We All Need Kevin Vanhoozer’s “EveryDay Theology”: A Book Review

Kevin Vanhoozer et al.’s Everyday Theology is a new book on the cultural studies scene. The subtitle is “How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends.” It is co-edited by two of Vanhoozer’s students (and doctoral candidates) Charles Anderson and Michael Sleasman.
As I said here, too often the default mode of cultural engagement (especially for protestants) is to see God and truth in all of culture by looking for correlations in culture with ready truths of Christian theology (ala Tillich). The other side of this is the fundementalist rejection of all culture as somehow a sphere of human activity detached and in separation from God. Most evangelicals and Americna protestants want nothing to do with this so they all too often join up on the Tillichian bandwagon. I believe Vanhoozer (and friends) offers us in this book a mode of cultural hermeneutic which avoids these pratfalls.

The biggest contribution of this book comes from the first essay by Vanhoozer himself. It is entitled “What is Everyday Theology?: How and Why Christians Should Read Culture.” This is a thick methodological essay that perhaps tries to accomplish too much in one essay. Yet for someone (like myself) who teaches in the area, a single methodological essay like this is just what the doctor ordered! It contains a concise history of the back ground to culture studies as well as a theory of cultural signs that enables one to engage them as texts with an inherent integrity on their own and well as theologically, for what they say to us about the reality of God. This is important for as Vanhoozer tells us, culture orients us to the world through cultivating habits and moods. Culture shapes our imaginations as opposed to arguing over propositions via reason. Therefore, we need to engage culture with this in mind knowing culture is shaping the very dwelling place we are inhabiting, the very ways we can or cannot imagine God.

To understand this about culture reiterates some common themes for me about the failure of evangelical church. First, we evangelicals have not engaged culture enough to either inhabit it or speak from within it. Too often we have withdrawn. Neither have we paid attention to our own culture of Christianity sufficiently to realize we are failing miserably at shaping the imaginations of our own people to allow them to see the way God is working in our own lives and the world around us. We have in a sense opted out of the work of culture formation leaving the minds of our people helpless and submitted to the only culture left, Hollywood, Wall Street and the American dream. In comparison to this, the culture of evangelicalism is either boring and lifeless and so a total capitulation to these forces (prosperity gospel, Jesus is my therapy etc.) is the only option evangelicals have left.

Vanhoozer gives us some tools to approach culture as Christians that calls evangelicalism out of its cultural malaise. In this regard, one of Vanhoozer’s key insights is that we must approach cultural products as texts. “If culture is made up of “works” and “worlds” of meaning. … Culture is what we get when humans work the raw material of nature to produce something significant . Let us call the products of such work cultural texts. Why “texts”? Because a text is intentional human action, a work that communicates meaning and calls for interpretation. This is exactly what cultural works do. (p. 26).” Let us not confuse Vanhoozer’s use of “texts” with some propositional exegesis oriented way of seeing a text. Vanhoozer is following philosopher Paul Ricouer here where each cultural text can be examined for the world behind, of and in front of the cultural text (p. 48). Cultural texts are much more than mere documents produced by culture. They are any kind of sign, symbol, media, artifact that communicates something about our values, our concerns, our self understanding. Amidst the myriad of ways proposed these days by cultural theorists to analyse cultural sites, Vanhoozer’s proposal to look at cultural signs (artifacts, media, figures, movies etc.) as texts is helpful (although not without potential dangers to those over zealous seekers of “authorial intent”). His proposal helps guide a method of cultural analysis that is simple enough to follow yet complex enough to cover the multiple angles one must cover in approaching a cultural symbol for its (multiple) meanings, its functions within society and its effects upon the consumers of culture.

Perhaps the highlight of this essay is Vanhoozer’s challenge to Christians that we become an effective community of cultural agents of the gospel. This involves first, interpreting culture in light of a biblical theological framework and second, interpreting Scripture by embodying gospel values and truths in concrete cultural forms. For Vanhoozer, TO BE A CULTURAL AGENT IS TO BE A PERSON ABLE TO MAKE HIS OR HER OWN MARK ON CULTURE RATHER THEN SIMPLY SUBMIT TO CULTURAL PROGRAMING (p.55). VANHOOZER DRAWS UPON GRAMSCI TO CALL ALL CHRISTIANS TO BECOME “ORGANIC INTELLECTUALS”: intellectuals not sequestered in ivory towers but directly connected to a certain people group … who disseminate worldviews by calling into question customary ways of thinking and acting, thus challenging the people’s consent to the prevailing order.” (p.57) This is what Vanhoozer means by “everyday theologians.”

If there is one haunting spectre to Vanhoozer’s proposal it is this. Can Christians be this and or do this in any way apart from being a Christian culture itself? Through the essay there is a danger in thinking that here is a method that I as an individual can learn and master to become a cultural critic, translator, bridgebuilder and change agent all by myself. The problem for me however (maybe I’ve read too much Foucault) is how do I possibly escape the cultural web I am being shaped in sufficiently to engage the culture? How do I escape the cultural imagination I have been immersed in long enough to possibly engage it theologically without being subsumed by it already in another form? To me, unless we engage some of these cultural forces as a community, in some sense producing and interacting as a culture ourselves out of the history we already have in Christ, we too as individuals shall succomb to the mind-numbing forces of the culture industries of America. Is this not why evangelical church already looks a lot like Disney on Sunday mornings, or Tony Robbins in a stadium, or Wal-Mart making available Jesus in ready made convenient consumer choices?

This is why I take heart at Vanhoozer’s statement at the close of his essay. “When the people of God learn to read the signs of the times and to respond to culture so that they become a sign of the end time, they will have achieved not only cultural literacy but counter-cultural wisdom. For the church is to be a contrast society, an ecclesial excorporation that demonstrates a way of living blessedly here and now by taking not only every thought but every cultural text and way of life captive to Jesus Christ. What the world needs now are Christian cultural agents who demonstrate the understanding of faith by performing the gospel and giving concrete form to the kingdom of God wherever two or more are gathered, in the country garden, the city gate, the megachurch, the multiplex.”p.59

Here’s some questions evoked by Vanhoozer. In what ways has evangelical Christianity failed at engaging culture? Are there just some things in culture that are not capable of being taken captive to Jesus Christ that evangelicals had no business incorporating? i.e. Megachurch- Wal-Mart? Are there things we have shunned that are avenues for witness? i.e. Beer? Can we please have a theology which gives the artists a place alongside other interpreters of Scripture? How should we use movies as cultural bridges to the gospel? (I admit I have the bad habit of using movies (not clips in sermons BTW) as narrative exegesis tools almost every Sunday). Any other comments to Vanhoozer and my take on him?

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