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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

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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.

Imitation, Simulation, and Repetition – How We Imagine Ourselves

Imitation, Simulation, and Repetition

Madan Surap’s Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World is the most expansive and impressive examination that I have encountered around the issues of societal conception and cultural identities. His basic assertion, which is expanded as the work progresses, is that “ identities are not entirely determined … we do not have homogenous identity but (instead) have several contradictory selves”.  By interacting with such historic figures as Lacan, Baudrillard, Foucault, Said, and Kristiva, Sarup provides a tour-de-force of elements contributing to a modern conception of self, identity, community, and culture.

Identity has a history. At one time it was taken for granted that a person had a ‘given’ identity. The debates round it today assume that identity is not an inherent quality of a person but that it arises in interaction with others and the focus is on the processes by which identity is constructed.[1]

The construction of someone’s identity involves a process of selection as to which elements will receive consideration and emphasis. “Social dynamics such as class, nation, ‘race’, ethnicity, gender and religion” are then organized into a narrative.

[2] This is the process by which a subject’s story emerges for both presentation (by them) and evaluation (by others).  Sarup utilizes a three themed approach for illustrating the transitional nature of one’s identity:

  • the meaning of home
  • the journey of the migrant and
  • the crossing of the border.

It is clear from the above three keys that Sarup is employing a moving motif. There is transition of movement built into the conception of self and community. By articulating this framework as one expecting migration, he provides an inherent instability and liquidity within the process of conceptualization. Identities within this expectation “do not remain static, but they change according to the strength of social forces, the dynamics of class, nation, religion, sex and gender, ‘race’ and ethnicity”. [3]

The reality that becomes available within this approach is that each of those contributing elements also is a moving target that can, at times, be as transitionary as the personal identities that are framed within it.

It is not difficult to isolate any one of the contributing elements and illustrate how that one category has undergone layers of adjustment, adaptation, evolution and challenge:

  • class (Marx, the Royals of England, modern India),
  • nation (from the French Revolution to post-colonial movements),
  • religion (historic drift of the Methodist from Wesley to today),
  • sex and gender (Foucault, Kinsey, and the feminist revolution),
  • race and ethnicity (see How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev).

The points on which the web of constructed identity are anchored seem themselves to be migrating and moving elements – albeit at a tortuous pace in comparison to personal identity markers.

In order to address the underlying influences and their contribution to the process of formation, Sarup asks a set of leading questions:

  1. How do frames of culture, for example, hold the individual personalities in place?
  2. How are places imagined and represented?
  3. How do they affect people’s identities?
  4. How do the worlds of imagination and representation come together?[4]

I find the questions as helpful at this point in the address as any polished explanations. It is precisely the presumed ‘giveness’ of both identity and community that has triggered my abandonment of former inherited constructions and a subsequent willingness to explore the nature of socially conditioned conceptions of oneself as well as constructivist theory of knowledge (which will be touched on at the conclusion).

Sarup’s three themes introduced earlier (the meaning of home, the journey of the migrant and the crossing of the border) provide a way forward in examining the frameworks associated with a mobile or transitory conception. To clarify, he is saying that “identity is to do not with being but with becoming”.[5]

  • While home is always a place, notions of home are not the same in every culture.
  • Immigrant communities may have home-land but essentially home is a place rooted into one’s family.
  • We are always born into relationships and those are always based in a place.
  • Frontiers are places of separation and articulation.
  • In contrast, boundaries are constitutively crossed or transgressed.
  • Strangers are both aware of their strangeness within and unclassifiable to those without. They are undecidables. The stranger blurs boundary lines.[6]
  • Many strangers attempt to erase this stigma by assimilating.
  • A foreigner is one who does not belong to the group, the other.

These markers and designations form the structure in which Sarup explores the evolving landscape of contemporary global communities and individual conceptions of self and belonging. Ultimately he concludes that:

Identity is a construction, a consequence of a process of interaction between people, institutions and practices and that, because the range of human behavior is so wide, groups maintain boundaries to limit the type of behavior within a defined cultural territory. Boundaries are an important point of reference for those participating in any system.[7]Boy at Cockflight_3

The transitory nature of the cultural boundaries and increasingly fluid conception of personal identities that are framed within them – or in contrast to them – make addressing either the stable elements that exist or the migrating ones difficult without a historic referent or a narrative frame. I am pleased that with a historic approach like social imaginaries/ imagined communities (Taylor and Anderson) and several narrative frames (like the one provided by Sarup) that some progress can be made in examining this issue of socially constructed notions of self, identity, belonging and community.

Sarup warns against several mistakes that those who try to address issues of identity often make:
– One danger is in focusing on an influence or social dynamic in isolation. By isolating only race, or nationality one overlooks the “multiplicity of factors”[8] that contribute to the construction of one’s identity.
– Another danger is found in over simplifying the view of social structures that frame an issue and not analyzing them as significantly complex issues. Among his other cautions, an important aspect to consider is negotiation of “the past-present relation and its reconciliation”.[9]

The past is important because it is though narrative that people represent themselves to themselves.

The representation of the past to oneself becomes vital especially in an American context. Baudrillard has a vicious critique of America’s lack of (perceived) history and how that lack creates an environment where everyone is expected (and has the opportunity) to re-create themselves everyday. He says that America has no ‘ancestral history’, no roots ‘except the future’, and that America is ‘weightless’.[10]

America, according to Baudrillard, is a realization of the hyper-real that is an idealized imagining of an anticipated reality.

In the next post we will begin to get religious. 

 


[1] Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 14.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 171.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] This is where Sarup interacts with the work of Julia Kristeva’s Strangers to Ourselves.

[7] Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 11.

[8] Ibid., 39.

[9] Ibid., 40.

[10] Jean Baudrillard, “America After Utopia,” New Perspectives Quarterly, Fall 2009, 1.

How We Imagine Ourselves: Technology

I am fascinated by how we both image ourselves and imagine ourselves. The connection between them is significant and the implications are even more so.

In March I wrote about how conceptions of a ‘people’ and a ‘nation’ have come through historic transitions in the past 2 centuries. More recent authors extend that concern beyond just text to the escalated pervasiveness of electronic media.  Appiah frames it this way:

The worldwide web of information – radio, television, telephones, the Internet – means not only that we can affect lives everywhere but that we can learn about life anywhere, too. Each person you know about and can affect is someone to whom you have responsibilities: to say this is to just to affirm the very idea of morality. The challenge, then, is to take minds and hearts formed over long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.[1]

This radical re-formation of belonging, obligation and security holds major opportunities as well as obstacles to conceptualizing social identity and participating in imagine community for the 21st century globalized existence. [2] Arjun Appadurai pins media and migration as the two interconnected (and similar) effects that work on “the imagination as a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity” because “they offer new resources and new disciplines for the constructed imagined selves and imagined worlds.” [3]

The rate of change provides a rupture – not merely a transition but an exponential increase in connectivity and complexity.complexity

The power of this new media, according to Appadurai, is not only as a direct source “of new images and scenarios for life possibilities” but in that fact that “imagination has now acquired a singular new power in social life.”[4] Think back to Taylor’s earlier assertion that those in previous centuries not only didn’t have the ability to conceptualize themselves with a life outside of immediate connections but that it probably would have never even dawned them to try.

The capacity to conceptualize or imagine oneself in a radically different place, group or life scenario has not only become possible but it the primary realm of constructing an imaginary.

This shift is facilitated by media technology and is “one of the principle shifts in the global cultural order”. [5]  

Technology is radically changing the way that we conceptualize (imagine) everything from identity, belonging and who we are connected to as well as in what way that happens.

In the next 3 posts I begin to flesh out what this change looks like.

 


[1] Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, xiii.

[2] It is worth noting that a walk down a large avenue in a major city would “have within sight more human beings that most of those prehistoric hunter-gatherers saw in a lifetime.” Even Greece at its heyday or Rome at its peak would have paled in comparison. Ibid., xii.

[3] Appadurai, Modernity At Large, 3.

[4] Ibid., 53.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 115.

[7] Ibid., 117.

[8] A similar case might be made for women who have been disgruntled based on the patriarchal remnants still influencing them and their sisters even though they are aware that they are 51% of the population as a whole. A great deal is made out of the number ‘51’ in juxtaposition to matters of access, equality and compensation. Much is made of that number. What if, one might ask, if that number was changed. Would the case be harder to make? What if only 42% of the population was women? Or what if it turned out that an error had been made and actually 64% of the population was women. Would that make the current inequalities and unjust practices more grotesque?

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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