Tag Archives | culture

Models of Contextual Theology | Stephen B. Bevans

The cover of Bevans' Models of Contextual TheologyAll theology is culturally conditioned. In scripture we see Israel trying to make sense of God while exiled in Babylon. You can also consider Paul who brought a peculiarly Jewish message to the nations.

The need to carefully think through our contextualization of the gospel is more important now than ever given the globalization of our world. We cannot effectively communicate the gospel in other cultures unless we can derobe the gospel of its North American clothes and re-clothe it in the host culture.

Bevans offers five models to understand the way we do this:

  1. Translation Model: This is the most conservative of the models. The goal is to use the images and metaphors of the host culture to explain the gospel. Essentially, we translate theology using the functional or dynamic equivalence method.
  2. Anthropological Model: This is the most radical of the models. While in the translation model the highest emphasis was placed on gospel and tradition, in the anthropological model the highest value is on seeing and explaining how God is at work within the other culture.
  3. Praxis Model: This model places the highest value on social change. This is essentially the model of liberation theology.
  4. Synthetic Model: This model attempts to take the middle road, using the strengths of each of the preceding models.
  5. Transcendental Model: This model is based on existential philosophy. The goal is the transformation of the subject doing the theology rather than the theology or culture.

These models are not mutually exclusive, nor is one better than another. The models help us to think through how we communicate the gospel in diverse contexts.

Bevans, Stephen B. Models of Contextual Theology. Faith and Culture Series: An Orbis Series on Contextualizing Gospel and Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992.

But What If We’re Wrong? | Chuck Klosterman

The cover of Klosterman's But What if We're Wrong?In 500 years, what will people remember about our era? What music will be remembered? What authors? Which scientific and technological insights will be the path to greater understanding and which will be nothing more than footnotes in a history book?

Klosterman writes about these topics with extreme scepticism. If a candidate seems like a logical choice for canonization (i.e. The Beatles will represent twentieth century music), it’s likely wrong. He argues this way by examining the past. The people we remember are not necessarily the most popular or logical choices for posterity. We remember people because they resonate with our current values.

In But What If We’re Wrong?, Klosterman has written some of his best cultural criticism. He sees everything we take for granted with an odd slant. After all, “the juice of life is derived from arguments that don’t seem obvious” (92). Klosterman’s trademark sense of humour and entertaining use of footnotes are in full display.

The rock critic turned cultural analyst has written another insightful book that draws on his knowledge of music and culture while stretching his boundaries. Read and prepare to question everything.

—Chuck Klosterman, But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2006).

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs | Chuck Klosterman

The cover of Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa PuffsI’ll be the first to admit it. This is one of the more unlikely titles you’ll see reviewed by this pastor. Klosterman is Coupland without a conscience—Žižek without political science. He wears the black hat proudly and although you might cringe at some of the things he confesses to, he comes off as strangely honest in his admitted depravity.

I read Klosterman for two reasons:

  1. He is wickedly funny.
  2. His analysis of popular culture reveals the heart of our society.

This was even true in the last essay in this collection, “How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found,” which is an analysis of the Left Behind phenomenon. Here’s how he unpacks (acerbically yet truthfully) the effect believing that you’re right has on people’s humility:

There is no sophisticated reason for believing in anything supernatural, so it really comes down to believing you’re right. This is another example of how born agains are cool—you’d think they’d be humble, but they’ve got to be amazingly cocksure. And once you’ve crossed over, you don’t even have to try to be nice; according to the born-again exemplar, your goodness will be a natural extension of your salvation. Caring about orphans and helping the homeless will come as naturally as having sex with coworkers and stealing office supplies. If you consciously do good works out of obligation, you’ll never get into heaven; however, if you make God your proverbial copilot, doing good works will just become an unconscious part of your life. (238)

Now, I know I could challenge the misconceptions in this paragraph (just as I could pull apart the theological naivety behind the Left Behind books). It’s clear from his comments on sophistication that he’s simply never read any sophisticated Christian. Put those thoughts aside, though and hear what he says. This is what the Left Behind phenomenon conveys of Christians to one of the smartest cultural critics around.

It’s not just religion Klosterman focuses on. In fact, religion is one of the smaller themes in his writing. He is at home discussing movies, music, sports, and all the other forms of entertainment we consume.

Now do you see why this pastor reads Klosterman?

—Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto (New York: Scribner, 2003, 2004).

Sabbath as Resistance | Walter Brueggemann

The cover of Brueggemann's Sabbath as ResistanceI remember the uncertainty in my mind the first Sunday I went to work.

Raised in a Pentecostal church, I was well aware of the classical prohibition against Sunday shopping. Still, when our small-town IGA decided to open on Sundays, I was scheduled to bag groceries. Fortunately, my church (and family) was grace-filled enough to also recognize the value of making a bit of money to pay for college.

In Sabbath as Resistance, Brueggemann takes a huge step away from these cultural issues (which are now firmly in the rear-view mirror of most North American Christians). Instead, he interprets the fourth commandment in light of other Old Testament passages.

Unlike some of the shorter prohibitions against murder and theft, the Sabbath command is quite robust:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11 ESV)

The essence of this command, for Brueggemann, counteracts life in Egypt where the Israelite’s worth was determined by their around-the-clock brick making ability. Sabbath reminded Israel that they were more than producers and consumers.

This command is incredibly life-giving. In consecutive studies, we see how it has the potential to free us from anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and even multitasking!

If you’ve ever felt overloaded with the simple task of living in our consumer-oriented society, this short study is gold. Mediate on these passages and learn the freedom that comes when we resist “the seductions of Pharaoh”.

—Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).

How Should We Then Live? | Francis A. Schaeffer

The cover of Schaeffer's How Should We Then LiveHow Should We Then Live? is one of Francis Schaeffer’s best known works. It was followed by a film series (available here on YouTube), narrated by the author and directed by his son Frank Schaeffer.

Schaeffer’s work is essentially pessimistic. He surveys the cultural landscape from the ancient Romans onward and traces what he sees as a downward trend from a Biblical foundation of absolutes through the damaging effects of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Particularly interesting was his correlations between music, art, and ideology. As the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century increased in influence, art turned abstract and music turned to increased dissonance (such as Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique).

When he considered the future, some of his ideas have proven to be accurate:

The possibility of information storage, beyond what men and governments ever had before, can make available at the touch of a button a man’s total history. … The combined use of the technical capability of listening in on all these forms of communications with the high-speed computer literally leavees no place to hide and little room for any privacy. (244)

Or, consider this comment with respect to the recent economic crisis:

There would be a lowering of prosperity and affluence among those individuals and countries which have come to take an ever-increasing level of prosperity for granted. (248)

The scope of this book is immense, and the connections and projections drawn between apparently discrete cultural phenomena are compelling. Still, I don’t buy the overall package for a couple reasons:

  1. The idea that worldwide culture has only gone in one direction (downhill) in its pursuit of humanism is too simplistic. That meta-narrative plays well in the minds of Christians with an escapism eschatological view, but not for those with a more incarnational bent.
  2. Schaeffer views realism in art as paramount, and views impressionism and abstract work as corruptions which reveal our ideological heart. Where does that leave those of us who see beauty in the abstract and deeper meaning in impressionism than realism?

This landmark book deserves to be read, both as a window into the evangelical psyche in the 1970s and as an interesting survey of cultural history. The arguments he made from this survey, however, need to be read with healthy skepticism.

—Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1976).

American Gods & Anansi Boys | Neil Gaiman

The cover of Neil Gaiman's American Gods / Anansi Boys omnibus

Barnes & Noble Edition

Imagine a world where all the gods of mythology are real. It doesn’t matter what mythological system, either—figures from Norse legends like Odin and Loki to African folk-gods like Anansi still roam.

Now imagine that they’re tied to their worshipers. The more devoted worshipers a god has, the stronger that god is. When the last worshiper dies, that deity is extinguished. This is the world that Neil Gaiman explores in his two novels, American Gods and the spin-off Anansi Boys.

Before I get into the novels, I should offer a brief note about the edition I’m reading from. In 2011, Barnes and Noble reprinted a number of important works with exquisite binding. This particular edition is leather-bound with an embossed cover. It even features a ribbon bookmark. After I finished reading the book, I found the spine as straight as the day I brought it home from the bookstore. If you’re interested in reading Gaiman, track down this edition.

Okay, enough gushing over the binding. On to the novels …

American Gods

The cover of Neil Gaiman's American Gods

First Edition Cover

Shadow is a tough prisoner who has spent his jail-time avoiding attention and practicing coin-tricks. As you might expect in a book called American Gods, his life gets caught up with all sorts of deities beginning with Mr. Wednesday. (Read this book if you can’t figured out who he is!)

In Gaiman’s world, when a person immigrates to America, they bring their deities with them. The US is littered with old-world gods from every tradition who fight for position with new upstart American gods like Technical Boy and Media.

The idea behind this story is brilliant—lifted and tweaked (admittedly) from Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories. It provides a fertile landscape for the sort of fantastic mystery story-telling Gaiman excels at. There’s no question why this book is still being reprinted.

Anansi Boys

The cover of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys

First Edition Cover

Mr. Nancy, one of the deities from American Gods, is the protagonist of this spin-off novel. Or, to be precise, his “boys” are. Anansi is a West African Trickster god who frequently takes the form of a spider. He has a number of stories associated with his name.

Anansi crossed the ocean in the devotion of slaves on trade ships to Haiti. From there it was a quick jump to America where he found himself a home in Florida.

Since these two novels are published under one cover, it only seems fitting to compare them. Anansi Boys is shorter and nowhere near as epic in scope as American Gods. Don’t misread that as criticism, though. Anansi Boys is a different type of novel with a stronger sense of humor.

There’s a rumour going around that Gaiman is writing a full-fledged sequel to American Gods.  I’ll be the first in line.

A Work of Heart | Reggie McNeal

Once again I’m forced to write a review of a Christian leadership book and once again, I’m of two minds.

If the idea of delving into scripture to mine leadership qualities doesn’t bother you, then this book is one of the best that I’ve read.

McNeal begins by examining the lives of Moses, David, Paul, and Jesus to see how leadership qualities are evident in their lives. McNeal rightly emphasizes the importance heart-formation through remaining close to God and allowing him to change you.

In the second half of the book, McNeal examines six areas where the leader’s qualities are worked out:

  1. Culture
  2. Call
  3. Community
  4. Communion
  5. Conflict
  6. Commonplace

I was privileged to read this book through with a Bible College student in a mentoring relationship. There was always plenty of material and insights to discuss.

Here are a few of my problems with leadership books in general. The Bible doesn’t speak about leadership—shepherding and servanthood are the key metaphors.

Furthermore, the idea that there is a separate class of people who operate on a special “leadership” level seems foreign to the thrust of the New Testament. Jesus’ disciples didn’t look like people with high-level leadership qualities. They became effective once they were empowered by the Spirit.

We should examine what we mean by “leadership qualities,” too. Don’t we mean the sort of personal characteristics that make people successful in the business world today? What right do we have to dive anachronistically through scripture in an attempt to uncover these 21st century values?

On a hermentutical level, why do we assume that the personal qualities of people like Moses and David are qualities we should emulate? Scripture is the story of how God used these people—not how they were skilled enough to be used.

There you have it. If you enjoy the “christian leadership” genre, this is one of the best on the topic. If you share my reservations, leave this book on the shelf.

Captive to the Word of God | Miroslav Volf

Miroslav Volf perceives the world on a deeper level than most. He has given time and thought to the theological lens through which he understands existence—something self-evident in all of his works.

Captive to the Word of God demonstrates this depth of perception. After an original essay which explains his method (“Reading the Bible Theologically”), this volume collects five essays written over the course of sixteen years. Each essay demonstrates a life and thought process infused with an understanding of God’s Word.

Two essays stood out. In “Peculiar Politics: John’s Gospel, Dualism, and Contemporary Pluralism,” Volf undermines the so-called dualisms implicit in John’s Gospel (dark/light, death/life, etc.) and demonstrates the various shades of grey. For example, What is the salvific status of Nicodemus? How can we hate the world if God loves the world? Volf then applies his understanding of the Gospel of John to our contemporary pluralistic-leaning society with penetrating observations and insight.

“Hunger for Infinity: Christian Faith and the Dynamics of Economic Progress” is another gem. Using the book of Ecclesiastes, Volf torpedoes the myth of process and reveals how our understanding of God has been co-opted to serve the “hamster wheel” of desire:

Masters of subtle religious ideological manipulation engineered a gradual metamorphosis of the God of Jesus Christ into the god of this world. They were shrewd enough not to overdo it, however, The mask of the old God was retained; appearances must be kept up, you know. (170)

Volf is never easy reading, but a deliberate and careful reading pays dividends with this short collection of essays.

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