Black Radio 2 / [Deluxe Edition]
Robert Glasper: Black Radio 2 / [Deluxe Edition]
I've blocked about this--get it.
Arcade Fire: Reflektor
I must admit that I did not jump on the Suburbs bandwagon-I didn't really connect with it at all. But this one is right up my alley---I love a good dance rock album with some mean percussive grooves driving everything along--a little dose of religious (particularly the missionary kind)critique and a liberal use of the word 'heaven.'
Julianna Barwick: Nepenthe
Ethereal ambient vocals--that's what Barwick has made her career doing. This latest release is a push forward into some new territory--the songs ache and yearn--recorded in Iceland with help from Amiina (Sigur Ros-strings) and Robert Sturla Reynisson from mum, among others--gorgeous.
Will Gompertz: What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art
Will Gompertz will help you understand modern art and you'll enjoy discovering what's going on if you don't already, and you'll be surprised at what you missed if you already do.
Mark C. Taylor: Hiding (Religion and Postmodernism)
This book came out when the future of books was in doubt and new approaches to layout and design were creatively adopted. It works well for the content of this, one of my favourite Taylor books--the man has an enviable and creative mind.
Roland Boer: Lenin, Religion, and Theology (New Approaches to Religion and Power)
I just appreciate the way Boer handles the 'Communists'-some great insights and strong ideas here.
I spend quite a lot of my life engaging with various aspects of religion, in two of my professions, one academic, the other ministerial I am continually engaging the complexities of what it all means. I try and read widely and broadly, engage with all sides of arguments, theories, etc., and I usually stay out of the arguments that emerge, usually because they seldom get anywhere anyway, so i don't really see the point. For some time now there have been these ongoing conversations within religion, particularly christianity over generational preferences and particular styles of worship etc. First it was boomers versus gen-xers, now it's the millennial discussion--what defines them, what 'they' like etc. Now, let me say up front that I think generational theory is mostly crap, it's essentially rooted in and borne out of the commodification of youth culture in the post-war years and is much a marketing strategy as anything else. Of course, there are differences among ages of people, but the idea that boomers like this, gen-xers like that and millennials something else is essentially a very flawed approach to anything in my mind. So much of this depends on so many things-geography, economics, for instance--you could argue that some supposed characteristics of gen-xers could to be applied in the U.K. to what would be regarded as baby-boomers because of a whole set of contributing factors such as the slow economic recovery of the post war years, the lack of a Vietnam-experience, latchkey kids--so many things--so I tend to be a bit wary of these generational studies, they are good for selling books and not much else as far as I am concerned--)I have also now lived long enough to know almost as many exceptions to every rule as the rule itself).
One of the conversations that has ebbed and flowed this year particularly, and perhaps more specfically because of a post that went viral from Rachel Held Evans and the shift toward more liturgical worship environments.
This came back around today as I read a post from my friend Tony Jones about what the church can learn about millennials from small batch distilleries. It is a smart and sharp post, as most of his posts are and he includes a quote from RHE in it,
"many of us," she writes, "myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions-Catholicism, eastern orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. -precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being "cool," and we find that refreshingly authentic." "What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance."
I realize that there was a particular context for this comment, related to responses from talks she had given about the state of things, and my thoughts stray from that a little, but i am not necessarily responding directly to her blog as much as to one of its statements, which she is not alone in voicing. There are many things I can say but let me begin by saying that I would agree that chasing 'cool' is always folly, I will also say that liturgical churches can be as prone to that as non-liturgical because that is about much more than style, ambition plays a factor, as does desire for impact in the environment, it is not always voiced in the same way in high-church environments but it is most certainly there, along with elitism, snobbishness, blindness and a host of other things that can haunt the institutional church of all persuasions. Admittedly 'cool' is more often associated with the artifacts of popular culture, but the idea of 'cool' has extended beyond that and has become a signifier. Trust me I have been in enough conferences on both sides of this aisle to say this with some emphasis. It is often more apparent in more contemporary churches because the desire for 'relevance' is voiced, but the counter to relevance is redundancy and liturgical churches face that in spades and their 'unconcerned with cool' liturgical approaches will not necessarily be enough to help them in my mind. 'Cool' is an elusive facet of contemporary culture, it is, as I just said, one of our cultural signifiers, I am not saying it is necessarily good or bad, it just is a part of the wallpaper of late capitalist society, and it ignores the boundaries of liturgical practices. But I get it, you hear it more in contemporary environments, and the main problem with pursuing cool is that it can't be attained, it has to be conferred, which can lead to a sense of looking a bit desperate at times if it is a central drive.
I say some of this with some personal experience, I teach at an evangelical seminary, I minister in a progressive, liberal Episcopal church, I have planted and led and engaged in any number of non-traditional churches, emerging churches, alternative worship churches and conferences, etc. etc., and all of them have more challenges and problems than they know how to handle, and many of them operate along a spectrum of practices and ideas that are challenged by the world we find ourselves in, for different reasons perhaps, but challenged nonetheless, and the common problem in both, in my humble opinion, is precisely what is voiced in the quote--substance--they lack it, or perhaps more specifically they have the wrong kind of substance for the times in which we live. Lateral moves will ease some of the concerns worshippers may have for a while, but eventually, once the routine has set in, once the curtain has been lifted and essentially the same wizard is seen behind the curtain, a similar disillusionment will set in. The questions facing the world will not be addressed by unbridled pushes for cool and relevance, but they will not be served by redundancy either or simply by assuming that there is substance because something has an age/duration advantage.
I also happen to feel that substance affects style to some degree, there are reasons things are done the way they are done, and those things can become transformational but can also become ossified, and because it is old, doesn't mean it is better or not consumed with similar aims and intentions as newer approaches, it is just voiced differently.
Richard Rohr has said in a number of places that sometimes it feels as if churches are focused on a god who seems more interested in the past than the present or future, and this can be intensely present in high church environments, shaped as they often are by a high-low cultural perspective which tends to elevate the past as naturally better than the present, and then we find ourselves moving into the elitism that can haunt liturgical churches at times--the appeal to credibility and legitimacy based on length of practice--reminds me a little of Jesus' comment to the pharisees that association with god by birthright doesn't legitimize anything, stones can become children of god.
I get it though, all that contemporary church stuff can drive you nuts, but there will come a day when you realize that in a liturgical environment the same shit exists, it just comes with a different face. I think that a factor in all of this is that we often react adversely to what has formed us, or we simply move beyond its scope and I think a lot of that is happening today--it's bit like that moment when teenagers go from thinking their parents are the coolest people who know everything to the sense that they are the world's most embarrassing people, I think we all do or have done that to some degree with pretty much every issue of our lives. This is sometimes part of our own maturing process where we break away from things, take new responsibility for our own lives and realize the world is bigger, that there are other ways, perhaps more personally appealing ways of experiencing things whether it be life or church, but it is a misnomer to think that a change of substance is necessarily what you are getting, it is first a change of style with the same substance that you are generally getting, the same substance from a different angle, from a different style. And let's just address this idea of 'performance' for a minute, if you don't think a liturgical service isn't theatre, isn't performance, you haven't been in enough liturgy planning meetings, there may not be video screens and rock star effects but trust me it's a show, its a performance, and there is actually nothing wrong with that in my mind. But the issue of substance is not addressed exclusively by style.
Some churches may have more ancient links, but they are peopled by those who live and breathe today, and they bring themselves to those places and spaces and they are contemporary human beings and even their enactment of the liturgy becomes a different thing, it is unavoidably so--chanting becomes a preferential option, a commitment to a particular version of the liturgy, rather than essentially a means of extending the voice without amplification or the other issues that gave rise to the chanting of the liturgy or eucharist--the vestments that were once intended to not make the clergy distract from the worship experience stick out like a sore thumb today, because nobody else in the world dresses in a like manner, and it is worth remembering that there was a time when liturgical dress was current with the dress of the day. The clerical collar, adopted in the late 1800s, and adapted from the black coat and white tie that had defined clergy in a world where most people were defined by 'uniforms of dress,' was intended as a means of separating clerics from emerging and increasingly secularizing society at the height of the industrial age, it had particular theological and cultural implications, and it heralded a hint of culture despising as Brueggemann might say, rooted in a form of Victorian piety (it's just one of the reasons I refuse to wear one, it is not representative of my view of either the relation between church and culture or my particular pietistic views). It is essentially only in the last 100-150 years that the gap between the shape, design, practices and habits of the church have moved away so dramatically from keeping pace with and responding to the culture and has created this traditional/non-traditional divide. At one point not so long ago, much of what we experience as ancient liturgy would have felt much more modern than we realize. Many liturgical churches invoke ancient liturgy, but much of it is influenced and shaped as much by 18+19th century approaches as anything else, so don't be taken in and think that you necessarily entering some gothic cave untouched for centuries-you might every once in while, but mostly its not that at all, its a style, it's an affect/effect, beautiful though it surely may be.
All styles and approaches to worship can be lauded and critiqued, I am however, like RHE, deeply concerned with substance and for me the challenge for millennials or boomers, or gen-xers, or zeroes, post-millennials or whatever, will not be addressed by lateral moves to different forms of worship alone, which I really think that has something to do with personal preferences and experiences of the sacred--and like everything, its always good to try new things, even if they are old things:) but the real substance won't necessarily come from either one, or perhaps it can and will emerge from any and all of them, but something has to shift first.
Some may find that a shift in liturgical focus will be enough to meet their needs and desires toward the sacred, it hasn't been for me. I have spent the past thirty years in church of all shapes and sizes and I have to say that most of its 'substance' is completely lost on me, not only do I not believe it, I find it gets in the way, and surprisingly perhaps, I have met a lot of people who go to church regularly who don't believe it either, they just tolerate it, hoping that one day it will be different, hoping one day, something will be uttered that heralds the dawn of what we are all looking for--substance. I hear the same things iterated in all kinds of churches--they all have their varying preoccupations and focuses, but contemporary christianity is sorely lacking in substance in most environments where it is being expressed if you ask me, it always has a feel of "I've heard this before, and it didn't make much sense the first time, even less so now."
I think substance is what the church really needs to look at, not just the substance of its worship-that's too internal, I mean it's substance in terms of how it seeks to engage with the world, what it talks about, how it interprets both scripture, its practices and priorities, itself and culture at large. I come back again and again to the idea that christianity has all been said before and yet needs to be said anew--that one eras encounter with the gospel is not always enough for the next age. Neither the tendencies and preoccupations of conservative forms of christianity-liturgical, high-church or otherwise, nor the focus and concern of any kind of liberal/progressive church-traditional, non-denominational, contemporary or whatever, which have largely been shaped by late 19th and 20th century experience are at the core of the substance I long for.
Tony said in his post that millennials are hyper-conscious about where things come from, I agree, but again I don't think that this is an exclusively millennial dynamic, it is something that is occurring everywhere in our culture at the moment, there might be a preponderance of this among millennials but its not just them, it's a broader cultural response to the effects of living with disposable fashion, an attempt to manage constant change--it's like the work-wear trend in fashion right now--its romaticized, people are wearing it in the city, not on farms, it is an affect, the roots reconfigured to fit the contemporary world as much as anything else--sometimes brand new things transform the world. We live in a time where we both love and hate the new, again it's a phenomenon of our time, and it makes us a bit bi-polar in our approach to life.
The substance I seek is substance that addresses a world come of age to quote Mr. Bonhoeffer, not the ancient world, not the modern world, not the traditional church world or the contemporary church world, but this world--the post-freudian, post-darwinian, post-marx, post-liberal, post-secular, post-religious, post-christian, post-materialist, post-everything world, and only then will we be able to have a conversation about how to give it shape, in the meantime we are jsut moving things around, avoiding the most important conversation of all-that we need a new iteration, a new telling of the tale, one that is not simply an attempt at relevance or cool, nor marked by a blind resistance to the moment, but shaped by our time, reflecting the world we live in, not wish we live in, hope we live in, or want to live in. Until then I recommend going where you like but don't advance it as a model for what a generation is doing, because I think most of them are actually staying home and listening to Lorde.
On September 30th, 1929, John Logie Baird, inventor of the televisor, initiated the first ever live tv broadcast in London. A fitting beginning point for the Fall term's class on theology and media culture.
The class is going to focus on two principle media lenses--the first half will consider television, the second focusing on the digital shift and concentrating on social media. There is communication, media and cultural theory, plus theological methodologies, thinking about the way various media re-direct content, transform how and what we communicate. It's ultimately about joining dots between theology, culture and media exploring the interplays between various artifacts.
"nudity appears after sin...the problem of nudity is therefore, the problem of human nature in its relationship with grace--nudity in our culture is inseparable from theological signature" nudities giorgio agamben
Celebrity gossip is virtually unavoidable these days, and given that I am a part of a celebrity -obsessed culture, I am more than willing to go on record and say that I am given to following the occasional rabbit trail about train wreck moments, the pros and cons of twerking, and other celebrity/cultural obsessions. Recently there was some meme about Gwyneth Paltrow and her grooming habits, prompted supposedly by a Red-carpet comment she herself had made about the need for razor application to her nether regions because she was wearing a potentially revealing dress and apparently Mrs. Martin "works a 70s vibe."
Now, I could really care less about any celebrity and the particularity of their personal grooming habits, but I've been thinking a lot about imagery, representation, the seen and the unseen, the veiled and the unveiled and it occurred to me that cultural attitudes towards pubic hair have something to say, quite a lot actually, about how we see ourselves, or what we choose to be seen of ourselves.
Yes, pubic hair. I don't know if you've noticed but there is not as much of it around these days. That's why GP's comments caused a little bit of a wave of celebrity gossip, 'rocking it 70s style,' runs a little counter to contemporary grooming habits for many people--Brazilian waxes, landing strips, or completely free of hair are norms today. This grooming phenomenon, while largely a female issue, is by no means exclusively so, the rise of male-grooming into the mainstream, and the growing interest in 'manscaping' or 'boyzilians', makes this a broader conversation.
Like most things, what we do with this particular part of our bodies, is cause for reflection, it says something about how we perceive beauty, about what is or is not transgressive or permissive, it addresses views on sexuality and power.
Hair in general is a huge cultural indicator, ripe with meaning. 'Real men are hairy,' 'long-haired women are sexy,' and it was once, and perhaps still is in some cultures (think the Islamic world for instance), the true mark of womanhood. Pubic has also functioned as a sign of entry into adulthood.
But a cursory examination of the sweep of Western art reveals that has been a dearth of pubic hair in terms of representation. Many of the most famous paintings of the nude feature subjects without pubic hair--it was regarded as too erotic, too taboo, it was about sexual desire, particularly, female sexual desire. There was also a sense that pubic hair represented the 'unclean' as it is said that prostitutes used to shave themselves to prevent lice. It was also enticing, the promise of something adult, and generally frowned upon by the Church, who didn't want people falling prey to temptation or giving in to base desires.
We have had a strange relationship with women and hair in Western culture for quite some time--women have been shaving legs and armpits for ages--because hair in those regions is often viewed as un-feminine etc. (I'll go on record and say that I don't agree, I could care less, and find femininity is attached to much more than body hair), and maybe pubic hair is simply the last arena, now it is simply the hair on a woman's head, that represents true femininity apparently. Now, I don't want to veer off into an exclusively female angle on this, as I said earlier, this is an issue that is increasingly being taking up in the world of men's grooming, but obviously not with the same level of involvement.
Goya painted the nude at the top of this post around 1800, for the Prime Minister of Spain, who kept it private and ony showed it too trusted friends. Why? Because the woman had pubic hair. This painting actually got Goya an appointment with the Inquistion. Gustave Courbet's, Origin's of the World, painted in 1866 was shown in a special room, the painting covered in a velvet drape and women forbidden to view it.
Pubic hair or its lack, elicits a wider range of public response today. It made its way into pop culture via a revolution in cinematic realism. The 1970s, in that giddy post-hippy movement moment where all norms were challenged, produced movies such as Don't Look Now, Last Tango in Paris, and a host of other films, that changed the presentation of sex and nudity, it became more graphic, more realistic, more revealing. Penthouse magazine in 1970, took Hugh Hefner's playboy aesthetic and burgeoning voyeur-culture a step further, and introduced pin-ups who revealed rather than teased, and with Hustler magazine following behind and taking things to new extremes just a couple of years later, pubic hair went mainstream.
Until the 1980's when pubic hair began to disappear once again. Some say it is because of proliferation and 'main-streaming' of pornographic films--the need to remove anything that gets in the way of more explicit viewings of the mechanics of sex.
I think it may be slightly more complex than that, although I would certainly not under-estimate the mainstream influence and easy-accessibility of pornography as a contribution to this phenomenon, but even fashion--the invention of the bikini, lingerie etc., represents changing attitudes toward beauty and display, and contributes I think. There is a bit of an age factor involved, a recent study revealed that studies have found that women under 30 are two to three times as likely to have no pubic hair than women over 30. The report goes on to say that it is connected to levels of sexual activity, but that doesn't explain the trend as people have been engaging in sexual activity for a long time and didn't feel the need to remove pubic hair.
I think it is a physical representation of a larger cultural trend towards the legitimization of voyeurism; combined with a loss of desire for particular kinds of intimacy, which is linked I think to a loss of faith in the durability of any number of supporting social institutions like marriage and family; and a trend toward self-revelation/construction.
I think this trend can, and is, seen from a number of angles. For some it can be seen as a sign of oppression and conformity, the pressure to conform to cultural demands regarding beauty, sexuality etc., and affirms ongoing objectification and it is therefore dis-empowering, particularly for women. It can also be seen as a sign of newly found strength and confidence regarding sexuality and oneself, a way of owning ones sexuality, ones body and gaining a new sense of control.
It can also be read as a sign of shifting attitudes toward life in general--a representation of the post-mystical world we now find ourselves in, the suspicion that there is nothing hidden, or nothing hidden that can't be revealed, that the 'mystique' actually gets in the way--that the removal of pubic hair is a removal of the mystique, magic and mombo-jumbo so often associated with sexuality, and more than that, with life in general.
If, as Agamben writes, nudity has a theological signature, then I would argue that we are in the process of shaking off a particualr set of signatures and writing a new one, that moves beyond mystique, magic and mystery--not into the fully known, but into the full unknowing, grounding ourselves fully in the materiality of our humanity and stripping away the layers of religious and theological taboo that are perceived as layering our lives with unnecessary and unhelpful layers of a certain kind of mystique. Or maybe we just like things neat:)
Whenever there is discussion of the 'Abrahamic' faiths, difference is, of course, factored in, but it seems to me that there are way too may assumptions about similarity that throw the conversation a little. For me the single biggest issue of import, and. difference, revolves around imagery and the imaginary. In both Judaism and Islam, God is invisible and therefore not to be represented, Christianity, on the other hand, is a religion of revelation, of revealing--Jesus it is claimed, is the image of the invisible God. These differing views have sent cultures in entirely different directions.
I wrote the other day about the priority in Christianity on avoiding falsehood, that the axis of Judeo-Christian thinking is linked to all the "thou-shalt-nots" that frame the conversation. However, to nuance that a little I want to examine the second commandment and its expansion, or explanation that comes a little later, after the giving of the commandments.
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."
Linked of course to the first commandment, to have no other gods before god, this command addresses the issue of making images of gods, something that seems to have been characteristic of most religious practices of the time. A 'graven image' is essentially an icon, a representation of the gods, but the prohibition goes even further--no likenesses of anything, and no bowing down to them.
A little later in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses gets a further clarification,
“Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves..."
In other words, no images are allowed because the encounter with god, was with a god who was invisible, and therefore cannot be worshipped via anything visible. So there is a boundary between the human and the divine--invisibility, and consequently a prohibition against representation. This plays out in all three of the Abrhamic faiths but perhaps more evidently in Judaism and lately in our encounters with certain facets of 21st century Islam--the protests against the danish cartoon of the prophet, Salman Rushdie's writing, and the Taliban's prohibitions on music, images etc.
(It is also linked on another level I think to coverings/veils-in both Judaism and Islam, and to be honest, in early Christianity--god is veiled, invisible, and those who come to him must also be covered--but I have to give that some more reflection and research before I can really say anything about that--because I think it is important and I think christianity had something to do with all that, but, another time.)
For now let me say that I think that Christianity works, or perhaps ought to work, on another logic, not the logic of prohibition, nor the logic/fear of religious falsehood, nor the logic of invisibility, but rather the logic of revelation, of seeing.
If Judaism and Islam operate on a logic of no representation, Christianity is the reversal--of Jesus it is said, 'he is the image of the invisible god,' you see him you see god--no longer invisible, veiled, hidden, but revealed--the veil is lifted and eyes can see what was previously unseeable? This takes the eye in new directions, accounts for the Western way perhaps of looking at the world--it becomes about the quest for revealing, for understanding (unfortunately this is often reduced to a search for ultimate truth, but to me this is different), rather than the avoidance of falsehood. This of course, is not without immense problems of its own, and, I am not certainly saying it is better, I am just highlighting what I think is an important difference within Christianity. Christianity has, nonetheless, wrestled with the role of imagery throughout its history, and still does, because the roots of the conversation are intertwined--its not so much an either or equation, perhaps a both and, but there is no doubt in my mind that there is a major distinction and that this distinction has an impact on how we see the relation between the mundane and the sacred.
Anyway, I am still thinking my way through all this, I'm just blogging about it, because I am experimenting with new approaches to how I do my thinking, so bear with me.
It could perhaps be argued that 'thou shalt not' is one of the most revolutionary ideas in civilization. If you think about Moses and the Ten Commandments--the prohibition about worshipping false gods, making graven images, worshipping any god but God, and the subsequent thou shalt nots of life--it runs counter to the conventional wisdom of the time, which produced an environment where every conceivable god was included--think of Paul in Athens for instance, where, in a city devoted to philosophy and discourse, there are statues, idols and altars to every conceivable god, including one to the 'unknown god'--the just-in-case altar if you will. But Judaism and subsequently Christianity functions on a reversal-the idea of religious falsehood. Rather than covering all the possibilities, avoiding the wrong options becomes paramount. This is the mechanism that begins the shift from monolatry to monotheism.
This idea runs through Judeo-Christianity's long relationship with society and culture, and threads through its own internal discourses and strife--"Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things, increase in us true religion" (a prayer not about the relation between christianity and other religions, but between true and false christianity-prompted by the schism of the Reformation). The focus on falsehood is the backbone of Christianity-focusing on the truth; identifying false prophets, on and on, a religion built upon exposing falsehoods anywhere and everywhere. And with this perspective comes a particular shadow or fear. In a world inhabited by a pantheon of deities the fear is missing or forgetting one and incurring its wrath-the reverse is idolatry and its partner heresy.
But of course, there is Jesus, who seems to reverse the reversal--'a new commandment' not a prohibition, not a 'thou shalt not' but an invitation, an imperative. Perhaps, even Paul, whose discourse in Athens has been used to underscore the religious falsehood equation, took a different approach--there was commendation and expansion, rather than damning accusation. Now I don't want to set up a false disconnect, its very east to present Jesus as a negator of all that came before, which happens a lot, and I don't think that, but it does seem that in his words and practices he offers a different interpretation of this thread.
I wonder if it might be linked to the different world Jesus found himself in--not the world of the Egyptians etc. whose views seemed to influence and shape the Hebrew counterview, but also the Hellenistic/Roman world, so there are cumulative influences--if as Feuerbach asserted, religion is social production (not talking about whether or not god exists, but simply that we incorporate god into our cultural sense of things and vice versa), then it would make sense that views about the nature of things would shift and transition. Which of course brings us to today--the exchange of priorities in religion from maybe things like sin, salvation and service to personhood, individuality and connecting or belonging, the shift from monarchy/hierarchy/feudalism models of power to democracy--brings god out of the sky on any number of levels and invites new understandings about how we do and dont relate to the sacred. And, I think, after centuries of prioritising religious falsehood as a principle lens through which we might consider the god/goods equation, we find ourselves in a less-convinced monotheistic grid, perhaps more monolatry--god among gods, living with new relations between the various views.
All of this of course, presents problems on so many levels with the "thou shalt not" approach to life-we live in an era of permissibility rather than prohibition--a "why-not?" rather than a "why shouldn't" era--this is a monumental change and it presents huge challenges for how we take Christianity forward. Or at least it seems to right now, but I am writing this in the midst of a 'flu-fog' and a level of professional frustration and anxiety that is very high, theologically and ecclesiologically I find myself on the edge of something...what I don't know, but i should stop because I think I have more thinking to do. I'll post this anyway, but feel free to ignore:)
Last night I did a podcast with my friends Bo and Tripp for their Homebrewed Christianity event with Reza Aslan--I was the 'opening act' if you will. We had a pretty wide-ranging discussion about what it means to be human in the 21st century and how that affects the ways in which we think about faith/belief etc. We talked a little about my own theological trajectory in the past few years which I outlined as taking in a couple of different factors. I think about theology chiefly after two significant 'events.' Theology after the 'death of god' and theology after the death of the self.
There is lots of talk about death of god theology these days. There have been a few less than friendly social-media exchanges over certain interpretations of that project, principally around radical theology and various interpretations of what that means. It highlights the problem with labels and naming things--the minute you do, someone usually takes issue with your particular interpretation of the contours, or appeals to some kind of assumed legitimate criteria for speaking about this or that, that one supposedly violates, misses or doesn't understand. I find most of it petty and not worth the effort of addressing, it is the kind of stuff that makes people walk away from institutions and groups of all kinds, but that's another conversation.
So I have been working through ideas around the post-metaphysical world and death of god theology, but I am also interested in the shifting world of the self and what that heralds for faith. I have never been that 'god-fixated' that may sound funny from someone who has spent more than thirty years in public dialogue about faith and religion, but god has always been a difficult issue for me, but it is only in the past few years that I have faced that fully and freed myself of other people's obligations for what constitutes faith (my rather general and dismissive dictum about this is that dogma is the noise of other peoples thinking and sometimes I have to tune it out). Where I have come to with some of this is captured in a perspective drawn from Altizer and others, that I cannot dismiss the present world for a transcendent one and that a continual reflection/obsession/focus on 'god,' particularly the metaphysical view of god, keeps lifting us out of this world, and I am interested in fully living in the present, in the here and now.
I have been living for a while with a few ideas drawn from here and there that I have been returning to over and over in an effort to harness and focus my own thinking on what all this means. Of particular importance has been a section of Bonhoeffer's letter about religionless christianity. I've written about this before so forgive repetition, but I am in a cycle of thinking and I tend to view and review until my thinking comes clear.
"How do we speak of god without religion i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness and so on...How do we speak in a secular way about god?"
Bonhoeffer's little comment has fueled a long journey of thinking for me. And I have taken that two-pronged comment, along with similar ideas from others and myself, as a starting point. The one side--the 'temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics' has gained a lot of traction and there is plenty of thinking in that arena , its the 'inwardness' comment that has had me wrestling lately. I think he is talking about the inwardness of subjectivity. Elsewhere and earlier Bonhoeffer writes that,
"we must finally rid ourselves of the notion that the issue...is the personal salvation of the individual soul...in such religious methodology human beings themselves remain the central focus." (you could do yourself a real favour and read Jeffrey Pugh's Religionless Christianity for a much clearer and expanded perspective on these ideas).
It would seem that the consciousness of the world has changed. Mark I. Wallace, in his book, Fragments of the Spirit, names both the 'de-priviledging of metaphysics' and the 'erasure of the self' as two significant challenges to Christianity in the third millennium. What does this mean? Well to me, it heralds a shift in human self-understanding away from the subjective and static view of the self, bequeathed to us by the Greeks and others that has driven our understanding of the self for centuries. I believe this is being eclipsed by a more mobile and fluid understanding of the self, where inwardness is not of prime focus. Two things going on for me--we can reference ourselves without a working hypothesis of God (Vattimo) and we can now consider ourselves without the anthropocentric impulse of the Enlightenment.
What are the implications of this? Well, they are immense. It throws into question how we engage with life, ourselves, each other. It challenges assumptions about what is prioritized in religion--'spiritual disciplines' for instance, in that I believe that most disiciplines are rooted in ideas of the self that no longer hold true (at least for me) and therefore must be revisited. I also think we are liberated to pray as Jesus invited us to pray, i.e. communally--'our father'--it is a form of prayer not anchored to a technology of inwardness. I think I'll stop there because I have things to do but I'll return to flesh this out at a later date. But then I'll talk about prayer, and why I don't.
I've been thinking a lot about skin of late, partly because of Mark Taylor's book, Hiding, but also because of some intense focus and reflection upon materiality as it plays out theologically. I've also been doing a little inventory work on the development and arc of my own thinking for a project i'm about to get started on and I realize that there is an increased attention of the lived experience, with particular emphasis and focus on issues related to the surface of the body--what we do to it, how we dress it, what it means to pay attention to the surface of things.
I must admit that a significant theological shift came via two aesthetic artifacts, Kevin Costner's much maligned, Waterworld, a film which challenges how we perceive depth, i.e. surface is the new depth--rhyzomic rootedness across the surface of things, and Mark Tansey's painting, The Myth of depth which challenges Clement Greenberg's assumptions about depth and surface in relation to modern painting, and which I have used to rethink the function, purpose and resourcing of theology.
Ariana Page Russell has highly sensitive skin which allows her to draw on her own flesh, she then photographs the results,
"A body is an index of passing time. Skin protects us as it shows shifting bones, bruising, muscles loosening and tightening, and freckles and wrinkles forming. I think of this as a transient fashion of skin, including the revealing way a blush decorates one’s cheek, freckles form constellations on an arm, or hair creates sheen on skin’s matte surface.
My skin is very sensitive and I blush easily. I have dermatographia, a condition in which one’s immune system releases excessive amounts of histamine, causing capillaries to dilate and welts to appear (lasting about thirty minutes) when the hypersensitive skin’s surface is lightly scratched. This allows me to painlessly draw on my skin with just enough time to photograph the results. Even though I can direct this ephemeral response by drawing on it, the reaction is involuntary, much like the uncontrollable nature of a blush."
The surface of her body becomes the site for an ephemeral artistic endeavour, this ephemerality can be recorded by another medium, but the 'original' is always lost, it's impermanence becomes a new mode of communication, in fact, were it not for the impermanence, she would be able to communicate the way she does. It's also timebound, as there is only a short window for artistic expression. As Taylor writes in his work on the skin,
"the skin(surface) is a site of research whose superficiality is its strength rather than weakness."
The reason, or another reason, this piqued my interest was because of an article I read recently about the 'ephemeranet,' the new apps which allow us to share images with particular people for a limited amount of time before they disappear forever--Snapchat being perhaps the most well-known among them. They, like Russell's art, are impermanent and timebound, which is what makes them desirable. The article quotes one of Snapchat's founders as saying that,
"the increasing pressure on them to manage their idealized online identity has “taken all of the fun out of communicating”. In glorious contrast, the transient and ephemeral nature of Snapchat provides a more spontaneous, less controlled or contrived way of communicating."
This could be seen as counter-intuitive to much of the Gospel, or at least the way the Gospel has been handled, "a man's life doesn't consist in possessions--all flesh is as grass etc." I, on the other hand, sense that there are rich lessons to be learned here about the potential virtue of being timebound and living with a sense of impermanence--we often use religion to trade the ephemerality of the physical, of skin, for the supposed permanence of the 'soul,' whatever that may be, but perhaps things written on the surface, as Taylor again writes,
"by repeatedly seeking what hides, we tend to forget how to read the surfaces on and between which life is lived."
Part of our conversation last week in the theology/youth culture class inevitably turned to the issue of identity, sexuality and physicality. The undercurrent of most theological discussions undertaken at seminary seem to wend their way toward talk about sex--largely because I think it is a topic so widely sloganized but seldom addressed and, let's face it, it's a big area of human existence that warrants more than a cursory good/bad comment about this or that act. Anyway, we had wade through the usual distractors in the conversation, namely, the party-line church responses to sexual activity, then the hot-button social agendas of trafficking and slavery and then of course to pornography (that sounds callous I realize and I dont intend it to be, and distractors might be too harsh of a word, perhaps starting points would be better--but the simple fact is, that the larger conversation around human sexuality in many of the christian environs I find myself in tend to focus on these issues and they have to be worked through in order to get down to the real issues people really want to discuss, which are much more subjective, personal and intimate.
We actually didn't spend too much time wading in the deep waters of socio-sexuality's darker threads, perhaps it is the benefit of an intensive or perhaps it was a particularly sharp and engaged group of people--probably a bit of both. And we held this conversation in the larger frame of identity construction in the 21st century and the effect of youth cultural dynamics upon it, so we didn't belabour too many of those expected topics. But after class was over and I had a bit more time to think things over, it occurred to me that everything is pornography today--we speak about food-porn, interior-design porn, fashion-porn, porn-violence--what we mean, I think, is an overdose of imagery related to a particular topic, the stylizing of things for maximum effect and titillation--be it the representation of food, particular fashion styles, people having sex, a Tarantino movie (interestingly, the film-maker, Nicolas Winding Refn-Drive/Only God Forgives refers to himself as a pornographer in a recent Guardian interview) or the perfect design and layout of an interior room.
The question is: if everything is porn, is anything porn? Does that mean we live in a world where everything thing is viewed through a pornographic lens, and if so, what do we do about that? I realize that these 'other pornographies' are perhaps more nuanced versions of the 'real thing' but that raises the question of what the 'real thing' is when it comes to porn, whether or not pornography is the portrayal of the sexual act itself or the particular way it is styled and represented? I imagine that a collective 'duh!" is being expressed by many who have done much more focused thinking on the topic of pornography. So I'll answer my own thought and say that I think pornography is the stylization and fetishization of sex and the removal of the real with regard to sexual activity. But if the removal of the real is the essence of pornography and everything is now porn, is nothing then real? Aaaah!! The great existential questions of life. I blame Jeff Koons. Not really, but I do think that Jeff Koons was one of the artists of the late 20th century who applied this equation to his work, particularly in his sculptures and images involving himself and his Italian porn-star wife. These works, one of which is featured at the top of this post, featured him and his wife in varying stages and positions of intimacy, in graphic detail. Koons said that they were not porn, or intended to be seen as such, they were simply images of a couple in love--but many did--perhaps because we are capable of turning anything into porn--especially images of people engaging in sexual or congress, copulation, fornication, shagging or fucking. etc., or perhaps because they are pornographic, but that determination would be up to the viewer I think. "the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction"--this is one of three main definitions offered on pornography in the dictionary--the first two refer to erotic depiction--but again, these days anything can be eroticized and nurtured for maximum arousal--think of the way the advertising industry presents food--they even have a magazine for food stylists!
So the depicting of food in a sensational manner qualifies as porn, as do most things in our visually-driven world, and , in a culture built upon desire/false desire, it's hard not to feel bombarded. But the real issue might just be that our focus on pornography is mis-directed--perhaps we should worry more about food porn and all the other mainstream depictions than the stuff we usually get bent out of shape about. Or maybe nothing is porn anymore because something is generally defined as much by what it is not as by what it is, and if everything is porn, which it seems to be...
I find it interesting that Koons wraps himself and his wife in the embrace of a snake--echoes of the Garden of Eden, and he did in fact proclaim that they were the new Adam and Eve--media man and woman. So welcome to the new Eden, where it seems everything is naked and unashamed.
A few years back Rick Poynor, wrote a book called Designing Pornotopia, in which he argued that we were in the process of creating an environment where our "dreams of sex are allowed to permeate areas of life they would never have been permitted to until recently." It's worth a read. The term pornotopia is drawn from the work of Stephen Marcus who defined it as, "that vision which regards all of human experience as a series of exclusively sexual events or conveniences." I guess all of this leads me to the conclusion that a conversation about sex is no longer about the genital interactions of particualr humans as much as it is about life in virutally every experience and expression--I feel a new class coming on!!
(p.s. take the time to check out some of the links)
I've just finshed up a two-week intensive on Postmodern Theology, Film and Youth Culture. The night before it started I decided to revise the whole thing and we spent the ten days exploring the develop of youth culture through the history of teen movies from the 1950s to the present day, developing methodologies, schema and theological ideas along the way. You can't cover everything in ten days so it was a broad-based introduction to a number of things essentially--cultural theory, music theory, postmodern theolog(ies), film theory, youth culture trends and characteristics.
The more interesting discussion of the class was when we explored the late 1960s counter-culture, drugs and the emergence out of youth culture of what came to be known as contemporary christianity. The Hippies and freaks gave rise to Jesus freaks and they gave Jesus to the counter-culture, the church woke up, took them in, domesticated it with a heavy dose of conservative theology and boom! church as most experience it today--that of course was the politically incorrect and historically over-reaching view, but you get the idea. contemporary Christianity emerged out of youth culture, amd more specfically, the counter-cultural aspect of it, and many of its habits and practices were simply re-channelled from the culture into the church--the ecstastic worship, the out-of-body emphasis, the musical styles. People exchanged lovers for Jesus, and he was presented as a 'high' you would never come down from.
This thought did come as a bit of a surprise to some of the students, who had barely thought about hippies, let alone that they may have contributed in some ways to the fashioning of contemporary forms and practices of Christianity.
Preston Shires offers another element of the story in his book, Hippies of the Religious Right, in which he draws a line between the counter-culture and the emergence of the religious right, a line that is not that unrealistic if you do some research. he also offers the idea that evangelicalism may be shifting towords a more moderate position as young people chase a different set of values, something that Tony Jones hints at in a recent blog post.
Most of my reflections were around the ways in which a particualr form of music--psychadelic rock--gave way to other major genres--prog-rock, heavy metal and country rock, and from one of them, namely, country rock, which was nurtured in California, came the genesis of Christian music and along with it, the same 'out-of-body' desire of the youth culture playing and experiencing it-just watch Woodstock and then look at people in wirship the next time you find yourself in a contemporary worship environment--the physicality is not much different and nor is the purpose in the music, which is to achieve an essentially 'altered state.'
There is a lot more to be said about this and I am thinking of taking it a little further in my own study and research. Of course, it is not the only contributor to the emergence of contemporary christian practice and presence, but it's a major one.