Thursday, 28 May 2015

Taking Flesh: Christology, Embodiment and the Arts

Recently we hosted the 29th annual New College Lectures. This event seeks to explore the importance and place of Christianity in today’s world. While speakers present their ideas from a Christian worldview, the lectures seek to engage people of all faiths as well as people with no faith commitment. This year our lecturer was Rev Professor Dr Trevor Hart. The lectures were concerned with a consideration of the relationship of the arts to faith and worship. The theme was titled, ‘Taking Flesh: Christology, Embodiment and the Arts’.

The Lecturer

Prof Hart is Rector of Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church, St Andrews (since 2013), and Honorary Professor of Divinity in the University of St Andrews where he has held posts since 1995. His life is now one of Rector and scholar. As a scholar he is interested in the contemporary reformulation of the Christian tradition and the engagement of Christian theology with other disciplines, especially philosophy, literature and the arts more broadly.

His has written many scholarly articles and book chapters and written or edited 14 books. His most recent books are:
Professor Hart also delivered the New College Lectures in 2008 with the theme ‘God and the Artist: Human creativity in theological perspective’. You can still listen to these lectures if you visit the New College website HERE. You can also read his article in the edition of Case Quarterly that we published after the lectures titled ‘God, creativity and creators’.

The Lectures

The first talk was titled ‘Clayey lodging’: on the predicament of being human and why matter matters’. In this talk Prof Hart spoke of the ambiguity with which we understand our bodies and challenged us to remember that our humanity straddles the spheres of material and non-material creaturehood. He called on us to avoid the tendency towards dualistic thinking - of favouring mind over body.

On night two his talk was titled ‘Earthy epiphanies: the incarnation of meaning and the meaning of incarnation’. This explored meaning and its relationship to and place within the arts. He traversed the struggles we have to articulate the meanings or significance that music and art have for us. His talk included the role of metaphor, the relationship of meanings to matter, the body and the mind. He concluded by briefly considering the ambiguity of meaning itself.

The third and final lecture was titled ‘Heavenly bodies: why Wagner was right about art and wrong about God’. Professor Hart began by speaking of Wagner’s unorthodox theology - he had as an outcome of his radical vision for his music - that demonstrated his belief that music and the arts offered much more than mere narrative. He argued that music for Wagner was a manifestation of reality in the world NOT in the head, BUT in the heart, ‘gut’ and body. He then connected Wagner’s view of music’s potential with a discussion of James Smith’s argument that he developed in the NCLs in 2012; that is, the driving force of human existence is not the intellect, but focus or telos of desire or love – the ends or purpose of desire, that shape our outlook and vision of the future.

Prof Hart ended the evening by challenging the audience again as he more specifically addressed the embodied practices of Church worship. He argued that the arts have the potential to reshape our imagining and our desire. Music he reminded us has played an important role across the centuries in worship. This he contrasted with the impoverished liturgy of many churches, which he described as “a wordy and intellectual experience that fails to acknowledge the fully embodied nature of worship”. The church he argued should be a total aesthetic encounter that engages us at many levels – mind, heart, soul, senses, body and imagination.

The lectures were a stimulating event that led to vigorous discussion and many questions – surely a sign of a good lecture! They certainly raised some questions for me. I commented in my conclusion to the lectures that while he had helpfully (and deliberately) centred very much on worship within the church, what Professor Hart had said surely implications for the worship that is seen in all of life? That is, worship of God is part of all of life, not just what we do in church on Sundays. How do we reconcile these excellent lectures with Paul’s injunction? Professor Hart touched on this near the end of his 3rd talk; this is an exploration for the future. The challenge of Romans 12 must be heeded. How can this be reconciled with the lectures given and the corrective Prof Hart offered to engage the complete embodied experiences of believers in worship, as part of the renewing of minds?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom 12:1-2)

Finally, the lectures left me wondering about the role that Christian community plays. That is, the church as the body of believers, living, serving, worshipping, loving and growing together – not so much what we do on Sundays, but what we do in between Sundays.

The lectures were a marvellous exploration of the topic and can be found as MP3 files on our website HERE.  The audience gathered over three nights was stimulated and grateful for an outstanding lecture series. Enjoy them online!

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

21st Century Apologetics

Do we need new apologetics for the 21st Century? For many Christians, apologetics feels like an approach suited to an earlier century. A time when people in western nations had at least some biblical knowledge, and accepted the Bible as a book capable of providing evidence and opening up debate. But we can no longer presume an accepted view of the trustworthiness of the Bible. Today if you begin to ‘give an answer (for the) reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15) by quoting the Bible, it might just lead to the immediate query, ‘but where’s your evidence’? However, the need to give answers is still the same, and so are the deep needs of people. We must provide answers to questions about the Bible and Christianity.

 Part of the challenge for Christians is that while some of the questions asked are timeless (e.g. why is there suffering, how can a good God allow such and such?), many questions spring from developments that have occurred since the biblical texts were written. For example, the theory of evolution, the ability to enable conception, medical manipulation of life, or being able to identify deformities within the womb. There is always the potential for new theories, discoveries, or ideologies to conflict with (or appear to conflict with) established Christian understandings of the Bible and theology.

The intellectual context in which Christians strive to stand firm and hold out the word of life is constantly changing. This means that at least some of the stumbling blocks to Christian faith will be different now to those of previous centuries. For example, two significant and relatively recent objections to Christianity are the Bible’s teaching on women and homosexuality. Neither were hotly contested issues once, and there was broader universal acceptance of the Bible’s teaching on each. It seemed once, that broader culture and Christianity aligned on these issues. But today, as people cry ‘but I don’t care what the Bible says’, it has become imperative for Christians to be able to give an answer for their counter-cultural stances that are contested.

Another critical front for Christian apologetics is how we respond to the shameful failures of the church as well as broader society in relation to child abuse. The appalling revelation of child abuse within Christian as well as secular institutions, has led some to reject Christianity. Sadly, there is nothing we can do to change what has happened, and it can be hard for Christians to know what to say in the awkward space between shame and defence. In the latest edition of Case Magazine Helen Miller offers her insights into child abuse as a member of the Anglican Working Group appointed to respond to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Also addressed in Case Magazine is the ‘marketplace’ of ideas and religions that offer answers of one kind or another to the challenges of our increasingly diverse cultural landscape of our cities. Recent social research shows an increase in people referring to themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. The challenge here is not lack of evidence, but openness to multiple forms of spirituality and concomitant rejection of Christianity’s claims to uniqueness. Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson in this issue have explored different approaches to connecting with these seekers after spirituality, and share these with us here.

Unlike these developments, the perception that science conflicts with Christianity is not new, and excellent Christian scientists have been showing why this perception is unjustified for as long as the accusations have been made. However the voices of those who seek to use ‘science’ to undermine the credibility of Christianity are growing louder not quieter.  In Case #42 Chris Mulherin argues for the urgent need to continue to provide answers in this area.

There is also a need to reconsider how we do apologetics. Chris Swann deals with suspicions about an ‘apologia’ that drifts away from biblical defence. His argument is that the Bible should shape our apologetics and centre them on Christ in content, manner and method.

Andrew Laird and Kel Richards also offer excellent pieces that show that all can do apologetics. Kel Richards commends us to be good listeners who can are then led to see ‘iceberg tips’ that extend to deeper conversations, prayer and changed lives. Andrew Laird reminds us of the need for relationships of love with our friends and contacts, and the way that a simple meal and hospitality can allow relationships to grow and the gospel to be shared.

Our latest issue is rounded out with two interesting reviews. Tess Holgate provides an insightful review of Annabel Crabb’s 'The Wife Drought' that offers a different angle on gender stereotypes. Finally, Dani Scarratt reviews John Dickson’s new book 'A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible' that will end up on many people’s pile of ‘must read’ books. If you subscribe to Case you should have received issue 42. If not, you can still read one of the articles plus a review on our website (HERE) for free or subscribe for as little as $20 per year for four issues HERE.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Welcoming the Stranger: The relationship of terrorism, immigration & hospitality

A Post by Edwina Hine

It is not surprising as the threat from ISIS (Islamic State) has stepped up over the last few months in the Middle East (particularly in Syria and Iraq), but now we've seen their influence played out in Sydney and Paris. Just before Christmas the Archbishop of Sydney called on our  our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott to increase refugee numbers into Australia. (More details can be found here).

As we see terror threats, it is easy to question immigration. But of course, immigration isn't the issue, the evil acts of individuals and small groups of radicalized people are the problem. As well, the Bible teaches that we are to welcome the stranger and the dispossessed.

In Case #38 we considered the broad theme of 'Home'.  I have found some of the articles in this edition to be useful as I have reflected on the issues surrounding refugees and the humanitarian response of Christians in situations comparable to that which is currently evident in the Middle East. In particular I found Erin Goheen Glanvilles article entitled "Beyond Debt and Economy: Reclaiming prophetic hospitality for Refugees " very interesting. The article examines  'hospitality' in a biblical context, our understanding of the word in view of today's culture, and illustrates the need for a renewed understanding of the practice for Christians today.

The author reminds us a Christian understanding of 'welcoming the stranger' goes beyond our codified responsibilities that are laid out in treaties such as the UN Refugee Convention. The article reminds us of the passage in Hebrews 13.1,2
(1) Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. (2) Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
It reminds us that hospitality was to be the mark of the early Christian Church as well as the modern Church. Hospitality is not just a token optional extra, it is a core identity marker. For members of the church, hospitality should be a way in which they we are contrasted with the surrounding community. Hospitality is not to be shown just to powerful persons and visitors to create beneficial networks, we should be focused on hosting and helping those who do not have the means to show kindness in return.

For today's Church it could become easy to become anxious that the large numbers of refugees may overwhelm our community's resources and interrupt our valued way of life. However, the biblical understanding of hospitality should motivate Christians to be self-sacrificial in their welcome of strangers and be a stark contrast to calls for a nations limits to generosity, or the imposition of strict definitions of 'deserving' refugees.


Iraqi Refugees (Image courtesy of SydneyAnglicans.net)

The Goheen article certainly does not claim that there are easy answers to successfully assisting the many displaced and persecuted persons that result from horrific acts of terrorism and oppression.  However the article does prompt the reader to assess their own notions of hospitality and the role that Christians will play, that might perhaps counter the sense of hopelessness that prevails when considering this most challenging issue.

The article referred to in this blog post is available as a free download from the CASE Website. CASE Associates receive Case magazine 4 times per year as part of their benefits. For blog followers who are yet to be CASE Associates you can sign up HERE or order a single copy HERE.
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Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Long Shadows: Seeking Common Ground on Aboriginal Rights

The latest edition of Case Magazine considers the rights and wrongs of Aboriginal policy reform in Australia. Talk about the need to understand Indigenous issues is common, but action that makes a difference is harder to find. This has been brought to our attention in varied ways in recent times. Noel Pearson has pointed out in his significant Quarterly Essay, that there has been a litany of promises, tears and disappointments. He quotes the lament of Aboriginal leader and activist Galarrwuy Yunupingu who, when he looks back on ‘a lifetime of effort’ sees ‘that we have not moved very far’ (p11). Pearson and Yunupingu both identity deeply with those who faced the invasion of white explorers; ancient tribes and nations who were slaughtered or had rights and freedom removed. Pearson seeks to challenge us to identify the wrongs and make things right by supporting constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians. He also wants us to stand with those who still yearn for true inclusion and the honouring of their ancestors. Pearson is bravely looking for common ground! This should, in Pearson’s plea, recognise four key grievances of Indigenous people: identity, territorial lands, language and culture.

There have been many well-intentioned actions, apologies and programs in the past. But true economic independence for Indigenous Australians, control of their lives and their children’s futures, equality of health and education, and life expectancy have not been achieved. There is a despondency within the Indigenous community, born of failure to progress discussions of a treaty and constitutional recognition. While there have been good intentions with some political leaders, there has not been sufficient progress. Yunupingu goes further to suggest that even when some leaders in the past have talked of failures and regrets, their tears are often for personal failures rather than the injustice faced by Indigenous Australians. The churches have been connected in various ways to the injustices of Indigenous people. Collectively, there is a need by the church to consider its actions, the depth of collective regret, and the responsibility to help right wrongs.

When we conceived this issue of Case, we were determined to include the voice of someone who is living the relationship between Aboriginality and Christianity, with all its complexity. To that end, we have included an interview with Pastor Ray Minniecon, who discusses Aboriginal spirituality and the challenges he faces being both Aboriginal and Christian at this point in Australian history. Ray’s comments reflect the heart of an Indigenous man of Christian faith who cries out for his people, and like Pearson and Yunupingu, wants to see true healing.

Above: Pastor Ray Minniecon
Part of the struggle Aboriginal people face when considering Christianity stems from the chequered history of the interaction of Aborigines and Christianity over the past 200 years. Many of the episodes in this history are appalling, and for these there should be genuine shame. Others involve well-meaning but, with hindsight, deeply misguided attempts to ‘civilise’ or ‘protect’ without concern for the dignity, rights and culture of arguably the world’s oldest people. As well, at times, the church has been unfairly blamed for the action of governments. As Australians, we all share the blame. But there are also many stories of positive action by Christians and churches and significant interactions between Christian missions and Aboriginal people. Dr John Harris is an expert on this history—both the good and the bad—and provides an insightful account of the institutionalisation of Aboriginal children and the role of Christians in this. Looking back further, Dr Peter Carolane writes of Victorian missionary, John Bulmer, who worked to both bring the gospel to the Aborigines of Lake Tyers and advocate for Aboriginal rights from the 1860s to the early 1900s.

Another barrier between Aboriginal people and Christianity, as Pastor Ray Minniecon points out, is the gap between the message of Christianity and the complicity of Western churches in the wrongs Aborigines have suffered, including first and foremost, the dispossession of their land. This is an issue that must be addressed both for the sake of non-indigenous conscience and of removing this stumbling block to the gospel of hope for Aborigines:

Any conversation of this type must begin with genuine apology. Chris Swann helpfully explicates the nature of biblical apology. As well as sorrow and repentance, this includes accepting responsibility for the wrongs done, and repentantly changing behaviour as part of genuine apology. Christians are committed to ‘apologising in such a way as to seek to rebuild and restore the relationships that have been damaged or broken by this wrongdoing’. But in the face of such a complex situation, what can be done? Peter Adam addresses this question in his challenge to hear and act to resolve the Aboriginal cry for justice—a challenge that springs from the Bible, and in which it is fitting that Christians take the lead.

Subscribers to Case should have received the magazine recently. If you'd like to read more on this topic you can obtain a single copy from CASE. You can place an order online HERE.

We hope that you find our contribution to this important issue helpful. It will be confronting! As Peter Adam reminds us, ‘old sins cast long shadows’. But we earnestly pray for deep regret and identification with a people who have faced great wrongs, and the wisdom and courage to respond in appropriate ways.

1. Noel Pearson, ‘A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth’, Quarterly Essay, 55, 2014.

2. Galarrwuy Yunupingu, ‘Tradition, Truth & Tomorrow’, The Monthly, 41, 2008 (pp32-40).