Thursday, 29 June 2017

RIP Prof Berger and hope for his legacy

Today we heard from Boston University and others that Prof Peter Berger had died earlier this week. Not only was he one of the great sociologists of religion, he was a great example. Berger was one of the few academics to have gone on record to say, “I got it wrong”.

In an interview, from 2013, with the Crescent he explains more about it. He says that in the 1980’s and 90’s there was a standard view of secularisation given by many which became received wisdom. However, this picture was wrong, secularisation is more complex. He said that secularisation is linked to geography and intellectualism. We need to be more sophisticated how we think about it.

Within the interview he says “The problem with modernity is not that God is dead, as some people hoped and other people feared. There are too many gods, which is a challenge, but a different one.”

I look at this interview, after having listened to some of the debates this week coming from Methodist Conference. Speaker after speaker noted that mission needs to take priority and we need to change how we do things.

Theorists like Berger don’t give us any magic formula- we need to get a grip on there isn’t one. However, they do give us information to consider in our decision making and planning. Yes, we do need to pray and look to God, but if we worship God with our hearts, minds and souls we need to bring our minds into play. As a Methodist, I take scripture and tradition seriously, but I also view reason and experience as important too. Sociologists such as Berger have given us much to help with using the quadrilateral.

I am passionate about mission, but I’m also passionate about that mission being thought out and contextually appropriate. So thank you Professor Berger for your contribution to the field and may you rest in peace.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Transfigurations - Transgressing Gender in the Bible by Peterson Toscano Reviewed

Peterson Toscano, who will be familiar to Greenbelt Festival goers, has a video of his work exploring biblical texts relating to gender diversity, which can be streamed through Amazon now. It is work you may be familiar with if you have seen him in recent years, but which will be new to many.

Transfigurations – Transgressing Gender in the Bible looks at a range of different biblical characters through the use of a range of performance pieces. He begins by looking at Deborah and the scripture found in Judges 4-5. This illustrates how femininity is cannot be defined in a particular way because what it means to be female is something which has diverse meanings.

He then moves on to look at the story of Joseph, described through the perspective of the hyper-masculine uncle Esau. Within the explanation of this narrative which follows Peterson talks about the way that the story talks about blended families before moving on to looking at gender diversity. He looks at the issue of gender diversity using biblical scholarship to explore the clothing of different colours which Joseph was given and the context he was working on. He acknowledges the explanation he gives may not be the only one but it is one which needs listening to.

So within the first two pieces he introduces us to a piece of scripture many of us will not have explored before and reintroduces us in a new way to a biblical character we will have been familiar with from a young age.

Next he moves on to eunuchs and explains their place in the ancient world. He uses the book of Esther to look at this group again using a performance piece. As with the other dramatic representations the use of his hands and intensity of his facial expressions are key to making this work.

In the discussion he moves on to look at other eunuchs including an Ethiopian one in Jeremiah. Again whilst gender variance is the thread which links this with the other characters in the concept of ethnicity is also gently dropped in.

From here Peterson moves on to another performance piece looking at the more familiar Ethiopian eunuch who we read of in the new testament. We don’t know the name of this eunuch so Toscano gives them a gender neutral name. Finally we get another character who gets a bit part mention in the bible but again seems to be acting outside gender norms.

If you are not familiar with the concept of gender diversity I would suggest that you use these videos in conjunction with the Genderbread Person materials from Sam Killerman to help you understand further the concept of gender diversity.

I would recommend this video for those who want to explore gender diversity from a biblical perspective. I’d also say this is a great way back into scripture for those who want to explore scripture more but currently it somewhat dry.

This video is particularly something I would recommend to those who are scared of theology, thinking it is something dry and dusty done by old men in cathedrals or universities. This shows biblical scholarship can be interesting and transmitted in ways which are interesting and culturally relevant.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Conference of European University Chaplains Reviewed

The granite city of Aberdeen was grey rather than sparkling when I arrived in the drizzle. However, the rain didn’t dampen the spirits at the Conference of European University Chaplains (CEUC) 2017.

It was a predominantly Christian gathering, reflecting the current makeup and ethos of the group and so worship together was a central aspect of the time we enjoyed together. This took place in the beautiful surroundings of Kings Chapel at the University of Aberdeen. During it we used liturgy from the Iona Community which both reflected the spirit of the conference but was also appropriate to the ecumenical nature of the gathering.

The first evening was spent getting to know each other, something which seemed remarkably easy. I was struck by the willingness of this group to truly engage with each other. Of course some people had known each other for years and were catching up but for those of us who were new we were immediately able to feel at home. We began with some variation of what became the standard conversation openers of the week. “where are you from? What’s you’re context like?”  This was great because from the beginning it became clear the focus of the week was learning from each other.

I learnt that in Hungry there is a student pastor who is developing his work by moving on to a church plant for recent graduates, whilst in Norway they have re-imagined the old mission to seaman for the 21st century by sending chaplains to different countries and continents to support students abroad and ex-pats. I learnt in Australia, (yes there were a few from further afield than Europe) there is a chaplain using plants to help people cope and give meaning to transitions caused by the move from one style of building to another. In the Netherlands there are all sorts of exciting things happening including a really exciting innovation at Delft University from TeamMoTiv who have re-imagined chaplaincy into helping develop leadership and soft skills. I also learnt a lot about chaplaincy in Finland, where there is not the multi-faith style of chaplaincy I work in at Aston.

It helped, I think, we all had to truly listen to each other. For the native English speakers we had to concentrate to understand unfamiliar accents whilst for those speaking English as a second language they had to listen into order to interpret / understand. We also had to pause as we spoke, for the native speakers we had to speak at a slower pace and for those who were using a second language they had to pause in order to translate what they were saying before they said it. This was a useful skill.

The key note speakers included Dr. Kristin Aune talking about the latest HE Chaplaincy research going on, Rev Professor Tom Greggs who was looking at Chaplaincy as Sharing in the Sacrificial Priesthood of Christ and Dr Liam Waldron looking at Loneliness on campus: what can the chaplain do to help. Whilst all different they were all useful in exposing the complex nature of chaplaincy and world it is working in. We live in a world where people can feel isolated within a busy environment, where chaplaincies do not come in a one size fits all form and where students, institutions, chaplains and sponsoring bodies/ Churches all need listening to when looking at chaplaincy within education. It is also a world we need to remember that God loves and calls churches to exist for, rather than existing to keep themselves going as Tom Greggs reminded us. 

Beyond the keynotes there were also workshops. I attended one given by Rev Greg Hughson, a Methodist chaplain from Dunedin, New Zealand on A Practical Theology of Suicide Prevention. The work going on there is similar to that being done by Papyrus and others in this country, although he also talks of the need to bring in theology when working with or from the Church to look at this issue. I also gave a workshop on HE Chaplaincy – A  Positive Chance for Engagement through the Diversity and Employability Agendas. Unfortunately this meant I was unable to go to the Team Motiv session looking at their film The New Connection and the work they were doing in Delft in the University of Technology.

It wasn’t all work though, a lot of the networking took place through social events. There was a European Market which was effectively the ultimate Eurovision party, but without the music, a trip to a castle (which I opted for rather than the distillery) and a civic reception at the Aberdeen Town House hosted by the Lord Provost followed by dinner and a ceilidh.
Would I recommend chaplains to consider this conference? Yes, definitely, I think that there is much to learn from the innovation going on in other parts of the world, just as we have something in our multi-faith contexts to offer to the conversation.