Possums in Paradise
Long-conceived in the European imagination as an authentic South Seas haven, Aotearoa/New Zealand is internationally renowned as a ‘clean’, ‘green’ pastoral paradise and eco-wonderland. As the New Zealand government’s own Biodiversity Strategy (2000) has noted, however, the New Zealand environment is in fact one of the most radically, rapidly and catastrophically changed on earth. So-called ‘new world’ places such as Aotearoa/New Zealand are founded through willed ecological crisis, with European newcomers seeking to obliterate and replace an existing indigenous lifeworld by importing ark-like consignments of new biota. Latter-day nostalgia for what has been lost and/or imperiled by the floodtide of acclimatised species has produced a conservation agenda in such places which distorts what an apocalypse ‘is’ and what environmental authenticity might mean.
This paper examines the conflicting apocalyptic configurations in which the Australian brushtail possum is entangled in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The possum—Trichosurus vulpecula, or paihamu—was deliberately introduced in the nineteenth century with the intention of inaugurating a national fur industry. The species has flourished in Aotearoa/New Zealand but is widely and vigorously demonized here, not least because of its predilections for destructive browsing on native forest canopy and locally-endemic fauna, and because of its reputation as a reservoir and vector for bovine tuberculosis. Among other things, the possum’s treatment as state enemy has involved banishment, bounty-hunting, baiting, large-scale biochemical warfare, and the development of a Space Invaders-inspired, Crown Research Institute-sponsored online game that invites players to ‘stamp out zombie possums’ (Radio New Zealand, 2014). The virtual reality of this game has been brought to life in the New Zealand government’s newly-unveiled ‘Predator Free 2050’ campaign, which promises to counter the imagined zombie possum apocalypse with an apocalyptic extermination of possums themselves. Understanding these applications of the notion of apocalypse as a ‘truthing’ mechanism of a particular kind, the paper proposes that the possum can be conceived as an isomorph for the figure of the settler who disrupts and remakes local habitats, who secures the future of their own settlement through reproductive dominance, who cannot be expunged, and whose ongoing presence in the place troubles any claim to authenticity. Planned purging of the possum in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the paper proposes, is itself the vectorial expression of a disturbed settler response to the apocalyptic premise and promise of the settler colonial project.
Authentic Theology and Culture in Hull 2017
The announcement that Hull was to be the UK’s City of Culture for 2017 generated bitter humour among some, with lots of people commenting on social media that Hull had no culture at all. In 2003, The Idler website published a book naming Hull as the UK’s “crappest town”.
My paper will explore what Hull’s church leaders’ think of its culture and what factors most influence their churches engagement in 2017. I will examine their theological understandings of culture, both at the beginning and the end of 2017, and whether they change over the City of Culture year. I argue, with Stephen Bevans (2002), that “there is no such thing as theology, only contextual theology”, and all attempts to understand God and the Christian faith must look to people to gain a fuller understanding of not only their faith, but about God too.
I will argue that seeing a town as “crap” and its culture as primarily negative diminishes the self-esteem of its residents, and that churches have a part to play in boosting people’s understanding of their own value. I will argue that a creation-centred theological understanding of culture enables Hull’s churches to cherish their city and want its people to flourish.
I will also explore my use of visual research methods to generate rich and deep data due to these methods’ ability to ‘break the frame’ of reference of both researcher and participant, leading to fresh insights on authentic theology and culture.
Prophecy, Brexit and Babylon: Semiotic Promiscuity in Late Modernity
When Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England gave his post-Brexit statement in an attempt to calm nerves in the immediate aftermath of a seismic shift in European politics, his speech attempted to address the impending sense of uncertainty that loomed over the United Kingdom. He spoke of a trinity of uncertainties that affected the economy: geo-political, economic and policy. All of them feed into what he described as “living in times of considerable uncertainty”.
For Christian fundamentalists who hold to a premillennialist eschatology, that same uncertainty is interpreted in an entirely different fashion. Whereas, uncertainty has become a consistently applied trope for describing the flux of everyday life in western society, premillennialists paradoxically seek to find assurance and stability in that very same turbulent and unsettled climate. Indeed, the trinity of uncertainties Carney referred to are actually understood as the ‘right signs’ from their perspective because they point to the end of the end times.
Richard Landes refers to the preoccupation with such events as semiotic arousal (2011, 14). Specifically, within the worldview of Christian premillennialism I would go further and refer to it as semiotic promiscuity. Premillennialists are on high alert regarding the possible meaning of contemporary geo-political events; there is little in the apocalyptic imagination in this context that needs arousing.
Signs of the end times are everywhere and particularly concentrated in the European Union: its single currency; the European Parliament building in Strasbourg (allegedly and deliberately) designed in the shape of the Tower of Babel; the symbol of the women on the beast (Rev 17) on EU currency, and the flag of the European Union the twelve stars which supposedly betrays the influence of Roman Catholicism in Europe and represents ecclesiastical Babylon. Examples of this are also apparent in debates around Brexit. Such representations were held up as reason for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.
Apocalyptic semiosis is more prominent in late modernity than at any previous time. In this paper I argue that semiotic promiscuity is clearly evident in both the way many premillennialists view the current European Union and in how they approached the debates around Brexit.
 Full speech available at http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/speeches/2016/speech915.pdf. Accessed 10.01.17.
Landes, R. (2011). Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of Millennial Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.