Archive | February 2013

Should Christians do the ‘Harlem Shake’?


I suppose we all heard of ‘Harlem Shake’. Now that some Christians are doing it, people start to wonder if it is wrong for Christians to follow suit. They are especially concerned with the fact that Christians seem to copy the meme without thinking much about the origin of the dance and why they are doing it. Shellnutt points out that this a phenomenon called ‘the Commodification of Culture’:

The “Harlem Shake,” like most memes, has become a commodity, so easily replicated that we use it for our own ends and move on. We happily hijack the setup, then post our versions on YouTube for views, laughs, and “relevancy.” We have no real engagement with the phenomenon outside of copying and clicking.

She continues,

This commodification of culture—an impulse discussed by Vincent Miller in his book Consuming Religion—allows us to ignore the context where things originally gained meaning. As we dance the “Harlem Shake,” we don’t need to know how to do the hip-hop dance move of the same name. We don’t need to know anything about Baauer, the musician who created this song-heard-round-the-Internet. We don’t need to understand this underground genre of music called “trap.” We don’t even need to think about the lyrics of the short song, which proclaim “Con los terroristas!” (With the terrorists!) through the skittish beats.

I would add, that the ‘Commodification of Culture’ is the hallmark of postmodernity. If there is any (possible) definition of postmodern culture, ‘Commodification of Culture’ has to be a part of it. I have posted earlier on Arbuckle’s definition of postmodern culture:

…a pattern of meanings encased in a network of symbols, myths, narratives and rituals, created by individuals and subdivisions, as they struggle to respond to the competitive pressures of power and limited resources in a rapidly globalizing and fragmented world, and instructing its adherents about what is considered to be the correct way to feel, think and behave.[1]

Imagine in a perfectly ‘modern’ world, where everything needs to be done with a reason, which in turn is nested within a system of beliefs. People will think twice before mimicking the act. Everything must go through the scrutiny of reasoning and strict rationalisation. Questions like, ‘Why should I do it?’ ‘What is it?’ ‘How to do it properly?’ must be answered and the whole logic must adhere to the system of beliefs (meta narrative) before the idea was allowed to be translated into action.

However, that age has passed. Now people pick and choose any cultural elements which make sense to them and incorporate them into their lives and actions. One of the postmodern characteristics is the tendency to ask ‘what use is it?’ instead of ‘what is it?’ or ‘why is it so?’. For this reason, as long as ‘Harlem Shake’ serves a certain needs – be it the need to be relevant or the need to have fun, people will embrace it without much consideration.

Thus, Shellnutt calls for Christian to be careful:

Regardless of what the ramifications are for this particular song, Christians—whose faith relies on the context of its own teachings and symbols—generally need to take interest in where cultural phenomena come from and what they mean.

The same impulse that has us thoughtlessly clicking and sharing viral videos trains us to disconnect the thing in front of us with the story behind it. Our lives as Christians are all about the story of the Gospel, and we don’t want our traditions distanced from that story…by us or anyone else.

I think she brings out a very important point – that there is now a danger of Christians unknowingly detaching their acts with the Gospel story. If we consider why some of the Christians are following this trend, we might find that most of them will tell us that they ‘didn’t think too much’, or even respond by asking, ‘wasn’t it fun?’ They just do it because they are postmoderns – not that they know it. In a modern world everything that we do is linked to a set of belief or meta-narrative. In the postmodern world we mix what we like to do and form our own stories. That means, although they are Christians, they are from ‘planet postmodern’. They are susceptible to distancing their acts from the Gospel story, and subsequently having the tendency to form their own story. One of my earlier post explored this issue, which manifests itself in an increase of eclectic taste for spirituality.

So should Christians do the ‘Harlem Shake’? I think that’s a wrong question to ask and fall short of tackling the heart of the matter. Instead, we should be asking, ‘how do we help Christians today to hold on to the Gospel story, since they are, as Newbigin put it, the hermeneutic of the Gospel?’ Judging the phenomenon is pointless because the interpretation of the phenomenon has been made difficult amidst the cultural chaos of the day. In the past people are settled within a certain cultural tradition. The world as we knew it was a cultural mosaic. Today we are increasingly facing a force which tends to take various cultural elements of others to form a new self-made subculture, crossing geographical and traditional cultural  boundaries. Meanwhile, the under-threat traditional cultures are reacting against the tide, resulting in a cultural landscape which is often hostile but certainly fluid, fragmented and mixed. As a result we are now living in a cultural kaleidoscope. So it is hard to pin a phenomenon down and properly classify it today, let alone criticise it.

Furthermore, soon there will be another meme around the corner – will people go on examining every little bit of its origin before they adopt it? The postmodern Christians will not care nor they have the aptitude to do so. It is against their nature. They will just go for it. So instead of criticising them or the phenomena, should we not consider how to engage them and help them to live for Christ even under such influence? The real danger, as Shellnutt points out, is not with the phenomena nor is  with the threat of the present cultural norm which has the subtlety to detach our acts from our faith. It is with Christians leaders and thinkers who disregard the need to contextulise their approach of teaching or ways to engage with the postmodern generation, thinking that the modernist approach would make sense to the postmoderns. Perhaps we should refer to Paul’s Areopagus experience, where he expertly contextualise his approach as he persuaded the pluralistic Athenians, while holding on to the Gospel story. Some may listen while others not, but contextualisation is no more an option for Christian mission in today’s world.


[1] Arbuckle, G.A. (2010) Culture, Inculturation, and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (Liturgical Press), 1-16, 17; ritual – the ‘stylized or repetitive symbolic use of bodily movement and gesture within a social context, to express and articulate meaning’, Arbuckle, G.A. (1990) Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker (London: Geofrey Chapman), 96, citing Bocock, R. (1974) Ritual in Industrial Society: A Sociological Analysis of Ritualism in Modern England (London: George Allen & Unwin), 35-59.

Discipleship as the Means to counter the Culture of Consumerism


‘If we don’t disciple, the culture sure will, and it’s doing a good job of it.’
Jesus took twelve and that seems to work quite well!

I have referred to books by Alan Hirsch during my research and they have been very helpful and easy to read. Below are two of them:

The Beards of Ministry


From: Out of Ur: The Beards of Ministry.

These types are familiar to those of us in the Christian circle. I am not sure if this would ring a bell for others who are not in this ‘culture’. It is obvious that Christians in general has created for themselves a certain common understanding, which forms certain identifiable cultural tracks, and one of those is this!

 

Missiology and Homiletics – Preaching and Context


Much has been said about contextualisation and the contribution of anthropology and social studies to the work and theology of mission. In this post, Dr. Priest argued that these disciplines should be incorporated into the art of preaching. According to him, such contextual preaching has been around for a while, in the example of Billy Graham:

People around the world are human in variable ways, shaped by variable cultural discourses, confronting diverse realities. Billy Graham, like John Stott, recognizes late in life that effective preaching requires both an understanding of the world of scripture AND an understanding of the human worlds of those to whom we speak. And this is precisely what missiology works towards.

And, John Stott was the inspiration:

According to Stott, only preachers who ground their sermons in deep and profound understandings of Scripture and also deep and profound understandings of the life-worlds of their audience, are able adequately to fulfill their calling. He suggested that many theological liberals ground their sermons in understandings of the contemporary world, but fail to ground their sermons faithfully in a biblical God-given message. Their bridges connect, he argued, with only one side of the chasm. But, Stott continued, evangelical preachers typically preach sermons grounded in Scripture, but which go “up in the air on a straight trajectory and never land on the other side. For our preaching is seldom if ever earthed. It fails to build a bridge into the contemporary world.”

The challenge:

And yet, despite such powerful homiletical exemplars, homiletics has not had a sustained conversation with the human sciences and with human settings in quite the same way that missiology has. Both disciplines would benefit, in my view, from a sustained engagement with each other.

Do check out the post, which is worth reading.

Reframing the Story


Pastoral leadership is an art, and it is an art of contextualisation! This post links pastoral leadership with the missional art of contextualisation.

Theologically Speaking...

As the spring semester begins tonight at The John Leland Center, new courses will commence, new questions will be asked, new books will be read, new friendships will be made, and hopefully each one of us will experience God in new ways as our eyes open to new colors and textures and our ears pick up on new sounds and tones. For many, with each new semester it isn’t hard to get swept up in a fresh excitement to study, learn, grow, and think. Yet, once the semester is well on its way, we can get bogged down in the details of the work, forgetting the gift that it is to study and embark on the journey of seminary education.

Education and theological training at its best is a journey to become a reframer and interpretive guide in whatever vocation God has called you to explore and lead, whether a…

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How do you define Culture Today?


Culture in the postmodern context is seen not as ‘static, homogenous, closed, ordered and territorial’ but ‘ever-changing, fragmented, porous, chaotic, and translocal.’[1] Culture in postmodernity is:

…a pattern of meanings encased in a network of symbols, myths, narratives and rituals, created by individuals and subdivisions, as they struggle to respond to the competitive pressures of power and limited resources in a rapidly globalizing and fragmented world, and instructing its adherents about what is considered to be the correct way to feel, think and behave.[2]

Do you agree with the above?


[1] Arbuckle, G.A. (2010) Culture, Inculturation, and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (Liturgical Press), xxi, 4-5.

[2] Ibid., 1-16, 17; ritual – the ‘stylized or repetitive symbolic use of bodily movement and gesture within a social context, to express and articulate meaning’, Arbuckle, G.A. (1990) Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker (London: Geofrey Chapman), 96, citing Bocock, R. (1974) Ritual in Industrial Society: A Sociological Analysis of Ritualism in Modern England (London: George Allen & Unwin), 35-59.

Spiritual but not Religious?


People today often identify themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Of course much can be said of the actual definitions of being ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’, but in general, people take that by being spiritual but not religious means they do not need to associate themselves with an organised religious body. My reading of various sources seem to cause me to conclude that this is a necessary reaction towards the religious institution or organised religion in the postmodern age, by people who reject the institution due to their ‘modern’ outlook and modus operandi.

Like many others, I have become convicted that people who are having a low view on the institution which we call the church are blinded by their postmodern sentiment. This is due to a lot of factors apart from the ‘Mcdonaldisation‘ of the church. One of them is a diminished ecclesiology.

Schmidt helpfully wrote about this in his post, ‘Spiritual AND Religious? Yes! – Reason #1 why we can be both spiritual and religious: Church is not just a gathering of like-minded people.’ An excerpt from the post:

If churches were simply a matter of sitting alongside like-minded people who share similar spiritual commitments, I can think of easier ways to get that done. One way that religious people try to do it is by handpicking the like-minded people with whom they spend their time and practice their religion.

That option isn’t open to us and, if it was clearer to the world around us that we can’t do that, it might be easier to connect the spiritual and religious dots.

I think Schmidt has a point. Coming from a purely enlightenment point of view, where humanity takes the centre stage, church is nothing more but a gathering of men and women. However not only this view is relatively new, it fails to capture the essence of what a church is. Schmidt mentioned Paul and his teaching about church being the body of Christ, and he summarised it into three points:

  • The church is the instrument of salvation.
  • It is part and parcel of the spiritual destiny of its members.
  • And it is an inseparable part of the individual’s experience of God.

Combine the above with Newbigin’s missional ecclesiology where he argued that the church’s existence is for mission, I think we have a much better definition of what the church is. In other words, no Christian can be spiritual but not religious if he or she is definitely a part of Christ’s body, saved to belong to it and is destined to live in love with the other parts of the body.

Yet the question remains, that how many of us do experience such church? Or all we see is an institution which, as my earlier post suggested, is seriously flawed in its ability to make spiritual seekers feel at home? As much as people wants to be considered as both spiritual and religious, I think they will find it hard – not because of the absence of the kind of church which is depicted in the Bible and mentioned by Schmidt, but because it might not be easy for them to find one which they can connect to meaningfully!

Could the Increase of Interest in Spirituality erode the Church?


I wrote about the challenge of the church in the postmodern age. One of the key changes in the postmodern age is the increase of interest in spirituality and the reluctance to be limited by organised religion.

Other reports have confirmed this:

Over one-third of churchgoers attend services in more than one church. One in four attends services in different faiths, according to another Pew survey. More than one in five Christians believe in astrology, reincarnation, and spiritual energy in trees and nature. Seventeen percent believe in in the “evil eye” (casting curses on others). Over the last twenty years, rising numbers of Americans say they have felt like they were in touch with someone who was dead, according to Gallup data discussed in the Pew report. A rising number also say that they have seen or been in the presence of a ghost.

From: U.S. Churches: Where will our eclectic tastes carry us?

By referring the phenomena above as the Americans’ eclectic taste for spirituality, it is asked if ‘rising eclecticism’ could ‘erode the religious foundation of the church’. This is especially pressing considering the context of the U.S., where there is a ‘mix of peoples and beliefs’. The bottom line, is whether organized religion able to ‘co-exist with the mix-and-match tendencies of the American people.’

I believe the reason people are going to more than one churches is due to their consumerist habit. They are used to exercise their right to choose. Their move is also often utilitarian in nature, picking whatever that suits their needs at various places. They downside of this is the lack of commitment and discipleship. The quality of fellowship and sense of belonging in a community will then be eroded. So to a certain extent, the assembly – the gathering or the church – is eroded.

Of course the church, as an organisation, needs to take a hard look at herself. Again I believe the church, especially the evangelical churches are still largely too ‘modern’, hence losing touch with the postmodern people of today.

So further questions remain – ‘how can the church reach out to those who are eclectic?’ In what way can we engage with them? Can we still expect them to find their answers in the ‘modern’ church? We may think that our churches do have the answers but can we expect them to be responsive to the ‘modern’ way of doing church or ‘teaching’? How would the church deal with a member who believes in astrology? Do we attend to her needs, form a genuine relationship and dialogue with her or do we just teach her and command her to stop? There is no clear answer as each case is unique, but the question remains – as the church, how do we surf and soar in this wave of increased interest of spirituality?

An Atheist Church?


An Atheist Church – Atheistic Culture Coming of Age

I heard about this new Atheist Church in Britain a few days ago and wondered how would a Christian feel when attending the assembly. My questions are answered by this post, which is an actual account of a person experiencing it on one Sunday.

There are two things mentioned in the post which strike me. First, the talk by a physicist, which reminds me of how my little venture into science years ago actually brought me closer to God. So if the report of the above blog post is accurate, the talk by the atheist church has strengthened my faith for God! This brings us to further questions. Why is it, that I am not experiencing such awe when listening to an ordinary preaching in an ordinary Christian church? I suspect this is due to the way I am wired. I think I am scientific in my thinking, and I am naturally a skeptic  So the scientific method of inquiry suits me. However this method is normally not employed in the Christian church. This in turns, also shows how narrow a Christian experience can be at this age. A typical evangelical, for example, has been accustomed to only a certain ways of thinking. A book which I reviewed, ‘Pagan Christianity’ has much to say about how this come by. Again a study into how modern evangelicalism come into being will also help. With the understanding that the way we worship can actually be richer than what we have experienced so far, the church will be able to look into various ways to redeem the meaning of a Christian gathering and the various creative ways we could worship the Creator.

The other thing which strikes me is how far a certain atheist culture has formed. The video above specifically mentions the cross – the symbol of Christianity, which in the atheist church can only be observed at the first aid box. (Of course the very reason why the cross ended up at the first aid box will again bring us to its Christian root) But one could only be sensitive (read ‘hostile’) to another symbol when one feels that his culture is under threat. It is common knowledge that atheism has been active in Britain in recent years, and as some atheists imply, the movement has become a religion itself. Apparently an atheist wrote to the leader of the atheist church, relating their assembly in a church is akin to Jews in  the concentration camp! Thus, this is a clear statement, that here we have a meta-narrative, a set of symbols (or lack of it), a certain ritual and worldview – all summing up to form an emerging (or rather, to some, already matured) culture. So when an assembly like this takes place, it shows how a certain philosophy has finally move out of the arena of ‘thinking’, into the arena of ‘being’ and ‘doing’, and ‘doing it together’. The ‘atheistic culture’ has come of age.

Malaysian English – A Case of Inculturation


This clip is not only hilarious it should also serve as good material for studies of inculturation. ‘Get down’ of a car is a proper Chinese expression (下车), as in Chinese one does not get ‘out’ of a car but get ‘down’ from it. In fact the word ‘car’ means a whole range of vehicles – from the ancient chariot (马车, which literally means horse-car) to the automobile (汽车). So naturally, when a Malaysian Chinese thinks of getting out of the car, his Chinese mind directs him to the literal meaning in Chinese, which translates ‘get down’.

Of course this contextualised English is not to be considered as proper or standard English. However, it makes sense to Malaysian Chinese. In this case they hijack the language, break it down and ‘re-arrange’ it to express a meaning proper to the syntax of their mother tongue. In other words, the foreign language is modified to express the local concept, which produces the phrase ‘getting down from a car’.

Language is part of culture. When it is introduced to a community, it may come across lacking in expressing the meaning of what it intends in the ears of the locals. When the locals finally understood the meaning of a foreign word, the process of adopting and changing the way the language is used begins. So in this case once the local Malaysian got to understand what it means by ‘get’ and ‘down’, they naturally mapped it to their local language’s syntax and modify the English usage for their own use.

When the missionary arrives at a foreign land he will also face the same problem. What does it mean by ‘sacrifice’, ‘sin’, ‘atonement’, ‘kingdom’, etc? But once the locals grab hold of the meanings of these they will start using their own language or local expression to describe them. If they adopt the language which the missionary brought, they may substitute some of the words or their usage with their own expressions.

Recently one of my friends wrote about the ritual of kissing the communion table – of which is certainly strange to any Chinese Christians. This is because Chinese has no ‘kissing culture’. Furthermore if by ‘Christian’ here we mean the evangelicals, the issue of transubstantiation will certainly be raised. So how would an evangelical Chinese Christian to express his or her passion and love for Christ which is on par of the intimacy shown by those ‘high church’ brothers who kiss the communion table? Which body language can they use to substitute this act without losing the meaning of it?

So the case of the Malaysian English is similar to that of the inculturated practices of worship. Missionaries come with their cultural practices, of which the truth and the gospel are intertwined, but their practices may not make sense to the locals. Once the locals understand the message of the gospel, they will in turn develop their own ways of expressing those truths, and often this is done by modifying the practices brought in by the missionaries. Thus the ‘standard language’ is then replaced by a ‘local language’ of worship or ministry.

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