Friday, June 29, 2018

Asian faces of suffering: an imaginative theological wondering in conversation with Silence (the movie)

An abstract I have just submitted for the CHRISTIANITY AND THE ARTS IN ASIA Symposium
September 28-29, 2018. University of Otago, Dunedin

Asian faces of suffering: an imaginative theological wondering in conversation with Silence (the movie)

Sathianathan Clarke in Asian Theology on the Way (Fortress, 2015) argues that one of the key themes of Asian theology is suffering.  This leads to a Christology with the poor, shaped by historic experience and contemporary realities, that seek to find the historical Jesus amid the reality of human suffering.

The suffering of the church in Japan is depicted in Silence, the book and movie.  The historical novel written by Shusako Endo (1923-1999) offers an absorbing, albeit bleak, meditation on the inability of the seventeenth century Jesuit mission to establish religious change on Japanese soil. In a key scene, Rodrigues sees his own face reflected in the water and it becomes “the face of a crucified man, a face which for so many centuries had given inspiration to artists. This man none of these artists had seen with his own eyes” (Endo 1980: 67). 

The movie, directed by Martin Scorsese, has been affirmed for the way it explores Endo’s theological reflection on suffering. In seeking to visually portray Endo’s novel, Scorcese uses a range of artistic representations of Jesus. This is most clearly seen in a scene in which Rodrigues is captured. As Rodrigues buries his face in the water, he sees the historical Jesus.  In so doing, Rodrigues is entering baptism and thus the passion, not longer a Christ figure but a participant in the passion of historical Jesus. In doing so, this offers a methodology by which to approach art in Asia, not as the detached onlooker but as the immersed participant in solidarity in suffering.   

However the art is European. This makes sense given that Silence is a meditation on the faith of Rodrigues, who is a Jesuit priest. However the result visually is an artistic portrayal of suffering that references European artists and draws on European Christological resources.

The paper wonders what would happen if the art was Asian. This will be achieved by conducting an imaginative meditation, in which every European artistic portrayal of the face of Jesus in Silence the movie is replaced with an Asian artistic portrayal of the face of Jesus, sourced from art and poetry. The Rita England collection will be used as a key resource in this imaginative wondering. My approach is consistent with the methodology of Rodrigues immersion, seeking to bury my face not in European art but in Asian representations. The result will be an Asian visual representation of suffering, drawing on the Rita England collection, in conversation with the artistic Christianity represented in Silence.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor
Principal, Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Posted by steve at 01:08 PM

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Saying no: U2′s response to the evil of the refugee crisis

I am a regular columnist for an Australian magazine, Zadok. Here is my third article, for the Autumn 2018 edition, which focused on the theme of Engaging Evil.

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My piece was titled Saying no: U2′s response to the evil of the refugee crisis. It offers a theology of baptism as a participation in solidarity with refugees, drawing on U2′s song, Red Flag Day, from their latest album, Songs Of Experience. For fancy magazine layout, saying no U2′s response to the evils of the refugee crisis; or in plain text:

Saying no: U2′s response to the evil of the refugee crisis

Sometimes entertainment becomes not only political, but also theological. Songs Of Experience, U2’s fourteenth and latest album, splashed into Christmas stockings over the summer. The album debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard charts, making U2 the first music group to gain a Number 1 album in four consecutive decades. In the midst of commercial success, U2 has continued to engage social issues, singing ‘No’ to human evil in the world. Songs of Experience is no exception as U2 engage the evils around the European refugee crisis.

Evil is a strong word. Yet the Scriptures are clear. The greatest of God’s commandments includes loving neighbour as yourself. Israel’s laws emerged from the Exodus experience of being refugees, fleeing the tyranny of Empire in Egypt. Just as Israel in history experienced God’s protecting love as refugees, so now in everyday life humans should express God’s love, including to refugees. Anything less is to deny the Commandments.

On Songs of Experience, U2 engage the evil of the refugee crisis in a mid-album bracket of three songs. First, American Soul suggests that American values of unity and community need to apply to ‘refugees like you and me, A country to receive us’. A second song, Summer of Love, longs for flowers to grow amid ‘the rubble of Aleppo’. The hope, fifty years after a drug-fuelled, music-drenched Summer of Love in San Francisco, is for peace to descend on the West Coast of Syria in the Middle East. A third song is Red Flag Day. The title suggests a continuation of the beach vibe of Summer of Love while the lyrics remain focused on the consequences of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, becoming rubble.

The civil war in Syria resulted in a unprecendented refugee crisis. For more than 1 million people in 2015, this meant crossing the Mediterranean Sea, seeking safety in Europe. Deaths at sea rose to record levels, with more than 1,200 people drowning in the month of April 2015. And so, in Red Flag Day, U2 address this evil: ‘Not even news today; So many lost in the sea’. This is evil-as-disinterest, as the lost and the least disappear from our 24-hour news cycle.

For U2, the response to this evil is located in one word. ‘The one word that the sea can’t say, Is no, no, no, no’. It is easy to imagine the impact of this line performed live, Bono holding a microphone out to an audience, inviting them to sing, ‘no, no, no, no’. It is a powerful lyric. Water, the sea over which refugees travel, can never speak. But humans can. Humans can sing that one word, ‘No’.

At the same time, having raised children, I am well aware of the limitations inherent in the simple word ‘No’. It is often the first word learnt by a child, easy on the lips of a two-year-old teetering on a tantrum. So, when U2 sing ‘No’, what exactly are they asking us as humans to do?

U2 conclude Red Flag Day with the provocative line, ‘Baby let’s get in the water’. It reminds me of the baptism of Jesus. Every year in the Christian calendar, Christmas is followed by Epiphany and the birth of Jesus is placed in relation to God declaring love and pleasure as Jesus enters the Jordan waters. It is the way Jesus begins ministry, by getting in the water.

So is the refugee crisis in fact an invitation for the church to sing ‘No’, to respond to evil by entering the waters of baptism? Physically, in entering the Jordan River, Jesus expresses his obedience to God. This makes getting in the water the essential pattern of Christian discipleship, a way of saying ‘No’ to our own plans and ‘Yes’ to God’s intentions. Historically, as Israel crossed the Jordan River, they were saying ‘Yes’ to living out God’s commandments no matter what country they found themselves living. This makes baptism an expression of ‘Yes’ to loving our neighbour. And sacramentally, baptism and communion are woven together in the Exodus story of the Passover, which involves Israel entering the waters of the Red Sea. This makes getting in the water an expression of solidarity with all those who decide to say ‘No’ to persecution and tyranny, whether in fleeing Egypt in history or in the rubble of Aleppo today.

Hearing U2’s Red Flag Day and listening to the Gospel story of Jesus’ baptism offer ways to respond to the evil of the refugee crisis. The single word of ‘No’ is filled with Christian content. Every red flag swim in this summer of love becomes a singing of ‘No’. It means lobbying Parliament to ‘Let them come’. It involves lighting candles as prayers of intercession for all those lost at sea, refusing to forget those forgotten by the news today. It means a welcome to the promised lands as we teach English classes and guide migrants around unfamiliar supermarkets.

We often view baptism in individual terms, as a personal choice to follow Jesus. What if it is also a call to mission, a way to respond to evil by getting in the water in solidarity with the refugee crisis today.

Posted by steve at 06:36 PM

Thursday, June 14, 2018

burning bushes in cultures and contexts

It’s been a real privilege to spend a week with the Church of Scotland, speaking at various events on innovation and mission. My thanks to Doug Gay, Trinity College and the Panel for Review and Reform, who generously made the time possible and did the hard work of promoting, organising and hosting. Over four days, I did 5 different events, the shortest 90 minutes, the longest three hours, all with a different focus.

Some events were open to the public and provided a chance in general to work with questions of innovation and mission. Some were focused on senior leadership of national and Presbytery bodies, or those working in theological formation. These gave a chance to compare stories and in the richness of different contexts, gain insight.

burningbush As a way of helping locate myself, and as a way to emphasis how cultures and context create space for innovation, I began each session both with a greeting (mihi) in Maori and showed some images of the burning bush in Aoteoroa New Zealand – and the role of Maori culture, Pacific migration and alternative worship. In the burning vine that is Te Aka Puaho, in the frangipani flowers added to the stained glass window of St Johns Papapatoetoe, in the pumice rocks soaked with methylated spirits that then then burn blue, there are important mission insights, about how diverse cultures hear faith differently.

Posted by steve at 12:37 AM

Monday, May 14, 2018

Can those fines: graced redemption in a modern space

An email a few weeks ago from the University library. With winter approaching, it was an invitation to bring an item for a food bank. In exchange, a library fine forgiven.

· If you pop into one of the University Libraries in Dunedin AND
· Bring an item fit for human consumption for the Dunedin Student Associations’ food banks
· We will waive your fines (up to $30).

can those fines I pondered the grace. A call to participate in making the world a better place. In exchange, redemption, as my shame (a library fine), was redeemed.

A lesson for all those who seek to communicate. The easy way is to point the finger, to name the blame. Such is the cry of fundamentalism.

The sliding way is to ignore the sin. “Don’t judge me” is the cry of tolerance. Yet, as London Grammar remind us, truth is a beautiful thing.

“Miles and miles on my own
Walk with shame, I follow on

You’ll be on your knees and struggle under the weight
Oh, the truth would be a beautiful thing
Oh, the truth is a beautiful thing” (Truth Is A Beautiful Thing)

Hence the intriguing way is to invite me to participate anew in mission, in ways that name my shame, all the while immersing it in grace.

“Can those fines” did that. It was graced redemption in a modern space, a lesson in speaking the gospel.

Posted by steve at 10:18 PM

Thursday, May 03, 2018

one word: emotional in multiple textures of action

In beginning to prepare for the U2 Conference in Belfast and my Endings of Pop: Benediction, Lullaby or Lament? presentation, some writing this week, as I read the fascinating Ed Pavlic, Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners alongside U2′s Wake up Dead Man.

The argument in Who Can Afford to Improvise? is that song lyrics function uniquely. They might be words, but they are never prose. First, they are received as an experience. They act to hold “our attention to physical and emotional textures woven in the rhythms of the utterance itself” (7). Second, they disrupt. They are a “musical interruption of the report-function usually assigned to what is called prose.” (7) In analysing lyrics, one must consider both physical and emotional textures and the “multiple possibilities, distinct tonalities that communicate at several simultaneous levels” (7-8). This helps as we consider the ending of Pop [Explicit], in the form of “Wake Up Dead Man.”

The emotional texture is enriched by the bridge, in which the one word “listen” is repeated eight times. “Listen” is the one word lyric that is disrupting time. The song is moving on, yet in that moving, the same word of action is repeated.

The listening is one word, but in the one word, sustained by repetition, is a complex set of repeated actions, of “multiple possibilities”, of “to” and “over” and “through” and “as”: Listen “to” (your words; the reed). Listen “over” (the rhythm of confusion; the radio hum, the sounds of blades, marching bands). Listen “through” (the traffic). Listen “as” (hope and peach march). The “to” is twice, the “over” is four, the “through” and “as” are once each. The one action – of listening – is actually four actions – to, over, through and as. This is a demanding understanding of humanity, and the complexity of engaging suffering. In the face of the physical action of suffering, there are multiple emotional textures and a complex range of response.

Posted by steve at 03:44 PM

Thursday, March 15, 2018

theology and church as an actor in development

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One of my current projects involves responding to editorial reviewer comments on an article I’m writing on theological education and development. The article began as a paper I presented, with Phil King, at a conference on Christianity and Development between New Zealand and the Pacific in June 2016. I saw this as an opportunity to get to know the story of a key partner church and helping me think more wholistically about theological education in general.

Following the paper presentation, the spoken paper was turned into a written paper and submitted in May 2017. It is one thing to talk. It is another to set out your thoughts over 6,000 words as it tests the logic of an argument over an extended period. The written paper was accepted, subject to my responding satisfactorily to reviewer comments, for Sites Journal of social anthropology and cultural studies of the Pacific Region. It is scheduled for release in 2019. It will be good to be taking theology in an anthropology and cultural studies space.

Editorial review is a wonderful thing, for it ensures allows thinking to gain critical engagement. Horizons are broadened in terms of reading and as the forest is sifted from the trees. In responding to reviewer comments, I start by categorising them as major and minor. I then create a table, in order to note the work I need to do and provide an account to the editors of how I’m responding. Here is the table for this piece of work, as at 12 March.

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So the last few weeks I have been working away. Here is some writing from today …

Helen Gardner (“Praying for Independence. The Presbyterian Church in the Decolonisation of Vanuatu,’ The Journal of Pacific History, 48:2, 2013, 122-143) argues that Presbyterianism is structured in ways that enhanced its ability to be an actor in development and decolonisation. A Presbyterian church is structured with a national assembly, regional presbyteries and local congregations and these result in a cohesive interwoven identity, encourage individual capacity building and ensure an alertness to context. An interwoven identity is possible, given the interplay between national, regional and local bodies. For Gardner, Presbyterianism is a way of organising that “transcended village and island boundaries … a political form that translated readily to the standards of contemporary democracy” (128). Each body (assembly, presbytery, congregation) has a shared governance group and these provide individuals with opportunities to develop administrative and political skills. The result was that ministers were able to play a significant role in a newly independent Vanuatu (Gardner, 142). An interwoven set of governance groupings enables grassroots voices to be heard. In Vanuatu this “allowed the [church] openly to back the call for independence, as decisions were made from the body of the church rather than imposed by a church hierarchy” (Gardner, 128).

Posted by steve at 10:07 AM

Friday, February 23, 2018

research play in the inbetween spaces

Unknown I’ve had a rich, demanding, draining and playful 24 hours. It has involved 24 hours gazing out the window of the Business School at Auckland University, finding generative space in a conversation between social entrepreneurship and theology.

It began last year, when we at KCML piloted the Lighthouse, an educative weekend encouraging local churches in innovation. Funded by an external funder, the funders challenged us to draw on resources from outside the Presbyterian theological world. A number of conversations and networks over the next few months resulted in working with a lecturer from the Business School at Auckland University. As we began she challenged us: what does Christ-based innovation look like? What in Christian resources might encourage the making of all things new?

The result was a rich weekend, in which I worked through the 6 images of innovation in my Built for change: A practical theology of innovation and collaboration, while the lecturer introduced contemporary innovation practices liked the Innovation Canvas and Rituals of dissent. Participants loved it.

As the weekend concluded, we wondered aloud about doing some writing together. Hence the last 24 hours. Having listened to each other teach over a weekend last year, we met yesterday and began to toss around possibilities for publications. We searched the web for journals. We shared the things we had learnt:

  • could the social entrepreneurship of Joseph Schumpeter provide a way to understand the church as apostolic?
  • could Jesus as fool in 1 Corinthians 4 be read in light of the Biblical Wisdom literature as a way of encouraging resilience and risk-taking in social entrepreneurship?

We used the 40 paragraph technique, chose two different journals, one business, the other theological and began to map out what we might say. We had coffee and mindmapped. We challenged each other and made new connections. We shared journal articles and insights from previous writing.

We now both step away, to meet other commitments. Yet we have a clear map and enough structure to keep on writing. We are both working on our strengths and will need each other to ensure the interdisciplinary conversation continues.

It was rich, demanding, draining and playful. It is interdisciplinary, seeing what emerges in the inbetween spaces. It is a form of benchmarking – taking my speaking and exposing it to another academic, seeing what is making sense and what needs clarifying.

Posted by steve at 04:08 PM

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Re-weaving creation and redemption in light of Oceanic epistemologies

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This project will examine the relationship between creation and redemption as they relate to the missio Dei.   This has particular relevance in Oceania, given the unique water-based geographies that shape history and epistemology. It also has global relevance, given that the Pacific Ocean is the planet’s beating heart and the Cartesian dualisms inherent in the European authors’ who in the twentieth century articulated the missio Dei.

The project will involve a bi-cultural partnership between two authors, one Maori, the other Pakeha New Zealand. Together they will read the Waitangi Tribunal 1999, Whanganui River Report (1999) to articulate how water is understood and consider the implications for Christian understandings of creation and redemption. This will foreground indigenous epistemological realities, in particular threads of ancestors and gift exchange.

The initial working proposal is that creation and redemption are woven together in multiple ways. Water is neither accident nor afterthought. It is the place where one is fully human, connected to ancestors and blessed through Divine gift exchange.  This allows the missio Dei to be located amid Oceanic realities, as a challenge to anthropocentric and individualised notions of missio Dei.

For a baptismal liturgy, that began this project see here.

Posted by steve at 11:44 AM

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Rethinking the Reformation: Sola Scriptura in Aotearoa New Zealand

(My abstract for REFORMATION 500 NZ: a multi-disciplinary conference on the Reformation and its impact will be held in Hamilton, New Zealand, to mark the 500th anniversary of the symbolic beginning of the Reformation on 31 October 1517.

Rethinking the Reformation: Sola Scriptura in Aotearoa New Zealand

Essential to the Reformation was the claim of sola Scriptura that destablised received patterns of church tradition. Yet contemporary reader response theory shifts the focus of Scripture from text to reader, from tradition to context. How might indigenous strategies of Scripture reading in Aotearoa New Zealand help us rethink the Reformation? Two examples are provocative.

One is the speech of Wiremu Tamihana recorded in the Great Britain Parliamentary Papers. In response to the ultimatum presented by the Crown to Waikato Maori in 1861, Tamihana drew on Deuteronomy 17:15 and Ephesians 2:13. The result was a contextual theology of church and state which reconceived Maori political initiatives, preserved difference and offered a Christology framed by justice.

A second is Te Whiti O Rongomai’s use of the Bible at Parihaka in the 1880’s. His use of the Samson narrative in Judges 15:4-5, as outlined in Nita McMaster’s research, shows a remarkable sensitivity to the narrative development of the book of Judges. Te Whiti invoked the implements of the oppressor, both their sacred text and their plough. This was a radical reading, an indigenous strategy that pre-dated by some hundred years Western interpreters (including Robert Boling and Roger Ryan) who argue that Judges 15 offered a guerilla strategy of non-violent resistant.

The Reformation impulse that prioritised vernacular translations of Scripture is evident in the historical commitment to Bible translation in New Zealand. What is intriguing is how this privileging of text results in indigenous readings that challenge the patterns of tradition being imposed by colonisers. Such is the power of sola Scriptura when people read for themselves in their own language.

Hence the examining of sola Scriptura in Aotearoa New Zealand is instructive in rethinking the reformation. Sola Scriptura is a key resource in resisting imperialism and complexifying understandings of cross-cultural transmission.

Posted by steve at 11:42 AM

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Thresholds: liminal learnings for theological education

I’ve been asked to contribute to a 2018 book on the future of theological education in Aotearoa New Zealand. The theoretical lens is thresholds, which got me thinking about the ways that previous thresholds might resource future journeys. Here is the abstract I submitted for the research project yesterday.

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Thresholds: liminal learnings for theological education from the history of becoming Presbyterian in Aoteoroa New Zealand

Steve Taylor

Our history, according to Paul Ricoeur, tells us how we might become. For Presbyterians in Aotearoa New Zealand, theological education has taken historical shape over 140 years ago, first in the Theological Hall, more recently through the School of Ministry and Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership.

Four thresholds have been significant, including relationships with indigenous people, responses to migration, the impact of secularism and student activism in seeking a nuclear free New Zealand. In this history is embodied knowledge, as a range of thresholds have been negotiated. In each is the opportunity to examine theological education by probing the socio-location of church and college, paying particular attention to the learnings from encountering an-other.

A threshold suggests someone, or something, is on the other side. How has the voice of the other been heard in the history of Presbyterian theological education? The church as institution has power in the form of church discipline, standards for ordination and resources of time and finance. How has theological education positioned itself, both in relation to power and in self-understanding as it encountered the liminal space between stakeholders and marginal voices?

An examination of the history of Presbyterian theological education, using published history, archival research and (potentially) participant interviews will clarify liminal learnings that can address the who, how and what of what theological education might become in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Posted by steve at 09:55 AM

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Revelation’s Dawn Chorus: Zadok column

I have been asked to be a regular columnist for an Australian magazine, Zadok. Having read my film reviews for Touchstone, they requested a 860 word column every 3 months. I see is as an opportunity to write a lay focused piece of theology. They are happy for me to blog the columns I write, which makes them accessible not only on paper in Australia but digitally for everywhere. Here is my second article, for the Spring 2017 edition:

Revelation’s Dawn Chorus
By Steve Taylor

The huia is a bird, native to New Zealand, with long black feathers and a white-tipped tail. Thousands of huia were exported overseas after becoming fashionable in Britain following a presentation of tail feathers to the Duke of York when he visited New Zealand in 1901. Within six years, the huia had disappeared. Since then, New Zealand’s dawn chorus has lacked the huia’s smooth distinctive whistle.

We as humans take a strange attitude towards those with whom we share this fragile earth. We are born into gift, yet we grow with a seemingly inbuilt desire to possess rather than share. The legacy of social Darwinism is competitive acquisition in which the strongest survive. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson tells repeated stories of this human desire to possess. The Bachman’s warbler had vanished from the southern United States by 1930. Then, in 1939, two separate birding enthusiasts, in two different locations, came across lone survivors within the space of two days. Both birds were shot. ‘I and me’ trumps ‘we and us’.

I think of the huia and Bachman’s warbler when I hear Revelation 7:9-10 read aloud in church: the news of every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, declaring God’s salvation. This dream of the new heaven and new earth makes me wonder about tongues and nations that no longer speak. Could they also be redeemed? Could resurrection and redemption be so complete that what we know as extinct will be resurrected to sing in praise of Christ?

The Hebrew language was once like this. After exile, by 400 CE, the language of King David was lost from everyday spoken use. Yet in the 19th century, through adapted new tools and modern words, Hebrew was reborn. It is a tongue, once extinct, that will now be part of Revelation’s Dawn Chorus.

Let me push my redemptive wondering one step further. What if the Revelation dream of every tongue singing in praise also included bird song? What if God’s salvation included the huia’s whistle and the Bachman’s warble?

Sometimes I dismiss my Revelation wonderings as romantic nonsense. We live in a world of science and reason. What is dead is dead. Jurassic Park is simply childhood make-believe.

Yet in the New Testament I keep hearing hints. In Luke 19:40, Jesus reminds all those listening that, if humans fall silent, then stones will sing. If dead rocks can praise their Creator, why not birdsong?

In Colossians 1:19-20 we find (in The Message translation) that Jesus is so spacious and roomy that everything of God finds a proper place. This includes all the ‘broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms’. All of creation gets properly fixed together in vibrant harmonies. It is a wonderful picture of creation redeemed and restored. Perhaps the harmonies are poetic rather than literal. And yet I wonder. Might not animals and atoms, huia and Bachman’s, find voice in Revelation’s Dawn Chorus?

In a world of science, flattened by reason, I need to keep hitting refresh on my theological vision and Revelation dreams. For me, one essential resource is Rowan Williams’ The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ (2003). Williams, one of our finest contemporary living theologians, ponders the icons of the church. The icons of the church are theology. They were ‘written’ and are to be ‘read’ as carefully as any theology textbook.

Every Easter, in order to keep my theological song lines in harmony, I retrace a resurrection vision. In the classical Orthodox Resurrection icon, the Risen Christ stands on a narrow bridge of rock spanning a dark pit. Christ is grasping Adam with one hand and Eve with the other. He is restoring relationships – between men and women, between humanity and creation, between the mind’s knowledge and the body’s experience.

Williams also notes the presence in this icon of characters from the Jewish Scriptures, including David, Abraham, Moses. The resurrection becomes the moment in which a new human community is born. Williams then draws on Maximus the Confessor and his explanation of Christ as overcoming all the great separations that humans suffer. This is God as spacious and roomy, all of creation found together in vibrant harmonies.

Reading Williams, I look more carefully at that classical Orthodox Resurrection icon. Surely all this talk of creation will include animals and atoms. Can huia and Bachman’s be etched into these Resurrection writings? What birds did join the Dawn Chorus on Resurrection Day?

Talk of social Darwinism stands in stark contrast to Revelation’s Dawn Chorus: dreaming of an earth of caring humans committed to redemption of all that is weak and frail, marginal and close to extinction. We need to keep drawing those theological song lines between Christ in death, Christ in resurrection and Christ in final return. If the stones sing praise as Jesus walks toward death and atoms harmonise in resurrection, then why not at the Great Dawn Chorus foretold in Revelation?

My first Zadok article, on sacred welfare, on the interplay between community engagement and congregational mission, for the Winter 2017 edition is here.

Posted by steve at 11:10 AM

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

baptismal words: indigenous and creation based

On Sunday, I was asked to participate in a baptismal service at a local Presbyterian student congregation. In preparing, I wanted to ensure baptism was rooted in a Biblical frame. I wanted to honour the bi-cultural relationships of which the Presbyterian church in New Zealand is a part. I also wanted to connect baptism with creation, given the importance of creation as a mark of mission in the church.

I was encouraged in this direction by a conversation in January with a Maori colleague, who noted the importance of water in Maori culture, and how the old people always reminded him that from an indigenous theological perspective were are all children of the sea. He offered a Maori proverb:

Tangaroa whakamautai, nga tamariki o te Moana nui a Kiwa.

He then linked the proverb with an Old Testament Scripture, from Genesis 6, of the Noah story. This is very astute. Rupert of Deutz, an 11th century theologian, wrote of “how familiarly and how frequently the Holy Spirit was revered even before the coming of Christ, mostly with respect to water” (Rogers, The Holy Spirit: Classic and Contemporary Readings, 178).

water-body-macro-shot-1388772 The conversation got me thinking about the importance of water in the Bible and in baptism. So I pondered scriptures in which there is a connection between water and God – and how they might help us understand baptism. Anyhow, here is what resulted … (more…)

Posted by steve at 09:19 PM

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Wonder Woman as female Christ figure: a theological film review

ticket-1543115-640x480 Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for June 2017.

Wonder Woman
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Wonder Woman is fun. My three female companions loved it. Each appreciated a strong woman, doing what is right without needing a male savior. For one, there was delight in connecting with 1970’s childhood TV memories of Lynda Carter fighting crime with one golden lasso and two bullet-deflecting arm guards.

Wonder Woman was a comic character, created in 1941, for DC Comics. The opening scene of the Wonder Woman movie pays homage, with a Marvel van delivering a package. Inside is a photograph. It is a smart scene, connecting Diana (Gal Gadot) with the comic genre, locating her in contemporary time, yet with a photographic history that includes World War 1.

Wonder Woman was created by American psychologist and writer, William Moulton Marston. He sought a superhero who would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love. “Fine,” his wife said, “but make her a woman.” (Lamb, Marguerite, “Who was Wonder Woman? Bostonia). In seeking inspiration, Marston looked to early feminists, including birth control pioneer, Margaret Sanger.

Given these feminist ideals, it is interesting to then ponder Wonder Woman as a female Christ figure. Historically, Christian theology has offered a number of ways to understand the work of a male saviour. Three have dominated, including Jesus bringing victory over evil, offering a moral example and as a substitute for sin. (There are other Biblical trajectories, including Jesus as our representative, as faithful witness, as adopting us into God’s family, as embracing us like the Prodigal Son and with us in solidarity.)

In relation to Wonder Woman, the act of sacrificial love is performed by the male, as Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) offers his life for the sake of the world. Diane takes another approach. In a climatic final scene, she presents in a crucifix position, arms outstretched, radiating white love from her heart to conquer darkness. It is an act chosen after an extended wrestle with the implications of free will.

It is a complex moral question, carefully explored over an extended final action sequence. Will you give someone choice, when they have the ability to choose evil? For Diana, the answer is resolved in remaining love.

“And now I know… that only love can truly save the world.
So now I stay, I fight, and I give – for the world I know can be.
This is my mission now, for ever.”

Confronted with the human potential to bring darkness, she triumphs not with fists or firepower, but with love. In so doing, redemption chooses to participating with humanity, active in a mission in which love wins.

Wonder Woman is packed with action and fun-filled humour. It provides connections for fans new and old. For new fans, Diana’s Amazon origins are describing, while for old fans, she appears in the opening scene in the same clothes as she wore in the much loved 1970’s TV series. At the same time, Wonder Woman is a serious examination of a female Christ figure who responds to the complexity of free will with a remaining love.

Posted by steve at 07:21 PM

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Objects of faith: Pulpit bibles and Presbyterian theologies of Scripture

“..religion is characteristically expressed in communities of worship.” Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Picador, 2005, 99).

Unknown-1 This is the pulpit Pew Bible of the now closed Andersons Bay Presbyterian Church. Embossed on the front cover are the words “Good News Bible. Today’s English Version.” It replaces an older Bible, a King James Version. It thus stands as a sign of change in the life of this church community. One wonders what motivated the change process and how it impacted on those used to the existing version.

Unknown-2 Inside is a handwritten inscription. “To the Glory of God. Presented by Robert Hamilton in memory of his wife, Adeline Maude, June 1985.” The Bible is thus personalised, fused with the life of this unique church community and the individual grief as a loved person dies.

Inside is also a bookmark. It is blue felt and has two hand embroidered symbols, both in yellow. One is of a cross, the other is of the burning bush. Both symbols speak of significant iconography, the Christian cross and the burning bush as the emblem of the Presbyterian Church of Aoteaora New Zealand. They suggest this church community is marked as Christian and as part of the Presbyterian Church.

These three markers – “Good News Bible. Today’s English Version,” the handwritten inscription and the hand embroidered symbols – suggest an approach to Bible reading that is open to change, entwined with individual story yet located within the Christian and denominational history. They suggest a Presbyterian theology of Scripture, embedded in the everyday practices of this community of faith. How consistent is this with other Presbyterian, other Protestant, other Christian approaches to Scripture?

One way to address these questions is to place the Andersons Bay pulpit Pew Bible alongside research by Joseph Webster (“Objects of Transcendence: Scots Protestantism and an Anthropology of Things,” Material Religion in Modern Britain: The Spirit of Things, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015, 17-35). He explores how Bibles are used in Scottish Protestantism.

First, Bibles are open (24). Second, Bibles are understood as a living word shaping the behaviour of individuals (25). Third, Bibles are an object that can mediate salvation (26). At work in each of these affirmations is a commitment to the “power of encountering tbe biblical object and its person-like qualities” (26). The use of this object of faith, the Bible, suggests the importance of providing “routes of access to the inwardness of this book (27). What matters is not only the actual text, but also the object, Scripture as an ever-present and potentially transforming reality. “”[T]he saved” become “living epistles” as their lives are conformed to the Bible (29).

Webster reads this alongside cultural shift, in particular the arrival of modernity. Webster argues that these understandings he observed in Scottish Protestantism are neither pre- nor anti-modern. Bibles are used, according to Webster, as consubstantiated hybrids (33). They are at the same time a collection of pages and the breath of God. This is made possible by a worldview of immanence and transcendence in which things are both material and enchanted.

Back at Andersons Bay, we see this materiality. There is the willingness to replace one material book with another, believing that it is not only in specific certain mystical pages that God is encountered. There is the weaving of individual biography, in which tradition is understood in relation to church members who have gone before. There is the craft of embroidery, consistent with a church known for this particular craft. These suggest a commitment to materiality, at odds with stereotypes of Protestantism as not of this world.

Yet we equally see transcendence, in the decision to change the Bible, presumably to enhance the living witness of this text. Also in the belief that in the craft of embroidery and the remembering of individual lives will come inward transformation of individual lives: routes of access in which “the saved” become “living epistles.” (Webster in Material Religion in Modern Britain, 27, 29).

Posted by steve at 12:06 PM