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What Does the Bible Say? A Critical Conversation with Popular Culture in a Biblically Illiterate World
Date Reviewed: October 4, 2018
Mary Ann Beavis and Hyeran Kim-Cragg, a biblical scholar and a practical theologian, respectively, address a number of topics that are engaged by people outside of the contours of usual religious contexts; those who tacitly or consciously engage with scriptural and religious themes. It is this audience that the authors seem in particular to target: the everyday person whose religious viewpoints are influenced by media and popular culture, without their realizing the underlying misconceptions borne of poor theologies, or uncritical appropriation of traditions with little or no basis either on sound doctrine or biblical knowledge. In juxtaposing biblical themes such as creation and apocalypse, sin and salvation, Moses and Jesus, Jews and Christians, God and Satan, Christ and Antichrist, gender and God, purity and sex, and suffering and sacrifice, in a creative dialogue with cinematic culture, the authors seek to dispel many of these aforementioned misconceptions.
Beavis and Kim-Cragg have succeeded in making scholarly information accessible, taking pains to define technical terms – whether Hebrew, Greek, or theological jargon – that would otherwise be foreign to nonexperts. They provide solid exegetical and theological analysis of the themes they have chosen. Readers and teachers will find the creative way in which they use movies from a wide array of genres to further their discussion helpful. “Before viewing” and “after viewing” questions allow one to link their cinematic selections with the theological theme under discussion. This is especially helpful since, for the most part, the authors did not choose religious movies; it is, after all, an engagement with popular culture, not religious media.
As a professor of constructive theology, I especially appreciate the discussion of salvation in chapter 2, subtly broadening its meaning by disconnecting it from the notion of sin and at least implicitly relating it to the Reign of God, and their discussion of eschatology in chapter 5, rightly linking it with relationship. Another discussion which I found to be of importance in this time of intolerance and rising tides of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and nativistic impulses, was their discussion on Jews and Christians (chapter 4). While their assertation that “Jesus was a Jew” might seem simplistic, I can attest to the fact that such a statement can be a surprise to some beginning seminary students. Beavis and Kim-Cragg honestly tackle texts in Second Testament that have been interpreted as “anti-Jewish” as well as the history of anti-Semitic interpretations in Christian theology. It is their conclusion that in spite of this persistent prejudice, we stand well to remember that “God blesses all” (62).
For teachers in the areas of practical theology, this book can be used in courses that integrate biblical studies with Christian education, theology, or preaching. The authors’ approach to theological themes can prove helpful to beginning seminary students who come with popular misconceptions, only to become disconcerted by learning in the classroom what they believe to be contradictions of faith. The book’s methodology of integrating theological content with media is insightful and consonant with the contemporary world in which our students live and practice ministry. It is particularly useful as teachers become aware of the various learning styles of students and expands their arsenal of creative pedagogical practices. I would hope that this book invites teachers to consider the use of movies, music, photography, and online content such as TED talks in their classroom. This book is a good companion to such sources as Timothy B. Cargal’s, Hearing a Film, Seeing a Sermon, although the latter tends to focus more on homiletical and liturgical integration.
I do have some questions. While I assume that the audience for this book is either a lay or church community, the authors themselves never clearly identify their audience: is this meant for a more evangelical or progressive church community, or was it directed primarily to an unchurched community? I would have found it helpful for the authors to have been more explicit about their audience. This leads to a second question: why their particular juxtaposition of selected themes? Was it influenced by context and audience? For example, why discuss God and gender, and not God and justice? Would the latter not have allowed the discussion to be broader than simply whether our God-talk is inclusive in terms of male or female images? At a time of imposition of heteronormativity, homophobia, and rising tide of violence against people of color, it could have led to larger questions about white privilege, and broader assumptions about gender could have been broached. Along those lines, could the discussion have been further enriched with the inclusion of more voices of color, both in the authors’ scholarly sources and in their movie choices? Could some of these very themes have been underscored with such movies as Hidden Stories, The Color Purple, Selma, Even the Rain, The Joy Luck Club, or others that showcase actors of color or LGBTQI persons?
These questions, of course, do not detract from the overall importance and value of the book. This book, with its solid theological and biblical analyses, is an important resource particularly for those of us who continuously encounter groups or individuals in our churches, classrooms, and communities that espouse uninformed biblical and theological beliefs influenced by popular culture.
Perhaps one of the most painful memories I have of my early years in teaching was election night 2004. The pain comes from my too late realization that in my advocacy for a progressive outcome for the election I had semi-wittingly politicized my classroom in a way that still haunts me. ...
Expressing Theology: A Guide to Writing Theology that Readers Want to Read
Date Reviewed: June 16, 2016
Jonathan Roach and Gricel Dominguez helpfully remind us that theological writing should be beautiful, compelling, and engaging, but I am not quite sure that I am ready to join their writing revolution. Expressing Theology addresses a broad audience. Epistles to undergraduate students in theology, graduate students, dissertation writers, and “authors in training” dot the text. And the book certainly offers sound advice to writers of theology at any stage in their careers.
Chapters five through seven fill the writers toolbox. Here the reader finds the usual contents of a writing primer. Roach and Dominguez introduce the writing process and discuss each step along the way: from drafting to writing techniques, to grammar, and the all-important revision and editing stages. I like that advice from Strunk and White is mixed with wisdom from Gustavo Gutiérrez and examples come from Martin Luther King Jr. and Qoheleth. Perhaps the best things about these chapters are the pacing and style. The authors move through these technical pieces without becoming nearly as dry as many writing guides.
The more expressly theological material comes in chapters one through four. I think the authors are really smart to begin talking about engaged theology with a chapter on the writer’s identity and location. Writers are encouraged to own their unique perspectives and to write out of their own experiences. The section on sources somewhat predictably uses an only slightly modified version of Wesley’s quadrilateral, but it is not unhelpful. The chapter on audience prescribes writing theology as a conversation rather than a preachment and I could not agree with this sentiment more.
I am convinced! Theological writing should be beautiful and compelling. But I remain a little wary of the revolution that Roach and Dominguez have asked me to join. Throughout the text, the authors attack abstract and “boring” theology as they often repeat the mantra, “keep your feet on the ground.” The theologians among those most often cited are Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, and Thomas Merton, all of whom are beautiful writers to be sure and certainly theologians of a sort, but not really shapers of the history of thinking about God. Of course, I do not want to advocate that theology be ungrounded, but I repeatedly wondered if the sort of exacting, often dense, and sometimes technical theology that I read and write would be excised in this revolution. As I read Expressing Theology, I remembered myself reading Tillich and Whitehead for the first time and pondering the world anew as I read sentence by sentence at a painfully slow pace. I thought of Rosemary Radford Ruether so meticulously uprooting essentialisms and utopias, page after page. I relived the moment that tears came to my eyes, when after two hundred pages of groundwork, Jürgen Moltmann declared “Ecce Deus! Behold God on the cross!” (Moltmann, The Crucified God [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993] 205) as God became the godforsaken. I hope that Roach and Dominguez would agree that these too are beautiful and compelling theologies. Perhaps their advice will lead some authors to engaging, elegant, yet complex and careful writing like these.
Education in a Catholic Perspective
Date Reviewed: January 19, 2015
Higher education is in a state of flux amidst a cache of challenges that might be cast as a new set of unanticipated three R’s: recruitment, retention, and reserves. As college administrators strategize for the future, the shifting demographics in traditionally student-rich areas and the overall decreased pool of potential students because of birth rate trends will make sustaining college operations increasingly difficult. The challenge is more acute for private colleges and universities, whose sticker price tends to be substantially more than those of public institutions. It is perhaps even more poignant for Catholic institutions of higher learning that educate students in a particular religious environment.
No two Catholic schools are the same and most wrestle with what it means to be Catholic. Some institutions boldly proclaim strong Catholic identity while others loosely reference their Catholic tradition or grounding. The number of students, faculty, and administrators on campuses self-identifying as Catholic complemented by the frequency of Catholic activities and choice of campus speakers have tended to serve as the metric for determining “how Catholic” an institution is. The first measure is reasonable. Without a critical mass of Catholic students, a Catholic school risks losing its identity. What precise percentage of Catholic students is needed for an institution to call itself Catholic, however, remains unsettled, but the ongoing admission of non-Catholic students merely to sustain rolls cannot bode well for the future of Catholic schools. As an example of the second metric, Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, often recognized as “the” Catholic university in the United States, received a maelstrom of criticism when it invited President Barack Obama to give its 2009 commencement address. Its detractors believed engaging an individual who holds views contrary to the Catholic faith lessens the Catholicity of the school.
In Education in a Catholic Perspective, Stephen J. McKinney from the University of Glasgow, U.K., and John Sullivan from Liverpool Hope University, U.K., recognize that the identity of Catholic schools is at stake. They state that “there is an increasing distance between Catholic education, in its many forms, and the rich intellectual heritage of the Catholic Church” (3). Rather than engaging in a polemic against post-modern neoliberal ideas that can threaten the preservation of Catholic identity, their text seeks to retrieve the philosophical and theological roots of Catholic education.
The book is divided into five parts. In the first section, the “Introduction,” two chapters written by Stephen J. McKinney orient the reader to the overall thrust of the text. McKinney’s first describes “education” in the Western world and then moves onto to discussing “Catholic education” using post-Vatican II teachings of the Catholic Church. McKinney admits the ongoing challenges Catholic education faces as it moves forward amidst the steady barrage of criticisms including charges of proselytizing and of being elitist and anachronistic. His assessment is honest and builds on critical scholarship in this area.
The second part, “Theological Foundations,” consists of three articles that shore up the religious supports of Catholic education. John Sullivan writes on the import of St. Augustine and Maurice Blondel to Christian education. Vivian Boland considers Thomas Aquinas’s contribution to Catholic education through his understanding of transcendental properties of truth, goodness, beauty, and integrity. Clare Watkins considers revelation, scripture, and truth vis-à-vis truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness as formidable underpinning for Catholic education.
In Part III, “Theology and Education,” Stephen McKinney and Robert Hill propose Jesus as a Teacher and reading the gospel from new perspectives to inform learning and teaching. David Torevell writes on epiphany, worship, and the contemplative body in Catholic education suggesting inward silence and embodiment as a distinctive import from Catholic tradition for education. David Evans demonstrates that the intersection of faith and reason is the “route to wisdom” and a holistic appreciation of education. Clare Watkins examines the role of conscience formation in education and teachers’ critical responsibility in fostering that in their students as well as in their own search for God.
The fourth part of the text considers “The Ecclesial and Social Dimension” of Catholic education. In the first two articles of this section, John Sullivan considers the tension between the individual and institution and then moves to discuss the Church and the World. Sullivan refrains from an “over and against” attitude of Catholic education towards society. Sullivan proposes a participative engagement model in service of the world for all involved in the project of Catholic education. Christine Forde concludes this section by considering “the troublesome concept of ‘gender’” and offering challenges from feminist theology. Forde’s work here can serve as a prelude to further discussion about other disquieting contemporary moral issues such as medical coverage, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, and investment policies, to name a few.
The concluding fifth part, “Mission into Practice,” considers how to make the proposals in the text a sustainable reality. Kevin Williams suggests the development of a “Catholic” curriculum that incorporates specific teaching and learning goals. William’s piece seems out of place with the rest of the rather conciliatory text, but perhaps further development of his work is needed to fully appreciate his suggestions. Finally, John Sullivan and Stephen McKinney explore practical implications of strengthening the internal core of Catholic education in an effort to make it a viable educational option for the future.
As Catholic school leaders strive to understand their institution’s Catholic identity, they would be wise to reference this text. Students of philosophy and theology will also find this book of interest in relation to their respective fields of study. It could be useful for educational specialists seeking to understand Catholic education. The book provides a rich critical assessment of some of the major thinkers in the history of Catholic education and their import for today. It includes a resource-rich bibliography and a detailed index.
Leaders concerned with the future of Catholic education have to pay sharp attention to the externals that challenge institutional growth. However, what McKinney and Sullivan have assembled here offers another no less important and, perhaps, even more critical investigation into how to chart the future of Catholic education in a more meaningful way.
Each night I watch Jeopardy. Occasionally I am thrilled when Tobago or Trinidad features in a clue. This thrill comes from knowing that the island where I grew up (area of 116 square miles) has found its way into the knowledge required of Jeopardy contestants. I take this small thrill, and ...