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(Thanksgiving, 2013)

From the confines of Tegel prison in Berlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned these moving words to his family:

It’s remarkable how we think at such times about the people that we should not like to live without, and almost or entirely forget about ourselves. It is only then that we feel how closely our own lives are bound up with other people’s, and in fact how the center of our own lives is outside of ourselves, and how little we are separate entities. The ‘as though it were a part of me’ is perfectly true, as I have often felt after hearing that one of my colleagues or pupils had been killed. I think it is a literal fact of nature that human life extends far beyond our physical existence. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison)

I often think that only a mother could understand these words fully, but then I must remember than Bonhoeffer was never even married, much less experienced the blessing of his own children. Bonhoeffer, who has been described as an ad hoc phenomenologist, had a unique and penetrating way of speaking about the experiences of the Christian life. While many readers of Bonhoeffer pay attention only to The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together or perhaps a devotional work that cobbles together some of his writings, most never delve deeper into any of his other material. Theological students may read his very short book on the Psalms or his treatment of Genesis 1-3, or even try to get through his Ethics. Perhaps they will read some of his sermons which are becoming more widely available. But most will never read his earliest works which set the stage for everything that is to come: his doctoral dissertation, published as Sanctorum Communio and his habilitation, published as Act and Being. In those texts Bonhoeffer laid a theological and philosophical foundation for his work that he would never stray from. Thus when we read his later and more well known works that are the favorites in the church, and for our purposes, the words above, we must recognize Bonhoeffer’s deep sensitivity to the social constitution of human life.

Bonhoeffer’s theology has been called a “theology of sociality.” For he recognized, as is clear above, our inextricable interconnectedness with each other. [Keep reading over at ChurchandPomo]

While my activity here has slowed to a crawl, I’ve been busy with my coordination at the Church and Postmodern Culture blog this summer. We ran a Book Symposium on Bruce Ellis Benson’s Liturgy As A Way of Life, which I highly recommend. And just today, I posted some reflections on Vocation and Cultural Capital. So head on over there for some interesting reads. Various other contributions are worth your time as well, including a review from a few weeks back of James K. A. Smith’s incredible book Imagining the Kingdom. And look for an exciting guest post on Kierkegaard and Preaching coming up soon! All over at churchandpomo.

Here’s a link to my post again on Vocation and Cultural Capital: http://bit.ly/150BAW2

Thanks for reading.

I’ve recently had an article published in Missio Apostolica entitled, “Candy Machine God, or, Going to Church without Going to Church: Millennials and the Future of the Christian Faith.” In it, I discuss how millennials may not be going to church because the church might not be faithfully embodying its own identity as the church. That is, it might actually be preaching a message which is not its own. That message is a therapeutic one. In the article, I give a substantial amount of evidence to make my case. You can read it here for free.

There’s more to be said however. One thing in particular came up at a pastor’s conference where I presented the content of that paper. A recurring question to me went something like this:

I agree with your argument—in fact it’s quite convincing [full disclosure—I’m actually personally bothered by the argument I make…I wish I didn’t have to make it. So I’m not trying to wave my own banner here.]. What I don’t know how to answer for myself is this question: The Christian Gospel seems legitimately able to be called therapeutic. For it indeed does cure us from our greatest ailment, sin. The Gospel is a powerful healing force. But, your argument against therapeutic religion, therapeutic language, and the church’s psychological captivity [I encourage you to read the article, and then come back to this post], leaves me wondering how I can preach in a manner that doesn’t make the mistake you’ve clearly shown that the church is making, while at the same time preaching faithfully in a manner that performs the very life giving and healing—therapeutic even—work of the Gospel. Can you help me understand how to do that?

This is a very good question. And in my presentation, I really didn’t have time to answer it adequately. My article doesn’t answer this question clearly either. And frankly, none of the resources I cite within the article are helpful in this regard either. So, here I try to offer a little help.

Preaching the Gospel should be life-giving. Especially in the tradition of the Lutheran dogmaticians who used the language of the biblical narrative of killing and making alive (Deut. 32:39, Rom. 7:9), or of death leading to new life as the very means by which God made a human being a member of his people (Rom. 6)—this Gospel should be the center of our existence for it is the very narrative by which we orient ourselves as the church. Christ himself is the living embodiment of it. And our preaching (as well as our liturgy [in its various forms], our teaching, our discipling, and our evangelizing) should flow forth from this story as well as embody and carry it such that as a narrative it is continuously passed down as the tradition of the church itself in its own life of practices as well as the story by which it lives.

Preaching the Gospel that is therapeutic in a manner that is consistent with the sense of being life-giving is only possible when it is preached as a Gospel that raises dead people to life. But people have to die in order to be raised to new life. And God has chosen a specific means for that to happen. That particular means is the same means as that of bringing the life-giving word of the Gospel: the mouth of the preacher, and furthermore, the various modes of proclamation present in the practices of the church’s life (I mentioned them above: catechesis, evangelism, liturgy, etc.). Thus, the killing word of God’s confrontation with the sinner, his terrifying word which works death must also be proclaimed. Only then, can a therapeutic act be performed. Only then, can new life be created. Only then does God work also through the preacher, this time not to work death, but to work life.

So, allow me to say that I think we can say that the Gospel can be described as “therapeutic” if and only if we are understanding it within the framework of God’s transformative work of killing and making alive. But notice the “if and only if.”

Let me follow up with this warning. I’m wary of using the term “therapeutic” at all. It has too much baggage. In my article, I discussed the church’s captivity to psychological language, such that our imaginations are bent toward interpreting reality in a particular manner. We have come to expect our religion to be delivered a certain way; in fact, research seems to show we even demand it. That is, we look to religion to provide therapy for us. So words that are quite central to the biblical narrative like comfort (Isaiah 40:1), restoration (Psalm 23), and others end up being circumscribed within a different language game to which our ears are attuned. We listen instead for the therapeutic tone which promises relief, the ability to cope, some opportunity to get through the moment/day/week, or words of refreshment. Thus I cringe at even suggesting that “therapeutic” is an appropriate word for describing the Gospel in our time. Therapeutic religion is the enemy of the Gospel, of faithful Christian proclamation, and even subsists parasitically by feeding upon the church’s life (and that of other religious traditions) to proliferate itself because it cannot stand on its own. Through the church’s own use of the term and captivity to therapeutic culture, therapy rather than the transformative work of God is what is being performed by the church.

And so I argued in my article, more substantially of course, that that is why we are not seeing millennials in church. Millennials are not oblivious to what’s going on—they likely realize they can get better therapy elsewhere. Or if they are in church, they might not actually be at “church.” Rather, they might just be getting therapy instead.

So, I hope this brought some clarity to a question that might arise in reading the article. I also hope my warning is convincing enough to abandon the desire to “hold on” to the sense that the Gospel is “therapy.” Call it something else. We’re the church. We’ve been creative for 2 millennia. We don’t have to feel trapped into using this particular term. If we do feel so trapped, I’m concerned that such a feeling is more a symptom of our captivity than a lack of flexibility in the English language.

As one of the coordinators of the Church and Postmodern Culture blog hosted by The Other Journal, I mostly bring together other people to write for that forum. But on occasion, and hopefully more often, I’ll be a contributor. Today I posted some reflections on a brief one-day conference where I heard from two interesting and articulate voices about the future of evangelicalism. The conference was held locally here in Portland at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. It was of interest to me because of my teaching at the undergraduate level about religion in America, and furthermore because of my own work on Christianity’s cultural captivity to America itself. Without saying much more here, I’ll just point you to that post over there. Happy reading.

I’m occasionally asked to give a chapel message at my new post here at Concordia University. Here’s one from last week. The given text comes from John 13:34-35.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Something calls to us in this text today. It’s haunting. It’s utterly haunting. We cannot do what it asks of us and we know it. But we want what it calls for and we want it desperately. These two lines are perfectly maddening.

Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

There is no shortage in our world of criticism for the church and especially for Christians. The accusation of hypocrisy is leveled at them perhaps more than anyone else. The power of such accusations works in part because the world is knowledgeable of the church’s calling. It knows that Christ has called the church to love one another, and not just each other, but elsewhere Christ’s calling upon the church appears to be even more maddening—he calls us to love our enemies, those who by default we consider unlovable. This is pure madness. Not only can I not do it, but it simply does not make sense.

It was the atheist philosopher Jacques Derrida who saw something special in the church. He understood the church to be THE paradigmatic institution on earth where unconditional love, acceptance, hospitality and forgiveness should be experienced. The church is that place.

But is that what we experience? Are you perfectly accepted in the church? Can you REALLY be who you are, I mean, who you REALLY are, in the church? Are you sure you’ll still be loved? What if I tell you my deepest darkest secrets? How will I know when I have not crossed that invisible line on the one side of which I’m welcomed and on the other side of which I suddenly become unacceptable, unlovable, deplorable, despicable, a sinner beyond the pale of love and redemption?

Let me give you a practical example of how this plays out. I’m borrowing this from John Caputo, who, in his excellent book What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, spoofs on the phrase that was popular in the last decade, “What Would Jesus Do?” Caputo focuses on the practical act of forgiveness as a concrete expression of Christian love, for what else can we think of that might be the best exhibit of unconditional love in the Christian life—a love that loves in the same way that Jesus loves? To set this up, Caputo presents what might be considered our normal practice of forgiveness, even in the church—that very paradigmatic places that proclaims unconditional forgiveness and acceptance, but just so happens to practice otherwise. That is, Caputo points out surprisingly (or perhaps not at all!) the church actually practices forgiveness not without conditions but with them: In our everyday interaction with others forgiveness from one to another is generally understood to operate via a certain set of steps. The one in need of or seeking forgiveness must do certain things to earn forgiveness. Jacques Derrida, in his characterization of how forgiveness is actually practiced, frames it in this way: “forgiveness can only be considered on the condition that it be asked, in the course of a scene of repentance attesting at once to the consciousness of the fault, the transformation of the guilty, and the at least implicit obligation to do everything to avoid the return of evil” (Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness). Caputo, riffing on Derrida, captures this process more succinctly, saying, “Forgiveness requires an expression of sorrow, the intention to make amends, a promise not to repeat the offense, and a willingness to do penance. If someone meets all four conditions, they have earned forgiveness. We owe it to them the way the bank owes us the deed once the mortgage is paid off.”

Here we run in the quandary presented by our text. We treat forgiveness in very economic terms. It is a matter of exchange for us. And so our love for one another is all out of order. And deep in our soul we know this. And that is why I say that this passage in maddening. Because we desperately want the kind of unconditional love Jesus calls for, the kind that would be experienced in unconditional, uneconomic forgiveness, but we find that we cannot do it. We inevitably slip into these economic ways of operating.

Yet there is a further madness. This calling to love one another inevitably still haunts us. Jesus’s words won’t go away. And right now, we are journeying through Lent, the season of the church’s life where reflection and repentance take center stage in a way that they do not during other parts of the church year. One of the things I am well aware of in my life, and this just came up for me yesterday, is that many people in our world are hurting, and much of that hurt has been caused by the church itself. Derrida is right you know. Even as an atheist, he recognizes something true about the church. It IS the paradigmatic institution of unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and hospitality. But so many have been hurt by the church’s inability to believe God’s unconditional love for them, and thus they have not been so transformed as to be able to embody it toward others. Or they have faltered in their love for others in ways that have unwittingly caused the worst kinds of damage in other’s lives. For this, we must repent. And so we pray…

Prayer of repentance:(here I offered an extemporaneous prayer in the spirit of Lent, reflecting on how we as the church have no loved, but also on how we as the church have not trusted God and so have been unable to love. Then I moved into the following petition.)

Petition of Transformation:

God, teach us to know you as a God who gives gifts. In Jesus you gave the gift of love in human form. Make us a people who can truly receive them, who can be radically transformed by them, who can be vessels through whom your gifts of love are given. God, make us a people who give gifts uneconomically, unconditionally, unaccountably. Make us a people who operate unreasonably, who do not make sense. Make us not a people of principle, not a people who love only those who are lovable—who love only those who love us (for even the mafia does that)—but make us a people who do something offensive and crazy and difficult and impossible. Make us a people who love not just ourselves and each other, but who love our enemies as well. Make us a people who love without worldly reasons, but with kingdom reasons. Make us a people who have experienced the madness of your love in the kingdom, a love from you for us—who have been and very often are still your enemies—so that we can be the very vessels through which the madness of the kingdom is revealed to the world.

A student brought up in class this week that during a visit to the Nike campus here in Portland, one of the employees mentioned that Nike basically “tells us” to buy their stuff. They actually “know” how to get us to want their stuff. They told my student their strategy: simply put their products on celebrities, and then watch the trickle down effect.

In Jamie Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, he describes our experience at the http://regainingparadise.files.wordpress.com/2007/11/anticonsumerism.jpg?w=445&h=304mall as one in which the “good life” is one display before us in the “icons.” Those “icons” are actually quite familiar objects–they’re the mannequins dressed in the season’s newest threads and designs placed in each store’s front windows for you and me to see as we walk by. We’re invited to imagine an alternative future for ourselves, the “good life” as it is embodied in those icons and how it could be embodied by us. All that is required is the religious transaction of making our offering and receiving the blessing of the priest.

Similarly, Nike seems well aware that the good life can be on display on the living icons that are today’s celebrities.

I’m using Smith’s book in my classes to teach my students about how culture shapes us to be particular kinds of people–people that perhaps we did not know we were before we thought about it in class. We’re learning just how substantially we’ve been shaped by culture, rather than how much we think we’re immune to outside influence. Contrary to how we might imagine ourselves, we’re not autonomous, deliberative, rational, choice-making creatures. Often, we’ve been habituated into certain ways of being and doing in the world, before we’re even aware of it. You were saying the Pledge of Allegiance before you had much of a choice in the matter. And by the time you had a choice, you simply would have chosen to keep doing it because you would have been habituated into the story of why it was good to do so.

Learning about this phenomenon of our cultural formation is a strategy to help us think about how we might participate in the counter-formative efforts of influencing the world in manners that are faithful to the ways of Jesus, rather than damaging and destructive ways of culture. Consumerism–the sort that Nike seems able to foster–is often damaging and destructive. It makes us competitive–we start comparing ourselves with each other and our relationships get bent way out of shape. It messes with our desires to the extent that our sense of satisfaction becomes insatiable and we know no contentment. It even replaces religion, and we end up chasing transcendence by means of consumption. The theologian William Cavanaugh describes this phenomenon well:

Although the consumer spirit delights in material things and sees them as good, the thing itself is never enough. Things and brands must be invested with mythologies, with spiritual aspirations; things come to represent freedom, status, and love. Above all, they represent the aspiration to escape time and death by constantly seeking renewal in created things. Each new movement of desire promises the opportunity to start over. (William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, 48)

Desire in consumeristic culture is endlessly deferred, such that obtaining one object of desire is perhaps momentarily fulfilling in an almost religious sense, but soon replaced by further desire—for the next new innovation or improvement, the next new fashion, the next invention.

Not a single one of us is not damaged by this.

When I was in elementary school, Nike released its classic Air Jordan line of shoes. I never owned a pair of those shoes. But I knew kids who did. And I was jealous of them. I wanted a pair of those shoes so bad. I don’t know why. And I don’t know where the desire came from. I didn’t play basketball, nor did I care much for watching the sport. But Nike did something to me and my peers. They created a world. They made culture.

In the video below, the artist Malkemore tells the story of a kid who was sold the vision of the “good life” contained in the mythology of Air Jordans. It was ultimately a vision that failed. Like with most art, what happens in this 5-minutes video, with its rich imagery and poetic lyrics–far more is said than I could ever communicate here. But a few key lines and scenes stand out. I list them below.

–Notice the littlest kid in the video, shooting baskets in the plastic kiddie basket hoop—he’s already being inculcated into the way of life that will allow him to be made captive to the lies of what Nike will inevitably try to sell him.

–Notice the line: “The commodity makes us want it” — how does a commodity have power over us?

–Notice the words that the children’s choir is singing in the background — they ultimately tell a tragic story.

–Notice one of the final lyrics: “Consumption is in my veins”

——————–

In a world of commodities and the ongoing competition over our desire, where is the space for God?

Matthew 7.1 is a well-known biblical text. It’s up there with John 3:16. But the former is used more like a club than the latter.

Judge not, lest ye be judged. This is now an American ideal.

The work of sociologist Christian Smith shows just how much it pervades the average American’s imagination when he writes about emerging young adults in his book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. In the interviews with young adults that constitute a portion of that book, Smith highlights a certain common characteristic among many of them. Instance after instance an interviewee utters the common statement, “who am I to judge someone else?” or some form of the same. Smith and his co-authors are rather disturbed by the lack of an ability among young adults to offer a rational evaluation of circumstances. While individuals seem to make certain decisions for themselves, they are unwilling to presume that the decision they have made for themselves is the same decision others ought to make too. “Who am I to say?” they will ask.

Following from a point Smith makes in an earlier book, one which draws on the same longitudinal National Study of Youth and Religion as does Lost in Transition, Smith argues in Soul Searching: The Religions and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers that much of what American young people claim as their spirituality has been handed down within the tradition they have experienced in their family life. In other words, that “tradition” is most likely meant to mean “from their church.” But, more importantly for my argument here, at any rate, it is from one’s parents. If a young person (teenager or young adult) is regularly articulating such utterances as “Who am I to judge?” we ought to be prompted to think of Bourdieu and his point about habitus and disposition again. Such regular utterances come with practice, and practice occurs in an environment which fosters it. If the family is handing down this value to mimic, it’s no wonder it has taken such a strong hold.

Clearly it is important for us NOT to judge. And to justify our position, we’ll point to Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount.

But there’s a problem here that causes us quite a bit of consternation. It’s a bad interpretation of the text. We should ask ourselves, is Jesus really telling us it is utterly sinful to judge? Are we really to make no evaluations whatsoever in this life?

That seems a very thin interpretation of this text, and it gets us into some real trouble. This was the concern of Smith and his co-authors in Lost in Transition. They wondered if young adults could make any substantive evaluations at all. If making judgments seemed to them to be somehow “all wrong,” then how were they going to get through life when faced with kind of moral conundrums one has to face from time to time? How, in fact, if such young people were to eventually start families, would they raise children or discipline them or teach them to lead a particular kind of life if they could not decide on how someone else (in this case, their own child) ought to live?

Mind you however, a good interpretation of Matthew 7.1 doesn’t simply free us to sling at others whatever judgments we want.

What we ought to realize is that we make evaluations and judgments all the time. Evaluations of good, bad, and everything in between are necessary for our very safety and survival, much less for our moral navigation through life. We know in our bones how to stay out of danger (by making judgments of dangerous situations, and doing so without “thinking”). And we know at times moral right and wrong in utterly viscerally ways–situations make us “sick.” But we also make other kinds of judgments. Very often, like I’ve written in the previous three posts, our judgments are of the sinful variety. They are negatively judgmental. They’re not particularly helpful, and certainly not necessary for our safety or survival. And for that we ought to repent. Otherwise, the world is right in calling us hypocrites. It’s that simple.

The rest of the time, to the extent that we are followers of Christ, we are learning to judge rightly and well. I learned early on in my Christian journey a particular term for this: discernment. It’s something of an art. Decisions, evaluations, judgments—they’re often hard. Sometimes they’re borderline undecidable. Maybe that’s why Luther said “sin boldly.”

A few things I’ve found helpful:

  1. Good judgment and evaluation happens in community, not alone. Don’t assume you don’t need help. Don’t assume you’ve got it all figured out. Don’t assume you’re done learning.
  2. Good judgment and evaluation takes time. It’s never snappy. It’s never hasty. It’s always aware that there is more to the situation than meets the eye. Every time. Period.
  3. Good judgment and evaluation begins with listening and exploring. And perhaps this practice never ends.
  4. Good judgment and evaluation requires habitus formed in the crucible of worship where the people of God have gathered.

TV isn’t the only cultural means of training our judgmentalism.

There are other cultural examples which predispose us to such negative forms of judgmentalism. Take each new political season and the mud-slinging that goes on between candidates. The more we hear it, the more we’re exposed to it, the more of a “normal condition” such phenomena become, thus shaping our imaginations toward what is possible and even allowed in our own lives. Mind you, this is all happening pre-reflectively—that is, we’re not actually “thinking about” it. We’re just engaged in the practice of watching TV or listening to the political ads. It all happens quite passively, much like how we catch a cold—it just happens to us. To the extent that our exposure to such negative judgmentalism shapes our imagination of what is possible and normal, we are more pre-disposed to start emulating what we see as the new “norm,” mimicking the members of our “community.”

This situation is bolstered by another place we regularly find ourselves: the grocery store checkout lane. What do we see there? Magazines with the latest pictures on the cover of the most recent young Hollywood actress, billboard artist, or Victoria’s secret model caught with added weight wearing a bikini on the beach. Accompanying the picture is of course some judgmental headline wondering what possibly happened could have to the woman that she would have “let herself go” so carelessly (what they really mean is “disgustingly”).

The ever-present and always inviting Facebook is a further culprit in fostering a negative judgmentalism within us. No longer do we have to be in “public” to render our “private” (in our heads/minds) evaluations of others; now we can do so just by logging on to Facebook to see what our friends are posting today. Furthermore, we can obscurely call out whomever we want and rant about whatever aberrant behavior we’ve encountered in someone that we didn’t like. It might be your next door neighbor, your co-worker, or someone you randomly bumped into while you were running an errand. Or consider adding your voice to the choir of random complaints that abound in social media. Try the topic of sports, perhaps the “replacement refs” can be a good example? Why not use Facebook or Twitter?

How about reverse judgmentalism? What do I mean? That’s the kind of thing where you simply make yourself look impressive compared to everyone else. You’re rendering a judgment about someone else without actually being explicitly negative. Facebook and Instagram are now liturgically forming us in this regard. Just pose a shot of where you’re “working” today to make everyone jealous. Then check the comments in 15 minutes to see who subtly expressed their envy. Got the new iPhone? Be sure to let everyone know. And by the way, you’re already playing into Apple’s game of creating desire through simple proliferation of its products in the hands of others. After all, that’s how you came to want one–from a position of lack that was created in you. Did you just run a marathon or ride 16 miles on your bike? Please tell us. Are you eating something better than my bowl of cereal for dinner? Share a picture.

Reverse judgmentalism strikes me as exactly what Elizabeth Bernstein’s Wall Street Journal article “Are We All Braggarts Now?” is all about. Like the story told in all the Dos Equis beer commercials, we’re now locked in a competition to appear more and more interesting. That’s enough to explain our felt need to brag or be reversely judgmental (biblically, depending on the situation, it might be called Pharisaical). And culturally, we’ve got plenty of training opportunities which create in us a habitus from which we operate along these lines without even thinking about it.

Simultaneously, if at any time, we are confronted as being judgmental (like in any of the situations I’ve listed above) our immediate desire might be to find a way out from underneath that accusation. Being called judgmental makes us squirm. That’s because, as I mentioned in the first post in this series, we’re also formed according to an explicit cultural narrative to be non-judgmental, tolerant and accepting. And this mode of being is, for us, in conflict and competition with the implicit judgmentalist training I’ve been discussing. So how do we navigate this conflict?

Perhaps a more important question might be, when can we understand ourselves as judging in a manner that might be considered appropriate, and when have we slipped into the kind of negative judgmentalism that I’ve argued in these posts we’re being trained to embody?

I’ll discuss these competing formations more in the next post.

I want to argue here that TV can function liturgically for us. Watching television has ritual characteristics. Certain shows happen at certain times. They are regularly repeated. There is a certain flow to the event with the show being interspersed with other pieces and parts—commercials with various kinds of messages that are in themselves mini-rituals and which participate in the large consumeristic liturgy Smith might compare to the “mall” in Desiring the Kingdom. Perhaps most importantly, as a liturgy, watching television engages us on a level where our desires are captured and we’re made captive to a certain narrative which sets out for us the good life and invites us to participate in it. As I proceed below, I suggest Reality TV trains us liturgically to become judgmental.

Reality TV is a big training ground for the kind of judgmentalism that all of us disdain—that is, the kind by which we hate to be judged. And it has progressively grown in its proliferation over the airwaves in the last decade. From shows like American Idol and Survivor, it has grown exponentially into whatever niche market might get some ratings. Now the public is dying to watch the Real Housewives of Wherever, Honey Boo Boo, Cooking and Tattooing and Fashion competition shows, Restaurant and Hotel disaster shows where somebody’s bound to be totally ripped by the host, and plenty of others I don’t even know about (what is “Amish Mafia”?). All this is somehow entertainment to us as we join in, participating in our private little fantasy worlds, invited to render our own judgments just by nature of what’s on display.

Our training started concretely in a sense with those shows like American Idol, Big Brother, Survivor and others where the public was invited to weigh in with their own vote. Did you “like” the character? He or she got to stay. Did you hate them? Vote them off. Facebook and Twitter of course allow us to publicly vent our opinions (judgments), all the while hiding behind our avatars and sharing our judgments with everyone and no one at the same time. Whoever we’re talking to, we don’t have to look anyone in the eye, most specifically not the person we’re judging, so there’s no consequences (read: we can get away with it). And there was no fear of joining in the judgmental parade, since everyone was doing and it was built into the structure of things from the moment the phone numbers were displayed on the TV screen to enable you to vote for your favorite contestant.

The judgmentalism in which we were invited to engage (and did—whether or not you texted in your vote, or tweeted, to Facebooked, or ever talked to your friend about it, or just kept your thoughts private) first took the form of, “Wow, she can’t carry a tune!” and “Geez, he thinks he can dance, but nope, he really can’t.” Of course, we went further than that, judging their attitudes, persona, the way they dressed, carried themselves, etc. This is perhaps the implicit kind of judgmentalism we have been taught to participate in. The kind which our dispositions have been formed to naturally perform without our thinking about it. We just do it without reflection. We might try to justify the other kinds of judgment. When someone is out of tune, that is bad and it should be noted—the show is about musical talent and performance after all. Granted. That’s why I’m saying that the invitation to that portion of the judgment is shaping for the more implicit and non-reflective judgments we make. The kind of judgment we’re invited to participate in when we watch the Real Housewives is just a more sordid form. Shows like that (and there are many) put people’s lives on display for nothing else but our own entertainment—and that entertainment takes the form of nothing other than our judgment.

Other forms of television train our judgment also. The popular television show Everyone Loves Raymond trains us, like so many other shows do, to see men as bumbling idiots and women as the ones who really have things altogether. It creates an utterly disrespectful image of men, and a terrible image of marriage. Shows like that, and a recent Discover Card commercial (which captures an example of this perfectly – see embedded clip below), train us to have a certain imagination of how the world works. Women learn they can treat men a particular way (sadly, I’ve heard groups in public spaces talking about their husbands like they’re a bunch of ignorant cave men). Men learn they might as well play the fool. I cannot begin to say much about how young men, women, or little boys and girls are formed by exposure to this kind of thing. But as you might imagine, it’s bad.

Back to Bourdieu. It’s our passive taking-in of all this which creates our dispositions and forms our habitus to be judgmental right along with and in the same manner as the material which we are watching. Why? Because we are not just watching it. Television is formative. It’s not just in-formative. Think about commercials. They’re not just giving us information. They’re creating desires. In the same way, these shows I’m talking about are ritually carrying us through certain ways of being in the world—and through them the good life is on display. Just as in a commercial that tells you how you ought to look or what you ought to own (in order to attain the good life) reality TV’s invitation to judgmentalism invites you to the pedestal of judge, to the position of honor. Your opinion matters. Your vote counts. You’re important. So gone on, tell us what you think. And don’t mince words…we take this very seriously. And tune in next week, and the week after that. And catch this new show where we need you to weigh in. And so on and so forth and suddenly a new way of being develops in us.

The big danger here is that, for Christians, we carry this way of being into the world. We start rendering judgment on everyone and everything. Because plenty of us are fans of reality TV too.

More concrete examples in the next post.

Trained to be Judgmental?

Our world forms us to become judgmental. This happens simultaneously with our ongoing training as Americans to be non-judgmental—that is, tolerant—of everyone else. That we’re taught it is important to be non-judgmental (tolerant) is rather obvious. It’s an explicit value articulated in the media and our educational system, and even (perhaps often) within the Christian tradition. So I won’t say much about that here.

To make my point, however, that we’re formed to be judgmental, I must reflect on something that’s not so obvious. And to do that, I have to say a few other helpful things first.

A book that’s been critically important to my thinking about Christian formation (and cultural theory) in recent years has been Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. I’ve suggested it to so many people who’ve also liked it—and with the help of some colleagues made it required reading at my seminary for worship students. But it’s not the simplest read. It takes some wrestling and pondering.

I’m now using it with my undergraduates to think about how culture has formed us. In the book, Smith argues that culture often forms us unwittingly through ingrained habits and rituals that function like liturgies. He calls them “secular liturgies.” The analogy to the church’s liturgy is quite intentional. And if you read the book, his argument that culture can be understood as constituted by “secular liturgies” is quite compelling. So I encourage you to read it. And I promise you’ll get more out of it than that if you invest the time in reflecting on Jamie’s work and the various sundry applications of it to your life. He makes it easy, using examples from popular literature, movies, the mall, TV, the university, sports, and even the Pledge of Allegiance to make his points concrete.

One of his main arguments is about how we are formed as human beings to be particular kinds of people in a manner that operates at a pre-reflective or pre-conscious register. On this point, he means to push back against the rather staid position in Western thinking that, as autonomous agents (which we imagine ourselves to be, since that is what we’ve been taught we are in the story of Western anthropology), we deliberately come to believe everything we believe by choice. Or, in terms of the things we do, they are done as matters of intentional deliberation. Jamie rejects this position. And he is not alone in pushing back on this view. Even recent NYT bestsellers are telling us otherwise—mind you they’re doing so by making the case scientifically borrowing from psychology, neurology, and cognitive philosophy: check out David Brook’s The Social Animal and/or Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (I recommend both).

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has also argued convincingly that our formation as human beings is not primarily a cognitive phenomenon, but something much more bodily oriented. Thus, for Bourdieu, our thinking and reflection emerges from our primal and chief means of engagement with and comportment toward the world—our bodies. He uses the language of “practice” to help us understand this. His work gives an account for why we do what we do, not by accounting for our “thinking and deliberation” regarding our actions, but by accounting for how the logic of practice is pre-cognitive and pre-reflective. Bourdieu describes our embodied lives as trained toward certain dispositions through regular habitual practices in which we participate. These dispositions structure our engagement with the world. He gives a name to these dispositions, calling them habitus. Our habitus governs our actions at a level below the cognitive and reflective register. The focus isn’t on our brains or minds but on our bodies.

At the risk of scaring some readers off, it’s worth quoting Bourdieu on this very central idea within his work. If this passage doesn’t seem very clear, keep in mind part of the problem Bourdieu has in his writing is that he is trying to challenge deeply ingrained assumptions, ways of thinking that we simply take for granted and which have been rooted in the West for three centuries. Our present condition as captive to a certain way of thinking about and imagining “why we do what we do” prevents us from understanding him easily.

The conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively “regulated” and “regular” without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor. (The Logic of Practice, 53)

Here we see Bourdieu explicitly pointing up the nature of habitus as an ordered, structured and structuring register of our lives that functions explicitly at a non-cognitive level. There is no need for a “conductor.” There is no need for the intentional “following of rules” or “aiming at certain ends.” These are not, however, ruled out as impossible or dismissed, but Bourdieu’s point is to reorient our imagination of what it means to be human actors who explain why we do what we do, forcing us to take into account a substantial part of who we are that does not emerge from our “free will,” our freely made decisions, or rational deliberations about what is to be done.

From the time each of us was very young—I mean, from moment after we were born (and now we ought to be paying attention to our formation in the womb it seems)—our dispositions were being created. We were developing a habitus, or better, a habitus was happening to us, on account of how we were engaged with others in our experience of the world. In the same way, this still happens. In fact, it’s ongoing throughout our lives. Our habitus continues to be shaped as much as it shapes our engagement with and comportment toward the world. We constantly engaged with the world in a variety of ways and this engagement is always rubbing off on us. Our world is full of “liturgies” according to Smith—that’s part of what constitutes and forms “culture” in his argument—and human beings are always formed by the cultures in which they participate. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom argues that our engagement with the world, as it is inevitably communal, shapes our dispositions, and thus forms us to be certain kinds of people. Liturgies of any kind foster habitus.

Thus I’ve reached a point where I’m ready to make my suggestion of how we are passively trained to be judgmental.

Our culture provides many opportunities for us to be trained—to develop a disposition, a habitus—to become judgmental. Since this post has gone on for some time, in the next day or two, I’ll supplement this one with some concrete examples of how I see this happening.

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