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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Peter Rollins - Lacan, Desire, and Religious Language

Quick Post: Peter Rollins is a provocative writer and speaker who views contemporary social theory as a resource for theological reflection rather than as an enemy to Christianity. In a new post, Rollins proves himself a good teacher of theory (insights in bite-sized chunks) and offers another example of his appropriation of modern thinkers many people simply ignore.

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Take this as a highly inadequate introduction to Peter Rollins.

In his books and thoughts, Peter Rollins combines a strain of "postmodern theorists" (oh please forgive me for such an inaccurate term) with the history of Christian theology to reintroduce what he calls "heterodoxy." In this latest post, Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic views are brought into a discussion of discourse and desire.
...we could not operate in the world if we were constantly expressing the desires hidden within language (something that would be impossible anyway). What is of interest to me is, firstly understanding this structure, secondly exploring how it can help us understand religious discourse, and thirdly to explore how an application of this knowledge can help us instigate real change in the religious landscape.
Check out his post to see how he develops this in a few words.

Rollins always offers a a quick background on theorists, presents a shortcoming in current Christian thought, and then recovers alternative conceptions through a combination of biblical scriptures, church history, and poetic parables to bring forth an interesting view.

His first book, How (Not) to Speak of God, is a short one where the first half consists of a string of such thoughts.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Is Obama the Antichrist? Well, Of Course He Is...

The American Religion Historian Matthew Avery Sutton wields a sharp pen. His book connecting American politics and the ministry of Aimee Semple McPherson is fascinating and important. Now in a post on Religion Dispatches this week, Matt takes aim at evangelicals and their relationship to President Obama, especially in their all-too-frequent obsession over decoding biblical prophecy. While Matt may not slay the beast, I think he hits pretty close to the heart.

(Thanks again to Paul Harvey for his posting at the Religion and American History blog.
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Historian Matt Sutton doesn't hold back. He combines careful scholarship with sharp opinion. As a writer, we might say Matt has a "point of view." Even more, Matt is a scholar willing to tell people what he really thinks. Uncommon for an untenured professor.

In this post, Matt shows how it is inevitable that Obama's serene "Angel of Light" manner will be interpreted as yet another indication of the coming Antichrist.

Matt points out that "the vast majority of American evangelicals interpret the most obscure books of the Bible (Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation) in a very narrow and particular way. They believe that when these three books are read in conjunction with one another and overlaid with a few of Jesus’ statements, a hidden 'plan of the ages' emerges." And he's right. This is a holdover from the grip of dispensationalism (found in places like Scofield's Study Bible, bestselling Christian books both scholarly and popular, and frequent Sunday sermons) that has held evangelicals for most of the 20th Century.

He continues, "During the last 100 years, evangelicals have witnessed more and more evidence of these prophecies being fulfilled..." and shows how the Antichrist was predicted in the rise of leaders and various policies that emerged in this eventful time.
"So what does this mean for the Obama administration? Nothing very promising. Despite the president’s desire to find common ground with evangelicals, he is unlikely to be able to penetrate the apocalyptic fears that have characterized the evangelical movement since the Great Depression."
The flexibility of biblical interpretation and the considerable history of connecting the actions of political leaders with violent acts and natural disasters of all kinds leads these beleivers to connecting the dots of Obama's life to the determinative flow of spiritual history.

6: bible nerdImage by jamelah via Flickr

In other words, if you look for the Antichrist, you will find him.

Matt throws up his hands and concludes:
So what can we do? Pray for the rapture. If evangelicals vanish, the rest of us might finally get better medical care, a healthier environment, a more just international community, and full civil rights for gays and lesbians. But short of this miracle, we can at least begin to understand that before Obama is able to penetrate the evangelical heart, evangelicals themselves will need to do some serious soul-searching. Rick Warren and Joel Osteen’s shallow, positive-thinking, feel-good sermonizing is not going to help them do this. Instead, it is up to the younger evangelicals to engage in serious intellectual debate and a rigorous rethinking of the theology at the root of their politics. Anything less and the doomsayers will turn fears of Obama-as-Antichrist into big business. But hell, maybe that’s just the spark the economy needs.
Here Matt tips his hand on his own politics. Nevertheless, I think Matt is right that the old-school, end-times prophetic orientation of evangelicals will keep them from ever seeing politicians who fail to live up to a conservative social agenda as being less than an agent of prophecy, accelerating the apocalyptic consummation of history.

And he raises an important question. What are the resources available for re-thinking the theology at the root of evangelical politics? Is there something that needs to be recovered from the past, perhaps Walter Rauchenbush? Reinhold Niebuhr? Is there something to be found more recently in Martin Luther King, Jr.? Or is Jim Wallis and the Sojourner's group a fruitful direction?

Much Thought - Little Reflection

I've had a lot of things to think about -- and such little time to reflect on it all.

Le Penseur, Musée Rodin, ParisImage via Wikipedia


A leisurely summer has proven elusive this year.

A scattering of commitments both personal and professional have me traveling here and there, going from one meeting to another, bouncing from book to website to article and back to book, with writing accomplished for several venues -- but not here.

I'm caught between thoughts, between commitments, between considerations of various sorts (just turn on the evening news any day from the past several weeks), and it looks like it will be another month or so before I can get back into the swing of fully committed, sustained thinking.

Ah well.

Now I see the growing attraction of Twitter. 140 characters. Once a day or so. Everybody's happy.

As for the rest of the season, I am looking forward to a course I am leading looking at church, religion, and social change at PSR in Berkeley that is only days away. I'll then attend the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association in August. I'll also attend the Association for the Sociology of Religion meetings.

And I've signed up for a conference in September featuring the great theologian Jurgen Moltmann. His theology is particularly attuned to the vast currents of social change that occurred in the 20th Century.

After all that, the coming Fall should find me with a few more experiences, a few projects behind me, and a few more hours to spare for the projects before me (kids will be in school) so as to allow some uninterrupted moments to work out a few thoughts.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cynic to Sympathetic - Pentecostalism Moves Researcher to Look at the S Factor

Full disclosure: I have a good relationship with Don Miller, Firestone Professor of Religion at the University of Southern California and executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, and he was a member of my dissertation committee.

Even so, Don's interview in the latest Books & Culture magazine is a fascinating look at how one social scientist negotiates his relationship between "empirical reality" and "spiritual reality."

In the course of conducting a sweeping study of Global Pentecostalism, Don Miller changed. He went from being cynical to a sympathetic in his analytical stance. In the process, he proposes that social scientists take into account the "S Factor" in studying religion.

In a recent interview, Don states:
At some point early on in the project, I felt that I made a turn in my own interpretation of what I was witnessing, from potentially writing a book that could have been debunking, maybe even cynical at points, to wanting to try to explain why Pentecostalism is the fastest growing religious movement in the world.

At a purely personal, spiritual level, it had a profound effect on me.

My worldview actually changed in the process of the project, and I became much more open to the possibility that there are dimensions of reality that we normally exclude from a Western, scientific, Enlightenment perspective.


Don does not become uncritical, but rather carefully altered his stance to reflect more fully all aspects of what he believed he was observing.

The letter 'S'Image by grytr via Flickr

Obviously, there were times when I felt there was manipulation going on, particularly in some of the "prosperity gospel" churches that we visited, even though we didn't actually study them. There were other instances where one could have a purely naturalistic explanation of something. But in the last chapter of Global Pentecostalism, picking up a hint from the opening chapter, Ted Yamamori and I write about something called "the S factor," the Spirit with a capital S.

We make the argument that if you exclude the Spirit from religion, and particularly Pentecostal religion, it may be difficult to explain many of the things that occur, or at least you have to go through mental gymnastics to explain certain phenomena.

This is not to exclude the role of social class, the role of race and ethnicity, the role of culture more generally, because these are factors that shape every experience. But there is this other dimension that needs to be considered.

Coming from a sociologist, this is a highly controversial statement. But Don is a good scholar and mixes all these considerations in an insightful way. His discussion of Prosperity gospel is a case in point:
...there is a certain element of the prosperity gospel that is oftentimes overlooked in negative critiques: the appeal of the prosperity gospel is to people who are poor and without hope. Prosperity gospel preachers give people hope; they give them a vision for changing their lives.

The negative side of the prosperity gospel is that it is sometimes founded solely on the magical belief that if you donate to this ministry, you will be rewarded a hundred times over.

On the other hand, if you are giving people hope, and if the solution does not produce change, there is the possibility that these individuals who have had their consciousness raised will turn to other alternatives, such as political means of changing their life circumstances. Sometimes these prosperity gospel preachers give sound advice because they tell individuals how to multiply their flock of sheep, of goats, of chickens, and save money.

One could cynically say that they are doing this purely out of self-interest—to enable people to give even more—but often the preachers are teaching their people the very rudiments of capitalism, giving them an opportunity to change their lives decisively for the better.

Furthermore, by avoiding alcohol, gambling, womanizing, and other such taboos, extremely poor people may eventually have surplus capital that they can in turn use to give better education to their children and provide better healthcare for their families, and all this, in turn, may lead to upward social mobility.

Hands raised in worshipImage by D G Butcher via Flickr

Many scholars studying religion, because of their Marxist, psychoanalytic, or other deprivation theory leanings, can only see the compensatory elements of Pentecostal worship.

But in my experience, this worship is something that empowers people and doesn't simply compensate. An even more nuanced interpretation might be that in order for people to be empowered, they need, in fact, to be comforted. So, by compensation I mean feeling that someone, namely God, is caring for you, that you can trust that your life has a destiny and purpose that is beyond your own imagination. Dynamic worship, singing, all-night prayer meetings, and fasting: these are things that give a power and discipline to one's vision and enable people to attempt the seemingly impossible.

More on Don's understanding of Pentecostalism is found in Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement, written with Ted Yamamori.

The full interview quoted here is available online.

Finally, The Center for Religion and Civic Culture is just now launching a multi-million dollar research initiative on Charismatic and Pentecostal religion.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Gameshow Atheists Who Convert Win Pilgramage of Choice

I thought Los Angeles was the home of wacky reality shows. Well, welcome to Istanbul where a new Turkish gameshow rewards atheists who convert to a major world religion win an all expense paid pilgrimage to Mecca, Jerusalem, or Tibet -- a cap-off for cementing their newly found religious commitment.

Symbol of the major religions of the world: Ju...Image via Wikipedia


The Guardian reports makers of a new television game show are creating a new form of reality entertainment. They say they want to educate Turkey's Muslim population about major religions.

And you must be an atheist to compete.

Journalist Robert Tait writes,

"Contestants will ponder whether to believe or not to believe when they pit their godless convictions against the possibilities of a new relationship with the almighty on Penitents Compete (Tovbekarlar Yarisiyor in Turkish), to be broadcast by the Kanal T station.

"Four spiritual guides from the different religions will seek to convert at least one of the 10 atheists in each programme to their faith.

"Those persuaded will be rewarded with a pilgrimage to the spiritual home of their newly chosen creed – Mecca for Muslims, Jerusalem for Christians and Jews, and Tibet for Buddhists."

Raw Greed On Visage Of Italian 'Deal Or No Dea...Image by Mot via Flickr


Does this accentuate religious commitment? Or trivialize it? Will it lead viewers to greater spiritual devotion? Or will it reinforce the fundamental secularism that has dominated the Turkish population?

Robert Tait discusses responses to this "Convert the Atheist" reality TV show on an audio link.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Jay Bakker Stikes Again - How Good Theology That Makes You a Jerk Isn’t Good Theology

I enjoyed meeting pastor Jay Bakker earlier this year. Jay told me he only has one message. It's about the grace of God. And I believe him.

Jay Bakker continues to travel and write (he's working on another book) while pastoring Revolution church in New York City. His latest message offers another striking testimony -- a speech (he would rather not call it a sermon) that hits at one of the most pressing divisions within evangelicalism today.

The title: "Good Theology That Makes You a Jerk Isn’t Good Theology."

Jay's point is this -- the measure of Christian "correctness" must not be based on well-formulated theology but how we manifest the character of Jesus.

It's a division between "loving" and "exacting" Christians. Those who love do not expect perfection in any form as a qualification for standing well with God or bonding with other believers. But the more exacting Christians have filters of correctness, standards of thought and behavior, that are expected. Fail to live up to these, and beware - you will be attacked and ostracized.

On a personal level, this talk is thoroughly consistent with who Jay is. Yes, Jay does get some attention for his celebrity (including his fashion sense - see a photo from December '08 Esquire and a Kenneth Cole ad here). But I believe these are shrewd opportunities to draw attention to his message. Jay works from a deep orientation of "grace" - a theological term that can be slippery but which for Jay is deeply personal. His understanding of grace comes from his life experience, springing from a conviction that brought him from a spiritual wanderer to committing to full time ministry.

So, this talk is another sample from Jay. It's a good example of Jay's casual-intense speaking style.

But I also share this with you because it's a good example of the profound divide among evangelicals about the proper approach to Christian spirituality. Two ways of approaching the church and the world creating two forms of fellowship, two forms of devotion, two forms of missional activity.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Twitter and Church - Accessible and Problematic

An interesting article in The New York Times shows how the accessibility of Twitter can make it problematic for religious use.

Turns out it's hard to keep the devotional content free of the riff-raff.


From Lead Us to Tweet, and Forgive the Trespassers,
While hundreds of worshipers watched the traditional dramatization of the Crucifixion from pews in the church, one of New York’s oldest, thousands more around the world followed along on smartphones and computers as a staff member tweeted short bursts of dialogue and setting (“Darkness and earthquake,” “Crucify him!”).

The trouble began in the second hour.

Twitter’s interactivity — its essence — made it easy for an anonymous text-messager to insert an unscripted character into the Passion play:

a Roman guard who breezily claimed, “I’ve got dibs on his robe.”

When another texter introduced a rogue Mary Magdalene, the intrusion only confirmed the obvious: Twitter’s trademark limit of 140 characters per message is no bar against crudity.

The rest of the article is online.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Progressive Christians Cornel West, Serene Jones, Gary Dorrien on Capitalism and Democracy

Quick Post: Bill Moyers continues to have interesting conversations, this time with "Progressive Christians" Cornel West, Serene Jones, Gary Dorrien.

In the face of changed economics and persistent theological convictions, how should we think about the world?

Video and transcript are available online. You can download the video. Podcast also available.