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.
Friday, March 28, 2014
Beyond Education: Exploring a Theology of the Church’s Theological Formation
I’m in Melbourne today and tomorrow as part of Beyond Education: Exploring a Theology of the Church’s Theological Formation, sponsored by the Uniting Church’s Centre for Theology and Ministry and the University of Divinity. The aim is to try and construct a theology of theological education. On Saturday I’m presenting a paper: Theological education in leadership formation (abstract here)
That has been the focus for much of my week. As part of my research, I compared our current 2014 Bachelor of Ministry degree, with our 2009 Bachelor of Ministry degree. Their have been significant changes, as this table shows
In other words, in 2009, we changed our name, from Parkin Wesley College to Uniting College for Leadership and Theology. Sometimes changes in name are simply cosmetic, a rebranding in which the ingredients remain the same. Looking at the Bachelor of Ministry, we see significant change, including
- A new stream structure that has brought to the fore leadership and formation.
- More options through specialisations.
- Space created for formation (4 new topics in SFE and Integration) through the change of 7 topics (in theology, Bible and Pastoral care) from compulsory to optional
- New topics written especially in leadership and Discipleship and Christian Education
- Opportunity for “have a go” innovation through BMin practice, with increased SFE and the use of context as primary.
In the second half of my paper I will then ask whether these changes suggest it is either theological education
or leadership formation. Or using the work of cultural theorist Mieke Bal (Anti-Covenant) and theologian Graham Ward (Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice), this allows theological education in leadership formation.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
preamble communion words
Throughout this week, Uniting College has been participating in the Destiny Together week of prayer and fasting. This is a week to pray and fast for justice for the First Peoples. We’ve been praying daily at 9:30 am each morning as a College and chapel has been open over lunchtime for those who might want to fast. Today at Community worship we shared worship with folk from our local Congress Church – an embodiment of Destiny Together.
I was leading communion and aware of the occasion, wondered what words might shape the practice of communion. I began to wonder if the Preamble, which was drafted in 2009 as a way to constitutionally acknowledge Aboriginal and Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia might be of us. It became a rich journey, exploring how those words, based on extensive consultation with the church, offer a theology of truthtelling and in turn might now become Eucharistic life. To do this would surely be a step toward Destiny Together, a sharing of an agreed document and God in our past, present, future.
So, here is what I drafted, mixing Preamble phrases into a communion liturgy. I used the shape of Uniting in Worship 2, seeking for phrases from the Preamble to give shape. I think it ticks all the boxes – there is epiclesis, confession, Lords prayer, God’s action in history, eschatology, Words of institution (modified slightly but in keeping with other aspects of Eucharistic theology).
With the elements served to us by the Aunties. Wonderful.
The Lord be with you
And also with you
Lift up your hearts
We lift them to the Lord
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God
It is right to give our thanks and praise
We bless you Creator for this earth, for the Dreaming and Song lines sung long before human
We thank you for the Spirit already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom, ceremony
We bless you for the same love and grace that was fully and finally revealed in Jesus Christ
Who took bread, broke it, said Take, eat, in solidarity with those who suffer
Who took the cup, gave thanks, said This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out in hope of life to the full
We bless you for the church and all the storytellers and whisperers of hope through history, called to seek a renewal of its life as a community of First peoples and of Second Peoples from many land.
We lament the silence of the church in the face of broken relationships, Jesus lamb of God
Have mercy on us
We grieve the processes of dispossession, Jesus bearer of our sins
Have mercy on us
We confess the practices of colonisation, Jesus redeemer of the world
Grant us peace
We eat this bread as a foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation
We drink this cup, as a sign of our destiny together, praying and working together for a fuller expression of our reconciliation in Jesus Christ.
Pour out your Spirit on us, that these gifts of bread and wine, may make us one with each other and in ministry in the world
Lords prayer in Kaurna language:
Jehovah-’s request / pray-thing ‘The Lord’s Prayer’
Ngadluko yerli karralika tikka-ndi;
Our father on high sits ‘Our father sits in heaven’
Ninna narri tampi-rna, kuinyunda kumarta-ppi-rna;
You name acknowledge-let sacred apart-cause-let ‘Let your name be acknowledged, let it be kept sacred.’
Ninko yerlti-yerlti-nya pintya-rna;
Your advice/command create-let ‘Let your rule be established’
Ninko padloni-tti yerta-ngga wappi-rna
Your want-thing earth-on do-let ‘Let your want be done on earth’
High-on resemble-ing ‘As it is on high’
Ngadluko mai yunggu-ndo!
Our food give-you! ‘Give (us) our food.’
Ngadluko wakkinna kumba-ppi-ndo!
Our sin remove-make-you! ‘Take away our sin.’
Ngadlu tangka waia-re-ndi kumarta-nna-ityangga wakkinna wappe-ndi
We liver move-itself-is separate-pl-with wrong do-ing ‘Have compassion for those who do wrong.’
Sin-to draw-don’t ‘Don’t draw us into sin.’
Sin-from protect make-you! ‘Save us from sin.’
Ninna mattanya, taingi, wilta, burti burti tarkari tundarri.
You owner strength power gladness future forever
‘You are the boss, the strength, the power, the glory for ever and ever.’
Do-let! (i.e. let it be done)
Go in peace to live a Destiny together
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
a spirituality for a pilgrim people
I’m teaching Church, Ministry, Sacraments over these 2 weeks. This morning the lectionary Psalm was Psalm 84. It got me thinking ….
You are a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal (Basis of Union, rifting off Hebrews 11). “Who go through the barren valley find there a spring” (Psalm 84:5)
You can’t make it, nor create it.
You can try to hurry to it. But that leaves you exhausted, the proverbial hare, gasping, while the tortoise plods on by.
Best simply to wait for it. And when you see it, spread invitingly around the next corner, simply receive it.
If deep, jump in. Splash. Laugh. Dunk a fellow swimmer. Get out shaking your head like a playful dog. Then lay your clothes on a sunny rock. Lie back. Enjoy the birdsong. Reflect on steps taken, share a story with a travelling companion, compare blisters, prepare for the next part.
If shallow, drink deep. Splash iced cold water over your face. Wet your hair and let it trickle down your neck. Laugh. Splash a fellow drinker. Then lie back. Enjoy the birdsong. Reflect on steps taken, share a story with a travelling companion, compare blisters, prepare for the next part
Some find these pools of water on a heated day on a night with friends over red wine. Others find it on a weekend bush walk. Yet another find it as one wanders through an art gallery or turns the page on an ancient theology book. Wherever you find it, you leave the richer, nod the wiser, knowing more deeply that on the way Christ feeds.
With Word and Sacraments
The trouble is, whether deep or shallow, poorly done or richly resonant, you know you can’t stay. A pool on a heated day is only a pausing place for a pilgrim people.
It’s dangerous. No stupid – to remain in the barren valley. It’s not the point, nor the purpose.
For you are a pilgrim people
Thursday, February 06, 2014
from Waitangi to Walking on Country
Today is Waitangi Day in my homeland. On this day in 1840, a Treaty was signed between Maori people of New Zealand and the Queen. While it is a times a contested document, it stills stands as a seminal moment in the history of New Zealand and in how two people’s might relate to each other. Over the years of my time of ministry in New Zealand, it provided a rich ground for reflection – in sermons, in prayer, in communion.
Today, here at Uniting College, in Adelaide, Australia, is the start of Walking on Country. It might be coincidence, but I don’t think we’d be Walking on Country without Waitangi Day, without the energy that Rosemary Dewerse and myself, both New Zealanders, both Missiologists, both shaped by being Kiwi, being Christian, both now here at Uniting College, have poured into this.
Today a group of about 20 people headed off to the Flinders Ranges, to the land of the Adnyamathanha people. They will be led by local indigenous leaders, to be in their world, to hear their stories. It is the 2nd year we as a College have run this. (See here and here and here).
It was a few days that had more impact on our life as a College in 2013 than any other few days that year. New insights, new relationships (including Pilgrim Uniting), new sensitivity. Thanks Waitangi Day, for pushing us toward Walking on Country.
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Theological education in leadership formation
I’ve been asked to present at a colloquium in Melbourne in March. Titled Beyond Education: Exploring a Theology of the Church’s Theological Formation, the event is being sponsored by the Uniting Church’s Centre for Theology and Ministry and the University of Divinity. It involves scholars, church leaders and ministers, from diverse Christian traditions all picking away at a theology of theological education.
I’m one of 11 presenters and have been given the topic – Theological education in leadership formation. Here’s my 100 word abstract, due tomorrow:
This paper will interrogate the tagline of Uniting College for Leadership and Theology – learn! lead! live! – using the work of cultural theorist Mieke Bal in order to pay particular attention to the place of formation in a pluralistic world. It will explore the ethical implications inherent in notions of “founding texts” and “moments of meaning.” Some implications, for ministry practice (learn!), for ministry agents (lead!), for communities of faith (live!), will be outlined. The aim is a theology of ecclesial formation that might shift the conversation beyond modern dualities of head and heart, theory and practise, religious and secular, individual and communal.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Jesus and popular culture
“the afterlife of the Bible has been infinitely more influential, in every way – theologically, politically, culturally, and aesthetically – than its ancient near-eastern prehistory.” (John Sawyer, 2004, 11)
I spent yesterday at Flinders, teaching in the Bible and popular culture course. The topic was Jesus and popular culture. Dan W. Clanton Jr., in The Bible in/and Popular Culture: A Creative Encounter explores the place of Jesus in American popular culture and argues that thinking about Jesus is thus not confined to the church. Anyone can seek to express Jesus and in so doing, can invite discussion about how accurate, helpful and ethical is their portrayal.
So I explored Jesus and popular culture under 5 headings, using some of the following examples.
1 – Jesus then: in original context – in films like Jesus of Nazareth and Passion of Christ
2 – Jesus now: Christ figures – in places like Narnia Chronicles or Jesus of Montreal or Harry Potter. This draws in particular on Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film.
3 – Jesus now: context - in which Jesus is placed in site specific contexts, like Manchester Passion or Baxter’s poem, The Maori Jesus.
4 – Jesus Elsewhere – in which Jesus is placed imaginatively in new world, like Deborah Bird Rose’s hearing of Ned Kelly being a Christ figure in some indigenous dream stories, or a comic series like Loaded, Jesus and Vampire gospels.
The term “elsewhere comes from DC Comic creator “heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places – some that have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t exist. The result is stories that make characters who are as familiar as yesterday seem as fresh as tomorrow” (DC Comics Elseworlds)
5 – Jesus sarcastically - for example in Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, in which with quite some irreverence, Jesus is explored.
It is always a lot of work to bring a lecture together for the first time, but an enjoyable and rich experience.
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
in the guise of a small child: an Advent spirituality
I’ve been offered a new way of engaging Christ – one that seems strangely relevant in this Advent Season. In the 12th century, an English mystic, Christina of Markyate, wrote of her experience of the divine:
an unheard-of-grace. For in the guise of a small child [Jesus] came to the arms of his sorely tried spouse and remained with her a whole day, not only being felt but also seen.
The experience can be found in The Life of Christina of Markyate (Oxford World’s Classics). It is fascinating, for God in Christ is encountered not as a baby (at Christmas), nor as an adult (in the gospels), but as a small child.
The experience was a turning point for Christina. There is more evidence of compassion, more active care for friends, more concern for the church, more peace in prayer. There is a new joy evident, a greater depth of celebration of Christmas. (According to Grace Jantzen, “The womb and the tomb,” in Wounds that Heal – Theology, Imagination and Health, edited by Jonathan Baxter, SPCK, 2007, 176)
It opened up some new imaginative space in prayer for me. What might I experience if Christ came to me, today, as a small child. What “Christology” might I encounter? I identified four things – simplicity, mindfulness, play, surrender. I realise that these are a form of reader response – that I am most likely bringing my (idealised) experiences of small children – to the encounter. But it offered a new sense for me of engaging with God. It made fresh sense of the Incarnation, that God as fully human can relate to all of life. It made me realise again the gift that is all-age, inter-generational worship, that I can encounter God in the actions, questions and questions of a child.
I also reflected on what might be the opposites of simplicity, mindfulness, play, surrender. I identified complexity, history, rationalism, suspicion. I was reminded of the sour and corrosive power of these behaviours – often the domain of adults, and perhaps adults who are academics. These became for me moments of confession, as I reflected on my last 24 hours, the email I send and receive, the conversations I have.
“In the guise of a small child”, is proving a generative Advent spirituality.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
a pilgrim church needs pausing places
One of the three main images of the church is that of the pilgrim people (the other’s are people of God and body of Christ, For a full 99 images of church in the New Testament, see the amazing Images of the Church in the New Testament (New Testament Library)). Behind the image of pilgrimage is a metaphor – of movement, of journey, of travelling light. The Biblical saint of pilgrimage is Abraham, who in Hebrews 11 is commended for his faith in making “his home in the promised land.” What is intriguing is that the pilgrim finds a home. They settle.
Yesterday I was in a meeting discussing future property needs. The phrase pilgrim people was used and it got me thinking about the Biblical tradition. (Bad Principal, I was meant to be thinking property and there I was, lost in a fog of theological and missiological reflection of pilgrimage as a practice.) I began to wonder about the settledness, the pausing places in the Abraham narrative.
So here they are ….
“So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the Lord.” Gen 13:18
“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.” Gen 18:1
“Abraham … lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar.” Gen 20:1
“Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.” Gen 23:4
“So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre … was deeded to Abraham as his property.” Gen 23:17
So there we are, even the great saint of pilgrimage had property. The narrative has numbers of different pausing places – to rest, to encounter God, to bury your dead.
Which dare I say it, sounds a lot like the reasons I hear today for church buildings! When you lay this alongside the commendation in Hebrews, to make homes in promised places, it suggests that a key spiritual practice of pilgrims still includes theologies of Incarnation.
Wednesday, November 06, 2013
a tale of two churches
I was teaching on church today in my Introduction to Christian Thought class. I have been thinking a lot recently about the vision of church and the reality of church. So I pulled together a tale of two churches. I took the vision, the ideal, four Biblical images of church as explored in Paul Minear, Images of Church in New Testament. That is one tale of church.
I laid that alongside a second tale of church, the reality, the who is the church, the how did the church act, as explored in Kirsteen Kim’s survey of the church in global history, in Joining in with the Spirit: Connecting World Church and Local Mission
It generated some excellent connections, as we realised how much church changes over time and space, and how that frees us to think about fresh expressions of church today.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
a feel good moment: preaching a missional Jesus today
I walked into a cafe this evening to find a good friend reading this …
“I’ve got a book chapter in that,” I commented, pointing to Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement, edited by Mark Baker.
“I know,” he said in a surprised tone of voice.
“How did it happen? How did you get to be in a book with the likes Brian McLaren and CS Lewis?” he said, his voice still surprised.
When I began at Opawa Baptist, I wanted to help the church gain a deeper and richer understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Every communion Sunday during my first year of ministry, I took a different Biblical image of the cross – family, reconciliation, leader, martyr, new Adam. I preached on the image, and then wrote a communion prayer that connected the image with the thanksgiving prayer for bread and wine. It was a fantastic experience, to work Biblically and liturgically with the church around our shared understandings of communion.
I was also during that time lecturing at Laidlaw College and one day got chatting to a visiting scholar about the sermons I was preaching. He mentioned that he had a colleague, Mark Baker, who was putting together a book of sermons on preaching the cross. It was a followup to Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, by Joel Green and Mark Baker. People had said great theory, but where’s the practice.
How do you communicate a rich and deep atonement?
And so the authors’, Mark Baker in particular, were looking for sermons on the cross. The connection was made, my sermon was sent.
Some two years later, the book was produced, and I found my sermon – on 2 Corinthians 5:15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again being published, alongside a whole range of other sermons, including ones by CS Lewis, Brian McLaren, Rowan Williams and Frederica Matthewes-Green.
In my sermon I focus on Christ as the New Adam. I use contemporary cultural images from Whale Rider, from treaty signings, from famous individuals on banknotes, to explore how one person might indeed become representative for the many. It’s a book chapter, and a sermon, and a series, I’m still really pleased with.
One of the things I’m looking forward to in 2014 is returning to these questions – I’m doing a second semester course on the Missional Jesus, then repeating it as an intensive at New Life Uniting, Gold Coast, in November 2014. I’m looking forward to returning to my work on the atonement and to trying to explore Jesus with a very specific missional focus – Christ today.