I can honestly say I love teaching all my modules on the undergrad and post-grad courses in IBI. But it’s when you get ‘in’ to the nitty gritty of teaching and interacting with students that a module comes alive – and every time is different because every group of people has its own dynamic.
We’ve recently begun ‘Faith in Contemporary Culture’. But it could just as easily be called ‘Everyday Discipleship’, or ‘Being Resident Aliens’ (re quote Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon) or even perhaps ‘How To Develop Your Love Life’ – but I suspect that might lead to disappointment.
We try to set the historical context and also consider what culture is and how it works in the first 3-4 weeks. The idea here is to look at the ‘big stories’ that have framed Christian faith and experience for centuries: Christendom (Irish style) to post-Christendom; modernism (human progress, reason etc) to post-modern scepticism and disenchantment. I used to spend more time on these big stories. Another major one is nationalism (again Irish nationalism was a very particular expression but still typical of a of modernist metanarrative of the onward march of the nation leading to a utopian future).
But I’ve shifted to spend more time in the present – in the contemporary stories that shape our culture. Here’s the overall framework.
Several ideas lie behind this approach
One is that we are storied people – identity and purpose are found in and through narratives of meaning.
Old narratives are in the process of fragmenting in all directions.
The narrative of the free self, with love at its core, is probably the dominant story of Western culture.
We are first and foremost ‘lovers’ – people who are shaped by desires and loves. To quote JKA Smith, we are what we love.
Contemporary culture is a desire factory. Consumerism is first and foremost, after our hearts.
Christian theology needs a robust theology of love and desire if it is going to even begin to grapple with the pervasive reach of contemporary consumerism.
Augustine’s theology of love and desire is a profoundly important entry point to begin to think theologically and critically about contemporary consumer society.
A theological response of what it looks like for Christians to be ‘resident aliens’ or a ‘community of resistence’ will need embodied practices that reflect an alternative narrative. In other words, to live as disciples of Jesus, to live to his kingdom and not the kingdom of the market, means intentionally resisting the corrosive story of consumerism. It means living to another story.
To even begin to do this requires first recognising consumerism’s power, its pervasive reach, and unmasking its ‘invisibility’ – how consumerism is taken for granted as a perfectly ‘normal’ way of envisioning a fulfilling life. It’s the air we breathe every day.
[I’m not the first to say this, but my sense here is that swathes of modern Christianity have a comfortable and uncritical relationship with the values, story and destructive impact of contemporary consumerism. A gospel of personal salvation has little or nothing to say about the idolatry of the market. If an illness is undiagnosed and we don’t even know we are sick, then we aren’t going to pose much of a challenge to the marketeers and gods of mammon.
More positively, the Christian faith has a positive vision of what it means to live a flourishing, good and happy life – and it is not a consumerist one (to put it mildly). Christians follow a crucified Messiah after all.
This course encourages and facilitates students to work out that Christian vision for a flourishing life for themselves.
So that’s a flavour of what’s going on – comments and suggestions for reading welcome