Saturday, May 05, 2007

Through a Glass Darkly

On Friday Tripp(follow the link to see his blog notes from the conference) and I went the the annual U of C Divinity school Ministry Conference. This years topic was the Church and Pop culture, with an emphasis on the communications and entertainment technologies.
The day opened with a short worship service with preacher Dr. Douglas Sharp from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. The keynote speaker was Lauren Winner who wrote Girl Meets God, Mudhouse Sabbath and Real Sex. The afternoon consisted of two panel discussions the first one on Church and popular Culture and the second on Disciple ship in the Media Age.

Being on the campus of the University of Chicago is always for me an invigorating experience, though it is also odd since the academic environment now feels slightly foreign to me, and yet at one time I longed to be in this particular academic environment. Now I could not see myself being at home in such an environment, perhaps because I have become more nomadic, I live in so many places, I draw from many wells.

On some level I am puzzled at all the anxiety about the future of the churches and this feeling that the churches are failing to engage culture. Mostly because I think all this anxiety is an attempt to preserve or recreate a way and system of engagement with culture that at best will only exist in certain pockets or possibly in the Global South. In some sense I sensed that this conference both in the presenters and participants there was this sense that for the church to engage culture some form of Christendom must be preserved.

Of the presenters Lauren Miller seemed the least prone to this implicit confusion of Christendom and Church. Though even she mentioned a longing for an aspect of Christendom the parish system of organizing congregations. Though I think her longing has a valid ecclesial component namely the need to recapture the local embodiment of the universal body of Christ. In some sense the niceties necessary for an interdenominational conference on ministry actually probably disallowed for the ecclesialogical clarity necessary to really face head on the issue of the engagement and interface of Church and culture in the midst of various media technologies that both useful and challenging to churches. These niceties are themselves the creation of the American Protestant form of Christendom that has existed, and is slowly crumbling as we speak, in the United States. It is a long time since the churches and individual Christians have had to respond creatively, or "creatingly" as Winner coined in her keynote address. How I take Lauren Winner's charge to us to engage culture creatingly, is to assume that Christianity is loosing its influence in our culture and that it has lost the relevance it once had. To engage creatingly is assume that churches and Christianity will only at best be one of a cacophony and/or polyphony(to echo Fr. Foley's notion of God at work in the World) of voices. There is then in taking up this posture a critical engagement with culture and its artifacts that accepts that there will always be a certain amount of dissonance between the artifacts of our cutlure and Christian faith and practice in our churches. This will mean that those who simply inhabit our culture either without reflection or as its main drivers will probably not feel at home in our churches. This unease that Christianity creates among segments of our culture may in fact be a good thing.

It is fascinating to me that Christendom was not mentioned at all, especially since Christendom has been the primary form that engagement of church and culture has taken for the churches wherever Christians attain a majority and thus influence and power (Even secularist Europe hasn't been able to shake off all the forms this has taken). In some sense the most offensive aspect of Christianity in the States at the moment is the Religious Right which is simply the most obvious way of engaging our culture quite directly, but in a radical attempt to keep Christendom from crumbling. However, the Religious Right is simply one aspect of this sort of engagement founded on the assumption of Christendom as the form of Christian engagement with culture. The first Panel in varying ways was addressing Christendom more than Church, and so assumed some prominent role for the church in the culture, though all the panelist would probably be critical of the Religious Right's attempt to articulate that prominence.

This assumption of Christendom presents a engagement with culture as singular and understands culture as singular as well. In response to this I attempted to raise my own engagement with culture, summarized in "Priestly Goth." I slopilly spoke of consumerist vs participant ways of engaging culture. My own sense of being Goth is that I do not consume Goth (though I will admit that Goth culture does not escape the dominance of consumption in our society), but through selective consumption I participate and thus help create what is Goth by virtue of how I dress the music I listen to etc. But I also I am not attempting to make the Goth scene Christian, I am uninterested in trying to create "Christian Goth" clubs. What this means is that my experience of myself and of culture is polymorphic. This also means that there are multiple possible "readings" of my participation in/with culture(since I am not exclusively participating in the Goth scene. I feel though that to many this comfort with the ambiguity of this situation of the coincidence of things in myself that do not necessarily agree means a loss of the centrality of the church and Christian faith. This is not the case and in fact is the way in which I believe Christian faith can remain central without needing to accommodate colonize or appropriate culture. Christendom has trained us to expect a greater similarity between the church and our cultural context than I believe can presently exist in our context in the states. It is the acceptance of dissonance that is the imputus of engaging and participating in culture creatingly.

In the second panel it was Sr. Julie Vieira, who seemed to come closest to what I was attempting to articulate in my question to the first panel. Rory Johnson critiqued Mega churches as to some extent colonizers of culture though what I heard in MaryBeth Morehouse's presentation of Willow Creek Chicago is more appropriating so as to preserve a relevant place for churches in the culture. Though I wonder if there is a fine line between appropriation and colonization. while Lois Joy Smidt of Beyond Welfare presented an accommodation to culture where in there is a vague Christian underpinning of the work of the organization but the need to create common ground has eliminated any overt reference to Christians faith to the extent that ways of speaking of the group almost sound like descriptions of church without reference to worship or God, let alone Christ and the need for salvation etc.

I very much enjoyed and found the conference invigorating and thought provoking. Though I was left with a sense that the point from where I begin to ask the questions addressed by the conference was very different from the beginning point of the organizers and most of the participants.

Note to the reader: above I have used "Christendom" in a nuanced way without explicit definition. I have be working on a post on a broadening of our understanding of the nature of "Christendom" as a trans-historical category of situation that emerges whenever Christians form an influential majority in a society or culture, and thus independent of the church as a particular culture. I hope to use these reflections and a way into this exploration of "Christendom".