Saturday, 30 July 2011

Everyday Theology: How to read cultural texts and interpret trends

I've been reading Kevin Vanhoozer's book 'Everyday Theology: How to read cultural texts and interpret trends'. It's a great read, with much godly wisdom and practical theology. Vanhoozer's challenges us to consider how theology applies to everyday life. As Vanhoozer points out, there is nothing new about everyday theology; the Reformers had plenty to say about the relevance of theology for life, Calvin, for example, spoke of the Bible serving as our 'spectacles of faith'. But Vanhoozer argues that we don't just seek understanding in the Bible, faith can also 'seek understanding' in our everyday world. He suggests that we should embrace an additional form of literacy, learning to 'read' and 'write' culture. By culture he means "..the distinctly human world that persons create by doing things not by reflex but freely as expressions of desire, duty and determination." (p.23) Culture is understood as "the meaning dimensions of life". Every aspect of life signifies something about the values and beliefs that shape our culture.

Culture communicates meanings to us as we participate in it, and it offers us frameworks for interpreting the world in which we live. Culture also "..spreads beliefs, values, ideas, fashions, and practices from one social group to another." As well, he argues that it can shape, orient and form our hearts (or our spirits).

In 'Everyday Theology' Vanhoozer includes chapters written by his students who had been part of his cultural hermeneutics class, and who apply everyday theology to cultural texts in their world. The topics include the supermarket checkout, rap music, megachurch architecture, film etc. Here is a brief excerpt based on the chapter 'The Gospel according to Safeway: The checkout line and the good life'. In this description and analysis, theology is applied to to the shopping centre checkout, seeking to understand the objects, images, behaviour, sights, sounds, and the values and beliefs that are suggested by them.

What does the checkout line have to do with Jerusalem? In one sense, they overlap and compete, for there is a Christian vision of the good life, what we may call the good life according to the gospel. If the point of the good life presented in the checkout line is to become like a celebrity (or at least to dream about it), then the goal of the good life according to the gospel is to become like Jesus.

What emerges from a biblical that...Sex, beauty, health, information, and wealth can all be good things in the good life of the gospel, but not if they are elevated too highly. The checkout line puts our loves out of order, an indication itself of how culture can have a subtle impact on our idea of the good life. In contrast, the good life envisioned by the gospel relativizes what the checkout line sets forth as essential.
Vanhoozer suggests a basic framework that Christians can apply to any representation of culture. I've paraphrased it below:

1. Try to understand the intent of any cultural text before we try to interpret it. By 'text' we mean any meaningful artefact of culture, including films, images, fashion, media, building, advertisement etc.
2. Ask what the meanings are 'behind' the text (what it inherits, reflects, interprets etc) and 'in front' of the text (what is it proposing for the world)?
3. Consider what powers are served by the cultural texts. Whose interests are served?
4. What does the text say about the world and what it is to be human; what anthropology does it suggest?
5. Endeavour to be comprehensive in your interpretation of a cultural text - find evidence that makes sense of the parts as well as the whole.
6. Attempt to discern what faith the text expresses directly or indirectly; what convictions does it suggest about God, the world and our relationship to both?
7. Consider where the text sits within the biblical schema of creation-fall-redemption; God's plan for his world and his creatures.

The following quote from 'Everyday Theology' sums up (for me) why and how we might use Vanhoozer's framework as an aid as we apply theology to everyday life:
"Thanks to the Spirit's ministry of general revelation to the fractured image of God that we are as fallen human beings, part of what culture says is true, good, and beautiful; other parts, however, are false, bad, and ugly. It follows that we must hearken to cultural texts as possible vehicles for appropriating new insights into justice and truth while at the same time maintaining Scripture as our normative framework of interpretation." (p.44) 

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