Saturday, June 20, 2015

Freedom to pursue not a formula to follow

This week I’ve been teaching an intensive, Mission and the church.  It has been an exhausting week  – intensives by their very nature are demanding.  At the same time, it has been a very fulfilling week. Nearly half the class was from inter-state and it was a joy to be resourcing the church nationally.  All of the class had significant ministry experience and thus it became not an exploration of theories for when people might move into ministry, but an intensely practical examination of what could be done now, in living communities. It is a privilege to opens a space and keeps alive a conversation about mission.

My intention is that the conversation is

  • hopeful – in the midst of church decline and structures that stifle, to keep providing ways to subvert and maintain
  • storified – if God is going ahead of us, if missio Dei is for real, then alongside theory of mission needs to be stories of God’s activity and action
  • contextual – theory and stories need to be told in ways that allow people to contextually adapt and innovate, not photocopy. Never once did I hear “oh, we couldn’t do that,” which is a sure sign that contextual has been lost from a teaching context
  • creative – whole church, with our whole bodies, embodying the Gospel, needs to be modelled in the course delivery. All these senses need to be engaged, not just the ears and eyes
  • evidence-based – stories of God’s activity are the evidence from which we discern mission. Three of the 8 sections featured post-graduate research which was studying  stories, in order to discern. So time and again we found ourselves immersed in learnings from people coming to faith, communities exploring innovation 10 years on, churches planting community ministries.

The feedback has been enormously positive.

An email:

Thank you again for a great short course on mission, and the church’s place in it. It has given me, and my congregations, much inspiration to live and work to do, and enjoy.

A final comment.

“I’ve gained a freedom to pursue, not a formula to follow.”

As always, I gain as much as I give in these conversations. On Thursday, as I shared some of my research of sustainability and fresh expressions (2 of the 8 chapters I’ve drafted), I found new insights emerging. It is a project I’m struggling to nail, unsure how to tell the story. As the class questions rained down upon me, I found myself making some fresh connections (and kicking myself that I’d forgot to record this section). All an important part of my own processing and clarifying.

Posted by steve at 09:07 AM

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Writing in Australia: a missiological analysis

During my time in Australia, I’ve had 26 pieces of writing published. This includes 13 book chapters; 2 peer reviewed journal articles; 3 book reviews in peer reviewed journal; 7 other pieces including 3 in Australian Leadership. It totals to over 80,000 published words in the 5 years.

(I have also completed work on a number of rejected journal articles and work on two book manuscripts in relation to sustainability of fresh expressions.)

In preparing for the Mission and the church course, I decided it would be interesting to analyse this published-in-Australia writing from a missiology perspective. It would test the frame of this course, the seven practices. It would also be a way of letting the frame test my work. Am I covering all the areas of mission or am I narrowcasting?

I was (pleasantly) surprised to find that my writing covers all seven areas. I have written most about the planting and forming of new ecclesial communities and least about evangelism. (although I do spend a lot of time talking about evangelism with certain PhD candidates!) Four of the pieces do not fit the frame and I want to think further therefore about whether the frame might need some adaption.

Prayerful discernment, listening – 3
Apologetics – 2
Evangelism – 1
Catechesis – 4
Ecclesial formation – 4
Planting, forming new ecclesial communities – 6
Incarnational mission -3
Unplaced – 4

This exercise thus becomes helpful in guiding my ongoing research. I need to pay more attention in the next phase to apologetics and evangelism. Overall, the pieces include a degree of engagement with indigenous voice, but less engagement with Pacifica cultures. Again, doing this overview of my work helps clarify for me my ongoing research.

On the course website, I have provided an annotated bibliography of this writing. Over the next few days, I will be adding a brief summary of each piece. I will also provide a second paragraph, explaining the missiological reasons why I wrote it and what were the missiological questions that I was seeking to engage with.

This resource sits alongside a standard class bibliography. That was representative of global voices. This is one voice. Most of these pieces I have written do not provide a neat overview of learning to date. Instead, they are more at the edge. They are seeking to address questions I think need to be answered in moving mission thinking forward. This includes the fact that many of my pieces involve engagement with contemporary popular culture and from these emerge conversations about various practices of mission.

The full bibliography is as follows: (more…)

Posted by steve at 10:23 AM

Monday, June 15, 2015

facilitators, braiders, accomplished fellows: students as teachers

Here is another section of my ANZATS Evidence based action research into teaching that is connected, mobile and accessible in a higher education context paper.

To summarise, results from student surveys suggest that the learning shifts implemented in the Theology of Jesus class resulted in a significant shift in student experience, from an anticipation of content, to considered reflection on the process of how learning happens.

Haythornthwaite and Andrews note the diverse ways students participate in class to enhance learning (E-learning Theory and Practice, 2011, 171). They draw on work by Preston 2008 and his description of a number of roles occupied by students in an on-line community (Preston, C .J. (2008) Braided Learning: An emerging process observed in e-communities of practice. International Journal of Web Based Communities, 4 (2): 220-43). Three roles are described. E-facilitators help shape the argument, provide interim summaries and influence the trajectory of the discussion. Braiders reinterpret the online debate in different styles. Accomplished fellows take initiatives that invite participants to explore a subject in more depth.

This provides a way to theorise the description of learning provided by one student in an assignment.

I will be also exploring Christology in light of my [cultural] identity, which was inspired by the presentations of Aboriginal minister Auntie Denise Champion and Fijian minister Eseta Meneilly from week ten and twelve respectively …. This stemmed from the group activity, where the group I was in was asked to discuss liberationist action. In this exercise, I was asked by one of my classmates to connect liberation theology to my culture.” (Student Reading reflection.)

Using the theoretical categories above, my student was being invited to become an accomplished fellow, to explore Christology in light of their culture. The exploration begins because of the introduction into the class of two other accomplished fellows (Aboriginal minister Auntie Denise Champion and Fijian minister Eseta Meneilly). The impetus is the result of group activity, in which a classmate acts as both a facilitator, influencing the discussion and a braider, re-interpreting lecture material during a group discussion and inviting a different style, in this case of application. Thus students are becoming teachers, occupying a diverse set of roles, significantly shaping each others’ learning.

In making this argument, I am applying on-line categories to what is a face to face group conversation. It raises an interesting question. Have these types of interactions always occurred in class, but remain unrecognised in face to face interactions because lecturers are not present in group discussion? Are these roles only becoming visible now because they can be captured, whether by analysing online forums as Preston does, or in my research here? Or is this visibility further evidence of the development of students as not only learners, but teachers in community?

Posted by steve at 11:12 PM

Saturday, June 13, 2015

We’re all men: gender in teaching mission

Monday I begin a four day intensive, teaching on Mission and the church. Much of this week has been spent building the online site – loading up readings, video clips, extra resources, web links – that will enhance the educational experience.

introduction to Mission and the Church from steve taylor on Vimeo.

Glancing at the class list yesterday, I shook my head in disbelief. The entire cohort, all 9 of the enrolled students, are male. And, if the surnames are in any way reliable, all white fella.

I can’t recall teaching an all male, white fella class. Ever. Certainly not in my experience in the Uniting Church, where one of the things I have most appreciated is the greater gender mix that is present, compared to my experience in Baptist Churches in New Zealand.

I am puzzled and disturbed. What to do?

I do have diversity built in through the readings, which include voices, male and female, and from Asia, Africa, Europe, United States, Australia and New Zealand. I do have guest presenters both male and female. I do have short spoken mission biographies to splice in at various points, of woman and indigenous. The stories of fresh expressions video clips are of women pioneers.

But that does not address the mono-cultural discussion that will inevitably result.

Cancelling the class does not seem fair on each individual who has enrolled. I suspect it is also not permissible in a higher education environment.

I don’t think I can suddenly find someone willing to give four days to participate in an intensive at such short notice. And it runs the risk of tokenism, asking one voice to speak for an entire culture or gender.

I wonder if I should, on the first morning, note the reality of our room. And then place three chairs at three points around the class. And suggest that every now and again, we pause and ask each other:

Now if a woman, or a first-nations person, or a migrant with English as a second language were present in our discussion, what might they be adding to our discussion? What might they be critiquing?

This runs the risk of transference. But at the heart of mission is a commitment to engage with the other. So three empty chairs might in fact provide an object lesson in lack.

Posted by steve at 11:57 AM

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A class above: Evidence based action research into teaching that is connected, mobile and accessible in a higher education context

I’ve spent much of the week, between various work meetings, working on a conference paper on innovation in teaching for the ANZATS (Australia New Zealand Association of Theological Schools) in Sydney. The original abstract proposal, which was accepted back in March, is here. I’ve re-worked the title from:

Revaluing the lives we teach: the pedagogies we employ and the Gospel truths they deploy

to:

A class above: Evidence based action research into teaching that is connected, mobile and accessible in a higher education context

The first title fitted the conference theme, but only worked “in-conference.” So the second title was written with an eye to finding a receptive journal down the track. It was composed as part of an exercise during a Flinders University professional development workshop Publish and flourish on Tuesday.

Tuesday and Wednesday mornings I drafted the methodology section, pulled from notes generated during early morning coffee meetings with my Community of Practice cohort last year.

Today I edited in some of the results. These were originally written at the Tel Aviv airport in September last year, stuck in baggage claim, waiting for a baggage collectors strike to end!

Then, in emailing a colleague asking if they could provide a critical read of a complete first draft, I found myself having a first attempt at the conclusion.

My main argument is that the learning shifts implemented in the Theology of Jesus class resulted in a significant shift in student experience, from an anticipation of content, to considered reflection on the process of how learning happens. In that shift, the class dynamic and the diversity among the student cohort became much more appreciated by the student cohort as factors in their learning. In other words, students became essential to the learning processes. If the call of Jesus to “come follow” is a call to transformation that is set in the context of relationships of learning, then the use of technologies, when underpinned by explicit pedagogical care, are essential elements in “re-humanising” learning. They can turn the entire student cohort into teachers, inhabiting different roles in the “conditions” of learning.

It is amazing where one finds oneself writing – desks at home, cafe tables, University lecture rooms, work desks once the corridor goes quiet, polished floors in the no-mans land that is baggage claim. (And no doubt the hotel accomodation in Sydney the night prior to paper delivery on 1 July).

Posted by steve at 06:51 PM

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

the potential of deconstruction: Emerging churches grow people

This is not how you do research! I was at a professional development course on Tuesday, upskilling in the area of writing for publication. The lunch exercise was to find a journal we might be interested in publishing in. The venue, a modern secular University, had few journals in the area of missiology and theology. So I pulled out a journal on sociology of religion. Flipping it open, I found an article researching spiritual growth in the emerging church. This is not how you do research. But it is a great resource.

Sally K. Gallagher and Chelsea Newton, “Defining Spiritual Growth: Congregations, Community, and Connectedness,” Sociology of Religion 2009, 70:3 232-261.

This is a fascinating piece of research. Gallagher and Newton note the claim that religion is good for people. Sociologists like Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture, (2003) have explored how religion is a spiritual capital. It provides relational networks. It offers meaning through the opportunity to volunteer. It provides frames by which to interpret experiences.

What has not been researched is how the notion of spiritual growth can be good. Nor whether spiritual growth looks different in different types of churches.

Gallagher and Newton researched four congregations in NorthWest Pacific, one of which is an emerging church (the other three are conservative Protestant, mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox). Their focus is ordinary people in these congregations, whom they interview in order to understand how they define, articulate and experience spiritual growth. The congregational focus is consistent with the desire to explore the social nature of spiritual growth.

Every congregation shared a similar understanding of spiritual growth as a process. Yet each of the groups expressed ideas around spiritual growth that were consistent with the theological tradition in which they operate. Mainline Presbyterian emphasised tolerance and respect for a diversity of beliefs, conservative Presbyterian focused on bible teaching, participation in church and an identity distinct from the surrounding culture, Eastern Orthodox on practices that connect with ancient traditions in order to love and care for others.

They describe the emerging church as based on “authentic relationship, dialogue, community.” (253) Core messages include an emphasis on deep and authentic relationships and a culturally connected faith that “resonates with a generation that deeply values diversity and authenticity” (257). Growth happens through processes that include worship services that use diverse elements like arts, science, nature, a range of service opportunities and adult education offering theology and film, medieval spirituality, Hebrew and spiritual formation outdoors. “Individuals in this group placed somewhat less emphasis on what happens Sunday morning as a source of spiritual growth than people in other congregations.” (253)

“At the Urban Village emerging church, a consensus around spiritual growth centred on relationships with God, family, and friends within the church and broader community. Authenticity in each of these areas was both a means of spiritual growth and an end in itself. To be mature in this congregation was to cultivate deep and meaningful relationships with trusted others in much the same way as in a personal and authentic relationship with God.” (258)

They note that while the emerging church emphasised “the deconstruction of tradition in order to reclaim a more authentic faith – we heard the echo and rephrasing of historically traditional themes that find expression within well-established Christian traditions.” (260)

In sum, emerging churches are distinctive. The emphasis on authenticity of relationship with people and the surrounding culture produces a distinctive approach to spiritual growth. What is intriguing is that the deconstructive element is actually working to enhance connections, albeit rewired, to different aspects of the Christian tradition. What is also instructive is that the processes of spiritual growth are more de-centred from the Sunday gathering (in contrast to other groups). “One other facet of spiritual growth that was central … was the place of the physical world in facilitating spiritual growth …. part of its broader mission to include teaching and activities that focus both on global as well as local social concerns.” (254)

Posted by steve at 10:34 PM

Monday, June 08, 2015

Sunday film review: a ‘downunder’ Before Sunrise

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

Sunday
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Sunday is a ditch-crossing story. Australian (Dustin Clare as Charlie) meets Kiwi (Camille Keenan as Eve). They fall in love, enfolded by Australian sun and surf. In time, Eve finds herself pregnant. Unwilling to raise a child in a relationship in which Charlie is absent for long periods with work, she returns to Christchurch.

Charlie crosses the ditch to see her. Together over 24 hours, they explore their past, examine their present insecurities and ponder their future. Their conversation, a mix of romance, comedy and pathos, is set against the backdrop of Christchurch post-quake. The dancing diggers, twisted metal fences and wrecked cathedrals are an arresting visual and a probing metaphor. Is it worth either of them investing in a rebuild of their relationship? Or will their past remain a scene of untended destruction?

Sunday echoes the plot line of the Richard Linklater directed generational trilogy, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. (For my review of Boyhood, see here). All of these films involve a couple exploring their relationship; past, present and future. In each, tension is built by the immanence of a departure. In every one, the geographic backdrop is an important character. At the risk of being accused of being parochial, Christchurch post-earthquake is far more impressive than Vienna, Paris or the Greek Islands (of the Linklater directed trilogy). The dawn scenes as Eve takes Charlie to the airport, past cathedrals, walled containers and the quirk that is Gapfiller, is disturbingly beautiful.

In another similarity, as with Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, the writing of Sunday is a collaborative activity. In the Linklater trilogy, director and actors, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, worked together on scenes and script. Similarly, the actors and director (Michelle Joy Lloyd) of Sunday spend time workshopping the characters and themes. Each actor then wrote different scenes, which Eve (Camille Keenan) edited, to ensure coherent voice.

Sunday does little explicit theological work. The title is not a reference to a religious day of rest. Rather it is one potential baby name. Outside the broken (Catholic) cathedral, we hear that the baby, when born, will be christened. But the conversation then drifts to the absurdness of a christening gown being wedding white. The faith present in Sunday is a faith of ritual and impractical irrelevance, dissected in front of a broken and empty building. It seems to have little to offer a couple, or a city, contemplating a rebuild.

Sunday is a work of artistic love. Directed by Michelle Joy Lloyd, it was self and crowd-funded. In the search for an audience it became the first movie in history to be released simultaneously on five platforms; cinema, online, TV, airline, DVD. It remains available to download, hire or buy as DVD, on either side of the ditch, from here. It might be low-budget, but it remains an appealing treat, perfect for a high-quality Sunday evening in with friends.

Posted by steve at 08:55 PM

Friday, June 05, 2015

We’re built for change

In just under four months, I conclude as Principal of Uniting College and shift countries to begin as Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. This has a lot of implications personally and professionally.

Professionally, I lead a team of 17 people. An essential dimension of my leadership includes helping them process transitions. This means that a challenge of the next few months includes helping them process my transition.

It is always more complicated leading your own transition. It is tempting to envisage working until the last day, closing the door and slipping out, leaving behind a to do list for the incoming. But that would be remiss of my leadership not to include this personal focus. It would point to a set of values that sit in opposition to a culture of communal innovation. It would work against a culture “built for change.”

So I have spent a number of months with my supervisor and line manager thinking through how to lead through this particular transition.

Yesterday I initiated with the team a conversation about the transition. Let me tell you what I did and what emerged. But first, let me share with you the structures that influence the timing. (more…)

Posted by steve at 01:16 PM

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Mission and the church: a welcome

I’m teaching an intensive soon on Mission and the Church (June 14-18).

Over the last few days, I’ve been building the course online. I love this part of teaching – the design that frames and structures the learning, the readings that allow a range of diverse and global voices to fill out the design, the finding of video clips that provide stimulus, story and colour. Our Blended Education Design Co-ordinator used the word “curate” this week to describe Online learning and it made so much sense. This is not written distance as in full production of a linear script. This is a range of resources within which a learner can click, play, browse, engage, interact.

Anyhow, today as part of building the course online I also shot a simple video for the Welcome page. Not flash, not high tech, but so that students as they first visit the site get to see see me, hear my voice and sense my animation.

introduction to Mission and the Church from steve taylor on Vimeo.

Posted by steve at 09:10 PM

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Church and mission in multi-faith contexts

Ecclesial Identities in a Multi-Faith Context: Jesus Truth-Gatherings (Yeshu Satsangs) among Hindus and Sikhs in Northwest India, by Darren Duerksen, is a fascinating book. Part of the American Society of Missiology Monograph Series, it offers research into the church in a mission context. The focus is Yeshu Satsangs (Jesus truth gatherings) amongst Hindus and Sikhs in Northwest India. These are “insider” movements. They critique the forms of the inherited Christian church and want to experiment with new forms of church. Sound familiar?

Yeshu Satsangs embrace the Hindu bakhi tradition, an approach to religion that focuses not on elaborate temple rituals, but on devotion connected to a respected leader. They also tend to be multi-cultural, attracting people from Hindu, Sikh and tribal communities. In sum, “a less ritualized and more socio-religiously inclusive community that is part of the Hindu framework.” (52)

Three religious forces have shaped their emergence.

First, foreign mission. A glance into history shows that in response to early Christian work, Hinduism was revitalised. It engaged in reform which strengthened its (Hindu) life and witness.

Second, Dalit conversion. Widespread mass movement to Christianity has meant the perception that “Christianity is the religion of the Dalits.” (65)

Third, Pentecostal. They tend to offer an exuberant worship, led by charismatic, entreprenurial pastors. These forms of spirituality communicate more of a western culture. So, “the learned practices of eliciting God’s power, such as using words like “hallelujah” and shouting “praise Jesus!” (in English) perpetuates the perception that Christianity is “western” or Other.” (68)

We now turn to the emergence of Yeshu Satsangs. This is where it gets interesting missiologically. In light of this history, and in trying to understand their faith in their cultural context, these Yeshu Satsangs have emerged as mission experiments. Duerksen conducted interviews with 8 leaders and 50 followers (satsangis) and argued for a a number of distinct practices.
- worship using local forms and instruments (bhajan or kirtan). These provide an emotional tone and a more indigenous habitus
- objects like incense and coconut for communion; the blowing of a seashell trumpet as a call to worship
- a preaching style, in which leaders sit on a mat on a platform, the incorporation of phrases that are more Hindu or Sikh

The result is a church that has a distinct set of identities. These include a bhakti-influenced devotion to Jesus, the experience of God’s blessing and power, a careful discerning of evil and a distinct Christian witness.

Finally, Duerksen reads the book of Acts in light of the research. Acts is chosen because it is the story of the church’s emergence. Duerksen explores how Jewish Christian’s understood their identity, how they remained rooted in many of their Jewish practices as they sought to follow Christ. He argues that this approach, rooted in tradition and culture, offers a helpful way to understand the Yeshu Satsangs.

It is rich and fascinating missiology. It deserves to be placed alongside the literature for emerging church and fresh expressions, in a mutual search for missional wisdom.

Posted by steve at 10:22 AM

Sunday, May 31, 2015

leadership formation: an indigenous experiment in oral learning

I have been working with a group of indigenous ministers over the last 6 months, praying about what Aboriginal leadership development might look like amongst the Aboriginal churches in Adelaide. This week we participated in the following learning experiment.

indigenous leadership welcome

First, welcome. We begin with worship, with song written by a gifted, local, indigenous leader.

indigenous leadership Bible

Second, Biblical immersion. We hear the Scripture. We hear again, tracing the Scripture onto our hands. We hear the Scripture for a third time, drawing the Scripture onto a blank hand. Together, using ears, hands, eyes, we immerse ourselves in ancient story. The hope is that this bypasses writing and text. It returns us to the Scriptures as aural. This connects with those who have highly developed skills in ways of learning other than Western.

indigenous leadership questions

Third, working with the story. In Adnyamathanha culture, we learn from a story by asking three questions. What is the rule for living? What does this tell us about the environment? What do we learn about the supernatural? We apply these indigenous questions, asking each other what we learn about God, about ministry, about life? The discussion is rich.

indigenous leadership next

Fourth, we hear the story again. Each of us are given a blank hand, which we hold. The immersion in Scripture, the discussion together, is gathered into a single question on a single blank hand. We ask ourselves – what do I most need to learn from this story? Who can I learn from?

This is our homework. We will connect our learning journey with our wider community. Next time we gather, we will come enriched by the wisdom of our ancestors. This will become our “assessment.” We will re-tell the story, enriched both by our discussion together and our seeking out of wisdom from our wider community.

All done, not by privileging books, but “living libraries” – us and others.

Posted by steve at 04:10 PM

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Big Eyes: a theological reflection (on the power of fundamentalisms!)

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

Big Eyes

Big Eyes is a feel-good biographical drama, based on a true story, drawn from the life of contemporary American artist Margaret Keane. The title is a reference to Margaret’s approach to art, in which her subjects, mainly women and children, are painted with oversized eyes. While, it was a distinctive style that brought mainstream applause in San Francisco throughout the 1960s, behind the big eyes was a darker story that needs to be heard.

Big eyes are not only an approach to painting. They are also a posture. Two key scenes in the movie involve big eyes looking down the camera lens. In one, two males eye the paintings of Margaret and her husband Walter, debating their quality. This “big-eyed” scene sets up the early plot tensions, including the gatekeeping role of galleries and the patriarchal male gaze that would trap Margaret for much of her creative life.

In a second scene, toward the end of the movie, Margaret Keane eyes her art works. She is alone and this scene, in which pairs of women’s eyes gaze intensely, painfully at each other, artfully captures the big-eyed lies in which Margaret finds herself trapped.

Big-eyed is also a theological theme, a way to understand the movie’s portrayal of faith. As the movie reaches for its feel-good climax, Margaret finds herself lonely in Hawaii. She is befriended by door knocking Jehovah’s Witnesses. In a pivotal conversation, Margaret’s daughter (Madeline Arthur) asks the Jehovah’s Witnesses if their God is OK with suing.

The question results in the climatic court action, through which truth is told and justice enacted. It is a reminder of the ethics that result when one has faith in a “big-eyed” God who is understood as speaking up for the rights of the widow and orphan.

Director Tim Burton, his skills honed over forty movies (including Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland), continues to showcase his movie-making skills. Big Eyes offers some lovely directorial moments, including the appearance of the actual artist, sitting on a park bench in the background, as Walter and Margaret first meet. It provides an ethical reminder that this story is being told with Margaret’s approval, unlike the web of lies spun around her by her first husband, Walter.

The script writing of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewksi offers some memorable dialogue. These include the multiple levels of irony in Margaret Keane’s statement, that the eyes are a window to the soul and Walter’s delighted cry, “We’ve sold out” at the end of another successful art show.

The movie, in dialogue, plot and character explores the moral complexities of art and celebrity.
Alongside the fine performances by Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), Big Eyes provides a heartwarming, yet revealing, window into the soul of contemporary culture and an object lesson in the Christian affirmation that truth shall indeed set you free.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He is the author of The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan, 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 07:31 PM

Monday, May 25, 2015

Activist research: an examination of lived practices Conference paper accepted

Delighted that my conference paper for the 2015 Ethnography and Ecclesiology Conference, September 15-17 has been accepted.

In this paper, I will be trying to unpick some of the complexity around studying the living church. Picture this – Augustine withdrawing his approval for you to use his Confessions in your research, because the letter belongs to him. The Ethiopian Enuch shuffling into your sermon on Acts 8, and putting up his hand at the end to ask a question of your exegesis of his community. Such is the complexity that surrounds doing ethnographic research on the church today – when our participants are still shaping the research process. I want to explore the limits and opportunities that result.

It will be my 3rd conference visit to Durham, having been there in 2010 (for the Fresh Expressions Research conference) and 2011 (for the first ever Ethnography and Ecclesiology Conference) and I’m looking forward to being in that beautiful, historic and compact city again.

Here’s the full abstract –

Activist research: an examination of lived practices in ethnography and ecclesiology

Implicit in the project known as ethnography and ecclesiology is a reconceived epistemology. The turn toward lived experience, along with a commitment to both empirical and theological understandings, ushers in a set of ambiguities. These tensions, while disturbing Enlightenment notions of objectivity, hard facts and replicability, if conceived accurately, can become a rich source of data.

One set of tensions is between researched and researcher. To focus on these interactions is consistent with the argument by Paul Fiddes that empirical-ecclesiological study is a shared habitus characterised by relationships in which Christ can be embodied (Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Studies in Ecclesiology and Ethnography)). It is also consistent with the particular complexities of empirical-ecclesiological study, in which, unlike historical-ecclesiological study, the researched are active agents.

The interaction between researcher and researched will be examined through the lens of activist research. Charles Hale defines activist research as distinct from pure and applied research, with implications at every stage of the research process.

This category of activist research as it applies to the interaction between researched and researcher will be examined in four different sites. The sites will include practices of both research and teaching, since both are essential to the academic “habitus.”

First, the research by Paul Bramadat of the activities of an Evangelical Christian Group on a Canadian University campus (The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Religion in America Life)). His theoretical commitments are disturbed as Bramadat realises that the community has welcomed him because of their desire to convert him.

Second, the research by Steve Taylor of an emerging church in New Zealand. During the research, the attempt to locate the researcher as objective and detached was challenged in a focus group as unhelpful for this community.

Third, the research by Robert Orsi of contemporary Catholic religious practices in USA (Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them). He finds himself questioned by a participant. How can he as a researcher understand the researched unless he shares their beliefs regarding the practices (of prayer) being studied? In each study, the researcher is challenged by the “activism” of the researched.

Fourth, the teaching of an undergraduate University topic, reshaped in light of the epistemological demands inherent in ethnography and ecclesiology. Changes included bringing activists into the classroom to present their research in a case study format and expecting students to engage in the class as “activist researchers.” Feedback demonstrated increased levels of student engagement and a redefinition of their understandings of ecclesiology. However it also indicated that the “activist” shift resulted in a more contested space between individuals within the classroom.

What becomes evident in each of these four studies is that activist research is a helpful lens by which to understand ecclesiology and ethnography. Categories of pure and applied are contested as the researched asks fundamental questions in the research of the researcher.

This provides a way to theorise the relationship between social science methods and theology. The turn toward ethnography and ecclesiology is based on a reconceived epistemology, in which research is relocated as a set of “activist” practices in, with and among communities.

Dr Steve Taylor, Senior Lecturer Flinders University and Principal, Uniting College for Leadership and Theology

Posted by steve at 08:32 AM

Friday, May 22, 2015

the ever evolving bullet blue sky: U2′s innocence and experience

The U2 innocence and experience tour began last weekend in Vancouver. It included Bullet the Blue Sky, a song which had disappeared from the U2 360 tour.

This is fascinating given I have previously written about how Bullet the Blue Sky as a song has evolved over time. In “Bullet the Blue Sky” as an Evolving performance (in Exploring U2: Is This Rock ‘n’ Roll?: Essays on the Music, Work, and Influence of U2) I focus on a number of evolutions.

  • “See the Sky ripped open” describes the origin of the song, back in 1986. Bono asks the Edge to put the conflict in Nicaragua and El Salvador through his amplifier. They stuck pictures around the studio and the song emerged, as a contemporary psalm of lament.
  • “And I can see those fighter planes appears” on the Elevation tour, in Dublin, in 2001. It evolves from a psalm of lament to a moment of confession. A spotlight shines upward, searching for fighter planes, then focuses on both the crowd and Bono. Graphics note the worlds five biggest arms traders – USA, UK, France, China, Russia – which are then linked to the IRA and the British army. What was a song focused on American influence in Central America is now focused on all countries that traffic in bullets that rip on the skies of Ireland.
  • “Outside it’s America,” occurs in Chicago in 2005. A number of song samples (Jonny Comes Marching Home, Gangs of New York) are used. Bono adopts a number of theatrical postures, that reference prisoners blindfolded in the Iraqi war, while a fighter jet is projected behind him. This is followed by a prayer “for all the brave men and women of the United States.” It feels like a prayer of intercession, in which the impact of the war in Iraq is considered.

I then use theory of installation art to understand this evolving performance. I note the use of samples (song snippets, visuals, performance posture) and how these create connections and awaken communal memory. The work of De Oliveria, Oxley and Petry (Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses) is a rich resource. They talk about the creation of an experiential space which allows “a viewing of the self contemplating the external world.”

I apply this to the evolving performance of Bullet

The self can lament at the external world at Paris; the self can confess at Slane Castle and the self can both confess and petition in Chicago. U2′s use of sampling crafts an experience that allows introspection with regard to how one should act in the relation to the wider world.” (Exploring U2: Is This Rock ‘n’ Roll?: Essays on the Music, Work, and Influence of U2, 94).

The reappearance of Bullet in the new U2 Innocence and experience tour is thus yet another, quite distinctive, evolution. The lyrics undergo a dramatic change, with new verses written to reference not the conflict in Central America but talks in Davos and the use of cell phones. There is a song sample, which needs further discussion. What is most intriguing is what seems to be an interplay during the performance of Bullet between young Bono (19) and Bono (now). He seems to be “patting himself” down. The adolescent is engaging with the rock star, including the rock star so mocked for his social justice activism (including going to Davos).

This adds another whole dimension of “a viewing of the self.” It is a contemplating of the self in the external world, when young, and now middle-aged. This is perhaps what is at the heart of the innocence and experience tour, a self looking back. This introspection can allow a contemplation of what has become. Whether this is lament, confession or intercession depends on the actions of the self.

Importantly, having reflected, having “patted oneself down”, one is now freed to consider not only what one has become, but what one is becoming.

Posted by steve at 11:10 AM