Saturday, December 22, 2007

Comments and Discussion of Interest on Mormonism and Dialogue

There are some comments and discussions of interest that I'd like to direct readers to. My friend "Aquinas" at the great blog Summa Theologica - Interfaith Dialogue, made me aware of some of the commentary that some evangelicals have begun to publish in response to the book Claiming Christ (Brazos Press, 2007) by Robert Millet and Gerald McDermott. This is of great interest to me, not only because I am interested and involved in Mormon-Evangelical dialogue, but also because I was asked by Gerry to provide some editorial feedback on his chapters in this book, and I think it represents a wonderful example of scholarly dialogue between qualified representatives of these respective religious communities. Aquinas has a post on how this book has been received by some in the evangelical apologetics community. This intrigued me, and as a result I posted some thoughts by way of response that can be found at the previous link, and in this one here.

From Aquinas' blog I moved over to some critical thoughts Rob Bowman has of the Millet-McDermott book at the Reclaiming the Mind blog, and then found an interesting series of exchanges between Bowman and Paul Owen on Mormonism. Readers can find those exchanges here along with my own colorful interactions with Rob. For some reason the blog is experiencing technical problems where I am concerned and it now rejects any new comments I try to post as spam or duplicate postings. For this reason, and in order to respond to a few of Rob's remaining questions and concerns, I conclude my interactions with him here with these responses to his posts.

In response to comment #40:

Rob, it’s too bad that I have a problem being taken seriously with you. As a step towards remedying this, I acknowledge that you did indeed reference missiology. I was mistaken in my comments in a previous post in this regard. However, I reiterate that I do not see it as having much of an impact on your understanding of and interaction with Mormonism.

In terms of the context of our discussion, if you recall it began with me stating my agreement with Paul Owen’s assertion that perhaps your apologetic framework colors your understanding of Mormonism. I believe this is the case, and while issues of theological contrast, boundary maintenance and definition are important and have their place as I have stated previously, in my view these should not be the only or primary concerns evangelicals have, and I have tried to sketch out a missiological alternative. It seems a stretch to me to move from this context to question what place truth plays in my missiological model. As my work demonstrates, truth is a concern, as is issues of doctrine and worldview, as well as the equally important concerns of person, effective communication, and cultural considerations. In my thinking a missiological approach seems to bring all of these together nicely and in balance, whereas the heresy refutation approach many times favors truth and doctrine over person and culture.

As to being thin-skinned, I’ve received strong criticism and labeled liberal, politically correct, a compromiser, and a part of the emerging church, even outright denouncement of my self-identification as a Christian, all by folks in the countercult community. I’ve learned to take it in stride, so I’m hardly thin-skinned. I’d like to see you and others in the countercult address the issue of peer review, whether we are thin skinned or not.

I recognize the difficulties and frustrations I have in communicating with countercultists. It seems at times as if I am more successful at “receptor-oriented” communication with new religionists than with fellow evangelicals. I recognize this difficult and will redouble my efforts at being more sensitive and patient to the need to communicate in terms that will more readily communicate across the paradigmatic divide. Perhaps countercultists will meet me half way across the bridge.

In response to comment #44:

I realize that you are well read, Rob, as am I. I cited the two resources for reflection on Acts 17 to demonstrate that it is not merely an example of apologetic, particularly in the vein of heresy refutation apologetics, but also includes elements of cross-cultural communication and mission.

I found this statement by you as telling:

"At the same time, the task of responding to a heretical form of Christianity that is vigorously seeking to win converts from Christian churches, as well as from the rest of the world, cannot be adequately characterized or developed as a form of 'cross-cultural mission.'"

I couldn't disagree more. With this statement you seem to see little room for engagement with Mormonism beyond expose and refutation. I and a growing number of others believe that the principles from the history of Christian mission and cross-cultural missiology are indeed applicable to new religions and can "be adequately characterized as a form of cross-cultural mission." A contextual blending of both missions and apologetics is indeed possible where Mormonism and other new religions is concerned.

With this we seem to be, unsurprisingly, at an impasse. Perhaps we'll have to follow Walter Martin's dictum to agree to disagree agreeably.

In response to comment #45:

The correct link to the first issue of Sacred Tribes e-journal is, and the link to Philip Johnson's article that I referenced, which in my view has yet to be interacted with by countercult apologists, is found in four installments with the first at By way of an update on this publication, the journal is being revamped and will relaunch shortly to republish the first two editions. After the first of the year solicitations for new articles will begin and we plan on publishing a new issue in the first quarter of 2008. In addition, the journal has an expanded editorial board and a general editor, and will announce another significant development and partnership in early 2008.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Personal Note of Need

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I use this blog to share my thoughts, and the thoughts of others, on a variety of issues related to theology and culture. My normal practice is not to use this blog as a forum for the personal areas of my life, but I am making an exception with this post.

Since before Thanksgiving my wife has been suffering from intense upper abdominal pain on the upper right quadrant just below the rib cage and radiating toward the back. We have been to the emergency room twice (the first time by ambulance given the extreme nature of the pain), and to a doctor at a clinic on numerous occasions. Thus far we have received a variety of attempts at diagnosise so as to explain this pain, including gall bladder, pinched nerve, and an ulcer. My wife was treated for a few weeks for an ulcer, but this has not alleviated the pain. We are frustrated and concerned that this health condition has thus far persisted undiagnosed with no end in sight in the near future.

In my wife's latest consultation with her doctor today he suggested that she consider a gastric scope and possibly a CAT scan, two exploratory methods that represent the continued quest to find a cause for the pain. The catch for all of this is that while my wife and I pay for health insurance for our two teenage children we have none for ourselves. Unfortunately, this has finally caught up with us. Given the high costs for these exploratory procedures we are opting for another ultrasound, and a meeting in early January with an internist who specializes in internal medicine. We have already incurred major medical expenses with the two emergency room visits, and we are paying for procedures as we are able as we seek an explanation for the condition. But the reality is that we may end up having to find funds for the more expensive procedures, and possibly surgery in the near future.

Why am I sharing this? Well, I'd like to ask my readers to consider a few things on our behalf:

First, I'd like to ask you to consider praying for my wife and for the doctors, or the offering of your well wishes and meditations would be greatly appreciated.

Second, if you have found my reflections on this blog helpful in any way I'd like to ask you to consider the possibility of making a donation towards my wife's medical needs. I work for a non-profit organization, and you can make a specially designated gift that will be used specifically for this situation, and you can receive a tax-deduction at the same time. Simply make your checks out to "NFP" with a memo reading "Designated gift to Morehead medical expenses," and mail your donations to P.O. Box 160611, Clearfield, UT 84016. All donations postmarked by December 31 can be claimed on 2007 tax returns.

Please accept my thanks for whatever you are able to do in response to this situation. It has been my pleasure to blog with you, and I look forward with hope to greater things in 2008.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christopher Deacy: Film, Pop Culture, Myth and More

Christopher Deacy is head of religious studies at the University of Kent (United Kingdom) and a member of the UK Theology, Religion and Popular Culture Network Group. A member of Interfilm, he has sat on the Ecumenical Jury of international film festivals at Locarno and Karlovy Vary. His publications include Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film (2001), Faith in Film: Religious Themes in Contemporary Cinema (2005), and Theology and Film: Challenging the Sacred/Secular Divide (co-authored with Gaye Ortiz, 2007).

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Deacy, thank you for your willingness to answer a few questions related to theology and film. I have benefited from your research and writings and hope that as a result of this interview your work is exposed to a new group of readers who can benefit from it as well. In my own personal and professional life I am increasingly interested in exploring a "practical theology" wherein theology engages popular culture, and particularly film. How did you come to be involved in theology and popular culture, and particularly in film studies?

Christopher Deacy: I began to be interested in this area in the mid-1990s when I was undertaking an MA in the University of Wales in the area of Christian eschatology. One evening, I took some time out from preparing for a seminar on the topic of Christian perspectives on Hell in order to watch a film. The film was The Witches of Eastwick (George Miller, 1987) in which Jack Nicholson plays the role of the Devil. What especially caught my attention was the way in which, on the one hand, my MA work entailed having to read up on all manner of erudite theological musings on Hell that I could glean from academic books and journals. On the other hand, the film seemed to synthesize a variety of film genres – comedy, romance, drama, horror, supernatural, etc. – in order to say something about an ostensibly similar subject matter but in a much more accessible and populist way. (That said, though, in his 1994 biography of Nicholson Patrick McGilligan wrote that in preparing to play the role of the Devil Incarnate the actor “pored over Gustave DorĂ©’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, and delved into St. Thomas Aquinas”, so there may not be quite such a discordance between the academic and the populist.) This really appealed to me. It was clear that the film broached theological territory and that this was on display to a much wider constituency of people than any of the academic writings on death and immortality that my MA work encompassed. I also felt disappointed that there was at the time little scope for drawing on a film such as that in academic study – as a passing footnote, fine, but at that point in my career it had never occurred to me to even contemplate using anything other than traditional academic sources to document an academic essay (the issue had simply never come up).

When I decided to embark on a Ph.D., the impetus for this was my growing interest in film. I thought that there were disciplinary boundaries to be crossed. Of course, I discovered in due course that there had already been plenty of attempts to bring together the worlds of theology and film within theology and religious studies – though nothing like the volume of literature that has come out since the mid-to-late 1990s. I thought that if I was going to commit myself to studying something in detail for the next 3 or 4 years, I wanted to have a personal connection with the material. I studied film in conjunction with theology and found that there was scope for a much greater synthesis than I had previously expected.

Morehead's Musings: You work in a cultural context in the U.K. that is obviously different than that of the U.S., but is there an increasing need in both countries for theologians to interact with popular culture and film in late modernity?

Christopher Deacy: Yes, I believe so. Religion is very much in vogue at the moment – both in the light of 9/11 in the US and the 7/7 bombings in the UK as well as in relation to the phenomenal success of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and other writings on the New Atheism. Yet, much of the treatment of religion accorded by authors such as Dawkins tends to miss the point of where religious expression tends to be located in contemporary society. Dawkins sees religion as an inescapably negative thing – a virus, no less – but there are less fundamentalist (and for that matter less monotheistic) types of religiosity out there, and when I argue that secular agencies such as film can have theological dimensions to them (as wonderfully encapsulated by Clive Marsh in Cinema and Sentiment in which he draws analogies between church-going and cinema-going) I feel that many people see this as a somewhat spurious area precisely because they tend to see religion as having very strict, and clearly demarcated, boundaries. The sort of work I do on the interface between theology and film is still sometimes met with derision within theology: I remember a class I taught to divinity students training for the priesthood 18 months ago in which the mere mention of popular films was met with a cry from at least one student of ‘blasphemy’ and a general consensus among the students that the ‘serious business’ of theology was being dumbed down.

At the same time, however, we live in a world – and this is particularly in evidence in modern America – in which conservative forms of Christianity are increasingly back on the agenda and there is an innate suspicion of secularity. Only films which are suitable for family viewing and which promote family values can thus be countenanced (see the writings of Michael Medved to this end). Even films shown in IMAX cinemas, often located in science museums, are problematic – in 2005, 12 such cinemas in the US refused to show films that refer to evolution for fear of a backlash from conservative Christians. In order to properly understand the world today, we can do nothing other than bring culture and theology into serious dialogue. Otherwise, debate is stunted. Conservatives like Medved deplore the way violence seeps into films, but they overlook the very real sense in which religion and violence are historically inter-connected. Whether we are talking about the Day of Atonement in Judaism or the Cross in Christianity, violence is not some external ‘other’ which is at odds with the ‘non-violent’ nature of religious traditions. And the way in which conservative critics applauded Gibson’s Passion of the Christ as passionately as they denounced Tarantino’s Kill Bill only serves to illustrate the point that, for some, violence will be condemned in one context, only to be condoned in another, for no other reason than that the said violence is believed in the former case to have a Christian telos or goal. You can’t have it both ways! Theologians must indeed interact with popular culture in late modernity to help fine-tune and contextualize a debate which has become too one-sided of late.

Morehead's Musings: You are the author of a number of books and articles on film. One area that you have written on I found very helpful, and that is what you have called the "uncritical appropriation of cinematic Christ-figures." Can you summarize some of your thinking here in terms of how some film viewers, particularly Christians, have read Christ-figures into film inappropriately, and what might serve as helpful correctives to this tendency?

Christopher Deacy: This is the tendency to try and forge often contrived analogies between the Jesus of the New Testament and the protagonists in such films as Cool Hand Luke, The Green Mile, Edward Scissorhands and The Matrix. Some have even gone so far as to develop typologies whereby a film character either is or is not a Christ-figure in view of the extent to which such characters perform miracles, have twelve disciples, are betrayed, die with their arms outstretched in a cruciform pose or are born again (literally or figuratively). My concern here is that Christian symbolism is being imposed on films. We lose sight of film qua film. The scenario is almost Gnostic in nature whereby the themes are often deemed to be hidden in a film, with the theologian’s job one of prizing them open. My concern is that though superficial analogies do of course abound – Andy Dufresne’s ‘cruciform’ pose towards the end of The Shawshank Redemption certainly amounts to a ‘new life’ of sorts – but there is often a point of departure between the film character and the New Testament Jesus. In The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976), e.g., the David Bowie character may come down to earth in a take on the Incarnation in order to save his dying planet, but his lapse into drunkenness by the end makes him powerless to effect change. By this stage, he is not even interested in present life let alone eternal life!

If any of the Christ-figure material is to have any real theological value, more substantial questions need to be asked concerning what theology is in the business of doing. There is more to theology than forming superficial parallels between texts. Rather, I am more interested in wider theological questions which ‘Christ-figure’ films raise. Instead of a debate about whether The Green Mile’s John Coffey is a Christ-figure because of what he says or does, I am more interested in the questions of institutionalization, non-conformity and racism which underlie the picture. I am always somewhat mistrustful of attempts to read Christ-figures into films because it tends to come across as trying to bring theology in through the back door and/or to (somehow) make audiences ‘more religious’ in the guise of serving them up escapist entertainment. There are also issues to do with what happens when a film has more than one Christ-figure in it (does this not break the analogy?) and when parallels can be forged with other scriptural characters (Adam, Elijah, Job, Judas) – which of these takes precedence and why? If we start paying more attention to the aesthetics of a film and less to its structural characteristics, I think a much richer and more challenging debate can emerge.

Morehead's Musings: You contributed a chapter in the new volume Reframing Theology and Film titled "From Bultmann to Burton, Demythologizing the Big Fish: The Contribution of Modern Christian Theologians to the Theology-Film Conversation." I'd like to touch on a few aspects of this chapter if we could. One comment you made in passing is very significant in my view where you said that "theology is so inescapably contextual" which you then applied to the theology-film conversation. How might the tendency among many theologians to utilize systematic theologies that are more universal and timeless need to be rethought in light of the reminder about localized and contextualized theologies?

Christopher Deacy: My thinking here is that no theology is conducted in a vacuum. Karl Barth may have espoused a theological position that allowed no scope for the vagaries of humanly constructed systems of thought – since he believed God to be Wholly Other, with God only able to be known through God’s own revelation – but at the same time Barth’s neo-orthodox position was informed by his realization after the First World War that liberalism (with its accommodation to human values) was an untenable position at a time when humanity was utterly lost before God. It was, after all, Barth who thought that Christians should hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. No one can claim immunity from their cultural environment. The impetus behind my chapter in Reframing Theology and Film was that in a film-permeated Western culture we cannot pretend that film has no role to play in the way we think, move and have our being – and thus ‘do’ theology.

Morehead's Musings: In what ways might we understand film as a reflection of the theological concerns of a culture?

Christopher Deacy: To give an example, many of my students will not have heard of Barth before taking a module on modern Christian theology. Yet, when Barth revisited Calvin’s teaching on predestination, it is apparent that many of these sorts of ideas find a strange resonance in aspects of our popular culture. Consider, for example, the success of the Final Destination trilogy in which a group of young students attempt to find ingenious ways of cheating death, only for it to become apparent that they have been predestined to die if not at a particular time then at least in a particular order which is immutable. This may not be the most fertile breeding ground for theological reflection, but the way these films ask questions about death, fate, predestination and the ultimate futility of humans to try and rise above their mortality does find a certain resonance in theology. There are differences, of course – Calvin and Barth were Christo-centric in their theological teachings and grappled with such questions as eternal salvation versus eternal damnation and whether there was a case for universal salvation. The Final Destination films deal with none of this, but sometimes knowing these films somehow makes Barth and others much less abstract and ivory tower theologians than they are sometimes perceived to be. One of my students once quipped that it is not so much God that is dead as the contemporary relevance of Barth and many other twentieth century theologians. But, the very issues with which theologians are engaged – the function of myth (Bultmann), being a person for other persons (Bonhoeffer) and a future hope (Moltmann and Pannenberg) – are hardly dissimilar from what many filmmakers are interested in exploring. Myth plays a big role in films (see, e.g., The Golden Compass, Pan’s Labyrinth), Bonhoeffer’s teaching is relevant to films which deal with the theme of the importance of others (consider the recent Oscar-winners Crash and The Lives of Others) and the importance of hope can be seen to underlie everything from The Shawshank Redemption to Hollywood’s recent obsession with apocalyptic-themed films (e.g. The Day after Tomorrow).

Morehead's Musings: In many courses on film and theology film is used to illustrate certain doctrines or theological themes. You take a different approach in the chapter in Reframing where you suggest that "films can (and should) be used not so much to illustrate theology but to enable us to (re)examine, critique, and challenge the efficacy of the work of a number of prominent twentieth-century theologians." How did you arrive at this thesis?

Christopher Deacy: I came to this following disenchantment with the Christ-figure material. When I first looked at Christ-figures in Screen Christologies, it was with a view to raising broader questions about how we categorize different conceptions of Jesus Christ as human or divine along the lines of early Church debates (Antiochene and Alexandrian), and whether anti-heroes in films tend to correspond to the former while supernatural heroes are analogous to the latter. In later years, though, much of the debate has surrounded the way in which we use Christ-figures to merely illustrate theology rather than to be theological conversation-partners or a portal into theological debate. I am thus more interested in asking how films can be a springboard for doing theology, along the lines of the argument at the heart of my chapter in Reframing in which I suggest that it is not so much that Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003) is relevant to a discussion of Bultmann because both are interested in the subject of myth, but because Burton’s film demonstrates a fundamental flaw with Bultmann, namely the assumption that myth is an anathema to modern men and women. Bultmann thought that it is impossible to subscribe to the mythological picture of the New Testament while living in a technological age, but Big Fish is a useful corrective to Bultmann’s deconstruction agenda in the way it shows that if you demythologize a story (as Bultmann believed was necessary) all you do is take away a story’s essence and vitality. I find that films can be a useful way into theology – indeed, we cannot ‘do’ theology without constantly finding an intersection with cultural forms and agencies.

Morehead's Musings: At one point in your chapter where you compare the theologies of Cupitt and Bonhoeffer with the film Christmas with the Kranks you state that “the church should reconsider its relationship to the secular world, thereby rendering the distinction between the sacred and the secular an artificial and somewhat outmoded one.” It has been suggested that with the desire for a more holistic view of life and spirituality in late modernity or postmodernity that the church is often perceived as being more secular and dualistic than much of the so-called secular world. Would you agree with such an assessment, and how might the church's sacred-secular split impact its relationship with film?

Christopher Deacy: The Church is not performing its mission properly if it understands the Church to be the (exclusive) agency of salvation and redemption. I was drawn to Bonhoeffer’s work precisely because of his concern that so long as there is a distinction between the sacred and the secular then ‘secular’ culture will always be seen to be in conflict with what the Church is doing. We had this earlier in the twentieth century when, for example, sexual themes in films gave rise to prohibition and censorship. In 1929 the Catholic Movie Code called for such censorship and called on film studios to reinforce religious and family values against what it saw as the decadence of the film industry. We see plenty of traces of this today, as well, in the so-called Bible Belt. Bonhoeffer is an important figure because he believed that by forging a separation between the sacred and the secular then the unity of God and the world is severed. For Bonhoeffer, God became reconciled to the world through the Incarnation, and so there is no God apart from the world. If God is in the world – and not just in the Church – then theologians ignore or dismiss what is going on in culture at their peril. To claim that ‘Church is good, film is bad’ misses the whole point of the Incarnation in my view. We may not like everything that goes on in our culture but the idea that filmmakers should only explore territory that is conducive to fostering Christian values is patronising and absurd. As I indicated earlier, violence may not be an intrinsically good thing but Christianity is inextricably connected with violence, and it would be more profitable in my view for those more conservative voices who denounce violent films to pay more attention first to consider just how elementary a part violence played in the origins of Christianity. In more recent times, also, Bush and Blair saw no incompatibility between so-called Christian values and the decision to go to war in Iraq which just reinforces the point.

Morehead's Musings: I was struck in your chapter’s conclusion by your quotation of Margaret Miles who said that Christian churches "have relinquished the task of providing life-orienting images" and that now, as Clive Marsh has argued, "the multiplex may be the modern cathedral." What is the way forward for Christian theologians, artists, and filmmakers?

Christopher Deacy: The way forward is to move away from binary oppositions – between the sacred and the secular, between Church and the world, and (in a Dawkinsian sense) between religion and science. The boundaries here are much more fluid than these positions indicate, to the point that when Clive Marsh talks about the multiplex as the modern cathedral this need not be viewed as a threat to the Church. Cinemas may be doing Church-type things, and Churches may be doing cinema-type things (indeed, it is very common today for churches to include the use of film as part of its worship, as Clive has shown). In the world of both evangelical Christians and Richard Dawkins (here, the differences are not all that pronounced – Dawkins is in a very real sense on an evangelical crusade to rescue science from the evils of religion and he admits in The God Delusion that his intention is to convert wayward readers), there is a right and a wrong. For Dawkins, religion is bad, science is good, and there can only be peace in the world when religion disappears and is supplanted by science. For evangelicals, it is religion that is a force – the force – for good, and it is atheistic thinking that must be rejected. Surely, though, we are more grown up than that. Religion in my view is alive and well in the twenty-first century, but since it is not bound up with God, the Bible and the Church in quite the way Dawkins thinks, the debate is too often an incomplete and impoverished one. Instead of seeking to ask whether religion is good or bad, a more fruitful discussion would concern the definition of religion. Unless more nuanced questions are asked, religion will be perceived as being under threat from secular film. Perhaps, in reality, film and religion are involved in the same sort of activity and can mutually inform one another – now that really would be a giant leap forward!

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Deacy, thank you again for your thoughts on these things. You've given readers a lot to consider and some indicators that theology and film is an exciting field for continued reflection.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

John Lyden: Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals

John Lyden is professor and chair of religion at Dana College in Blair, Nebraska. He is the author of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals (New York University Press, 2003), as well as numerous articles about film and religion. He is currently cochair of the Religion, Film, and Visual Culture Group of the American Academy of Religion.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Lyden, thank you so much for participating in this interview and sharing your interesting thoughts on film, popular culture, and religious studies. As we begin, can you share a little bit about how you became interested in the study of film as a theologian?

John Lyden: I have always been a film-lover, but I never really related film to my study of religion until about ten years ago. At that time, I began to see more study in this area, but I was not very impressed with the quality of most of it. It seemed to me that many of the people writing about religion and film had not developed a coherent method of analysis, and were simply applying methods from film studies without considering how religious studies might approach this subject, or they were applying theological ideas without really paying attention to the content of the films. In either case, there was little advancement by way of understanding the films better from a religious perspective. I began to develop my own method of approaching film, as a religion scholar and theologian, to try to address that lack of methodology in the field.

Morehead's Musings: In some of your writings, particularly your book Film as Religion, you state that we cannot separate culture from religion. This may come as a surprise to some evangelical Christians who seem to assume a clear separation is possible. Can you share a little about what you mean by this and what the implications are for a theological engagement with popular culture?

John Lyden: Religion is ultimately a part of culture, as it is a human construction just as any other part of culture. We may want to think of it as separate because it may have a transcendent subject matter, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is also human. You could think of this in analogy with the Christian understanding of the nature of Christ; the fact that he is divine does not take away from his humanity. Conversely, we can argue that the divine or religious is everywhere in culture, even when it is not recognized as such. I view this as a positive thing for dialogue between religion and culture, as it shows that the opposition between them is illusory. It means that we can take popular culture seriously as a dialogue partner and recognize that it has a tremendous influence on people’s religious views, whether we like it or not.

Morehead's Musings: You have also talked about the ways in which popular culture and media, particularly, film, is similar in function to religion. Can you elaborate on this for us?

John Lyden: I utilize a functionalist definition of religion drawn from the work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. This allows us to see that religion exists in whatever aspects of culture meet those functions, for example: it supplies a set of symbols that acts as both a model of reality (how it is) and a model for reality (how it should be, ideally), and so a worldview as well as an ethic; it involves rituals that help us to enact the ideal and make it real; it helps us deal with how to find meaning amidst the experience of chaos and evil, etc. I have found that films seem to supply all these functions, to some extent, in their meaning-making and symbolic capacity, in the values they propose, and in the way in which those are enacted for audiences who are invited to participate in the worldviews of various films.

Morehead's Musings: As someone with an intercultural studies background involved in interreligious dialogue, I found your suggestion that the dialogue between popular culture or film can be understood as an interreligious dialogue most intriguing. Can you summarize your thinking here for us?

John Lyden: If popular culture or film acts religiously for people, then it stands to reason that the dialogue between popular culture and those aspects of culture we normally call “religious” is really a dialogue between religious views. One can then apply the same sort of analysis and norms to that dialogue that have been used in interreligious dialogue as a way of creating better understanding and interchanges. The history of the interaction of religion and film bears this out. For example, the early days of sound cinema were filled with critiques of popular movies by the churches, largely because film was viewed as in fact a religious competitor, offering up a different set of views and values. Later, films were more appreciated by religious leaders when they found they had some theological value, but they still tended to homologize the films to Christian understandings. Recent interreligious dialogue has proposed moving beyond turning the “other” religion into either a demonic view to be rejected, or a mirror-image of my own tradition, to seeing it as a genuine dialogue partner, which is both similar and different from my own tradition. In this way, we can begin to actually hear and fairly evaluate the other view, whether we call it religion or culture.

Morehead's Musings: In your fascinating book one of the things you discuss in the section on method is myth. Can you define your discussion of myth for us, and touch on why this is significant in a theological engagement with film, particularly in a late modern Western context?

John Lyden: Myth is a much-maligned term, implying to many people a falsehood, but mythic understandings are not going away. We always hear stories mythically whenever we move beyond the literal narrative to invest them with symbolic meaning. Even when we try to “factually” evaluate the justice of invading another country, we quickly move beyond arguments about literal threats to national security to more mythological concepts—viewing ourselves as saviors of the world, for example, thus legitimizing our action. Politics is full of mythological rhetoric about nations and destiny and purpose, but people don’t see it because it isn’t called “religion.” All of culture is like this; films are full of myths promoting various worldviews, such as the myth of redemption through violence, the myth of romantic love, etc. And I want to emphasize, myths are not all bad! We can’t live without myth, but we need to identify the myths we are using, and be able to evaluate what myths we want to live by.

Morehead's Musings: Your book also includes a consideration of various genres of film. Given my interests I was pleased to see your inclusion of fantasy, science fiction, and the thriller or horror film. Unless you're a fan of these genres, I think most viewers are tempted to dismiss them as containing little important content, particularly from the perspective of theology or religion, and in my experience evangelicals are even more prone to dismiss these genres. Why did you include them in your study, and can you provide an example of what your research found in theological engagement with these genres?

John Lyden: These genres are clearly important ones to engage from a religious perspective as they tend to go beyond realistic narrative to the supernatural or fantastic, and in that way, they are like religions. Often they will utilize ideas explicitly drawn from Christianity or other religious sources. For example, Superman Returns was explicitly Christological, and The Matrix utilizes Buddhist and Gnostic religious ideas. But even when they don’t borrow explicitly from religions, they have a form that looks very much like the form of religious stories, in which we learn about ourselves by seeing analogous characters in a fantastic setting that somehow heightens the moral choices they make. It may be harder for people to appreciate horror, in particular, as it seems exploitative at times, but it deals very clearly with the reality of evil and the proper response to it. That idea is certainly at the center of religious discourse.

Morehead's Musings: In your chapter for Reframing Theology and Film you state that it is your "hope that Christian theologians who are interested in popular culture will see the relevance of viewing films-as-religion to their own task" and that you hope this dialogue moves beyond a simplistic embrace or rejection. In your view, are we starting to see more theologians engaging film, and in the way in which you suggest?

John Lyden: Definitely. The field is maturing rapidly, as a variety of scholars are coming to the study of theology and film from many backgrounds, and also filmmakers are getting more involved in the discussion. I have been very pleased with the quality of discussions on this topic now as opposed to ten years ago, when it seemed like we were stuck in the embrace-or-reject dichotomy. There are a lot more sophisticated analyses now of how film operates on us, how audiences appropriate films, and how films utilize and develop religious themes in creative ways.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Lyden, thank you again for answering these questions and sharing the results of your research in this interesting area of theology and popular culture.

John Lyden: It’s been my pleasure!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Hannah Johnston and the New Generation of Teenage Witches

Hannah Johnston facilitated the U.K.'s first teenage Witchcraft research and networking site, Her doctoral thesis investigated the rise of contemporary teenage Witchcraft in the U.K. She is currently Adjunct Professor in Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College, U.S., where she teaches contemporary television studies and cultural theory. Hannah has co-edited and contributed material to the new volume The New Generation Witches: Teenage Witchcraft in Contemporary Culture (Ashgate, 2007) with Peg Aloi.

Morehead's Musings: Hannah, thanks for taking some time to discuss your new book. To begin, can you tell us how you connected with Peg in this collaborative project?

Hannah Johnston:Peg and I, along with various other scholars, were on a panel discussing teenage Witchcraft at the ASANAS conference back in 2002 in Milton Keynes, U.K. Peg and I had already met at a previous conference and realized that our research interests lay in similar areas. As a result of this panel and the discussion it generated amongst various people afterwards (including Jim Lewis who is editing Ashgate Press's 'Controversial New Religions Series'), we realized that there was a depth and breadth of interest to propose an anthology.

Morehead's Musings: Your book focuses on an increasingly visible and growing part of the Wiccan subculture, that of teenage Witches. In the growing field of Pagan studies, how did this group come to your attention?

Hannah Johnston: I think John that the tide has turned for teen Witches. I believe that in many ways we are presently seeing the assimilation of this sub group of the Pagan/ Witchcraft community into the broader adult community - as teens involved in the initial flush of interest come of age and due to the new networks and opportunities available to teenagers' interest. In terms of how this group first came to my attention though, it was in the writing of my undergraduate thesis, whilst researching Witches in film. In anecdotal material online and the Pagan press, films like The Craft and Practical Magic were being discussed in relation to a specifically teen audience who were modelling their spiritual and magical identity on the characters found in these texts. I was also working part time in an occult store at this time, and saw first hand how these texts were inspiring young women to find out more about Wicca and Witchcraft. Consequently, having become aware of the distinctions between teenage Witchcraft and the adult Pagan/Wiccan/Witchcraft communities at the end of the 1990s, I was struck by the emergence of teen Witchcraft as a distinctive articulation of popular culture post-feminism, and I went on to pursue my doctorate in the field, investigating teen Witchcraft as an amalgamation of new religious structures, pop media poaching from alternative beliefs and new age practices and new feminist concepts of 'girl power'.

Morehead's Musings: Can you tell us something about the contributors to your collection of essays in the book?

Hannah Johnston: It is always difficult to 'speak' about vulnerable groups from the outside, and in this sense I mean teens, from the position of an adult subjectivity. Peg and I were very conscious from the outset of the project of not wanting to replicate the often derogatory stance initially taken towards teens from within the adult Pagan community at large - of speaking about them as media dupes, or misguided frivolous youths. Consequently we tried to find a range of voices to discuss teenage witchcraft, from within and from outside the academy, including some teen voices themselves. Therefore we have contributors from a variety of academic disciplines: Denise Cush is a scholar of Religious Education, Ronald Hutton is a Historian, I am a Cultural Studies scholar, etc. Then we have a variety of essays from writers who were instrumental in the orchestration of the teen Witch communities: Matthew Hannam's essay on the establishment of 'Minor Arcana' in the U.K. for example, and Melissa Harrington's essay explores how certain key figures in the U.K. Pagan community found Witchcraft in their teens before the current 'trend.' Then we have essays written by teens - one British and one American, who talk about certain aspects of their teen Witch identity. At points Peg and I wanted to expand this section, but tracking down teens willing to do it was a difficult task.

Morehead's Musings: How might teenage Wicca be different from adults exploring this spiritual pathway?

Hannah Johnston: Well, if I told you that I would be giving the content of the book away! No, this is essentially the focus of the book and the answer to this question is complex and multi-faceted. Suffice it to say that teenage Witchcraft as we have come to describe young practitioners of late 1990's Witchcraft, is not a definable subculture in the traditional sense, it is not a sub-organization or a homogeneous group of practitioners, all practising a certain branch of Witchcraft. But, as my own doctoral research discusses and many of the essays in the book, it is the interconnectedness between pop culture, media and teenage Witchcraft that marks it as a distinctive phase in the evolution of the Pagan community at large and that emphasises certain practices and tenets above others. So for example, there is less emphasis on the politics of Witchcraft and much more on the practical spell casting and ritual form of Witchcraft practice. It is also, as Jim Lewis's essay discusses, a reemphasizing of DIY witchcraft as opposed to the notion of traditions or schools. Teenage Witchcraft in part has come about as a consequence of the solitary practitioner/hedge Witch model of Witchcraft/Wiccan practice due to its very creative and non-hierarchical approach to a relationship with deity and power and also as these teens have in the main been excluded from any of the historical traditions of the Craft. Further, what distinguishes teen Witchcraft from previous waves of youth involvement in the occult are the models of conversion, or the narratives of 'coming in' as discussed by Melissa Harrington and Doug Ezzy and Helen Berger, the forms of inspiration and motivation for becoming involved in Pagan and Witchcraft practise, and the focus for the articulation of this spirituality.

Morehead's Musings: How are teenagers seeking a sense of self-identity through an exploration of this spirituality?

Hannah Johnston: A large majority of interested teens come to Witchcraft as a response to all of those spiritual questions regarding identity and one's place in the world that we encounter at various points of our lives. Many of these teens describe the spirituality of Witchcraft in very active terms - that they are drawn to it due to the discourse of self-empowerment they feel is at the root of its theology.

Morehead's Musings: I detect a reciprocal or synergistic relationship between pop culture and teen Wicca. How are teens being informed by aspects of pop culture where Wicca is concerned, and how are their interests in turn impacting how this is expressed in pop culture?

Hannah Johnson: This is one of the key distinctions between pre-1990s witchcraft conversion narratives and contemporary conversion narratives, and I think it is fair to say that this can be levied towards adults as much as teens. However, due to the expansion of new medias and the interpellation of teens through various media texts (visual and literary) that draw upon tropes of Wicca/Witchcraft, and the increased visibility of Paganism and Wicca/Witchcraft as a spirituality, spaces within popular culture were opened up to enable teenagers to explore the possibilities of identity construction through non-celluloid/television witchcraft.

Morehead's Musings: How do you see teen involvement in Wicca shaping this changing expression of spirituality?

Hannah Johnston: In many ways it has forced a wider discussion about religious education within the Pagan community and specifically about how the adult community should include those under 18s who are interested. I think it is also fair to say that it has also contributed to a much more media and Internet savvy community, due to the volume of teens using the Internet and media as a primary source of inspiration and information.

Morehead's Musings: Hannah, thanks again for your thoughts on this topic. I look forward to the ways in which your book will make an important contribution to Pagan and Wiccan studies.

Hannah Johnston: Thank you, John.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Michael DeLashmutt: Techno-Theology and "Religionless Seattle"

Many of the papers presented at the Popular Culture Association's annual convention have proved to be a source of intellectual and reflective gems for me. I have commented on some of them in the past, and with this post I am privileged to interview Michael DeLashmutt, the author of "Religionless in Seattle" that will be part of the forthcoming book Explorations in Religion and Media Culture (London, Ashgate, Spring 2009). Michael is Lecturer in the Study of the Christian Church at the University of Exeter in the U.K. where he works in the area of practical theology and has done some fascinating research and writing on techno-theology and posthuman speculative science. He is also a prolific author and some of his work can be found at He is an active member of the U.K. Research Network for Theology, Religion and Popular Culture, a film reviews editor for the journal Political Theology, and an aspirant for Holy Orders within the Episcopal Church (USA) in the Diocese of Olympia.

Morehead's Musings: Michael, thank you for agreeing to talk about your interesting research in this interview. I know that blog interviews are not something that you usually participate in, but I am trying to do something different with my blogs in the subject matter touched upon and the manner in which it is explored. I'd like to begin by exploring a little about you. How did you come to develop a personal and academic interest in theology and popular culture, and more specifically, how did you come to address specific research topics like information technology and posthuman speculative science?

Michael DeLashmutt: Thank you for asking me to take part. Your blog seems like an interesting space for discussing such issues and I’m very happy to be a part. I suppose, like most people who study theology and everyday life that my interests were born out of a desire to study things that appeal to me. I remember in the mid-1990s watching movies and hearing songs which talked about God and faith, love, and virtue and thinking to myself that popular forms of media culture were doing a better job at wrestling with these issues than were their correlates in the religious world. To be sure, the evangelical Christian church was keen to use media culture as a venue for the promulgation of the gospel, but the simplistic attitude towards faith and the shoddy production value made such attempts seem childish. Instead, mainstream culture appeared to be voicing more authentic theological concerns whilst maintaining commitment to artistry and craft. At the time, I was involved in Christian ministry and beginning to consider graduate theological education. I wanted to be able to bridge my interest in popular culture with my commitment to the church and my passion for rigorous and critical theological inquiry.

As for information technology, my foray into that field was quite by accident. A child of the 70s, I remember distinctly the first computer that was brought into our home in the early 1980s. I suppose, I’d always been keen to play with this new gadget and eventually found a way to supplement my book-buying budget as an undergraduate student with work in IT. I was living in Seattle at the time, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to have a part-time job in IT. After having a horrible experience working as a computer lackey at my undergraduate institution (where I was constantly belittled by my over-bearing tyrant of a boss), I moved on to find better and more lucrative work in IT, eventually taking part in the dot-com economy directly before and after the burst of the dot-com bubble in 2001. All the while I was working on my Master’s degree at Fuller Seminary and preparing to start a PhD in the UK in 2002. With this heady mix of theology, millennial frenzy, and seemingly unlimited growth in the IT sector, it seemed to me that technology and the ways in which we approach technology, would soon be among the biggest issues for a practical theology to address.

Morehead's Musings: Earlier this year you presented a paper at the national convention for the Popular Culture Association that caught my attention titled "Religionless in Seattle" that looks at the issues of identity and spirituality as it relates to information technology in the Seattle, Washington area. Your paper has been revised for publication as a chapter in the forthcoming collection edited by Christopher Deacy, Exploring Religion and the Sacred in a Media Age (Ashgate Press). At the beginning of your article you reference a "techno-theology" which will likely be unfamiliar to most readers of this interview. Can you touch on what this is and what theologians you have interacted with to construct such a theology?

Michael DeLashmutt: Techno-Theology was a short-hand term that I started using when I was writing my PhD thesis. I’m sure other scholars have made us of the term quite independently of me, yet I find it to be a handy abbreviation. In sum, I view techno-theology as the antithesis of a theology of technology (something which in my current book I’m trying to outline). A techno-theology considers technology itself (or rather, a reified and essentialist understanding of ‘Technology’) to be the core facet in the construction of ethics, value, and identity. A techno-theology is an unreflective attitude towards technology which invests human agency and technical capacity with the power to alleviate all human suffering and fulfill the basics of human need. Where this becomes problematic is when the drive for technical mastery or technology development is pursued without concern for the human impact of continued technologization. The role played by theology in this portmanteau of a phrase is more abstract and diffuse than one would expect from the word. In sum, the theology within techno-theology represents an alternative system of values and concerns which strive for ultimate importance. When translated into the language of Christian systematic theology, techno-theologies appear to spawn heterodox eschatologies and soteriologies where the human certainty in human salvific activity in the future and present is exchange for contingent hope in the activity of the Divine. A theology of technology, on the other hand, places the role of the kerygma (the kernel of Christian proclamation) at the centre of our dealings with technology and material culture and asks first after the role of the other in governing our development and use of technology. Moreover, a theology of technology rightly regards technology as a part of the whole of our life-world, judging it alongside other elements of creaturely reality.

Morehead's Musings: Are many theologians aware of this techno-theology, and do you see this as an increasingly important realm for theologizing to take place?

Michael DeLashmutt: My interest in techno-theology is intended to point out the cultural, imaginative, material and scientific elements of technology and to examine how these disparate aspects of ‘technology’ each contribute to the construction of one’s theological world view. Amongst those working within the field of theology and popular culture, the input of media-studies and material culture into the sub discipline has elevated the profile of technology as a concept worth theological reflection. The work of Elaine Graham in post/humanism and Heidi Campbell in new-media are just two examples that come to mind – and to be sure, their projects were very influential for my own thinking on this subject. However, as a whole I have found technology to be an underdeveloped topic within contemporary theological discourse. Serious discussions of technology tend to be pushed to the fringe, whereas a related topic like the sciences still has a tremendous draw. The privileging of a science-theology dialogue over a technology-theology dialogue reveals the late modernist view of science which is still very much at play within contemporary theology. In more postmodern philosophy, however, the philosophical investigation of technology in its own right has become a very interesting field of research. Philosophers of technology who draw upon continental, phenomenological, or hermeneutic themes (Don Ihde, for example) or more conventionally Anglo-American philosophers who still address the philosophical issues raised specifically by technology (Albert Borgmann) have done terrific work in raising the profile of technology as an object of reflection. I believe that it is only a matter of time before theologians begin to more broadly engage with technology as a vital aspect of our lived-life.

Morehead's Musings: How have information technologies contributed "to the radical construction of identity, community, ethics, and even religious faith" as you discuss in your paper?

Michael DeLashmutt: Good question! Technologies of information have always placed formative pressures on the ways in which we construct the world around us, whether this is in terms of the technologies of information which were so influential during the Reformation (literacy in general, printing in particular), or the role played by new media in the expansion of Pentecostalism in the American west. Information technology (as most broadly understood) is a medium which transmits the stories we tell about ourselves and our world, though the transmission of these stories is no neutral matter. Early information theorists noted that all forms of data transmission resulted in the attenuation of the signal and the transformation of the content by means of its transmission. No matter how invisible, how seemingly benign or how ubiquitous a technology may become, its role in changing or suitably transmogrifying the underlying information being transmitted cannot be denied. This is why, for me, a theology of technology is ultimately reducible to a robust hermeneutical analysis, which reads not only the stories being conveyed by technologies, but the technologies themselves.

Morehead's Musings: Your article lists the top eleven cities for computer science related employment, including San Jose, Boulder, Framingham, Huntsville, Durham, Bethesda, Seattle, Colorado Springs, San Francisco, Austin, and the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria areas. How did you come to focus your research on Seattle, and do your observations apply equally well in general terms to these other parts of the country?

Michael DeLashmutt: Three factors played into my selection of Seattle: 1) I have lived in Seattle, on and off, for the last 15 years and I am well connected in the region and able to make use of those connections for the purposes of my research; 2) during the final stage of this research project my research was unfunded and as I was living in the city at the time, I didn’t have the resources of a University at my disposal to broaden the scope of my project; 3) the majority of my current research centres on the condition of the Christian Church in the UK and Seattle more closely matches the religious demographic of the United Kingdom than do most other regions in the United States.

Morehead's Musings: In reading your article I was surprised to find that your research indicates that computer science and information technology does not account for Seattle's low-rates of religious affiliation. Do you think others will be surprised by this, and if so, what does this say about our assumptions or biases about technology as it relates to traditional forms of religious commitment?

Michael DeLashmutt: I was certainly surprised. My assumption was that technological and scientific people just don’t have time for God. Though this may be the case, it seems from my research that other factors are far more significant in influencing one’s self-selection for religious identity. I believe that one of the things that this project points out is how complex one’s religious identity truly is. We often assume that by translating the message into a culturally relevant form we’ll be able to overcome people’s preconceived biases against the Christian story. The truth of the matter is far more complex than either metaphysical incredulity or subaltern presuppositions.

Morehead's Musings: What other factors are there that you suggest might contribute to the Seattle area's low-rates of religious affiliation?

Michael DeLashmutt: I would have to refer you to a fantastic book on the religious climate of the Pacific Northwest: Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest (AltaMira Press, 2004) edited by Killen and Silk. The book looks at historical and contemporary religious trends. In my mind, the entrepreneurialism and lack of a unified and singular religious presence in the region over time are the two principal reasons why the region has so dramatically differed from national religious affiliation norms. People in the Pacific Northwest, and Seattle in particular, see themselves as the chief arbiter of truth, goodness and value and the imposition made by organized religions upon the freedom of the individual are seen as meddlesome.

Morehead's Musings: In your interviews and ethnographic research you also found diversity in the spiritual habits and interests of those in Seattle. Can you summarize some of this?

Michael DeLashmutt: Well, interestingly many people conveyed some kind of latent spirituality, either in terms of a belief in a diffuse notion of God or gods, or through their respect for various spiritual practices (meditation, yoga, even spiritual cleansings). Yet when pushed as to the ways in which individuals practiced the beliefs which they posited, few showed any of the marks of discipline or even regularity which would, in effect, evince through their practices the centrality of the beliefs and values which they posited. In a sense, St Cyprian’s famous dictum ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation,’ resonates with my own view of religion and spirituality. One cannot confess to a particular kind of spirituality and not follow through with practices, if one wants to maintain any sense of credulity. Eschatological implications aside, you cannot reasonably call yourself a ‘Christian’ and not at the least attend Church with some frequency. Moreover, you can not call yourself ‘spiritual’ and not maintain some consistent set of spiritual practices. In my opinion, the spiritual landscape of the United States has increasingly become one that reduces spirituality to a matter of consumer choice.

Morehead's Musings: I enjoyed your conclusions in the article that are important for continuing research and theological reflection. One of your conclusions noted that computer science and information technology professionals are not the techno fetishists that we many times assume they are. You argue that there appears to be a trend toward the use of such technologies for "ubiquitous computing, social networking technologies, and high-touch." You then suggest that because of this that the ministry and mission of the church might need to rethink its assumptions about the use of technology in worship and the presentation of the Christian message. Can you touch on your thinking here and what the practical implications are, not only for churches in Seattle, but elsewhere in our media saturated culture?

Michael DeLashmutt: Well, Christian theology has a long and venerable ascetic tradition. If we were to put a moderated form of ascesis into practice today, it would reflect the material theology evinced by the episodic stories in the middle of Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s Jesus consistently challenges his audience to re-consider their relationship with material wealth in light of Jesus call to self-sacrifice. Neither family, social status, nor material possessions should interfere with the disciples’ Jerusalem-ward journey alongside Jesus. Jesus’ call is one of self-sacrifice and other-oriented service. This may seem an unusual point to place at the center of a theology of technology, but I believe it is a concern for the other which must be at the heart of our decisions regarding the use and consumption of contemporary technology. Obsolescence is at the heart of contemporary technology. Items are purchased with expiry dates in mind, if only for the purpose of procuring the most recent version. Is it truly honoring to God, the creation, or the other for us to simply buy into the consumerist element of technology culture in order solely to keep up with the times? Does having the most recent gadget really make us happy? Is the latest hand held computer really that much better than the previous version or, moreover, a paper calendar? Though blind consumption of technological goods is a society-wide problem, for many an entrepreneurial Christian church, the consumption of technological goods has become a kind of sacramental duty. Executive pastors seem to think that if they don’t have digital projector, the latest AV equipment, and all the gadgets that come with it that their church is bound to fail. We assume that the obstacle which stands in the way of people attending Christian worship services are carpet color, seat materials, and the flashiness of the on screen display. Though the pre-green church of the 80s and 90s may have relied on tactics and technologies for the proclamation of the Gospel; I believe that the current culture-wide shift towards lower-tech and higher-touch uses of technology signals a move away from technological fetishism and a move towards more considered uses of technology.

Morehead's Musings: Michael, thanks again for making some time to explore this important area of cultural, social and theological reflection.