Tag Archives: culture

Cultural/Political Engagement: Let’s Be Realistic Shall We?

20140310-214502.jpgI was looking at this picture on the internet which shows these stick people trying to convince each other of the rightness or the wrongness of their position. My problem with the picture is that it doesn’t seem to accurately reflect the way that sociological movements work. For an example, if I were to draw a line in the sand and put 99 people on one side of the line and then put one person on the other side of the line, similar to the picture, you may be able to convince a few people to come over to your side and agree with your position and that may simply be on just one issue, but it’s hardly the case that you are going to get whole swaths of people coming over to your side to agree with your position as if it’s all going to be one-sided, again, as the picture shows. It doesn’t seem to work that way in real life. People usually don’t line up on one side of the fence or the other. What you have are a lot of people on both sides of the fence whom are a mixture of different positions on various issues. So, somebody might stand with you on one particular issue but they might feel the opposite of you on another issue and just because of that reason alone, you’re not going to have a consensus amongst people because you prioritize your issues, strong feelings get in the way, you have strong reasons for the other stances you take, etc. etc. etc. Basically, you’re going to have a whole mixture of individuals whom are going to be on both sides of the fence. We call that a spectrum. How this spectrum looks is another quite interesting question. Personally, I prefer to see an arch as oppose to a straight line that is more or less compartmentalized such that there are no clear dividing lines between say, “right,” “left” and “center.” The problem of this picture as I see it, is that it has a triumphalist tone to it. Essentially, “Come over to my side and everything will be alright in the world as long as we have everybody agreeing.” Well, yes this is true, I mean, if everybody agrees on something, agreement is always much better and much less tenuous then disagreement (socially speaking). But again, that’s problematic because it’s just not reality. That’s not the way the world really works. And if the world doesn’t work this way, people despair because, if, for an example, you have something like racism that not everyone can agree on, say, in terms of specific policies ie., affirmative action, or immigrant policies that one might think, are, at core, racist, then there is a lot of injustice going on (according to them). Now, there is a response to this and I’ll talk about that more in the next post, but for now, in closing, it is the expectation itself, that everybody is going to come over to your side and as a result everything is going to be okay, that is a part of the problem of why “nothing seems to get done.” We really have to be more realistic with our expectations.


Evangelicals: On Reading History Sympathetically

I was reading Rachel Held Evan’s blog about the Bible here.

My buddy, Brent L. White deals with her hermeneutical approach here. See also, Glenn Peoples post here that Brent refers to.

My approach is going to be slightly different in this post. I’m not going to deal with her hermeneutical approach but more with her historical approach or lack thereof and her point of hindsight. In her blog, Evans makes several quotes on different issues found within the Church in general, as well as evangelicalism and more specifically fundamentalism. She has quotes about inter-racial marriage, slavery, science (specifically the Galileo controversy ie., the terra centric and thus a anthropological view of the universe), the annihilation of North American tribal peoples, women’s suffrage, and lastly segregation.

The whole project of RHE’s is that she wants to show that we cannot have certainty as certainty about something has not only been shown to be wrong upon further enquiry but has also been the condition that is present wherein we commit atrocities in the name of God. It also seems to be the case that if we can be shown to be inconsistent in one place, we may be inconsistent in another. Personally, I’m rather sympathetic to the certainty issue and not so much with the inconsistency one.

Regardless, there seems to be an inconsistency on her part because, well, she is a product of evangelicalism itself and as a result could be even more charitable than she makes herself out to be (“Look at the history of the church! [in those quotes] Terrible!”). What I mean by that is this. Evangelicals are notorious for being ahistorical. For example, this is seen in our churches when we come together to worship. Our buildings are rid of liturgical artifacts and we don’t realize when it comes to Bible reading that we read with rose coloured glasses– ie., that our biblical approach is not “objective.” And the same could be applied to what RHE is bringing up in her post. That is, she basically takes history out of it’s historical context. It’s not all about hindsight or progress. What we might want to do is ask about RHE’s and those who look at history the same way she does if they make a proper “distinction between those who love(d) history and those who use(d) history” for their own ideological purposes.

In other words, LOOKING BACK on history we might see what we think is an inconsistency but it is only an inconsistency with OUR times and not necessarily with their OWN times. History is a complex art. Not only must we get our facts right (which I’m not so sure RHE’s does even here on some if not most of those quotes) but we need to balance those facts against the wider backdrop of the times in which those acts took place much of which can come up with significant different interpretations which is ultimately why we have different volumes of books on specific events and persons of history.

One of the things that irks me about evangelicals deals specifically with the ahistorical and thus uncharitable view of that “bastard child” fundamentalism. Yes, there is progression. Yes, we move on to other questions. But I’m not referring to that. I’m referring to looking specifically at the HISTORY of fundamentalism with charitable eyes. Let me provide an example of this.

The other day I was reading a bit of a book called, “The Sword of Lord” by Andrew Himes. The book is an excellent part biography (as Himes was related to some of the big names within fundamentalism as a movement) part history book of fundamentalism. The nice thing about Himes’ book, is that it is sympathetic towards fundamentalism. It’s not that he agrees with fundamentalism it’s that he seems to realize that nothing occurs within a vacuum of sorts especially, in this case, a historical vacuum. Here are a few paragraphs I found interesting in the book.

“In general, a fundamentalist outlook made a lot of sense in a world in which you needed to be certain where to stand in order to survive the next day and to defend the lives and welfare of your family. Fundamentalism was a rational, and emotional, response to a dangerous world where you needed to know who was a sheep and who was a goat, who was for you and who was against you, who might slip a blade between your ribs and who would love you back.

Likewise, fundamentalist religion has reflected the absolutism of fundamentalist politics. Historically, Christian fundamentalists in America focused on identifying and proclaiming the set of doctrines or beliefs that have been held by orthodox Christians since about the fourth century the blood atonement, the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, the resurrection of Jesus, and his awaited return. Fundamentalists then militantly defended those doctrines against perceived heretical threats from liberals and modernists in the early twentieth century. It is striking, however, that those doctrines deemed “fundamental” did not include such core Christian doctrines as the Triune nature of God. They did not include the doctrine of salvation by faith through grace (the heart of the Protestant Reformation). And they included nothing from the revolutionary teachings of Jesus during his earthly ministry.

It is evident that the selection of ‘The Fundamentals” a century ago was time-bound, driven by the specific terms of a battle over doctrine fought by two groups of people bitterly opposed to each other.

But what happens to fundamentalism when its original enemies have succumbed to the passage of time or have been replaced by new opponents and the specific terms of the debate of a century ago become irrelevant? How does fundamentalism remain relevant in a world of evidently breathtaking diversity an array of different spiritual practices, philosophies, and explorations of the meaning of God and spirit none of which can seemingly claim to be authoritative? What does fundamentalism evolve into when the children of fundamentalists turn out to be more interested in following Jesus and practicing Christian, love than arguing over arcane points, of doctrine?”

I think RHE could not only be a better historian (not someone who uses history for ideological purposes) but someone who realizes the complexity of history and tries to balance it with a more charitable and sympathetic understanding.

Jesus Clad in American Mythology or Cultural Location?

Here’s a nice little quote I keep going back to from a book I bought a number of years ago from a Christian book store in the Detroit area. The book is called, “Nine Great American Myths: Ways We Confuse The American Dream With The Christian Faith” by Pat Apel. The quote:

“The problem arises, as Calvin pointed out, when we assign to Jesus a character different from that which He received from God. In the derision of Jesus during the passion, the Roman soldiers dressed Him in purple as King of the Jews. They were using Jesus to mock the Jewish insurrectionists of the day. Halford Luccock writes that ‘this indignity has been afflicted upon him again and again. More than once has he been…clad in costumes that do not fit his personality, with the result that the man who walks before us has been so completely disguised as to be unrecognizable.’

When we place Jesus in the garb of the American mythology, we are repeating the mockery inflicted upon Him during the Passion week. That is the problem with American religion–it renders the Christian faith unrecognizable.”

I think a lot of times the Christian Church has blind-spots in which that “draping of Christ” with some cultural aspect or another goes on for quite some time. And thus, she is not going to be spotless. In some instances though, it may be so imbedded into her theology that it’s hard to separate the two if even it should be separated (and there may be reasons for this ie., the possible perception of the undermining of authority).

In other words, it’s hard to imagine ANY form of Christianity that is not historically and culturally located and thus, those “barnacles that attach themselves” to the “purity” of the word of God as expressions of that word.

The Rule of Countercultural Witness: Analyzing What Warrants It Pt. 3

This is the last in this series of postings on this subject and more can be said, ie. the problem of trajectories in scripture, but I’m only keeping it to these issues so as to not overload the reader with details.

So, overall, what we have in the rule as Cosgrave states is this:

“The rule of countercultural witness depends on two basic theological judg-
ments: (1) that the Bible is a human witness to the divine word in which
God’s revelation is communicated but also distorted and (2) that God is
against ideology, that is, opposed to those cultural norms, values, institu-
tions, etc. that serve the interests of the more powerful at the expense of the
less powerful. These two judgments support the following two inferences:
(1) that one of the ways in which the Bible faithfully communicates the di-
vine revelation is by witnessing to God’s protest against ideology and
(2) that one of the ways in which the Bible distorts the divine revelation is through ideological distortion. The rule of countercultural witness dis- I
criminates between ideological assimilation and counter-ideological pro-
test in scripture. The rule accords special weight to those voices in scripture
that advocate for the socially powerless or marginalized against dominant
cultural value systems. The rule presumes that these marginalized voices
have a greater claim than culturally-affiliating voices to speak for the God
made known in Jesus Christ who, in order to save both oppressed and op-
pressor, joined with the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the power-
less, the weak.”

Essentially, one of the problems of the countercultural witness rule is what I hinted at in the previous post but want to look at a little closer here. Though the rule does not consider everything that is countercultural as good or its opposite, that everything culturally normative is bad it, as Cosgrave says, it “focuses on culture as a vehicle of asymmetrical power relations.”

As a result, it is presumed by most everyone that works with the rule that everything that “every countercultural interest or value of the disenfranchised is morally good. Well, you can already see where something like this goes. There may be some moral practices that are treated good that shouldn’t be. Now, if those working with the countercultural rule respond to this by showing that something must be “manifestly unjust or immoral” the problem with this is, manifestly unjust and immoral to whom?

An example that Cosgrave uses is that of chattel slavery. For slaveholders, the emancipation of slaves meant a “signified loss of ‘property’ and being placed on equal footing with blacks.” And for those who do not adhere to the countercultural witness rule? They do so on the basis of what THEY consider as manifestly unjust or immoral.

In our age of liberation people working with the rule of countercultural witness wonder how people at that time could have thought that slavery or patriarchy was morally good. They work with an “ideology as a vindication of the theory of ideology as an explanatory system”–a sort of circular argument. In other words, they use ideology so as “to map the moral landscape today in order to position themselves against ideology.”

Now, if you are on the “receiving end” of those who adhere to this rule they more than likely will see you as not giving greater credence to those with less power. For them, if you are to have moral knowledge of the powerless, it HAS to come from the powerless. They are the best voices. The minority voices.

But there is a problem with this. There is the question of whether a potential ideology is EVER GENERATED FROM BELOW. And the reason why this is, is because it is questioned that those who ARE disenfranchised are ever really able to do so in a way that is countercultural. In other words, do the disenfranchised produced ALTERNATIVE VISIONS that are either:

A. variations of the ruling ideology and hence not really countercultural (though they may potentially be)?
B. are genuinely utopian?

Now, if the disenfranchised produce potential visions that are both alternative AND a variation of the dominant ideology that are POTENTIAL then it is very well possible that this will be so for “B,” utopian visions. And to the extent “that advocates of utopian visions make their case from dominant traditions (including a revered past) they show their visions to be in some sense variations of the dominant tradition.” In other words, “Revolution must borrow from what it inevitably wants to destroy.” (Roland Barthes, “Writing Degree Zero”). So, even though there is always continuity with the past, a sort of paradox and dialectic, one should still be cautious in the use of the rule as such.

Lastly, according to Cosgrave, because the rule depends on a general moral hermeneutic of the oppressed, is it not really repeating what one knows through ideological critique? If such is the case, then one is really not APPEALING to scripture but rather, is appealing to an hermeneutic so as to provide a way of validating or invalidating the voices of scripture. There are many influences that bear upon us as we read the Bible and even an ideology has a place. However, when it comes down to it, the “church’s understanding of the Bible as a whole can appropriately shape the church’s hermeneutical approach to the Bible in any of it’s parts.” Thus, even if you are a feminist theologian, the Bible will have an authority based in “scripture’s overall redemptive purpose which would include redemption of scripture from the bondage of patriarchy.”

In the end, Cosgrave says that ideology, while providing a basis for a rule, the rule is presumptive at best and not final or absolute force. As a presumptive force, the rule would/should be “controlling UNLESS and UNTIL countervailing reasons are adduced against its application in a particular instance.”

The Rule of Countercultural Witness: Analyzing What Warrants It Pt. 2

Essential to the rule of countercultural witness is Cosgrave’s assessment of “environment.” By environment, Cosgrave is not speaking merely of social settings and comparing groups within that social setting where dominant groups oppress the less dominant groups. He looks at “distinctiveness.” Distinctiveness has to do with dissent from “…the dominant cultural values, values of the wider environment that may also have been dominant in Israel or in the early Christian movement.”

As a part of this distinctiveness, as the rule stipulates, we have to separate that which is cultural from that which is not intrinsic to the biblical witness. That is why the Bible should not be confused with revelation. Revelation is not cultural relativity found in the Bible. Thus, for example, while it is not denied that there are “male-dominated, androcentric and discriminatory” texts, these would have to be separated from the revelation that is found there. For example, patriarchalism would not be revelation. Even though, for revisionists, patriarchalism is not to be viewed as culturally relative (it is to be regarded as problematic, but one that is “pan-cultural”) women’s voices need to be regarded as equal to that of the iconic voices of scripture. So here, God would be for the liberation of women. That is, God is inherently counterculture in an anti-ideological way.

There is a problem with this however.

Revisionists have to come up with criteria for judging which texts or impulses in scripture convey the divine word of God for liberating women. It seems that it is an ideology itself that drives this. For those that “convey the divine word is the degree to which they promote God’s commitment to women’s liberation and equality.” So if you work with the countercultural rule, you work with the assumption that God takes up the cause of the oppressed and thus see ideology as “endemic to the human condition.” Thus, revelation in an unredeemed world is inherently countercultural. But is that not reading the rule into the text? Is this not circular? That is, it is believed that God is for the oppressed and then the Bible is read according to THAT norm? Also, if both the patriarchal AND the aniconic (Brueggemann) are in the text, should not equal weight be given to both? It seems we argue from a canon within a canon. It seems that one has to know what is oppressive in advance in order to argue against it to an audience that already accepts such assumptions about what counts as oppressive. If that is the case, “then it is not clear how scripture warrants Christian social ethics under the rule of countercultural witness.”

Many times, we have read those texts (myself included) like Gal 3:28 “as expressing the core of the Gospel and embodying the highest insights of the biblical writers.” But if an “anti-egalitarian” view is the dominant ideology then is it not possible that the biblical writers did not see it that way and thus there is something within patriarchalism that could be revelatory?

I’ll try and wrap this up tomorrow by looking at some other possible blind spots and responses to the dilemma.

The Rule of Countercultural Witness: Analyzing What Warrants It

I was reading Charles H. Cosgrove’s book, “Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules” The five rules he represents in the book are:

A. The Rule of Purpose
B. The Rule of Analogy
C. The Rule of Countercultural Witness
D. The Rule of Nonscientific Scope
E. The Rule of Moral-Theological Adjudication

As with many books, I don’t always start at the beginning, but rather somewhere the topic is most relevant to what I’m interested in. Well, in this book, that was in the chapter entitled, “The Rule of Countercultural Witness.” The reason this piqued my interest was because of what I think is going on presently in evangelical Christianity –using the presupposition of countercultural witness as a guiding motif in biblical interpretation and practice. This is no different from Christians, for example, using, the Lion motif as opposed to the Lamb motif in their political theology as pointed out by Mark Noll in his book, “Adding Cross to Crown.” Of course, Christians of all stripes have blind-spots. All of us highlight one motif above others ie., don’t we do something similar to this in worship on Sunday mornings where we sing about Jesus being King as opposed to another motif, say, being a lowly servant?

Well, essentially, the rule of countercultural witness basically says that there are dominant norms and values in culture and society and a countercultural witness is that “tendency” which, “…tacitly or expressly assumes, reinforces, or asserts a moral position…against the dominant norms and values of their home culture or environment.” That is to say, that the revelation of God (the true/pure/unmediated word of God) is against all ideologies or against those norms that are oppressive.

According to this rule, there are three theological tenets that are involved in the formulation of the rule:

A. Revelation is against ALL ideology. It is not against culture per se (you can’t have revelation without culture), but against those institutions that “serve the powerful in ways that harm the powerless.”
B. The Bible is the locus of authentic countercultural witness. Scripture teaches that God is the vindicator of the oppressed.
C. Scripture is not to be equated with revelation. It is a fallible human witness and thus carries codes of oppression as well.

At this point Cosgrove breaks down the rule into an equation:

“To say that countercultural voices or tendencies should be given special weight means that they have a presumptively greater claim on Christians than do culturally-affiliating tendencies. The rule works as follows. Where A and B accord authority (weight) to the Bible and where A argues to B that X in scripture “merely reflects the dominant culture of the time” A wants B to infer that X should be given little weight as a witness to divine revelation according to the following tacit logic: (i) divine revelation is inherently anti-ideological; therefore (ii) authentic witness to divine revelation is anti-ideological; for that reason, (iii) authentic witness is typically countercultural in form. Alternatively, where A argues to B that Y in scripture “goes against dominant cultural values ” A wants B to infer that Y has a presumptively greater claim than X as a witness to divine revelation.”

So we begin to see what is going on here. There is what Cosgrove says is an “epistemological privilege” given to the oppressed. We see it with regard not only to the poor but in black, Latin and feminist theologies. What this means is that somehow the oppressed have, in the minds of those who work with this assumption/rule, “a privileged location for discerning truth” because they are the ones who are struggling for liberation from that place. Essentially, one “cannot adequately understand the poor, the marginalized,the powerless, without incorporating the view from below.”

I’ll end this for now, but in the next post, I’ll refer to Cosgrove’s analysis of the rule as it relates to culture and cultural relativity.

Greg Boyd’s Myth Of A Christian Nation Pt 2

Still in the Intro

On page 11 of the intro of Myth under the heading of “The Central Thesis Of This Book” Boyd states,

Rather than focusing our understanding of God’s kingdom on the person of Jesus–who, incidentally never allowed himself to get pulled into the political disputes of his day–I believe many of us American evangelicals have allowed our understanding of the kingdom of God to be polluted with political ideals, agendas, and issues.”

Aside from the problematic hermeneutic of  “following Jesus” in a sort of wooden fashion (it isn’t as if Christians don’t go beyond the Bible to “follow” Jesus) while I generally agree with the idea of Christianity being defined via “political ideals, agendas, and issues” there is a difference between this and God’s call to do justice–which, incidentally is theologically based.  What makes up this theology is not simply the words or actions or life and death of Jesus but the whole of God’s truth or the whole of the biblical drama.  In other words, the creative and powerful acts of God in the O.T. ALSO have something to say to us with regard to doing justice. 

That is, God creates and this creation exists in communion with God (Col 1:16-17).  As a part of this communion with God, God has specific purposes for the distinct and differentiated creation, such that together, they, in their “symphonic dance” reveal God’s glory.   If this is the BASIS for political involvement, then we need to ask how we can make this dance as beautiful as possible (as opposed to the haphazard chaos that existed prior to God’s initial creative act).  The questions that will ultimately need to be asked then are, “How do we do justice to each unique creature such that they can dance the dance? How will they dance to the best of their ability and RE-sponsibility in their uniqueness?  Who besides God can exercise that kind responsibility for ALL creatures?” 

According to the Genesis narratives God gives humans (who are made in his image) responsibility for one another and for all other creatures.  According to Skillen,

“God does justice TO the world, in part by commissioning human beings to exercise justice IN the world.” 

That is, God does justice to humans by making room for them to exercise responsibility that may seem to belong to God.  His image (a RESPONSIBLE God who gives due respect and honor to his creation) is their image (they are a RESPONSIBLE creation who give due respect and honor to the rest of creation).  

So, what does this mean?  Does this mean that justice is grounded in God’s PURPOSES for creation?  That is the uniquesness of God’s creatures? If justice is related to God’s purposes for creation would this be the basis for political involvement and if so,  is it really inappropriate for Christians to have concern for “political ideals, agendas, and issues?”  So, to use an example, let’s say the environment, including animals, mammals, organic organisms, etc, is something God gives us responsibility for, would it not make sense that we humans be concerned about ideals, agendas and issues for how they can dance the dance?