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A Theology of California Surf Culture (ETS Papers)

If you’re like me, you may wonder if anything good can possibly come out of the California surf culture. All I can think of is Beach Boys music and bad 50s movies, phrases like “Surf’s up dude!” and “I’m totally stoked!,” and, of course, Point Break (and we all know the depth of anything associated with Keanu Reeves).

by Michael Dawes (Flickr)

Nonetheless, I was intrigued. A theology of surf culture? What might that look like? How do you do a theological analysis of a subculture like this, and what insights might you gain? So I attended a paper by Robert Covolo (Fuller Seminary) setting out to do precisely this. (This was the first paper in a section sponsored by the Theological Engagement with California’s Culture project.) The paper unfolded in four main parts:

Surfing’s Inevitable Theologies

Covolo began the paper by looking at surfing in Hawaii at the time of the first Protestant missionaries. He pointed out that surfing was an an embedded cultural practice with ties to sports, gambling, religion, politics, and more. Indeed, surfing was so integral to that “pagan” cultural context, that the Protestant missionaries saw the gradual decline of surfing as the necessary result of the Gospel redeeming that society.

And, in a second example, he pointed to many authors who have argued that surf culture is antithetical to Calvinism and the Puritan work ethic. He disagreed with the argument, but offered it as an example of how people have recognized that surf culture has theological significance.

So Covolo used these examples as a way of pointing out the fact that a cultural practice like surfing is necessarily laden with religious/theological ideas. He didn’t go so far as to call it its own religion, but he does see it as religiously significant. And this opens the door to theological engagement.

A Brief History of California Surf Culture

The most interesting part of this section was the distinction he drew between the popularized and commercialized surf culture found in the Beach Boys and Hollywood movies, and the “real” surf culture that tended to be less commercialized and more countercultural. The latter were frustrated with the former for co-opting their culture and turning it into something more palatable to the dominant culture.

And he also mentioned the importance of the Jesus Movement for understanding surf culture. Although many have focused on eastern religious themes in surf culture, Covolo argued that very little attention has been paid to the thousands of California surfers who became Christians at this time, and saw significant parallels between Christian theology and the countercultural surf culture.

Motifs in Surf Culture

Covolo’s approach to analyzing culture revolves around the idea of identifying theologically significant motifs in the target culture and engaging them in dialogue with Christian theology. At the end of the paper, though, he points out that this can be done in two ways. The Protestant missionaries in Hawaii used an outside-in approach, recognizing that surfing was religiously significant, and then engaging that culture from their own theological convictions. And he’s fine with doing that. But he thinks that a second move is critical: understanding the culture from the inside. For cultural analysis to work, you have to get to know the “inner logic” of the culture, and then draw it into theological dialog.

The motifs that Covolo used for the paper were that of “leisure” and “time.” Covolo drew a distinction between “island time” and “western time.” Island time views time as an end in itself. The goal is to live “in the moment” and appreciate the “now.” The dominant Western culture has an instrumental view of time that see it as a commodity to be used for some other purpose. You don’t simply enjoy time, you harness it for greater productivity. The dominant culture, then, can only have an ambiguous view of leisure. While appreciating “free” time, it must also see leisure as a “waste” of a valuable resource. Surf culture, on the other hand, views leisure as a good in itself, enjoying the moment as it is given.

Surf culture, then, stands as a challenge and a critique to modern views of leisure and time. And Covolo finds much to appreciate. Drawing on the theology of Augustine, Covolo pointed out resonances in the idea that time is both intrinsic to the created order and that we now live in “fallen time,” unable to experience time as we should. Surf culture, then, performs both a prophetic and an eschatological role. Prophetically, it challenges the dominant culture’s facile adoption of fallen time. Eschatologically, it points out that things are not as they should be. Although it lacks the narrative directionality of Christian theology, it still points forward to a time when things could be different.

The Poetics of Surf

Here Covolo looked at the language of surf culture and showed how often it connects to religious themes/ideas. The “stoke” that surfers talk about refers to the peak experience that comes from moving harmoniously with something as powerful as the ocean itself. This is an almost mystical experience that transcends language, resonating with apophatic traditions in many religions. And the way surfers talk about the ocean and the power of the wave harkens to biblical language about an all-powerful God who thunders and roars. Throughout, surf language reflects religious ideas and experiences that are ripe for theological analysis.

Thoughts

This ended up being a very interesting paper with good food for thought on how to engage cultures (and subcultures) in theological dialog. Nonetheless, I’m still stuck with a few nagging thoughts that I would have liked to hear more about. Most importantly, I wonder about how we can know when something that sounds “religious” actually is religious? For example, just because I refer to my dinner as “sublime,” should we presume that I have a theological approach to food? If we’re not careful, we run the risk of over-reading a culture by assuming that religious sounding language/motifs can have only one semantic function.

I would have also liked to see an example of critical analysis as well. There’s a lot to be said for understanding the “inner logic” of a culture and working toward understanding before engaging in meaningful critique. But the danger is that we work so hard at understanding that we never get to the critique. Is “island time” and the corresponding appreciation of leisure an unadulterated good? That seems an unlikely conclusion. So what does a legitimate critique of a culture’s inner logic look like?

There’s more to be said here, but I’ll stop. It was a good paper that raised some great questions. But I’m still not going to take up surfing.

Church history from the rest of the world

Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom.

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I teach a church history survey class every year. It’s one of my favorite classes. But, every year I have the same frustration. There’s just not enough time to do much with the history of the church around the world. With just one semester to cover 2,000 years of church history, my goal is to make sure the students understand the narrative that leads to where they are today. And, that means telling a story of church history that is almost exclusively focused on the western church,  leaving out the rest of the world in the process.

To address this weakness, I require the students to do some reading/writing on the history of the church in the rest of the world. And, Clouds of Witnesses would be an outstanding book to use for this purpose. In a series of 17 short essays, the book introduces to key leaders in Africa, India, Korea, and China from the 1880s to the 1980s. The essays are well-written, interesting, and short enough that they don’t bury the casual reader under too many historical details.

I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about William Wade Harris and the influence that he still has on Christianity in West Africa. And, although I’d read more on the East African Revival, the two chapters are Simeon Nsibambi and Janani Luwum were still fascinating. Some other favorite chapters were the ones on Sundar Singh (India), Sun Chu Kil (Korea), and Yao-Tsung Wu (China), all people about whom I knew (and still know) too little.

Unquestionably, the greatest benefit from reading a book like this is the opportunity to see and be challenged by how different experiences in different parts of the world have shaped and colored Christianity. From a political activist in South Africa wrestling with the injustices of apartheid, to a Hindu convert striving to live faithfully in a hostile environment, and a Chinese Christian struggling to reconcile the Gospel and communism, they’re all struggling with what it means to be Christian in their cultural context. So, at every step, the thoughtful reader faces several important questions: (1) How I can learn and be mentored by what Christians have learned from different cultural contexts?, (2) How do you recognize when culture is having a negative impact on the Gospel? and (2) In what ways has my own cultural context shaped, positively and negatively, my experience of Christianity and the Gospel? The opportunity to reflect on those questions alone is worth the price of the book.

Clouds of Witnesses does have a few weaknesses, but they are ones that stem entirely from the nature of the book. First, to keep the book from getting too long, the authors had to restrict themselves to just a few key areas of global history. Sadly, then, there are no chapters on Christian leaders in South America, the middle east, eastern Europe, or the Pacific Islands, all of which lie outside the narrative that most western Christians know. Second, since the chapters are introductory and short, they never provide enough information and they feel somewhat “superficial” in places, just skimming over the relevant information. It’s hard to see how the authors could have done otherwise in a book like this, but it’s worth noting. And finally, the focus of the book is on providing the details of the various stories, not on discussing or evaluating them. So, although the book provides ample opportunity for serious reflection on the relationship between history, culture, and the Gospel, it does not try to provide any direction for that discussion. Again, that’s not the book’s purpose, so this isn’t really a fault. But, if you’re hoping to use the book for that purpose, you’ll need to do some work on your own.

Clouds of Witnesses is a fascinating book that is well-worth reading. Designed to be a companion volume to Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global FaithClouds of Witnesses can still be enjoyed on its own. And, although I think it could be used as a supplemental textbook in a church history class, those who have little or no background in church history will still be able to profit from this book. If you need more exposure to the story of Christianity around the world, particularly in the last couple of centuries with the explosive growth of Christianity worldwide, Clouds of Witnesses is a great resource.

[Many thinks to IVP for providing me with a review copy of Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia.]

Should we teach classes on how to speak Christianese? (Light from the Dark Ages, part 1)

Church is boring.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that from one of my high school students. Probe them a bit, though, and you’ll discover that the problem isn’t just that church isn’t exciting like a video game, an action movie, or a first date. Instead, the problem is often that they don’t understand what’s going on or what it has to do with “real life.” Listening to the songs and sermons, the language seems so odd, so removed from everyday life, that they struggle to understand why any of this matters.

And, like most of us, when faced with an hour or more of something they don’t really understand, they get bored.

And, if we’re honest, teenagers aren’t alone in this. Many people have a hard time understanding “church language.” Faced with words like “sanctify,” “redemption,” or, heaven forbid, “ebenezer,” they feel like they need their own personal translator just to keep track of what’s happening.

Indeed, some people have grown so accustomed to not understanding church language that they don’t even notice anymore. I’m sure I could drop “image of God” into a sermon and it wouldn’t even phase most people despite the fact that they probably have no idea what that phrase even means.

What do you do when the average person doesn’t understand the language of the church?

That is exactly the problem the church faced during its transition into the early middle ages. After the fall of the Roman empire in the West, the church had to deal with the fact that most people no longer spoke Latin, the official language used in all church services. In such a situation, what should the church do? Should it retain its traditional language, or should it try to translate itself into its new linguistic context?

In the early middle ages, the church opted to maintain its language. And, I think that we’re all aware of at least some of the consequences. Few people ever learned Latin, meaning that they often had very little idea of what was taking place in the service. And, as a result, the worship service often became something that the priest did for the people, rather than something that the people actively participated in. Indeed, regular attendance at church services declined significantly as people came to think that even their presence was unnecessary.

When we choose not to translate the language of the church, we risk alienating God’s people from God’s worship.

But, what about the other option? It’s easy to criticize the church for making what looks like an apparently obvious mistake. Why continue worshiping in a language that people don’t understand? But, what if the church had chosen differently? Suppose that it decided to recognize its new context and translate its worship into the various languages of the people. Although I think this would have been a good idea, we should recognize that the church had good reasons for concern.

  1. Something always gets lost in translation. Just ask a translator. It’s never quite possible to capture everything when you move from one language to another. And, when you’re talking about important truths, losing something along the way is never a good idea.
  2. The church risks its “catholicity.” The early church was deeply concerned to emphasize that regardless of what part of the world you are in, you are still part of the one church of Jesus Christ. That is the church “catholic” (i.e. the church in its unity). And, for them, common worship practices and a common worship language were powerful and visible declarations of our Christian unity.
  3. You may end up with a lowest-common-denominator Christianity. If our focus is on what the “average person” is able to understand, and if our goal is to make sure that our worship makes sense to that person, do we not run the risk of “lowering the bar” so much that we lose some of the depth and substance of Christian worship?

So, faced with a difficult situation, the early medieval church had two choices, both of which came with significant risks.

And, both sets of risks are worth keeping in mind as we deal with a similar situation today. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we too struggle with a “church language” that most average people find hard to understand. What will we do?

  1. Will we choose like the medieval church to retain our language, convinced that it conveys important theological truth and maintains our connection to one another and to the broader Christian tradition? If we choose this path, we need to understand that we’ve got our work cut out for us. We must do the hard work of educating our congregations to understand that language, or we risk alienating them from the worship life of the community, leading them to grow frustrated, disconnected, and bored. And, we should also recognize that the tide flows against us in this task as the biblical/theological knowledge of the average person today continues to recede.
  2. Or, will we choose to translate our worship into the language of “the people”? Down this road likes the possibility of greater engagement and understanding. But, I’ve attended worship serves at many churches who opt for this path, and we should also be aware that this can be a road that leads to a theologically shallow spirituality that tries to develop in isolation from the broader life and language of God’s people through time.

As with most difficult decisions, I don’t think a simple either/or will suffice; the truth certainly awaits us somewhere in the middle. Our task is to recognize the dangers on either side and address the challenge with eyes wide open. And, that’s most easily done when we seek to learn from those who have navigated these difficult waters before us.

[This is the first post in our series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.]

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Flotsam and jetsam (the very overdue edition)

Darwin speculated that life began in a warm pond on the primordial Earth. Lately other scientists have suggested that the magic joining of molecules that could go on replicating might have happened in an undersea hot spring, on another planet or inside an asteroid. Some astronomers wonder if it could be happening right now underneath the ice of Europa or in the methane seas of Titan.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa prove — not contend — that students are not learning what they should, professors are not doing all they could, administrators are not focused on education enough and, as if that weren’t a glassful, society is and will continue to suffer is something isn’t done about it.

Three hit songs in the last few months have pushed the same message: You are awesome. You’re awesome just the way you are, even –no, especially– if you don’t fit in.

My take on the passage is that it refers to our meeting Christ in the air to welcome him to his earthly rule. If this is a “rapture”, fine, as long as it is not confused with the popular idea.

  • Rod has started what looks like a fascinating series on Firefly & Theology. (If you’re not familiar with Firefly, it was an outstanding scifi series on Fox that sadly only made it through one season, though it was later made into a movie.)

Not everything liberal grows in Oregon soil

Wheaton professor Alan Jacobs writes, “the future of liberal Protestantism is even dicier than we have realized. In a region where liberal churches should be thriving, they are dying, and where evangelicals should be relegated to the margins, they are taking center stage.”  What is this region he is referring to?  Our own Pacific Northwest.  His comments come in response to reading James Wellman’s Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest. To read more of Jacob’s post click here.

For another good discussion, see Matthew Sutton’s article in Books & Culture.

Flotsam and jetsam (evening edition)


As I mentioned a few days ago, I had to put flotsam and jetsam on hiatus for a while so I could focus on some other projects. But, after several appreciative comments and emails, I’ve decided to try a few evening editions. I still won’t be putting these out on a daily basis, but hopefully this is better than pausing the posts altogether.

Ordinarily when we speak of “the Bible as literature” we mean the literary nature of the Bible itself.  My venture in this essay provides another angle on the concept of “the Bible as literature.”  I have explored what the biblical teaching on justification looks like when it is transmuted into works of imaginative literature–the Bible as literature, that is, as imaginative literature composed by extrabiblical authors.

  • Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article on Baylor University’s decision to open up more of its board to non-Baptists. (See also Al Mohler’s comments on the secularization of religious schools).

While a number of Baptist colleges and universities in recent years have loosened or ended ties to state Baptist conventions, the move by Baylor is notable because it is widely considered the flagship university of Southern Baptists. The move came despite opposition from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which last year voted down a similar proposal by Houston Baptist University to permit the election of a minority of non-Baptist trustees there, with church leaders arguing at the time that allowing non-Baptist trustees would dilute the university’s religious identity.

Thousands of defiant protesters in Iran‘s capital have clashed with security officials as they marched in a banned rally. One person was reported killed, with dozens injured and many more arrested.

Push-up bras, pedicures, hip-hop dance classes: These are now the social currency of the under-10 set. What happened? And how can we help our girls stay girls for longer?

The religious significance of Super Bowl commercials

I’m toying with the idea of doing a few posts looking at the religious significance of some of the Super Bowl commercials that will be aired during today’s game. I mentioned a few days back that modern advertising draws much of its power by tapping into religious themes and ideas. So, it might be interesting to take a look at a few of them and see what these commercials might be saying about the religious sensibilities of American culture.

So, if you’re going to watch the game (or just the commercials) today, keep an eye out for any that might make for an interesting theological discussion. If you come up with some ideas, feel free to email me or let me know in the comments.

To help you stay on top of things during the game, here’s a Super Bowl Commercial Schedule.

Or, if you don’t want to bother watching the game, but you still want to see the commercials. Here’s a list of 30 Super Bowl commercials already available for viewing.

Flotsam and jetsam (2/3)

I’m flying to Phoenix this morning for a conference, so just a couple of quick links today.

Here’s the painful reality to someone like me:  it doesn’t matter how carefully I make the arguments, how vociferously I contend that people with gay desires are Christians, how rationally and civilly I try to make my case.   In a world where news stories dominate and facts are hard to obtain, the perception is all that matters.  And when the perception is that evangelicals hate gay people, every argument–of any sort–is inevitably one more piece of proof for the case.

Why can’t all the professing Christians in the world look past their differences and just get along?

Because some of those differences are irreconcilable. Most significantly and most foundationally, the three main branches of Christianity in this country–Roman Catholic, Liberal Protestant, and Evangelical Protestant–do not agree on the locus of authority. We don’t answer the question, “What is our final authority?” in the same way.

From the first pages of Scripture to the last, God demonstrates that where there is need, there is also provision. Where there is emptiness, there is also a remedy. Where there is the aching fear that we navigate our days on earth alone, there is a loving God always present and actively sovereign. But our perception fails at times.

An immigration officer in the U.K. found a novel way to end his relationship with his wife. His cunning plan was to wait until she went abroad to visit family, then add her to name to the terrorist no-fly list. Unable to return from Pakistan for three years, with officials refusing to tell her why, it took three years for the truth to emerge

Alan Hirsch on being a missionary incarnational church

Here’s Alan Hirsch explaining why he thinks that the church has to be both missional and incarnational.

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