Book Review

"Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends" edited by Kevin Vanhoozer, et. al.

Mark Traphagen
Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Tuesday, November 6th 2007
Nov/Dec 2007

Many Christian books available today seek to interpret or engage culture on our behalf. These (sometimes) wise guides attempt to critique culture in general or some aspect of it in light of the truth of the Bible. Kevin Vanhoozer, Charles Anderson, and Michael Sleasman want to do something more than interpret for us, something that may ultimately prove more useful to the thoughtful Christian desiring to share the good news about Christ in the place and time where he or she lives.

While Vanhoozer shared the editorial task of putting together Everyday Theology with Anderson and Sleasman, the substance of the book flows out of his own thinking. Specifically, the book emerged from a class on cultural hermeneutics Vanhoozer has taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for many years. What makes Everyday Theology not only unique but useful is the way it presents the material of that class. First, in one introductory chapter Vanhoozer succinctly but clearly summarizes the method of cultural hermeneutics he teaches. In the second part, which takes up the bulk of the book, various authors apply his method to a cross-section of current cultural slices-anything from the content of supermarket checkout racks to megachurch architecture. Adding to the freshness of this book's approach is the fact that each of these essays was written not by "professional" theologians but by students in Vanhoozer's class. Whereas Part 2 puts specific cultural phenomena under the microscope, Part 3 seeks to apply Vanhoozer's method to broader cultural trends, such as blogs and fantasy funerals. The book concludes with an essay by the two other editors that models moving from critique to praxis as they think through how a Christian might approach the fit of madness we call the modern wedding.

Vanhoozer surveys the many definitions of culture available, but settles upon that of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who calls culture "a web of significance, an interconnected system of meaningful signs that cry out for interpretation and understanding." Humans work on the raw "stuff" of nature and produce things of significance. These things become cultural "texts" that we need to "read." These texts create "worlds," and the creators of these worlds implicitly or explicitly invite others to join their worlds.

Why bother doing cultural hermeneutics? Vanhoozer reminds us that Christian mission has always been about going to places to engage people with the claims of Christ. That travel, if it is to be successful, usually involves a great deal of preparation: studying the geography and history of the land, learning its language, becoming aware of its taboos and cultural entrance points. Vanhoozer asserts that we must also be ready to go to the worlds of culture. Doing so should involve just as much careful preparation as a mission to a place. We do this preparation, he says, by learning to read a culture's texts and theologically interpret them, with the purpose of engagement and evangelism.

Being able to read culture theologically is also important to the believer's own walk in Christ, according to Vanhoozer. The Apostle Peter reminded his readers that the apostles "did not follow cleverly devised myths" when they "made known . . . the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 1:16 RSV). Reading the culture theologically enables the Christian to discern the idols that may be influencing him more than he knows.

The doctrines of incarnation, general revelation, common grace, and image of God tell us that there is a message from God to be read from even fallen culture. Within the rubric of "faith seeking understanding," the believer, Vanhoozer advises, must both "read cultural texts on their own terms and in light of the biblical text." In setting forth his method of cultural hermeneutics, he says that we must be aware that culture produces not just messages, but discourse. Discourse has many more levels and nuances than just propositional statements. Interpreting through biblical discourse enables us to derive the "thickest" possible meaning from culture. This recognizes, again, that cultural texts, like all texts, create whole "worlds." Thus, Vanhoozer states that cultural texts display more than they argue. The goal of this work of cultural hermeneutics is to uncover the idols of fallen culture and expose them to the truth of God's Word. Everyday Christians with this understanding can be equipped to engage their everyday culture as "a community of cultural agents" who together signify the "end time" reality of God's kingdom, a "permanent revolution" displayed against the principalities and powers of this age.

Vanhoozer and the others serve as excellent teachers, not only telling but demonstrating their material. Many books inform; this book truly teaches. The reader comes away with the tools needed to not only exegete but engage the culture. Especially appreciated is the passion throughout for going beyond criticism to mission. If Vanhoozer is right that the work of culture produces worlds, then we as missionaries must prepare to visit those worlds and bring the "natives" there the gospel in terms they will understand.

Tuesday, November 6th 2007

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