Thursday, June 25, 2015

Book Review: The Faith Lives of Women and Girls

Book review: Done for Regents Review 6.2 (April 2015), Regent’s Park College, Oxford publication.

The Faith Lives of Women and Girls: Qualitative Research Perspectives, ed. Nichola Slee, Fran Porter, Anne Phillips. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013.

One way (for a male) to review a book on women by women is through a lens provided by a third woman. Drusilla Modjeska, in her study of the writings of Australian women describes the “enormous energy” required by women writers to maintain themselves intellectually and artistically (Exiles at home : Australian women writers 1925-1945 / Drusilla Modjeska, 15). She documents the essential role of one person, Nettie Palmer, in nourishing women writers and how her work as an editor created a supportive network in which women writers flourished.

It is a helpful frame by which to approach The Faith Lives of Women and Girls, edited by Nichola Slee, Fran Porter and Anne Phillips. Such an approach offers historical insight and encourages a respectful gratitude for their essential and nourishing role as editors and initiators of a supportive network in which research on female faith might flourish.

The Faith Lives of Women and Girls is part of Ashgate’s Explorations in Practical, Pastoral and Empirical Theology series. It consists of 19 chapters, all written by woman, all emerging from practical theology. Each chapter offers original qualitative research on the faith lives of women and girls, drawing on a range of approaches, including ethnography, oral history, action research, interview and case studies.
This alone makes the volume worthwhile. Reading as a minister, I found myself reflecting on my pastoral and ministerial practice. Anne Phillips chapter (God Talk/Girl Talk) offered new preaching resources, while Kim Wasey’s chapter (Being in Communion) challenged my hopes regarding the impact of women presiding at the Eucharist.

The book raised what seems a perennial question in practical theology, concerning the relationship between sociology and theology. Some chapters felt more sociological and descriptive than theological. Other chapters, like Fran Porter’s work on Irish women’s understanding of God (“The ‘In-the-middle’ God: Women, Conflict and Power in Northern Ireland) offer rich theological insights (including for my Easter preaching at a youth camp).
The quality of research and reflection did vary across the volume. This is perhaps inevitable in a volume that includes both experienced researchers and post-graduate students.

Studies of between six to ten women, as in Jennifer Hurd’s chapter on understandings of death (“The Relevance of a Theology of Natality for a Theology of Death and Dying and Pastoral Care) or Francesca Rhys’s unpacking of ordinary Christologies (Understanding Jesus Christ), raise questions about the place of sampling and representation in qualitative research.

The Faith Lives of Women and Girls lacked an overarching theme. The introduction suggested a distinct discipline. However the absence of a concluding chapter that synthesised a theme (or themes) raised questions concerning what makes feminist practical theology a distinct discipline. Is it anything that studies women? Is it, given that all 19 contributors are women, something done only by women? Or is it that 19 fine grained studies might, with the ongoing encouragement of contemporary Nettie Palmers, be the grit around which a pearl of great price, research resulting from the lived experience of women and girls, begins to develop?

I suggest the latter and look forward to reading further work from those who contributed to this important and ground breaking volume.

For application to fresh expressions see here.

Posted by steve at 07:16 PM | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Church and mission in multi-faith contexts

Ecclesial Identities in a Multi-Faith Context: Jesus Truth-Gatherings (Yeshu Satsangs) among Hindus and Sikhs in Northwest India, by Darren Duerksen, is a fascinating book. Part of the American Society of Missiology Monograph Series, it offers research into the church in a mission context. The focus is Yeshu Satsangs (Jesus truth gatherings) amongst Hindus and Sikhs in Northwest India. These are “insider” movements. They critique the forms of the inherited Christian church and want to experiment with new forms of church. Sound familiar?

Yeshu Satsangs embrace the Hindu bakhi tradition, an approach to religion that focuses not on elaborate temple rituals, but on devotion connected to a respected leader. They also tend to be multi-cultural, attracting people from Hindu, Sikh and tribal communities. In sum, “a less ritualized and more socio-religiously inclusive community that is part of the Hindu framework.” (52)

Three religious forces have shaped their emergence.

First, foreign mission. A glance into history shows that in response to early Christian work, Hinduism was revitalised. It engaged in reform which strengthened its (Hindu) life and witness.

Second, Dalit conversion. Widespread mass movement to Christianity has meant the perception that “Christianity is the religion of the Dalits.” (65)

Third, Pentecostal. They tend to offer an exuberant worship, led by charismatic, entreprenurial pastors. These forms of spirituality communicate more of a western culture. So, “the learned practices of eliciting God’s power, such as using words like “hallelujah” and shouting “praise Jesus!” (in English) perpetuates the perception that Christianity is “western” or Other.” (68)

We now turn to the emergence of Yeshu Satsangs. This is where it gets interesting missiologically. In light of this history, and in trying to understand their faith in their cultural context, these Yeshu Satsangs have emerged as mission experiments. Duerksen conducted interviews with 8 leaders and 50 followers (satsangis) and argued for a a number of distinct practices.
- worship using local forms and instruments (bhajan or kirtan). These provide an emotional tone and a more indigenous habitus
- objects like incense and coconut for communion; the blowing of a seashell trumpet as a call to worship
- a preaching style, in which leaders sit on a mat on a platform, the incorporation of phrases that are more Hindu or Sikh

The result is a church that has a distinct set of identities. These include a bhakti-influenced devotion to Jesus, the experience of God’s blessing and power, a careful discerning of evil and a distinct Christian witness.

Finally, Duerksen reads the book of Acts in light of the research. Acts is chosen because it is the story of the church’s emergence. Duerksen explores how Jewish Christian’s understood their identity, how they remained rooted in many of their Jewish practices as they sought to follow Christ. He argues that this approach, rooted in tradition and culture, offers a helpful way to understand the Yeshu Satsangs.

It is rich and fascinating missiology. It deserves to be placed alongside the literature for emerging church and fresh expressions, in a mutual search for missional wisdom.

Posted by steve at 10:22 AM

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

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

Monday, March 16, 2015

Tweeting Charles Taylor missionally: discussion questions

This semester, I’m Reading Charles Taylor missionally. Taylor’s work has been called “the most the academic event of the decade.” (here). He’s one of the most insightful cultural thinkers of our time and so I’ve offered a learning party – a invitation to read Taylor in community and to consider what it thus means to speak of church, mission and faith in a secular age?

On Wednesday, we focus on Taylor’s, The Ethics of Authenticity.

I chose to start here first because it’s short. At 120 pages, it is a much more achievable place to start than the 900 pages of Taylor’s, A Secular Age. Second, he was challenged to express himself as clearly as he could, so that makes The Ethics of Authenticity a good place to start.

Today I emailed the class with some preparation: my (current) list of questions I’ll be using to start discussion.

  1. Can you think of a story from your experience that illustrates one of the three malaises of society described by Taylor in chapter 1.
  2. Can you each please bring one quote (printed on a separate sheet of paper) that you really liked.
  3. “Each of us has an original way of being human.” (page 28; page 61).  Discuss.
  4. What is one question from the book you would most like to ask the group to explain to you.
  5. I have a friend who last year had a go at tweeting (160 characters max), a summary of every book of the Bible. It was a great exercise in summarising. So together, we will work on Wednesday on a twitter summary (160 characters) of each chapter.  So bring a draft prepared.  I hope we’ll actually enjoy this enough that we’ll decide we’ll actually tweet them.

I do hope that this last question will not only be fun, but will also develop student skills in summary. And it might well yield some terrific tweets on my twitter feed come Wednesday!

Posted by steve at 09:58 PM

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction Book review

“[H]ow remarkably easy it is for middle-class white Americans to be pacifist, since for many it need involve little beyond talking correctly.” So observes Healy, Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction (93) as he reads the version of Christianity being offered by Stanley Hauerwas.

Nicholas Healy is interested in what he calls the concrete church. What actually happens in churches and how can that enhance our theological study and method? In order to help him think through what he is doing, he engages with the prolific pen of Stanley Hauerwas. On the surface, both might seem friendly. They both care about the church, about the realities of being Christian in contemporary life.

But Healy’s Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction, in fact becomes a rigorous, sustained, yet respectful critique of theological project emerging from the prolific pen of Stanley Hauerwas. It’s worth reading for that reason alone, as an example of how to listen carefully and engage deeply with those with whom you find yourself disagreeing.

The book has five chapters. The first, an introduction, sets out how Healy plans to read Hauerwas. It is a methodology for theological critique, one that seeks a respectful, yet rigorous engagement. The second chapter works across 26 books written by Hauerwas, to argue that Hauerwas’s theology is church focused. The third chapter reads Hauerwas in conversation with Schlieirmacher. While at first an unlikely theological conversation partner, Healy argues that both have a turn toward the subjective and the church.

The fourth chapter reads Hauerwas in light of ecclesiology and ethnography. It argues that Hauerwas deals with ideals. The result is a set of distortions that ignore the complex and often rather messy realities of the churches’ actual existence, creates unrealistic patterns of discipleship that in fact unhinge from historic Christian understandings of salvation and grace. The fifth chapter develops in depth the impact of these theological distortions, mapping out the ways in which Hauerwas’s turn toward the ideal church is in fact deeply problematic, most particularly in relation to Scripture, authority and Christology.

I first came across Healy in my research into fresh expressions of church. I was looking for ways to develop ethnography to explore ecclesiology. (See Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography and Explorations in Ecclesiology and Ethnography). I wanted to know whether insights from ethnographic and sociological views of the church can enhance ecclesiological method and substance. Healy becomes a helpful reading companion in my quest.

  • He helps me think theologically. “Church practices therefore require us to reflect upon who God is and how God acts toward us.” (119)
  • He allows me to consider the work of God missionally, with the Spirit’s activity inside and outside the church. “If our intentionality is Christian, we can bend almost any socially-sanctioned practice into a Christian practice, even if it is not such to most people.” (119)
  • He reminds me that apologetics has taken a particular shape in contemporary culture, one that risks losing the value of apologetics as helping the church understand its own faith better. “Only in the modern period, when theologians seemingly lost confidence … did they mount cross-traditional arguments for our beliefs. (107)”
  • He pushes me to consider not only faith practiced well, but faith practiced badly. This includes ways to allow for the differences between and within church communities, to be honest about the multiple communities and relationships humans experience and the need for a “theological understanding of failure and mediocrity” (107) as part of being honest about being church.
Posted by steve at 10:33 PM

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Colouring Outside the Lines: Celebrating postgraduate work in mission and ministry

colouring outside lines I’m delighted with the publication of Colouring Outside the Lines. Celebrating postgraduate work in mission and ministry from the Adelaide College of Divinity 2010-2014. It profiles the unique work of the postgraduate pathway of the Adelaide College of Divinity over the last five years. (Uniting College, as a member college of the ACD, provides the teaching and supervision input for the postgraduate programme).

Colouring Outside the Lines includes essays from eight students representing the ecumenical student body (five different denominations). They provide a snapshot of action-reflection at the coal face of misssion and ministry across Australasia today. Many of the insights come from “missional experiences occurring outside of church and Christian framed spaces” (Barney, 52). In other words, as these students have located themselves at an Easter community event, in a community garden, as an artist working with the stories of the silenced, storytelling at a Fringe Festival. It also includes an introduction from Rosemary Dewerse and myself, the two postgraduate coordinators during these years. This introduction, along with a short conclusion, provides an intellectual frame for what is the ‘Adelaide school’ of postgraduate mission and ministry.

For a number of years we have wanted to find ways to publish our students work. This year six of our students presented at Australian Association of Mission Studies, with three of their papers gaining publication in a book resulting from the conference. Another student was published earlier in the year in Mission Studies.

Colouring Outside the Lines, published by MediaCom, provides a lovely way to end the year. For those interested, here are the Contents: (more…)

Posted by steve at 11:40 AM

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Church on the World’s Turf: faith in hard places

How do Christians engage with their world?

Paul Bramadat decided to answer the question by researching a student group on a Canadian campus. For a year, he participated in the InterVarsity club at McMaster University. He interviewed people and attended small groups. He even went with them on a month long mission to Lithuania. All the time, as he attempted to understand them, they attempted to convert him.

The result is The Church on the World’s Turf : An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Religion in America Series). It’s a sensitive and thoughtful reflection.

He argues that evangelicals are creative and innovative. They employ a complex set of responses. They create a fortress in order to maintain an identity. At the same time, they create bridges in order to be true to their understandings. Key to this is the student group itself – it creates a space in which this creative innovation can be encouraged, in which identity can be nurtured and connections can be established.

“By focusing on evangelicals’ creativity in the face of the perceived hegemony of the secular ethos, not only do we gain a more nuanced view of the resistance of marginalized groups but we also begin to see these Christians as the multidimenensional and imaginative people they are. At the very least, an emphasis on evangelicals’ enthusiastic and creative responses to perceived marginalization might help us understand why evangelical church and parachurch groups show no sign of disintegration and are almost the only sector of contemporary North American Christianity sustaining and even increasing its membership.” (Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf : An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Religion in America Series), 147)

Bramadat makes this argument has he explores attitudes to women, approaches to faith sharing, the understandings of the spiritual. It is a fascinating study, the first in-depth ethnographic study of a Christian campus group Bramadat was aware of (at the time of publication in 2000). It shows the richness possible when ethnography is used in research, the creativity of faith responses to the world around and the possibilities for religious groups to nurture robust relationships with their world.

Posted by steve at 06:44 PM

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sketches from a Nameless land

Shaun Tan’s Sketches from a Nameless Land: The Art of the Arrival arrived today. (I’ve blogged previously about Shaun Tan – about the richness of seeing The Arrival performed as music, about the missiology of hospitality I see in Eric (which I’ve used often in groups reflecting on mission).)

As with all Shaun Tan products, Sketches from a Nameless Land: The Art of the Arrival is beautiful – hard cover, great attention to detail. Shaun is a cartoonist and Sketches from a Nameless Land: The Art of the Arrival explores his craft – his inspiration, his sketches, the processes by which his amazing The Arrival was made.

I’m nevertheless fascinated by the sketchbooks of other artists. I love seeing the origins of ideas, the connections with real-life experiences, the myriad choices and problems – and the reminder of what attracts us to art and fiction in the first place, its ‘made-ness.’

I often talk in lectures about “showing your working” and I love trying to work out how others in my field – missiology and pop culture – originate ideas, connect with life and unpack their work. So it’s great to now be able to do that with Sketches from a Nameless Land: The Art of the Arrival. I love the creativity, the depth of reflection, the whisper of imagination.

Posted by steve at 12:22 AM

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Henry Lawson Fringe act as biographical theology

James McClendon wrote the fabulous Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology. He took four lives – Dag Hammarskjold, Martin Luther King, Jr, Clarence Jordan, and Charles Ives – and used them to consider church doctrine: how theology is illuminated and improvised throughout their lives.

On Saturday, I went to the Adelaide Fringe Festival show – Henry Lawson goes to Princeton – and saw a modern day version of McClendon’s biographical theology.

Ian Coats, one of our adjunct Faculty, completed his PhD at Princeton. He’s also a musician. He’s taken Henry Lawson, Australian storyteller and poet and put his work to music. Supported by a hard working band – violin, drums, double bass, mandolin – over an evening, it was a wonderfully rich musical event.

But alongside the music was the narrative. The songs were carefully arranged by Ian to tell the story of Lawson’s life. It was at this point that the biographical theology emerged, as Lawson’s life was plumbed for wisdom. While Lawson ended his life an alcoholic, other possible pathways were explored – mysticism, friendship, nostalgia, political engagement.

This gave hope. It was authentic, vulnerable and rich.

It also offered choices – how then will we live? And at this point, it became a superb example of biographical theology, of exploring a live listening for wisdom for living. Not through books, but through song.

Well done Ian Coats. Check it out – there are still two more shows, Sunday March 2 and Saturday March 8.


Posted by steve at 09:13 AM

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

After rain: art and a spirituality of encounter

Over the long weekend, hoping to escape work, I picked up William Trevor, After Rain: Stories. Trevor has been called the finest living writer of short stories. He writes with a goal – to “illuminate aspects of the human condition.” I might have read After Rain: Stories wanting to escape work, but spirituality is etched through many of the stories.

The most fascinating is titled After Rain. A young woman, nursing a heart broken by a love affair returns to a childhood holiday spot. With rain falling, she shelters in a church and is captivated by an artist’s rendering of The Annunciation.

She has not been in this church before, neither during her present visit nor in the past. Her parents didn’t bother much with churches.

Harriet becomes absorbed by the painting, by the colours, by the details she hasn’t noticed at first glance. It leads to change.

The rain has stopped when Harriet leaves the church, the air is fresher. Too slick and glib, to use her love affairs to restore her faith in love: that thought is there mysteriously. She has cheated in her love affairs: that comes from nowhere too. Harriet stands a moment longer, alone on the steps of the church, bewildered by this personal revelation, aware instinctively of its truth.

So, an uncertainty toward faith, but a move toward experience, toward truth, toward a changed experience in her world. It’s a turning point in the narrative, from which flows a healing, a restoration, a willingness to face life anew.

And a final sentence, in which the encounter with Annunciation is recalled: “the angel comes mysteriously also.” I took After Rain: Stories to escape from work. I found a faith, formed through art, expressed through words, appreciated in mystery.

Posted by steve at 10:18 PM

Monday, November 25, 2013

seeking birth in death: a new way of discerning fresh expressions

I’m currently reading The Faith Lives of Women and Girls. Qualitative Research Perspectives. Edited by Nichola Slee, Fran Porter and Anne Phillips, recently published by Ashgate, it offers 19 chapters of original research on key aspects of women’s and girl’s faith lives. It uses a range of approaches – ethnographic, oral history, action research, interview studies, case studies – to help explore faith from a feminist perspective.

I’ve got stuck on the chapter by Jennifer Hurd, “The Relevance of a Theology of Natality for a Theology of Death and Dying and Pastoral Care: Some Initial Reflections,” (Chapter 17, 195-205). Hurd is a minister, aware from her experiences in recent years that there are changes in attitudes and practices within church and society concerning death and dying. She sets out to research the pastoral and theological relationships between birth and death.

As a theoretical frame, she uses the work by Grace Jantzen on natality, who has argued that the predominant choice of western civilization from Graeco-Roman times to the postmodern age has been characterized by violence and death. Jantzen calls this “necrophilia.” The result has been destructiveness, fascination with other worlds to the detriment of this one, and an antipathy toward the body and sexuality.

Jantzen suggests an alternative, which she terms “natality,” one characterized by beauty, creativity, new beginnings, flourishing and love of life. Her focus is the potential to make new beginnings, evident in new birth. But not only about birth. All beginnings that are becomings that make for creativity, life, health and wholeness.

Hence the Christmas Carol, Angels from the realms of glory
Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar:
Seek the great Desire of nations;
Ye have seen his natal star:

Hurd then interviews people experiencing death and dying and argues that in these narratives is the presence of natality. She draws out four threads from Jantzen – embodiment, engenderment, relationality, hopefulness.

So why am I stuck?

  • First, I read Jantzen in my PhD and it has been helpful to my current writing to re-find her.
  • Second, with my dad dying, I’ve recently been through the valley of the shadow of death.
  • Third, I’m concerned about gender and leadership development.
  • Fourth, I’m fascinating by how change does, or does not happen. Hurd comments how “often, feminist theology has responded to the necrophilia of patriarchal church and society by declining to address death.” (Hurd, 199).

So why am I stuck? Well it’s got me thinking. You see, it’s so tempting, especially in church circles to avoid the hard conversations about death and decline, and it’s fascinating to read how Hurd argues that both death and natality are threshold experiences, a shared liminal experience.

“Undoubtedly, natal elements have always been a major part of Christian theology and pastoral care.” (205).

But Hurd finds natal elements not after the death, but in death, dying and bereavement. This includes a continued relationality, “contrasting with the ‘letting go’ which is sometimes part of pastoral care in bereavement.” (205) Which for me  is truly fascinating.  This is not a “letting go” of declining bodies (and by extension, dying churches). This is finding a new becoming in their midst.

What I’m pondering is not a “inherited church” dies, so that “fresh expressions” live. Rather lets explore natality in all of life – in ways that offer relationality, hope, embodiment, for all.

It also means that while death is inevitable, the process will not be seen as failure, but as a pathway through which new life is possible.

Posted by steve at 01:29 PM

Monday, November 18, 2013

Christianity and the University experience chapter 1 and 2

Introduction is here.

Universities are different. I’d never thought of that before but that’s the claim of Chapter 1 of Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith. This chapter places the context – universities – in historical and cultural context. It suggests six different groups of university, based on their founding story. The suggestion is that the founding story will shape the story, which in turn will shape the experience of being Christian. It’s obvious, but for me, quite illuminating. Each campus will thus require a unique approach, based on it’s story and physicality.  The chapter describes how during the 1960s, higher education was the fastest growing industry in UK. Then again in the 1990s, the number of universities jumped from 50 to 100. Then in the last decade the impact of marketization, diversification and globalization. The term “university experience” has become a driving force, positioning students as customers in a competitive market. The result has been McDonaldization (for more see The McDonaldization of Society: 20th Anniversary Edition) of education – calculable, efficient. This phrase, “university experience”, becomes a way to understand the way society has changed and the resultant impact on faith, in this case, in the particular context that is the university.

In other words, one way to understand the mission challenges of today is to research the contemporary university experience.

In Chapter 2, we settle into the question of what makes a Christian student. This is qualitative research (over 100 indepth interviews), so it begins with three students – Grace, Jerome and Eva. They share an affirmation of Christianity as their religion of choice. They view their identity as shaped by social relationships (rather than doctrine). This faith is something that is evolving in dialogue with their experience being University students.

Alongside the qualitative research is the quantitative data gained from surveying over 4,500 students. This is analysed by examining the practical expression of Christian commitment. A particular part of being a university student is that one belongs in two places – campus and home. This allows a mapping of how Christian identities are expressed in transition. From this emerges five categories:

  • active affirmers (26%) – are involved at church in both home and campus. They often have a theological and intellectual expression of faith, in which they are confident. Features include a belief in substitutionary atonement.  “This is the only category that includes unequivocally positive references to evangelism, although even these are few and far between.” (Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith, 42)
  • lapsed engagers (9%) – attend frequently at home but infrequently during term. They tend to include a disproportionate number of Roman Catholics, Anglicans and independent Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Being a Christian involves living a good life and following the example of Jesus.
  • established occasionals (14%) – includes a consistently occasional attendance whether at home or on campus. Yet, “[i]t is the category that includes the most Christians who have volunteered for political causes within the previous 12 months.” (Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith, 44) A degree of theological sophistication was evident in those interviewed, as was a following of Jesus example.
  • emerging nominals (16%) – this group attend occasionally at home but not during term time. While there is little evidence of a cynical from Christianity, for many certain aspects of Christianity lack sense.  However Christianity remains a ultimate framework for life.
  • unchurched Christians (31%) – this group attend neither at home or during term time. They make a moral association with the Christian life. They are critical of the Church as betraying these ideals and are uncertain of their childhood connections to faith.

Some summary conclusions are offered. These include the fact that “the more persistently and regularly engaged students are with church, the more likely they are to affirm doctrinally orthodox beliefs.” (Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith, 49)  This should not be overstated however, given that there are significant numbers in each of the five categories who believe they have become more religious while at university.

Posted by steve at 09:44 PM

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

a feel good moment: preaching a missional Jesus today

I walked into a cafe this evening to find a good friend reading this …

“I’ve got a book chapter in that,” I commented, pointing to Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement, edited by Mark Baker.

“I know,” he said in a surprised tone of voice.

“How did it happen? How did you get to be in a book with the likes Brian McLaren and CS Lewis?” he said, his voice still surprised.

How indeed!

When I began at Opawa Baptist, I wanted to help the church gain a deeper and richer understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Every communion Sunday during my first year of ministry, I took a different Biblical image of the cross – family, reconciliation, leader, martyr, new Adam. I preached on the image, and then wrote a communion prayer that connected the image with the thanksgiving prayer for bread and wine. It was a fantastic experience, to work Biblically and liturgically with the church around our shared understandings of communion.

I was also during that time lecturing at Laidlaw College and one day got chatting to a visiting scholar about the sermons I was preaching. He mentioned that he had a colleague, Mark Baker, who was putting together a book of sermons on preaching the cross. It was a followup to Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, by Joel Green and Mark Baker. People had said great theory, but where’s the practice.

How do you communicate a rich and deep atonement?

And so the authors’, Mark Baker in particular, were looking for sermons on the cross. The connection was made, my sermon was sent.

Some two years later, the book was produced, and I found my sermon – on 2 Corinthians 5:15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again being published, alongside a whole range of other sermons, including ones by CS Lewis, Brian McLaren, Rowan Williams and Frederica Matthewes-Green.

In my sermon I focus on Christ as the New Adam. I use contemporary cultural images from Whale Rider, from treaty signings, from famous individuals on banknotes, to explore how one person might indeed become representative for the many. It’s a book chapter, and a sermon, and a series, I’m still really pleased with.

One of the things I’m looking forward to in 2014 is returning to these questions – I’m doing a second semester course on the Missional Jesus, then repeating it as an intensive at New Life Uniting, Gold Coast, in November 2014. I’m looking forward to returning to my work on the atonement and to trying to explore Jesus with a very specific missional focus – Christ today.

Posted by steve at 10:12 PM