Tuesday, March 12, 2013

persuasion: a fine art in mission

You are invited to read this while listening to some wonderful Kiwi music, a song called Persuasion, by Tim Finn.

As part of my sabbatical, I’m reading through Paul’s letter, Philippians. I like to bury myself in a Bible book, to read it in one whole go, then segment by segment, a number of times, over a number of months. It becomes for me a sort of recalibration, a reminder of priorities.

Once I’ve engaged Scripture, as a whole, and in segments, I then augment it with a commentary, which adds depth and original context. So over the last few days, I’ve begun reading Ben Witherington’s, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

He argues for Paul’s use of rhetoric, that in a rhetoric-saturated culture, one in which the “vast majority of people were either producers or eager consumers of rhetoric,” (page 24) that Paul deliberately learns, then uses, this culture way of arguing.

So for example, a feature of Philippians is the absence of Old Testament bible verses. Paul is writing to a highly Romanised culture and in that world, he uses different ways to persuade, including the widely practiced communication art called rhetoric, the art of discourse, the study of how to engage head and heart, skillfully, with spoken words.

Why? Because of mission.

“One cannot command people to believe the gospel but must persuade them … [ever after conversion] … Paul knew that it continued to be better to persuade than to command one’s converts … The objections and the mental and emotional obstacles in the minds and hearts of the listeners had to be answered and removed.” (Ben Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary 23)

We live in a culture that uses different forms. Not rhetoric, but digital storytelling, art and social media. So, mission in the way of Paul includes giving up on commanding belief, and being willing to not only learn, but also use, the fine arts of persuasion.

As Tim Finn sings,

I will always be a man
that’s open to persuasion

Posted by steve at 09:22 AM

Friday, March 08, 2013

a three-peat publication day

Three things I’ve written, for three totally different sources, all arrived today, all in final published form.

  • “Starting Old: A re-resurrection,” an article in Australian Leadership 5, 5 (February/March 2013), 15-17. (Subscription to e-version of available here)
  • “Baptist Worship and Contemporary Culture: A New Zealand Case Study,” a chapter in Interfaces: Baptists and Others, edited by David Bebbington and Martin Sutherland, Paternoster, 2013, 292-307. (Available here)

I will try and blog more on each over the next week. But in brief “Starting Old: A re-resurrection,” was a commissioned piece on what I’d learned about change and leadership after 6 years spent in renewing an established church. “Baptist Worship and Contemporary Culture: A New Zealand Case Study,” offers a theology of gospel and culture for the emerging church. “U2” is a short piece for a dictionary of popular culture.

When you’re in the midst of writing, having something arrive all finished is a great motivation. But having three things is, well, almost intoxicating.

But also sobering. It makes real the length and detours of the writing process. One of the pieces began life as part of a chapter in my PhD in 2004, was delivered at a conference in 2009 and submitted that same year. That’s a long incubation.

Enough distraction. Back to the writing Steve Taylor.

Posted by steve at 03:23 PM

Prayers of illumination

Preparing for Pocket lamp worship first, with Jonny Baker and CMS Pioneers, second with the mission shaped ministry Board, a few weeks ago got me thinking about Prayers of illumination. I think it was holding the pocket lamp open, thinking about light, and the phrase – prayers of illumination – sort of floated through my consciousness.

Liturgically, a prayer of illumination is the prayer prayed before Scripture is read and spoken. In churches that consider themselves non-liturgical, it has a predictable pattern asking for God’s help as Scripture is preached, a predictable place just before the sermon and a performative dimension, inviting a focus on what is about to be said.

In liturgical churches, when used (curiously more infrequently, in my experience, than in non-liturgical churches), it tends to be a set prayer, more likely to be varied, drawing from church tradition or various Scripture.

One example of a prayer of illumination, slightly varied from Scripture, is drawn from Psalm 19:14

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our heart, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

What is interesting is the context, what comes in the 13 verses prior. You see, in the Psalm illumination comes from two places – nature and Scripture.

The first six verses (1-6) reference illumination in creation – heavens, skies, sun, heat – all of these are proclaimers of God’s handiwork. From them “pour forth speech.” (19:2). As for example, in this “baptism” experience, or in this recent book release – Forest Church: A Field Guide to Nature Connection for Groups and Individuals by Bruce Stanley – which I am hoping to blog review chapter by chapter over the next few weeks.

The next five verses (7-11) reference illumination in Scripture, and the hope of wisdom, joy and light.

So, presumably when the prayer of illumination is prayed, it is invitation to consider both the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. And it suggests that the sermon that might follow will tell stories of human experience, offer insights from nature and reflect on Scripture. Perhaps in at least equal measure? Now that’s the type of prayer, I’d love to say Amen too.

Because, according to the Psalm, both are arenas of illumination. Sure, not without discernment. I mean, you sure need discernment to read Leviticus, or Proverbs, or Revelation or any portion of Scripture. And yes, you need discernment to read nature. Which is probably why you pray the prayer. Because illumination is a gift, from God’s Spirit. And prayed in community, because faith is corporate and discernment is always about what seems “good to the Holy Spirit and us.” (Acts 15:28)

In community and in need of God.

So a variant on pocket lamp worship would be to spend an entire service exploring Prayers of illumination. Place a whole lot up around the walls. Give people a lamp. Get them to walk, to read. Invite them to place their lamp beside the one that most connects. Share this in groups. Invite discussion on where God reveals Godself, on how discernment happens, both in practice and in the history of the church. Invite them to chose the prayer most meaningful, and pray it individually, at home, as they gather around Scripture. In so doing, the use of Prayers of illumination corporately would be enriched and renewed for another season of the life of the church.

Creationary: a space to be creative with the lectionary (in this case, visual images on themes of pilgrimage). For more resources go here.

Posted by steve at 11:06 AM

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Dragons’ Den: Ecclesial

This is some of what I wrote today, part of an introductory chapter in Biography of an innovation [working title] project.

In sum, this book is about the sustainability of fresh expressions. What lessons are emerging, from expressions that survive and from those no longer present? How helpful are the support structures, of denominations and from Colleges? What insights might emerge as wider, sociological shifts are considered?

These are not asked as pragmatic questions. I write not as an investor in some Ecclesial Dragons’ Den, tossing up whether to invest the money of a previous generation in either a new monastic dream or suburban youth plant, expecting a return calculable in a Diocesan head count

I write because this is personal …

and so I shift into practical theology, the place of personal narrative, in theological reflection.

Posted by steve at 05:55 PM

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

From the Ground Up: U2 360 degree tour photobook

This beautiful, colour, hardcover (U2 music) edition of From the Ground Up: U2360° Tour Official Photobook, arrived recently. At 250 pages, it covers what is the largest rock tour in history, from start to end, from Bono’s first use of forks and a grapefruit to visualise a 360 stage, through to the tours’ end, 110 shows, playing to over 7 million people. It proceeds by way of interviews, with the band and those close to them.

It allows some fascinating insights on creativity, on the rate of change in technology and the inner world of U2.


Here is the process of creativity for Willie Williams. (I have blogged about Williams Lumina Domestica, in relation to worship here and suggested that Willie is actually a band member here)

“Occasionally ideas would come to [Willie] in a moment of blinding creative inspiration, but far more usually they tended to seep into his consciousness gradually, in a sort of artistic osmosis. Often ideas come about as a result of something he’d seen and liked or been temporarily fascinated with. An image or a concept might sit in his head for years until eventually it met another notion lurking in there somewhere and between them they formed a complete idea.” (131-2)

So nourishing creativity is about the space of let things seep, mixed with the deeps wells we dig for ourselves – the galleries we visit, music we listen to, books we read, children we play with.

The pace of technology

A creative, interactive highlight of the show is when all the show lights go out during Moment of Surrender, and the audience are invited to turn on their cell phones. But it made more impact as the tour progressed, simply because technology was changing.

“This cell-phone ‘star-field’ section of the set got brighter the longer the tour went on, as each generation of cell phones was released, and it became increasingly effective as a piece of stage craft.” (132-3)

The place of faith

The pre-show ritual never changed either. Each night, before they go on stage, U2 do exactly the same thing … ‘We always have half an hour before we go on stage,’ said Bono. “It’s a hard thing to describe, but we sort of pray. We tell each other how lucky we are. In that way that one shouldn’t be public about private matters of faith, where we say is secret, but it’s important. We are grateful for what our music has given us, and above all, what God has given us … This is the only time that it’s just us together, heads together, praying, and we do it every gig.” (158)

So this is what is happening when I, as a fan, am screaming for the band to arrive. They’re praying!

This then moves into a delightful story (160), of the time Paul McCartney knocked just before Live 8 in 2005 and was ignored by the band, left standing. After the waiting, the embarrassment, the apology, he was invited to join them in prayer.

Because it draws mainly on interviews, which are based on the privilege of access, these books always run the risk of becoming more like groupie books. The critical voice can get drowned out once you are let into the sound. For example, there is no mention of protestors at Glastonbury, nor little exploration of the environmental impact of the tour.

Not that insider narratives are a bad thing. First, it is an important market. I mean there are a lot of groupies! Second, viewed through the lens of ethnography (a methodology I’m currently engaged in research wise, seeking entry to the “inner” worlds of Fresh expressions and new forms of church, it is thus an helpful illustration of some of the complexities outsiders need to negotiate in seeking entry. A critic? A fan? A critical friend? Each require a complex set of negotiations, especially when the words said and written become public property.

From the Ground Up: U2360° Tour Official Photobook will cause fans to remember fondly. And for those conducting U2 research, it is a valuable “insider” resource, that, as in any research process, needs to be placed alongside a range of voices.

Posted by steve at 09:30 AM

Monday, March 04, 2013

regional delivery: taking training from college to community

Uniting College this year is exploring regional delivery. This involves us running selected courses, not at College, but in churches. For 2013, these are experiments – assessing the impact on our energy levels as a College, working to see if these are mutual partnerships, with us gaining students and churches gaining ground with discipleship and in mission.

As a College we serve a broad church and we’ve tried to identify a range of contexts, from rural to urban to suburban and across the theological spectrum. We want churches that are hubs, that see themselves serving their regions. This will take quite some time to bed down, to work out if it’s mutual, but for 2013, the partnerships include

I’ve already advertised Sense Making Faith on my blog. Just out today is Spirituality for 21st century disciples.

Monday Nights from 29th April : Seeds Uniting Church, or Thursday Nights from 2nd May : Hope Valley Uniting.

We shall be exploring elements involved in being a follower of Jesus Christ in the midst of modern culture. This will be through an informed biblical foundation, as well how our experience of God shapes faith. We shall also explore how to make ethical decisions, and ways to live a full, vital life in modern Australia.

Times: 7:30pm – 9:30pm at both places.

All of us at College are looking forward to seeing what might emerge as we partner with local churches and begin to find ourselves directly participating in their local mission.

Posted by steve at 05:53 PM

Sunday, March 03, 2013

nurturing the arts: arrival of complete boxed set

A thoroughly unexpected, thoroughly wonderful surprise this week, with the arrival of the complete boxed set of CS Arts magazines.

The vision of Chrysalis Seed was to ‘generate multiplying groups of artists in a subculture centred in Jesus’. The mission was to ‘equip artists to integrate their art and faith, and to reconcile art and faith communities’. For 14 years it existed as a Trust, with a principal mechanism including a magazine CS Arts.

Which grew, from 4 pages, to 52 pages, from black and white, to colour. It covered a wonderful array of topics, interviews with artists and curators, reviews, themed essays (including a few film reviews I wrote). It was free, always distributed widely, including to commercial galleries and studios. It drew praise and gained some very high quality interviews.

The focus was creating conversations with the art world, not meeting a Christian sub-culture and so it was always incredibly classy, in content, design and paper. The decision to make it a boxed set simply underlines the class, drawing attention to entire collection and the search for quality.

Looking through the editions, realising the growth, reading the range of topics, is struck me as a fascinating attempt at contextualisation – to have a conversation with a key area of culture. It would make an interesting piece of contemporary contextual research, to explore the themes over the time period, the sources it dialogued with, the way it sought to speak of Christ.

The Trust disbanded in 2010. Having started a conversation, it wanted to shift it from a centralised office with a magazine, to a grassroots set of networks.  This now includes

  • Four groups of Christian artists in Waikanae, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill.
  • A social network of over 600 artists and supporters.
  • A comprehensive library of art and faith materials available nationally to artists and students through Knox College, Dunedin Christian artists and activists networking throughout New Zealand.
  • Regional gatherings of artists.
  • All published CS Arts magazines available online (but not boxed:))
  • A monthly prayer newsletter for artists, groups and arts institutions.
  • Artists’ social network: www.csartspace.org.nz
  • An online community where artists and supporters of the visual arts meet and chat online, share ideas, news and information.

They have a forum here, a website here. All the magazines archived here. But not as a complete boxed set, because that will sit pride of place in my office! And maybe one day a research article. But not this sabbatical!

Posted by steve at 08:17 PM

Friday, March 01, 2013

films that haunt: a tortured Christ and Zero Dark Thirty

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 80 plus films later, here is the review for February.

Zero Dark Thirty
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

This movie explores a dark period in world history. Intelligently acted, tautly scripted superbly directed (by Kathryn Bigelow, Academy Award winning Director), it shines a spotlight on the ethics of being human today.

It begins in darkness, the only action the recorded voices of the dying in the Twin Towers on 9/11.

It concludes in darkness, with a midnight attack by elite troops on a sleeping Osama Bin Laden. At times comic, as suburban streets fill with neighbours woken by helicopters and gunshots, it shows the brutal killing of Osama and his wives. The climax might be predictable, but the suspense is superb, the emotion in the theatre palpable.

It uncovers darkness, the use of torture in black sites hidden across nations. Based on first hand accounts, “Zero Dark Thirty” visualises the systematic abuse of human rights and human persons by the United States post- 9/11.

The descent into this moral abyss proves important, revealing information about the identity of a courier close to Osama Bin Laden. The response to the torture scenes in the movie has been predictably varied. A glorification? A distortion? An honest naming of reality?

What follows torture are the years of dogged leg work. Cell phones are tapped and spotters circle crowded city streets searching for a number plate in a haystack. A building is identified. For over a hundred days, the US military weigh the options.

All the while, the terror continues. Scenes play out against the bombing of the Hotel Marriott in Pakistan or television footage of the London bombings.

Christians have a complex relationship with violence. Central to faith is the Passion, which each year recounts a torture. Sleep deprivation, humiliation and physical violence are inflicted upon the Christ.

This is graphically captured in a common Easter Friday image, “The Tortured Christ,” a sculpture by Brazilian artist Guido Rocha. Christ hangs on the cross as skin and bone, screaming in pain and suffering.

“Zero Dark Thirty” explodes our piety. It is one thing when the tortured are the innocent. It enables a sharing in suffering. For theologian William Cavanaugh, Christians “make the bizarre claim that pain can be shared, precisely because people can be knitted together into one body” (Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, 280).

But what happens when the tortured are not the innocent, but potentially are terrorists. Does Christ share their pain? In communion, should we?

Perhaps these questions are in fact the bitter herbs of Passover? They invite us to face the enormity of Jesus’ invitation to love our enemies. They suggest we swallow an outrageous hope, that love will redeem all dark places, terrorist and torturer, the darkness of all black sites.

It makes the ending of “Zero Dark Thirty” even more poignant, the tears rolling down the face of CIA heroine, Maya (Jessica Chastain). This is a film of lament, an invitation to swallow the bitter herbs of a world in darkness.

Update: For an extended list of Holy week movies :

  • On Monday, The Insatiable Moon (2010), while reading Mark 11:15-16.
  • On Tuesday, Serenity (2000), while reading Mark 14:3.
  • On Wednesday, Gran Torino (2008), while reading John 12:23-14.
  • On Thursday, Dark Knight (2008), while reading Mark 14:10.
  • On Friday, Never let me go (2011), while reading Mark 15:33.
  • On Sunday, Never let me go (again) and Invictus, while reading Mark 16:6-7.

Because –

The fact that popular media culture is an imaginative palette for faith … the church has to take that imaginative palette seriously… if part of the pastoral task of the church is to communicate God’s mercy and God’s freedom in a way that people understand then you have to use the language that they’re using, you have to use the metaphors and forms of experience that are already familiar to them. Tom Beaudoin

Posted by steve at 08:57 AM