I’ve just finished reading “Sociology of Religion for Generations X and Y”, published in 2009 by Adam Possamai, Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Western Sydney. I was keen to have a look through for two reasons. Most of the sociologists of religion I’ve read so far are Baby Boomers. And most are based in the US. Adam was born in 1970 and writes with a style consistent with his generation’s approach to communication. He reveals something of his own life experience and perspectives to the reader before outlining the insights gained from sociologists since the time of Marx, Durkheim and Weber. Popular culture is referred to throughout the book, both in terms of its significance for sociology of religion, and also as a way of engaging Gen X and Gen Y readers. Topics such as religion and popular culture, modernity, spirituality, postmodernity, esotericism and fundamentalism are introduced with references to Sin City, Harry Potter, Apocalypse Now, Pan’s Labyrinth, Xena: Warrior Princess, The Mummy and American Dreamz. Raised a Catholic in Belgium, Adam moved to Australia to complete doctoral studies in sociology. Adam consistently refers to Australian case studies across the world.
I’ve just agreed to take on a new role with the Uniting Church in Australia, based in North Parramatta. From January 1 2014 through to December 31 2015 I’ll be placed as Director of the Uniting Learning Network in an Intentional Interim Ministry placement. The Uniting Learning Network is an educational resourcing network with a staffing hub at the Centre for Ministry in North Parramatta, put in place by a resolution of the Synod meeting held in May this year. It’s an integral part of the ministry of Uniting Mission and Education, a major division within the NSW/ACT Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. The Network has been established to facilitate the faithful participation of members, congregations, agencies and presbyteries across the Synod in its mission, equipping and developing lively and diverse followers of Jesus Christ fully engaged in the world.
Recently I had the privilege of attending the Canberra International Film Festival screening of In Bob We Trust, a documentary film following the last three years of Father Bob Maguire at Sts Peter’s and St Paul’s in South Melbourne. Known for his outspoken, at times irreverent and creative media work, Father Bob appears to have had the Catholic hierarchy wondering what to do with him. The film shows the congregation’s response to a letter from Denis Hart, Archbishop of Melbourne, inviting Father Bob to retire from his charge at the age of 75. Somehow the congregation and Bob were able to negotiate a short extension from the end of 2009 through to the beginning of 2012, on the understanding that The Commons, a collaborative project with the Friends of the Earth, would be allowed to continue. Sadly, the parish did not renew the FOE lease and The Commons closed in August this year.
Paul Alexander, Professor of Christian Ethics and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary, earlier this year delivered “Raced Gendered Faithed and Sexed”, the Presidential Address to the Society for Pentecostal Studies. Paul’s paper is one of the texts being considered by the Culture and Mission post graduate class at San Francisco Theological Seminary this week. I’ve written this summary of Paul’s paper to provide my class an opportunity to be in dialogue with Paul, who’s currently attending a conference in Jerusalem.
As I grew up in the 1960s my father took great delight in bringing through the radio on Sunday mornings to introduce us to The Lone Ranger, the radio series first launched in 1933. I also spent Saturday afternoons catching up on the syndicated black and white television series first produced in the 1950s. Here’s a review of the 2013 film of The Lone Ranger, produced for a class I’m participating in at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The focus of this week’s discussion is social analysis, drawing on three texts: Meeting God at the boundaries: Cross-cultural-cross-racial clergy appointments, by Lucia Ann McSpadden, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty, by George E. Tinker, and Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (The Seeley Lectures), by Martha Nussbaum. This is a review with a purpose, and not a commentary on the appropriateness or entertainment value of The Lone Ranger.
The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, by Philip Jenkins, is the first book on the reading list for Culture and Mission: Social Theory for Theologians, the two week course I’m attending at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Published first in 2002, just after the September 11 bombings, the third edition came out in September 2011. Jenkins, a Catholic turned Episcopalian, teaches history and religious studies at Baylor University, a private Baptist university in Waco, Texas, and keeps his hand in teaching at Pennsylvania State University. Philip’s major current interests include the study of global Christianity, of new and emerging religious movements, and of twentieth century U.S. history. In this book he’s exploring the emergence of Christianity in the South, in Africa, Asia, South America and Central America. Read on for my summary and reflections after four days of class discussion.
I flew into San Francisco this morning, on a direct flight from Sydney with United Airlines, landing within minutes of the Asiana Airlines crash at 11.20 am. It wasn’t until getting through customs that I became aware of the crash. First clue was stepping outside and seeing/hearing fire engines, ambulances and police cars arriving. I overheard an airline steward updating his colleague about the crash. For an hour it was obvious that something serious was afoot. All flights were put on hold, and traffic to the airport was restricted. Hotel courtesy buses were delayed. At first I heard it was China Airlines. Someone else thought it was Virgin. Finally, on the way to my motel in Millbrae, just a couple of miles away from the airport, a teenager filled in the gaps with his smartphone – an Asiana Airlines flight had clipped the entrance to the runway, lost its tail, and spun out of control before breaking into flames. Fortunately all passengers were evacuated before the fireball erupted. Two, found on the rainway, have died. 182 taken to hospital. 123 uninjured. CNN is providing non-stop coverage. Once I was able to access WiFi at the motel I put this photo below on Twitter and Facebook, just in case people were worried about me getting into SFO. A Facebook friend made some connections in Canberra leading to me doing a phone interview on ABC Canberra radio, from my table at Millbrae Starbucks. I feel part of the interconnectedness of all things. And tired.
There’s been a bit of discussion recently online, about the connections between the Christian festival of Easter and pagan celebrations of spring and fertility. During a radio interview on Easter Saturday I was asked about the tendency for eggs, rabbits and chocolate to overshadow the “real meaning” of Easter. I responded by reflecting on the spring Equinox origins of the Anglo Saxon celebration that became associated with Jewish passover, Jesus’ arrest, death and resurrection. Christian and Jewish meanings can be seen as a bonus for people who are looking for further meaning. The religious need not be threatened by people celebrating a deep and ancient appreciation of new life.
The Christian festival known in English speaking countries as Easter is known in many parts of the world through a local form of Passover: Pesach (Hebrew), Paskha (Aramaic), Påske (Danish and Norwegian), Pasen (Dutch), Pâques (French), Πάσχα (Greek), Cásca (Irish), Pasqua (Italian), Pasche (Latin), Páscoa (Portuguese), Pascua (Spanish), Påsk (Swedish) and Pasg (Welsh). In English and German speaking countries it appears as though the names Easter and Ostern come from the proto-Germanic Austron (Ēostre or Ostara).
Bede, an 8th-century British church historian, in his work “De temporum ratione”, states that during Ēosturmōnaþ (the equivalent to the month of April) feasts were held in Eostre’s honor among the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Bede believed that Eostre had been a Germanic goddess in times gone past. These feasts had died out by the time of his writing, replaced by the Christian “Paschal month” but retaining the pagan name. The feasts would have been held around the time of the spring equinox, the point in the year in which the sun starts coming up earlier and setting later. The goddess was gone, but the symbols of new life, fertility and spring remained in what we now know as Easter eggs and Easter bunnies (the hare in Germanic culture).
The Christian Easter tradition is connected with the Passover festival, which is roughly connected with the Spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. Emperor Constantine ruled that the paschal celebration would be celebrated on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon on or after the vernal (spring) equinox.
Down under, however, we miss the spring connections. It’s actually the autumn equinox here in late March/early April. This is a time when it’s starting to get darker, colder and more difficult to nurture life in the garden. It’s a time of harvest, not new shoots.
So how do Christians connect today to the ancient customs associated with the spring equinox tradition? Do we just ignore them? Or do we find a way to connect with the commercial promotion of eggs and rabbits? Some churches use hollow chocolate Easter eggs to reflect on the significance of the resurrection. The egg is hollow in the same way the tomb of Jesus is empty because of the resurrection. We talk about the hatching of the egg as a sign of new life, connecting with the resurrection of Jesus. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone tie the Easter rabbit in with the Jesus events.
Could we run a second Easter in September/October, when the spring tradition makes more sense? It could be an opportunity to celebrate God-given creativity, fertility, new beginnings, and maybe fresh expressions of mission. And another chance to explore the Jesus story with fresh eyes.
For the second year in a row I’ll be walking through Canberra’s Parliamentary triangle with a group of pilgrims on the afternoon of Good Friday. The prophetic prayer walk begins outside the National Art Gallery at 1 pm and proceeds to the High Court, Portrait Gallery, Reconciliation Place, The National Library, Old Parliament House and finishes outside New Parliament House. At each landmark we will pause to reflect, pray and sing, focusing on justice issues in the light of the Good Friday story of Jesus, from his arrest to his death on the cross.
I spent last Wednesday night with the Canberra Region Presbytery’s Reading The Old Testament class, working through the first eleven books of Genesis. It’s the third night of sixteen for a group of 14 adult students, facilitated by myself and Anne Ryan at Tuggeranong Uniting Church.
Wednesday night was a chance to get our heads around the complexities of a collection of writings from different sources. The first creation story, and parts of the Flood story, appears to have been written by someone or a group of someones during the Exilic period in Babylon. The stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, parts of the Noah flood story, and the Tower of Babel, reflect the language and style of the period of David and Solomon in Jerusalem. Which leads to the question, “So did Moses not write the Law of Moses”? We had a healthy and respectful conversation on the origins of these writings and their significance for readers through the centuries.
We spent the second half of the evening reflecting on the concepts of mythology and legend. Mythology is a term used to describe stories that have symbolic significance, helping us reflect on our origins, our shared humanity and in some cases the reasons things are as they are now. Legends are stories that have become larger than life, often for a reason. For example, the stories of people like Methuselah living for 969 years, could be seen as ways to remind readers/listeners that these events were a long, long, long time ago, and yet are connected with us through real people. Poetic or epic language, such as the creation of everything in six days or phases, points us to the deeper significance of a benign creator creating a universe that is inherently of value.
I remember the first time I grappled with the Documentary Hypothesis for the Old Testament, posed by Julius Wellhausen, which proposes a four-stage development of the Torah through the J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist) and P (Priestly) streams. Years later I’m still committed to caution about buying into any such theory with absolute certainty. However I’m sure that Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy in their current form were not written by Moses.
I’m encouraged by Walter Brueggemann, who in his commentary on Genesis reminds us that we need to get past speculation on the origins and accuracy of these texts, and discover again the powerful, subversive and empowering messages found within. Sure, there are elements that reinforce patriarchal and religious prejudices. However we find here counters to the arrogance of expanding empires, and a reminder that life is worth nurturing. We discover that even when we stuff things up, there are opportunities for ongoing relationship with God.
We’re using “Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction, written by Lawrence Boadt in 1984, revised and updated by Richard Clifford and Daniel Harrington in 2012. It came out a couple of weeks ago on Kindle.