Everyday Theology is a collection of essays that present a Christian way of analyzing culture. Ranging from "The Gospel According to Safeway" (see excerpt) to "Between City and Steeple: Looking at Megachurch Architecture," each chapter dissects an aspect of North American culture through a biblical lens.
Kevin Vanhoozer, the chief editor of the book, has been teaching a class called Cultural Hermeneutics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School since 2001. Everyday Theology emerged out of those classes.
Vanhoozer spoke with CT about the book and his exegetical approach to culture.
Can you explain what this collection of essays is about?
The big idea is that we're Christians trying to live the Christian life in the world. But in order to live a Christian life, we have to somehow embody the Word in a world that the Scriptures never envisaged.
Seminaries usually do a good job helping students understand the Word, but if discipleship is helping students live out the Word in the world, we've also got to understand our world.
And so the book is about a methodnot the only method that's using different disciplines coordinated by theology to help students exegete their everyday world.
How would you define cultural exegesis?
It's trying to determine the meaning of culture. And I would define culture as everything human beings do that we don't do by reflex. Cultural exegesis treats culture like a text. It asks, "How do you read culture?"
So why do you think people need this book, Everyday Theology?
The book helps to wake us up, to see what's going on in a different framework. This is necessary if people want to have a deeper faith and understand the way the church has to respond to this very complicated situation.
Is it just business-as-usual for the church? Should we be like culture? Should the church use all the tools that seem to be working in culture, like marketing tools? Well, we have to understand something about marketing and where that comes from and to what extent it's got a hold of our culture's imagination. And then we have to ask what it meanswhat's really being assumed by these practices? Should the church be engaged in that, should it resist it, should it redeem it?
You mention theology often when you write about cultural exegesis. Do you understand theology to be broader than understanding God?
Theology is about faith seeking understanding. What it's trying to understand is God, but also ourselves in light of who God is. We're in his image. We're in his world. Particularly, we're trying to work out our relation to God and God's relation to us.
Everything we do, says the apostle Paul in Colossians, we're to do to the glory of God. The kind of life we make together as Christians should glorify God. Life we make together is culture. One of the things cultural exegesis does is it asks, is the life we're making together in the church and in our societies glorifying to God? We have to know something about who God is to answer that, because to glorify God is to respect God back to himself, celebrating his attributes, his love, his mercy.
So we need to know who God is. We need to know whether what we're doing in everyday life is glorifying to God. And that's how cultural exegesis and theology connect.
Would understanding culture shed light on the nature of God?
This is a current talking point in evangelicalism. One extreme would be, perhaps the older, fundamentalist let's shun culture. It's not of God; let's avoid it; God is where culture isn't. The problem with it is if you withdraw from culture, you have no redeeming effect on it. You won't be able to be salt and light, and you would miss something important that would help you develop as a human being. So I do encourage students not to have knee-jerk reactions against culture. Understanding means you've got to stick with it for a while to discern whether there is something of God going on.
After all, if culture is what humans do, and humans are in the image of God, we can't too quickly rule out the possibility that there are going to be signs of common grace or the image of God in culture.
The other extreme would be to too quickly buy into it. There are interesting books out now in the evangelical world about finding God in popular culture. Here I think we have to be discerning. It is true that God can make himself known through nature and the stars above and if he has implanted his image in us, we can know certain things about God, I suppose, through what people do. I'm not sure we can come to saving knowledge of God through culture, though. You can't substitute culture for the gospel. The gospel is going to be a Word that interrupts culture.
I'm somewhere in the middle: We just need to be discerning. There will be things we can affirm in culture, there will be things we'll have to reject in culture. But to the extent that culture is the product of human beings who bear God's image, there is the possibility that we'll see something of God's image reflected in culture. This is why I think we need to do exegesis. We need to find out what's being said and what it means before we can say yes or no to it.
In the introduction, you asked, "How does one evangelize cultures that have already received the gospel only to revise or reject it?" I suppose you're talking about Western cultures?
That's right. I was reflecting what Lesslie Newbigin has said. He has been the one who called our attention to the fact that we're at a new point in church history. This is the first time we've ever had to face and deal with a post-Christian culture. So, evangelism has to take on a different meaning now, and that's what we're working through. How do you evangelize a culture that already knows the gospel, has accepted it, and then has moved on to a different story?
How much of an answer do you have for that question?
Simply giving people information isn't enough. That used to be a big part of evangelism. We would hand out tracts and Bibles, we would give people the information. Now what people need is to know not simply what the story is, but how does one live the story. They need to know that it can be lived; they need to see what it means in the 21st century.
In order to answer the question of meaning, we have to show peoplenot just tell themabout the story of Jesus. We need to be forming Christian communities that form compelling corporate ways, compelling corporate witnesses to the nature and meaning of the gospel. And that's a huge task for the church.
If the church is doing its business right, I think it will be a parable of the kingdom that will be just as shocking and subversive to our day as Jesus' parables were to his.
What resources do people need to analyze their culture?
I think the first thing is that you have to be conscious that culture is a piece of communicationlike a textthat calls for interpretation. One of the things [Everyday Theology] is trying to do is a bit of vision casting, trying to raise people's consciousness. Don't just take this for granted, don't just take it at face value. Let's think about this and what it means. The second thing you need is a way of making sense of it.
Just as we learn to read English, Christians need to move toward cultural literacy. We have this movement in our schools, No Child Left BehindI'd love to see our churches have a similar program called No Christian Left Behind that was all about literacybiblical literacy, theological literacy, and also cultural literacy.
How would they go about doing that?
Just as we learn how to read step-by-step, you have to teach the basic steps to reading culture. You should start by asking questions of a culture that you would ask of a text. Such as, Who is the author of this? What is the author trying to accomplish? How is this structured? What does the structure tell us about the intent of the people making it? What is it saying, what is it doing, what effect is it having on people? We need to start asking a barrage of questions.
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Also see "The Gospel According to Safeway", which was excerpted from Everyday Theology.
Other articles on books are available on our site.