Monday, March 30, 2020

contagion – a theological review in a time of pandemic

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 140 plus films later, here is the review for April 2020. Touchstone have kindly given permission for me to place it online prior to print publication, given the extraordinary times in which we find ourselves

Contagion
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Contagion was released in 2011. It is available on iTunes and Google Play and at prices cheaper than a movie ticket. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, a “stay-at-home” theological film review seemed appropriate.

“Get ready for the future, It is murder,” sings Leonard Cohen in 1992. The song would make an apt soundtrack for the movie “Contagion.” The film, released in 2011, has in the last week, become the second-most popular movie on iTunes. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie dramatizes a medical apocalypse that has, in recent weeks, become our present reality.

A mystery virus, originating in China, is swiftly carried by airline travel around the world. Highly contagious, able to survive on door handles and drinking glasses, a global pandemic ensures.

In this future vision (and unlike our present reality), the United States takes the lead. Central to the drama is the team at the Centre Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP). They are researching (Kate Winslett as Dr Erin Mears), communicating (Laurence Fishburne as Dr Ellis Cheever) and testing (Jennifer Ehle as Dr Ally Hextall; Demetri Martin as Dr David Eisenberg). A vaccine takes months. Distrust of science, mixed with the conspiracy, accelerated by social media results, results in looting, panic and vigilante action. As Cohen laments, the future indeed is murder.

“Contagion” has two emotional palette’s. A cold and fearful first half, as initial heroines (Gwyneth Paltrow as Beth Emhoff) collapse and masked medical professionals seek (unsuccessfully) to contain. A more empathetic second half follows, as romance blooms and sacrifices made for the greater good.

The movie cleverly pairs characters – wife (Beth Emhoff) with husband (Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff); CDCP scientists’ female (Dr Erin Mears) with male (Dr Ellis Cheever). One sex will die, while the other will find creative ways to care for the next generation. Why, even in a pandemic, do gender stereotypes remain?

“Contagion” becomes an important watch amid the COVID-19 pandemic. What is made visible is the interplay between an unseen virus and a palpable human dread.

In the face of fear, we can choose anxiety. Believe social media. Distrust science. Surrender to conspiracy theories. Or we can choose to re-imagine. Open ourselves to love our neighbour as ourselves. Find different ways to care and connect through times of turbulence.

Churches have historically played an essential role in loving the sick. Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century, founded what historians consider was the world’s first hospital. At Basil’s funeral, the hospital he founded was praised as an institution of mercy in which “diseases are studied, misfortune made blessed and sympathy put to the test.” Such is Christianity. Science is valued, and research is respected. Kindness is evident, and greater love casts out fear.

We find ourselves in an unprecedented time in human history. Might the images of “Contagion” and the lyrics of Cohen accurately portray our emerging present? Or will the compassion of Mother Teresa and the innovation of Basil, mark the church as visible in the face of an invisible virus? Get ready for the future, it becomes our choice.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of First Expressions (2019), Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and 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 04:23 PM

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Annunciation in a time of Isolation

I write from home on lockdown eve. A national state of emergency has been enacted, and at midnight on the 25 March 2020, all of Aotearoa New Zealand has been ordered to isolate for the next four weeks. All over my nation, people are returning home. Parents are becoming teachers. Kitchen tables are now work desks, while fridge doors have new daily routines and economic fear gnaws.

Aotearoa New Zealand is not alone. As I write, more than 1.7 billion people worldwide, over a fifth of the world’s population, are secluding themselves at home.

In the calendar of the church, the 25 March is a Principal Feast. Hence on this 2020 lockdown eve, the lectionary texts revolve around the annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In Luke 1:26–38, the angel appears to Mary, announcing good news. God is conceiving life, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. In the tradition of the church, this announcement of God’s activity is in the context of seclusion.

This is beautifully portrayed in The Annunciation, an artwork by Filippo Lippi (1450s), that hangs in Room 58 of the National Gallery in London. Mary is (humanly) alone. She is seated inside a house, isolated from the outdoors by a stone wall. Behind her is stone stairs, suggesting further layers of enclosure. In front of her is the garden, although even that is enclosed. This is a woman alone and physically separated. Whether this was reality, we do not know. How much of this is patriarchy, with Mary entombed by external prejudices and cultural bias, whether from century villagers or fourteenth century is also unclear.

What is clear is that in this isolation, Mary is surrounded by Divine activity. She stares at an angel, who has slipped over the enclosed garden wall to kneel in respect. Above Mary is the hand of God, a motif present in so much baptismal art. Filippo Lippi presents the hand as breaking through the roof, a foreshadowing of the paralytic who will descend through the roof to be forgiven and healed by Jesus in Mark 2:1–12.

A bird hovers in front of Mary’s womb. The detail is extraordinary. A spray of golden particles issues from the beak of the dove. It is common in Annunciation art for the dove to be located above Mary’s head. Filippo Lippi provides a new intimacy, as the Spirit draws near to the womb the angel is blessing. Annunciation thus offers a theology of isolation.

First, what is clear is that a home is a place of encounter. Much of religious activity is centred on the church. We expect the Spirit to be present Sunday by Sunday as the faithful gather around the body of Christ. In the annunciation, God is present in the home. This is good news for the millions of humans currently in lockdown. As we gaze longingly at our gardens, God’s hand can enter our rooms. As an external virus entombs us, God’s Spirit draws near.

Blessed are the secluded
For they will experience God

Second, the house protects. The womb of Mary will house the son of God. God’s Spirit’s draws near, proclaiming favour on the womb of Mary. This womb will house the son of God. In the flow of blood and the bodily tasks of eating and drinking, Divine life is safeguarded. This is what makes Christianity radical, for in God, bodies matter. This is the genius of Filippo Lippi. Mary’s womb, that human body that will house the divine body, is inside a house. Do the stone walls enclose? Or do they protect?

Blessed is the home
For protecting of divine encounter

Third, in seclusion is new life. The word “conceive” is used twice (verses 31 and 36), as is the word “birth” (verses 31 and 35). So much of Christianity seems focused on death, yet the story of Jesus brims with new life. The Spirit that hovers over Mary is the Spirit that hovers over the waters in Genesis 1:2. It is the Spirit that makes birth again possible for Nicodemus in John 3:4–6. It is the Spirit that groans with creation in the pains of childbirth in Romans 8:22–23. In 2020, this same conceiving Spirit continues to hover over our locked-down bodies. Bonhoeffer wrote that in birth, God in Jesus Christ claims space in the world as a “narrow space” in which the whole reality of the world is revealed (Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer-Reader’s Edition)).

This narrow space that is the hope of a new creation is conceived in the four walls that enclose Mary. In 2020, the narrow spaces that are the four walls of our home might yet be the womb of God’s new creation. Might we emerge into a new world in which a universal basic income protects the vulnerable? Might we cultivate different habits, like sabbath and localism, which change the nature of global pollution?

Blessed is time
For in the moment is grace

Fourth, an agency is established. In Luke 1:26-38, despite being secluded, Mary is no passive passenger. She is an agent, choosing to open herself to God’s mission of favour. As she utters the words “Here I am” (verse 38), she is locating herself in the genealogy of God’s servants. She is taking her place alongside Moses in Exodus 3:4 and the prophet in Isaiah 6:8.

How might Mary’s agency be portrayed in art? What Filippo Lippi does is extraordinary. A close examination of The Annunciation shows a spray of golden particles pours from the beak of the hovering dove. An answering spray of gold golden particles issues from a tiny parting in the tunic of Mary. This is Mary “active and outgoing” according to John Drury, former Dean of Christ Church, Oxford (Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and Their Meanings, Yale University Press, 1999, 53). In enclosure, Mary is open. Secluded, she is receptive. This is the art of imagination, not the precision of science. Yet in the poetry is a theology of isolation.

Blessed are the isolated
For they participate in God’s conceiving

In time, Mary will be no stranger to sorrow. The years that lie ahead of her will be stained by tears and pain. God’s favour is no offer of a rosy garden. Yet on the Feast of Annunciation, we in 2020 find a theology of isolation. Enclosed in our homes, God’s Spirit is active. Entombed by the invisible, we have agency. In the narrow space in which we, as a global society, find ourselves, a new world might yet be conceived.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership and explores ecclesiologies of birth and conception in First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God. This post also appears on the SCM blog as part of their #TheologyinIsolation series.

Posted by steve at 09:15 PM

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

being church as public gatherings are shut down

In 2005, I wrote a book about a future church. In one chapter, I pointed out that the Bible shows that faith is transmitted in many ways. One way is through the Jewish synagogue pattern of meeting weekly.

However, the Old Testament provides other ways by which faith was transmitted. There were festivals, large scale community events that celebrated life over numbers of days. There were pilgrimages, with Psalms of Ascent to sing on journeys. Upon return, there were kitchen tables at which the experiences of festivals past was retold. At significant landmarks, stones were gathered in piles so that when curious children asked “What’s that,” stories of God active in the past could be shared.

In other words, there have always been other ways to transmit faith than by weekly gathered worship.

The COVID19 pandemic is an opportunity to explore these other ways. There are so many possibilities other than live streaming that weekly pattern. We are being freed to minister Word and offer sacramental leadership in other ancient ways.

Design do at home Easter services with recipes for feasts around the family table. Create prayers to turn the pilgrimage from the front door to letterbox into Psalms of Ascent and Descent. Design ways to share digital stories of God’s actions in times present and past. Offer asynchronous lectio divina using open source software.

Posted by steve at 09:38 PM

Friday, March 06, 2020

making matters grassroots impact #Kiwiangels

Kiwiangels I really enjoyed presenting at St Lukes Presbyterian yesterday. It was great to have the opportunity to offer to a local church and nearby ministers some of my study leave from last year. I took my presentation from Durham Ecclesiology and Ethnography Conference in September. I added in a 15 minute introduction to the variety of ways the church might be “making” – for good and bad – in the world today. I also generated some “free range” activities, to mess with the usual question and answer time by adding things to see, do and make. It was gratifying to overheard conversations as the evening ended plotting Christmas 2020 projects and I came away with the sense of being directly useful to the local church.

Making matters: yarn-bombing and craftivism in contemporary Christian mission

There was some very rich discussion, particularly around the materiality of knitting. The discussion was rich enough to generate 900 words as I wrote this morning, reflecting on the Incarnation in light of the useless yet playful act of yarnbombing knitted angels.

One of the unexpected blessings was becoming aware of the impact of my writing in the lives of ordinary people in the Presbyterian church. In October 2019, I wrote a column for SPANZ, the publication of the Presbyterian Church. Under the title “Making matters,” I concluded,

Are there makers in Presbyterian churches? Yvonne Wilkie, our Church’s former archivist, recalls knitted nativities in Presbyterian history. But that was the past, and we all now live in the present.

The instructions are online (https://www.christmasangel.net/). They are simple enough that, as part of my research, I learnt to make one. Is anyone interested in making and mission, with a downunder #Kiwiangels hashtag? Or are Kiwi summers now too busy and too hot for making to matter?

Last night at St Lukes, I met a person who told me she had read the article and promptly knitted 30 angels, which she gave over Christmas 2019 to her friends and neighbours. Each was thoughtfully and carefully personalised, an act of love. It was humbling to be made aware my written words and study leave research had contributed to a kinder world. Study leave research generates grassroots impact :) Yee ha.

Posted by steve at 09:58 AM