Thursday 4 December 2008

Kevin J. Vanhoozer on ‘Everyday Theology’

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘What is Everyday Theology? How and Why Christians Should Read Culture’, in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, Michael J. Sleasman (eds.), Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, Cultural Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 15-60.

‘Theology, my professor said, is the ministry of the Word to the world: the application of the Bible to all areas of life’ (15).

Vanhoozer’s opening sentence puts the ‘word’ and the ‘world’ together in a way reminiscent of John Stott’s plea for ‘double listening’ (to the word and the world), and the notion of ‘everyday theology’ says something to those interested in whole-life discipleship, and says it theologically as well – as Vanhoozer notes, ‘Doing theology is part and parcel of one’s daily walk and is too important to leave solely to the professionals’ (16).

The essay has a longish introduction and a longish conclusion, but has two main sections in the middle, one on culture itself (which Vanhoozer titles ‘Why should Christians read culture?’) and the other on reading culture (which Vanhoozer titles ‘How should Christians read culture?’). So, I’ve borrowed his headings…

Why should Christians read culture?
Vanhoozer begins here by making contrasts between culture and nature, and culture and society (21-25). He says that we should think of culture as ‘a work and world of meaning’ (26): a work, because humans produce cultural texts; a world, ‘in the sense that cultural texts create a meaningful environment in which humans dwell’ (26). ‘Cultural texts project worlds of meaning that invite us in and encourage us to make our home there’ (27). He outlines how culture communicates, orients, reproduces, and cultivates, and says that we need to learn to read culture because ‘the mission of the church demands it’ (34).

How should Christians read culture?
According to Vanhoozer, we need a plurality of methods (37). We must beware of reductionism, explaining things in terms of single categories (such as biology or economics). We recognise we read with certain presuppositions (such as the biblical story of creation-fall-redemption), and that certain doctrines (incarnation, general revelation, common grace, imago dei) also have a bearing on a theology of culture. When it comes to reading cultural texts, he says, we can think of them as discourses which require ‘thick description’, a wide-angle lens, one which is ‘multiperspectival, multilevel, and multidimensional’ (45), taking account of the world behind the text, of the text, and in front of the text.

The essay arguably serves as an introduction not just to the book itself, but to the ‘cultural exegesis’ series of volumes published by Baker, and is well worth a read by those interested in this area.

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