Saturday, March 31, 2012

Easter and The Hunger Games

Think of this entire post as a riff on some (certainly not all) of the theological/ethical considerations that come up when one pastor watches The Hunger Games.

Disclaimer: I have not yet read the books, but watching this first movie convinced me to read the rest. If something I write here is addressed in detail in the book, I'd love for readers to suggest page numbers, references.

And I loved the movie even while disturbed by its theme. I loved it enough to watch it again, and without going into boring detail as to all the things I appreciated about the movie, I'll name these--the casting of Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Jennifer Lawrence, and many others, was simply perfect, many of the new actresses and actors were outstanding, and what isn't there to like about a dystopian movie like this if you are a sci-fi geek?

I. This is a movie about them watching them.

Or actually, it's a movie about us watching them watching them.

Or you could say it's a movie about us watching us watching them watching them watching them.


Take the last point: It's a movie about us watching us (because we have been for quite some time now analyzing who is watching this movie, and how many, and how much money was spent on it in the first week, and how many people are reading the book, and so on--and now you can even buy make-up in order to not only watch them but also look like them).

 It's a movie about us watching them (because we're watching the movie). It's a movie about them watching them (because all the fans in the capitol are watching the games). It's a movie about them watching them watching them (because the capitol and people in control are watching how the games affect the Districts and the people in them, and then modify the games to suit their needs).

And all of these "nestings" of perspective, this post-modern self-awareness about viewer and audience self-complicity in the gaze of the other, is pulled off effortlessly, never pedantic. In fact the flair with which it is accomplished results both in the power of the movie (and I assume book) to attract us, and the danger is perhaps that we may not notice the extent to which we are complicit in the elicitations. How many viewers will educe this point?

Another way to come at this is to ask: Can media via media engage in self-criticism? Can a blockbuster movie about a blockbuster reality-show-to-end-all-reality-shows successfully pull of the kind of self-critique of media it seems to be attempting to? I would argue tentatively that it can, to a degree, but it engenders all same dangers of such a medium that were illustrated in full when U2 went on the Popmart tour.

II. The Scapegoat Mechanism

If ever there was an apt portrayal of mimetic desire in cinema, this movie is it. I walked out of the theater wondering to myself, "How long will it take before we get a Girardian analysis of this movie?" If someone hasn't done it already, here's mine in miniature.

Mimetic desire is when you want something that someone else wants. The violence that ensues as a result of competing desires is sometimes called a scapegoat mechanism. The scapegoat is the victim onto which the violence of competing desires is thrust, and typically these scapegoats are either killed or cast out of community. In the case of The Hunger Games, it is both. Social order is restored or controlled when the scapegoat mechanism is enacted. In this narrative, there needs to be a price paid for the revolution, and so the games are established "forevermore" as the mechanism for "keeping peace."

However, as the Districts, and the people in the Capitol, all view the games simultaneously, there is a vicarious scapegoating that also happens. The wealthy capitol residents get to participate in that which they desire (to slum like the residents of the district) and the District residents get to see enacted what they desire (violent revenge, as well as hope that their youth might win). In both cases, the scapegoating mechanism offers only limited and temporary consolation, and as the president of the capitol knows all too well, the mechanism can fail quite easily if it offers too much hope, or only limited hope, or if it is modified in a way displeasing to the community as a whole.

The question in a Girardian analysis of this mimetic desire--does the movie itself participates in the kind of "end of scapegoating" that is accomplished, for example (according to Girard) in the case of Jesus? For Girard, since Jesus is raised from the dead, the community is now made aware of the mechanism in such a way that it no longer needs to enact the mechanism anymore. The cycle has been broken.

Ostensibly, it would seem like this is Suzanne Collin's goal as well, to bring to awareness the violence enacted in such spectacle and so warn viewers away from it. Whether this is a successful strategy remains to be seen. For now, the movie itself IS spectacle, certainly re-enacting a scapegoating mechanism in all its gory and horrific detail--but will it change anything? That is another question.

For example, will it at all raise our awareness of all the other spectacles (certainly of a less overtly violent sort) to which we pay tribute? The most recent violent mechanism I imagine few would consider such was the last Mega-Millions lottery. Here millions of dollars that could have been used for all kinds of good were sacrificed at the altar of mimetic desire, the desire to have the desire of others, in this case incredible riches. However, this is a more subtle illustration of mimetic desire, not as blatant as a game set up for children to murder each other. Nevertheless, I believe the same mechanisms are in play.

If this point has intrigued you, I suggest two resources. First, you can read weekly meditations on the lectionary texts from a Girardian perspective at Second, the greatest and most accessible writer bringing to life the Girardian perspective in theology is James Alison, whose web site offers a cornucopia of essays and other resources.

III. Hope Measured Out in Coffee Spoons

For my money, one of the most theologically poignant moments in the movie was when President Snow says to Seneca Crane, "Hope; it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it's contained. So, contain it." 

This is one of those moments in a movie where every theological bell in my entire heart and brain started ringing at once. Although this particular point deserves greater analysis, for now (at least in part because I'm reserving more insight on this for my sermon on Easter Sunday), the difference between hope measured out by despots, and the hope of the gospel, is how profligate the gospel is with hope. God in Christ just gives hope away, without measure. The movie, by pointing out that some use small measures of hope as a tease in order to control, offers profound truth at this point.

IV. Is Violence Redemptive?

Notice in the movie that the main characters, the ones we are hoping will win and carry us forward in the narrative, avoid, for the most part, engaging in any forms of "non-redemptive violence." So, for example, when Katniss witnesses Peeta teamed up with the violent and surviving faction in the games, she (and so also us as viewers) is horrified. She wonders, as do we--Has he engaged in killing that isn't redemptive?

Conversely, Katniss never kills anyone in the games, except for once, while defending herself and Rue. She indirectly kills one tribute by dropping a tracker jacker nest, and she kills Cato at the end, but only to save him from the dogs.

But we see the point--some kinds of violence are better than others. Inadvertent killing is better than direct execution style killing, killing in self-defense is better than killing to win (even though, in the way this game is set up, all killing is ipso facto self-defense). Even those in the capitol live at different levels in this tension. So Lenny Kravitz's character, though complicit in preparing young children for violent games, is as caring and helpful as he can be in the meantime. And so we identify with him more than others.

In fact, throughout the movie, the amount of sympathy we are asked to have with various characters is directly correllated to the level of their violence and whether it is redemptive or redeemable--or not.

At the conclusion, when Cato asks to be killed, he says, "I am dead anyway. All I know is how to kill." Hopelessness is defined as an inability to do violence towards good ends.

However, we ought to ask ourselves whether violence is ever, in the end, redemptive, and whether the scalability of violence in this movie (and just so pretty much every other movie like it) is actually faithful to the true place of violence in culture and society.

V. Is there a problem with spectacle?

On this last point, I do not fault the movie in any way. Movies are made to sell, they need audiences and income in order to make more movies. I want cinema companies to make more movies, and in fact I want them to make movies that are as outstanding, and rich, and deep, and with as high of production values as this movie has.

Similarly, people who like professional sports want their sports to be awe-inspiring. And so on.

However, what the movie illustrates is the danger of spectacle. Extreme danger. Horrible danger. And so if we are going to listen to the message of the movie, we need to listen to the message of the movie. By participating in spectacle, we are participating in all of the horrible outcomes that spectacle engenders. Some examples: professional football players and head trauma, movies that exploit local contexts, shows that numb audiences to real tragedy and humanity.

It's hard to be honest about our own complicity in the horrors of spectacle--yet if this movie has any kind of message at all, it is this message, Be aware of your complicity in spectacle.

Or perhaps the greatest danger of all, that because spectacle is so attractive, so alluring, it begins to dull our sensibilities, and so those things in this world that are truly good, true, and beautiful can sometimes appear less grand in comparison.

Take Easter for example. Easter isn't and shouldn't be spectacle. Yet there is a great temptation to make it show. Easter pageants that turn Easter into a faux shambles of the real thing.

Because the real Easter, the reality behind Easter, is both less grand than spectacle (there is no glory on a cross) and elusive (an empty tomb and a hard-to-identify resurrected Christ, recognized in shared meals and ordinary teaching).

That's all I've got for now. Perhaps more on this later, after Easter.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Silence of Easter

The Silence of Easter 
"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." — Ludwig Wittgenstein

[1] During the Easter season, I wander the halls of church and mutter on the bike trail, "He is risen!" I'm perennially hoping someone will overhear and respond. Often someone does. Even if I speak into silence, in the absence of others, I can still hear the echo of the Easter Sunday litany resounding in my auditory memory banks — "He is risen indeed! Alleluia!"

The Silence of Easter by Clint Schnekloth

[2] The rest of the year, outside of Easter, other aphorisms crowd in, some of them frequently. One of those always takes on fresh importance during the Lenten season and lead-up to Holy Week, especially in year B when we dwell so deeply in the gospel of Mark. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously concluded his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus with this single, enigmatic, unsupplemented proposition, "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen," most often translated, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

[3] This sentence has, together with the first proposition in the Tractatus ("The world is everything that is the case") taken on a kind of proverbial quality in contemporary German. They are the kind of sentence that can rumble around in the brain for days. Whenever I quote either one to myself, my immediate internal response is, "That is so true!" Then, that first response is always juxtaposed with a subsequent thought, "I have no idea what that means?!"1

[4] There you have it: an admission of the construction of my own personal neo-crypto-Wittgensteinian liturgy.

[5] So why does this matter for Easter?Well, it's fairly clear that the gospel of Mark (though a very different kind of literature than Wittgenstein's Tractatus) concludes in a way quite similar to Tractatus. Whereas the six earlier main propositions in Wittgenstein's work all include supporting supplementary propositions, the seventh does not. It is simply the last proposition, and silence follows. Just so in Mark, although all the other events in the life of Christ include supporting propositions, after the announcement that Jesus has been raised, nothing more is actually described or said. There are, as it were, no showings, but simply silence. (I am aware that this assertion glosses over the alternate endings of the gospel of Mark, but for this essay, the assumption really is that verse eight is the original and best conclusion of the gospel.)

[6] Look at the "real," attested most thoroughly in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts, conclusion of the gospel of Mark (verse 8): "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." Although a young man has testified that Jesus is raised and is no longer in the tomb, the three women (Mary, Mary and Salome) follow the Wittgensteinian dictum, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." An empty tomb; life after death; these things are unspeakable. Better to pass over them in fearful silence.

[7] At this point, I ask you to bear with me as I try to illustrate why this silence (and the Wittgensteinian interpretation of it) matters a great deal for our Easter proclamation.

[8] Many interpreters of Wittgenstein have adopted a "picture theory" to best interpret theTractatus. According to this theory, when a proposition is expressed, its constituent parts correspond (if the proposition is true) to something in the world. The correspondence itself is something Wittgenstein believed we could not say anything about. We can say that there is correspondence, but the correspondence itself can only be shown.2

[9] Think about the gospel of Mark. Although the gospel does not conclude with resurrection appearances, it includes Christ's repeated promise that he will rise or be raised (8:31; 9:31; 10:34). It even includes a narrative of the Transfiguration (chapter 9) which many scholars notice as a kind of resurrection "riff" peppering the gospel. So the promise of resurrection is spoken without actually "saying" the resurrection itself. However, in a way I will discuss more in a little bit, it could be argued that Mark consistently shows the resurrection by testifying to it, but withoutsaying anything about it once it has already happened. To play with the language a bit, it is shown in hope but not said in proof.

[10] My favorite New Testament scholar and gospel of Mark specialist, the late Donald Juel, understands Mark primarily as a narrative, and so interprets the conclusion of Mark as intrinsically structured as an "unsatisfying ending." How a story ends matters. He writes, "The Markan ending in manuscript and commentary betrays an unwillingness or inability to take the disappointment [of ending at verse 8] seriously. It is as if there is an emotional barrier that must be broken through if the Gospel is to be heard ... one of [Frank] Kermode's great contributions is a willingness to entertain the possibility that there are no satisfying endings — in Mark or in life."3

[11] Juel makes an argument for an "unsatisfying ending" to Mark's gospel on a variety of grounds, but the one most pertinent to our ethical reflections here resides in the typical violence many readers exercise on the text by seeking to force a satisfying ending when there isn't one, and wasn't one originally. "Interpreters with institutional allegiances and an investment in coherence and meaning are forced to employ cunning and violence to extract what they need from the text. The experience of disappointment must at all costs be overcome."4

[12] What does this mean for our Easter proclamation?It alerts us to a grave danger, that on Easter, and during the weeks to follow, we might be co-opted, as a result of our institutional allegiances and desire for coherence, to force a violent interpretation on the text, and so attempt a proclamation of the resurrection we are not actually free to proclaim, given "everything that is the case." In doing so, we would miss the deepest insight available in reading Mark while not seeking coherence, that Mark relies not on narrating resurrection appearances (saying) but rather on the promises of Jesus. "[Mark's] story cannot contain the promises. Its massive investment in the reliability of Jesus' words becomes a down payment on a genuine future."5 In other words, in Mark, resurrection is already and always promised only in the day-to-day ministry of Christ together with his disciples, and never reliant on special hard-and-fast sightings of the resurrected Christ.

[13] This may sound precisely the opposite of the Wittgenstein quote, as if in Mark we cannot show, we can only say — but actually just the opposite, paradoxically, is the case. Resurrection is shown precisely in those moments in the gospel itself where it stands simply as promise, as the testimony of Christ, or the testimony of the man in the empty tomb. The part that cannot be spoken, the freedom of Christ to be resurrected wherever and whenever Christ's resurrection takes hold, ispassed over in silence.

[14] This offers an important moment for us. As we preach the text, we are invited not to speak of "the resurrection" in the abstract, as a done deal, a metaphysical event that locks Jesus into specific places and moments in his resurrected form. As in, "I/we did this, and this is what practicing resurrection looks like." Instead, Jesus is on the loose, implicit wherever the promise of his resurrection is narrated in the context of his ministry. "He is risen" is spoken most appropriately wherever we cannot see Jesus, where he needs to be spoken. When we have actually seen him — when we think we have confidently locked in on a correspondence between our words and his visible presence — then we are called to the silence Wittgenstein encourages. "He is risen ... but is not here."

[15] Wittgenstein actually also argued that ethics itself is something of which we cannot sensibly speak.6 However, if we keep in mind that what cannot be spoken can only be shown (in point of fact, that the most important things in this life can only be shown), then this enigmatic assertion makes more sense.7 "There are ethics ... but not here. We are just living life together the best we can. And have we mentioned that Jesus is risen?"

[16] All of which is to say, we are invited to remain in that unresolved tension, where we proclaim "He is risen" while remaining steadfast in our commitment to not be overly confident that we have hold of the risen Christ while he, fast as ever, flits away to somewhere else, free as always, leaving behind only stunned and fearful, silent ones. Us.

Clint Schnekloth is Lead Pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and a doctor of ministry candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. Clint maintains "Lutheran Confessions," the longest running Lutheran blog in North America.
1. Wittgenstein spent much of the rest of his career critiquing his own earlier work. This also parallels, at least in part, what is happening in the differences between the earliest gospel, Mark, and those gospels written after Mark but with Mark in mind.

2. For more on this, I commend the Wikipedia article on the Tractatus,

3. Donald Juel, Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), 54.

4. ibid, 59.

5. ibid, 61.

6. Of course my reading of Wittgenstein here departs from the "mainstream interpretation" of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The logical postivists and the Vienna school took Wittgenstein to be saying that not only are ethics and religion meaningless but also worthless and ruled out as viable human activities available for speech. I do not personally believe this was Wittgenstein's "intent."

7. It has intrigued Wittgenstein scholars now for generations that although Wittgenstein considered ethics part of the ineffable, metaphysical stuff that remains unspeakable, he himself strove to live a morally upright, even some might say ethically perfect life.
© March 2012
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 12, Issue 2

When Technology Keeps Us Busy

I believe we have reached a point of inflection, where we can see the costs [of technology] and take action. We will begin with very simple things. Some will seem like just reclaiming good manners. Talk to colleagues down the hall, no cell phones at dinner, on the playground, in the car, or in company. There will be more complicated things: to name only one, nascent efforts to reclaim privacy would be supported across the generations. And compassion is due to those of us—and there are many of us—who are so dependent on our devices that we cannot sit still for a funeral service or a lecture or a play. We now know that our brains are rewired every time we use a phone to search or surf or multitask. As we try to reclaim our concentration, we are literally at war with ourselves. Yet, no matter how difficult, it is time to look again toward the virtues of solitude, deliberateness, and living fully in the moment. We have agreed to an experiment in which we are the human subjects. Actually, we have agreed to a series of experiments: robots for children and the elderly, technologies that denigrate and deny privacy, seductive simulations that propose themselves as places to live.

We deserve better. When we remind ourselves that it is we who decide how to keep technology busy, we shall have better.[1]

[1] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, 296.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Holy Week

Christians believe God offers us time as a gift. One of the ways we receive this gift gracefully is by marking time according to the life of God in Christ. So we live by seven-day weeks in honor of God’s creating in six days and resting on the seventh. We keep this last and seventh day holy by waking up and worshipping, weekly, in a way that honors Christ’s resurrection and the new life we live in him.

The more I live this Christian walk, the more I realize I simply cannot do without the weekly gathering for worship. If I miss worship, it leaves a massive hole in my life, in my week. This is not to say that I find every Sunday worship service stimulating or life-changing. Often I don’t. Many weeks, church is just what I do that day. However, I know Christ is there—he is present in that meal we serve, alive in the words spoken, available to the prayers we pray, honored in the hymns we sing. That’s enough for me to show up.

Yes, God is in many places (all places), and not just in church, but I know God promises to be alive and available especially in that community, in that place, so I go there.

And then there are weeks like Holy Week. This coming week, we take what is already remarkable—every Sunday being the Lord’s Day, after all—and make it even more so. There is an astounding superfluity to the worship offered Holy Week that can astound us. We try to keep the other patterns of our life the same. We would prefer that soccer practice, or work, or house cleaning, or e-mails, or any other set of obligations, should continue to take precedence. It is difficult for us to concede our time, even for one week, and conform it to the life of Christ.

I think this is precisely why Jesus’ agonized question the night before his crucifixion—Are you asleep? Could you not keep awake for one hour?—has continuing relevance (Mark 14:37). Our culture, and we ourselves, would prefer to sleep through this next week and keep doing what we always do, rather than do the more arduous work of staying awake and attentive to what it means that Christ was crucified on our behalf, and raised to new life, that we might rise with him (Mark 16:6; 2 Corinthians 4:14).

So this is what we do on this week. We begin the week with the procession of palms, in memory of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Then we take time to read the passion narrative, slowly, carefully, attending to all the details of Christ’s final days of life (Mark 14-15). We spend this Holy Week in prayer. We stop doing some things. We start doing others.

We make space in our lives for the worship services of the three days—Maundy Thursday, remembering Christ’s last supper and the washing of his disciples’ feet; Good Friday, the day of his crucifixion and death; and Easter, the day of a surprising empty tomb—because in them we hear and see so much of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, that the truth of Christ begins, again and again, to take on even more reality than our own lives. Christ’s life becomes our life.

And in the midst of this we also find ways to celebrate our community together. We share a common breakfast (Palm Sunday 7:30 to 11a.m.). We hunt for eggs (also Palm Sunday, 9:15 a.m.). We gather with friends and family for meals and fellowship. We put on special clothes. You may have other Easter traditions.

Yet the point remains, that we keep the main thing the main thing. We re-structure our time so that our time is conformed to the Lord’s time. We tell time this way so the Lord’s story becomes our story. The Lord’s story becomes our story so that what is promised by Paul in Romans is confirmed, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (6:4)

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Cross and the Lynching Tree By James H. Cone

Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching three is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross” (158). So concludes James H. Cone in his essential new book.

Really if you read only one piece of theologically informed non-fiction this year, make it this one. [This book has become especially relevant with the recent tragic killing of Trayvon Martin.] Among other things, Cone draws our attention to the fact that no one, not one single theologian of note in the last century, has ever drawn a sustained comparison between the innocent suffering of those lynched in the United States, and the cross/lynching of Jesus Christ. Although conservative Christians made lynching an actual part of their religion, liberal Christians of the same period were completely silent on the subject—an omission as damning as the commission.

As an epigraph in the book states, “Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation’s collective historical memory” (W. Fitzburgh Brundage, Lynching in the New South).

James Cone takes as his point of reference for this insight the work of Reinhold Niebuhr who, in a theological career that influenced many African-American and social justice theologians, failed himself to highlight any direct comparison between the practice of lynching, and the cross that centered prominently in his theological ethics. It was and remains a glaring oversight.

To reflect on the failure of one of our nation’s most “progressive” theologians to consider the analogy between the cross and the lynching tree is “to address a defect in the conscience of white Christians and to suggest why African Americans have needed to trust and cultivate their own theological imagination” (32).

The first chapter of this book recounts the history of the lynching tree in the black experience, and looks at poetry and art from the time period that illustrates the analogy between the cross and lynching. Chapter two, as has already been mentioned, focuses on the failure of Niebuhr to make use of this analogy in his theology. Some of the most poignant passages in the book are when Cone shifts from the voice of theologian and historian into a more personal voice. Cone teaches at Union Theological Seminary, where Niebuhr also taught, and so Cone recognizes the ways he has been shaped by Niebuhr and the tradition he established, while also being excluded or overlooked by it. As he notes (thus illustrating the winsomeness and power of his liberationist approach to theology), “White theologians do not normally turn to the black experience to learn about theology” (64).

Chapter three is a meditation on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “staring down of the lynching tree.” King, together with all African-Americans of the time, lived with the horrible prospect that at any time they might be lynched. Living one’s theology makes a lot of difference to the theology we develop. “It is one thing to teach theology (like Niebuhr, Barth, Tillich and most theologians) in the safe environs of a classroom and quite another to live one’s theology in a situation that entails the risk of one’s life” (70).

Chapters four and five are theological meditations on lynching in the literary imagination of the African-American community. Perhaps the most concise and powerful statement of this imagination is Gwendolyn Brooks’ line in “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” when she writes, “The loveliest lynchee was our Lord” (98). Chapter five also shifts to a specific look at the womanist perspective, especially as this informs our theologies of atonement and understanding of the “meaning” of innocent suffering. His summary of the womanist approach is worth quoting in full:

“I accept Delores Williams’s rejection of theories of atonement as found in the Western theological tradition and in the uncritical proclamation of the cross in many black churches. I find nothing redemptive about suffering in itself. The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair, as revealed in the biblical and black proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection” (150).

Cone concludes with one further insight, that “in Black Theology and Black Power [his first book] and all the texts that followed, including this one, I begin and end my theological reflections in the social context of black people’s struggle for justice. The cross is the burden we must bear in order to attain freedom” (151).

As a church, we keep lamenting that we are a shrinking denomination, and we think this is because we've lost our identity and missional impulse. But what if in fact we are shrinking because we are in captivity to white middle-classness? What if the antidote is clear listening to the black experience in order to overcome our pious and faulty misunderstandings of the cross? These are the kinds of questions James Cone forces this white theologian to ask.

[Forthcoming in Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry, and used with permission]

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Trayvon Martin: One Lutheran Response

First of all, my deepest sympathies go out to the family and community of Trayvon Martin. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Second, given that I am not personally serving in a congregation geographically close to where this took place, I provide a link to the Florida Council of Churches "The Martin Statement." Since this is signed by the ELCA bishop in that area, it is a good starting place for those wishing to learn more, and join in advocacy efforts.

Many of my fellow clergy will be talking about this tragedy tomorrow in their sermons. Although I will not make it central to the sermon, certainly it will be in our prayers. I feel like I am still getting my head around the implications of it all, and until I do so, I do not know how I would address the topic in a sermon. For example, I don't think I can pronounce some kind of verdict on the guilt or innocence of the shooter. That's not my job. That is the job of a jury.

However, I can observe the impact news of this event has had on our communities and culture.

Here are some of the things I know to be true. First, some communities are more deeply affected by this than others, and it concerns me that the concern for this issue is divided along racial lines. So, for example, I read a post that talks about racial gaze theory and the treatment of black bodies, and the extent to which this plays a role in how justice has (and has not) been done thus far in Florida:

The author is especially concerned that white Christians are so quiet in response to these kinds of tragedies. I think he is right. I know that by and large the Christians I know who are African-American are more vocal, and more outraged, by this tragedy than the white Christians I know. Anecdotally, there were a lot more posts on Facebook this week about Hunger Games than Trayvon Martin, except for my friends who are African-American and/or closely affiliated with minority communities and advocacy efforts.

I recently read and reviewed a book that charts the history of this white silence, and I think it is incredibly pertinent: James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree. In fact I'll be leading a discussion of it at the local indie bookstore in April.

I have also been studying, and plan to lead discussion around, the new ELCA draft social statement on Criminal Justice. Quite a bit of that draft document discusses race and justice, and pertains precisely to the kind of tragic situation that has played out in Florida.

I am proud that our church thinks big picture like this, and prepares social statements that can guide our advocacy and justice work as a denomination and Christian voice.

I think perhaps some of the silence from white Christians around these tragedies arises out of white guilt. Because I know I am complicit in racism even while hoping I can disclaim it, I find it difficult as a white man and pastor to feel competent to address issues of race. A friend and fellow pastor encouraged me to get over my white guilt and speak boldly. This blog post is one attempt. Please let me know if it has failed in some way.

One caveat: I have some concern about the hoodie thing. There is some danger that in advocating by marketing a product, it will become the thing that allows us to do justice without doing justice. We can't just wear a hoodie, or carry it into the pulpit, and feel like we have accomplished something on behalf of Trayvon, minority communities, etc. In fact, often when we enact such consumerist practices, we go the opposite way of justice.

I'm reminded of a quote I read recently in a powerful article in The Atlantic:

The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
I think these media events cater to that kind of thinking. We can jump on the band-wagon, wear a hoodie for a few days, and then not continue long term the kind of actual reconciliation that needs to occur to make the racism endemic to our culture and society a thing of the past. It's part of my job as a theologian to notice when this is happening, and point it out.

In order to really address the issue of race in the church, we need to look even deeper, more theologically, and more carefully, at the historic roots of the "problem of whiteness." I'm still getting my head around their analysis, but two books right now have been helping me think about this theologically:

1. J. Kameron Carter's Race: A Theological Account

I honestly believe until we acknowledge the kind of violence we see happening between the races as illustrated in James Cone's book and daily on the streets of America is a theological issue, the church won't honestly have done its part to help heal what is wounding us.

I also believe that discourse about race and justice needs to be part of our daily, weekly walk, not just something that comes out when the media catches hold of a specific tragedy and lifts it up to the national consciousness.

This may sound like a very studious or academic approach to this issue, but I never underestimate the power of study and communicative rationality. We are called to spend time thinking and talking together, and often this provides a context for deep change. I am called to think through as a pastor how race is a theological topic in my own community and place, and these resources, written by some of our best theologians and put together by leaders in our church thinking through the implications of criminal justice, really can offer us a guide for a way forward.

The other way forward is for readers of this blog to add their own voices. I invite you to do. And I conclude with a Christian prayer I find helpful in any situation, but especially when we hear and discuss things like the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. Amen.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

On not reading the bible

For professional purposes, I am required to read the bible. I have a sermon to preach this Sunday, a bible study to teach next week, and I'm already looking ahead to what I'll preach during Holy Week and teach this summer. For this and other reasons I read the bible regularly.

But to be candid, I could read the bible much less than I do, and this for two reasons: first because I often read works of theology that often quote Scripture, so I come across biblical references "sideways," as it were; and second, because the memory and echo of the Scripture I have already read and heard in my lifetime is enough at this point to resonate all kinds of other biblical passages in the moment of reading a new or specific one.

All of which is to admit that, if I wanted to, I could fake it.

It's worth asking, should I? Could I?

Recently, a friend wrote and reminded me that Gary Dorrien, in his three volume history, The Making of Liberal Theology," (a great trilogy, which I reviewed for Word & World a few years back) makes the case for an authentic expression of Christian faith that doesn't rely on external authority--the Bible." Although I wouldn't state Dorrien's thesis in such stark terms (his summary of modern liberal theology is more nuanced and subtle than this), the starkness of my friend's statement made me wonder: Is that possible? Can there be Christian faith without the external authority of Scripture?

What would that look like in practice?

My friend went on to say, "[The idea] didn't sit well with me when I first heard it...increasingly though I'm finding incredible appeal. Working with students who have no biblical foundation is tough when trying to get them to become biblicists. However its easy to talk about God using their own stories, then re-telling ancient ones."

In truth, far fewer people read the bible than claim to, and it is incredibly common for active Christians to not spend time reading the bible on their own at all. I have a feeling that in point of fact, on a functional level, much of Christianity already relies on something other than external authority, because people just don't read the bible that much. The bible has authority among us more in theory than practice. Do you agree?
I'd be curious to hear responses from readers of this blog. How often do you read the bible, honestly? How much time is this, altogether, in comparison to the other reading you do?

[For full disclosure, here's what I read this week... I read 2 Corinthians in total for devotional reasons... I read the lectionary texts in preparation to preach... I read Scripture for about four of the daily offices I have prayed this week... and tonight because I was looking at the Common English Bible and reviewing it as a translation, I was reading some of the psalms, especially Psalm 119. I don't know whether this counts as a lot or a little in comparison to other clergy or Christians].

However, as I've mentioned already, it isn't completely clear to me what counts as bible reading and what doesn't, and how the reading of Scripture is or ought to be situated within the larger orbit of our reading practices. To offer just one example, I honestly believe that my own understanding of (and standing under) the authority of Scripture arises out of my practice not of reading the scriptures directly, but indirectly as it were through great works of theology. 

Furthermore, although most of the fiction I read does not quote Scripture directly, there is something about the practice of reading fiction that enlivens the mind and inspires the heart and prepares it to read the bible better. Much the same can be said for lots of other reading, including history, social criticism, and so on. 

Then recently I happened upon this brief passage in Marilynne Robinson's new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays: "For years I have been interested in ancient literature and religion. If they are not one and the same, certainly neither is imaginable without the other" (11). If ancient literature and religion are one and the same--and I am inclined to agree with Robinson on this point--then precisely how we delineate when we are "reading the bible" becomes a more complicated procedure. 

Let me offer an example. Other than the bible, what other ancient text (I'll define this in arbitrary fashion as being at least 1500 years old) of any type did you read this past week? Plato? Herodotus? Cicero? Gilgamesh? If you did, to what degree was this kind of reading "religious"? 

If you have not read any other ancient texts this week other than Scripture, has it occurred to you recently how odd this whole reading an ancient text gig is in the grand scheme of your reading and media practices?

There is a subtle and profound way in which reading the Bible (especially reading the bible in particular ways) IS Christian faith, full stop.

Or we can take Robinson's slightly less assertive position, that if they are not one and the same, certainly neither is imaginable without the other. Even my friend, who wants to put into practice Dorrien's insight, plans to talk about God by telling the communities own stories, and then re-telling ancient ones.

What I am trying to say, I think, is that often when we think we are not reading the bible, we actually are, and sometimes when we think we are reading the bible, we aren't. In fact, often precisely when readers of the bible are over confident in assuming that they get or know the bible well, and know precisely how it can be applied in given situations (biblicism) they are more distant from faithful reading of Scripture than other people who simply don't read the bible at all.

All of this, offered simply to try and complicate a bit what we all think we are doing when we are or are not reading the bible.

To speak in the terms familiar to us...

there was a moment in which Jesus, as a man, a physical presence, left that supper at Emmaus. His leave-taking was a profound event for which the supper itself was a precursor. Presence is a great mystery, and presence in absence, which Jesus promised and has epitomized, is, at a human scale, a great reality for all of us in the course of ordinary life.

I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly... [including fictional characters]

We live on a little island of the articulable, which we tend to mistake for reality itself. we can and do make small and tedious lives as we sail through the cosmos on our uncannily lovely little planet, and this is surely remarkable. But we do so much else besides. For example, we make language...

Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement.

(Marilynne Robinson, When I Was Young I Read Books; 20-28, in an essay on "Imagination and Community")

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Reviving the Soul

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word "soul," and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every human pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brian than there are starts in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes "soul" would do nicely.

(Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Chid I Read Books: Essays, page 8)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

What are we doing when we pray?

I've promised to pray for people countless times.

I pray my way through our church directory, and the newspaper.

I pray (some) of the daily offices. The church prays all the daily offices even when I don't.

My avatar in Second Life prays and I pray too.

Church prays. I write some of those prayers. I love more of the prayers I don't write (Thank you St. Francis. Thank for "Collects.").

I/we pray before meals.

Christ prays the psalms. I join him.

I pray memorized prayers and extemporaneous prayers.

There are prayers prayed alone, and prayers prayed together.
Christ prays to the Father and in the Spirit we participate in these prayers.

I believe that my prayers are joined to the prayers of others.
I write prayers, and read prayers, and consider many other actions prayer, including, but not limited to:


I intend to pray more than I actually pray. Or perhaps I should say I count less things as prayer than I should. Or perhaps I should say sometimes I'm afraid of God.

I trust that when I don't have the right words for prayer, the Spirit groans for me.

I have tried to empty my mind for prayer, but not having that spiritual gift more native to other cultural contexts, I pray instead by filling my mind.

Some prayers I say over and over and over and over and over, like:

Our Father, who art in heaven...
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Thank you
I'm sorry
You're welcome

And when all is said and done,
    I still have no idea what we are doing when we pray,
         other than I know it is a good idea, and in some ways I have yet to fathom,

everything is prayer,
 and prayer is everything.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Busy-ness is a Form of Violence

This Lenten season, I have been offering a meditation after Holden Evening Prayer on single verses of Scripture. Yesterday evening, I preached on Exodus 20(:8), and the command to keep Sabbath. You can listen to the audio of the sermon, as well as audio of our congregation chanting Holden Evening Prayer, here:

Sometimes a topic I preach on really hits a nerve, and I get more than the usual number of responses from folks. I've learned that often this has less to do with what I say, and more to do with that I identified a topic on which many folks are reflecting.

In this case, a graduate student at the university responded later in the evening by sending me this quote on Facebook. She said it is attributed to Thomas Merton. I don't know who said it for sure, but I know it is an apt summary of what I was trying to express in the sermon. Thank you, as always, to all those discerning listeners who listen to sermons, and then respond, actively. You bless us preachers.
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence (and that is) activism and overwork….The rush and pressure of modern life are a form of violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Freedom of God's Law

Our lector today was the former dean of our law school, which made the reading of the 1 Corinthians passage more "contextual."  The sermon (audio here) was on the "10 commandments" and the connections God's law opens up for us with God and neighbor.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Visual Reformation: Lucas Cranach

If I "picture" the Reformation in my mind's eye, it is always Cranach's Wittenberg Altarpiece that shines most brightly. Not only is this the primary way I picture Reformation theology--it is also one of my favorite pieces of art of all time of any genre or period (other favorites include the giant spoon in Minneapolis and anything by Mark Rothko).

A few years back I had the opportunity to live in Wittenberg for three months, and I visited this altar frequently. It is still there, and actually I was more excited to see this piece of art than I was to see the Melanchthon or Luther museums. I could stare at it for hours.

Steven Ozment has published an outstanding biography of Lucas Cranach that celebrates and contextualizes Cranach and his artistic ouevre. It's a slim and highly readable volume, with lots of reproductions of Cranach's art.

I won't offer a full review here (I feel ill-equipped to offer an extensive review of a piece of art criticism), but I do mention a few insights.

First, I learned that Cranach was famous for painting very attractive nudes. His approach was unique, even at times seductive, and it transformed the way painters of this era approached the nude. Interestingly, Ozment believes this is not unrelated to the Reformers embrace of married life and married clergy, and so his chapter on women and nudes, although at first blush seeming to be only about a painterly theme, is actually also profoundly theological.

I did not know how embedded Cranach was in Wittenberg as a tradesman and leader. His influence was substantial. I also did not understand fully how he was influenced by, but also moved away from, the deep influence Dürer was having on European art at that time. Ozment helped me see the difference.

I had the sense that Cranach was very important in "marketing" Luther, but the chapter on this was still really helpful for understanding how Luther became the best-selling German author.

Finally, and perhaps the most intriguing part of the book from a theological perspective, is that Cranach was a hybrid Christian. He remained throughout his life committed both to Christian art and "secular" art, and he split the difference between Lutheran and Catholic, marketing art to both communities. Here is Ozment:

"Not only is the Weimar Altarpiece the "supreme visual monument of the German Reformation,' it is also the most incisive and succinct artistic expression of the Protestant gospel of faith alone. Therein, the viewer beholds an alternating, ecumenical Cranach, sometimes Protestant, sometimes Catholic. By all measures he was the best example the Protestants had of a 'mixed' Christian soul evidently at peace with itself." (278) Cranach as resource for visualizing ecumenism. Yes, quite.

And a friend pointed me to this new web resource for his art:

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Precise Way in Which Diana Butler Bass Is Not Quite Right

In a previous post, I quoted the central framework Diana Butler Bass makes use of to structure her new book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. This framework is anthropologist Wallace's attempt to delineate how change happens in cultures and people groups, then appropriated by a later cultural critic, McLoughlin.

It's helpful to know that the main framework for Bass's book has a kind of cultural critic pedigree. Since various kinds of cultural criticism contest one another, which theoretical framework we appropriate for our own work matters, and inasmuch as we can, we are called to listen to the cultural criticism that differs from our own. More on that in a little bit.

Diana Butler Bass is always worth reading. She typically has her finger on the cultural zeitgeist. Of course, there are multiple zeitgeists out there, but she has thoroughly imbibed the spirit of the age that we might term liberal North American faith.

DBB is also worth reading because she is really a fine writer, economical in her use of words, keeping the main thing the main thing. She is also a best seller. One might say she doesn't just report on the cultural zeitgeist--she is herself a part of the zeitgeist.

It is this last point that drives me to write what I write next. I do not have it as a goal in this post to totally undermine DBB's project. I find what she has written comforting, clarifying, and wise.

I do, however, want to lift up one critique that, if DBB were to hear it, and incorporate it into her future work, would make her work less misleading than it currently is. So bear with me, as I try to distinguish one kind of social criticism from another, and try to get a handle on why I simultaneously appreciate, but am also troubled by, DBB's new book (and it is worth repeating that what is most troubling about DBB's analysis is a way of thinking she has adopted from someone else).

Here's the main critique: Implicit in DBB is suspicion of institutions, but valorization of those departing the institution for a post-religion faith. The heroic characters in her narrative all do something similar: they set off on their own journey of exploration into a spiritual life somehow distinct from the kind of faith exercised within the "institution."

In this sense, her book would be more appropriately titled: Spirituality After Religion.

Take the McLoughlin model DBB offers early in her book. It is heroic in character. It valorizes heros and it also indemnifies human experience, snipping it out of its historical and traditioned contexts as being shaped by medias, books, and indeed church. It assumes that experience is independent of the traditions that make it. Clearly the leaders on the way to something new are the true heroes, and those holding back (or held back) need to just learn from the heroes and catch up.

The point is that DBB valorizes the new spiritual explorers and their agency, and assumes that is the most plausible analysis. For her, plausibility is largely mediated thorugh serious cultural shifts and media is ignored. This is why I noted briefly in my previous post that DBB shifts over from being strictly descriptive into being prescriptive, because I think the kind of social analysis DBB is conducting actually creates the very thing she is describing, and reinforces it.

To lift out an alternative, one could just as easily write a book explaining that the plausbiility of beliefs may be the fault of the believer as much as the implausibility of the system. That is, even though these new spiritual seekers are departing "religion," it is actually their own belief systems that lack plausibility, rather than the "religions" they are departing. DBB frequently scolds clergy or other folks who have raised this type of concern at seminars or conferences she leads.

She fails to take into account the formation of the hero (what was it in the culture that really contributed to these folks departing organized religion and redefining words like spirituality and religion?) or institution or radical individualism; she sees these as givens that are the unalterable features of culture.

A good friend and theologian, analyzing the social criticism of McLoughlin, in light of another social critic's work (Theodor Adorno), writes, "I mean one could dispute the description with some kind of radical claim that no person has any agency; the real agents of change are corporations or the wealthy who are dissolving traditional communities, indeed all communities. That gives an alternate account of who is doing the changing." However, that kind of critique doesn't really count in the kind of plausibility structure DBB has constructed. Instead, "experience" functions as the norm of plausibility, it is the "hard core," a norm that is itself unquestioned and formed to generate the crisis. It's a very autonomous account of human belief and action.
Autonomous experience, religio as "the journey I am on," my spiritual quest, these become the unquestioned norms in DBB's model. These are the things which cannot be criticized or questioned; and they function as the norm of belief or maxim of action in her work.

DBB frames the large middle section of her presentation around three key words that have been bantered around in the church for years. The description goes like this. The old "religious" approach was to expect "belief," which then led to improved forms of "behaving," which then eventuated in "belonging" to a community that shared common beliefs and behaviors. 

In the new "spiritually vital faith" (see the valorization again?) this series is reversed. First we "belong" to a community in which new "behaviors" are learned, and this new way of belonging and behaving then shapes "belief." 

DBB's final chapter is titled "Performing Awakening." Here, in the continuing pattern of valorizing those who are leading the way into a new spirituality, she writes, "Conventional religion is failing and a new form of faith, which some call 'spirituality' and can be called religio, is being born" (259). Now, I agree that DBB has put her finger on a kind of migration or remixing that is happening in religious faith. But her choice of language, that conventional religion is failing and a new spirituality is being born, buys completely into the valorization pattern I've described above, and I just don't think it is accurate.

As a lifelong Christian reading her book, everything she described as the new spirituality sounded to me like the very things I have been invited to do my whole life in traditional religious institutions. Her recipe for performing awakening includes: 1) Read the bible, 2) engage new faith practices like prayer or hospitality, 3) have fun and play, and 4) participate in making change (pages 265-266). Do these sound like a new spirituality being born, or a remixing of regular old religion, to you? For my money, they just sound like an invitation to re-focus, not be re-born.

I think DBB's work would be more helpful, more clear-eyed, more accurate, and more true, if she took account of these cultural critical insights. Settings things out in such stark terms--Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening--may sell more copies, but won't necessarily build up the kind of Christian community Christ is really calling us into. 

Thursday, March 08, 2012

This is How We Are Changing: Five Stages of Change in Religious Renewal Movements

Diana Butler Bass has this outstanding way of breezily introducing new patterns and stats. In fact, she is so good at describing current realities that sometimes, I think her descriptions actually end up being prescriptive (but that is for another post).

Her outline of anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace's "revitalization movement" framework is outstanding:

1. During a crisis of legitimacy individuals cannot 'honestly sustain the common set of religious understandings by which they believe they should act.' People wonder if they are the only ones who see the problems and experience the frustrations of the old ways. Thus, they begin to question conventional doctrines, practices, and their sense of identity.

2. People then experience cultural distortion, during which they conclude that their problems are not the result of personal failings, but rather 'institutional malfunction,' as they seek ways to change these structures or reject them.

3. Significant individuals or communities then begin to articulate a new vision, new understandings of human nature, God, spiritual practices, ethical commitments, and hope for the future. New possibilities begin to coalesce that make more sense in the light of new experiences than did the old ones.

4. As a new vision unfolds, small groups of people who understand the necessity for change begin to follow a new path; they experiment, create, and innovate with religious, political, economic, and family structures in a search for a new way of life. They develop new practices to give life meaning and make the world different. They embody the new vision and invite others to do so as well.

5. Institutional transformation occurs when the innovators manage to 'win over that large group of undecided folks' who finally 'see the relevance' of the new path and embrace new practices. When the undecideds 'flip,' institutional change can finally take place. (Christianity After Religion, 33-34)

Butler adds, "Given the limitations of any such pattern of human experience, Wallace's stages and McLoughlin's use of them can be very helpful. When many people feel lost, this can be a simple and empowering orienting device."

Absolutely. Butler uses the framework as the basis for her book.

Organizations and churches would be well served to print out this framework, then talk it through in worship, council meetings, and so on, in order to get a sense of "where we are" and so howe are are moving. 

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Prayers of the Church for Lent 2

P: God of Abraham and Sarah, we come before you in prayer, humbled by your creativity and call, awed that you are constantly doing new things. We are wondering and dreaming and hoping, imagining what you might do next.

A: Promising God, we remember your promise to Sarah and Abraham to make of them a great nation. We hear these words, "Kings of people shall come from her," and we think of our own children, our own nieces and nephews, our own grandchildren. We cherish who they are, and we dream of what they might become. Lead our children, our offspring, by your Spirit, and guide us to be the kinds of parents, adults, leaders, teachers they need in order to flourish and thrive in your world. God of Abraham and Sarah, you keep your promises. 

A: Faith. Trust. Hope. You offer us many models of faithfulness, give us reason to trust, and are our only hope. Help us learn from the saints who have gone before us and now rest in you. Let faith be our center, trust be our glue, and hope be our guide. Open us, through this faith, hope, and trust, to engagement with those of other faiths--Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, other Christians. Give us a vision of how you see them. Envelop us in your dreams, Lord. God of Abraham and Sarah, you keep your promises.

A: We pray for families who long for children, for foster families, adoptive families, and expecting families. We pray for those, like Jesus, who remain single and build community, and give birth to new ministries and communities, in other ways than biological. We pray for those with disabilities, and we name before you now out loud those in need of healing (Linda, Albert, Bob, Fern, Debbie, Judy, Zach). As a community we take time now to voice our many prayers aloud to you [pause here for time for the congregation to pray out loud]. God of Abraham and Sarah, you keep your promises.

A: We continue to pray for our elected leaders and those campaigning for public office. We pray for the many needs of the world, for the nations of Syria, Iran, Israel, North Korean. Let each nation do the work necessary that leads to peace. We pray for those who lose their lives for the sake of your gospel. As we continue in this Lenten season, turn us to you in prayer, out to our neighbors as we give to the poor, and away from self-indulgence as we fast. God of Abraham and Sara, you keep your promises.

P: Into your hands we commend all for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy, gifted with faith in you, and hopefully dreaming of your tomorrow. Amen.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Campus Ministry Outside the Camp

I'd get the "total poser" award if the substance of this post attempted to indicate that I knew oodles about campus ministry. I don't.  I have a bit of experience, having served in campus ministry at Luther College, and continuing affiliation with campus ministry wherever I have lived.

It is something I care passionately about but don't work at professionally.

I know just enough to know that the campus ministry scene is changing even faster than the change so much of the world is experiencing. 

Here's what I can claim and avoid the "total poser" award. I am in full-throttle learning mode. Most of my learning is just going around listening. I've been meeting the campus ministry folks at the university. I attend the Council of Religious Organization meetings at the U of A. I go out for lunch with our university young people. I try to spend time on campus.

I'm trying to faithfully help our congregation birth a ministry in the university context.

And every once in a while I read a book. The one I'm reading now is Stephen Lutz's College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture. It's not long, and it is helpful and wise. Those are sufficient positive attributes to recommend the book wholeheartedly. I tend to agree with its central thesis, that "college ministry is the most strategic mission field in the world today" (41).

A central missiological orientation of Lutz's book is a commitment to "going outside the camp." He argues that most campus ministry focuses on people groups that are already culturally close and open to Christian faith (m0 and m1 in Ralph Winter's scale of cultural distance from the gospel). Campus ministry typically focuses very little energy, or is ill-equipped to mentor those already in the Christian fold, to reach those more culturally distant (m2, m3, and m4). Here's how it looks:

m0: Those already in the Christian fold.
m1: Perhaps churched but disaffected.
m2: The generally silent, apathetic-toward Christianity group.
m3: Suspicious, skeptical, reacting to negative examples in church.
m4: Active in beliefs or religious very negative to Christianity, even antagonistic.

One could also point out that churches in general focus on m0 and m1, and don't quite know how to orient themselves to reaching m2-4. Churches love to reach their inactive members. They rarely even know how to talk with people who genuinely dislike the church and Christian faith.

However, on most university campuses, m2-4 is the largest percentage group. So there is a missiological mandate to reach these groups, somehow. That's Lutz's point, and his passion.

Lutz works to reach these culturally more distant groups by offering "faith and doubt" conversations in culturally more distant places, and by drawing close to humbly, and in conversation with, atheist groups and other distant groups on campus. 

He tells a lively and compelling story.

He also links to some great resources on-line, so if you don't want to buy his book (but I wish you would buy his book), you can link to these:

Tim Keller, "The Missional Church,"

John Stackhouse, "Engaging the University,"

An excellent case study on missional ministry at University of Texas-Austin:

Karin Fischer, "Number of Foreign Students in U.S. Hit a New High Last Year,":

What have you been learning about campus ministry lately?

Thursday, March 01, 2012

What would I like my bishop to know about social media?

Michael Rinehart, bishop of the Gulf Coast Synod of the ELCA, recently asked on the ELCA Clergy Facebook page, "What would you like your bishop to know about social media?" Bishop Rinehart also happens to have been my youth pastor when I was growing up in Davenport, Iowa.

My current bishop is Michael Girlinghouse, of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod, so this blog post could be addressed to him. I hope he enjoys some of what I write here.

But really, what I write below is what I would like everyone to know about social media, not just bishops. And of course, everyone, including my bishop, will already know quite a bit of what I write here. Nevertheless, Bishop Rinehart's question inspired me to "collect" these random thoughts in one place.

Media Ecology

1. The medium is the message. Really. And although this is the phrase popularized by the work of Marshall McLuhan (see especially his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man), the deep philosophical insight of McLuhan includes a further step, that the message is the messenger. The messenger is the message, because all media are simply extensions of humanity.

2. Much more is media than we typically realize. We always notice the new media (and I bet when Bishop Rinehart asked about "social media" he really meant "digital social media"), but really everything is media and mediated. Language is social media. So are letters, or the many posters and tracts published during the Reformation that sparked the Reformation. The paintings of Lucas Cranach are media. Clothes are media. And so on. Contextualizing digital media in this wider sense of what media is helps us avoid alarmist tendencies (these new media are corrupting our souls) as well as naive acceptance.

3. we are all avatars now. The generation now coming into adulthood is the first generation of people who have had to write themselves into existence as a part of their socialization. They have had to make decisions about their Facebook, Twitter, and texting avatars. Yes, people had "avatars" even before the advent of digital social media, but in the new media era, you can't be in the medium without writing and crafting an avatar/persona. This is now native. Similarly, bishops like Michael Rinehart have figured out that they can craft an avatar for online presence. They can "manage their brand." And brand matters, and it isn't a bad thing to be a brand.

Participation and Mediation

4. If I could get others to read another book on this topic in addition to McLuhan, it would be Pete Ward's Liquid Church. He writes, "“Liquid Church expresses the way that ecclesial being is extended and made fluid through mediation. The Liquid Church moves beyond the traditional boundaries of congregation and denomination through the use of communication and information technologies." Bishops should already "get" this, since they are in an ecclesial setting at one remove from the local congregation, and yet are an "expression" of the church. In fact, perhaps if bishops thought of themselves as a part of the liquid church, they themselves might be considered a "social media." 

5. So far very few bishops that I know are active in digital social media. Bishop Rinehart is an entrepreneur. As a bishop, you don't have to be active in social media. But bishop, here comes everybody (Clay Shirky) so if you want to be where your pastors are (and where their parishioners are) at least some portion of your time should be spent in the digital social medium.

6. This doesn't mean just Facebook. Or Twitter. Everyone participates in different media depending on interest and habits. I just had a fascinating conversation last night at the church soup supper about recipes on Pinterest. I myself probably love Spotify more than any other social media right now because of the access to new music. Lots of this is just a call to experiment and learn what works. And permission not to overextend yourself. Engage what makes sense to you, and comes natural.

7. Social media represents a shift to consumption as a networked practice (see, for much more on this, Henry Jenkin's amazing and important book, Convergence Culture). Convergence represents ever more complex relations between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture. This is certainly true in the church as it is elsewhere. Pastors are now networking with bishops in ways they never had before. CEOs are now networking with consumers. Rock stars Twitter back and forth with their fans. The more bishops and other leaders "get" this, the better off they will be in the new social media landscape. Bishops could especially learn from a Lutheran leader in this area, the CEO of Augsburg Fortress, Beth Lewis

Play and Hierarchies

8. The more serious the whole "death of the church" thing is getting, the more we need our leaders to take an experimental, playful approach to things. It's not in our hands, finally, after all, it's in God's hands. In the meantime, social media allows for, and often models, playful interaction. In fact, some forms of social media, such as MMORPGs, teach much about how to embed new kinds of learning and practices in contexts that are immersive, fun, and thrilling. Maybe more synod assemblies should be playful and open source, like the increasingly popular Unconferences.

9. Social networks like Facebook or Twitter are scale-free and non-hierarchical, enabling us to reimagine the kingdom of God in such terms. Perhaps the most radical insight arising out of this is that networks are often more yeasty than we give them credit for. We prefer to think of networks as direct, so we try to leverage them to impact directly the people or groups we are directly in contact with. However, networks often have their greatest power and impact as they pattern out through indirect and secondary connections. Again, the work of a bishop is quite like this description--just so bishops can learn something from social networks about the Trinitarian implications of their ecclesial "nodality."

10. Digital social media has turned more people than ever before into "productive users," what Axel Bruns in his Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond dubs produsage. Harness this energy in creative ways, and bishops can be leaders in the shift to the social changes implicit in the new digital media. Some of this will feel threatening to traditional understandings of the office of bishop, but it is worth considering. Take this one for example, that Axel Bruns says a mark of produsage is "fluid heterarchy, ad hoc meritocracy." Leaders in the system hold that role through the quality of what they produse. No hierarchy is needed to elect people to positions of authority. Instead of a bureaucracy, you find an ad-hocracy (see Alvin Toffler).

I could go on and on, and have probably gone on long enough. But this "top ten" list hints at the seismic shifts occurring as a result of the rise of new forms of digital social media. The world really is flattening, and truly here comes everybody, but it isn't the end of the world as we know, because the end of the world is in God. Oh, and what has already become a kind of church apologetics cliché, social media isn't a place to learn about ministry--social media is ministry.