Tag Archive: Practice


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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I’ve been reading through William T. Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (listed on the left).

In his first chapter, he discusses in part the unknowns of our economic interactions. Free-market capitalists, he notes, believe that exchanges in the market are free because all the information that the consumer needs is in the price, thus there is no coercion to purchase any given item from any given seller. But what kind of info do we find in prices besides how much items are going to cost us? What we don’t find out, and this is Cavanaugh’s point, is how much the product cost to make, who made it, where it was made, what the working conditions are where it was made, etc.

To elaborate using the example of the beef products we purchase, he cites an article from the New York Times Magazine entitled “Power Steer” by Michael Pollan. The original article is an engagement in the debate between which is better – corn-fed cows or pastured cows. I’m not willing to engage in this debate per se, but it’s worth looking into in light of this article. The information that Cavanaugh highlights is definitely not available in the price. I’ve posted an excerpt from Cavanaugh that gets at the main points of the Pollan article.

When one buys a steak at a large chain grocery store…all the information one needs in order to make a free decision – assuming that the steak is not simply defective or contaminated – is conveyed by the price. The true story behind the shrink wrap, however, is more consequential than [we typically believe]. A calf might spend the first few months of its life eating grass on the range, but typically the rest of its short life is spent in a feedlot, ankle deep in manure. By nature, cattle are equipped to turn the grass that grows naturally on arid land into high-quality protein. However, allowing cattle to graze is considered inefficient these days, because it takes too long. Today’s beef cattle in the United States go from 80 to 1200 pounds in just fourteen months on a crash diet of corn, protein supplements, and drugs. They are given hormone implants (banned in Europe) to promote growth. Their calories come from corn, which is cheap and convenient but depends on the use of lots of petroleum products, and wreaks havoc on their ruminant digestive system, which is designed for grass. The only way to keep cattle from dying of bloating, acidosis, or abscessed livers as they fatten up on a grain diet is to give them steady doses of antibiotics. Still, many strains of bacteria survive. In the past, we could count on the fact that such bacteria, raised in a cow’s natural-pH digestive tract, would be killed off by the acids in the human stomach. But now that the cow’s digestive tract has been acidified by a corn diet, acid-tolerant strains such as E. coli have developed; when those are found in our food, they can kill us. When the cattle are slaughtered, they are caked with feedlot manure, which is where the E. coli reside. Rather than altering beef cattle’s diet, or keeping them from living in their own feces or slowing down the processing speed of the slaughter lines, all of which are considered inefficient and impractical, processors spray the meat with disenfectant solution and irradiate it. Then they shrink wrap it and send it to your local supermarket.

The meat is cheap, but the social costs are not included in the price. Each head of cattle requires about 284 gallons of oil in its lifetime. As Michael Pollan says, “We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.” Runoff from the petroleum based fertilizer has traveled down the Mississippi and created a 12,000-square-mile “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Extensive use of antibiotics has led to resistant strains of bacteria. And scientists believe that hormone use has contributed to dropping human sperm counts and sexual abnormalities in fish. One cattleman interviewed by Pollan said: “I’d love to give up hormones. If the consumer said, ‘We don’t want hormones,’ we’d stop in a second. The cattle could get along better without them. But the market signal’s not there, and as long as my competitor’s doing it, I’ve got to do it, too.” But it is difficult to imagine how this signal would be generated, because the system is designed to keep the origins of beef a mystery to the consumer. So the cattleman continues to feel coerced into using hormones. (Being Consumed, 29-31)

Here is the link to the original article, “Power Steer” in the New York Times Magazine, 2002.

I’m not sure what to make of this. Cavanaugh suggests buying beef from local farms where you know the farmers allow for pasture-grazing, or local stores where you know the owner and can get an idea of his sources for products. Not only would this make you feel better about the food you’re buying and consuming, but it would also help the local economy.  At the very least, this is the kind of suggestion that helps Christians think better about their practices, while at the same time advocating a deeper awareness of what we’re participating in regarding the everyday practices we take for granted, like grocery-shopping.

Okay, so as I wrote this paper (which is pretty much done, but still requires some edits, footnotes, and maybe some other adjustments cuz I’m at the edge of the word count limit), things changed a bit. One reason is, I have a word count limit, so I can’t just say everything I want to–that doesn’t mean an expansion isn’t possible after the conference in prep for publishing. Another reason is, I just couldn’t do much with one of the ideas as I had it–I didn’t like how it was going; I wrote the beginning of the paper 3 times. So below, I put strike-throughs in the old stuff, and wrote some new stuff to make the abstract more reflective of what actually happened.

Title: The Politics and Poetics of Forgiveness

New Title: Transforming the Politics of Forgiveness

The very idea of forgiveness needs to be reframed from a sense of an “economy of exchange,” one in which forgiveness is merely owed upon the payment of some sort of debt. Recent conversations in continental philosophy and Christian theology have offered helpful new understandings of the nature of forgiveness. The discussion of the “gift” in Derrida’s work and those influenced by him reveals a certain calling into possibility something which seems impossible—true forgiveness. Coupled with insights from the Christian theological tradition, the “gift” of forgiveness through grace becomes powerfully transformative for both personal and communal identity. In giving the gift of forgiveness, a space is opened in one’s identity for real and lasting transformation to occur, such that the resultant relations in a given community will be directly influenced in large part, by the expression of further forgiveness, further giving of the gift. The transformation of the one becomes a flow of transformation of others.

Bookending this discussion of forgiveness, this paper will also explore the political relations which form the conditions of possibility for forgiveness. Stated simply, humans live in communities in which there are disagreements, transgressions and conflicts. Even further, these communities are themselves in relation with other communities (the boundaries of many of these are fluid; individuals are members of many different communities). The political nature of these communities is characterized by a sense of contestation. Each community embodies a story of its own, inhabits a worldview of its own—all of which are in conflict with each other. characterized by the existence of perpetrators and victims, fights and conflict, the demand for justice and repentance. In light of this reality, my paper will re-imagine how forgiveness—viewed through the concept of “gift” and empowered by a Christian theology of transcendence—challenges and changes the political relations of individuals and communities as well as the poetics of the grammar of forgiveness. and following from the central discussion of transformative forgiveness, I will offer two concrete ways that individuals and communities can practice the hope of forgiveness as they anticipate the eternal peace of the coming Kingdom.

I’m glad the paper is more or less done. I know I’ll at least be able to submit it on Monday. Now to bug one of my friends to read it over for me. I’m glad I’ve got people in my life who can read so well and think critically but generously about my work. It really is a God-given gift.

I left the call for papers and the link to the conference below.

The paper is for a conference on the Politics of Peace by the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology.

Here is their call for papers:

SCPT’s 2010 conference will focus on PEACE. We invite papers that examine the many dimensions of peace from social, political, religious, scientific, theological, and philosophical points of view. We also seek papers dealing with complementary topics such as justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace-making, and that deal with the practical aspects of the above topics. SCPT is an organization that seeks to promote inquiry at the intersection of philosophy and theology, through the study of phenomenology, deconstruction, feminism, Radical Orthodoxy, and other related fields.

I’m currently working on a new paper for a conference in April. Here is the abstract.

Title: The Politics and Poetics of Forgiveness

The very idea of forgiveness needs to be reframed from a sense of an “economy of exchange,” one in which forgiveness is merely owed upon the payment of some sort of debt. Recent conversations in continental philosophy and Christian theology have offered helpful new understandings of the nature of forgiveness. The discussion of the “gift” in Derrida’s work and those influenced by him reveals a certain calling into possibility something which seems impossible—true forgiveness. Coupled with insights from the Christian theological tradition, the “gift” of forgiveness through grace becomes powerfully transformative for both personal and communal identity. In giving the gift of forgiveness, a space is opened in one’s identity for real and lasting transformation to occur, such that the resultant relations in a given community will be directly influenced in large part, by the expression of further forgiveness, further giving of the gift. The transformation of the one becomes a flow of transformation of others.

Bookending this discussion of forgiveness, this paper will also explore the political relations which form the conditions of possibility for forgiveness. Stated simply, humans live in communities in which there are disagreements, transgressions and conflicts. Even further, these communities are themselves in relation with other communities (the boundaries of many of these are fluid; individuals are members of many different communities). The political nature of these communities is characterized by a sense of contestation. Each community embodies a story of its own, inhabits a worldview of its own—all of which are in conflict with each other. In light of this reality, my paper will re-imagine how forgiveness—viewed through the concept of “gift” and empowered by a Christian theology of transcendence—challenges and changes the political relations of individuals and communities as well as the poetics of the grammar of forgiveness.

I actually have to submit the whole paper rather than just the abstract. The deadline is next Monday, Feb 8. I’ve got a good chunk of the paper put together. I’m working out some messy parts currently.

The paper is for a conference on the Politics of Peace by the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology.

Here is their call for papers:

SCPT’s 2010 conference will focus on PEACE. We invite papers that examine the many dimensions of peace from social, political, religious, scientific, theological, and philosophical points of view. We also seek papers dealing with complementary topics such as justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace-making, and that deal with the practical aspects of the above topics. SCPT is an organization that seeks to promote inquiry at the intersection of philosophy and theology, through the study of phenomenology, deconstruction, feminism, Radical Orthodoxy, and other related fields.

Pray for the final process of my writing. This is yet another opportunity for me to interact with a body of scholars whose disciplines (continental thought) are congenial to my own tradition of theology–both of which, I think, have a great deal to offer each other.

In a brief Bible study this weekend, a group of us looked through the story of the Prodigal Son from Luke. One of my favorite parts of that story is remembering that BOTH of the sons are lost, not just the so-called Prodigal.

One of the people in the discussion mentioned that there is no way a party would be thrown in their family for one of the children returning home if in fact that child was returning home after living like the Prodigal–you know, squandering away everything the parents had given for fun and to fill one’s belly…

Since this person was a parent, I think I can empathize with the sentiment. What parent, in understanding the calling of a parent (or thinking they understand) could allow a child to return home after squandering away everything in godless living.”No party for YOU!! Glad you’re home, indeed, but what you did was STUPID. And you need to live with those decisions for a while.”

Indeed, who could respond like God (the Father character in the parable)? After being abandoned by the child and then knowing that child abused and wasted all that was worked so hard for as a parent, forgiveness and unconditional acceptance in the form of the kind of party the Father threw seems implausible and impossible. Certainly this passage does have much to say to each of us about how often WE are the child who prostitutes away all the God has given and continues to give.

But the thought that struck me in this discussion of the parable was the there is no option of whether or not to throw the party. If as a parent, one thinks their calling by God is to teach the child a lesson and not reward their bad behavior with a party (thus being an “enabler”), then such parents are mistaken. God forbid if every time we come to Him in repentance, when we return to Him after prostituting away all His goodness, He plays the retributive parent who sees it as His job to teach us a lesson.  Aren’t you glad that isn’t who God is: we’d NEVER experience grace. So in the end, there is no option: there must be a party.

But rather than turn this into a parenting principle, the point of the story is a forgiveness principle. That is, forgiveness must always be (and as we receive it from God Himself, it always IS) unconditional. The way I read the story, there is no need for a retributive parent figure–no need for anyone to teach the prodigal son a lesson. He is returning home repentant, already well aware of His sins, certainly not expecting forgiveness BUT retribution. Yet what does He receive but unconditional love, a reception impossibly beyond his deserving!

So where does this leave us in the world where the law tends to have a primary place in the role of parents, or, for that matter, in most of our relationships where people have hurt us, abused our gifts, grace, and love (like I said, in the end this isn’t a parenting principle, but a forgiveness principle — I’m just using the grammar of the parable)? Well, ultimately, when they return seeking forgiveness, there is no other option but to throw them a party, so to speak.

But let’s return to that idea of an “enabler” I mentioned above. Doesn’t that kind of receptivity, of welcoming the sinner back with open arms a kind of “enabling bad behavior”? If someone knows they can get away with whatever they want and always will be welcomed back with unconditional love, why would they ever stop doing the hurtful, abusive, immoral, selfish things? Because the wisdom of this world which tells us that people who behave that way need to learn themselves a lesson in good morals, that they need a kick in the pants toward good works and being a better person–that wisdom is foolishness in the Kingdom of God. That wisdom is the same kind of wisdom that the prodigal son’s brother lives by–he thinks he deserves so much more because he’s done the “right thing” and “worked hard” while his idiot brother has gone off and acted the fool. This worldly wisdom, this self-righteous thinking centered on our own good works with an over-emphasis on “good behavior” is what makes us Pharisaical, judgmental, and (this is quite sad) severely hardens our hearts against forgiving others, much less receiving forgiveness from them and more importantly, from God Himself.

The wisdom of the Kingdom, which is “foolishness to the Greeks” is the wisdom which is a stumbling block. It is the wisdom of the Cross. That wisdom says throw a party for the sinner. In other words, shower them with so much love, regardless of the sin (unconditionality), that all that is left is room for transformational response. The world has taught us that reform cannot possibly come through retribution, punishment for breaking the rules. People can’t be made better by “tough love” — for those who think so, they are the equivalent of the prodigal son’s brother. God doesn’t love like that. The cross took retribution out of the transaction and left room only for forgiveness. No payment needs to be made anymore. There is no economy now; there is only Gift, even if we can’t totally understand it.

The Gift is so shocking; so impossible to imagine and impossible to receive, that when we encounter it in the Cross and the grace of forgiveness from both God and others, we are actually encountering an entirely new reality. Only there, in this new reality where retribution doesn’t exist can we begin to conceive of living life different. In the overflow of love, in the unexpected banquet of our forgiveness, we respond transformed, as new creatures. We actually then begin to live like what we’ve experienced–out of love, with unconditional forgiveness, with true grace and charity. At that point, “good works” don’t matter anymore, because the life that is lived in love is finally exemplifying what the Scriptures actually mean when they speak of good works–that is, those actions which witness to and glorify God and which are only brought about by His transformative work. No longer must we concern ourselves with “good works” for they will flow freely. But as long as we are concerned with them, our attention is wrongly diverted–we might actually be one of the two lost sons.

I also wrote on Good Works for my last post. Check it out.

So I’m finally back. Sorry for the long delay. I began writing this post on a long train ride between Edinburgh, Scotland to London–then I finished it on a train ride from Chicago to St. Louis. I’ve had this post ruminating in my head for a while, so I thought I’d finally take the time and put it down.

There’s something to be said for systematic thinking—that is, it’s just something we do. It’s one of the phenomena of being human, I think, to put our world together in some logical way that functions to help us get around, plan ahead, and have some semblance of what might be called “success” at living. But it is something altogether different  to live with the presupposition that all things must be well planned, strategically thought through, and based on past successful endeavors used as models (that is, tried and true) in order to be regarded as worth following, doing, or even considering. This, in my personal experience, tends to be the manner in which most church leadership/administration operates. Strategies, models, and the “tried and true” have become the main legitimating factors in whether or not we ought to move forward on any given proposal.

For example, in a recent planning meeting, one of my close friends offered up a creative (and different) idea for ministry in our particular context. At this meeting was another leader from a different local church with whom we’re discussing a partnership. His first question after hearing our idea was whether or not we had a model for our new plan. In other words, where did we come up with our idea and who do we already know who is successfully doing it? Our answer was, there is no model, and thus, we don’t know someone who is already successfully enacting our idea. It seemed that this fact was somewhat surprising, disturbing, and disappointing to our friend. I believe his willingness to work with us hinged on the (his) necessity for a tried and true model, a known strategy that could be copy-catted in our context. In what seems to me to be contemporary church culture, we shouldn’t try anything unless it’s already been done by Willow Creek, Saddleback, Mosaic, Northpoint, or some Emergent leader and their community; unless it’s supported by some “solid/accurate” Barna research or Pew study; unless there is a book that’s been written on/about it (which has sold well, of course—and additionally, if that writer is now in demand as a conference speaker); and (I think this attitude is most unfortunate of all) unless there is serious financial backing to weather what might be called “unsuccess.”

I put some of these ideas in quotes (“success,” “unsuccess”) because there’s always that reader who will pithily respond about what counts as success or failure. (Don’t worry, often times that person is me) But I think in the long run, we all have an idea of what kind of success we’d like to see for all of our plans. Usually it has to do with something big, comparable in our context to what is happening in megachurches, and of course, gains for us as the leader, that elusive, I-don’t-want-you-to-know-that-I-want-it-but-I-really-secretly-do thing called notoriety (hopefully the kind that allows for us to write a book about our success and which eventually results in our being invited onto the conference circuit—the true mark that we’ve “made it”).

I think this whole business of church leaders requiring successful models and strategies to uphold and legitimate their plans is a mockery of the Holy Spirit. To make the point, ask yourself how often you’ve heard sermons or read a Bible study or Christian books that references the fact that Jesus entrusted the Kingdom of God into the hands of his 12 know-nothing disciples who followed around the King of the Universe for 3 years and were oblivious the whole time. How’s that for risk? And yet the modern church has adopted what it believes to be the practice of “successful” businesses, requiring well thought out plans based on successful models and sound research for all new ventures (because this is clearly the way the Kingdom of God operates). In fact, this isn’t the case for the most successful businesses—they’re flexible enough to change without necessarily knowing what the future holds or how their plans will play out. And they often can’t pinpoint exactly why they’re successful.

And so you might ask, do I think we should just follow our whims, if only to allow the Holy Spirit to work instead of being trapped in the idolatry, safety and comfort of our well-laid plans? You might ask, didn’t God give us brains and expect us to use them instead of ignorantly plunging into things? Yes, God gave us brains—no, I don’t think we should just follow our whims.

So we should find balance then between planning and (prayer and) faith in the Holy Spirit?

Well, sure. But I don’t like word balance…it’s just another pithy Christianism that I’ve heard too many times from people who’d rather avoid the struggle of working through these kinds of challenging issues. It seems as if balance simply becomes that excuse that is supposed to get people like me “off your back”…because you’re perpetually trying to “find the balance” and it’s hard so I should leave you alone. But I don’t think this is about balance in the first place.

So what do you think?

Well, I think like most of our lives in the Kingdom of God, what we’re really actually dealing with is a paradox. Paradoxes cannot be balanced. They are tensions which must be maintained. Two “truths” (if you will) that both apply while at the same time seemingly contradicting one another. What do I mean? Well, I think it’s easy to understand that only by faith in the power of God can we move forward with anything in the Kingdom of God, including for us as church leaders, our plans for ministry. The second part is more complicated. I think we are wrongly convinced (and therefore, just plain naïve) that models, strategies, and systems can really accurately tell us much of anything at all about life. Life is just far too complicated for any model, any strategy, or any system to be able to account for everything accurately enough to offer any semblance of a guarantee (or even raise the chances of) success. There are always already too many unknowns. We continue to learn this from cultural anthropology, economics, the philosophy of science, and sociology.

Ah, I see. So what you’re saying is, since in every plan/strategy/model there are areas of unknown information–there’s the room for our faith in the Holy Spirit? Wait a minute, that’s what I’ve been doing all along anyway—I expect the Holy Spirit will take care of those things I can’t think of. Thanks for the encouragement.

Hold on. Not so fast. Don’t just take what I’ve been saying to reaffirm yourself.

There is more to say. Models, strategies, planning and the whole mindset that believes these things are good and even necessary, it should be pointed out, are all “articles” of faith. There is a certain element of belief that comes into play with all of these things—to the extent that what is really going on in the back of our minds is this: “I believe these things are necessary in order for success, legitimacy, etc.” Here is the thought I’m trying to challenge—we take for granted the necessity of such corporate strategic thinking, to the extent that challenging it or perhaps leaving it behind for the sake of risk feels terribly uncomfortable. Such discomfort is no surprise—this this ‘comes with the territory’ in challenging our base assumptions. The problem really comes when the discomfort is so scary that we become unwilling to have our thinking/presuppositions challenged, or what is more, to change our minds if that’s what we really ought to do.

In part, I am arguing that we ought to change our minds.

Beyond saying that we have faith in the idea that models, plans, and/or strategies are necessary for success or legitimating ideas for ministry (and this kind of faith is opposed to real faith in the Holy Spirit, hardly supplemental to it, and thus can be considered idolatry), we must also think more about why models and strategies just don’t give us the chances for success or legitimate our ideas as much as we tend to assume they do. The reasoning here has to do with the nature of human groups and unpredictability. For all the stock faith (the assumptions and things taken-for-granted that we haven’t intentionally reflected upon) that is put into sociological research these days, sociology is one of the most inaccurate fields of research that exists. The problem is that human beings and groups of human beings are treated like predictable objects that can be scientifically (that is, objectively)  studied, when in fact, the very object of study is also a subject of the study—in other words, humans are studying humans. Why is this a problem? Because on the one hand, there is no generally accepted concept of human nature, which is a crucial part of understanding why individual humans do what they do, much less attempting to study whole groups. On the other hand, even if there were a generally accepted understanding of human nature, it would most likely resemble the kind of unpredictability that is recognized in human nature within such fields as phenomenology and cultural anthropology, as well as the kind of provisionality and potential for revolutionary moments to occur in scientific theory as in the philosophy of science. To say it another way, social scientific research treats humans and groups of humans just like any other object of study in the world (all too ready to render verdicts and ascribe laws of behavior). This is the ultimate failure: the view of  human-as-object (or human group-as-object) is too narrow because it does not take into account the utterly complicated nature of human creatures. Thus, scientific revolutions (where whole paradigms of understanding in fields of study change), unpredictability, and provisionality should give us great pause in believing that strategies, plans, models, and “good leaders” have everything (or even a lot) to do with success in ministry (or anything else for that matter). For what I am saying about sociology applies to a great deal more of life than we tend to assume—unpredictability is everywhere. And when what might be called success does manifest itself, explaining WHY it happened, what led up to it, who is responsible for it, etc, is on the whole virtually impossible. At best, we’re only guessing. Knowing all the factors that may have contributed to “success” is only possible for God.

So what am I saying? Where does success come from and what good (if any) are models, strategies, planning, etc? I think success is mostly accidental. It’s a right place/right time sort of phenomenon. Like I said, explaining it much better than that becomes pretty much impossible. We’re only guessing—there are too many contingencies and unknowns that may have contributed. As for models/plans/strategies, I think at best, they’re only helpful—at worst, they’re meaningless and a waste of precious time. I’m sure some readers think that’s awfully harsh, and too hasty of a generalization. So be it—maybe I’ll change my mind, but I predict not. I think in the end, however much time we spend planning, basing our actions on models, strategizing, or implementing whatever plans/models/strategies we’ve adopted, we’re taking just as much as a risk or making a gamble as if we’d just followed our whims. Both boil down to matters of faith (do I do one or the other?) because our reasons for believing one is better than the other are arbitrary at the most fundamental level. It goes back to that tendency to think systematically I mentioned in the beginning. But, regardless of the tendency, the ideas of unpredicability, complicatedness, contingencies and unknowns should make us seriously doubt our ability to really systematize much of anything at all.

Wow. Another hasty/harsh conclusion. Again, maybe so. But I’m convinced that the world is too complicated for us to understand, as much as we’d love to take ultimate responsibility for things going “right” (that is, that our use of models, planning, strategies and our straight up “good leadership” made it all “come together” like a well orchestrated symphony and run like a well-oiled machine). And to take that one step further, let us again bring out the contrast of the world with the Kingdom of God because in the end, we’re trying to talk about models, planning, strategies and leadership in the specific place of the church. We can’t simply conclude that planning, models, strategies and leadership should be done “differently” in the Kingdom. For the Kingdom of God doesn’t even work “backwards” in comparison with the world (that is, it doesn’t just call for a reverse of the logic, like “the first shall be last”), but is a calling of the world to something else altogether different from what we know.

Nevertheless, since most ministry needs some sort of funding, I don’t predict that after saying all this, most readers will be able to take me up on the idea of just being risky and following our whims (who knows…our whims may very well be God-given, and if we’d just follow them, we might find ourselves working where He’s blessing…if so, that would definitely be the kind of success without explanation I’ve been talking about—that is, explanation outside of anything transcendent) because the context in which they work will not let them. Their context (meaning those with whom they work, especially those in charge, and especially those in charge of the money) still live by the comfortable paradigm that only good plans supported by successful models are legitimate and worth pursuing/funding. Too bad. I can’t be sure (because it can’t be tried), but maybe following our whims (or maybe a better term would be ‘intuitions’) would bring more kingdom growth than following our models. I don’t know, but somehow Christianity has been the most successful, fastest spreading, and tenacious idea in all of history–and it happened without the support of sociological knowledge. We haven’t had sociological research to support our endeavors but for about 100 or so yrs. It seems before then and even now, somehow the kingdom just happens, good intentions and best-laid-plans notwithstanding. It all began with a bunch of know-nothing disciples. To quote the title of a song from the Dave Matthews Band, “Funny the way it is.”

Check out this video from Peter Rollins. It’s a great opportunity to hear a postmodern philosopher actually talk ‘postmodernly’. He is the leader of an emerging community in Ireland called Ikon. I’ve read all his books, and his thinking challenges me. As you watch, I wonder which person you’d be more comfortable imagining yourself as: the interviewer, or Peter. Ask yourself that question, then think about why you’d answer it that way.

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The interviewer seems somewhat uncomfortable with Peter’s thinking. Peter is trying to talk about Christianity faithfully, but in a different way than it is usually described–in other words, Peter is uncomfortable talking about Christianity the way the interviewer wants him to. What’s going on here? Is Peter wrong? Does the interviewer not “get it”?

If you like what Peter is saying, check out some of his other stuff. He blogs here. Or you can read How (Not) to Speak about God, The Fidelity of Betrayal, or The Orthodox Heretic.

I’m currently working on a paper for an upcoming conference in Liverpool, England. For a long time I’ve considered problematic the busyness of the people around me. The way we are bound to our work, the way that we believe a life of productivity is the “good life” (and therefore, that unproductiveness is “bad”), the way that we feel there isn’t enough time in a day to do all that we need to do, the fact that many of us are tired much of the time (and as a result are afflicted with sickness more regularly than we might otherwise be)—all of these things seem to me WRONG. I try to live disobediently to this frame of life. My paper is in part, an investigation into how we might think differently about this, especially with the help of the Catholic theologian and philosopher Josef Pieper, in order that we might actually live differently.

Pieper challenges many of the above issues. He believes that conceiving of the “good life” as the life which is productive, a life which displays hard work, one which is always active (in the sense of producing), is too narrow a view of life as God meant for it to be. For most of the readers of this blog, the Lutheran doctrine of vocation provides no help in understanding the good life as Pieper envisions it. As highly as this doctrine is regarded in that it teaches that all work done to the glory of God is sacred, thus giving meaning to our lives and our work in a sort of ultimate sense, in Pieper’s view, it  merely contributes to the view that life is all about work and productivity. While vocation equates work with worship—doing our work is service and glorifying to God—it narrows the view of worship and makes one feel obligated to work not merely as bound to it in our current economic system, but also now religiously. We must work because that’s what it means to be a good Christian.

In contrast, Pieper argues that our busyness working actually prevents and obscures our ability to understand what it REALLY means to be a good Christian, or more simply, what it means to be a human creature and live life as God intended. We’re formed by both our culture of total work and our religion (which in Pieper’s argument is only a conflation with culture on this point—religion has compromised) is to be busy working, busy “serving our neighbor and caring for creation” through our work.”Right on,” you say. “How else could it be?” We take this for granted if we’re teachers of Christians, or if we’re just the laity in the pews, we’ve drank the Kool-aid (if you will), only to believe that this is unquestionably the way life was meant to be lived. “Love God. Serve your neighbor.” As if the Christian life, or even what it means to be human, can be captured in pithy branding statements that are the hallmark of contemporary Christianity.

My challenge in writing this paper is to create an alternative perspective from within an already bad system. Like I mentioned, we’re bound to our work, so trying to frame a way of living differently is going to look and feel impossible. We feel trapped, unable to live differently—we have to be productive in order to make money in order to support our family in order to live happily in order to be able to have nice things in order to able to retire, etc, etc. This is the feeling of entrapment that creeps in when we reflect merely on our place in the system. Add to that the religious sense of identifying my work as vocation and we end up feeling guilty for thinking that a life of total work might not be God’s best for us.

So I’m trying to conjure the possible out of impossibility. In some way, I think that’s the only way it can happen for this paper. It’s only from within the bad system—which we must admit we are also complicit with, even while we feel trapped within it (by going along with it, we are also responsible for perpetuating it)—that we can see the problematic situation clearly. It’s also only from there that we can begin to imagine a different way. That’s what I’m trying to do. I won’t have a full-proof answer in this paper, but I’ll have a step in a new direction.

If you’re reading this, please pray for me as I put this together, deliver it, and hopefully have some stimulating conversation on the topic with other thoughtful folks.

Check out this video (if you’ve got about 21 minutes – it’s REALLY worth it) called The Story of Stuff. Jason Clark, a friend of mine who blogs at Deep Church posted a link to this last week. We both share an interest in the nature of how we are formed by the culture around us to live and practice certain ways of life, often without thinking about it. This video focuses on some of the things that we take for granted in our consumerist system.

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Oftentimes, when questions are raised about how we live in bad systems, we can admit that they’re bad and even that we’re complicit in perpetuating them, but we just feel trapped. For example, we live in a culture of Total Work. That is, work all day, all the time, produce, produce, produce – a system that I think goes against the very nature of what it means to be a human creature and to live life well. But how do we break out of it? We can’t just stop working. (I’m trying to think through this problem for a paper that I’m writing for a conference this summer – more on that later)

This video however, takes us through the problems of a system and at the end, offers us an alternative way of living. Throughout the site there are ideas for trying to implement other ways of living to promote a better system. For me, I’m particularly interested in being able to recycle as much as I can. Since moving into a new neighborhood that has a recycling program, I may only throw away 1 bag of trash per week (non-recyclables, food scraps). When we lived in an apartment without a recycling program (even though we tried to recycle paper as much as we could through another outlet), we were taking out the trash every 2-3 days or so. That’s a huge change. I’m even trying to be mindful of recycling technological goods like computer equipment. Sometimes you have to pay for it (Best Buy has a program), but it’s better than throwing it in a landfill or burning it!

All of this plays into our being good stewards of creation. That a way to live our theology.

Yesterday I posted a link to Dream Theater’s video for the song “A Rite of Passage” off of their upcoming release, Black Clouds and Silver Linings. The songs speaks of living under a new world order. The video depicts what appears to be some sort of ritual, something which might be considered pagan or cultic. The lyrics to the song evoke, at least in my mind, images of secret societies like Freemasonry, among others. I can’t say exactly what they’re about – it’s hard to tell without hearing from the authors themselves. As far as I know, it could be purely creative writing with no particular reference to any cult, religion, or secret society. Creative writing is after all, what John Petrucci, guitarist and one of the lyric writers of the band, has mentioned about lyrics of the past (most notably on their most recent release, Systematic Chaos) .

I understand that the imagery in the video could possibly be offensive to some viewers. I’d like to take a minute to comment on this possible offensiveness.

I’ve been reading David Dark’s new book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. He has a great chapter on questioning our offendedness. Part of his argument is that our easily-offended nature ruins our opportunity to be engaged in the genuine give-and-take of conversation. He says we “might be in danger of becoming impenetrable to wisdom, immunized against the sensation of sympathy, resistant to the pleasure of being amused by our own ignorance, and closed to the joy of being wrong.” (58)

I’ve never read a book that I thought everyone should read. However, in Dark, I feel I have found a book that EVERYONE SHOULD READ. And I mean, EVERYONE. It’s so down-to-earth, so authentic. He says things out loud (well, in print, but still) that we’ve all wanted to say but never had the guts to admit we thought in the silent darkness of our inner-selves, much less actually say. So buy it, and take it in slowly, chapter by chapter. It’ll change the way you think.

Here’s more of an (extended) excerpt of his thoughts on the fact that we’re easily offended:

The feeling of offendedness is invigorating. It might even be an effective way to bend a population toward a tyrant’s will. But we must never settle for it. We must not confuse an accelerated pulse for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. We must interrogate our offendedness, hold it open for question. Complaining about Harry Potter or getting worked up over The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman’s literary response to the damage done to people’s imaginations in the name of religion) or pitting ticket sales of Narnia films against Brokeback Mountain is a much less complicated call than that whole business about loving neighbors, to say nothing about loving enemies. If we’re more opposed, for instance, to what we take to be “bad language”  and nude scenes and films about gay people than we are to people being blown up, starved to death, deprived of life-saving medicine, or tortured, our offendedness is out of whack. We have yet to understand the nature of real perversion. We aren’t as deeply acquainted with our religion as we might think.

Feeling offended is a reassuring sensation. It’s easier than asking ourselves if the redeeming love of God is evident in the way we communicate with people. It’s easier than considering our relationships with the huddled masses throughout the world who find themselves on the wrong end of our economic policies and other forms of warfare. Perhaps our cutthroat ways bear some resemblance to our confused notions of God. Maybe we think God, as an intergalactic economist, is a survival-of-the-fittest type. And if we think [that] version of God is the only God out there, we might even think that being offended and angry and on the defensive is to be more firmly aligned with the Almighty.

…Is this nightmarish God-view the root cause of our rage?…The threat of violence is a strong persuader. Flying off the handle might feel a little Godlike when we notice how powerful and effective one can be when having a little available rage. One might even call it authority or gravitas. Someone’s got to show those people what’s what. Someone’s got to have some standards.

While there is no lasting security in the dubious affections of [that kind of] God, who is a whirlwind of hatred and offendedness, he does have a way of simplifying things. Who’s in and who’s out is never a question. Getting right with God is a matter of believing the right things and keeping your questions to yourself. By this logic, we can’t view ourselves as interpreters of truth or members of a pilgrim species learning their way through life. We are instead holders of absolute truth, possessors of the saving knowledge of God (as if it’s our knowledge that saves) who hold to copies of the scriptures even though we aren’t inclined to read them too closely. We feel most in line with the faith when we are most afraid. We view as a threat those voices that don’t easily coincide with what we think we have to believe to be saved. They aren’t safe voices. Music, films, and literature that don’t fit our categories might cause us to lose whatever hold we still have on our religion. It’s as if [God] is just waiting for us to slip up–by way of wayward imagination, an unsafe thought.

To keep it all simple and safe, we often become selective fundamentalists. We know where to go to have our prejudices explained as just and sensible, our convictions strengthened, our group or political party reaffirmed. We process whatever already fits the grid that is hardwired (or re-hardwired) in our heads. It’s difficult for anything else to get through. We’re easily offended. Maybe we’re looking to feel offended, which can make us feel better about ourselves. Feeling offended summons a sense of being in the right, a certain strength, a kind of power, an espresso shot of righteous indignation. And if the image of God hardwired into our nervous system is easily offended and put off by certain people and their offensive behavior, there’s a feeling of being that much closer to the winning side, that much more likely to be numbered among the elect, the saved, the documented.

We can live, if we choose to, with a kind of Styrofoam casing around our imaginations, an informational echochamber. We can and do surround ourselves with people who think the same things we do, people who won’t challenge us, and people who’ve learned to avoid certain topics while in our presence. It’s a natural, understandable, deeply human need to have our thoughts and opinions mirrored to us in verbal exchanges. We all need positive reinforcement.

But if we feel deep affection only for people who tell us we’re right and only give high fives to the like-minded, all we’ve done is joined a club. We risk becoming incapable of the give and take of genuine conversation. If all our friends and news sources require of us is a “Ditto” and “I think what you think,” we might be in danger of becoming impenetrable to wisdom, immunized against the sensation of sympathy, resistant to the pleasure of being amused by our own ignorance, and closed to the joy of being wrong.

We seek out and even pay for our own hypnosis. Via television, radio, the Internet, and print, we receive our news product fashioned and delivered by people who tidy up reality for us. If it isn’t sufficiently tidied up, prepackaged and shrink-wrapped to fit our fearfulness, if our minds don’t click into place quickly enough to satisfy our stunted attention spans, we change the channel and move to another site. We move swiftly from scenes that might call into question our exclusively saved, right-thinking status.

Contrary to the [incorrect] image [of God] of our worst and most violent impuses, the God [whom] tradition calls Immanuel is both with us and for us. The God in whom love and justice meet, the God whose love radically exceeds whatever low definitions we settle for when we think we’re loving God, is the God who is most present among us when we’re having a go at that complicated practice of loving one another well. You’ve probably seen the God-talk on T-shirts and stickers that draw from dairy product promotional imagery by asking, “Got God?” It should probably be observed that, in the deepest sense, nobody’s got God. God can’t get gotten. And Jesus’ gospel is never at our command, under our copyright, or contained within an -ism, an ideology, or any well-intentioned human construct.

The question is always whether Jesus’ rare ethos has gotten hold of us in any discernable way. To answer that question we must stop defining ourselves by all the things we’re against. We might also ask what, other than getting saved in the shallowest sense, we actually stand for.

If we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that our angry mass emails or conversation-stopping talking points serve as a ministry or carry out the purposes of God, we need to slow down and take a breath. Are we merely perpetuating violence, anger, and alienation through the way we talk? In our proclamations and posturings, our offended feelings, what are we bringing to the table? When we go public with our convictions and opinions, are we up for countertestimony? Or have we developed a habit of rendering hasty verdicts? Do we find some people inadmissible? Have we made space in our heads for a wide variety of hearts and minds? Do we want fellowship or submission? Do we remain capable of conversation? (56-60)

It’s possible that the you, the reader, at this point are feeling pretty good about yourself. In reflection, you find you’re not like the kind of person Dark is describing in these few paragraphs. You’re open-minded and generous. If that’s what you’re thinking, you don’t get it. Read it again.

It’s also possible that you, the reader, are feeling pretty offended right now about what Dark had to say, or about what I just said two lines ago. You feel like there’s a certain appropriate place for offendedness in the Christian life. We can’t go around acting of there is no right and wrong; people can’t just say and do what they want just for the purpose of genuine conversation. Nor should I, the writer, be able to tell you that you “don’t get it.” And maybe you’re offended that I did. If this paragraph describes you, let me just say you don’t get it. But don’t just go read it again. Here’s a little more from Dark to help you understand where I’m coming from (lest you become purely enraged at this point and miss out on the whole idea behind this post):

Have we lost the habit, the skill of listening for anything more than a breath or a pause so we can jump back in with our own argument? Are we listening, or are we just planning a response? Can anybody get through to us? (53)

To speak about being easily offended is also to speak of being reactionary. I’m convinced that we’re too reactionary, myself included (see, don’t you feel better?–I’m not just sitting here silently implying that I’ve got it all together). I offer these thoughts not to provoke some reaction. If you’re merely reacting, you don’t get it. I offer these thoughts not for reaction, but just as Dark does (and I quote him for so long because he says it so much better than I could), for reflection.