Sunday, November 09, 2014

teaching the “flipped” open table of Jesus

My Semester 2, Jesus Christ topic, came to an end this week.  It ended as it began, with food. Every week for 13 weeks, soup has been offered. For two of the classes, the entire lesson was done around food.  One week, as we talked about the open table of Jesus and the final week, as we reflected on our experiences together. In doing so, a very different dynamic has emerged among us. We have become community, shared being human, laughed, shared soup recipes.


The dynamic around soup had reinforced another change in class – a change in teaching methodology. I introduced flipped learning. Class readings and lecture notes were placed online and students were invited (expected) to come to class prepared to engage in activities together.

In order to encourage this, I provided two learning moments. First, a discussion around what type of individual behaviours would enhance our class learning as a group? This generated an informal set of expectations among us. Second, an introduction to how people learn. I offered Bloom’s taxonomy and suggested that the traditional lecture tended to keep class time focused on knowledge and comprehension (bottom half of the circle). However if reading was done prior, this would mean our class time together could be used to focus on analysis, synthesis and evaluation (top half of the circle). In order to help this, every class offered a choice of activities. Students could choose to check their comprehension, or to work with classmates in an activity of their choosing – analysis, synthesis or evaluation.


The result has been a vastly different learning environment. The class has been pushed in new ways and I’ve learnt a lot as a teacher.

To help us process the semester as we gathered the final time, I suggested reflection around three colours. Green, a moment of growth that had occurred in the class. Red, an emotion we wanted to express. White, any thing else we wanted to share.

It had been an extraordinary class. Alongside the flipped learning, we’ve also had to process tragedy. During the semester, a student in the class unexpectedly died. Healthy one week, fully participating, fully engaged. Then during the week, they suffered an out of the blue heart attack. 

So the class has had to process this sudden gap. In some ways the soup and flipped learning have made the gap larger. We’d become more human, known each other in ways more vulnerable and real. Twenty heads facing a talking head lecturer would not have formed these levels of community. Equally, have formed community, we experienced greater pain. But because we were a community, we drew strength from each other, found a group ready to listen and pray.

Such is the “flipped” and open table of Jesus. More engaged. Perhaps even more painful. Yet more vulnerable, more supportive, more human, more prayerful.

Posted by steve at 06:04 PM

Sunday, September 21, 2014

processing Palestine

It’s been an intense few days. We landed at Tel Aviv on Thursday and have spent the last few days exploring Bethlehem, dipping our toes in the River Jordan, visiting Orthodox monasteries and walking Qumran.

In between has been the inevitable exposure to the deeply riven conflicts that shape this land. Passing police checkpoints and refugee camps, walking the Separation Wall, reading the experiences of Palestines, recorded on the wall as part of an oral museum project.

In trying to process the experiences, I’ve found “Cedars Of Lebanon” by U2 to be helpful.

First, the complexity, perhaps impossibility of understanding, “Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline.”

Second, the whiff of hope “This shitty world sometimes produces a rose. The scent of it lingers and then it just goes”

Oddly poignant, given my becoming aware of the Rose of Sharon a few months ago, only to see them for sale today near Jericho. They are a plant that remains dry and dessicated for years. It looks dead. But just add water, and wow. What is dead springs to life, flowers, seeds, then prepares for drought once again. An extraordinary symbol of hope.

Third, the one to one human reactions; “Soldier brings oranges he got out from a tank.” That every encounter between “nations” in conflict is in fact a one to one moment between humans.

Fourth, the final verse. It is pure Bono genius, so let me quote the entire verse

Choose your enemies carefully ’cause they will define you
Make them interesting ’cause in some ways they will mind you
They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friends

It’s brilliantly lyrically, the repetition of “c” in line one; the contrast between “beginning” and “end” in line three; the juxtaposing of “enemies” in the first line with “friends” in the last. It’s great poetry. (It’s also superb musically, the significance of this verse highlighted by the delicate edge “hammer on.”)

It’s also deeply Christian. Love your enemies is a concept unique to Christianity. It is a radical approach to conflict, a refusal to let the victor-victim narratives define those who participate. Instead, the inversion of power, the gift given to all participants, to chose how they respond, not in the best of times, but in the worst of times.

Posted by steve at 05:42 AM

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?

……. (more…)

Posted by steve at 06:11 PM

Monday, July 28, 2014

flipping Christology

“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.

Posted by steve at 11:07 PM

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sin and evil in a liberal world

Words like sin and evil don’t always play well in a liberal world. In a world of tolerance, we like to assume the best of another. In a strength based paradigm, we like to focus on the positives of appreciative inquiry, as in this wonderful video.

I remember a class, in which I was told in no uncertain terms by a minsterial candidate that they didn’t believe in sin. It was an old-fashioned invention of the church, designed to encourage guilt in religion. It is a conversation that has continued to sit with me. What is the place of sin and evil in a contemporary, liberal world?

So interesting today to stumble across a thought piece in the Guardian by social media columnist, Paul Mason, reflecting on recent trends in social media. He is reflecting on some particular nasty occurrences on twitter. And writes:

Evil may be a medieval theological concept, but when it invades your interface with the rest of humanity – and confronts your unwilling mind with imagery designed to provoke disgust, fear and self-loathing – it is all too modern.

It reminded me of the conclusion by Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. He argues for a God of justice.

To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a warzone. Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward nonviolence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you will discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, p.304).

There is much, much, more to Volf. But it is a reminder that theology needs to take sin and evil seriously. A worthy topic for my Introduction to Theology class tomorrow perhaps.

Posted by steve at 12:41 PM

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Jesus deck lectionary: spirituality of “wise men” as theology of family

I am using the Jesus Deck as my current lectionary. Every day I deal myself a card. Before Easter, it was Mark, as I ran through the drama that is Holy week. After Easter, Christians celebrate resurrection. A season of surprise. So the whole deck gets shuffled and dealt randomly. After Pentecost, I will use colour. I will keep dealing cards until I find some green. Growth. The colour attributed to the Spirit in Rublevs Icon. That will become my lectionary.

Today the Jesus deck dealt me Matthew 2. The text on the top reads “We have seen his star.” The text running along the bottom reads “Astrologers.” It’s a reference to the magi of Matthew 2:1-12.

It is interesting to engage this story outside Christmas. Although of course, given travel time, the story would have started months before.

Perhaps on a day in April.

A day like today.

Looking at this Jesus deck card, I am struck by how God uses hobbies – took the everyday passions of these “magi” and crafted through that a way to seek and search. So often spirituality is removed from the ordinary, and yet here is God inviting our hobbies and vocations, our passions and interests into a pursuit of divine. (Hence my Dictionary of Everyday Spirituality series).

Thinking of ordinary, I began to wonder if these magi had families. If so, what the star would have meant for their spiritual search.

You see, family is the perennial problem faced by all travellers. To take the kids and grandparents. Or to leave them behind.

The horns of a dilemna. To go alone. Or to drag in the innocent with you on an unknown search?

Either way, stay or come, relationships are being torn, domestic life reshaped. It’s a tough gig, seeing a star.

Which took me back to the Biblical text surrounding this particular Jesus deck card. Families in pain surround the magi narrative.

Jesus being wrapt in swaddling cloth and rocked to Egypt. That’s migration – forced to find shelter in a new language; look for work as your potential workmates comment on your accent; missing home; family not seeing the first Jesus smile, the first Jesus step. It’s a tough gig, carrying a star.

And let’s not talk about the screams that rent Israel. The nightmares of mothers screaming for their babies, dead at Herod’s knife. Families in pain surrounds this Jesus.

So what happens when we engage the story of the magi outside Christmas. We are invited to seek a star, to find God amid our ordinary. But as we peer at the spiritual search we ponder. Is it one of glamourous adventure? Or deep pain? Or both?

Time for a hug of those I love.

Posted by steve at 03:16 PM

Friday, April 06, 2012

“Why did Jesus die?” the child asked

“Why did Jesus die?” she whispered beside me. Three years old, pretty in pink, shoes not yet touching the floor, her mother gently sushed her.  This, after all, was church. Where visitors want to be seen, not heard.

But it’s the question that needs answering each and every Easter.

“Could we think of the cross?” I thought. “It has a flat piece, a horizontal piece, that points to people. Jesus died because the people around him killed him. He said and did things they didn’t like. He said things about God they didn’t agree with. They couldn’t stop him, so they decided to kill him.

Jesus also died, not only because people did something. But also because some people did nothing. Stood silent. Kept their mouths shout.

But the people around Jesus, that is only one part of why Jesus died. The cross not only has a flat piece, a horizontal piece. It also has an up and down piece, a vertical piece. That points to God.

Jesus died as an expression of love, God’s love. There are many ways to respond to evil people and evil plans. We can fight them, run from them, avoid them.

Jesus took a different approach. He decided to love them. It was like he became a sponge that soaks up all the spilt milk.

In the up and down part of the cross, God sucking up all the evil and pain in the world. Think of all the bad things people have done. And not done.

Not just the people around Jesus. All people. Through history. Even you and I. So much of it.

No wonder he died, one person trying to love all the evil out of life. That’s why Jesus died.”

Posted by steve at 01:21 PM

Thursday, December 22, 2011

a week’s work: communion in a world of hunger

Most of this week has been a writing week, preparing to speak at a conference on Post-colonial theology and religion in Melbourne later in January. My paper is titled – This is my body? A post-colonial investigation of the elements used in indigenous Australian communion practices – and over the week I’ve put together 4,800 words, which is a pretty good effort.

For those interested, here’s my introduction: (more…)

Posted by steve at 12:04 PM

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Sacred texts in a secular world

Sacred Texts in a secular world: How should we teach sacred texts in a pluralistic, multi-faith, modern university?

(Full PDF is here)

Dr Stephen Garner from the University of Auckland (blog here) will give the 2011 Annual Theology lecture on Thursday 25 August at 8 pm, at Flinders University in North Lecture Theatre 2.

With a number of years teaching Bible and Popular Culture and various courses on ethics and spirituality, with a PhD in public theology, particularly the relationship between artificial intelligence and Christian understandings of being human, and given the complex contemporary relationship between sacred texts and religious expression, this promises to be a timely and important occasion.

Posted by steve at 09:06 PM

Thursday, July 28, 2011

a new reformation: the rort that is academic (biblical) publishing

I just got notice from an academic (Biblical) publishing house. A new book. Price $90.

What a rort.

What happened to the Reformation? Remember the people who died for the belief that the Bible belonged not to an exclusive elite, but to the whole people of God, who insisted that translation be in the vernacular, who fought for lay interpretation.

500 years later, we still have an elite, sustained by the academic publishing market, fused with the research academic. Here’s how it works.

Academics do research. They need to publish their research, so they write. What they write is quite elite, so only a few people read it. So not many books sell. So the price is expensive.

Yet other’s in the academic guild have to read what their peers write. So academic libraries still have to buy these books no matter how expensive. Which means a guaranteed market. And ensures little competitive pressure to make a book more accessible.

I know this happens in all academic disciplines. I know that “pure” research (cf applied research) is important. I know that there is an academic speak which is is an important shorthand (see my post – Can I swap your pliers for my Economic Trinity?)

But when books are priced at $90, the world of biblical scholarship has priced itself as an elitist occupation, affordable to a few, inaccessible to the many. Anyone for a new reformation?

Posted by steve at 04:56 PM

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Can there be good without God? an honest atheist response

Last week I was in a team of Christian theists, debating a team of atheists at Flinders University. The question was Can there be good without God? (Here is what I said and here are some reflections on the nature of a debate).

I realised over the weekend that I probably left my conclusion at home.  Here it is, part of an Easter sermon from 2009 – from an article, written for the UK Independent newspaper, by a man called Matthew Parris.  Titled As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

The article tells the story, of how Matthew grew up in Africa, became a journalist, declared himself an atheist and became a well known gay rights activist.

In 2008, he was invited back to Africa by a charity.  This is what he wrote: 

“travelling in Malawi refreshed …[a]… belief … I’ve been trying to banish all my life …. an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced …. [that] In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

Parris goes on to say how he used to accept Christian involvement in Africa only because it was practical.  Shame about the God stuff, the wierd Christian beliefs in things like resurrection.

Because at least Christians were doing something practical and useful. Let them carry on because they care for sick and teach people to read and write.

But, says Parris, he can no longer avoid the facts.  When you travel across Africa, says Parris, you I’m quoting again.

“Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers …  but more open … It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. [Yet t]heir work was … influenced by a conception of man’s place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

Posted by steve at 08:58 AM

Saturday, June 11, 2011

my book of the month: The German Mujahid

The German Mujahid is beautifully written by Algerian author, Boualem Sansal.

Three of our globals more difficult conversations are engaged – the Holocaust, Islamic fundamentalism, and multi-culturalism in the West. The carrier of these conversations are two immigrant brothers, who discover that their father, brutally killed in his Algerian village by Islamic fundamentalists, was himself a SS officer at Auschwitz. The use of narrative, mixed with diary entries are used to explore the unfolding complexities of contemporary life and what it might mean to speak for peace in cultures of intolerance.

The writing is superb, a searing portrayal. The characters are believable, unfolding in their complexity. (If I was being critical, I’d comment on the male-centric nature of the book, in which the voices of woman are very much pushed to the margins.)

While this book leaves you worldly wiser, it also leaves you none the wiser as to how then to live in cultures of intolerance. The worlds of Hitler and Islam fundamentalism are penned so strongly, that any green shoots of resistance and hope simply struggle for life.

Posted by steve at 11:56 AM

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

can there be good without God? here’s what I said

On Tuesday I was part of a team of 3, debating a team of 3 atheists, at Flinders University, between 3 -5 pm. According to one promotional flyer, “Come and watch a fantastic exchange on one of the most important questions ..The Atheist Foundation of Australia will be debating some of the State’s finest Christian thinkers.” (Finest! LOL)

Updated: entire debate, including all questions, is online here.

Each side had 10 minutes per speaker. Each side was then invited to ask one question per speaker. General questions were then invited for 45 minutes, followed by closing arguments of 10 minutes maximum. Here’s what I said in my 10 minutes. Tomorrow I’ll post a few post-debate reflections.

Can there be good without God? My interest is ethical. How should we live if God is good; How would we live if good and God are separated? (more…)

Posted by steve at 11:33 AM

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Revelation’s White Horse Warrior on Obama/Osama bin Laden?

Following on from what Augustine and Bono might say to Osama bin Laden, I think for the sake of honesty, Christians must also ask what Revelation’s White Horse Warrior might say to Osama/Obama?

The Bible book of Revelation ends with the Rider on the White horse, who comes to pour out God’s wrath (Revelation 19:15). In response, the saints gleefully cheer (Rev 18:20). It is easy to claim an Old Testament God of vengeance and a New Testament God of love. Revelation refuses to allow us this luxury.

What to do with these Bible texts in Revelation? What to do with those who suffer violence in the name of Divine? Miroslav Volf, theologian at Yale and native born Croatian, puts the question this way: “Why must God say the unrelenting “no” to a world of injustive, deception and violence in such a violent way?” (Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and ReconciliationChristianity Books) 296)

Volf argues that much talk of non-violence has “the sweet aroma of a suburban ideology” (296).

“A “nice” God is a figment of liberal imagination, a projection onto the sky of the inability to give up cherished illusions about goodness, freedom, and the rationality of social actors. (298)”

Ouch! Volf argues that in reality, patient appeals to reason do not always work. Thus the texts of Revelation are, in my words, reality texts. That some people and situations will not change. They refuse to “shy away from the unpleasant and deeply tragic possibility that there might be human beings, created in the image of God, who, through the practices of evil, have immunised themselves from all attempts at their redemption.” (297)

Obama and religious fundamentalism (of any persuasion) become contemporary examples of this.

In such reality, the White Rider in Revelation functions to keep open a God who is indignant at injustice, deception and violence. This does not mean that God is schizophrenic, a wierd mix of suffering Messiah and justice-seeker. Rather it is the preserver of true and radical human freedom, that people have the choice to say no to redemption and reconcilation – whether a fundamentalist or a Christian refusing to face their sin.

These are tough things to consider. But it does provide a way to understand what Volf calls “the symbolic portrayal of the final exclusion of everything that refuses to be redeemed by God’s suffering love … not because God is too eager to pull the trigger, but because every day of patience in a world of violence means more violence and every postponement of vindication means letting insult accompany injury.” (299)

To be honest, part of this makes my blood chill.

But another part warms toward a God who cares enough about justice to engage the world in reality, in truth, in freedom whether in good or bad.

Volf has not finished. He then asks “who” – who can enact such justice? Can Obama and a group of US Seals? Volf notes that in the New Testament, the “who” is the suffering God and the White horse rider, “partners in promoting nonviolence.” (302) Humans are freed to renounce violence because of future hope in God’s passionate justice.

“the only way in which nonviolence and forgiveness will be possible in a world of violence is through displacement or transference of violence, not through its complete relinquishment.” (302)

Further posts:
see Christian Jihad or what sort of God killed the Canaanites?

Posted by steve at 12:53 PM