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

Monday, October 28, 2013

Spiritual Complaint: the theology and practice of lament

A new book just out – Spiritual Complaint, edited by Miriam J. Bier and Tim Bulkeley, in which I’ve got a chapter.

The book begins in human experience, the recognition that personal and communal tragedies provoke intense emotion. It recognises that in Scripture such emotions were given expression in complaints or laments. Bringing together biblical scholars, liturgists and practical theologians, this book begins to provide a bridge between these worlds in order to enrich our ability to respond appropriately to personal and communal tragedy and to understand these responses.

The writing of the book was a move toward genuine collaboration. Papers were presented in a context designed to encourage fertilisation and thus final drafts were encouraged to engage with the other contributors. It was an attempt at bridge building. Further, many of the writers had connections to the Christchurch earthquakes and thus the book becomes grounded in that reality, including liturgies of lament written for Christchurch (167-169).

There are 15 chapters – 8 explore Biblical texts, 2 explore worship practices and 5 explore lament in contemporary cultures – Maori lament, lament poetry of Burmese Karen refugees, lament in digital cultures, lament in pilgrimage through Israel, lament in rock concerts. The last chapter is mine, co-authored with my Old Testament colleague, Liz Boase, in which we explore the live performances of U2 after the Pike River Mining disaster and Paul Kelly after the Black Saturday Bushfire tragedy. We use the Old Testament genre of lament to analyse these performances and argue that culturally lament still happens, just outside the church. Here’s our conclusion (227):

A consideration of both the history of the performers – U2’s past use of songs as memorial or lament works, and Kelly’s frequent use of biblical allusions within his music – alongside the production commentary of the U2 concert, suggests that there was some intentionality in the creation of these lament contexts. In both cases, the lyrical wording and allusions introduced a markedly “Christian” expression of eschatological hope which potentially provided the language through which new beginnings might be made. These public laments may not resemble the typical biblical lament forms, but they do form a vehicle for the communal expression of suffering and grief.

I think it’s an excellent resource, an example of inter-disciplinary research that connects with everyday reality. What it needs is a number of companion volumes, in which the liturgies are tested, pastorally, and in which further voices are added to this particular human experience project.

Posted by steve at 09:38 AM

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Christianity and the University experience

Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith, by Matthew Guest, Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma and Rob Warner, is a just released, and totally fascinating, insight into the student experience of university. It looks at the context of the university as a site for religious expression.

It is based on a three year project. It attempts a snapshot of Christian students studying, and asks about their beliefs and practices. It also looks at how they interact with their environment. The research involved over 4,500 students, spread across 13 universities. It was then followed up by more indepth interviews, totalling 100, so that individuals tell stories in their own words. These include students, church leaders, chaplains and university managers.

“The lived reality of contemporary Christianity … is under-researched and commonly misunderstood.” (9)

The result is fascinating. The university is not a context that undermines faith. Rather it presents challenges, that are also opportunities. As often as not, these empower, rather than disillusion students. “The majority of students view university as having had a benign influence on their religious identity.” (8)

More to follow in coming days … In the meantime, what was your University experience like? Did it undermine your faith? Or did it empower it?

Posted by steve at 11:23 PM

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

praying our goodbyes: a book soaked in memories

Some books are soaked in memories. I pulled Joyce Rupp’s Praying Our Goodbyes off the book shelf yesterday. It offers a range of ways to grieve. This includes a selection of rituals for different situations that life deals us – terminating a relationship, feeling betrayed, farewell, living with constant pain. And for each, some Scripture, some prayer, some action.

The book has been so well used that as I opened it the pages fell out. I held them, remembering the times I’d used it – our struggles with infertility, twice in 9 months being turned down for a job I thought would be ideal, the pastoral transition away from a loved church family, some difficult work situations. And how different those situations seem now, 5 and 10 years later. Felt the pain, still. Yet realised, almost laughed in delight, at the different trajectories now in play.

And reflecting on the truthfulness of these words from Joyce

for the Christian, hello always follows goodbye in some form if we allow it. There is, or can be, new life, although it will be different from the life we knew before. The resurrection of Jesus and the promises of God are too strong to have it any other way. (Joyce Rupp Praying Our Goodbyes, 15)

Posted by steve at 09:02 AM

Thursday, August 08, 2013

life to the full, plucking duilisc

I’ve been enjoying reading Columba: Pilgrim and Penitent, by Ian Bradley – slowly, devotionally – over the past few weeks. Columba is a pioneer, setting off around 563 AD in a small boat with a few friends, from Ireland, to land on the west coast of Scotland. A little venture, that, with hindsight is now considered one of the most significant events in the Christian history of Britain. Columba was to found a monastery, now called Iona, which over the centuries was hugely influential.

I’ve returned a number of times over the last weeks to one particular poem, attributed to Columba.

At times kneeling to the Heaven of my heart,
At times singing psalms;
At times contemplating the King of Heaven, Chief of the Holy Ones;
At times at work without compulsion, This would be delightful.
At times plucking duilisc from the rocks
At other times fishing
At times distributing food to the poor
At times in a hermitage.

It’s such a rich and varied life. A reminder that life to the fully emerges from full of a wide range of activities. For Columba, fishing, gathering food, mercy, solitude, work, prayer.

And what is duilisc, you might wonder? Apparently an edible aquatic plant.

Posted by steve at 11:43 PM

Friday, July 12, 2013

Biography of Leonard Cohen: holiday reading

Holiday reading has focused on Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. It’s a comprehensive (at over 500 pages), yet elegant examination of creativity and contemporary culture.

I picked it up at Auckland Airport, suddenly aware I was on holiday with only some work reading in my bag. I’ve only got one Leonard Cohen album, a variety of artists singing his songs. He’s always seemed to me a better song writer than singer.

The book, with over 100 interviews, is an illuminating insight into a very complex man. He comes across as both incredibly selfish, yet highly disciplined all at the same time.

Here is Cohen on writing- and the relationship between creativity and perfectionism and deadlines:

It’s never come easily. I’ve never been particularly confident about the process and I was never able to exactly get what I wanted…And you keep notching your standards down…Not, is it going to be beautiful, is it going to be perfect, is it going to be immortal, Can I finish?” became the urgent question.

So one of his best known songs, Hallelujah, took five years to write, with around 80 verses in the editing process. So much for creativity as inspiration!

Consider also the reflection on the impact of his time in the monastery, including how the discipline becomes so important to the creative process:

It is a popular belief that an artist or writer needs an element of disorder, misery and improvisation in order to create…But the highly structured existence, in conjunction with his desire to forget who he was and overcome his ego, appeared to free up Leonard’s creativity.

Well worth reading!

Posted by steve at 04:49 PM

Friday, June 07, 2013

But is it theological? theology as celebratory, communicative, critical

What is theology? Earlier this year, I had an chapter – engaging popular culture then turning to work with one systematic theologian – turned down for a book project. The book, I was told, was in the genre of systematic theology and my piece, while imaginative and of a high quality, did not fit.

I sat in a post-graduate class recently, with a person doing an outstanding presentation on their research. It would involve talking to people about what God was doing in their lives. And the question was asked – but is it theological?

I have a friend with a passion to share the gospel. They want to be able to do this apologetically, engaged with the questions being asked by the culture, by everyday people in everyday conversations. They also want to do PhD study. Can the two mix? Can ordinary communication find a place? Again the question – what is theology?

Rowan Williams, in On Christian Theology proposes that theological activity occurs in three styles.

First, a celebratory style. For Rowan, this type of theology is nourished and nurtured in the language of hymn and prayer. Examples include the theology of the Psalms, the sermons of Gregory of Nyssa, the icons of Orthodoxy and the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Theological activity as celebratory occurs because of the intention, not to argue, but rather to “evoke a fullness of vision – that ‘glory’ around” which theology circles.

Second, a communicative style. “Theology seeks also to persuade or commend, to witness to the gospel’s capacity for being at home in more than one cultural environment.” Examples include Clement or Origin, engaging Stoic and Platonic thought with “enough confidence to believe that this gospel can be rediscovered at the end of a long and exotic detour through strange idioms and structures of thought.” Or more recently (for Williams), the use of Marxist categories in liberation theology and theological readings of feminist theory.

Third, such experimenting often leads to a degree of crisis. As Williams describes it “is what is emerging actually identical or at least continuous with what has been believed and articulated?” This becomes the critical style of theological activity, a self reflection on continuity and coherence. It can be conservative or revisionist and has two ultimate directions, one a nihilism, the other a rediscovery of the celebratory.

Williams observes that each of these styles of theological activity has a different public. Celebratory is for a believing public. Communicative is for those to whom Christianity, in both vocabulary and grammar, are strange. Critical often occurs within the academy.

So what is theology? Often it is deemed to be the third area, the critical area, among the academy. But using Rowan Williams typology, a chapter in a book that explores popular culture and theology is communicative theology. And researching lived experience of people, if they are inside the church, is celebratory and if outside the church, communicative. And a concern to apologetics, for the gospel in everyday life, is communicative.

Hooray for Rowan Williams and the place of hymn, icon, story, gospel, culture as well as textbook and academy.

Posted by steve at 06:00 PM

Monday, June 03, 2013

the place of repetition, of the word “just” in prayers

I’ve been enjoying Paul Bramadat’s, The Church on the World’s Turf : An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Religion in America Series). He enters, as an outsider, as a researcher, an evangelical group on a University Campus. He spends 18 months worshipping with them, talking with them, interviewing them. He even goes on a missions trips with them. It’s a rich introduction to researching lived experience, the actual practices of groups of people.

As a researcher, he notices the constant use of the word “just” in their prayers. Here is how he processes what he is observing.

It’s most common syntactical location is near the beginning of the approximately half of the prayers offered … For example, a customary beginning of … prayers is “Fathergod, we just come before you tonight to,” a variation of which might be “God, we just want to sing your praises tonight because we’ve just seen all the wonderful things you do in our lives.” This term seems to muffle the students’ demands somewhat, underlining their indirect and humble approach to God. Without “just,” their prayers would be comparatively bold. For example, they would be reduced to the overly direct alternatives: “We come here tonight to” and “God, we want to.” … By implying that the speaker is unable to finish a prayer because he or she is overwhelmed by the opportunity to communicate with God … emphasizes his or her respectful love for and approach to God.

That’s fascinating. The use of the word “just” reveals an inner humility toward God.

I think it’s a wonderful example of research. It is so easy as an outsider to look down upon the religious practices of another. But Bramadat tries to understand not from his perspective, but from the perspective of the group.

Posted by steve at 06:45 PM

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Studies in Ecclesiology and Ethnography series: a “down under” perspective

Today I took a break from the Sustainability in fresh expressions book project. I’ve written about 26,000 words, plus transcribed 10 hour long interviews in the last month, and I’m a bit knackered. Lacking sustainability! Plus there were a number of pressing tasks on my academic “must-do” list.

It was good, in the midst of a major book writing project, to pause and actually get something done. For those interested here is my conference paper abstract for the Christians in Communities – Christians as Communities conference (more…)

Posted by steve at 06:10 PM