book reflection: women with a mission

On the first Monday of each month, I offer some reflections on a book I have been reading. These are not book reviews, but a reflection on how the book interacts with my story and the questions that I currently have. I share where the book takes me with my questions, whether it conjures up new ideas or questions, whether it helps me frame my experiences and gives me things to ponder.

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New Zealand Jesus: Social and religious transformations of an image, 1890-1940

On the first Monday of each month I offer some reflections on a New Zealand book I have been reading. These are not book reviews, but a reflection on how the book interacts with my story and the questions that I currently have. I share where the book takes me with my questions, whether it conjures up new ideas or questions, whether it helps me frame my experiences and gives me things to ponder.

This month I am reflecting on New Zealand Jesus: Social and religious transformations of an image, 1890-1940.  By Geoffrey Troughton.

The past helps us see the future

The trajectory of the church fascinates me, where is it going?  Why?  and how is it going to get there? I’m more interested in the future than the past.  But I am becoming aware that understanding the past can help us as we try and see the future. So when a reader suggested NZ Jesus for my  book club reflection I thought it would be a good challenge to learn a bit about the history of the church in New Zealand and it’s social context. 

Images of Jesus in their social and cultural context

Troughton sets out to explore the changes that occurred in the images of Jesus that were common in the churchbetween 1890 and 1940, and how they related to the social changes that were also occurring at that time in NZ.  He describes these particular years as an era in which NZ experiencedkey changesas it moved from a settler based culture to a modern nation.  WWI and increasing industrialisation and urbanisation were some big changes that NZ society was facing.  Troughton describes the worldview of the time as modernist romanticism.  Into this environment we find Christianity struggling to navigate the changing context. He also reinforces some of the more unique aspects of NZs context.  For example he states that:

“For New Zealanders, peculiarly colonial experiences of social change were compounded with other forms of upheaval associated with modernisation.  Together with war and economic fluctuation these altered the context in which religion operated.  Changes upset the basis of connection with the community, and contributed to a sense that the churches’ traditional influence was being eroded. “ (pg 232)

In response to this the church began to become more centred on Jesus (before this the centre had been the Bible).   This promoted what Troughton describes as a kinder, gentler faith that “affirmed the individual and supported simple practical religiosity.”  He goes on to identify 5 key themes to the way Jesus was portrayed by the churches of this time.

The first theme was to emphasise Jesus’ personality and humanity.   As described in the book this was a move away from a focus on Jesus divinity to show that he was human.  Jesus became more personalised and this could be seen in the art and literature of the time. Interestingly that affected how people talked about the motivation to mission service, becoming more about following Jesus example and the great commission, to share God’s love. Previously it had primarily focused on human sinfulness and the glory of God.

The second theme that Troughton writes of is Jesus portrayed as an anti-church prophet.   The Jesus found in this theme stands against organised religion, to some extent this was a reaction against the Christianity of the Victorian era.  There were many claims that the church had misunderstood and misrepresented Jesus.  This Jesus was often associated with socialism and religious reform.

The third theme saw Jesus as a social campaigner.  This involved moral and evangelistic efforts to reform people.  At this time there was also a renewed focus on the Kingdom of God.   “True Kingdom was interpreted in ethical terms and The Sermon on the Mount given special status.” (p.106)

In the fourth theme Troughton shows how Jesus was described to children at the time, particularly in Sunday school and bible class.  He was presented as a gentle friend that loves children.  There were concerns at this time about the number of children who would leave Sunday school and not become part of the church.  There were also concerns that the images of Jesus were too immature to support an adult faith.  

Finally he describes ‘a manly Jesus’.  This developed for a concern about the churches feminisation, and about low numbers of working class men that were involved in church.

What I found interesting.

I struggle to be interested in history so found it difficult to stay engaged in some of the more historical pieces of this book.  But it made me more aware of how little I know about the history of Christianity in NZ.  I was particularly fascinated by how many of the themes didn’t seem that out of date.  For example Jesus as a social campaigner and an emphasis on the Kingdom of God is quite common today. The 1990’s wave of WWJDdoesn’t seem that different from the 1933 version that was made popular by a religious novel.

I was also interested to read how much argument and resistance there was to portraying Jesus in certain ways. It seems that disagreements, resistance to change, dissension and church splits are constants in the history of Christianity.

I was surprised that the desire of the church to address the loss of young people and to identify and serve their needs has been a problem that goes back much further than the last 20 years.  It came across as a key issue behind some of the changes in the images of Jesus  in the time period that Troughton studied.  We actually come from a much larger context of changing social contexts (although possible not as fast a change in worldview as we have experienced lately) and a struggle to engage the next generation. 

It is interesting and important to think about the relationship between what is happening in society and culture and how that influences the church and how we see and portray our faith and Jesus.  As I mentioned in last week’s blog post there is a long history of the church changing its theological emphasis and what it considers important.  This book demonstrates those changes well.  Reading the book has highlighted the subjectivity with which we approach the bible, Jesus and our faith.  It demonstrates very clearly the difficulty of coming to the core of our faith impartially without being influenced by our culture, context and society.  At first I was a bit overwhelmed with the impossibility of the task of finding what we can be sure of in the face of our own subjective lenses. But as I reflected on Jesus incarnation I began to conclude that to a certain extent (good scholarship, does come in here as well) Jesus coming to be part of our humanity, means that we can see him as we need to see him, whether that is as a refugee, a social campaigner or someone who experiences pain and grief.

It is clear as we track the development of Christianity in NZ that it does have its own flavour and cultural influences that make it uniquely kiwi.  There was a desire not to repeat the same divisions in the church as had been experienced in Europe.  But Troughton also describes the church of the time as having a ‘weak tradition of theological reflection’, he sees it as more focused on “pragmatic concerns, and a preference for effective action rather than reflection or formal theology” (p.236). This may help us explain the Churches current state where the pragmatic is emphasised over the creative or intuitive. 

If you read the book

The book does help us understand the trajectory of the church in New Zealand and provides insight into the relationship between church and context that is helpful as we consider our own faith communities today.  It serves as a prompt to start considering the images of Jesus that we share today and how they relate to the history of the church and the society in which we live.

For your reflection

What images of Jesus did you grow up with?

What images of Jesus do you notice being presented around you?

What ‘ basis of connection’ does your church (or christian gathering)  have to its community?

How does NZs focus on a practical faith express itself in your Christian community? 

 

reflections on Breaking Calabashes

On the first Monday of each month I offer some reflections on a book I have been reading. These are not book reviews, but a reflection on how the book interacts with my story and the questions that I currently have. I share where the book takes me with my questions, whether it conjures up new ideas or questions, whether it helps me frame my experiences and gives me things to ponder.
This month I am reflecting on Breaking Calabashes: Becoming an intercultural community by Rosemary Dewerse.

 

Breaking Calabashes is written for those in Christian communities (churches or teams) who wish their community to become more diverse and to do it well. Dewerse describes the book as reflective, formational and practical, and it is a good mix of all of those. The research and interviews on which the book is based were conducted for her PhD in Theology. Throughout the book Dewerse includes thought provoking and challenging questions, that are relevant on both a personal and a community level. These questions take the book from being just a good source of information to a book that includes opportunities for reflection on your own life, experiences and actions that can lead to change and transformation.

The book opens with a re-telling of the story from Maori tradition of Hinemoa breaking the calabash that Tutanekai’s servant is carrying to fetch water. She does this to get the attention of Tutanekai, who the tribe considers of too low status to court her. Her actions break the expectations of the tribe and create greater harmony between the two different groups. The story of Hinemoa breaking the calabash serves as a metaphor throughout the book for people who question the status-quo, who challenge the norms and expectations of their group in order to engage with others who are not like them. Dewerse uses the metaphor to expand on four ways of breaking ‘calabashes’ that are helpful as we form connections with people unlike ourselves. The first way of breaking calabashes is by caring for identity, in this chapter she encourages us to challenge stereotypes, to see people as individuals and value their many identities. One way she suggests we do this is to ask “who are you?”, and of course to actually listen to the response. She also points out that to be able to interact well with difference we need to be secure in knowing who we are. It is often the insecurity of not knowing who we are that creates resistance to difference as it can be seen as threatening. She quotes Law who says “if a person or community does not have a strong sense of their identity, or who they are, they will place priority on feeling safe. In order to achieve this they will grow a very strong exclusion boundary that keep out those who are different from them, and particularly those who fit negative stereotypes.” (p. 27)

The second way of breaking calabashes is by listening to silenced voices. There are so many ways that we can silence the voices of those that are different to us, the words we use, what we say, even how we do things can exclude others. In this chapter there is also a challenge for those who want to advocate for those who don’t have a voice, does our own speaking out for them, silence them even further? The third way of breaking calabashes is by nurturing epistemic ruptures. This is like a revelation or conversion experience that changes peoples ideas, thoughts and or beliefs. People often think that what they think, feel and experience is the norm, this type of change leads them to realise that there are other ways of thinking and being. Much like I said in my blog last week these ruptures can be small or large, one offs or small and continuous. The final way of breaking calabashes is by dealing in justice. It is necessary to stop thinking in terms of us and them and to stop thinking that we are better than others. Dewerse concludes the book with a reminder that we are all made in the image of God and that includes our diversity

Although Dewerse wrote this with cultural differences as the primary focus, the ideas, principles and questions are equally applicable to other differences. In our current environment of increasing polarisation between different groups in the church and in politics there are things to learn and put into action in any situations of difference (not just cultural).
The first time I read this book I was working in a mission agency and so was looking for information that would help people as they work on cross-cultural teams. This time I read the book with a more personal focus and I found it quite challenging, I was challenged to consider how diverse my friendship group is (not very!), and how that may have come about. I was challenged to think about my identities and my own sense of privilege, about my own faith community and how it is engaging with difference and how I can be more open to hearing from others.

I have had more than one occasion lately to consider my own privilege, and reading Breaking Calabashes has continued that processing for me.

I am finding that I am reluctant to acknowledge my own privilege.

I started my career researching discrimination and intergroup relations so an awareness of power structures has always been strong. Except I have always identified with the ‘not’ privileged. As a young feminist woman going into Christian ministry only reinforced that position. Of course our privilege fluctuates between different contexts, but what I am experiencing is that if I am feeling marginal in one situation it makes it harder for me to acknowledge the privilege I have in other situations. For example there has been a lot of discussion lately about the importance (especially for children) of seeing people like yourself represented positively in movies and on tv. However I don’t feel privileged in this sense at all, it wasn’t until I was 14 and Ann of Green Gables was released that I saw an intelligent red haired girl on screen. As for infertile women, it is very rare indeed that they are portrayed positively in the media, and multi-ethnic families are in very short supply. So it is easy for me to overlook the fact that as a white (but ginger) middle class, cis, heterosexual, educated women I am still in a position of privilege even though often it doesn’t feel like it.

There was also a challenge for me in the section about dealing in justice and how we can tend to think of ourselves as better than the other. I was challenged to reflect on how I think about those who uphold the traditions and institutions that I am so keen on disrupting, and are so reluctant to change. I need to admit that I do tend to think that it is better to have questioned, processed, wandered and thought deeply. I have a tendency to consider those who just go along with the status quo as immature. I am thinking about how that attitude influences my interactions with them.

Here are some questions to think about that are inspired by the book:

1) Do you think your identity can become overly tied up in ‘not fitting in’? How does this prevent you from acknowledging where you do fit in?

2) What are the calabashes of norms, and status quo that you are currently trying to break?

4) Who are the voices that you might not be hearing? How can you find ways to listen to these silenced voices?

5)As people who are not sitting easily in the church how do we interact well but safely with those who are different from us, especially when they are sitting easily in the church?

6) As leaders and mentors what are three things that we can do to nurture, support and assist those around us that we can see will be calabash breakers?

reflections on Mission in Motion

On the first Monday of each month I offer some reflections on a book I have been reading. These are not book reviews, but a reflection on how the book interacts with my story and the questions that I currently have. I share where the book takes me with my questions, whether it conjures up new ideas or questions, whether it helps me frame my experiences and gives me things to ponder. This month I am reflecting on Mission in Motion that one of the authors my good friend Jay Matenga gave me as a gift.  (Mission in Motion: Speaking Frankly of Mobilization, Jay Matenga and Malcolm Gold). untitled-design

In many ways I have tracked with this book since I started working for a mission agency in 2008 and over the years Jay and I have had many conversations about the topics raised here. I am even quoted on in the book as saying “member care exists because community doesn’t”, I also recall a conversation about younger people needing inspiration not information that is mentioned towards the end of the book.

MiM describes a qualitative research project that was conducted over a number of years.  Starting in 2005, it involved semi-structured narrative interviews with people involved in mission promotion and recruitment (often called mobilisation) in nine countries. In MiM traditional missions is defined as “long-term, cross-cultural (if not specifically overseas), donation funded, gospel proclamation activity (or means to that end), with the intention of establishing and strengthening churches where none existed.” Into the context of traditional missions they introduce Bosch (1991) and his concept that mission is in crisis, due to contextual and societal changes. The researchers wished to investigate promotion and recruitment practices that would be considered best practices and to particularly look at those in the context of our changing world and the 6 factors that Bosch identified as contributing to the crisis. The book includes many direct quotes from the interviewees and it gives a fascinating insight into different countries perspectives on mission and on mission recruitment and promotion.

It has been six months since mission mobilization and retention was my work world, since I spent time gnawing at the problem of decreasing mission recruitment and funding.  I have moved on in that time and at times I wondered why I was reading this book.  At other times I just felt glad that I was no longer so bound into the mission scene. Although the authors paint a positive picture of a time of change where the traditional evangelical paradigm is no longer dominant. The fact that we are still talking about mission being ‘in crisis’ all these years after Bosch first pointed it out, and yet are still struggling with what the future of missions will look like is frustrating to me.

The pace and nature of change will not be deep enough or come fast enough for me.

MiM did get me thinking about mission again. Particularly wrestling with (as I have done for the last 8 years) why we are struggling to involve younger people in missions. The authors offer a couple of helpful directions for my thoughts to take.

Normlessness

I was fascinated by the introduction of the term from sociology of anomie. The authors define anomie in this way “at its root, the word indicates a sense of normlessness and potential chaos without apparent restraint or adherence to a common guide to negotiate our condition.” In other words we no longer have a reliable roadmap to help us navigate the shifting landscape, at least not one we all agree on (p.16). They claim (and I see this too) that the expectations and understanding of missions are disintegrating and we are entering a period of ambiguity. The ambiguity  is coupled with an exciting opening up of the future where anything becomes possible, as the new way is yet to form. Although they apply this only to the missions scene I would affirm that this also describes the church situation also.  We are all aware that the old ways are no longer working, but we are not entirely sure what the new looks like.  I believe that we are currently in such a state of fluidity that separating out these issues as MiM does to just missions, only tells half the story.   To move forward from where we are currently involves a broader conversation than the mission agencies are able to have by themselves.   The conversation needs to be rooted in theology and our understanding of the church, and it needs to happen before the implications for missions can be unpacked.

We need to be foster kiwi theology.

The quotes from the different respondents highlight some of the contextual differences from countries around the world. Throughout the research the respondents from Oceania seemed to see things slightly differently from the rest of the world. The term ‘missional’ for example has become common here but wasn’t mentioned by respondents from other parts of the world. Respondents from NZ also placed a higher value on relational recruitment practices than others. We need to develop a greater understanding of our context in NZ and stop looking overseas for guidance, but developing a deep sense of our own contextualized theology and missiology.

What next for missions

The book takes a very positive view of the changes that are occurring. Yet I think there are so many things that mission agencies are missing.  Mission agencies are caught in a theological shift. We are moving away from a post-enlightenment emphasis on a rational and word/doctrine based faith in which ‘gospel’ proclamation takes precedence. Instead a more Spirit focused and more holistic theology/spirituality is coming to the fore. It involves kingdom values in all of life, and caring about creation, justice and poverty are ways that our faith is demonstrated. Unfortunately the deep concern about creation, justice and poverty can become paralyzing in this world of destruction, injustice and an increasing wealth gap. Mission agencies need to work harder at reflecting a broader theological stance, and to engage those that are overwhelmed with the need and so often the church's inaction on issues that are core values for them.

The question then becomes how do we frame mission within that space.

What excites you about being in a period of anomie?

How can we develop a deeper NZ theology and missiology?

How do you react when you hear the term ‘gospel proclamation?’

How would you frame mission, if it were to inspire you?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and impressions particularly if you have read the book.

book review: learning to walk in the dark

Learning to Walk in the Dark is by Barbara Taylor Brown and was published in 2014 by Harper One. You can get your copy here 9780062024350

 

Those of us who live in big cities are very rarely exposed to true darkness, we always have the glow of streetlights and signs and the ability to light things up at the touch of a finger. If we have grown up as Christians (or Star Wars fans for that matter) we may focus on the goodness of the light, and have little experience of the dark. But Barbara Brown Taylor helps us to take a step back. To stop and think actually didn’t God create the darkness and declare it good? Learning to Walk in the Dark is Barbara Brown Taylor’s exploration of whether we can find the good that lies in the dark, and whether we can meet God there in the darkness. Towards the beginning of the book she defines darkness as

“shorthand for anything that scares me- that I want no part of - either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out.” (p.4)

From there Barbara Brown Taylor takes us with her on her journey to explore the meaning and impact of darkness. She takes us through her childhood and what darkness meant to her then, she looks at the physical darkness of being blind or in a cave, and the darkness that exists inside of us. The chapters follow the phases on the moon, the opening of the book is at full moon, which gradually dims and then brightens to full again by the end of the book. Brown Taylor describes the book as a journal, so it is not a theological essay but a personal reflection on her experiences with the dark, although she reflects on her theology and faith throughout the book. She writes with a personal style that makes you feel included in her journey, and that you get to know her a little bit throughout the book. You can almost imagine that she is writing you a personal encouraging letter rather than the much more public forum of a book. Brown Taylor uses words well, she has a lovely attention to word craft that makes reading her books a delight. I particularly liked this description of her writers block

"Not long after that, all the words lay down and died, lying on the page like ants in a poisoned anthill: little black bodies everywhere, their legs curled up like burnt whiskers. I poked at them but they did not move." (p.78)

As each chapter is an exploration of a particular aspect of darkness and because of the personal nature of the book, it can seem a little disjointed in places. I think readers will relate to some chapters better than others depending on where they are at in their own journey. By sharing her journey with the reader she provides things to think about, questions to ponder and ideas that we can use to go on our own journey into our own concepts of darkness. For example I have realised how little time I spend in the dark, even looking around my bedroom at night there are so many things that glow. I am wondering what it would be like to spend more time in the dark. For me the book highlighted something that I have been exploring and pondering for some years now. Often our Christian faith and prayers understand and equate God’s work with removing us from the darkness. It is the equivalent of rushing to turn on the lights as soon as it gets dark. But what Brown Taylor manages to show us is how God can meet us there in the cave of our darkness, without being reduced to simply shining his light to remove the darkness. God is there in whatever darkness we face, and there are treasures in the dark that we cannot see in the light. She concludes that “I need darkness as much as I need light” (p.5). Her’s is not the simple conclusion that we so often hear that without the dark we wouldn't appreciate the light, but rather she shows us how we can build a deep appreciation of the darkness and all that can be learned there. I found it a comfort too as a spend time thinking and praying about the future of the institution of church, I can see we are in for great changes - yet I cannot see what they are. I think there is a lot of reassurance in this book for those of us who are blindly finding our way in the dark, towards the future with one hand stretched in front us us and the Holy Spirit to guide us around any obstacles. God is not only to be met in the certainty of the light, but is with us in all the uncertainties and unclear future that we face. If you have read the book I would really like to hear your thoughts and impressions and what it sparked for you.

Here are some specific questions, that you may like to respond to: What were your first impressions of the book?

What is one of your favourite phrases or sentences from the book?

What is your favourite concept in the book?

I have been listening to Leonard Cohen's - You want it darker. (YouTube link here if you haven't heard it)Do you see resonances or connections between his song and Learning to Walk in the Dark?

How did Learning to Walk in the Dark help grow or challenge your faith?

Was there anything in the book that you didn’t really like or relate to?

Who would you recommend this book too?

 

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