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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

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internet

Intensifying Cycles

Being a professor is amazing. I am grateful for the opportunity and I am enjoying it so much. Do I miss being in pastoral ministry? Yes. Would I be a pastor again? Absolutely. Am I called to help the next generation of women & men find their way into ministry in the church? Yes!

Since my last post I have had 2 sets of intense conversations about the degree & type distinction – the first centers around the internet and the second relates to 9/11.

We live in a politically turbulent time and many people harken back to the 60’s/1968. This is a 100% valid claim. Many people alluded to the similarities and made a case that our current environment/situation is even worse than it was back then. Those who like to quote that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ shrug these similarities off by talking about how things are cyclical and how people like to hit the panic button but in the end we figure it out and things just keep on going.

That might all be true. The differences that I want to account for, however, are three-fold:

  1. the internet
  2. 24 hour news cycle
  3. increased cynicism, distrust, and discouragement

The growing disillusionment with the system, the fatigue from the constant barrage or coverage, and the crisis overload of manufactured spectacle causes me to ask …

Is it possible that our political, economic, racial, domestic, foreign, and environmental concerns are not just different in degree from 1968 but are in fact a new type or different kind of crisis?

I at least want to be open to the possibility that we have crossed into a different sort of quagmire and that we don’t want to simple shrug that off with a ‘this happens every generation or so‘ kind of mentality. Which brings me to the second point.

9/11 was a watershed. It just so happens that the readings for all 3 of my classes this week are from the 1990’s. I can not overstate how old they all sounded. It was like they were from a different era. I started pastoring in the 90’s and every time I talk about the changes that I have seen in just those 20 years, people laugh in recognition of how quickly things have moved.

Invariably the nothing new under the sun crowd says that God is still on the throne and that things have been changing since Bible times.

I just want to be open to the possibility that we have crossed into a different era. Between the internet, airline travel, farming practices (industrial agro), constant media, the global war on terror (not a country) and 1,000 other factors … the change is coming not incrementally any more – but exponentially.

Something is definitely different. That can not be questioned. The question is, “is it different in degree only, or is it different in kind?”

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Critical Questions: part 3 “Is the Internet for Women & Gays?”

This is part 3 of a series of critical questions. You can find part 1 and part 2 here.

“Is the internet for women and gays?” may seem like at odd question at first – but there is a story behind it. I am coming at the question as a researcher.  I am doing research design at UCLA right now in preparation for my dissertation next year. One of the research questions is in relation to technology, the community of users interacts with the technology, and possible issues related to who conceived of and  designed the technology. recycle-resized-600

An interesting case study is found in the Grindr social network community.  Grindr is a widely popular mobile, GPS-enabled hook-up app for gays. The folks at Grindr  had the idea to launch a ‘straight’ version called Blendr, and it has been massive failure. [You can read about why it failed here and here and here ]

One of the theories is that Grindr was conceived of and designed by gays. A hypothesis we were testing is that embedded in the ‘DNA’ of the technology was something inherently ‘gay’ that resonated with its users but was lost in translation when the conversion to Blendr was attempted.

During this research I have also become aware of a growing problem of cyber-bullying, particularly of women and LBGT persons. It shows up on Facebook, Xbox chat rooms during multi-player games, and blogs.

One article about women bloggers contained two different women’s experience.

“The death threat was pretty scary,” says HollaBack! cofounder Emily May. “And there have been several rape threats. But it’s mostly ‘I want to rape you’ or ‘Somebody should rape you.’ Most are not physical threats–they’re more about how ugly I am, how nobody would bother raping me because I’m so fat and hideous. Once, after reading all these posts, I just sat in my living room and bawled like a 12-year-old.”

Jennifer Pozner agrees. “Very rarely have I gotten negative feedback that doesn’t include either a rape threat or calling me ugly and fat. Or sometimes they tell me I’m hot, but they hate what I’m saying– they’d rather watch me on TV with the mute on.” Pozner’s threats have not been limited to online: One man left a letter at her door saying he’d “find you and your mom and rape you both.”

Ponzer says “It’s about the policing of women … using threats to keep us silent.”

It is clear that many of the same oppressive behaviors, patriarchal attitudes and hurtful rhetoric that plague us in the ‘real world’ show up in cyberspace. Is a matter for concern? Is this a surprising reality? Does this need to be addressed?

The question “Is the internet for women and gays?” seems to have 3 initial answers that each expose some significant underlying assumptions.

  • The first possible answer is “Of course it is! In fact, it is a powerful leveler of the social hierarchies and power structures that dominate our inherited cultural history” . The internet is seen to be a democratic space that allows for harmful elements to be exposed and for the community to vocalize and govern in ways that are newly empowering. It allows us the possibility to combat bullies and shame those who are hurtful to others.
  • The second possible answer relates to the idea that embedded in the DNA of technology  are the values and priorities (as well a biases) of it’s designer. In this case, it would make sense that many of the same problems in Western culture are carried over into the technologies that are conceived of and designed by folks from the culture. It is the same shit by different means. Same prejudice – different medium.
  • A third possible answer is that technology is an empty vessel when it comes to values and we, as users, supply it with meaning and content. So a message board, Facebook page, blog and XBox chat room are just spaces that we utilize. They are neutral and can be used in socially positive (welcoming) or negative (aggressive or discriminatory) ways.

Why am I concerned about this? 

This issues concerns me in two ways:

1) I am deeply troubled to read of women bloggers being threatened and intimidated – even virtually. I am concerned about stories I hear from the girls in my youth group about their Facebook experiences. My wife has worked in both Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Counseling while I have been in youth ministry. Issues related intimidation, violence and  oppression-suppression are serious and deeply impact the quality of someone’s life, their mental and emotional health and their capacity to participate in family, church and society.

2) Technology seems to be a good test case for a much larger concern that I have regarding leadership and community development in the next generation. This particular issue gives me great hesitation about getting too excited regarding this potential new era of open-mindedness, equality, acceptance and freedom.  The issue is simply this:
We who have been trained, groomed, shaped, and socialized into the old forms – bring with us into the new forms, our patterns, values, ideas, permissions and prejudices. 

It’s like whenever someone complains about a perceived shortcoming in the Emerging Church, I find myself saying

“yes … but part of that has to do with that which we are emerging from. These are inherited patterns because we are all embedded in systems that contain inherent values. It will take a while to entirely emerge out of that.”

To take this back to our initial question about technology. Technology isn’t the solution to the problems that haunt us. They may be helpful for bringing about the solution – but simply have an open room – Facebook, Xbox chat or blog – is not a fix in itself. The prejudices and issues of power that are ‘outside’ the room are brought in with the people who come in to use the space.

This seems to me to be an import issue to vocalize. My hope is that in simply naming it to raise awareness that technology is not inherently neutral, safe, or equal. There is more going on in our use of Facebook, Xbox chats and blogs than just our use of those technologies. They are not absent of the values, patterns, prejudices and social power dynamics of the world and culture that made them.

We need to be vigilant to address hurtful and harmful material in our technologies. Technology is not neutral – it is embedded with meaning and value.

5 Biggest Pastoral Changes in the Past 5 Decades

I’m preparing to facilitate a conversation with some colleagues in the new year about ministry and honoring tradition. I want to begin – and thus frame – the conversation with the changing culture that we are products of, interact with and attempt to minister to.

It is a different way to approach the topic of tradition, admittedly, but my thought is that we start where we are and then trace threads into the past to uncover their significance. I almost always find it unhelpful to start in the past – say at the Protest Reformation – and then slowly work our way up. It is simply too limiting (in scope) and cumbersome (in process) for the contemporary expectations of ministry.

I have been reading a little Gordon Kaufman. He has me thinking about the ‘nuclear age’ and how deeply that shift, from the end of WWII, has impacted us sociologically, psychologically, and spiritually. I take this as my launching off point.

 So here are my Big 5 – in no particular order. I wanted to throw them out here and see what others who are older, or wiser, or more insightful might add to the list or modify.

 Pervasive Pop Psychology  – My dad tells a story about interviewing retired pastors 30 years ago. He asked them when things seemed to change. All of them, without exception, pointed to the window from 1968-1970. They talked about Woodstock, Vietnam, and Nixon among other things.

Many of them also talked about people’s awareness and pop psychology. I will always remember the story of a son who came home from college to visit his folks on the farm. He tried to talk to his dad about his feelings, motivations, childhood memories, his subconscious, etc.  His dad responded, ‘Son, what the hell are going on about?’ He just had no frame of reference for it. Similar stories were repeated, in differing configurations, over and over by  the ministers.

Pop psychology has permeated every facet of society. From Oprah on daytime TV to Self-Help books – it impacts what people expect from a pastor and what they want from things like premarital counseling.
In my first 10 years of ministry, I often said that I would have more prepared for the actual way I spent my week if I had gotten a degree in psychology  rather than in Bible.

Biblical Scholarship – speaking of the Bible, I am shocked as to how much different those conversations go than they did 20 years ago when I was trained in Apologetics/Evangelism.  Between the Jesus Seminar, the Da Vinci Code and Bart Ehrman popularizing the stuff many pastors knew from seminary but were not allowed to say in the pulpit, it is a very different playing field.

It is an odd split: people often know little of the Bible – because they know so much stuff about the Bible. We can’t assume even a Sunday School understanding or a surface devotional reading. But at the same time, the culture wide awareness of critical Biblical scholarship is shocking. That was not true 50 years ago.

The Internet – The Internet changes everything. From the way people spend time to the way that they shop for a church. Facebook has changed how people connect to each other. Google has changed the way people access information. It is impossible to overstate how big of an impact the Internet has had on Western society. If you are still doing church the way you did 50 years ago – and think that it will have the same effect – you are fooling yourself. You may have the same seed, but the soil itself has changed. It will not grow the same crop or produce the same fruit.

Two little examples: When kids who grew up in your church come home from college and sit in on Sunday school (for example). They will assume that they get to share their opinion. They don’t sit quietly and honor the elders by talking last. They will raise their hands and talk first. Is it that they are over empowered? No. It is that they assume that they get to help shape the discussion and their opinion is valid. They don’t sit quietly and try to get up to speed or catch up on what they have missed.

  • This is the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.  A church website is 1.0 – the staff puts out the information that it wants people to see. You read it like a newspaper. It is not interactive. Facebook is 2.0 – it creates the environment but does not generate the content. Young people live in 2.0

Doug Paggitt talks of ‘the pastor as Google’. I love this. People don’t go to Google for Google. It is not a destination. It helps people get to their destination. If it does this well, people trust Google and go it often. Pastor used to be like encyclopedias. They were a resource, a destination for information. Now, the pastor’s office is not a destination, the art of pastoring is help people find theirs. If we do that well, they trust us and come back the next time they need direction.

Pastor as encyclopedia is a repository of information. Pastor as Google is a resource that knows how to find the information.

24 Hour News & Christian Media –  Cable news and Christian radio probably have a bigger impact on the people who fill the pews that any pastor can be expected to have in a 30 minute sermon once a week.  There is no other way to say it, the narrative that is being put out on media outlets like Fox News (Clash of Civilizations) or Christian Radio (the 6 Line Narrative) is so pervasive and so monolithic that it can feel as if your parishioners are being pastored far more by their TV and car radio that you will ever be able to.

This is also part of why our country and culture have become so:

  1. polarized
  2. adversarial

I am horrified by this trend more than all the others combined. I think that it hurts the heart of God and I know that it hurts our Christian witness.

Fractured Globalism  and PostModernity – People have great troubles conceptualizing and articulating how fractured, dislocated, overwhelmed and powerless they feel in the global marketplace. Things are not simple now. Things have never been more complex and overwhelming. Look at the food on your table? Do you know where it comes from? Think about your Thanksgiving dinner last week and imagine how many miles and from how many countries those ingredients were trucked to end up on your table. You might be shocked.

Think about your car. Was it all made and assembled at the same plant? Or even in the same country. The automotive industry was fairly straight forward 50 years ago. Now it is an example of inter-national, multi-corporation conglomerates. We have been de-centered, and people feel it. The way we conceptualize ourselves, our connection to family, the way we picture the world working, the universe and thus God. The best book I have read on the subject is “Identity, Culture, and the Postmodern World” by Madan Sarup.

The PostModern Turn – speaking of PostModern, this may be the biggest of the 5 changes. It is funny to me that some christians still want to debate if the category is real just because it can not be succinctly or universally defined (how very modern!)  Look, call it what you want: late-modernity, hyper-modernity, high-modernity, or some other thing – what can not be denied is that something big and deep has shifted. Blame it on the philosophers (Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, etc) if you want. Make up a new name for it if you must. But please stop pretending that what we are looking at is nothing radical or unexpected. Even the ostrich thinks that it is time to pull your head out of the sand!

One interesting reaction, and this applies to denominations, is the counter-modern responses that want to go back to an imagined past and reclaim a romantic pre-shift relationship between the Christian religion and

  • society
  • the economy
  • science
  • other religions

You can see this in counter-modern responses like Radical Orthodoxy (retreating to the hills of Thomism), Post-Liberal thought, Hyper-Calvinism and the Tea-Party in politics. Even if you pastor with an established denomination (and many don’t) you have to contend with these fractious groups that will impact your congregation.

Those are my 5 Big changes for Pastors over the past 50 years. I would love your thoughts!  What would you take out and what would you add?

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