Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bending Our Gendered Prayers

We’re doing more than we think we are when we pray, “our father…” or “father God.” I don’t usually get hung up on it, but recently I’ve found myself distracted when someone begins a corporate prayer with the paternal address. But why should I get hung up on “father”? After all, it is biblical, isn’t it?  In the New testament, Jesus prays to his “father,” he even teaches his disciples to pray, “our father…” (Matthew 6:9, NRSV). It’s also strung throughout the Hebrew Bible. For example, Deuteronomy 32:6 is explicit: “Is this the way you repay the LORD, O foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?” (NIV). And we can’t ignore the Prophets, can we?—“Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with one another?” (Malachi 2:10, NIV).

The fatherhood of God is biblical. But what’s also biblical is the motherhood of God! Passages like Isaiah 42:14 scandalize any notion of God as a differentiated and unconditioned male figure who watches the world from a distance (the bearded old man in the sky motif, if you will)—“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (NRSV). And there’s also Isaiah 49:15, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (NRSV). Isaiah is not alone. Hosea, too, uses such language; “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them” (Hosea 11:4, NRSV).

Might we consider such passages examples of “gender bending?” Gender bending is what it sounds like—it is bending or challenging, without completely breaking or abolishing, social norms of masculinity and femininity. Gender bending helps us to correct strongly held, though essentialist, interpretations imposed on women’s and/or men’s experience (if we can even use such a term without ourselves essentializing). When Miriam speaks against Moses (Numbers 12) or when Jael defeats Sisera (Judges 4:17-22), they do not completely solve the problem of patriarchal and paternalistic viewpoints in scripture, but they do bend them, they do offer resources to help us push beyond such views. The problem, however, in considering motherly images of God as examples of gender bending is that we may not want to admit to a paternal starting-point. We may not want to give credence to the assumption that fatherhood is the “norm” for God and motherhood is “bending” it. We have theological reasons to resist imposing any such norm onto God. And it is disputable to what extent we might need to start with such a norm. Nowhere in scripture is there such a claim that God is univocally a male. Nowhere, in fact, is there any explicit claim to the gender of God. In fact, if there is any claim, it is that God in some way transcends human categories and social constructions—“God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19, NRSV).

But the problem is that fatherhood, not motherhood, is a theological position that’s been held throughout church history—from Augustine to Calvin to Barth. It has not helped that men were, for so long and in so many contexts, the only ones given voice in the discipline. In his book, The Christian Life, Barth defends and even establishes the exclusivity of praying, “our father…,” by asserting that to be dissuaded from doing so on socio-political or other temporal grounds (i.e. someone has had a bad history with their earthly father) is to mistake the address for having analogy in human experience—to subsume the objective reality of God into subjective human experience. This is an interesting theological argument, and in some ways a convincing one, but in preserving the function of theological language and in preserving the relational address in prayer (God is a person, not an idea, so the vocative is indispensable), Barth also establishes an exclusively paternal address where maternal address could be (would be!) just as biblically and theologically appropriate for personal address.

So what we’re doing when we pray, “father,” with exclusivity is we are establishing the masculinity of God as a social norm. It is only against this backdrop that we can consider motherly metaphors of scripture to be examples of gender bending. And it is against this backdrop that it becomes vitally important to privilege these passages as correctives. It’s not that praying to God as “father” is wrong or unbiblical, it’s that not praying to God as “mother” may be wrong and unbiblical. In any case, what we’re after is the vocative, a personal address, so that God does not become accessible as an immanent intellectual construction, but is encountered as an acting subject (indeed, a social actor) who cannot be contained in essentializing constructions of language. If there is a way to bend the gendered vocative address, we must find it. We must find a way to address God in such a way that certain conceptions of human attribution are not imposed on God so that such attributes are made “godlike” in a way that others are not (thus placing the latter in subordination to the former). As Virginia Ramey Mollenkott has said, “If God is always 'he' and imaged as Father, Husband, or Master, then human husbands, fathers, and employers are godlike in a way that wives, mothers, and employees are not. And the stage is set for exploitation.”*  Herein lies our ethical-theological imperative to think differently about how we gender God in our prayer and in our speech. There is a potential dehumanizing (or de-divinizing, if we are careful with our meaning) effect in our exclusively gendered language. But herein also lies our ministerial imperative. If ministry is essentially participating in God’s action and if God’s action is located in the concrete and lived experience of human beings, then to obscure someone’s experience through the theological essentialism of imposed gendered norms is to obscure the very location of divine and human encounter and to obstruct our participation in God’s action.

*Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, “Sexist Language: The Problem and the Cure,” in Language and the Church: Articles and Designs for Workshops, ed. Barbara A. Withers (New York: National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., 1984), 14. Cited in Sharon H. Ringe, “Feminist Theology and The United Church of Christ,” in Theology and Identity: Traditions, Movements, and Polity in the United Church of Christ, Revised, ed. Daniel L. Johnston & Charles Hambrick-Stowe, (Cleveland: United Church Press, 2007), 121.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Jimmy Kimmel and the Savage Child

You're probably familiar with Jimmy Kimmel's "I told my kids I ate their Halloween candy" tradition. Each year Kimmel invites parents to tell their children that they ate all their Halloween candy and to post their reactions on Youtube. Kimmel then features a compilation of many of the videos on his show.

Now, by and large, reactions to these videos have been positive. In our culture, this is taken as good comedy and good fun. In fact, it's difficult to find, at least through a Google search, critiques of Kimmel's practice. Consensus, it seems, would be that this practice is basically innocent and ethically sound. However, I think it's important to think critically about what's going on in this practice and in the popular response to it.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, a popular form of entertainment in the United States was what we call "Wild West shows." These Wild West shows were a sort of circus spectacle offering a romantic and exaggerated image of life in the "Old West," featuring equestrian acts, gun slinging and marksmanship performances, and reenactments of famous battles between "cowboys" and "indians" such as the "Battle of Little Big Horn." These reenactments and some of the other performances featured Native American performers. The Native performers were one of the major draws. According to Linda Scarangella McNenly, "Wild West shows consistently produced both romantic and stereotypical representations of Native peoples as exotic noble savages..." White Americans, fascinated with this "savage" culture, attended the performances as a sort of cultural voyeurism, to see and be entertained by the played-up wildness and savagery of the "Indian" other. Native performers who faced constricting and often oppressive conditions on their reservations were, of course, willing to travel with Wild Bill and go on tour with these performances. But, nevertheless, these performances are largely understood today as a form of exploitation. White Americans, up until the 1930's, enjoyed observing the "less developed" and "less rational" native culture as a form of entertainment--"look how they dress! Look at their savagery! Aren't they strange and interesting?"

Around the same time in history there were such things as "human zoos" where savage people were literally put on display in exhibits for whites to enjoy. One such exhibit opened in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo. "At first, some people weren’t sure what it was. It — he — seemed much less a monkey than a man, though a very small, dark one with grotesquely pointed teeth. He wore modern clothing but no shoes. He was proficient with bow and arrow, and entertained the crowd by shooting at a target. He displayed skill at weaving with twine, made amusing faces and drank soda" (NYT: "The Scandal at the Zoo"). The young man's name was Ota Benga, a Congolese native. In the same day, whites could go see the monkeys, the elephants, and then... oh yes... the "savage." People loved to watch him and laugh at his antics without the slightest thought given to what his account of his own experience, what he felt of his situation. It was just good entertainment. It shouldn't come as a surprise, though, that Ota Benga, at the age of 32, became depressed and shot himself.

These spectacles of entertainment--Wild West shows and human zoos, entertainment we'd broadly describe as unethical today--are just examples of the kind of things that emerged during a time in history when the narratives of progress and development were in full swing, when we thought that Western civilization was the civilization and everyone else needed us to help them catch up (unfortunately, the church's history of missionary evangelism was deeply grafted into this narrative). Those who were less developed and less rational, the savages, were entertaining to us. We were fascinated by them and yet we were oblivious to their exploitation and dehumanization because we were blinded by the "innocence" of our fascination. It was good clean fun, good comedy and entertainment.

You could say we have come along way. You could say that we're better at seeing the humanity of people who are "other" than us. This is reflected in the fact that the term "savage" is no longer considered ethical academic terminology. To theorize a culture as "savage" would be to succumb to an overt ethnocentrism and to face the ethical charge. But we're not out of the woods yet.

What does any of this have to do with Jimmy Kimmel? I'm getting to that.

I think we know (or should know) that we're not out of the woods yet in a lot of social locations (take some popular media representations of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example) when it comes to ethnocentrism. It's perhaps more complicated, in some ways, than it was when we were putting human beings in zoos, but I think we know that our biases still tend to lead us to cultural voyeurisms of various sorts. But one place we may be surprised to discover our own ethnocentrism is in the lives of our children. And the Jimmy Kimmel Halloween candy phenomenon is reflective of this.

Now before you write me off as a prude--too uptight to appreciate the good clean fun of pranking a 5 year old--consider the possibility that we've made the child out to be a "savage."

Where, in our culture, is the narrative of progress and development most uncritically alive today? Where, in our society, is it acceptable to consider someone as less "advanced," less developed, and less rational than we are, on a scale of progress and cultural achievement? Chris Jenks writes, "Just as the early 'evolutionist' anthropologist, self-styled civilized person, simply 'knew' the savage to be different to himself, on a scale of advancement, and thus worthy of study, so we also, as rational adults, recognize the child as different, less developed, and in need of explanation" (Childhood, Second Edition, p. 4). Through naturalist developmental theorization, we have so other-ed the child that it is currently socially acceptable (and remarkably popular!) for us to voyeuristically marvel at their distress as a form of entertainment.

What cultural assumptions must exist to create conditions wherein it is not only morally acceptable but entertaining and humorous for us to prank children and watch their response? It is, after all, not the prank itself that entertains us, like pranks we might play on other adults. Telling someone you ate their Halloween candy certainly isn't creative enough for us to consider it as entertainment. It's the reaction that's entertaining; it's the fact that the one being pranked is a child and that, by virtue of their childhood, their reaction is dramatic.

The only context where distress becomes entertainment is in what we might call a culture of condescension. The distress of the other, in this case the child, is humorous to us because we consider it to be irrational and therefore illegitimate. This is because we have placed childhood on a scale of advancement on which adulthood is given the highest seat. We consider childhood to be, as Jenks puts it, "...a 'becoming;' tabula rasa; laying down the foundations; inadequacy; inexperience; immaturity; and so on. Such metaphoricity all speaks of an essential and magnetic relation to an unexplicated, but nevertheless firmly established, rational adult world. This adult world is assumed to be not only complete... but also, and perhaps most significantly, desirable" (Jenks, p.8). This is, in perhaps different terms, a classic example of ethnocentrism.

When we consider someone to be fundamentally our equal, when we treat them as human beings, their distress (no matter how superficial its' object) becomes not a source of entertainment but a source of empathetic encounter. Sure, some of the children in these videos probably knew they were being silly, so their reaction cannot genuinely be considered distress. But many of the children in the videos were deeply troubled. And it's worth speculating that the source of their distress is not so much the loss of candy but the violation of trust. The one who is supposed to care the most for them has taken advantage of them. So they cry, they yell, they lash out. To this, could we consider laughter to be an empathetic response? I don't think we could if we took seriously the humanity of the child... not just their potential for humanity, but their current status as human beings.  

In the culture of condescension, the voice of the "savage" is ignored, left unaddressed. We stare at their other-ness but do not consider their own accounting of their situation to be an enlightened or legitimate one. In other words, we do not consider them to be credible sources for the interpretation of their own experience. We think we know better than they do.

When you first watched the Jimmy Kimmel video, did you consider whether or not the child at whom you were laughing would give an account of their experience as one worthy of laughter? Did anyone consider interviewing the children to see what they thought of the prank? It'd be absurd to do so, right? But why?

Jens Qvortrup rightly asks the question, "Are children a group of people who may legitimately claim to be heard?" (Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood, p.85).  The fact that the question could even be considered an interesting one is telling of our position in orientation to children. "All our knowledge on children and childhood seems to remain deeply and unreflectively centered around the experiences of adults..." (p.89). This orientation of adults to children is a direct result of our concept of the child. According to Allison James and Alan Prout, "...there can be no concepts of childhood which are socially and politically innocent" (p.21). We do not consider children's accountings of their own experience because, according to our theory of them, their accounting is subordinate to ours. It doesn't matter if they are distressed (or even traumatized) by an experience if our (adult and therefore rational) accounting of the experience is that it is innocent and funny... it's no big deal, even if the child thinks it is.

If the videos featured by Jimmy Kimmel don't bother us, our indifference is exactly what should bother us. And what should bother us more is, perhaps, the cultural consensus surrounding this practice--that it is innocent and funny.  What this calls from us is not just a new sensitization toward the distress of children (even over seemingly superficial things like the loss of candy), but a whole new approach to children and a whole new concept of the child--not as "savage" or as potential adult, but as human beings worthy to be listened to and worthy of empathetic encounter.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Pastor as Friend

The following collection of thought should be credited to (or blamed on) conversations I've recently had with my friend, Marcus Hong.

We are often handed a paradigm for ministry which prioritizes an outcome, an ideal. We are pressured to adopt a goal-oriented paradigm for ministry wherein relationships in the church are instrumentalized in service of the church's "mission." In his book, The Relational Pastor, Andrew Root creatively documents how such a paradigm—the paradigm of the “entrepreneurial manager”— has come to such prominence (see pages 23-44). This is now so commonplace, and has been so concretized into the ecclesiology (even if its rare for such an approach to explicitly ground itself theologically... this, too, is part of the problem) and pastoral identity of the preceding generations, that it is difficult for young pastors to see it another way; even if, in their bones, there is great tension. But Root is hopeful that a new paradigm is emerging—one which, as I see it, is compatible with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of Christian community (see Life Together) wherein the Pastor is free to share the place to the congregation of which they are a part rather than to some essential standard or "dream" about what they could be. Root identifies the new paradigm as fundamentally relational—seeking to “reconceptualize ministry as participation in the life of Christ through the personhood of the other…” (Root, 44). In this paradigm, it is not the Pastor's role to be a "leader" or a "visionary." The Pastor is not called to be higher than the congregation (no matter how many steps they need to climb to get into the pulpit... which wouldn't likely be relevant if your Pastor was in a wheelchair... this, again, is also part of the problem).  Rather, it is the Pastor's fundamental role to be a friend and to create opportunity for friendship.

Now, as Root is clear, this is not a superficial kind of friendship where we are constantly subject to the "wants" of individuals (it's about empathy, not sympathy), but the kind where we subject ourselves to the "needs" of persons (seriously, you should just read The Relational Pastor, then read The Church in the Power of the Spirit by Jürgen Moltmann). This new paradigm is rooted theologically (...where should we start? The Incarnation, the theology of the cross, the Hypostatic Union, Eucharist, feminist theology, Philippians 2, John 15, the Road to Emmaus, Luther, Calvin, Moltmann, Moltmann-Wendel, Tanner...)... and it had its prophets even in the height of the "professional" paradigm (Henri Nouwen, Brother Roger of Taize, Eugene Peterson).

In an interview in 2002, when Eugene Peterson was asked about the "boundary ambiguity" in pastoral ministry, especially in his more empathetic approach to ministry, he answered,
I grew up in a small town and my dad was a butcher with a shop in the middle of town. Between that shop and our home, in a sense, there was no boundary. So I had modeled for me a way of life in which work and home were not distinct things. My dad addressed everyone who came into our shop by name. At one point I realized that I’m doing as a pastor just what my dad had done as a butcher. 
I also remember early in my ministry listening to colleagues who often seemed irritated and angry with their congregations, as if the congregation was the enemy. I remember making a conscious decision to not adopt that view. The congregation is not the enemy. They are my friends. I am their friend. We are in this together, even when we don’t like each other very much. 
If there was any substitute for having boundaries, it was knowing when and how to ask for help. Some advice I have remembered well is this: "The two most powerful words in the world are ‘help me."’ So I asked my congregation to help me. 
Peterson went on to be clear that "you can’t be naïvely open all the time to everybody" (indeed, that wouldn't be friendship either). But what he was offering was a way forward wherein the Pastor need not suffer the anxiety of protecting herself from the congregation by keeping a "safe distance," but is free to encounter their congregation as persons and to discover there the presence of Jesus Christ.

It is no coincidence that a new relational paradigm for pastoral ministry, of the Pastor as "a convener of empathic encounter of personhood" (Root, 44), should arise at a time when we are more aware than ever of power relationships, inequality, and the social construction of race and gender. We are realizing that in a world inescapably haunted by "social difference," we must do something about our "social distance" (to borrow some terminology from Erin Raffety and use it completely out of context). Deep down, we know that what the world really needs is not more ideas or another tidy system to implement them. Some will see no way forward but to dig in their heels and build higher and stronger walls between themselves and "the laity." But we know that what we need is friendship. ...and we need leaders who will show us how to be friends.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Genesis 2 and the Transgendered Human

The Biblical world, if it is possible to make so broad a generalization (and it really isn't), was a world of patriarchal hegemony [1]. The text consistently reflects a preferential option for maleness and masculinity over femaleness and femininity. It also assumes a gender binary. Throughout subsequent history and into the context of 21st century Western society, the texts of scripture have been instrumental in perpetuating such hegemony and the marginalization of women. The dogmatic masculinization of divinity, the demonization of women as the catalyst for the “fall of man,” the exclusion of women from church leadership, the shaming of women though the imposition and over-sexualization of the “ideal” female form, the hierarchical appointment of men over women in familial structures, and indeed the essentialization and binarism of gender and “gender roles” which contributes to many of the aforementioned issues in society—all these, and many more, have not only been supported by certain interpretations of scripture but are indeed products of many dominant interpretations throughout history, many (if not all) of which are quite alive in our current context.

This clearly raises the important question: should we still be reading this collection of books? Why are we still reading the bible at all if it has been used to inflict such pain and oppression? I do not wish to resolve this question here. It is a question we must consider not only ethically but theologically. We must discern God’s presence and action in and around a text that has been weaponized against the very people that, according to the same source, God created in God’s image [2].  Here, without resolving the lager question, I will assert that although the bible has been weaponized as it has, we are not without resources, within the text itself, to correct the oppressively hegemonic hermeneutic with which the text has so often been read. I will examine just one such resource, the creation of “Adam and Eve” in Genesis 2:18-25, as an example.

By the time we reach Genesis 2:18, God has created the world and planted a garden in Eden. God has created a human being and placed this person in the Garden to till the soil and tend the garden. It is in verse 18 that God resolves to create another human being. God decides that this person should not be alone, it is “not good” for this person to be alone. The NRSV translation puts it this way: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” It is important to note that in this passage and throughout the preceding passages of Genesis 2, this human being has been addressed in masculine terms—“…the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (v7), “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden…” (v15), “And the Lord God commanded the man” (v16), “It is not good that the man should be alone…” (v18). We must recognize that as a deliberate, yet somewhat subjective, translation decision. The Hebrew term being translated as “man” to this point, in all these instances, is not the more straightforward Hebrew word אִישׁ (eesh), but the more ambiguous הָֽאָדָ֑ם (adam, from which the classic idea that this human being’s name is Adam. The fact is, Adam is not so much a name, like Eve, in this part of scripture as a simple classification of species—human). While the translators of the NRSV are clear in their decision to use the term אָדָם (adam) as a sex or gender, there is evidence in the text itself to show that it was not originally intended to be used this way. The term  אִישׁ (eesh) for "man", within the text itself, is used differently and only after the creation of the woman. What we have is not a “man” but an אָדָם, an undifferentiated human being made from the earth. Indeed, sex and gender are not yet explicitly part of human identity.

Because translators have traditionally chosen to use “man” for אָדָם, the logical interpretation of the following passages is that the woman was created “second.” As Susan Niditch writes, “Jewish and Christian traditions postdating the Hebrew Bible and a long history of Western scholarship have viewed woman’s creation in Genesis 2 as secondary and derivative—evidence of her lower status” [3]. Much has been made of this throughout history and the argument could be made that there has been no more influential text for the perpetuation of a relational hierarchy of male over female in society. But with a careful look, it appears that the text is not nearly as explicit here as we have made it and, in fact, we have resources in the text itself to correct this assumption.

The first place we actually find a word which differentiates sexes or implies gender bifurcation is after God creates “the woman.” If אָדָם (adam) simply means “human,” the first mention of maleness comes after the creation of the woman, in verse 23. It is important to note that when first the word for “man” is ever used in the text, the word “woman” precedes it—“…the rib that the Lord God had taken from [the human] he made into a woman…” (v22). The word for “woman” here is אִשָּׁה (eeshah). אִישׁ (eesh), for “man,” is only used a verse later. The woman is not some “new” creature, formed from the ground all over again. The woman is made from the side (not the foot) of the human being. In a sense, it is from the same human being that both male and female emerge, “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (v23). This means that not only is there no argument here for the subordination of women but there is also no argument for binary essentialism. The human being is human, fully human, given life by the spirit of God and, by implication, loved by God (this is why God recognizes the need for a “helper” in the first place) before the bifurcation of the sexes [4]. Indeed, the first human being is, in a very important sense, transgendered or, more precisely, non-gendered.

What we have in Genesis 2 is not, under careful scrutiny, a patriarchal subjugation of the woman under a man. Nor is it an imposition of a gender essentialism. What we have instead is a clear mutuality and reciprocity within the human being, echoing (or imaging) the reciprocity and mutuality of God and the reflexivity of gender and sexuality in humankind, even in the event of differentiation so that the human will not be alone. If this informed our hermeneutic from the very start, we would have actually been hard pressed to make such strong binarist and androcentric claims as have been made in the classical interpretations of this text.

This does not free us of all tension. There are still problematic passages here and throughout scripture. But what this example may suggest to us is that when apply the right hermeneutic, the text itself becomes a corrective for unjust and oppressive interpretations. While we will still have problems (interpretation is always complicated). We may even hope trade the problem of rogue feminist passages challenging an androcentric totalizing discourse, for the alternative problem of androcentric human writers complicating our apprehension of a just and ethically symmetrical divine Word of promise.

[1] See Michael Coogan, “He Will Rule Over You,” in God & Sex: What the Bible Really Says (New York: Twelve, 2010), 19-60.
[2] This is a reference to Genesis 1:27 where, as Susan Niditch helpfully points out, “the male aspect and the female aspect implicitly are part of the first human and a reflection of the Creator.” Niditch, “Genesis,” in Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, eds. Women’s Bible Commentary: Twentieth-Anniversary Edition, Third Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 30.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Indeed, before the creation of conditions possible for the existence of gender. Gender, as a social construction, cannot exist prior to the existence of social address.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The Church is Dying!

Too many youth ministry books I open lately are written out of anxiety over the apparent decline of the Church. These books (and articles too) are worried about survival. Ministry becomes a sort of means to an end... a solution to a problem. And typically, their solution is keeping at least one of two things in the church -- kids and money.

'The Church is gonna die if we don't find a way to keep kids in it! We're running out of money, how can we get money back in the church!'

But I am just not convinced that anxiety is the best reason to do ministry. In fact, it may be impossible to do ministry out of anxiety. It may be that whatever you're doing out of anxiety, it's just not ministry. Ministry is definitively not a practice done by necessity. It is, since it is fundamentally about participation in God's action, something done in freedom -- freedom from anxiety, freedom for the worship of God. In this way, ministry is no different from any other spiritual practice (yes, I am suggesting that ministry is a spiritual practice). We don't pray because we must, or else. We pray because we are invited. Jürgen Moltmann writes, "we do not pray freely if need has taught us to pray... we pray because it is the privilege of the liberated to talk with God" (Theology of Play, 66). Indeed, Moltmann is a helpful resource for the thinking of a church that finds itself in decline and feels the pressure to save itself.

Moltmann refuses to allow us to commodify faith with the questions of its usefulness. He recognizes the complicated relationship that theology has with need, but reminds us that theology (and ministry and spirituality) is not born of need. He writes,
It is one thing to discover the need which makes talking about God necessary; the freedom to talk about God in that situation is quite another matter. This freedom is being offered by God alone. Theology therefore is both necessary and unnecessary. It has relevancy for men in the realms of need and necessity. Yet it springs from man’s wonder at the story of Christ and from his rejoicing in the uncaused grace of God of which it speaks. In that wonder the realm of liberty is already entering the realm of need and necessity and bursting its chains. (Theology of Play, 27). 
In other words, authors who see ministry as necessary for solving a problem, meeting a need in the church, or even saving the church from annihilation may have a point... but (and this is a big but) ministry is not done out of need, rather, "...it springs from [humanity's] wonder." It is a product of God and God alone, and that makes it a product of love and freedom, not expediency and preparation.

Thus, even if ministry does solve a problem, we do not need to value it only for its productivity or efficiency with time. We are free to see it as a waste of time. As Kenda Creasy Dean has said, "those who waste their lives for Jesus, who squander their talent on the church, who throw away their lives in ministry -- in youth ministry, for goodness' sake -- will gain it. Following Jesus is a waste. The Bible tells us so" (Almost Christian, 87).

And actually, as it turns out, these anxious authors and practitioners may not have a point at all. Even if talking about God meets some need in some way, I don't know for sure that it meets the need we want it to meet. The need we're trying to meet when we minister out of anxiety over the decline of the church is the need that comes from death. This is, in fact, a problem that cannot be solved. It is a problem that must be endured. We cannot save the church from death. The church will die. The church is only human.

As Dr. Richard Osmer put it yesterday in a seminar conversation on practical theology, "every church is terminal."

There is no church that will not one day close its doors. When we talk about dying churches, we should remember that we're really talking about every church... even the ones that are currently very much alive. This is only to say that the church is temporary and must be thought as such. If we're interested in self preservation, then we're building our house on the sand. What we should be interested in, and what theology should teach us, is the love and worship of God. This is all a dying church can actually hope to do. It cannot hope to save itself by widening its nets, by getting more butts in the pews, or by filling the offering plate (or starting a lucrative business). But the dying Church, the one we all find ourselves in, can freely worship the crucified God and find its future in Jesus Christ.

That is the motivation for ministry! Not a hope which only breeds anxiety -- an optimistic "hope" to preserve that which is here and nurture the potentiality of the present -- but a hope which springs from God's action and gives us new (and liberated) eyes for the present and eyes for the future. We are liberated to trust God for the outcomes. As Moltmann writes, "The images for the coming new world do not come from the world of struggle and victory, of work and achievement, of law and its enforcement, but from the world of primal childhood trust" (Theology of Play, 35).

So I am not interested in a book or an approach to ministry birthed only from anxiety over the decline of the church. I am not interested in whether or not I can save the church from death by employing the right strategy. What I am interested in is worship as ministry, ministry as worship. I am interested in participating in what God is doing in the world whether or not it will ensure my survival. Indeed, I am interested in a ministry that is willing to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Not All Youth is Adolescence

I have spent a lot of time, over the past year or so, thinking about "adolescence." I've been trying to figure out how (and if) the term should be used to describe the people we're trying to describe when we use it. 

Despite some recent work that's been done to try to suggest otherwise, the term "adolescence," in all its conceptual glory, is a new one (originating with G. Stanley Hall in 1904). Now, before you try to cite Aristotle or Chaucer to refute me, consider what is actually meant by the term, "adolescence."  It doesn't just mean a specific group of people who are no longer children but not yet adults (or "emerging adults" or whatever comes next) or even just a time of transition between childhood and adulthood. "Adolescence" - since it entered the conversation as a categorical concept - constitutes a specific interpretation, a psychological and developmental discourse regarding the experiences of human beings who find themselves living under specific cultural, biological, familial, and political conditions. This is what we mean when we say that adolescence is a recent invention. It's not that these people didn't exist before 1904 and G. Stanley Hall created them (and Erik Erikson made them famous). Youth has always existed and the research suggests that it has constituted a distinct social space (or class) - distinct from both childhood and adulthood - in more than a few social contexts throughout history. But it didn't get interpreted through the psychological developmental lens of "adolescence" until recently.  As we know it, developmental psychology itself, the discipline to which adolescence actually belongs, is itself a fairly recent phenomenon. 

Andrew Root was right to talk about adolescence the way he did in his book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry. He compares it to Santa Clause. The Santa Clause that we know (the rosie-cheeked fat guy who hangs out with elves on the North Pole) was invented in the 1930's by the Coca-Cola company. Of course Saint Nicholas is old, but Santa Clause is an invention no older than some of our grandparents. Adolescence is similar. The people we're describing have been with us for far longer than the terms and discourses we've made up to describe them.

But I want to raise the question of whether or not "adolescence" is always the best word to describe the people we're talking about. Already in the question there is a potentially controversial implication that the people we're describing are people before they are "adolescents." The question itself calls us out of the pattern of using adolescence as a totalizing discourse. We're already moving away from allowing "adolescence" to close the case on these people's experience. "Adolescent" (even when we use it as a noun) is adjectival. We should not assume that every human being we meet, within a certain age spectrum, must fit the description explicated in developmental theories of adolescence. Instead, it only becomes helpful after we engage them as human beings and then decide to turn to psychological interpretations of their experience. But we need to be open to the possibility of turning somewhere other than psychology - other than "adolescence" - for our best understandings of these people.

I've been careful, so far, to avoid defining "these people" we're describing when we use the word "adolescents." I don't want to foreclose on the meaning of a person's experience by imposing my own categories. But I would like to suggest that, in taking an ethnographic approach to understanding them, we'd be better off using a term like "youth" or "young people." Because what we're trying to describe is not foremost "adolescence" (for reasons already addressed) in its psychological framework, but something like "youth" as a real cultural construction (even if its not as "recent" as adolescence), a social practice or social space that is distinct from adulthood and childhood in its symbols of meaning and social rituals. In other words, we're talking about "youth culture." 

As annoyed as we may be by it, "youth culture" has been part of the Youth Ministry tool kit for a long time. But we've rarely (if at all) approached it the way we should approach a culture, avoiding ethnocentrism (or in this case, perhaps, "gerontocentrism") and operating on ethnographic principles without imposing developmental presuppositions.

"Youth," as opposed to "adolescence," is not a totalizing discourse. It does not carry with it a criteria to be met or a thesis to be proven. Instead, it allows us to interpret (not just translate) and find meaning in the social and cultural experience of occupying a unique social space. This helps us to avoid foreclosing on the meaning of such experiences by over-theorizing them prior to our encounter with them. 

I could go on and on with why this is important for us as theologians... I hope it's obvious (but it probably isn't). But to put it simply, I'll appeal to Andrew Root's definition of the "theological turn in youth ministry." He writes, "A youth ministry that turns to the theological seeks to share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God" (see here). If we are committed to the idea that God is active in "concrete and lived experience," then we have to concern ourselves with discovering the most faithful understanding of that experience.... not simply for the sake of the experience, per se, but for the sake of participating in the life and being of the God whom we are experiencing.   

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A short and underdeveloped thought on ministry and business

We do not need more "business savvy" Pastors. And seminaries should continue to disappoint people who are looking for business training.

If we continue to train Pastors to think like CEO's with business "savvy," where manipulating systems, "navigating" institutions, and leveraging people's spirits for our own (or even "God's") ends is not only permitted but encouraged, then we can be assured that we're not training them to be ministers. We are, in fact, omitting that which makes them ministers (relationship in participation with Christ) and replacing it with the kind of anxious, narcissistic, and instrumentalizing behavior that has been ripping the church apart since it first married itself to capitalism. A church which privileges its own existence and measures itself according to its expediency and effectiveness will always have people who hunger for control as its leaders (and "leadership" will be its primary metaphor for pastoral identity). This might sound familiar because it isn't new. A church which loves its own development and seeks to extend its territory and expand its walls will always produce refugees. But ministry should not create refugees but is to be with  and for the refugees of development--those who suffer under the tyranny of others' success. When it comes to the church of the crucified Christ, self preservation, efficiency in development, and conquest of influence are only temptation and never virtue.

May we never let success or relevance or influence be our driving motivation. And may we always settle for being present and loving to those who cannot contribute to our success or even our survival. May we find our relevance in our love for the least of these and not in the outcome of our business strategy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Review of 'Emerging Adulthood and Faith' by Jonathan P. Hill

This is a really nice little book that should serve to temper the alarmism and anxiety over the "exodus" of young people from the church, the "danger" imposed by "secular" institutions of higher education on young people of faith, and the apparent "faith crisis" raised by modern science.

If Jonathan Hill is right (and we all know statistics can be a great vehicle for lies) then it turns out that "roughly the same percentage of young people are sitting in the pews (or folding chairs) of Protestant churches today as were there in the 1970s" (p.17). "College graduates are actually more likely [than people who never go to college] to practice their faith and say it is important in their daily life" (p.30). And "the supposed crisis of faith brought about by mainstream science and certain readings of the early chapters of Genesis simply does not exist for most young people" (p.57). Who knew?!

I don't put a lot of stock in these kinds of quantitative research projects anyway, but I'm glad this one exists if only to balance out the extreme fear mongering that takes place in some of the other sociological interpretations of data. If nothing else, this book helps us to chill out. Fun little read!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Can we talk about God now?

Not long ago, on my daily commute to campus, I got into a conversation with a fellow commuter about classes and such--the normal bus ride chit-chat. She told me that she was taking a course on ethnography, which peaked my interest, so I began to tell her about my own interest in ethnography and Childhood Studies as an interpretive conversation partner for Youth Ministry. She asked me what drew me to ethnography, and without much hesitation I answered, "frustration."

I don't think I'd thought about it in quite those terms before. The answer just sorta slipped out. But once I said it, I realized how true it was. It was frustration that drew me to a Childhood Studies approach to constituting youth and an ethnographic approach to interpreting the experiences of young people. 

It'd take a while for me to give a good introduction to what Childhood Studies is and how ethnography would provide the right interpretive framework for the kind of theological engagement in Youth Ministry that's necessary (in fact, it might take two full academic articles... one of them will be out in the Journal of Youth and Theology very soon and the other's under review). But the shorthand of it goes something like this: 

Childhood Studies is an interdisciplinary approach to the study of children and childhood which constitutes childhood as a cultural construction and a social practice, rather than a stage of development with an inherent and natural trajectory toward adulthood. It understands "the child" not as a pre-social potential adult, purely subject to developmental, pedagogical, and parental processes, but as a "social actor" who lives in a distinct social world and participates in the social practice of childhood. As such, Childhood Studies offers Youth Ministry a lens through which to interpret the experiences of young people that does not over-theorize or essentialize their experience by imposing gerontocentric social or developmental norms.

Ethnography is the qualitative "science" of describing peoples' social experiences. It seeks a "thick description" (Clifford Geertz) wherein one can interpret cultures on their own terms, relinquishing control of the interpretive categories to the research subjects, rather than simply transliterating their experiences into the categories imposed by the researcher. In other words, ethnography is the art of non-selective hearing. With an ethnographic methodology, we can attend to the actual experiences of young people (where, as youth ministers, we expect to discover God at work), without the obscuring psychological and developmental assumptions that come with traditional categories of "adolescence" and "life cycle" theories.

Now, I'm a theologian, not a sociologist or an anthropologist. So when I come to these interpretive conversations, I take my own theological motivations and concerns. It's theology that's lead me to these conversations (I actually think that gerontocentrism reflects a mistake in eschatology). But it's also frustration...

For years, I've been studying Youth Ministry. And for years, I had been under the impression that the primary (if not the exclusive) interdisciplinary conversation partner for Youth Ministry was developmental psychology. Whatever sociological work we did consider was quantitative and filtered through a developmental hermeneutic. Young people were always "adolescents" and adolescence was a "stage of development" under the rubric of the "journey" to the "integrity" adulthood and generativity (see Erik Erickson). Even our approach to young peoples' spirituality was co-opted by developmentalism (see James Fowler's Stages of Faith and the more enigmatic James Loder's Logic of the Spirit). A good understanding of developmental psychology seemed to be more important in my Youth Ministry education than good theology (indeed, most of the youth workers I've known have had a better handle on the former than on the latter).

This is one of the big reasons I didn't get a B.A. in Youth Ministry. When I went to college, I started our as a Youth Ministry major. And in the school I was attending, Youth Ministry classes were heavy on development and light (I'm being generous) on theology. The concern was developing young people into mature Christian adults, not attending to God's action in the experiences of young people. I got bored.

I got frustrated.

And I think I got frustrated for two reasons.

1. Developmental psychological interpretations (transliterations, really) of adolescence as a struggle of "ego identity vs. role confusion" (Erickson), an endeavor to complete "tasks" in transition to "individuation" (I forget where Chap Clark gets this, Elkind? Santrock?) and to achieve the virtue of "fidelity" (Erickson again) never really resonated with my own experience. I never really understood what these people were talking about. Of course I could relate to struggles over identity and role, etc. But I could see that my parents and grand parents were going through similar struggles. And I could see that there were children and teenagers in my life who seemed to have a better handle on their "identity" than many of the most "generative" (read: successful) adults I knew. I just never found it helpful to theorize these kinds of things into discrete "stages" or to see them as normative and universal (what about people with developmental disabilities!?). It was obvious to me that there were people whose experiences were just not being taken into account, who weren't being heard by the selective hearing of developmentalism. And I wanted to find some way of attending to these people. This made it difficult to stay motivated in interpretation and made me all the more eager to think about theology instead.

2. I wanted to talk about God. In lecture after lecture on why teenage boys are horny or why teenage girls are so emotional (ugh!) I found myself thinking, again and again, "can we talk about God now?" I wanted to ask theological questions, not just psychological ones. I wanted to know where God was at work and how I could participate in God's action (it took me reading Andy Root, years later, to figure out how to articulate that), not just how to keep kids sober or make sure they weren't having sex on the mission trip. Intuitively, I knew that there had to be something more to ministry... and I thought it might be God. So I switched majors. And my theological path has brought me to where I am, still thoroughly concerned about doing ministry, but seeing ministry as a theological task--searching for God in the lives of young people in order to participate. My concern is not for human experience, per se. My concern is for the God that people are experiencing. And if I'm going to discover God's work in the lives of young people, I need a lens that allows me to see the actual content of that experience and not just in the places where it conforms to the standard of maturity.

The reason I think Youth Ministry needs Childhood Studies and ethnography is not because we need Childhood Studies and ethnography... it's because we need theology. To be more precise, we need the theological, we need God. I want more people in Youth Ministry to ask, "can we talk about God now?" I want more people in Youth Ministry to be on the lookout not for developmental conditions in order to affect them, but to be on the lookout for what God is doing in the actual content of people's experience, regardless of its conformity to standards of maturity, so that they can be a part of God's ministry.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Offering One More Semester To God

"We study theology properly because we are curious and find pleasure in the subject." -Jürgen Moltmann
When I first began my studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, I had an intense feeling that I did not belong here. It wasn't for lack of theological compatibility or because of any feeling that other people believed differently (although some of those initial conversations surprised me). In fact, I remember feeling liberated because I was finally in a community where I could use the term "eschatological" and people knew what I was saying. And it wasn't because people weren't hospitable (though not everyone was). Most people were very kind and extremely welcoming. The reason I felt I didn't belong was because I didn't feel smart enough to be here. Somehow, I must have tricked someone or slipped through the system. Why would a kid with a 2.3 high school GPA and 2.8 college GPA, who barely passed basic math his senior year, be accepted at such a good school (and even though PTS students are quick to downplay the school by reminding people that it's not Princeton University, it is a good school)?

Somehow I'd slipped in ...but I wasn't going to argue. The only problem was that now I had to actually perform. I had to convince people that I wasn't a fraud. Around here, we call this "imposter syndrome" ...and it's an epidemic.

I did whatever I could do to sound smart, or at least not to sound stupid. Sometimes I even fell for the temptation to try to make other people feel stupid. This is what makes Christian community so very difficult in seminary, especially in such a good seminary; perhaps even more difficult than in the church. We all have imposter syndrome. Or at least enough of us have it to make thing hard on ourselves.

I did discover, at some point, that I wasn't alone. And when I discovered that I wasn't the only person who felt like a fraud, I realized, however briefly, that I did belong.

I say briefly because now, in the beginning of my fourth and final year of seminary, as I prepare my application for Ph.D. program(s), it's all come rushing back. Why am I pretending that I should be considered for candidacy for the highest academic degree in my field? Why am I expecting to slip through the system yet again?

I am coming off of perhaps my most difficult summer in the last decade (if not my whole life). Working three jobs including a pastoral ministry position, finishing an article I had no business writing, studying for and taking the GRE (a comprehensive exam used to evaluate graduate applicants across all sorts of academic disciplines), and giving what little I had left to be a good father and husband (of course I know this is wrong and my family should come first...you don't need to lecture me, I can do that myself), I put my spirit through more than it should've had to bear. My insecurities are screaming as I enter one more semester.

I say all this with some hesitation. Should I be confessing so much? Am I being too hard on myself? Perhaps I am. I do, in fact, feel a sense of calling. I did, from the beginning, feel called by God to the place where I am. And I feel called by God to pursue the path that I am pursuing. It certainly isn't just about trying to measure up. But I fear that if I do not consider the deepest confession, if I do not release even this to the will of God, I will carry the burden with me into the semester and squander the blessing of this place--the blessing of truly doing what I love to do and participating in the calling to which I have been invited.

Confession is how we offer ourselves to God. This is why confession is essential to worship.

And that's what I am here to do. Not to study, not to get good grades, not to impress anyone, not even to change the world. I am here to worship God. I am here, not out of some necessity. I am invited to be here and do this for joy. I am here to enjoy God. The only fraud is the one who does theology for any other reason than the glorification and enjoyment of God. And this makes us all frauds--a community of imposters--made right and accepted only through the grace of God and not according to our own merit.

So my prayer this semester is that God would be worshiped in my life. My prayer is that all of this--the articles, the grades, the test scores, the recommendation letters--may be counted as loss for the sake of Jesus Christ.

I am offering this year--with every page I read or write--to God. And I'm coming back to what I have been invited here to do.