Sunday, 16 December 2012

Ultimate Concern

On the 15th of December, Sandy Hook Elementary School became the scene of one of the worst school shootings that America has ever seen; 26 people were killed, 20 of whom were children1 aged 6 of 7. Across the globe people were echoing Barack Obama’s statement that said “our hearts are broken today”2. Naturally, like any human, my deepest sympathies also go out to all who were, and are affected by this unbelievable act of violence.
A vigil was held at the local church, Saint Rose of Lima, where 23 year old Agron Selmani was stood quietly outside praying. Selmani was quoted in the Guardian as saying "I'm not a regular at this church at all. I'm not even Catholic, I'm a Muslim, but it doesn't matter right now"3. In the midst of the tragedy, the community managed to come together, regardless of religion.
In a previous blog, I explored how some of Miroslav Volf's work could be seen as an attempt to unite Christians and Muslims by proposing that they could have the same God; I concluded "surely it would be more effective to refocus on the religions' ultimate concerns andpractical ways to reconcile them”4. The community managed to find something that made their religion for that period, seem irrelevant, and unite regardless of nationality, age, or religion. This was an undeniably horrific event; but it also can teach us more than simply what matters to us as Christians, or Muslims, or Atheists, but rather what matters to as humans.
This is proof that in our multi-faith society we can still find ultimate concerns that unite us, ultimate concerns that have the power to transcend religion. I can only pray that in the future, we can find other ways to unite without such tragedy.

2 The Independent
3 Gabbatt
4 Macivor

BBC, ‘Connecticut school shooting: Children among 27 killed’, BBC, 15 December 2012, <
> [accessed 16 December 2012]

Gabbat, A., ‘Newtown gunman kills 20 children in elementary school shooting’, Guardian, 15 December 2012, <> [Accessed 16 December 2012]

Macivor, J., ‘God, Allah, and Volf’, Theology & the Theologian, 17 October 2012, <> [accessed 16 December 2012].

The Independent, ‘'“Our hearts are broken today”: US President Barack Obama in emotional address to the nation following Connecticut primary school shooting’, The Independent, 15 December 2012, <>  [Accessed 16 December 2012]

Monday, 3 December 2012

Should We Consider Popular Culture As A Source Of Truth?

 There is much debate amongst theologians about the exact definition or purpose of theology, however many consider it to be concerned with seeking truth. I am going to explore whether truth can be found in popular culture, and if so, whether it should not be sought as a source for truth independently.

Lynch defines theology as “the process of seeking normative answers to questions of truth / meaning, goodness / practice, evil, suffering, redemption and beauty in specific contexts.” 1. This shows theology to be an on-going process, implying that nothing is truly original and perhaps no conclusive answers will be ever be found. Contrary to scholars such as Astley 2, Lynch’s definition allows for believers and non-believers to seek answers, and thus equally partake in the process of theology.

Lynch lists four approaches to dialogue between popular culture and theology. Firstly, the applicationist approach, where existing theological beliefs and values are applied to questions raised by popular culture. Secondly, the correlational method, where questions from popular culture are correlated to answers from theological tradition; this method allows popular culture to set the focus. Thirdly, the revised correlational method, where theology and popular culture can each ask and answer questions of each other. Lastly, the praxis model which remains as open as the revised correlational method, but critiques both theology and popular culture based on their ability to promote liberation and well-being 3.

Lynch chooses to explore the revised correlational method as it “recognizes that truth and goodness are not the sole possession of one particular religious tradition or world-view” 4.  This of course seems like an appealing way to seek normative answers in a pluralistic world. There are several issues with trying to do theology that is relevant not only for different faiths but also different cultures. Although truth may not be the sole possession of any particular religious tradition or world-view (considering it to be so certainly makes inter-religious dialogue difficult), what each religious tradition or world-view considers to be truth will vary.

The issue with truth is that it ultimately comes down to subjective opinions. “For those who believe, no proof is necessary: for those who do not believe, no proof is possible.” 5. For this reason those who want to find truth in popular culture will inevitably find it, but this does not mean it is normative for all. Lynch’s definition of theology acknowledges that it is a process that occurs in “specific contexts” 6. The fact that theology occurs in different contexts means that different conclusions may be drawn; if this occurs then I personally think that the theological validity should be decided by each faith community rather than society.

Interestingly, Lynch suggests that the revised correlational method should be informed by the praxis model in order to encourage relevant theology that avoids being overly abstract 7. Personally, I can’t help but think that the praxis method is inherently biased as it places more importance on answers that promote liberation than answers that are true. Although not mutually exclusive, there are times when these aims may clash.

In modern society popular culture can influence and reflect what individuals believe to be truth. This is especially apparent in young people where popular music is “a primary, if not the primary resource” 8. There are times when popular culture can reflect theological truths, explain theological ideas more accessible way, raise questions that theology has not yet fully answered, or even be a mouthpiece that challenges theology. I think it can be beneficial for theology to be scrutinised and challenged by popular culture. Despite this, I don’t think that theology should be led primarily by pragmatism or the zeitgeist of the time (for further comment on pragmatism and the church I recommend this blog by Mark Walley 9).

Clearly theological truths can be portrayed through popular culture, often in a fresh and accessible way. However due to the ever changing nature of society and culture I think it is irresponsible to consider popular culture a primary source for theological pursuits of truth.


1 Lynch, 94
2 Astley, 2
3 Lynch, 101-104
4 ibid, 105
5 Author Unknown, cited in Pafumi, 35
6 Lynch, 94
7 ibid, 106
8 Bennett, 34
9 Walley

Bennett, A., Popular Music and Youth Culture: music identity and place, Palgrave, 2000.

Lynch, G., Understanding theology and popular culture, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2005.

Pafumi, G. R., Is Our Vision of God Obsolete?, Xlibris Corporation, 2010.

Walley, M., The Deceitfulness of Pragmatic Arguments, The Grove Is On Fire, 19 November 2012, <> [accessed 3 December 2012]

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Religion & The Media

Throughout the ages the media has acted as both a reflector and educator of society. Centuries later, we can look at the media of that time and make clear inferences about changing theology. Media not only reflects theology, but influences it.

Through looking at historic representations of Christianity we can ascertain the views of the time1. The BBC documentary ‘How the Devil Got His Horns: A Diabolical Tale’ shows that when depicting the Devil, each artist would take inspiration from previous artists' paintings. Throughout this documentary, Sooke shows that the changing image of the devil reflected society's changing attitude to the role and characteristics of the Devil from a beautiful angel that was a caretaker of sinners, to a horrific beast-like figure2. This shows that the media of the time can reflect the theology of that time, and influence that which is to come.

Today, television provides a unique insight not previously offered; with hundreds of channels it is easy to gain insight to what others think and how they live. Television provides a unique way of “making the unfamiliar familiar”3, but questions have to be raised over whether this challenges prejudice, or if it simply enhances stereotypes? It is widely stated that sitcoms hold up a mirror to society - Susan Borowitz goes as far as to say that "the sitcom has taken the place of church, of religious training"4.  If this is the case, then it is important to understand not only what are sitcoms saying about religion and society, but also how that influences audiences.

So what are sitcoms saying about religion now? According to 'Family Guys? What Sitcoms Say About America Now',  for many Americans their personal faith still has the utmost importance, however there is little concern given to those who have other faiths, as long as they have a faith5

Recently, there was massive uproar over the film ‘Innocence of Muslims’, an anti-Islamic film that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad. Described by Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian as a "bigoted piece of poison"6, the film initiated many protests, both violent and peaceful, across the globe7. This is obviously a reckless use of the media. I think it likely that Christians would be offended by a similar portrayal of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Conversely, the American TV show 'Family Guy' unashamedly pokes fun at any religion (and for that matter any race, gender, or sexual orientation)8. Naturally, some find Family Guy insulting, but it remains incredibly popular, especially in God-fearing America. Somehow, Family Guy manages to strike a humorous and apparently appropriate balance.

The media has a strong responsibility when it comes to religion. What content is approved for broadcast seems to depend largely on the zeitgeist of the time. However much we can learn from the past, we must acknowledge that society is ever changing; “We live out our faith in entirely new environments and do our theology in a world not known before”9. As a result, theology needs to be prepared for the changes that will inevitably come.


1 Bergman, 113
2 How the Devil Got His Horns: A Diabolical Tale
3 Bartlett in Wagoner
4 Byliner
5 Family Guys? What Sitcoms Say About America Now
6 Bradshaw
7 Detroit Free Press
8 Family Guy
9 Detweiler & Taylor, 56                                                                                                                          



Bradshaw, P., ‘Innocence of Muslims: a dark demonstration of the power of film’, The Guardian, 17 September 2012, <> [accessed 31 October 2012]

Detroit Free Press, ‘Middle East erupts in outrage over Muhammad video’, Detroit Free Press, 14 September 2012 <> [accessed 31 October 2012]

Detweiler, C., and Taylor, B., A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture, Baker Academic 2003.

Family Guys? What Sitcoms Say About America Now, television program, BBC Two, 2012 <> [accessed 31 October 2012]

Friend, T., ‘Sitcoms, Seriously’, Esquire, March 1993, <> [accessed 31 October 2012]

[HD] Family Guy – Religion, video, FOX, Los Angeles, 2011 <> [accessed 31 October 2012]

How the Devil Got His Horns: A Diabolical Tale, television program, BBC Four, 2012 <> [accessed 31 October 2012]

Wagoner, B., ‘Meaning construction in remembering: A synthesis of Bartlett and Vygotsky’ In: Stenner, J., Cromby, J., Motzkau, J., Yen., J., & Haosheng, Y., (Eds.), Theoretical Psychology: Global Transformations and Challenges, Captus Press, Toronto, 2011, pp. 105-114.

Friday, 26 October 2012

How Important Is Experience To The Church?

Anyone that has been involved in church leadership will undoubtedly have heard the phrase “but this is the way we have always done things”. However, in light of dwindling church numbers, many churches are seeking to make traditional services more appealing. Will the future of the church be found by increasing the role of personal experiences?

It is said that the three sources of theology are: scripture, reason, and tradition. Sometimes experience is included, and this is known as the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’1. Macquarrie says that although not dominant, experience should be viewed as preceding theology2; in other words, it all starts with experience.

It is well reported that church attendance is decreasing3. Twinned with a lack of young people4, it would appear that church isn't cutting it for many. Curiously, pilgrimages, potentially highly spiritual experiences, are rising in popularity simultaneously5,6. Although they fell into disfavour during the reformation, there is a historic tradition of pilgrimage within Christianity. I find it interesting that less people are choosing to experience God in a traditional corporate church environment, whilst more are seeking counter-cultural personal experiences. Does declining church attendance reflect a secularisation of society, or simply a cry for a different way of experiencing God?

There is concern about placing too great an importance on experience as “[theologies with an exaggerated emphasis on experience] can easily become distorted by the particular types of experience out of which they come”2. It is therefore important that the context of the theology is taken into account. For this reason, a branch of theology known as contextual theology has been developed. It has become especially popular among oppressed groups, such as ethnic minorities and women.

Schleiermacher noted that “[Christian doctrines] always proceed from a reflection on how the experience of one’s self-consciousness has been changed through being in relation to the redeemer”7. Doctrine is shaped by a transforming experience. We can see that the Bible is a collection of individuals having encounters of the divine, and people today can have revelations of God through reading it. However, the very act of reading the Bible has in itself become a tradition. Essentially, experiences and tradition are each important, but are undeniably inseparable.

It becomes clear that instead of simply challenging tradition, modern culture seems to be seeking the experiential as a new way of meeting with God. Increasing the role of the experiential in church could increase attendance of previously under-represented groups such as men and young people. I think the real danger is that Christians start viewing experience as the end to be desired, rather than the means by which to have an encounter with God.  For this reason we must remember not to simply seek an experience, but to seek the experience of God.


1 Astley, 23
2 Macquarrie, 5
3 Oborne
4  Whychurch
5 Alliance of Religions and Conservation
6 Shah
7 Mariña, 152

Alliance of Religions and Conservation, ‘Pilgrim Numbers’, Arcworld, <> [accessed 26 October 2012]
Astley, J., SCM Studyguide: Christian Doctrine, SCM Press, 2010.
Macquarrie, J., Princeiples of Christian Theology, SCM Press, 2003.
Mariña, J., (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Freiedrich Schleiermacher. Cambridge University Press. 2005.
Oborne, P., ‘The return to religion’, The Telegraph, 2012. <> [accessed 26 October 2012]
Shah, S., ‘Number of foreign Hajis grows by 2,824 percent in 92 years’, The News International, <> [accessed 26 October 2012]
Whychurch, ‘Why so many elderly in Church?’, Whychurch, < > [accessed 26 October 2012]

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

God, Allah, and Volf

“Since you can’t take religion out of people’s lives, the only thing left is to see whether you can interpret religions in such a way as to highlight their potential for peace”1. Although this assertion of Miroslav Volf is valid, it becomes clear that his further claims are neither meaningful nor practical; therefore there is a need to consider alternative potential bases for peace.

Volf argues that the god of Christians and Muslims is in fact the same God - he does so on the basis that there are significant similarities between the deities described in the Bible and the Qur’an2. The problem with this is that similarity does not dictate unity and differences do not indicate exclusivity. The Parable of the ‘Blind Men and the Elephant’ tells the story of several blind men touching an elephant and being unable to agree what it is.
 The men argued whether the object was a wall, a tree, or a rope, until a passing wise man calmly explained:
"All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant.”3 This parable illustrates that even if accounts are different, or appear to be explaining something different, in some circumstances they can be explaining the same thing.

Logical positivist Anthony Flew proposed that if no evidence can prove or disprove a statement then it is not meaningful4. As the statement “Christians and Muslims worship the same god” can be neither proven nor disproven, by this maxim it is meaningless. The same however, can be said for all statements about God. Therefore, it is ultimately meaningless to discuss whether the god of Christianity and Islam is the same. Instead, we need to readdress the issue and consider alternative ways we can identify “potential for peace”. 

Paul Tillich defines religion as ‘the state of being grasped by ultimate concern’5, which means that all religions must have a system of values. A potential for peace therefore may be found in identifying similar values. 

However, Volf proposes that the only way in which Muslims and Christians would be able to have significant overlap in ultimate values, and therefore be able to live in peace, would be if they had “a common God”6. He goes further to say that this would be necessary to pursue the common good. 

The purpose of Volf’s work appears to be to aid social cohesion, however it focusses on an exclusivist view of peace implying that you can only pursue moral virtues or goodness if you believe in the same god. Perhaps it would be more effective if the emphasis reverted to similar beliefs and values, rather than the insinuation that this must indicate, or is dependent on a common belief of deity.

Volf’s assertions fall short on a theoretical level as they lack meaning; furthermore they are impractical as they fail to truly unite Christians and Muslims. Ninian Smart concluded in ‘The World’s Religions’, that “It is unlikely, then, that a real unity of worldviews can be found, except as a minority view”7.  If the aim is greater social cohesion, surely it would be more effective to refocus on the religions' ultimate concerns and practical ways to reconcile them. 


1 Short, 224
2 Volf, 14-15
3 Jain World
4 Morreal & Sonn, 81
5 Chryssides, 23
6 Volf, 7-9
7 Smart, 559

Chryssides, G. D., and Geaves, R.,  The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 2007.
Jain World, 'Elephant and the Blind Men', 2011. <> [accessed 18 October 2012].
Morreall, J., and Sonn, T., The Religion Toolkit: A Complete Guide to Religious Studies, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 
Short, R., God's Advocates, DLT, 2005.
Smart, N., The World's Religions, 2nd. ed., Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Volf, M., Allah: a Christian Response, HarperOne, 2011.