What might “faith seeking understanding” mean when applied not only to the biblical text but to everyday life?
So begins Kevin Vanhoozer’s introductory chapter to Everyday Theology. In other words, what would it look like to interpret and make sense of everyday life theologically, understanding the “patterns and products” of culture then “embodying gospel truth in compelling ways in contemporary contexts”? Let’s begin with a definition of culture and its effects.
What Culture is and does
Vanhoozer defines culture as that which is “made up of ‘works’ and ‘worlds’ of meaning” (p. 26). Concerning works of culture, they are the products created with the raw material of nature he calls “cultural texts.” Desperate housewives, Newsweek, billboards, and the Broadway musical Rent are all cultural texts. Additionally, culture is a world in that these cultural texts aren’t inert. They create worlds of meaning and programs for making sense of life; they “invite us in and encourage us to make our home there.” Important for Christians, the relationship between culture and God is an obvious one even if it is not always explicit: “Culture is the gesture a people makes toward the good life. It is the gesture – a shrug, a raised fist, folded arms, cupped hands – a people makes toward God.”
For Vanhoozer, the challenge for the Christian lies in these worlds of meaning that are created and projected by the “texts” that surround us. He explains,
These culturally created worlds present themselves accompanied by the whisper of their creators: ‘And behold, it is very good.’ There’s the rub. Should we accept their invitation? Should we appropriate the projected world, enter in, and pitch our tent? (p. 27)
For our spirits and for our mission
Vanhoozer describes the impact of such messages in terms of culture’s formative, or cultivating, power upon our spirits. Culture plays a powerful role, he urges, “cultivating our spirit’s in one way or another, sensitizing or desensitizing us, and enlivening or dulling our capacity to attend to various aspects of reality” (p. 32). In other words, there is no moment in life in which spiritual formation is not happening, no moment in which our spirit is not being cultivated by one influence (i.e. text) or another.
Additionally, cultural competence (learning to read culture) is critical for the mission of the church in the world. He explains this in theodramatic terms saying,
Christians need to become culturally literate…so that they can be sure that the scripts they perform in everyday life are in accord with the Scriptures – the story of what God is doing in Jesus Christ through the Spirit to give meaning and life to the world – rather than some other story (p. 34).
Thus, the rationale for cultural exegesis is clear: for the sake of their spirits and for the sake of the gospel, Christians need to read and interpret not only the gospel well, but to gain competence in doing the same with their culture and its “texts.”
Vanhoozer does equally well making a compelling case for the necessity of cultural exegesis (what we have seen thus far) as he does presenting a methodology of such engagement. Let me summarize with a formula he provides:
Christian culture agency = theological competence + cultural literacy + gospel performance (p. 55).
As I understand him, theological competence refers on the most basic level to my ability to understand the gospel – to interpret the Scriptures well and deliberate on them wisely – and to offer theologically “thick” descriptions of everyday texts and trends, products and practices. Cultural literacy indicates my capacity to (1) describe what is going on in culture and (2) read what it proposes about what it is to be human. Gospel performance describes my capacity to demonstrate more than understanding but to actually be a cultural agent, to perform the gospel in real world situations.
The remainder of our discussion on Everyday Theology will return again and again to some of these central threads as we consider their application to various “texts” such as supermarkets, church architecture, movies, busyness, and weddings.
Questions about Implementation
Vanhoozer’s chapter is worth the price of the book. It is compelling and theologically “thick.”
Yet, I was left with a few questions about implementation. This is how I posed the question to him a couple weeks ago: “What would it look like for a faith community who grasped the importance of cultural exegesis to cultivate these abilities in its people? You assert, “The church should be not only a ‘school of faith’ but a ‘school of understanding’ that trains the imaginations of its student-saints to see, judge, and act in the world as it really is ‘in Christ’” (p. 58). Could you imagine with us what it might look for a church to take on that calling of training cultural interpreters and live it out? Or for an educational institution like a Christian seminary to do the same?
Vanhoozer’s response will be posted shortly, but in the meantime – what do you think?