Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Theologies of the Walking Dead

So, in a strange turn of events, I find myself researching the walking dead. And in so doing, being offered airfares to Adelaide in October and some research assistance.

The walking dead are part of the Easter story, for in Matthew 27:51-53 “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”

But what to make of this strange story. And how to conduct research on this Biblical text?

First, the backdrop. In order to maintain my post-graduate supervisions, I have retained my status as Senior Lecturer in Theology at Flinders University.

Second, the events. In March, I was emailed by a lecturer in the English Department at Flinders University, asking if I would be willing to be part of a proposed Flinders research project, titled “Immortal Austen.” It involves an international conference marking the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. It also involves a desire to broaden Austen studies by inviting researchers in light of disciplines other than English to think about Austen. The aim is a research symposium, with the papers becoming a special journal issue “Undisciplined Austen.”

The email concluded: “I notice you have an interest in religion in popular culture, so I wonder perhaps if you might be interested in considering Austen (whether the novels, modern adaptations, or even the various popular constructions of Austen) from a theological or religious angle?”

Third, the response. In some jest I replied, noting that I had not actually (embarrassed cough), read Austen. But my teenagers had been watching Pride And Prejudice And Zombies

And I noted, as I walked past the TV a few times, that it did have zombie church services and links to the book of Revelation. I also noted a number of academic studies of zombie theology, including Kim Paffenroth, Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth. Published by Baylor Press, no less! So, I replied, still somewhat in jest, I could examine zombies in Jane Austen.

Fourth, the result. A very excited group of researchers, keen to welcome my input, successful in their research bid, which included a trip to Adelaide, research assistance and the invitation to participate in a theology of the walking dead.

Strange days. Strange times.

Posted by steve at 10:13 PM

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Doctorate in the Practices of Monastic Spirituality

Congratulations to Gary Stuckey, with news last week that his doctoral thesis has gained examiners approval and he will graduate Doctor Gary in May. I’ve been working with Gary for the last four years on his Doctor of Ministry. It was a fascinating project that mixed having a go, critical reflection and deep reading in the Christian tradition.

Essentially Gary tried to plant a fresh expression of monastic spirituality. He used a short course approach, offering a year long training in monastic spirituality. At the same time, in order to rigourously test his practice, he sought to measure participant’s spiritual experience, at the start, middle and end.

His thesis reflects on his learnings, all the while reading deeply from across the centuries in how monastic patterns were developed and how they sought to form faith. At the same time, Gary becomes increasingly dis-enchanted with what he considers the historical rootlessness of much of what currently trades as new monasticism.

Finding Your Inner Monk: Development, Presentation and Assessment of the Effectiveness of a Program Introducing the Practices of Monastic Spirituality

With a growing interest in monastic spirituality, Gary Stuckey developed and presented a program introducing participants to historic monastic spirituality and its contemporary significance, and spiritual practices drawn from the Benedictine tradition. His thesis assessed the effectiveness of the program in enhancing participant’s spiritual experience as measured by the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale. The project also identified each participant’s spirituality type with a view to determining whether or not it was people with a more contemplative nature who were attracted to and benefited from the program. Gary found that the program did help enrich people’s spiritual experience. The resource material presented, the learning of and reflecting on spiritual practices, and discussion with other participants were major factors in the outcome. While most participants were of a contemplative type, not all were. Those who were not generally benefited from the program, opening the possibility of its wider application in the future.

It was a fascinating and multi-faceted project to supervise, by a creative, dedicated and hard-working person.

Posted by steve at 12:32 PM

Friday, January 23, 2015

The use of Psalm 23 in the TV series Lost

(This is part of a lecture I gave in Bible and Popular culture, in which I explore reception history, the way Bible texts are re-presented in different cultural forms over time).

Lost ran over six years (series).  In this episode from the second series, titled “The Twenty Third Psalm,” we are introduced to the back story of a character, Mr Eko. It involves his past in Nigeria and a number of times and ways in which he “walks through the valley of the shadow of death.” First, as he acts to save (be a shepherd for) his younger brother from Nigerian guerillas, later as he seeks to use his brother, now grown, and a Catholic priest (a shepherd) to export drugs.

The episode is laced with religious imagery. Both Eko and Charlie carry religious symbolism. Eko has a piece of wood which he has called his “Jesus stick” which is marked with Scripture. Charlie carrys a Virgin Mary statue which is filled with heroin.

So in plot and character, the episode is an intriguing example of reception history, of the search for salvation in the very dark places of human experience. Karl Jacobson, argues that “in the various musical and theatrical encounters with Ps 23, an interpretive and pedagogical force that wrestles the psalm out of any flat or smooth reading and presses it into the service of disbelieving faith, seeking trust.”[1] This is what is happening in Lost. The words on a page are given contemporary relevance.

The episode ends with Charlie and Eko the saying of Psalm 23. Eko is the leader, yet is joined, falteringly by Charlie. Both men have difficult relationships with their brothers, tied together by drugs. Bringing them together allows them to face their failures, to experience “their souls restored.”

When we engage in reception history, is it possible that the pop culture readings might in fact read insight back into the text. We see this in this episode, which starts with a discussion of two brothers – Aaron and Moses. They are brothers in the Exodus story.

As the episode proceeds, we see more brothers. The difficult relationships experienced by Charlie and Eko invite us to consider the relationship between Aaron and Moses, to pull it “out of any flat or smooth reading.” In what ways might the Biblical characters have wrestled with each other?

The ending, as Psalm 23 is said together by Eko and Charlie, involves inter-cutting of scenes with other characters from Lost. The actions and interplay are each an acting out of the Psalm, not as per the Bible but in the contemporary world created in Lost.

The fish, given on the beach, is an offer of peace between people previously estranged. (a table before me, in the presence of my enemies). Lost is a mysterious island, a place of valleys of death. Yet perhaps, if these people act toward each other in forgiving and ennobling ways, is might indeed be a place of “goodness and mercy.” Heaven (the house of the Lord) is as real as these people might want to make it.

By paying attention to plot and character, this Lost epiosode does indeed provide “an interpretive and pedagogical force that wrestles the psalm out of any flat or smooth reading.”

[1]Karl Jacobson, “Through the Pistol Smoke Dimly: Psalm 23 in Contemporary Film and Song,”

Posted by steve at 06:49 PM

Friday, October 31, 2014

The complexity of authenticity in religious innovation: “alternative worship” and its appropriation as Fresh Expressions

There is a Cultures of Authenticity Symposium in Adelaide, 28 November, 2014. Here’s the brief

Authenticity pervades contemporary culture. This symposium provides a unique opportunity to investigate the significance of authenticity in regards to self, culture and society across key areas of social life from ethics, spirituality, work and intimacy to new media, tourism, health and environment.

The invite is to scholars to submit papers assessing the role of authenticity in late-modern life and its real-world applications and consequences. Full papers will be published in the journal M/C. It seemed a good opportunity to take my research on fresh expressions into a wider conversation, so last night I submitted an abstract:

The complexity of authenticity in religious innovation: “alternative worship” and its appropriation as Fresh Expressions

This paper will explore the formational potential of authenticity in late-modern cultures, with particular attention to unintended consequent complexities as authenticity is appropriated by contemporary religious innovations.

Recently within Western Protestantism a range of new approaches to church and worship has developed. Ethnographic research into these religious communities (called “alternative worship”) shows that authenticity was a generative word, used by these community to define themselves as marginal and thus to justify innovation.

However these acts of self-location, so essential for innovation and identity, were complexified when appropriated by the mainstream. This occurred first as mainstream religious communities sought to implement selected liturgical innovations generated by these “alternative worship” groups. Secondly, an organisation structure (called Fresh Expressions) was formed by appropriating the innovation. However the generative energy was not around marginality but rather on the renewal of existing institutional life.

These complexities can be theorised using the work of Sarah Thornton (Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (Music Culture)). Her research into culture cultures in the United Kingdom also noted a creative interplay between innovation and authenticity, first in generating innovation and subsequently, complexified as what was marginal gained success in mainstream musical cultures.

This suggests that authenticity plays a complex role in identity formation in a branded world.

Posted by steve at 08:28 AM

Sunday, November 10, 2013

mission, identity, relationships and gender: preaching Luke 20:22-38

Here is Sunday’s sermon. To be honest, I approached the Lectionary text – Luke 20:22-38 apprehensive, thinking, this is going to be tough. This is an obscure argument about an obscure part of the Bible. Over the week, I’ve gained fresh insight into the radical nature of God’s Kingdom. Thanks especially to the commentary by Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament).

Luke 20:22-38 offers some radical insights on identity, relationships and gender. We’re invited to be children of God. Our relationships with each other, our relationships with God are not defined not by historic cultural patterns. Nor by how sexy we are. Nor by how much bling we have. We’re children of God. Called by a God who listens to the cry of people’s suffering. Invited to live lives of mercy and justice.

Here’s the sermon …. (more…)

Posted by steve at 12:41 PM

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Pop culture, Steve Averill, U2 and the Incarnation

Steve Averill, Senior Art Director at AMP Visual, was one of the keynote speakers at the recent U2 conference. He was introduced as speaking on what it means to turn sound into a vision. It was an important statement, a reminder that music is so much more than sound.

Steve Averill has designed nearly all of U2′s album covers. Many have won industry awards. He structured his talk around album covers, working his way through the U2 album sleeves he has designed. As he discussed colours, font styles, images and influences, you became aware of how much thought, care and imagination go into what we hold, the CD cover, what we wear, the concert T-shirt, what we see, the branding on the U2 publicity.

He noted the quirky eccentricities of the covers – that Bono wanted Bible verses on the cover of All you can’t leave behind, and so they added them in via the airport gate signs, that the picture used on No line on the Horizon was by artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. He was not willing for their to be any branding on his art. The solution was to etch branding onto the plastic CD sleeve.

He showed us the album covers that were influential, the album sleeves the band own, they listen to, they like – The Ramones, The Beatles.

Dr Jason Hanley, who holds a Ph.D. in Musicology, introduced and interviewed Steve Averill. He began by noting that rock and roll is a material culture. When you look at it, when you research it, when discuss it, you are learning about yourself, about your world, about your culture.

This should make sense to Christian theologians. The Incarnation, God coming in human body, is an honouring of the human body, of the senses, of what we see, feel and touch. Pop culture should thus be an easy and obvious area of theological research, both as an exercise in Incarnation, and as a way of helping us see ourselves, our culture, our world.

Posted by steve at 10:02 AM

Monday, April 01, 2013

Easter Monday with U2 (Bono and Glenn Hansard actually)

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me bring your love.
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord

At the funeral of Sargent Shriver, in January, 2011, Bono sung. It was an old Franciscan prayer, in a duet with Irish busker, Glen Hansard (of Once fame). Glen and Bono blog together each Christmas in Dublin, raising money for charity (see here for an example).

But this is a very different affair. This is a funeral, and together they offer us Resurrection hope. “And in dying that we’re born to eternal life”. (Full lyrics here of the song here).

Sargent Shriver was married to Eunice Shriver, and the U2 song “With our without you,” that appears on the U22 CD, the official record of the 360 tour is dedicated to her. She died in August 2009, during the 360 tour. It was Eunice, a tireless worker for justice, who opened doors for Bono when he fronted the Jubilee 2000 campaign.

Since Resurrection is not only for life, but also for living, it is an important reminder on Easter Monday – a call to be peace makers and healers.

For entire U2 at Easter catalogue

  • Maundy Thursday is here,
  • Good Friday is here,
  • Holy Saturday is here,
  • Easter Sunday is here).

For more of my U2 and theology reflections check the backcatalogue. For another popular culture take on Easter, see my Holy week at the movies.

Posted by steve at 10:14 AM

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Sunday with U2

U2, “Window in the Skies,” off 18 album

The shackles are undone, the bullets quit the gun
The heat that’s in the sun will keep us when there’s none
The rule has been disproved, the stone it has been moved
The grave is now a groove, all debts are removed

Chorus: Oh can’t you see what love has done?

This song is from the more obscure end of the U2 catalogue. It appears on the 18 album which has 16 old songs, followed by two new ones, “Window in the Skies,” and “The Saints are Coming” (with Green Day). An album saved from being greatest hits! The song was released as a single, making it to number 1 in Canada and only sung live once.

While obscure, theologically the lyrics do a lot of work. They speak of resurrection – “stone it has been moved, the grave is now a groove.” They pick up a number of Old Testament motifs – “bullets quit the gun” has echoes of swords into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4), while “the debts are removed” clicks with Jubilee images, words which introduce Jesus ministry (Luke 4:18-19), and echo the dreams of Isaiah ( Isaiah 61:1,2; 58:6). Resurrection begins God’s new reign of peace and justice. Everything changes.

Interestingly, it might be that for U2, Resurrection is tied very tightly to Ascension with the line “love left a window in the skies.” While traditionally Christians celebrate 40 days between Resurrection and before Ascension, this is based on the Acts narrative. Different Gospels are more ambiguous about an actual timeline, making worth pondering a closer tying together of Resurrection and Ascension as a fused activity.

There are two videos of “Window in the skies.” One uses footage of nearly 100 clips of other famous musicians performing in concert. The clips are, very cleverly, edited together so that their movements match up with the U2 song, while U2 appear in the crowds as fans. It suggests that U2 are playing homage to a long line of music history. (Or, cynically, that U2 are placing themselves in a long history of famous musicians.)

Again, this is interesting theologically, for it suggests another way to understand resurrection, through a long history, a tradition not musical but saint. Not saint as in perfect, but saint as in fellow believer. Faith in resurrection comes not just because I believe in “stone it has been moved” some 2000 years ago. I believe because I see resurrection life in others, in acts of grace and compassion, in love of enemies (“love makes strange enemies”). Those early disciples, together, through each others trembling testimony, gradually come to believe. In so doing, “can’t you see what love has done” is expressed, personified even, through a long history. That’s the wonder of resurrection.

Something not only for life, but for living.

For entire U2 at Easter catalogue keep coming back over next few days of Easter (Maundy Thursday is here, Good Friday is here, Holy Saturday is here). For more of my U2 and theology reflections check the backcatalogue. For another popular culture take on Easter, see my Holy week at the movies.

Posted by steve at 04:08 PM

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday with U2

Wake Up Dead Man, from Pop album

This is a song of lament, in which God is absent. “I’m alone in this world, And a f**ked up world it is too.” It’s on the “Pop” album, which begins all bright and shiny, full of the bling and “bright promise” of a song like Discotheque, but ends with “the dark night of the soul that is “Wake Up Dead Man.”” (U2 by U2, 269)

For U2′s the Edge, this song is reality. “That is really the truth of our lot. You are on your own, even in a crowd. Whatever you’re doing, ultimately it’s about you and your Maker.” (U2 by U2, 269) The absence of God prompts prayer, the request to wake up, the request to rewind time. A new world is possible in the first verse, a request to hear the story of eternity, “the way it’s all gonna be.” But by the third verse, even that possibility is being questioned – “If there’s an order in all of this disorder.”

This song has echoes of Lamentations. The book of Lamentations appears rarely in the Church Lectionary. The church sometimes rips Lamentations 3:22-23

The Lord’s compassions never fail
They are new every morning
Great is thy faithfulness

out of context and into a clappy chorus. But the entire book is one of mourning. It gets bleaker, chapter by chapter. God is absent. Dead. No bling. No bright promises. The earth weeps. There is no order in any disorder. The book of Lamentations is what I read on Holy Saturday, after Friday and before Sunday.

Some years ago, while doing post-graduate study, a compulsory integrative theology topic on death, I stumbled across the work of Alan Lewis. He notes that Christianity pays little attention to Holy Saturday. But it needs to learn to say “Wake Up Dead Man,” to learn the discipline of “mournful waiting.” Lewis’ work is best captured in Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. It’s not a theoretical book. He wrote it while he was dying of cancer.

It’s interesting that despite being such a bleak song, “Wake Up Dead Man,” it’s often played at U2 concerts. It suggests something about the way the song connects. There are plenty more people than U2 singing “Wake up Dead Man.” Holy Saturday might just have some important mission possibilities in our world today.

For entire U2 at Easter catalogue keep coming back over next few days of Easter (Maundy Thursday is here, Good Friday is here). For more of my U2 and theology reflections check the backcatalogue. For another popular culture take on Easter, see my Holy week at the movies.

Posted by steve at 09:54 AM

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday with U2

U2, “Pride” off Unforgettable Fire album

Bono describes the songs origins, both the sound and the lyrics.

“‘Pride in the name of love’ came out of a soundcheck in Hawaii, the melody and the chords. Around about that time I met a journalist … he had given me a book called Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Personal note – I read this while training to be a Baptist pastor, and it certainly widened my eyes about what Baptist ministry could look like), a biography of Dr King, and another on Malcolm X. They were covering different sides of the civil rights discussion, the violent and the non-violent. They were important books to me. The next album started there in Hawaii, with thoughts of man’s inhumanity to his fellow-man on my mind.” (U2 by U2, 145)

The song focuses on Martin Luther King, but honours the Christianity so central to King’s vision and passion.

One man betrayed with a kiss
In the name of love!
What more in the name of love?
- U2, Pride lyrics

And a story of willingness to sacrifice, from within the band itself. Bono talks about being the recipient of a death threat in the US, and being advised by the FBI to cancel the concert, or at the least not to sing Pride.

“”I remember actually, in the middle of “Pride,” thinking, for a second: “Gosh! What if somebody was organized, or in the rafters of the building, or somebody, here and there, just had a handgun?” I just closed my eyes and I sang this middle verse, with my eyes closed, trying to concentrate and forget about this ugliness, and just keep close to the beauty that’s suggested in the song. I looked up, at the end of that verse, and Adam was standing in front of me. It was one of those moments where you know what it means to be in a band.” (Bono on Bono, 122)

Personally, I think Good Friday asks us not only to find the beauty in love, but insists we find it with our eyes open, fully aware that in Christ it grows stronger no matter man’s inhumanity.”

In the name of love!
What more in the name of love?
- U2, Pride lyrics

For entire U2 at Easter catalogue keep coming back over next few days of Easter (Maundy Thursday is here). For more of my U2 and theology reflections check the backcatalogue. For another popular culture take on Easter, see my Holy week at the movies.

Posted by steve at 12:23 PM

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Maundy Thursday with U2

U2, “Until the end of the world,” off Achtung Baby album.

“The lyric was written very quickly in Wexford in my father-in-law’s house. I woke up one morning and it was in my head, a conversation between Jesus and Judas.” – Bono , U2 by U2, 225

A verse about the Last Supper, a verse about the Garden of Gethsemane, a verse about the crucifixion. Looking at Jesus from Judas perspective, picking up on the Messianic end of times notes from Jesus Jerusalem speeches. And ending with a very broad understanding of the inclusivity of the Final resurrection.

Last time we met was a low-lit room
We were as close together as a bride and groom
We ate the food, we drank the wine
- 1st verse, Until the end of the world

In the garden I was playing the tart
I kissed your lips and broke your heart
- 2nd verse, Until the end of the world

I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You…you said you’d wait
’til the end of the world
- 3rd verse Until the end of the world

For entire U2 at Easter catalogue keep coming back over next few days of Easter. For more of my U2 and theology reflections check the backcatalogue. For another popular culture take on Easter, see my Holy week at the movies.

Posted by steve at 09:52 PM