Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Steampunk Forgiveness

Few things are closer to the core of steampunk than thanking otherwise than the way things are.  Usually, this involves re-imagining the past.  So -- wouldn't forgiveness be steampunk?  Is it a lost art or an impossible past?  When we pray the Lord's Prayer we ask God to forgive us our sin as we forgive those who sin against us.  Kierkegaard went to the limit:  forgiveness is impossible for any human to achieve.  The philosopher Jacques Derrida can be paraphrased in this way:

Forgiveness is for those in need of it; it is not a loan given to those who show good faith and will shape up and no longer be in need of forgiveness. Therefore, forgiveness is for the hypocrite mired in self-contradiction, for the dangerous individual, and for the unrepentant. Therefore, forgiveness is impossible and all the various shades of forgiveness that we practice are but facsimiles and a stammering after metanoia.

The political philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt as well as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr held that one thing Christianity can always provide to politics is forgiveness.  The hard-nosed realists need a fresh start; and forgiveness can provide that, it seems.  Paul Ricoeur wrote a book on forgiveness haunted and inspired by West German Prime Minster Willi Brandt's falling to his knees at a memorial of the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland.

I urge on you no finer exploration of forgiveness than this old NPR Talk of the Nation interview from 2010 about Michael Vick.  Present in this transcript and in the interaction with the callers are present most of the views of forgiveness that people hold.

For example:
Jennifer's calling from Hartford, Connecticut.
JENNIFER (Caller): Yeah. We were driving back from a - kind of a Philadelphia household after the big game last week. And Michael Vick's name was mentioned a lot. And then they heard the NPR - kind of blurb for the story today, and my kids asked what dog fighting was, and they were horrified. And then we also mentioned that Vick wants a dog. And as a dog family, they thought about it, this 7-year-old and 10-year-old. And they said, I bet you he'll be the best dog owner there is. He sounds like he's become a good guy. And I kind of agree with them. I wasn't sure that I would when we first started the conversation.

The callers try to make sense of Vick and President Obama's statement about forgiving Vick and giving him a second chance.  Though Kierkegaard would remind us that forgiveness is only theologically significant if it is God offering forgiveness in the cross, this is a good starting point to think about steampunk forgiveness.  Can Vick undo what has been done?  Several times the question of memory and the past come up in the segment.  Can the past itself be changed?  This is why steampunk and forgiveness go together.

Addendum:  Washington Post story on President Obama's discussion of Vick.

Memeing it up

Monday, February 27, 2012

Taking Back, Eliminating, or Using the Secular?

The secular is used and abused.  It has limited utility, I think, for Christians working out their way in North America, but that small range of usefulness is very significant for what work it can do.

I love sociologists, anthropologists, and statisticians.  They do hard work, ethnography, and train to carefully study human life present and past.  But their work is often used and abused.  Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a remarkable essay on the use and abuse of history and it is his cues that I will follow.  There are quite a few definitions of secular, conflicting accounts of why or how much there is a secular, and even lots of arguments about the end of the secular in our day with the return of the religion, arguments that conflict with "end of religion" theses put forward by other authors.  A good survey of these is in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age.

In general, there are two patterns that I think Christians have taken to use the secular:  "take back" or "eliminate."  I think there is a third that tends to be "fire alarm."

Taking back the secular means to reclaim what is lost.  This view sees secularism as basically the loss of the religious trademarks or some sort of essential Christian "core" that needs to be taken back.  Example:  Christmas or battles of yoga as a religious exercise or just exercise.  Liberal Christians do this just as much as others who want to "keep the Christ in Christmas" when they want to show how some secular movement is congruent with what they take to be Christian aims.   This form of the secular is usually experienced by religious people as a kind of alienation of their goods, their intimate stuff made fun of and turned inside out in the culture.  Or it is a sense that they are sharing what is intimately theirs with people who disgust them.

Elimination of the secular can go along with taking back but is different than that use of the secular since it usually means that the secular should be replaced with the sacred.  The sacred is usually taken in this sense as a set of cultural artifacts or practices that need to be purified or reclaimed.

The final use of the secular I take to be sounding the fire alarm.  This is used by many to argue that the advance of the secular, no matter what that means, is to spur Christians on to some action, to leave the house, to abandon the dried husk of Christendom, or to urge older American Protestant views of Christianity (awakening, sectarianism, or evangelical church growth)

The problem with each of these uses betrays the sense of what the secular and sacred are in each case, a subject that deserves more attention.  Lots of work on the secular talks about the "re-sacralization" of modern life or the "post-secular."  This means that the boundaries between what we call sacred and secular are far from stationary.  And that is worth another look in a later post.

Addendum:  Elimination also occurs when one simply states that "there is no secular or sacred," when one sidesteps the distinction all together.

What if They Ordained Men? Strange Letters from a Young Man

I don’t usually receive personal letters at my office outside of the lovely thank-you cards I’ve gotten from students or an occasionally note from a colleague.  But I received a disturbing set of letters from a man who might be either exceptionally delusional since he thinks the world is radically different than it actually is.

This young man is writing to me and has addressed me Madame Walter.  He thinks I’m a woman and he thinks that I am a theologian sympathetic to his cause and will help him in some way.  He thinks that I’m a woman, as best as I can put it together, since he thinks that only women are theologians and that the Christian church only ordains women.  He thinks it is high time that the church as a whole, not just some of the more liberal versions but “the Pope herself” should start to allow men to serve as priests and bishops.  He thinks that this is not what he calls “the will of God herself” but also what “Johanna Christa, God’s Daughter” speaks about.  He further cites some evidence that the follower of Christa that we commonly know as “Petra” is properly named “Peter.”  These letters cite a Bible very familiar to me but made remarkably strange. 

There are many other arguments and pleas for the ordination of men.  These other arguments and pleas have to do with all kinds of strange things that people argue that might follow if men were ordained, how the liturgy might be corrupted, doctrine might not be held pure, and many, many other negative consequences.

But these letters also come with a set of drafts of a short story or novel.  It seems this young man is writing about yet another world where the church has no pastors and a very odd liturgy and he has invented a Bible that, so far as I can tell, is the same as the one we have.  This is very strange to me.

I don’t know what to make of these.  Perhaps a reader might.  I’ll sample some of them for you in future blog posts.

Dear Madame Walter:

I write to you out of urgency and the hope that you won't turn me down.  I write to you thinking that you will listen to my cause.  I think men should be ordained to serve in God's church.  Before you put this letter down out of disgust and think this one more liberal attempt to discredit God, her Bible, and the good new from Christ, I have tried something.  I have tried to imagine what it would be like if the early church had decided no one could lead, no one could preside, and no one could speak God's word.  I have tried to imagine this in several sketches of a novel.  There is no Eucharist in this world, there is no confirmation.  No one is finally marked except by the cross of baptism, since anyone can wash a child or adult.  This world is a hard world where bread and wine are brought to the altar along with the gifts for the poor but no one ever eats.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Manifesto on Post-Dogs Dogmatics

A brief manifesto on what might follow the venerable  Christian Dogmatics, [eds. Carl Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Fortress) in two volumes], focusing on its strengths and weaknesses and how such an enterprise would serve the present-day ELCA.  I refer to the "Dogs" (as they are affectionately known to many) as the last sort of standard theological textbooks used in most settings in the teaching of pastors in the ELCA.

I suppose this is also a manifesto on writing theology.

1.     The P-DD (Post-Dogs Dogmatics) should be multi-authored by Lutherans in a team.  Lots of them.

One of the strengths of the Dogs was its multiple authorship.   This permitted a variety of approaches and angles.

Many single-authored systematic theologies exist and anyone can go ahead and attempt that genre.  A multi-authored P-DD would have more traction in more places and be more nimble.

The authors of the Dogs were professors at ELCA seminaries.  Any P-DD has to have authors from non-seminary contexts to broaden perspectives and tasks, as well as to encompass more authors than just those who hold the post of a systematic theologian.  A P-DD might even include non-authors and non-academics in its authorship.

Many multi-authored ecumenical or Reformed-dominated systematic theology texts exist.  The few multi-authored works that do exist that are Lutheran represent important parts of a larger conversation that need more conversation partners.  None of these multi-authored texts really get at the need for diverse and vibrant communicative theology.

2.  The P-DD should employ diverse genres.

Systematic theology usually involves historical and constructive theology.  The constructive theological essay or book has largely replaced the systematic one that relies on the union of historical and constructive theology, usually organized by a loci approach.  The P-DD has to take the best of these genres and add new ones to be more reflective of what the constructive essay has one (greater attention to context, specific theological problems, use of ethnography, literature, or other disciplinary approaches commonly not a part of the systematic theology genre).  Perhaps the P-DD would include some mp3 music files.  Or an old-timey LP for theo-audio-philes.

3.  The P-DD should be in dialogue with itself; it cannot represent the silo-approach to theology engendered by the “heroic” and “solo” theologian.

The Dogs, for all their multiple authors, seem to be a single-authored text since they rarely refer to other sections except in a cursory way.  It is very hard to write collaboratively outside of the natural sciences, so this may be more of a regulative idea or leading idea than an actual accomplishment.  Theology must be communicative and collaborative in a sense it does not always achieve.  Books have single authors.  The P-DD has to shatter that heroic model.  Leaving the heroic theologian behind should not relieve anyone of the responsibility to history, to rigorous thought, and to the public. 

4.  The P-DD should not be a massive multi-volume hardcover.  It should not look impressive.  Lots of slim paperbacks might suffice.  Or free e-copies distributed on a website.

No one wants to give their work away for free; and no professional theologian wants to miss accruing the honor and recognition that comes with publication.  But that kind of stuff is not what the ELCA needs – it needs intellectual contributions and leadership from its theologians that are directed toward ordinary Lutherans and the education of its rostered leaders.  And the best way to disseminate and start wider conversations is to use new media.  And to give it away for (almost) free.  Hardly any theologian gets her or his livelihood from publications; rather they usually do so from their teaching position.

5.  The P-DD should be oriented to everyday life, to practice and ethics.  It should attend to the liturgical, educational, and practical dimensions of theology.

Disciplines have been created by the bushel since the beginning of modern theology and the various constellations developed through the university systems of Europe and the specializations of the North American seminary and divinity school.  Liturgical theologians have written systematic theologies and systematic theologians have written on worship, for instance.  A nimble, communicative, and multi-authored P-DD needs to involve a variety of workers who may not normally talk much.

6.  There will not be a P-DD.  Though there should be one.

The effort involved in a P-DD requires too much coordination and cross-context work to be realized.  It requires a willingness to collaborate and avoid the heroic model of the theologian.  The P-DD will likely be realized only in part by authors who can cooperate and are similar enough to be able to produce a text with the right incentives for themselves in a short period of time.  After all, I wrote this; I'm just one theologian in one place.  I composed this text with a minimum of dialogue.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Steampunk music

Every movement needs its soundtrack, and steampunk is no exception. Although there is some debate as to what counts as steampunk music, if you plug a band into a list somewhere (Amazon, Spotify, Pandora) you will come up with groups that fit roughly into the category.

So, drop the name Abney Park into your favorite listening engine, and let the cog that is algorithm take you away on an airship ride of musicality.

This is probably my favorite explicitly steampunk band. Almost all of these bands are a little more earnest and melodramatic for my tastes, but if I'm in the mood for stuff that sounds like a soundtrack to a recent Sherlock Holmes movies, this is the ticket.

However, the entire concept of steampunk as a musical genre is open for interpretation, and one of my favorite interpretations of steampunk is that it evokes "an era that never was," alternative futures not premised out of our present and extrapolated into the far future, but rather alternative futures that are equivalent to our present but proceed as if history had developed differently.

Making use of this definition, I would list at least the following as relatively well-know steampunk bands:

Robyn Hitchcock--Imagine a trajectory where not everyone follows in the musical footsteps of The Beatles. This is not just the road not taken--it's more like platform 9 3/4. You can't get there from here.

Steely Dan--Imagine an alternative reality where when band members get together, a mysterious third being, a daemon, emerges and plays the most wonderful and scary stuff you've heard in your life.

The Traveling Wilburies--Imagine if four superstars got together and just hung out in someone's cabin in the Ozarks and sang songs together, folky and free. And they weren't superstars.

See the trend?

I think this is what at least some bands I know that are explicitly Christian have also tried to do, "steampunk" religious rock so it doesn't follow down the narrow and overbearing historical drift that is CCM.

The weirdest and best example of this is Half-Handed Cloud. This is a band that asks, "What if rock were played on toy instruments at twice the normal speed, one octave higher, and had pristine and theologically astute lyrics that were also ironic and playful?"

Another example here would be U2. What if a Christian rock band were the greatest rock band in the world and regularly dropped the F-bomb in interviews and conversation (this one might be a stretch).

Examples closer to home include my friends Jonathan Rundman and Nate Houge, who write liturgical rock (that is steampunk, my friends) and also think you can have a Christian vocational rock existence that includes writing plain old rock and roll.

Here's what we can learn from this, if nothing else. Sometimes it's worth doing something just because it is worth doing, because it is arty and weird and free. And sometimes the weirdest stuff strikes a chord, and people listen and stand in awe, and are invited to expand their imaginative horizons because they hear something, and they ask, "How do people even make music like that?"

And that, whenever if happens, is a boon to theological existence.

Permanent Guests: The Impossibility of Hospitality

Hospitality is all over the map.  Everyone needs it or does it or wants to do it.  There are lots of really good books on the subject in Christian thought.  I've written on it with respect to religious pluralism at the Journal for Lutheran Ethics.  The problem of inviting, having, and keeping a guest is so prevalent and part of our world it has its own tv trope, called "The Thing That Would Not Leave" for the Saturday Night Live sketch of the same name.  One of my favorite movies, What About Bob? is in part about the host-guest and patron-client relationship.  That's good chicken, no?

As more writers have gotten into the hospitality business and as they've looked back at the history of human problems of managing and balancing hospitality, there's two basic problems that have emerged, embodied in the phrase "make yourself at home."
A person cannot make herself at home without making your home into hers.  This estranges your home for the sake of the other.  You cease to offer a welcome since you cede your own domicile.  You become a stranger in your own home!
Welcoming the stranger into our home makes you part of us and you cease to be a guest or stranger.  You cannot be a stranger (an other) and be part of our house.
Hence the humor and prevalence of the permanent guest as a horror story.  And the proximity of this conflict of laws (antinomy) to how couples and families negotiate marriages and partnerships, blending homes and traditions and histories.

Anthropologists have noted that hospitality is about creating temporary spaces to tolerate this law of conflicts, about letting a guest in on what's going on at home in order to let the guest decide if she wants to join the domicile.  But that upholds the antinomy, the conflict between these two laws.
Hospitality in this sense is radically intolerant because it either wants to reject the stranger (get that guest out of here, or at least into a room above the garage, like the Fonz) or to domesticate the stranger.

Christians have been laboring hard to overcome or mitigate the difficulties in this bind.  It seems impossible to welcome a stranger without domesticating them.  At the very least learning to identify how a community practices welcome and how it domesticates goes a long way toward resolving this problem.  

These questions arise, for me:  How many strangers can one host?  Can one give up the domicile for the sake of the other?  Christians should be able to welcome this problem.  After all, they are a community where the faithless and hypocrites are welcomed and love is reserved for the enemy.  None of these are good for communities, in an ordinary sense.  But they are marks of the friends of Jesus and his welcome.


Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity
Jacques Derrida, "A Word of Welcome" in Adieu to Levinas

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Not such a stretch

Worship and theology are steampunk by the very nature of the case. Much of Christian worship and theology drifts downstream from a different historical locus than the rest of culture. Both are an act of the imagination, living "as if" a different set of historical events had transpired than in the real history of the world.

So, for example, while the rest of the world wears clothes from the Gap, clergy in many worship places still wear cassocks and clericals developed during fashion moments now long lost in the steamy recesses of history.

Quite a lot of solid theology is also steampunk. Theologians love to imagine alternative historical developments. Two that immediately come to mind include Paul Hinlicky's Paths Not Taken (now there is a steampunk title!) and essentially the whole of Radical Orthodoxy, which seeks to use the tools of post-modernism to critique modernity and repristinate premodern philsophies and theologies.

All of this is, from my view, intrinsically interesting. Given the increasing cultural caché of steampunk as an art from and sub-culture, it leaves me wondering, is a blog on steampunk theology worth the time. I'm going to leave space for reader response to find out.

Will you read a blog on steampunk theology? Would you participate in the discussion? How are you living steampunk today?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Introducing Steampunk Theology

Exploring the steampunk ethos as it relates to theology and worship. More goggles, brass, and leather than your typical church, but hey, most already have an organ.