Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What the (theological) willy wonka?

"What the willy wonka was that all about?" So asked my friend and colleague, Jason Goroncy, in response to the Hillsong London version of Silent Night that's been doing the rounds on the web in recent days. Jason's question prompted a good conversation on his blog, and he himself has now responded with his own typically thoughtful comments. Jason encourages some searching questions about how to interpret this performance in a way that's theologically serious and fair. He also points out that the discomfort many of us (and I count myself in this number) experience watching this might properly be transferred to other Christian 'performances' and 'symbols' which don't cause the discomfort which they perhaps should. So, an extract:

Watching the performance of this single song, online, nearly 17,000 kilometres from where it was performed, I have the same kind of confusion I experience whenever I worship in a building with a national flag in it; or an Honour Roll commemorating those who gave their lives in ‘the service of freedom’ and ‘for God, King and Country’, some of whom, it is noted (sometimes with the sign of a little cross!), ‘paid the supreme sacrifice’; or whenever I see a reference, in my ecclesiological territory, to ‘senior pastor’; or when I hear that a qualification for being a bishop (in some other ecclesiological territories) is proof of a penis; or whenever I see an innocent bunch of carnations perched on a baptismal font;....

Check out Jason's first post and the ensuing conversation here.

Jason's own comments here.

And if you haven't seen what everyone's talking about, here's the video in question:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Canada, China, Church: An Observer's Observations

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of being an 'observer' at a forum between the China Christian Council and the United Church of Canada.  It was held at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. My presence there was part of growing partnership between the CCC and the Uniting Church in Australia. We had held a similar joint forum with the CCC in 2013 and hope another one might eventuate in the near future.

Here are a few highlights and learnings:

  • Since I had a gap in my diary, I arrived at the Seminary a few days in advance of the conference. This gave me the chance to work in the library as well as to have conversations with staff and students as opportunities arose. As I've reported in blogs following previous visits, the Seminary is the focus of a very different world of theological education than ours in Australia: 350 residential students, nearly all of whom are under 30, some straight out of school. Within a few years, all these students will be pastors in churches with 100s and even 1000s of members. Still, even this number of students - together with the smaller numbers at the regional seminaries - it is going to take a while to change the present ratio of 1 theologically-trained ordained minster: 18,000 Protestant Christians. The enthusiasm and dedication of both students and faculty is exemplary and inspiring. A cohort of about 25 graduate students sat in on the conference for its duration and often asked very probing questions.
  • The Canadian delegation was made up of 22 people, including the Assembly Moderator, the General Secretary, and a range of other leaders and members; the delegation also reflected the cultural and ethnic diversity of the UCC. An indigenous elder among the delegation opened the Canadian presentation with an indigenous ritual used when starting communication with new friends. It also included a retired UCC theologian who had spent 2002-2007 teaching at the seminary. He was warmly welcomed back to Nanjing.
  • Listening in to the various presentations and the interactions which they produced,  I was struck at how often the conversations replayed the dialogue the UCA and CCC had undertaken in 2013. It didn't take long for questions such as these to emerge: How is the unity of the church articulated theologically? What is the relationship between gospel and culture? What are the demands and opportunities of being
    post-denominational and post-Christendom churches in both China and Canada? How does the church co-operate with the state in the provision of community services (a new possibility for the Chinese church which was prevented from doing so until 2011). I think that united and uniting churches work, at least implicitly, with ecclesiologies that are not easily mapped on to the ecclesiologies of Christendom. I think that in exploring these questions the UCA, the CCC and UCC are fellow-travellers.

  • For me a real highlight among the presentations was a paper, "Gospel and Culture: A Chinese Christian's Understanding" by Rev Dr Yongtao Chen from the Nanjing faculty. It was a very illuminating perspective from within the Chinese context of how Christianity appropriates elements of Chinese culture and what it is that Chinese Christianity can contribute to Chinese culture. He offered a very interesting reading of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 as a paradigm for the encounter between Jesus and another culture. A fuller version of Dr.  Chen's paper is available in Christianity and Chinese Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) edited by Mikka Ruokanen and Paulos Huang.  
  • Both before and during the visit I took the opportunity to delve more than I have in the past into the truly vast and rapidly expanding body of contemporary scholarly writing on Chinese Christianity. I would simply mention the following as a fairly random sample of the literature which I myself have only skimmed and which others might also find helpful:
Daniel H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
Jason Kindopp and Caroll Lee Hamrin, God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tension (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution 2004).
Justin Tan,  "Chinese Protestant Christianity" in The Church in China (Adelaide: ATF Theology, 2010) 83-120.
Yang Huilin, China Christianity and the Question of Culture  (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014). 
Gloria S. Tseng, "Revival Preaching and the Indigenization of Christianity in  Republican China", International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39 (2014): 177-182. 
Alan Hunter and Kim Kwong Chan, Protestantism in Contemporary China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 
Several themes emerges from even a rapid engagement with these works: the sheer complexity of the history (ancient and recent) of Christianity in China; the immense diversity of Christianity in China, a diversity which extends from the impact of contemporary Pentecostalism to alliances between Christianity and folk religion; and the challenges of being the Christian community in a one-party state (a challenge which is not reducible to the status respectively held by the registered and unregistered churches); and the need for Westerners to recognise that 'state' oversight of religious activities has been part of Chinese culture and society for over a millennium. I would also draw particular attention to the work by Yang Huilin mentioned above. Huilin is a leading Chinese academic, presently the Vice-President of Renmin University in Beijing. Huilin is among a group of Chinese intellectuals - only some of whom are Christian - who engage with Christian theology as an intellectual discipline in its own right. In this particular book Huilin engages Christian ethics, the place of theology in the humanities, Zizek's post-secular appropriation of Christianity, and even a chapter on Scriptural Reasoning, as tools for dialogue between China and the West. Whilst I understand there is some ambivalence from the church theologians towards this enterprise, it is fascinating - and perhaps salutary- that intellectuals outside the church find Christian ideas interesting precisely as ideas which have contributions to make to the welfare of Chinese culture.

Once again, I returned from a visit to China deeply grateful for the opportunity to be exposed to this growing church, and on this occasion also to learn about another united/uniting church, i.e., the United Church of Canada. The blog which the UCC delegation produced throughout its visit can be found here. I'm grateful to both delegations for letting me eavesdrop on their conversation.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Job Opportunity in Theological/Ministerial Education

The Western Australian Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia is currently seeking a Director of Education and Formation to join their leadership group. The core purpose of the role is to provide leadership in the achievements of a culture in which faith formation for discipleship and leadership is prized, appreciated and seeks to build an informed and integrated learning community directed to the mission of God. For position description contact Monica Pettersen on 9260 9800 or email monica.pettersen@wa.uca.org.au> . Please send your CV and cover letter (for the attention of Rosemary Hudson Miller, Acting General Secretary), by e-mail to Human Resources Advisor monica.pettersen@wa.uca.org.au>. Applications close at 5.00pm on 16 December 2015.