Everyday Theology (5) » Interpreting Cultural Cadences

Jan Vermeer.Christ in the House of Mary and Martha.1654.Oil on CanvasI had low expectations for chapter seven of Everyday Theology (“The Business of Busyness: Or, What Should we Make of Martha?”) but was pleasantly surprised.

Thus far, we focused on cultural texts which present themselves in a relatively plain manner. There they are for all to see, or read. The far more difficult “texts” to recognize and interpret are the trends which take no physical form but are equally and powerfully present. Let’s call these cultural cadences or rhythms (Anderson calls them trends). To identify, read and interpret these, one needs an even greater capacity for discernment and wisdom. Sadly, this is something I saw in very short supply in my years of pastoral ministry.

Discernment is one of the most important tools in cultural hermeneutics. No text or trend is all good or bad – they always demonstrate signs both of creation (God’s original good intent) and the fall (with its corrosive effects from sin). Thus, we should expect to find points we can affirm and critique in any cultural work (p. 160)

Holy Busyness

What especially intrigued me about Anderson’s interaction with the cultural cadence of busyness was the subtle differentiation between “idolatrous busyness” and “holy busyness.” Continue reading


Jesus’ resurrection & the “putting-to-right of all things” » NT Wright’s Easter Sermon

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 embryo1.jpgmany, 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

Everyday Theology (4): Swords, Sandals, and Saviors

In his attempt to read the movie Gladiator as a cultural text (chapter 6 in Everyday Theology), Michael Sleasman makes the point that,gladiator

“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

Everyday Theology (3) » Reading Church Architecture

What might it look like to read and interpret church architecture theologically? notre-dame.jpg 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”:

Creation – Do our church buildings have anything to say about divine providence and stewardship of creation? Williams questions whether “inward looking spaces, closed to the outside and artificially giving a sense of nature, are detrimental to our spiritual well-being if they are the places where we cannot worship God as Creator.”

Culture – What does our church architecture say about the relationship between church and culture? For example, in many third world nations church services are carried out in open air buildings that “encourage us to sing our songs amid the world’s cacophony.” Most sanctuaries in which I have worshiped use windows for utilitarian purposes only and not strategically to invite reflection on the world outside the church walls.

Community – What do our church structures say about the level of value we place on community? Regarding the storefront-church.jpgauditorium alone (not often called a “sanctuary” any more), most Protestant ones are designed to direct the congregation members toward the stage so that the sermon is most efficiently communicated (not surprising considering the Reformation focus on the spoken Word).

Most church members have little say in the building process of new structures, and others worship in faith communities unable to build new spaces or significantly remodel their existing one. Is applying a theological hermeneutic to church structures only an academic exercise? I don’t think so. Though many cannot influence their church’s architecture, they can be more intentional regarding the ways their faith community uses their existing structures – as limited as those buildings might be. They can also become more aware of how their participation in the existing space has formative potential. That is, how does this space form their perception of the church, of their relationship to God, and to their community, nation, and world?

Related to church leaders, when given the opportunity to remodel or build will you consider the theological and liturgical significance of church architecture? And what will be the streams of influence that shape architectural decisions? Will those streams of influence be modern or ancient? Corporate or communal? Theological or pragmatic?

Any thoughts on this? What cultural messages does your church building communicate? How does its architecture contribute to the worship of your community – or does it conflict?

Everyday Theology (2)

The Gospel According to Safeway: The Checkout Line and the Good LifeSafeway

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 responds to my implementation query

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 inasburyseminaryvanhoozer.jpg 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?

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.” Continue reading