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Blog – Day 4

Have come to the end of another iasym international conference.  Even though it’s only three and a half days, there’s such a wealth of information and ideas, and plenty of time for conversation and reflection that it feels like much longer.  It was, again, a worthwhile investment of time; and a great eye-opener to be here in Africa.  Here’s thoughts on the final paper and some summary reflections.

The final paper had the intriguing title, “Free as a Bird in the Path of a Plane: Youthful liberty amid global forces”.  It was delivered by Russell Haitch, Associate Professor of Christian Education and Director of the Institute for Ministry With Youth and Young Adults at Bethel College, Indiana, USA.  I met Russell two years ago in Cambridge and appreciated his encouragement and shared emphasis on the scriptures.  This paper yesterday was for me one of the stand out presentations of the conference.

He began by noting that top of the list of global concerns is ‘freedom’ but that freedom is a tricky concept.  There is both the sense that freedom has unquestionable value (free thinking, free exchange of ideas), and that freedom has questionable value.  Freedom as a concept is ambiguous and needs clarification.  How am I supposed to use my freedom?  Does freedom from oppression mean more than becoming an oppressor?  We are aware of external restrictions that limit our freedom, but what about our internal compulsions that do the same?

The first aim of the paper was to describe the way ‘freedom’ is being pursued in our global culture today.  Employing the image from the title, if young people are ‘free as a bird’ then there are five ‘-isms’ that are the plane in their path:

  • Individualism: the freedom to be myself
  • Fundamentalism: the freedom to be different
  • Proteanism (from the Greek God Proteus who was able to change his shape): the freedom to renew myself
  • Consumerism: the freedom to buy things
  • Postmodernism: the freedom to have my own view 

With great insight Russell provided examples of how the quest for freedom was being compromised by each of these –isms through examples from the USA, France and Africa.

In the US context he spoke of the influence of postmodernism and individualism on religious faith, producing ‘the loneliness and chaos of subjectivity’.  Two seemingly opposite responses to postmodernism are fundamentalism and proteanism – the fundamentalist wants the freedom to choose to lock truth down into a container they can hold; the protean wants the freedom to change themselves, remaining on a continual quest for identity and self invention.  Yet both share a sense of homelessness; both the fundamentalist and the protean are looking for community.

In France Russell reflected on the push among young muslim women to wear the headscarf.  Noting that these women aren’t simply following in the traditions of their families (since their mothers have not worn the headscarf), rather than being an expression of Islamic submission to God’s law we may well be seeing an assertion of freedom in the mode of Western individualism. 

In Africa (drawing on the work of Emmanuel Kotongole from Uganda), Russell noted that consumerism shapes the identity of African youth.  He noted that the symbol of global consumer culture is not McDonalds, but the condom.  The message for African young people in the ubiquitous advertising of condoms is that freedom no longer comes from communal responsibility and practices but through the disposability of human relationships and commitments and the supreme importance of self-happiness.

In contrast (and for me the really brilliant contribution of this paper), Freedom in Christ corrects the distortions in global forces of ‘liberty’

  • The incarnation corrects individualism: because the incarnate Son comes as a member of the Trinitarian unity;
  • Baptism corrects fundamentalism: because the self doesn’t surrender for the sake of the self alone but joins in Jesus’ baptismal surrender;
  • The anointing of the Spirit corrects proteanism: because the transformation from the Spirit is not change for its own sake but change into Christlikeness and empowered for service in the world;
  • Lord’s Supper corrects consumerism: because we are not merely consumers of bread and wine but communers with God, setting patterns of sharing and divine abundance;
  • Worship corrects postmodernism: because it deepens my sense of unity with others AND deepens my appreciation of the particularity of others; in worship the other is not an enemy to be opposed or a curiosity to be observed but a brother.

The conclusion of the paper was the challenge to regain the focus on Christian discipleship for real action in the world.  Russell employed the Jewish concept of halakha, meaning ‘the way to go’ as the encouragement to make our knowledge of Christian freedom lived out in the world – so proteans can become more stable and fundamentalists more contextual.  It reminded me a lot of Vanhoozer’s emphasis on both exegetical science and practical wisdom.

There was so much in this paper that was valuable – insightful analysis, theological reflection and practical wisdom.  I am very much looking forward to working over it again when I get a copy of the full text.

That’s a wrap on iasym 2011 then.  It’s back on again in 2013 and, who knows, it may even end up in Sydney in 2015.

My colleague Reggie Nel from South Africa reflected on the conference with this tweet: “God is at work in my own journey with youth ministry colleagues who are different. I need more prayer to be true.”  Reggie and I are different in many ways – culturally and theologically.  But undeniably God is at work in my brother and all those at the conference, and our fellowship together enables all of us to grow and be changed.

Our fellowship and friendship provides the space for us to press one another and challenge one another.  I hope that as time goes on we will be able to do that more and more and not fall into the danger of mere civility that decides to ignore the challenge of working through and amidst different.  United in Christ, what we share in common is far more significant than the differences of our respective contexts. 

I am very grateful for the privilege of attending the conference and hope that what we have conferred on together will serve in some way to see more young people across the world given the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to know the blessing of his coming Kingdom.

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