Saturday, June 15, 2024

consenting to digital activism

Whoop! A first signed consent form in a research project is a moment worth celebrating. It takes hours of work to get to this stage of a project.

First there is the funding application, seeking resources to undertake research (thanks IASH Edinburgh). This is mixed with a literature review to develop a research question that builds on what others re thinking. Next there is the ethics application, thinking through the risks and benefits of various approaches to research. For this project, this required a lot of reading in ethical research with social media data and ways not to compromise the safety of children in domains that allow anonymous comments. Then there is initiating contact, connecting with organisations and explaining the research to participants. Hours of work make the first signed consent form a moment worth celebrating.

The digital activism in justice-making is briefly introduced here. I am using a mixed methods approach. This involves seeking permission to undertake a visual grammar analysis of online images on social media, alongside offering conversations (focus groups) about the online images. This side-by-side approach should help understand the visual public theologies being offered by grassroot organisations as they activate for climate justice.

Whoop whoop. After positive interactions this week, a first signed consent form!

Posted by steve at 12:09 AM | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

sea rising labyrinth and the ethics of love

Strolling Portobello Beach in Edinburgh on Sunday with a friend, we spotted a labyrinth on the sand.

With the tide coming in, the shoes came off and the jeans were rolled up. One way to walk the labyrinth is to take a question in with you. I took “why are you here?” It’s a question I’ve been asked a few times in the last week, as a Kiwi new to Edinburgh and a long way from home.

One response to the question is technical. I am in Edinburgh for 7 weeks, as a Visiting Research Fellow at IASH (Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities), at the University of Edinburgh. I’m doing work on digital activism as justice-making by Christian organisations, working with Dr Alex Chow, from the Centre for the Study of World Christianity.

Another response to the “why are you here?” question is  topical.  As I walked the labyrinth, the tide was coming in. At pace. The path of the labyrinth circles in toward a centre, then back out. My journey out would be through deepening water, as the tide continued to rise.

I might be safe, but I found myself thinking about the futures of others impacted by rising sea levels. This might feel remote on a sunny Sunday in Edinburgh. Yet earlier that week I had read about indigenous families being forced to relocate in Panama. So a second response to the “why are you here?” question is topical. I’m researching climate change and how organisations use online images to activate for change. So that less communities will need to relocate in the future.

At the centre of the Portobello Beach labyrinth I found a heart of love. It was yet another delightful touch by the unknown labyrinth makers. I stood, my feet immersed in water, pondering love.

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus is asked what it means to love our neighbour. He tells the story of a robbery. Perhaps if he was telling it today, he might tell the story of a rising sea. And how easy it is to walk on by. Busy. And how some religions use beliefs to justify walking by. Hoping another person might come along to act. Or that God will somehow provide another place to replace this earthly abode. Yet the Parable of the Good Samaritan ends with an unexpected Samaritan, motivated to act.

So a third response is that I’m here to research those motivated to act with love. I’m researching Christian organisations who use online spaces to call for climate-justice. I’m researching people who understand themselves as stewards with creation, rather than profiteers from creation. I’m researching how they use images to spread a message of love.

Perhaps through my research I might see things that help their actions. Perhaps I might see things that help other organisations to find ways to act. So a third response to the “why are you here?” question involves the ethics of love.

PS – A big thanks to the unnamed labyrinth makers on a Portobello beach, who enabled me to immerse myself in a rising tide and ponder a heart of love.

Posted by steve at 10:19 PM | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

UK research June and July 2024

I’m busy at the moment making plans for a June and July research sojourn in the UK, where I am juggling 3 research projects.

First, I have around 6-7 weeks in Edinburgh, where I am a Visiting Research Fellow at IASH (Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities), at the University of Edinburgh. I’m doing work on digital activism as justice-making by Christian organisations, working with Alex Chow, from the Centre for the Study of World Christianity.

Second, I will be popping over to Glasgow, thanks to the generosity of Trinity College, where I am doing further work on the Race, Justice and Mission project, with archival research into the complicated nature of Presbyterian mission engagement in Pacific blackbirding.

Third, I will be in Birmingham for 2 weeks, where I am commencing a Birmingham University Cross-training theologians in Psychology Fellowship. This has several intensives, online connections and mentoring to equip with skills to undertake psychologically informed theological research. It is a second round of what Lynne Taylor has been enjoying.

Lynne Taylor is on sabbatical in the second half of the year and originally it was planned that she would join me toward the end of this time. However some family matters have changed the landscape and she’ll be heading over later for a shorter time.

I’m stoked to be awarded these Fellowships and excited about the chance to work internationally across a range of research projects. While I’m not looking forward to being apart from Lynne, I am looking forward to seeing a daughter in Oxford, England.

Posted by steve at 09:16 PM

Friday, May 10, 2024

reflective listening to knitters for change

Currently I’m writing up 45 interviews with makers who have knitted for change. Some knitted scarves to activate for climate change, others knitted angels to yarnbomb local communities or strawberries to support survivors of church-based abuse.

As I prepare to write, I listen back to the interviews. One of the things I hear myself doing in the interviews is active listening. Particularly toward the end of an interview, I might reflect back to knitters some of the connections I am pondering. This allows me to check what I’m hearing and to gain their feedback.

Sometimes what I reflect back gains excited and enthusiastic agreement. Like this:

Judging by the excited response, this connection seemed important.

Next week I will print this connection onto a A4 sheet of paper. I will brainstorm, writing out links to other interviews and wider reading. It might well be that this piece of reflective listening is actually an important theme for the research. If so, then it has emerged from reflective listening. I like the way that conversations with people can shape thinking and help develop ideas.

Posted by steve at 06:20 PM

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

tactile patterns in analysing research data

woollen themes Wool is central to knitting. So I’m using wool to help me as I analyse and write up my Ordinary knitter interviews. Wool helps me focus on the tactile and material dimensions of the research.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve worked through interviews. As I read and reflect, I’m looking for patterns both within the interviews and between the interviews. These patterns become themes. Within each pattern there are elements that explain the pattern. Sometimes these elements blend. Other time these elements clash, and in the tensions important insights emerge.

From a first round of reading, I identified five patterns (themes), each of which have several elements that contribute to the weave of the pattern.

Then I assigned different threads of wool to each pattern. It was partly playful, a distraction from the hard work of coding. It was also a good way of reminding me that the patterns are grounded in practice, a knitter reflecting on the hundreds of stitches that make up a Christmas angel, or the thousands of stitches that make up a Knitted Climate Scarf.

I’m now reading all the interviews for a second time, using the wool colour chart to help me look for ways the five patterns are present. I’m also checking nothing important is being overlooked.

The colours catch my eye as I code. The wool is from projects I’ve personally knitted. So it reminds my of my own interests, my own satisfactions and frustrations as I learnt to knit.

Posted by steve at 02:36 PM

Monday, April 22, 2024

Out of the Box stories and Psalm 23 in worship

Out of the Box uses story and play for personal and community wellbeing. The telling of stories creates relational spaces to breathe, trust, listen, feel, wonder, play and love. There are 49 wisdom stories, that include Bible stories, along with life, nature, history and art.

OutoftheBox stories can be used in a range of settings, including schools, care homes, workplaces, community groups, families, therapeutic settings, chaplaincy, spiritual accompaniment and faith communities.

I experimented and used the Out of the Box Psalm 23 story in a congregational setting this week. I’ve used Godly play before but this was the first time with OutoftheBox. It was also the first time for the congregation, who are small in number and mostly elderly. But warm in spirit and usually up for things being a bit different. I was delighted with the feedback. Three commments stand out

  • People said they liked that the objects made the story real
  • People said that they liked that it allowed them to be childlike
  • People engaged, particularly around what it meant to have enemies shown love and mercy

Delivery wise, because the lectionary reading was Psalm 23, I had chosen to be rostered on for the Old Testament reading. I said I was going to use OutoftheBox and briefly introduced it as a way of sharing story.

The church has solid wooden pews, so I brought along a camping table and placed it in the centre of aisle. That ensured the story could be told at eye height. There was a delightful shuffle of people in their seats as I brought out the first object and people moved so they could see.

Because it was new, and I wasn’t sure how if or how long people would share for around the wondering questions, I also had a short sermon, based on the John 10:11-18 reading. It worked really well because I began by talking about how we can play with the objects in OutoftheBox and that the Gospel reading was playing also with Psalm 23, placing Jesus as the shepherd etc. Given we had just experienced that – as we had moved the enemy sheep during the OutoftheBox – it seemed to create lots of connections.

Then during the prayers for others, I invited people to select an object from OutoftheBox. I had three from the Psalm 23 story – leaves, water, shadows.  We began the prayers for others by holding the object and praying for ourselves or others who might need rest, restoration and comfort. It provided an avenue for further engagement and working with the feelings surfaced by the story.

Posted by steve at 04:04 PM

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Convert: theological film review

steve taylor film reviewer Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 175 plus films later, here is the review for April 2024.

The Convert
A film review by Dr Steve Taylor

The Convert works as a historical drama of importance for all who live in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Aotearoa in the 1830s was a period of time during which te reo Māori was central and hapu were powerful. Māori chiefs defined trade, shaped politics and enacted justice.

A few Pākeha clutched the edges of the Land of the Long White Cloud. Some brought Christianity. Others brought guns, mixed with visions of a European good life. These Pākeha intrusions inflamed the tribal conflicts that beset Aotearoa through the 1830s. As lay preacher Thomas Munroe notes so astutely, he sailed from a land steeped in blood, only to step ashore on another land also soaked in blood.

The film, directed by Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors and Mahana), draws from Wulf, a debut novel by Hamish Clayton. Bradford Haami, Laidlaw College lecturer and Māori historian, provides cultural advice. Extended sequences of The Convert are set in Māori pa. These include several delightful scenes that illuminate the role of tohunga, waka voyaging and Māori perceptions of Pākeha. The result is a rich immersion in Māori worldview.

Several strong performances carry the film. Guy Pearce (previous roles in L.A. Confidential and Memento) plays as Thomas Munroe, challenging stereotypes of missionaries as pious destroyers of culture. Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne (previous roles in Cousins and Whina) plays Rangimai, who as a grieving widow offers quiet karakia, dignified courage and assertive actions to showcase the place of wahine toa (strong women) in Māori culture.

Birds are also a feature of The Convert. They express another dimension of Māori filmmaking, given that for Māori, ngā manu are tohu of the future. In an opening sequence, a marauding karearea (falcon) savages a lone kāhu (hawk). Turiwhatu (dotterel) skip across a beach scene, while in a joyous moment of cross-cultural encounter, Rangimai and Charlotte (played by Jacqueline McKenzie) mimic tui call. In a closing sequence, a flock of birds offer a sense of kotahitanga. Flying together, they illustrate a movie that turns from solo violence to collective action.

These shifts required profound transformations. The Convert bears witness to the multiple conversions that occurred in pre-colonial New Zealand. Politically, iwi were reforming to ensure a collective identity. Individually, emerging leaders were transforming the practices of utu.

Utu is often defined as revenge. Yet the term emerges from an indigenous worldview that values balance and applauds those who uphold harmony in relationships. While a wrong must be put right, how restoration happens can vary greatly. Utu can include the possibilities of gift exchange to create and restore social bonds.

The transformations around utu evidenced in The Convert offer significant theological resources. Māori Christian historian Hirini Kaa, in his groundbreaking Te Hāhi Mihinare: The Māori Anglican Church, demonstrated how Māori creatively responded to Christianity, drawing on rongopai (gospel) to enhance maungārongo (peace) and seek rangimarie (harmony). Approaching Easter, The Convert resonates with Christian themes of peace and reconciliation.

Whakarongo mai, Ki te kupu o te manu rongo
(Listen, to the words of the bird of peace )

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is the author of “First Expressions” (2019) and writes widely in theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 05:40 PM

Thursday, April 11, 2024

stashes as research methods in researching making

coding I’m writing!!

As I planned the 2024 year, I set aside April and May to progress analysis and writing on the Ordinary Knitters research project. Since Ordinaryknitters began, I have been privileged to interview 43 people from 4 countries who knitted for a public project, collected over the last few years.

There are knitters who cared for their community by making Christmas angels. Other knitters cared for creation by knitting climate scarves, encouraged peace-stitches through “French knitting” peace loom installations or personalised their place through knitting remembrance poppies. Each person making as a way of connecting their Christian faith in public ways with the wider world.

To understand these experiences of making, I’m using reflexive thematic analysis. Reflexive thematic analysis values three things. First, the intuitions and interests of the researcher. Second, the unfolding nature of analysis. Third, the ways in which the particularity of one experience can illuminate the particularity of another experience.

I see reflexive thematic analysis as a way of making. I’m sifting through a rich stash of wool. My stash is unique, shaped by the active role my interests and networks have played in gathering the wool. I compare balls of wool, believing that fresh and new connections can emerge as different colours and textures (interview quotes and stories) are laid alongside each other. As I make, the unique colours of each ball will remain. In all I do, gathering, comparing, knitting, my craft as a maker will be visible. Yet the whole will be greater than the individual parts.

Practically, I undertake reflexive thematic analysis not with an existing set of themes to look for. Rather, I read “reflexively.” I start with the first interview and read it noting what I think are key words (codes).

I try to cluster these key words (codes) around big ideas (themes). I read further interviews. As I do, I work in “pencil” (reflexively) because the key words (codes) and conversation (themes) shift as I read. The experience of one knitter invites more codes, or a reworking of a theme, to better cluster a range of unique experiences. These reflexive changes require me to reread the earlier interviews. As a result, experiences from a range of interview are informing the experiences of another interviews.

I track the shifts in reflexivity by using mind maps and tables. These make visible my unfolding analysis. The mindmaps and tables allow me to keep track of my decisions and reflect (reflexively) on my assumptions.

This approach, of reflexive thematic analysis – assumes that I as a researcher have an interest and a set of values (why else would I be asking for an interview) which I bring to the interview and the analysis. This approach assumes that naming my interests and the way I make decisions will decrease the chance of imposing my research agenda on those being interviewed. It also assumes that insights emerge over time, particularly as the uniqueness of each interview is brought into conversation with the uniqueness of other interviews.

I love the making of reflexive thematic analysis.

Posted by steve at 10:24 AM

Monday, March 25, 2024

Digital activism as justice-making: Evaluating decolonial public theologies on Christian social media platforms

I’m thrilled to have an academic paper accepted for GoNeDigiTal24. The conference organisors requested a short video introduction to Evaluating decolonial public theologies on Christian social media platforms.

This paper is part of a larger project on Digital Activism, with Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh in June/July 2024. Here is a summary of the IASH project from my application:

SUMMARY OF PROJECT
This project analyses how Christian organisations deploy social media to advocate for justice. While toxic discourse abounds online, so do impactful moments of digital activism. Digital ethnography is used to analyse what might be distinctive about Christian decolonial digital activism. How might digital acts of public theology create viral justice?

Update: Thrilled to have a second academic paper accepted, this one for the British Sociology Association Sociology of Religion (SocRel) Annual Conference 2024: Religion, Justice, and Social Action. Here’s the abstract for that conference:

Digital activism as justice-making. Evaluating decolonial public theologies on Christian social media platforms

There are widespread examples, both positive and negative, of digital activism among religious communities. Methodologically, digital ethnography provides ways to understand the mundane aspects of everyday digital life (Hine, 2015) and analyse the interplay between online and offline performativity. Theoretically, salon, contentious, law-abiding and Ghandian typologies have been used in evaluating digital activism (Neumayer and Svensson, 2016). However, Oceanic scholars have challenged theoretical categories circulating in the Global North, arguing that indigenous approaches to activism centre identity, well-being, and kinship (Tupou et al., 2023).

This paper presents initial findings from a Visiting Research Fellowship with the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, June/July 2024. To better understand the limits and possibilities of religion, justice, and social action, this paper analyses digital activism by selected Christian groups in Oceania. The place of race is foregrounded by analysing groups that are active in ways that express indigenous ways of knowing. The paper will draw on data from interviews with key leaders of digital activist organisations and participant observation of digital activist campaigns. Content analysis of emojis as representations of digital emotionality and interviews with key participants/retweeters/commenters will be used to clarify motivations and analyse what might be distinctive about Christian approaches to digital activism.

The research has the potential to impact decolonial discourse through the study of lived practice and provide insights for organisations working in digital spaces to facilitate online justice-making.

Posted by steve at 11:25 AM

Monday, March 18, 2024

unless a grain of wheat falls: Lent 5 DIY Dying to live seed sprouting prayer resource

It was fun to make up wheat seeds as a DIY practical prayer resource for Sunday (Lent 5B) worship! The Dying to live prayer resource was sparked by the words of Jesus in John 12:24 24 – “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” The verse got me researching wheat seeds.

DIY seeds sprouting

First, was realising that some wheat can be planted in autumn and other wheat in spring. So the verses from John 12:21 work equally well in Northern (spring) and Southern (autumn) hemispheres. So giving out wheat in the autumn/Lent in the Southern hemisphere was realistic.

Second, was realising how easy, fast and nourishing it is to spout wheat.

Third, was locating resealable plastic bags, to provide for ease of carry and address any hygenie concerns.

Fourth, was making up a handout with those easy sprouting instructions, along with a short prayer.

The result was a DIY practical prayer resource, given out during the children’s talk (when I played a youtube video of seeds sprouting). Then, the invitation during prayers for others to hold the seats as we prayed for seeds of justice to sprout in our world and seeds of Spirit to sprout in our community and in us. Finally, the invitation to prayer with seeds sprouting in the week coming.

Here’s the Lent 5B Dying to live seed sprouting handout I made up …

dying to live

Posted by steve at 08:49 AM

Friday, February 09, 2024

Douglas Coupland, Charles Taylor, and Spirituality in Modernity chapter in Bloomsbury Academic

bloomsbury book title

I’m delighted today to sign a contract with Bloomsbury Academic for a chapter on faith in contemporary culture, a dialogue between Douglas Coupland and Charles Taylor. Coupland is an author and artist, famous for writing Generation X. Charles Taylor is a sociologist, famous for big books on secularisation.

The chapter is a co-authored piece, with Tony Watkins. Together, we outline the work of Charles Taylor and in particular his biographies of conversion in modernity. We then bring these into conversation with converting moments in 3 of Coupland’s books – Polaroids from the Dead, Generation X and Generation A. We outline how the characters in Douglas Coupland’s fiction are experiencing transcendent moments, and what that means for contemporary faith.

The chapter began as a sermon at Graceway Baptist Church, way back in the day! I did some work on Douglas Coupland in my PhD, which became a class at Laidlaw College (Christchurch), in which I explored salvation in modernity. Then at Uniting College, I offered an honours course on Charles Taylor. I began to write about Charles Taylor’s conversion biographies in my 2019 book, First Expressions: innovation and the mission of God, when I looked at how art and creativity in alternative.worship communities connect with contemporary culture in public mission.

An online conference in 2021, focused on the work of Douglas Coupland, wonderfully hosted by Mary McCampbell, Diletta De Cristofaro and Andrew Tate, allowed me to bring together Coupland and Taylor. The chapter in this Bloomsbury book offers a spoken conference paper in a written form.

It’s wonderful to be exploring contemporary spirituality and conversion theologies in contemporary literature and to see various strands of thinking over many years come together in written form.

Posted by steve at 08:33 AM

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Compassionate Collaboration, Christian Mission and the Bank of Dave

“Compassionate Collaboration, Christian Mission and the Bank of Dave” is a piece of my writing now published in the Practical Theology Hub, (online in January 2024).

The piece works between contemporary culture and a theology of social innovation. I work to bring the ministry of Jesus into conversation with a movie and sugges surprising insights into the nature of compassion and the depth of collaboration in mission with Christ.

The back story. The piece began as a 500 word written film review for Touchstone magazine (for whom I write monthly). As I was writing the film review, I was also down to speak at my local Presbyterian church (where I also preach monthly). As I worked with the suggested Gospel reading from the lectionary, I found some fascinating connections between the reading (Matthew 9:35-41) and the film. A listener encouraged me to write it up. Which took me a lot longer than I anticipated, as I struggled to turn spoken words into a written piece.

brightly coloured objects

I persisted, helped by the concept of a research stash, and the idea of a stash as a store or supply of something, and working to turn something hidden (shared with a congregation) into something more visible (written online). Practical theology hub were ideal. First, because they take pieces up to around 2,000 words, which was about the length of the sermon. Second, they are online and accessible, so my words would not be hidden behind paywall.

Posted by steve at 06:05 PM

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Writing in 2023: 120,000 words spread over 28 outputs

Writing is a significant part of my current vocation.

And writing is a challenge. The ability to compile evidence and shape an argument in ways that attend to detail and fill in a big picture is an exacting process.

Writing is also always a vulnerable process. Organisational psychologist Adam Grant suggests that the best way to gauge the quality of someone’s ideas is not to listen to them talk but to read their writing. Most of us can only hold 3 or 4 thoughts in our heads. So charisma and verbal gymnastics can mask weak logic.

In contrast, developing thoughts on paper allows someone to read page 5 and then flick back to page 1 to check if I am being consistent. Hence, writing makes us vulnerable because it exposes our ability to think.

words written in 2023

Stepping into a new year of work, it is good to reflect on the writing challenges of the year past. In 2023, I made myself vulnerable with 28 different written outputs, nearly 120,000 words. These included

  • 2 academic book chapters
  • 2 academic funding bids
  • 4 other academic outputs
  • 5 commissioned research reports
  • 10 film reviews
  • 5 magazine columns

Word wise, most of my output (76%, some 90,000 words across 5 outputs) was on research commissioned by organisations in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. As part of professional benchmarking, I also offer academic contributions (16%, some 18,800 words across 8 outputs). Aware that academia involves paywalls, I also look for popular outlets (8%, some 9,250 across 15 outputs).

Breaking down the 28 outputs in more detail …

Book chapters (2)

  • “Douglas Coupland, Charles Taylor, and Spirituality in Modernity,” an academic book chapter (5000 words), co-written with Tony Watkins. This piece of writing began life through a 2021 conference presentation, which is due for publication in an edited volume on artist and writer Douglas Coupland with Bloomsbury (UK) in 2024.
  • “Mission in digital cultures: Opportunities and challenges in a mundane co-mission,” an academic book chapter (5000 words) for the Oxford Handbook of Digital Theology. Two conference presentations in 2022 helped develop ideas. Written in February 2023 and revised in September 2023, this should be published in an edited volume with Oxford University Press in 2024.

Academic funding bids (2)
Seeking international funding for research involves writing, and has particular challenges in linking research approaches and plans with funder aspirations.

  • “Digital activism as justice-making. Evaluating decolonial public theologies on Christian social media platforms” was a research bid that gained funding and research support from the University of Edinburgh, planned for June and July 2024.
  • “Race and justice in Glasgow’s mission history: a reappraisal of South Sea missionary networks and their relationships to “blackbirding” was a research bid submitted to the University of Glasgow Library Visiting Research Fellowship (awaiting decision). The application was built on a successful 2022 application and seeks to extend the archival work I did in August and September of 2023.

Other academic contributions including book reviews, journal editorial and online article (4)

  • A book review of Keeping Faith: How Christian organisations can stay true to the way of Jesus, by Stephen Judd, John Swinton and Kara Martin, was published in Australian Journal of Mission Studies in December 2023
  • A book review of Constructing Mission History: Missionary Initiative and Indigenous Agency in the Making of World Christianity by Stanley H. Skreslet for the Anvil Journal of Theology and Mission
  • Editorial for the December 2023 issue of Ecclesial Futures, an open-access academic journal I co-edit with Nigel Rooms.
  • “Compassionate Collaboration, Christian Mission and the Bank of Dave” was a conversation between contemporary culture and theologies of social innovation. This began as a written film review, then a spoken sermon, and finally a written output submitted to Practical Theology Hub on October (and published online in January 2024).

Commissioned research reports (5)

In my work for AngelWings, I provide high-quality research for organisations and agencies. The research is co-designed, with results provided as written reports for boards and key leaders.

  • Theological education and ministry training review – working with a colleague to develop a 20-year framework for theological education and ministry training. A report of 55,000 words was delivered in April 2023, along with four six page summaries
  • Evaluation of innovation – assessment of an initiative to bring congregations and a social service agency closer together. A report of 9,100 words along with a two page press release was delivered in October 2023.
  • Missional needs and opportunities review – working with two colleagues to review how a denominational group resources mission. A 12,500-word report was delivered in July 2023.
  • Property use – an 8,200 word report documenting stakeholder perceptions relating to sale of property and mission was delivered in December 2023.
  • Educational consultation – A 5,500-word report peer reviewing a new higher education initiative was delivered in November 2023.

Together, these 5 outputs total 90,000 words. That’s a lot of ink. Because this research is commissioned, what is written belongs to the governance boards that provide the funding. However, I continue to explore avenues by which elements of my commissioned research that have public interest could be reworked.

Film reviews (10)
Monthly I watch a movie and write a 500 word film review for Touchstone, a Methodist denominational magazine. I enjoy the discipline of writing to honour the integrity of a film in conversation with theology and ethics and in 2023, provided ten film reviews.

Zadok columns (5)
Quarterly I contribute a column for an Australian magazine, offering Christian reflection on various contemporary issues. So, in 2023, to meet deadlines, I provided five 850-word contributions.

Posted by steve at 12:04 PM

Monday, December 11, 2023

Loop Track: theological film review

Steve standing beside Loop Track film billboard Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 170 plus films later, here is the review for December 2023.

Loop Track
A film review by Dr Steve Taylor

With days lengthening and summer peeking around the corner, many Kiwis will embrace the outdoors. Bush tracks beckon, with the promise of bird song and river bank. We might find ourselves walking behind tourists, eager for a sighting of our flightless birds. Loop Track is Kiwi made horror that presents a darker vision of our great outdoors.

In Loop Track, Ian (Thomas Sainsbury) heads bush. On the edge of a nervous breakdown, desperate to dodge human contact, Ian starts at every sound.

As Ian imagines the worst, his fellow trampers provide a kindly foil. Nicky (Hayden J. Weal) offers tramping socks for Ian’s blistered feet. Monica (Kate Simmonds) gives flowers to brighten Ian’s mood. Austin (Tawanda Manyimo) shares stories from his country of origin.

The mood of Loop Track darkens when Nicky disappears. A gentle humouring of a man jumping at every shadow suddenly shifts. What if dark, not light, lurks around the bend?

The bush as a character plays a variety of roles in the films of Aotearoa New Zealand. In Muru (2023), alienated Māori find identity in the bush. In We are Still Here (2023), the outdoors is shelter for Māori avoiding settler lust for land. In these films, the outdoors offers plenty as places of connection and re-connection.

In other Aotearoa films, the bush is a place of darkness. The suspense of Sleeping Dogs (1977) and the isolation of The Piano (1993) rely on the bush as a place of unease. These films are in step with the poetry of James K Baxter and his description in The Mountains of the outdoors as a cold and crouching menace.

Mention horror films, and we think of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960s film Psycho or Jonathan Demme’s 1991 The Silence of the Lambs. Horror films draw on light and sound. Shadows hide, creating uncertainty. Sound amplifies the beating of a fearful heart.

Both sound and light are skillfully used in Loop Track. Thomas Sainsbury not only plays Ian. He also writes and directs. Better known for comedy, Loop Track showcases Sainsbury’s many talents.

Horror is an increasingly popular genre of film, rising from 3 per cent of the market in 1995 to nearly 18 per cent in 2021. How might Christians engage with this trending genre? For theologian, Dr. Mark Eckel, horror offers a form of truth-telling. Watching horror, we find ourselves reflecting on the origins of evil, the nature of the supernatural and the darkness of human nature. For Chad and Carey Hayes, who partnered in writing the first two Conjuring movies, horror creates arcs of redemption.

“What we’ve tried to do is create films with redemption. They have happy endings.” (Acosta, Cedars, 2021).

An arc of redemption summarises the long journey of Loop Track. As the movie ends, Ian walks down the road he drives up as the film begins. Stopping a passing car, he utters a single word, “Help.” For a person on the edge of the horror of a breakdown, asking for help is a perfect place to begin a walk toward redemption.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is the author of “First Expressions” (2019) and writes widely in theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 09:02 AM