Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The church in question: from 3 Kiwi songs

church-in-question

Last week I was in Wellington for The church in question: A conversation, an event cohosted by Victoria University and St Johns-in-the-city. The aim was to provoke a broad-ranging conversation about the state of the church. Hence the venue was a pub, more likely to engender an open, lively, public conversation than a church hall. Format wise, there were four short (8 minute) talks from a panel of four, Dr Doug Gay, Dr Matthew Scott, Dr Susan Jones and myself, followed by Q and A. (Although for a few it was imore statement than question).

Church people talking about church people can become quite inward. So I got thinking about the questions the music I’m currently listening to is asking of church. I was surprised how easy it was to find songs – recent Kiwi music – in which the church is in question. So much for secular NZ society. So here is what I said:

world-church

There is a saying – “It is better to sit in the inn thinking about the church, than sit in the church thinking about the inn.” So it’s great to here tonight – in an inn – thinking about the church.

I want to think by listening to 3 NZ songs – all recent – all thinking about the church in question.

I could’ve taken a theological angle. As Principal of a theological College, this is favoured terrain for my students. I could’ve taken a new forms of church angle. I do in my 2005 book, The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change (emergentYS). I could’ve taken a leadership in change angle. I do that in my 2016 book, Built for change: A practical theology of innovation and collaboration. But in honour of being in an inn, I want to look at some NZ music. Three contemporary Kiwi songwriters, all reflecting on the church in question.

The first song is Waiting for a Voice, by Dave Dobbyn. It is from his Harmony House album. His 8th solo album. His first in 8 years. Released in March.

The first verse of the opening song has the lyrics

“I saw a stranger on the opposite shore
Cooking up a meal for me
And what’s more I Hear Elijah. Get into the water man and lose your sin.”

So there is food (cooking up a meal). There is religious themes (Elijah). Which drives into the chorus (Heaven is waiting for a choice, Waiting for a still, clear voice.)

So this is good news – there is divine encounter. But there are question. In a pew-based, front-facing performance, where is the place for “cooking up a meal” and see the stranger and listening for “still, clear voice.” A first Kiwi song. Divine encounter, but the church in question about the forms and practices by which we hear the “still, clear voice.”

The second song is One hand by Little Bushmen. It is off their Te Oranga, 2011 album. Their 3rd studio album. The final song, the lyrics of the first verse are as follows:

One hand raised up high
is it to ask a question, or to deny?
And one hand can turn the tide
from sorrow to divine

As with Dobbyn, the divine encounter is not in question – “And one hand can turn the tide from sorrow to divine.” It comes when there is room to raise the one hand to question.

The second verse brings the church into question

Two hands raised to worship
your deities wait in slumber
Those two hands, building Rome
seedy senate self implode

So there’s questions about 2-handed worship and about a church that partners with Rome, perhaps a reference to Constantine and Christendom. The bridge continues to bring the church into question. This time theologically:

I want to love my neighbor
though he’s a non-believer
He ain’t no sinner man.

Can the church practise love the neighbour and hold to belief in “sinner man”? So again in NZ culture, the church is in question. The divine is a reality, but only when linked with one hand raised in question, not two hands raised in worship. Can the church allow dissent and activism, a love of neighbourhood beyond a “sinner man” theology?

A third song is from SJD – Sean Donnelly. From his 7th album. Released 2015. As with Dobbyn and Little Bushmen, there is plenty of space for the divine. It begins with the album title – Saint John Divine – referencing presumably the 15th century Spanish theologian and mystic.

The second to last song on the album is titled “Through the Valley” and the chorus rifts off the Lords prayer “It will be accomplished on earth as it is heaven (chorus).” The song starts sounding hymn like. Lest we think this is only about funerals – singing the Lord is my shepherd – as a loved one goes through the valley, the lyrics describe what could be Pentecostal church.

“The laying on of hands will commence with the prayer
Still you stumble to the front,
When we call out,
Call out backsliders and sinners.”

But SJD often has his tongue in his cheek. He tells the NZ Herald that the song brings the church into question – “As a teenager I had some involvement with churches … it wasn’t really for me, and the song is about that disconnect.” So once again, in contemporary NZ culture, allegedly secular, we find the church in question; linked with funerals and Pentecostal altar calls, but disconnected from young people.

At the risk of offering nothing more than a questions -What forms of church cultivate hearing the still clear voice? Is there room for 1 hand raised in question? Can faith be more than alien to young people? -let me end by turning to the research from Nancy Ammerman, (Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life) one of the most comprehensive contemporary studies of spirituality.

She concludes

  • First, that contemporary faith is a lot more interesting than counting prayer and church attendance. As we see by listening to 3 Kiwi songs
  • Second, that religion and spirituality are not binary opposites but overlapping quests. Hence the struggles we hear in each of our 3 Kiwi songs
  • Third, that the stronger the connection between everyday life and community, the richer. Hence the plea in Little Bushman, for a faith in which the one hand can question and activate.
  • Fourth, that for many, many people, life is more than ordinary. As we see with Dave Dobbyn.

Some thoughts as I sit in the inn, thinking about church, in the inn, listening to contemporary Kiwi music.

Posted by steve at 07:09 PM | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Poi E: The Story of our Song: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 100 plus films later, here is the review for September 2016.

Poi E: The Story of our Song

If Poi E – the song – is waiata poi, Poi E – the movie – is waiata haka, a challenge to how New Zealand sees itself. In 1984, New Zealand music was dominated by imports. In that year, of the seventeen number one songs, all but one was offshore in origin. On 18 March, Poi E a song by Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club, became number one. Without mainstream radio play or television promotion, Poi E would top the charts for four consecutive weeks, becoming 1984’s number-one single of the year. The song reentered the charts in 2009, and again in 2010, making it the only New Zealand song to chart over three decades.

Behind the genius of Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club lay a strong supporting cast that included a linguist and a local church.

Ngoi Pewhairangi was the linguist, a native Maori speaker committed to advancing her culture in order to ensure a genuinely bicultural nation. Ngoi Pewhairangi had already penned the 1982 hit song, E Ipo, for Prince Tui Teka. Dalvanius mixed E Ipo for Tui, turning his live performance into a recording that became New Zealand’s first ever number one song in Te Reo. In exchange, Dalvanius learnt from Tui of the lyrical gifts of Ngoi Pewhairangi. He took a tune to her home in Tokomaru Bay. Poi E – the movie – includes the playing of the first recording of Poi E. Dalvanius strums a ukulele and sings the lyrics gifted to him by Ngoi Pewhairangi.

The Patea Maori Club began as an initiative by a local Methodist church to encourage young people. Methodist Minister, Reverend Napi Waka poured his energy into the Club. As Jim Ngarewa said in a 2006 Touchstone interview, “Both the marae and the performance are important elements of Maori Methodism in Patea.” It is reminder of the influence that a local church, when it seeks to support art, culture and young people.

In producing Poi E, director Tearepa Kahi cleverly uses two techniques to ensure momentum. First, a set of scenes as Taika Waititi remembers and Stan Walker learns. Spliced throughout the movie, these scenes provide a narrative thread. Second, the clever way in which repeatedly the musical score runs on, despite the visuals changing. The result is an underlying musical continuity, consistent with the movie’s focus on song.

A few weeks before watching Poi E – the movie – I read the story of Flying Nun Records (In Love With These Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records, 2016). Author Roger Shepherd offers a David-and-Goliath-like tale, of local music struggling to be heard amid offshore imports. In 1984 – the year of Poi E’s release – this local record company achieved sales of $90,000, through promoting Pakeha bands like The Chills, The Clean and Shayne Carter.

In contrast Poi E – the movie – tells the story of Dalvanius borrowing money from local business to fund Poi E – the song. This is the waiata haka of Poi E: the reminder that local in New Zealand is much more than white boy bands and a Dunedin sound.

Today the Patea freezing works remain closed. Yet each week in a local church (now a cooperating parish), the Patea Maori Club still gather. May Pakeha accept the waiata haka of which their song speaks.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of 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 02:14 PM | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Let us sing (in harmonies) a new song in this strange land

Last week, I was asked to deliver a keynote address at the Pacific Island Synod, a gathering of Samoan, Niuean, Tokelau/Tuvalu and Cook Island communities from around Aotearoa New Zealand. I was asked to address the question: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? As soon as I received the invitation, I asked a KCML colleague, Malcolm Gordon, if he might have a song to sing. A few days before, I gave him the script for my talk and he responded with a yes.

The Pacific Island Synod ended with a feast on the Saturday evening. This included a number of speeches, in which gifts were offered. With Malcolm present, I stood and announced that we as KCML had a gift, that of a song, written specifically – new – for this occasion. I noted the theme – How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? – as a question not only for Pacific Island communities, but also for Malcolm and I as Palangi. Together, as diverse nations, we share a common quest, a shared mission, that of seeking God’s help in singing a new song.

lordssong

Malcolm passed copies of the music around. He noted he had a melody, but that the song needed harmonies. There was an instant murmur among those gathered, with so many fine voices and such a rich tradition of song among Pacific peoples. As Malcolm began a cappella, those gathered began to improvise harmonies. Together in our diversity we produced a new song.

As the Synod Clerk wrote to me later “It was a great moment when the place just broke into song. Thanks Steve and Malcolm for such a great finish to the day. We definitely sung a new song in this strange world.”

Posted by steve at 06:54 AM

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Mission possible: becoming intercultural by becoming children

I spoke this week at Mission Possible, an event organised by Asian Ministry of the PCANZ. Held at Henderson Korean Presbyterian Church, it was a privilege to be part of an event at which their were more non-Western speakers than Western. In response to the theme of Mission Possible, I offered 2 stories, one picture, one proverb and one application to KCML (Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership).

First, let me begin with a story of mission impossible. In 1987, I went to Hong Kong. For 1 month I served with YWAM (Youth with a mission), then for another month I worked with drug addicts. I lived on the outskirts of Hong Kong, with ten Cantonese men recovering drug addicts and an American. We worshipped, worked and studied together.

One day the American left for a day off. I was left, the only English speaker, with a group of 10 Cantonese speaking men. About midday, I heard yelling and stepping outside, realised the yelling – all in Cantonese – was directed at me. I spoke very little Cantonese. The person yelling at me spoke no English. I had no idea what he’s saying. I just stood there. Seeking any clues as to what was going on. Wondering when it would stop.

It was a moment when I became aware of the importance of bridge builders. Those who speak two languages and can stand between two cultures, who can help with communication and understanding, who provide different ways to look.

Tonight I honour our organiser, Kyoung, who is such a bridge builder among us. What a gift you are. Mission is impossible without bridge builders.

packedpicnicbasket Second, a story of mission possible. I have brought with me a picnic basket (well I did in the airplane in my suitcase, but forgot it in coming here! so please use your imagination). I used this (imaginary picnic basket) at the KCML graduation last year, at which David Kim (my interpreter tonight) graduated. Another bridge builder. The Bible text was Matthew 15, Jesus feeding the 4000. To help me enter the Bible story, I imagined a picnic. I even brought my own picnic basket.

We are the PCANZ, so I also asked Nathan Pedro, Moderator of the Pacific Island Synod, to bring a picnic basket. He brought a large mat, a huge fish and some taro. I asked Kyoung to bring a picnic basket. He brought a beautifully wrapped small box. So different than my picnic basket or that of the Pacific Island Synod. This is my second story. Mission possible begins when we celebrate our differences and embrace our diversity.

Third, I offer a picture, an art image. It is by Faith Ringgold, an Afro-American artist, of a church picnic. Each family has brought their own food. The picture asks a question. Once you sit on the mat, with your distinct and diverse picnic basket, how do you move? How do you get up off your mat and engage the mat of another?

In the picture, the answer is children. It is children who run to the Korean mat and taste the kimchi. Then run to the Pacific mat and enjoy the raw fish in coconut cream. So when we think about mission possible we need to ask: Who are our children? Who will run between the mats of the different cultures in the PCANZ. We need to value them. We need to encourage them. Let them go. Let them explore. Let them bring back richness.

Fourth, I share a Maori proverb – Nāu te rourou, nāku te rourou ka ora te manuwhiri. with your food basket and my food basket, the guest will have enough. We live in super diversity. In this city, mission is only possible when the church has bridge builders; celebrates diversity and has children.

Fifthly, this is our challenge as KCML. We as a core staff are a monoculture. We are all pakeha. All male. It is not enough for us to sit on our mat. It is not enough to rely on bridge builders, like Kyoung, or Don Ikitoelagi from the Pacific Island Synod.

We as KCML staff need to become children. We need to step out and move to the mats of other cultures and approaches to life. And so to challenge and grow ourselves, we are developing a KCML intercultural code of practice. These are the behaviours we need, in order to be children. There are 15 behaviours. Like

  • We will find theologians in the heart language of our students.
  • We will be open to different modes of assessment that suit cultures student.
  • We will take study leave in non-Western cultures.

We will give this KCML Intercultural Code of Practice to our students and place it on our website. We do this to hold us to account.

In the Gospel, Jesus calls us to be children. This is how disciples enter God’s Kingdom. This Code of Practice is what Mission Possible means for us. It calls us off our picnic mats to engage the rich diversity of other cultures.

Thankyou

Posted by steve at 10:26 AM

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Let Time Be Still

This is beautiful. ‘Let Time Be Still’ is a song by Greg Johnson, inspired by the words of poet James K Baxter. It is one of 12 songs recorded for 2000 tribute album Baxter: settings of poems by NZ songwriters. The backdrop is Jerusalem, up the Whanganui River, the centre of Baxter’s final years. The lyrics “matins making” chimes with the Catholic symbols – Mary and the crucifix – which complexified so much of Baxter’s imagination. The beat and vocals slow the tempo, echoing the lyrics, the dream of perfect moments in which time stands still.



Posted by steve at 12:10 PM

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Christianity and cultures in Asia

christianity and cultures in asia

This is one of great things about being at Knox, the chance to do missiology as a global conversation:

Christianity and cultures in Asia

SEMINAR SERIES
This series of seminars aims to encourage and promote research and publication on Christianity and cultures in Asia. It also aims to promote use of the rich resources contained in the Rita Mayne England Collection on Asian Christianity held at the Presbyterian Research Centre at Knox College, in the Hocken Library, and in other libraries around Dunedin.

May 26th Rev Dr John England:
Towards the Bright Pavilions: Approaches to the Study & Teaching of Asian Church Histories & Theologies.

Aug 30th Linda Zampol D’Ortia:
Jesuits in Asia in the 16th century.

Oct 13th Dr Sin Wen Lau
Title tbc

Dec 8th Rev Dr John Roxborogh:
A tale of two Seminaries: Ideas and Realities in the quest for Indigenization and Contextualisation In Theological Education in Malaysia and Singapore.

Posted by steve at 07:50 PM

Monday, April 11, 2016

Mahana: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for March 2016.

Mahana
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

He toi whakairo, he mana tangata.

The Maori proverb, translated in English as “Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity” is an apt summary of Mahana. Set in the East Coast in the 1960’s, two Maori families, the Mahana’s and the Poata’s, are locked in rivalry. Directed by Lee Tamahori (famous for Once were Warriors and Die Another Day), Mahana is an adaptation of Witi Ihimaera’s novel Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies.

The pacing is terrific, as screen writer John Collee turns 293 pages of Ihimaera’s prose into 103 minutes of silver screen. The rites of life, weddings historic and funerals contemporary, are the pivots around which tension is both focused and resolved. The ethereal beauty of the bee scene, with its haunting waita, is a rich window into Maori culture and the way people and place are interwoven.

While a period vehicle car chase and the annual Golden Shears provide authentic colour, the film is a reminder that life in 1960’s New Zealand was far from rural bliss. Mahana depicts family feuds and an entrenched racism that were a stain on the idyllic rolling green hills of our history. Mahana thus shares themes with Whale Rider, including drawing from Ihimaera’s imagination, being set in the world of East Coast Maori and depicting the courage required of teenagers caught in hierarchical patterns. Both Pai, in Whale Rider, and Simeon in Mahana, face the challenge of growing beyond a demanding and dominating grandfather.

In a Kiwi cast that includes Temuera Morrison (Grandfather Mahana) and Nancy Brunning (Romona Mahana), it is unknown Akuhata Keefe (Simeon Mahana) that steals the show. From Tolaga Bay Area School, the fifteen year old was in Auckland on holiday, when he was encouraged to audition. His repeated courage is the engine that drives the plot.

Turning from artistic excellence to human dignity, as might be expected in 1960’s rural New Zealand, religion is an ever present reality. Family meals around the Mahana family table begin with grace, while at the church, the priest buries and marries. Yet prayer and ritual seem unable to bring reconciliation in the family feud between Mahana and the Poata.

Instead, it is human dignity that provides freedom. It comes from Simeon Mahana. His belief in fairness and willingness to speak his mind are the means by which three generations are freed from their history. His courage is a reminder, from John 8:23, that the truth will set you free. It provides another way to begin the Maori proverb. Not “he toi whakairo” but “te hauto itoito pono tīari.” “Where courage and honest exist, there is human dignity.”

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: forthcoming) 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 05:00 PM

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Earina autumnalis: the downunder easter lily

easterorchid

Earina autumnalis, Maori name Raupeka, is a New Zealand native. It flowers in autumn.

Downunder, in the southern hemisphere, Easter is celebrated in autumn. There are no spring flowers, no Easter lilies, no signs of new life after the death of winter.

Instead we have Easter orchids. They flower during Easter. Although small and fragile (each flower is a mere 10-13 mm), they are a downunder sign of Easter life. They are strongly scented, one of the few NZ orchids to be scented. In the forest, they are as “the sweet aroma of Christ”; a sign of presence. The seeds are so tiny, they need an associated fungi to provide the food to germinate. Thus they rely on what goes before, just as Easter Sunday relies on Good Friday.

For a church searching for contextual faith, Earina autumnalis, the Easter orchid, is worth seeking.

Posted by steve at 06:57 PM

Friday, February 20, 2015

Welcome home: A song in which I keep finding added layers

It was announced yesterday that I’ve been appointed the new Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, serving the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. (The Uniting Church announcement has been emailed but is not yet online). I was in meetings yesterday, but here is some of the personal story behind that announcement:

In 2010, Team Taylor crossed the ditch, moving from New Zealand to Australia, from pastoral ministry in the Baptist church to founding Director of Missiology, Uniting College for Leadership and Theology.

The most helpful way I found to understand this call at the time was through the narrative of the man from Macedonia in Acts 16, who appears to the Apostle Paul saying “Come on over.” Paul is a missionary on pilgrimage and the shift “across the ditch” is the next step in an unfolding journey. There would be different cultures, but – like any missionary – the expectation of listening, serving, partnering with what God is already doing.

So began a season first as founding Director of Missiology, then from 2012, as Principal of Uniting College. In May 2014, we indicated to the Leadership Development Council of Uniting College that we would not be seeking an extension of placement in the Uniting church at the end of my fixed three-year term as Principal. It had been an enormous privilege to serve in the Uniting Church. It is very humbling to be invited to lead a different Denomination’s College, candidates and theological education. That’s a lot of trust.

But for family reasons we felt we needed to return to New Zealand. We had nothing to go to, but hoped that making this clear to the LDC would help with their ongoing planning. In order to give the LDC time to quietly do the long range planning they needed, while I informed the Uniting College team, it was news I did not at the time make widely known.

In October 2014, I spoke at General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. A number of things happened during that time that I found unsettling.

First, I was surprised how many people I knew, how many now ministers in the Presbyterian Church I’d been part of training during my time as Lecturer at Laidlaw College, Christchurch.

Second, I took a photo on my cell phone that would grow increasingly important over the next months. It was of two non-Anglo ordinands training for Presbyterian ministry, sitting together, leaning against a side wall of the hall where Assembly was taking place. At the time the photo was for me prayer; of thanks that God is raising up leaders across cultures, of petition that all leaders would find ways to move from leaning against the wall to the centre of the life of their church.

gift from Presbyterian Third, at the end, I was given a thankyou gift, a Maori toki. I can’t recall the exact words from the Moderator of the Church, but it was something along the lines that even though I was “across the ditch”, New Zealand was still home and so this gift was given in the building of friendship. The gift and words meant a lot at a relational level (and in hindsight, at a prophetic level).

In November 2014, the then Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership (KCML) announced he was moving to a new placement.

A number of folk from New Zealand contacted me in the following days suggesting I consider applying.

I did and was interviewed in late January. This involved a formal interview, a 50 minute lecture, a 50 minute presentation on current research followed by 50 minutes of questions and a number of informal conversations with key stakeholders. It was a very thorough process.

The vision of KCML, to equip church leaders for today’s world and their recent change journey around internships excited me.

Our oldest daughter, Shannon was moving to Dunedin to study Medical Science at Otago University. So the whole of Team Taylor visited Dunedin during the interview process, to provide moral support, to show Shannon around her new city and to wonder if we could imagine ourselves in this Southern clime. Kayli liked the feel of Logan Park High School. Lynne can complete her PhD (in missiology) from Dunedin.

The last 10 months have been difficult for Team Taylor. We’ve had to close a door, with no clarity about the future. We’ve had to live in an in-between space, at times quietly, while church processes moved at their pace.

Looking back now, we can so clearly see God’s love – to end up serving in a similar role (leading an organisation that forms leaders across a church system), in our home country, in the city where our oldest is already at University, feels a great gift.

“Crossing the ditch” back, I suspect I’m a few years “out of touch” with New Zealand culture. We’ve undoubtedly picked up a few Australian, a few Uniting Church, vowel sounds!

Our commitment is to do what we did when we came to serve the Uniting Church, to seek, across difference in cultures and denominations, to – like any missionary – to listen, serve, partner with what God is doing.

Posted by steve at 10:10 AM

Monday, May 19, 2014

Home, Land and Sea

This is a song I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. I’ve been trying to explain home to a colleague and my attempts have been a failure. So I’m left playing this video.



Home, land and sea, by Trinity Roots. This video was live, from the final concert of Trinity Roots at the Wellington Town Hall.

Posted by steve at 11:41 PM

Thursday, February 06, 2014

from Waitangi to Walking on Country

Today is Waitangi Day in my homeland. On this day in 1840, a Treaty was signed between Maori people of New Zealand and the Queen. While it is a times a contested document, it stills stands as a seminal moment in the history of New Zealand and in how two people’s might relate to each other. Over the years of my time of ministry in New Zealand, it provided a rich ground for reflection – in sermons, in prayer, in communion.

Today, here at Uniting College, in Adelaide, Australia, is the start of Walking on Country. It might be coincidence, but I don’t think we’d be Walking on Country without Waitangi Day, without the energy that Rosemary Dewerse and myself, both New Zealanders, both Missiologists, both shaped by being Kiwi, being Christian, both now here at Uniting College, have poured into this.

Today a group of about 20 people headed off to the Flinders Ranges, to the land of the Adnyamathanha people. They will be led by local indigenous leaders, to be in their world, to hear their stories. It is the 2nd year we as a College have run this. (See here and here and here).

It was a few days that had more impact on our life as a College in 2013 than any other few days that year. New insights, new relationships (including Pilgrim Uniting), new sensitivity. Thanks Waitangi Day, for pushing us toward Walking on Country.

Posted by steve at 11:08 AM

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

the pain and peril of living in exile: a theological film review of White Lies

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for November, of New Zealand film, White Lies.

White Lies
“White Lies” has the same producer (John Barnett) and original writer (Witi Ihimaera) as the now celebrated New Zealand film “Whale Rider.” Yet “White Lies” offers a far darker exploration of New Zealand’s bi-cultural identity.

The era is early twentieth century and Maori medicine woman, Paraiti (Whirikamako Black) gathers native herbs and provides medical care for her people, scattered throughout Te Urewera wilderness.

On a rare trip to the city, she is furtively asked by Maori housekeeper, Maraea (Rebecca House), to help her wealthy mistress, Rebecca Vickers (Antonia Prebble), keep a secret. Together, these three women generate the emotional heart of the movie, an interwoven pairing of life with death and death with life.

Initially, Paraiti refuses to help, chilled by the alien whiteness of the world in which Maraea and Rebecca live. Her mind is changed by subsequent events, a child birth gone wrong, during which Pakeha display a callous disdain for Maori patterns and practices. All of which is history, for in 1907 the New Zealand Government passed the Tohunga Suppression Act, which limited the services Maori could provide to their communities. For Paraiti, her actions will be an act of resistance, a way of restoring some justice.

This is an acting debut for well-known Maori singer, Whirikamako Black and she is superbly paired with Antonia Prebble, best known for her portrayal of Loretta West in TV drama, “Outrageous Fortune.”

Plaudits are also due to other New Zealand artists. The house in which Rebecca lives is a triumph for film designer, Tracey Collins, while the forests in which Paraiti gathers herbs and the room in which Rebecca gives birth, allow the well-honed atmospheric skills of Alun Bollinger to unfold in all their gloomy cinematographic glory.

Written and directed by Mexican born Dana Rotberg, “White Lies” significantly reworks Ihimaera’s novella, “Medicine Woman.” Maori carvers return to their work, reasoned Ihimaera, so why not writers? Despite the re-carving of words, the early scenes of the movie lack pace, failing to provide momentum the emotional centre deserves.

What unfolds in “White Lies” are three contrasting approaches to dominant Pakeha culture, each embodied in the three women: marginality in Paraiti, accommodation in Maraea, ultimate assimilation in Rebecca.

What is thought provoking is to then lay “White Lies” alongside the First Testament. Israel’s experience of exile offers another perspective on how minority communities activate resistance. We see marginality in the return of Nehemiah to a Jerusalem destroyed. We see accommodation in the book of Esther, her willingness to parlay her sexuality in exchange for influence. We see assimilation in Jeremiah’s injunction to build houses, plant gardens and take wives.

“White Lies” a century on offers little hope. Rebecca’s final decisions are chillingly bleak, while the forest gathering ways of Pariati are, in twentyfirst century New Zealand, long gone.

All that remains, as the movie tagline declares, is the reality that redemption comes at a price. Christians will ponder the crucial birthing scene, in which Rebecca hangs in a crucifix position, arms spread wide, supported by a watching woman, in the painful journey through which new life will eventually be won.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 08:22 AM

Sunday, March 03, 2013

nurturing the arts: arrival of complete boxed set

A thoroughly unexpected, thoroughly wonderful surprise this week, with the arrival of the complete boxed set of CS Arts magazines.

The vision of Chrysalis Seed was to ‘generate multiplying groups of artists in a subculture centred in Jesus’. The mission was to ‘equip artists to integrate their art and faith, and to reconcile art and faith communities’. For 14 years it existed as a Trust, with a principal mechanism including a magazine CS Arts.

Which grew, from 4 pages, to 52 pages, from black and white, to colour. It covered a wonderful array of topics, interviews with artists and curators, reviews, themed essays (including a few film reviews I wrote). It was free, always distributed widely, including to commercial galleries and studios. It drew praise and gained some very high quality interviews.

The focus was creating conversations with the art world, not meeting a Christian sub-culture and so it was always incredibly classy, in content, design and paper. The decision to make it a boxed set simply underlines the class, drawing attention to entire collection and the search for quality.

Looking through the editions, realising the growth, reading the range of topics, is struck me as a fascinating attempt at contextualisation – to have a conversation with a key area of culture. It would make an interesting piece of contemporary contextual research, to explore the themes over the time period, the sources it dialogued with, the way it sought to speak of Christ.

The Trust disbanded in 2010. Having started a conversation, it wanted to shift it from a centralised office with a magazine, to a grassroots set of networks.  This now includes

  • Four groups of Christian artists in Waikanae, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill.
  • A social network of over 600 artists and supporters.
  • A comprehensive library of art and faith materials available nationally to artists and students through Knox College, Dunedin Christian artists and activists networking throughout New Zealand.
  • Regional gatherings of artists.
  • All published CS Arts magazines available online (but not boxed:))
  • A monthly prayer newsletter for artists, groups and arts institutions.
  • Artists’ social network: www.csartspace.org.nz
  • An online community where artists and supporters of the visual arts meet and chat online, share ideas, news and information.

They have a forum here, a website here. All the magazines archived here. But not as a complete boxed set, because that will sit pride of place in my office! And maybe one day a research article. But not this sabbatical!

Posted by steve at 08:17 PM

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

the politics of Christian influence: Christianity and colonisation

James Boyce’s 1835 explores the Founding of Melbourne and in doing so, the conquest of Australia. Such books are essential reading for all those who care about mission and the witness of the church, because they allow us to reflect on the past.

Chapter 5: London 1835 includes a summary of the place of Evangelical Christianity in colonisation. “With the assistance of their …. [evangelicals] …. the British government became focused on the physical and moral welfare of indigenous people to an extent unknown before, or for the most part, since.” (37)

First, it helpfully notes that British Evangelicalism of the early 1800s should not be confused with present day American Evangelicalism.

Second, it notes the motivation. Once Slavery was abolished, indigenous welfare became a priority area of Evangelical concern. “Government control, along with support for enterprising ‘respectable’ settlers, was urgently needed to counteract the harm done to natives by lower-class European.” (38-9) This provides a contrast to the Domination narrative, which is often pinned on Christian colonisers. “The simple fact that evangelicals accepted that people had rights based on prior possession set them apart from the dominant settler discourse, which argued that the right to land arose from using it for farming.” (39)

This produced an ironic tension, that Christians supported colonisation because they saw it as “the primary means of ensuring that Aborigines were not degraded or killed by the lower order of Europeans.” (40)

Third, this advocacy on behalf of indigenous people relied on information. What happened in Melbourne and in the colonising of Australia, was that distance and lack of missionaries on the ground, meant that the Christian politicians lacked data to work for justice.

It’s a fascinating narrative about the relationship between church and society and the attempt to use politics for influence.

(New Zealand readers will want to read Chapter 7 – The Treaty, as it provides a fascinating analysis of a Treaty signing, both the politics and the processes, just a few short years before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. But that is for another post).

Posted by steve at 09:04 AM