Culture, culture, everywhere. And not a drop of wisdom to drink. We spend, rightly spend, time and effort to read and interpret the Bible. And the Bible tells us that Jesus lived as a Jew in Roman-Greco times. And we look up from our Bibles and we wonder, “How should we live in our times?”
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends”, a collection of essays edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson and Michael J. Sleasman. 288 pages, published by Baker Academic on March 2007. Available via Amazon Kindle for USD19.99 but if you are listening to this in August 2022, today’s book is the Logos Free Book of the Month.
If you missed the free deal, not because you didn’t know Logos gives free books every month (you do) but because you didn’t expect to like today’s book (I didn’t), then subscribe to Reading and Readers to not miss out on unexpected gems.
Yet Another Everyday Theology Book
I came to this book with little enthusiasm. The book cover is bland and boring. If I was not ‘assigned’ to read this book, I would not read it much less spend money on it. I predicted that a book titled, “Everyday Theology”, would be another worthy attempt to convince the general audience on the importance of theology in Christian living. I am not just convinced, I am a vocal activist as this podcast can attest.
Just goes to show that one shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover or title. We need to read the subtitle. It’s “How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends”. Whenever you are figuring out what the ending in a movie means, you are reading a cultural text. Whenever you are figuring out what to wear, you are interpreting trends. Figure out how what you watch and wear connect to your faith and you have a fair idea what this book is about. This book offers Christian interpretations of architecture, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, fantasy funerals and more.
A more academic, but less marketable, title would be, “Cultural Hermeneutics: An Introduction with Case Studies”. Biblical Hermeneutics, I know but Cultural Hermeneutics, I don’t. Biblical Hermeneutics is a core subject in any seminary. It’s about interpreting the Bible. Cultural Hermeneutics is about interpreting the culture.
And until this book came along, I didn’t know there was a gap in my mental toolbox that Cultural Hermeneutics fills.
Journey to Culture Truth
Many years ago, in my more innocent age, a friend asked whether I had listened to Eminem’s new song. I thought to myself, “I didn’t know M&Ms do music. I thought they only made chocolate.” Soon, I figured out he was referring to Eminem, a notorious rapper.
Fast forward to today, and as a Christian, as a father, what do I do with Eminem and his angry, sometimes violent, lyrics? Is it wrong to listen? And if it is, where do you draw the line?; because most, if not all, the music we hear outside of church has no God, no Jesus, in them. If everything we do must glorify God, then is it more Christian to put aside Eminem and listen to Taylor Swift? Why?
Perplexing isn’t it? Cultural norms shift so quickly and the Church gives a knee-jerk reaction, appealing more to tradition than a rigorous application of the Bible, and often betraying a lack of understanding of the music, book, film or trend. This is xenophobic, not Christ-centric.
I’ve been on a spiritual journey to find the truth on culture. Along the way, I have found helpful guides.
I ask, “If God, who is good, is not in non-Christians, then how can they do so much good? They produce great works of art; in architecture, literature and music.” Abraham Kuyper gave me an answer in Common Grace.
I ask, “Can I read non-Christian books?” Tony Reinke absolved me of any guilt and I have adapted the reasoning in his book Lit! to movies and music.
I learnt what is a good book from Andrew Peterson in his autobiography, “Adorning the Dark”. Among other things, a good book makes this world brighter, not dimmer.
And I see that in the vision crafted and fought for the childrens book series, “The Green Ember” by S.D. Smith. Oh, to be a hedge-trimmer in that world!
My journey to find the truth about culture reached a new milestone with today’s book. This book surfaces questions I had but didn’t know how to articulate and gives me the tools to read cultural texts. First of all to see television, movies, comic books, video games and the Internet as cultural texts.
While the earlier books were helpful to give a framework and a vision, this book, Everyday Theology, tackles Eminem head on.
Let’s open the book.
The book begins with a Reader’s Guide that tells us where this book began (in a Cultural Hermeneutics course Kevin Vanhoozer teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School); what this book is about (how to read culture), how to use this book (which I will explain more later) and whom to thank for this book (the usual suspects, rightly acknowledged and thanked).
Following the Reader’s Guide, we have four parts:
- Part 1: Introduction
- Part 2: Reading Cultural Texts
- Part 3: Interpreting Cultural Trends
- Part 4: Concluding Untheoretical Postscript
And at the end, we have a glossary of methodological terms, information on the ten contributors to this book, and the usual subject index and Scripture index.
With that overview, let’s go into the details.
Part 1 Introduction should be renamed The Method because that is where Vanhoozer is driving the readers towards. He makes the case for cultural hermeneutics. As befitting a Systematic Theologian who has written books like, “Is There Meaning in this Text?”, he unpacks Matthew 16:1-3:
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”
The signs of the times can refer to the zeitgeist or the spirit of the age. We are living in an age where the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated but awaiting consummation.
If Vanhoozer’s opening chapter is difficult, it’s because he wishes to ensure readers are on sure footing. That what he is laying out is biblical and possesses academic rigour. Some of us may not care to learn about “locution”, “illocution”, and “perlocution”, some of us do. Bear in mind that Vanhoozer is writing Everyday Theology for the Everyday Christian.
Cultural texts project worlds of meaning that invite us in and encourage us to make our home there. The world of a cultural text—say, for example, the world projected by Friends, Survivor, or Desperate Housewives—unfolds a possible way of living together, a possible way of being human. But we can go further. These culturally created worlds present themselves accompanied by the whisper of their creators: “And behold, it is very good.” There’s the rub. Should we accept the invitation?
If you persist to the end, you will be rewarded with: The Method. When I read the phrase, “The Method”, my mind went to Hercule Poirot, the fictional detective in Agatha Christie’s novel. He often berated Captain Hastings for not using his gray cells and the lack of method in his approach. I like to read mystery novels to ‘learn the detective’s methods’ and look forward to the final reveal. Wouldn’t it be super if we could learn it and make our own reveals?
That’s what Vanhoozer offers here, the secrets to reading the world: the world behind the text, the world in the text and the world in front of the cultural text. Along the way, you ask questions like:
“Who made this cultural text and why? What does it mean and how does it work? What effect does it have on those who receive, use, or consume it?”
There is more to say but we should move on. We have to move to the other chapters. I stress again that you must complete Vanhoozer’s chapter no matter how tempted you may be to skip to Part 2.
Reading Cultural Texts
Part 2: Reading Cultural Texts has some of the best chapter titles I have read this year. Let me read the titles for chapters 2 to 6. We have here:
- The Gospel According to Safeway: The Checkout Line and the Good Life
- Despair and Redemption: A Theological Account of Eminem
- The High Price of Unity: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- Between City and Steeple: Looking at Megachurch Architecture. A short note, written by Prekumar D. Williams, noteworthy in this collection of essays as an instructor in theology at Baptist Seminary of South India in Bangalore, India.
- Swords, Sandals and Saviors: Visions of Hope in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. A fairly recent movie when this book was published. Let me remind you that this book was published in 2007. Let me also bring to your attention that the movie “The Gladiator” was released in 2000. Yes, it’s been that long, it’s been 22 years since you saw Maximus commanding gladiators in the arena.
I had an impossible time choosing a chapter to talk about. Any of these topics could easily take up a whole podcast episode.
From the Eminem chapter, I could jump to today, 15 years after the book, in Christian Hip Hop.
In Shai Linne’s 2017 album, “Still Jesus”, the last track is titled, “Washer’s Warning” and in it we hear Paul Washer saying:
I came here thinking that I would hear hip hop. I came here thinking that I would hear rappers. I heard preaching. I heard preaching. And I heard a respect for the truth, and a desire to communicate it.
Or how about another question that bugs me. In the chapter on architecture, “Between City and Steeple” we read about theaters and malls, steeples, pulpits and communion tables, what I really want to ask the author is: “Hey, you are writing from India Baptist Theological Seminary. I want to know more about that one enticing line in your conclusion: ‘Vernacular forms of architecture, … , have potential to recall a theological heritage and express the identity of a people called to witness in a given culture.’ So steeples in Indian churches, yay or nay?” And as I ask this, my mind is thinking about the Haggia Sophia, that great Constantinople Cathedral now a mosque in Istanbul.
There are so many jumping points from this book but for the sake of a coherent book review, let us look into the thesis of one chapter. I made my choice and it is the movie: Gladiator.
Michael Sleasman writes:
Though it may initially surprise the casual viewer, this essay proposes that the theme of visions of hope is a hermeneutical key to the best interpretation of Gladiator. Grappling with hope gives this film deep relevance in a culture where so many are disillusioned by hopes that disappoint; there is a ripeness in the air for a hope that lasts, a hope that is eternal, a hope that does not fail, and Gladiator gropes blindly after such a hope.
Sleasman goes through The Method:
In the World-Behind-the-Text, we read the influence of classical epics like Spartacus and Ben Hur, a quick analysis of Ridley’s Scotts films, and the historical Marcus Aurelius and his family.
In the World-Of-the-Text, he explains the plot and characters and whether there is an overt Christian theme in the movie. Ridley Scott says no but also says Maximus dies as a martyr and saviour of Rome. While the Christian influence may be ambiguous, it is clear that Maximus is a religious character. His faith sustains him. This topic is explored in depth in the next section.
In the World-In-Front-of-The-Text, Sleasman explores various interpretations. He pointedly says that the privilege of interpretation should be accorded to the director, Ridley Scott, who has said that mortality is the central theme of the movie. But Sleasman refutes:
While Scott may have intended something less than Christian, the expression of a deep orientation toward the future may undercut that intention. If mortality were the cultural existential expressed, the question begs to be asked why meeting his family in the afterlife motivates his actions in this world, as Scott himself argues. In the end, I propose, Scott directs better than he knows.
And Sleasman proceeds to lay out the Christian vision of hope, contrasts it against what is offered in Gladiator and politely insists that Sleasman has a better interpretation of the movie than the director. He writes:
As such, I appeal to the interpretation I believe to be the most comprehensive and yet simplest, as that which resonates with the cultural existentials expressed in this cultural text. Quite possibly, Scott himself may have lacked a full vocabulary of hope to express his own vision and intention, even if this was at a subconscious level.
Quite possibly, Sleasman is a bit full of himself. Film critics. The bane of the director’s existence. Let me critic the chapter.
My question is: “Is it correct to insist on your interpretation over and against the creator’s interpretation?”
When I say something, I don’t appreciate it when someone insists that he knows better than me on what I just said. And we all know how some people can read power politics, gender ideology, conspiracy theories into anything, even the Bible. So are we Christians guilty of reading things into the text when we read the culture?
This is a question Vanhoozer, Sleasman and every contributor in this book takes seriously.
I have come away from that question with thanksgiving. I am thankful that God is Truth, and I don’t have to second-guess God’s motives or character in what he says. When a man says I love you to a woman, maybe he has other motives. But when God says I love you to you and me, it is the purest and holiest of motives. So knowing God’s standards are ever true, never tarnished, I appreciate what the authors of these essays do in bringing God’s standards, God’s word to bear in these works.
Interpreting Cultural Trends and Others
I finished Part 2, hoping for more. Part 3 gives me more but of a different kind. Now, instead of specific cultural texts, we have broader trends. Chapters 7, 8, 9 and 10, look at busyness, blogs, transhumanism and fantasy funerals. Everybody understands busyness and blogs, although Facebook, Twitter, Tiktok have since surpassed blogs in popularity and notoriety. Transhumanism is about being more than human, it is mankind’s deliberate attempt to create the X-men. Fantasy funerals is a weird one because how is this a trend? I don’t recognise it as anything other than a fetish subculture phenomenon. Maybe when this essay was written fantasy funerals were taking off, and all I say is thankfully it didn’t.
Part 4 has only one chapter. Chapter 11: Putting It into Practice: Weddings for Everyday Theologians. He brings together everything we read, the Method and the case studies, and shows us how it applies to weddings. And in that chapter, the book ends.
I sometimes complain that books end too abruptly. Especially books which are a collection of essays. This is not one of those books. It ends well by bringing to mind Eminem, Gladiator, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what we have learnt and what we can do as cultural agents. We end the book with a sense of closure. And I think we have the editors to thank.
Editors are the silent heroes of the publishing world. They take lumps of clay and turn it into a Michelangelo masterpiece. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Anyways, I don’t normally observe the editors work but in this book I am glad to commend the editors.
Before each chapter, the editors give a editorial introduction. For example, for chapter 4 on UN Declaration of Human Rights, the editorial introduction begins with:
With this essay we come to what at first appears to be a very different kind of cultural text than the music of Eminem.
The short editorial introductions link the chapters together, highlighting the differences and commonalities from one chapter to the next. Helps readers know what to look for.
Then there are the little box inserts that serve as editorial comments. They have titles like “Behind the Text”, “For the Toolkit”, “Further Reflections” and “Book Link”.
“Behind the Text” gives a Behind the Scenes look at the essay. For the Gladiator chapter, it spotlights how Michael Sleasman, the writer of that chapter, surveys various interpretations, assesses them, proposes his own interpretation with evidence.
In another box insert, “For the Toolkit”, the editor critiques the interpretative technique applied and in “Further Reflection”, the editor offers further thoughts on the subject.
The editorial comment I most look forward to is the “Book Link”. It is a 300-word-or-so essay by Vanhoozer where he reviews books. For example, on the architecture chapter, he recommends Heaven in Stone and Glass: Experiencing the Spirituality of the Great Cathedrals by Robert Barron and Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth by Douglas Jones and Douglas Wilson. And Vanhoozer’s recommendation are a handy supplement to the further readings suggested by the essayist.
In the beginning of this episode, I lamented the lack of resources to deal with specific issues of culture. Now, at the end of each chapter, I am spoilt for choice!
With so many editorial comments, it sometimes feels like a teacher giving students helpful pointers their work. Wait. That’s exactly what this book is. It’s a collection of essays from Professor Vanhoozer’s Cultural Hermeneutics class. From the Reader’s Guide:
My co-editors and I have selected a representative sampling from the one hundred and forty-five term papers written over the past five years.
I don’t know how heavily the chapters were edited from their original submission but I must commend the final product.
It’s well organised, the chapters flow seamlessly, the editorial inserts can be intrusive but I don’t think so and the book ends with much appreciated closure. It reads so well, as if it was guided by a single mind through multiple hands.
Everyday Theology is for the everyday Christian. Movies, music, politics, social media, weddings and funerals. No shallow analysis on them with the Gospel message tacked on in the end. The first chapter written by the Professor might be a bit hard reading, but the remaining chapters, the best term papers selected for the best fit, were written by individuals who have yet to develop the fine art of academic obfuscation.
One criticism is the book is a bit dated: 2007. While we can see Tom Cruise reprise Maverick, we won’t be seeing Russell Crowe reprise Maximus. Won’t it be sweet to see The Method applied to Top Gun? And track what has changed from 1986 to 2022 from a Christian worldview. Don’t we want more Cultural Hermeneutics?
I googled Cultural Hermeneutics and there are no interesting hits. It’s not that people are not analysing culture from a Christian Worldview. We have tonnes of blogs, YouTube videos, podcasts speaking for culture, against culture. The problem is we don’t a critical mass to work around unlike in apologetics or soteriology or eschatology, where discussions come out of those categories. Discussions on music are labeled music, not cultural hermeneutics which makes it harder to learn the skills of reading culture.
When I first started this podcast, there was another podcast idea I was toying with, which was to analyse entertainment from a Christian worldview. Surely, I’m not the only one who sees in Spiderman’s “With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility” an echo of the Christian’s “We are Blessed to be a Blessing”.
Today’s book unexpectedly showed me in book form, what I only imagined could be possible in a podcast. Do you think it’s a great podcast idea? If you know anything like it, tell me. If you like the idea enough to do it, tell me and I’ll be happy to be your first subscriber.
Until told otherwise, I think today’s book is a most impressive and unique contribution to cultural discussions. A great jumping-off point to much that is happening around us. It keeps us on our toes to see culture as more complex, and less simplistic as so many suppose. And thus, more opportunities for Christians to be a better reader of culture.
This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends”, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson and Michael J. Salesman. 288 pages, published by Baker Academic on March 2007. Available via Amazon Kindle for USD19.99 and free in Logos for August and only August.
I’ve given so many good reviews lately that you might think I rate every book highly. I try to see the best in every book. But the next book I review is not a book I particularly enjoy. “Pray tell, what is that book?”, you say. Well, subscribe to Reading and Readers and don’t miss out on any great deals and book reviews. This podcast saves you time and money. Have a good one. Thanks for listening.
- “Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends”, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson and Michael J. Salesman. Amazon. Logos.
- “Common Grace” by Abraham Kuyper. Amazon. Logos.
- “Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading” by Tony Reinke. Amazon. Logos.
- “Wingfeather Saga” by Andrew Peterson. Amazon. Reading and Readers Review.
- “The Green Ember Series” by S.D. Smith. Amazon. Reading and Readers Review.