Sunday, September 24, 2017

Revelation’s Dawn Chorus: Zadok column

I have been asked to be a regular columnist for an Australian magazine, Zadok. Having read my film reviews for Touchstone, they requested a 860 word column every 3 months. I see is as an opportunity to write a lay focused piece of theology. They are happy for me to blog the columns I write, which makes them accessible not only on paper in Australia but digitally for everywhere. Here is my second article, for the Spring 2017 edition:

Revelation’s Dawn Chorus
By Steve Taylor

The huia is a bird, native to New Zealand, with long black feathers and a white-tipped tail. Thousands of huia were exported overseas after becoming fashionable in Britain following a presentation of tail feathers to the Duke of York when he visited New Zealand in 1901. Within six years, the huia had disappeared. Since then, New Zealand’s dawn chorus has lacked the huia’s smooth distinctive whistle.

We as humans take a strange attitude towards those with whom we share this fragile earth. We are born into gift, yet we grow with a seemingly inbuilt desire to possess rather than share. The legacy of social Darwinism is competitive acquisition in which the strongest survive. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson tells repeated stories of this human desire to possess. The Bachman’s warbler had vanished from the southern United States by 1930. Then, in 1939, two separate birding enthusiasts, in two different locations, came across lone survivors within the space of two days. Both birds were shot. ‘I and me’ trumps ‘we and us’.

I think of the huia and Bachman’s warbler when I hear Revelation 7:9-10 read aloud in church: the news of every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, declaring God’s salvation. This dream of the new heaven and new earth makes me wonder about tongues and nations that no longer speak. Could they also be redeemed? Could resurrection and redemption be so complete that what we know as extinct will be resurrected to sing in praise of Christ?

The Hebrew language was once like this. After exile, by 400 CE, the language of King David was lost from everyday spoken use. Yet in the 19th century, through adapted new tools and modern words, Hebrew was reborn. It is a tongue, once extinct, that will now be part of Revelation’s Dawn Chorus.

Let me push my redemptive wondering one step further. What if the Revelation dream of every tongue singing in praise also included bird song? What if God’s salvation included the huia’s whistle and the Bachman’s warble?

Sometimes I dismiss my Revelation wonderings as romantic nonsense. We live in a world of science and reason. What is dead is dead. Jurassic Park is simply childhood make-believe.

Yet in the New Testament I keep hearing hints. In Luke 19:40, Jesus reminds all those listening that, if humans fall silent, then stones will sing. If dead rocks can praise their Creator, why not birdsong?

In Colossians 1:19-20 we find (in The Message translation) that Jesus is so spacious and roomy that everything of God finds a proper place. This includes all the ‘broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms’. All of creation gets properly fixed together in vibrant harmonies. It is a wonderful picture of creation redeemed and restored. Perhaps the harmonies are poetic rather than literal. And yet I wonder. Might not animals and atoms, huia and Bachman’s, find voice in Revelation’s Dawn Chorus?

In a world of science, flattened by reason, I need to keep hitting refresh on my theological vision and Revelation dreams. For me, one essential resource is Rowan Williams’ The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ (2003). Williams, one of our finest contemporary living theologians, ponders the icons of the church. The icons of the church are theology. They were ‘written’ and are to be ‘read’ as carefully as any theology textbook.

Every Easter, in order to keep my theological song lines in harmony, I retrace a resurrection vision. In the classical Orthodox Resurrection icon, the Risen Christ stands on a narrow bridge of rock spanning a dark pit. Christ is grasping Adam with one hand and Eve with the other. He is restoring relationships – between men and women, between humanity and creation, between the mind’s knowledge and the body’s experience.

Williams also notes the presence in this icon of characters from the Jewish Scriptures, including David, Abraham, Moses. The resurrection becomes the moment in which a new human community is born. Williams then draws on Maximus the Confessor and his explanation of Christ as overcoming all the great separations that humans suffer. This is God as spacious and roomy, all of creation found together in vibrant harmonies.

Reading Williams, I look more carefully at that classical Orthodox Resurrection icon. Surely all this talk of creation will include animals and atoms. Can huia and Bachman’s be etched into these Resurrection writings? What birds did join the Dawn Chorus on Resurrection Day?

Talk of social Darwinism stands in stark contrast to Revelation’s Dawn Chorus: dreaming of an earth of caring humans committed to redemption of all that is weak and frail, marginal and close to extinction. We need to keep drawing those theological song lines between Christ in death, Christ in resurrection and Christ in final return. If the stones sing praise as Jesus walks toward death and atoms harmonise in resurrection, then why not at the Great Dawn Chorus foretold in Revelation?

My first Zadok article, on sacred welfare, on the interplay between community engagement and congregational mission, for the Winter 2017 edition is here.

Posted by steve at 11:10 AM

Sunday, September 17, 2017

genealogy of desert: the Word of mission in Exodus 3

Consuming Word
bush crackles
as livid presence in living present
is unconsumed

naming Word

this is my beloved
particular, storied, watching
Moses, stolen son
bush tracking
indigenous songlines
singing ancient


Here I am
desert rock wanderer,
in silent desert, I scream
raised, stranger in a strange land
hearing Word

Ancestor Word
I am, God of past pleasure
woven through time
sperm of covenant
tracking grace bearing of desert woman
Hagar, Rebekah, Zipporah, Mary

in time
this place of hearing
makes holy
through calling, responding

Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush: more here

Posted by steve at 05:39 PM

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Jesus Christ meets Ihu Karaiti

Jesus Christ meets Ihu Karaiti, by Wayne Te Kaawa, is a presentation, made at the Hocken on Tuesday as part of Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori. It is also on display for a month at the Central Library, Otago University. It is a walk through Maori iconography, reflecting on how Jesus has been presented by Maori. It raises important questions about the transmission of faith, how it moves from culture to culture. When Jesus said, who do you say that I am? what does that question mean for Maori?

This question began particularly pointed when Wayne presented at the Hocken on Tuesday as part of Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori. He spoke along with three other Maori postgraduate students. Each of the presentations of research raised important challenges to Western pedagogy and epistemologies. The presentations were at ease with personal narrative, prayer, ancestors and with categories beyond the rational. Which of course, is relevant to how one might respond to the question – who do you say that I? Can the responses include experience, prayer, respect for wisdom found in family and in language of mysticism and humility.

In 2014, I began a project cataloguing indigenous Christologies. It recognised the lack of indigenous voices in contemporary theology. In order to build capacity, a number of indigenous woman, from Fiji, Australia and New Zealand were interviewed and their Christologies summarised as a reading resource for students. I wish I had Wayne’s resource – Jesus Christ meets Ihu Karaiti – at that time.

Well done Wayne, for beginning this research.

Posted by steve at 07:57 AM

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Big Sick film review: stand up comedy, stand out social commentary

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for September 2017. Its a review that met a deadline, but I sent it wishing I had a bit more time.

Big Sick
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Big Sick is stand out comedy. Well designed and cleverly paced, it offers not only warmly human humour, but a stand out depiction of the complexity of contemporary life.

The movie generates movement through the skilful use of four distinct backdrops. One is the twenty something flat. The modern flat is a backdrop against which Pakistani migrant Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and American student Emily (Zoe Kazan) tumble into love. The flat contrasts with another backdrop, that of Kumail’s family home, in which he weekly fends of his Pakistani parents’ commitment to arranging his marriage. The pace is fast-paced, an energetic plunge into the complexity of commitment across two different cultures.

A second backdrop is the hospital. In waiting room and ward, the pace of the Big Sick is slowed by Emily’s illness. While sickness renders her silent, she is given voice by the arrival of her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). Kumail’s understanding of Emily is redefined by the insights Beth and Terry share. Western marriages might not be arranged. Yet Western parents are like all parents. They hold unique insights into the individuality of their children.

The triangles between each couple and their parents generate the exploration of a complex range of contemporary issues, including marriage, migration and Western attitudes to Islam.

A third backdrop is provided through the use of stand up. Comedy clubs are where Big Sick begins and ends. They are also a venue to which the movie returns at regular intervals. The result is a rhythmic repetition as we hear the same jokes. Yet with every repeated one-liner, the faces in the audience are becoming people that we know. It is like hitting refresh on the web browser. Big Sick offers familiarity in this repetition, yet enrichment as the plot develops.

These four distinct backdrops are threaded together by technology. The use of Uber, the role of fingerprint recognition in opening Emily’s iPhone and the vitality of following on Facebook nourish the on and off-again relationship of Kumail and Emily.

Religion is present in the Islamic practises of Kumail and his family. Early on, Kumail fakes his faith. His parents think he has retreated to pray in the downstairs basement. In reality, he spends his time practising cricket and watching Youtube videos. The corrosive effects of Western individualism present a stiff challenge to the future of Kumail’s childhood faith. “Why did you bring me to America, if you wanted me to marry a Muslim?” he angrily challenges his parents.

Four backdrops and the woven threads of technology ensure Big Sick is both stand up comedy and stand out social commentary. Well-crafted, cleverly paced, it offers a warmly human introduction to the ethics of modern living.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 11:05 PM

Monday, September 04, 2017

video of my “hapkas” Christology as resistance and innovation talk online

nativechristianities Video from all the conference presentations of the “Resistance and Innovation: Empire and Native Christianity in the Pacific” conference hosted by Auckland University on March 24, 2017 are now online. The video of my 20 minute paper is here along with the introduction and the followup questions.

Native Christianity in Papua New Guinea: “hapkas” Christology as resistance and innovation in Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain

by Steve Taylor, Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership; Flinders University

The interaction between Christianity and indigenous cultures can provide rich insights into cross-cultural exchange in liminal spaces. Equally the complexity of such insights can be masked by totalising narratives, including hagiography and Euro-centric imperialism.

One way to approach native Christianity in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is through Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain. It has been acclaimed as PNG’s best historical novel (Moore, 2012). The post-colonial methodologies of Colonial Contexts and Postcolonial Theologies: Storyweaving in the Asia-Pacific (Postcolonialism and Religions) (2014) will be used to read The Mountain for indigenous agency in resistance and innovation. Such a reading requires locating Modjeska as an academic and novelist who refuses to accept totalising binaries, in both her writing and her life.

I will argue that the portrayal of native Christianity in The Mountain assumes indigenous approval and indigenization. Themes of ancestor gift and “hapkas” will be applied to Jesus as “good man true, he die for PNG” (The Mountain 2012: 291). The creative reworking by which native (Omie) people locate Jesus as ancestor gift of Canaanite descent will be examined. This is consistent with recent scholarship in which indigenous cultures are Old Testaments (Charleston 1998; Brett 2003) and the book of Genesis a demonstration of indigenous faiths being woven respectfully into the story of Israel (Moberly 1992). This subverts the “big man” as a key trope in the ethnography of Melanesia (Strathern 2009). It suggests that post-colonial theology pay attention to cultural hybridity and indigenous innovation. Or in the words of The Mountain: a “hapkas” Jesus who is “good man true” for PNG.

Posted by steve at 12:38 PM