, with people accessing education at very different, yet appropriately matched, levels of depth and engagement.

The graduate testimonies also bore this out. One graduate spoke of being a new Christian and finding clarity in their faith. Another spoke of how great it was to deconstruct their faith, to rip it apart in order to understand themselves and their world in sharper relief. These are very different points on a wide spectrum of stages in faith journey. It shows the potential of diverse courses to allow diverse people to growth. Conversely, it shows the limitations of limited offerings.

Second, the honouring of ministry in the guest address by Stuart Cameron. Stuart is a graduate and has gone on to very effective ministry in a range of contexts. He spoke of transformation and in doing so, reminded us that ministry changes lives. The stories he told were not “back in the day” but today. In a broken and divided world, ministry, and thus the awards being offered by us at Adelaide College of Divinity, are for the sake of a world renewed. It dignified ministry. In a world of secular solutions, here were another set of stories – of God’s work.

Third, it was fun. Just pure fun, getting robed up, making space to honour hard work, seeing the energy of the Big Year Out cohort, connecting with colleagues.

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Posted by steve at 01:04 PM | Comments (0)

Friday, May 08, 2015

Creative research

Traditional research methods are used to “avoid creativity” (179) Such is the provocative challenge by Helen Kara, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. She argues that traditional research value hard facts and replicability. In so doing, it ignores contextual specificity and limits the knowledge, experience and skills that many sectors of society can bring to the table.

Kara is an independent social researcher. As a result the book is practical, filled with examples of research. The focus is on four methods of creative research: art-based, technology, mixed-method and transformative. Each are tracked through processes of ethics, data gathering, analysing and communicating. The bibliography, running at 19 pages, is a reassurance that creativity in research does not mean a decline in quality and rigour.

I really like the way she includes a chapter on writing and another chapter on presentation. This in itself is a reminder that an essential part of research is how we communicate our thinking. As Kara explores graphs, art, technology, I was struck again by how narrow is the world of thesis and journal articles.

colouring outside lines I’m encouraged to read Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide alongside Colouring Outside the Lines. Celebrating postgraduate work in mission and ministry from the Adelaide College of Divinity 2010-2014 (more here). Many of the essays from our Adelaide College of Divinity post-graduate students are creative in their research.

Reading Kara’s Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide also brought to mind a recent post, in which I ponder activist research (one of the methods praised by Kara) and consider it theologically.

The church I serve, the Uniting Church, makes specific mention in it’s founding documents of scholarship. Paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union acknowledges that God gives to the church “faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture.” What is interesting is how these scholars (and presumably their research?) is placed in this paragraph within an activist framework. “The Uniting Church thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr.” In other words, the Uniting Church does not conceive of the stand alone scholar (or the stand alone theological college). Instead, it envisages partnerships among evangelists, scholars, prophets and martyrs. (Funny how we have theological colleges for scholars, but not colleges for evangelists, prophets and martyrs).

And the horizons, in the Basis of Union, for all these charisms is activist – “It prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.” The task of scholars and research is, in partnership with other parts of the body, to be a pilgrim people on mission.

Read more -

Overall, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide feels emancipatory. It wants to see all sorts of knowledge and experience woven into quality research, incorporated in ways that still value ethics, planning, analysing, communicating. Kara is aware that this requires risk, primarily for the status quo. But it does provide some intriguing possibilities, especially in seeking to integrate communities and leaders of communities into the real-life change possibilities that should be inherent in research.

Posted by steve at 01:06 PM

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

mission and the church intensive

I’m teaching a four day intensive on mission, June 15-18. It’s placed deliberately just prior to Presbytery and Synod, hoping to make it easier to access as study leave for ministers in placement. I will focus on seven practices of mission, with the use of case studies to ground and enrich.

mission of church updated (Updated 7/5 – After considerable mirth by my colleagues, my title has been updated from Dry to Dr.)

It will be the last intensive I’m likely to teach in Australia in my current season as Missiologist and Principal of Uniting College. So I’m hoping it will be a rich “teaching” swansong and an opportunity to pull together my missional reflection that has emerged in the last 5 years grounded in Australian soil.

Posted by steve at 06:48 PM

Sunday, May 03, 2015

research memo: How to evaluate mission? Using processions of mission in Preamble

Research memos describe what is being processed during a research project. They allow you to describe the research process and what may be emerging in the data. They can be written during and after research. They can be a few paragraphs or a few pages. Here is a research memo in relation to tomorrows’ presentation:

The Trinity as two processions in mission: a post-colonial proposal for evaluating ecclesial life
Monday, 4 May, Uniting College for Leadership and Theology Research hour, 4-5 pm

As I begin to analyse my data, the question of evaluation emerges. Simple measures for evaluation are numeric and financial. Do these communities grow? Do they survive? How are they sustained financially? I find these problematic. First, they don’t account for the richness of my data. Second, my methods are qualitative and numbers are quantitative. Third, the standards of numbers applied to fresh expressions are not consistent with those applied to inherited churches.

So I am looking for more explicitly theological measures. I wonder if a Trinitarian mode might help. First I consider God as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. This is promising. I can argue that my data shows a high degree of creativity and a high degree of faith sustaining, but less of an overt redemption. However when I read my widely, I note a wider theological unease with God as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. It runs the risk of turning God into a doing, not a being; of cleaving the immanent Trinity from the economic.

Then, by a process of curiousity, I discover the work of Bernard Lonergan, Neil Ormerod and Robert Doran in regard to the processions of mission. I read over eight journal articles and two books. This is most promising and a framework develops, by which I can assess my data. It would allow quantitative measures to be held with a qualitative frame. It unites the immanent Trinity with the economic Trinity.

However, I remain aware that I am reading men, from a Catholic and Western tradition. Thus there is an (inevitable) particularity about where they are doing theology from. I continue to ponder this. Is there any work done on the processions of mission from a post-colonial perspective?

Not that I can find. However, I can still work from first principles and primary data. The source closest to hand is the Uniting Church Preamble. While on Walking on Country, among indigenous people, I read again the Preamble. This is a most promising direction. There are indeed two processions of mission in the Preamble. However they yield quite a different framework by which to consider my data.

At this point, I remain undecided about whether to try and synthesis the two frames (Lonergan et al and the Preamble), or to keep them distinct. I suspect a way to progress my thinking might actually perhaps lie in my data. Thus my next task is to see what emerges from my data when these two frames are applied. But as it stands, I certainly have enough to present in my paper tomorrow.

Posted by steve at 09:22 PM

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Divine tracker: a reflection on Psalm 23

On Sunday I attended church at Port Augusta Congress. It was the conclusion of Walking on Country and it was good to end in worship with indigenous sisters and borthers. At the start of the service, the congregation was informed that I would be preaching. This was news to me, but I had been part of a discussion of the Lectionary text on the 4 hour drive from the Gammon Ranges (Adnyamathanha country) to Port Augusta, so I had been doing some processing.

What I wanted to do was
- expose the cultural lens we bring to Scripture (New Zealand sheep stories)
- name what we had heard as part of Walking on Country (the pastoralists)
- make sure that indigenous cultures had the “last word” (the story of Great Uncle Alf and the link to God the tracker)

Here is (my recollection) of what I said.

Today our Bible reading is Psalm 23:1 – “The Lord is my shepherd”.

At the start of the week, I heard these words from Scripture as a New Zealander. I come from a country with 40 million sheep and 4 million people. The shepherd stands behind the sheep. The shepherd has dogs, that bark and chase the sheep. So “The Lord is my shepherd” has a certain meaning. A God who chases me, with dogs.

On Friday and Saturday, I heard these words differently. As I visited the Northern Flinders, I heard of the arrival from overseas of pastoralists. They were shepherds. They fenced off the land. They stopped indigenous people from walking across their land. They hoarded the water holes. At times they poisoned them, to ensure water went to their sheep, not the indigenous inhabitants of the land that had been taken. On Friday and Saturday, I became ashamed to consider how these acts of shepherding might be linked to the Lord as shepherd.

On Sunday, as I was driving with Aunty Denise down to be with you here this morning, she told a story. It was about her Great Uncle Alf. He left his country here in the Flinders Ranges and settled down at Penola. He was a very skilled tracker. So skilled, he was employed by the Police to find lost people. When children got lost, it was Great Uncle Alf who time and again found them. Great Uncle Alf was so skilled, so valued, that after he died, the Police honoured him with a ceremony.

Great Uncle Alf, the tracker of lost children, gives me another way to understand “The Lord is my shepherd.” At times I am lost. I am cut off from God and far from my community. So I need God to track me. To do what seems difficult, near impossible, and find me.

So as we now move to communion, I invite us to consider together what it means to be found by God. “The Lord is my shepherd”; God is my tracker.

Posted by steve at 07:01 PM

Monday, April 27, 2015

Accepted – “Inhabiting our neighbourhoods: Plot by plot, plant by plant”

News today that my chapter on community gardens in urban spaces has been accepted for publication. It was written for the launch of “Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods”: a flagship publication of Urban Seed’s new Urban Studies Centre and was a proposal for a contemporary urban missiology for community mission.

The editors commented: “We really enjoyed this piece. One of us said, “The more I read the more fascinated I became, and I’m not into gardening!””

Here’s the abstract for the chapter, which I’ve provisionally titled Inhabiting our neighbourhoods: Plot by plot, plant by plant

Gardens offer rich insight regarding how we inhabit our neighbourhood. These include opening ourselves to the stranger’s gift, the slow, seasonal work of prayer-as-composting and celebrating life together.

This chapter begins by bringing the development patterns of two inner-city Australian community gardens into dialogue with Scripture, including Luke 10:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 3:6-9. Stranger’s gifts emerge when we act in ways that enable our community to be neighbours, both good and diverse.

These insights are enriched by consideration of two movies. Gardening with Soul is the story of an urban missionary who turned the lawn of her religious community into a community garden. Grow your Own is the story of a stranger’s gift that grows healing among a well-established British allotment garden.

The argument, from case study, Scripture and film, is that gardens provide rich insight, in practices, processes, patterns and postures, regarding how we might inhabit our neighbourhoods.

It should be out in the middle of the year.

The only major suggestion for change is to make the structure a little more like a garden. This involves making a little more room for wildness, less linear logic and more ripe vegetables and fistfuls of herbs! Which was how I presented the spoken paper, but in writing, sought to conform to a more academic style, so I will gladly conform!

I was one of very few academics present and I’m delighted to be able to add some missiology reflection into what was a gritty, community-engaged conference. It’s also the first time some of my monthly published film reviews (which now number nearly 100) have been woven into a publication, along with what is a personal hobby. So it all feels nicely integrated. It also brings to six the number of pieces of work written in 2014 that will now be published. A good year indeed!

Posted by steve at 01:06 PM

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Place-based theology

On Friday I sat listening to a PhD thesis being read. I was outdoors. The sky was cloudless and I was 8 hours drive away from the Uniting College classrooms at 34 Lipsett Terrace.

outdoors I was part of Walking on Country, an experience we offer at Uniting College, in order to ensure our candidates have an immersion experience in indigenous cultures.

But this year we worked to ensure the experience could also double as Towards Reconciliation, a unit in the Bachelors programmes we offer (as part of either the Flinders Bachelor of Theology or Adelaide College of Divinity Bachelor of Ministry). Hence a PhD thesis being read in the outdoors, under blue sky, rather than in the classroom, seated around desks and screens.

The research we were hearing was work done by Tracey Spencer on the history of Christian mission in South Australia. It is brilliant work – exhaustive, incisive and original in offering a post-colonial perspective on mission today. I’ve used it in my own work on indigenous communion practices (in Colonial Contexts and Postcolonial Theologies: Storyweaving in the Asia-Pacific (Postcolonialism and Religions)). And it was being engaged at the exact spot were the mission was enacted. .

It struck me as an example of place-based education. The term developed in the 1990′s and is used to describe learning that is rooted in what is local—the unique history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular place.

Place-based is not context-based. Context based seeks to learn within a student’s existing work context. The focus is delivery in situ, which is meant to enhance application and integration. Place-based affirms the local, not the local of the learner, but the local around particular place.

Walking on country from steve taylor on Vimeo.

Place-based theology meant that over the four days we visited place after place. We heard the stories. We walked the land in which the actions had happened. We discussed. We imagined we were one of the people we were hearing about, and then considered the implications for Gospel and culture, for tradition and innovation. Surrounded by reading and assessment, by being place-based, a very different education experience emerged.

As I drove home, I wonder what else in Christian theology could be place based?

Posted by steve at 10:25 PM

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Walking on Country 2015: educating the whole church

Walking on Country was one of the changes I worked through College as I began as Principal in 2012.

Now in it’s third year, it is envisioned to be a 3/4 day immersive, educational and spiritual experience of Indigenous culture, history, politics and contemporary lifestyle. It began focused on candidates. It has grown, and now includes a variety of ministry agents of the UCA, plus students of the ‘Towards Reconciliation’ Flinders University topic. As I said to someone today, we as a College are playing a role in educating the whole church, not only the candidate part of the church.

The aims are:
1. For participants to learn about the cultural, historical and contemporary life of an Indigenous community
2. For participants to explore ‘decolonisation’ of their colonised thinking and relationships,
3. For participants to develop conceptual, emotional and spiritual foundations for covenanting and friendships with Indigenous communities and the UAICC
4. For participants to commit to a journey of reconciliation with Indigenous Australians, and to the vision for Covenanting in the uniting Church.

This year we walk on Adnyamathanha country in the Flinders Ranges, and explore the dimensions of the Nguthunanga Mai Ambatana – The Lost Children story at Damper Hill. The program consists of preparatory reading, the immersion experience, and some form of post-trip action to continue to relationships begun with Indigenous people.

There are 19 people going. Even more exciting, I’m one of them, taking my turn as a faculty representative. And personally, saying my farewells to the Flinders Ranges, a part of Australia that I love.

Posted by steve at 05:25 AM