By Paul Louis Metzger
The cover of this issue of Cultural Encounters reminds us that, just as in The Matrix, things are not always as they appear in the drama of life. The Matrix film trilogy chronicles a futuristic battle between enlightened humans and sentient machines that have subdued the human race through simulating reality. These machines make life appear as normal, when in actual fact the human race’s bodily energy is being harnessed, channeled, and ravaged for these machines’ ambitionsand well-being. The Messiah figure in the trilogy, Neo, frees his mind so thathe can discern reality from appearance. He joins with other enlightened humanbeings to fight to destroy this simulated holocaust.
Things might not appear as dramatic on the stage of real life as on screen in The Matrix. Still, our creations and use of the creation can get the better of us for lessthan ideal ends. Our view and use of space in relation to Christian witness, our approach to theology and writing, our use of technology and our senses in worship (all subjects in this issue) can impact life, worship, and witness for good or for ill. Through our fitting use of God’s good gifts and our creaturely capabilities, we can be fitting participants in God’s drama, which takes place on the stage of history, and to which movie scripts played out in movie theaters witness in varying degrees.
The church enacts this divine drama on the stage of world history. How then do we engage our audience—the unbelieving world? How do we view the space between us? How we view and approach the space between us matters a great deal to our witness, as Wesley Vander Lugt makes clear in the opening essay. Do we erecta wall between our audience (the unbelieving world) and us, thereby failing to address the world in a manner that truly engages and impacts our audience? Do we eradicate the wall, thus failing to maintain the distinction between the church and world and undermining its mission to serve as a light of illumination so that the world might come to share in the truth of Christ and be free in mind, soul, and body? Or do we incorporate the audience as a guest, performing God’s drama among these people and engaging them in the drama through hospitable means?
Jesus breaks through boundaries between the church and world as the central character in God’s masterful play or drama directed by the Holy Spirit, who enlivens the church’s performance on the stage of human history. The triune Godcommunicates to us how we should approach the space between the church and world. As the Word of God enfleshed, Jesus speaks the truth into our lives as helives among us. Jesus breaks down the wall that divides God’s people from the surrounding culture, as he exhorts the church to move beyond its zones of comfortand cryptic, private language games to interact hospitably with an unbelievingworld. Rather than conceiving mission to an audience, whereby the church is set apart from the unbelieving world, or eradicating the appropriate distinction between the community of faith and the unbelieving world, the Lord of the church engages in mission by living among the unbelieving audience in gracious truth, and calls us to do the same.
Whether we are engaging an unbelieving audience or others in the church, it is important that we move beyond mere reflection as professional and lay theologians. As Matt Farlow makes clear in his essay, theologians must do more than narrate. The drama of God requires dramatic theology that involves the dramatic performance of life and faith. Otherwise, our theology and those entrusted to our care will suffer. Dead orthodoxy kills, or at the very least, makes us slumber.
“Dramatic” engagement or participation in the script on the stage of life is necessary, since revelation is more than communication of propositional facts about God. Illumination entails more than keen understanding and description. Revelation involves incorporation of the entirety of our being in Jesus’s life story. Jesus participates in our lives and calls on us to perform in the divine drama. Such reenactment involves the transformation of our entire being, as we come to terms with God coming to us, sharing space with us, and living in our shoes. As those called to witness to the living Word, theologians must do theology withthose we teach. We are called to act it out in the drama of life, teaching peoplewith experiential authority. We cannot remain innocent bystanders, but must see ourselves as participants in the theodrama and model for our students andparishioners how the text of Scripture lives today as we participate in the joys andtragedies of life in our world.
Jon Horne discusses ‘artistic’ works that deny the bad (kitsch) or that deny the good (grotesque); the former moves us toward escapism, and the latter toward nihilism. Horne refers to Paul Young’s The Shack as an example of the former (and even refers to recently deceased artist Thomas Kinkade in this context) and cites the Chapman Brothers’ artwork as an example of the latter. Against the backdrop of these two extremes, he refers to Flannery O’Connor’s work, which he believes holds the two extremes together. Perhaps this is the result of O’Connor’s desire to repeat the incarnation in her writing. Among other things, the incarnation requires indirect communication and involves the imagination. We cannot repeat the incarnation if we seek to resolve all tensions, if we reduce the tensions either toward the good or the bad and eradicate the need for the imagination where God alone can operate and redeem.
O’Connor spoke of the need to judge literary works based on whether or not they portray reality truthfully. Regardless of the motives (even the aim to bring people into the church or to teach them truth about God), if they do not portray reality involving its various tensions accurately, they are doing a disservice to people and to God. Horne moves from this discussion of O’Connor to distinguish between the genres of Christian Living and Christian Literature, placing Young’s work in the former category and O’Connor’s work in the latter. Horne challenges all of us to acquire and cultivate a more nourishing literary diet than what is often availableto the Christian subculture. After all, we are what we eat.
Award-winning author Gina Ochsner also speaks of the need for those writing on faith and in faith, to present reality truthfully, rather than give it a false appearance. Is it any wonder that Ochsner also makes use of O’Connor’s work in her article? Ochsner calls for subtlety in communication and speaks of the need to elevate ourscript involving its various components out of the sphere of easy categorization. All too often, Christian writers seek to provide quick answers, pat answers; drawing from Anton Chekhov, Ochsner maintains that more necessary than anything is learning how to “state the question properly.”
All this comes at a cost. I dare say that many in the church would rather live in a Kinkadian universe that seemingly resolves all tension and removes all pain and provides pat answers. But this is not reality. Ochsner warns the Christian writer who is moved to write with an open eye and heart that such work will come with a price. Such writing is a prophetic enterprise. Writers must be willing to risk for the sake of truth. Like Neo—better than Neo—John the Baptist, we must be willing to play the holy fool for the sake of truth so that people can be liberated. Wheneveryone around us is saying one thing, we must be willing to say it is not like that at all. Literary artists like C. S. Lewis were willing to play the holy fool by writing children’s stories for children of all ages so that they might come to realize that God participates in the lives of his creatures, and that what the world takes for wisdom is what will often make us miss out on the divine drama. Lewis received criticism and disapproval from many of his academic peers for these works, not their applause. But those of us who have read these stories are better for it. The same is true for those of us who read Ochsner’s work. This isn’t Christian living or kitsch; this is literature that is Christian in the best sense of the term—she aims to repeat the incarnation, filled with spirited tension in service to Christ’s redemptive address to humanity.
Joseph Kim and Robin Parry, followed by Robert Redman, Quentin Schultze and DJ Chuang engage in spirited discussions on the role of modern forms of technology in the church. No tool is neutral. If we are not careful, our tools of technology can gain the upper hand and distort Christian community and worship. Good intentions are not sufficient to guard against misapplication. As Quentin Schultze notes, we must ask the question: what is fitting? We must be concerned for how our community is affected by the technologies we employ, and how the forms of technology form us. What happens to our worship experience and witness to the world? If we do not ask such questions, we will inhibit our worship and witness by misapplying various technological forms or by not employing fitting technologies that foster effective communication. As Kim rightly notes, we must guard against worshipping the idol of technique in a culture fixated with it and so easily captivated by the rhetoric of the technological sublime. Such safeguarding does not answer the question as to what must be done when considering this orthat form of technology. Rather, what must be done is the kind of spiritual exercise of rigorous theological and cultural reflection modeled by these exchanges.
In her cultural reflection piece, Barbara Schultze speaks of the need to employ all the senses in worship. Her meditations on pastoral care and the worship experience of her congregation of saints suffering from dementia teach us about our own need to guard against reducing ministry to technique and to cultivate verbal and non-verbal dynamics of communication to worship God in spirit and truth. Moreover, we can hopefully see that even though these saints often suffer from disorientation, they still may perceive at times more clearly than we do the depths of God’s grace and love and experience deeper forms of communion and worship. Our contemporary Christian culture that prizes stimulating technique, youthfulness, and efficiency could learn a great deal from Schultze and her parish. God has a mysterious way of bringing equity to a situation and promoting justice, by reserving the secrets of the kingdom for the little children and those who the majority culture considers poor, foolish, and best forgotten. Things are not always as they appear in the drama of life. Hopefully, the musings contained in this issue will help you see more clearly, as you seek to repeat the incarnate Word and perform well in God’s drama of life.
We are dedicating this issue of Cultural Encounters to the editorial board’s dear friend and colleague, Charles Schreiner. While he himself is a master of various forms of technology for use in effective communication in teaching and worship, he is also very sensitive to make certain that such technologies are not used to reduce communication to technique and enslave people to their technological devices. Moreover, Chuck guards against reducing the Christian faith to kitsch-like categories. He is a model subject for an O’Connor or Ochsner work, in that he participates in the drama of salvation as a performer who lives out the tensions of the faith—the joys and sorrows—in ways that bear witness to the world that the church’s hope in Christ is not hype or mere appearance, but is reality.
—Paul Louis Metzger, Editor
Church Beyond the Fourth Wall: Incorporating the Audience as Guest in Interactive Ecclesial Theater
By Wesley Vander Lugt
This article explores interactive theatre as a model for reimagining Christian mission as interactive performances among an unbelieving audience. After an introductory section on the role of metaphors and models in theology and ethics, the article explains how interactive theatre mediates between traditional and experimental forms of theatre, thus providing a model for interactive church as a mediating position between traditional and experimental forms of church. Next, the article demonstrates the mission, means, method, mise en scène, and meaning of interactive ecclesial performances. Finally, the article concludes by observing that improvising hospitality is one primary way to enact the mission of inviting strangers to participate as guests in the theodrama.
Dramatic Theology and the Performance of Life and Faith
By Matt Farlow
Life is inherently dramatic, and because of this, this essay argues it is through the dramatizing of theology that theology is best equipped to illumine God’s desire for humanity’s participation in His reconciliatory performance in Christ through the Spirit. God does not want to be just “contemplated” and “perceived” by us; as from the beginning, He has provided for a play in which we must all share. The dramatizing of theology is a natural response to God’s Being-in-act. It is the natural movement of theology’s response to God’s action which calls for an active response on our part. As we re-enact the biblical story, we shall realize increasingly that we are participants performing in Christ’s drama of faith and life. The essay reflects on how dramatizing theology offers solutions to the conflicts of life by calling for the theological performance of faith, and attending to its import for theological-cultural engagement in theoretical as well as concrete terms.
Concerning Kitsch: A Kleinian Comparison of William P. Young’s “The Shack” with Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
By Jon Horne
Much ink has been spilt over William P. Young’s The Shack but little has been said about his use of kitsch. While it might be easy for cultured despisers to bash kitsch, object-relations theory derived from Melanie Klein suggests that the propensity of kitsch to split good from bad has its roots in (undeveloped) infancy. Further commentary on both kitsch in Kinkade’s work and the grotesque in the Chapman Brothers’ then reveals similar (undeveloped) common ground. Therefore, given the locus of object-relations theory within counseling, a more constructive response to kitsch is sought than its bashing. (It is taken as self-evident that bashing traces of infancy is not conducive to this locus.) But what is also required is an approach to the arts that integrates both good and bad, kitsch and grotesque. This, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find serves to illustrate. Whereas O’Connor attempts to “repeat” the incarnation, Young is in danger of supplanting the incarnation with a shack. Young’s (good) God of the transfigured shack is split off from the (bad) “un-real” wilderness outside, whereas O’Connor employs indirect communication to pressure the reader towards encountering God in that wilderness. In contrast, The Shack lends itself more readily to direct communication, which might explain why so much debate has concerned its message rather than its style. So perhaps The Shack should be filed under “Christian Living”, and subsequently read as part of a wider literary diet. How might this form part of a more constructive approach to kitsch?
Power in Word: Writing in Faith and on Faith
By Gina Ochsner
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
If we believe that in the beginning the Word existed and was divine, then we also acknowledge that intrinsic power exists within Word. We accept that Word is active and creative. Likewise, when we consider the power of word we must acknowledge that God spoke the universe into existence and sealed it with words: it was very good. It is no accident that this is a story documented and perpetuated in word. Neither is it an accident that so many of us feel a compulsion to create—with words, no less. In doing so, we imitate our maker. For this reason our work is more than private prayer, but a ministry in which we are to shed light, speak as prophets, link heaven and earth, and embrace mystery.
The Myth of the Electronic Church: Evangelical Appropriations of the Technological Sublime
By Joseph A. Kim
A prominent attitude toward technology in American culture is the optimistic embrace of technological change as progressive, as expressed in what Leo Marx has called “the rhetoric of the technological sublime.” This attitude has been embraced by evangelicals, as exemplified in two projects which view the internet in terms of an ecclesial version of the technological sublime. This article analyzes the ministries of Global Media Outreach and the Table Project, and argues that their uncritical embrace of the idea of technological progress has led these ministries to redefine the mission and fellowship of the church in theologically problematic ways.
Worship, Technology, and the Church: A Discussion with Quentin Schultze and DJ Chuang
By Robb Redman
This interview presents a follow-up conversation between Quentin Schultze, a professor in communications and author on communication, faith, and technology and DJ Chuang, a web developer and consultant on web strategy, social media, and online education following the New Wine, New Wineskins conference Worshipping in the Matrix: Technology in Communication, Culture, and the Church. The two address the current use of technology both in worship services and education including multi-site churches with live feeds, online education, and the ability to self-publish. They also discuss how the availability of new technologies shape worship experiences and how we relate to others, as well as the need for deeper reflection on the theological and ecclesiological implications of implementing technologies into worship.
Multi-Sensory Worship and Dementia in Christ’s Body
By Barbara Schultze
Persons with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, frequently are ignored in worship planning. Those who are institutionalized in healthcare facilities often are not even assumed to be able to worship. But with proper planning, multisensory worship can be remarkably meaningful to those with all levels of dementia. Pastor Barbara Schultze outlines some of the strategies that can incorporate persons with dementia more fully into the worshipping body of Christ.