No Need for Sunday: A Theory on the Making of Donald Millers

imagesFar be it from me to theorize about a person, or make that person a type…but I’m going to for the sake of trying to process a couple things that appear to be endemic to evangelicalism as a church culture.  I should say that while I haven’t read much of his work, I like Donald Miller and this post is more about trying to see a process, a natural nearly unavoidable process as I see it, inherent to the evangelical style that makes for Donald Millers, that is, an eventual “meh” response to going to church on Sunday. Don might not even agree with my analysis and I’m not even really analyzing him so much as a loose type. So, I won’t even really be address the particulars of the recent hubbub over his statements. To be honest, some guy not going to church anymore shouldn’t really be news, but as a phenomena, there’s something culturally telling here.

Put simply, I think the individualistic, consumptive, experiential model of evangelical church, a style I would argue that is as the heart of American evangelicalism, is the root of it’s own eventual irrelevance in the lives of someone like Don Miller.

Whether staunchly Calvinistic or vibrantly charismatic, while the material of the experiential reality may be radical different (say between an awareness of ones depravity/enmity with god/chosenness and a spirit-filled encounter), there is a profoundly “believer and God” shaped core to evangelicalism. It’s commemorated (testimony), memorialized (in ‘what God has done for me’ worship songs), rigorously offered (evangelism and alter calling). It’s very much you and God. Whether warm and fuzzy or austere and penal, the foundation seems to be a kind of intimacy of experience or acknowledgment–both of which happen within me, in an honest encounter with God.

With such an experiential ground and motivation for going to church on Sunday, experience of God (again, widely conceived and measured by widely divergent conditions for sure), the vivacity or consumptive value of that time spent, is the subtle but ever present measure of a church’s value. As a Donald Miller matures, experiences the world and life in a more and more world-affirming way, that is, evangelicalism appropriates the NT Wrights (etc.) of the scholarly world, they have these experiences well apart from Sunday, in the fabric of newly affirmed aspects of life. God is met elsewhere. Sunday services, however well-crafted, become trite by comparison. A Christian “On the Road” kind of experience becomes a much richer representation of the former experience.

So, the consumer experience model has a timeline which leads towards it’s own irrelevance. Hire creative directors and evolve with all their might, the very aim of the service engenders  the roots of it’s eventual shortcoming in the life of a Donald Miller as they become Donald Miller.

No doubt, the root of the problem, the heart of why american evangelicalism has long been shaped like this (but might be changing?), is the the white privileged ethos at the core. Church culture is founded the community’s needs. With nearly every other material need in order (to varying degree’s of course), the only thing many evangelicals need(ed) out of church is (was?) to feel something. Everything else is in order. We come to church to inculcate a feeling, get right with God (deal with individualized guilt), or any number of others things–the things that consume those who’ve got all their material needs sorted based on their cultural and economic affluence.

So the experiential drive, sadly still roped into the consumptive model, is the foundational individual need church practice swirls around. And keeping attendees feeling church is worthwhile calls for a dizzying mechanism of constant stylistic evolution (e.g. creative directors). But how can the most in touch creative director, keep pace with the world? Even singing the world’s songs within church walls paradoxically makes God seem less there than when they’re sung in rejection of, or sheer ambivalence toward, God.

In this way, I think this process is inevitable, a natural progression rooted in the soil of privileged evangelical culture itself. A culture I myself continue to find myself bathed in, much to my chagrin.

There are of course all kinds of great theological and ecclessial discussions to help ask what church is, and what it really should be, but I even want to simply it a bit more. What if church was actually more about the material needs of those attending? What is church participation and commitment like among communities all over the world that go because they have many more needs than to feel something? Where church works more like labor organizing, or banding together to make ends meet as a collective? Experientially rich or not, this body of Christ is forced to think about the health of it’s stomach, spleen, lungs, even before it’s “heart.” I bet these churches don’t worry about the somewhat progressive writer types that they birth leaving, because what they are offering is not an experience, but a solidarity with the felt needs of others. Sunday, whether you come or not, is a means to and end for these bodies, just as the Sabbath seemed for Jesus.

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This Week In Whiteness

This is the first installment of what I fear will be an ongoing series.  At the end of our review of the film 12 Years A Slave, I made a case that there is a deep and central ongoing problem related to race in this country – that we don’t quite know how to get at.

Now, some of you may be thinking ‘that is the simplest and most obvious thing I have ever read. Duh!’  and you would be right …

But here is the thing: that is not the problem.

The problem is that there are a near equal amount of people whose response is ‘What? No there is not. Stop making trouble and bringing this up all the time.’PuzzlePiece

The conversation is frustrating because of a complex little piece at the center of the cultural-historical puzzle. The mechanism is two-fold:

  • Many whites know-sense-feel-suspect-intuit that something is wrong but don’t know how to address it.
  • Race issues are supposed to be a thing of the past. You hear sentiments like ” I thought we fixed that whole problem,  I mean  MLK … and the election of Obama and I like Beyonce’s music and Michael Jordan was my favorite basketball player …”

Plus” , I hear this often, “if people wouldn’t make such a big deal about one celebrity who says something they shouldn’t have … if things were not so darn politically correct these days then it would just be one person sharing their opinion – right or wrong“.

 

Later today Micky, Tripp, Callid and myself are going to put out a Culture-Cast as the Portland branch of our podcast family mourns the loss Mindy Green. Part of the Culture-Cast is a look at media and Micky Jones and I will talking about everything from Megyn Kelly to Duck Dynasty.

If you have read my stuff before, you will know that I am often not that interested in talking about the thing itself (I usually sit back on these hot-button issues and let those closer to the issue handle it as a I read and learn – what I am looking for is patterns that develop).  My concern is usually the thing behind the thing.

Here then is my fear: the issues related to race in N. America are not isolated to a certain generation nor are they limited to celebrities (folks like Paula Deen or the Duck Dynasty crew).

The very nature of whiteness has a built-in mechanism (the privilege) that does not allow itself to see itself (or at least makes it extremely difficult to).

Jemar Tisby does a masterful job in breaking down the complexity of the situation when describes:

What Phil Robertson and others get wrong is how they diagnose the state of race relations in America.  They use external cues like the frequency of a smile, and their personal exposure to overt instances of racism to judge the climate of a culture.  But what some people fail to understand is that there are unwritten rules of conduct when Blacks interact with Whites.

“External cues” can be such a distracting data-set when diagnosing the culture around you.

But of course ‘external cues’ are not the only variable. The larger issue is related to ‘social construction’. Categories like race are constructed socially and all of us are acted-upon by them.

So when Megyn Kelley says that Santa and Jesus are white and that this is historically verifiable … while she is wrong (of course)  – it is not entirely her fault.  I have been reading a fascinating book called The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. It turns out the images of Jesus have a long, complex and troubling history on this side of the Atlantic.  One is almost led to have mercy on Mrs. Kelly for her mistaken notion (joke or not) simply because the images that she would have had available to her formation are in-themselves skewed.

 

If you want to listen to a fascinating examination of race – and specifically why is can be so difficult to even address the underlying issues, track down a Canadian (CBC) ‘Ideas’ episode called Is Race A Fiction (video)  or download it on I-Tunes (audio).

I hear this sometimes:

“Since race is scientifically unverifiable and we are all part of the human race … why don’t we just stop with all of the talk about race and treat each other like human-beings?”

If only it were that easy. As you will hear in that CBC episode – The problem is that race is now a social and historical category that has been both acted upon and which has formed us (part of our social construction) and that makes it ‘real’ even if it doesn’t actually exist!

In the end, these flareups about the color of Santa or the opinions of guys who make duck calls are not just the death-flalings at the end of a post-racial era. Nor are they the isolated opinions of few backward folks in rural pockets of this continent.
These issues are not soon to disappear nor will they simply go away with time.

There is something deep in the heart of whiteness that is not going anywhere anytime soon. That is why we can not simply ‘let things run their course’ or be passive about the ongoing perpetuation of false categories and attitudes. In fact, the deeper I look into the issue, the deeper and scarier the issue of whiteness appears.

It will be interesting to see what Micky has to say when we chat later today.

If you are going to comment- please do me a favor and remember that I am more concerned about the thing behind that thing than I am about the thing itself. 

_________________

For further reading:

Whiteness: a critical reader

The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege

After Whiteness: unmasking the american majority

I am going to cross-post this here and at Ethnic Space.

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Snapshot of God’s Family – a tour around the world with Paul Jeffrey

What better time of year to take a tour of the world and see where God is at work? paul_jeffrey

Paul Jeffrey is a unique kind of missionary:  a photo-journalist.  He travels the world to chronicle the faces and stories of God’s family.  He is an engaging story-teller and (needless to say) an amazing photographer.

You can learn more about him and see more of his work below.

Now sit back and listen to one of the most unique missionaries you will ever hear.

We go to:

  • Philippines
  • Serbia
  • Congo
  • Honduras
  • Nebraska
  • Egypt

Then we talk about the nature and complication of missions.

If you want to follow-up with Paul, visit his website/blog at http://www.kairosphotos.com/blog/ or his online gallery.

You can also connect to Church World Service.

*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***


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John Piper’s WAMM Calvinist

One might think it a bummer timing-wise for John Piper, releasing his new poem/video foray into the arts just before Beyoncé surprised the music world with a new album (and accompanying videos), but with the amount of tweets and Facebook shares it’s getting, it appears Beyoncé and Piper might just have different enough crowds for both bask in the limelight for a while. Very surprising right?!

What was surprising to me was just how starkly obvious it is who is targeted and probably moved by the video for “The Calvinist.” The style and content of the poem itself is obvious enough: a conflicted but committed Calvinist, extolling a powerful God above in every sphere of his life. However it is the visuals (as is often the case) that really drives home just who the target audience–the theological community to be touched by such a piece–is.  Like the main character, it is the white American middle-class male (WAMM), whose God is talking to him. I encourage you to watch it if you haven’t before reading my thoughts, because it’s precisely the feel of this guy’s life that captures the theology and sentiment Piper’s aiming for.untitled

Now I do not intend to smear Piper here, but merely provide a juxtaposition, or imaginative alternate visual accompaniment to these words, to show just how important this video starring a WAMM is to the poem. My claim, is that it has to be a white American middle-class male because the words and the theology of the poem would be puzzling or even offensive in most other visual contexts.

As a WAMM who’s privileged, got a virtually nuclear family, respectable work, time to wander the woods with his moleskin, and take long jogs, the poem fits the bill. What he needs is humility (he is fallible), a sense of appreciation for the pretty cushy life he appears to have, a continued faithfulness to fight the good fight, and above all, an understanding that God is the source of all of this blessing.

But you see, this is exactly what connects with this dude, with a young Christian man whose God serves to keep him in line, whose worship is warranted based on who he is in his power and grandeur. Indeed, it is a kingly “God above,” for whom the ocean is only a “thimbleful,” that has the majesty to pacify any quarries this young man might have. This is the most suitable God for keeping the WAMM faithful and in the word, right? For it is the sheer sublime vision of the transcendent potter vs. clay God that dishes out the perfect recipe of humility and triumphalism the WAMM needs. He needs to be humbled for sure, by the sublime immensity of his God, but he also needs a vision of the triumphal end to help him boot-strap it through to the end, and beyond.

Imagine though, for a second, if you can, the visual of an urban center. No better yet, go watch the opening scenes of Detropia, a recent documentary of the decay of Detroit. What feel would this poetic reading have without the WAMM? What if the person depicted what as young mother sitting in a waiting room at a resource center? How would “The Calvinist” feel to us with that subject? Confusing. Misplaced in it’s grandeur. Way too triumphal. Pious. Macho. Maybe even offensive.

My point is not that every theological poem Piper writes should fit any context. Of course, the form demands a gender and some loose narratives to embody the poem. Rather, my point is that theologies evidence tendencies to better expression in some contexts over others. The Calvinist, is the story of the God the WAMM needs, but not many others. Is this just happenstance? Could Piper have just as easily capture the Calvinist ethos with a poem and video set in Detropia? I highly doubt it…

What is clear I think, is that what the WAMM needs to hear about God or write in his moleskin journal is a far cry from many others contexts, and the fact that The Calvinist works terrifically well for the WAMM–it’s arch and feel is spot on–but might feel ‘all bad’ in most other contexts, is reason to give pause. All theology is contextual, and theologized art is too, but we must look for why the coherences between theology and art obtain where they do. Of course, Max Weber long ago pointed to the “elective affinity” between Calvinism and Capitalism. Have we here an evidence of an similar sort elective affinity between the WAMM and the triumphal Calvinism of the Piperian brand.

I think so and I don’t like it.

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A Mother’s Lament

Tripp has made it clear on several podcasts that he became unwilling to raise his kids in a church where this was even a question or issue. When my friend Rachel wrote this, I asked her if I could cross-post it here. 

Why some are choosing to stay in The United Methodist Church…
by Rachel Gipson

A Mother’s Lament

I have just finished putting my three sons to bed.  This nightly ritual involves a somewhat chaotic flurry of baths, books, snuggles, prayers, sippy-cups of water, night lights, songs, kisses, and I-love-yous.  At all times, but especially bedtime, I try to create an environment where my children feel safe, secure, and unconditionally loved.  The world is waiting, and it is so big, and often cruel, but for now I can protect them and surround them with love.

The church has been an environment that contributes to the goals of safety, security, and unconditional love.  Having been raised in the United Methodist church as the daughter of two ministers, I have personally felt this love through the years.  The support, friendship, and community I have experienced at church have been constant in my life, and have a dependability unlike any other group of which I have been a part.  I feel a deep loyalty to my church on a local and global level.  For this reason, I have looked forward to raising my family in a community of faith, that they might experience God’s love through others as I have.

But now I wonder.  As I listen to the testimony of Tim Schaefer, I wonder if I am making the right choice as a parent.  Sure, right now the church is just one big love-fest for my kids.  But what if any of my sons are gay?  What if any of them have a gender identity different than their biological sex?  Tim Schaefer contemplated suicide because of the messages he received from the church.  Am I doing harm by teaching them to love a church that does not love them unconditionally?

By being a member of a United Methodist church, am I conveying, even implicitly, that the views held by the church at large are acceptable to me?

By giving my money to the global United Methodist Church am I teaching them to look the other way where there is injustice?  Am I setting them up to feel shame in their sexuality, whatever form that takes, by loving this church as much as I do?

On a local level, my boys will be loved and accepted.  I know that.  My church will love them, their pastors will minister to them, and they will not feel shame from the pulpit of their home church.  For that I am deeply thankful.  However, this isn’t just a local issue.  I can’t hide the published views and official stance of the church from them.  I can’t look in my son’s eyes and promise him that he can marry whoever is lucky enough to earn his love in the same sanctuary where his parents were married. Facade of St. Vitus Cathedral

Obviously, this is not the first time I have felt at odds with my church over this issue.  But this is the first time I have ever considered leaving.  As a mom, I am intentional about the messages my children receive.  I am not naïve enough to think I can filter all the bad out of the world (nor would I want to), but right now I am facing a choice.

Can I knowingly expose my sons to a church that does not offer all people the opportunity to feel safe, secure, and unconditionally loved?

How can I teach them to support an organization that makes clear that not all of God’s children are welcome?

And finally, how can I possibly say goodbye to a church that has given me so much over my lifetime?

No matter what choice I make, I feel loss, uncertainty, and deep disappointment.

I don’t know how to conclude these thoughts.  This isn’t a call to action or rallying cry.  Nor is it an angry goodbye to my church.  It is a mother’s lament.  It is the recognition of a hurt that I feel deeply.  A hurt that bears the faces of my sons and a desperation for change that is as urgent as Tim Schaefer’s thoughts of suicide.  I do not want to leave my church.  However, my church is making it painful to stay.

Rachel Gipson, Los Angeles, CA.  Nov. 21, 2013

. . .

Reasons I Stay is a project of Reconciling Ministries Network dedicated to share the stories of individuals who have decided to stay in The United Methodist Church despite its descriminatory, unjust rules against LGBTQ persons. It is part of the Biblical Obedience movement sweeping across The United Methodist Church. We recognize that staying is not the right and healthy choice for all people, and we celebrate those too who have chosen to leave to more inclusive faith communities. You can read all the Reasons I Stay stories here.  They invite you to submit your own story to Reasons I Stay.

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Atheist Churches: a fad or the future?

My newsfeed has seen a steady stream of articles about the new trend of ‘atheist churches’ racing by this past week. Much of it seems to revolve around a successful publicity tour by British comedy duo Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, who are currently:

 on a tongue-in-cheek “40 Dates, 40 Nights” tour around the U.S. and Australia to drum up donations and help launch new Sunday Assemblies.

It is an impressive campaign. From LA to NY to Nashville and back to San Diego they are taking their roadshow in a revival style to rally the non-religious.  It’s a fascinating attempt. Even if it turns out to be (historically speaking) not much more than a publicity stunt, it is an indicator of something larger.

Many are fond of quoting the statistics:

“The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study last year that found 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years.”

Others attempt to qualify and quantify those findings with categorical inconstancies and clear definition problems*. Still, there is clearly some merit to considering the cultural shift.

 The question has to be asked: Are these atheist churches a blip or a significant trend? 

I think the answer is multifaceted. It is clearly more than a blip and is probably more like an outlier for what will eventually manifest. There is a clear challenge to this type of organization – their attempt to raise $800,000 has only resulted in $50,000 so far. One-night events are fun and exciting… sustaining that kind of energy is a different animal.

Which begs the question, “why would anyone give to, participate, or get excited about something based on what isn’t?”

It is a fun, if novel, moment, but sustaining that and providing direction to an organization-assembly requires more than that. MP9004065481-196x300

 

Here is the thing though … this is more than just a novelty. The foundations (I use that word intentionally) that we used to be able to count on are eroding. There is no doubt that the old buildings (and the institutions that occupy them) are in danger.

This matters to me. I wrote an essay more than 15 years ago (on a note-pad thank you very much) about the form of the church. As a young pastor I saw the oddity of what we did and how easily most of what we do could be imitated or replaced.

Let me say that again:

 most of what we do as the church could easily be imitated or replaced.

Unfortunately that is the problem with having a successful form. Of course there are always a dedicated minority who is really invested in worship music, liturgy and proclamation. A cynic might say that most people, however, will sing just about any lyrics** that are thrown up on the screen  and from the sermon they really just want some help being better people.

 

I have held for a long time that technically you could cobble together nearly every element that you get from church by intentionally seeking out a collection of experiences:

  • concert (group singing)
  • dinner/drink with friends (communion)
  • self-help seminar (information/inspiration)
  • AA meeting (accountability/confession)
  • work & give to a charity (contribution/conscience)

 

Which leaves only two things left to be said!

1. The beauty of the church is that you find all of those things in one place. That is the nearly miraculous thing about that list. It takes so much work to imitate and replicate what is all available in the community of saints.

2. The importance of the word ‘nearly’ . Even with the 5 elements that I suggested, for the believer there is still something missing: the transcendent.

In conclusion, while I see the merit and appeal of ‘atheist assemblies’ as a public announcement and maybe even protest, I am not sure that they are sustainable. What I am more concern with is that Christian churches of every stripe use the opportunity to evaluate what it is that we bring to the lives of people that they can not get anywhere else. I would argue that this is a gospel issue.

 

* The article is clear that “Pew researchers stressed, however, that the category also encompassed majorities of people who said they believed in God but had no ties with organized religion and people who consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.” 

** just look at the huge success of the CCM worship song “Like A Lion” last year

 

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Avoiding That Awful Number: 666

A quirky and sad story has emerged out of Kentucky this week.

In one of the strangest cases of purported religious beliefs intersecting with athletic performance, a Kentucky junior cross country runner voluntarily walked away from a chance to qualify for the state meet to avoid running with the bib number “666”, which she said conflicted with her Christian beliefs.

As somebody who competed in state wide competitions back in the day, I can imagine how difficult this situation was for that young lady.  As somebody who learned how to read the Bible that same way, I understand her reluctance to associate with that number. Dark-Clouds

I am a big fan of the Book of Revelation. The last book in the Christian testament is a favorite of mine. I love it!  I love it almost as much as a I hate what the majority of N. Americans have been led to believe it is about.

I thought I would take this opportunity to point out three simple ways that this odd and sad story could have been avoided in Kentucky:

  1. We don’t have 13th floors in buildings and maybe we could just remove this number from rotations – since we know that it rubs the sensitivities of many people the wrong way. That seems like the easiest solution…
  2. The race official could have just given the young woman a new number offender her religious sensibilities. That seems like an easy solution …
  3. Someone could have just explained that the number 666 doesn’t have any actual power … and that even the Bible passage that it comes from tells you that. That seems like the best solution…

See, the actual passage says:

Revelation 13:17-18   New International Version (NIV)

17 so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.

18 This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man.[a] That number is 666.

 

Never-mind that the earliest manuscripts have the number as 616 (a whole other discussion about Roman emperor’s names and the genre called captivity literature within the apocalyptic tradition). What is important here is the world ‘calculate’.

The number – even if it is 666 – isn’t what it seems. It needs to be ‘calculated’, even according the actual verse. It’s right there in the Bible. The number has to be examined – or said another way – you have to do something with the number. It is not the actual number 666.

 

The clearest explanation is that it is a stand-in for a deeper meaning. Six is the number of humanity (created on the sixth day) and things that are represented in threes (holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty who was and is and is to come) are complete. The number 666 simply means the completion, or culmination, of the human system.

The number itself is nothing to be afraid of. It is what that number represents that is of great concern. That is why the author of the Book of Revelation wrote in this poetic/symbolic language and imagery. This kind of apocalyptic literature was a political critique of its day – not a predictive work for our day. 

Pointing this out to Christian young people would accomplish at least two things:

  • It would relieve them of this superstitious ‘left-behind’ fear that is created by a misunderstanding of Biblical genres and interpretation.
  • It would serve as a challenge/inspiration to do in our day what the author of Revelation was doing in that day and use their creativity to critique the systems and structures of oppression that we are all caught up in.

 

The number 666 holds no special power – especially today. What it represents however is very much still in power and needs to be examined and engaged as ‘the Powers That Be’.

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Should Christians Vote? Russell Brand has got me asking again

Last week Russell Brand, in a BBC interview, raised a lot of eyebrows by calling into question the legitimacy of voting. He talked about the brokeness of the system and the relative banality of the process.

I saw lots of good Facebook conversation (which seems rare these days) about the clip and it admittedly poked me in an old bruise.

You will want to watch the clip. It is 8 minutes of good exchange and Brand is a surprisingly effective and thoughtful spokesperson.

Paxman vs Brand – full interview by DaveLiason

The reason that this clip got under my skin is because, up until the last US election, I too had never voted. Unfortunately I did not so for the same reasons as Brand – but none the less, the streak came to an end and I have a little bit of buyer’s remorse.

On one hand, I am happy that I voted in a local election. We had some stuff related to funding education that I am very happy to say passed by a narrow margin and I like to think that I was on the right side of that one.
Then there is the Obama presidency.

It is important to understand that I had never voted because I had bought into an odd descendant of the Lutheran ‘two kingdoms’ idea that the kingdom of the world as one thing and the kingdom of Heaven as another. Through a long process that started with my reading Walter Wink‘s work on ‘Powers’, I emerged from that bifurcated construct.

Having no reason not to vote, and knowing the historic emphasis of people’s fighting for the right to vote, I cautiously waded into the voting booth. I am glad that I did so and it has been a good lesson in limited effectiveness.

Last week Cornel West (on the Smiley & West podcast – minute 8) said that the Obama presidency has been marked by three things and will be remembered in history by them:

  • it is a drone administration
  • it is a National Surveillance administration
  • it is a Wall Street administration

That is certainly not what I voted for. That does not represent my hopes for him. I don’t sense this is what most people wanted or expected when they voted for him initially.

This holds a valuable lesson in measured expectations for me. Do I want to go back to my old ways of sitting on the sideline in protest or apathy? Probably not.

Voting is important at some level. Voting, however, should hold just as much weight as what gifts I got for my family last Christmas or what I ate for Thanksgiving last year. I want to keep doing both of those things. I find them both very important. I just don’t think that are so influential as to change the world.adbusters_corporate_flag
Voting is often choosing the lesser of two evils. In the age of Citizens United especially, the choices that we have in candidates are immediately people who have made concessions to big business and corporate interests. That is never going to deliver the results that I would truly be excited about. On the other hand, until we get real immigration reform, somebody is going to be driving the ship and I am not willing to abandon the process altogether … in Jesus’ name.

I would love to hear your thoughts – especially on the Russell Brand clip or the Cornel West summary.

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It’s Not Miley That I Am Worried About

If you saw the VMA award’s show on Sunday night you will know what I am writing about. Miley Cyrus stages her best impression of Madonna  – who (by the way) was the top earning female performer last year over Gaga and Katy Perry – for the broadcast. Miley VMA

But that is not the point … at least not initially.

My concern is about my pre-teen and teenaged girls who watch her and imitate what she does.

 

There is plenty of conversation out there about the effect that her antics might have on emerging generations. I get that.

My concern is not generated from a holiness, pietistic or modesty-oriented perspective. I am under the impression that we need to address female sexuality with a 21st century ethic that is free from the bonds of “who gives this women to married this day” morality standards of patriarchal repressive ‘Leave It To Beaver’ era domesticity.

My concern is much deeper. I am concerned with young women – who I know by name – and what they picture when they think of ‘female’ and ‘sexuality’. 

Unfortunately, none of them have read Baudrillard. More telling, none of them probably know who Andy Warhol is. Which is a shame because even more than ‘Reviving Ophelia’ (of which they also have no awareness) they are impacted so deeply by the issues that Baudrillard addresses.

In Baudrillard’s view “identity is increasingly dependant upon images” and this leads to replication, imitation and simulation.  This is marked off in four stages:

  1. the first is faithful copies
  2. the second is a perversion of reality
  3. the third is an absence of profound reality (but where there is a pretension to a faithful copy)
  4. and the final stage is pure simulation.

This is the concept of simulacra - which is composed of all “references with no referents, a hyperreality.”

Simulacra and Simulation explains:

Simulation, Baudrillard claims, is the current stage of the simulacrum: All is composed of references with no referents, a hyperreality. Progressing historically from the Renaissance, in which the dominant simulacrum was in the form of the counterfeit—mostly people or objects appearing to stand for a real referent (for instance, royalty, nobility, holiness, etc.) that does not exist, in other words, in the spirit of pretense, in dissimulating others that a person or a thing does not really “have it”—to the industrial revolution, in which the dominant simulacrum is the product, the series, which can be propagated on an endless production line; and finally to current times, in which the dominant simulacrum is the model, which by its nature already stands for endless reproducibility, and is itself already reproduced.

In other words – the original has been reproduced so many times (simulation) that the concept itself has been corrupted and the reproductions are increasingly corrupted to the point that the original is almost unrecognizable.

And the further this continues, the less reality is contained in the imitations. They become references to references and, at some point, become copies of copies which have no intrinsic value within themselves.

Miley Cyrus’ performance is, therefore, not the end of the line.

It is the penultimate in a long line of reproductions. 

 

I am not concerned with Miley’s performance Sunday night. It was simply a poor imitation of a real mold. What I am concerned with is those who might imitate her poor impression. This is the clear cross-over from simulation to Simulacra and hyper-reality.

I’m not concerned with Miley’s performance or her fame (even a simulation of  a Madonna-like performance in order to access her level of fame).  I am concerned with those pre-teen and teenage girls who want to be famous (first and foremost) and who think they need to be imitate that behavior (simulate) in order to do so (stimulate).

I am not concerned with Miley’s or Madonna’s sexuality. That is what it is.  I will even say that the latter is specimen and the former is a simulation. What I am concerned with the Simulacra that is to follow.

 

2 quick notes:  

1) I know that some people hate Wikipedia links but for the audience I am most concerned with, it is the accessible.
2) I know that there is a whole conversation to be had about reproduction in art. We will do that some other time. 

 

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New Heresy: Labelianism

You’ve heard of Sabellianism (you might even fit the bill practically speaking), but have you heard of Labelianism? Make no mistake, this new, more pernicious, more gruesomely heretical heresy is widespread within the Christian community these days and unlike many other heresies which might be more prone to crop up in certain ‘types’ of Christianity more than others (e.g. adoptionism in classical Liberal Theology, etc.), Labelianism seems to be running rampant in all kinds of Christian circles, from ‘conservative’ to ‘liberal,’ from low church to high ( I may have even just committed it! read on…). Unlike Tripp’s recent advocation of a healthy form of heresy, this one is all bad, a blot on the whole Christian conversation.

Why?  By what sneaking devilish logic has yet another heresy crept into the hearts and minds of the people, and why did the ancients miss it (not succumb to it?)?

I will keep my words brief as our time now should be spent mobilizing against such unholy writ. The Labelians (we Labelians) have written much of late and rather than attempting to detail every mark of its presence, a virtual impossible task given its shapeshifting quality, I’ll try to answer three questions: What is it? Who’s at risk? How do we purge it?

What is it?

Part of what makes it so pernicious is the fact that it takes many different forms, but at root it all boils down to an oversimplified understanding of what it means to have, bear, and use a label. This is how virtually everyone can be guilty of it–from the Labelian who uses a label (wittingly or not) as a politicized category or means of self-distinction from others, to the self-determining Labelian respondent who confidently trots out their own ‘private label.’  Both, for very different reasons and perhaps to varying degrees, are Labelians. Likewise, the third-party, resolute as they are in their grasp of the heresytradition and spectrum of difference enough to make the call, risks the Labelian pitfall in their heart as they seek to schematize and display the disputants within their own mind…or blog.

The ‘use Labelian’ believes they hold a position distinguished from polarized or now seemingly defunct, less-than-vibrant positions in a debate.  In essence, they categorize a list of alternative positions under a (usually very simplified) rubric in order to use those labels as something that goes proxy (stands in) for a full explanation of the distinctions between the alternatives and theirs. In Christian theological contexts, evangelical and “centrist” perspectives are prone to this version of Labelianism.  Is it more prevalent here than in more “liberal” or “left” contexts? Seems like it to me, but I’d be interested to hear others reactions.

Perhaps being a use Labelian is more natural to the evangelical/centrist precisely because it is inherent to the more conservative posture in a disagreement to seek to preserve the name or identity of the disputed concept or identity marker against the pull of other away from what they presume to be the faithful rendering of the concept. This relates to my earlier post on millennials and the seemingly endless self-analyzing and possessive nature of some evangelical communities. The preservation/possessive is a conservative weakness, and the use Labelian is the politicized, put-in-print version of this mode of thinking.

The ‘private Labelian’ oversimplifies what it means to bear a label by committing something loosely analogous to what Wittgenstein called a “private langauge.” Wittgenstein famously argued that it is incoherent and impossible for an individual to have their own (private) langauge precisely because the nature of language usage and development is a corporate affair, a public function of a form of life (cultural community). You can’t create anything ‘inside’ or privately that isn’t parasitic upon previously developed public concepts or words. Necessarily, things mean only in a historied public way. (Nate Gilmour alluded to this line of thought in a comment on one of Bo’s recent posts)

While the private Labelian might not be developing their own completely private label, they do risk failing to realize that what label they bear is perhaps not best explored or explained by them. They risking making their own maturation or development, through this or that world of theological ideas, something by which they uniquely and privately have taken what they want and formed something intentionally. The most important thing I’ve learned from thinkers like Wittgenstein is that we are virtually never the best gauge of who we are.  The inner life, our identity amidst a vast tradition, and what we are best called, is an exceedingly messy affair that is much more a function of contingent public circumstances. Where we fit (theologically or otherwise) is not for us to decide.

There are no private labels. Theological designators don’t mean anything privately.  The best determination of what we are is not us, but the aftermath of the context we’ve grown through so much so that someone you do not know, a historian many years from now, will define you better than you did.

Who’s at risk?

We all are. We’re all defining things too rigidly to categorize another for the sake of distinction, or recoiling into falsely privatized terminology. Yes, labels (maybe even Labelians) are necessary (not necessary evils), but their invocation must always be explored and used in a paradoxical way. They are true of us so much as we will be shown (perhaps only hypothetically for those of us whose positions won’t historically recorded) to fit within such and such exceedingly loose category that is largely defined by a few central figures that vaguely represent a common ethos or moment in theological landscape. We will be who we are label-wise according to history.

How do we purge it?

As shapeshifting as Labelianism is, it’s hard to pin down a sure-fire purgation method.  The use Labelian needs nuance and perhaps more time with historians of religion and theology.  If you want to talk about “liberal” or “mainline, ” spend time with a Gary Dorrien who shows just how exceedingly diverse and diffuse this category is. Realize that our use of labels is always at risk of functioning as a politicized identity marker. For the private Labelian, be humbled that you know who you are (theologically) less than a hypothetical historian will years after you’ve returned to dust. By all means use terminology to distinguish your view, but use them with the hope of their being tweaked and corrected by those informed listeners within the theological community you find yourself in.

Let’s not burn the Labelians at the stake.  There would be no we left in that case.  But let’s do our best to burn off our over-definition of the other with terminology that fails to do justice to ever-morphing nature of language and the politics of theological labels. Likewise let us burn off our sense of self-definition. Great ideas and theological moves work within labels debunking and deconstructing them through the process of new work that later generations will define much better than we do.

There’s no easy answer, no set model for labeling in this paradoxical context, but good theology–good Christianity–is not hurriedly schematizing views (yours or others).

 

 

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