Friday, September 05, 2014
A cross to carry: Calvary film review
Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for September 2014, of Calvary.
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor
“Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.” Jack Brennan, Village butcher
Calvary is, according to the Christian faith, the place where Jesus met death. It stands at the end of his Passion, the final resting place in a final week of suffering. “Calvary” is also a film, in which a respected Catholic priest in a remote Irish village is invited, unexpectedly, to face his death.
One Saturday, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in the act of offering a routine round of confession, hears an unknown man recount his story of childhood abuse. The actions of a certain “bad priest”, now dead, deserve punishment. Father James, has been chosen, because he is a “good priest”, to atone for the sins on another by meeting his death Sunday week. It is a bitter take on the Christian interpretation of Calvary, in which one innocent man is invited to suffer for the sins of another.
It is a clever move, both theologically and technically. It provides a way to cast a darkening shadow over James daily life as a priest. At mass on Sunday, through pastoral visitation on Monday, at the pub on Wednesday, James encounters a host of multiple minor characters. An angry mechanic (Isaach De Bankole), a cynical surgeon (Aidan Gillen), a dying novelist (M. Emmet Walsh), each amplify the opening confession.
It builds suspense. Which one of the males James encounters is the unknown man in the confessional? Together these multiple characters become a rising crescendo of sustained outrage. The road to James’ Calvary becomes a suffering not only for the sins of a “bad priest”, but for the acts of a “bad church”, enmeshed in a perceived history of colonisation, injustice and oppression.
Brendan Gleeson as Father James is superb. Entering the priesthood following the death of his wife, he towers over the windswept heather of this bleak Irish coastline. Intelligent, deadpan, he seems, like a sponge, to absorb the hostility that surrounds him. He is delightfully humanised by the appearance of his daughter (Kelly Reilly).
Her appearance introduces a further challenge to the Christian narrative of Calvary. If Christ’s crucifixion is preordained, is it actually a suicide?
In “Calvary”, as in the Gospel accounts of Calvary, the Christ light of devotion and faith are held most clearly by assorted women. We met Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze), whose husband dies in a car accident on the last day of their long planned holiday. She meets this tragedy with grace and acceptance. It is a welcome foil to the bitterness of the village and a source of sustenance for James as he contemplates whether his cup of suffering should be taken from him.
In the end, “Calvary” is one man against a village. It is hard to imagine in real life a priest so isolated. Or perhaps this is the message of the movie? That today, the Church in the West is isolated. Alone it needs to suffer, in atonement for the sins of it’s past.
If so, then it might find aid in the faith of many a Teresa as it prays through the agony of Gethsemane and the suffering of Calvary.
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.
Sunday, August 31, 2014
mission then, mission now
I’ve just finished marking a set of assignments for my Mission, Evangelism and Apologetics intensive I taught in Sydney in July. I’m delighted with how the first assignment question worked.
Each student will, at the start of the class, be given a missionary. They will then use the Essential texts
for the course as a beginning point to find out more about their missionary. (These texts are Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today or Dewerse, R. (2013). Nga Kai-Rui i Te Rongopai: Seven Early Maori Christians. Rotorua: Te Hui Amorangi ki te Manawa o Te Wheke.)
The student will submit a biography (300 words) of the individual, a summary of how this person understood either evangelism or mission or apologetics (400 words), followed by a discussion of the implications of this understanding for either evangelism or mission or apologetics today (300 words).
Note: If students have other learning styles, they are welcome to submit this assignment verbally, by submitting a 10 minute podcast on a mailed USB stick or uploaded to a website and emailing the relevant URL to the lecturer. The lecturer will be assuming that at 100 words a minute, the spoken length of the podcast is similar to 1000 written words.
I set this type of assignment for a number of reasons.
Fist, stories have power. One way to enthuse and engage about mission is to tell stories. By asking students to do this assignment, I am introducing them to stories, that they might use. (Throughout the intensive, I offered a number of examples – Caroline Chisholm an Australian pioneer and Maori peace stories – to enthuse the class and model the assignment.)
Second, biography as theology. As James McClendon has argued (Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology), people’s lives embody doctrine. We see truth in actions. So this assignment was a way of doing biography as
Third, the common perception is that mission in the past has been all about colonisation. This assignment helps them realise that history does include tragedy, but it also includes some outstanding examples of servanthood that brought great benefit to indigenous cultures.
Fourth, it enabled mission to be placed as global, to place our talk about evangelism and apologetics alongside the stories of Maori in mission, pioneering in Japan, India and Europe. It allowed mission to be so much more than Euro-centric.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
research assistance required
I am seeking research assistance for a project that involves developing a theological resource for undergraduate students in the area of indigenous women’s Christologies.
The project involves working with a number of local theologians, in particular selected indigenous woman (already identified), to clarify their theology (in both written and visual forms), and to create an accompanying resource guide by which undergraduate students can identify the resources and processes used in theological contextualisation and consider the questions raised for theological method.
Applicants will need skills including the ability to
- organise technologies (visual and written) to preserve the insights
- write clearly
- develop resources
- think theologically, including in areas of Christology and culture
Funding is available for a total of 25 hours at Flinders University Causal Academic Rates. The project needs to begin by late September, 2014 and to be finished by early November, 2014.
Apply by email to Steve Taylor (steve dot taylor at flinders dot edu dot au) by Friday 6 September. Applications should include a CV and a letter of interest, addressing the skills required.
Monday, August 25, 2014
Jesus on the Gold Coast
I’m teaching a three day intensive on Jesus at Newlife Church, Robina, on the Gold Coast, in November 11-13, 2014.
Theology of Jesus – This topic combines biblical, historical, doctrinal and contemporary approaches to Jesus Christ and to salvation in Christ. Special attention will be paid to the missional Jesus, in popular culture and in encounters with other faiths.
Lecturer – Rev Dr Steve Taylor – Principal, Uniting College for Leadership and Theology and Senior Lecturer, Flinders University. Church planter, church leader and author, Out of Bounds Church? and blogger (www.emergentkiwi.org.nz)
Here is a little video that I shot a few weeks ago, to introduce Jesus and the course to students.
Date – November 11-13th, 2014
Time – 7 hours a day, 9-5 pm with hour for lunch (12:30-1:30 pm)
Where – Newlife Church
How to Register – Contact Lynda Leitner (lynda dot leitner at flinders dot edu dot au) at Adelaide College of Divinity (phone 08 8416 8400) and ask to enrol in MINS 2314 or relevant post-graduate code
Cost - $1341 (undergraduate credit); $1665 (postgraduate credit); $300 audit undergraduate; $400 audit postgraduate
Saturday, August 23, 2014
If you’re not typing you’re not visual: Elearning practice and culture
It was meant to be a writing morning, but instead I slipped into the back of a lecture theatre at University of South Australia to hear Carolyn Haythornwaite address the topic Elearning practice and culture From experiment to mainstream. Director of the School of Library, archival and information services, University British Colombia, she argued that e-learning is a paradigm shift in practice of learning.
She talked about the way that technical changes are driving the social. The result is a society that is more participative and collective, which is bringing unavoidable pressures to bear on University classrooms. She had a lovely phrase
“a balance found in motion not stillness.” (Nardi and ODay, 1999).
She argued that for many years the lecture and the classroom have been a still place, an unchanging place, in which academics have clung for security. But with what is happening in society, the classroom is now in motion!
Not that this is easy. She described the exhaustion for teachers because we are now in “perpetual beta” and of continuously having to learn, both in regard to technology and in regard to how learners are learning.
She talked about two types of online engagement – crowd sourced or community based. Both have different ways of connecting. One tends to offer interaction that is many, small, simple. The other is complex, diverse, connected. Which type of community will e-teachers seek to create?
She had some cool visualisations. Pictures that showed that blended learning classes tend to develop weekly rhythms, the different network channels (chat, discussion boards, email) develop different types of student engagement, that the group rhythm over an entire course changes.
She had some encouragements as I reflected on our journey into blended learning as a Uniting College.
- The need to have the IT group within the teaching department rather than separate (which we have done at Uniting College)
- Forget perfection. Build it as you go. You never should have your e-learning space all packaged at start. Rather you should grow it organically as you go.
- You get used to it. That after a few years of “perpetual beta” change, you suddenly realise you are an e-teacher.
She asked some fresh questions:
- How to orientate students in the social skills needed to learn online in community?
- How to understand the multiple roles of the e-teacher – as social presence but also teaching presence and also cognitive presence?
- How to understand the potential of students to themselves become teachers in e-learning spaces? (Efacilitator, braider, accomplished fellows, learner-leaders).
So, not a writing day, but a rich and thought provoking chance to reflect on all the blended learning changes occurring at Uniting College.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
open table learning
This week in Theology of Jesus class, it was the fourth week and the theme was open tables: Jesus eating patterns. I decided that we should not only study this, we should experience it.
I moved the class from the classroom into the student common area. The tables were pulled into a circle. Tablecloths were laid. The soup, which I have been providing prior to each evening class, to help build community, was eaten at what would be our study table. Tonight it was Santa Fe Sweet potato, with charred pepper.
The newly added student wifi meant that I could still teach this blended, with folk from distance connecting live with the class through digital technologies.
Cook books were scattered around and we began with mindfulness, becoming thankful for a good meal that we each found in a cook book.
During the class, I asked what connections were they making between our experience of open table and the class readings and lecture material. Here are some of the reflections
- is there more interaction and chatter around tables (here and Jesus) time? what does this do for how we understand how Jesus communicated
- This is more informal. There’s our food and books everywhere. Does this show us a different, more conversational Jesus – more involved in the to and fro. Willing to be interrupted.
- You see a different person around tables. You see what they’re living. More vulnerable
- Around table, I ‘m getting to know other students more. Does this say something about discipleship, that following Jesus is with others, getting to know others more
- Jesus must have been adaptable. He is comfortable in different spaces – socially apt.
- How often do we have in our homes people we don’t know? How often we eat alone?
- Jesus is radical and counter-cultural. The boundaries are blurred, yet there is still a sense of order.
Some fascinating learning here, about who Jesus is and how Jesus enacts the Kingdom.
Sunday, August 17, 2014
bowing to a buddhist monk: a meditation on the Syro-phonecian woman
Here is the sermon I preached this morning at Blackwood Churches of Christ. The lectionary text was Matthew 15:22-28, the story of Jesus encounter with the Syro-phonecian woman. The reading helped me explore a set of circumstances a few weeks ago, in which I found myself bowing to a Buddhist monk. In other words, how do we encounter people of different beliefs and opinions?
Friday, August 15, 2014
teaching Jesus: go global
Gather your little ones to you, O God,
as a hen gathers her brood to protect them.
Today I am teaching on Jesus and history. I will not start with the Christological controversies of the early church. I will not talk about how the Creeds came. Instead, we will turn to global history. We will visit the church in Russia, in El Salvador, in South Africa, in India and in England. We will ask how these communities might help us understand Jesus.
In England we will sit with the prayer of Anselm, A SONG OF CHRIST’S GOODNESS
Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you;
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Often you weep over our sins and our pride,
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds,
in sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying,
we are born to new life;
by your anguish and labour we come forth in joy.
Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness;
through your gentleness, we find comfort in fear.
Your warmth gives life to the dead,
your touch makes sinners righteous.
Lord Jesus, in your mercy, heal us;
in your love and tenderness, remake us.
In your compassion, bring grace and forgiveness,
for the beauty of heaven, may your love prepare us.
I only have two hours. By going global-early-church, rather than by going standard-early church, my students will not fully engage what is standard, Creedal church history on Jesus. Am I diminishing theology, short-changing students? Or am I being faithful to theology, affirming the church world-wide? Whatever happens, I take shelter God, who gathers us to protect.
Thursday, August 07, 2014
The Congregation in a Pluralist Society: Rereading Newbigin for Missional Churches Today
News this week that Pacifica, a leading theology journal in Australasia and the West Pacific Basin, will publish “The Congregation in a Pluralist Society: Rereading Newbigin for Missional Churches Today,” a joint article by Darren Cronshaw and myself, in which we offer a conversation between the reality of church life and the work of Lesslie Newbigin.
Lesslie Newbigin sought to engage the gospel with Western culture. A rereading of Newbigin’s work offers insights for mission and communicating the gospel in the twenty-first century Western world, including the need to grapple with religious pluralism. For Newbigin, ‘[T]he only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it’. How plausible is the Newbigin thesis? Can congregations today believe and live the gospel, especially in a pluralistic context? This article is an appeal for attentiveness to the place and priority of the congregation, for the sake of mission in our pluralist society. It is grounded in the experience of two congregational case studies, which opens up conversation with Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Methodologically, it applies Neil Ormerod’s understanding of ecclesiology as grounded in ‘historical ecclesial communities’ to test both the groundedness and plausibility of Newbigin’s congregational hermeneutic.
It has been accepted for immediate publication in Pacifica (volume 27 number 2), which is one of Australia’s leading theological journals. It’s great to be writing about mission and church in that sort of context and to be have been able to provide a body of writing which results in congregational studies being considered a legitimate source in theological enquiry.
Monday, July 28, 2014
“Who do you say that I am?” This is the question Jesus asks the disciples (Mark 8:27). It invites those who hear to define Jesus, to find words to describe who Christ is and what Christ might do. It is a task with which the disciples struggle. Peter initially finds the right words, but fails to fully grasp the content of those words. Thus the question becomes a hinge in Mark, as Jesus turns toward Jerusalem in order to fill right words with cross-shaped content.
But can we flip the question?
Can we, the disciples, ask Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?”
In doing so, wouldn’t we hear an answer that defines us, in which Jesus finds word to describe who we are and what we might do.
“Who, Jesus, do you think we are called to do and be?”
It would allow us to hear what it means to be fully human, made in the image of God. It would connect creation with redemption, in the full humanity of Christ. In doing so, we would hear good news, the gospel of how God images, imagines, humans to be and do.
It would sync us with how Jesus first gathers the disciples, when in John 1, Jesus names the disciples – as Cephas (1:42); as Nathanael, truly one in whom their is no deceit (1:47). Indeed, this diversity of response opens up the possibilities of a contextual response, because who I am as Cephas is named uniquely and differently from who Nathanael is, which is named uniquely for any who dare to flip the question.
I’m thinking of taking this approach to my Christology class this semester. I’m thinking of flipping the Christology question, inviting them to consider how Jesus would reply as we ask: “Who do you say that I am?”
It might make an essay question. Or a class project, as we consider what Jesus might say to the diversity of cultures that make up the contemporary Australian mission context.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska: a brief book review
Holiday reading began with Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain. Set in Papua New Guinea, it follows a set of characters first in the lead up to independence and second, in the twentyfirst century.
Modjeska is known for weaving fact with fiction and this beautifully written reflection is not exception. The Mountain emerges from her own story, a period of time in Papua New Guinea in the early 1970s and a recent return to develop an art-collective. It circles stories within stories, applying the eye of an artist to the complexity of interactions across times and cultures.
The mountain, from which the book is named, is an isolated site of undiscovered beauty. It becomes known to us first through the gaze of the anthropologists, as English-born Leonard and his wife, Dutch-born Rika visit. Second to post-colonial scrutiny, as Jericho, caught between cultures returns to find himself.
In between these personal journeys swirl a rich ripple of contemporary issues, including environmental battles, the impact of development and the search for identity.
As I read, I became aware of theological undercurrents. Whether intentional or not, the book offers a number of intriguing insights into the Christian understanding of Incarnation. Christianity claims the Word made flesh and this gains particular resonance in The Mountain, as the gift of a child becomes redemptive both for individuals and for a tribe, as it seeks to navigate between ways old and new.
The ancestors give us Leonard. We give you to Leonard. And now you return. Ancestor gift. The child who left us, who we called Jericho, has returned, the man who can make a great noise, blow down the walls. Jericho, the name from the ancestor story of Leonard.
This makes The Mountain both fun and an illuminating insight into the complexity of crossing cultures.
Monday, June 09, 2014
skin in the theology game
Does the study of theology require more skin, more personal involvement, than other types of study?
Case study one: Claire is a second year university student. She has one optional subject and spots a summer school programme called “Bible and Popular Culture.” She has a cousin who grew up religious and it makes for awkward pauses whenever the family get together. She enrols in “Bible and Popular Culture,” hoping to gain an easy credit and to help her talk with the “religious” side of her family. Unknown to her, one of the classes will be on the subject of trauma. The lecturer connects the Old Testament book of Lamentations with contemporary experiences of trauma. The lecture triggers for Claire a memory of a moment from her teenage years. Suddenly, in the midst of a university class ten years later, she is overwhelmed with painful memories.
Case study two: Bruce has a deep faith. Studying archeology, he notes an intensive called “Introduction to Theology.” It fits with his timetable. More importantly, having faith, Bruce arrives at class expecting that this class will connect with what is important to his values. Half way through the classs, he finds the faith he learnt from his church being disturbed by the content of the lecture. In a small group, feeling slightly ruffled, he expresses his unease, only for a third person in the group to make a smart comment about the naivety of Christian belief. Suddenly what Bruce has held dear is publicly exposed.
Case study three: Sue is a PhD candidate. She began theology study as a Catholic. But the more she has studied, the more she finds problematic the position of her denomination toward woman. Intellectually bright, she enrols in post-graduate study, wanting to explore her questions in more depth. But her topic – leadership and gender in the early church – is making folk from her home church increasingly uncomfortable. She begins to realise that the results of her research might well result in her being marginalised within her church community. Might she have to leave, either to find a new church, or perhaps even a new denomination?
Each of these case studies are hypothetical, but each are a snapshot from conversations I’ve had with students in my classes in the last few years.
It seems to me that for each of these students, studying theology has meant the finding of some serious skin in a classroom setting. Lectures have touched on significant personal experiences. Readings have raised questions about beliefs held dear. Study has brought into into question existing relationships and raised the possibility that it might lead to damage of a person’s communities and identity outside the class.
All of these requires significant personal energy, the investment of soul and spirit above and beyond the learning outcomes and assessment set. I wonder if other areas of study demand as much skin? Does engineering or the history of the Middle Ages or the literature of Ireland impact on identity and experience in such areas?
I suspect that it does not, and as a result, the study of theology is not only a deeply demanding intellectual engagement, but also one that requires significant individual skin in the class.
I wonder what this means for students, for lecturers and for the higher education systems in which theology is taught?
Monday, May 26, 2014
Jesus and the religions
I’m teaching Theology of Jesus in Semester 2, both weekly in Adelaide and by intensive at New Life Uniting Church, on the Gold Coast, in November. Plus I am teaching on Mission as an intensive in Sydney in July.
So today I was doing some preparation, which included reading Bob Robinson, Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World. It is a brilliant conceived book. It asks how Christians should approach other faiths by exploring how Jesus engaged other faiths.
It begins with three Gospel stories – Jesus and the Roman Centurion, Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. Doing theology, bringing together themes from the three encounters it argues that their are implications for how contemporary people engage plurality.
- Be open to surprise, in the same way Jesus was surprised by the faith of the Roman Centurion, the Syrophonecian and the Samaritan woman.
- Affirm what surprises you, again in the same way Jesus affirmed the faith of the Roman Centurion, the Syrophonecian and the Samaritan woman.
- In particular, look for faith and humility. This includes the role not only of faith, but of the content of that faith. In all three examples, their “faith appears to include more than heart-felt hope or desperate concern.” (Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World, 116). And so by implication, “Might examples of faith, humility, and insight, wherever they are found in the contemporary world, be affirmed by disciples today – even when they contrast less than favorable with their own.” (Jesus and the Religions: Retrieving a Neglected Example for a Multi-cultural World, 117-8).
- The exclusion of vengeance. For example, Jesus response to the Roman Centurion is a moment of love of enemy. Moving to other Gospel stories, one might note the rain falls on the just and the unjust, or the banquet parables which include, rather than exclude.
What is even more intriguing is an initial chapter in which Christ becomes an exegete. The focus is Luke 4:16-30, and how Jesus engages Scripture. Robinson concludes that there are fresh readings, new performances of Scripture as Biblical texts are encountered in the power of the Spirit. This opens up an exemplary Christology, in which the church reads for direction in how to live its life of witness in the world.
All of which makes for a rich teaching resource.
Monday, April 07, 2014
Calabashes, Wild Ox, U2, Virgins and Trauma
Flinders University produces a glossy publication to highlight research outputs within Humanities Faculty. It is produced by the Flinders Institute for Research in the Humanities, which unites humanities-based researchers engaged in creative and reflective investigations of culture and thought. The Department of Theology (which is Uniting College) has a one page write up in their latest publication, under the title “Calabashes, Wild Ox, U2, Virgins and Trauma.”
These words don’t usually occur together and make little sense when grouped. But as an overview of research within the Department of Theology in 2013, they are a great indication of the breadth of our focus and interests … Research in Theology is diverse and wide-ranging.