This video is sending my film theorist’s brain haywire. Signs and signifiers! Cultural appropriation! Eclecticism! Postmodernism! Post-feminism! Yey!
I haven’t had much time to update this thing lately (by the way, Lent went off the rails weeks ago), but I wanted to highlight a little design blog that has been a major source of delight to me in the past few days. Jim LePage is a graphic designer who decided to do an original design for each book of the Bible, and the results are fantastic. The actual designs themselves are quality, but what I also like is Jim’s honesty and his curiosity. He doesn’t gloss over the gnarlier bits of the Bible or things he doesn’t understand; rather, if something stands out to him (such as the fact that many of the Psalms are about cursing your enemies or his boredom at the minor prophets), he simply makes a feature of it. Yet, despite his sarcastic streak, Jim maintains a sense of reverence and wonder. Take a look:
Throughout this piece, I have argued that the film-theology dialogue needs to mature to become truly an exchange of ideas between film and theology, rather than simply an exchange of ideas about film within theology. I wish to reinforce this with a bolder assertion: if the discussion remains predominantly within its theology-heavy bubble it will lose momentum and stagnate. Providentially, the post-secular potential of mainstream academia (including film studies) is being met with a more progressive theology to engage with in Emergence Christianity, creating a fertile environment in which this discussion can establish itself and explore new terrain. One obvious upshot of this enquiry is that film critics and film studies scholars will be challenged to better inform themselves of the nuances of religion and theology:
…if [the dynamics of film] do not require religious or theological interpretation, they do more than merely permit such interpretation. The de facto function of film in contemporary Western culture at least suggests to interpreters operating within a cultural studies perspective that religion should not be overlooked when the reception of films is studied.
Not only could the emergent ethos positively impact the type of theology that film studies is met with, it also has potential to impact the way in which films are engaged with theologically – to help us more fully comprehend the subtleties of the dialogue, rather than relying on superficial interpretations. It is my contention that newly rediscovered theological paradigms such as parable and icon will prove much more profitable to the exchange of ideas than simply illustration, as these paradigms refer to theology in practice rather than in theory.
Given that many commentators are pointing to religion as a budding focus of academic attention in the near future, the potential of theology as an emerging focus within film theory means the film-theology dialogue could be of great interest to anyone interested in future developments within film theory. Whatever direction the discourse takes, cinema can provoke exploration, inspire prayer and meditation, jolt the soul, trigger personal transformation and invite us into different ways of being. An exploration of film’s theological dimension has copious potential to lead to a fuller understanding of cinema’s riches.
Marsh (2004: 143)
In the grand tradition of shameless self-promotion and content-laziness for which this blog is famed, I will be posting my MA dissertation in series over the next couple of posts. I definitely don’t think it’s my best work, but considering the lack of development within the field I think I did okay…
‘For Those with Ears to Hear’: Maturing the Dialogue Between Film and Theology
This study engages in an analytical exploration of the emerging conversation between film and theology. The dialogue thus far has shown much promise; however, it has remained firmly rooted within the domain of theology and has yet to break into widespread discussion within the largely secular domain of film studies. This, I will argue, may lead the discussion to stagnate out of insularity.
In order to remedy this problem and mature the discussion, this dissertation suggests ways in which the debate can be galvanized to operate out of a basis of film studies rather than theology; the rising level of interest in post-secularism within broader streams of academia seems to propose new alignments of priorities that could lead to theology being picked up by film studies as a valid conversation-partner. Emergence Christianity, a new stream of theology influenced by postmodernism represent an ideal conversation-partner for the post-secular academy, which will need to be met with a theology that is both self-aware and culturally astute.
After elucidating the parallel streams of academic thought that may allow this development to take place, I engage in a creative exploration of two potential avenues of study that may prove to be extremely rich terrain as theology emerges as a discourse within film studies – film as parable and film as icon. Through the case studies of Park Chan-Wook’s Lady Vengeance and Bill Viola’s The Passing, I demonstrate ways in which film scholars can engage with filmic texts theologically. Both paradigms suggested are models of spirituality rooted in ancient mysticism that are in the process of being rediscovered in the wake of postmodernism.
Finally, my interest in the film-theology dialogue is considered in terms of how it has influenced my own work as a film practitioner. I also submit several recommendations and ensuing implications regarding how the dialogue could progress once it enters post-secularism and the domain of film studies.
Since the early 1980s, an ever-increasing number of books have been published with the aim of establishing film as a conversation partner for theology and religious studies. Yet the language and syntax of the majority of these publications betray a certain bias; almost every scholar takes the discipline of theology as their starting point and seeks to integrate film/cultural studies into the discourse. A definitive edited volume, Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline, is tellingly funded by an institute of Fuller Theological Seminary. Gordon Lynch’s Understanding Theology and Popular Culture contains three sizeable chapters explaining different approaches to analysing popular culture, betraying an assumption that his target audience is unlikely to be well versed in cultural studies.
My interest lies in furthering the conversation’s development in the opposite direction – in exploring the possibilities afforded by introducing theology to a film studies basis. Academic writing from this perspective has thus far been thin on the ground; I believe, along with several key theorists such as Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton and Stanley Fish, that this is about to change:
When Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted to know what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered like a shot: religion.
Fish is not alone in his conjecture about “the return to the theological in our time”. In the aftermath of the failure of modernity’s coherent metanarrative, postmodern critique of the Enlightenment quest for unadulterated reason is leading to a growth in interest in the theological within academia, particularly within the domain of philosophy, and yet philosophical enquiry is not the only domain to experience this new direction:
In a postmodern era more and more scholars are challenging the boundary between faith and knowledge, acknowledging the importance of religion as a social phenomenon and as a way of knowing. Articles on the return of religion can be found in a dozen disciplines, including art, English, philosophy, music, political science, social work, medicine, history, and sociology.
If current trends continue, I submit that other areas of scholarship will not remain untouched by post-secularism, including film studies. A burgeoning interest in theological discussion among film scholars would seem to be the most expedient vehicle for the development of the film-theology dialogue in the direction of placing a greater emphasis on film studies and cultural theory.
The Dialogue So Far – Strengths and Weaknesses
Thus far, the film-theology dialogue has been firmly rooted within the domain of theology. The emphasis has been limited to how film can be used within and as the servant of theology; this applies as much to amateur contributions to the conversation (for example, when churches use films as sermon illustrations) as to academic discourse on the subject (such as when film is used as a means to the end of illustrating theological concepts such as atonement, redemptive violence and gospel narratives). Great strides have been made in recent years to complexify and broaden the dialogue beyond its preliminary concerns – for instance, Clive Marsh succinctly and effectively underlines fourteen theses which he sees as primary concerns for the debate at this point, and elsewhere there have been calls to extend the conversation-partners within the debate including interreligious dialogue, as well as to broaden the selection of cinema under discussion. Lynch’s volume assembles key aims and methods which scholars have had little time to discuss before. These kinds of clarifications and questions are vital at this stage in the discipline’s life.
Nevertheless, there is great potential to be found in the inverse approach – using theology as a servant to film theory. However, issues of theology, religion and spirituality have remained relatively untouched by film theorists. This is primarily to do with a credibility gap concerning how religion is viewed in broader streams of academia.
Tomorrow: Post-secularism and emergence Christianity
 Johnston, Robert K. (2007b) ‘Introduction: Reframing the Discussion’, in Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 15
 Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007a) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic.
 Lynch, Gordon (2005) Understanding Theology and Popular Culture. Malden, Blackwell Publishing.
 Žižek, Slavoj (2009) ‘The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity’, in Davis, Creston (ed.) (2009) The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Cambridge, The MIT Press: 24-109
 Eagleton, Terry (2009) Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. London, Yale University Press.
 Fish, Stanley (2005). ‘One University Under God?’. Available: http://chronicle.com/article/One-University-Under-God-/45077. Last accessed 10th January 2010.
 Davis, Creston (2009) ‘Introduction: Holy Saturday or Resurrection Sunday? Staging an Unlikely Debate’, in Davis, Creston (ed.) (2009) The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?. Cambridge, The MIT Press: 2-23
 For example: Caputo, John (2007) What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic; Davis, Creston (ed.) (2009a) The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Cambridge, The MIT Press.
 Mahoney, Kathleen and Schmalzbauer, John (2005) ‘Religion and Knowledge in the Post-Secular Academy’. Purdue University Indianapolis [online]. Available: http://www.iupui.cedu/~raac/downloads/Essays/Schmalzbauer.pdf. Last accessed 14th September 2010.
 See, for example: Mars Hill Church (2010) ‘Film and Theology’. Available: http://www.marshillchurch.org/media/cinemagogue. Last accessed 24th September 2010; Missiongathering (2010) ‘God in Film: The Hurt Locker’. Available: http://itunes.apple.com/podcast/missiongathering-christianity/id164303465. Last accessed 24th September 2010.
 See eg. Graham, David John (1997) ‘The Uses of Film in Theology’, in Marsh, Clive and Ortiz, Gaye (eds.) (1997) Explorations in Theology and Film. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers: 35-44
 Eg. The discussion of The Shawshank Redemption in Marsh (2004: 45-59)
 Seay, Chris and Garrett, Greg (2003) The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix. Colorado Springs, Piñon Press.
 Marsh (2004)
 Lyden, John (2007) ‘Theology and Film: Interreligious Dialogue and Theology’, in Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 205-218
 Ortiz, Gaye (2007) ‘World Cinema: Opportunities for Dialogue with Religion and Theology’, in Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007a) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 73-87
 Lynch (2005)
At the end of my last post on the subject, I posited (not without substantiation) that Christendom is currently undergoing a detox of sorts to purge some of the gunk that has built up over the last five centuries or more. So what’s the gunk?
In short, the “gunk” is modernism, the train of thought in Western philosophy that arose out of the Enlightenment/modernity (meaning the historical timeline after the Middle Ages). Enlightenment thinking advocated reason as the primary source of truth and authority. Now, I firmly believe the development of linear thinking was a precious gift, but when it becomes the over-arching, all-encompassing theory of existential thought, there are major problems. On a profane level, it has led (particularly with late modernity) to secularism and Dawkins-esque thinking. On a spiritual level, it has led to the type of faith Rob Bell illustrates very well in this anecdote:
Somebody recently gave me a videotape of a lecture given by a man who travels around speaking about the creation of the world. At one point in his lecture, he said that if you deny that God created the world in six literal twenty-four-hour days, then you are denying that Jesus ever died on the cross. It’s a bizarre leap of logic to make, I would say.
But he was serious.
It hit me while I was watching him that for him faith isn’t a trampoline; it’s a wall of bricks. Each of the core doctrines for him is like an individual brick that stacks on top of the others. If you pull one out, the whole wall starts to crumble…
[Last week] somebody showed me a letter from the president of a large seminary who is raising money to help him train leaders who will defend Christianity. The letter went on about the desperate need for defense of the true faith. What disturbed me was the defensive posture of the letter, which reflects one of the things that happens in brickworld: you spend a lot of time talking about how right you are. Which of course leads to how wrong everyone else is. Which then leads to defending the wall. It struck me reading the letter that you rarely defend a trampoline. You invite people to jump on it with you.
Rob Bell, “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith”, pg 26-27
[I should probably give you a heads-up at this point that I’m largely going to be making my points through hefty quotations, as I deem others to have expressed this material much better than I could.]
Peter Rollins sums up the modernistic impulse behind the man in Bell’s story:
At a very basic level the creationist judges the truth of faith as a factual claim that can be externalized from the one considering it, objectified, and dispassionately reflected upon. For the creationist the truth affirmed by Christianity can then, in principle, be proven via the same empirical processes as those embraced in classical scientific theory, because it is fundamentally of the same substance as the objects studied in science. Of course, the creationist can be seen to engage in bad science, and this is no doubt what the evolutionary biologists are reacting against. My point here, however, is not related to the debate itself but rather to how the creationist’s approach to religious truth presupposes that the truth of faith is on the same level as scientific statements…Yet, such an approach seems foreign to the unconditional commitment that is demanded of authentic believers, a commitment described by Paul as one that involves becoming a living sacrifice. Distancing oneself from one’s faith asks that believers engage with the deepest, most intimate, most personal, and most pressing issue in their lives in the guise of a detached, disinterested observer…
To be a believer would thus require some hefty subscriptions to the latest academic journals in order to see if the truth claims of Christianity could still be regarded as plausible, or even possible. Philosophy journals would become a stable diet for the preacher who would, in fear and trembling, be working out whether belief in Christianity is still rational.
Peter Rollins, “The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief”, pg 88-94
Cornel West understands modernist discourse to be influenced by three main processes: the rise of the scientific worldview, the Cartesian remodelling of philosophy (Descartes was the philosopher who deemed that the mind was sufficient to prove or disprove God) and our re-enchantment with Hellenism. The Greek mindset, as opposed to that of Hebraism, is concerned with analysing life according to precise categories and linear logic. The Hebrew mindset, out of which the Bible was written, had no trouble embracing mystery and complexity. Greeks were concerned with knowing; Hebrews with doing. Our adoption of the mindset of Athens is evidenced in the way in which many Christian circles seem overly focussed on issues of systematic theology and the differentiation between orthodoxy and heresy, regardless of whether or not these doctrines have any practical outworking in believers’ lives. In contrast, West suggests a more appropriate conception of Christian truth:
The paradox of the Christian tradition is that it precludes its own descriptions from grasping the truth; that is, the Christian notion of the fallenness of human creatures does not permit even Christian descriptions to be true. This is so, because, for Christians, Jesus Christ is the Truth and the reality of Jesus Christ always already rests outside any particular Christian description.
For Christians, truth is not a property, characteristic, or attribute of a theory, portrayal, and description, not even a Christian description. Rather, Jesus Christ is the Truth, a reality which can only be existentially appropriated (not intellectually grasped) by fallen human beings caught in ever-changing finite descriptions…
If there is any test for the “truth” of particular Christian descriptions, it is their capacity to facilitate the existential appropriation of Jesus Christ. This means that any “true” Christian description makes the reality of Jesus Christ available.
Cornel West, “Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity”, pg 98
To be continued..
This is just a little bit of thinking-out-loud for me as I try and get my rhetoric round a few concepts in time for writing my docu voice-over. Read, or don’t read, whatever…
About two-and-a-half years ago, I began a process of questioning, wrestling and researching that led me from a state of quasi-agnosticism (or nominal, disengaged Christianity at best) to vital, captivated faith in Christ. I don’t know if this was a case of re-engaging with faith I had as a child or finding it for the first time – either way, whereas years ago I was genuinely baffled by people who said things like “I love Jesus” (how does that work exactly?), today that is not just an abstract concept to me.
One of the biggest barriers to my journey back to faith was mainstream Christianity. I was raised Catholic, which I found mind-numbingly dull; so although there were parts of the Jesus narrative that I had found beautiful as a child, these were choked out by my bad experiences at church.
As an adolescent, my political consciousness became increasingly engaged and I grew evermore resentful of the sexist, homophobic, rigid and hierarchical nature of church dogma. This compounded what I perceived as the arrid spiritual landscape of dry Catholic ritual (sorry mum). The alternatives – mainline Protestant or Evangelicalism – were no solution; these people were still grappling with evolution, fer fucks sake! So my resentment with Christianity grew and I stopped going to church as soon as I moved away from home.
Eventually, during my gap year in Québec, I found a beautiful, vibrant Christian community (St Martha’s in the Basement, at McGill University in Montréal) that was everything I didn’t even know I was looking for. Inclusive, critically engaged, informal, non-hierarchical, feminist-friendly and passionate about social justice, it was basically a church for people who didn’t like church (people like me, then). In this welcoming environment, my faith grew and grew.
I can’t remember when I first heard the term ’emerging church’; it was probably shortly after I returned to the UK and started attending a grace-based (although more conservative) Vineyard church. The stuff people were writing about chimed strongly with my positive experiences with St M’s; thus I have felt a natural affinity with EC writers and have continued to find emergence thinking to be a vital part of my theology and faith. Whether or not I self-identify as emergent is a matter I will address later on.
I suppose at this point I should clarify what I mean by “emergence theology”. The EC is, in many ways, a reaction, a backlash against something intuited as distastful within mainstream Christianity. There is a disillusionment with organised Christianity; its perceived rigidity and misguidedness. But where some people deal with this problem by walking away from Jesus altogether, emergents attempt to use Christianity’s own internal resources to regenerate the ailing church from within, stemming from the conviction that there must be more to this whole “following Jesus” thing than we’ve been told.
This may, to some, sound like bratty anti-authoritarianism (and I’m sure for a few it is just that) but it becomes less so when you consider the movement’s historical context. Phyllis Tickle, among others, has observed that “every 500 years, the church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale”. That is, there are seasons in the church’s life where she becomes too hardened in her doctrines and constructs and needs to undergo some sort of detox. IMHO, we are long overdue one of these, and it is indeed apparent that we are on the verge of one.
So, if these happen on roughly a “once every 500 years” timeframe, what toxins have been building up over the last 5 centuries that we need to get rid of? This is the question I’ll be addressing in my next post on the subject…
 I should clarify here that when I talk about things such as ‘re-envisaging’, ‘deconstructing’ (etc.) Christianity, I am speaking of the social/cultural construct of Christianity, rather than the reality that Christianity points to, for while we cannot deconstruct or reimagine God, we can always rework our concepts of God, which are frail, human, (in some cases) socially constructed and in constant need of critique.
I spent yesterday afternoon relearning the implications of the G.K Chesterton quote that this blog takes its name from:
Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion…The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
Oh to be able to let an unformed thought remain unformed without regret! I had many of those yesterday afternoon as I worked my way through Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith by Shane Hipps on my way home from London. Every page blew my mind in a different way, and the book’s intimations have huge implications for my dissertation, my personal projects, my creativity and even my very theology. It threw up some thoughts I’d already been chewing on for a while but mixed them in with other insights I would NEVER have come up with on my own, and cohered them in fascinating ways. As a result, I had random thoughts popping up all over the place at random, the majority of which I was unable to capture.
Here is one particular gem, talking about the repercussions that the invention of the printing press had on Christianity:
The impact of the print medium is nearly endless…It even reshaped the gospel. The values of efficiency and linear sequence, which became more entrenched in the Western world with each passing decade, changed the way the gospel was conceived. Under the force of the printed word, the gospel message was efficiently compressed into a linear sequential formula:
APOLOGIZE FOR YOUR SINS + BELIEVE JESUS = GO TO HEAVEN
Such a stunning compression of the gospel would not have been possible prior to the age of the printed word. Medieval cathedrals told the stories of the Bible in elaborate stained-glass windows. They presented the seeker with a vast array of vague impressions representing the grand sweep of the biblical narrative – the message was far from distilled. But this new, abstract, linear formulations gained ascendancy in a culture that increasingly communicated via the abstract, linear nature of the printed word…
The printing press not only resuscitated the letters of Paul, it also helped cultivate the reasoning skills necessary in culture to comprehend his message…Problems arose, however, when linear reasoning was pushed to the extreme. The medium reversed, as all media eventually do when overextended. Linear reasoning became the primary means of understanding and propagating faith. This led to a belief that the gospel could be established and received only through reason and fact. Printing makes us prefer cognitive modes of processing while at the same time atrophying out appreciation for mysticism, intuition and emotion.
[P]erhaps the most damaging effect of suppressing the heart is that it deadens desire. That deep longing for life, love and God fades. Insteadm we come to expect less from life. We acquire the bland taste of a domesticated god who resides somewhere in our head.
The book goes on to make all sorts of different connections about various technologies and their impact on our faith, such as how the invention of the telegraph and the resultant overabundance of information dislocated from context led to relativism’s denial of absolute truth, or how image culture has, amidst other more negative consequences, restored the importance of the right brain and “serving as a helpful corrective to the tyranny of fixed categories”.
This all raises interesting questions about the nature of belief in Jesus – at what point does a person become “saved”?* When did the disciples become “saved”? I think the notion of a continuum is more helpful than that of an on/off switch – is your trajectory pointed towards Jesus or away? I’m a big believer that you can’t lose your salvation because you didn’t earn it in the first place, but at what point do you receive it? A lot of Kingdom theology (about prayer, healing, supernatural things etc) depends on the concept of someone being “in Christ”, and rightly so. Simply put, if someone is a disciple of Christ, they have authority (like when Jesus says to his disciples that he has given them the keys to the kingdom). But surely that means there must be a point at which you are given this authority which you did not have before? Plus, Pauls letters seem to echo this “one minute you’re an unbeliever/next minute you’re a new creation” thinking. But, Hipps rightly questions the way this mode of thinking has been pumped up on steroids since the print age:
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Thomas had died just seconds before his finger touched the wound. his man followed Jesus faithfully for three years as a friend and a disciple, but in that last moment before touching Jesus’ wounds he didn’t truly believe. Thomas was a follower of Jesus who wasn’t a believer. What do we do with this category with people? What does that mean for his eternal destiny?
I’m definitely not against linear categories. I think that sometimes you have to understand principles rationally before you understand them in your heart through God’s revelation. That’s how it’s often been for me – I understood the concept of grace by reading the last few chapters of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God in my head before I really got it in my head. Likewise, when my church were doing our “healing on the streets” training, where we learned about praying for the sick, it was vital that we understood our authority as children of God in a concrete way. Emotions and right-brain experience wouldn’t have taught us this on the same level, I don’t think. This is the approach employed by Jesus himself in this case – while he often spoke in cryptic parable form, thus inviting people into a deeper way of being rather than simply transmitting information, when he was teaching his disciples about practical things like performing miracles or mission, he always spoke with clear instructions.That said, understanding is not enough. I understand the principles of my status in the Kingdom of God as a believer (I have the authority to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and cast out demons”), but am in need of ever-greater revelation from God of the depth of this authority so I can actually walk in this reality. Sometimes you need to understand things on a head level before your heart kicks in.
The way Shane wraps the book up is the best bit. He goes on to relate the whole “medium is the message” thing to Jesus (message+medium inseparable) and the church (we are the medium, therefore God’s message is transmitted through us as we try to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world. If we, the medium, suck, the world doesn’t get the message, it’s as simple as that). Aaand that totally doesn’t do justice to how well he wraps up the book.
Anyway, I was going to list a few of the unformed thoughts that my brain spewed up while reading Flickering Pixels, but those last few paragraphs were actually several of the aforementioned nebulous thoughts and I can’t remember any of the rest of them. But maybe I should start collecting and celebrating my unfinished pensées, a bit like Mr Oizo:
*I actually really hate this word…
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post on a pretty popular emergent church blog. The essay was quite well-received despite being rather clunkily written IMHO (told you I was new to writing about faith) and resulted in some meaty and very constructive (to me anyway) discussion which helped me refine a few of my thoughts. I have intended to write a follow-up post for some time now, but it looks like that might have to wait until another day. For now, I just wanted to pick up on some thoughts triggered by a comment one of the main commenters made:
In my journey i have found prayer to be a difficult thing. i was always taught it is a conversation with G-D. Yet, i have increasingly found it difficult to have a conversation with something i cannot tangibly see/feel/converse with. i do agree G-D through the Holy Spirit does do the changing, but i kinda see our lives as an act of prayer…
This seems to be a frequent insight made by people in the emerging church (I heard a similar sentiment expressed by Peter Rollins in a Greenbelt talk recently, can’t remember which one though). I think it’s very perceptive, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot this summer (I’ve been reading a lot about environmental and economic justice for example). Here’s an example I gave:
I could walk around the supermarket listening to worship music on my iPod and feel all loved-up and close to God, but meanwhile I could be loading my basket with products like Coca-Cola, Nescafe, battery eggs and cheap factory-farmed meat. In my head, I could think I’m worshipping, but in my shopping basket I am doing the opposite, I’m living as though my life revolves around my own interests.
I also appreciate the necessity of self-critique (both individually and institutionally – I have been doing a lot of the former recently, in very constructive ways…more on that later). However, there are a few things I find kinda problematic.
Firstly, I worry that all these new insights gained from deconstructing conventional wisdom (which is necessary to a certain extent) might lead to our abandonment of former important insights. As an example, let’s take the shift in thinking the other commenter had been discussing (actually she goes on to express a more nuanced view than I’m doing here, I’m only using her comment as an example because I couldn’t find any others!):
POSITION A – Prayer as conversation/relationship/intimacy with God. Some people I have come across find relating to a being as transcendent and unrelatable as God very difficult and so move to…
POSITION B – Prayer as lifestyle, wherein we remain mindful of our actions, what we buy, how we relate to people and that becomes our prayer/offering to God, rather than just talking.
The latter, I think, is a fantastic way to pray, and one I can see as bearing much fruit. However, I think it is inherently problematic to completely abandon A in favour of B without seeking a healthy ‘both/and’ tension between the two, and for several reasons. While I take seriously the postmodern critique of modernism’s ‘conceptual idolatry’, I think that becoming so aware of God’s transcendence that we lost all intimacy with him is risky business. Jesus’ incarnation itself hints at God’s approachability – not to mention the cross tearing down any remainder of a barrier between us and God. Moreover, Jesus prayed and taught others to address God as ‘Abba’ (equivalent of ‘daddy’), which would have been absolutely scandalous to Hebrew ears. Again – big scary God is actually receptive to intimacy with us.
I think that first and foremost – before actions, deeds, words or any other fruit we might bear, God desires relationship with us. I mean, come on – why else would be allow us to partner with him in his plans?
My pastor illustrated this point in the most spot-on way possible in a sermon he did about a year ago when he related how during the previous summer he had let his young sons help him build them a playhouse as a kind of father-son bonding exercise. Of course, their actual contribution to the carpentry itself was minimal, if not downright hindrous, but he enjoyed spending time with the kids more than the actual building work itself. When recounting this story later, my pastor’s friend had a profound insight: “That’s kind of like the church”. Think about it. God does NOT need our help to unleash the church. The very fact that he chooses to release it in and through us humans is preposterous – we fuck everything up. We limit what God can do, we misrepresent the Jesus movement, we tame it, and – most tragically – when we get it badly wrong we do irreparable damage to others’ faith, turning many Christians away from God and many non-Christians off the concept of God in the first place. We besmirch God’s reputation. Our very involvement is counterproductive. There must be a spectacularly good reason why God even lets us in on the action in the first place. And I think it’s the same reason why my pastor wanted his sons to help him build the playhouse – God just wants us around! Whether we do a good job or not is a secondary concern (though not at all unimportant).
This is the main insight I get from Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
The whole ‘away from me, I never knew you’ thing suggests to me that we can do loads of things for God, but our primary task is to make ourselves known. Yes, God is very big and very scary and to be overwhelmed is a very apt response. But since God so desires relationship with us, we must endeavour to get past this barrier after a while.
The other main point I wanted to make is that malpractise does not negate biblical truth. In the aformentioned emergent-blog-post, I talked a lot about intercessory prayer and kingdom authority, and a few commented that they had seen this type of prayer used as a kind of power tool by charismatic communities. However, just because in practise some people misinterpret certain concepts does not mean that we should abandon these practises!
To take another example from Peter Rollins, in this podcast (which is well worth a listen) he talks about how the real miracle of Christianity is personal transformation rather than physical healing miracles and manifestations of the Holy Spirit (starts about 1/3 of the way in). I couldn’t agree more! However, my concern is that in embracing this important insight, we would walk away from things like physical healing etc. Healing prayer, intercessory prayer – all these things need to be critiqued at times to ensure we are still thinking critically and to prevent malpractise. However, if their critique or deconstruction leads to walking away from them altogether, then we have a problem. We are losing some of the tools God gave us to bring about the Kingdom of God – tools that Jesus clearly thought mattered and are all over the Bible. Yes, personal transformation and its outworkings are perhaps the most important factors in the Jesus movement. However, let’s not ignore the other resources that we have at our disposal – we need everything God has given us!
My whole life I have been an avid reader; from the fantasy books of my childhood, to the feminist writers of my late teens, through a brief blogs-only phase, right up the the present day and my theology-book addiction. I’ve devoured Christian book after Christian book in the past year – so much so that I have learned to love the Faith Mission bookstores I used to scorn, and I could probably single-handedly keep Amazon in business. I mostly pick my reads based on topics of interest (such as postmodernism, sexuality or church leadership) or friends’ recommendations, but every so often I’ll be strolling around a bookstore and something will just catch my eye. Normally, I’ll pick it up, peruse it, then put it down again and go on my merry way. A few hours or days later I’ll remember the book and think ‘hey, I wish I was reading that right now, it looked interesting’. Then the next time I see the book I’ll feel an urge to pick it up again, think ‘naw, girl, spend that cash on groceries or something’, flip through it again, think ‘oh hell, why not’, and buy the stupid book.
Now, there could be some sort of divine whisper guiding me through the process, or it could be that I’d put a bit too much cheddar on my pasta the previous evening, but pretty much every time this has happened, the book has been exactly what I needed at that time. The most recent book I purchased in this way is Brian McLaren’s ‘More Ready Than You Realise: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix’.
There are two things I love about this book. Firstly, it’s drawn together a lot of disparate thoughts I’d been wrestling with over the past few months on the subject, and given a lot of shape to my otherwise disorganised hypotheses. Secondly, it has not only given voice to a few of my intuitions, but it’s provided me with challenge, encouragement, ideas and plenty of ‘woah, why have I never thought of it like that?’ moments.
From the first chapter –
Evangelism in the postmodern world has to be less like an argument. This is not to say it will not be logical, but rather that it will not be about winning or losing, which is why I think the image of dance works so well. Dance is not about winning and losing. When the music ends, you do not sneer at your partner and say, “Gotcha! I won that dance, 7 to 3!” And if you try to pull someone into a dance against her will, the term we use to describe that behaviour is not “bold dancing” but rather “assault”.
…Kirkegaard also uses the metaphor of being a midwife, a metaphor borrowed from Socrates. The evangelist is never coercive, pushy, combative; rather, she is patient and gentle like a midwife, knowing that the giving of life takes time and cannot be rushed without potentially lethal damage.
The whole book is worth a read, but I wanted to highlight a few points that really stood out to me.
1) In chapter 18 (some chapters are quite short), McLaren talks about ‘the communal factor’ – how conversion and discipleship normally happen in the context of a community acting as a portal into the Kingdom of God:
You are part of something bigger, something Paul called “the body of Christ”…So one of the best things you can do for your friends who don’t yet know and love Jesus is to introduce them to your other friends who do…In the context of imperfect but vibrant Christian community (even just two or three of you!), the message of Christ will come alive in a way that a disembodied book or lecture never could convey.
This is one of the aforementioned ‘why have I never thought of that before?’ moments. Of course! Any friends I have who don’t know and love Jesus, I’ve been expecting them to get curious just by witnessing his work in my life. But why would they? I’m just one little (lousy) example. If I really want the Kingdom of God to become vibrant and 3D and attractive to others, they need to see a few more pieces of the puzzle.
2) One big thing I’d been struggling with this year is having to have answers, or to ‘win the argument’, which is something this book addresses. On one hand, I think it’s important to know why you believe, on the other hand, it’s just not my thing. The reason why I’ve been thinking about it is that a big reason why I believe is Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God (which is spectacular, by the way) – it’s a well-written book on apologetics that helped me enormously at a time when I was confused about what *exactly* Christianity was. But in the book Keller shares stories of times he’s challenged someone’s belief system in a very pithy way, and indeed that’s exactly what the book did for me, so I’ve been feeling some pressure to be able to ‘defend’ Christianity in much the same way…which is something Keller does extremely well, but is really not my style. This book helped me realise what I’d kind of been intuiting – that keeping the conversation going and being a safe person to talk to is much more important than being able to make a sales pitch.
3) This is definitely a topic for another post, but somne stuff he said helped me flesh out some ideas I’ve been wrestling with on apologetics…again, topic for another post…
All in all, the book has inspired me in many many ways, and made me want to start new discussions on ‘do-able evangelism’ with my peers…
I’ll post more thoughts at a later date on why I am interested in evangelism – something I used to consider a four-letter word.