Book Report 4, Part B

Chapter 4.
If the church is to fulfill its mission on the planet as a sign and servant of God's kingdom, then it must yearn for renewal not as an end in itself but in order to bear witness in the world with increased comprehensiveness, clarity, and credibility (106).

I love Eddie Gibbs because of statements like this. There is so much freedom here to move in creative, culturally astute ways so that the church can respond to the needs of people in ways that will freshen their experiences in life and allow God to transcend it. And with such an imperative, Gibbs also cautions and reminds us that we live in a world still awaiting its final consummation and fulfillment in the second coming (whatever that means!), and in the meantime we operate as people continually in need of redemption and reconciliation (107). As a result of living in process, so too, the church ought to always be in process, seeking out this same reconciliation as she creaks like a wooden attic with old age and morphs like a butterfly into new realities. The practical steps of resolution that Gibbs offers church leaders in this chapter exacerbate the point that nominality is present everywhere, even in extremely vibrant faith communities. (Are there nominal new monastics yet?) I loved the portion of this chapter dedicated to the commitment level of the senior pastor (122). I hurt so badly for churches without a vision, floundering along because they are either too concerned with self-preservation or because they are simply exhausted from the grind of serving the world. Gibbs highlights the importance of motivating people for service by reminding them of their God-given abilities and giftedness for such a purpose. I am glad this is addressed.

Chapter 5.
Those who are "spiritually disenfranchised" as a result of geographic relocation or the city church bearing less of a physical presence (when compared to the large mega-church out in the suburbs) does not stir up feelings of sensitivity and mercy in me (133). How is that for some good ole pastoral compassion? (Note the sarcasm I'm employing on myself please!) I found myself very curious about this chapter and those that followed on my initial read-through because Gibbs wanted to address the concerns around pluralism and secularization in urban America as they relate to nominality (133). These seem like issues that if the church could more holistically embrace, it could better minister to nominality rather than perpetuate it, at least in a post-modern framework. The conversation about rapid urban-industrialization, to suburban commodification and development (143-149), and how the church that was lost in the transitions fascinated me because of the ways in which she was constantly unable to maintain pace with her evolving society. So again, the church misses many opportunities to minister to people because it could not translate the gospel message into a modern dialect. As a result, the churches fled to the suburbs with the workers and families. For this reason,

Inner-city ministry demands an incarnational approach by people who are prepared to identify long-term with the community...the most effective years of a person's ministry do not begin until the fourth to seventh year. That figure is extended to ten years in the case of those pastoring in the inner city. And not infrequently it takes ten years in order to begin to make a significant impact...credibility has to be established by making it clear that the leader is there as a matter of calling and choice and is committed for the 'long haul'" (153).

Yet the possibilities are endless if this commitment is made and achieved. This is why movements like New Monasticism, the New Friars, and intentional communities are so invigorating and "successful."

Chapter 6.
The process by which Christians have become a "cognitive minority," that is, a marginalized, theistically thinking group of oddballs, is as follows: 1) relativization, 2) privatization, 3) marginalization, 4) trivialization, 5) commercialization, and 6) sanitization (178-182). While I will not take the time here to define each of these terms again, I will note that the consequences of these steps has encouraged evangelicals to continue with a divide between their public and private domains. So that, when we read the Beatitudes, rather than exegeting them as actual rules for a new community, i.e. the kingdom of God, instead we read them as lovely platitudes reserved for a few elite members of the faith to uphold in solidarity for the rest of us, i.e. monks and nuns. Something tells me Jesus had more of a general populace in mind when he shared his wisdom in a sermon on that particular mount one day so long ago. In this way, just as the first century Jews of Jesus' day found themselves among a transcendent guy who offered a counter-intuitive message that seemed a contradiction to their rulers and powers (197), so too, today, the same transcendent Lord gives divine experiences to those of us in search of meaning. Therefore, how much more is God willing to guide our communities as we extend grace and forgiveness to one another in the name of Christ?

Chapter 7.
This section of the book deals sympathetically and effectively with concerns regarding American religious pluralism. How do churches who have turned inward and grown into a private enclave of like-minded people open themselves again to new people and ideas in such away that promotes a kingdom agenda? Gibbs affirms that this change must take place if the American church hopes to survive amongst so much spiritual fanfare (200). Multiculturalism seems a huge area that many churches struggle to embrace (205). I hope to research more, at some future point, how churches can better embrace their own urban, American, (fill-in-the-blank) identity, yet still seek to incorporate and warmly welcome new cultural traditions and expressions of following Jesus into their overall identity in Christ. So, to answer my earlier question at the start of this post, in my opinion, Gibbs does well to highlight the ways in which pluralism has contributed to nominality, in so far as it is a reason that churches have grown introverted and fearful. This traces me back to my original thought as well, that if congregants could be taught and offered a vision contrary to this fetal position of protection and learn to open their hands of inclusivity, without denying their Jesus-label, then pluralism seems like it could minister greatly to nominality. I do not think I am being too naive here, or too liberal. And while I still want to uphold Gibbs' idea that we need to promote absolutes in the church (chapter 6), I also appreciate and affirm his idea that just as all religions have elements of Truth, so too, they come to us with elements "of a human...nature" (236). If we could readily embrace this, we would be forced to see the gray areas of spirituality, the ambiguity of faith, the mystical parts of God's character, with greater depth. I hope to continue moving in this direction without losing Jesus' impact as I move forward in ministry.

Chapter 8.
At the risk of sounding more critical and negative than I intend, this chapter is perhaps the most out-of-date. However, I still think there is much to glean from it as well. For example consider, "Many leaders are still unable to hear and face up to [the] challenge to rethink their strategies to engage an unchurched culture" (241). Won't this always be true regardless of extenuating, cultural circumstances? Gibbs goes on to underline the danger of church leadership focusing too heavily on programs to the neglect of felt needs (245-246). Again, this will always be a relevant caution, even for those communities who live together, serve together, and raise their kids together. Right?

Finally, Gibbs notes that we need to not be obsessed with an increase in membership more than we are with growing people into more mature disciples of Christ (247). He surmises that a focus only on numbers is detrimental because it refuses to acknowledge that we no longer live in a "churched-culture" (247). I agree. However, (and warning, here comes feminist-Lauren, not that I am apologizing for it), I want to add to that idea that perhaps it is because most of American evangelical and mainline churches up until recently have been led by white males on a quest for power in a country where bigger is always better. I wonder if this temptation to judge our ecclesial success by membership quota and sanctuary size would not so much be the case if the church would have been hearing from women longer? (Perhaps this conjecture is unfair seeing that we will never know the answer. On the other hand, female pastors today are still pulled in more directions than men with all of the familial, vocational, and social hats they must wear in order to do all of their jobs well. So there is little time for touring, book writing, marketing, and church growth workshops that so many men attend. Is this too genderfied...maybe? I realize there are always exceptions.)

In closing, this work has empowered me to confess that nominality still exists in the twenty-first century, and it is enough of a concern that we ought to address it. In order to respond, I hope to continue searching for a rhetoric and new language pieces that will help me articulate the elements of nominality that I hope to address in my own parish ministry as God leads.

P.S. I love Barbara Brown Taylor.

Book Report 4, Part A

Eddie Gibbs' book, In Name Only: Tackling the Problem of Nominal Christianity was originally published in 1994. In other words, it is a bit dated. However, there is somewhat of a void in more recent publications on this issue in the church, one that seems to be for various reasons. Even in the first sentence of the introduction to this weighty work Gibbs notes that any discussion of nominality comes with "hesitancy, recognizing at the outset that it is a subject fraught with problems" (13). He defines nominality as those people who "identify themselves with a cause, but without becoming actively involved" (13). They are associated in name only. One problem I foresee with this as it relates to both the definition and the date of publication is that it assumes a cultural standpoint that no longer exists. Many individuals who may have experienced a connection with God or the church at one point or another in their lives may return to church as a member at a later date out of obligation, in search of a moral authority, or for another reasons like their children, since attending church is a cultural practice. On the contrary, this does not seem to be the case anymore (unless you live in the Southern United States). Many people, many of my friends actually, have decided that regardless of their parents' involvement and/or their own childhood involvement with a local parish, regular church attendance is no longer relevant or necessary for them to live out any sort of faith expression authentically. Now, the power of choice and whether or not an individual wants to go to church trumps cultural obligations which state that a spiritual person should attend church. Having stated that, for the sake of conversation with the text, I will assume that nominality is a relevant concern. (In fact, it is still an issue; I am just in search of new language to talk about it...one of the reasons I signed up for this class.)

Chapter 1.
The Lausanne definition of nominality that is offered presents a fascinating study from an evangelical perspective, like Gibbs notes (22). I especially appreciate his insight that it addresses the nominal individual's continued familiarity with orthodox language, while at the same time addressing the inward reality that he/she may not be able to define that orthodoxy (23). Moreover, without this knowledge then, the individual struggles to practically embrace their orthodoxy in any sort of daily living. I would go on to argue that this may account for the large disconnect that exists in the lives of many evangelical Christians between what they pray, sing, and preach on Sunday mornings verses how they live during the week, careless of the environment, dysfunctional in their relationships, and insecure about their inward commitments to God. As the diagrams and charts display the growing and waning of religiosity in a congregant's life, they are focused on whether or not that person attends services. However, is not the act of growing as a disciple more than just Sunday morning worship? (Again, this is a factor that could be addressed in a revised addition of this book, I think. I want there to be other criteria for assessing nominality outside of regular attendance to services. Then again, maybe this is more about me. I skip church frequently but do not consider myself nominal.)

Chapter 2.
This portion of the book offered me hope and insight. Identifying the insecurity that the second generation of desert-dwelling Israelites must have possessed as they awaited entry into the Promise Land (47) enabled me to locate my own insecurities on 1) a macro-level as a pastor called to serve people in the midst of our own cultural shift from one generation to the next, and on 2) a micro-level as I am called to leave the suburbs and head back to the city for ministry. Transition is risky business, and like Gibbs notes with the Israelites, unfamiliar circumstances lead to feelings of exceptional vulnerability and even isolation (47-48). The breadth of this chapter is amazing. It is enlightening to consider the myriad of ways that the biblical characters dealt with their own culturally relevant issues of nominality. For the same reason that I love my church history classes, this chapter normalized for me all the troubles of the church and the fits that come with syncretism--serving another master besides God. What is more, when Gibbs writes, "Inconsistency and hypocrisy in the life of the professing Christian do not immediately relegate that person to the state of nominality," I sighed in relief. Keeping your worship singular in focus and your vitality for service always ignited is tricky business, and one we are not prone to do successfully all the time. I like the idea that even in times of our own bifurcated existences, we can still be dedicated to the things of life that are worthy.

Chapter 3.
As if Gibbs was reading my mind and understanding the the queries that the previous chapter held for me, he writes:

When the church exists in isolation from society, there is a tendency for broader social issues not to be addressed, with the result that the church member is not adequately equipped to bear witness in the world. Furthermore, the layperson is often left to struggle in isolation, bereft of a supportive fellowship which understands the pressures he or she has to face. It is little wonder that so many people live 'schizophrenic' lives, operating by one set of presuppositions and principles in the church and home and by a different set of standards in the workplace (73).

For so long the church has taught her people that "the world" is a sinful and evil place, unworthy of our attention. It is diluted with angry people and fraught with cynicism. If we want to stay true to our Christian principles, be wary of the world. Unfortunately, this makes for a terribly bifurcated world, a place where the sacred and secular do not mingle. I believe in the opposite. I want to see God at work everywhere, and I believe that there is no place that God cannot and will not go. In this vain, should not the church be univocally promoting a message of love--love for your friends in the work place just as you love your neighbors at church? Perhaps then we would not feel such a strong us-vs.-the world mentality, and we would better be able to embrace not only those who do not share our religious convictions, but also those who at one time did, but have decided to release those once common beliefs. Gibbs accurately relies on rather caustic words when describing the rejection of church by nominal Christians: They say that churches are "cold, abrasive, and judgmental" (81), "insensitive and overaggressive" (82), along with "culturally irrelevant" (84). What would happen if instead, there was an offering of love? If I ever stop asking that question, then I will probably be done with the church myself!

Book Report 3, Part B

Bessenecker opens chapter six by delving into the parable of the sheep and the goats of Matthew 25. I have looked at this parable significantly over the last quarter or so of my education here at Fuller. I appreciate all that Bessenecker added to my thoughts on it. But what is more, it is immensely helpful in this work when he attaches personal encounters with people that are mirrors of the gospel message he is preaching. The story of St. Patrick that is interwoven into this chapter on the brokenness and frailty of the human existence, even among the new friars is inspiring and hopeful. In this way, efforts by the new friars to "embrace the messiness of community" seems realistic and possible (105).

Chapter seven touches on a touchy subject, common possessions. He writes, "There is something about intertwining our lives with others to the extent that possessions or space or time are held in common that offends Western sensibilities" (107). His use of the verb, "offends" connotes several strong images in my mind when I make a concerted effort digest this comment. I think he is correct. How, in our fragmented, suburban, fenced in, well lit lifestyles have we become so isolated and individualistic, both in our piety and sociability that we are offended by the mere idea of community to such a degree as this? I realize the answer to that question is fairly complex, and outside the parameters of this book report; still, he raises an important question, one that other writers of Christian simplicity like Richard Foster and Ronald Sider have also asked. If the rich sacrifice their opulence, are there enough resources in the world to satisfy us all adequately (108)? The quest of the new friars to lay aside American privatization and individuality for the sake of community relationships (including the grief and loss that accompanies impoverished areas) has led them to "relational wealth"--a concept shallow suburbia will never be able to understand, much less emulate (118).

Bessenecker offers a phrase that I want to adapt, "cocoons of familiarity" (127). As Tyler and I discuss what it will mean for the safety of our family to move into the ghetto, or at least a lower-class, urban area, we recognize with Bessenecker that the "pursuit of God's kingdom is a powerfully motivating force" even as it is "fraught with discomfort, failure, sickness, discouragement, and danger...leading us out of our cocoons of familiarity" (127). I am a firm believer that it is more dangerous to ignore the call of God on our lives than it is to pave a way to make that same call a reality.

As he near the close of his book he begins a discussion about how those who minister to the marginalized are bound to set themselves up for rejection. I do not find this all that intimidating, perhaps I am merely being naive. But is this not part of my denominational past, as a current Anabaptist, and also part of the larger Christian past, especially before Constantine? Finding my place in the meta-narrative of Christianity means coming to terms with disengagement with the empire and the ruling elite. This is why this point of new monasticism is so appealing to me, I guess.

In the concluding chapter he quotes the World Bank, "the late 20th century will go down in world history as a period of global impoverishment marked by the collapse of productive systems in the developing world, the demise of national institutions and the disintegration of health and educational programmes" (157). What a time for ministers of the gospel to practice the incarnation and offer the good news that the kingdom of God is near! This is why environmental conservation coupled with sustainable farming and other green practices in our homes has become paramount in our efforts to offer resources to the poor; otherwise, we will soon rid ourselves of the resources that the rich currently take for granted. In this way, Bessenecker ushers in a call to all of us when he writes, "the poor suffer most when the earth suffers, and the earth is in bad shape at the moment" (159). So as we move forward in an effort to "embrace marginalization" as followers of Christ, let us also shake our fists at unjust regimes, share our prayers with the hurting and impoverished, and live together under the hut of God's love.

Book Report 3, Part A

Written by Scott Bessenecker, an employee of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, this book describes the ways in which a sect of Christianity is making efforts to reconnect with the world's poor by mimicking the work of particular monastic legends, like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Patrick. These Christians confess that "God's plan was to keep the gap between rich and poor small...because both [the rich and the poor] deserve the dignity of sufficiency" (43). It is an admirable feat in my opinion, to turn one's "back on the 'American Dream' and a life of conspicuous consumption" in order to turn, instead, to God's dream of "simplicity and compassion" (13). I find very interesting his readiness to admit that the church often loses her emotional vigor with the onset of new movements and subsequently dies, and has died several times throughout the ages of her past and present (16). This in part is why I have been suspect of New Monasticism, I suspect? Who is to say this is more than another bandwagon effort to renew the church and keep her relevant in a culture obsessed with improvement? But Bessenecker goes on to say that this movement is different in that it comes on the cusp of many new developments and stems not from a position of power and influence, but with a grassroots mentality appropriated through equal leadership of service. I am inspired by the plethora of organizations and churches he names who are engaged in this work of serving the poor as the poor throughout the world.

As he began chapter 2 recalling his experiences in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, I was drawn back to my experiences in Dhaka and Rajshahi, Bangladesh. The corrugated-tin walled houses, covered with thatch roofs, stacked above sewage, stinking of stale air, and packed full of families line the city streets this country. The people are beautiful and in great need. They lack not only the resources for solid education, but frequently the ability to attend the schools or places of employment that are available to them as well. It is yet another example of the "poverty you cannot break out of" (29). I like the bold statement, "So long as there is someone desperate enough to work for a dollar or two a day, there is someone else willing to exploit that labor for those of us who just want a cheap pair of jeans" (33). This is harrowing and honest. It forces us to deal with a personal issue on a corporate level. How can changing our own behaviors in the mundane of daily living affect for better the living conditions of the poor, especially those who dwell in the developing world? I believe strongly that decisions like refusing to offer our patronage to large (and evil?) corporate chains like Walmart is a small contribution. However, this simple act still does not connect us with the poor themselves, and it seems to be Bessenecker's argument that first and foremost we must in engage with the poor on a personal level before we can fully recognize the enormous amount of changing we must do ourselves in order to lessen their plight (35-36).

The "pull forces" of poverty are those that contribute to a generational cycle of "destitution and the intractability of the most desperate forms of poverty" (44). They reside in our cultures (44), our personal approaches to the issues of poverty (49), are are being disengaged through the work of spiritual forces like the new friars (54). However, his discussion of the forces of evil that manifest themselves so readily in the lives of the homeless and poor bring to the surface a theological question that I am working through right now. He notes that issues like drug addiction, emotional resignation, greed, prostitution, and sweatshops are "things dreamed up in hell..." (56-57). Yet, I want to believe that even in the midst of deplorable sweatshop conditions, God can still find room in there to work with and minister to the young women making gym shoes for Nike in Indonesia at some nine cents an hour. If we insinuate that these hellacious conditions are only from hell, (and I am not sure if he means that literally or metaphorically), then does that negate any potential for the incarnation to be present even in such horrid spaces? Is not hell the absence of the presence of God? All this to say, while I am very willing to confess that issues and places such as these are evil and the result of systemic injustices embedded deep within our cultural milieu, I am not comfortable saying that they are from hell. I want to believe in the power of redemption, and to me, hell negates that power.

Bessenecker uses a powerful word to describe one of the purposes of the incarnation, "solidarity" (60). Simply stated he writes, "There is something about living with a group of people that changes the dynamic of a relationship" (60). As I was speaking with a friend the other day about my desire to live in an urban environment among the poor she noted that a pastor friend of hers in a similar position said that it is not difficult to give up all the stuff--the new ipod or cool jeans or flat screen tv's. The part that is difficult in living with the poor is figuring out how to minister to them. I have been pondering this heavily ever since she shared it with me. This is what Jesus mastered! He gave up life enthroned with God to take on the likeness of humanity, and he ministered to them by serving them, dying for them, and paving the way for them to receive the great paraklete. Bessenecker argues that this is what those who live in voluntary poverty are doing as well (65).

Chapter 5 discusses this concept of incarnational ministry through poverty more intimately by bringing to light the power games that are ignored when both the minister and recipient of ministry are economic equals. "When the poor see 'outsiders' [those who rejected a status of privilege] subject to the very same conditions and realities under which they are suffering, something very powerful emerges in the nature of the relationship" (76). This leads me to rethink some of my earlier critiques of new monasticism. I am negotiating the lines between living with the poor as opposed to being impoverished as well. Many members of new monastic communities continue on with their white collar jobs, which are the result of many years of expensive educations, while their fellow community members might also continue in their minimum wage paying blue collar positions barely making ends meet. Is this acceptable with the presence of a common purse? Are there not still power-plays at work? Basically, I want to practically know what this looks like. Bessenecker has helped me articulate finally some more of these questions. He writes, "Intractable poverty is evil" (80). And as a means of combating this evil, Jesus precipitated the coming of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is present to all, even in the slums, even in aids-ravaged villages, and even to people who are plagued with mental illness and abandoned on skid row. But they can only know of this kingdom if those who bear it live with them (80). This is a very powerful statement, one that is changing my life right now as a result of reasons beyond my control. So that, when he closes the chapter with the following statement, I cannot subdue the quickening in my heart beat:

But with a compulsion to incarnate the gospel among the bottom of the human food chain comes also a quest for devotion and spirituality that is hard to achieve in a life of material overabundance. Following Christ in his example of downward mobility brings a kind of intimacy and identification with the Savior that can be experienced in few other ways (84). Wow.

Book Report 2, Part B

Part VI.
I found this to be the most interesting part of the book. With the in depth look at Martha Stewart, Paris Hilton, and Ellen Degeneres, as well as a few other celebrities (K-Fed, Britney, Jessica Simpson, and Vanilla Ice), this section aimed to describe and define the parameters of the anti-fan. Jenkins offers the idea, in relation to Martha Stewart fandom that one becomes a fan not necessarily by the shows they watch on television, but by translating that viewing into a "cultural activity, by sharing feelings and thoughts about the program content with friends, by joining a community..." (305). This seems to be true based on personal experience. However, this also seems to be an adequate definition for the anti-fan as well. Does not the critic of Martha Stewart also frequently watch her show, in community, in order to criticize and further define their rejection of her? So it is with Paris Hilton and other celebrity groupies as well. Like the Martha Stewart article notes in the close, Stewart's time in jail and "punishment made Stewart a more likable figure" (314). It seems that the masses hover over a good scandal, perhaps in an effort to ignore the stress and normalcy of their own existence. At least, this was part of the argument for Paris Hilton, and her ability to build a Hollywood business on little to no talent. So much so, that her boyfriend wrecks her Bentley while drunk one weekday night after leaving a Hollywood nightclub drunk. And the media is crazed to present this story as much as additional information about Hurricane Katrina victims and ongoing actions of the Iraq War, also two relevant cultural events (328). Consider the following:

Americans take inequalities of birth, wealth, and opportunity in stride; but in a cultural economy where fame is inexorably replacing talent as the coin of the realm, a nagging residual Protestant work ethic still expects fame to be earned...Most Americans have learned to tolerate trust-fund kids as an annoying side effect of capitalism, but when the insanely overprivileged refuse to enjoy their wealth and leisure in private, demanding instead that we must bear public witness to their privileges as 'talent' or 'allure,' they transgress a much more powerful moral boundary, one that has allowed the fabulous and the drably normal to survive in nervous harmony (329-330).

Perhaps this is indirectly my preferred definition of the anti-fan. I reject Paris Hilton and all that she stands for her in lavishness and arrogance. However, like anyone else checking out at the grocery, I glance at the tabloids wondering what she's up to now. Then when I push my cart of baby formula, milk, and eggs to my car (all necessities with little money for fluff) and I am feeling drab about my unstylish outfit, broken flipflops, and flat hair, I cannot help but consider Paris again in all of her glamour and excess. Surely, America's obsession with her, as she is a symbol of all the privileged elite, is not so much about her lifestyle, which I would argue is lonely, empty, and inauthentic, but more about a longing for what we think will make us happy. So then as I load my groceries into the car, more than any prior feelings reminding me of my lack of glamour, instead I am indignant at her insincere idiocy, my temptation to read the stories about her, and Americans as a result spending more money they do not have to emulate her look of perfection in a personal quest for greater significance. What is more, as I pull into my driveway, unstrap my kids from their carseats, and navigate my way into the house, I move into a mood of grief. Thinking about the Katrina victims, the families who are losing their children in the war, and all of the Americans in insurmountable debt, I hurt for Paris Hilton and the creature she feels she must continue to be in order to be loved (albeit not very fully). Surely, God loves Paris as well. So then my anti-fan status migrates into a deep appreciation for all that Paris could be to the world with her privilege and unlimited resources if someone would only take the time to authentically care for her and show her how to do good. In this way, my anti-fandom transforms into empathetic fandom in a give-and-take tango, as I dance my way through such complex thoughts and emotions; yes, even at the grocery.

If I am my own "media outlet," which Jenkins defends (358), and I adopt, then as a participating consumer in American culture, (a.k.a. "prosumers" (360)) the role that I will play in future media events will grow in significance. Jenkins considers the slew of media participatory venues available on the world wide web that enable prosumers to create, design, and implement their own identity and way of participating in the world--Flickr, youtube, del.i.cious and Ebay, just to name a few (357). These virtual communities, many of which I participate in, means that "this kind of fandom is everywhere and all the time, a central part of the everyday lives of consumers operating within a networked society" (361). So that, asserts Jenkins, the new ideal for the American consumer is a fan, someone who shares a product with her community and promotes new ideas in said community (361). In this way, I recognize my contributions to a culture of fandom. I love one of the questions with which the book closes: "Where does grassroots culture end and commercial culture begin" (364)? Since this ambiguity is so immense, I hope to embrace the lines between reform and conformity as I continue to negotiate how to best live out my Christian convictions in a media-hyped, celebrity-obsessed, competition-driven society.


Book Report 2, Part A

So, my second book report, one of the required readings for the class, follows. Since this text is so detailed, rather than discuss each individual essay, I intend to address each of the five segments in the collective work. (Hope that's okay.)

This conglomeration of essays discuss what it means to be a fan today. As the introduction states clearly, where as in the past decade or two, fandom was labeled as the 'Other' in our society as a result of their oddities and disempowerment (1, 3), today, fans are the target groups of marketers and business entrepreneurs, such is the beauty of capitalism. What was once labeled weird and "introverted" (4) is in the contemporary society cool and "extroverted" (4), assuming you can make money off of it. The book uses the illustration of Trekkies and their subculture as the eccentric fans, with Potterheads (followers of Harry Potter) as current fans who are hip and mainstream. In addition to our economy paving the way for this change, so too, the authors describe our media presentations, the ways that they have shifted, and subsequently how they have shaped our response to fan cultures, and how we see ourselves participating in them now, rather than rejecting or stereotyping them. It is after all now, cool, right? What is more, celebrities give all of us permission to associate with the socially proper object of our obsessions. Boy am I glad that I obsess over Grey's Anatomy and Sex in the City reruns instead of other more juvenile options like Miley Cyrus or nerdier shows like my brother wants to marry, Northern Exposure. (I guess I have a thing for watching dysfunctional relationships unfold.) The idea that blackberries, ipods, laptops, tv's, cell phones, and even the internet sites we browse (8) all empower us to better identify with our subculture obsession du jour, barely earmarks the significance of this cultural shift from fans-are-geeks mode to a fans-are-everyone-including-me mentality.

Part I.
This first section is weighty with its sociological jargon and defensive projections about the study of fandom as it relates to larger fields of study in the (American) academy. However, I appreciate the comments that deal more specifically with how media and cultural studies may benefit from more honesty, especially by academicians (who pride themselves on being neutral in their value judgments) admitting that we are all inevitably affected by aesthetic judgments (44). If this were the case, Hills labels this less "reflexive" approach to aesthetic judgments as "hermeneutic constructions of self-identity, and a recognition of how these may be both ideological and opposed to specific ideologies" (45). In a similar vein, the subsequent article about cyber Beatles fans states in its conclusion that "ideology plays no role in the negotiation of meaning surrounding a neutrosemic cultural object" (58). Scodari goes on to assert that in her study of Yoko Ono's influence on the break-up of the Beatles, it would be beneficial to follow-up her fandom studies with an analysis of the trajectories the fans followed as they jumped from one fan culture to another in search of their "ideological" and "subjective" icons (59). It seems then, that in this way, as we are all fans seeking an aesthetically pleasing ideal in which to place our loyalty, we do well to remember that whatever whoever it is that we situate are affections in, the likelihood that it is our full ideal, worthy of our allegiance, is a false platitude.

Part II.
The initial article in this second portion of the book intrigued me quite a bit. The idea that people watch ongoing news television and internet channels for different reasons, other than to acquire information about their world has always peaked my curiosity. In his work, Gray offers three reasons why people watch the news: 1) emotional appeal (77), 2) larger community (81), and 3) to be skeptical of the emotional appeal. In regards to political shows and heavily biases news channels, like Fox News, people can present a candid portrayal of complex events with a desire to promote an emotive uprising among the recipients of the message. Then those recipients are able to turn to their virtual online communities of chatrooms, blogs, and op-ed pieces in order to conglomerate further about their likes and dislikes of the particular news program. Likewise, the skeptics of this emotional appeal to our news presentations are forces to realize that "absolutely rationality would leave no room for caring, for personal or communal drive, nor for belief, engagement, or enjoyment, all of which are basic requirements for an active electorate" (86). In this way, this article inspired me to watch an evening news program (Katie Couric), which I usually find to be boring, in an effort to compare it with more relevant and entertaining and satirical news shows like The Daily Show. Both of them are emotional and have a community of followers, and therefore, both offer the average American ways to better participate in their culture through voting elections, philanthropic responses to tragedy, etc.

Part III.
Part three investigates the success stories of different fancultures by discussing how these lucrative and well-known icons have created adequate space for their devotees to gather and follow. Couldry's essay takes the reader onto the set of the popular HBO series, The Sopranos. Many of the scenes in which the show was filmed were on the streets of New York City and sparked an increase in tourism to those sites (141). The author himself confesses to preparing special meals from The Sopranos Cookbook when hosting a small group of like-minded fans to dinner before the airing of the next episode. The author questions, "How would my 'internal' account of my visit fit, if at all, with any 'external' sociological interpretation (let alone deconstruction) I might imagine myself making of the same experience" (141)? He goes on at this point to discuss the venues that media creates on a larger scale. We feel "near" to a character, even though we are geographically distant or, especially if the character is fictional (142). It can then be disconcerting to realize that we are not in close association with the given character and disillusion us from the entire fandom experience. I feel like I experience this frequently when I am reading various blogs. Often I can complete a sentence of a blogger that I follow religiously, and pride myself on my ability to be so well-informed and orthodox in my interpretation of his statements. However, I have to be honest with myself and admit that I probably just as frequently misunderstand his points and theology by the mere fact that he lives o the other side of the country in a completely different context, not to mention that he is writing from a different gender perspective and is a different generational bracket. So, in this way, yes, I am a fan of this blog, but what is more, I do not fully know the author like I want to claim.

Part IV.
The global perspectives offered in the essays in this part of the book were enlightening and helped me to better understand why various film followings are so consumed with their subjects. Ideas like Indian-film, violence and East Asian film, Korean film, and issues like global fandom in general point to our fascination with broad ranging ideas. The ideas of nationalism (229), consumerism, and emotion that was part of the all the essays, reminded me that despite our geographic distance, the entire global community shares a fascination with "popular phenomenon" whether they are contemporary or archaic, optimistic or negative, communal or in isolation (230). We are fall fans, joined together by common interest.

Part V.
Speaking to the marginalization of females in sports fandom, to the rise of technology in music fan communities, the fifth chapter to this book highlights the sweeping changes in the history of fandom. I was drawn to the article about female sports the most since, I too, am a woman seeking a vocational experience in a male-dominated field, i.e. church leadership. Gosling, the author begins by saying that sport, for men and women, plays a defining role in its ability to help shape our identity in so far as it encourages us to articulate where we originate and where we hope to go (251). This is why it is so problematic that "many sports and sport venues are the site of overt sexism and aggressive masculine behavior" (253). Is this not also mirrored in the church?

Women's marginal position within sport fan cultures means that their legitimacy as sport fans is often questions, even though there is some evidence to suggest that women may be more dedicated and loyal to the sports they follow. This questioning of authenticity and loyalty could simply be seen as an expression of men's fears over women invading their traditionally masculine space; however, it plays an important role in marginalizing female fans (260).

This quote underlines for me that ongoing gender issues in our culture. Sometimes I feel like since the feminist movement has more or less come and gone (via Gloria Steinam, Naomi Wolffe, and other great authors), unsuspecting people think that women now have equal opportunities and rights. I would argue contrary to this. The glass ceiling effect in the business place, the sports arena (as seen here), and in the political climate of our country still exists, not to mention the religious one as well. And while I feel called to the pastorate, I do not feel led to vocally berate churches and denominational organizations for their continued sexism and the ways in which they perpetuate sexism throughout America. On the other hand, I do feel called to rise up against this. I am not sure at this point what the means or how that practically plays out. In other words, I am not a fan of male domination. On the other hand, I am a fan of speaking truth, living functionally, and going against the flow of the staus quo when the timing is right.


A New Church Find

This is what I'm talking about these days--a church that embraces plurality in the name of their unity, cares about the poor, is lead by women, and is open and affirming to everyone! United Parish Church of Brookline, MA just accounted for the 251st reason that I want to move to Boston! It's a merger of three churches originally in Brookline: American Baptist, United Methodist, and United Church of Christ, all of which were struggling on their own. They joined together in the '70's, maintain even today their separate denominational affiliations so that when someone joins, they pick which denomination they're joining, and they busy themselves with social work that extends well beyond the walls of their sanctuary. (Oddly enough, the Baptist Church was sold and deconstructed for a new development, and the Methodist church is now condos in the original structure, not an uncommon New England site at all!) Okay, the last thing is that the senior pastor graduated with her M.Div. from Harvard Div School where for her senior thesis thingy she did a project on New Monasticism in the late 80's. Pretty cool...


Book Report 1, Part C

Almost anyone who has seen violence longs for some balm to heal the wound that it exposes. The peace of Christ has been a comfort to young men in foxholes, mothers back at home, conscientious objectors sitting in prison, and martyrs who refused to fight. Our violent world aches in anticipation of the kingdom of peace that it was made for. That Jesus came preaching peace is good news for all of us (110).

This outstanding quote by Wilson-Hartgrove addresses the importance of a non-violent, turn-the-other-cheek agenda, without demeaning those who are not pacifists. His sensitivity tempered with his call to action offers readers a challenge without invoking resentment or fear. As a member of a peace church, my church community has demonstrated well for me the benefits of peacemaking as it is at odds with "the world." Wilson-Hartgrove's addendum as he interprets it from Ephesians, that all can be reconciled back to God through the cross, which is part of the church, gives us hope and a directive to expect such reconciliation among enemies in the name of Jesus through the body of the church. What a powerful mission for the church to express and practice. But, like he points out in the example of racism in the South (112-114), the church seemingly is better at constructing walls of division and hate, rather than living in the truth that Jesus has already laid those walls to rest.

What new monastic communities have found is that when you start walking in Jesus's way of peace you inevitably get in the way of the death-dealing powers in this world. This can be frightening, since no one wants to die...It's scary to look death in the face, but it's even more frightening to imagine life outside the body where we are reconciled with God through the crucified flesh of Jesus (115).

I found this community's experiences with civil disobedience protesting the death penalty admirable, gutsy, and worth emulating.

In chapter eight, Wilson-Hartgrove raises to question our call to unity as brothers and sisters in Christ, both on an individual level, but more importantly, also on a church-to-church level. He states that the only way to Christian unity is through the grace and truth of Christ. The reality of this sentence is one, which he claims and I support, that has kept churches uninterested (120) for quite a while, arguably since her inception in the first century. The misfortune of this reality has given way to the plurality of American denominations, sects, and splits. So, I wonder then, in an effort to embrace our American, Christian pluralism but also as a means of challenging the sheer existence of it, how do we practically enact and practice the art of reconciliation, especially between rural, urban, suburban, and ex-burban ecclesial communities?

At this point, Wilson-Hartgrove offers one solution by the name of "grassroots ecumenism" (132). This is inspiring, and it seems as if it can be a reality of different-minded people coming together under the cross through acts of loving one another. For this reason, I am a huge supporter of small groups in church building their time together on service opportunities and projects rather than through shared interests. It appears from my own experience in the church that if small groups and churches are insular and concerned with being like-minded they will turn away from the needs of the world and build up another protective wall around their borders. But if individuals concentrate their energies on the "loving of God and loving one another" the need for fort defenses and border control fades into the background and enables sundry people to unite for a common purpose.

At the close of this chapter when the author is lamenting the ways in which the church fails to serve one another because we fail to know the basic needs of the other, since we fail to engage in life with the other, my heart started pounding (138-140). The reverb of this beating is the motivation for much of why I want to pastor--to help the children of God live out the hope and truth of their callings enough (to regress back to Ephesians for a moment) and to know their neighbors enough, that service does not need to happen through programming or intentionality, but that it just is, because the needs are present and known and addressed...naturally. What a beautiful picture, and I think right now it is possible because of places like the Rutba house where it is already happening. It is breaking down some of my cynicism about the shortcomings of the church and reminding me that God has not yet given up on the church.

And it doesn't make any more sense to pretend that we can take care of each other through "random acts of kindness" than it does to imagine that preachers can proclaim good news through random inspiration...When we tend to one another, God's glory is revealed. And it looks like a culture of grace where people care enough about one another to speak the truth in love (140).

Wilson-Hartgrove closes his book with a humble and profound thought: new monastics need the church because they, like all of us, are a people of God (141). And as people of God, so he says, just as we need our Father who art in heaven, we also need our mother who teaches us to confess and instructs us as to the ways of reconciliation via the roads of grace and truth (142). For this reason, I always have been and hope to always be, prochurch!--it truly is the hope of the world as she is founded on Jesus and lead forth by the Spirit.


Book Report 1, Part B

“What game does the Bible gives us instructions for?” is metaphor that opens chapter 4 and highlights the readiness with which we misinterpret Scripture. In this mindset, recognizing that we might be reading the Bible as a rule book for the wrong game then proffers us freedom to reinterpret it (58), as a community (60) for the right game--the game of life as a people called by God. I wonder about the story he shares regarding the San Francisco community. I do not know how I feel about the call to live as “set apart,” especially with external markers like cross necklaces (cf. 64-65). We are invited into this redemption narrative through grace, not merit, and certainly not because we are Jewish like the Israelites of the Torah--so, I'm not sure that comparison is valid. While I think we are called to speak a different language than that of the world, namely a language built on the love of Christ, it seems like that should be enough to set us apart. Let people know that we are Jesus-followers not by our jewelry, but by our love and acceptance.

I found myself tracking with Wilson-Hartgrove throughout this entire chapter until the very end when he writes,

But if pledging our allegiance is a way of saying who we are and where we’re going…we’ve got to say that our primary commitment is to the church (73).

No, not the church…Jesus! My primary commitment is to Jesus. Like the hymn sings, “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord.”—not herself! He goes on to say that our churches must then get serious about their membership (73); I totally disagree. Our churches need to get serious about loving God and loving God’s people (he did say this earlier). I readily understand and adopt his point that our ecclesial communities need to be more than just another event to attend in a suburban lifestyle that is already jammed full with too many events. But the church is not going to be legit with such a subversive message (that it is a way of life and not an activity) if it is about membership and loyalty to community over allegiance to Jesus and the kingdom of God.

The discussion that Wilson-Hartgrove begins on page 80 is the piece in this puzzle that moves me the most. Moving into places that the Empire has rejected seems to me to not only be what Jesus modeled in who he spoke to and ate with, but even more realized in the fact that our allegiance is found in the Kingdom of God, as it was brought about by Jesus (which is why I cannot pledge my allegiance to the church). The poor, the mentally ill, the imprisoned, the handicap, the hungry, the ugly, the non-white, the immigrant, etc. live in areas of America that Capitol Hill, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Rodeo Drive, and the Magnificent Mile do not pay much attention to. I share this call with the new monastics to give voice and attention to these citizens by living with them. Jesus epitomized the significance of grass-roots movements such as these. I love this principle of new monasticism! While Wilson-Hartgrove does not call every American citizen into the new monastic movement, he does emphatically state, "...The renewal of the church depends on our relocating" (86). His idea bout Sunday School classes leaving the church education wing and moving into the turf of those who are marginalized is brilliant--too bad many of these people would then have to drive 30+ minutes to get to a region of oppression. What, then? Not that I am expecting Wilson-Hartgrove to have all of these answers; I am merely asking more questions the book raised for me.

In regards to the finance chapter, how fitting that it begins with a prayer, and not just any prayer, the Lord's Prayer. As this prayer comes at the close of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel, it also serves to encapsulate everything Jesus had just finished teaching. So, I find it enlightening that only in learning to pray in community "Thy kingdom come..." that an individual can then expect to share their financial resources with the entire community, taking serious the call in Acts 4:32 about a common purse and and receiving their "daily bread." In this way, the marriage metaphor that the community in Eugene, OR, Church of the Servant King uses is perfect, and also one that Wilson-Hartgrove briefly references (94). I learned from the discussion on God's abundance. Jesus is not an emissary from a scarce, simple God. Instead, Jesus represents the God who turned five loaves and two fish into enough to feed thousands, and a God who made light, and a God who sacrificed all of his son, and on and on (97). This is a beautiful image of God. How much more is God's abundant love for us? I wish our churches could preach this message more; I find it very liberating. It is, like Wilson-Hartgrove acknowledges, an economic point-of-view radically different from the world's perspective of scarcity and limited resources (98).


Book Report 1, Part A

I will be taking a class in a few weeks entitled "Evangelizing Nominal Christians: What Churches Can Learn From Monks and Trekkies." It's taught by Ryan Bolger and TA'd by Wess Daniels, who is a friend from church. (Check out their sites, they're pretty great.) I have to post four book reports, which I will do here.

The first book, New Monasticism: What it Has to Say to Today's Church is one that I have already briefly discussed on my wealth and poverty blog. Because I have too much to say about this movement, my first report will come to you in three parts. This first posting refers to the first three chapters of the book.

I picked this book up with a certain amount of skepticism (actually quite a bit, if I’m really going to be honest). Why has this movement been so heavily marketed? Why are the vocal leaders seemingly just another group of white males? And as a close friend noted, what historical movement has named itself? Plus, is this idea of communal living and shared resources really all that “new?” At the risk of sounding pompous, in case I don’t yet, I was struck with mixed emotions upon the introduction to Wilson-Hartgrove’s work.

While my questions still stand, I was struck by his humility. Writing as if this new monastic way of life is only one more attempt to practice church-ing and a way to minister, yet also as if this movement offers the casual church go-er more than just feel-good spirituality, Wilson-Hartgrove provided me with a lens in which I could read his work as a learner and participant. While he is fairly overt in his claim that this is the future of the church if the church plans to survive, his overall presentation of the movement itself and his personal experiences with it are less dogmatic. When he writes, “So many Christians in America today feel paralyzed by the paradox of a church that promises so much yet seems so hard to find in reality,” in regards to the contemporary church, I found myself agreeing (19). On the other hand, I cannot adapt the dominant phrase of his initial chapter, “It’s hard to be a Christian in America” (18).

I am not sure I understand this phrase. When Wilson-Hartgrove speaks of war, racism, immigration, abortion, and billboards (in that they symbolize a quest for perfection and sexuality, or bad theology) as markers that highlight the difficulty of professing our Christianity in America, I agree that these issues are troublesome, but I do not believe that these realities make it any “harder” in America to follow Jesus than elsewhere. In fact, I would like to argue that compared to what it must be like to be a middle-eastern Christian is much more difficult than an American one. However, I am trying to understand his point that the current status of the American church, evangelical or catholic, charismatic or liturgical, is that it has failed in certain ways to serve the people of God by neglecting to fully offering life and hope. Let us simply not isolate that experience to us Americans, however.

Wilson-Hartgrove’s discussion of how his time with Shane Claiborne and the people at Simple Way taught him the importance of reading Scripture with the marginalized and oppressed people emphasized well how important it is to lay aside critical understandings of these holy writings (25). The uncritical reader, the readers who are not theologically trained, and those outside of the biblical academic milieu provide alternative hermeneutical approaches that are not only just as viable, but wholly authentic and necessary, especially for someone in seminary training to pastor like myself. The author also makes the point that New Monasticism, may not be all that “new” by describing several other American intentional communities. However, while he admits the temptation is there to view it as such, he hopes new monasticism is more than just another fad, a church meme that is the latest bandwagon of relevant activity. Even in his attempts to recognize it as another fad for church in American Christianity, he writes,

Maybe everyone who finds Christian community chooses it because it offers something new…But I have stuck with it because I believe it part of something eternal—part of God’s plan to redeem the world through a peculiar people (34).

I am thankful that Wilson-Hartgrove places this redemptive activity of New Monasticism appropriately into the context of the entire meta-narrative of Christianity and God’s redemptive plan when he states that “New Monasticism doesn’t mean a departure from God’s movement in the past (34). He does this even more explicitly in chapter 3, where he outlines the historicity of several monastic orders. As a current member in an Anabaptist church (Pasadena Mennonite), I value the way in which he attributes the desire for the radical-reformers to re-baptize as less of a theological principle, and more about allegiance within church-state, socio-political issues. Furthermore, his discussion about the slave churches (53-54) reminds me of my earlier point about the bounty that comes from approaching Scripture with ordinary people on the fringes of society. Scripture teaches, then, about liberation and healing—two realities white, middle-class people in America rarely need, at least politically. He ends the chapter with,

These saints who’ve called us back to our roots generation after generation reminds us that the roots of God’s kingdom…spread beneath the surface, effecting change from below (54).

This attitude of simplicity earmarks the entire movement as a positive one in my opinion. I want to emulate it in my own pastoral ministry, especially as I envision it unfolding in urban America.