Category: Books and Articles


The End of Critique

There seems to be no end of critique in the theological blogosphere. From criticism of worship (screeds usually, of contemporary worship from traditional worship lovers, AND complaints that traditional worship is irrelevant from modern worship advocates–both of which miss too many points) to negative assessments of millennials and how they will be the downfall of us all (or alternatively, how the boomers ruined everything and the millennials and paying the price), critique is everywhere. Dig deeper in the academic side of the blogosphere and you can find more. Critiques of political theological perspectives, such as on topics concerning religious freedom (think Hobby Lobby), marriage, and more are often intellectual grenades lobed into a room while the writer walks away. Granted, there is some interaction in the “comments.” But seriously, who actually has to look anyone in the eye anymore to have a conversation? Who ever has to know the deep-seated position from which one is trying to argue his or her point? Getting to know another, especially if it’s a perspective that is disagreeable does not seem to matter all that much. What matters is making a statement and getting some attention. And then perhaps getting a following, getting your statement shared on Facebook, Twitter, and beyond. There is no end to critique.

But what about an end to critique? I’m not, in saying such a thing, calling for an end to critique. Hear me clearly. I’m concerned rather, about the telos of critique–the point, the purpose, the goal of it all. Criticism is good, as far as it goes. But often criticism simply ends at criticism. It seems fairly easy to see what’s wrong with the world. But not particularly easy to see what’s possible after critique. De(con)struction seems to be a fairly easy task to accomplish. But what about imagining the possibility of something new in the place of whatever has just been blown up? Thus, concerning the telos of critique, I’m essentially asking, what’s the point if something cannot rise from the ashes of what has been taken apart. And that something is not going to arise on it’s own. It needs to be suggested, evoked, imagined, provoked, made possible by the positive creative energies of those who have such abundant energy to criticize. For inevitably, criticism itself arises from the perspective that there must be something better, that the situation which is being evaluated negatively is not measuring up to the more ideal situation which is known or imagined to be possible. And this is especially the case in the theological conversation, since it is inherently eschatological, waiting for a “not yet” that is to come that manifests in glimpses in the here and now.

So where are the poetic imaginations that ought to be part and parcel of critique? Where are the alternative narratives of what could be, especially if what is is what should not be? Where are the images, the pictures, the symbols, the maps, the stories, the hopeful dreams, the idealizations, and, even more, trust in the eternal God to bring about through his chosen instruments works of greater things than this? Granted, let’s not get utopic. But let us also not allow mere criticism to be an end in itself. For critique inherently assumes a standard of something better. The end of critique then ought to include imagination and the concrete suggestion of possibilities for arriving there.

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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.

A Return

I used to be an atheist. For part of my life I doubted God’s existence.

Every now and again, when I haven’t seen someone around for a while and I start to miss them not knowing where they’ve gone off to, the next time I see them, I might jokingly tell them I was beginning to doubt their existence. Perhaps, if I have any readers left, you were feeling the same–doubting my existence. I made a promise last April to get back to this blog that I didn’t keep. Sorry. Things happened. Big things.

I got a new job. I now serve as Assistant Professor of Theology at Concordia University, Portland, OR. In order to accommodate performing the duties of this job, I had to move. So pretty much as soon as I wrote that last post…it was over. I was suddenly overcome with things to do to get ready to be here. Then, not long after arriving, my wife and I had our first child. Our daughter came 1 week before I began teaching my first term. Additionally, I finished my doctoral dissertation just before the holidays.

So, sorry about not writing. But some important things took me away from here for a while. I’m hoping to truly get back to it. And I’ve got some things brewing.

Mostly, I’m hoping to share some of the material I use in my classes. I’m reflecting with my students on some current books that deal with religion in America, as well as on the topic of how Christianity and culture shape (and counter-shape) each other. Some challenging stuff that has emerged from my teaching is a little bit of cultural exegesis. I’m glad to share it, not only because I find it interesting, but also cuz it’s kinda fun.

Additionally, I’ve still been active in coordinating the Church and Postmodern Culture blog. I’ll be posting there as well, and things are kicking back up over there now that the holidays are over and all of the contributors are back to the grind. So if you’re interested in that sort of thing, check it out.

Beginning Again

It’s been more than a year since I’ve offered any sort of substantial post here. Today is no different, but that’s because I’ve offered something more substantial over at The Church and Postmodern Culture blog. I’ve been thinking about the use of social media lately, for various reasons (I’ll post something here on the topic soon), so I wrote something over there that engages a stream of thought within postmodern philosophy that helps me think about “What Facebook Makes Us.”

My intent is to slowly become more active here. While I’m still doing edits on my dissertation, I’m also teaching as an adjunct at Concordia Seminary, so things are busy enough. To add yet more to work on, I’ve officially accepted a Call to be Assistant Professor of Theology at Concordia University in Portland, OR. We’ll be moving out there in June and all the preparations for that have brought plenty of additional things to do.

In light of being involved in a job search for more than the past year, I’ve kept my distance from blogging and other social media outlets on the advice of other academics I know who participate in faculty search committees. Apparently some committees are sharp enough to investigate potential candidates’ social media presence. While I didn’t take the site down during my job hunt, I didn’t write much new either.

All the changes in life are exciting. Moving to the Pacific Northwest should be fantastic–my initial visit was phenomenal. Getting back into blogging will be fun. I’ve got a handful of drafted things sitting on my hard drive. So you can expect some more activity here. My next post will be slides from a presentation I made a while back on Using Social Media for Evangelism.

I haven’t posted much here in the past year. Maybe once every 2 or 3 months. That’s because I’m trying to be diligent at finishing my doctoral dissertation by December. In the meantime, I’ve been asked to help coordinate the Church and Postmodern Culture Conversation, now hosted over @theotherjournal. I’m excited and privileged to work with James K. A. Smith (editor of Baker’s book series of the same name) and the long-time coordinator of the site, Geoff Holsclaw. The site just went up this week, and things look great. There’s an exciting lineup of posts over the next couple of months. I’ll have some things to offer there, and I’ll be sure to alert you here about when those are happening. In the meantime, consider creating a bookmark to churchandpomo or adding it to your RSS feed.

On Being Wrong

I’ve written a good amount here about the provisionality of knowledge, a key assumption of post- or non-foundationalism. Check out this video by Kathryn Schulz, entitled “On Being Wrong.” It’s gold.

End of the Hiatus?

The wait is over, at least for one more post. My apologies for those who may have thought I’ve fallen off the planet, or gave up on the blog, or abandoned the series on Truth and foundationalisms. None of those things has happened. I’ve simply been busy teaching courses this summer, writing curriculum for one of them, and then writing and traveling to present conference papers. All of that was a great adventure, but now I’m staying put for a while. And I’ve been thinking about the next post in the series for a bit. Forgive me for the long wait. I can’t predict how often I’ll write, but I hope it won’t be another 4 months until the next one!

I’ve had papers accepted at two more conferences this year. The first, the Truth Matters conference hosted by the Institute  for Christian Studies in Toronto, will be held at Victoria University at the University of Toronto in August. Below you can read the abstract I sent. The paper is entitled “Truth as Far as the Story Goes.”

Narratives provide the supporting rationality for all of life. They make life intelligible at every level, even accounting for what might be considered unintelligible, by making room for mystery or anomaly. Narratives, or what are sometimes referred to as traditions (e.g., in MacIntyre) constitute what has been called the “cultural imaginary” (see Ward, but also Taylor, Ricoeur, and others)—the very fabric of life in society in which actions and interactions are both driven and understood through a “magma” of images, metaphors, myths, and signs.

This paper will explore the phenomenon that truth is carried and constructed, in and by stories. Through a conversation with some of the figures noted above, as well as others, the paper will highlight the situational nature of truth as intimately connected to the narratives and traditions of local contexts. From within these local contexts, particular practices of treating the truth and reflecting on it emerge. Every context has a particular hermeneutical tradition, one which both conceives of truth and provides a normative guide for judging truthfulness and pursuing truth through, for example research and learning. In other words, every context or community has a sense that it knows what it is looking for when it speaks of truth, and it also has some way of judging whether or not it has found the truth.

Yet the above construal raises a serious question. If truth is bound by the limits of narrative or cultural imaginary, and if additionally, each society, community, or tradition has a unique way of construing the truth as well as a means of getting at the truth, then how might we deal with the general assumption that there is an underlying, singular truth definitive of all reality? Certainly, modernistic rationalism and empiricism, which rely so heavily on certain procedures or methods of argumentation, have failed in the endeavor to arrive at a universal conception of truth or any sort of universal method for arriving at definitively truthful conclusions—various sorts of postmodernism make this critique, both Anglo-American and Continental. Some have feared, then, that on this basis we must conclude relativism. But we need not conclude such an “anything goes” perspective.

That truth is carried in narrative is the assumption of this paper. But we are not left to concede that every narrative has an equal corner of the market on truth. As Charles Taylor and others have noted, there are good reasons for accounting for reality in some ways rather than others. Or to speak more in line with the present argument, there are good reasons to believe that certain narratives carry the truth account for reality better than others. This is not to say that these reasons are not up for debate—in fact, Taylor’s argument assumes they are debatable. It is only to say that in the pursuit of truth narratives, traditions, and cultural imaginaries are all semper reformanda. Through debate, conversation, epistemic gain, and persuasion, narratives are both formed and reformed. The paper will pursue this reasoning regarding the plurality of both narratives and truth, as well as how narratives might change.

The paper will also offer suggestions for further reflection: What might these conclusions offer to a new conceptualization of truth? One possibility is the encouragement of a much deeper analysis of our how cultural practices both communicate truth as well as how they form persons of a particular kind to the extent that they are truthful reflections of the narrative which underlies their identity as members of a particular society or people.

Another possibility is a deeper exploration of how individuals come to take certain narratives to be their narrative. Is it a process of indoctrination? What are they deep mechanisms of production which are at work in forming individuals to be particular people? It seems there is also another very important question here: to be aware of these processes, mechanisms, or systems of indoctrination is of value on the epistemic level of understanding, but how does such awareness do further work in forming and informing practices? In others words, what is the point of simply knowing about the phenomena at work in cultural production, as opposed to putting that knowledge to work?

The second paper is entitled “Narrating the City from a Sacred Refuge.” I’ll be delivering that at the Religion and Modernity in a Secular City conference, hosted by the Katholische Academie (Catholic Academy) in Berlin, Germany in September. The abstract is below.

Jaques Derrida has advocated for cities of refuge for writers who were persecuted and silenced in their local contexts of authorship. Might this concept of cities of refuge and the focus on writing and writers be of great importance for a consideration of religion in the secular city? As a refuge from the city but still within the city, the church can bring the marginalized and persecuted voices of private citizens into the public sphere, effectively blurring the line between the realms. These voices write the story of the city as its citizens—not just with words, but with ways of being. Without such voices—voices which have been silenced publicly—the city does not exist, for as Graham Ward has noted, writing and the city are so inextricably linked. The church is the very place which can best write the narrative of the city, from the very beginnings of the city and cities to the narrative of the city as it should be—an image of the eternal city. The church can best narrate the story of the present and local city for, as a place of refuge it is a place which houses the stories of the city in the voices of its people. In so narrating, might not the church offer a transformative politics through the story it tells? This is the story which represents the city as it is and the vision that calls to it, that haunts and has haunted its being since the first city—the story of the eternal city. This paper will argue for such a view of the church in the secular city. The church is a community of refuge which can narrate the city’s present and its future through practicing the citizenship of the eternal city in modern times.

I’m hoping to meet Graham Ward at this conference. I have been particularly influenced by his work. He’ll be the keynote speaker.

***Consider this a post that points you toward a new area to explore and think about. It reflects a little of what I’m thinking about. I’m not totally settled on any of it. The discussion could extend on indefinitely, so I can only say a little here. Check out the links embedded…see what you think of it all.***

|| It’s also important that I note I am attacking feminism as an ideology here. However, I do appreciate some of the value feminism has given unto philosophy. I realize that there is some slippage between the negative side of the ideology and its positive benefits, such that one cannot as it were, throw the baby out with the bathwater. For an example of the positive contribution of feminism in philosophy, see Graham Ward’s use of feminist standpoint theory in Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice. ||

In a new article from the Weekly Standard by Charlotte Allen, I read about a culture of people I’ve never interacted with, but apparently they’re all around me–and you too. We’ve heard about the hook-up culture: apparently it’s dead. Allen writes that we have now progressed (or digressed?) into a New Paleolithic Age.

Her article, “The New Dating Game,” is something of a sociological study of the post-hook-up culture. Through a lot of blog research, she brings to bear some interesting observations about the nature of dating and relationships in our very fragmented age. One of the things she seems to highlight by the end is the damage that feminism has done to the very objects of its beneficent intent: women. In an analysis similar to Wendy Shalit’s in A Return to Modesty (a great book, by the way), which says that women, in arguing for their equality and freedom (an argument which has done a significant bit of good for women I might add, but is not without some dire consequences) has forced women into roles they do not want, and maybe naturally do not want. Being promiscuous is now an exercise of a woman’s freedom to choose a mate, or many more than one if she so wishes–such behavior is just plain expected.

Men certainly have abused the privilege of the new sexual freedom that has come as a perhaps unwitting result of feminism’s enterprise. Yet in many ways their hands have been tied too. I find it almost utterly hopeless to find women portrayed in the media as living in respect of other men, especially those women portrayed as married. In real life, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard women putting their husbands or boyfriends down for being “dumb men.” Feminism has formed men such that they have no way to fight back. The women call their husbands dumb because they don’t act like real men–they don’t make decisions, they don’t take responsibility…they just sit on the couch and watch sports. Yet, what else is there to do when women have taken control of everything? How can a man be a man when a woman demands that she be allowed to do everything a man does? Granted, there are certain problems with privilege that must be dealt with here so that women aren’t abused and treated as less than human, a sad fact of history the response to which has been the feminist movement. Yet the results haven’t turned out so good for either party–men or women–men can’t demand their roles back (in part cuz sometimes we’re just willing to be lazy) because women refuse to give them up, or worse, because we’re accused of being patriarchal, antiquated, and misogynistic when we make the demand. I’m concerned that women really want us men to take the responsibility and that they’d rather not have it–in fact, they’re resentful that it’s landed on them; but in the end, men feel whipped, hopeless, and resigned while women walk all over them. Men can’t win for losing.

I can’t say that I know people like those described in Allen’s article. They must run outside my circles, or else if I associate with them, I am unaware of a significant aspect of their lives. But I do know people like those I’m describing above.

How does all this play into theology? Well, unless you’re gonna accuse me of being sexist, misogynistic, patriarchal, or antiquated (and hence, to fully miss my point), I’m gonna say its all related to God’s making man responsible in the garden. God didn’t blame Eve. God made man responsible. Feminism is woman’s effort, in some sense, to take that responsibility for herself.

How does this all play into philosophy? It’s another instance of identifying the fact that we have been formed in a culture to be certain kinds of people and relate in certain ways by a underlying productive mechanism that we never really noticed, and thus we are confronted with a very significant challenge if we wish to change it or overcome it.

Back to Allen’s article, her work is just another instance of feminism’s failure to women. It tells the sad story, both of men and women, and the damage of feminism to the possibility of healthy relationships. It has so befuddled and confused us, that we don’t even know how to define “healthy” relationships anymore. I have no short, pithy fix, so I leave it  to you to ponder.

Further resources to jump into this area of thought:

Wendy Shalit’s other book: Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find is Not Bad to be Good (I haven’t read that one)

Donna Freitas: Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses

Emerson Eggerichs: Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs

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As an aside, I also appreciate the ongoing conversation throughout the article about evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology can argue that any human behavior can be interpreted as perpetuating the idea of “survival of the fittest.” That is, everything we do can be interpreted as positioning ourselves (or better, our genes) to have a legacy, and a good one, at that. The problem with evolutionary psychology is that it runs into contradictions. Check out this article from Salvo. Allen’s article wittily notices this fault.

Lent is the time when we turn inward in a self-critical sort of way. Since this is a blog that tends toward challenging the way we think, I’m advocating we make a specific practice out of this for Lent. Let’s give up orthodoxy for Lent. Come on, as if we all thought we’ve got pure doctrine anyway–is that even possible? Let’s embrace our inner heretic (who’s probably bigger than we think) and allow our confidence to be broken.

Paraclete Press has a great deal going for Lent. One of my favorite authors whose writing challenges our thinking to the core, Peter Rollins, wrote a little book full of parables that are meant to be transformative of our thinking, and even our being, if we just allow them to get under our skin of theological confidence to fester a bit.

In the The Orthodox Heretic, Rollins offers short parables and a few interpretive follow-up thoughts to go with each one. There are almost enough to get through the entire season of Lent reading one per day. Almost enough. Paraclete is offering 7 extra parables by email to anyone who orders The Orthodox Heretic. If you order today, you’ll get the 7 parables through a link in your order confirmation, then, just as you’re finished with those, The Orthodox Heretic should arrive and you can continue reading parables, 1 per day, for the entire season of Lent.

I love these parables for how they tell a simple story, yet communicate a message that’s challenging, that turns our taken-for-granted thinking upside-down, and even shatters some of the thoughts we hold near and dear. Parables are a unique means of communication that capture there hearer’s/reader’s imagination through imagery and story, and thus allow the speaker/teller to get beyond just the mind, but further to the heart. I’ve used them in sermons, conversations, and even in a recent academic manuscript.

Become a Heretic for Lent…in the end, you might come to know Orthodoxy in a remarkably different way.