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The Top Religion Stories of 2011

I missed this last week, but Huffington Post released their list of the Top Religion Stories of 2011. And I’d have to say that “The End of the World” should certainly be included in any list of major events for the year. But yoga? Really? You’ll have to read the post to get their explanation of each, but here’s the list.
  1. The Muslim Spring
  2. The Dalai Lama Steps Down
  3. Mormons in Politics
  4. The Muslims Are Coming, the Muslims Are Coming
  5. The End of the World
  6. Presbyterians Acknowledge Gays and Lesbians Can Be Ministers
  7. The Struggle for the Soul of Yoga
  8. A Jewish American-Israeli Rift?
  9. Occupy Faith
  10. The New Mass
  11. Interfaith Secularists

A Theology of California Surf Culture (ETS Papers)

If you’re like me, you may wonder if anything good can possibly come out of the California surf culture. All I can think of is Beach Boys music and bad 50s movies, phrases like “Surf’s up dude!” and “I’m totally stoked!,” and, of course, Point Break (and we all know the depth of anything associated with Keanu Reeves).

by Michael Dawes (Flickr)

Nonetheless, I was intrigued. A theology of surf culture? What might that look like? How do you do a theological analysis of a subculture like this, and what insights might you gain? So I attended a paper by Robert Covolo (Fuller Seminary) setting out to do precisely this. (This was the first paper in a section sponsored by the Theological Engagement with California’s Culture project.) The paper unfolded in four main parts:

Surfing’s Inevitable Theologies

Covolo began the paper by looking at surfing in Hawaii at the time of the first Protestant missionaries. He pointed out that surfing was an an embedded cultural practice with ties to sports, gambling, religion, politics, and more. Indeed, surfing was so integral to that “pagan” cultural context, that the Protestant missionaries saw the gradual decline of surfing as the necessary result of the Gospel redeeming that society.

And, in a second example, he pointed to many authors who have argued that surf culture is antithetical to Calvinism and the Puritan work ethic. He disagreed with the argument, but offered it as an example of how people have recognized that surf culture has theological significance.

So Covolo used these examples as a way of pointing out the fact that a cultural practice like surfing is necessarily laden with religious/theological ideas. He didn’t go so far as to call it its own religion, but he does see it as religiously significant. And this opens the door to theological engagement.

A Brief History of California Surf Culture

The most interesting part of this section was the distinction he drew between the popularized and commercialized surf culture found in the Beach Boys and Hollywood movies, and the “real” surf culture that tended to be less commercialized and more countercultural. The latter were frustrated with the former for co-opting their culture and turning it into something more palatable to the dominant culture.

And he also mentioned the importance of the Jesus Movement for understanding surf culture. Although many have focused on eastern religious themes in surf culture, Covolo argued that very little attention has been paid to the thousands of California surfers who became Christians at this time, and saw significant parallels between Christian theology and the countercultural surf culture.

Motifs in Surf Culture

Covolo’s approach to analyzing culture revolves around the idea of identifying theologically significant motifs in the target culture and engaging them in dialogue with Christian theology. At the end of the paper, though, he points out that this can be done in two ways. The Protestant missionaries in Hawaii used an outside-in approach, recognizing that surfing was religiously significant, and then engaging that culture from their own theological convictions. And he’s fine with doing that. But he thinks that a second move is critical: understanding the culture from the inside. For cultural analysis to work, you have to get to know the “inner logic” of the culture, and then draw it into theological dialog.

The motifs that Covolo used for the paper were that of “leisure” and “time.” Covolo drew a distinction between “island time” and “western time.” Island time views time as an end in itself. The goal is to live “in the moment” and appreciate the “now.” The dominant Western culture has an instrumental view of time that see it as a commodity to be used for some other purpose. You don’t simply enjoy time, you harness it for greater productivity. The dominant culture, then, can only have an ambiguous view of leisure. While appreciating “free” time, it must also see leisure as a “waste” of a valuable resource. Surf culture, on the other hand, views leisure as a good in itself, enjoying the moment as it is given.

Surf culture, then, stands as a challenge and a critique to modern views of leisure and time. And Covolo finds much to appreciate. Drawing on the theology of Augustine, Covolo pointed out resonances in the idea that time is both intrinsic to the created order and that we now live in “fallen time,” unable to experience time as we should. Surf culture, then, performs both a prophetic and an eschatological role. Prophetically, it challenges the dominant culture’s facile adoption of fallen time. Eschatologically, it points out that things are not as they should be. Although it lacks the narrative directionality of Christian theology, it still points forward to a time when things could be different.

The Poetics of Surf

Here Covolo looked at the language of surf culture and showed how often it connects to religious themes/ideas. The “stoke” that surfers talk about refers to the peak experience that comes from moving harmoniously with something as powerful as the ocean itself. This is an almost mystical experience that transcends language, resonating with apophatic traditions in many religions. And the way surfers talk about the ocean and the power of the wave harkens to biblical language about an all-powerful God who thunders and roars. Throughout, surf language reflects religious ideas and experiences that are ripe for theological analysis.

Thoughts

This ended up being a very interesting paper with good food for thought on how to engage cultures (and subcultures) in theological dialog. Nonetheless, I’m still stuck with a few nagging thoughts that I would have liked to hear more about. Most importantly, I wonder about how we can know when something that sounds “religious” actually is religious? For example, just because I refer to my dinner as “sublime,” should we presume that I have a theological approach to food? If we’re not careful, we run the risk of over-reading a culture by assuming that religious sounding language/motifs can have only one semantic function.

I would have also liked to see an example of critical analysis as well. There’s a lot to be said for understanding the “inner logic” of a culture and working toward understanding before engaging in meaningful critique. But the danger is that we work so hard at understanding that we never get to the critique. Is “island time” and the corresponding appreciation of leisure an unadulterated good? That seems an unlikely conclusion. So what does a legitimate critique of a culture’s inner logic look like?

There’s more to be said here, but I’ll stop. It was a good paper that raised some great questions. But I’m still not going to take up surfing.

A powerful video on sex trafficking

Here’s a powerful video from Unearthed on sex trafficking and exploitation. It tells the story of a man who used to work for a sex trafficking syndicate in South Africa, and the transformation that took place when he responded to the Gospel. Check it out.

http://vimeo.com/31795904

The meaning of life according to Siri.

Whoever programed Siri, the new iPhone personal assistant, has a fabulous sense of humor and the amazing ability to predict what kinds of weird questions people might think to ask their new iPhone. Check out some of the creative responses Siri gave to a whole range of off-the-wall questions.

My personal favorite is this slightly disturbing exchange:

Siri, iphone

I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with the phone in my pocket having quite that much experience with this kind of thing.

But, even more interesting was this series of exchanges on the meaning of life. I think Siri is someone I could sit down and have a meaningful conversation with.

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Church history from the rest of the world

Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom.

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I teach a church history survey class every year. It’s one of my favorite classes. But, every year I have the same frustration. There’s just not enough time to do much with the history of the church around the world. With just one semester to cover 2,000 years of church history, my goal is to make sure the students understand the narrative that leads to where they are today. And, that means telling a story of church history that is almost exclusively focused on the western church,  leaving out the rest of the world in the process.

To address this weakness, I require the students to do some reading/writing on the history of the church in the rest of the world. And, Clouds of Witnesses would be an outstanding book to use for this purpose. In a series of 17 short essays, the book introduces to key leaders in Africa, India, Korea, and China from the 1880s to the 1980s. The essays are well-written, interesting, and short enough that they don’t bury the casual reader under too many historical details.

I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about William Wade Harris and the influence that he still has on Christianity in West Africa. And, although I’d read more on the East African Revival, the two chapters are Simeon Nsibambi and Janani Luwum were still fascinating. Some other favorite chapters were the ones on Sundar Singh (India), Sun Chu Kil (Korea), and Yao-Tsung Wu (China), all people about whom I knew (and still know) too little.

Unquestionably, the greatest benefit from reading a book like this is the opportunity to see and be challenged by how different experiences in different parts of the world have shaped and colored Christianity. From a political activist in South Africa wrestling with the injustices of apartheid, to a Hindu convert striving to live faithfully in a hostile environment, and a Chinese Christian struggling to reconcile the Gospel and communism, they’re all struggling with what it means to be Christian in their cultural context. So, at every step, the thoughtful reader faces several important questions: (1) How I can learn and be mentored by what Christians have learned from different cultural contexts?, (2) How do you recognize when culture is having a negative impact on the Gospel? and (2) In what ways has my own cultural context shaped, positively and negatively, my experience of Christianity and the Gospel? The opportunity to reflect on those questions alone is worth the price of the book.

Clouds of Witnesses does have a few weaknesses, but they are ones that stem entirely from the nature of the book. First, to keep the book from getting too long, the authors had to restrict themselves to just a few key areas of global history. Sadly, then, there are no chapters on Christian leaders in South America, the middle east, eastern Europe, or the Pacific Islands, all of which lie outside the narrative that most western Christians know. Second, since the chapters are introductory and short, they never provide enough information and they feel somewhat “superficial” in places, just skimming over the relevant information. It’s hard to see how the authors could have done otherwise in a book like this, but it’s worth noting. And finally, the focus of the book is on providing the details of the various stories, not on discussing or evaluating them. So, although the book provides ample opportunity for serious reflection on the relationship between history, culture, and the Gospel, it does not try to provide any direction for that discussion. Again, that’s not the book’s purpose, so this isn’t really a fault. But, if you’re hoping to use the book for that purpose, you’ll need to do some work on your own.

Clouds of Witnesses is a fascinating book that is well-worth reading. Designed to be a companion volume to Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global FaithClouds of Witnesses can still be enjoyed on its own. And, although I think it could be used as a supplemental textbook in a church history class, those who have little or no background in church history will still be able to profit from this book. If you need more exposure to the story of Christianity around the world, particularly in the last couple of centuries with the explosive growth of Christianity worldwide, Clouds of Witnesses is a great resource.

[Many thinks to IVP for providing me with a review copy of Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia.]

Your Guide to Living Life in 10 Fictional Worlds

Wired Magazine has a great infographic on Your Guide to Living Life in in 10 Fictional Worlds. On their list, Catan takes the top spot as a resource rich island with “mountain views and sheep-filled meadows.” And, standing closets to the “Hellish Pit of Despair” end of the spectrum is Sodor, the life-sapping world of Thomas the Train.

I’d have to go with Discworld. What could possibly be more fun than living an Ankh-Morpork?

click to embiggen

Racial reconciliation and the Gospel

One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation by Jarvis J. Williams (B&H, 2010).

 

Evangelicals have worked hard over the last several decades to pursue a theological understanding of the human person, dealing with issues like fee will, gender, and mind/body, among others. But, on issues of race and ethnicity, we’ve been relatively quiet. I’m sure that’s partly because evangelicalism has a spotty track record on racial issues in general, making this a challenging topic for us to address. But, I think it may also stem from the fact that most of the books offering a theological perspective on race/ethnicity tend to be highly technical (i.e. nearly unintelligible to the uninitiated) and often do not spend much time on biblical/exegetical issues, which tend to be the primary interest of evangelical thinkers.

With One New Man, Jarvis Williams takes an important step forward in evangelical thinking about race/ethnicity. He offers a short, accessible work that deals extensively with the relevant biblical material. Its core argument is that humanity’s fall into sin involves both horizontal (God) and vertical (human) alienation, and, correspondingly, the Gospel promises both horizontal and vertical reconciliation. So, to understand racial reconciliation, we really need to understand the Gospel.

SUMMARY

With this emphasis on the Gospel as it relates to racial reconciliation, it should come as no surprise that the structure of the book follows the story of redemption. After a quick introduction, Williams explains that the reason for racial reconciliation lies in the tragedy of the Fall and its impact on humanity (chapter 2). So, the only possible solution to the problem lies in the reconciliation offered to all people through the atonement (chapter 3). This doesn’t just reconcile us to God, but creates the possibility, even the necessity, of racial reconciliation as we all become “one new man” in Christ (chapter 4). Finally, Williams offers a short chapter on the practical application of these insights in churches today (chapter 5).

STRENGTHS

The most obvious strength of the book lies in its commitment to exegesis. Almost unique among books dealing with race, Williams spends the bulk of his time doing biblical theology and exegesis. That’s a refreshing change of pace for the genre.

But, Williams’ most valuable contribution is in his clear connection between racial discord, racial reconciliation, and the Gospel. For Williams, racial reconciliation is not an optional feature of the Christian life that we can get around to whenever we have some time between evangelistic events and discipleship classes. Racial reconciliation is fundamental to the “good news” that God made available in Jesus Christ and something that all Christians should be working toward.

Another key contribution is the distinction between “racial diversity” and “racial reconciliation.” “Diversity” is the mere presence different races in a single group. “Reconciliation” involves healing the wounds of sin and alienation so that the various groups come together in the true unity made possible through the atonement. And, Williams argues throughout that mere diversity is inadequate given the grand scope of the Gospel.

Finally, Williams offers some very helpful comments at the end of the book for how this can (and should) play out with respect to specific ministry realities. Unsurprisingly, he criticizes efforts that focus on mere diversity (e.g. occasional “joint” worship services or just striving for “multiethnic” churches). And, although he doesn’t mention it by name, he has no use for the “homogenous unit principle” – i.e. the idea that churches are most effective when they target a single demographic. Even at its best, he sees this as yet another reflection of racial discord that belies the life-transforming power of the Gospel.

WEAKNESSES

Given the strengths of the book, I’d like to give it an unqualified endorsements. But, I can’t. Despite these strengths, the book does have some important drawbacks.

First, and most frustratingly, the book’s emphasis on the Gospel leads to a serious imbalance in the material. The two longest chapters of the book deal with sin and the atonement respectively. And, in those chapters, relatively little is said about race in particular. These chapters are just setting the stage by discussing the problem and the solution. But, that means Williams devotes over two-thirds of the book to setting up the discussion. By the time he finally reaches the material specific to racial reconciliation, the book is almost done. As important as I think the Gospel is in this discussion, I would have liked to see Williams spend less time on sin/atonement, work that has been done many times by others, so that he could devote more attention to making the connection with racial issues.

Second, the imbalance contributed to some important oversights. More interaction with other authors writing on race and theology would have alerted the reader to some of the complexities involved in the discussion. At the very least, it would have been good to see definitions of such key terms as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “racism.” Williams seems to view these as terms with relatively self-evident definitions. But that is far from the case, as a quick summary of the relevant literature would demonstrate. And, lacking clear definitions, it becomes difficult to assess Williams’ argument in places – especially in the final chapter where he writes on the practical application of his ideas. (For example, what exactly is a “racist” church? Is mere racial homogeneity sufficient to establish that a church is “racist”?)

Finally, a real problem arises when Williams tries to move from Pauline theology to racial reconciliation today. His discussion of “race” in the NT is really a discussion of Jew/Gentile relations. And, that makes sense given that Paul focuses primarily on these categories. But, he recognizes that “Jew” and “Gentile” in the NT are primarily religious rather than racial/ethnic terms: “The greatest difference was that the Jews’ and Gentiles’ hatred toward one another was not based on skin color, but on religion” (p. 122). But, if Jew/Gentile is fundamentally a religious rather than a racial distinction, how does one connect Paul’s theology of Jew/Gentile reconciliation to the problem of racial reconciliation today, which is a significantly different problem. I’m sure it’s possible to make important connections between the two, but unfortunately, Williams either doesn’t see the difficulty, or simply chooses not to engage it.

CONCLUSION

One New Man is a great book for seeing that racial reconciliation is a part of the Gospel story. It is neither optional nor secondary. Used in that sense, One New Man will be a helpful resources, particularly for those looking for more of an introductory survey of the relevant biblical material.

[Many thanks to Broadman & Holman for sending me a review copy of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation.]

Will you be my groupy?

I am sad. I don’t have any groupies. Not even one. No one wears my “Marc Cortez” t-shirts, even though the logos are pretty cool. And I still have several boxes of Marc Cortez bobble-head dolls in my office. It’s distressing. (Though I have to admit that the dolls are a tad creepy when they all start nodding in unison.)

I’d even settle for some flunkies. Or, better yet, minions! Just think what I could do with a minion or two.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard quite a few criticisms of how our “celebrity” culture has infected the church. The concern seems to be that “fame” is a virus, or maybe a parasite. And Christian leaders who seem to be pursuing fame are necessarily headed down a fatal path.

You can’t have a humble celebrity.

But is that really the case? What about people like John Stott or Billy Graham? They certainly attained a level of stature that most would associate with being a “celebrity.” At least, no one can deny their fame. And they weathered the storm reasonably well.

Now I’ve heard some argue that the problem isn’t necessarily with being famous but with pursuing fame. If you’re highlighting yourself and intentionally increasing your own visibility, then you’ve fallen prey to celebrity-ism.

But that doesn’t seem quite right either. If you have a cause worth agitating for, an agenda worth promoting, or a soapbox worth standing on, shouldn’t you seek to maximize your opportunities? And, if this means branding, marketing, and (heaven forbid) networking, shouldn’t you do precisely that? To do otherwise seems irresponsible.

In a fame-driven culture, can fame itself be used as a tool for getting your message out? Or, more accurately, can it be used without destroying the one who uses it?

I wonder at times whether our critique of “celebrities” stems from the fact that we aren’t famous. Resting comfortably in obscurity, it’s easy to throw darts at the famous faces. It may even make us feel better to argue that obscurity is actually a better, holier, and more responsible place to be anyway.

None of this is to dismiss the significant problems and challenges of living in a fame-driven culture. We’ve seen too many celebrity Christians fall to ignore the real dangers. If fame is a tool, it’s a dangerous one.

But so is my lawnmower. And I still use it.

If I had to pick, I’d say that the problem isn’t necessarily with being a celebrity, but with being a groupy. Once you’ve become someone’s groupy, you’re much more likely to follow along with whatever they say/do, often defending them against all criticism, despite how reasonable such criticism might sometimes be. But, is that their fault? Maybe we should stop critiquing celebrity-ism and pay more attention to groupy-ism.

Upon further reflection, I don’t think I want any groupies.

Does anyone want to be my sidekick?

The Best and Worst of the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

NPR just released its list of the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of all time. With more than 5,000 people submitting nominations and 60,000 people voting, it presents an interesting cross-section of what people like in the genre. (Note: You won’t find any young adult books on the list because they’re reserving those for a separate list. So, no Lewis, Pullman, or Rowling. Although, on that note, why is the Sword of Shannara trilogy on the list? How is that more “adult” than the Hunger Games trilogy?)

Since I’m a fan of the genre, I just couldn’t resist making some comments. But, before I do, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a list based on literary merit, historical significance, or anthropological insight. People voted. So, it’s a popularity contest. But, it was an interesting one.

So, check out the list for yourself, but here’s what I think:

  • Most Surprising: Patrick Rothfuss, The Kingkiller Chronicles. Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t surprising because the two books in this series so far are bad books. Far from it. The Name of the Wind is unquestionably my favorite debut SciFi novel. What’s surprising here is that Rothfuss has only written two books in the series and the first just came out in 2009. That’s amazing in a list dominated by established authors who published most of their books decades ago! (Runner Up: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Same thing here: an excellent book that I just didn’t expect to see rated this highly by popular vote. Apparently I don’t give people enough credit.)
  • Least Surprising: J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings. #1. No surprise. (Runner Up: George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. Best-selling books, popular HBO series, sex, death, destruction, and a midget. What else do you need?)
  • Most Overrated: Frank Herbert, The Dune Chronicles. Lots of people will disagree with me here, but I’ve never been able to get into these books. I’m probably tainted by the fact that I watched David Lynch’s Dune as a child and just didn’t understand. What’s up with the giant worms? I didn’t get it.  (Runner Up: The Princess Bride. (#11!? Seriously? Am I missing something?)
  • Most Underrated: Terry Pratchet, The Discworld Series. Without a doubt, this was the hardest category because so many great books seemed too far down the list. But, in the end, I had to go with the Discworld books. The problem here seems to be that they were listed as individual books (e.g. Small Gods, Going Postal), though others were listed by series (e.g. Lord of the Rings, World of Time). That’s unfortunate because the Discworld books definitely deserved better. (Runner Up: Robin Hobb, The Farseer Trilogy. Too many to pick from here (Neverwhere, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Malazan Book of the Fallen), but Robin Hobb’s books are so creative and engaging, despite the fact that her main characters sometimes border on being unloveable idiots. Great reading.)
  • Best Movie Version: Fellowship of the Ring. I’m a Tolkien fan. What can I say? And I know lots of people like Return of the King better, but Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite.. (Runner Up: Princess Bride. Okay, so it really wasn’t a great movie. But too many fond youth ministry memories make it seem like an Academy Award Winner.)
  • Worst Movie Version: Starship Troopers. This was a tough call since so many bad movies have ruined perfectly good SciFi books. But, Starship Troopers has to be the worst offender. I’m still doing penance for having actually watched that drek. (Runner Up: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. From what I hear, Watchmen is a worthy candidate here, but I was warned in advance. So, of the movies I’ve actually seen, this is definitely the second worst.)
  • Movie I Wish Would Get Made: American Gods. No question. That would be too awesome. (Runner Up: The Kingkiller Chronicles. Granted, they’d have to wait until he’s finished writing them. But still….)
  • One I’d Like to Read:  Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz. A classic that I just haven’t gotten around to yet. (Runner Up: Neil Gaiman, The Sandman Series. The only Gaiman works I haven’t read yet.)
  • One I Wished I Hadn’t Read: Neil Stephenson, Anathem. Stephenson is probably a genius. But, his books put me to sleep. (Runner Up: J.R.R. Tolkein, Silmarillion. I just don’t need to know that much back story of a novel. Any novel.)

For some other good thoughts, check out Glen Weldon’s NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels: Parsing the Results.

A powerful video on sex trafficking in India

Here’s a well-crafted and powerful video from International Justice Mission on sex trafficking in India through the lens of one woman’s story.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSEF6WlcdRg&feature=player_embedded

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