09 May 2019 | Story Eugene Seegers | Photo Johan Roux
Jan-Albert van den Berg
Prof Rantoa Letšosa, Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religion; Prof Jan-Albert van den Berg; Prof Kobus Schoeman, Head of the Department of Practical and Missional Theology; and Prof Engela van Staden, Vice-Rector: Academic.

“Have we — have I — thought sufficiently about the deeper and sacred meaning of everyday life?” Intriguingly, this was how Prof Jan-Albert van den Berg concluded his inaugural lecture on 28 March 2019. During this journey, Prof Van den Berg took his listeners via the scenic route, starting with a mere outline of the divine — first a sketch, then a drawing, until a fully-fledged painting emerges — ending with a manifestation of glory as seen by each individual.

Faith in popular culture

“Practical theology,” said Prof Van den Berg, “implies a specific sensitivity and feeling for the description and meaning of practice and praxis. The use of narratives is one possible way of understanding and documenting a specific involvement in praxis.”

As an object lesson from popular culture, Prof Van den Berg cited the now-infamous-yet-ultimately-beneficial amateur restoration of the Ecce Homo by octogenarian Cecilia Giménez in Borja, Spain. The original fresco, ‘Behold the Man’, was painted in 1930 by Spaniard Elías García Martínez. By 2012, the artwork had suffered the ravages of time, until Giménez’s enthusiasm for art restoration happened to it. At first, the historical society and local townsfolk were up in arms. However, since 2012, Borja’s flagging tourist industry has been revived, and the proceeds from the picture’s fame help to fund not only a local museum but a care home for the elderly as well. 

The entire debacle quickly went viral on social media and the internet, leading Prof Van den Berg to comment on the underlying significance of social media as a field of praxis. As a nod to this aspect of modern culture, he specifically used hashtags (#sketching, #drawing, #painting, #tweetingGod, #findingthesacred) for the subtitles of his lecture. He said, “This is how the Twitter world in particular talks about God, in order to express multiple and compound understandings of daily life.” 

Evergreen Bible student

Prof Van den Berg’s love of practical theology dated back to his days as a student, when he said he learnt that “theology was not just a noun but a verb”. He said: “Practical theology’s description of the Divine in everyday life represents, for me, the relevance and topicality with which I associate theology.” He added that the title of his inaugural lecture directly relates to this understanding, as much as it can be strongly associated with his recent doctoral thesis at the University of Queensland, entitled Tweeting God: A practical theological analysis of the communication of Christian motifs on Twitter.

Expressions of faith in the mundane

In answering his question, mentioned at the outset, Prof Van den Berg said: “Perhaps there is more to be seen, heard, and read in everyday-life texts of the Cecilias of the world who take up their ‘paintbrushes’ ”. Stating that formal theological language has, in certain aspects, lost some of its impact and that many people have turned a deaf ear to the articulation of these truths, Prof Van den Berg concluded that “one must envision possible alternative descriptions, in the form of existing practices of #tweetingGod, finding the sacred in everyday life”.

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