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Vanhoozer on How to Interpret Our Culture

A review of the book "Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends"

People have long loved vampires, but they've never loved them more than in 2008 and 2009. From Stephenie Meyer's young-adult vampire-romance novels to HBO's television series True Blood, the world can't spend enough time with these fanged friends.

Here's something I've noticed in the world of music: more and more women (Pink, Britney Spears, and Rihanna, in a sad bit of irony) are singing songs that champion violent defiance—a sort of feminism on steroids.

I'm not sure what to make of the rise of Judd Apatow (the brains behind movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up). His comedies have taken the cinematic world by storm—works that revel in the ribald while thoughtfully acknowledging society's desperate need for responsible males.

And what about the wild popularity of social networking sites? In any given family in America, it's likely that both 9-year-old Sally and 90-year-old Grandma have a Facebook account.

You might not think much about these matters. But I do. And I will do so even more after reading Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Baker Academic, 2007).

The driving force behind Everyday Theology is Kevin J. Vanhoozer, former Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, now Blanchard Professor of Theology at Wheaton College Graduate School. In 2001, Vanhoozer offered for the first time a class entitled "Cultural Hermeneutics." His reason for doing so was simple: students were well acquainted with biblical hermeneutics (the study of principles and methods for Bible study), but had rarely been introduced to principles and methods for studying culture. The course was so well-received that Vanhoozer has since taught it annually, and in 2007, along with co-editors (and former students) Charles A. Anderson and Michael J. Sleasman, Vanhoozer published Everyday Theology, a sort of abbreviated version of the class.

With this book Vanhoozer expands his classroom to teach all of us how to do what he calls "everyday theology"—to study the many cultural texts that pepper the landscape (television shows, movies, books, websites, trends, and so forth) with an eye toward understanding the "theological lay of the land" (p. 7). Vanhoozer insists that reading the pages of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, exploring the lyrics to Pink's "So What," determining the cinematic trends present in Judd Apatow's films, and charting the rise of Facebook might very well help us unlock our understanding of the working theology of our day (wider culture's understanding of God and all things related—humanity, life, death, and so on). If you look closely enough, the current obsession with vampires (Meyer) might reveal our convictions about mortality and immortality, the temporal and eternal. Defiant songs by feminine artists (Pink) seem to go hand in hand with what's going on in Apatow's universe: we desperately desire a masculinity that offers security without being oppressive. The rise of Facebook and Twitter further proves that we know we were made for community, and we will find it by way of virtual means if necessary. And all of these things, of course, in some manner touch on God and his character.

With this book Vanhoozer expands his classroom to teach all of us how to do "everyday theology"—to study the many cultural texts that pepper the landscape with an eye toward understanding the "theological lay of the land."

Some will raise an eyebrow (or two) over Vanhoozer's convictions about everyday theology. I can certainly see why they might be concerned. As with most any discipline, cultural exegesis has its share of dangers. In the first few paragraphs of the book's introduction, Vanhoozer spells out perhaps the greatest among them: "The gospel—the power of God unto salvation—can transform culture; culture, however, is only too happy to return the compliment." In other words, those who seek a way for change might be changed themselves—an unintended conversion in the wrong direction. I thought of other dangers as I read. It's possible that in your effort for understanding, you might spend more time interacting with the cultural texts of your neighbor than your actual neighbor—an awful mistake, because it is an incarnational ministry that is most effective at both impact and even understanding (a "live" face-to-face encounter might reveal that your neighbor isn't at all interested in the newest book by John Irving, the television show Lost, or that pop song that "everyone" has downloaded to their iPod). Still another danger is our embracing a conviction that says mass consumption of television, movies, music, literature, websites, and other forms of media is the only way toward understanding our audience. The truth is, you probably don't need to soak yourself in the universe of Jack Bauer to pick up that the U.S. is drunk on fear to the point of doing whatever it takes for security. A five-second glance at the headlines will tell you that. Better yet, a five-minute conversation with a congregant in the hallway after services can expose an awful lot about the world.

But despite the dangers inherent in cultural exegesis, the discipline is of great importance for us as Christians and as preachers. Vanhoozer offers a particularly potent line of defense that I feel defuses most criticism (in terms that will surely make sense to us as communicators of God's Word): "The reason why theology must study God and contemporary culture is the same reason why preaching must connect both with the biblical text and the listener's context: because disciples do not follow the gospel in a vacuum but wend their Christian way through particular times and places, each with its own problems and possibilities." So, let's do pay attention to what people are watching, reading, listening to, and learning about. Let's take a look at the box office returns next weekend. Let's check out who's king of the literary hill via The New York Times bestseller list. Let's go to iTunes to see what everyone has blaring in their car. Let's use the next commercial break not as an opportunity to shake more salt on our popcorn, but actually to watch the commercials for a little insight into the trends that are hounding the population. And let's carefully connect all of the dots to find the picture of God and life as a whole that is being painted. These are the things speaking into—shaping—the worldview of the people who will soon gather on Sunday morning. As we prepare our sermons—as we prepare to speak into and shape the worldview of our people—we really can't place too high a value on clearly knowing what needs to be elevated or toppled in culture in an effort at creating space for the kingdom.

Should you grab a copy of Everyday Theology—and you should—set aside a good chunk of time (and find a quiet spot) to read Vanhoozer's opening essay. It's worth the price of admission. Though a bit wordy and complex to the point of needing to be read more than once, Vanhoozer offers a bird's-eye view of culture (how it has been defined, how it should be defined) and the manner in which it should be approached (how to interact with it, how not to interact with it). It's a masterful bit of writing that is substantive, but clear. The rest of the book, then, is comprised of collected essays from some of Vanhoozer's former students. Chapters 2-6 examine specific cultural texts (example: the movie Gladiator and its vision of hope), while chapters 7-10 examine larger, more complex cultural texts (examples: the rise of the blogging phenomenon or the current interest in transhumanism). Because we all have different interests, not all the essays will capture your imagination. But each one will better educate you on what to look for in the world around you, while also showcasing an appropriate approach to cultural exegesis that moves you along from observer to interpreter to change agent (the trajectory Vanhoozer champions in his opening essay).

If you find yourself looking for related reading, you'll certainly find a whole host of suggestions at the close of Vanhoozer's opening essay and in the endnotes of the book (another plus of this great resource). It's important to note as well, though, that Everyday Theology is actually one book in a series on cultural exegesis from Baker Academic. You might also want to check out the following works:

Also, if you want to hear more from Vanhoozer about everyday theology, be sure to come back in two weeks to read an interview the editors of PreachingToday.com did about his book and its relationship to preaching.

And finally, if all of your reading has you interested in engaging in cultural exegesis but you need to know what texts you ought to be paying attention to, be sure to visit the Preaching Today blog. Each Wednesday we offer links to stories that show possible intersections between gospel and culture, while every Friday we offer a link-heavy list of the top movies, books, music, and most-searched-for items of the week.

Brian Lowery is managing editor of PreachingToday.com.

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