Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ecclesiology and Ethnography: A Response

At the recent meeting of the American Academy of Religion I had the pleasure of participating in a session on ecclesiology and ethnography, engaging some of the contributors to an excellent new book edited by Pete Ward: Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Eerdmans, 2012).  This has since been complemented by a subsequent volumed edited by Christian Scharen: Explorations in Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Eerdmans, 2012) in which (full disclosure) my friend Mark Mulder and I have a co-authored chapter, "Understanding Religion Takes Practice: Anti-Urban Bias, Geographical Habits, and Theological Influences."

The AAR session included presentations from John Swinton, Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Luke Bretherton, and Elizabeth Phillips, all drawing on their chapters in the book.  Here I reproduce the notes of my response as a way of highlighting this new interdisciplinary conversation and, I hope, as a way of extending and expanding it.


Ecclesiology and Ethnography: A Response

John Swinton’s wonderful chapter in this book names a question I’ve heard often.  When, in different contexts, I used to explicate the social imaginary implicit in Pentecostal worship and spiritual practice, inevitably someone from the audience would ask: “Just where can I find a Pentecostal church like you describe?”  After several occasions with no reply, I finally came up with a stock answer: “It’s in Amos Yong’s head!”  Then I would do some hand-waving about my description being “aspirational” and try to move on.  (This will give you some idea of just why I had to leave the Assemblies of God.) 
            It wasn’t until I read Chris Scharen’s SJT article on “ecclesiology asethnography” that I was able to articulate just what was wrong here and began to turn the corner in my thinking about ecclesiology.  So I am profoundly grateful for this volume that is the occasion for our discussion today because I think, like our presenters, it does a fantastic job of articulating a big-tent approach to this emerging conversation between ecclesiology and ethnography.
            And I should admit that I came to the book with some skepticism.  To be perfectly honest, I was expecting a lot more Paul Tillich and Don Browning, if you know what I mean.  That is, I was expecting a “correlational” approach that would offer “neutral” checks and balances to the “biased” claims of theology, with the social sciences “explaining” what worshipers were doing in “objective” categories.  But as you’ve just heard, the conversation is much more nuanced than that.  Given the impossibility of actually “responding” to our panelists in this time, permit me to just extend this conversation by engaging a few themes that have emerged.

1. Ethnography and liturgical priority

I loved Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s critique of “didacticism” and the “inadequacy of propositional theology” for making sense of the complexity of lived religion in congregations (126-127).  I also think she’s absolutely right that the core intuitions of the ecclesiology-and-ethnography project should upset the usual hierarchies of the theological curriculum.  Far from being an “application” appendix, “practical” theology should be the centering discipline, with  biblical studies and systematics as the “grammars” of our worship.
            In this respect, I think we could pursue a more robust account of Christian worship as a kind of irreducible know-how that precedes—and even, to some extent, eludes—our know-whats.  You can run this account either through Wittgenstein or Charles Taylor or Robert Brandom or Pierre Bourdieu—I won’t do so in my brief time here.  Maybe I could suggest a metaphor, however: in poetry criticism, Cleanth Brooks introduced something of a principle: “the heresy of paraphrase.”  The point is that what a poem means in ineluctably bound up with its form which carries a meaning that is irreducible and thus cannot be paraphrased in any other propositional form.  It seems to me that the know-how of Christian worship—and congregational practices more broadly—resist paraphrase.  This puts practical theology, and even the ecclesiology-and-ethnography project, in a region of temptation: the temptation to paraphrase.  And now we’re on exactly the terrain of Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice.  (I unpack this problem in more detail in James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works [Baker Academic, 2013], ch. 2.)  Fortunately, I think the priming intuitions of your project already sense this tension.  But we also need to remember that ethnography is still propositional, constituted by the epistemological “break” that Bourdieu emphasizes is a social break.

2. When and how do functional theologies trump “official” theologies?  Or: when and how do performed theologies trump articulated theologies?

At the end of her very helpful essay—which is part lit review, part case study—Elizabeth Phillips concludes “that the deeply problematic eschatology of Christian Zionism so alters their Christology and ecclesiology as to disconnect them from the Christological and ecclesiological resources that are necessary for well-formed Christian social ethics” (104).   This left me with some nagging questions, not because I think she’s wrong, but precisely because I think she’s right:

  •     At what point do the functional theologies of a congregation—which can only be detected with an ethnographic radar, so to speak—trump whatever “official” theologies that might define them as Christian? 
  • ·      In other words, could ethnographic description ever enable us to theologically evaluate congregations vis-à-vis ecclesiological and liturgical norms?
  • ·      Or, to put it even more strongly: to what extent are we willing discuss the parameters for a Catholic theological anthropology, and thus consider norms for practice that exceed particular congregations?  Who could do that?  From where? 
  • ·      Perhaps this is all just a way of asking: Can ecclesiological ethnography names idolatries and heresies? 

3. Let’s invite the sociologists

Notice who is not here: sociologists of religion. Phillips is right that anthropologists have been much more open to this conversation.  (See, just for one example, the Fall 2010 volume of the South Atlantic Quarterly for a conversation between anthropologists and theologians.)  But then anthropologists, at least after Geertz, have been on the “soft” (or hermeneutic) side of the social sciences and long had a deep-sense of the value-laden nature of observation.  Sociologists—while not as bad as psychologists—still tend to aspire to “scientificity” in ways that get bound up with myths of objectivity.
Yet, more and more, sociologists are taken to be the authoritative voices that distill for us the essence of the church.  And most of that is based on research conducted by quantheads who lack the sort of theological nuance that our panelists have articulated.  Instead, they reduce the church to an organization like others, offering “religious” goods and services, but therefore almost entirely understandable within paradigms for understanding other organizations, including rational choice theory and economic modes of analysis (see: Rodney Stark and his ilk).  With those assumptions, ecclesiology is pretty much irrelevant.  (And it gets really scary when theologians start looking for ‘scientific’ cachet by hitching their wagon to such social science approaches.  Cue your favorite John Milbank quote here.)
            What I find refreshing and promising about this conversation is its refusal of such reductionism, without floating off into aspirational idealism.  As Bretherton summarizes it,

The broader point to draw for the relationship between ethnography, ecclesiology, and political theory is that the church cannot be read as simply a microcosm of broader political processes and structural forces: it has its own integrity.  Yet neither can an analysis of the church be separated from how it is in a relationship of codetermination (and at times co-construction) with its political environment (161).

That seems just right to me: an anti-reductionism vis-à-vis sociology; an anti-gnosticism vis-à-vis theology.  But you might be surprised how little this would be understanding at SSSR.  I would encourage you to consider inviting Christian sociologists of religion into the “ecclesiology & ethnography” conversation, perhaps even trying to host a session at SSSR, in order to cross-fertilize these conversations.  We might thereby expand the disciplinary conversations, building a collective of scholars who undertake ethnography, as John Swinton suggests, for Jesus, and for his body.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Mall as Consumerist Cathedral

When I give talks based on Desiring the Kingdom, I often revisit my analysis of the mall as a consumerist cathedral.  The concreteness and universality of the experience is usually a helpful entrée into the core concepts of my liturgical analysis of culture.

A couple of resources to add to that analysis:

When I was in Charlottesville recently, Louis Nelson, an architectural historian at the University of Virginia, pointed me to Ira Zepp's book, The New Religious Image of Urban America: The Shopping Mall as Ceremonial Center--which seems to confirm much of my reading. 

Second, Jeroen van der Zeeuw from the Netherlands passed along this stark image: an aerial photograph of a mall that makes the "cathedral echo" quite explicit!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

This Old House

Though I come from a people who made their living with their hands, I make my living with words.  So when I need to work something out, or work through something, I don't go chop wood or tinker with a '67 Chevelle, I write.  So be forewarned: therapeutic musings ahead.

This is our house.

Or was.

In fact this is an old picture from the year we bought the house.  Today you'd see a "Sold" sign out front. So technically this house now belongs to a young couple who, I hope, are excited to move into what has been our home for a decade.

It is the only house we've ever owned.  Indeed, when we moved to Grand Rapids from Los Angeles, part of the miracle was realizing that we could own a home.  What I wouldn't have guessed is how much a house would come to own us--that a house could exhibit its own kind of hospitality.

We thought we were a king and queen (with princes and one pretty princess) moving into our new 1500 square-foot "castle" whose coziness would get cozier as our 10-year-old became a 20-year-old, and our 4-year-old became a teenager.   But when we leave Baldwin street for the last time, we'll walk through this old house (it was built in 1900) and see a part of ourselves in every single room.  Not many remember the dingy "Michigan basement" that I redeemed as a rec room, at least fit for teenaged boys willing to make it their lair.  Deanna and I certainly won't forget the unique delight and benefit of adding a wall with a door for our master bedroom.  Maddie and Grayson both transformed the attic bedroom at different times.  And who can forget our "hobbit room" above the kitchen?

I can stroll through the house in my imagination and see almost every nook and cranny.  Here's the floor that our neighbors Sue and Melissa sanded and varnished for us while we were out of town on vacation.  There are the built-in bookshelves I built for my fiction and criticism collection.  The bright colors on every wall are expressions of Deanna's personality.  All of the work in the kitchen is an expression of our commitment to food and family--from the first summer we ripped out the drop ceiling (what were people thinking) to the more recent bamboo floor I laid down, up to the crown molding whose angles were a veritable nightmare for this amateur.

Outside is no different.  I've written before about the gardens of delight Deanna crafted for all of us.  I know it's going to be hard for her to say goodbye to all those perennials and the spaces of flourishing she has tended with her hands.  And there's the fence I built when we prepared for Grayson's high school graduation open house.  In the back corner is a small stone statuette of a cocker spaniel.  It marks the burial place of our old friend, Reilly, who we had to put down in 2007.  It's surrounded with bleeding hearts.  (We're taking the stone marker with us, as a way to take him with us to our new home, and will plant new bleeding hearts--Coleson's favorite.)

This is starting to sound like a country song, right?  Well, as you might imagine, we've been listening to Miranda Lambert's "House that Built Me" quite a bit!  ("...and I bet you didn't know, under that live oak, my favorite dog is buried in the yard.")

This neighborhood has worked its way into our bones, and we'll miss it profoundly.  It has changed, as have we.  The first summer our kids set up a lemonade stand--and were robbed!  A battering ram shattered the tranquil silence one afternoon as a drug bust took place across the street.   Over the years we tried to be patient with the kids as they complained (and were embarrassed) about how their neighborhood was so different from that of their friends.  And yet we also some them grow to embrace it, to the extent that East Hills has woven its way into their identity.  I try to tell them that they were "East Hills" before East Hills was cool.

The farmer's market has been a steady presence and anchor throughout, a regular part of our routines.  We're going to miss that stroll.  But we've left part of ourselves in it with a brick that reads "Practice Resurrection."

Our neighbors have changed over a decade.  We miss Jo and Jose, Greg and Darlene, but most of all Sue and Melissa--neighbors who became cherished friends.  Celia next door is the anchor of the block, here before us, and no doubt here long after us.  We've said goodbye to some who passed.  I can't quite articulate how much I miss Tom, a simple soul who lived in Celia's basement for years.  We could talk about NASCAR and Jesus all day long (always "the Powerful One," to Tom).  The last time I talked to him, we prayed together on that sidewalk right there, asking God to heal the tumor in his belly.  I owed him more than that.

What I can't possibly enumerate are the untold memories and joys--and heartbreaks--that this old house made room for.  This has been the best hardest blessed decade of our lives.  So as we're working through this, and helping the kids through it, we try to emphasize: home is where we are.  That goes with us.  And we're all excited about the new house (just 1 mile west!), in a new neighborhood (Heritage Hill), with new rhythms and opportunities awaiting us (including our Saturday morning standby, Wealthy Street Bakery, just down the street and a new downtown market nearby).

But I don't want to be a Gnostic about this and underestimate the significance of place.  So I find myself --as usual!--thinking about St. Augustine and the sort of dynamics he explores in the City of God.  Yes, sure, we are sojourners and pilgrims in any place.  On the other hand, we are placed and need to bloom where we're planted, looking for ways to foster the welfare of the city.  On a microcosmic level, that's been this old house on Baldwin street for the past 10 years.

We have loved this old house; we've poured hours and hours (and $ and $!) of tender loving care into it for a decade.  We're proud of how we leave it: like a friend that we've counseled and supported and hopefully coaxed into new flourishing.  And we feel like it has loved us in return: sheltering us, comforting us, gathering us,  hosting us.  We are grateful to have been welcomed by this old house.  May it welcome those who follow and may they flourish in its space.  Please take care of our friend.