Monday, May 30, 2016

God’s work in a homeless world

durham I’ve just submitted a paper proposal for the Durham Conference on Ecclesiology and Ethnography, September 2016. If accepted, and if the funding comes through, it will work beautifully with my BERA conference presentation, in Leeds a few days later.

This paper has been composting for over a year. It began as a research memo in May, 2015, when I hit a research brickwall in a book project on sustainability and fresh expressions. I needed a theological lens, other than numbers, by which to discern innovation.

It was clarified by email conversation with Paul Fiddes, who helped me name my research question. It was sharpened by a lecture in February, working with KCML interns. The result is the following paper. And, with thinking clarified, shaped and sharpened, I can return to the book project! Here is the abstract.

God’s work in a homeless world: the Christian practice of discernment in conversation with Irenaeus

Missio Dei understands God as the primary agent of mission. The affirmation, however, generates questions regarding how to discern Divine work in the world. This paper undertakes an exercise in practical theology, testing the practicalities of the Christian practice of discernment. The argument is that a Christology of giving and receiving, evident in a pastoral encounter with a homeless person, redraws Irenaeus’ theology of recapitulation.

The starting point is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of Christ taking “form among us today and here” (Ethics, 2009). Paul Fiddes uses this starting point in clarifying the nature of empirical research in theology (Seeing the World and Knowing Godxt, 2013; Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography, 2012). The possibilities of Christ taking “form today” as a Christian practice of discernment are tested in three steps.

As a first step, a set of questions is developed by which the specific shape of Christ’s form might be discerned. Three possibilities are introduced, drawing on Trinitarian presence in three Biblical narratives, the theology of creation in the Old Testament wisdom literature and the Divine processions of mission. Each is consistent with the Christological and Trinitarian impulses inherent in Bonhoeffer, yet provides a different lens in the practice of discernment. Drawing from Trinitarian narratives, do we see signs of creating, reconciling or the making of all things new? Drawing from wisdom literature, what can be blessed because it contributes to human flourishing? Drawing from the processions of mission, where do we see relationships of extravagant giving and receiving?

Second, the three discernment questions are tested against a moment of lived reality, a pastoral encounter between a street chaplain and a homeless person. The encounter is documented by Henk de Roest (Explorations in Ecclesiology and Ethnography, 2012). While the use here of an existing empirical data set might be new in practical theology, it is consistent with Five Ways of Doing Qualitative Analysis (2011) in which researchers analyse the same data using diverse methodologies. This paper tests the usefulness of such an approach in practical theology. The three discernment questions, when applied to this pastoral encounter, enrich understandings of God’s work in a homeless world. The shape by which Christ takes “form among us today” is clarified, particularly with regard to the agency of God in human giving and receiving.

Third, Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation is redrawn in light of the mutual giving and receiving discerned in the pastoral encounter. The argument is that recapitulation needs not only to articulate Christ receiving in maturation, but also in ministry. The pastoral encounter enriches our understanding of the nature of Incarnation and the self-limits of revelation inherent when God’s work in the world occurs as a communicative act of giving and receiving.

Practical theology is thus a Christian practice in which acts of discernment, in conversation with empirical data and historical theology, deepen understanding of reciprocity in the nature of God. The empirical is essential for theology, while theology is essential for Christian practice.

Posted by steve at 09:59 AM | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

local agency, local leaders, local indigeneity, local independence

archives It was an evening in the archives, exploring the files and newspaper cuttings that Presbyterian Research has of theological education in Vanuatu. The demand was preparation for The complexity of being woven together: A microhistory of the relationship between Talua Ministry Training Centre and three denominations in Australia and New Zealand, a research paper I am delivering, with Phil King, at Woven Together: Christianity and Development between New Zealand and the Pacific, Victoria University, June 9-10. The result was an evening of inspiration.

Here is some of what I wrote …

What will become clear is that Christianity is a significant development actor. Theological education in Vanuatu is driven by local agency. It is shaped by a vision for equality, contextualisation and indigeneity. It provides leadership for political independence.

Local agency, local leaders
The first Ni-Van were trained overseas. Two travelled to Samoa in 1849, three to New Zealand in 1851. From a Ni-Van perspective, through the eyes of Fiama Rakau, the focus is on local agency. “Ni-Vanuatu took the initiative, to swim and ask to be taken away for training. Theological Education, then, is not foreign, neither was it imposed, but it was born out of desire and necessity.” (Fiama Rakau, From Aname to Talua. A Brief Survey of Theological Education in Vanuatu, 1)

The need for indigenous leadership lead to the first theological college, in Aname, Aneityum. The location was first, close to a significant church and second, monastic in feel. (“The idea of a monastery may still be felt and followed in the early stages of the theological development.” (Rakau, 5)

It was built on the desire for local agency. “The Presbyterian Mission was forced to give up its dependence upon the LMS teachers” (Rakau, 2). It is consistent with Forman’s pattern, which I will discuss later. The College was wholistic, aiming to “enlarge the whole life, head, heart, home and community” (Rakau 3, citing Miller Live Bk 3, 112). Students worked in gardens. This is consistent with the aims of the theological college, that students “keep in touch with man’s deeper need by practical gospel work during training” (Rakau 6, citing Tangoa Training Institution). It was free (“free as far as fees were concerned” (Rakau 3, citing Miller Live Bk 3, 113)). A central focus was teaching students to read, for the sake of local agency. “Our primary object was to teach them to read, that they might be able to read the Bible and learn the will of God … for themselves” (Rakau 3, citing Miller Live Bk 3, 113). This is empowerment, in which the ability to read enhances local agency.

Local indigeneity
In 1895, Tangoa Training Institution was established. It is intriguing to read the aims, using the lens of our conference theme: development. The vision included equality, contextualisation and indigeneity. Regarding justice, the Intellectual aims noted “The essential parity of the intellectual powers, irrespective of race or colour.” (Rakau, 6) Regarding contextualisation, “A teaching approach which has, as far as possible, assimilated the thought-forms of the native culture.” (Rakau, 6) that educated “students to the nature of the responsibility for an indigenous church.” (Rakau, 7) Regarding indigeneity, “A self-governing Vanuatu Church … The principle that the people of the land are the most effective evangelists to their own people … The inclusion of island teachers [as theological educators] as soon as possible … The gradual assumption by the Vanuatu Church of the cost of training its own teachers and pastors.” (Rakau, 7) It is an extraordinary vision for any culture, even more so given the year, 1895.

Local independence
A third institution, Aulua Training College was established in 1977. This date is important, argues Fiama Rakau, “four years before Vanuatu achieved its independence.” (Rakau, 11). The Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu was instrumental in the move to independence, with clergy being released to provide national political leadership. “This was particularly felt within the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu because more pastors from that church were released to the political sector.” (Rakau, 11). This resulted in a loss of leadership in the church. This led to the establishing of Aulua Training College.

Again, local agency was central. The first aim was that “Aulua expresses the determination to move towards self-help” (Rakau, 12). There was a critique of “students, studying overseas, [who] become alienated from their own people” (Rakau, 12). An economic analysis was evident: “The high cost factor of providing basic training overseas” (Rakau, 12). Contextualisation is central. A training model is established which takes “place within the culture and life of the people” (Rakau, 12). Examinations were rejected in favour of “written expression, group discussion, and involvement, to assess their readiness for ministry.” (Rakau, 13).

Posted by steve at 09:59 AM | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

John 21 and Waiting for a voice, Dave Dobbyn

Those looking for some contemporary creativity around John 21:1-19, the lectionary text for this Sunday, will find helpful Dave Dobbyn’s latest album, Harmony House, released last week. I hope to provide an album review soon, but in the meantime, the opening single, Waiting for a Voice, is intriguing. Here are the lyrics (my transcription from the album playing on the car stereo this morning)

Verse 1 -
I look across a clear glass lake
Not a ripple on it, not a minnows’ wake

I saw a stranger on the opposite shore
Cooking up a meal for me
And what’s more, I heard Elijah
I know it was him
Get into the water man, and lose your sin

Chorus
And Heaven is waiting for a choice
Waiting for a still clear voice (repeat)

Whether intended by Dobbyn or not, the references to the story of Jesus in John 21 are multiple. Beside the Sea of Galilee in verse 1 (I look across a clear glass lake), the disciples catching nothing in verse 3 (not a minnows’ wake), the presence of the risen Jesus, initially unrecognized in verse 4 (a stranger on the opposite shore), the charcoal fire in verse 9 (cooking up a meal for me).

The reference to Elijah is not named in John 21, but it is a way the disciples might have been making sense of this encounter. There is clear confusion between the Jesus unrecognized in verse 4 and verse 7 “It is the Lord.” A number of times in the Gospels, people wonder if Jesus is Elijah. This shows the power of the Old Testament imaginations that holds. It also shows how the human mind always works within known structures of meaning when trying to assimilate new experience. This has significant missiological implications of course. People move from their known to the new, so any communication needs to begin with the known. In so doing, it will always run the danger of being misinterpreted.

I love the baptism imagery (Get into the water man, and lose your sin). Again, it is not in the text. However it is a lovely imaginative working with the role of water, that is for baptism, and consistent with the actions of Peter in verse 7, as he jumps into the waters of Galilee in his rush to get to Jesus. The lyric makes total sense of the pathway to redemption, that we come to faith through the waters in which are sin is washed away.

The chorus is a catchy mix of crashing chords and ecstatic vocals, channelling the ecstatic sounds of a Nick Cave. The lyrics are distinctly evangelical. Heaven is waiting for a choice. Personally, I wince at the focus in the lyrics on human agency, at the danger of human pride in “my choosing to follow Jesus.” At the same time, there is a sense in John 21 of choice, particularly and repeatedly, in the three questions Jesus asks of Peter in verses 15, 16 and 17. Are we willing to trust ourselves to a stranger, who insists we make clear lifestyle changes (and lose your sin) in choosing to sit around a fire with Jesus?

So how would I use it? Probably I would mention some of the lyrics during the sermon, then play the song after the sermon, as a seque into communion. I would weave some of the lyrics into the communion prayers (thanking God for the saints, including Elijah; for the gift of creation, including lake shores and the waters of baptism, through which we find communion with God). I would ensure the prayers allow a time of silence in which I would invite us to listen for God’s “still clear voice.”

If I knew the community well, I might even invite them to share what they heard at the end of this listening. If I was doing this, my sermon would focus more on a lectio divina approach to Scripture, in which I create space for imaginative listening. Then I would play the song, mention the lyric – listen for God’s “still clear voice” – and invite that space for silence, for listening, and then for sharing.

Who knows what that still clear voice of the risen Lord, so strange to us, might say?

Posted by steve at 08:13 AM

Monday, March 21, 2016

Rejuvenation in the Church: some theological notes (Candour repost)

(This is a piece I was asked to write for Candour, a blog for Presbyterian Church leaders, in January this year. )

Much of my thinking about a theology of rejuvenation was shaped during the early days of a difficult change process. I was working with a traditional church experiencing steady decline. Expecting resistance, I referred often in my sermons to the numerical decline of the last few decades. After a few months, an older gentleman commented quietly, “It wasn’t all bad you know.”

The comment got me thinking. Were my references to decline working against our shared desire for rejuvenation? I found myself reflecting on the change images used by Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus begins his ministry by declaring himself an agent of transformation, anointed by God to initiate shalom. [Luke 4:18-19] He describes his ministry using images of mustard seeds, yeast and grains of wheat. [Matthew 13; specifically 31-32; 33; 45-46; John 12:24] He commissions the church – as the Father sent me, so I sent you – as an agent of rejuvenation, to partner with the shalom of Jesus. [John 20:21]

Challenged, I threw away my graphs of decline. Instead, I gave out sunflower seeds. Creation grows and changes. Humans grow and change. I found myself tapping into what I now understand as a Trinitarian theology of rejuvenation.

As Christians we understand God relates to us in relationships: to create, reconcile and make all things new. Let me apply this pattern to rejuvenation.

In Genesis 2, God is pictured as creating a garden. The words used to describe the activities of God include

Maker,

Former of people,

Breather of life,

Planter,

Pleasant to look at.

Into God’s garden, humans are placed, to work and care. [Genesis 2:15] Rejuvenation begins when we recognise ourselves as gardeners with God, creating environments of visual pleasure and practical nurture.

On Easter morning, the first encounters with the Resurrected Jesus are in a garden. A body is transformed, hope is updated, all of creation is reconciled. [Colossians 1:20] At the same time resurrection challenges a theology of rejuvenation. We see this clearly in John 12:24. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In Christ, rejuvenation is only entered through death.

Revelation ends in the garden. “Behold, I am making all things new,” is a song of rejuvenation. The verbs of Revelation 21:5, when placed alongside the list of verbs in Genesis 2, give a sense of the Revelation garden completing the Genesis garden.

Maker -> Making

Former of people -> All things new

Breather of life -> Healing

Pleasant to look at -> No curse

The harmonies begun with Creator God, heard in Re-creator God in Resurrection, are completed in the Revelation making of all things new. The trees are for rejuvenation, the “healing of the nations.” [Rev 22:2]

This provides a theological and relational pattern for rejuvenation. It is one based on the three persons of the Trinity. Another pattern is present in the processions of God in mission. In the Creeds, the Church declares both “God from God, Light from Light” and the Spirit “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This is how God rejuvenates, in the mission of the Son in the incarnation and the inspiration of the Spirit who draws creation together in grace. This pattern allows us to discern what it means to participate in God’s rejuvenation, whether inside or outside the church. [I am summarising the work of Paul Fiddes, Seeing the World and Knowing God: Hebrew Wisdom and Christian Doctrine in a Late-Modern Context]

Let me end by returning to the story I began with. Three months after I gave out sunflowers, I was shown a photo, of the older gentleman’s grandson, standing dwarfed by a sunflower, planted from one of those seeds. Such is the power and potential of a theology of rejuvenation. For the church, it means that

  • Rejuvenation has a theology when it finds itself within this arc of creation, redemption and the making of all things new.
  • Rejuvenation has a shape, as it expresses the patterns of the mission of God in Incarnation and Integration.
  • The rejuvenation of the church is a subset of God’s work in creation. The Genesis garden is for humanity, God loves the world redemptively in Jesus, Revelation is for the healing of the nations.
  • God is the active agent, initiating and sustaining rejuvenation.

This was the good news my church needed to hear, not my bad tidings of great decline.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. This article is developed more extensively in his forthcoming Built for Change: Innovation and Collaboration in leadership (Australia: Mediacom).

Posted by steve at 08:58 AM

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Acceptance Notice Mysterious Ways: U2 And Religion

BellyDancer_main-300x286 I was delighted to hear today that my proposed chapter for a book on U2 and Religion has been accepted. The book, titled Mysterious Ways, is to be published by Bloomsbury Press, sometime in 2017. My chapter will pick up on some work I did in 2010, around Sarah Coakley, pneumatology and U2. It is good to have a chance to revisit the work and to be able to position it slightly differently by focusing directly on Mysterious Ways. Here is what the chapter will explore:

She moves in mysterious ways: a theology of “sexy music”
Dr Steve Taylor

This chapter argues that U2’s live performances of “Mysterious ways” offer an ecstatic, sonic and participative theology. The song, described by Bono as “sexy music,” has gained critical and popular acclaim.

Performed live 584 times, “Mysterious ways” has gone through three distinct live phases. The first involved an on-stage belly dancer, moving always out of reach of Bono’s stretching fingertips. The second involved a female member of the audience joining Bono live on stage to dance. The third involved a re-worked conclusion. The lyrics “She moves, We move, s/Spirit teach me” were sung as Bono extended his arms upward and outward. Simultaneously the lighting, until then tightly focused on the band, rolled outward over the audience. Together these three phases – performer on stage, the audience member as performer on stage, the audience as performer – become an incorporative, participative and sonic theology.

This conclusion is reached by bringing the performances of “Mysterious ways” into conversation with British theologian, Sarah Coakley, who calls for an understanding of God’s Holy Spirit as gendered, sexualised and ecstatic. She argues from Romans 8:22-27 that God is experienced only through a profound entanglement with the ecstasies of human sexual desire. For Coakley, feminine metaphors (birth pains) and the mysterious ways of the non-rational realm (wordless groans) describe divine participation. Coakley’s theology gives words to the performative phrases of “Mysterious ways,” making sense of a theology of “sexy music,” in which the audience is invited to “move with” the dancing s/Spirit.

Three points of departure are important. Regarding performance, if Bono is inviting the audience to “move with” it, how does an incorporative, participative pneumatology honour the individual in the concert experience? Coakley helps by calling attention to the Spirit’s ceaseless “moves” irrespective of human participation. This complicates and enriches all three of Bono’s performative modes.

Regarding theology, Coakley commends prayer as silent contemplation. U2 provide a stark contrast, offering rock, specifically the Edges’ chiming bar chords, played through an effects unit. U2’s approach provides another way to understand “wordless groans,” as a sound scape. This reading would complicate and enrich Coakley’s understanding of the ecstatic.

This line of enquiry can be developed using the work of Endrinal (2012) who has analysed the introduction by U2 in Achtung Baby of multiregister vocal layering to provide a rich sonic signature. This can be helpfully set alongside evidence of the growing influence on U2 of North African and African-American musical traditions. “Sexy music” is thus communicated sonically, as well as through performance and theology.

Hence bringing “Mysterious Ways” into conversation with Coakley provides a theology of “sexy music” in U2. The Spirit moves in a soundscape that is ecstatic, sonic and participative. This provides a different place to locate the mystery of religious experience, in the beat and bass of a rock concert.

Dr Steve Taylor,
Senior Lecturer, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.

This will be my sixth publication in the area of U2 in the last five years:

Which is a somewhat unexpected (“mysterious” even) move in my writing. However I do enjoy the opportunity to think theologically, particularly through the lens of lament and liturgy, so I’m delighted to participate in this project.

Posted by steve at 02:48 PM

Thursday, February 25, 2016

It takes a church to raise a minister: Theology Matters SPANZ column

As Principal of KCML, I get to write a regular column for SPANZ, the quarterly magazine of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. Here is my column for Summer, 2016.

It takes a church to raise a minister

commitment-1578037-639x425 I am now three months into my placement as Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. My first day at KCML was also the first day at school for my daughter. We were “newbies” together. As we set off that morning, I found myself thinking of the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

The proverb reminds us of the importance of relationships. Healthy communities, whether schools, churches or ministry Colleges, offer a range of relationships. These relationships, at all sorts of levels, nurture growth. That is a positive take. Equally, there is a negative take. Unhealthy communities offer a range of relationships which, because of their dysfunction and inhospitality, bring decline.

At my first KCML team meeting, I shared this sense of being new and asked the question: “If it takes a village to raise a child, does it take a church to raise a minister?” The question grabbed the teams’ attention. We found ourselves digging into Scripture. We noted the importance of relationships in the cross-cultural shifts that occurred in the church of Antioch and found ourselves giving thanks for mothers and grandmothers in the raising of Timothy. We recalled with gratitude the individuals who had given each of us as lecturers’ opportunity in ministry. We noted how certain churches and certain ministers keep cropping up in the call stories at National Assessment Weekend. My colleague, Geoff New recalled his farewell from Papakura East and the words of the Session Clerk: “We would not be the people we are now becoming without your ministry and in some strange way you wouldn’t be going to your new job at Knox except for the journey of obedience to God you have been able to take among us and with us.” The notion that it takes a church to raise a minister was ringing true.

Theologically, Christians understand God in relationships. In the Gospels we hear stories of how Jesus relates to God and vice versa. In the Creed, we find images of “dynamic relations to characterize more specifically God’s ways of relating to us” (David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence). God relates to us to create us, to reconcile us and to draw us into the making of all things new. As Christians, we worship God in relationships.

At the risk of being simplistic, let me sketch two models of theology matters. One is an institutional model of education that expects KCML to train ministers. This model might elevate ordination. Theology matters, but it risks becoming the domain of certain people, who read certain textbooks and gain certain qualifications. Perhaps this creates someone who runs the village.

Another is a relational model of education that expects the PCANZ to train ministers. This model might elevate baptism. Theology matters for disciples, for all called to love God heart, soul and mind. Theological education belongs among the whole people of God, in song and in the workplace, across all the specified ministries of the church. KCML remains, as one part of the village that raises the disciple.

This has implications for all of us. If the African proverb is true and it does indeed take a village to raise a child then theology matters. Not for certain people in certain places, but for every disciple of Jesus, called in their baptism into the mission of God.

For discussion:
1. What Bible stories and images of God help you understand the proverb: “It takes a church to raise a minister?”
2. What are the implications – for congregations, for theological colleges and the PCANZ – of a relational model of education?

Posted by steve at 08:09 PM

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Could you return to your story? “hapkas” theology as personal experience

“Could you return to your story?”

It was a question asked as I finished a research presentation. I was interviewing to be Principal at KCML. The interview process began with me taking a 50 minute “mock” lecture to a group of “mock” students. It had gone well, apart from the jug of water for the lecturer, that developed a crack half way through, resulting in water gently easing under my laptop as I spoke. “As long as it is consistent for all those being interviewed” I quipped. The interview process then moved, after lunch with the interview panel, to a research presentation. Fifty minutes on some aspect of my current work, followed by 50 minutes of question and answer.

It was then that the question was posed. “Could you return to your story?” Puzzled, I asked for elaboration. “Well, you began your lecture this morning with your story, of growing up in PNG. So I’m asking what might happen if you returned in your research to your story?”

I remember being struck by the depth of listening. After nearly 3 hours of talking, here was someone with the ability to connect two quite different parts of my presentations, in ways that offered me new eyes. My story felt held. My experience felt important. Perhaps in this place, I would see myself, including my old self, in new ways. It was a moment, of care, of hope, and potentially of guidance in my research journey.

Fast forward some 13 months later. The interview in January 2015 resulted in my beginning as Principal in October 2015. I brought with me a significant piece of research, a book project on innovation and collaboration. Begun in July, it has absorbed all of my writing time in the period since.

Last week, the manuscript was sent to the editor. It will return, but in the meantime, I have some space to begin again. “What will you write?” asked my family on Sunday evening. (I have a habit of spending the first 45 minutes of every work day writing.) I sifted through a few possibilities. The next most important thing is two papers I have to present in Korea at the International Association of Mission Studies. The deadline for submission is 31 March. I chose one (the second is on how to understand Silence in mission), and got to writing.

Cbw_TtUVAAAPB7Q

I looked at my desk yesterday. I am writing on Christology in Papua New Guinea. My research involves reading art gallery publications about bark cloth. I laughed. “Could you return to your story?” was the question 13 months ago.

Well, my first new writing project in this role and I have. I have found myself, by a random set of circumstances, writing on my country of birth. I am listening to ABC recordings of PNG women singing. I am exploring theology expressed in visual, rather than written ways. I am bringing my years of study of Christology and post-colonial theology and literature to bear on my own story. I am reading Mark Brett’s Decolonizing God: The Bible in the Tides of Empire (Bible in the Modern World). He also is born in PNG. I am beginning to imagine an academic paper presented in Korea not on powerpoint but on bark cloth.

I sense freedom, grace and integration. Such are some of the benefits when we return to our story, when the personal is woven into the academic, when deep listening enables us to see and hear ourselves in new ways.

Posted by steve at 08:42 AM

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Suffragette: A theological film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for February 2016.

Suffragette
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: forthcoming) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 06:19 PM

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Praying for Paris: an empirical study

tear on cheek

Praying for Paris: an empirical study of how local churches respond to global events
Researchers: Dr Steve Taylor and Lynne Taylor

Introduction: Faith lives in a complex relationship with surrounding culture. Christians inhabit a set of beliefs regarding who God is and how God acts in our world today. These become particularly pointed when tragedy strikes. How does the church respond to unexpected violence? What resources does the church draw upon? How to speak of the nature of God, humans and Christian responses to tragedy?

One place to seek answers to these questions is in pastoral prayer. Christian practices articulate a practical theology. As such, the gathered worship service is theory laden, offering insight into Christian understandings of how God is engaged in human history. What Christians pray – what they do and do not say – is thus a potentially fruitful avenue for conducting research into ecclesiastical and religious practice.

Such an approach is suggested in Coakley and Wells, Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture, who explore not only the complexity of liturgical leadership, but also how those who pray and preach in fact become active agents that draw forth the desires and prayers from among those they serve.

This research project seeks to understand how local churches prayed on Sunday 15 November. The date is significant because on Friday, 13 November, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks occurred in Paris. At the same time, a number of other tragedies occurred, including bombings in Beirut and Baghdad. As churches gathered on Sunday 15 November, how did they pray? What factors were at work in the choice to pray, or not? What resources might have been drawn upon? What theologies were at work in the response?

Method: The aim was to conduct an empirically descriptive study, in order to reflect theologically on ecclesiastical practice, in this case the church service. An online survey, was designed, consisting of ten questions. It was piloted with a number of colleagues at Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. An email was then sent to pastoral leaders in two New Zealand denominations, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Baptist Churches of Aotearoa New Zealand, inviting them to participate in the online survey. A notice was also posted on twitter and Facebook, asking people to share. This presented three different and distinct avenues for gaining data.

The research has a number of possible benefits. These include
• understanding the factors that shape how churches respond to tragedy
• provide insight into the theodicies at play in contemporary ecclesial practice
• providing understanding of church practice, as a resource for training of future leaders in theological reflection, congregational leading and worship leading and to assist with professional development training
• locate good examples, in order to develop a web resource of examples of rapid respond to global tragedy

The study had a number of limits. The response was likely to be skewed toward those who did respond prayerfully. Further, the reach was determined by the social media reach of the two researchers. However, the research does not claim to capture a quantitatively representative sample. Rather it will only claim to provide a qualitative data set, to explore the theologies at work in lived practice.

Results: The survey was closed on December 1, 2015. In just over two weeks, 155 responses had been received. These will be analysed in order to provide an empirically descriptive and critically constructive theory of ecclesiastical and religious practice in society. As time allows, the results will be processed and avenues for publication sought.

Posted by steve at 07:29 PM

Monday, November 16, 2015

Flags as lament: Brooke Fraser for Paris, Beirut, Kenya and violence

Brooke Fraser’s song “Flags” (from the 2010 Flags) album) became a place of thoughtful healing over the weekend. Certainly the weekend brought news that was “plenty of trouble, from which we’re all reeling.” The suggestion, to “listen,” to news of lives flapping empty (“our lives blow about, Like flags on the land)”.

There is something disturbing, challenging even, in the line “My enemy and I are one and the same.” The reminder that Jihadists are humans, who have mothers and brothers, and they will awake today to grieve a dead son. What will they be feeling? And to wonder what drives a human, a person born vulnerable like me, to such extreme acts.

And then her turning to Scripture; with the verses that reference the Beautitudes. In these verses (pun intended) is a place to feel – “to mourn, to weep.” In these verses is faith, not in triumph but in reversal; for the innocents who have fallen and the monsters who have stood; “I know the last shall me first.”

Which gives me a place to act: To listen, to feel, to retain the will to faith. Thanks Brooke.

Come, tell me your trouble
I’m not your answer
But I’m a listening ear

Reality has left you reeling
All facts and no feeling
No faith and all fear

I don’t know why a good man will fall
While a wicked one stands
And our lives blow about
Like flags on the land

Who’s at fault is not important
Good intentions lie dormant
And we’re all to blame

While apathy acts like an ally
My enemy and I are one and the same

I don’t know why the innocents fall
While the monsters still stand
And our lives blow about
Like flags on the land

I don’t know why our words are so proud
Yet their promise so thin
And our lives blow about
Like flags in the wind

Oh oh oh oh

You who mourn will be comforted
You who hunger will hunger no more
All the last shall be first
Of this I am sure

You who weep now will laugh again
All you lonely, be lonely no more
Yes, the last will be first
Of this I’m sure

I don’t know why the innocents fall
While the monsters stand
I don’t know why the little ones thirst
But I know the last shall be first
I know the last shall be first
I know the last shall be first

For more of my writing on lament and popular culture, see U2 and lament for Pike River; which became a book chapter in Spiritual Complaint: The Theology and Practice of Lament, when I worked with a colleague, Liz Boase, to explore Paul Kelly’s concert response to the Black Saturday bushfires and U2′s response to the Pike River mining tragedy.

Posted by steve at 06:22 AM

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Fiction as missiology: an appreciation of religious change in Drusilla Modjeska’s “The Mountain”

Abstract (2) for 14th Assembly of International Association of Mission Studies, August 11–17, 2016, Seoul, South Korea

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

Title: Fiction as missiology: an appreciation of religious change in Drusilla Modjeska’s “The Mountain”

Stanley Skreslet (Comprehending Mission, 2012) argues that missiology has been slow to examine historical fiction from outside the West. A way to respond to his challenge is presented in The Mountain (2012), a novel by acclaimed Australian writer, Drusilla Modjeska. Book One describes the five years leading up to independence in Papua New Guinea in 1973 and ends with a ‘gift child’: a hapkas boy. Book Two describes his return – the child of a black mother and white father – to the land of his birth.

In the book an account of conversion and transformation in Papua New Guinea is offered. “Of all the applause, of all the cheers, the greatest is for the Christian missions, the priests who cross the stadium with their crucifixes and their bibles …. ‘Jesus,’ … ‘good’ man true” … ‘He die on a tree. Very good. He die for PNG.’” (The Mountain, 291). It is a surprisingly positive portrayal of conversion and transformation, referencing indigenous approval (“the greatest [applause] is for the Christian missions”) and indigenization (“He die for PNG.”)

The paper will take this notion of Jesus as good man true and analyse how this Christology interweaves with themes in The Mountain of ancestor, gift and hapkas. It will argue that The Mountain offers a distinct and creative Christology, one that offers post-colonial insight into the interplay between missiological notions of pilgrim and indigenizing and the complex journeys between there and here. Such a Christology is one result of religious change in PNG.

(My brief book review of The Mountain here).

Posted by steve at 10:27 AM

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The gift: film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for October 2015.

The Gift
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is becoming Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: forthcoming) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 10:01 AM

Friday, August 28, 2015

missional theology of sacraments and the church

Thesis 1 – The sacraments are about the Spirit, not the church. This initial move establishes God as the rightful author and agent of sacramental theology.

Thesis 2 – The Spirit can fall on who and whatever it wants. This is consistent with the Biblical data, in which God keeps surprising. We see this in the ministry of Jesus, most particularly the encounter with the Syro-phonecian woman. Interestingly, this has links with sacramental theology, in the reference to crumbs from the table. We see this also in Peter’s encounter in Acts. Again, I note that this also has links with sacramental theology, in the invitation to eat.

Thesis 3 – The role of the church is thus not to define sacramentality, but to discern sacramentality. The church remains essential to a sacramental theology, not as a definer and defender of boundaries, but as an ongoing discerner. David Ford, in Self and Salvation: Being Transformed notes that the Eucharist is “true to itself only by becoming freshly embodied in different contexts.” This is a way of understanding “rightly ordered”, as an invitation to authentic embodiment.

Thesis 4 – This requires a rich and complex set of tools. We see this move (struggle even) toward discernment, in both the narratives mentioned above, as Jesus affirms the great faith of the Syro-phonecian woman and Peter discerns freshly the work of God. Both of this moves require a process of reflection – in community, by grace, with coherence to the interweaving of experience and tradition. The role of missional theological education necessitates developing skills in these processes. It is this that will enable sacramental practice to emerge from those gathered in community gardens, around skate parks and amid the tables of messy church. The result will be that indeed, in bread, wine and water, Christ will feed the church.

Posted by steve at 10:18 AM

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

innovation in teaching ANZATS paper

I presented my paper on innovation in teaching today at ANZATS (Australia New Zealand Association of Theological Schools). Over the last 4 weeks I have written about 7,000 words of what is now a complete first draft of a journal article. So the task for today was to try and communicate the argument and main structure in the 25 minute time limit – of around 2,500 words.

I began by rifting of a prayer offered as the conference began:

Let us pray that students in theological education may be equipped for ministry and for life. We pray to the Lord: Lord have mercy
Let us pray that all teachers may be creative in facilitating student learning. We pray to the Lord: Lord have mercy

My research engages with these prayers. How do students perceive our “theological education”? What is the impact on students of our “creative facilitating student learning”?

There were a good number present and the questions were helpful.

  • What incentives did I build in to ensure students undertook pre-reading?
  • What were the workload implications, not just this year but in years to come?
  • Tell us about the class size and age profile? Does a larger class change the possibilities?
  • Was anything lost as a result of the processes?

These were expected questions. They focus more on the how. How do you teach in the flipped classroom? My paper focused mainly on the why and what? Why would you and what are the results? But the how questions are important, pertinent and natural for the audience – educators. The task now is to take the complete draft and seek a journal article. My sense is that the argument is sound, but that I need a bit more depth around the referencing and some sentence smashing – working paragraphs and words to ensure clarity.

But first, I need to complete a complete 6,000 word draft by 1 September for the Ecclesiology and ethnography conference, on activist research.

Posted by steve at 06:06 PM