My family and I traveled to England with some friends to celebrate Easter at Durham Cathedral. It was in every respect a delightful time and not least of which because of NT Wright’s sermon at the Sung Eucharist on Easter morning, “The Uncomfortable Truth of Easter.”
The following remarks from Bishop Wright’s sermon are directed specifically to the ongoing debate in Great Britain regarding a bill which would allow animal-human embryos to be created for scientific research.
Real Christianity, the full-glass version, is both the truth that makes sense of all other truth and the truth that offers itself as the framework within which those other truths will find their meaning. The one thing it doesn’t do, uncomfortably for today’s pluralistic world, is offer itself as one truth among many, or one version of a single truth common to all. And this discomfort – so disturbing that many people try to hush it up, to belittle it, to pat it on the head and say ‘there, there, that’s a nice thing to believe’ – comes out today in several areas, not least in some matters of urgent public debate. Let me just mention two.
First, the current controversy about embryo cloning. Our present government has been pushing through, hard and fast, legislation that comes from a militantly atheist and secularist lobby. The euthanasia bill was another example; defeated for the moment, but it’ll be back. The media sometimes imply that it’s only Roman Catholics who care about such things, but that is of course wrong. All Christians are now facing, and must resist, the long outworking of various secularist philosophies, which imagine that we can attain the Christian vision of future hope without the Christian God. In this 1984-style world, we create our own utopia by our own efforts, particularly our science and technology.
We create our Brave New World here and now; so don’t tell us that God’s new world was born on Easter Sunday. Continue reading
In his attempt to read the movie Gladiator as a cultural text (chapter 6 in Everyday Theology), Michael Sleasman makes the point that,
“Film has become the new text by which many around the globe now pose the crucial questions about life.”
Considering that nearly every youth pastor in the country obsessively quoted The Matrix when it reached blockbuster status (and only seemed to use the movie for illustrations rather than critical interaction of ideas), I think that this chapter is worth taking note of. Movies have, no doubt, reached new levels of influence with emerging generations, and in many ways, are landmarks for cultural self-awareness.
Sleasman lays out three key directions from which to analyze a movie text:
- The World-Behind-the-Text: “The world behind the text is most simply viewed as the background for a film, which may include genre, social context, cinematic influences, and most importantly the director.” P. 135
- Continue reading
What might it look like to read and interpret church architecture theologically?
In “Between City and Steeple” (Chapter 5 of Everyday Theology) Premkumar Williams invites us to pay attention, or read, the messages communicated by our church’s architecture, to engage architecture as a “cultural text” laden with messages.
Buildings introduce themselves by their sheer physical presence. Their size and scale, materials used, and sense of proportion and unity can draw our attention, bore us, or even repel us. Once past the initial ‘introduction,’ interesting buildings invite us to engage in a meaningful ‘conversation,’ holding out the promise of richer experiences embedded in their symbols and spaces (p. 127).
This is not a conversation I hear many people having.
Questioning Architectural Messages
Though Williams focuses here specifically on megachurch buildings, one could presumably apply these tools for theological interpretation to any church structure, no matter the size. Regarding the “how” of reading church structures, consider the following questions for developing an architectural “literacy”:
The Gospel According to Safeway: The Checkout Line and the Good Life
This is the first chapter that takes Vanhoozer’s method and applies it to a cultural “text,” that text being the checkout line at a grocery store. The authors of this chapter, while reflecting on the realities of the checkout line pose rhetorically:
“Have we entered the seventh heaven of hedonism.” (p.63)
They proceed to take us through the reality we all inevitably face, the gauntlet of impulse buys, candy, gift cards, novels, magazines with scantily clad women promising a better sex life, etc. In other words, the checkout line is both a reflection of our social virtues, as well as an alluring siren offering you everything you need to fulfil your desires. “The checkout line conveys a message, a message of what it means to live the ‘good life.'” (p. 64)
For our purposes here, there are two key elements I want to draw out. First, and underlying the chapter as a whole, is that we must not see these texts as random, but instead, as deliberate ways to address our desires. Second, the key foci of these attacks on our desires make up a “mini-summa of culture.” Continue reading
Kevin Vanhoozer was kind enough to respond to my query regarding the implementation of his vision in actual faith communities (see the previous post for his proposal). Here is my query followed by his response:
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?
This is an important discussion. I’m not sure, however, that my special gift lies in implementation so much as conception of ideas. However, if I were a pastor I would be sure to have film viewings, book discussions, and youth as well as Adult education classes that would engage past and present culture. As in church, so in seminary: Christian disciples need to learn to read not only the word of God but the world of God through the word of God. It’s all part of Christian world view formation, and of Christian world construction (by which I mean “cultivating Jerusalem in the midst of Babylon”).
If I were a pastor, I would try to exposit biblical passages in such a way that my sermons would illumine not only the text, but the world in which we live. I think such a “transposition” (what I have also called world-for-world translation) is every bit as important as the traditional “individual application.”
Many thanks to Kevin Vanhoozer for his thoughtful reply!
Is there anything else we would want to add or other ways to think about implementation?
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.” Continue reading
There are few theological tasks so necessary and underdeveloped as helping to train the church to think theologically about the world around them.
Because of this, we have decided to blog through the book Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Baker Academic, 2007), one of the books in Baker Academic’s thoughtful “Cultural Exegesis” line. It is not only the task of cultural exegesis that we find particularly relevant, but the method and layout of the book that caught our attention.
Vanhoozer and the other collaborators seek to address the question:
“What might ‘faith seeking understanding’ mean when applied not only the biblical text (the Word) but to everyday life (the world)” (p. 16)?
In this sense, this book is an attempt to bridge the gap between the theologically acute (and often culturally dim-witted) and the culturally acute (and often theologically dim-witted).
Vanhoozer calls for a heightened “cultural literacy,” an ability to read culture for the purpose of “critical engagement” rather than merely “passive consumption” (p. 18). It is an attempt, in many ways, to help define and discern what this world is that we are called to be “in” but not “of.” For the purpose of the blog, we will choose chapters selectively, starting with the methodology Vanhoozer lays out in the introductory chapter, and then looking at specific examples we found particularly helpful.
We will be blogging through Everyday Theology starting Feb. 25th.