Thursday, March 22, 2018

preaching to a burgled church

Last weekend I was preaching at a local church. I arrived in the morning to the news that the church auditorium had been burgled overnight. The sound system and data projector were gone. With the Police on the way to dust for fingerprints, there was no way the auditorium could be used.

broken-window-1501606 (not an actual picture of the actual burglary)

The church had a hall and with 15 minutes to go, I suddenly not only had a whole group of strangers to meet and greet for the first time. I also had a church service to re-jig. My preparation had included a number of creative moments that relied on the now absent sound system and data projector:

  • the use of three art images to illuminate the Lectionary text, to be shown via the data projector
  • a digital file of a song for during the offering
  • a digital file of a song for the end of the service
  • a responsive contemporary Immigrants Creed

In addition, there was a hall to set up, along with the range of emotions that would be present. Which meant some rapid mental reshuffling and some interesting learnings.

First, at the beginning, the value of humour and a settling prayer.  As we began, I introduced myself, noted the burglary and that as a result, this would be a service I would never forget. So could we pause and in this new and unsettling space, take a moment to gather ourselves.  I then named some of the emotions running through me and invited God to be present. Doing this provided some instant connection and a sense of solidarity.

Second, at the end, as a key leader in the church stood to thank me for the worship and sermon, the comment was made “It is good to be reminded we don’t need a building in order to worship.”   In other words, the enforced shift provided an experience in which the shared realisation could emerge – that worship does not rely on bricks and mortar.

Third, thank goodness for hymn books. Yes, all the words for sung worship had been carefully loaded ready for data projection and these could no longer be used. But a stack of hymn books meant that we soon had something to sing. More importantly, everyone had something to hold, something familiar. This gave a sense of comfort. It also meant that the absence of the digital songs I had planned for the offering and the end of the service could be quietly dropped.

Fourth, the enforced shift made it easy to implement immediate change.  I was suddenly no longer the visiting speaker but the leader in an unfamiliar space. “How do you want the chairs?” was the first question. “Ah, circle please” I said, not sure if this was allowed. But in a new space, with no tradition, the churches were quickly arranged in a lovely relational, intimate arc. They say you need to build relationship in order to implement change. Well not in a burglary. So never waste a good crisis. Use it to enact different patterns of connecting.

Fifth, the value of being up close.  When it came time for the worship by considering three art images that illuminated the lectionary text, I announced that because of plan B – B for burglary, I would show three art images by walking around with my laptop.  I asked that a hymn be played quietly, and invited people waiting for the images to enjoy the music.  As I walked among the chairs, I noticed people leaning forward to look at my laptop. There was body movement, in a different way than if the images had been on a big screen. There was also often spontaneous comments, like “that’s the best one” or “is that a baby?”  When I mentioned the art images later in my sermon, I included these spontaneous comments, pointing to people and saying “you were right, it was a baby.”  Being up close invited a different type of bodily engagement in the act of seeing and contemplating, along with a set of interactions between myself and those present. All of this enhanced the sense of connection.

There was certainly truth in my observation that this would be a service I would never forget. It was a great morning. The burglary enabled a very different sort of worship experience, one which might in fact be remarkably useful for a church needing to continue to change.

Posted by steve at 09:24 PM

Thursday, March 15, 2018

theology and church as an actor in development

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One of my current projects involves responding to editorial reviewer comments on an article I’m writing on theological education and development. The article began as a paper I presented, with Phil King, at a conference on Christianity and Development between New Zealand and the Pacific in June 2016. I saw this as an opportunity to get to know the story of a key partner church and helping me think more wholistically about theological education in general.

Following the paper presentation, the spoken paper was turned into a written paper and submitted in May 2017. It is one thing to talk. It is another to set out your thoughts over 6,000 words as it tests the logic of an argument over an extended period. The written paper was accepted, subject to my responding satisfactorily to reviewer comments, for Sites Journal of social anthropology and cultural studies of the Pacific Region. It is scheduled for release in 2019. It will be good to be taking theology in an anthropology and cultural studies space.

Editorial review is a wonderful thing, for it ensures allows thinking to gain critical engagement. Horizons are broadened in terms of reading and as the forest is sifted from the trees. In responding to reviewer comments, I start by categorising them as major and minor. I then create a table, in order to note the work I need to do and provide an account to the editors of how I’m responding. Here is the table for this piece of work, as at 12 March.

taluapaperedits

So the last few weeks I have been working away. Here is some writing from today …

Helen Gardner (“Praying for Independence. The Presbyterian Church in the Decolonisation of Vanuatu,’ The Journal of Pacific History, 48:2, 2013, 122-143) argues that Presbyterianism is structured in ways that enhanced its ability to be an actor in development and decolonisation. A Presbyterian church is structured with a national assembly, regional presbyteries and local congregations and these result in a cohesive interwoven identity, encourage individual capacity building and ensure an alertness to context. An interwoven identity is possible, given the interplay between national, regional and local bodies. For Gardner, Presbyterianism is a way of organising that “transcended village and island boundaries … a political form that translated readily to the standards of contemporary democracy” (128). Each body (assembly, presbytery, congregation) has a shared governance group and these provide individuals with opportunities to develop administrative and political skills. The result was that ministers were able to play a significant role in a newly independent Vanuatu (Gardner, 142). An interwoven set of governance groupings enables grassroots voices to be heard. In Vanuatu this “allowed the [church] openly to back the call for independence, as decisions were made from the body of the church rather than imposed by a church hierarchy” (Gardner, 128).

Posted by steve at 10:07 AM

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Divine moves – my 8th U2 publication

I’m delighted to welcome this into the world of academic scholarship and U2 studies …

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U2 and the Religious Impulse: Take Me Higher, edited by Scott Calhoun, in the Bloomsbury Studies in Religion and Popular Music. The book has garnered some superb endorsements: “beautiful … smart … truly excellent … lively, provocative … wide-ranging, deep and thoughtful” from the likes of Clive Marsh, Head of Vaughan Centre, University of Leicester and Rupert Till, Professor of Music, University of Huddersfield. The book builds on existing work in U2 studies by examining U2 not only theologically, but in relation to the religious impulse, in particular in relation to sound, space and the affective experience of fans.

My chapter is titled “Divine Moves: Pneumatology as Passionate Participation in U2’s “Mysterious Ways.”” It began life at a Sarah Coakley symposium in 2010. The piece was re-worked based on feedback and then submitted for publication. It was affirmed by the editors but not accepted (apparently it messed with the purity perceived to be needed in the discipline of systematic theology). Then in 2015 there was a call for papers. In between, I had been reading Paul Fiddes Seeing the World and Knowing God: Hebrew Wisdom and Christian Doctrine in a Late-Modern Context and that gave me the impetus to develop the Coakley/Mysterious ways/Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture thinking further (here was my initial abstract). I rate this chapter the most difficult but most satisfying piece of writing I’ve done in relation to U2. In the chapter, I engage extensively with two systematic theologians, Sarah Coakley and Paul Fiddes, in dialogue with the development of Mysterious Ways. This involves tracing album covers, video analysis, live performance and U2′s place-based relationship with Morocco.

In summary, I have argued MW is a performed pneumatology, a song in which the Divine is a Passionate Dancer, intimately involved in creation, inviting us to participate in the mystery of movements that reach, teach and move

To make this argument has required a movement in two directions. Musically, what is the song saying? I have argued that U2 have a visual pre-occupation in 1991 and a sonic pre-occupation in 2009. The visual pre-occupation is clear when the design of the covers’ of the Achtung Baby album and MW single is analysed in relation to the video of MW. It makes sense of the use of the belly dancer in the live performance of the ZooTV tour. The sonic pre-occupation is consistent with the fusions of Moroccan music, U2’s hopes in recording in Fez and the “let me in the sound” themes of the NLOTH album. U2’s sonic search makes sense of the re-interpretation of the live performance of MW in the 360 tour. Hence internal factors, including the location of artistic exploration (for MW in Fez), shape live performance. Given this visual, sonic and geographic analysis, MW can be interpreted musically as a reaching for the feminine and an embodied, immersive participation in a reaching for the other.

Theologically, I have argued that God is not male, remote and coercive. Rather God can be imaged as feminine – moving, reaching, teaching – inviting us to participate in immersive, embodied, ecstatic Divine life. The work of two contemporary theologians, Sarah Coakley and Paul Fiddes has been considered. Both understand God in Trinitarian terms, as three movements in which the Divine is passionate, self-giving love and participates in creation in ways that are ecstatic, sonic and participative. Considering U2’s live performances of MW on the ZooTV tour in conversation with Sarah Coakley allows us to see prayer as ecstatic participation in the Spirit. Considering U2’s live performances of MW on the 360 tour, can be interpreted as God in three movements – reach, teach, move – with and for creation. A theology of sound allows us to see the interplay between Divine and creation as a sonic atunement in which all of creation is invited to freely participate in multiple ways. This ensures Christian particularity, consistent with U2’s stated religious beliefs, while providing freedom in which varying degrees of incorporative participation, from any and all concert goers, is possible.

Hence theology provides a way to parse the complexities of U2 and religion, offering a set of analytical frames that clarify the development in U2’s performed pneumatology. Equally, what emerges is a quite a different place in which the mystery of religious experience can be located. Live performances at a rock concert become a “thin place” for Divine encounter and ecstatic experience an ideal way to encounter the Divine.

It is my 8th U2 related publication – made up of 5 book chapters from 5 different international publishers, along with 1 dictionary entry and 2 popular pieces. When I began academic writing, I would not have dreamed that I would be published in places like religion and popular music. But as a theologian of culture, a missiologist interested in life outside the church Western and a practical theologian with a commitment to embodiment in practices, it has become a rich and life-giving vein of inquiry.

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“Saying no: U2’s response to the evils of the refugee crisis.” Zadok (in press).

“Divine Moves: Pneumatology as Passionate Participation in U2’s “Mysterious Ways”” U2 and the Religious Impulse: Take Me Higher (Bloomsbury Studies in Religion and Popular Music), edited by Scott Calhoun, Bloomsbury Press, 2018, 43-60.

“U2 Praying the Pattern of the Psalms in Paris.” Equip 30, 2017, 20-21.

“Let “us” in the sound: the transformative elements in U2′s live concert experience,” U2 Above, Across, and Beyond: Interdisciplinary Assessments (For the Record: Lexington Studies in Rock and Popular Music), edited by S Calhoun, Lexington Books, 2014, 105-121

“Public Lament,” Spiritual Complaint: The Theology and Practice of Lament, edited by MJ Bier & T Bulkeley, Pickwick Publishers, 2013, 205-227, (co-authored with E. C Boase).

“Baptist Worship and Contemporary Culture: A New Zealand Case Study,” Interfaces. Baptists and Others: International Baptist Studies (Studies in Baptist History and Thought), edited by David Bebbington and Martin Sutherland, Paternoster, 2013, 292-307.

“U2,” Don’t Stop Believin’. Don’t Stop Believin’: Pop Culture and Religion from Ben-Hur to Zombies, edited by Craig Detweiler, Robert K. Johnston and Barry Taylor, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, 125-127.

““Bullet the Blue Sky”: the evolving live concert performances,” Exploring U2: Is This Rock ‘n’ Roll?: Essays on the Music, Work, and Influence of U2 edited by Scott Calhoun, Scarecrow Press, 2011, 84-97.

Posted by steve at 10:13 AM