Monday, June 30, 2008

Harold Taylor on Cross-Cultural Contextualization

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit several areas in Australia. I was intrigued by the work that Christian colleagues were doing in engaging the holistic milieu or New Spirituality. One of the people I was fortunate to spend time with was Harold Taylor, a former missionary to Papua New Guinea who spends time applying his experience and insights as a missionary to his work with the Community of Hope in Melbourne. Harold was very helpful during my trip in that he not only shared the work of Community of Hope, but also introduced me to Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch. He later became a contributor to Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic, 2004) where he wrote a chapter on the process of contextualization in the history of Christian missions.

Harold recently drew from the depth of his experiences and wisdom to share his responses to several questions of mine.

Morehead's Musings: Harold, can you share a little about your background?

Harold Taylor: I am a retired Uniting Church minister(Uniting Church is combination of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches-formed in 1977). I was born into a working class family in 1932, in the Western Suburbs Melbourne( lower social status). I worked in Railways after leaving school and was drafted for Military national service in the early l950’s. I came to faith during time in army. Later, I became part of the Methodist Church, and trained for Methodist ministry in the mid-1950’s. I was posted to Papua New Guinea as a missionary with Methodist Overseas Missions in the 160 and served there in various situations, including 10 years in a newly formed theological college. I returned Australia in 1977, and was appointed as Lecturer at the Bible College of Victoria, responsible for missiology and pastoral care. I retired in 1996 for health reasons. From l996 to 2006 I directed the Community of Hope -- a ministry working among people searching for meaning in alternative spiritual paths, apart from the church, including New Age and other alternatives in the spiritual healing smorgasbord. I am married to Barbara and I have four children and eight grand children.

Morehead's Musings: How did a former missionary to PNG get involved in missions at Mind*Body*Spirit festivals?

Harold Taylor: Working in cross-cultural situations made me aware of the universal search for meaning in peoples lives. In PNG this was expressed through the cultural lens of a spiritual world view, where life was strongly influenced (often dominated) by a belief in spiritual powers affecting all aspects of daily life. The missionary challenge was to understand and respond to this very different world view. An important aspect in this was to understand the cultural situation and assumptions of the people, and then be able to relate the gospel in a meaningful way to their situation -- not to mine! This required a level of identification , involving language learning and forging a lifestyle which built bridges to different understandings and expressions of life and spirituality.

On returning to Australia, I became aware of the changing Australian society, including the decline of the church and the growth of many alternative spiritual paths and their rapid expansion from 1960’s onward..One of the popular expressions of this was through the so-called New Age-Mind*Body*Spirit festivals. I began to be involved in this area of ministry when there were few if any Christian groups functioning in this area. There was lots of “apologetic” material about the New Age, but few actually seem inclined to get involved in the popular "market place” level where people were searching.

In the Community of Hope we worked on a developmental model-outlined in ENRM. We revised this, and produced our own models which operates with the acronym. GLOBAL and PLEASE:

G. go
L. listen and learn the new age culture, etc. by
O. observing..meanings, colours, actions, presentations, world view etc,.
B. being ready to ask others as to meanings, involvement etc. and being ready to share your own spiritual journeys.
A. awareness of other cultural/spiritual emphases
L. love, based on knowledge and understanding and involvement in other situations following the pattern of Ramon Lull (see ENRM p. 55-56).


P. presence - living , being present among new age devotees/searchers in markets, etc.
L. listen and learn in order to understand..involving questions and sharing ideas
E. explain your own cultural understanding and spiritual experiences
A. awareness of different cultural and spiritual attitudes and understanding
S. service,where and if applicable
E. expressing gospel in relevant terms at the right time/place

Morehead's Musings: Why do you believe that cross-cultural missions provides a helpful contribution to the field of new religions? How does a missions model make a unique contribution to how evangelicals understand and respond to them that has not been addressed in popular apologetic approaches?

Harold Taylor: I believe that cultural missions do provide a helpful contribution in any approach to “new religions," etc. The above framework provided a basis for our approach in PNG. It involved leaving your own cultural situation and living, working, thinking in another cultural paradigm, where listening and learning and relating to others is just as, or even more important, than the theological knowledge and spiritual experience you wish to impart. This is different from the usual evangelical apologetic, which often seems to proceed on a doctrinal basis, with the task of showing the truth of the biblical revelation and comparing it to the world view and “doctrines/beliefs” of the “target” group. It seemed to me that such apologetic efforts were often conducted “at a distance," whereas the true missionary approach involves identification, and a deliberate attempt to contextualise the gospel, involving both declaring the truth( doctrinal) and also relating to others (identification).

Morehead's Musings: In ENRM, you contributed a chapter that looked at examples of contextualisation in the history of Christian missions. Can you define what contextualisation means in missions and missiology?

Harold Taylor: As stated ENRM (p. 44-45). Gilliland suggests that the goal of contextualization is its best definition. There are many definitions available, but each definition involves relating the scriptural revelation to each human cultural context, to discover what God is saying to every particular group of people. A truly contextualized gospel and church is one where those receiving the gospel and becoming part of the church , feel “at home,” i.e. it “fits” who I am and where I am, and addresses meaningfully my situation of hope, fears, and daily living.

Morehead's Musings: I was struck in a seminary course on world religions and the exegesis of cultures that there are certain worldview roots, if you will, or very basic and different ways of seeing the world, whether that of ethical monotheism; those that emphasize samsara,karma, and dharma; and those that emphasize the Tao, the yin/yang, ancestors, and divination. Obviously cross cultural translation and communication of the christian message involves far more than language but also moving into the areas of these worldviews? Is it necessary for someone to adopt a western worldview in order to embrace Christianity, or how might we have our greatest contextualisation challenges ahead of us in terms of translation in these worldviews?

Harold Taylor: I do not think it is necessary for someone to adopt a western worldview in order to embrace Christianity. In fact to the extent that others become “westernized” in their understanding and practice, is often the reason why they find it difficult to express the gospel in their own cultural thought forms and practices.

It may be helpful to understand a western worldview, in order to understand how the church has developed in the western world, but often this is equated with being truly Christian. This is one of the greatest challenges -- how to express the good news of Jesus in ways which relate meaningfully to another cultural situation, rather than using western thought forms, language, and cultural and church assumptions.

This “westernizing’” of mission is one of the greatest challenges facing the church today, and has affected the development of missionary churches. Much theological education and learning remains embedded in western patterns, and this dependence on the West, has produced a kind of “cultural captivity”, which has to be replaced by a truly indigenous contextual theology and theological education patterns.

Morehead's Musings: Is Western Christianity used to thinking in terms of cross cultural contextualisation in the West, and particularly where the new religions are concerned? Why or why not?

Harold Taylor: My impression is that the western church does not give much credence to cross-cultural communication in the West, although is changing over the last three decades. "New religions” and “spiritualities” are still approached mainly on a “heresy-doctrinal’ basis, where the emphasis is on truth and error. Whilst this is an essential aspect of sharing the gospel, this approach may not involve any identification with the “other”, whereas this is an essential ingredient of any true contextualization.

Morehead's Musings: What types of cultural assumptions might we have that impact our understanding of the gospel and contextualisation?

Harold Taylor: There are many. Some would be:

Truth as statement/doctrine, with little emphasis on relationships and identification.

The western way is the best way, and is therefore needed by others, and we have the task of sharing that with others (and often imposing it on others).

Our church structures and practices are the best way to communicate the gospel.

Western values are kingdom values, and therefore to be accepted as the “right” way, whereas they are often in conflict with truly biblical values and assumptions.

Morehead's Musings: Syncretism is a negative term in theology and missiology. Can you define that for us?

Harold Taylor: Syncretism is the mixing together of various world views and truth statements -- a fruit salad mix -- so that the resulting mix is different from the various ingredients. It is often used negatively because it suggests a dilution or contamination of the truth.

Morehead's Musings: I have the impression that conservative evangelicalism and other forms of Protestantism seem to be getting more conservative in missions and missiology over fears of syncretism. Can you speak to how we might have balance in working towards contextualisation and avoiding syncretism but not allowing fears to stop our creative missional experimentation?

Harold Taylor: I believe it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to avoid syncretism altogether, and that we are much too afraid of this happening. The challenge is to express the good news of Jesus in ways which are faithful to scripture and relevant to each cultural situation. This always involves the risk of syncretism, and there must be a constant awareness of this possibility, but this should not stop attempts to truly “indigenize” the good news. Often we think that our understanding and presentation of the gospel is free from any syncretism, and that this is a problem for “the other”. However it is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that syncretism is only problem in “non- or becoming Christian”” situations. I would maintain that the church in North America and Australia is heavily syncretised, because we have assumed that western cultural values are truly Christian, whereas the truth is that there are many areas in the western church where the gospel has been diluted and weakened and obscured because of the assumptions (often unspoken) that western cultural is somehow basically Christian in orientation.

There is always the risk of syncretism( as in both Old and New Testaments), and often this prevents any new missional experimentation, but that risk has to be taken if the gospel is to be expressed and heard in culturally meaningful ways. I think syncretism is overcome by good biblical teaching. a long and arduous but necessary task.

Morehead's Musings: Harold, thank you again for sharing some of your thoughts. I know you feel that each question is worthy of several pages if not books of discussion, but I hope that your thoughts on these issues will help stimulate careful reflection.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pew Forum: U.S. Religious Landscape Survey

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just released the second part of its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. It includes some interesting information that needs to be considered by Christian churches, educational institutions, and others. As a result of the release of the survey the news media has produced a number of stories reporting on the results. USA TODAY included an interesting summary of some of the survey's findings in a story titled "Survey: More have dropped dogma for spirituality in U.S." Below are select excerpts from this story that intrigued me:

"Religion today in the USA is a salad bar where people heap on upbeat beliefs they like and often leave the veggies — like strict doctrines — behind."


"Such are the key findings in latest data from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of 35,000 Americans. Pew released demographic data in February from the survey, conducted May through August 2007. This new installment focuses on 60 questions about participants' religious beliefs and social and political views."


"Green observes, 'Americans are deeply suspicious of institutional religion. … (Some see religion) as about money, rules and power. That's not a positive connotation for everyone.'"


"Pew Forum director Luis Lugo attributes the decline of dogmatism to living in a pluralistic society, in which friends, co-workers, even family members come from myriad faiths. The survey found 37% of couples with children were married to or living with someone from another religion or faith tradition, bringing diversity 'right down to the kitchen table,' Lugo says.

"'Americans believe in everything. It's a spiritual salad bar,' says Rice University sociologist Michael Lindsay. Rather than religious leaders setting the cultural agenda, today, it's Oprah Winfrey, he says.

"'After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the national memorial service was at Washington's National Cathedral, conducted by Episcopal clergy. After the 9/11 attack, Oprah organized the official memorial service at Yankee Stadium, and while clergy participated, she was the master of ceremonies.

"'The impact of Oprah is seen throughout this survey. She uses the language of Bible and Christian traditions and yet includes other traditions to create a hodgepodge personalized faith. Exclusivism (one religion has the absolute and exclusive truth) has gotten a bad name in America today,' he says."


"'Every religious group has a major challenge on its hands from all directions,' says Lugo. When he factors in Pew's February findings that 44% of adults say they've switched to another religion or none at all, Lugo says, 'You have to wonder: How do you guarantee the integrity of a religious tradition when so many people are coming or going or following ideas that don't match up?'"


The article concludes with the comments of a Southern Baptist leader who makes dogmatic assertions about the results of the survey which unfortunately involves no attempt to interact with the cultural shifts described in the report:

"The Rev. Frank Page of Taylors, S.C., past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, is not surprised by the Pew findings. 'The number (of churches that) teach a clear doctrinal Christianity are a minority today. How would people know it when they never hear about how to be saved?'

"Still, Page is undaunted. 'Jesus predicted all this,' he says, quoting from the Bible (Matthew 15:8): 'People honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.'

'We still work as hard as we can to share the good news,' he says, 'even though we know most will reject the way.'


The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey provides a reminder to Christians (perhaps brand new information to some segments of the subculture) that the nation has shifted to a post-Christendom environment.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Virtual Worlds: Significant Cultural Phenomenon for the Practical Theology Agenda

Fans of the Star Trek: The Next Generation series will remember the holodeck, that place on the Starship Enterprise where computers used three dimensional imagery to create imaginary worlds that crew members could enter into for vacation, pleasure, and training simulations. These simulations appeared just as real as the external world, and at times the holodeck served as the location for entire episodes of the series. Our technology has yet to catch up completely to what this science fiction program envisioned for virtual entertainment, but it's not too far away from reality.

The Matrix series of films postulated a world where human consciousness lived in a fantasy world generated by machines so that their bodies could be harnessed for their energy to feed the machine society. Many were rescued from the virtual world of the matrix but even to the escapees this cyber reality seemed as real, perhaps more real, than the external world. The scenario presented by The Matrix led to a number of significant philosophical, theological, and ethical questions that addressed the nature of reality and human relationships with technology, particularly with the construction of and participation in virtual worlds.

But all of this is just the stuff of science fiction or fantasy entertainment, isn't it? Sure, we have the Internet and computer gaming, but nothing like Star Trek's holodeck or the virtual world of The Matrix. Before we casually dismiss these artifacts of popular culture we need to consider that the stuff of sci fi has moved closer to the real world than many are aware and we need to be thinking about the implications in a number of areas, including that of theology.

My colleague, Philip Johnson in Australia, was the first to bring the significance of these aspects of modern life to my attention. He suggested I take a look at Second Life, a virtual reality metaverse created by Philip Rosedale and his Linden Labs as a result of a number of influences and experiences, including inspiration during a Burning Man Festival experience in 1999. As Rosedale described Burning Man, "it reinforced that idea that what we believe in or what we make of things is all that is real. It was unreal because everything was clearly made of found materials and was transitory. But it was real, because when you were there, it was real to you." Rosedale would later apply this same thinking to the creation of Second Life. From its modest beginnings with a few hundred thousand register accounts in 2006, SL had over five million by the middle of 2007. With present growth rates it may involve 30 million users this year.

Second Life is not the only virtual world. World of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment is also popular with eight million subscribers as of 2007. Lineage by NCSoft involves two million subscribers, and Gaia Online by Gaia Interaction involves millions of subscribers for their teen online world.

Increasingly, people are recognizing that the phenomenon of virtual or synthetic worlds represents a significant aspect of human life that needs to be explored and understood. As Edward Castronova has written, "Time and attention are migrating from the real world into the virtual world," and this has tremendous implications in a number of areas, from the economy, to human identity, to questions of defining the "real" in contrast with the virtual, to the implications related to play in these contexts.

I suggest that virtual worlds represent an important item for the agenda of practical theology for Western theologians and those involved in intercultural studies. This phenomenon needs to be engaged not merely in terms of concerns or critique, but more broadly and holistically so that the broad ramifications of this phenomenon can be understood and responded to properly. Evangelicals and other Christians have produced a number of volumes of late that interact with various facets of popular culture, particularly film and music, but virtual worlds must be added to our theological research agenda.

For my part I am involved in an ongoing research project in this area. I am current reading three volumes related to this topic including:

Edward Castronova, Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Wagner James Au, The Making of Second Life: Notes From the New World (Collins, 2008)

Tom Boellstroff, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (Princeton University Press, 2008)

Millions of people around the world are investing thousands of hours creating new identities, pursuing play and pleasure, exploring spirituality, creating homes, and running businesses that generate cyber and real world currency. Perhaps its time for Christian scholars to engage this pop culture phenomenon while the wave is cresting.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Forthcoming Book on Demonology and Popular Culture notified me that a new book will be coming out on June 30 in the form of The Lure of the Darkside: Satan and Western Demonology in Popular Culture (Equinox Publishing, 2008). The volume is edited by Christopher Partridge and Eric Christianson. I have been impressed by the quality and originality of Partridge's work, and that, coupled with the book's subject matter make this book worth seeking out.

The publisher's website includes the following:

Personifications of evil in the form of demons, devils, spirits, vampires, and other malign entities can be found across the popular cultural spectrum. One only has to peruse the shelves of music and bookstores or view the content of some of the most successful films and television series to discover evidence for the phenomenal popular fascination with the demonic other. However, rather surprisingly, this is not an area in which much research has been done.

This volume examines the demonic foil within popular culture. Its brings together an international team of some of most important and creative scholars in the areas of Biblical Studies, Religious Studies, and Christian Theology currently exploring the religious significance of popular culture.

INTRODUCTION Christopher Partridge & Eric Christianson

Part I: Music

CHAPTER 1: Satanism and Popular Music
Asbjørn Dyrendal (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

CHAPTER 2: Between Hymn and Horror Film: How Do We Listen to the Cradle of Filth?
Peter Mercer-Taylor (University of Minnesota)

CHAPTER 3: When Demons Come Calling: Dealing with the Devil and Paradigms of Life in African American Music
Anthony Pinn (Rice University, Houston)

CHAPTER 4: Dark Theology: Dissident Commerce, Gothic Capitalism and The Spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll
Charlie Blake (Liverpool Hope University)

Part II: Film

CHAPTER 5: Speak of the Devil: The Portrayal of Satan in the Christ Film
Bill Telford (University of Durham)

CHAPTER 6: Celluloid Vampires, Technology, and the Decline of Religion
Titus Hjelm (University of Helsinki)

CHAPTER 7: A Man of Wealth and Taste: The Strange Career of Hannibal Lecter
Brian Baker (University of Lancaster)

CHAPTER 8: Demons of the New Polytheism
George Aichele (Adrian College, Michigan)

CHAPTER 9: Scriptural Dimensions of Evil: Biblical Text as Timepiece, Talisman, and Tatoo
Larry Kreitzer (University of Oxford)

Part III: Literature

CHAPTER 10: James Hogg and the Demons of Scottish Presbyterianism
Crawford Gribben (University of Manchester)

CHAPTER 11: Voldemort, Death Eaters, Dementors, and the Dark Arts: A Contemporary Theology of Spiritual Perversion in the Harry Potter Stories
Colin Duriez

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Beyond the Burning Times Released in UK, US Version Coming Soon

Yesterday I received a copy of Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega's Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2008), a volume that I had the privilege of editing and serving as project coordinator on. My order came from in the U.K. where the book is available for purchase. U.S. release is scheduled for the end of June.

Here's the description from the back cover:

Many people today are exploring questions and spirituality in new ways. One of the most dramatic is found in the growth of nature-based Pagan traditions such as Wicca, Shamanism, Druidry, and Asatru, a development that parallels the decline of church attendance in most parts of the Western world.

Not surprisingly, many Christians are deeply suspicious of this apparent Pagan 'revival' and vigorously oppose Pagan groups. The stigmas associated with Paganism are nothing new and over the centuries have frequently led to persecution. The worst episodes involved the notorious 'Burning Times' of the Medieval, Renaissance, and post-Reformation Witch trials. A great divide still exists between Christian and Pagan communities, often with much misunderstanding on both sides.

Beyond the Burning Times represents a bold and important departure from this legacy of suspicion. The authors believe that Christians and Pagans need to stop protesting at each other, set aside their pre-conceptions and take the time to listen honestly and carefully to one another.

The two authors come to the round table with deep and passionate convictions and spiritual experiences. They examine topics such as the nature of spirituality, who or what is deity, how humans relate to the Divine, the question of spiritual authority, the culture wars over the sacred feminine, gender and sexuality, faith in the public square, interfaith relations, and the teachings and claims of Jesus.

This groundbreaking book will interest all those of whatever background who want to engage thoughtfully and respectfully with the key questions involved.

"...a very useful, timely, intelligent and compassionate dialogue".
Professor Ron Hutton, University of Bristol, UK

"Not only is this a model of respectful and constructive conversation, but it is an enjoyable read. I warmly recommend it".
Professor Christopher Partridge, Lancaster University, UK

PHILIP JOHNSON is the founder of Global Apologetics and Mission, and lectures on Alternative Religious Movements in Sydney, Australia.

GUS DIZEREGA is a Third Degree Wiccan Gardnerian Elder, who studied for six years with a Brazilian shaman and holds a PhD in Political Theory.

Edited by JOHN W. MOREHEAD, Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies

Those interested in ordering this book in the UK and Australia can visit the link at or Lion Hudson as the publisher.

Those in the U.S. can pre-order now or place an order at on or after the scheduled June 20 release date.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Barry Taylor: Entertainment Theology and New-Edge Spirituality

At the end of last year I enjoyed reading A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture by Craig Detweiler and Bary Taylor (Baker Academic, 2003) that is part of Baker's "engaging culture" series of volumes. This volume was very well done, and I looked forward to the efforts of both of these gentlemen as they built on this foundation with further books. The first to come out was Barry Taylor's Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy (Baker Academic, 2008). As the back of this book describes, Barry "is artist in residence for the Brehm Center and an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he teaches a series of spiritually innovative classes on music, film, and contemporary theology. In addition, he is an associate rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills."

Earlier today Barry made some time to discuss aspects of his new book with me.

Morehead's Musings: Barry, thanks for being part of this interview. I have enjoyed your collaborative work in the past with Craig and I looked forward to your building upon the foundation you put down. To begin, can you provide a little background as to your personal interests and involvement in the arts and theology?

Barry Taylor: I think like most of us I grew up immersed in pop culture in one form or another, particularly music. So I've lived in a world that is informed and shaped by pop culture most of my life, and I think I've always had a kind of deeper interest in various aspects of it. This led me into more professional engagements. So for a while I worked in the music business, I worked with bands and progressed to doing music of my own, and I still do a little bit of film composition and writing now. I think for me it's always been of interest. I've traveled quite a bit and have been struck by the ways in which the culture manifests itself and how our pop culture shows up around the world. That's the real genesis. And along the way I got more involved in a practicing faith and then moved into the academics of the study of theology. I was always interested in the ways in which culture and pop culture reconfigures the way people think about faith and belief and stuff like that. I started thinking about the academic side of things, but there really wasn't very much engagement with popular culture, it was still the prodigal part of the culture in that people were talking quite happily about high culture, but pop culture got short shrift. I felt that given its pervasiveness it was an important dynamic among people I know. So I really tried to find ways from the outset of thinking theologically about popular culture and trying to get at some of its larger meanings, influences, and stuff like that.

Morehead's Musings: What kind of educational background do you have that you have applied to this personal interest in the subject matter?

Barry Taylor: I have an M.A. and a Ph.D., both of which dealt with various aspects of it. My masters thesis was on popular theology and pop music, and I spent a lot of time exploring Nick Cave and U2 at the time, sort of mining their theological work and trying to place that within the cultural grid and trying to see how theology is done outside of church. My masters thesis was titled "Out of Egypt" and it came from a thing in Hosea where he says "Out of Egypt have I called my son," and it's this kind of idea that sometimes we get gifted with things that come from the last place we'd least expect. Popular culture has been one of those surprising places where gifts in theology emerge. In my doctoral dissertation I dealt more along the lines of the new book, more academic, trying to think about the ways in which ideas of faith and spirituality can permeate popular culture, what they look like if you put them all together, a broader picture of if we live in a digital democracy or a democratizing digital culture with these streams and strands of faith, spirituality, and the sacred, are there ways of grouping them together to see a bigger theological picture. I was really trying to think more theologically and missiologically. I think personally pop culture is reshaping the way people both practice and think about religion. What do traditional faiths do in light of that? That's what I was trying to grapple with.

Morehead's Musings: In your book you stat that you want to "locate the missional-theological reflection of the Christian faith in this new world" of what you refer to as "techno-spirituality" or "postsecular spirituality." What do you mean by these terms as to what you're interacting with?

Barry Taylor: I think that these are both flawed terms, but I was trying to get at something. I'll start with the post-secular. What I was really trying to say is that we've moved beyond the secular society that the church often thinks we're engaging with. You hear people talking about the secular world and society, and I understand the distinction, but I think if you pay attention to what is going on in this supposedly secular society, a surprising amount of non-secular sacred activity shows up. Even in the recent political campaigns, there's a renewed conversation about the role of religion in society in the last ten years through the course of the last couple of presidential elections. Even Britain, where I'm from, this has come up. So what I wanted to say was that we live in a post-secular society, not in the sense that it's over, but that we've just moved beyond the traditional understanding of that, and we're a place where the spiritual is open to discussion in pretty much all aspects of life, which it wasn't twenty years ago. By the same token, and I think this is where it gets a little technical, at the same time we're exploring there is a return to God but it's not a return to the time of religion before secularity so that people can just pick up where they left off. It's a trajectory that has gone through and out the other side where people are now having a new conversation about spirituality, faith, belief, and God that prevents opportunities and challenges to traditional spirituality on a whole bunch of levels, whether ecclesiology or missiology or theology or whatever "ology" you want to pick. There are some opportunities but also challenges because the world is moving forward not backward, and so this renewal in spirituality is in a sense both an old and new phenomenon, so it is the new aspects that come principally through the technological world, through the media, whether it's books or online, that's where the challenge lies because the technology creates different ways of processing and disseminating information, people do different stuff with different technologies. So to refer to techno-spirituality is a way of trying to say there is a distinctly, contemporary aspect to spirituality that in some ways is technologically shaped and defined.

Morehead's Musings: One of the things I appreciated in your book was that early on in it you are very transparent with readers as you acknowledge that your own relationship with Christianity is "in a state of flux," and that you are uncomfortable with the direction of the church. Can you share a little more on these aspects of your personal perspective?

Barry Taylor: In saying those things I'm also actively involved in the life of the church which I think gives me permission to say them. What it boils down to for me is a couple of things. One, I just think that sometimes we live in a vacuum about what's really going on. To say we're naive is too harsh a word, but just a kind of lack of awareness of what is really going on, and sometimes I think that we settle for spin and platitudes rather than digging away at the heart of what's really emerging all around us. I think especially when it comes to popular culture there are still debates about this and that and quite often it seems fairly shallow and surface level in terms of asking "Is this good?" or "Is this bad?", but there are broader questions to ask when you are dealing with cultural artifacts, like "What is this saying?," "What does this mean?," "What does this imply?," "What are the implications for us?." On a general level there is a frustration that we live inside little bubbles and make pronouncements about the world that really we don't like any more. The other side of it is personally and experientially being involved in pastoral ministry in the general work of the church and seminary I feel like we're just focusing on and talking about the wrong thing and that shades the landscape and creates false impressions of reality. Sometimes I think Christians feel really embattled but I'm not so sure that's true, although I sometimes think we don't help that when it is true in places by a kind of less than benevolent openness to conversation. I sometimes think, in broad generalizations, our idea of dialogue is all too often let's go and tell others what the right way is rather than thinking that their might be something that might instruct and enlighten us in our own attempts to understand and engage. So my level of flux is linked to lots of things, how we mediate tradition, how we approach Scripture, the way we "do church," all of this and other things. Like many of my peers there is a general sense that commitment to a life formed by Christian faith and spirituality, but at the same time something of a frustration of being forced to fit our conversation into a particular mold once we get in church life.

Morehead's Musings: One of the aspects of your book that intrigued me was your discussion of the increasing significance of sexual/bodily experience to the self and the sacred today, and the importance of personalized ritual and adornment in this context. I have noticed this myself most strongly in connection with my experience and research at Burning Man Festival and in the Neo-Pagan community. Can you talk a little about the significance of body theology to practical theological reflection today?

Barry Taylor: It's interesting I've been doing quite a lot of work with students in independent study at Fuller where I teach, and this seems to be the big topic, "What do I do with the body?." It could be argued that Christianity, for the most part, a religion based on embodiment, really doesn't know what to do with the body. It seems that we're very reluctant to hold meaningful discussion about it. I don't know if it's a fear of opening a can of worms, but I've found increasingly that as we move into a more technologically-dependent era that our relationship to time and space -- because I think technology changes our relationship to time and space, whether its the invention of digital technologies or cyberspace, when you go online where do you go? What is cyberspace? It kind of exists in a time-free zone. As we grow increasingly technological we become more aware of the role of our body and all of life, and as life becomes more transitory as more of the older institutional support structures crumble or at least fall away in terms of influence, the body becomes a sort of place of inscribing identity. So someone at Burning Man where half the populace may be tattooed and pierced, and if you talk to these people they will tell you that rather than just getting drunk and getting tattooed there was some serious reflection as to why, when, and how these inscriptions are made upon their bodies, usually marking moments of importance like rites of passage. You talk to people who have body piercings and there is this whole connection between pain and physicality and marking the self for particular moments and self-awareness. For me, the body becomes a very important thing.

Also, I think as our ideas about the world and may be concepts like heaven and hell, that sweeping generalization, but maybe a lot of Christianity in the twentieth century was characterized by making sure people knew they were saved from their sins and going to heaven. A problem a lot of people have with Christianity is that it externalizes the spiritual experience that basically de-emphasizes the importance of this life and the real importance is where you go after this life. So you want to be ready for heaven. But there is very little advice about what to do with your body while you're waiting for that experience: don't do anything wrong, don't be bad, accept the decay. For a lot of people their spirituality is embedded in the here and now, in the present, and their body plays a role. How you understand physicality, sexuality (which is in a complete state of flux in every area in biology and sociology), and what this body means, and yet when you turn to the church and here we are in one of the most material spiritualities out there where we celebrate that God puts on flesh and lived as one of us, yet it seems to me we don't have much to say beyond don't have sex until you're married, your body is a temple, don't drink, don't smoke, and at times we'll talk about liturgical dance. I think there are more challenging conversations to be had about the body, whether it's sexuality or physicality or human identity, the nature of the soul, how we understand the whole person in the twenty-first century such as does the idea of spirit-soul-body hold up or are they conceptual ideas that we need new language and grammar for. So those are the kinds of things I'm trying to think about and bring into the conversation.

Morehead's Musings: I think this is tremendously important to talk about, but it is also so difficult, as you know, to talk about this in theological circles. One of the aspects of reflection at Burning Man that I had getting evangelical Christians to consider was that it's ok to be in an environment where people are thinking outside of traditional Christian boundaries on those types of topics. And perhaps it's not just something we need to oppose, but to say what kinds of questions are they asking, how does this play into their spirituality and sense of identity, and what might this say back to us in terms of our own theological reflection beyond critique in this area.

Barry Taylor: In the front of the book there is a kind acknowledgement, but I was trying to acknowledge that I am a sponge who has absorbed a lot from a lot of people, and one was Graham Ward who is part of this kind of this radical orthodoxy theological movement, and now a lot of radical orthodoxy is not my cup of tea, but one thing that I really, really grasped from Graham was his talk about radical orthodoxy as a theology that attempts to reclaim the world. And for him that's not to reclaim the world in an evangelical missiological sense, but in his sense it is bringing back into conversation with Christian faith all of the things we left in the hands of secular society many years ago when the church withdrew or was withdrawn from the center of cultural life. So the challenge of today is to be open to the conversation that already exists. This comes back to one of my frustrations in that I get the sense sometimes that Christians don't think there is a conversation going until they show up and start it, but I think there are conversations already going on but we need to be involved in but won't for a whole host of reasons, most of which are related to power, control, and shallow moral opinions that preclude the opportunity of hearing what can be really rich, but sometimes challenging. Burning Man is a prime example, it's not just all running around in the desert for the heck of it, there are other things going on if you're open to observe and listen.

Morehead's Musings: In your book you refer to today's "new-edge spirituality" as post-creedal, post-orthodox, and post-specialist. What do you mean by those elements?

Barry Taylor: In general, there's a shift toward a more praxis or practice-based faith, having a hold of belief in place is less important than living out certain things. So think there is a general shift away from intellectual conceptualizing ideas about God to a more practice-based approach to life as a spiritual and divine gift to us. Is orthodoxy right belief or believing the right way which is not always believing the supposedly right things? Back to my earlier thing about my frustration with Christianity is that I think we get held to pseudo-orthodoxies all the time, a kind of catalog of supposedly orthodox ideas that are basically modernist responses that are presented as the final word when in fact they are just one more word in the conversation.

Morehead's Musings: One last question. With western culture engaged in a process of re-enchantment in the wake of secularism and modernity, as the culture seeks mystery, magic, and imagination, how important will it be to draw upon theologians, or find, train, and nurture theologians who bring their knowledge of Scripture into constant dialogue with the arts and pop culture?

Barry Taylor: I think it will be hopeless if we don't do this. I can't imagine, if we're really serious about the vibrancy and vitality of Christian faith and spirituality that that wouldn't be a primary missional objective for anyone who's alive in the twenty-first century. The location of the theological enterprise has shifted dramatically. We have to relocate where the action is, if you like, when it comes to the theological enterprise. It's certainly retains some philosophical and high cultural ideas, but increasingly the action takes place on the ground in the world of digital and pop culture. Things may trickle down from the ivory towers, but for most people the influences are from the creators of cultural artifacts in pop culture. There is a quote from something I read that says the greatest tragedy of the last three hundred years is the separation of the theologian from the artist, the painter, the poet, the dancer. The idea being that the divide between theology and culture is a tragedy and is a bridge that needs to be crossed.

Morehead's Musings: It sounds like you, Craig Detweiler, and others at the Brehm Center are trying to bridge this gulf, and I think you for your work and your willingness to talk about aspects of your book, Barry.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pentecost and the Way of the Shaman

My friend Phil Wyman with The Gathering in Salem, Massachusetts, who I had the privilege of visiting last October, recently won first place in a writing contest at the Jesus Manifesto website. His article is titled "Pentecost and the Way of the Shaman." It's worth a read.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

2008 Cornerstone Festival Coming Soon

This year's Cornerstone Festival is just a few short weeks away. Unfortunately, I won't be attending this year as I take some time off of the speaker rotation, but I want to draw my readers attention to this event in Bushnell, Illinois that runs June 30th to July 5.

In addition to the music through great rock bands, and the art, the festival includes explorations of film, the imagination, and seminars. Some of this year's presentations that I am particularly attracted to and wish I could sit in on include the following:


WITCH-HUNTING & CULT-BUSTING(Gordon Melton, 3 sessions)The late-20th century religious explosion launched hundreds of organizations responding to the "cults." Such approaches were often long on confrontation, short on dialogue and respect: they often took the familiar shape of clashes with the Evil Other. This seminar surveys this landscape and considers unexamined assumptions and underpinnings of a faulty (and often unChristian) methodology and imagines a truly Christian approach for approaching the religious Other.

CONSPIRACY! RUMOR PANICS AND MYTHS OF "THE EVIL OTHER"(Bill Ellis, 3 sessions)Societies are easily thrown into tizzies by claims that shadowy conspirators are plotting to attack Our Way of Life. Christians have been a target of such persecutions. But Christian culture has also perpetuated its own rumor panics, including Medieval Witch Hunts and, more recently, the contagious hysteria of Satanic Cults. This seminar explores what makes these stories compelling and difficult to debunk, and as damaging to both "true believers" and their targets.


LEGENDS, FOLKLORE, SUPERSTITIONS, FAITH(Bill Ellis, 3 sessions)Terms like "myth" and "folklore" are used by some to dismiss stories taken seriously by others. To a professional folklorist, such terms identify stories always taken seriously, because they embody elements of life human beings consider worth preserving. This seminar explores folklore studies and its relevance for all of us. Learn what roles urban myths, beliefs, rituals, games, folktales, legends, proverbs and riddles play in our lives, including religious and political spheres.

DRACULA, MYTH & FACT(J. Gordon Melton, 3 sessions)Dracula has long been a cultural icon in the West, with an enduring fandom and even would-be imitators. Meanwhile, Dracula is a symbol of a different sort for the Romanians, a genuine national hero - and a myth with its own complexities. This seminar explores the history of and behind the Dracula legend, along with the process and moral ambiguities of myth-making.

THE GOD WHO LOVES MONSTERS: TOWARD A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF MONSTERS(Daniel Otto Jack Peterson, 1 session)What are we to make of Behemoths and lycanthropes and Leviathans thrashing within the pages of Holy Writ? Or the chilling cherubic beings and nightmare nation-beast-amalgamations haunting the prophetic imagination? What are these and other inspired horrors, by turns hellish and holy, trying to tell us about God and God's world and even what it means to be human?

I know I'll be there for future years, but this year's offerings really make me salivate. Perhaps someone in my network can attend and pick up handouts for me, or record these sessions. Go for me, or go for yourself, but go!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A More Prominent Religious Left, and a New Face for Islam

Two recent news stories are of interest. First, a Pew Forum-sponsored panel conference addressed the topic of "a more prominent religious left" and its impact on American politics. Participants in the panel define the religious in the following terms:

"Two factors are central to the reality behind the terminology. The first is a 'liberal' theological perspective that involves less traditional views of the divine, spirituality and religious authority. The second factor is a liberal perspective on political issues."

As the question and answer format of this article unfolds it is apparent that the religious left is still viewed largely through a Christendom lens, and while understanding this facet of the religious left is important, particularly in light of the present political situation surrounding the presidential election, it ignores a significant facet of that element that U.K. scholar Gordon Lynch calls "The New Spirituality" or "Progressive Belief." He defines this as a large, diverse, and increasingly influential form of western spirituality of the left that has "emerged out of four key concerns: the desire for an approach to religion and spirituality that is appropriate for modern, liberal societies, the rejection of patriarchal forms of religion and the search for religious forms that are authentic and liberating for women, the move to re-sacralize science (particularly quantum physics and contemporary theories of cosmology), and the search for a nature-based spirituality that will motivate us to try to avert the impending ecological catastrophe." Lynch has developed a book on this topic titled The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-first Century (I.B. Tauris, 2007). Readers can find my interaction with this book in a previous post.

And NEWSWEEK online has an interesting story titled "The New Face of Islam," that looks at the critique within the Muslim tradition of militant interpretations of jihad by groups like Al-Qaeda. The article states that "Intellectually and theologically, a lot of the most ambitious work is being done by a group of scholars based in Ankara, Turkey, who expect to publish new editions of the Hadith before the end of the year." The work of such groups holds great potential for capturing the hearts and minds of the Islamic world with a new vision for Islam without violence in its relationship with the West.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

2008 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium

Today I received a brochure announcing the 2008 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, to be held August 6-9. This year's theme is an interesting one as Mormons grapple with "The Spirituality of the Rising Generation." As the brochure describes, "the symposium will feature about a dozen sessions relating to the fit between today's Mormonism and the life-worlds of young adults (late teens through early thirties)." Two of the evening plenary sessions caught my eye in the form of noted sociologist Wade Clark Roof's presentation on Wednesday, August 6 "on the spirituality of the rising generation and inter-generational dynamics within churches." And on Friday, August 8 outgoing Sunstone editor Dan Wotherspoon, and Susan Skoor, an apostle of the Community of Christ (formerly Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), will speak on "Pillars of My Faith."

Pre-registration for the conference must be received before August 4 which can be done through Sunstone's website (link above) or by calling (801) 355-5926.