Saturday 25 September 2010

Work in Progress

In the latest edition of Case Magazine we focus on work with the theme 'Work in Progress'. In it we explore a range of questions. It is framed by the broad question, what does the Bible teach us about work? Do we see it just as a curse to be endured? Could it be simply a means to earn money for life? Or is it part of God's plan for our lives? Do we have a well thought through theology of work, or is our thinking about the place of work in our lives no different than that of the non-Christian? Does work have too dominant an influence on how we view our identity and purpose in life? These are just a few of thew questions that our 5 writers address in Case #24.

Andrew Laird is one of these authors with a piece titled 'The Worthiness of Work: God and your 9 to 5'. He approaches the topic from the perspective of the value and meaning it has for the world we live in. He points out that we contribute daily to the order and running of this world in our work, and in so doing, reflect what God did in creation by bringing order to chaos. Work is reflective of God’s plan for us, and as such is part of what it means to be humans made in the image of God. As well, there is also an instrumental aspect to work; it is, a means to some end.

Work is reflective of God’s plan for us, and this is one reason why it can be so satisfying to admire a back patio you’ve just swept which, for a moment, is spotless and clean; to appreciate putting a staple through a finished university essay or work report; to feel pleasure at having fixed a leaking tap or re-installed software on a troublesome computer; to take joy in composing a song or painting a final brushstroke. We can find pleasure in our work when we bring order to chaos, subdue, work and rule over the creation because we’re doing something we’ve been wired to do; we’re fulfilling part of what it means to be humans made in the image of God.

As well, work has value for human, social, structural and broader societal development’; it contributes to the good order and development of society

But beyond the value, meaning and good that work can do, Laird suggests that all work is part of our service and worship of our God. He reminds us that the death and resurrection of Jesus has changed work.  It is an arena where we can show our love for God by working in a way that pleases Him and it can be a way to love our neighbours by working in ways that benefit them.

And beyond work, he reminds us that there is rest, for this is the climax of God's creation towards which all of creation is heading. In "resting from our work we testify to our colleagues that we don't rely on our own strength in life but trust in someone bigger to provide for our every need, especially salvation".

Other articles

In the same edition you can read the lead article by Gordon Preece that considers the tricky notion of ‘calling’. To address the question ’Does God call people to particular jobs?’ he outlines a Trinitarian model of ‘calling’ and argues that our first focus must be on our call to God’s kingdom. After that, where and how we are to work is an area of ‘freedom in limitation’.

Mark Stephens addresses the question of work in eschatological terms and sets out to evaluate the idea that work is of value not just as participation in God’s creation, but as it relates to the ultimate completion of creation. Unpacking Revelation 18 and 21, he explores the possibility that some aspects of human culture may find a place in the new creation: an eschatological city that takes account of the works of man.

Nicole Starling's piece (which you can read online) - 'Chained to the Kitchen Sink? Christian Women and the Apologetics of Unpaid Domestic Labour' - provides a specific illustration of how diverse work is.  She explores a type of work undervalued by society, being a stay-at-home mother. She argues that the paid career shouldn’t be seen as the only type of socially productive work. When a woman chooses to become a full-time stay-at-home mother and wife, she demonstrates three attractive counter-cultural lifestyles that are a powerful apologetic. Caring for a family, and the many other forms of service this permits, are valuable social goods. The worth of the work done at home exceeds the social status given to it and so those making this choice demonstrate a freedom from social status and consumption. Finally, stay-at-home mothers show that their decision to work in the home reflects a “deep and secure sense of… identity as children of God”.

Dani Scarratt also revisits the insights of Sayers and C.S. Lewis on ‘good work’ in our first ‘Case History’, an occasional segment that seeks to unearth the wisdom of Christian writers from the past for the benefit of Christians today.

To complete our issue Andrew Baartz reviews 'The Missional Entrepreneur: Principles and Practices for Business as Mission' and Georgina Barratt-See reviews de Botton's ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work'.

You can read all of these excellent articles by subscribing to Case magazine or by purchasing single copies of Case #24. You can find more information HERE.

Friday 17 September 2010

The Relationship of Music to God, Faith, Creativity & Language

Music is pervasive in modern Western culture. Scarcely a day goes by when we are not surrounded by musical sounds. It would be hard to avoid music. I grew up in a household where music was very important. My introduction to classical music was through a tiny jewelry box that sat on my mother’s dressing table. I would sneak into her bedroom and lift the lid to hear the beauty of the music playing ‘Fur Elise’. Music is still special to me. In all its forms it can capture my attention, move me deeply, excite me, teach me, challenge and rebuke me, make the hairs on the back of neck seem to bristle, make me tap my feet and sway my body, think of my mother, my life experiences, my hopes, passions and fears, and it is an integral part of my worship and praise of my God. Music is indeed part of life.

But is it more than just an accompaniment to life? More than just entertainment and a high point of culture? Would it matter in the church if we had only words and no music? Intuitively, even the non-musician is tempted to say, "well of course it’s more than that".

The 2010 New College Lectures

Professor Jeremy Begbie has just concluded a series of talks and performances for the 2010 New College Lectures at the University of New South Wales (Sydney). The series had the theme ‘Music, Modernity and God’ and addressed three sub themes – ‘Creativity’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Language’. In his final talk last night Pofessor Begbie concluded that yes, music is much more than just an accompaniment to life, it is an important part of the life God has given us and both reflects and speaks of God’s purposes for us.

He suggested that if we didn’t have music we would be all the poorer because music can help us to ‘read’ the story of our culture with the eyes of Christian faith, responding in fresh ways to some of the deepest dilemmas and truths of our time. Furthermore, music offers metaphors that can help us to understand the deep truths of Christianity – God, creation, freedom, rebellion and sin, salvation and redemption, the new creation to come and the fulfilment of God’s promises in Christ. He led us to this conclusion by teaching us over three nights using word, image, performance on the piano, recorded music and image. It was a memorable series that has been deeply challenging.

Lecture 1 - 'Creativity'

On night one he addressed the question ‘Can we be creative in a world made by God?’ He looked at the key assumptions of modernity and the proposition in the modern era that human creativity is basically a matter of bringing our own order to the physical world, constructing things out of nature but without regard for nature.

He challenged the idea that discovery and creativity are assumed to work against each other. Memorably he used Bach’s Cantata 78 ‘Jesus, der du meine Seele’ and ‘Chaconne’ from Partita No. 2 in D Minor for solo violin to show us what a folly this notion is.

Bach’s work he demonstrated was an amalgamation of styles, amazing complexity, even in repetition. Yet, somehow, in the midst of this there is great simplicity. Bach’s music demonstrates a vision of cosmic order and positions us as creative agents within it. Bach did not appear to believe that the rules of music are wholly dependent on culture, fashion, custom, taste or even human make-up. Rather, his work reflects and illustrates the idea that music is “grounded in God-given order in the physical world” – the composer respecting and eliciting them to create harmony that testifies to its Creator. Music glorifies God in its own way.

Lecture 2 - 'Freedom'

On night two Prof Begbie began by posing the proposition ‘Can we be free with God in our space?’ He challenged the notion that having a creator God in our space can only lead inevitably to a battle between the two.

He suggested that music can help us to understand deep biblical concepts such as the Trinity and the concept of freedom as spoken of in John 8:36 “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

With wonderful clarity he suggested that at times our use of words and even images has offered almost sub-Christian explanations of deep truths like the Trinity. Music he suggested can help us to understand biblical metaphor and biblical truth in new ways. Not as a replacement for word and image but in addition to it.

I will never forget how he demonstrated ‘sympathetic resonance’ to show how two sounds do not need to be in opposition, and can indeed work together - the upper note helping the lower note to resonate – one enhancing the other, not constraining it.

So too, the biblical account of freedom suggests that rather than taking away our freedom, God can free us from our enslavement to sin and rebellion and help us to be free to become the people he meant us to be (John 8:36). A profound truth demonstrated in the simplest of ways.

Lecture 3 - 'Language'

On night three he posed the question ‘Can we speak about God without words?’ Once again he spoke, played, shared orchestral music, used images and offered words to unpack the question. He pointed out that in the modern era we have seen an increase of confidence in the powers of human language to describe and control the world, especially the language of science. But even words do not depict reality through one-to-one correspondence. Many have pointed to the severe limits of language; the things we cannot say seem to be as important (sometimes more important) than the things we can see.

 He explored the way music has been caught up in these debates about the power and limits of language, not least when it comes to speaking of the Christian God. He traversed the varied views on the place of music in relation to language, questioning the German Romantics’ notion that instrumental music offers the highest form of the arts and somehow is connected to the divine in ways that words cannot be.

Instead, he pointed out that the realities of which words speak often seem to “exceed the grasp of language”. Music sits with language. Language and the word is in the centre of God’s purposes, but music can be faithful to words while "doing its own kinds of work in its own kinds of way". Music can help us to be more faithful to the word and in the process help to make more intelligible the truth that is communicated.

Want to know more?

Jeremy Begbie was interviewed on Hope 103.2 this week on the 'Open House' program.  You can DOWNLOAD HERE.

ABC Radio National's Rachael Kohn interviewed Jeremy on 'The Spirit of Things' during the Lectures. You can download the interview HERE.

This was a memorable Lecture series. We hope to post a composite MP3 version of the talks soon and may post some video segments as well. Watch for these in coming weeks. I will post the details on this blog when they are available.  ABC Radio National is also working with us to broadcast the lectures later in the year.  Once this has been done we also hope to post the talks on our website.

If you would like to read more of Jeremy Begbie’s work, the recent article he wrote for CASE is a great place to start – ‘Polyphony of life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’. The whole issue of Case #23 is devoted to the theme ‘Music and Theology’. This can be purchased in hard or soft copy (overseas only).

Jeremy Begbie’s most recent book ‘Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music’ (2007) also covers some of the content of the lectures. He also has a new book in preparation but this won’t be available for 18-24 months.

Other related posts & Links

'Music, Life & Worship' (here)

Prof Trevor Hart 2008 New College Lectures on 'God, Creativity & Creators' (here)

* Image Credit - Sarah MacKenzie, courtesy of 'Educational Insights'

Sunday 12 September 2010

Children's Literature and 'Otherness'

In his influential book 'Exclusion and Embrace', theologian Miroslav Volf shows that understanding and living with the 'Other' - that is one unlike ourselves - is not simply a matter of accommodating diversity. He suggests that our approach to the 'other should reflect the character and actions of our God revealed in the person of Christ. Volf challenges us to embrace ‘the other’ in the light of God’s giving of himself on the cross—this includes our enemies. We need to adjust our very identities to ‘make space’ for the other. This is a challenge for all people. 

Australia like many Western democracies has experienced a diversification of immigrants coming to our shores in the last few decades. Almost all of us are immigrants in this country, with the exception of Indigenous Australians who make up about 3% of the population. With each new wave of immigration there have been tensions as fear of the impact of new residents has led some to question immigration levels (see my previous post on 'Dispelling the Myths of Boat People').

Volf's work is a counter to other responses to increasing population diversity and struggles to deal with difference. While some see the celebration of multiculturalism as solution enough to a fear of others, such views are simplistic. While multiculturalism has the potential to encourage the recognition of different cultures and the valuing of all people in spite of difference, there is a danger that while celebrating diversity in cultural practices, we may simply mask deep-seated fears and prejudices. In other words, we might be happy and comfortable with others as long as we can see ourselves in them. At the base of opposition to immigration is often a fear of what we don't know about other people. Can literature help to break down such fears?
Embracing the 'other' through literature

Literature can be a great help in developing tolerance and in breaking down fear of the other, but like multiculturalism it can also gloss over differences. As continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued, Western tradition has tended to privilege the 'same' over the 'other', acknowledging the 'other' only to the extent that they can be 'made' to be like us. While it is easy to see this tendency in the colonial domination of nations and people, Levinas argues that we are slower to recognize it in our individual actions and thinking towards others, resisting (or quietly ignoring) difference and embracing that which we recognize in ourselves.

If authors fall into this trap their work will do little to reduce the fear of the other; rather, it might simply smudge out the inconvenient differences, such as religious beliefs, while underlining that which is common in our shared humanity. This might lead to little more than a shallow acceptance of others that is tested when our world is impacted even in small ways.

In the educational field multicultural literature programs have been seen as a valuable way to fight racism. But while literature has the potential to hold a light to what is common and different, it can also represent an ideological quest to remove that which has been judged to be wrong and oppressive because it is different. For example, much post colonial literature in seeking to legitimately offer new voices from previously unheard groups, can easily villianize previously dominant views of the world. Christianity has received much blame for such oppression, as have white males. This is not to ignore the fact that both groups have been responsible for wrongs, but if literature is to offer a critique or counter to racism and fear, then it must do more than blame others; it must encourage us to consider, listen to and understand others.

With the above in mind we need to view any piece of literature that deliberately sets out to offer an alternative reading of our times with healthy analysis. There is an even greater need to adopt a questioning stance when the literature has been written for children.  A recent example is worthy of consideration.

'Mirror' (2010) by Jeannie Baker

Jeannie Baker is an English artist who has lived in Australia for over 30 years. She is well known for her outstanding collage art that she frequently turns into children's picture books. You can read a review of her work on my blog 'Literacy, Families & Learning' (here). Her books usually have few or no words and typically offer some form of social commentary. She has written in particular about the impact of humanity on the natural environment.  But her latest work 'Mirror' is an attempt to challenge her readers to consider two families in two places - one in Sydney and one in Morocco. One we assume to be Christian and the other Muslim.

The concept for the book is brilliant, the quality of the images stunning, and the book design groundbreaking. The wordless picture book that she has created is, as usual, challenging at many levels. It is the concept and design that will first catch your attention. The book is slightly more square in shape, and it defies your efforts to open it in a conventional way. This picture book comprises two stories that are designed to be read simultaneously – one from the left, the other from the right (see below). As you pick up the book you try to open it from right to left only to have the book open at the middle to reveal two books, one that is read from left to right and begins in Arabic, and the other from right to left that begins with English. Page by page, we experience a day in the lives of two boys and their families - one from inner city Sydney, Australia and the other from a small, remote village in Morocco, North Africa.

Jeannie Baker conceived the book while travelling alone in Morocco. It was while immersed in the warmth and generosity of the Moroccan people and while experiencing the sights, smells, sounds and textures of the place, that she conceived the idea and knew she had to produce it even without approval from a publisher. Baker's book, in a sense, holds a 'mirror' to the world and produces a stunning and memorable insight into two families in two quite different places.

While the two worlds portrayed couldn’t be further apart, she shows through the parallel lives of the two families, a simple and profound truth. While people live in vastly different places, and have different lives, we share much. There is much that is different about the families. The book itself shows that language is different and how it is accessed is different. The illustrations and story show that religion, homes, landscape, transport, clothing, food, shopping, market places, daily tasks and family practices are different.  But there is also much that is the same. Family members love one another and depend on each other. A mother and father work each day and children learn, help at home and spend time with family. Children in Morocco do different things each day than in Sydney, but they are perhaps more like us than we might imagine. And there is an additional truth - we are connected to each other. With subtle use of images Jeannie Baker is able to show this connection. The delight of the reader is to discover these, with technology and trade as two examples. My grandson shouted excitedly as we read the book together for the first time "Look, look, it's the same carpet. The carpet they were making (in Morocco) is the same carpet they bought (the people in Sydney)".

How successful is Baker at communicating common humanity while not glossing over difference? Quite successful I think. While there are limits to what can be communicated with a wordless picture book, she offers a piece of literature that does more than offer a tokenistic view of common ground across two families and two different cultures.  This is a book that notes the differences while at the same time recognizing that we share humanity. Her book should be a challenge to Christians and non-Christians to be open to the embrace of the other. At the very least, books like this one offer a wonderful tool for conversations with our children about other people with different faiths and cultural practices.  For the Christian parent, the hope is that these conversations will lead our children to reflect the character and actions of our God revealed in the person of Christ. Our hope should be that they grow up to embrace the 'other’ in light of God’s mercy and grace in giving himself on the cross. Our hope should be that as they grow they would develop identities that meet Volf's challenge to ‘make space’ for the other and in doing so to offer paths for the sharing of their faith in Christ with humility, grace and love.

In a recent edition of Case magazine on 'Otherness' Mattheson Russell offered this sound advice:

"...the problem of otherness is no dry and abstract matter. It is a problem that is intimately bound up with fundamental questions we all face in the contemporary world: Is there anything more to life than acquisition, competition and violence? Dare we believe that it is possible to live with others - avowed and disavowed others - in communities of peace? Dare we believe that at the heart of the universe is an Other who is love?"

Literature is one simple vehicle that can be used by God to chip away our collective and individual fears and prejudices. As we learn about others and lead lives centred on Christ, we can be used by God to point 'others' to him.

Other posts

'To Exclude or Embrace: Considering Otherness' (HERE)

'Author Focus: Jeannie Baker' (HERE)

Sunday 5 September 2010

Marked by my Dad

The mixed emotions of Fathers' Day

It's Fathers' Day in many countries today, a time when we give thanks for our fathers and remember the role they play in their children's lives. However, as an older father (my daughters are pictured on the right), the day for me is more about me being thankful for the blessings of fatherhood and the love of my Heavenly Father shown in his kindness to me. I love seeing my children (and their husbands) and grandchildren any day of the year (and have plenty of opportunities to do so), and every time I think of them I can't help but be thankful to God for the precious gift of families and fatherhood. What a privilege and responsibility it is to be a father.

But for many, the act of remembering our fathers, or even reflecting on how we have fathered our children, can bring mixed emotions. While many have good relationships with their fathers, and many fathers had a strong relationship with their children (as I have), others don't share this experience. Fathers' Day can be a reminder to fathers of their own failings, and for some children it can also be day that is difficult because their relationship with their fathers has not been a positive one.

Reflecting on fatherhood with new eyes

If you are a father, I'd encourage you to reflect on your father and his role in your life and perhaps your role as a father, with new eyes. I had a difficult childhood and a pretty poor relationship with my father (that's us on the left). As I grew up I didn't see him as a great role model and when I became a Dad I almost consciously sought to be a different father. And yet, even in the midst of my father's frailties and weaknesses, I can see that he left his mark on me in many positive ways. As a Christian (since I was 31 years old) I have been slowly able to see that many seemingly inconsequential things in my relationship with my Dad had an impact on me.

For a start, he instilled in me a strong sense of social justice, an understanding of hard work and a political interest. But there are many other more minor ways in which my relationship with my Dad shaped me; here's just one. For many years I thought my Dad had taught me nothing as a child. He left school in Grade 6 and he had no practical skills. I didn't look to him for intellectual stimulation, that was a role that my Grandfather On my mother's side) filled. For example, as an adult when I came to love books, I thought for many years that my Dad had played no part in this. I can never recall him reading me a book as a child. But in my 40s one day I was struck by the memory that he constantly told me stories, anecdotes from his life.  These were stories of his childhood in Scotland living in tenement housing near Glasgow, knowing true 'bread and dripping' poverty in a family of 10 boys and an 11th child a little girl (the last born) who died at age 2. Later he told stories of his work in the coal mines of the Hunter Valley (NSW) and his role in the trade union movement. I can now see, that his constant storytelling had a huge impact on me. He taught me about the power of stories without even reading me a single story (I've written about this on my Literacy blog HERE).

In the minor details of life, my interaction with him left their mark; some to be honest are scars that I will carry to my grave, mostly unspoken and never shared. Others brought good as well bad. Here's one I can share of this type. I can recall one day shovelling coal (a 10 ton load) with my Dad and another man from next door when I was about 7-8 years old (about the age in the picture above). I can remember vividly how impressed they both were that when they slowed down I kept going. I recall their words "only a kid and he works like a man". This incident, and perhaps others like it, was a critical part of the development of my drive and a work ethic that continues to this day, both a blessing and a curse. For a small boy desperate for his Dad's approval and rarely getting it, this one moment had a huge impact on me. It marked me, not necessarily all for good, for my drive and ambition have got me into trouble at times.

Accepting our responsibility as fathers

The great challenge for all fathers is to first have a right view of God. We need to be fathers who trust, obey and serve our God and who seek to teach our children to understand the wisdom of God and to follow him. Deuteronomy (Deut 6:4-9) offers an image of this type of fatherhood. This is a picture of an involved father. If we were to translate this biblical picture into contemporary terms, we would see a father who seeks to obey and honour God, who sets a good example for his family, who models what it is to be a child of God. Such a father spends time with his children (indeed will 'waste' time with them), listens to them and shares godly wisdom at meal times, while resting, while together at home, while travelling. Such an engaged father hopes that they can hopefully mark their children for the ultimate 'good', a relationship with God the Father through Christ (Rom 8:28-30).

My own reflections on childhood reinforce for me the important role that fathers have. God uses us even in our weakness and failings. Pray that God will help you to give fatherhood your best shot, and that even in your weakness, that God in his mercy and kindness will still use you in some way as he draws your children into a relationship with him that will mark them for eternity.

Some of my other posts and writing on fathers and families

An article on families in Case 12 (here).

How time spent with children matters (here).

The impact of the loss of time spent sharing meals (here), and the role of fathers more generally (here).

The shared responsibility we have with communities for other people's children (here) and in the church (here).

A number of more practical posts about fathers on my other blog 'Literacy, families and learning' (here).

Apologetics in Family Life (here)