By Paul Louis Metzger
Historic Christian orthodoxy has profound resources from which to draw in its engagement of contemporary culture. I can think of no greater grounds and motivation for engaging culture in its beauty and brokenness than that the transcendent and eternal God has determined that the Word become human flesh and blood as Jesus of Nazareth in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The four essays in the “Articles” section of this issue of Cultural Encounters deal with incarnational themes where God Almighty addresses our situation, not standing over against the world, but transforming it from the inside out through the incarnate, crucified, and risen Son in the Spirit. Whether we are dealing with writers and moviemakers of fiction, systematic theologians, or missiologists and missionaries, the same truths come into play. And no matter what one’s views on religion are, religion broadly defined as addressing ultimate questions of life and love, power and passion, still plays a definitive role in many if not all cultural works. What matters more than anything from our perspective at Cultural Encounters is the presence or absence of Trinitarian patterns of God’s engagement of the world in Christ in the Spirit, explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously.
Take for example what Grant Macaskill says of the works of Philip Pullman and Hal Duncan. In both their works, religion plays a key role in the flourishing or disfiguring of human identity. To take the former, Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy involves anti-religious themes, where religion plays a coercive role. Far from dismissing Pullman’s critique of religion though (or Duncan’s either), Macaskill says that the church should acknowledge and repent of its power play moves manifested throughout history up to the present time rather than deny such actions. Still, Macaskill notes that Jesus does not play a central role in Pullman’s work; if he did, the question remains for me, what difference would Jesus’ presence make for his view of religion? More importantly, what difference would Christ’s identity and presence make for the church, if Jesus were to have the central place in our theology and ethical practice? Contrary to all those critiques of Pullman’s work in view of The Golden Compass that fault him for his anti-religious themes, we the church need to critique ourselves and learn what it means to preach and model existence in view of Christ crucified and risen. In conclusion, Macaskill writes, Pullman’s and Duncan’s works “must be engaged by the voice of Christ, speaking through a Church that is the embodiment of Christ crucified in this world. For such a response to be made, however, the Church itself must come to terms with the challenge of preaching not just ‘Christ,’ but ‘Christ crucified’ and, indeed, ‘Christ risen.’”
The same gospel of the crucified and risen Lord in the power of the Spirit centers Brent Laytham’s reflections on the movie Pleasantville. Our inhuman will to power inside and outside the church keeps us from experiencing life in its fullness. Throwing off all external limits on human freedom, our Pelagian conviction that “we can do it” thwarts us from ever living a truly meaningful existence. Laytham argues that whereas this fantasy movie would have us believe the fiction that we can create our own destiny, the gospel makes clear that human flourishing can only be achieved as we dwell in the Father through the Son by the Spirit’s power. The Son is our “proper form” and the Spirit the “formative power” through whom the Father transforms us into the Son’s likeness. Modern day Adams and Eves would have good grounds for wariness of God’s ordering of creaturely life if God imposed limits on us from the outside as an outside authority figure, removing from us the possibility of authentic freedom; but the gospel makes clear that God realizes our human freedom in his authoritative workings through Christ in the Spirit in history. While all kinds of people exercise external power in the name of God, oppressing others and undermining their authentic existence, leading them to seek to save themselves from false deities, the triune God’s power is authoritative in that he enters lovingly into our history through the Son and Spirit to empower us to live life to the full in relation to him.
Macaskill and Laytham address particular literary and cinematographic works in view of the God revealed in Christ Jesus through the Spirit. Scientific theologian Thomas F. Torrance’s reflections on the creation in view of the Trinitarian God make possible a robust theology of culture. Eric Flett’s essay claims that the “permission” for calling Torrance a theologian of culture derives from “his doctrine of God as triune Creator, his doctrine of creation as contingent, and his doctrine of humanity as a mediator of order and priest of creation,” among other things. I will leave it to the reader to follow the various lines of Flett’s nuanced argument that leads him to this conclusion. My aim here is to highlight Trinitarian trajectories that I believe resonate with Flett’s proposal, while differing from his and Torrance’s paradigm. In keeping with what has been argued so far in this introduction, creaturely life and cultural products are best approached from within a theological framework that accounts for a God who is supremely personal and transcendent as well as immanent. As personal and transcendent, the triune God who is supremely other provides the necessary grounds for a theology of culture that awards space to the human creation within creaturely limits to be approached meaningfully in all its otherness without fear of theological hegemony; in addition, this personal God who is supremely other becomes immanent to history and culture through the Son and Spirit. As such, the triune God makes possible a theology of culture that sets forth the parameters for the cultural enterprise to be what it is intended to be from the inside out—through the instituting, constituting, and perfecting work of the Son and Spirit in history.
Not only does the triune God make possible the development of a theology of culture that safeguards the distinctive particularity of the human creation within creaturely limits and guides the human enterprise toward its perfected state through the actions of the Son and the Spirit in history, but also this God makes possible a missiological enterprise that safeguards authoritative biblical meaning on the one hand and conditions that meaning’s authentic reception in any given culture. The triune God is ultimately responsible for inspiring and preserving meaning in cultural works, including Scripture, and through the Son and Spirit this God makes it possible for each culture to engage God’s Word as the divinely inspired cultural work that it is in translations that account for the structures and language of each culture in all its uniqueness. The Word was made flesh in a specific cultural context, and through the Spirit that particularity is made particular to the plethora of human cultures with sensitivity and clarity. It is the “privileged” status of missional witnesses from the West to approach those peoples in places like Africa to which they are sent in humility and vulnerability, not from positions of power imposing dominant Western values and thought forms on them. In his article on linguistics and translation in the African context, Jim Harries argues that missional witnesses from the West are to become “incarnate” in the African cultures to which they go, learning the people’s languages and cultural anthropological structures so that they might serve as vehicles for the translation of God’s Word unadulterated and unadorned with Western trappings. As Harries says, “to seek a solution from the throes of Western academia in European languages is to postpone the call for African people to come to terms with their own ways of life and position in the world. Such postponement, if it continues to detract attention from key issues to its own invented solutions, could spell catastrophe for African societies in the years ahead.”
The first of the “Cultural Reflections” pieces comes to us from an African who serves as a missional witness to the West, revealing to us our individualism and calling the church in the West to live relationally and communally in view of our Trinitarian God. Drawing from John’s Gospel and the African notion of “Ubuntu” which conveys that our lives are inextricably bound up with one another, Amon Munyaneza prophetically calls on us in the West as well as those in his genocide-ravaged Africa to return to a conception of the self that includes the other rather than pressing on toward increasing independence and tribal exclusivity. Only as we engage Scripture from this standpoint and allow it to address us as the Trinitarian and communal book that it is in our concrete, individualistic, and consumerist brokenness in the West will we be able to move beyond our colonial and postcolonial subjugation of other peoples that in turn enslave us in our autonomy. The second reflection piece from Charlotte Graham takes us to Laurel, Mississippi, and her encounters as an African American with racism and oppression at the hands of white supremacists in overt and subversive ways. Her life story is a witness to us of someone who finds victory in Christ in the midst of victimization, and whose testimony puts flesh and blood on Macaskill’s theological point that “God gives himself over to death, victim and victor at once, showing solidarity with the other, the victim, and love for the enemy and showing definitively his expectation of the thought and conduct of his people.” The last of these reflection pieces by Daniel Fan addresses the subject of what Jesus really looks like: not well-to-do, nor a part of the majority culture, but poor, oppressed, and a minority. Fan ends his poem with the question— “Got room in your heart for my Jesus?” In keeping with Fan’s point, it’s so easy for each of us to read Jesus through the lenses of our cultural grid, imposing on him our own thought forms and practices, especially for those of us in the majority—those of us with power.
In the end, any theology of culture worthy of the name Trinitarian will make clear that all theological-cultural reflection begins with dying to imposing our Messianic ambitions on others and seeking to control their and our own destinies, and ends with rising to new life through the crucified and risen Jesus. Got room in your heart for this Jesus?
—Paul Louis Metzger, Editor
Dead Gods and Rebel Angels: Religion and Power in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” and Hal Duncan’s “The Book of All Hours”
By Grant Macaskill
Despite the significance of Philip Pullman’s award winning His Dark Materials trilogy, and the widespread acknowledgement that it contains anti-religious themes, there has been no serious theological engagement with this important work. This article is intended to address this lack. The key religious themes of the trilogy are isolated and are seen to reflect a characteristically modernist critique of religion as an outdated power structure, opposed to intellectual enlightenment. Hal Duncan’s less well known The Book of All Hours is utilized as a natural conversation partner to Pullman’s trilogy, one that, by contrast, reflects a much more postmodern understanding of power structures, in which the instinct to coerce is a universal human one, manifested in, but not limited to, religion. The conversation between the two works facilitates theological reflection on the gospel’s critique of religious practice and suggests that there is much in these books that the church should heed.
Click HERE to view the full article.
You Can Do It: The Fantasy of Self-Creation and Redemption in “Pleasantville”
By Brent Laytham
Fantasy movies are structured by a Pelagian optimism, in which protagonists discover that they can solve their own problems. This contrasts with a more hopeful Christian anthropology, which locates human flourishing in the Triune God. The essay makes this case by a close theological reading of “Pleasantville,” structured around the movie’s climactic courtroom affirmation that “there are so many things that are so much better, like silly, or sexy, or dangerous or brief.”
In brief, “Pleasantville” recommends a silly life where people live as if actions bear no consequences; a sexy life where transcendent sex is the path to genuine self-knowledge and fulfillment; a limitless life that refuses external limits in the name of freely creating the self; and a mobile life that refuses to allow past promises to bind our futures. The essay disputes these points along the way, and concludes with the counter-suggestion that the Triune God is our true home.
Culture as a Social Coefficient: Toward a Trinitarian Theology of Culture
By Eric G. Flett
This essay will suggest that Thomas F. Torrance may be read as a theologian of culture, and that in his writings may be found the clues and resources necessary for the development of a theology of culture that is distinctively Trinitarian. Those resources, in particular, may be found through thinking together his doctrines of God as triune Creator, creation as contingent and the human person as a ‘priest of creation and mediator of order.’ For Torrance these three ideas stand as the basis for ‘the ontological substructure of our social existence.’ This substructure both necessitates and generates what Torrance refers to as ‘social coefficients of knowledge.’ It is these social coefficients of knowledge that bear a striking resemblance to modern anthropological theories of culture, both in their formation and function.
Pragmatic Linguistics Applied to Bible Translation, Projects and Inter-Cultural Relationships: An African Focus
By Jim Harries
A critique of dynamic-equivalence translation methodology forms the basis for insights intended to broaden the outlook of Bible translators. The same critique is extended from the Bible and shown to have pertinence to contemporary mission activities of the West reaching to Africa. Translation of people and projects is found to need the same attention as Bible translation, suggesting that merely translating the Bible but not theological and other curricula for Africa is problematic. Practical missionary advice based on careful study of the relation between language impact and cultural context related to real-life situations is given, along with reasons why ‘inappropriate’ missions methodologies these days all too often continue.
“Ubuntu” and Mother’s Old Black Bible
By Amon Munyaneza
In his essay, Amon Munyaneza addresses the individualism and self-interest that pervade contemporary Western and African society. He contrasts the African term Ubuntu, which signifies the interrelatedness of personhood, with the dehumanization and eventual conflict brought on by so-called ‘enlightened’ principles of individualism and self-interest that have been embedded in the modern cultural marketplace. Munyaneza notes that self-interest and the exaltation of ‘choosing for one’s self’ has even infiltrated the church—to the point where churches often resemble supermarkets as much as they do places of worship in their attempts to offer services and products to attract potential customers/worshippers. In contrast, Munyaneza cites the example of his own mother and the truth he learned from countless times reading to her from her ‘old black Bible’. Though illiterate, she understood the truth God communicates though the Bible, the truth of Ubuntu, that our personhood, our humanity, is intimately bound up in our relationships with one another. Munyaneza states his case in conclusion: “…life with one another is more important than our individual or group preferences. Choosing the former over the latter is literally a matter of spiritual life and death.”
I’m Glad My Brother Died
By Charlotte Graham
Charlotte Graham begins her essay confessing that she is glad her brother died as an infant. She explains that the place (Laurel, Mississippi) and context (the Civil Rights era) within which she and her family lived, promised nothing but hardship, humiliation, and hatred for blacks like her. She recounts humiliations suffered both by her father and herself, which taught her to devalue herself in order to succeed in newly integrated (yet still prejudiced) schools. Graham admits that she grew to hate whites for driving her to such self-degradation. She traces her transformation from nominal, to genuine, Christian faith through recounting later interactions with people who showed her the love of Christ: including two white teachers in junior college who cared for her as a person and encouraged her talents, as well as Dr. John Perkins, who showed her the meaning of reconciliation through his own ministry. Graham concludes with a brief commentary on Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign and the light it shed on America’s cultural transformation since her childhood. Though Graham maintains her opening confession regarding her brother’s premature death, she adds in her conclusion the wish that her father were alive to witness how much things have changed.