Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tripp's Words of Wisdom: Six Rules on How to Use Social Media Things and Still Have a Life

1) You’re on twitter, facebook, whatever, you use, pick one of them, where people actually connect to you. Pick a network, make yourself available, connect to people in it.
a) Listening, finding something with an engaging passion. Don’t reply to everything of facebook, every tweet, every blog comment. One place where you are going to look at what they do and get a response from you.
b) Okay, I do that already. Facebook will always get a reply.
c) Or you can solicit e-mails, to avoid fights.
d) You make a way to have a conversation, you pick one. Facebook, comments, it unravels. If they are in your congregation, do it everywhere.
2) Pick one conversation and permeate it.
a. Phil, technically he could blog and dialogue on any of those issues. Something you know everything about. When you know questions, culture. You want them to come to you. (Be an expert). Pick one idea and permeate that conversation. If someone cares at all about that idea, they will come find you.
3) Subscribing to lots of blogs is a good idea – here’s how to do it with efficiency. I subscribe to 300 blogs on my RSS feeder. 5-10, I look at every time that they have something come up? They’re status – awesome, I want to know what they think. Find the 5-10 that are in the conversation you’re in, care about what you say, and regularly engage in those 5-10. Dialogue with them, connect with the people you always read. Know that the other ones are going along and find a connection. Create a place they become investment, they matter because they are attracted to you. Why, and who really thinks you’re interesting. Have that group you’ll always be in conversation with.
4) Consistancy and regularity. Like regularity in the number of posts, the quality and the topics.
a. Regular debate on what that means. My life is interesting, so I’ll just tell you what I feel like. Cool if people who go to your church and your grandma read it. Don’t blog on your new sweater, unless you’re just interested in writing it, and you can make sweater purchasing interesting. I totally disagree with this. Theme, quality and consistency.
5) Get an RSS feed and scan it, read the titles. Good bloggers know that they need to have good titles. Scan, look at the titles, and decide whether you want to click on it. Another trick. Google reads blogs to you. While you’re scanning blogs, it’s reading you a previous one. Tweets of conent, schedule once.
Comment on a blog post, it wins fidelity more than anything else. Retweet think you like the title, posting a comment means that you’ve read it. It’s converting yourself to someone’s post and they will like you.

What my Buffy the Vampire Slayer T-Shirt Tells me about Jesus.

Tribes, are our visible narratives of self-identity by association with a group. It’s who we want the world to see who we are. According Seth Godin a Tribe is an organic event. Not just something being in community is something that we as humans are evolutionarily geared to be, but that a gathering of has an individual choose to associate with and through that association they give me identity.

As I was reading through Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us, I couldn’t help but think about my own examples of tribe membership. I often describe myself as a nerd, which other nerds get and causes non-nerds to worry for my self-esteem.
Nerd-dom has long been an important subculture, which yes is highly influenced by science fiction and comic books, but really is about:
· imagination,
· utopian community, and a
· hopeful future.

Although the stereotype of the nerd may be the person who hides behind her computer nerds have long been about forming community IRL. While there is no secret handshake, there are certainly ways to measure “nerd cred.” For example, when meeting a new nerd, I might mention that I follow Neil Gaiman on twitter, I can tell you the name of the commanding officers for each Star Trek series, and have been reading megatokyo since comic 83. Yet nothing, absolutely nothing, can beat the establishment of nerd cred through the almighty t-shirt.

T-shirts are a visible way to align myself with a particular tribe. In the nerd world it’s not so much a Sharks vs. Jets situation, a person in a Superman t-shirt would not automatically hate a person wearing a Spider-Man shirt, as much as it is a method of sorting. For example, when I wear my Buffy the Vampire Slayer T-shirt, I expect to get into conversations about why Fox has no understanding of tribe loyalty and why producing video content for the internet is the way of entertainment’s future; I would not expect to have conversations about why Asimov is better than Heinlein or Girls in Refrigerators. In the age of the internet, a t-shirt has also become a way of supporting an artist whose work you particularly enjoy. There are webcomic artists who are able to completely support themselves and their family on t-shirt sales alone. T-Shirts are about preference, declaring knowledge, and ultimately about willingness to support creative thinkers, the glue to our community.

The Lessons from the Obama Tribe

T-shirt declarations are not just from one branch of nerdyness. One of my friends bought a great deal of “Obama chic” during the 2008 campaign and he was even more thrilled when his conservative step-mother bought him an Obama shirt with the declaration “Hope” across it for his birthday. For him, wearing the t-shirt, putting the campaign card in his window, and playing Obama’s key campaign speeches for any roommate walking down the hall. Obama was the leader of a tribe of people, because he was able to inspire people into thinking about how they related to a politician and politics differently.

Godin understands leaders in a different light than how we usually understand leaders to work. First of all Godin understands WORK differently. The Tribe understanding of occupation is the simple idea that if you love what you do for a living, you’ll be a much more interesting individual. Oh sure you’ll be happier doing work that you love, but you’ll also be a credit to your society because your energy and creativity will be more productive and world-changing. Leaders are people who are able to nurture curiosity in a way that it becomes productive to society. They are able to inspire people to take a leap from doing work to ensure a paycheck and risking to fall in love with work that might not pay as much, but is ultimately more rewarding for everyone around them. Most importantly leaders are able to guide individual creativity and channel it into fulfilling a need or goal for the whole tribe or the rest of society.

Obama was this type of leader for my friend. He took off a semester from school to do what I teasingly called “Work for Obama.” Even though he was set by the Obama administration to God-knows-where, and worked more than 100 hours a week, and even though he had to sacrifice what was familiar and time with those he loved, he was happy. He leads campaigns now. He has been inspired, by one leader to become a leader.

Buffy T-Shirt + Jesus = Rebranding Christianity

The third key component to being a tribe is marketing. Now being my generally anti-consumerist self, I have to admit that this was the idea that was the hardest for me to swallow. Godin declares:
Marketing changed the idea of stability. It’s human nature – we still assume the world is stable… and we’re wrong. We’re wrong because the dynamics of marketing and storytelling and the incessant drumbeat of advertising have taught us to be restless in the face of stability. And the Internet just amplifies this lesson.
I worry about this part of our culture. If it’s not new, it’s disposable. And if it’s disposable, we’ll throw it out. Forever 21 is a perfect example of this – in as little as six weeks runway fashion can now be worn by everyone with a spare twenty dollars. And in about three months, it can be thrown away. I fret about my car’s gasoline that seems to disappear, but really creates trash (carbon dioxide, smog) that we don’t or won’t see. Our desire for the new, the pleasure that derives from these goods, doesn’t entirely give us a chance to fully come to terms with how to deconstruct or recycle the old.

Then I began to think, what is marketing of the new is just another way to explain openness to creativity? What if being in a tribe not just about association with like-minded people, but an excitement about what these people will bring to the table next?

To go back to my Buffy t-shirt, I wear that with pride, because I like to be a part of a group that is familiar with Joss Whedon’s work. Eventually, I will watch whatever Joss Whedon writes. Yes, even the really gross, scary horror stuff (and not just because @gravelittleloli will make me), but because I’m always interested in the stories that Joss tells. There is something about his archetypes of strong, yet vulnerable, yet loving women intrigue me and his witty dialogue always makes me laugh. Even though I get annoyed at the fact that he enjoys creating romantic tension just for the sheer joy of murdering them, I still get pulled in each time. I’m curious about what Joss has to say next, and so I keep coming back. I belong to this tribe, I advertise that I belong to this tribe, because I am curious about what will come next and I want to be a part of that discussion.

Which brings me of all places to Christianity. You see, I think Jesus was a Leader in a tribal sense. There seemed to be a level of inspiration and guidance of creativity that was embodied in Jesus that is astonishing. There is also a level of inspiration and hope that drew people in. I bet that people following Jesus were a hundred thousand times more eager to hear his next sermon than I am to see a sequel to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-long Blog.

Today though, I’m not sure that the church has that ability to be encapsulated by a t-shirt. I don’t think I could wear a Methodist T-shirt that declares “I write John Wesley Fanfiction” and expect to have random conversations about grace and social justice at a Christian convention. My Christianity has lost its ability to be conveyed in t-shirt form. We’ve lost our ability to market – to be able to be creative and exciting in a publically expressible form of loyalty. Yet what I find significant in nerdyness, is in fact, what I also find available in Christianity. Imagination, Utopian community, and creativity are all there in Christianity, why can't I express that easily?

I think for Methodists, mainline protestants, or progressive Christians, our significant landfill has finally caught up to us. We can’t just dispose of our old ideas, because our old ideas are so prominent in everyone else’s minds, that they stuck when we try to explain the new. We need to be able to explain our tribe better, we need to make it

So, Godin’s challenge is not just to identify tribes or to understand how they work, but is a call to action about the ways in which we can lead them. He thinks that each and every single one of us has the potential to be a leader. I think my call as a future Christian leader of a progressive, mainline church is not to be to see new tribes and create them, but instead to understand what makes Christianity as awesome as being a nerd, and go from there.

[Grammar edit and sentence tightening occurred. And I added tags. RM]

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Confession, Eccumenicism and Proximity

I have a confession. Talking to other Christians about faith, can at times, is more stressful than talking to other people from different religions. Perhaps it is because I have more at stakes – since the conservative, evangelical, substitution-atonement, Biblical literalist Christians will affect how my progressive, pluralist, liberation theology, historical-critical definition of Christianity at the very least for making the word Christian unintelligible. Or perhaps the reason discussion among Christians is so uncomfortable, is because while other faiths are strictly off limits to proselytize to, convincing other Christians of the truth of progressive Christianity seems to be allowed. At the heart of these conflicts and discomfort is the idea that I am right, and that when other people understand/believe/practice Christianity differently, they are wrong.

John Caputo, in What Would Jesus Deconstruct talks about “proximity.” It is understanding:
that the other person is a relation ‘without relation’ in a the sense that the other person is constituted by an interiority or an interior secret that we can never access, a secret inner self that we can never really reach or know. (Only God knows what is in the heart of each of us.)
While, another is deeply important for who we are and how we understand ourselves, our ability to every fully and completely understand the other is imperfect. While we can be close to other individuals, what goes on in the heart’s of another can never be fully communicated, just as what we say can never be fully understood.

Yet for Caputo, this is not a hardship, but a blessing. He explains that:
The relation with the other person is therefore a journey we never complete, where that incompleteness is not imperfection, but testimony to the perfect excess of the other, it is not a loss, but a source of endless novelty and discovery.
Knowing the other with absolute certainty would be boring, because you would be able to predict everything this other person does. It would not lead to any change for either of you, because there would be nothing that would challenge you enough to change. It’s like the computer at the end of War Games, running through each variable possibility for Thermonuclear War, and seeing that there are no winnable outcomes, and so the computer does nothing. Not seeing the future, not knowing completely what the other person will do gives that person the chance to surprise you, to engage you, and to help you grow.

This unknowingness is an invitation for engaging with that person and traveling on a path of relationship together. In exchange for understanding the person completely, we are given the opportunity to be affected by the other. Our relationship need not be a quick moment of perfectly boring understanding, but a life-long path of wonder and discovery.

While this works wonderfully for individuals, this creates problems for me when I start thinking of those individuals in terms of their Christian context, because it challenges me to change my understanding of how Christianity works for the other. You see, I think that I already know precisely how Christianity works and functions for a fundamentalist, and therefore I see their future in a blink of an eye and am bored (or frightened) by it. Yet this is not real knowledge, because I cannot fully understand what a fundamentalist thinks anymore than I can fully understand what a progressive Christian thinks (although I assume I know that too). I have closed off my own potential to engage that person because of my own false conviction that I know their heart. Through this, I refuse to let the other Christian teach me.

For Caputo, this journeying with another person is an act of risk. For me, there is a great deal of potential for being hurt by engaging with this other Christian voice, including the perception that my call is not to ordained ministry, because women cannot have authority over men. I know that this risk is relatively minor on the scale of how much people can hurt each other. Yet this journey is not just about risk, but also about love. The reason we are vulnerable to the risk, is because we do this with love. The reason that we are vulnerable to change, is because of how our love causes us to commit to that other person, both how we perceive them now and what they will grow to be, and how what they do to surprise us, will change us.

In proximity, what is “right” and “wrong” becomes less important. I stop claiming that I know what is “right” about Christianity, in order to learn about beauty, truth, and hope from the Christian Other. Ecumenicism then is not about uncomfortable, awkward moments when people start asking who’s allowed to bless and take communion/Eucharist/the sacrament, but instead a conversation about why remembering that in the past is important for Christians now. While I will never be able to fully understand what goes on in an evangelical’s mind, I will be able to recognize their journey as important to my own Christian path. It’s only when we stop assuming what is “right” about Christianity, but listen to the novelty from the pluralities of Christianities that Ecumenicism becomes possible.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How we say it.

Talking to someone not only is about the words we say, but also the way we say it. Conversations hinge on the body language someone exhibits. If someone crosses their arms, the conversation can go from friendly to tense in a flicker of an eye. When we’re tense, what we say in a conversation changes completely.

Communication technology is the same way. What technology we use, shapes what we say. Shane Hipps notes in Flickering Pixels:
Marshall McLuhan, the oracle of the electronic age, reveals the error of this assumption when he says that ‘the medium is the message.’ If the first truth is that our methods change, the message automatically changes along with them. You can’t change methods without changing your message – they’re inseparable.” (25)
The medium by which I communicate with my grandmother changes everything. I send her short e-mails with forty words and usually a silly picture attached; Grandma sends me cards in the mail with a silly news story clipped from the paper. Neither of us writes back. Our phone conversations are longer, we banter, and we discuss everything from family history to theology and politics. These are the same two people, yet what we say changes completely by the mediums we use to communicate with. It is fortunate that this 90 year old grandmother and this 24 year old grandchild have the telephone, otherwise we’d never be able to meet in the middle and hear what the other person has to say. Our ability to communicate vastly improves with finding a technology that works for both of us.

In theology terms, Hipps explains that the medium that we use to talk about God changes the ways in which we communicate about God. The way that the printing press changed Christianity was not only in terms of reading the Bible, but also in the ways that we organized our congregations. He points out pews inside churches, which line people up like letters on a page, are not found in medieval churches (47). The printing press changed everything for Christianity. We changed our ways of thinking about and constructing Christianity because of technology.

He also suggests that the printing press changed the way we understood theology. A sentence is a logical, linear string of characters to produce a whole thought. Therefore, Hipps sees those of us who have been trained in reading and writing think in these logical linear ways. In Hipps understanding, theology became a linear, logical understanding that valued progressive, factual thought over feelings. How we understood God and talked about God, changed because of this technology.

Yet, like the example of communication with my grandmother, communication between God and humanity goes both ways. Hipps describes Flickering Pixels as both the way we communicate about God, and the way that God reaches out to us: “It’s about the way God communicates with us and the way we communicate God to the world” (13-14). God uses different mediums to communicate with humanity. At first it was the temple in Jerusalem, later God used Jesus. Using the Logos passage in John 1, Hipps points to the ways in which the message and the medium were embodied in the same person. Through Jesus, the ideas and words of God, become perfectly communicable. Interestingly, a human, is the ultimate communication technology for God.

Yet some parts of what is communicated remain the same; some parts of each new communication technology build from another communication technology. So when the Jesus medium talks about love, Jesus is using the same message from previous technologies, for example the Prophet Isaiah communication model. My grandmother asks about my eating habits and exercise routine or tells me that she loves me whether it is through phone or card. So while communication mediums do change, some parts of the message, like God loves, doesn’t change.

Unfortunately, there is also the problem of the fourth dimension of technology. This is the fact that technology can sometimes trap us in unexpected ways. Hipps calls this the “underside” of technology. For instance, city walls while providing protection during a siege could also be a trap during the time of a city fire; video surveillance cameras provide identification of those who commit a crime, but also invade the privacy of people (Hipps, 37). The response to the God Communicating Technology also can have flaws that get brought forward with each new technological advantage. Despite God’s use of many different people to communicate, God’s message, that gets regularly forgotten. Deborah, was excluded from the list of Judges in Bible concordances for centuries; Mary Magdalene was excluded from Paul’s list of people who witnessed the risen Christ. Even though well intentioned people do use this medium to talk about God, they in fact sometimes bring in the underside of technology as well.

How we say what we say matters. Not only does how we say it matter, it changes what we say too. So, if a Theology after Google, is a theology that takes rapid technological changes into account, then it also needs to understand the ways in which talk about God will change what we say about God. If we are to take this theology seriously, we need to be extra observant of what precisely it is we are pulling forward from past mediums, looking for both the potential beauty from past mediums, and be aware of the past mistakes.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Did talking about the sermon make you happy?

According to a recent New York Times article, a study suggested that those who regularly took part in deep, thoughtful, and existential conversations were, by both internal and external observation, happier.

Considering that I am thinking a lot about church, the internet, and the church and internet, this article provides an interesting challenge. Do we in fact have these kinds of deeply connecting conversations on the internet? Does the internet give us the opportunity to meet more people that we can have these kinds of conversations? Does its openness make people hesitant and uneasy with “putting themselves out there” and being in these kinds of deep conversation for the whole world to see?

And then the second question became, do we have these conversations in the church? Does coffee hour, bible study, or the sermon give us not only a sense of community, but a place of illuminating conversations where we can enter into meaningful theological discussions that leave each other enlightened and enriched? At the heart of Christianity are stories about God and Jesus and the ways in which meaning erupted into the world. Does our church give us the opportunity to meet people that we can have these kinds of deep, meaningful eruptions and the language with which to be able to talk about them? Does the church provide safe-places to be able to enter into these kinds of conversations?

For me, deep conversations are about finding meaning with another person. They are important, blessed events. Therefore it is a challenge to both the church medium and the internet medium that in order to provide happiness, they need to provide ways for people to dive into deep, careful, thoughtful conversation. And it is a challenge to suggest that we need to think of new radical ways that these mediums can be happiness-inducing by supporting voices and making opportunity for difficult, but ultimately meaningful conversations.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sexuality 2.0: A Challenge

First of all this post is not just about homosexuality, although we do touch upon that some. In fact, it seems that the “question of homosexuality and the church” is perhaps even a distraction away from the heart of the matter: Christians don’t know how to talk about any kind of sexuality.

But before we can talk about sexuality, we need to talk about bodies. And bodies are a point of complication for Christians. We divide our bodies from our spirit. Our bodies are flawed, needing to be conquered by the spirit, needing to be overcome by a will stronger than what we say. Christians privilege the will, the mind, and reason over our bodies. It’s an unequal dualism.
Everyone has a body, but not every body is created equal. Some bodies are reduced to what we simply see; some bodies are not even visible at all:
The Latina body is a particular body that is invisible, even when radicalized and sexualized, it’s invisible.
With these bodies, both visible and invisible, we are told how we fit into our society.
These actions are even more prefabricated when discussing sexuality. We have heteronormative, monogamous, and married sexuality. Yet even this solid absolutely model gets frayed at the edges, frayed by practice.

So perhaps a Sexuality After Google, is a sexuality 2.0. It is something that changes the way that we relate and explore to our bodies.

Sexuality 1.0

Sexuality 2.0




Gender Queer



Prefabricated Narratives for Sexuality

Constructed Narratives



Instead of understanding sexuality as a stable identity (I am gay, I am straight), then perhaps we can understand sexuality as a fluid, creative identification. Our identity is not told to us, but something we can borrow from, perform, and narrate. Our sexuality is not a permanent category to fit into, but instead part of our stories from which change, grow and elaborate over time.
Then perhaps if we understand sexuality this way, we won’t be Christians that “Need the gays (gaze)” We won’t be a church that uses homosexuality as a litmus test, but instead allow us to have a conversation about sexuality ALL sexual identifications can discuss this beautiful, ambiguous, and powerful experience.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Saints and Sages, not Religious Professionals"

Brian McLaren skyped in to our class last week to talk about his new book "A New Kind of Christianity" (and which we all reviewed various chapters, including my post here.) At the end of the chat, our TA asked him if he Brian would like to offer us any advice.

He told us "The world is looking for saints and sages, not religious professionals."

And then he followed that up with this story, which I will quickly paraphrase to the best of my ability:

McLaren is good friends with his next door neighbor and their relationship has grown and blossomed so that he became close to his neighbor's family as well as his neighbor. His next door neighbor’s father grew ill and was dying and the neighbor asked McLaren to come visit his father in the hospital. One day as McLaren was walking to his car, he just got a strong urge to go see his neighbor’s father at the hospital. He sat there in the hospital praying and holding the father's hand. He left to go to the parking lot and before he made it to the car, his neighbor called. The neighbor’s father had passed away.

The world is looking for saints and sages and not religious professionals.

And I knew in an instant that YES! I wanted to do this. His story reminded me of countless other stories of mine, which, while not as dramatic, were places that I felt like I was doing ministry. These were not United Methodists, but still people who needed love. And I loved doing it. I love being with these people. As I heard that story, visions of how I could keep doing that, just that and be fulfilled, happy and joyful for the rest of my life.

Of course just as soon as these grand visions flashed through my mind, I immediately ran into a stop sign. "But how would I eat?" I asked myself. I don't want or need a paycheck for fancy things, in fact I am quite comfortable with the fact that my chosen profession won't lead to a lot of extraneous bonuses, but I rather like the idea of having a roof over my head, food on the table, and hot water for a shower. These visions of ministry --- I'm not sure if they would ever translate into these three essentials for my life.

I think that this internal conflict may be a microcosmic example of the macrocosmic problem with the mainline churches of today. I think we really, really want to be out there and being the holy people the world is looking for, but are worried about what we think are the essentials. We do want to do this, but we also want a church to meet, to pay our pastors, and Bibles in the pews.

So this is what I'm sitting with. How do we have an ecclesiology and an imagination that allows us to be both? Is it possible? I dearly wish and hope so.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

When Jesus Said Love Your Neighbor He Meant Pagans, Buddhists, and Athiests Too: Brian McLaren and Pluralism

Pluralism is the idea of “Can’t we just all get along?” This question for Christians becomes especially acute when dealing with religious pluralism, because it is necessary to respect and understand other traditions. Christians have seriously screwed this up in the past; our relationship to the religious other has often been one of violence, destruction and outright murder. We need to create new ways of relating to other people, and we need to figure this out quickly. In my experience it is this form of intolerance that causes some of the worst backlash against Christians.

To start off with, there are two models that people have basically proposed for why and how to be pluralistic:

The Simpsons Model

The American religious landscape has changed greatly. No longer is it safe to assume that each person that we meet is Mainline Protestant Christian, but instead it is a very real possibility that our neighbors, our teachers, or our coworkers follow a much different spiritual path than our own. Pluralism, that ability to know and respect other traditions, becomes a necessary technique for survival as a good citizen in the United States. Diana Eck wrote the seminal book, Pluralism in America, about just this topic. But if you want a more entertaining model to see how pluralism works in the United States today look no further than the television show The Simpsons. One of the major themes of the show is how religious differences can lead to conflict and how eventually understanding leads to a stronger community. Springfield is a typical American town and pluralism has become a very typical American question.

The Apocalyptic Model

There is another urgent model for the necessity of pluralism. Many point to the nuclear age that we live in as justification enough for needing to understand each other. The potential for violence and the ability to destroy all human life is at humanity’s fingertips. Preventing total destruction is a relatively new responsibility for mankind. Since religion has become a major justification for violence, people tend to get nervous over religious conflict.

This is the approach that Brian McLaren starts with. He says:
We all woke up again today in a world where Christians, Muslims, and Jews (along with adherents of many other religions) are either killing one another or planning new ways to kill one another, and many believe that in doing so they are obeying and even pleasing and honoring God.

McLaren shows here how religion sometimes can be used to justify this killing. This model for pluralism does not set out so much how we should relate to each other, but instead emphasizes why we need to figure this out. And we had better do it fast.

McLaren's Model

However, the brilliance of McLaren’s approach to pluralism is that while he frames the necessity for understanding each other in the global sense, he approaches the problem on a deeply personal level. He doesn’t map out responses for Christianity on at a state or international level, but instead focuses on three steps any individual Christian can take to becoming more Pluralistic:

1) Repent of crimes done in the name of Christianity
2) Deprogram knee-jerk, trained responses to the idea of accepting other traditions.
3) Find a new, Christian model for dealing with the Other.

Repentance: Educate Yourself
To repent, you need to educate yourself. Christians have forgotten our history of encountering other religions, and by encounter I mean for the most part abusing, enslaving, or murdering those of other traditions. However, those we have harmed in the past do remember this history. “They remember,” McLaren says repeatedly. To be able to enter into religious dialogue, we need to be aware of this history of violence so that we can apologize for it and overcome it.

Deprogram: John 14:6 doesn’t mean what you think it means
One of the struggles Christians have with pluralism is the idea of superiority in both terms of having the most evolved spiritual tradition and having an afterlife paradise for just us Christians. McLaren tackles John 14:6, the verse that is often used as Jesus reserving God just for those who follow in Jesus's footsteps. Instead of looking at this verse as a worldwide declaration for Christian exclusivism, McLaren does a thoughtful exegesis of the verse IN CONTEXT with the rest of the passage. Instead McLaren points to how this is a message of comfort and hope to his disciples, NOT a prescription for kicking everyone else out of heaven.

McLaren suggests that the reason that we think of this verse when asked about pluralism is because we have adopted an “us/them” model from the Greco-Roman culture. This us/them then is not a genuine part of Christianity, but instead an unfortunate cultural artifact from a dominant group wanting to maintain their secure place at the top of society despite adopting this radical new spiritual movement. Therefore being good Christians does not require this exclusivist outlook on other traditions, but instead could actively encourage ways to love our neighbor including their religious outlook.

New Model: Love One Another.
McLaren stresses that the new model also needs to be rooted in Christian choices, images and perfection. He explains:

[Christians] also feel uncomfortable with the win-lose, “it’s either us or them’ mind-set they have inherited, because they know this mind-set too easily descends into prejudice, dehumanization, and violence toward the other. But they also feel uncomfortable with the “Whatever you believe is fine, as long as you’re sincere” approach. Just as the former fuels fear resentment, and even hatred toward “them,” the latter undermines commitment and identity among “us.” I share this ambivalence, because I think both dangers are real.
Relativism, the reduction of everything to equally the same, creates a problem for Christians who intend to be a pluralist. Pluralists need to walk a fine line between respecting other traditions and yet still finding value rooted and caused by our own particular spiritual path.
McLaren’s solution to this problem is to not be a relativist, but instead be a Christian Pluralist. He points to several scripture passages, including Paul insisting that God treats all equally (Romans 5:12-21), the tradition of the religious outsider doing God's will in the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jesus stating "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another" (John 13:34). These examples provides a model for the way we can interact with the religious other and do so within a framework compatible with Christian teachings. Christian love of the neighbor really can expand to include the whole world.

Critique of McLaren’s Model
The problem with this model for pluralism is that McLaren tends to use religious groups interchangeably. This subtly recreates the us/them dynamic that he was trying so hard to eliminate. Although I recognize that McLaren is focusing on the way that Christians should act with the religious other, it still strikes me as deeply problematic to think that Hindus and Atheists and Jews could be interchangeable. Not only do Christians need to change our own behavior, we also need to understand the distinctions between these very diverse and separate groups. Although I recognize that it is incredibly difficult to do that in this small of a chapter, undoing the us/them distinctions really does need to start with breaking it down even when these conversations are most cramped.

McLaren suggestions do give us a model of behavior that will start good conversations with the religious other. How those conversations will progress will not be the same, because what is of utmost concern to an atheist will not be the same thing that drives a Jew to keep kosher. However, acting out in deep neighborly love will lead to rich discussions. Christians need to start and take part in these dialogues, especially if we are going to be good neighbors and effective world leaders. McLaren’s model teaches us as Christians how to listen and that will put us in a very strong starting place for how to find our voice in a world that needs Pluralism and a thoughtful Christianity.

(This post is a classroom wide series of posts about Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Christian debates an Atheist – can any good come from this?

My Theology after Google professor is debating Daniel Dennet, one of the four “New Atheists.” Clayton threw the glove down via YouTube, showing that new technology can still be used for old-fashioned challenges. Here is the challenge:

I am rather uncomfortable with this idea. Not because I think that atheists are terrifying or unreasonable, quite the opposite in fact. In my experience the many atheists I know have come to their conclusions from a thoughtful and patient examination of their soul (inner world if you prefer) and have chosen a system of beliefs that give them life and meaning. This journey is not unlike my path towards relevancy and hope inside my Christian tradition. We both have worked pretty hard at this; I respect and honor their path, just as my non-theist friends have respected and honored mine.

Like most belief systems, even systems of non-belief, there tends to be some obnoxious loudmouths that claim to speak for the whole movement. The Dawkins and Hitchens of the world tend to be as much fundamentalists as Pat Robertson because they claim the absolute truth and most of the media’s attention. This should certainly be splashy.

And so I worry that this debate will not bring about respect, but just louder yelling at each other. Professor Clayton says “let’s talk out of our common ground,” yet, I’m not sure that a “Debate” is even the right structure for bringing about a way to find that common ground. In my mind’s eye, I see two men at a podium waving scriptures (be it the Bible, Whitehead, or Darwin) and declaring this to be a fundamental truth, there can be no other! I know that this is probably not the case -- they will be sitting down in chairs, sipping tea, and creatively, wittily calling each other foolish.

Of course I’m going to watch this. Like a moth drawn to flame, humans are drawn to controversy, and I’m no exception. And yet I’m dearly hoping for something absolutely boring. I want Clayton to say: “Yep, I’m totally an atheist if all you define God as is an old white guy with a beard” and Dennet to say: “Yep, I’m totally theistic if God is the idea that humans can hope and love.” So I am watching this with all the expectations of a car going into the wall, but really hoping instead that it turns out to be a boring 500 laps around a track.

All right, my non-theist friends, my theist friends, my pluralist friends, my “we’ll never get along” friends, my somewhere in between friends, what do you think? Is this kind of debate a good idea? Or how would you go about starting a dialogue between atheists and theists in such a way that would uphold the positive aspects of both?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

iPhone Brain

One day I forgot to close the cap on my water bottle as I put it into my purse. Within moments everything was drenched to the core, including, oh horror of horrors, my iPhone. Quickly realizing I had achieved the pink line of warranty-voiding doom, I scoured the internet searching for a way to bring my phone back from the white screen of death. After submerging my phone in rice for two tense days, hoping that this miracle cure would work, I wrestled with the idea of going without a smart phone. Giving up that smart phone, even though I had only had it a mere six months, would have felt like giving up an arm.

In his excellent and accessible explanation of Marshal McLuhan, Callid Keefe-Perry states “technology is the extension of the human senses.” For example, a radio can extend the sense of human hearing, because it lets us hear things from a different moment or farther distance than our present time and place. The sense that the internet extends is memory. Like language and writing before it, electronic information access is expanding my universe beyond my own experience and lets me encounter the experience of the other. The iPhone, for all intents and purposes had become my memory. Yes, this memory is slower and more unorganized than my own brain, but it is much more precise and can extend beyond my own first-hand knowledge of the world. I am now part of a collective of minds all contributing thoughts, facts, impressions that I can access with this phone at any moment. As Angelina points out, my iPhone brain found me a way home even though I was on roads that I had never been before because of its GPS and mapping instructions let me tap into that collective knowledge of place. Giving up the iPhone, giving up the smart phone technology, would be like giving up a large chunk of my memory.

And yet, I turn off my phone whenever I enter a time of meeting or worship. This has become an important part of the entering into worship ritual for me – get a bulletin, give out hugs, sit with my pewmates, take a deep breath, and turn off the cell phone. Although I still feel that heart-palpitation of vulnerability from letting it go, I realize that this centers me more than all the other rituals combined. I am cutting off that memory, that extra-sensory technology, when I enter a time and place to connect with the Holy. While I know many who have added smart phone technology to their worshiping experience and tweet along to sermons, read Bible verses, or use it as a stand-in candle, I know in myself that the reason I turn it off is because I disengage from that instantaneous precision and connection to all humanity for just a moment. Perhaps, this is a new equivalent of closing eyes and bowing heads for prayers; that this is my way of shutting out the rest of the world and allowing myself to reach for that one on one encounter with God. Technology is extending the human senses, and sometimes, to be in the moment, I feel that deep need to give it up.

For more about McLuhan's description of technology or to get a better handle on what this whole Theology after Google class is talking about, here is Callid Keefe-Perry's video:

Monday, February 8, 2010

Is the United Methodist Church Macy’s or eBay?

“Small is the new big. Mind you, big is still big… Big Box stores such as Home Depot continue to drive mom-and-pop hardware shops out of business. Even small churches are being turned to condos thanks to the rise of megachurches.” (Jarvis, pg. 55)

I bet that the small churches that are turning into condos are members of the mainline denominations. Yet, as of 2000, there are roughly 6.5 million United Methodists across the United States and most of those members are scattered into small churches. On the other hand, a non-denominational megachurch may well have 8,000 people attending that one church. Some megachurches, such as Mars Hill churches in the Seattle area have started many satellite churches throughout the area (one wants to ask if this is the start of a new denomination?), yet that still is only a coalition of 30,000 people connected to each other instead of the millions of United Methodists.

Jarvis suggests that eBay’s 2007 sales figures of $59.4 million is an example of “small,” because each of those sales figures originate from individual sellers. (The corporation that owns Macy’s sold less than half of that the same year.) Yet an individual seller would not have had the same market opportunities nor would a buyer would have the same guarantee of safety, had not they made their transaction through eBay. Sure, this is an example of a “small is the new big,” because the individual generates the product and the sales, but it is still an example of how being big gives you advantages.

To me this suggests that the importance of the rule “Small is the New Big” is as much a matter of perception as it is numerical reality. Big is old fashioned, slow to change, and disempowering to the individual. Yet, being physically big is good, as long you feel small. Here, small is a measure of how much an individual is empowered to make their own goods and services readily available to others and profit from that networking. This is why not all bigs are created equal – and I would happen to agree. The internet age does privilege those gigantic connections, such as eBay, that empowers and connects.

Yet, right now, the mainline denominations resemble Macy’s more than eBay. Yes, we do have an enormous amount of sales, but how much does this feel like prepackaged goods? How much does the individual feel like they can offer their own goods and services into this connection and benefit from using the denomination as a resource? Do we feel big: monolithic and slow to change, despite our small churches; or do we feel small: letting individuals feel like they are empowered to offer their own personalities and services because of that connection? Perhaps the reason that megachurches have been so successful is the ability for an individual to feel like they have access and attention within this large structure; perhaps the megachurches just don’t feel that big.

The United Methodist Church is both small and big. I think the lesson that I’m going to learn from this is to examine size not so much in terms of numbers, but in terms of perceptions. It doesn’t matter how big we are, it matters how small we feel.