Questions to speakers

The article is about questions from the audience at literary festivals but could also apply to academic conferences.

Over the course of the weekend, I attended seven hour-long events, which means I sat through 105 minutes of audience questions. That’s 110 too many. There isn’t even a spontaneity about it because there are really only five types of audience question and they’re all bad. The Gusher (“this isn’t really a question but I’d love for everyone here to know that I love you”); The Empathiser (“This isn’t really a question but I work in an industry tangentially related to the subject of your book”); The Philosopher (“This isn’t really a question but I have this idea that I would like you to validate”); The Accuser (“This isn’t really a question but I think I’ve found your problem. Please defend yourself”); and The Memoirist (“This isn’t really a question, it’s my life story”).

Source: Please ban festival audiences from asking questions forever | The Spinoff

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Black Panther: Some initial thoughts

Black_Panther_PosterJust back from watching Black Panther with family. One of the few films I’ve been to where audience members cheered and clapped at the end of the film, and some stood to applaud.

At one level, the film follows the standard trajectory for a Western hero movie sketched by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence in their book “The American Monomyth“:

A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.

In this scenario T’Chaka (Black Panther) falls into the role of the saviour/redeemer, and the film “plays by the rules” in terms of pacing, points of crisis, and redemption of various characters, and the overcoming of evil doers. It even has the hero leaving a legacy of hope.

But while I was watching, and observing the audience at the end of the film, I was struck by a number of initial thoughts. Firstly, while the movie ‘plays by the rules’ (and so ensures financial success and continuity with the Marvel cinematic universe), it also subverts the status quo in a number of ways. The majority of the cast are non-white, and the film has some quite blunt polical and post-colonial themes running through it. Perhaps its appeal to the majority of the audience in the cinema was an action film with African heroes in a decided non-Western setting – even when the action moves for a while from the Wakandan setting it’s set within a Korean context, rather than New York or London. America and the West become a place in need of redemption rather than the source of redemption.

It reminded me of this quote from African-American theologian, James Cone, on the importance for black people to view Jesus as black:

It’s very important because you’ve got a lot of white images of Christ. In reality, Christ was not white, not European. That’s important to the psychic and to the spiritual consciousness of black people who live in a ghetto and in a white society in which their lord and savior looks just like people who victimize them. God is whatever color God needs to be in order to let people know they’re not nobodies, they’re somebodies.

James H. Cone, interviewed by Barbara Reynolds, USA Today, 8 November 1989, 11A.

The other thing that came to mind were some of the reflections on the Whale Rider film, and in particular, whether the character of Paikea represented a redeemer figure in continuity with Western Christianity or one that challenged Western colonialism.

But the polymythic Christ-figure narrative in Whale Rider can be read another way—as validating Maori tradition over against Christianity. The customary way to read a Christ-figure narrative is as an overlaying of a Christological framework onto a story otherwise unrelated to Christianity, thus transforming the story into a Christian parable. Such a reading of Whale Rider would bring us back to the charge of cultural imperialism, as if my intention were to displace the Maori traditions portrayed in the film and treat the story as a parable of a truer and higher spiritual reality. But the portrayal of Pai as a Christ-figure may be read alternatively as a subversion of colonial religion. In portraying Pai as a Christ-figure, the film could be saying in effect, on behalf of Maori people, “We don’t need the white man’s Jesus—we are capable of producing our own Maori saviors.”

Fillingim, David (2016) “When Jesus was a Girl: Polymythic Female Christ Figures in Whale Rider and Steel Magnolias,” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 14: Iss. 1, Article 8.

At a personal level, I enjoyed the film and the character of T’Chaka. It generated some good talking points and ticked the boxes for a superhero film. I hope that some of the depth in this film won’t now be thrown under the bus when the characters come back in future Marvel films.

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Faith and Technology: Flotsam and Jetsam

One of the reasons I blog here is to record interesting web links and articles that I’ve come across with a particular emphasis on the intersection of faith, technology and popular culture. Here’s a bunch of things that have come across my desk, email and screen recently.

religiousgames.org is basically an impressive index of religious video games. Definitely worth a look. The site’s creation, Vincent Gonzalez, says “[T]his website builds upon my doctoral dissertation, Born Again Digital: Exploring Evangelical Video Game Worlds. The text as I defended it in 2014 at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill is available here: https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/record/uuid:0ff817de-6bee-4319-9b49-a6af18193eb5.


Pastor D.J. Soto Is Putting His Faith in a Virtual Reality Church | WIRED. Article looking at one response to using the recent affordable virtual reality technology to build spiritual communities.

But Soto, along with a small but vocal group of reformers, believe that the time is right for a spiritual movement to gain momentum in VR. For one thing, social VR is thriving, with a throng of new worlds coming online. As VR has shifted from 2-D to 3-D, the experience has grown closer to the kind of “embodiment” that’s ideal for fully experiencing the sacraments. As the price of headsets drops and VR technology becomes more accessible, Soto sees virtual churches as a way to bolster flagging church attendan


Plough Quarterly Issue 15 Preview: Technology. The most recent issue of this magazine focuses on humanness and technology through an Anabaptist lens. [Hat tip to Matthew Tan at The Divine Wedgie]


Christians and Digital Media | Christ on Campus Initiative. C. Ben Mitchell authored resource by the Christ on Campus Initiative available as a PDF download.

Digital technology is here to stay. We’ve become quite comfortable with digital technologies and even dependent on many of them. Yet despite the number of technologies we use, there seems to be large scale naïveté about technology’s effects, especially the impact of digital technologies. Even otherwise helpful theologians and social analysts sometimes make the unsophisticated claim that technologies are morally neutral; that in and of themselves they are neither good nor bad, but it is the use of the technology that may be right or wrong. If it were that simple, answers to our questions would be much simpler. Unfortunately, the morality of technology is more complicated than we have imagined. 


If you build it, they will pray? Constructing religious worlds with Minecraft. Short USA Today piece on religion inspiring the creation of new digital worlds in systems like Minecraft.


Siri, should I believe in God? How AI will challenge the church | afr.com. Op-ed piece in the Australian Financial Review by Timothy Carone that speaks to the need for wisdom to accompany information

The responses provided by smart content to spiritual and moral questions are randomly selected canned answers. However, these canned answers will soon have to give way to didactic answers drawn from broad sources of content. And who decides the didactic themes present in virtual assistances?

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The Infinity Project

One of my first encounters with science fiction literature was through the anthologies of science fiction short stories in school and public libraries. It was in these that I first encountered Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Andre Norton, James Blish, Ben Bova and others to name but a few. These anthologies then propelled me on to longer works by those authors, as well as works by Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffery, Robert Heinlein, Madeleine L’Engle, Brian Aldiss, Joe Haldeman, and more recently Alistair Reynolds, David Brin, Iain M. Banks, Neal Asher, Peter F. Hamilton, Liz Williams, Ann Leckie, Becky Chambers, Greg Egan and Charles Stross. (Flicking through my bookshelf and my library lending history I see many other names there too.)

  
  

One of the other places that these kinds of anthologies and other science fiction books turned up were in the Scholastic Book Clubs runs in conjunction with primary and intermediate schools (The “Lucky”, “Arrow” and other schemes). These were of variable quality – some I reread many times, others I read once and discarded. (I must have read Alan Dean Foster’s “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye” I don’t know how many times).

  

And now I’m back reading science fiction anthologies again. The Infinity Project, edited by Jonathan Strahan, is a series of anthologies where each volume is oriented around a particular theme: Bridging Infinity concerns stories about engineering on planetary and stellar scales, Meeting Infinity considers how technology might change humanity, while Infinity Wars has some deeply personal stories about how conflict in the future might affect us and our worlds.

The anthologies contain a mix of established science fiction authors (e.g. Ken Liu, Larry Niven, Alastair Reynolds, Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross & Stephen Baxter), as well as a range of newer voices. I’ve particularly enjoyed the Indian authors in some of the collections. If you’re looking to dip into some science fiction on a casual basis, then this collection of volumes is a good place to start.

  
  

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Supervision: Navigating uncharted waters

Almost 10 years today I was about to start work post-PhD at the University of Auckland as a new Lecturer in Practical Theology in the School of Theology. At that point, I’d done quite a bit of adjunct lecturing and some eLearning consulting, but hadn’t yet supervised any students for postgraduate research projects. My expectation was that I’d supervise mostly in my own research areas (science & religion; theology & technology) and that I’d do a few supervisions also in systematic theology. Of course, that was a little naive.

Supervision of research students takes you on a journey into uncharted territories, across seas of new experiences – some perilous, some smooth sailing – partly because research projects examine a new aspect of a discipline and partly because your job requires you take on students who don’t want to research what you’re interested in. On the whole, this has worked out for me and for my students.

One thing I didn’t anticipate, though, was that I’d develop a track record for supervising research students with a focus on Pacific or Oceanian contextual theology, and particularly Samoan contexts. I’ve been blessed to supervise a number of these students with support from Pacific colleagues, learning from and about students and colleagues, which is often the real joy of supervision.

This week one of my Samoan PhD students defended his doctoral thesis which led to thinking about the different projects I’ve supervised over the past few years, some of which I’ve listed below:

  • “‘O le Suli Va’aia o le Atua’ – A Theology of Identity for the Faifeau of the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa in Aotearoa New Zealand” (PhD);
  • “‘Coconut Juice in a Coca Cola Bottle’: In search of an Identity: A New Zealand-Born Samoan Christian in a Globalized World” (PhD);
  • “A Pastoral/Theological Strategy: A contribution towards the prevention of male violence against women and children in Fiji.” (MLitt);
  • “The faithful adaptation of the Ekalesia Fa’apotopotoga Kerisiano Samoa (E.F.K.S.) in Aotearoa New Zealand in the twenty-first century” (MTheol);
  • “A critical analysis of the Samoan Expression of aofaalupega (church minister) in relation to the Mission of Jesus’ Disciples in the Gospel of Matthew 28:16-20” (Honours dissertation);
  • “The Samoan Concept of Le Malu as an analogy for Christian Well-Being: a malu i fale, ua malu i fafo” (PGDip project);
  • “Public theology response to (Pacific) youth alcohol consumption” (PGDip project);

I’ve been privileged to learn from my Pacific colleagues along the way – Ilaitia Tuwere; Winston Halapua; Nasili Vaka’uta; Melani Anae; and most recently, Terry Pouono, Imoa Setefano, Naylor Owen, Doreen Alefaio, Gina Siaosi & Esther Sila’ila’i.

When a research student begins their project it can seem like sailing out into uncharted waters; but it’s often like that for the supervisor too; but it’s worth the risk and you discover that rather than navigating from island to island – seeking only the safety of land in the vast emptiness of the sea – you come to learn to enjoy and respect the deep waters that connect those islands and gives them and those who live there life.

The first course I taught when I started at the University of Auckland began this journey with students listening to Pacific voices such as Epeli Hau’ofa, Albert Wengt, and Leslie Boseto as part of thinking theologically about identity and place in Oceania. I’m still getting my head around those and other voices, and look forward to charting new waters with students in the future.

“Just as the sea is an open and ever flowing reality, so should our oceanic identity transcend all forms of insularity, to become one that is openly searching, inventive, and welcoming.”

  • Epeli Hau’ofa, We Are the Ocean: Selected Works

 

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Outsider perceptions – Church on Christmas Day

I’m always interested in outsiders’ perspectives on church services, and in particular, those congregations within my own denomination of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Here is Kelvin Wright (former Anglican bishop in Dunedin) on attending Rolleston congregation of Hope Presbyterian in Chrismas Day

Available Light: Church on Christmas Day

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Religion and comics in the new year 

I had the opportunity recently to peruse the samplings of two comic book vendors I don’t normally get a chance to visit, and to rummage through their stock looking for more material for Bible and popular culture resources, and also for the angels in popular culture research project.

Down in Wellington, I had a look in at Graphic in Cuba Street just up from the Bucket Fountain. A really good range of new and back issue comics, trade paperbacks and other pop culture stuff. That’s where I found of a copy of the crossover between Daredevil and the Magdalena (see below) a few years back now, and the shop didn’t disappoint this time either.

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This time they had some copies of DC Comics foray into turning the Bible into comic book form back in the mid-1970s. I think I read some of these as a child – probably on a church camp or similar – and they’re a real blast from the past. In the article linked below, Beth Davies-Stofka, writes about this collection:

DC Comics’ The Bible (1975) written by Sheldon Mayer, edited by Joe Kubert and illustrated by Nestor Redondo, tackles Genesis 1-19 in a larger-than-life way. With an audience of children in mind, these “most spectacular stories ever told” in “the most beautiful comic magazine ever produced” (according to DC promotional materials) were aimed at countering the influence of science on children’s religious education.

Source: The Bible In Comics: How Genesis, Other Biblical Stories Come Alive Through Illustration | HuffPost

As Davies-Stofka notes this is set up in the first few pages of the comic, but rather than following a creation science agenda, the comics tends more to a more general theistic evolutionism with science providing the ‘how’ and Christian theology the ‘why’ for the world around the reader. What I found particularly striking is how white everyone is in comics. I’ve posted a few photos below, where human ‘perfection’ is equated with blond hair and blue eyes etc. Something for my students to mull over the next time I teach on Jesus in popular culture and translating the Bible into visual media.

Here’s the introduction to DC’s 1975 project, which gives some of their (brief) rationale behind the translation. And while, you might say that was 1975, DC Comics also reproduced it in hardcover in 2012.

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And a couple of examples of the artistic style:

IMG_20180109_171621 (2) IMG_20180109_171636

The second visit was to the ‘pop-up’ Astroman store in the local Westfield Westcity mall in Henderson. I’ve visited their stall before at various markets (Pokeno, for example), but the shop gives them space to lay stuff out and a better experience browsing. I took advantage of their $10 for 10 comics to clear out all their back issues of Lucifer for my angels in popular culture research project. (That’s the same character who features in the eponymous TV show of the same name, though written less intelligently in the TV format.)

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So, all in all, a great start to the New Year. Looking forward to writing up a couple of articles on religion and comics and angels in popular culture on research leave later in the year.

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New reading: RedEdits – Geoff Cochrane

On the strength of following The Spinoff’s regular “The Friday Poem” where I read The Friday Poem: ‘Overheard’ by Geoff Cochrane I purchased the 2017 collection of his poems RedEdits published by Victoria University Press.

So far, my favourite poem is:

Public Relations
My barista asks me where he can find my books, and I’m not exactly thrilled by this development. My barista thinks I’m a great bloke, and I don’t want him reading my books and changing his mind.

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A video tour of Evan’s Bay and Porirua’s characterful boat sheds – thisNZlife

Lovely little ‘slice of life’ short film about the boat sheds in Evan’s Bay and the Porirua habour, and some of the people who use them.

Both locations a loaded with memories for me – busing past Evan’s Bay each day on the way to and from high school and spending my childhood growing up around the Pauatahanui Inlet. Back there for the next 10 days so will make some more memories to go with the old ones.




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Religion and comics

I was rereading a short popular article I wrote a few years back on religion and comic books with a view to expanding it into something with a bit more academic depth and focus. Something that moves from simply describing the interaction of religion and comic books (and graphic novels and other forms of narrative sequential art) to something that speaks to the particular challenges and opportunities that portraying religious material using those media throws up.

This is an area that has seen some interesting work develop over the past few years, not in the least because of the plethora of superhero movies derived from their “four-colour” paper and digital sources, as well as some very good storytelling using comicbook media. A quick skim along my office bookshelves finds a few books on this kind of thing:

    

And perusing further down the shelves we come across:

    
    

There are also some relevant blogs and online journals that have arrived on the scene over the past few years:

Once I knock out three other writing projects in the new year (theological education and digital technologies; theological ethics and social media; and, spirituality in video games) I’ll be looking to work some more on this. As Julien of Norwich said, “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.”

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