Thursday 28 May 2015

Taking Flesh: Christology, Embodiment and the Arts

Recently we hosted the 29th annual New College Lectures. This event seeks to explore the importance and place of Christianity in today’s world. While speakers present their ideas from a Christian worldview, the lectures seek to engage people of all faiths as well as people with no faith commitment. This year our lecturer was Rev Professor Dr Trevor Hart. The lectures were concerned with a consideration of the relationship of the arts to faith and worship. The theme was titled, ‘Taking Flesh: Christology, Embodiment and the Arts’.

The Lecturer

Prof Hart is Rector of Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church, St Andrews (since 2013), and Honorary Professor of Divinity in the University of St Andrews where he has held posts since 1995. His life is now one of Rector and scholar. As a scholar he is interested in the contemporary reformulation of the Christian tradition and the engagement of Christian theology with other disciplines, especially philosophy, literature and the arts more broadly.

His has written many scholarly articles and book chapters and written or edited 14 books. His most recent books are:
Professor Hart also delivered the New College Lectures in 2008 with the theme ‘God and the Artist: Human creativity in theological perspective’. You can still listen to these lectures if you visit the New College website HERE. You can also read his article in the edition of Case Quarterly that we published after the lectures titled ‘God, creativity and creators’.

The Lectures

The first talk was titled ‘Clayey lodging’: on the predicament of being human and why matter matters’. In this talk Prof Hart spoke of the ambiguity with which we understand our bodies and challenged us to remember that our humanity straddles the spheres of material and non-material creaturehood. He called on us to avoid the tendency towards dualistic thinking - of favouring mind over body.

On night two his talk was titled ‘Earthy epiphanies: the incarnation of meaning and the meaning of incarnation’. This explored meaning and its relationship to and place within the arts. He traversed the struggles we have to articulate the meanings or significance that music and art have for us. His talk included the role of metaphor, the relationship of meanings to matter, the body and the mind. He concluded by briefly considering the ambiguity of meaning itself.

The third and final lecture was titled ‘Heavenly bodies: why Wagner was right about art and wrong about God’. Professor Hart began by speaking of Wagner’s unorthodox theology - he had as an outcome of his radical vision for his music - that demonstrated his belief that music and the arts offered much more than mere narrative. He argued that music for Wagner was a manifestation of reality in the world NOT in the head, BUT in the heart, ‘gut’ and body. He then connected Wagner’s view of music’s potential with a discussion of James Smith’s argument that he developed in the NCLs in 2012; that is, the driving force of human existence is not the intellect, but focus or telos of desire or love – the ends or purpose of desire, that shape our outlook and vision of the future.

Prof Hart ended the evening by challenging the audience again as he more specifically addressed the embodied practices of Church worship. He argued that the arts have the potential to reshape our imagining and our desire. Music he reminded us has played an important role across the centuries in worship. This he contrasted with the impoverished liturgy of many churches, which he described as “a wordy and intellectual experience that fails to acknowledge the fully embodied nature of worship”. The church he argued should be a total aesthetic encounter that engages us at many levels – mind, heart, soul, senses, body and imagination.

The lectures were a stimulating event that led to vigorous discussion and many questions – surely a sign of a good lecture! They certainly raised some questions for me. I commented in my conclusion to the lectures that while he had helpfully (and deliberately) centred very much on worship within the church, what Professor Hart had said surely implications for the worship that is seen in all of life? That is, worship of God is part of all of life, not just what we do in church on Sundays. How do we reconcile these excellent lectures with Paul’s injunction? Professor Hart touched on this near the end of his 3rd talk; this is an exploration for the future. The challenge of Romans 12 must be heeded. How can this be reconciled with the lectures given and the corrective Prof Hart offered to engage the complete embodied experiences of believers in worship, as part of the renewing of minds?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom 12:1-2)

Finally, the lectures left me wondering about the role that Christian community plays. That is, the church as the body of believers, living, serving, worshipping, loving and growing together – not so much what we do on Sundays, but what we do in between Sundays.

The lectures were a marvellous exploration of the topic and can be found as MP3 files on our website HERE.  The audience gathered over three nights was stimulated and grateful for an outstanding lecture series. Enjoy them online!

Wednesday 6 May 2015

21st Century Apologetics

Do we need new apologetics for the 21st Century? For many Christians, apologetics feels like an approach suited to an earlier century. A time when people in western nations had at least some biblical knowledge, and accepted the Bible as a book capable of providing evidence and opening up debate. But we can no longer presume an accepted view of the trustworthiness of the Bible. Today if you begin to ‘give an answer (for the) reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15) by quoting the Bible, it might just lead to the immediate query, ‘but where’s your evidence’? However, the need to give answers is still the same, and so are the deep needs of people. We must provide answers to questions about the Bible and Christianity.

 Part of the challenge for Christians is that while some of the questions asked are timeless (e.g. why is there suffering, how can a good God allow such and such?), many questions spring from developments that have occurred since the biblical texts were written. For example, the theory of evolution, the ability to enable conception, medical manipulation of life, or being able to identify deformities within the womb. There is always the potential for new theories, discoveries, or ideologies to conflict with (or appear to conflict with) established Christian understandings of the Bible and theology.

The intellectual context in which Christians strive to stand firm and hold out the word of life is constantly changing. This means that at least some of the stumbling blocks to Christian faith will be different now to those of previous centuries. For example, two significant and relatively recent objections to Christianity are the Bible’s teaching on women and homosexuality. Neither were hotly contested issues once, and there was broader universal acceptance of the Bible’s teaching on each. It seemed once, that broader culture and Christianity aligned on these issues. But today, as people cry ‘but I don’t care what the Bible says’, it has become imperative for Christians to be able to give an answer for their counter-cultural stances that are contested.

Another critical front for Christian apologetics is how we respond to the shameful failures of the church as well as broader society in relation to child abuse. The appalling revelation of child abuse within Christian as well as secular institutions, has led some to reject Christianity. Sadly, there is nothing we can do to change what has happened, and it can be hard for Christians to know what to say in the awkward space between shame and defence. In the latest edition of Case Magazine Helen Miller offers her insights into child abuse as a member of the Anglican Working Group appointed to respond to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Also addressed in Case Magazine is the ‘marketplace’ of ideas and religions that offer answers of one kind or another to the challenges of our increasingly diverse cultural landscape of our cities. Recent social research shows an increase in people referring to themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. The challenge here is not lack of evidence, but openness to multiple forms of spirituality and concomitant rejection of Christianity’s claims to uniqueness. Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson in this issue have explored different approaches to connecting with these seekers after spirituality, and share these with us here.

Unlike these developments, the perception that science conflicts with Christianity is not new, and excellent Christian scientists have been showing why this perception is unjustified for as long as the accusations have been made. However the voices of those who seek to use ‘science’ to undermine the credibility of Christianity are growing louder not quieter.  In Case #42 Chris Mulherin argues for the urgent need to continue to provide answers in this area.

There is also a need to reconsider how we do apologetics. Chris Swann deals with suspicions about an ‘apologia’ that drifts away from biblical defence. His argument is that the Bible should shape our apologetics and centre them on Christ in content, manner and method.

Andrew Laird and Kel Richards also offer excellent pieces that show that all can do apologetics. Kel Richards commends us to be good listeners who can are then led to see ‘iceberg tips’ that extend to deeper conversations, prayer and changed lives. Andrew Laird reminds us of the need for relationships of love with our friends and contacts, and the way that a simple meal and hospitality can allow relationships to grow and the gospel to be shared.

Our latest issue is rounded out with two interesting reviews. Tess Holgate provides an insightful review of Annabel Crabb’s 'The Wife Drought' that offers a different angle on gender stereotypes. Finally, Dani Scarratt reviews John Dickson’s new book 'A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible' that will end up on many people’s pile of ‘must read’ books. If you subscribe to Case you should have received issue 42. If not, you can still read one of the articles plus a review on our website (HERE) for free or subscribe for as little as $20 per year for four issues HERE.