By Matt Johnson
Everyday Theology, as its subtitle promises, tells us How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends.
How does your faith speak to human rights, pop music, or designer funerals? Is there any benefit to buying a ticket for the latest Hollywood blockbuster? When should we embrace the hurry of modern American culture, and when should we slow down? What does the proliferation of the blogosphere mean to our culture and the church?
Complicated questions have complicated answers, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you something less than the gospel. So I appreciated Everyday Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), which lays out a process for doing the hard work to find answers for ourselves by thinking theologically about the everyday world.
This world can be understood through reading “cultural texts” (products like music or impulse purchases at the cash register) and “cultural trends” (processes like the rise of online communities). Since the gospel is designed to be universal, we must adapt its application to diverse cultural settings. If theology links the Word to the world, then we must be adept at both the interpretation of Scripture and the interpretation of our culture.
Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for being better at interpreting natural signs (the weather) than interpreting the cultural or theological signs of the times. Everyday Theology develops our cultural literacy—how we engage in and influence our everyday world. It forces us out of our subjective interpretation of the culture and allows us to acknowledge that our world is not the same as our neighbor’s. Properly applied, Everyday Theology helps us love our neighbor as ourselves by better understanding our neighbor.
Facts, Implications, Meaning
The book begins and ends with essays by the editors, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman. The first section by Vanhoozer reflects his Cambridge PhD and professorship at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; it is not light reading. We are, however, mining the resources of our fallen culture as well as inspired Scripture. This orientation to the topic is not effortless, but it is rewarding.
Anyone with a background in hermeneutics or exegesis will recognize similarities between the way Vanhoozer interprets culture and the way we interpret the Bible. Simply stated, he advocates learning the facts of a cultural text, the meaning of the facts, and then the implications of the meaning. It is a solid process that forces us to look beyond the surface of our culture.
For example, the language police may dismiss a war movie such as Fury (2014) because the soldiers depicted sometimes have foul mouths. However, this kind of superficial reductionism keeps Christians from developing cultural competency. Cultural literacy is not about dismissing a movie or the language it contains. Instead, cultural literacy acknowledges the swearing and then broadens our critical lens, allowing us to acknowledge all of the locutions of the film, such as death, war, killing, friendship, savagery, faith, sacrifice, courage, cowardice, competence, and even salvation.
After acknowledging these elements of the movie, they must next be interpreted. What is the message being communicated? Is sacrifice portrayed as noble or pathetic? Is war-related killing glorified or vilified? Is faith a catalyst for perseverance or a crutch for survival? If your neighbor loved this movie, then wouldn’t your understanding of it help you understand your neighbor?
The movie (that is, the cultural text) has now been perceived and evaluated. There is one more question to ask in understanding the cultural text on its own terms: what does it do? Does it simply inform us by communicating information? Does it act prophetically, orienting us toward right and wrong? Is there a pattern here being cultivated and reproduced? How did this movie affect our culture? A possible conclusion may be that even though war requires barbaric acts of violence, we still may maintain our humanity and rise to new heights of courage and sacrifice.
Karl Barth is sometimes credited with saying we should preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, and Tertullian famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Everyday Theology is not a new concept, and many preachers use its methods.
One example is the notably longer “introduction” to contemporary sermons. If a sermon speaks to a specific cultural text, then the topic is not just identified, it is dissected. Preachers are taking more time talking about the modern dynamics of parenting before launching into an understanding of Ephesians 6:1-4. They are discussing an op-ed in The New York Times on the issue of immigration before discussing what God says in Exodus 22:21.
However, Everyday Theology reminds us we must do more than cultural exegesis; we must understand the relevant issues in light of the Scriptures and then develop an appropriate response for the church. Other Christian authors, such as Brian Godawa in his book Hollywood Worldviews, have written on this topic. Vanhoozer, however, does not limit his cultural texts to Hollywood. Parts two and three of Everyday Theology are essays about a range of cultural texts and trends—from magazine headlines at the checkout line to a study of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, from the fringe world of transhumanism (yes, it’s a thing) to the way weddings are celebrated.
The bulk of the book, nine essays, interprets a cultural topic and then evaluates it in light of the gospel. There are mines to avoid in this part of the process. We need to be careful not to project our interest into the cultural texts. We must also not let the popularity of a text or trend taint our evaluation. Our job is not to reflect community preferences, but to disclose truth, which is evaluated in light of the realities of creation, the fall, and redemption.
If The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations, for instance, is evaluated in light of truth based on creation, then it hits the mark in many ways. Yet it falls short of recognizing a foundation for equality based on human beings created in the image of God. An essay about designer funerals considers these in light of the fall. It calls into question the effect a fallen world should play in the presence of death and grief. A chapter about megachurch architecture interprets church facilities not only from the perspective of culture but from that of redemption.
Sometimes cultural texts and trends contain elements of residual goodness from once-perfect creation. Secular books, for instance, usually contain elements of the world’s beauty and our humanity. When creation is shown to be good, this is in concert with our faith as it is evidence of the creator.
Effects of the fall are not hard to find in our culture. Any text devoid of sin would be incredibly unrealistic. The presence of the effects of the fall, however, is not as important as the cultural influence of the text. Even the Bible contains many stories of sinful acts (murder, rape, adultery, greed, etc.) while advocating a larger story of redemption.
Cultural texts may or may not include a redemptive element. It is not always necessary. Jesus once allowed a rich man to walk away because he refused to give up everything for God. Two Gospels tell this story, and neither records a redemptive ending. Negative examples are sometimes just as powerful as positive ones.
Years ago, at the beginning of a class on interpreting the Bible, a professor addressed me and a lot of other idealistic young seminarians with this statement: “I don’t care about your results. I care about your process.” At the time, this bothered me deeply. I wanted to have all the answers and I wanted them to be right. I thought, Of course the results matter! After a semester under this professor, I grew to accept that if the interpretive process is solid, then the results will also be solid.
Everyday Theology is about developing a solid process of thinking theologically about our everyday world. It is faith seeking understanding of our contemporary culture so we can become agents who “read” and “write” our culture, making our own mark instead of simply submitting to its programming. It is building redemptive bridges from Jerusalem to every part of our lives.
Matt Johnson serves as pastor with the Levittown (Pennsylvania) Christian Church.