Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Reading Charles Taylor missionally: learning party

What does it mean to speak of church, mission and faith in a secular age?

I am offering a reading group to engage theologically and missionally with Charles Taylor, one of the most insightful cultural thinkers of our time. We will focus on four key books

The aim will be to absorb, to reflect and to consider the implications for mission and ministry.

Wednesdays, 5.15 – 6.45pm, fortnightly from Wednesday 4 March at Uniting College. Seven sessions, finishing June 10. For information, please comment or email steve dot taylor at flinders dot edu do au.

Posted by steve at 03:42 PM

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Interstellar: a Christmas reading

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for Dececmber 2014, of Interstellar. In particular I play with Dr Mann and Christ as the new Adam.

A film review by Steve Taylor

Interstellar begins on earth, in order to send us to space. Human love becomes a fifth dimension, able to guide the human heart through the final frontier. So suggests Interstellar, which offers a visually stunning, but emotionally overbalanced meditation on the perils of climate change.

The film begins in rural America. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), once an astronaut, is now grounded. He farms an ever-decreasing crop of corn, bitten by blight, shredded by dust. Facing starvation, the only hope for earth becomes the finding of another planet. Cooper is sent spaceward, the one pilot able to guide earth’s last hope through a wormhole, in the search for a new earth.

Interstellar is great entertainment. Directed by Christopher Nolan, the sights and sounds are simply stunning. The multiple dimensions of space, digitally manipulated, become objects of stark and starlit beauty.

The cast is similarly star, including Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, Jessica Chastain as Murph (Cooper’s adult daughter), Anne Hathaway as fellow astronaut Brand and Michael Caine as her scientist father.

In order to enable an emotional intensity through the voids that are outer space, Christopher Nolan uses the opening scenes to establishes a depth of relationship between father (Cooper) and his adolescent daughter Murph (McKenzie Foy). While this provides emotional intensity, it reduces the other characters to cardboard cutouts. This includes the role played by Cooper’s son, Tom (Timothy Chalamet). It also makes cold the movies’ other father and daughter relationship, between Hathaway and Michael Caine.

The film seeks an intellectual sophistication. Symbolic meanings abound. The space ship Cooper will pilot is named Endurance. He will seek a Dr Mann (Matt Damon), who has gone before, and if found, might offer hope of a better place. The dialogue references Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and name drops Lazarus. The dust storms that blow through Cooper’s rural cornfields echo John Steinbeek’s Oaklhoma dustbowl.

Theologically, the move in Interstellar from earth to heaven invites some rich reflection on the opposite move in Christianity from heaven to earth.

A central character in Interstellar is the mysterious Dr Mann, sent from earth to heaven, in the hope of saving humanity. It provides a contrast to the development in the New Testament of Jesus as the new Adam, sent from heaven to earth, a new human through whom humanity will be saved.

As Interstellar unfolds, Mann’s character flaws put in stark relief the sacrificial life and love of Christ. Dr Mann will end his life in selfish pursuit of his own ends. In contrast, Christ ends his life praying not my will but yours be done.

Such is the Interstellar Christ of Christmas, revealing the love of God in every dimension, whether first or fifth, of human reality.

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

Posted by steve at 07:09 AM

Friday, December 19, 2014

U2 above across beyond: great cover and out

Fabulous cover for just released U2 Above, Across, and Beyond: Interdisciplinary Assessments


It emerges from the 2013 U2 Conference, held in collaboration with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. One of the chapters is mine, “Transmitting Memories: U2’s Rituals for Creating Communal History.” It is one of eight, that explore from the disciplines of organizational communication, music theory, literary studies, religion, and cultural studies ways U2’s dynamic of change has been a constant theme throughout its career.

Here’s the book blurb:

U2’s success and significance are due, in large part, to finding inventive, creative solutions for overcoming obstacles and moving past conventional boundaries. As it has embraced change and transformation over and over again, its fans and critics have come to value and expect this element of U2.

Thanks to the editing and publishing skills of Scott Calhoun, who directs the U2 Conference, is curator for the U2: Made in Dublin exhibit, and is professor of writing and literature at Cedarville University.

If you order directly from the publisher with this discount code — LEX30AUTH15 — you’ll save 30% off the list price. This code is free for the sharing.

Here’s the table of contents:

Introduction: U2 TRANS- Scott Calhoun

1. Collaborative Transactions: Making Sense (Again) for U2’s Achtung Baby, Christopher Wales

2. Transvaluing Adam Clayton: Why the Bass Matters in U2’s Music, Brian F. Wright

3. Translating Genres: U2’s Embrace of Electronic Dance Music in the 1990s, Ed Montano

4. A Transcendent Desire: In Defense of U2’s Irishness, Arlan Elizabeth Hess

5. A Transmedia Storyworld: The Edge Is One, But Not The Same, Fred Johnson

6. Transgressive Theology: The Sacred and the Profane at U2’s PopMart, Theodore Louis Trost

7. Transmitting Memories: U2’s Rituals for Creating Communal History, Steve Taylor

8. The Transformative Fan: The Bricolage of U2 Live, Matthew J. Hamilton

Posted by steve at 07:55 PM

Monday, May 26, 2014

Jesus and the religions

I’m teaching Theology of Jesus in Semester 2, both weekly in Adelaide and by intensive at New Life Uniting Church, on the Gold Coast, in November. Plus I am teaching on Mission as an intensive in Sydney in July.

So today I was doing some preparation, which included reading Bob Robinson, Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World.  It is a brilliant conceived book. It asks how Christians should approach other faiths by exploring how Jesus engaged other faiths.

It begins with three Gospel stories – Jesus and the Roman Centurion, Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. Doing theology, bringing together themes from the three encounters it argues that their are implications for how contemporary people engage plurality.

  • Be open to surprise, in the same way Jesus was surprised by the faith of the Roman Centurion, the Syrophonecian  and the Samaritan woman.
  • Affirm what surprises you, again in the same way Jesus affirmed the faith of the Roman Centurion, the Syrophonecian  and the Samaritan woman.
  • In particular, look for faith and humility. This includes the role not only of faith, but of the content of that faith. In all three examples, their “faith appears to include more than heart-felt hope or desperate concern.” (Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World, 116).  And so by implication, “Might examples of faith, humility, and insight, wherever they are found in the contemporary world, be affirmed by disciples today – even when they contrast less than favorable with their own.” (Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World, 117-8).
  • The exclusion of vengeance. For example, Jesus response to the Roman Centurion is a moment of love of enemy. Moving to other Gospel stories, one might note the rain falls on the just and the unjust, or the banquet parables which include, rather than exclude.

What is even more intriguing is an initial chapter in which Christ becomes an exegete.  The focus is Luke 4:16-30, and how Jesus engages Scripture. Robinson concludes that there are fresh readings, new performances of Scripture as Biblical texts are encountered in the power of the Spirit.  This opens up an exemplary Christology, in which the church reads for direction in how to live its life of witness in the world.

All of which makes for a rich teaching resource.

Posted by steve at 09:23 PM

Sunday, December 01, 2013

a haunted culture

The presence of Christianity continues to haunt our culture. Like above, in this 2013 poster advertising an Adelaide film festival. Or the lingering presence of “ritual” in very small type (Rewarding the ritual) in this October 2013 advertisement, fused with some fascinating reflection on male identity. Playful, irreverent, but still present.

Or this piece of theology, in a local coffee shop in June 2013, in which God is entwined with a creation narrative and mission. Once again, playful, irreverent, but still present.

Mieke Bal, the Dutch cultural theorist suggests three ways to understand these ongoing traces within western society.

  • Christianity is present, making it impossible to think about cultural analysis without acknowledging the theological underpinning of the western world (and so the visual rifting of red-robed religious beings).
  • Christianity is a cultural structure, informing the cultural imaginary whether people believe or not (and so words like ritual and worship remain)
  • Christianity is just one of the structures, it is not the only cultural structure, nor the only religious structure that underpins who we are or have come to be (and so the work that people do with “God” will vary).

I’m reading and thinking about this in a more focused way, given I’m part of teaching a topic, Bible and culture, on the Flinders University campus this summer. The course is inviting us to explain the ongoing appropriation of Christian imagery in contemporary culture, the religious presence on film posters, the Bible references in movies as bizarre as Pulp Fiction, the fascination with church in the David Bowie Next day video.

A course for which we will need some accessories – prizes for the person who finds the most pop cultural references to Psalm 137 or O come, O come Emmanuel – prizes like Pulp Fiction Ezekiel reference Tshirts, buddy Jesus fridge magnets and God is a DJ henna tattoos.

Posted by steve at 10:46 PM

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bible and pop culture summer school intensive

Posted by steve at 10:11 AM

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by steve at 08:22 AM

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Last Supper at work for mission -Gustave Van De Woestijne’s

Gustave Van De Woestijne is a Flemish Expressionist painter of the early 20th century. His work includes The Last Supper and it is huge.


It hangs almost floor to ceiling in the Groeninge Museum, Brugge, Belgium. (Image is on flicker here)

In the Catholic context of Belgium, surrounded by the religiosity of previous centuries, it is a stunningly unreligious piece of work. One simple full loaf of bread sits on the table. There is no cup, grapes or any other food on the table. Around the table are clustered 12 disciples, portrayed as workers, Flemish miners or farm hands.

Which leaves the size. Why paint what is one of the largest paintings in the Museum? Why make something so ordinary so large?

Either a sign of no faith? A critique of the ceremony and wafer thin spirituality of the religion he has experienced? It certainly has the checkerboard floor often used in religious art.

Or full of faith? A reminder of the very large place for God in the ordinary, in simple bread, shared among workers hands? If so, it has echoes of the worker priest movement, such an intriguing mission development in France, among Catholics, in the 1940s. Priests asked to be freed from parish duties in order to work, in factories, in order to try and reconnect with the working class. It is a fascinating, bold, and innovative approach to mission, that was closed down by the Pope within a few decades.

It is the type of fresh expression/emerging church I’d love to see, one that jumps out of middle class subcultures and across class boundaries, out from church and worship and among the 24/7 patterns of working life. A movement that could only be nourished by a Jesus breaking bread with workers around ordinary tables of life.

Posted by steve at 06:57 AM

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Yoder (not Yoda) on church and society

John Howard Yoder popped up in a conversation this week. Yoder is an Anabaptist, so I always find myself doing a double take when he pops up in a Uniting Church context (which this conversation most definitely was). My surprise was quickly accompanied by the warm glow that happens as one finds one’s roots affirmed.

John Howard Yoder popped up again yesterday, in a footnote in John Swinton’s, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God

The distinction between church and the world is not a distinction between nature and grace. It is, instead, a distinction that denotes the basic personal postures of men [sic], some of whom confess and some of whom do not confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The distinction between church and the world is not something that God has imposed upon the world by prior metaphysical definition, nor is it only something which timid or pharisaical Christians have built up around themselves. It is all of that in creation that has taken the freedom not yet to believe.” (Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism 116)

What is intriguing is the way that differences between gospel and culture, church and society, are located not in God, but in humans. People have choice.

What is also intriguing is how this allows creative conversations between church and society. Mutually learning is possible, discoveries of God in creation possible both inside and outside the church.

What is even more intriguing is how subversive this is of some expressions of Anabaptism, which very much focus on withdrawal from the world.

Posted by steve at 12:59 PM

Monday, June 18, 2012

living in cultures of change

Spotlight, a leading national craft and curtain shop, sells raffia. This simple fact is important for local indigenous expression.

Yesterday Team Taylor enjoyed the annual open day at the Warriparinga Living Kaurna Cultural centre. We enjoyed the live music, watched the kids play a traditional game, kicking around a possum skin (yep, possum) and joined the local basket weavers.

As we chatted we learned that traditionally basket used reeds and grasses. However such things disappear in modern industrial cities. Either the practice of basket weaving dies. Or else the cultural adapts.

Hence the importance of raffia from Spotlight.

It reminded me of a conversation a few weeks ago. I was wine tasting and some older folk were chatting beside about the impact of technology. Will our children be able to read and write, in an age of screens and e-readers? They were concerned about cultural death.

I pointed out that my children are reading more widely and broadly as a result of the purchase of Kindle’s. To which they shrugged, sighed and said “I guess you’ve got to just so with the times.”

The resignation in their voices, the words they use, were very similar to what I hear in church circles. It suddenly occurred to me that

One, responding to change is not just an issue for the church, but for all cultures. It is a shared human challenge.

Two, that avoidance or assimilation, fighting or acceptance, are two very limited responses.

Three, that Christians who think about culture-making, about a variety of practices by which to live in change, that the adaptive resources from within indigenous cultures, are a helpful resource for living in change – not just for the church, but for all humans in modern society.

Posted by steve at 08:50 AM

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

is religion better or worse for society?

A range of opinions regarding the public social good of religious institutions exist.

• an “ivory tower” perception, in which religious organisations are judged to have no earthly focus, and thus little practical public good

• a “culture destroyer” view, in which religious organisations are considered to be of toxic value to tolerance and goodwill of society

• a “public good” generator, in which religious organisations are investigated as potential contributors to public social capital.

The rationale for this “public good generator” position is that religious organisations currently exist as a significant contributor in the not-for-profit arena. Some research has indicated that church adherents are more likely to serve as volunteers. For example, church attenders are more likely to be volunteers in local community groups (43%) than the wider Australian population (32%). Across all denominations, volunteering within the congregation has a strong positive relationship with volunteering in the community. Rather than being only church-focused, church volunteers are outward-looking and active in their community. (Source: NCLS Research/University of Western Sydney joint study on volunteering (2001))

However, existing religious organisations face significant challenges, in regard to adaptation to new technologies, how to participate in a pluralistic and multi-faith society and strategies in the face of declining membership and a shrinking resource base. These factors suggests that social innovation for religious organisations will be an imperative, in order to sustain their existing contributions to public social capital. In a changing world, how might historic values of compassion, respect and justice (Uniting Communities Vision, continue to be enacted?

This study will seek to provide research data that might guide religious institutions in addressing such questions today.

This is something I wrote for a University/Partner organisations funding bid I’ve been putting together over the last week. (One page of an 17 page).

Posted by steve at 09:54 AM

Saturday, May 05, 2012

The durability of church in a culture of change

1 – I got an iPad a few weeks ago. In order to transfer files between my Mac and the IPad, I joined Iwork. Only to get an email saying the Iwork I joined was a beta programme, was going to cease soon. So if I wanted to retain the files, I’d need to download them.

2 – Swinton and Mowat, in their wonderfully helpful Practical Theology and Qualitative Research Methods mention an important computer programme for analysing qualitative data. A search of the web indicates the programme is no more. Probably brought out by a competitor.

3 – According to an article today in Advertiser, over 50% of restuarants in Australia have closed since 2007. To quote

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show only 51.7 per cent of accommodation and food services businesses survived the full four years from June 2007 to June 2011.

In sum, we live in a culture of overwhelming change. Which seems to say something interesting about church – where week by week, year by year – worship and mission continue. I go to lots of conferences that express concern about the health of the church. And missiologically, I’m not convinced that durability is the main aim.

Yet the fact remains, that when placed alongside changes in technology, computer software and restuarants, church remains a remarkably durable body.

Posted by steve at 11:22 PM

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why faith schools are hot

There is a really interesting article in North and South, a New Zealand magazine. Titled “Brand Catholic: A (Not so) Private education,” (Joanna Wane, 40-52, North and South, November, 2011) it explores the reasons for the popularity of faith-based schools.

It notes the irony, that “[Western society] may indeed be an increasingly godless society …. Yet despite that spiritual drift, parents are flocking to faith-based schools, with one Auckland principal describing Catholic education as a “very hot” brand.” (42)

While peculiar to New Zealand (where private schools can chose to integrate with the government, thus qualify for government funding, while retaining a “special character.”), the place of faith-based schools is also a crucial part of mission in other countries, like Australia.

So why are these schools hot?

One suggestion is that this is part of a cultural shift toward a values-based education. “There is a lot of hopelessness around in the world today. In a faith-based school, you can provide meaning and hope in the lives of kids in a way that you can’t in a school that has to be basically secular.” says Pat Lynch from Association of Integrated Schools (44).

A second is that they are a great greenhouse. Says one parent of a Catholic school, “It’s a very nurturing environment and by and large the girls come out with a nicer worldview that from the private schools.” (42).

A third suggestion it that it is because of an underlying pragmatism. They are good value of money. They show quality academic performance indicators, all at a cheaper rate than independent private schools.

Not everyone is convinced that being hot is positive. New Zealand PPTA President Robin Duff expresses concern over the potential for group think and asks whether government money should be spent on potentially sectarian communities.

Yet a contrasting experience is noted by a non-believing teacher at a Catholic school, who shared in the article how comforting it was for her to be in a close-knit community in the days following the Christchurch earthquake (46).

As a missiologist and as someone interested in fresh expressions, the article clarified for me a number of questions around the relationship between faith and community.

  • Are faith-based schools a “soft” expression of Christendom, in which the school becomes a “carrot”, used by churches to enforce church attendance upon families seeking admittance?
  • Are faith-based schools in fact a new form of church – offering formation, care and mission? Is this a logical place for fresh expressions? Or does this simply increase the dangers of group think? And how would inter-generational relationships work in the complexity of being a teenager today (going to church at school with my parent!)
  • How should faith-based schools connect with the ministry of the surrounding local churches? What is the impact for the local church when the school does Easter and Christmas, in term ie before the holidays, perhaps better than the local church?In a network society, should parents who send their children to faith-based schools be taking a break from their local church?

Lots of room for further (post-graduate) research me thinks!

Posted by steve at 02:22 PM

Saturday, October 15, 2011

english speaking migrants: is privilege and pain a fresh expression

I am an English-speaking migrant. Let’s tease out those words.

Migrant means I am new, shallow-rooted. I miss home and family and feel dislocated. As I encounter other English-speaking migrants from US, England, I realise I’m not alone in these feelings. Such encounters are really helpful, humanising experiences that are an important part of settling.

Yet as migrant I also feel hopeful and optimistic. I come with a purpose. I arrive in a new place and realise I have much to learn, about history and culture. Indeed, I have some responsibility to learn and am keen to learn.

English-speaking means I have some advantages, some privilege, in terms of communication and language-learning. It also means potential, because time and again I realise how little I know and how much I have to learn about history and culture to glean.

So when you put the words English-speaking and migrants together, you realise some things. You realise that there is a need to care for English-speaking migrants. There is also an opportunity to educate English-speaking migrants, to welcome to country, to explore with them sacred sites, to help them love the lands and layers of this country. There is also the need for challenge, to ask those with privilege to consider how they will partner with those less privileged, how they will live in order to not repeat colonising patterns, how they could use this transplanting experience as a time for growth and change. Change is often when people consider and re-consider their identity, wellbeing and spiritual path.

So what about a fresh expression for english-speaking migrants? This would have a pastoral dimension, as it attends to the pain of being transplanted, offers appropriate grief models. This would have a discipling dimension, as it invites people to reflect on themes of journey and pilgrimage can be times for growth. This would have a mission dimension, as it tells the story of indigenous people’s, as it explores how to live in a country with scarcity of water, how to welcome those who are newer than you, how to partner with those who have less privilge, less English (ie English-learning), than you?

Research questions: How many English-speaking migrants are arriving in Adelaide? (updated: 10 323 English-speaking migrants since 2006) What are their patterns of settling? What are their needs? How to connect with these people? What about migrants from other States to Adelaide, who talk of finding it hard to connect with local Adelaidians?

Theological questions: Is it potentially exclusivist (racist even) to gather a certain type of people? How could this body express partnership with the broader church? Would already residents in Australia want to be part of this type of community?

Posted by steve at 06:07 PM