The Art of Research Design: Hope in the Rubble

Today I’m sitting on the couch enjoying a Saturday coffee, ready to sing at our amazing neighbour Elisabeth’s art gallery showing. Her images are the kind you get lost in – she is an explosion of colour and life. Every apartment in our block is standard, but she has even chalked her front door, and it’s beautiful. So I’m excited to celebrate creativity, which seems a theme for this week.

Yesterday, my PhD cohort (10 of us) went through a scary ‘rite of passage’. We are writing our initial research proposal in order for the faculty to give us an OK to continue in our course. On Friday, our class was taught by Sherwood Lingenfelter, Fuller’s former Provost (American word for Head Guy/Principal) and anthropologist extraordinaire, author of ‘Transforming Culture’, and seller of 100,000’s of copies of books. Sherwood has a reputation of merciless honesty, but is also one of the most creative minds I have met. Basically, the process involves submitting our proposed research to the class, who then ‘critique’ it. We ask the presenter questions like ‘how will you actually do that?’,  ‘what do you really mean?’ and ‘what if your intuition and all your reading has led you to the wrong hypothesis?’. It’s out of love for our classmates that we ask these questions… but it’s not always easy to take. And, when the student’s entire house of constructed thought has been bombed, and we’re walking away, attempting to get our invested friend out of the burning remains, Sherwood has an ability to halt the process, and scoop down and point out the life in the middle of the rubble. And suddenly, the weary student’s hope is reignited… and rebuilding starts.

One great bonus is that I’ve learnt a lot about the other PhD topics, such as how American evangelical leaders view Muslims. Also the concept of family in China, and influence of media upon church, and the self-talk of first year college students. It’s struck me that these issues give deep motivation – enough for a person to pause their life for four years to find out more about the ‘problem’. These things don’t need to be research projects for first year PhD students, but all of them become that way due to gaps – in existing knowledge, and in the way the church/university/business responds. Don’t get me wrong, that there are complex problems in the world is good for PhD students! But I’ve noticed, that actually at the core of these issues is a group of people to whom the student forms a commitment – e.g. Chinese migrant workers; American Muslims; parents of college students; church members more “mediatized’ than their pastors. I also have a deep love brewing…

I’ve selected two churches of urban Aboriginal Pentecostal Christians to investigate, from a Development Studies perspective. I will be looking at how Aboriginality is performed within worship, in the ‘stories’ of two specific communities. I will then be seeking to find out how this story affects their role in society. Does going to church actually help Aboriginal people? or does it reinforce poverty and lack of health, as anthropologists suggest? This might seem simple – not so.  Picking the topic was a big deal – selected after eight months of reading, trying to get to the heart of what will be most useful for the nation, and Aboriginal people (and finally acknowledging that if it’s not useful for the academy I don’t get the degree). Anyways, this process is like climbing a mountain, with every book another step towards a point where there is a view of the landscape… knowing that there are many mountain peaks ahead. And in the end, this proposal will be an educated guess of how I’ll climb the rest of the mountain –  supplies and further training needed – and, I guess, an evaluation of whether I have the right path, or the right mountain.

This type of intellectual creativity is emotional, physical, spiritual. It involves thinking deeply about mission – what my mission is, about the role of the Australians missions played in Aboriginal life, and what the future role (if any) of Australian mission is. Sherwood said it best on Friday when he said;

“mission is significant, because within the Bible, God sent his Son and Spirit to us. And what that means in the 21st century, we need to figure out”.

In the last months, I’ve soul searched, and asked God repeatedly to show me what mission is. It is helpful to have varied pictures to compare. The first is the biblical picture. Jesus, knowing He would die, came to bridge the brokeness of the God-human relationship. His was a radical commentary on the society at the time – a gruesome story, even. And yet, this message conveyed God’s deep, deep compassion for those same people, ending any uncertainty about His love. There are also many historical pictures – some of them flawed to say the least. Particularly in Australia – I have read account after account of the ways in which missions reinforced Aboriginal poverty, and the tragedies of the ‘Stolen Generation’. But lastly, I’ve been captured with the model of mission held by Aboriginal Christians. They are full of creativity, passion, often working from a deep sense of spirituality…

The lingering question for me is really not how to reach Aboriginal people, but for Australia as a whole – are we willing to see the Aboriginal Christians in our nation as leaders? Are we able to break the stereotypes and allow ‘Indigenous’ to mean more than just traditional, rural, impoverished? Are we willing to let them speak into our Christianity? Because I really believe we could reduce poverty in Australia in our lifetime – but spirituality is about seeing the life within the burning rubble, it is about perpetuating hope. And I think to do this, our structures and thinking needs to change, and be questioned, and even deconstructed – so it can again grow. We need to pay attention to that life, to that hope in the rubble.

3 thoughts on “The Art of Research Design: Hope in the Rubble

  1. Hi Tanya,

    I look at it a bit like spelling; our culture seems automatically “right” to us, and as Christians it’s very easy for us to think that what seems “right” in our perspective is RIGHT in the sight of God. But His sight has infinitely greater depth, width and breadth than ours, and He sees beauty in what seems completely alien to us.

    May He bless your efforts to bring unity with our indigenous brothers.

  2. I’ll never forget my experiences doing research (for my Master’s degree in 1998) among the Inughuit of Northern Greenland. It was a spiritual punch in the guts. I saw a hurting community and it felt like my contemporary paradigms of ‘mission’ and ‘church’ couldn’t begin to embrace that hurt or bring healing.

    The historical efforts to evangelise these people created expressions of Christianity that struck me as being culturally disconnected… sitting in church in Qaanaaq I listened to European hymns being sung in West Greenlandic (not their own language/dialect btw) with in the background the roar of breaking icebergs. I felt this huge silence inside of me. Like grief maybe. When you realise that the ‘gospel’ isn’t always ‘good news’…

    When I returned home it was a full year before I went back to church. I don’t think there was a soul who understood the questions that hung unanswered in the space of my own Christian experience.

    Later I made attempts to put together a PhD proposal to look at the loss of culture and language among indigenous groups, but never quite succeeded. Partly because the question of ‘influence’ haunted me.

    How do you bring change? Can a thesis change the world? If I write something so few people are interested in, let alone understand, will it set anything in motion?

    And then the big one, am I being ‘romantic’ and ‘nostalgic’? Am I in my care for these issues being patronising and presumptuous about the needs and wants of Indigenous communities?

    Will what I do bring healing, or will it ultimately be like the diagnosis of a doctor, who says “this is your disease”, but is unable to cure?

    It is not a finished chapter for me, but one that is on hold for now. So, it is quite special to see the journey that you are on and fascinating to read your blog & Facebook posts. I respect and admire what you do Tanya. I am sure you have had to navigate some of these issues as well and it’s interesting to see and read about your process. It reminds me so much of my own, with the difference that you are in the process of taking the next step and doing so with much vision and passion.

    I am so glad you are doing what you are doing and can’t wait to see what it leads to!


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