Saturday, August 13, 2016

film and mission: Missiological approaches to the “Silence” of religious change

I’m presenting today at International Association Mission Studies, Korea. My paper is titled “regard as valuable”: Missiological approaches to the “Silence” of religious change. With the historical novel, Silence: A Novel written by Shusako Endo (1923-1999), being made into a film (release date as yet unannounced), I want to explore the possibilities and pitfalls when conversion seems fruitless, which it does in the context of Japan in the 17th century.

In order to engage Silence as a film, I will use Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film to provide a theoretical frame. I will then place Silence as film alongside a number of other movies that explore the fruitlessness of mission; including The Mission and God lives in the Himalayas.

I’m looking forward to bringing together my research in film and in mission. My conclusion is as follows:

The gift of Silence is that it allows us to see the face of Christ as death on a cross. To represent the fullness of Christ, both Christologically and missiologically, we need the “face of Christ” giving inspiration to artists at every stage of the Philippians arc. When Christ is the Victor, the “conversion-transformation” narrative is one of triumph. We do not ask art images of Christ the Victor or Jesus the baptised to express a complete Christology, expressing every stage of the Philippians arc. We let them stand as Christological snapshots. In Silence, we are offered an artistic gift, that of obedience to the point of death. This is a truthful missiology which voices Christ’s silence. Such is the Christological gift of Silence to missiology. It provides an essential snapshot, ensuring our accounts of conversion and transformation include not only narratives of triumph, but also narratives of solidarity with Christ’s silence.

Posted by steve at 12:31 AM | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Star Trek Beyond: 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 August 2016.

Star Trek Beyond
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Star Trek was born 51 years old, with a pilot episode shot in 1965. Being 51 in the entertainment industry means the need to win new friends while keeping old ones.

“Star Trek Beyond” delivers. For old fans, there is the familiarity of ship, crew and the willingness to boldly explore strange new worlds. In “Star Trek Beyond,” this means seeking to rescue a ship ambushed beyond the nebula. For new fans, the action quickly moves to warp speed, as USS Enterprise encounters the evil technologies of Commander Krall. For all fans, there is old technology, of motorbikes and VHF radio as weapons in the defeat of Krall. For Kiwi fans, there is Wellington born, Karl Urban as Dr Bones McCoy.

Being 51 means adapting to a changing world. In “Star Trek Beyond,” Sulu (John Cho) is gay, with a husband and young daughter. In addition, strong female roles are provided by the well-known figure of Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the introduction of Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), becoming a rescuer despite the previous pain caused to her in an ambush by Krall.

Being 51 also means facing death. The first line in the pilot episode of 1965 belonged to Leonard Nimoy (“Check the circuit”). “Star Trek Beyond” pays homage to Nimony, who died in 2015, aged 83. This involves memorial credits, along with the young Spock (Zachary Quinto) of “Star Trek Beyond” finding strength in a photo of the original Star Trek crew, Nimoy included.

It is one thing to face the death of an elderly man, quite another that of an acting colleague in the middle of the Star Trek reboot. Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov, died in a freak automobile accident in June 2016, aged 27. It makes poignant Captain Kirk’s (Chris Pine) toast to absent friends and the liquor taken from Chekov’s locker. In a Western society obsessed with youth, navigating the strange new world of death is an essential dimension of being 51.

Star Trek has from the beginning blended technology, action and philosophy. The pilot episode was considered cerebral and intellectual. “Star Trek Beyond” embraces philosophy by mirroring two scenes. Early on Captain Kirk meets with Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo). In deep space, he describes how easy it is for a Captain to get lost. As the movie ends, Kirk meets again with Commodore Paris. Again Kirk notes how easy it is for Captains to get lost in deep space, yet the strength he finds in human partnership. It makes the warp speed action between these two scenes the unfolding exploration of humans facing the existential fear of losing their inner compass.

It is a question Jesus explores in Luke 15. Three parables are grouped together around the experience of being lost. What emerges is a different mirroring, in which direction comes not from human partnership, but from God, acting as seeking shepherd, searching woman and waiting father. Whether the “distant country” of Luke 15:13 can be stretched to include the strange new worlds beyond the nebula becomes the question of faith for every viewer.

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 06:53 PM

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Our Little Sister: 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 July 2016.

Our Little Sister
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Our Little Sister” is a window into rural Japanese culture. It is a politely, heart-warming, albeit slightly surreal alternative, to Japan as industrialised, high-tech and fast-paced.

Three adult sisters share life in the family home. Together they have found a way to live despite being abandoned by their parents: a father who left for another woman and a mother who disappears for fifteen years, crippled by grief.

At their father’s funeral, the three sisters meet their thirteen-year old younger sister for the first time. In the face of shared grief, she joins them in the family home. It sets in motion the facing of an unfolding set of bitter-sweet, until then unexplored, memories.

“Our Little Sister” began life as manga. Manga is comic and cartoon, a Japanese art form read by all ages. It is big business, an industry worth over $5.5 billion dollars. Manga includes more than action and anime. It has spilled into commerce and comedy, history and horror, murder and mystery, sci-fi and fantasy. There is even a Manga Bible, published in 2006 by Next, a non-profit organization. It aims to appeal to those who no longer attend church or find traditional Bible translations less than accessible.

“Our Little Sister” is Josei manga, a genre aimed at women in their late teens and early adulthood. It began life as a monthly serial: “Umimachi Dairy.” Created by Akimi Yoshida, “Umimachi” means Seaside Town in Japanese. It suggests a rural idyll common among industrialised urban dwellers.

The attempt by director Hirokazu Koreeda to turn the episodic nature of monthly serial into a plot arcing over 120 minutes is less than successful. Three patterns of life are introduced. Daily, there is the preparation and consumption of food. Food is a setting for memory making and community building. This involves repeated scenes both at home as the younger sister is slowly woven into domestic life and at the local diner. What emerges is an approach to food not as recipe books and celebrity chefs but as knowledge shared in inter-generational making.

A second pattern is seasonal. The movie is structured around Japanese rural idyll. These include the cherry blossoms of spring, the plum harvest of summer and the capture of white bait in season. These weave further layers in the unfolding of memories.

A third pattern is generational. In “Our Little Sister”, these involve funerals and memorials rather than births and weddings.

Each of these three patterns amplify the dysfunctional distortion at the movies’ heart. Food, seasons and funerals create memories, each of which is distorted by the strangeness of four sisters live in a mono-generational family unit.

Mono-generational makes sense when your manga market involves women in their late teens and early adulthood. But as way of life it ends up becoming a somewhat surreal “seaside” diary.

“Our Little Sister” is well worth the watch. Despite the attention required when reading subtitles, the humour is rich, the characters rewarding and the crossing of cultures endearing, even if slightly surreal.

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 09:43 PM

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Urban farming

In this small thing is all of creation! God made it, God cares for it, God loves it. (A Paraphrase of Julian of Norwich)

-1

Plant this movie: the International Urban Farming Documentary was on at the Rialto this Sunday morning. It was an inspirational watch. A few scenes moved me to tears, in particular the vision for culture change possible in decaying urban environments.

Movies like this make sense of my first degree, Bachelor of Horticulture, my love for gardens and some of my research and writing into community gardens – like Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods: Plot by Plot, Plant by Plant

(Abstract):

Gardens offer rich insight regarding how we might inhabit our neighbourhood. This paper considers gardens in Scripture, start, middle and end. It researches the development patterns of two inner-city Australian community gardens. The story of each is brought into dialogue with Scripture, including Luke 10:1–12 and 1 Cor 3:6–9. The insights from this dialogue between Scripture and two urban garden case studies is then enriched by consideration of two movies. Gardening with Soul is a documentary about an urban missionary who turned the lawn of her religious community into a community garden. Grow your Own is the story of a stranger’s gift that grows healing among a well-established British allotment garden. Both point to the power and potential of a seasonal spirituality. Throughout this paper, beginning and end, is also woven experience—mine—into the place and potential of gardens in mission and ministry. The argument from Scripture, case study, film and experience is that gardens invite us and our neighbours to become good, plot by plot and plant by plant.

Posted by steve at 06:42 PM

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Jungle Book: theologies of creation and redemption

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 June 2016.

The Jungle Book
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

The Jungle Book is an unexpected surprise. What shaped as a well-worn tale for children is brought to stunning life by Disney’s dollars, digital animation and director, Jon Favreau.

There are two stars that make The Jungle Book shine. The first is technology. Bringing the stories from The Jungle Book to animated cinematic life is nothing new. It has been tried before, first, by Zoltan Korda in 1942, second in the Soviet Union in 1967 (celebrated with an accompanying postage stamp) and third as Japanese anime in 1989. What allows this latest visual telling to shine is technology. Shot entirely in a warehouse in Los Angeles, the film uses the latest in motion-capture filmmaking. The result is a human actor sustaining believable conversations with realistic-looking wolves, bears, panthers, orangutans and tigers. It is an act of human creativity simply wonderful to behold.

The second is Neel Sethi as Mowgli, the boy raised by jungle wolves. Sethi is the only visible human actor in the film. It is an extraordinary feat for a child of twelve years, let alone one that has never acted before, to sustain for 106 minutes, such an engrossing mix of courage and play.

The Jungle Book can be appreciated as a moral tale. Themes like stick together and never give up have been used by the Cub Scouts to encourage and mentor young people.

The Jungle Book can be read as political commentary. Shere Khan rules by terror, using random acts of violence to impose a fear-based fundamentalism: man-cub becomes a man, and man is forbidden.

The Jungle Book can be engaged as theology. The most overt reference comes through the peace rock. Shere Khan’s fundamentalism lives in tension with a deeper law of the jungle. When drought occurs and waters dry, a giant river rock is revealed. It is the peace rock. When that rock appears, all animals can visit the waterhole to drink in peace. It provides a way to understand the Christian Gospel. When the time of Messiah comes, a peace rock is revealed. When the three crosses of Golgotha appear, all of creation, animals and humans, can drink in peace from the waters of life.

A more disturbing theme involves theologies of creation. The Jungle Book reads like a modern day Psalm 8, chilling devoid of grace. Psalm 8 is written in two stanzas. One celebrates creation. Another celebrates human creativity. The Jungle Book has a similar beginning, celebrating creation as benign and beautiful. Swiftly, fear is introduced, the peace rock in tension with Shere Khan’s reign of terror.

The chill deepens when humans creativity is introduced. Humans have the creative, technological skills to make “the red flower” of fire. Such acts provide warmth yet wreak destruction. The entire plot is driven by this human use, and misuse, of one the four elements of creation. It is fire that enables The Jungle Book’s final enacting of justice. It is a chilling theology of creation, a portrayal of human creativity shorn of grace and compassion.

Posted by steve at 06:28 PM

Friday, May 06, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: 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 April 2016.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a wonderful tickle of the New Zealand funny bone. The people I sat beside wiped tears from their eyes, then as the credits rolled stood to applaud the script writing skills of director Taika Waititi and the acting of teenager Ricky Barker.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a road trip gone bush. Troubled teenager Ricky Barker (Julian Dennison) needs a home. At the end of a rural gravel road, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her silent partner, Hector (Sam Neill) are Julian’s last chance before juvenile detention. When tragedy strikes, Ricky goes bush. Tracked by Hector, their actions spark a national manhunt. At this point, with the end inevitable, interest is maintained by the insertion of the bizarre (extinct birds and selfie seekers) and creative rifting on pop-culture (Up, Goodbye Pork Pie and 1980’s Toyota advertisements).

New Zealand cinema has been typecast as dark and brooding (interestingly by Sam Neill himself), evident in the bleak cinematographic palate of a Vigil or the subject matter of Quiet Earth or River Queen. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a welcome reminder that rich veins of humour have always run through New Zealand cinema, from Goodbye Pork Pie and Came a Hot Friday to Boy (also directed by Taika Waititi).

What we are finding funny is worth pondering. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an adaptation of Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress. At the core of Crump’s books are men alone, a reference to the name of John Mulgan’s 1939 novel. In the literature of Crump and Mulgan, men are drift from conflict and commitment rather than embracing the emotional work required of long term relationships. Males alone are the core of Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The humour that surrounds Julian’s use of haiku is not only funny, but a reminder of emotional deprivation.

The sadness at the core of these constructions of being male is magnified by the shift in time. Wild Pork and Watercress, written by Crump thirty years ago, is contemporized in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. John Campbell reports for national news, while cell phone technology is used to track Julian and Hector. In New Zealand today, there are far too many Julian’s and the rate of child neglect remains unacceptably high. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a film well worth seeing, even as the lighthearted laughter involves themes that should weigh on our heart instead of tickle our funny bone.

Religion has a presence in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Director Waititi plays a church minister, his sermon a head scratching piece of nonsense. Shifting from funeral scene to plot development, Ricky and Hector’s act of going bush becomes a form of redemption. Isolation deepens the relationship between Ricky and Hector. The bush can bond. The result is a secularized affirmation of Christian understandings of the grace possible in creation and through relationship.

Go to Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Laugh until you cry. Return home. Commit to acting in ways that turn the tears of New Zealand children into laughter.

Posted by steve at 07:14 AM

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

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Spotlight: 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 February 2016.

Spotlight
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Spotlight” is sobering, yet compulsory viewing. It is the story of Pullitzer Prize winning reporters from the Boston Globe, who broke the story of Boston’s systematic coverup of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The statistics are heart-rending, with 240 Priests implicated and over 10,000 victims.

Take a moment to consider those numbers before you read on.

Lest Touchstone readers point the finger and say “Only in America,” we have in Australia the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. At the half way stage, the Royal Commission had received 13,256 allegations, half of which relate to faith based-institutions, some of which involve priests who served in New Zealand. Research indicates that levels of pedophilia are the same in the Catholic church as in the general population. What “Spotlights” uncovers is the ability of institutions to play “here – surely – no evil, so speak no evil.”

The script is superb. To ensure factual accurancy the original reporters were interviewed. The unfolding narrative, while viewed through the reporters lens, allows us to meet victims, abusing priests, and clever lawyers. The result is an understated movie, in which illumination comes through fact, rather than emotion. This is reinforced by the actors. Stars, including Mark Ruffalo (as reporter Mike Rezendes), Micheal Keaton (as reporter Walter Robinson) and Rachel McAdams (as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer) act in ways that preserve the spotlight for the victims, rather than the red carpet.

“Spotlight” illuminates dark places in both church and city. It is the church that in the movie is shown to have paid victims to keep silence, while quietly shuffling priests into other positions. It is the city, including press, PR and lawyers, that let the perceived “no evil” of the church outweigh the pain of each child. As lawyer for the victims, Mitchell Garabedian, notes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.”

The movie raises significant questions for faith. How to trust ourselves to be the church, if the church does this? One place to turn is the work of theologian and ethicist Richard Burridge. In Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics, Burridge asks how we can trust the Bible, given it was used to legitimate apartheid. Burridge notes four common approaches to reading the Bible. These include proof texting to provide rules, applying principles to life, finding examples to follow and following an overarching, singular viewpoint. Each of these approaches was evident in South Africa, both to legitimate and to protest apartheid.

Instead of giving up on the Bible, Burridge encourages a community-based approach, which insists that Bible reading occur in communities that are open, diverse and inclusive. This requires disarming the power of the pulpit and cultivating the “ordinary reader” through contextual Bible study. For Burridge, it was a lack of openness that lead the Dutch Reformed Church to justify apartheid Scripturally. For “Spotlight,” it was the lack of openness in Boston that allowed the child abuse to remain hidden. This becomes our challenge, to raise our children in villages that are open, rather than closed.

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 03:43 PM

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Suffragette: A theological film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

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 February 2016.

Suffragette
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Suffragette is compulsory viewing, a disturbing depiction of the power of patriarchy. The movie, directed by Sarah Gavron, is a fictionalised exploration of the fight for the right of women to vote in Great Britain. If follows Maud (Carey Mulligan), a working mother with a young child, who unexpectedly finds herself caught in a street protest. Amid, the shattered glass of a shop front window, she recognizes a fellow worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff.) Despite the protests of her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and threats from Polcie Inspector Steed (Brendan Glesson), she steps into the battle for justice. Forced out of home, imprisoned, brutally force-fed while on hunger strike, she embarks on an increasingly desperate quest for equality.

The movie is bleak, shot in tones of brown and drab. It is apt, given the film’s final statistics, which note the painfully slow journey toward equality. While New Zealand is a world leader, it was not until 1971 that women in Switzerland could vote.

Three places in Suffragette invite specific theological reflection. First, is the matter of unanswered prayer. The first time she is arrested, Maud’s son, George (Adam Dodd), prayed she would come home. Imprisoned for a week, his faith is shaken, both by Maud’s absence and the lack of answer to his prayers.

Second, is the ethics of protest. Are there any circumstances in which protest should become violent? This is the question around which Suffragette pivots. After years of protest through legal and political avenues, change has not occurred. The response of Suffragette is pragmatic. “It is deeds, not words, that will gain the vote.” Christian tradition has always been divided on the role of violence in the face of injustice. Martin Luther King said no, while Bonhoeffer gave his life as a yes. Historians still debate whether the violence of the women’s suffrage movement was justified. Despite the turn to violence in Suffragette, it was another sixteen years before women were given that vote.

Third, is the place of women in the church. Suffragette is set in England in 1912. Theologian Anne Phillips in her 2011 book, The Faith of Girls: Children’s Spirituality and Transition to Adulthood argues (nearly a century later) that the church remains church gender blind. Disturbed that it is mainly men that write about the faith development of women, Phillips talks to young woman about their faith. The experience helps her read the Bible afresh. She discovers richness in the vulnerability of Lo-ruhamah (Hosea 1), courage in the actions of Namaan’s slave girl (2 Kings 5(, faith in the slave girl in Philippi (Acts 16) and sacrifice on the part of the daughter of Jarius (Mark 5). Each are pre-pubsecent girls in whom the values of God are made visible. Hence Suffragette remains both a historic and a living challenge to the church. Will it value the spirituality of women? Or will it remain a place in which, to quote Inspector Steed, “their husbands deal with them”?

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 06:19 PM

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

99 homes: 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 December 2015.

99 Homes
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Together we approach Christmas. For many the story is about a homeless family being relocated at the whim of an oppressive regime. It is an understanding shaped by the Christmas story in Luke in which a census is legislated and a family has finds “no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

“99 Homes” is thus a contemporary Christmas Eve story. Recently unemployed builder, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and his family are evicted from their home in Orlando, Florida. The man representing their bank, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), feigns sympathy, insisting he is simply following legislative decree.

The film, directed by Ramin Bahrani, becomes a biting commentary on the post-2008 US housing market crash. Bahrani spent hours in foreclosure courts watching the legislative moves by which families lost their homes in snap judgements. Bahrani’s research is put to use as Nash, returning to protest, finds himself employed by Carver. As Nash explains to Carver, “America is a culture for winners, by winners.” There is more money in eviction than construction. This is the central tension around which the plot revolves. Is home a place of safety, community and memory? Or is home a commodity to be brought and sold?

“99 Homes” is wonderfully shot by veteran cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski. A highlight is a lingering shot of Nash, panning from gun and whiskey bottle to Nash sleeping by a swimming pool. As the ringing phone disturbs his drunken slumber, we realize we are seeing not Nash’s floating body but his reflection. It captures the helpless, lonely reality of one man drowning in what director, Ramin Bahrani calls the “devil,” the system of scams in which government and banking rules are manipulated at the expense of struggling home owners.

So where is Emmanuel, the God with us of the Christian Christmas story? The only direct reference to Christian faith in “99 Homes” occurs when Carver justifies his work of eviction to Nash. Carver applies the lens of church-as-building to Christian faith. There is, Carver practically notes, only room for a limited number of people inside the building that is church. Those left outside, those made homeless from the house of God, are thus required to help themselves. It is a “survival of the fittest” doctrine of election.

Another place to locate Emmanuel, God with us, is in the scene where Nash receives his first payment from Carver. It is cash to clean up a house the departing tenants have sabotaged by destroying the sewer pipes. It’s a baptism of excrement, a welcome to the real world. It represents another place to find Emmanuel, God with us, on the side of Nash as he adjusts his face mask and begins to clean up the worst of human the condition.

It is a reminder that those inside the church buildings must refuse to abandon justice and economics to those with a “survival of the fittest” theology. The world of evictions and economics needs people of faith. The One who so loved the World is Emmanuel, God with us in acts of initial mercy and the restorative acts of justice.

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 07:46 PM

Friday, November 13, 2015

Steve Taylor, “Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods: Plot by Plot, Plant by Plant”

My practical theology of community gardens is now online, published by Urban Seed. It is one of 16 contributions, which are summarised here. They were all presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, which was a grass roots missiology conference organised by Urban Seed on October 17-18, 2014. Conference contributors were invited to submit their presentations, which were then peer reviewed and copy edited, before being made available online – in order to enhance access.

-1 Here’s the summary of my contribution:

(Abstract):

Gardens offer rich insight regarding how we might inhabit our neighbourhood. This paper considers gardens in Scripture, start, middle and end. It researches the development patterns of two inner-city Australian community gardens. The story of each is brought into dialogue with Scripture, including Luke 10:1–12 and 1 Cor 3:6–9. The insights from this dialogue between Scripture and two urban garden case studies is then enriched by consideration of two movies. Gardening with Soul is a documentary about an urban missionary who turned the lawn of her religious community into a community garden. Grow your Own is the story of a stranger’s gift that grows healing among a well-established British allotment garden. Both point to the power and potential of a seasonal spirituality. Throughout this paper, beginning and end, is also woven experience—mine—into the place and potential of gardens in mission and ministry. The argument from Scripture, case study, film and experience is that gardens invite us and our neighbours to become good, plot by plot and plant by plant.

In this small thing is all of creation! God made it, God cares for it, God loves it. (A Paraphrase of Julian of Norwich)

In some ways, “Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods: Plot by Plot, Plant by Plant” is is something I’ve been writing all my life. It became words because I wanted to reflect missiologically on community ministry, specifically community gardens. There is my personal interest in gardening, woven with research into inner-city community gardens, Scriptural reflection and my film reviewing. It is online here.

Posted by steve at 07:01 AM

Thursday, October 29, 2015

“regard as valuable”: Missiological approaches to the “Silence” of religious change

Abstract (1) for 14th Assembly of International Association of Mission Studies, August 11–17, 2016, Seoul, South Korea

Conference theme: Conversions and Transformations: Missiological Approaches to Religious Change

Title: “regard as valuable”: Missiological approaches to the “Silence” of religious change

Accounts of conversion and transformation within the Christian tradition are often linked to narratives of success and expansion. Yet a truthful missiology needs to engage the entirety of the Christian story. Silence is a historical novel that offers an absorbing, albeit bleak, meditation on the inability of the seventeenth century Jesuit mission to establish religious change on Japanese soil.

The book is currently being made into a movie. Directed by Martin Scorsese and due for release in 2016, it will undoubtedly rekindle debate regarding conversion and transformation, including how to understand the mission in the gaps and silences of history.

This paper will examine three missiological approaches.

First, the work of Donald McGavran who has argued that lack of success in conversion and transformation is due to the strategies being deployed, particularly a lack of resources focused on evangelism.

Second, the work of David Bosch who has argued that suffering is at the core of Christian mission and that silence can be an evangelistic action.

Third, the work of Philip Jenkins who has argued that the Christian understanding of Easter, in both death and resurrection, is a more Christian paradigm for understanding religious change than that of progress.

Each of these missiological approaches to religious change will be applied to Silence, both the novel and movie (if released in time). The argument is that missiological approaches that speak of silence are consistent with the Apostle Paul, who asks the church in Philippi to “regard as valuable” the story of Epaphroditus.

Posted by steve at 10:15 AM

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The gift: 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 October 2015.

The Gift
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

It is a very ordinary domestic beginning. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to California. Buying houses, finding furniture, they unexpectedly met Gordo, a former high school classmate (Joel Edgerton).

Into what is domestic slowly creeps a sinister edge. These are built by clever use of symbol, pop culture and Scripture. Memorable quotes and images are used repeatedly. With each return, darker meaning is generated.

Take the windows, which in the opening scene offer Simon and Robyn as new home buyers spectacular views out into the valley below. Yet as the plot progresses, the glass that looks out because both mirror of, and window into, the increasing isolation between Robyn and Simon. Finally the windows are shattered by an act of rage that heralds the end of their shared domestic bliss.

The pop culture references work in a similar way. A reference to the movie, Apocalypse Now, as the newly purchased sound system is fixed, when reintroduced announces to Simon the beginning of his judgment. A showering scene that follows Robyn’s morning run references Alfred Hitchcock. With every repeat, her vulnerability is magnified, caught in the brooding tension between Simon and Robyn. This use of symbol and cultural reference is subtle, artful and essential in the plot development.

A similar pattern is evident in the use of Scripture. It begins with the first dinner, shared between Simon, Robyn and Gordo, at which Gordo quotes the well known verse, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It continues when Gordo meets Robyn’s dog, and references “Ask and you shall receive.” Each verse, removed from Biblical context, offers multiple meanings. Is Gordo a Christian? Or in fact is God being conscripted as a character, the unseen judge, coopted to work on behalf of those seeking justice?

It is clever, enriched by the character development that also cleverly unfolds. Simon, Robyn and Gordo each have mystery in their history. The plot hides as often as it reveals, artfully using suggestion and innuendo to turn domesticity into a eulogy on revenge.

In three characters we find three responses to experiences of pain and betrayal. In Gordo we find revenge is indeed a dish best served cold. In Robyn we find withdrawal in an attempt to rebuild. In Danny (P. J. Byrne) we find anger expressed as rage. His act, shattering the windows of Simon and Robyn’s house, unleashes the final drama that so powerfully destroys the domestic bliss with which the movie begins.

Given the movie’s use of Scripture, it is fitting to place each of these responses alongside the story of Jesus. The act of Easter is a choosing not of revenge, withdrawal or anger. Instead, it provides another way to interpret Scripture. It is a refusal of Gordo’s co-option of images of God as Judge. Rather, Easter offers a considered decision to intentionally absorb pain and betrayal. Claims of “eye for an eye” are undone by a set of actions in which revenge is trumped by love and withdrawal is overcome in the prayer of “not my will but yours.” In choosing to absorb, love wins. Such is the gift of Christianity.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is becoming 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 10:01 AM

Monday, September 14, 2015

Last Cab to Darwin: a theological meditation on outback place

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for September 2015, of Australian film, Last Cab to Darwin.

Last Cab to Darwin
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Last Cab to Darwin is a visual introduction to contemporary Australian stereotypes. Indigenous men drink and fight. White fella Australians drink and fumble emotionally. English women tourists are blondes willing to sleep around.

Death strides into the midst of these caricatures. Rex (Michael Caton), a taxi driver from Broken Hill, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. With three months to live and afraid of hospitals, he hears of Dr Farmer (Jacki Weaver), advocating in the Northern Territory of Australia for the right to euthanise.

Last Cab to Darwin is based on a true story, including the gaps in Australian law between Territory, State and Federal parliaments. It offers the potential to dwell in complexity. The reality is that the road trip genre becomes an excuse to speed past rich cultural complexity.

Driving his cab to find Dr Farmer, Rex encounters Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), who proceeds to fight and drink his way with Rex toward Darwin. Their narrative journey is broken by a set of clichés, including watches that stop, feral cats hung from outback trees and Tilly’s salvation through sport, if he can beat the bottle. Speeding toward yet another stereotypical scene (Darwin sunsets), Tilly has a one night stand with English barmaid, Julie (Emma Hamilton), who wraps herself into their journey. These images, of indigenous men, white fella Australians and blonde English women tourists simplify the complexity that could ennoble Australia today.

I refer to the lens through which the outback is viewed. The desert landscape depicted in Last Cab to Darwin is simply a dusty red backdrop through which visitors pass, collecting experiences on a road to somewhere. There is no sense of another story, of “anhangha idla ngukanandhakai,” the indigenous (Adnyamathanha) understanding of living in memory.

This understanding of outback is beautifully depicted in the recently published Yarta Wandatha. It is a rarity, a theology book with colour photographs of outback landscape. Unlike Last Cab to Darwin, these scenes are never backdrop on a trip to somewhere. Rather, each is story, around which memory is wrapped. Interpreted in Yarta Wandatha by indigenous woman Denise Champion in creative dialogue with the Christian story, we find the unfolding of a very different outback story.

Last Cab to Darwin introduces two indigenous women. Polly (Ningali Lawford) is Rex’s neighbor, having an affair they are both scared to make public. Sally (Leah Purcell) is Tilly’s wife. The movie provides stereotypical similarities of these indigenous woman. Both are abandoned by their menfolk. Both approach conflict by shouting angrily at those they love.

Such is the simplicity of stereotype. In contrast, when Denise Champion tells the story of Awi-irtanha, the Rain Bird, we encounter a more complex story, in which indigenous resources, considered in light of Jesus, avoid the ugly consequences of unresolved conflict.

Watching Last Cab to Darwin I kept waiting for the road trip to engage these stories on the road between Broken Hill and Darwin. The only hint is when Tilly locates Sally’s mob as fighters against colonial invasion. Once again, 40,000 years of rich and storied memory is lost, replaced by the stereotypes of recent arrival.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is becoming of Knox College for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of 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 01:29 AM