Archives For October 2010

The Third Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization begins today in Cape Town, South Africa. More than 4,000 leaders from over 200 countries will spend the next seven days seeking a way forward in proclaiming the peace and immanence of Christ in a world that is ravaged by HIV/AIDS, poverty, war, and pluralism. Thousands of other leaders will participate in the conversation through reading and responding to Advance Papers and engaging in conversations at http://conversation.lausanne.org/en/
I've read three of the papers and below I've posted links to the source material as well as my thoughts. I encourage you to read these papers, find others of interest to you, and take the opportunity to engage in these conversations yourself.

Emerging Technologies and the Human Future
by Nigel Cameron and John Wyatt

As technological innovations continue to change the way our daily lives are lived, Cameron and Wyatt caution us that "the pivotal significance of the Christian belief that we are made in the image of God is about to be tested as never before." New technologies are leading us down a path where the lines between human and artifact. While these new discoveries and new applications will undoubtedly have the power to address some of the world's greatest problems, they also will present new opportunities to degrade human dignity and intensify wealth and power stratification. 

The authors raise three key questions that must be at the fore of discussions surrounding emerging technologies:

  1. How can we protect vulnerable human beings from commodification? Their example here is of embryo patenting – a natural outgrowth of the pharmaceutical industry's current ability to patent genes.
  2. How can we preserve the intrinsic human dignity that flow from being created by the indwelling God? The threat here comes from eugenics as a result of biotechnology. What will start out as "designer babies" (the ability to predetermine the eye color or hair of your unborn child) can quickly escalate to race perfecting, where those with enough means are able to produce stronger, more intelligent offspring than those without access to the same means.
  3. How can we prevent a new feudalism resulting from the consolidation of wealth and intelligence through "enhancements" that blur the line between man and machine? Nanotechnology is opening the door to the ability to implant devices which will augment or enhance human ability or giftedness. Those with more money will have greater access to these enhancements.

The close of the paper asserts that "the resurrection of Christ as a physical human being can be seen as God's vote of confidence in the created human nature. . . . The resurrection is God's final and irrevocable 'yes' to humankind."

While Cameron and Wyatt have in their minds a vision of the future that evokes images of A Brave New World, The Matrix, and iRobot, their concerns are not fundamentally new. Each new epoch of innovation brings about new possibilities for the advancement of human society and stark warnings of the evils that may ensue. While it may be tempting to write off their questions as paranoid with perhaps a conspiratorial air, the authors' centering of technological restraint based on the incarnation and resurrection, is key. God chose to enter the world as human, with all the limitations that entails, and succumbed to the eventual end of entropy – death and decay – that nearly all human technological innovation seeks to thwart.

In the resurrection, God did thwart death and decay. And Christ was raised human! It is true that the resurrected Christ was, somehow, different. His perfected humanness is not fully manifest in us yet. It is the Spirit, not technology, that is at work within us to change us "from glory to glory." That is not a blanket condemnation of new technology or subsequent applications. But it is an exhortation to remember that no technology will save the world or alleviate all suffering. Christ has already done that. Our call is to subordinate the fidelity of technology to the work He's already (and, paradoxically not yet) done.

Hope for the Christian Church through Global Incarnational Partnerships
by Martine Audéoud and Rubin Pohor

One of the results of recent technological innovations is the effective shrinking of global communication. Instantaneous, simultaneous, multinational conversations happen everyday. Many churches are imagining ways in which this communication might be leveraged to form new global partnerships. Audéoud and Pohor examine what needs to happen in order for these partnerships to be a benefit to all parties.

Early in the paper, they identify the need for partnerships to be based in "100% trusting, mutual, and intimate relationship that gives adequate security for an exchange or resources and services." They then go on to cite some biblical examples of such partnerships and then address the assets and challenges of developing such partnerships on a global scale.

Of particular interest to me was their fear that such partnerships "may become another subtle way of ‘colonializing’ church movements in the developing world such that the power remains on the side of those who have the financial resources." This temptation is especially true to those initiating partners in the global north and west. Often, out of the richness of blessing, faithful churches endeavor to "spread the wealth" by partnering with churches internationally in an attempt to help them overcome (mostly financial) obstacles to reaching their communities for Christ.

Audéoud and Pohor emphasize over and over again that there must be mutuality present in these relationships. Even though the partnerships may not be on equal ground financially, there is still and abundance of teaching and learning each side can impart to the other. Humility and wealth are strange bedfellows. Yet this is exactly what is required if churches of great financial means wish to have sustainable, equitable partnerships with their brothers and sisters around the globe. How might a church enter into one of these partnerships with hands facing up – to give of her means and to receive blessing?

People at Work: Preparing to be the Whole Church
by Willy Kotiuga

Drawing on examples of Jesus as carpenter and Joseph as administrator, Kotiuga builds an argument for a more holistic understanding of vocation – an understanding that would encompass all types of work as calling. Here he is breaking no new ground. The Reformed theological tradition has a long history of applying the notion of vocare beyond the typical sacred application. What he wrestles with for the bulk of the paper is the practical application of faith in the workplace.

Many of the people within our churches have a difficult time understanding how to practically connect "their Sunday to their Monday." Kotiuga asserts, "living the faith goes beyond being good examples at work. The call to make disciples implores us to live the faith by deliberately inviting others to join us on our faith journey." Which, I think, begs the question, to what are we inviting them to?

Here Kotiuga has little to offer. Multiple times he lifts up workplace prayer gatherings and bible studies as "part of the solution." He calls for concrete actions by the church of "supporting" and "motivating" the workers in our congregations, but offers none himself. He points to Business as Mission as an example of an organization who is doing this well. BAM is a ministry of Youth With a Mission (YWAM). On BAM's website, all their concrete examples have to do with Christians catching a vision of the Kingdom and then starting a business that is run on Kingdom principles. Nothing here about how one might transform their workplace in the way that Kotiuga calls for. Although there are links to some books and bible study resources that would make for great discussion in a workplace bible study or prayer group.

So, what is the line worker to do? Or the middle-level manager? Or the grocery clerk? Or the auto mechanic? Surely there is more for them than a bible study or starting their own business? And what is the church's role in that? To "support and motivate"? Here he turns to Joseph again, pointing out how Joseph remained faithful in each of his roles in his life. No argument there.

Yet we will not all be Josephs. What is often ignored in appeals to Joseph (or, almost as commonly, Nehemiah), is the elite circles he was privy to that allowed him access to power and the powerful. But what about those who do not have such access? What does being the church at work look like for them? Kotiuga closes with similar questions: "what does it take to lead in the context of the workplace in order to make an impact for the gospel?  Surely it is more than organizing a noon Bible study or a special speaker. What does that leader look like whether on the assembly line or at the head of a corporation?  What do they need in order to develop their faith leadership skills at their workplace—not merely to be a better manager in their job?"

In all, the paper raised more questions than it answered, perhaps in hope that others will provide them. It also has a particularly northern and western global scope. Many of the "problems" he appeals to are the problems of white collar North American workers. A theology of people at work for a global conversation like Lausanne must at least attempt to address how workers and workplaces in the other 80% of the world might "be the whole church."

In "You Know What Hope Is?" and "Upon Further Reflection…," I reacted to the first half of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's The Rebel Sell (I read the American edition which has been retitled Nation of Rebels). In that portion of the book, the authors set out their argument for what is wrong with countercultural rebellion in a capitalistic society: it doesn't work. Instead of subverting "the system," it offers new ways for the markets to, well, capitalize on what is "cool." Far from changing the system, countercultural rebellion often ends up providing more fuel for the capitalist fire.

Heath and Potter find great irony in this. By creating subcultures that attempt to distinguish themselves from mass society, rebels are asserting that they have a positional good (coolness) that everyone else doesn't have. Everyone else then wants this new coolness. Entrepreneurs take note and devise profitable ways to provide everyone with what they want. Then, when everyone has it, it's no longer unique or wanted. Whether it is a house in the country, a condo in the city, a BMW, and advanced degree (yikes!), once it is accessible to the majority its ability to confer status and serve as a marker of individualism is used up, never to return. "Rebellion is not a threat to the system, it is the system" (175).

In the second half of the book, the authors turn toward what they think should be done. People need to come to peace with homogeneity and we need to use the political processes of representative governments to regulate and enforce global solutions to our world's most pressing problems (they spend time talking about environmental problems and solutions at length). Homogeneity, they argue, is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it the same as the conformity that individuals fear of mass society.

What's wrong with homogenization in the first place? If people voluntarily choose to live in similar houses and participate in similar activities, then who are we to criticize them? As long as it's what they really want to do, the it's very difficult to make the case against it. . . . Homogeneity is only really a problem when it is the product of coercion rather that choice – when people are either penalized for a failure to comply or tricked and cajoled into doing something they don't really want to do. (pp. 226-227)

And, later, regarding the "tendency toward homogenization" they write, "In many cases it is not obvious that we can do anything about it; in many more cases, it is not obvious that we should do anything about it (p. 248, emphasis theirs).  Regarding the way forward, they write, "What our society needs is more rules, not fewer" (p. 320, emphasis theirs) and that these rules are "in the end, coercively imposed" (p. 323). The quest is for "global capitalism" (p. 333) which can be found by "searching high and low for market failures and, when we find them, thinking creatively about how they can be resolved" (ibid.). But they caution against unregulated markets: "the state will always be the most important player, simply because it is the agency that defines and enforces the basic set of property rights that creates the market in the first place" (p. 334-335, emphasis theirs).

For all their hope in the state's power to solve numerous collective action problems and the market's ability to provide enough things to placate the masses, they close the book by admitting that the individual still has a significant amount of power in how this all shakes out:

All of this will involve further restrictions of individual liberty. Yet so long as individuals are willing to give up their own liberty in return for a guarantee that others will do the same, there is nothing wrong with this. In the end, civilization is built upon our willingness to accept rules and to curtail the pursuit of our individual interest out of deference to the needs and interests of others.

So, on some level it does come back to individuals. And individuals have identities that are both externally and internally defined. So, while I agree in principle that larger entities like the state and the market need to play a role in any societal change, the effectiveness of those entities is determined, in large part, by the cumulative strength of the individual affiliations of their major players. James Davison Hunter refers to these players as "elites." 

I want to focus in on a single paragraph, a fleeting thought, that I think offers more toward a way forward than the authors realize. On page 214, in a discussion on free will and the predictability of any given individual, they write,

Oddly enough, being predictable is the very essence of what it is to have an identity. The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls identities "centers of narrative gravity," and it is a perfect description. just as a center of gravity is an abstraction we use for unifying and predicting the behavior of a certain collection of matter, so an identity is an abstraction we us to organize and predict the behavior of individuals.

When Hunter talks about "faithful presence," he's imagining communities of people who are oriented around a shared "center of narrative gravity." Christians often talk of the Biblical story, and some might even drop the term "metanarrative" at a party every now and then. Yet knowing a story, even knowing one's place in a story, isn't the same has having that story as your center of narrative gravity.*

Communities of faithful presence must have Christ's depiction of the Kingdom of God, of shalom, as their center of narrative gravity. Their eschatology should determine their eccleciology (yes, some of you will disagree and want to reorder those or add in other "ologies"). A clear understanding of the end best dictates how life should be lived now. Job didn't know how thing would end for him. He didn't know he'd get it all back and more. Yet he remained a faithful presence in the midst of suffering. We do know how Job's story ended, and the rest of scripture points to the same end for the faithful: we get it all back (ex: Matt. 19:16-30). That is our narrative. Where's our center of gravity?

*For the record, I realize I am misappropriating Dennett's concept of "centers of narrative gravity," which he uses to postulate that our brains create webs of meaning by editing sensory experiences. The result only seems to be a narrative stream. Read more here. I still think that the phrase can be a helpful one in furthering the discussion of how we might form communities of faithful presence.

Young Christians have not jumped ship in record numbers solely because evangelicalism offers nothing that appeals to them socially and aesthetically, but because its intellectual crisis is so dire that it responds to moral dilemmas with little more than fear, nostalgia, and, most disturbingly, hints of bigotry. Deeply uncomfortable with the life of the mind and the modern world, it has asked young believers to take positions that cause them deep distress when these stances conflict with realities they understand from observing the real people all around them. Meanwhile, the church has yet to explain satisfactorily how maintaining its ideological positions benefit them as Christians or their countrymen who are not. The Christian outsiders worth talking about are pained to see the church so blind to the human costs of its activism. They attend uncomfortably or not at all. In significant numbers, they desert to Canterbury, Rome and sometimes finally to that other part of England that gave us Christopher Hitchens.

As much as their detractors would like to portray this distress as the very cultural-approval-seeking to which McCracken attributes too many hipster Christian behaviors, there is little glamour in being exiled from both the secular establishment for not denouncing Christian conservatism thoroughly enough and from the evangelical establishment for not swallowing its dogma with sufficient relish. If these people were as shallow as McCracken describes his Christian hipsters, they would have abandoned the faith long ago. Instead, they have looked both backward and forward to find a faith that can handle the moral conflicts of our time. To them, the failure of making Christianity cool was obvious long before McCracken got a publishing contract. But the hope of keeping Christianity on the right side of history is an ever-elusive dream, as is, for now, the hope of finding a book that makes sense of this tumult.

David Sessions, editor of Patrol Magazine, closes his review of “Hipster” by Brett McCracken with the excerpt above. He explains, in two short paragraphs, why McCracken misses the boat when it comes to critiquing his peers. Jamie Smith shared similar sentiments in his review.

I haven’t read the book, and if these reviews are accurate I’m not sure I need to, but it sounds like McCracken is more motivated by his own vendetta against anything that seems “cool” (hey, I used to hate the cool kids, too; mostly because I wanted to be one and wasn’t) and his desire to write a book that is “critical.” I wonder if he’s caught on that “critical” and “critique” aren’t always the same thing?

I admit I am a fan of most everything that James K. A. Smith writes. Books or book reviews, I find him to be clear, honest, and convicted. His review of Brett McCracken’s Hipster is biting, but it bites with a purpose. Jamie draws a distinction between the kind of Christian “poser” that McCracken tries to relegate all young “hipster” evangelicals to, and Christian “bohemians” that are seeking to live out faithful presence.

Although [McCracken] generically talks about Christian hipsters, there is a qualitative difference between a Shane Claiborne and the latest rendition of the megachurch youth pastor who slums it by buying a few things at Goodwill (to accessorize his jeans from the Buckle) and who presses his kids to donate to the ONE Campaign. Those who really deserve to be described as Christian hipsters might be better described as Christian bohemians who have intentionally resisted the siren call of the status quo, upward mobility, and the American way in order to pursue lives that are just, meaningful, communal, and peaceable. The Christian hipsters I know are pursuing a way of life that they (rightly) believe better jives with the picture of flourishing sketched in the biblical visions of the coming kingdom.

As I read through The Rebel Sell, Jamie’s review reminds me that although Heath and Potter would rightly affirm McCracken’s critique of Christian hipsters as perpetuating a consumer-oriented Christian individualism, Jamie calls the reader back to consider that maybe, just maybe, these young evangelicals are onto something.

After reflecting further on my post from earlier today, “You Know What Hope Is?” I decided that I had a little more to say. Rather than revise the orignal post and make it longer, or comment on my own post (which might get missed), I decided to just write a new post. I’m allowed.

I was much more bothered by Heath and Potter than by Hunter’s book To Change the World. It is because, for me, Heath and Potter hit closer to home. I was relatively unruffled by Hunter’s assertions that culture change happens via institutions and elites weilding power. I was unoffended by his deconstruction of the hero myth of American Christian’s individual agency as the means to change. To me, it was all fairly self-evident and made a lot of sense.

Yet I walked away from Part I of this book with a different response. I think it is because it hit closer to home. I am that rebel. I am the one that believes that the small choices that I make are little ways of subverting, and ultimately changing, the system. Not exactly Hunter’s “faithful presence,” but in the ballpark. So, when the authors talked about how only consequences matter, not intent, I was bummed. I buy organic and local because I want to be a part of subverting the corporate food machine. I walk places instead of drive and I suffer summers without A/C in order to reduce my carbon footprint. I engage in all manners of defiant, yet not deviant, behavior in order that I may testify to that which ought to be.

To Heath and Potter, however, my efforts are nothing more than a distraction. They amount to no net change in any of the things I’m protesting against. Other than obvious differences in their views on God and religion, I think that Hunter and Heath/Potter are essentially saying the same thing: if what we want is change, protest and rebellion aren’t the way to go about it. I’m sure Part II of this book will get to the heart of what they think will institute change.

I just finished part 1 of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s The Rebel Sell (released in the USA as Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture). This is the first of two posts engaging that text.

The book begins by taking a sweeping look at the relationship between “mainstream” culture and “counterculture.” Starting in the 18th century and rapidly coursing through to the late 20th century, the authors attempt to paint a picture of a world relentlessly moving toward mass society and the voices that attempted to waken the satiated along the way. Rousseau, Voltaire, Marx, Freud, Marcuse, and Hobbes (to name a few), all tried to point out how “the system” operated to oppress and repress the masses in order to benefit the ruling class. Usually their message fell upon deaf (or deafened) ears. Yet, every now and then, some small group would see “the Matrix” and craft a disruptive response in an attempt to change the system.

Countercultural rebels, seeing the dominant means of change (political systems) as broken, and therefore unnavigable, chose to engage in visible acts of rebellions to created dissonance and call attention to the brokenness inherent in the system. Unfortunately all these movements have fallen flat. That is because, according to the authors, “the countercultural rebels managed to convince themselves . . . that all of these fun activities [violating conventional social norms] were in fact more subversive than traditional left-wing politics because they attacked the sources of oppression and injustice at a ‘deeper’ level. . . . The countercultural rebels have therefore invested tremendous energy over the years trying to persuade themselves that their acts of cultural resistance have important political implications” (p. 62-63).

The authors suggest that the actions of the rebels actually have the opposite effect, creating new symbols, brands and products for an ever-present market of “alternative” culture. One need only look at Nirvana or Vans to see how (even against their will, in some cases) that which was once rebellious becomes fashionable. The system absorbs, rather than changes. In fact, participation in rebellion of almost any sort is seen by the authors as adding fuel to the fire. For them the problem is not one of consumerism and conformity, but of individualism. We have “failed to understand the true nature of consumer society. . . . it is rebellion, not conformity, that has for decades been the driving force of the marketplace” (p. 99).

In expanding upon this idea Heath and Potter offer some of their more helpful ideas. They assert that consumerism is driven by a desire for individuality, not conformity. The desire to “keep up with the Joneses” is not because we want to be like the Jonses, but because we want to either be better than them, or at least as well off as them. We want to be the Smiths, and want the Joneses to want to keep up with us. Why? Because that will give us status and prestige. Why would we want that? Because feeling a little bit superior to those around us will make us happy. Unfortunately, when everyone has what everyone wants, no one wants it anymore. If everyone wants a BMW and everyone gets a BMW, no one wants it anymore. They all want a Mercedes.

Much of what drives the downward spiral of competitive consumerism (and its resulting unhappiness) is the desire to acquire more and more of what the authors call “positional goods” (a term borrowed from Fred Hirsch). These are goods whose scarcity is not based on the availability of the materials to produce them, but upon the fact that there is an inherent limitation on their supply in the first place. Real estate is the most easily recognized positional good. Where a house is located determines its value far more than the materials or craftsmanship of the house itself. Why? Because location cannot be created. It simply is. The more people that want to live in a location, the more expensive that location becomes. Therefore, the ability to live in that location becomes a symbol of ones status in society. “It is not the desire to conform that is driving the consumption process, but rather the quest for distinction. The value of a good comes from the sense of superiority associated with membership in the club, along with recognition accorded by fellow members” (p. 126). Businesses, then, are just responding to the shifting definition of distinction and superiority. They adapt and change based on what consumers are willing to spend to try and make their lives stand out from those of their neighbors. This could be luxury cars and jewelry or organic vegetables and fair trade coffee. If it offers distinction, it is part of competitive consumerism.

Implied in all of this is a secular humanism that sees as its chief end the dual happiness of the individual and mass society. That goal is never questioned. The book is simply attempting to critique whether or not different iterations of countercultural rebellions move toward that goal or away from it. As a result, their treatment of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is brief and dismissive. Any attempt to engage Christian theology is done in light of Platonic politics (pp. 6-7), Freudian superego (pp. 57-58), or pietistic anti-consumerism (pp. 105-06).

In setting up these strawmen, the authors can dismiss ideas like Hunter’s “faithful presence” as either another in a long line of misguided calls to countercultural rebellion, or as new opportunities for the religious to engage in competitive consumerism. They reject outright the notion that intentions matter: “When it comes to consumerism, intentions are irrelevant. It is the consequences that count” (p. 119). For Christians to seek shalom is a fruitless effort, in their eyes. What matter is not what ought to be, but what is.

The first part of the book closes with a pretty fatalistic set of choices if you don’t like the way things are. Either become like the Unabomber and completely drop out of society, or rebel to the point of antisocial behavior. Anything in between is participation in the system, regardless of any overtures of change. Hope of anything different is absent in the mid-point of the book. It reminds me of the lyrics from Ben Folds song, “Picture Window”

You know what hope is? Hope is a bastard
Hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease
Hope comes near you, kick its backside
Got no place in days like these

I admit that I’m teetering on the edge of being melodramatic. Yet as I walked away from the part 1 of this book, I couldn’t stop asking myself the question, “So what now?” If rebelling against consumerism is really just adding fuel to the fire, and participating in consumerism is just reinforcing the system, how can change occur? I have some ideas, but want to hear what Heath and Potter say in the second half of their book.

Picture Window by Ben Folds/Nick Hornby
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