Sunday, April 14, 2019

Religious liberty and the curious case of Israel Folau

I write a column for Zadok, an Australian print publication, every quarter. It is a print based publication which they let me share on my blog, to resource more widely and generally. After recent events, my column for Winter 2018, seems strangely relevant.

Religious liberty and the curious case of Israel Folau
Steve Taylor

John Bunyan, Sarah* a Biblical studies scholar and Israel Folau meet in an English pub. Folau is carrying a folder. Marked secret, it contains back line moves for the upcoming rugby international at Twickenham. Bunyan is carrying an early draft of Pilgrim’s Progress, what will become one of the most significant works of religious English literature. Sarah is carrying a well-thumbed Greek New Testament and an article by Tuiloma Lina Samu, entitled ‘Dear Israel Folau – your unchristian comments hurt young, vulnerable Pasifika’.

Over a drink, lemonade for all, they share news.

John Bunyan shares his fate. He is about to be imprisoned for his religious beliefs, for preaching without permission from the established church.

Folau nods at the suggestion of religious persecution. He is also in trouble for expressing belief. It began with a post on social media a few days earlier about gay people being hell-bound unless they repent. Folau has an employer. That employer has corporate sponsors and they have called for inclusion. How does diversity and tolerance mesh with right to speak?

Does the Bible have an answer? Folau wonders.

Sarah opens her Bible and begins to share her research, which is analysing religious liberty in Biblical times. She points to Abraham, who recognises the divine names (El Elyon) used by indigenous people (Gen 14:18-20) and builds altars among already existing sacred trees (Gen 12:6-7; 13:18). Abrahams’ faith could live and yet recognise the liberty of other already existing beliefs. Then there is the book of Esther, in which God is never mentioned and yet faith is maintained by courageous individuals, including Esther, willing to marry a non-believer. So Christianity grows from people of faith living in diverse worlds.

The story of Esther and the mention of Haman’s gallows cast a shadow over Bunyan. Bunyan begins to name the friends he has lost, burnt at the stake. Their stories are told in the only book Bunyan will take with him to prison, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. As a dissenter, Bunyan knows he will be denied a church burial. It is a future shame his family will bear, for when Bunyan, along with other well-known dissenting authors, like Daniel Defoe and William Blake, is buried outside the City of London, he is forever excluded from the embrace of the established church and civil society.

Folau shakes his head in disbelief. How does his social media experience compare with Bunyan’s eventual twelve years of imprisonment? Folau confesses he hasn’t read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. ‘But’, he grins, ‘I have heard Blake’s Jerusalem, ringing around Twickenham’ – a song silenced when Australia beat England at Twickenham in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Bunyan, a rugby fanatic, feels the pain of what would be a 33-13 loss.

Sarah has a biblical question for Folau. In 1 Corinthians 6, a range of sins is mentioned. Why post about one sin, that of being gay, and not about theft or greed? What does Folau think of conservative New Testament scholars, like Gordon Fee and Ben Witherington, who stress that Paul is talking about behaviour, not orientation? And why focus on sin, when the verses that follow are about grace? 1 Corinthians 6 is a text marinated in grace and the joy of relationships restored. How can the grace of 1 Corinthians be communicated on social media? Sarah wonders.

Bunyan also has a question for Folau. He quotes Colossians 4:5: ‘Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders’. The letters of Paul and the New Testament are about the ‘constraints of context’ and the ‘amazing feat of ingenuity, improvisation, survival and creative living’ (Gorringe and Rowland). The early Church lived faith in situations in which their faith was a minority report and their beliefs were practised in everyday life rather than through seeking to change public law.

Folau picks up the newspaper and points out the headline: ‘Dear Israel Folau – your unchristian comments hurt young, vulnerable Pasifika’. He is aware of the high rates of suicide among Pacific Island youth, often linked to struggles over sexuality. Yet he still wants to be authentic, to share his faith.

Bunyan nods. Those are the very reasons he wrote Pilgrims Progress. To communicate his faith, he created a story. He jumped into an imaginary future, in which dissent does matter. It remains a vital Christian practice and an essential part of the flourishing of free societies. But the practice in Pilgrim’s Progress is focused internally, on the way that Pilgrim walked his journey. ‘Change yourself, and let your actions change the world’, Bunyan advises.

‘Closing time’, comes the call from behind the counter.

Last rounds make for last words. Sarah and John offer to pray for Folau: ‘God make your face shine upon your servant. Creator God, give words creative and wise toward all outsiders. Bless him and your church with the ingenuity to improvise in Australia today’.

‘And may England win’, Bunyan giggles.

* While there are many fine female Biblical studies postgraduate students who have studied at London Bible College, Sarah is a fictional figure. As is this encounter.
________________

The following items have been a resource:
Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1995, 166.

Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1987, 244.

Tim Gorringe and Christopher Rowland, ‘Practical Theology and the Common Good – Why the Bible is Essential,’ Practical Theology 9:2, 101-114.

Curtis Freeman, Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity, 2017.

Posted by steve at 09:26 PM | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Feedback: unbounding theological education in the context of ministerial vocations

Friday I co-presented a research paper at the Sydney College of Divinity Learning and Teaching Theology Conference.

Graduate formation and life-long learning in the context of ministerial vocations

Proposal: That the theological college should partner with local church communities, unbounding learning to offer it in “communities of practice.”

The presentation went well. The technology worked and the tag-presenting with Rosemary Dewerse went smoothly.  We ran out of summary handouts (here Graduate formation handout.) which is always a good sign.  The questions from conference participants were very helpful.

Directly after the paper

  • Can you give some examples of what it might look like to unbound theological education? (We had, so pointed to the two stories we had shared)
  • What is the real issue? If the real issue is a crisis of faith in churches, then what role should theological education be expected to play?
  • How would we assess our ‘graduate outcomes’? What type of processes could we use to ensure that unbounding theological education is forming people? (We pointed to the ways we are seeking to assess New Mission Seedlings over a 7 year period)

In further conversation over meals and coffee

  • Do we have a business model? Have other theology providers tried what you are doing and can you learn from them?
  • Being devils advocate – if you move theology toward the local church, might that dilute the quality of the education? What could be done to avoid the educational experience being “lowest common denominator ” shaped by a person who has not read or studied?
  • We used a practical theology model as proposed by Mark Lau Branson.  What we happen if we used the model by Richard Osmer in Practical Theology: An Introduction? Osmer suggests four stages:  describe – history – normative – strategic.  In our presentation, we shared three stories to outline what this might look like, but it might be that using ‘strategic planning’ frameworks would be valuable if we had a governance board wanting to take a next step, wanting to unbound theological education more broadly across the church.

Excellent questions, showing good engagement and helping us clarify work done and still needed.

We had arrived at the conference with a 2,000 word verbal presentation based on an already drafted 6,000 word journal article – in our back pocket, possibly ready to submit depending on feedback.

Our sense is that the above questions helpfully extend our work. They are important, yet they are practical – a strategic plan, assessment matrix, quality control, viable business plan.  Rosemary and I discussed a next set of steps which involve

  • submit the article we have drafted, pretty much as is
  • develop the material further, with two purposes – a chapter for the conference book and a strategic plan presentation (if a governance group is interested).  Development would include a different practical theology model (swapping Mark Lau Branson for Richard Osmer, Practical Theology: An Introduction) in order to weave the interface between theological reflection and a strategic plan that covers operations and education.
  • These are two distinct pieces of work: drawing from the same data but are responding to the more practical interests of conference attendees, which are different from the journal article we are targetting.

So, all in all all, very useful exercise – forcing us to clarify two years of work, giving us generative feedback on next steps. Our thanks to Thornton Blair, who made it possible.

Posted by steve at 12:59 PM | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Graduate formation and life-long learning in the context of ministerial vocations

I’m in Sydney Thursday till Monday, co-presenting a research paper at the Sydney College of Divinity Learning & Teaching Theology Conference. I’m co-presenting with Rosemary Dewerse, on the results of the Thornton Blair Research Project. The project has already produced a range of outputs

  • the Living Library,
  • a Resourcing Ministers Day,
  • 2 project reports,
  • workshops in five Presbyteries
  • presentations to KCML Advisory Board and Leadership sub-committtee
  • two reports in SPANZ
  • one journal article in Australian Journal of Mission Studies
  • In addition, the Be Wise courses are under development.

It really has been an astonishingly productive piece of work (and could yet yield so much more fruit).

Alongside all this church facing output, the research might also be useful to other theological colleges wrestling with theological education in changing times. So in a spirit of sharing, Rosemary and I offered to present at the 2019 Learning & Teaching Theology Conference:

Graduate formation and life-long learning in the context of ministerial vocations

Proposal: That the theological college should partner with local church communities, unbounding learning to offer it in “communities of practice.”

For those keen, here is our two page handout – Graduate formation handout.

The trip to Sydney has been funded by the Thornton Blair Research Fund – which exists to encourage social science research in Christian education for ministerial formation – and we are both so grateful to that Fund for the vision and enthusiasm they have had for this project.

In preparing the talk over the last three weeks, Rosemary and I have ended up also writing a 6000 word journal article, which we hope to submit following feedback at the conference. One of the aims of my sabbatical leave is to complete some writing projects and as part of that, it has been great to spend some time reflecting on the Thornton Blair research, seeking to capture the learnings in words. It is important that as KCML seeks to respond to changing times, it does that based on deep listening and careful research – and the 230 Presbyterians that contributed to the Thornton Blair Research are certainly well worth listening to.

Posted by steve at 09:06 PM | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Decolonising the (theological) curriculum through place- based pedagogies

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After teaching Theological Reflection on Saturday – on place-based methodologies – I spent some time reflecting on the experience. It was shaping up to be a hot afternoon, so in the morning I worked up a new activity, inviting the class to walk the local botanical gardens in order to break up a 3.5 hour lecture slot. It began out of compassion, but as I reflected, there were some interesting learnings happening. A potential reflective-practice journal article abstract began to take shape

Decolonising the (theological) curriculum through place- based pedagogies

A Theology of Place from :redux on Vimeo.

How to teach place-based theologies to those who might feel shallow-rooted? My practice-based research sought to investigate place-based teaching in the context of theological education among those being formed for the vocation of ordained ministry. I sought to decolonise the curriculum, introducing indigenous theologians, who document the way that identity is formed through  generations of relationships connected to place.  Richard Twist (Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way) emphasises the need to do theology in relation to a primal sense of connection to birth place, Denise Champion (Yarta Wandatha) examines the interplay between land and people, while Maori approaches to pepeha develop identity in relation to landmarks like mountains and river. 

The challenge was that the cohort was not indigenous. As migrants, or descendants of migrants, experiences of a sense of relationship to place can be limited.  In addition, the class was experiencing dislocation, gathered from various national locations into a context not familiar to participants.

The space between indigenous knowing and migrant experience was presented as an opportunity. The writing of Alifeti Ngahe (Weaving, Networking and Taking Flight) was instructive, providing vocational examples of how he migrated into new communities and developed place-based theologies.  Students were invited to locate themselves as “other” and in that epistemic rupture (Rosemary Dewerse, Breaking Calabashes) find a posture of investigative curiosity.  The class was sent in groups to examine statues in a local Botanical Park. They were provided with a short history of various monuments and instructed to see if they could do what Alifeti had done, make theological connections with place. 

Each group reported a range of insights. Work was then done as a cohort to shape the insights into prayers of approach for use in the context of vocational ministry. The liturgical movements of thanksgiving, confession and lament provide room to examine a range of important movements in the journey of decolonisation. This enriched the place-based reflection and provided vocational application.  

The argument is that practice-based pedagogies inform the practise of place-based ministries. Outdoor experiences, paying attention to local monuments, naming epistemic rupture and listening to indigenous theologians provide important resources in place-based teaching.    

Posted by steve at 10:33 AM

Sunday, February 03, 2019

theological reflection as integrating the journey’s of life

An introduction to theological reflection. A 3 hour class to begin a learning community, orientate interns and introduce assessment. In preparing the class, I had 7 different definitions of theological reflection. I decided to lie these down the hallway leading into the lecture space.

walkingin1

This meant that we began the class not in the room, but in the hallway. I introduced myself and noted that we would all be bringing our stories, our life experiences, our learning to date, into the class. The task of theological reflection was to work with our lived reality. As interns, we were preparing for ministry and that meant that all those we ministered to would also be bringing their stories, their life experiences, their learning to date, into our churches.

walkingin2

I invited the interns to walk slowly down the hallway, to take their time and engage each definition. In a few minutes, we would choose the one we liked the most and the one we disliked the most. This generated good discussion. People signed their names to various definitions, owning their understandings of theological reflection that they brought into the room.

But the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand is a diverse church culturally. It has a covenant relationship with the Maori Synod, Te Aka Puaho. So out of respect for that relationship, I showed a 4 minute video clip, an introduction to the tukutuku panels that adorn the front of Whakatane Maori Presbyterian Church. We glimpsed a very different approach to theological reflection, one expressed through art, that worked with tradition and culture in new and different ways.

And so I invited the class to return to where we began. To walk back out of the classroom and into the hallway. To slowly walk back in, past each of the definitions of theological reflection. And to ask themselves

which definition of theological reflection best sums up this example of indigenous theological reflection?

The students returned with very different definitions. One definition that initially was disliked the most was suddenly liked the most. A definition that made no sense suddenly was clear. It was an illuminating moment as we realised afresh that what we bring – culturally – shapes our theological reflection

An excellent beginning to theological reflection.

Posted by steve at 07:49 PM

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Stretch marks on an ecclesial body: Gender and emerging expressions of faith in women and girls abstract

On the last night before going on holiday, with a mountain of work to do, why not write an abstract for a potential conference – The Faith lives of Women and Girls, Birmingham, 26-7 March, 2019. But it is, after all, Advent – a time of stretch marks when faith is being carried by the faith lives of Mary and Elizabeth.

alicia-petresc-1144261-unsplash Photo by Alicia Petresc on Unsplash

Stretch marks on an ecclesial body: Gender and emerging expressions of faith in women and girls

While birth is a significant issue for all humans, the impact of gender on faith development is under-researched. This paper examines the interplay between birth and faith development, paying attention through longitudinal research to stretch marks on the ecclesial body of an emerging church community in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Empirical data – gathered from surveys, focus groups and participant observation – showed increased rates of belonging and a sense of growth among women over time. In contrast rates of belonging and a sense of growth declined among men over time. What factors were shaping the faith lives of woman and girls in this ecclesial community?

Attention is paid in the first instance to artistic production, initially in a contemporary Stations of the Cross art exhibition, but increasingly over time through Advent in Art creative practices. Analysis of visual and verbal texts suggests a shift in faith, from deconstructed in death, to stretched through natality. For Grace Jantzen (Redeeming the Present), natality is essential to theology as it invites new beginnings characterized by embodiment, relationality, hopefulness and engenderment. All of these were more visible in Advent in Art than in contemporary Stations of the Cross.

At Easter, death and life are located in a linear and discontinuous relationship, while in Advent, life emerges amid the fear of death. At Easter, faith was resourced synchronously, with an art exhibition which gathered people at set times. At Advent, faith was resourced asynchronously, through postcards designed to be used as a daily resource in the midst of life.

The argument is that gender has an essential role in faith formation, particularly in relation to giving birth and human experience as a constructive resource. Natality becomes an important factor in theorising faith development, something that women can inhabit, yet men can only watch.

Posted by steve at 08:36 PM

Monday, November 26, 2018

You can’t eat lilies: the future of precarious work zadok column

I am a regular columnist for an Australian magazine, Zadok. Having read my film reviews for Touchstone, they requested a 860 word column every 3 months. It’s an opportunity to write a lay focused piece of theology; that keeps me working between gospel and culture. Zadok are happy for me to blog the columns I write once they are published in Australia, which makes them accessible digitally for folk in New Zealand and elsewhere.

zadoklillies So here is my spring 2018 article. The theme for Spring was Humanising Precarious Work and it became a piece of practical theology, including reflecting on my own work context, which is undergoing review and restructure, making my own future precarious.

You can’t eat lilies: the future of precarious work
Steve Taylor

I write looking out over a green field, toward a University living through a restructure. At the table beside me, a young couple discuss future work. Her best options start with gaining an overseas research contract. It’s fixed term but her partner won’t leave the country.

What might the Gospel offer them? How would they respond if I turned and offered them some words from Jesus? ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin’ (Matthew 6:28)?

None of this is abstract. As I write, a restructure has been announced at my workplace. Suddenly my future is precarious. There are no vacancies in my city for Principals of theology colleges who teach in missiology. The fields around my house might grow green with springtime rain. But my family can’t eat grass.

Jesus’ words about lilies are addressed to precarious workers. They are part of the Sermon that begins with the poor being blessed. While Matthew’s version is more palatable to rich Christians than Luke’s, the four letter word ‘poor’ tells us just who Jesus is speaking to.

In Matthew, this Sermon to the poor includes the words: ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. This is no ritual of routine repetition, but a reality for Jesus’ listeners. Think Matthew 20:1-16, with workers for hire still waiting for work at 5pm. Think Luke 16:19-31 and Lazarus pleading for daily bread at the city gates. Jesus is speaking to the poor, dependant on precarious work.

The Sermon ends with ‘consider the lilies’. Outdoors, on the mountain in Matthew and the plain in Luke, Jesus might be pointing to the arum lily, whose root was a major source of food for the poor. It is more likely that he is making a generic reference to flowers, including the various types of crocus and cyclamen, iris and orchid. They are free, wild and gorgeous: showy, attractive flowers that burst forth in spring on the barren hills of Judean deserts (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, IVP, 1998). Those flowers were food for rabbits and goats. But never for humans. You can’t eat lilies.

Today we safety net our lives through insurance, savings and government assistance. The result of managing risk is a diminishing of faith. The daily bread of the Lord’s Prayer is spiritualised. We never see lilies from our office blocks and public transport windows.

Tomorrow’s workplace looks ever more precarious. While I write and you read, modern capitalism is hard at work, incentivising the radical unpicking of the safety nets of the 20th century. Artificial Intelligence will make anywhere from 14 to 54 percent of US workers redundant over the next twenty years. There is a 50 percent chance that Artificial Intelligence will outperform all human tasks in 45 years and automate all human jobs in 120 years. (Brennan Hoban, ‘Artificial intelligence will disrupt the future of work. Are we ready?’, brookings.edu, 23rd May 2018). This won’t be personal. Redundancies never are. But what will it mean for humanity and for Christian theology?

For Jesus, the safety net seemed to be neither insurance nor savings. Instead it was the humanity of our neighbour. Do unto others. A common purse. Share with those in need.

Whenever I think these words are simply idealism, I remind myself that hospitality has been a universal theme. For Maori, the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, a cultural value esteemed above all else is expressed in the word ‘manaakitanga’, used to describe the value of welcoming the stranger. It involves abundant hospitality and is linked with kindness, generosity and practical support.

‘Manaakitanga’ was historic. It is also remarkably contemporary. It was evident in the winter of 2017, when local Maori meeting houses opened their doors to provide temporary housing for the homeless. Cold and destitute New Zealanders can’t eat lilies. But they can experience ‘manaakitanga’.

Hospitality is a response that stretches across time and place. Sharing the gifts of the earth is a major theme in The Odyessy, while Immanuel Kant notes the place of universal hospitality in the task of being human (Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History (Rethinking the Western Tradition), 8:357).

So the advent of Artificial Intelligence will invite us to practice ‘manaakitanga’. If the future of precarious work results in greater co-dependence, then technology and innovation are a good thing, worth celebrating. With a universal wage, some will work for money, while others will enrich our worlds with art, craft, care and creativity.

Writing about the future of precarious work and amid the draining demands of a workplace restructure is a reality check. I can’t offer lilies, either to myself, my family or the young couple in the café beside me.

At the same time, ‘consider the lilies’ is in fact the radical offer of an alternative vision of a future society. It is a universal invitation to embody Maori ‘manaakitanga’ and to share the gifts of the earth among all humans.

The only way to read the New Testament is through the lens of precarious work. You can’t eat lilies. But you can live simpler, use time to love your neighbour and enter into the experience ‘manaakitanga’.

Posted by steve at 09:46 PM

Friday, June 29, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by steve at 01:08 PM

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by steve at 06:36 PM

Thursday, June 14, 2018

burning bushes in cultures and contexts

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

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

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

Posted by steve at 12:37 AM

Monday, May 14, 2018

Can those fines: graced redemption in a modern space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by steve at 10:18 PM

Thursday, May 03, 2018

one word: emotional in multiple textures of action

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

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

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

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

Posted by steve at 03:44 PM

Thursday, March 15, 2018

theology and church as an actor in development

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

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

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

taluapaperedits

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

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

Posted by steve at 10:07 AM

Friday, February 23, 2018

research play in the inbetween spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by steve at 04:08 PM