interviews

creed without chaos

An MHP Interview with Laura K. Simmons
England, like bygone days, was ablaze with writers at the turn of the last century. Some knew well that evil might pounce at any time. H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw are good examples. And alongside this notion of evil was a belief that humanity can rise above its situation and defeat whatever might enter the scene.

Also around 1900, George McDonald takes on the creation of new myths that would later inspire the young talents of G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Agatha Christie wrote her popular mysteries during this period - an end of Victoria's reign and the launch of World War I - that war that created the waste land.

Modernism, industrialization, globalization, the mass killing of one war and the lead-up and start of another are backdrops to Dorothy Sayers when she enters the scene.

Sayers contributes widely to many discussions. You will find her words used to frame elementary school curriculum. She started as an marketing writer and coined the phrase, "It pays to advertise." She is best known for her stories of Lord Peter Wimsey's detective skills. What is less well known is Sayers's contribution to the theological discussion of the time, a direction she purposed after World War II brought such overwhelming evil on the scene.

Laura K. Simmons recently released Creed without Chaos: Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers (Baker Academic).

MHP: I want to start in a dangerous beginning, with application before the setting of stage. One of your closing chapters is entitled “Sayers for the Twenty-First Century.” What does Sayers, certainly best known for her detective fiction, have to say to our culture?

Laura Simmons: In one of her essays, Sayers wrote something along the lines of, "Christianity has been having a bad press of late." As we enter the 21st century, that's still true--if not more true.

People have stereotypes both of Christianity and of Christians themselves. As in Sayers's time, the fault for those misperceptions belongs mostly to Christians. One of the things I appreciate most about her writings is her exhortation that we have no business rejecting something we don't really understand. She believes that if people really understand Christianity, they won't be so quick to reject it.

One of the things I see happening in the Christian community today is that the Christians who don't fit the stereotypes are stepping up to the plate to say, "Let's have a broader view of what Christianity is--it's not just a list of Dos and Don'ts or a political platform..." There seems to be a renewed interest in communicating what Christianity is really about, so that people can make informed choices. Sayers's clarity on what Christianity is and is not is a refreshing way of discussing these issues, I find.

Sayers's convictions on vocation are also important today, I believe. Certainly, in a world where many employees live in fear of having their jobs outsourced, many don't have the luxury of working in jobs that match their calling. But we also see a lot of people sacrificing more lucrative opportunities expressly so they *can* pursue work that is life-giving for them.

And her views on women were way before her time. One distinction she drew in 1938 is still with us, especially in the church--we tend to look at females as either "the ladies, God bless them" or "the women--God help us!" It's frightening and saddening that we have not managed to get past these generalizations in the 48 years since she wrote that...

MHP: You return several times to the contextual place that Sayers writes, a world overcome with WWII, a war that “had emptied Christianity’s places of worship.” You seem to suggest that this scenario forces Sayers to move away from fiction writing and into the more rigid confines of theology. Is that accurate?

LS: I'm not sure it's entirely fair to say her context forced her to move away from fiction, although she herself did suggest that as the war loomed, it seemed inappropriate to be writing fiction--she didn't want people to believe the world's most serious problems could be solved as easily as the Death in the Library, she said. But she did, for example, use Lord Peter and her other fictional characters to comment on the war. The "Wimsey Papers" ran for several weeks, and Lord Peter, Harriet Vane, and Miss Climpson all had the opportunity to make observations about wartime conditions--in this case, fictional characters were Sayers's mouthpiece for her own concerns about life in wartime.

Why I think her context is important is that it most likely slanted the ways she wrote about theology. If her culture were still a mostly-churched culture, she wouldn't have had to focus so much on clarification of Christian truths, for example. If the war had not brought economic priorities into such strong relief, she might not have had to write as she did about work and business ethics.

MHP: Does Sayers compliment Chesterton’s Orthodoxy or Lewis’s Mere Christianity in Begin Here: A Statement of Faith and perhaps others? What are the similarities and differences?

LS: This is an interesting question! She was powerfully influenced by Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which she read when she was fifteen. She found him a breath of fresh air for the church, and she wrote an introduction to one of his plays and kept up some correspondence with his widow after his death. Certainly she is similar to him, both in writing detective fiction and in her intellectual approach (right belief was important to both of them, more so than right living or right feeling, which might have been more of Lewis's heart).

Her book Begin Here started as a "Christmas message to the nation," but ended up as a dense historical-theological tome much less accessible than Lewis's work for the BBC, I'm afraid. He is concerned in the messages that make up Mere Christianity with describing Christianity as simply as possible for listeners. In Begin Here, Sayers is drawing a complex history of theological movements over the years, integrating theology with the historical context of each period. Lewis didn't write quite as much on political themes as Sayers did, I don't think...

MHP: Do these categories still apply: (1) open heathen; (2) ignorant Christians; (3) pea-shooting churchgoers?

LS: I don't know that this language for them still applies, but certainly the population of this country has its share of people who don't know a thing about Christianity and may or may not care to know (I was one of these growing up--I always say that I grew up in the "church of the flaming pagan-heathen," which is not too different from Sayers's description of the 'frank and open heathen'), and I'm quite sure most churchgoers here know even less about their faith (why they believe what they do, why it's important to believe certain things over others, how we got to the beliefs we hold dear today) than her compatriots did. And certainly, in a country scornful about intelligent design and resentful of Christian politicians, many of us would be woefully unprepared to do battle with any intellectual unbeliever, "Marxian" or otherwise! We do have more venues for thinking Christians to make their views known ... which is important, as those views are sorely needed.

ZK: Among the theological points brought out, incarnation seems the most versatile and strongest held as it sits with the need for creeds as well. Why? Would similar emphases be advised for today?

LS: Sayers believed the Incarnation was the lynchpin for all other theology--if Christ was not really God, everything else fell apart. I've been intrigued as I've watched the various portrayals of Jesus on TV and film in recent years. Sayers, in discussing The Man Born to Be King, wrote about how hard it was to portray Jesus both as fully human and as fully divine, and some pop-culture renditions of him succeed more than others in capturing the fullness of his character.

I think we've really lost something by letting go of the creeds in most evangelical churches. I understand the aversion to/concern about "dead ritual," but I believe the solution to that is a vibrant program of education about why certain rituals (such as the recitation/ memorization of creeds) are important is the solution, not doing away with the creeds altogether. But it's easier for us to limit our picture of Jesus to the "buddy Christ" (as seen in Dogma) or the stern, punitive Christ portrayed by some of our more conservative brethren than to grapple with the complexities of the Athanasian creed, for example.

MHP: What is the difference of working to live and living to work? Are the misplacement of work and the impersonal touch from grocery stores to large corporations a reason for dissatisfaction – perhaps because the context is not incarnate?

LS: I have a perfect example of "working to live." After I finished my doctorate, it took me a few years to find a full-time faculty position. However, my student loans came into repayment 6 months after I graduated. So I spent two years working in middle management after finishing my PhD and before landing a full-time faculty post. I wasn't working there necessarily because that was what I was called to do for the rest of my life, but because it was the only job that paid enough for me to afford my student-loan payments. Don't get me wrong--it was a significant work experience, and God used it immensely in my life. But it was a bit of a tangent from my calling to teach--economically driven. Whether it's student loan payments, a mortgage, a family to raise, or ongoing medical expenses to fund, many people "work to live"--they take whatever job will pay enough to allow them to afford their lives. "Living to work," on the other hand, is what we see in those who take jobs paying significantly less than their capacities because they love that kind of work. They don't go to work wondering when they'll get off--they have to remind themselves to take time OFF work.

When someone cannot find satisfaction in their work, is it any wonder they are surly about doing it? I believe, as Sayers did, that the responsibility rests with the employer to incorporate into people's jobs the opportunity for satisfying work (as opposed to merely rote work, which really is demoralizing in the long run). It's hard to do this on a corporate level, especially if you are a large corporation. Hard, but not impossible.

MHP: As to art, she is harsh at the manipulation of art to wield some reaction or some second class form simply because convictions can cause people to take up art but their talent suffers greatly. The book casts a corrective to Plato’s utilitarian way of representation or imitation and wants to search for “eternal truth.” Are there examples that might be used especially in light of this “eternal truth”?

LS: She wrote about Aeschylus's Agamemnon: "This...is not the copy or imitation of something bigger and more real than itself. It is bigger and more real than the real-life action it represents. That a false wife should murder a husband--that might be... a thriller to be read in the train--but when it is shown to us like this, by a great poet, it is as though we went behind the triviality of the actual event to the cosmic significance behind it." ["Toward a Christian Esthetic," 82-83]

I don't know if I quoted this part in the book, but there's another place in the same essay where she gives a delightful description of the work of any artist:

A poet so-called is simply a man like ourselves with an exceptional power of revealing his experience by expressing it, so that not only he, be we ourselves, recognize that experience as our own. ... And since he is a man like the rest of us, we shall expect that our experience will have something in common with his. In the image of his experience, we can recognize the image of some experience of our own--something that had happened to us, but which we had never understood, never formulated or expressed to ourselves, and therefore never known as a real experience. When we read the poem, or see the play or picture, or hear the music, it is as though a light were turned on inside us. We say: 'Ah! I recognize that! That is something that I obscurely felt to be going on in and about me, but I didn't know what it was and couldn't express it. But now that the artist has made its image--imaged it forth--for me, I can possess and take hold of it and make it my own and turn it into a source of knowledge and strength. [86-87]

MHP: Would a fiction writer- turned theological writer be at all concerned at the systematic approach to her works and thoughts?

She might actually hate it, for any number of reasons. As many times as Sayers called herself a theologian or others acclaimed her as one, she would also say things like, "I'm a storyteller, not an evangelist," or "I'm a writer, not a preacher." She simultaneously would suggest that if you wanted to know something about a writer, you should look to that person's work--and that it was unfair to assume certain things about a writer based on what they had written (with her fiction, for example, people would always say she was either Lord Peter Wimsey or Harriet Vane). She was worried about writing beyond her range and thus leading people astray (she wrote to C.S. Lewis about the "terrifying ease" with which people make celebrities into idols and authorities, whether or not those figures should be given authority or not).

I have tried, even while categorizing Sayers's contributions, not to suggest that any sort of traditional "systematic theology" can be made out of her work. Some theological themes she wrote on all the time (incarnation and the trinity, for example)--but someone has just critiqued me for not saying more about her "doctrine of Scripture," and I won't write on that because it doesn't appear often enough in her work (and because it would be overlaying a late-20th-century-evangelical doctrine of Scripture onto a British Anglican popular writer, which seems perilous).

We are also careful in the Sayers field not to fall into the trap of the young man who said, "And then there was Miss Dorothy Sayers, who turned from a life of crime to join the church of England." While moving from mystery writing to theology seems like a shift, it's also true that the same Dorothy L. Sayers was writing about heavenly mysteries and earthly mysteries both.

Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

can god be trusted

An MHP Interview with John Stackhouse

MHP: In your book Can God be Trusted, you speak about Job and the assurance that God can indeed be trusted. But, you also place a precautionary statement related to the certainty of absolutely knowing. Is this a construction of postmodernity or do you feel that this was likened to the belief that Job had - or more broadly, the belief held by Israel as well as the Church - essentially hold our breath and dive in?

John Stackhouse: I don’t think either alternative is quite true to the biblical theme of faith. Faith is trust in something or someone, and that trust involves a positive and a negative element. The positive element is all that I think I know about that thing or person, all the warrants I have to believe that this canoe or this babysitter is trustworthy. The negative element is the genuine uncertainty of the situation, in that I cannot be entirely sure that the canoe won’t fail when I get into it, or that the babysitter won’t make a mistake to the harm of my child. So faith is anchored in knowledge and then is cantilevered over the unknown.

Postmoderns highlight the modern insight (it goes back at least to the time of John Locke) that most or all of what we think we know is subject to our finitude and, in Christian terms, our fallen nature But this insight—that we cannot properly claim certainty for our beliefs, but instead we can properly claim more or less confidence in them (and note that “fides”/faith is in the center of that word)—is an essentially biblical one. Again, that’s why the Bible speaks of knowing God, yes, but also of having faith in him. There is much that we do not, and cannot, understand, and particularly about God’s providence and the problem of evil. But on the basis of what we believe we know, we trust God in the dark places where our knowledge gives out.

MHP: I remember that Franklin Graham on one of the evening talk shows just after the Tsunami said that the storm was the work of Satan since we live in a fallen world. What are your thoughts on weather patterns (to border on the ridiculous) in a year that has brought such calamity. Are they depraved as I suppose Augustine would reference - all nature bemoans, or are these simply in the realm of the spinning top that God once started and will one day stop... or maybe a bit of both... somewhere between these stark lines? Essentially, are weather patterns or strikes of lightening evil or there to relieve evil in any way similar to Elijah bringing down fire from the sky, Noah building his ship, or Jonah in a restless boat? And then, so often in literature, rains and floods act as cleansing agents.

JS: Franklin Graham badly needs someone to tell him how to talk to the press, as well as a significant tutorial in theology. His father, to his credit, recognized his own theological limitations and stuck to the elements of the gospel. Franklin hasn’t learned that, and he embarrasses his fellow Christians and alienates others.

We do not know why the tsunami struck how and where it did. We do not know why hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck how and where they did. But these disasters should tell us, at least, that they aren’t merely “judgments of God on sin,” as some preachers have confidently announced. For the floodwaters swept away the just and the unjust, the believers and the unbelievers, alike. And if judgment was really God’s intention here, it remains unclear why these were his high-priority targets. We can all think of places that could use a good scrubbing….

Nor, however, do I think we should opt for the device of getting God off the hook by attributing these evil events to Satan, or to “just the way the world is,” or to anything else. God created the world in foreknowledge of its subsequent history, and God maintains the world in knowledge of what is happening and will happen. The buck stops at the divine desk, as Biblical writers themselves recognized. Even if Satan did this or that bad thing, as he does in the Book of Job, he does so under God’s aegis—so much so that Satan disappears from the narrative of Job and the whole thing resolves to just Job vs. God. We simply do not know why a good God—the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—allows such things to happen under his providence.

We have clues, to be sure, about the possible goods that can arise out of various sorts of evils. I take some time in my book to set out as many of those as I plausibly can. And they help—some. But at the end of the day, I don’t think they explain enough. Faith in the goodness of God has to reside somewhere other than in theodical explanations and excuses. And I think it has to reside in the face of Jesus, the face of God that is unquestionably good even when the goodness of the work of God in the world seems questionable indeed.

MHP: I heard a Catholic nun on NPR this week. She is in Baton Rouge and spoke of the families that are looking to place their children in a diocesan school. She mentioned something along the lines - "Our faith teaches us that we are to suffer. Jesus suffered and died on the cross before raising from the dead." She went on to indicate her role and the role of the Church was to bring people from the suffering and into a recognition of the strength found in such things. Is that the role of the church - not to necessarily find a solution to the crisis but to use the instruments to nurse us into heaven - the sacraments, community, worship and love of God?

JS: The mission of the church is to cooperate with God in his own mission to the world: to save it. So we are deployed by God on multiple fronts: some of us work on intellectual explanations, some of us offer wise counsel, some of us bind up wounds, some of us lead worship, and some of us pay for it all.

I don’t think we should validate one form of ministry, then, at the expense of another—which is what I think you’re asking me. We shouldn’t say, “It’s not this, it’s that,” but “It’s both this and that, and I’m called to one form of ministry while I affirm others called to something else.”

But perhaps the point is a different one. I certainly would say that the church’s role is not “to find a solution to the crisis” in two senses: first, the main responsibility for the crisis brought by the Gulf of Mexico hurricanes is the state’s, not the church’s; second, God alone can bring a perfect solution, and we won’t see it until Jesus returns.

So let us each do our part, as individuals and as groups of various kinds, under the providence of God, to do what good we can—as we long for the full and final coming of the Kingdom.

MHP: I know you are not professionally a Greek or Bible scholar ( you more of the historian's guild, I think), but this is a verse I have heard more than once this last year - Jesus talking about rain and sun in Matthew 5 falling on all kinds of people?

JS: It’s true that I’m not a Greek scholar, but I have dabbled in theology as well as history, and theology ought to be Biblical, so I’ll venture a reply. Indeed, I already have, under (2) above. We do need to hear Jesus reminding us of the complementary truths that God loves everyone, not just Jews and Christians, and is generous to all and that we are all in a fallen world together, suffering its vicissitudes together—including God, we must remember, who suffers along with us and our neighbors. So there is truly both light and dark in this hard saying.

MHP: Finally, what is your advice in times of great struggle or suffering? Not necessarily to make one feel better - give old clothes or loose change - but what is the discipline in time of struggle? I mention this because my 12-year-old cousin got struck by lightning about a month ago in Tulsa. There were no signs of storms. He is not doing very well with one leg already being removed from him, a star soccer player. He is mentally not here with his eyes wandering and his lips mumbling some code to the angels I hope. How is one to act? Is Job the model? Is the Apostle John? Is Martha - hey, if you were here a few days ago my brother would be alive? Is it David, stripped naked on some hillside screaming?

JS: I’m better at scholarship than at wisdom, but what I have, I give you -

The Biblically-endorsed pattern of response to evil seems to be authenticity and faith. So some will cry, some will shudder, some will argue, some will get busy, and some will shriek. But the faithful ones are those that do any and all of these things to God and with God, not away from God and in spite of God.

God can handle any honest thing we bring to him, including honest emotions such as rage, fear, confusion, and doubt. Indeed, the whole idea of faith, to recapitulate, means that we are trusting precisely because we do not know for certain. And the confrontation of extreme evil can be one of those times when we cling to God in spite of almost overwhelming impetus to abandon him—or to feel abandoned by him. So that’s what faith means, and it’s not only okay, but expected, in the Bible to both feel terrible and keep trusting.

We might see God bring good out of evil in any given case. That can be cause for appropriate celebration—“appropriate” in the sense of “all things considered,” with due recognition of the evil that is really there, too. But I think we must be very cautious about trying to explain the evil by the good, as if the latter justifies the former. I think it’s terribly risky to people’s faith to engage in that kind of calculation.

Instead, I think we can give thanks for the good we do see, to him who is the fountain of all good, and continue to trust God in spite of the evil that we also see. And how do we keep trusting? By resolutely holding before ourselves and each other the face of God in Jesus Christ. For the God evident in nature and the newspaper is a fearsome God indeed, but the God evident in Jesus is no less fearsome, yet also convincingly and satisfyingly good.

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John Stackhouse is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada and Author of Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (Oxford University Press, 1998) Interview by Zach Kincaid.

subverting global myths

An MHP Interview with Vinoth Ramachandra
There are six that need subverting, according to author Vinoth Ramachandra: terrorism, religious violence, human rights, multiculturalism, science, and postcolonialism. In his new book, Subverting Global Myths, Ramachandra cuts through the notions (preconceived and postconceived) of our well manicured Western ideals and in so doing subverts another myth: that Christian authors can write these sorts of challenging books on a Christian press.

The categories Ramachandra helps redefine are often check-offs for socially conscious people who don't want spoon-fed media or liquid faith or chatty politics. But in every movement the book offers fresh insight to connect the dots of history, politics, religion and, in many cases, the thieves that Americanism hangs out with.

I talked with Vinoth Ramachandra about his new book recently.

MHP: The title of your book, Subverting Global Myths, what do you mean by this since most will quickly equate myth with stories that may be untrue but have some point to gain or lose. Is this how you're defining myth?

Vinoth Ramachandra: I take myths in the sense of large-scale public stories that a culture, institution or wider society tells about itself. They give its members a sense of meaning and identity, making them feel good about themselves. They often contain some grains of truth, but these are usually blown out of all proportion and counter-truths are suppressed. For instance, think of the way that many American Christians have been brought up to think of the USA’s prosperity as having been founded on the “Protestant work ethic” and “free markets”.

MHP: So the book tackles six major myths. For the readers who may not know, these myths are terrorism, religious violence, human rights, multiculturalism, science, and postcolonialism. If you would, briefly expound on a couple of these to give a picture of how you see these as standing out as points of deceitfulness. I'm particularly interested in briefs on the myths of postcolonialism and multiculturalism.

VR: These six concepts are not myths in themselves. They are rather areas in which myths are generated, either intentionally or unintentionally. For instance, the discourse of postcolonialism itself challenges widespread myths about the neutrality of anthropological research, the voiceless colonial subject, the contrast between a “Western mind” and the “Eastern mind”, and so on. But it is blind to myths that it, in turn, generates in the academy, such as the identification of Christianity with the colonial project, the irrelevance of religion to social emancipation, or the objectivity of its own readings of postcolonial globalization. “Multiculturalism”, likewise, has come to mean different things in different contexts. One common myth is that cultures are the prime source of identity for all people, another that cultures occupy self-enclosed spaces that never overlap or interact with others.

MHP: Your opening chapter seems to make the United States a terrorist among a world of terrorists, ignorant and arrogant at the same time. Did I read that right?

If so, what is the call to the church in the United States?

VR: I live in a country where the state uses methods of terror against people it calls “terrorists”. I can be imprisoned under draconian anti-terrorist legislation for simply making this comment, or if my book got into the hands of some people in the government. Now, if I can take such personal risks in writing about my own country in this way, I don’t understand why Americans, and especially American Christians who confess every Sunday that it is Jesus who is Lord and not the President or Congress, cannot do the same: namely, take a long hard look at your history over, say, the past 50 years, and decide where on the spectrum of “terrorism” your own government lies.

It is only Americans who seem to think that voting Republican or Democratic makes a real difference to what the US does in the world. The rest of the world, at least those of us who have read recent history, do not think so. The Bush-Cheney administration has become the whipping boy of the Democratic left who endorsed policies under previous administrations which were not so different to what we have seen in the past eight years. So the call to the church is: wake up and think as members of a global community and not as Americans. Behind the challenge of terrorism lies an even bigger one: will the new US administration continue America’s “exceptionalism”, or will they bring their nation under the rule of international law and of internationally-agreed treaties that seek the global common good?

MHP: The words of Jesus came to mind as I read through your book. He said on several occasions, "You have heard it said... but I tell you..." How do you stay critical and not make that criticism that stomps throughout this text into something cynical?

VR: I am very surprised that you only see criticism in this book. The bulk of it is a dialogue with complex issues. My arguments are usually nuanced, and in several places I suggest what I think are constructive ways forward.

MHP: Let me rephrase because certainly I see that your arguments are not only critical and I agree that you point to several ways forward. My intent in the question was more general than your text alone. I think it is easy for the Church global to become cynical and not talk through the complicated issues before them and in their criticism (or worse, their cynicism) they don't always point to the exits as to ways forward. Rather, the majority of congregants take a blind eye to the larger issues. So, my question is: what do you see are the guiding principles or disciplines that you deem helpful to see into these issues and hopefully participate in their redemption?

VR: There are sections of the global church that have been prophetically responsive to these issues for a long time. For instance, the World Council of Churches and the Vatican have often been way ahead of secular voices critiquing the ideology of economic growth and speaking out on environmental degradation and justice for the poor. Sadly, the majority of Christians-like the rest of society- only wake up to issues when they themselves suffer the consequences. Good examples are severe climate changes caused by global warming and the corruption and absurdities of the global financial system. I point out in my book that Christians have to stop thinking the way their political leaders want them to think, i.e in terms of 'national interest' or 'we, the American people' and start thinking as citizens first of God's universal kingdom. This would mean that, on every issue, we ask not 'how will this affect me or my nation?', but instead questions such as 'how will this affect the poorest of the world's people'?, 'how will this promote the global common good?', ' who are the most vulnerable groups and how will this enhance or reduce protection for them?', and so on. That is part of what it means to think with the mind of Christ.

MHP: You bring to light this idea of Juergensmeyer's about "email ethnicities." How do we act in a world that is quickly becoming borderless? Do we fight for no side? Is everything leveled and no claims of justice able to be made... even if tainted?

VR: It is a myth that the world is borderless. Only the rich (with rich nation’s passports and foreign bank accounts) see it that way. But, in any case, Christian identity is never defined by borders. Christians need to discipline themselves to read history not from the perspective of their ethnic or national communities but, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “from the underside” (that is, the victims of both nationalism and globalization). That is not easy, but it is easier now than in our grandparents’ day because the Church is now truly global and can correct our narrow perspectives. Also, access to information is faster.

MHP: Why does it matter to know that the pizza was first made in Egypt and that rice came from Arab hands and chocolate was born out of South America?

VR: It might make us less ethnocentric. We have all learned and borrowed from each other over history, not just food but ideas and technologies, which makes talk of an inevitable “clash of civilizations” very silly.

MHP: You state that no pagan writer has raised the question whether human beings have inherent value irrespective of social value or any other label. In contrast, you state that Christianity does see this equalization and base it on a Jewish idea of the imago dei. How does that work, when on the street it appears the Judaism and Christianity have a severe lacking in working this idea out. Also, many of your references in the human rights chapter point out the Old Testament and little of the New, other than Jesus saying to love one's enemies, a command that comes much earlier by way of Confucius, at least. I guess, my question is what does it matter if in theory the Jews/Christians have pointed to this imago dei (which seems to be in other creation myths as well) if in fact it has not really been practiced?

VR: Frankly, I don’t know any non-biblical creation story that gives such a high view of humankind as does the Genesis story. I would like you to show me one. Anyway, I mention not only the imago dei but also the Christian doctrines of incarnation and resurrection as what have inspired people down the centuries to defend the value and equality of those human beings whom others considered worthless. I give some examples in my book, as well as confronting the failure of the Church in many periods of its history to live up to what its own foundational doctrines taught. The disobedience of the Church does not mean that we should “rubbish” all its history. Rather we continue to recover the Church’s contribution to what many secular thinkers take for granted today (until they step into societies untouched by the Christian gospel).

MHP: Agreed about the intensity of the Genesis story related to the "high view of humankind"... but I question whether it begins here, meaning that there seems to be ancient cultures that respect a high view of humankind as it defines itself by way of the divine. However, I concede that the Genesis narrative satisfies this need inside humanity in ways that pagan faiths are a far paler reflection.

Moving on to eugenics that you talk through in your chapter on science. I was curious if you were familiar with Chesterton's rant against eugenics in 1922. In Eugenics and Other Evils, he says a number of things that can have wide application (a typical Chesterton trait) and one is this: "The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal." Is this applicable to your thesis?

VR: I am not familiar with this book, but the quote sounds typically Chestertonian. I am unclear how it relates to my arguments.

MHP: Eugenics like so many modern ideas, value individuals not for their own sake but for their productivity - their functionality or usefulness. Certainly this is not in modernity alone. You write, "...not only does genetic selection undermine human solidarity, but it also blatantly violates the moral principle that affirms the equal worth of dignity of each human being." In a similar vein, Chesterton argues early last century that it is the normal that we've neglected and in so doing we've desensitized ourselves to the true value of human life.

Admittedly, your text is dense. At times I found myself wandering a bit as I read it simply due to the stacked criticism and explanation of world events and historical trajectories. What do you say about a common family, and thankfully there are more than a few of these birds in many corners of the world, who are quite naive about the plot that landed goods at their door or created enough peace or a deluge of peace that allows them to earn and keep a living? Are we to endlessly second guess and presume that what is in front of our noses hosts closets of skeletons behind it?

VR: I don’t know what “common family” you have in mind but most of my readers in the US will be college-educated or college students. They all have access to the internet, to libraries and to people from other nations and cultures not too far from where they live or work. In other words, they have access to sources of knowledge that are denied the “common family” in the country where I am living. So what’s the excuse for their continuing to be ignorant about the world? Laziness? Apathy? Fear? Surely it is the essence of citizenship in a democracy to hold accountable those who exercise power. How can we do this if we don’t question the stories they tell us? Moreover, Christian conversion- if genuine- always leads to a questioning of the status quo, a willingness to be rid of our “blinkers” and to learn how we profit through the exploitation of others, how our “peace” is secured by the torture of others, and so on.

MHP: You end with "The task of theology is to train... people who can improvise the gospel of Jesus Christ." Address this idea of improvisation.

VR: I am quoting from the theologians Tom Wright and Kevin Vanhoozer who both use the metaphor of musical improvisation to describe how we communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ in a changing world. Bach and Jazz virtuosos are the best exponents of this- music can better express some theological ideas than words. To improvise on a theme in music combines two thoughts: faithfulness to the original, and also (instead of mere repetition) a creative exploration of fresh expressions of the original. For instance, exploring the planetary aspects of Christ’s redemption in an age facing environmental catastrophe would constitute an improvisation rather than a revision of the original score of the gospel.

For more information about Subverting Cultural Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World by Vinoth Ramachandra visit href="http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=2885. Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

culturing your culture

An MHP Interview with Andy Crouch
Go to the website of any major Christian publisher and search for books on “culture”. What you receive is a virtual Noah’s flood of materials. We’ll use IVP as our example since the book touted in this piece hails from their hands, but any of them - Zondervan, Tyndale, Eerdmans, Baker - have warehouses of titles.

Here’s a IVP pick list: Emerging Culture, How to Win the Culture War, Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment, Thinking about Pop Culture, The Hip-Hop Church, Jesus Made in America, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Or should we say, “Yadda, yadda, yadda” and invoke Seinfeld’s Kramer. For it’s Andy Crouch’s new book Culture Making that attempts to be the coffee table book about coffee tables. I suggested that there should be a package of clay that accompanies the book much like the little stand that Kramer’s book uses to become an actual coffee table, but this was likely cost prohibitive. At any rate, the world of culture books, let us say, is a Christian Charlie Foxtrot of dormant ideas that pass as passe when the sun rises the next morning. (And IVP’s list is a tame one.)

Account for all those hip sermon series by emergent church types, and we’re saps at the whims of culture.

Andy Crouch’s book is a bit different. It wants us to slow down our analysis and legions of criticism about culture and our interaction with it and actually create some of it... actually participate in the making of art and other expressions. He also seems to temper - in spurts at least - this idea that our actions should be directly related to evangelism, and world changing in the sense of a cross on every hillside.

In his chapter “Why We Can’t Change The World”, Crouch says:

"... I sometimes wonder if breathless rhetoric about changing the world is actually about changing the subject - from our own fitfully suppressed awareness that we did not ask to be brought into this world, have only vaguely succeeded in figuring it out, and will end our days in radical dependence on something or someone other than ourselves. If our excitement about changing the world leads us into the grand illusion that we stand somehow outside the world, knowing what’s best for it, tools and goodwill and gusto at the ready, we have not yet come to terms with the reality that the world has changed us far more than we will ever change it. Beware of world changers - they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin."

Although there is a back-and-forth on how to qualify and quantify culture and cultural expression. Many times the classic spheres of influence and long range effects of what we do are used as measures for successes or failure. For, Crouch says, “Culture is what we make of the world.” And certainly that’s part of it, but perhaps it’s less intended than actually setting out to sell a billion copies, oiling that marketing machine to osteen the masses.

For example, J.K. Rowling certainly had little thought of record book sales when she gave life to Harry Potter, but as an author she took pleasure to create a new world. Is it not in these types of co-creator acts that we find worship and celebration with the Arch Creator, who proclaimed his work “good” without need for audience? That’s not to belittle the fact that Harry Potter topped every sales record, but the beginning was not to produce a merchandising monster. Would not that be a most beastly motivation, the act of culturing your culture? Left Behind art?

I think Andy would agree. In his survey of cultural postures, he lands his claymation in this one line: “like our first parents, we are to be creators and cultivators...artists and gardeners.” Yes! Those gestures of condemning, critiquing, consuming, or copying are no good, he says, unless we are postured rightly.

And for the most part the posture of Culture Making is not the hunchback of other Christianity and culture books. A few weeks ago, I called Andy and we talked about his new book.

MHP: You say that culture is inescapable whether it be in my omelet or on my highway- so it's in everything. So what? For a person who doesn't analyze omelets or roads what is the message?

Andy Crouch: Culture, whether omelets or interstates, creates what I call the "horizons of possibility" for human beings. And Christians, at least, care very much about those horizons—both because we believe they are distorted and misplaced by sin, and because we have glimpsed another set of possible horizons. The biblical word shalom is one way describing a world where the horizons are in the right place. So if we're called to love our neighbor, we can't simply take the existing horizons for granted. Culture is cutting them and us off from God's shalom. So we're called to participate, in order to contribute to moving the horizons at least somewhat toward the reality that is disclosed in the gospel.

MHP: How does this message sit with a culture that is growing in its lack of literacy. Is the first act of culture cultivation helping people understand before they even try out avenues of adding to culture? Is that why there's a list of culture books like yours out there? Christian, it's not Kinkaid that we're after here. It's not Stryper... it's... what is it?

AC: I do think that one danger of my book and the title is that Christians might rush uncritically to create and contribute to what they think will change the world. Christian culture making requires a certain amount of preparation—a scriptural framework as well as cultural literacy. We haven't paid as much attention as we should to the need to patiently, seriously conserve culture, which after all is always only one generation away from extinction. It's amazing how fragile culture really is. There is a serious debate, for example, about whether the United States could land human beings on the moon today, because the generation that engineered the Apollo missions is retiring and all their tacit knowledge is being lost. The challenge is that this kind of knowledge is so much more about skill, discipline, and cultivation than simply analysis or awareness—you can have a cupboard full of recipes and yet not really know how to bake bread. So I hope that my book will not just add to the groaning shelves of Christian writing on culture, but encourage people to take up very specific disciplines of culture keeping, as well as culture making.

MHP:
You talk about the workings of God and I wonder how these important cultural moments like the exodus and resurrection might play out in a global culture like our own... meaning, since so many points of information are splintered every which way, would the message be as monumental? And if not, does that effect the way in which God effects culture today... because certainly the resurrection was not the end but the dawning of more.

AC: Perhaps it is more difficult today to imagine a grand social movement. There is a sense in which our forebears picked some of the low-hanging fruit, so to speak: founding hospitals, establishing universal suffrage, ending chattel slavery. (Not that there isn't work still to be done in many parts of the world on every one of those fronts.) Today the mechanisms of culture are more fragmented and paradoxically both more global and more local. Our relationships are thinner, too. Facebook is great, but it doesn't substitute for being in the same town, working patiently together on change in that one place for many years. But I still firmly believe that the pattern of exodus and resurrection—God bringing life out of death, something out of nothing, raising the valleys and lowering the high places—is at loose in the world and in our human cultures.

MHP: Does God have a culture?

AC: I think culture was certainly God's idea—in a way, God's biggest idea—but it names the task that is distinctly for creatures made in his image. Culture is for us: it is what we are called to do. It is our response to the created world, and it has a cumulative quality that can only unfold over time. So God certainly has society, if you will—a relational reality that is the embodiment of Shalom—but because God is the eternal Creator, rather than a timebound creature, I don't think we can really say God has a culture.

MHP: The biblical vision of culture... does that involve miracles, plagues, white beards and concubines?

AC: Well, certainly the biblical record is chock full of cultural specificity, including some wild and crazy turns and twists, which I suppose is what you're getting at by mentioning white beards and concubines. Scripture tells a long, complicated story, especially in the pages of the Hebrew Bible, of a particular culture trying to work out this astonishing idea that our one god is not just our national god, but the one true God. It has all the particularity of any cultural story, and that's part of our heritage as Christians—but I would say that the biblical vision of culture, precisely as the universal nature of YHWH's identity sinks in, goes beyond any one culture to encompass all of humanity in its cultural diversity.

MHP: Does culture carry a dogma?

AC: There are some non-negotiable realities about culture, sure. Culture always happens between people. It also always happens through time. You could say there's a synchronic dimension—it has to be shared—and a diachronic dimension—it has to be handed on. For my children, for example, the world has never had anything but wireless phones. I don't think they've ever seen a phone with a cord attached. Unless I expose them to a corded phone someday, that part of culture simply won't exist for them. The other non-negotiable thing about culture is that although it is made up of concrete cultural goods, those goods always carry meaning along with them—often ultimate claims about the meaning of the world.

MHP: As believers, aren't we surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses... is that a public, a community? Is time perhaps part of culture and less so for the cultural landscape of Christians?

AC: Yes and no. It is certainly true that we are part of the communion of saints, living and dead, and in that sense we have a "public" that transcends time. And to the extent that we know their stories, know their work and writings, and most of all know the God who knows us all, they can shape our own culture making.

I remember being on the island of Lindisfarne off the coast of England a few years ago and feeling an extraordinary sense of my fellowship with, and accountability to, the great monk Cuthbert. At that moment he was as real to me as any contemporary. And yet in another way, we only know about Cuthbert because someone—a long chain of someones—passed on his story down to our time and place, through culture. The communion of
saints gives us a perspective on our moment in time, but it does not lift us out of our moment in time—we are still, like our neighbors, responsible for this place, here, now, and no other place or time.

Our culture making has to happen in response to our present world and moment, because, to paraphrase Tolkien, that is the only moment we have been given.


For more information about Culture Making by Andy Crouch visit InterVarsity Press. Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

if a man has two wives...

An MHP Interview with David Petersen
As early as Lamech in Genesis 4 and making a sideline appearance in the law code with Deuteronomy 21:15’s “If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other”, the idea of “one man, one woman” seems suspicious. The heritage that we know with Jacob and his two women on through the kings of Israel makes this idea of monogamy at least something to be questioned.

Is it the cultural mores that suggest one over the other? Did it revolve an early need to procreate quickly as St. Augustine notes, a need that is no longer exceptional? Could it be reduced to an economic argument? Or perhaps it simply makes little sense romantically and we might be surprised that Paul knew this and espoused it - “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Ephesians 5:28). Maybe it’s a spiritual concern - “A deacon must be the husband of but one wife” (I Timothy 3:12).

But, as with other issues there is not an absolute clarity on a theological basis with regards to polygamy. Rather, we must get at our conclusion of monogamy by marrying together various traditional and spiritual overtones.

I asked David Petersen, professor of Old Testament at Emory University to answer a few questions.

MHP: The creation account of Genesis seems to order the universe. And, in so doing the idea of one man and one woman as a unit appears to be "the order." Is that reading to much into the account? Because discounting something supernatural or untold, procreation occurred in unspecified ways. Maybe? Is there a wide interpretation on these points?

David Petersen: The accounts of creation in Genesis accomplish many purposes. Among them are several depictions of what it means to be human. Diversity in gender is one hallmark of the priestly account (Gen 1:27) whereas the notion of “the man and his wife” feature in the non-priestly account (Gen 2:25). The latter text is surely an etiology for marriage, but not a legal text. The issue of procreation is mentioned in the priestly account, but the command “to be fruitful and multiply” is not explicitly linked to marriage (Gen 1:28).

MHP:
Polygamy does not appear to be a directive from God nor one put down in the Levitical code (like Islam with the allowance of four if treated equally). So, if that's the case, was it an adoption of the wider culture? When did it happen. For example, it appears the Noah and his sons only had one wife each and Abraham had only Sarah by law. Law?

DP: Anthropologists have developed various terms to describe patterns of human marriage. Several of these terms work well for characterizing marriages in the book of Genesis. The family of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar represents polycoity, a family in which one male has sexual access to several females, only one of whom is the primary wife. The family of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel involves sororal polygyny, a marriage in which one male has several wives, all of whom are sisters. These two forms of marriage are consistent with the kinship structure present in Gen 12-36, namely, patrilineal endogamy.

MHP: Did God ever disdain the taking of multiple wives? Jacob had two in that sordid tale that looks like a likely "gotcha" story given his deceit. We know David had several, but the judgement is the immoral taking of Bathsheba. And Solomon, it seems, is more about the secular influence of kowtowing to their gods.

DP: Any number of texts in the Hebrew Bible attest to polygyny (one man with multiple wives), though none to polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands). Genesis includes the names of four women who were married to Esau (Gen 28:9; 36:2-3). Elkanah had two wives who apparently had, in principle, equal status (1 Sam 1:2). Several Judahite kings were remembered as having many wives. The reasons for this are probably multiple. The deuteronomistic history reports that one of Solomon’s marriages symbolized a treaty relationship (Pharoah’s daughter, 1 Kings 3:1). One of David’s wives clearly helped him achieve legitimacy in his dynastic struggle with the Saulides (Michal, 1 Sam 18:27-28). Solomon’s marriages received bad press, not because of the number of his wives, but because they led him to venerate deities other than Yahweh (1 Kings 11:1-8). No such comment is made about David and his wives. Finally, a law in the book of Deuteronomy clearly presupposes a case in which one man had two wives (Deut 21:15).

There does seem to be a move away from polygyny in the Persian and Greco-Roman periods. Economic factors were no doubt important. It is hard to imagine two wives of a sort described in Prov 31:10-31, a text that probably dates to the Persian period, in one household. Extra-biblical evidence for Jewish family practice, e.g., the texts from Elephantine, need to be integrated into this discussion.

MHP: So, is polygamy sinful?

DP: The Hebrew Bible does not condemn, i.e., construe as sin, the diverse patterns of family life attested in its pages.


Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

stop the traffik

An MHP Interview with Simon Chorley
If you want a sex slave all you have to do is go to Craigslist. It’s easy. And it may become easier. Yes, slavery is not physically sitting on the street corner between the old Episcopalian church and saloon as it was 200 years in the old Georgia town where I work. Only the church stands today (even after Sherman poured syrup in the pipe organ and accidently blew up half of it before beginning his seaward march). But freeing our society from sight lines does not void Webster’s active use of the word. Cleaning your room, I tell our children, is not stuffing your toys under your bed; it’s putting them up where they go. And slavery has gone underground; it has not gone away. Humans are trafficked in a frequency that looks as busy as a bird’s eye map of airplane activity.

Stop the Traffik hopes to end human trafficking in the spirit of British politician Wilberforce who singlehandedly abolished the slave trade 80 years before the United States ever took action. His story gives legs to the possibility that the world can change and that faith must see beyond now and into the land of then, where woman and child are not tools, too weak to tear the mask off their oppressor and say “You lie and you will be punished.” Simon Chorley and the Stop the Traffik movement likes to pull off masks. Little by little the depth of these slave trenches is being uncovered. I recently talked with Simon.

MHP: Explain, for those who are unaware, how Stop the Traffik began and who is behind it. (Is there a story that really hallmarks the beginning point?)

Simon Chorley: Three years ago a worker for the Oasis charity called Phil came across some street children in Mumbai, India. He befriended them over several weeks until they went missing. On asking their parents where they were, he discovered that they had been sold into slavery to pay for their father's alcohol addiction. Phil then talked with Oasis founder Steve Chalke, who gathered a network of influential individuals and organizations to launch the Stop the Traffik coalition campaign in Brussels in March 2006.

MHP: What happened last year during the 200th anniversary of the Slave Act? What were the notable victories and challenges?

SC: 25th March 2007 marked the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Around that time, Stop the Traffik coalition member organizations and individual supporters ran hundreds of awareness raising events around the world to tell others about the modern-day slave trade. These raised public awareness, pressure on authorities, and resources for frontline projects working with victims of human trafficking. The media were slow to catch onto the continuation of the slave trade however, preferring to focus on events in the past.

MHP: Where is the hope that "when people act, things change"? Aren't the last 200 years testimony that they just move underground or find a new population group to ravage?

SC: Huge achievements were made 200 years ago in turning what was the acceptable status quo of the slave trade into a criminal act. It drew from all sections of society and brought them together in a common cause. Yet they only succeeded in criminalizing the slave trade, not abolishing it. The modern-day slave trade that is human trafficking is indeed more underground, and has moved to new population groups, such that men, women, and children from every country are now both vulnerable and implicit in this trade in human beings. This demonstrates how human trafficking can be tackled though. By mobilizing men, women, and children from every country, both the supply of and the demand for services provided by human trafficking can be reduced.

MHP: How has the global economy exacerbated the slave trade?

SC: So-called 'globalization' has presented new challenges to combating human trafficking. Human beings are now treated as commodities, their value being bartered over. The mafia are turning from trafficking drugs to trafficking people, as people can be re-used, and are thus more profitable. Increasing movement across borders and the increasing sophistication of criminal networks has also increased the illicit trade in people. Yet just as the globalized economy has exacerbated the slave trade, so it can also be harnessed to combat it, utilizing social networks and technology to spread awareness and information quickly, and enabling enforcement agencies to cooperate across the globe to apprehend traffickers.

MHP: Chocolate is highlighted on the website. Is this one of the major industries? I thought the sex industry was huge... that what we hear in the states most often.

SC: There are few reliable statistics regarding human trafficking, due to its subversive nature. The best figures estimate that around 80% of trafficking victims are female and around 80% experience sexual abuse. Thus trafficking for sexual exploitation is the main concern of most agencies, and Stop the Traffik are conducting a global inquiry into tackling sex trafficking, before launching a grassroots campaign on the issue. Yet trafficking into other forms of exploitation has received far less attention, and more research needs to be done in these areas. Regarding chocolate, with the UK public spending over a billion pounds on chocolate in the Christmas period alone, this issues connects with everyone - men, women, and children. Nearly half of the world's chocolate comes from Cote d'Ivoire in West Africa, and various UN agencies have reported on the trafficking of children into the cocoa industry in that country. Chocolate companies cannot guarantee that their products have not been made using trafficked children, which is unacceptable. This is an issue that everyone can do something about, not just politicians or police forces. We can all change what we buy and tell the suppliers why, we can all tell others about this, and we can all affect consumer patterns wherever we are.

MHP: What is the difference between slave labor and the trafficking of people? Shouldn't your numbers be added with the huge problem of slave labor that is disguised by brand labels?

SC: Slave labour involves the commercial exploitation of human beings against their will. Human trafficking means the movement of people by deception or coercion for exploitation, either commercial, sexual, or otherwise. There are many high-profile organizations and campaigns against slave labour, but few on the specific element of trafficking. By focusing specifically on this issue, we can present real actions that can bring real change. Although slave laborers are often trafficked, there are many who are not, and Stop the Traffik are therefore dedicating their limited resources to this specific aspect of slavery.

MHP: On the website the way to get involved seem easy and don't really effect my person too much. Is it designed that way? You have several examples of creative initiation of involvement. What are a few that stand out?

SC: Everyone will involve themselves at different levels. Some will sign the petition and do no more. Some will go a step further and sign up their organization, or do some fundraising. Some will go further and speak at local events, or represent Stop the Traffik in their region. Others will commit wholeheartedly, and look for careers in anti-trafficking projects. We aim to equip everyone to act at every level of engagement. The most creative initiatives continue to be around the Chocolate Campaign. See our website for examples.

MHP: Is there any religious or spiritual motivation behind Stop the Traffik the way, say Bono is perceived with his fight for Africa?

SC:
I don't know about Bono, but a lot of Stop the Traffik's supporters are spiritually-motivated. About a third of our member organizations are faith-based, but that leaves two-thirds that aren't, from corporates to societies to individuals. In the same way, about a third of supporters for the “Make Poverty History” campaign were also faith-based. It seems that religious communities as a proportion of the societies they are in are more active on issues of social justice, and that their faith is the main motivation for their action. Stop the Traffik works with people from all faiths and none who are active in the fight against the modern-day slave trade.

MHP: Where do you see the project in 2 years... 8 years?

SC: Stop the Traffik in two years will hopefully have successfully implemented a Global Fund to resource anti-trafficking projects in South Asia, and in 8 years will have replicated this in West Africa and Eastern Europe. The chocolate industry will be presenting consumers with Traffik Free products - there is positive movement in this direction already - and public awareness and community involvement across the globe will be substantially higher.

For more information, sign on as a participant, and watch for new developments visit www.stopthetraffik.org. Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

the messiah formerly known as jesus

An MHP Interview with Tom Breen
“Today’s Christianity is first and foremost dynamic,” writes Tom Breen in the new book The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus. “It is not merely something people are guilted into doing on Sundays by their nagging, churchy spouses.” No, Christianity has put a the mask of cool on top its ancient head (often with a goatee and ear mic as additional props) with the success of multi-million dollar businesses and megaplex churches.

So how does a 2000-year-old religion keep up with the contemporary world? Tom Breen suggests a few things in a Stephen Colbert-ish vein.

First, segmentation. The Reformation gave birth to the denominational mall that is today the consumer friendly church like the Emerging Church - “white people in their twenties and thirties who have at least one tattoo or body piercing.”

Second, scripture. Breen rightly identifies that the need is not only for translation into new languages but new dialects. "You see, the Bible is not a fixed document menacing us with its canonicity," he says, "rather, it’s a fluid work waiting to be shaped by each age as it sees fit. The Bible can be repackaged, retranslated, and even redacted, and still remain the Bible." If you’re lost on the word “canonicity,” Breen defines it a few pages earlier as a “popularity contest,” naming three criteria: “(1) Was this written by a big shot famous apostle? (2) Is this the kind of thing the Gnostics will be able to twist easily to support their nonsense? (3) Would this make a good film? Potentially starring Harrison Ford as Paul?”

Third, Christian music and business. “Why is that only Christianity has spawned an industry raking in millions of dollars by basing faith-centric lyrics on the conventions of popular songs? Where are the Jewish rappers? The Muslim heavy metal bands? How many Zoroastrian bands are there?” (The footnote says one: Queen.)

Fourth, Jesus building. This circles us back to the first. Breen offers a “Field Guide to the Major North American Jesuses.” He charts out several famous ones including “Extreme Jesus”, “Christ Among the NPR Listeners”, “President Jesus”, “Jesus H. Buddha”, “Big Bank Jesus”, and “Pop Historic Jesus.”

I talked with Tom Breen on the day his book released on Baylor Press (Yes, that’s a seemingly odd match, a university press, especially given Breen’s warning to stuffy professor types.)

MHP: Explain the title The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus.

Tom Breen: That was actually the suggestion of the publisher. It does reflect the overall thrust of Jesus and Christianity inside pop culture where the real meaning often times gets lost. It’s not straight-faced.

MHP: So, what is it that you do and what motivated you to write a book like this?

TB: I’m a reporter for the Associated Press. I write about healthcare. But, when I was in Connecticut (I’m now in West Virginia) working for a newspaper, I had a blog called The Medicine Box which had a similar tone to the book. When The Christian Century reprinted one of the entries, I received a call from Baylor Press. They asked me if I ever thought about writing a book. I hadn’t.

MHP: So, I guess you hadn’t thought of selling your book with a “Build-your-Own-Jesus” kit in line with the Build-A-Bear craze?

TB: No, I hadn’t but that’s an idea. You should copyright that.

MHP: Thanks for the suggestion. Now to your methods. You advocate skimming the results of Google searches and filling in the blanks with speculation. Is that the norm today? You later state as a credo, “Facts Can’t Stand in the Way When Truth Doesn’t Matter.” Can you elaborate?

TB: Nothing matters more than the easiest possible research. It makes you an instant expert and as long as you are not seduced by cranks, it’s pretty easy. My credo is from Reagan who said “Facts are stupid things.” The big picture is impressing people with assumed knowledge, right? It really doesn’t mean getting it right; an arguably correct fact will work.

MHP: In your discussion of the Bible as best seller, you present ways to cut down what is unneeded and use Leviticus as an example. You summarize, “God gives Mo’ the 411 on snacking.” Are there other books you've researched?

TB: Yes. Let’s take Exodus. You can narrow it down to a single admonition: “Bring a map.”

MHP: How about a New Testament example?

TB: James: “Be nice to panhandlers.”

[Breen also gives the example of John 3:5-7 in text message shorthand language -

JCMSIAH316: POS what r u doing LOL!
DISIPL23: IMHO :>) WTMIRL???
JCMSIAH316: :-) ROFL

We encourage you to add your text message shorthand examples in a reply to this article.]

MHP: Good. Now, talk about the making of translations and “The Word of God for the Parents of Today’s Cool Christian Teens.”

TB:
To make a translation yourself, there are several things to consider. The most important in translating the Word of God comes from Athanasius who said, “Identify a market segment.” Remember that in today’s market micro is better than macro. Think about Martin Luther. His target was way too broad. All Germany? No, maybe just concentrate on professional women. That idea of segmentation is key. Like the text message Bible version. That has a market.

The second is to pick your title. It can’t be “Bible.” That’s used up and will put people to sleep. Maybe something like “A User’s Guide to Bars in New Orleans.” Think also about your market. Do rap songs work?

The third is celebrity endorsement. If Bono approves, it’s bono-fied. [The Message, for example.]

The last point is about text. It’s an afterthought. It doesn’t matter as long as the consumer buys it. That means the word has been passed along. Job complete.

I don’t know if producing these Bible products creates a need or not. Are people unwilling or so impatient to read that the Bible has to be couched in bite-sized verbiage to be successful? It goes back to times when people didn’t read the Bible.

MHP: The Emerging Church… you tackle this in a paragraph. Can you explain why they like candles so much?

TB: I actually wish I dealt with the Emerging Church in more detail. The ideal emergent liturgy appears to be a mix-match of new and old. There is a nostalgia and a longing for those things Catholic and Orthodox but they seem unwilling to take steps into those churches. Young people do like retro things for the timelessness. Again, it’s American; it’s make your own religion.

MHP: How about the sections about The Angry Part of God and the Happy Part of God, the two sections of the Bible that you repackage in those terms.

TB: Well, the Happy Part of God is most popular. Titling it that way fits into the prevailing mood of the culture which wants a fuzzy, glib message where Happy God becomes Hugh Beaumont from Leave it to Beaver, always understanding. Because, you know, there is a high percentage of people who believe in Hell, but there is a low percentage of those who think they’ll be going to such a place.

For me, in all seriousness, faith is wrapped up in history, in the Church councils, in definite answers. Christianity is not dependent on culture. It is not available to accommodate yourself in it. There are right answers.

MHP: You site a few examples of where this love affair of Christianity and popular culture has come from at the beginning of the book and where it might go in the age to come. Is it your belief that this has been and will always be the Christian thorny side - appeal versus manipulation, honesty versus skirting it for the sake of rock and roll, etc.

TB: Yes. I think there will always be the danger that the presentation of Christianity will obscure or distort the content of Christianity if people aren't vigilant in making sure that doesn't happen. Christianity has the challenge of being intended for as large an audience as possible, but at the same time being complex and sophisticated. Even something as seemingly elementary as translating the Bible is fraught with risk; the goal is to produce a version that will engage whatever culture it's aimed at, but at the same time you don't want to find yourself turning the psalms into gangsta rap anthems (or maybe you do, depending on your chosen niche market; I'm just saying that's a difficult task). That tension, though, can be creative and ultimately helpful; I don't think it's something Christians should seek to avoid.

MHP: How does one develop Christian taste?

TB: Wow, what an excellent question. My starting point is a thinker who was certainly not Christian: the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. He once wrote that an aesthetic work can only be politically correct if it's first aesthetically correct. The same holds true of Christian culture: if a work of art - a song, a movie, a novel, whatever - doesn't satisfy as art, then it won't satisfy as Christian witness either. There's a lot more evangelism in Bach or Mahalia Jackson or "The Power & the Glory" than in a thousand well-meaning sermons and tracts. Once you accept that _ the notion that the terms of art and Christianity aren't mutually exclusive _ you're already developing Christian taste.

MHP: You have charts detailing different Jesuses. I didn't see BeJesus or GayJesus or even SheJesus. Any reason? Also, can I have my own Jesus or does it have to identify with a group?

TB: The field guide was a way of gently satirizing some of the more popular variations on Jesus that have sprung up in American culture, with the goal of having readers get the sense of "I recognize that!" in at least some of the instances. I'm not familiar with a widespread popularization of the Jesuses you mention, but the charts in the book certainly weren't intended to be definitive. I suppose you could probably fill an entire book with different American interpretations of Jesus (possible title: Kung-Fu Jesus and a Nation of Messiahs). As for the second part of the question, I think one powerful tendency in American Christianity is certainly to create a custom-made, individual Jesus for every believer. That's certainly one possible outcome of the theology that demands a personal relationship with the Savior.

MHP: So, I listen to Christian radio, go to a Christian university, hang out with Christian friends, and critique movies and TV in relation to my Christian conviction. What do you say to me?

TB: Godspeed and best wishes. Seriously, I don't have a problem with any of that. My only caution would be that it's probably unwise to mistake that stuff for Christianity itself. Christianity existed long before Christian radio, Christian universities and Christian TV shows. While there's always been Christian art, there's also always been a recognition that Christianity is more than passive consumption of culture, that it actually requires believers to believe and do specific things. To the extent you can do that and hang out with Christian friends at Christian concerts, more power to you. But if you can name 10 Christian heavy metal bands without blinking but are a little shaky about what this whole "Trinity" thing is, maybe it's time to hit the Christian books and attend some Christian church services.


Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

the blessings of africa

An MHP Interview with Keith Burton
These days, Africa is known more for its catastrophes and charities than as a center of early Christianity and a place of legendary kingdoms. Africa has been raped by foreign invasion, beaten by internal wars, and pillaged for its people, its stones, and its land. Desperate eyes wide with want and inflamed by disease have recently nudged the rock and entertainment worlds to answer the whys and hows with what ifs. And that is a gospel response to any suffering. as the temporal hangs on the shreds of the eternal peace to come. Yet, the story of Africa cannot be dismissed or stored away because of contemporary circumstances. It is a history tightly woven into the whole of civilization, from the dawn of cities and technologies to the high noon of religion. And, it is a history, if known in more ready fashion, that seeks to erode any scraps of indifference and bigotry that we might harbor. For, remember that it was a continent wider than the arms of its present footprint and holding testimony not only to Christianity’s growth but also the onset of Muhammad.

In Keith Burton’s new book The Blessings of Africa: The Bible and African Christianity (IVP) we get the meat and potatoes of Africa’s history. I recently asked Dr. Burton a few questions.

MHP: Explain the title, if you would- The Blessing of Africa, the title of the book.

Keith Burton: The Blessing of Africa is really a response to the popular myth about the “Curse of Ham.” Briefly stated, the myth proposes that Black people are perpetually cursed because of Ham’s disrespectful behavior towards his father, Noah, in Genesis 9.

The myth of a cursed Hamitic “race” has its inception in rabbinic literature which uses the biblical passage to explain the racial characteristics of African people. Centuries later, this same passage was used to justify the Euro-American enslavement of Africans. In fact, it is in the context of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that African people were most dehumanized, as their captors justified their actions in the name of Christianity.

Unfortunately, the notion of a “curse” against African peoples has had wide ranging repercussions that affects the way in which people view the place of the African in salvation history. “The Blessing of Africa” is intended to debunk the myth by providing biblical and historical evidence that details the role of the lands and people associated with “Ham” in the writing and preservation of the Bible.

MHP: One of your objectives is to reorder Africa from the origin of the name - a newly formed Roman province - through the expansive use of the term later in the Middle Ages. You also predate the Roman reference and talk about the Land of Ham. If you would, address the significance of these movements.

KB: As I explain in the book, I use the term Africa “rhetorically.” Historically, we know that geographical boundaries are continually shifting. For instance, the land associated with the United States of America today is drastically different than it was 200 years ago, and if the separatists in Canada have their way, that nation would be much smaller in coming decades.

In order to maintain geographical consistency throughout the study, I reconstruct the “land of Ham” which I equate to biblical “Africa.” Again, this is not to say that the ancients referred to this territory with these terms, but it provides a framework in which I develop my thesis. The parameters for the land of Ham are derived from the “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10, which appears to be a literary map reflecting the author’s recollection of the “world” in his day.

In providing a new option for the understanding of “Africa,” I also hope to start a discussion on the power of language in shaping our view of reality. That is why I also make it clear that I am not using the term “Africa” as a synonym to “Black”–this book is not about Blacks and the Bible, but Africans (the descendants of Ham) and the Bible. It is for that very reason that in addition to addressing events in Ethiopia and Egypt, I discuss incidents pertaining to the Bible in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and other areas of the so called “Middle East.” When the concept of a “land of Ham” is taken seriously, Africa’s biblical history includes such historical events as the birth and growth of Islam, the Crusades and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

MHP: I had not heard before your book (probably my naivety) the theory of Islam as a heretical cult of Islam, thought their early respect for "people of the book" is well noted. Is this theory well established? It seems to be well grounded in your study, but I wondered how radical an idea that is, especially given today's global challenges.

KB: The centrality of Jesus in the Koran and the respect that Muhammad had for the “people of the book” are indisputable and have been discussed by Christian and Muslim scholars alike. However, I have not come across anyone who has come out as strongly as I have with my assertion that Islam began as a Christian “heresy.”

We tend to forget that when Muhammad shared his understanding of biblical revelation, not all Christians adhered to the views of the “orthodox” majority. A significant number of Christians rejected the Trinitarian view of God along with the teaching that Jesus possessed two natures. Further, centuries before Muhammad, there were Christians who were appalled by the view that God was instrumental in giving birth to a son, and taught that Jesus only became the “Son” of God through adoption at his baptism.

The Koranic teaching about Jesus was by no means in the mainstream of medieval Christianity, but had its inception in Christian literature. The myths of Jesus’ miraculous feats in his childhood were first shared in a document known as “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” And the teaching that Jesus did not really die on the cross has its inception in Docetism. Further, the phenomenon of the Spirit giving unique messages through prophets already had precedent in North African Donatism.

It appears to me that Muhammad was engaged in an effort to reform Christianity with a simple message of submission to God–a message that avoided the complicated creeds of orthodox Christianity. This uncomplicated message was apparently successful as hundreds and thousands of Christians quickly deserted Chalcedonian Orthodoxy and Coptic Monophytism and embraced Muhammad’s version of biblical faith.

MHP: From Eden to the early church (Alexandria, especially), Africa has played a significant geographic point and a significant theological hotbed. Why then is it forgotten? I guess, can you name the historic meta-narrative episodes that eroded the awareness and respect for such an active piece of the global drama?

KB: It is true that until recent years “Africa” was far from most people’s minds in discussions about the biblical world and Christianity. I see this as the result of the movement of the “center” of Christianity from the lands associated with Ham’s descendants to western Europe.

On one level, the decline of Africa’s “Christian” image is directly related to the rise of Islam. It is true that in the earliest centuries of Christianity it was the land of Ham that provided the majority of the Christian intellectuals (Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa). Where would Christian theology be without Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, Arius, and Athanasius – to name a few? However, with the birth and independence of Islam, the religious nature of the region was transformed and Christianity became more associated with the countries of Europe.

Although a significant percentage of the inhabitants in Muslim lands maintained Christianity, the fact that they lacked political power minimized their impact on the global Christian scene. It soon became “typical” to think of the lands of biblical Africa as “Muslim” juxtaposed to the Christians of Europe. So embedded was the divide that when the Crusades against Islam were executed, the Crusaders made little distinction between Muslims, Jews or Christians when attacking the residents of Palestine and Egypt.

With the popular reception of Christianity in Europe, it did not take long for those responsible for transmitting the faith to immerse it in European culture. This is most evident in mediaeval art in which all the characters of the Bible are portrayed as Europeans. In later centuries, Europe’s cultural influence would also dominate the hymns of the church. This transformed Christianity was marketed to the world via Europe’s imperial quest to colonize the other continents. Since the expansion of the empire was justified in the name of Christian missions, it was only natural for the populations of the newly annexed colonies to assume that Christianity was native to Europe. Even Africans were led to believe that their enslavers were also their saviors as those who chose to embrace Europe’s faith were forced to relinquish their “pagan” names and embrace “Christian” names.

In sum, Africa’s role in the biblical story and development of Christianity has been obscured by the success of Islam coupled with a racist tradition that has been driven by the notion of European supremacy.

MHP: [An aside, perhaps... there seems to be an assumption that the biblical account is accurate when it comes to the players in and around wider Africa. Have you questioned how reliable the Old Testament is in casting, specifically when it comes to people groups and judgments upon them? I ask because it appears that God desired more inclusion and not less but it's often interpreted as us and them.]

KB: I believe the biblical narrative is clear in its portrayal of a God who showed partiality to a specific group of people–namely those who descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. However, when we look at the purpose of God’s selection of a people, it is also evident that even in His selection of a particular group, God had the entire world in mind. In his original revelation to Abraham, he reminded him that through his descendants “all nations” will be blessed. In this sense, God’s “partiality” was not for the purpose of excluding others, but was a paradoxical expression of his impartiality.

Interestingly, even the “chosen” people were integrated with those who did not share the same lineage. At least three of Israel’s tribes were semi-Hamitic (Ephraim, Manasseh, and Judah), and the biblical narrative includes a number of biblical Africans who were a significant part of Israel (e.g. Rahab, Uriah, Hiram, Ebed-Melech).

I have no reason to question the reliability of the Old Testament script. Geo-political realities would mandate violent conflict between a nation of invading settlers and firmly established tribes. Further, archaeology confirms that those at enmity with God’s chosen were steeped in idolatry and other practices that went against God’s revealed will. Of course, for me to even make such a statement is to assume that there was a time when apostate nations were aware of God’s will. It seems to me that the eventual fate of Israel brought on by it’s own apostasy evidences a God who treats all people equally–whether in redemption or judgement.

MHP: I have read and heard much about the re-Christianization of Africa, mainly from within. I am, in fact a graduate of Trinity Divinity School where Tite Tienou is dean, which is monumental in the west, but at seminary we learned that the movement is away from the West and toward Africa... not only in sheer population of Christians, but also the scholars and pastors that are and will contribute to the wider movement. Why now? Why Africa? What do you see "Western" Christians (specifically Americans) doing with this growing phenomenon, other than the occasional Christianity Today article - especially due to the problems of unity period?

KB: The Psalmist prophesies the day when “Envoys will come out of Egypt” and “Ethiopia will quickly extend her hands to God.” (Ps 68:31) I believe that day has come. The foundation of the road to the prophecy’s fulfillment was built with the jagged rocks of European missions which–for the most part–sought to pacify the natives. However, the very Bible that was abused as an instrument of oppression became the vehicle of liberation for millions of Africans who realized that all humans are equal in God’s sight.

In the Bible, colonial Africans found a Christ who could identify with their pain–a liberator who knew how it felt to live under imperial oppression. They were also fascinated by the emancipating God who delivered Israel from slavery and entered into a covenant with his people. Further, they had no problem relating to the stories of the gospels on the societal level, as they experienced the power of exorcism and faith healing, and engaged in other types of spiritual warfare.

While most “Western” Christians have not given much thought to the changing face of Christianity, some “Anglo” church historians have contributed major studies that will hopefully enlighten the masses. These include Philip Jenkins and Andrew Walls who have recognized the resurgence of Christianity in Africa and Asia and speak about its hemispheric movement from the “north” to the “south.” The forthcoming publication by Thomas Oden will also embolden others to tackle a subject that for to long has been taboo.

Having noted the general indifference towards the transformation of twenty-first century Christianity, there are some Christians who have had to come to terms with the reality as a result of church politics. I speak specifically of the current rift in the Anglican communion where some American parishes disturbed by the liberal trends in this country have chosen to come under the jurisdiction of African dioceses. The Catholic Church also has highly placed African Cardinals who could very easily be voted as the next pope.

As we come to terms with this new reality, I think it is important for Western Christians to accept the fact that the various expressions of African Christianity may not resemble “those” that predominate Euro-America. It is also essential for Western theologians to realize that useful theology can be conducted without reference to Barth, Tillich. Niebuhr, Bruce, and other revered “giants” who have shaped modern Euro-American theology.

MHP: Ethiopia. Are there ways that its historical keeping of Christian principles are the guideposts for African Christianity today?

KB: Ethiopia has a proud Christian legacy. Arguably one of the first nations to embrace Christianity as the official state religion, Ethiopia has maintained a strong Christian presence in the face of Islam, paganism and communism. Although organizationally tied to the hip of the Egyptian Coptic Church (until recently), the Ethiopian Church managed to maintain its unique brand of Christianity that strongly resembled its Jewish parent. As recently as the reign of the late Emperor Haile Selassie, the Church still promoted seventh-day Sabbath keeping, circumcision, kosher dietary restrictions, and held on to a liturgy that could very well have been borrowed from the worship of ancient Israel.

A number of the Independent African Christian Churches identify themselves as “Ethiopian” or “Zionist” and practice a more “Jewish” form of Christianity. Among them are Isaiah Shembe’s Nazareth Baptist Church and the Zion Christian Church, to which are aligned millions of members.

I must hasten to add that while Ethiopian Christianity has held on to ancient traditions, I would not recommend it as a “model” for African Christianity. Just like its siblings in the West, the Tewahedo Church has been hijacked by bigoted bishops, political priests and career clergy who have forgotten the essence of the Christian gospel. As I mention in the book, this is most evident in the recent rift between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which not only resulted in the development of two independent states, but saw the church fragmenting into two autonomous denominations. Imagine the message that could have been sent if the Church were more committed to the united Kingdom of God than to earthly government structures?

While I believe that Ethiopia’s historic commitment to biblical truth should be emulated, it is more important that African Christians imbibe the essence of the gospel imperative–empowering love. Bishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela showed us how this looks with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa, and if African Christianity is going to positively impact the global Christian community, the principle of love must permeate every cell of its growing body.

MHP: Your book has prompted me to wonder what Jesus expected out of his early adherents and whether he imagined his movement reaching the pinnacle of political acceptance that Constantine modeled and was subsequently followed throughout Europe. Isn't the contention with categorizing people and churning war and trade an arm of government? And when Christianity saddles up with government in an official capacity, the "other" people quickly get subjugated under a bigger hand than simply tyranny (or beaten-in democracy, as America is attempting to do in the Middle East). Do you have any thoughts along these lines... ?

KB: As I mentioned earlier, for Christianity to be effective, it cannot be beholden to earthly governments. Constantine’s understanding of the “City of God” (which in many ways parallels the notion of dar al-Islam) politicizes Christianity in a way that robs it of its liberating power. The Christianity of the gospels was apolitical, in the sense that while it acknowledged the authority of earthly governments, it anticipated that all would eventually be superceded by the Kingdom of/from Heaven. Consequently, all who called themselves Christians would understand that their decision refocused their primary patriotic allegiance to an empire that had not yet been established.

Unfortunately, the gospel vision has been obscured by an unhealthy merging of state and church that has resulted in untold atrocities being conducted “in the name of the Lord.” Remember, it was the Catholic Church that sanctioned imperial colonization and slavery under the guise of converting pagans. Further, although no New Testament writer has any interest in the restoration of the land of Israel, it was so called “Christian” nations that partnered together in the “Crusades” against Islam.

Most recently, many evangelical Christians have rallied behind the President’s effort to forcefully convert a section of the globe to a way of living that he defines as “God’s gift to humanity.” While I am in full agreement that God wishes all people to experience freedom and enjoy life more abundantly, I fail to see how current carnal methods have garnered the endorsement of influential “Christian” leaders. As I imply towards the end of the book, God does not desire Christians to win people to his kingdom by violent force, but by compassionate example.

A friend of mine just returned from preaching a sermon series in Rwanda where his translator was a pastor who had lost all of his family in the recent genocide. Those responsible for the death of his family members were fellow pastors from the same denomination–men he had studied, lived and fellowshipped with. Although it is widely known that some of these pastors were involved in the genocide, most of them are still overseeing congregations and maintain good and regular standing in their church. As fate would have it, the pastor who served as translator now has to attend meetings with some of the same colleagues who have caused him so much pain. My friend asked him how he could do it, and he responded with a testimony of God’s grace and forgiveness.

When I think of this living martyr, I wish that all Christians could understand the true cost of discipleship. I wish that all Christians could really learn what it means to trust in God. I wish that all Christians would find the strength to love the “other” with so much conviction that their object of disdain is transformed into a sister or a brother. I wish that all Christians would truly submit to the God who loved the “world” so much that he gave his only Son....


Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

blade runner revisited

An MHP Interview with Doug Cummings
To commemorate the release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, The Matthew House Project’s Kenneth R. Morefield sat down with film writer and critic Doug Cummings. Cummings runs the popular film site, Filmjourney.org, and is a curator at Masters of Cinema (www.mastersofcinema.org).

KM: Blade Runner has been available on VHS and DVD for most of its twenty-five year history, so why is its theatrical re-release now a big deal? Or is it a big deal?

DC: I think it’s a pretty big deal. Warner Brothers is making it a big deal. They are wheeling out a five disc DVD set next month that has every version of the film ever made and a three-hour documentary and something like an hour and a half of alternate takes and deleted scenes. […] Vangelis has a three-disc CD [of the music] coming out, so they’re really getting behind it, and the new print is playing all over the world right now.

I think we’re realizing right now, the film had an enormous impact on popular cultural aesthetics, on cyber-punk literature as well as film. You can see a direct line between Blade Runner and Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and The Matrix, for example. It had a huge influence on the sort of backlit, high-contrast lighting of the 80s. Ridley Scott actually directed the first commercial for Macintosh in 1984 [….]

So the film has just had a really big impact on culture even though it wasn’t that big of a critical or commercial success when it was first released. Over the years now, it’s become one of those rare films that spans cult, fan-genre—all the way up to academic film criticism.

KM: Just about every film now, it seems, has a director’s cut on DVD as a means of milking a little more money out of a product we’ve already seen, but this feels a little different.

DC: The Blade Runner DVD that’s out now—the so-called 1992 “Director’s Cut” --was one of the first DVDs ever released, so it’s a very poor quality disc by today’s standards. (Although Warner released a cleaned up version about a year ago in anticipation of the new Final Cut.) Practically speaking, it’s one of those DVDs that needs to be upgraded.

KM: When Star Wars came out as a re-release there was almost a backlash because some people seemed to be saying, ‘Don’t tinker with my sacred cow or my childhood memory.’ I haven’t heard that same backlash from the people who are revisiting Blade Runner. […] What, if anything would you attribute that difference to?

DC: I think the main thing is that the “special editions” that George Lucas made for the Star Wars series really changed the aesthetic character of those films in a pretty major way. Lucas was adding all sorts of effects and all kinds of scenes, whereas the stuff that’s been added to Blade Runner: The Final Cut is not that different at all. There are a lot of small changes to the film, but they’re mostly in the areas of dialogue or visual detail. Just little continuity problems that needed ironing—wire removal and things like that. They actually went out of their way not to change the look of the film in any way. […]

Blade Runner had a very difficult production, and near the end of it, they had gone over budget a little and Ridley Scott was actually fired from the film; some of the producers of the film basically took ownership of it. And there was a sort of panic due to poor test screenings, and they made some rushed decisions at the last minute and tried to reconfigure the film. So the initial theatrical release has always had a few continuity errors, and the Final Cut is just one last final polish to a film that never really had one. […]

KM: Perhaps some of the backlash against re-releases comes from the fact that it shatters some of the illusion. We as an audience may be aware, peripherally, that an actor may not have been a first choice or that a production ran out of money, but we like to maintain the illusion that the film we got was the exact vision the artist intended.

DC: I think, too, that film-going is such a communal activity. When filmmakers go back and begin to reedit their films, somehow it threatens that idea that I’ve seen the same film that you’ve seen and we can share that experience and talk about it, that it can be a reference point for our relationship. With Blade Runner, the differences are very minor, but just knowing there are five different versions of the film might cause people to suspect the authenticity of any cut. […]

KM: What was your experience in re-screening the film? Was it as you remembered it, or were there particular aspects—even if they weren’t the changes—that you experienced differently because you were different?

DC: […] The one thing I really noticed was what a historical last gasp Blade Runner was for pre-digital cinema. Pretty much everything in the film is either live action or props or models, and it just sort of resounds with an overwhelming physicality that’s missing from so many contemporary films that depend so heavily on digital effects. I don’t know…you watch today’s films…a lot of them have this sort of ethereal, weightless, artificiality to them, because everything is so digital […] I think the audience senses that. With Blade Runner you know what you’re looking at—even if it’s a model—is physical, it’s material, it’s real and actually exists in this world. Even if it’s just a subconscious thing, I think it somehow lends a lot of credibility to what you’re looking at…

KM: …Unlike a film such as, say, Transformers, where, on some levels, we think almost none of it is physical. It may be seamless, but we know very little of it is—I like the word that you used—weighty. It has a physical presence in there and it’s not just looking and feeling like Toy Story. It just feels two dimensional.

DC: Right.

KM: You quoted Harlan Ellison at Filmjourney in saying that he found the film deeper in human values than he had supposed and more than a glitzy melodrama. I’m assuming you quoted that in agreement?

DC: Yeah.

KM: What are some of the human values that you see in the film?

DC: I think it’s a pretty profoundly human valued film, but it’s set in a very dark dystopia. (Even though it looks a lot like today’s cities!) The central questions the movie asks is what it means to be human and whether or not our humanity can survive the commercial, social, and authoritarian excesses of contemporary times.

It’s based on a book by Philip K. Dick who in the early 60s wrote one of his most esteemed novels called The Man in the High Castle, and that’s basically an alternative history book where he imagines what the world would be like if the Nazis had actually won World War II. Apparently while he was doing research for that book, he was reading journal entries from various Nazi guards at concentration camps, and one of them was complaining in his journal that he wasn’t getting any sleep at nights because the Jewish children were crying and keeping him awake. Dick was pretty shocked by this. It made him begin to think that if we begin to lose our empathy for others, we lose a critical aspect of who we are as human beings. This was fermenting in his thinking and his imagination for a while, and in 1968 when he wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel that was made into Blade Runner, it was the height of the Vietnam War, so once again he was thinking about empathy and asking what separates humans from indifferent conquerors. The book and the film are really rooted in those questions. […]

I think what’s really interesting about the film is that it begins with this very, sort of science-fiction/action movie premise. It begins with a definition of killing, it’s not called ‘killing’ or ‘execution,’ it’s called ‘retirement.’ Already it’s sort of setting up this [expectation with this] sanitized word for killing and this action movie premise with Harrison Ford playing the ‘hero.’ But then I think the film systematically questions that premise and those genre clichés. Harrison Ford’s character, you see him drinking throughout the film, constantly, alone. And he’s really insensitive to everyone in the film, particularly women, which is interesting. The film kind of blurs the line between hero and villain, and I think its ultimate conclusions are that basically all of life is sacred…that genetically engineered people are just as worthy of compassion as natural born humans. And this undercuts audience expectations and the sorts of story elements it sets up at the beginning…which I think contributed to its lack of popularity at first. I think people were expecting a story that was more traditional […]

KM: One of the reasons there may have been some resistance, going back to your ideas of empathy…it seemed to me a lot of people got hung up on the literal question of whether or not Deckard is a replicant, the “Is he or isn’t he?” The literal answer to that question replaced the thematic question of “what does it mean to be human?” and I think it’s significant that the film leaves us—at least in the voice-over version of the film—with the question of Deckard questioning the question, of saying “well she doesn’t know how much time she has left, but neither do I…”

DC: Right, right.

KM: He’s questioning his terms and definitions about what it means to be human, so I think in some ways, to the extent people focus on that literal question they were expecting a literal answer rather than a film that made you go back and re-question the answer that you already thought you had.

DC: Or a film that just negates that question or dissolves that distinction […] At one point in the film the genetic designer, the head of this huge corporation, named Tyrell, says their motto is, ‘More human than human,’ which is kind of ironic, because by the end you realize that the replicants really are more human than the hero, at least, who very rarely demonstrates empathy at all. Certainly—and this is probably spoiler territory—by the end when Ford’s nemesis catches him before he falls to his death, you realize that act of grace is definitely a more human thing to do than…

KM: …the ‘human’ thing of ‘retiring’ the replicants.

DC: Absolutely.

KM: In my memory, when I think back on Blade Runner, it’s always sort of been framed as this dystopian counterpart cited in contrast to the more idealistic or humanistic Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. Star Wars and Star Trek are the positive views of the future [even though Star Wars is set “a long time ago”], the positive science fiction, that takes the best parts of humanistic belief in man and projects it into the future and says that the world is going to get better, and that Blade Runner will be the dark, dystopian view—things are going to get worse and worse. I scanned the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes and the adjective I saw most often was “dark,” and yet in our thematic discussion of the film, I don’t think it’s a particularly hopeless or nihilistic view of human nature. Is there some reason you think people tended to read it more pessimistically? Is it because the film is literally dark?

DC: I’m not sure that Star Wars is humanist as much as it is triumphalist; I mean it ends with the hero blowing up millions of people on a space station! But with Blade Runner, society is a dystopian society. It’s overrun by advertising, it’s polluted, it’s constantly raining, there’s probably some atmospheric damage that’s been done…things are overcrowded. So, yeah, it’s a scary vision. But one of the reasons it’s so scary is that it’s so similar to things we see in our own cities. At the same time, I think the message beneath the film is very much one that suggests that inner transformations and deeper human values can transcend that, or at least provide some hope for the future. I think it’s a dark world, but I think the themes of the characters, of the drama that’s playing out, is much more hopeful.

KM: In Jurassic Park, the Jeff Goldblum character says, ‘Life will find a way’ as a way of talking about chaos theory. There’s actually a more hopeful aspect of that scene’s message in Blade Runner...[…] It’s used in Jurassic Park to describe man’s hubris in thinking he could ever control life, but there’s a humility about that chaos in Blade Runner, which is saying, just as we can never control it, we can never totally erase it.

DC: Exactly. As dark as this world is, there’s still these characters that are concerned with ethical behavior and ultimate concerns. For me, that’s pretty hopeful. And it’s important to note that the film is not preachy about its themes, particularly with the Director’s and Final Cuts shorn of their narration. It really plays more ambiguously and trusts the audience to sort through the implications themselves. I’m not sure the audience always took it up on that invitation…

KM: But I think all the best art, or the great art, really if it’s going to err, it’s going to err on the side of trusting the audience to recognize that ambiguity rather than leading it by the nose [….] I’ve always appreciated that about Blade Runner. Even with the voice-over, it seemed to be less preachy than say, a Star Wars or a Star Trek where someone said, ‘Here is your fortune cookie philosophy doled out for you in nice easy chunks, and here’s some nice special effects to make it go down easily.’

DC: I also think the violence in the film contributes to the knee-jerk reaction that Blade Runner is dark, but actually the violence is very morally inflected. It’s not idealized or reduced to a cartoon…I mean on one level we see that even though these replicants are genetically engineered, they’re just like normal people, they’re made of flesh and blood. So it’s pretty relevant to the film, actually. […]

KM: One of my academic areas of interest is the way genre expectations mediate responses to works of film or literature. Maybe one of the reasons people don’t expect Blade Runner to be humanistic is that they don’t expect science-fiction to be humanistic [….] Is science-fiction a legitimate genre to explore these humanistic themes?

DC: […] Part of the problem is that I don’t think cinematic science-fiction has caught up to literary science fiction in terms of its depths or its themes…yet. I think cinematic science-fiction still tends to emphasize spectacle and technology over human psychology or characters or emotions […]

KM: That creates a snowballing effect, too, because the most important artists want to make important films, so they’ll gravitate towards other projects because science-fiction might not have the same amount of prestige…

DC: Exactly.

KM: […]That’s interesting for thinking about Ridley Scott. You seemed to indicate at Filmjourney—and I kind of agree—that some of his best, probing, deepest and more important films actually came fairly early, and that as he’s gotten more successful […] that some of his projects don’t really stand up to Blade Runner or Alien in terms of their level of importance. Do you think of Blade Runner as being an auteurist film? As a Ridley Scott film?

DC: I think it’s certainly his key film, and there are auteurist angles to it that one can certainly point out. I think it’s interesting that a core of the film’s dystopian vision is advertising gone wild, because Ridley Scott had just spent well over a decade directing literally thousands of European commercials, and I think it’s really interesting in Blade Runner to see this sort of outpouring of advertising for Atari and Pan-Am, all this neon everywhere. You sort of feel like he’s purging something…it’s a film that suggests the overabundance of advertising by one of the world’s most successful advertisers. I think you can look at that from an auteurist angle, and maybe a couple others.

Another is its story of an antagonist and a protagonist that are kind of spiraling in on one another to this decisive confrontation that’s moral as much as it is physical, which kind of recalls his first film—which I’m pretty fond of—called The Duelists

KM: A wonderful film…

DC: Yeah. It’s based on a story by Joseph Conrad. Blade Runner has a similar ending in some ways; I think one can find some interesting connections there.

KM: It has a lot of the same probing qualities as well, expressed in the duality or the conflict in terms of ‘what does it mean to be human?’ and ‘what does it mean to have empathy, even to someone who’s your antagonist?”

DC: That’s right.

KM:..or the central theme of honor. ‘What does it mean to be honorable?’ All sort of questions we have easy sound bites for but that make us look beyond the sound bites to really examine, ‘Is that true?’ So I think that’s a wonderful comparison.

DC: I think all his—especially his early films—you know his 80s films…after Blade Runner he had a really difficult time getting critical and commercial successes, until—well I guess he did Thelma and Louise—but in terms of genre pictures he did Gladiator, which I’m not that big of a fan of…but all of them have an aspect to them that it’s clear that he’s thought through them on a certain level, and as much as he’s attributed as being this visual stylist and sort of a quote/unquote ‘slick’ filmmaker, I think his films, when you really look at them, usually have an interesting moral component.

KM: […] You mentioned that science fiction as a film medium hasn’t quite caught up with literary science-fiction. Are there other science-fiction or fantasy works that you esteem as highly as Blade Runner or that are more generally esteemed? I did a quick scan of Internet Movie Database of other Philip K. Dick adaptations and wasn’t sort of impressed by the resume: Total Recall, Imposter, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Next…so, is this just a case of one person being ahead of his time, or have there been other entries in the sci-fi genre that […] might be less familiar to viewers but might be equally valuable?

DC: Definitely. You could certainly begin with Metropolis, which a lot of people have seen and was obviously an influence on Blade Runner. The science fiction films I think you’re asking about, and a lot of the ones that really stand out to me are the ones that move beyond spectacle—spectacle’s great, there’s nothing wrong with a sense of awe…but you have to ask yourself if it’s deserved. Just because it’s awe inspiring doesn’t mean it’s deserving of our respect.

Metropolis is a parable about management and labor, the need for them to have a healthy relationship and mutual respect, which is an interesting, timeless theme. […] I think a couple of the early science fiction horror films really still stand out and hold up well. The Bride of Frankenstein and Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are both very much about science versus the soul so to speak, and whether or not they can keep up with each other and what our responsibilities are. Blade Runner owes a lot to Frankenstein in many ways.

A couple of French science fiction films: La Jetée by Chris Marker and Je t’aime, je t’aime by Alain Resnais. Both of those are profound meditations on time, memory and identity. My favorite end of the world movie is a film called The Day the Earth Caught Fire by Val Guest. On the one hand it’s a film about journalists, and nuclear issues, and our treatment of the environment. But it’s also a pretty penetrating character study that’s done very well.

I think the apex of science-fiction films about the human person would be Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker, both of which are pretty deep meditations on love and identity and spirituality. I think they set the standard for introspective science fiction…moving from outer space to inner space so to speak.

KM: […] [Anything since Blade Runner?]

DC: My two favorite science fiction films since Blade Runner have been Gattaca and Dark City. I think both of those films—which were arguably influenced by Blade Runner—have very distinctive looks as well, but certainly the visuals in both films are very tied in to their themes. They’re not just, ‘hey this looks cool’ but they are tied in to everything that’s happening…

KM: ..and are able to ask important questions. Not just ‘will he get the maguffin?’ but ‘why do I want him to?’ or ‘what do I want?’ Asking questions where I have a vested interest in the answer to that question as reader or viewer and not just questions about ‘how will it end?’ but ‘what is the meaning of how it ends?’

DC: Yes, exactly.

KM: Doug, thanks so much for talking to us about Blade Runner: The Final Cut.


Kenneth R. Morefield is an Assistant Professor of English at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.

not for sale

A MHP Interview with David Batstone
Ever wonder where the “pro bono” lurks in Bono’s messages about Africa? From Product Red – excuse me – (Product) red – that promotes indulging in and indulgences for the cause to the cost-nothing signatures harvested at overpriced concerts fueling the One celeb show, there is little demand to sacrifice because of personal ethics and activism. This bonofied approach that shows no discipline toward commercializing seems most concerned about how products can marry fashion with social concern. But why? Is it really instilling anything in an individual? Maybe just on… earphones roped in from schnazy red iPods or those cool again Converse shoes.

Too bad. We all wear our skinned-up justifications and now on a million hip hips Red has had its way and money has relieved a million guilts. But that’s not Bono’s point. He wants us to care the way he does… even more, the way Jesus would. But he’s been milking the US consumer market for years and he knows he can’t demand a pound of flesh without a tickle or a vertigo-styled rub. So combine it. Get Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks to seriously stare at us and all of a sudden we will listen.

Unfortunately, Bono has identified the truth about today’s populace: we like to wear the badge of “consumer” before anything else. And that has an effect on charity… on love of others. So why should we care about a new organization that carries the inauspicious title “Not For Sale Campaign”? Theirs is not Africa only, but the crime of modern-day slavery globally. Don’t worry fellow consumers, what is “not for sale” are the slaves that make our t-shirts and pick our vegetables; it’s not voiding out products altogether. However, there is a clear connection. Just go into one of our neighborhood GAP store and check out the labels. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anything American made. Yes, this does not automatically attribute the product to slave labor, but if the counts are right and more than 27 million people are enslaved, that makes our purchases with overseas tags more suspect.

Born from a refocus on the historic work of William Wilberforce (who helped pass the Save Act 200 years ago which abolished slavery in the British Empire), former Sojourners editor David Batstone is heading up this not-for-sale awareness. He explained the purpose of the campaign in a conversation I had with him a few weeks ago.

David Batstone: On the one-hand, Wilberforce had a global connection. There was a concentration of capital and power to address easily and boycott items like sugar. Today, it’s a global market and products come from all over the world. There’s more complicity. It makes you never able to feel self-righteous.

We must approach the subject with a sense of vocation and calling because modern-day slavery is an evil that’s diffuse. The task is daunting and forever overwhelming. However, there are some advantages in our current day. Wilberforce was dealing with a state-sanctioned institution and he had no one to turn to. Today, slavery is outlawed in every country.

MHP: So, who gets labeled as a slave? How is that label defined?

DB: The basic definition of slavery, modern day or historic, is forcing another individual to do something against their will without compensation. Many people lack justice. What does justice mean? In our Scriptures, justice is the fabric that allows us to live life. And where the poor lack an advocate their freedom is robbed.

The Not For Sale Campaign is focused on a worker’s compensation when null and forced labor is present. This is modern day slavery. We want to understand the mechanisms that drive this on each of the five continents and work against it. We want to highlight the heroes and bring out the patterns we’ve seen. First, modern day slavery starts with vulnerable people who lack protection. That usually means women and children. That usually means they are removed from their communities and cross borders. The outcome of sexual slavery is a blatant trafficking case. But more are forced into rug looms, brick making, and harvesting crops, from Guatemala to Florida.

MHP: How do we measure success – what’s the result?

DB: Where’s the Jack Welch in all this? We’re all influenced by Jack Welch, General Electric’s longtime CEO, as we ask how we measure the results – what’s the bottom line for success?

MHP: I guess.

DB: We need to return to Luther’s notion of mission and empower creativity for the best to result… no matter the skill set. If you are a journalist, you give that. You bring who you are to God’s table in an effort to effect relief. You can’t ask too much then.

With justice, it’s about building up the narrative. That’s why Batstone and the Not For Sale campaign website is working up to highlight a new person every day who is living out justice in their life, vocation, community, and all the repercussions that are possible when our intentions, prayers, and actions find more purpose than all the sprawl that feeds off the backs of slaves and into all those made up needs that dance like sugar plumbs in our heads.

Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.