Everyday Theology (1) » Reading and Interpreting Culture

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

942611_22688874.jpgVanhoozer 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.”

A Formula for Christian cultural agencytext.jpg

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?


5 thoughts on “Everyday Theology (1) » Reading and Interpreting Culture

  1. Kevin,
    Thanks for that introduction. Any recommendations on how cultural exigesis is done or how one becomes culturally literate?

    With so called “globalization” is it possible to map how this can be done for so many cultures.

    Waiting with eagerness for the second article.

  2. You will find some helpful detail in Prof. Vanhoozer’s chapter on the “how” of cultural exegesis and literacy that I didn’t outline here.

    Regarding your question about “globalization”, my hunch is that the tools he outlines aren’t culturally limited – meaning they would be applicable in any culture, even the increasingly global culture many of us are experiencing.

    Perhaps Vanhoozer could answer your question more completely. We have invited him into the conversation.


  3. I think his heart is in the right place, but he is coming from a modern anthropological basis, as you have depicted him. Cultural exegesis for the purpose of mission is limited because you can only learn so much about a culture from its texts. What is compelling about the Christian narrative, as much as what it says, is how it is embodied. As someone who is progressive, I shudder when people constantly make assumptions about me and my beliefs based on the cultural products of Christian media.

    I am also concerned about the phrase “theological competence” which is incredibly relative. What does it say to those who are mentally disabled or who come from a cultural context where they take much longer to understand the maxims and symbols of one kind of Christianity? How do denominational diffrerences come into account.

    Finally, I have one faculty member at my divinity school right now who has questioned the “theological competence” of Vanhoozer. I think it is unfair of him to say the least, but it illustrates how proper understandings are hard to come by.

    Media literacy, which is the movement that Church groups who advocate cultural engagement, is done on a scale. A person never reaches a point of absolute media literacy. Just like a piano player may always have a harder piece to learn (Chopsticks to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and onto Bill Joel then Bach…). I think it is a helpful process for the Church, but the motivation must be examined. If the purpose of encountering a narrative is to out-narrate it (and sometimes it should be, such as with the narrative of conspiracy theorists, for example), then the dialogue is already broken down. And humility, a core Christian virtue, is already lost.

    But I could be wrong.

  4. Craftless, the thrust of Kevin’s chapter and the book as a whole is not “mission” in terms of going into a foreign culture to understanding it, but instead, coming to understand the messages that are bombarding you in the culture in which you live and breathe. Therefore, culture exegesis is interpreting the embodied reality of your own cultural context. The first purpose then is understanding what message you are receiving from culture, before any missional purpose is parsed out. So it is not people making assumptions about you based on Christian media, but your own theological interpretation of Christian media.

    I appreciate your thoughts about the seemingly relative nature of the task, but I honestly don’t feel the force of the critique. Is the point that because we can’t do it perfectly, or because there are possible scenarios where well meaning believers couldn’t do it, that we shouldn’t bother doing it at all? I think that this discussion has the same issues that biblically hermeneutics has, but I don’t think we should stop because we can’t compare one pastor to another on a scale and decide which one is the better exegete.

    The point of cultural hermeneutics seems to be, from my point of view, a task of growing in wisdom. The task is both individual and communal, and isn’t necessarily for the purpose of “out-narrating” it necessarily, as much as recognizing that it is a “text” which affects your (singular and plural) engagement with and in God’s world.

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