Friday, September 20, 2013

six decades of sit-com

We've signed up for tata-sky here in India. A little cricket here, a movie over there - that kind of thing.

So far with Hollywood movies there seems to be some censoring with scenes cut out. But I do not know enough questionable movies well enough to be able to tell quite yet. Certainly every time a cigarette is smoked in a movie, a health warning about cancer travels across the screen. With swearing, the audio is beeped - but then with the subtitles on screen, some 'translation' takes place. Take, for example, the most offensive of all swearing - the phrase 'Jesus Christ'. The other night the subtitles simply said 'God'. Fancy (predominantly) Hindu India demonstrating such sensitivity to the name of Christ...?!

But it has got me thinking about censorship a bit more. Hollywood is inherently iconoclastic and taboo-busting and so censorship is troubling for them. With respect to these (sacred and/or silenced) taboos and icons, it is driven by a search and subvert mission. Hollywood cannot bear to have such things exist. It is interesting to watch this play out over time. Gradually, generationally, it messes with peoples' minds by introducing into them worldview-altering substances - like the popular situation comedies, for example.

One of the research topics to which I'd love to give doctoral level attention (but never will) is a study of the most popular situation comedies across the decades. Here they are:

The Andy Griffith Show (1960s)

MASH  (1970s)

Cheers (1980s)

Seinfeld (1990s)

Friends (2000s)

Big Bang Theory (2010s)

Each series would be the subject of careful exegesis. I'd study the settings in which the action takes place. I'd linger in the plot-lines, keeping a close eye on the sources of both conflict and humour. What makes people angry? What makes people laugh? I'd analyse each main character, their virtues and vices, the way they relate to others - but also the way each would answer the big questions of identity ('who am I?') and destiny ('why am I here?). The dialogue would be critical. What are the issues and topics that predominate? So - just a whole lot of basic painstaking take-it-as-I-hear-it-and-see-it empirical research.

Then I'd turn my attention to a couple of other areas. I'd want to get inside the head of the directors. What is shaping them? Identify their soapboxes. What is their agenda? To what is their life in reaction? It might be subtle, more between the lines than in the lines - but it'll be there and it will be influential. What is their 'point of view' and where does it align (or not) with thoughts expressed by characters?  Hollywood preaches - oh yes, it does, and my ear needs to be attuned to its sermons preached in these sit-coms. Once I've studied the director, I'd go to work on the sociological studies of each decade and place each series in its socio-historical context.

Then the fun begins. And not just because of the comedic lines that can ache the ribs... In a manner akin to the way a biblical theologian tracks a theme through the Bible (for example: temple, or rest, or shepherd) to bring a fullness and balance to the understanding of that theme - I'd do the same with topics which emerge in my empirical research. I'd gather together the 'truths' which repeat and which evolve through these series. I'd have an eye for the fullness and the balance in what is being preached. What would those truths be? As I lay awake this morning, three immediately came to mind - just for starters:

(a) the self

(b) sexuality

(c) community

Then the sadness begins. Attention would shift to those who belong to Jesus and who have lived through these shows. As they've laughed, they absorbed unwittingly. Many of them will have spent more time in these shows than in their Bibles and so it follows that their understanding of these topics is shaped more by these shows than by the Bible (or by the Jesus which it reveals). On these topics, they look at the Bible through the lens of these shows, rather than looking at these shows through the lens of the Bible. The lens has not switched yet. The worldview has not altered yet. The deeper conversion has yet to happen. Romans 12.1-2 is still theory, not practice.

And what research project after research project reveals will be revealed yet again. There is no discernible difference in the lives of Christians when compared with those who are not Christians - particularly when with these three topics are in view. This is not just the case with younger people (I hasten to add), but this is often the generation where the studies focus. We have mixed in so well that we have fallen in. There is no contrast, only conformity. We are into salty and gracey - but not so much lighty and truthy. Rather than being distinctive with distinction, too often we are the same with shame.

When will we learn that the attraction of difference can be far more compelling than the attraction of sameness? When will we recognise that the great enfeebler of a missioning and maturing people of God -  all over the world, irrespective of culture - is the subtlety of syncretism in our lives. And a whole lot of syncretism has been sucked up by a whole lot of people through these shows over the years.

[NB (1): the other sadness is that for so many around the world, shows like these define what life is like in America - and what life is like in America is what the Christian life is like, by definition. No wonder there is a terrorism problem. Guardians of some lives want this life to come nowhere near the lives they guard!].

[NB (2): if you want to read a disturbing book that does something similar, but by starting with the sermons (!!) on the Prodigal Son from 80 supposedly unimpeachable and unsullied evangelicals, see if you can track down the little popularisation of Marsha Witten's PhD thesis entitled, All is Forgiven (Princeton University Press, 1995)].

nice chatting


Sunday, September 08, 2013

a rising tide

Over my first two early jet-lagged mornings in our new home in Bangalore, I devoured (choosing my words carefully) Stuart Lange's A Rising Tide: Evangelical Christianity in New Zealand (1930-1965). When I told him I was going to miss the book launch by a few days, Stuart popped around to our house with a signed copy. Thank-you!

Here are ten random personal reflections...

1. It is exciting to see Stuart's PhD lead to this outcome. Over the years our lives have intersected at various times. Stuart led the ISCF/Christian group at Auckland Grammar School in 1977 in my last year of high school. We were pastors in Southland in the late 1980s. Our wives (Christine and Barby) first met in hospital with newborn babies in their arms. We were both appointed to the faculty at BCNZ, now Laidlaw College, in 1989 where we served together for eight years before I went off to Carey Baptist College. We've seen very little of each other since those years...

2. The ethos and era which the book covers is the one which shaped my heritage. I remember my parents going on about Christian Endeavour and Crusaders. My father received his missionary call at a Pounawea Convention. And while the story centers around Thomas Miller and his sons (Presbyterians), together with William Orange and his 'Orange Pips' (Anglicans), as the tide 'turns' (in 1930-1945) and then 'rises' (in 1945-1965), one EM Blaiklock does play a supporting role. Blaiklock was like a patron-saint for all four of my grandparents. He was revered, almost canonized. As a member of the same church at the time, Blaiklock actually showed up to my farewell event when I headed off for theological training. My opinion of him had started to shift a little by then, arrested as I was by my simple-faithed grandmother's gruff surprise that he should find it so difficult to deal with his wife's death at an elderly age after a long marriage (written up in Kathleen). I had not realised Blaiklock's vehement opposition to Calvinism (which explains a bit in my upbringing) - and then, later in life, Stuart relates how Blaiklock was 'moved to paroxysms of rage and despair at the irrationality he perceived in the neo-Pentecostal movement' (134). A strong-minded chap!

Stuart does hint that Blaiklock's appointment to a university lectureship at Auckland in 1926 could well be the start of the turning tide (see p210) and that he 'arguably did more than any other New Zealander to raise the public profile of evangelical Christianity in New Zealand' (49). Further afield, in global evangelical Christianity, I have often wondered if something similar could be said of JO Sanders. For me and my house? If we could live the recent decades again, I'd kinda like to have had Orange as our patron saint instead :).

3. I do hope that Christian movers-and-shakers in New Zealand read this book closely and recognise afresh the strategic importance of work among tertiary students (generally) and Tertiary Student Christian Fellowship (TSCF) specifically. In the story Stuart tells, 'the crucial catalyst was the establishment of the university Evangelical Unions (EUs)' (21). [NB: the EUs are the direct ancestors of TSCF]. These Evangelical Unions 'effectively relaunched evangelicalism in mid-twentieth century New Zealand' (42). 'For at least two decades into the post-war era, EU/IVF was a crucial defining and unifying element in the resurgent New Zealand evangelicalism' (207). Sure, Stuart chooses to narrow his story (as he must) to 'the evangelical formation of university-trained leaders, both men and women, and especially future ministers' (21). This does give the story a certain hue, but its importance cannot be denied.

I loved some of the angles on this IVF/TSCF part of the story. That this was all sparked by the visit to NZ, in 1930, of a twenty-five year old Howard Guinness. That 3% of NZ's tertiary student population in 1950 were in IVF/TSCF-related groups. That Otago EU was mainly Presbyterian (with Thomas Miller to the fore), Canterbury EU was mainly Anglican (with William Orange to the fore) with some Brethren, and Auckland EU was mainly Baptist and Brethren (with Blaiklock to the fore).

4. On the subject of the need to narrow things for PhD (to Anglicans and Presbyterians) ... it was disappointing not to be able to engage more with the Baptist perspective (other than Blaiklock). But I do wonder aloud whether it was an issue of focus alone. Did Baptists, other than Blaiklock and Joseph Kemp, play a major role in the formation of NZ evangelicalism? I've always had my doubts. My experience of Baptist life, particularly in the years as principal of their theological college (which quickly became identified with a different 'tribe' than Blaiklock or Kemp), is that 'evangelical' was more commonly a term of convenience than of conviction. The connections with the wider global evangelical story just aren't there. In my early years I heard a bit of critique from within and without about me being a 'fundamentalist' - merely demonstrating how ignorant people were of the story Stuart tells, with the evangelical:fundamentalist divide occurring some 50+ years ago (see pp130-133). And then there is the little story of having to order John Stott's magnum opus, The Cross of Christ,  for the Carey library when I started because it simply was not there on the shelves. It was pleasing to read in the Epilogue, referring to the years after 1965 - that 'the evangelical ethos of the Baptist churches was consolidated' (213). That is good news - but I wonder what that means?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

a mother's prayer

29 November 1979

I've written about this date before. It is a huge date in my life. The morning after the Erebus disaster and I found myself at a shocked Auckland airport ready to fly to the USA. At 20 years of age I was heading to the USA both to attend Urbana '79 (where I was to experience God's enduring call on my life) and, after three years of letter-writing, to meet up again with Barby (where we were to decide to keep writing letters...!).

Last week, as I was sorting through lots of stuff in preparation for leaving NZ and coming to live here in Bangalore, I discovered a letter from my grandmother (the same one who introduced me to John Baillie's A Diary of Private Prayer ... and who instilled in me a love for the flowers in the garden - see below).

The letter is dated - yes, you guessed it - 29 November 1979.

"Dearest Paul
We pray for the trip for safety, good health and above all, God's blessing. We pray that you may be able to listen and respond with sensitivity both to people and to God; that you may be able to encourage and help in many places; that you may effectively learn lessons that will not only be of personal benefit, but of benefit to others...
(and then, on a separate piece of paper she included this little prayer)

The Light of God surrounds you;
The Love of God enfolds you;
The Power of God protects you;
And wherever you are, God is with you.

We lovingly place you in the hands of the Father ... the best of all is God is with you."

Fast-forward to 3 September 2013.

Once again the date may prove huge in our lives, as Barby and I head off to live in India (ironically - and unintentionally(!) - exactly 100 years after Barby's grandparents and exactly 50 years after my parents did the same thing, in 1913 and 1963 respectively). Once again Auckland airport is in the storyline. I am checking my emails before boarding our flight and there is one from my precious mum. It reads like this:

"... for old times' sake:

The light of God surrounds you;
The love of God enfolds you;
The power of God protects you;
The presence of God watches over you;
And wherever you are, God is there.

And it's the same for all the orphans at home.

I'm loving you all the way.


It is a well-known prayer (I haven't yet tracked its source) with frequent sightings on the internet. But it is doubly significant for me now as I pray it for myself and our seven children that we've left behind.

So here endeth my little series on mothers:
a mother's poem, a mother's plea, and now this one, on a mother's prayer.
... but, I must confess, that as a father - I kinda like all three!

nice chatting