Wednesday, July 21, 2010

church for the (kiwi) man in the shed

My interests include the relationship between church and society, gospel and culture. What is the role of the church in the world? How does the world see the church?

I’m currently enjoying The man in the Shed, a collection of short stories by Kiwi writer, Lloyd Jones, published in 2009, a commercial follow-up to the success (Commonwealth Writers Prize and shortlist for Man Booker Prize) of Mister Pip.

One story, Lost Cities, begins with Alice, who is painting her (rural Canterbury) town, building by building.

“And after the theatre, she plans an eating house and, next to it, a bar, and across the street a police station and gaol. And at the end of the street, a church of sharp cheekbones and high forehead. Within view of the church Alice adds the farmhouse.” (52)

A typical rural town, complete with to be expected church. The pages of the short story continue to turn.

Over time, Alice’s husband dies and her son, Mark grows. In time, Mark leaves for the bright lights (of Sydney). All the time, Alice continues to paint, the same picture, touched and re-touched, a visual reflection on her changing life in changing times. She paints and repaints. The tree grows, the buildings are modernised, threatres and restuarants are added, the city crowds are coloured in.

“Milling among the crowd over the ‘historic’ flagstone area are hotdog vendors, jugglers, pickpockets, thieves of all descriptions. There are yellow cabs, policemen on horseback, a flotilla carrying a beauty-pageant queen.” (59-60).

It’s a gorgeous sentence and a fascinating way to visualise change. The painting work as the still point, the canvas which captures change. So what will be the place of faith, the church, as times they are a changing?

“Over the church hovers Alice’s paintbrush. She hesitates to demolish it because the city will need a soup kitchen for the lives stranded short of the promised land.” (60).

It’s a fascinating glimpse, one perspective, on the future of faith in a culture of change. In the imagination of Kiwi author, Lloyd Jones, the future obviously needs a church. The reason is based on what Lloyd sees as the role of the church in contemporary society – to care for the broken and dispossessed. As it does that, it earns the right to remain in a contemporary painting, as it exists as a beacon of hope.

Yet such a place for the church, remains for Alice simply a painting. She might be grieving, she might be oh so creative. However, church remains for her an object painted for “them.” Never, for creative, middle-class, grieving Alice.

A fascinating way to paint the body of Christ into society today!

Posted by steve at 06:40 PM

Thursday, February 25, 2010

images of church in society: Why we need salt not exodus

Exodus is a powerful and repeated Biblical motif. For Israel, and for many oppressed people’s through time, it has defined a profound liberation from bondage and a life of service in response to a God who led through perils to a new land.

But spatially, Exodus relies on a “going out.” The people are to leave behind what is bad.

Contrast the metaphor of exodus with the metaphor of salt and leaven, which work only by staying within. Salt needs meat, leaven needs dough and so the metaphor acts spatially, in a startlingly different way than Exodus. Rather than leave in order to become God’s community, we become God’s community from within, by digging in and staying put, by infiltration, rather than by separation and removal.

Marianne Sawicki suggests that this metaphor, of salt and leaven, was actually the dominant metaphor for the very early church.

“Jesus’ first followers knew that there was no escape, no place to get away from the civil war and personal evils confronting them. They had to figure out how to live in a landscape compromised by colonial oppressions. They would seek and find God’s kingdom precisely in the midst of that.” (Marianne Sawicki, Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus, 155)

She describes this as a “stealth operation” that looks for the Kingdom of God in the midst of (Roman) oppression. “It presumes that imperial structures will remain intact so that they can be infiltrated. This is a resistance that exploits the empire; it does not defeat, neutralize, kill, or escape from its host.” (162) She draws both on the parables and on the missionary text that is Luke 10, in which the disciples “indigenize themselves by attaching to the family that employs them.” (163)

This is a pattern of cultural immersion. It’s deliberate.

It’s also a pattern of cultural resistance. Salt not only preserves, it also corrodes. In other words using the metaphor of salt and leaven to understand ourselves as the church, allows “the gospel to be both corrosive and preservative like salt … to be infectious, expansive and profane like leaven.” (155) As a metaphor it still encourages the church as a contrast community, refusing to bless the culture.

Sawicki suggests that perhaps the church today – globalized, enmeshed in consumerism – might find the salt and leaven metaphor a most useful stance in relation to our world:

The kingdom of God is not free-standing. It has to be sought in the middle of something else … [it] can take the form of small-scale refusals to comply with the alleged inevitability of the pomps and glamours of middle-class life … the commuting lifestyle; so-called “life insurance” and retirement funds; careerism; the “soccer mom” syndrome and the overscheduling of adolescent activities; fast food; fashionable clothing … (174, 175)

It strikes me as a fantastically practical, deeply Biblical way for Christians to see ourselves in the world today.

Posted by steve at 02:27 PM