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) 

Thursday 21 July 2011

Where is God in the midst of disasters?

Television stations reported recently that in the midst of almost concurrent disasters in Australia, New Zealand and Japan that they began to receive reports of ‘disaster fatigue’ from their viewers. How do we respond to disasters? Do we show concern for a while, and then lose interest? Do we respond with greater empathy to some disasters over others? Why? Are we more concerned for citizens of our own nation than for other? How much is a life worth? Surely, all lives equal. Do we act as if we believe this?

One of the marks of a Christian must surely be the response of sympathy, identification with others who suffer and, action to help and serve others. We are to be disturbed by suffering and the calamities that befall our fellow humanity. 

In Romans 9 Paul reminds his readers that the Christian is to hate evil and hold to what is good. We are to show genuine love, serve others and stand beside others, both in hope and in tribulation. We are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 9:15).  Paul drew on the example of Christ to exhort and challenge the Philippian Church to consider whether their lives were characterised by a concern for the circumstances of others (Philippians 2:1-4).  We are to be of one mind with Paul on this, a mind that reflects the example of Jesus. We are to show love, sympathy and look to the interests of others.  The example that is to shape our response is seen in the incarnation; the Son of God came as a servant and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:7-8)

In the next issue of Case magazine, which will come out within the next 2 weeks, we address some of the questions that disasters raise for us. In our lead article Mattheson Russell deals with the fundamental question, how do we reconcile a sovereign God with the problem of evil? Dani Scarratt looks at one significant event, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and considers how it had an impact on how Christians make sense of disasters.  We also consider the way the media portrays disasters and share the views expressed at a live debate hosted by Christians in the Media (CIM) titled 'Media Ethics in Disaster Zones'. The speakers were Paul Richards and Mark Hadley, with closing comments by Dominic Steele. Geologist David Cohen considers what man can do to prepare for, predict and deal with natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. Finally, Andrew Errington reviews David Bentley Hart’s book 'The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?' that contrasts two rival ways of looking at “natural evil” and the sovereignty of God.

I have been challenged by this issue and, not surprisingly, have further questions that I want explore.  I was encouraged by Mattheson Russell's reminder that Christians are not immune to doubts, nor can we escape feelings of anger and sadness at the suffering of the world. Russell opens this edition of Case by encouraging us to think theologically about disasters. He reminds us that it is okay to ask questions of God.  God is responsible for the world, but he has made a world made of natural and moral independent agencies.  Russell helpfully teases out what it means to talk of God as sovereign in a world where bad things happen. He draws on the doctrine of providence and discusses how this affirms that God “acts in the world in specific and purposeful ways.”  Finally, he considers how we reconcile the presence of evil in our world with a sovereign God who is responsible and acts providentially? He concludes that “evil is not morally ‘consonant’ with the goodness of God” nor is it part of God’s good plan for those he created. Ultimately there will be no victory in evil and suffering, victory will only be seen in Christ. We are to fight against evil, empathise with those who suffer and look to the day of Christ’s return.

I suspect that how well we understand the nature of evil, suffering and the relationship of each to God matters profoundly in at least two ways. It affects the way we view God, and it affects how we view and relate to one another. It troubles me that in spite of their significance, we often throw our hands in the air and say, “these questions are too hard for me”.

We’ve tackled this topic, because while we know questions, doubts and even anger are understandable responses to disasters, but retreat from hard questions is not.  And notwithstanding our questions, there is one response that must be evident within the life of all Christians, and within the life of the church – empathy. There is no place in the heart of the Christian for indifference.  We are to weep with others who weep. As well, we are to respond to their needs. This should be grounded not in our own strength, skills or qualities, but in our overwhelming sense of wonder at the grace of God in forgiving us and sacrificing his own son as atonement for the sins of a broken world. 

Wednesday 13 July 2011

John Flynn & the Australian Inland Mission: Faith in Action

West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

My wife Carmen and I are in the Central Australia this week and in our travels from Alice Springs along the MacDonnell Ranges had the chance, not just to see beautiful countryside, but also to gain some insight into the early missionary work of the Christian Church. One inspirational example is the work of the Reverend John Flynn.

John Flynn is buried in Alice Springs, a town located in the centre of Australia's Red Centre. Flynn founded the Australia Inland Mission. He spent almost 40 years leading it until his death in 1951. John Flynn's work was quite remarkable. Throughout his training to become a Presbyterian minister, he worked in remote areas through Victoria and South Australia. His second posting after ordination was to a Mission at Beltana, a town 500 kilometres north of Adelaide in an extremely remote area.

By 1912, after writing a report for his church superiors on the difficulties of ministering in remote areas Flynn became convicted of the need to address the hardship and isolation that people suffered in the remote centre of the Australian continent.  He observed that any serious illness or injury in remote inland Australia almost invariably lead to death because they had no access to medical services.  He was appointed as the first superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission (AIM). Flynn had two clear interests, the spiritual needs of remote people, and their medical needs in the outback. He conceived the idea of the establishment of a 'Mantle of Safety' for all people in remote areas. He established a number of bush hospitals and began to consider how technology like radio and aircraft could be used to care for people over vast distances.

Alfred Traeger inventor of the Pedal Radio
The development of a pedal radio by Alfred Traeger Flynn gave Flynn an opportunity to develop an aerial medical service that could cover vast distances. On the 17th May 1928 the first aerial service began and by the 1930s the service had gone nation wide. Flynn was a visionary driven by a deep faith that led him to action.

Flynn began fund-raising in order to establish a flying medical service. The first flight of the Aerial Medical Service took place in 1928 from Cloncurry in Queensland. Eventually he lobbied government and the service went Australia wide. In 1934 the 'Australian Aerial Medical Service' was formed, and gradually established a network across the nation.

While the Flying Doctor Service is the thing that Flynn is famous for, his work extended well beyond this. He also established nursing homes and instituted travelling ministries across vast distances on horseback. In 1939 he was elected Flynn to the role of Moderator-General within the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

A Royal Australian Flying Doctor Service Reaching a Remote Patient

What struck me about Flynn's work is that it was motivated by his awareness of the hardships of people in remote areas. He had a passion for the salvation of the people spiritually, but his concern for them extended to easing the suffering of the people in remote regions.

Classroom where teachers broadcast daily lessons
Flynn's vision was eventually translated into the establishment of the world's first 'School of the Air'. One of the Board members of AIM, Adelaide Miethke saw that the radio infrastructure developed as part of Flynn's 'Mantle of Safety' could also serve as the foundation of schooling to children in remote areas. This idea led to the establishment of an educational service to children in remote locations all over Central Australia. On 8th June 1951 the 'School of the Air' was established. Today just weeks after its 60th anniversary, the School of the Air has spread to 16 different services that cover all remote regions within Australia.  In recent times the radio contact between teacher and student has been upgraded to computer and video contact.

Flynn's work is a good demonstration of what James was getting at when he wrote that we  must " doers of the word, and not hearers only" (James 1:22). John Flynn's life demonstrates what it means to live out one's faith and to turn this faith into action.  Our response to the gospel of Christ and God's word as it takes root in our lives is to take action as we share our faith in word and deed.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (James 1:19-22)

You can read a fuller biography of Rev John Flynn HERE

Monday 4 July 2011

The Busy Life

Issue 18 of Case magazine dealt with the theme ‘City Life’. One of the articles in the issue was written by Tim Chester and was titled ‘The Busy Christian’s Introduction to Busyness’. As the name suggests, it offers an introduction to his book with a similar name 'The Busy Christian's Guide to Busyness' The article and his book offer helpful advice to those of us who struggle to maintain a right balance between work and life.

The main focus of Chester's article is the need for a balance between work and rest. He argues, that the Bible teaches “that work is good and rest is good”, and points out that in our modern world we have two dominant and competing ethics, a work-centred ethic and a leisure-centred ethic.

The work-centred ethic says work is good and leisure is bad or work is central and leisure is peripheral. The leisure-centred ethic says that leisure is good and work is bad or leisure is central and work is peripheral.

Chester suggests that both ethics are exploitative.

“The work ethic is the ideology of capitalism. It’s designed to create a willing workforce to enrich the owners of the means of production. It not only justifies overwork, it makes it a moral good! …….But the idyllic life advocated in the leisure ethic is equally exploitative. It’s only really possible at the expense of other people’s servitude. Greek and Roman leisure was built on the backs of slaves. And the new leisure ethic feeds of other people in the same way – whether it is the state or the family or exploited workers.”

He points out that in contrast to the work-centred ethic and the leisure-centred ethic, that the Bible presents us with a liberating God-centred ethic in which we work for the glory of God and we rest for the glory of God.

The goal is more than a balance between the two. The goal for both is the glory of God. Neither work nor rest is ultimate. some people rest to work, others work to rest. But in the biblical worldview God is ultimate. He gives value to both work and rest. Both are to be relished, enjoyed and used for God’s glory. ‘Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31).

He concludes his Case article by suggesting that defining work-life balance may not be as complicated as we imagine. The Bible gives us a clear pattern and that pattern is six days of work and one day of rest. Rather that a yearly (or even life) pattern of work and binge 'rest', he argues that we would be better to ensure that we adopt a weekly pattern to life, and to build opportunities for work and rest on a regular basis.

You can also download my introduction to Case #18 here.

You can view an excellent 2 minute video from Tim Chester on the main ideas in his book below.