Level Ground LIVE 3D: sex and spirituality

The Level Ground LIVE show at Jones Coffee in Pasadena, CA was a blast. What it lacked in theology it made up for in throw down.IMG_5276

Enjoy the highlights of our conversation with Samantha Curley and Barry Taylor about film, faith and sexuality.

Monkish Beer was a generous sponsor! We want to wish Brian White a speedy recovery.

Enjoy the closing song – or as someone said “Open all the kegs and let Tripp out into the world!

 

March has Tripp at 2 live shows: one in Chicago and one in Philadelphia… make sure to check those out if you live nearby.

 

Sex Is Not Simple

Sexuality and spirituality have been on my mind as we prepare for tonight’s Level Ground Film Festival.

I am very aware of the cultural conversation that continues to circle around marriage equality and issues related to legal matters. As a pastor and theologian, my concern is more specifically focused on people’s understanding and engagement of sexuality and spirituality. [1]

If someone were to ask me what was the single biggest thing that would make a difference in how we approach matters of sexuality and spirituality … I would have to say that the reductive impulse to simplify sexuality is the main problem.

Sex and sexuality are not simple. [2]

When we attempt to reduce sex and sexuality down to single thing or try to squeeze it into a simplified category we make a massive error.

Sex, sexuality and spirituality are all inherently complicated and complex. [3]

 

How one is embodied in one’s own skin, how one conceptualizes of that in-carnation, who one is attracted to, and how one participates in that attraction are at least 4 separate issues. It gets more complicated from there.

Sexuality and spirituality are two areas where complexity and diversity are actually a good thing!

It is a fallacy of misplaced concreteness when we attempt a reductive move to simplify sex/uality down to one thing – especially if that one thing is the biological.

 

The unfortunate thing is that those attempting the reductive move too often attempt to reduce the purpose of sex down to procreation.

Sex is about so much more than procreation. [4]

Sex is about intimacy, expression, sensation, exploration, and experience/experimentation.

Sometimes it results in pro-creation … but, more times than not, it doesn’t.

 

Sexuality has an aspect that is emotional.complexity

And one that is physical.

Then there is the aspect that is psychological.

There is one that is social.

And one that is spiritual.

Sexuality is personal … and private … and (to a certain degree) public.

Not to mention the part of it that is political.

 

Our sexuality involves all of who we are and em-bodies so much of our identity.

It even entails part of our capacity to engage the world around us and the social constructs that we are caught up in and by which we are acted upon daily. [5]

In one sense everything is sexual, even how much money we make … in the same sense that is it political. This is why our inherited enlightenment categories do not work anymore. The reductive impulse is failing us. Things need to be recognized as complicated and part of the emergent reality.

Sex/uality is never about one thing.

We do a great disservice to all that Creator god intended for us when we reduce sexuality down to pro-creation.

We ignore all that the evolutionary process has encoded us with (and for) when we boil our sexuality down to a single act with a single purpose.

 

The more I have studied and listened and considered the challenge for the church in the matter of sex and sexuality in the 21st century, the more I am convinced that it is the reductive move that hampers and limits our capacity to explore and engage the issue in a way that would lead to life and health.

 

I would want to confess 3 things:

  • Sexuality is a gift of God and is a good thing.
  • Any view of sex that begins with secrecy or shame should be viewed with suspicion and interrogated accordingly.
  • Reducing sex and sexuality down to a single aspect is both misguided and dangerous.

 

Sex/uality is complex combination and collaboration of elements including (but not limited to) the physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, social, private, personal, communal, and political.

One way that the church could bless the culture in the decades to come is to resist the temptation of the reductive explanation and to instead provide an understanding that is complex (even complicated). The more diverse the areas being engaged (and examined) the better!

 

We need sex/uality to be more – not less. The temptation to reduce and simplify is a false construct. The reality is that human identity is inherently complex – and that is a good thing.

Sex, sexuality and spirituality are but 3 aspects of that rich complexity.

We need more spiritually minded exploration and even theological examination of our humanity … not less.[5]

Sex and sexuality are not simple – any spirituality that attempts to make it so is both limited and, in the end, false.

I’m looking forward to tonight’s conversation and the followup when we release the podcast audio tomorrow.

 

________________

[1] We have wonderful snapshots of different historical takes on the role and purpose of sex in Biblical passages like Genesis, the Song of Solomon and some of the New Testament epistles.

[2] I am saying that things are complicated as a straight, middle-class, white, cis-gendered male in a Western culture. It doesn’t take much listening to figure out that if even one of those elements was different, let alone two, things becomes increasingly layered.

[3] In full disclosure, for those who prefer letters, I am a big fan of the Q in LGBTQ. Just FYI.

[4] As someone who has been married for 21 years and is childless, I have an admittedly different angle on that whole line of ‘reasoning’.

[5] I have found great help in those reflecting on the work of [linkMarcella Althaus-Reid’s ‘indecent theology’.

Simulation and Stimulation: How We Imagine Ourselves part 7

Yesterday we looked at Madan Sarup’s notions around identity. Some of that work overlaps with the work of French social critic and lapsed sociologist Jean Baudrillard.  In order to properly receive Baudrillard’s perspective – and address how it relates to contemporary conceptions of identity and belonging – a little background is appropriate. Sarup explains:

Our identities are influenced, among other things, by what we consume, what we wear, the commodities that we buy, what we see and read, how we conceive our sexuality, what we think of society and the changes we believe it is undergoing.[1]

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. the final stage is pure simulation.[2]

This is the concept of simulacra – which is composed of all “references with no referents, a hyperreality.”[3]
Baudrillard is very clear in his description:

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.

This is an intimidating turn for an address of social conception of identity and community. Long held markers of tribe or clan are dissolved. More modern boundaries or nation or even imagined community seem far off. Contemporary indicators – even those up for review – like ‘race’, gender and ethnicity are compromised and suspect within this simulated context.

In a hyper-real environment, both memory and identity are illusive. Sarup says that: “Identity is contradictory and fractured. Identity in postmodern thought is not a thing; the self is necessarily incomplete, unfinished – it is ‘the subject in process’.”[4]  Recognizing the illusive nature of past identifiers is one thing. Preparing for the radically redefined and abstract nature of a consumer culture is quite another.

In previous generation addressing the means of production was a significant engagement. Now we are talking about a ‘vast system of production’ in which a consumer must invest large amounts of time and energy in order to orient themselves to new products and brands. Consumers “cannot avoid the obligation to consume” because consumption itself provided the “primary mode of social integration and the primary ethic and activity within the consumer society.”[5]money_and_god

Thus researching the products, earning the money to purchase them, mastering their use, and embracing the brand associated with them is a laborious task.

Branding and brand identification is a result of simulacra where icons, logos and images provide a proliferation of signs.[6] These signs provide indicators of identity and belonging in a new fashion with ‘hyper-reality’ where “images, spectacles, and the play of signs have replaced the logic of production and class conflict.”[7]

The collateral damage of this development is catastrophic. The devastation is not only to cultural elements of community and memory but physical and environmental realities. Umberto Eco elaborates:

The technological society is tending to become a society of used and useless objects, whereas in the countryside we see deforestation, abandonment of cultivation, pollution of water, atmosphere, and vegetation, the extinction of animal species and so on.[8]

The ripples of implications effect everything from sex and sexuality as a commodity to politics –which Baudrillard equates to advertising, publicity, sports, fashion and special effects.[9]

It is spectacle, stimulation, and simulation.

Our emerging context is filled with simulacra and the hyper-real. Constructing notions of social identity and community belonging is only going to become more difficult and more elusive.

Tomorrow we wrap up the series with ‘Body and Embodied’. 


[1] Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 105.

[2] Jesse Russell and Ronald Cohn, Simulacra and Simulation (Book on Demand, 2012), 6.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 47.

[5] Ibid., 107.

[6] Baudrillard follows the work of Marshall McLuhan closely here.

[7] Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 111.

[8] Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1990), 78.

[9] Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 116.

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. 

 

Privilege is not Racism, Sexism or Oppression: a proposal

If you have been following the blog-o-sphere or twitter-verse this past 2 weeks, then you will know that race, gender, sexuality and social location have been quite contentious issues. Boy at Cockflight_3

It just so happens that I have been far out of the loop as I have been on hiatus while renovating my parents house – so I have watched all of this from a safe distance. 

I was asked last week to write something regarding the issue. After reading every possible link, blog and tweet that I could, I have decided to forego commenting on the events themselves – for reasons contained in this post – and instead put forward a constructive proposal for going forward. 

 

In order to accomplish the desired conversation, I first need to clarify a couple of things:

  1. Next year I will attempt write a dissertation within the discipline of practical theology which addresses the issue of White privilege.
  2. This post is only reporting a distinction that I will employ in my work.
  3. I am not telling anyone else what to do, what words to use – nor am I attempting to limit others or re-define the terms or ground rules for engagement.

 

Two Fatal Flaws: 

The conversation around issues of Race-Gender-Class and Identity Politics usually breaks down and becomes unfruitful due to two fatal flaws in how the conversation is framed.

  • The first flaw is the use of either-or binaries and dualism that are too limiting and not nearly complex enough to accurately reflect the reality of the issue that attempting to address.
  • The second flaw is the sloppy mixing of words and categories without clear distinction.

 

Here is an example of each:

I am a person of privilege in almost every category. That privilege allows me to benefit from systems that oppress, hurt, and marginalize people. Does that mean that I am an oppressor? In the current binary configuration, I am not oppressed so I must be an oppressor.  We have seen all too well how this line of reasoning goes. 

As a white person, I am located in a place of racial privilege. Does that make me a racist? While I benefit from systemic racism, I am not consciously attempting to participate in or reinforce the prevailing racist structures… in fact, I may even be attempting to undermine them and confront them.

 

A Change: 

I would like to see us move away from either-or options based on limited binaries and make a move toward multiplicity that more accurately reflects the complexity of the situation. This would be done by first adding a third category – then and here is the big one – by distinguishing within each of those at least 2 postures: active and passive.

We would then have
A) Privilege
B) Racism/Sexism
C) Oppression/Marginalization

AND each of those would be clarified by a passive or active posture/participation.

 

You could then have someone who is in a place of racial privilege who is passively (and possibly ignorantly) benefiting from the privilege without 1) being very aware of it 2) actively contributing to the marginalization or oppression of another group – and certainly not being overtly racist.

In this configuration we could distinguish between those who are active and those who are passive in their privilege – active and passive in the racist/sexist structures – and active passive in the marginalization/ oppression that results.

These seem to be important distinctions that prevent the oppressed-oppressor either-or binary that is so prevalent in Identity Politics but which is so alienating and confusing to those who have yet to confront/consider issues of Race-Gender-Class in this way.

 

Definitions: 

I am utilizing concepts from ‘Race, Class, and Gender in the United States’ by Paula S. Rothenberg. The two major distinctions that I am interacting with come from Peggy McIntosh and Beverly Daniels Tatum respectively.

Peggy McIntosh on White privilege:

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.

This privilege, as Brekke El (@WrdsandFlsh on twitter) points out, “Privilege in America is BUILT on institutions of racism, sexism & oppression”.

Beverly Daniels Tatum distinguishes between active and passive racism:

… All White people, intentionally or unintentionally, do benefit from racism. (A Klan member or the name calling Archie Bunker are) images (that) represent what might be called active racism, blatant, intentional acts of racial bigotry and discrimination. Passive racism is more subtle and can be seen in the collusion of laughing when a racist joke is told, of letting exclusionary hiring practices go unchallenged, of accepting as appropriate the omissions of people of color from the curriculum, and of avoiding difficult race-related issues.
Because racism is so ingrained in the fabric of America institutions, it is easily self-perpetuating. All that is required to maintain it is business as usual.

 

Here is why I am taking this approach: 

These issues are far too important to resign ourselves to the round-and-round in-house binaries of generations past that have not delivered the desired results and have not initiated those in places of power/privilege into constructive examinations of the systems and structures that benefit them.

These issues would seem to be matters that people of faith would be more interested in than the culture as a whole (due to the nature of the material) but which seem to have largely the opposite reaction in a sizable portion of that population.

We need to alter the way in which the conversation is framed if we want to both affect different outcomes than have already been achieved OR if we want to involve ever-increasing amounts of people in expanding rings of influence.

 

Again, I am not trying to tell anyone else what to do – I am in no place to do so. I am only attempting to share a distinction that I will be utilizing in my future project in the hopes that others might find it equally useful. 

 

Beauty, Bodies and Blunders

President Obama got in some hot water for a compliment he paid California Attorney General Kamala Harris. He said:

You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country — Kamala Harris is here. (Applause.) It’s true. Come on. (Laughter.) And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years. [via The Los Angeles Times]

A remark like that is never going to go over well. It was just one sentence but we could talk for days about it!

I know that I am an odd bird in that I often see the silver lining in things that other people think are really bad – like taking the Lord’s name in vain. I like that people do it. It means that the name of God still carries some gravity. No one is cursing Thor when they smash their thumb with a hammer. No one is blaspheming Zeus when they get cut off in traffic. Anyway …

I was happy to see the outrage and level of outcry over the President’s remarks. I love when stuff like this happens outside the walls of the church and I think to myself “Ok, it’s not just us that are sensitive, reactive and protest-ant. Good, I was starting to worry”.

You have to forgive me. I come from a very muscular – testosterone – ‘Wild at Heart’ brand of Christianity. In the last decade I have migrated to a progressive – critical theory – ‘She Who Is’ brand of faith.

The thing that has been most difficult for me is to figure out what to do with the body. 

As a contextual theologian and an Ancient-Future practitioner, I am deeply concerned with issues of incarnation and embodiment of the gospel. Our faith can not be merely intellectual, super-natural or institutional. Our faith must embodied, or in-bodied and lived-out. 

I have figured out, through 6 years of blogging, how to talk with conservative, evangelical, and charismatic Christians about almost everything  related to faith and practice in ways that they can hear. The issues of sexuality remain the most illusive.

The problem seems to relate to a giant pot-hole in the road to understanding that is so treacherous it almost doesn’t leave enough room to move without careening into the pit of ‘natural design’.

What complicates matter all the more is that there is a serious ditch on the other side of the road – one that was dug by Augustine’s legacy  (I hate Augustine’s influence on church history) regarding the badness of the body, a specifically sexuality.

Here then is the issue: If I am talking about somebody and I’m listing all of that they bring to the table in areas of smarts, relationship, experience, and capacity … am I to act like they don’t have a flesh container? It asks me to act like they have no body.

Yes. That is what we want you to do.  Jonathan Chait at New York explains:

For those who don’t see the problem here, the degree to which women are judged by their appearance remains an important hurdle to gender equality in the workforce. Women have a hard time being judged purely on their merits. Discussing their appearance in the context of evaluating their job performance makes it worse. It’s not a compliment. And for a president who has become a cultural model for many of his supporters in so many other ways, the example he’s setting here is disgraceful. [New York]

Even while I write this I can hear my more conservative Christian brothers saying “That is ridiculous! This is the sissy-fication of our culture.”  To which I can only reply,”Yes. It is the leveling of a historically unequal playing field.” obamakamala1_1365167806

I get why culturally, we don’t want the President even acknowledging her flesh container at all. We don’t want pastors commenting on congregant’s looks. I get it.

But as thinking christians, is anyone else worried about the implications for this kind of willful charade? Do we think that President Obama doesn’t see her? Are we under the impression that he doesn’t notice her beauty? Do we think that she, in her private moments, doesn’t want to be found attractive? Do we think that she doesn’t invest time and energy in her looks?

“It doesn’t matter! Just don’t say it. Not ever ever ever.”  And I get that. What I am asking about is the ramifications for the embodied practices of the life of faith. What we have learned from church history  (and reality TV)- from fundamentalist pastor’s daughters to celibate priests – is that repression of desires in one place (public) is bound to cause pressure which bubbles up some place else (private).

We have to break the ‘old boys network’ mentality. I get that. I am worried about the secondary effect of perpetuating a deadly dualism between body and mind/soul.

I clearly need help thinking this through. Anyone want to chime in on this?