Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hacker Ethics and Higher Learning: The Moral Clash Determining the Future of Education

Special thanks to Joe Creech and the good people of the Lilly Fellows Program for an enjoyable time of conversation on the nature of "place" in our professional lives as scholars in higher education. 

I'm just recovering from a very full conference schedule with the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts annual conference held this year at Valparaiso University.  My warm thanks are extended to the many new friends and colleagues I met over several meals and dozens of conversations.

It was an honor to be invited to give a keynote address along with two other notable scholars.

Seal of Valparaiso UniversityImage via Wikipedia
The conference revolved on the notion of "place" in higher education and, appropriately, there was a scholar of art and architecture, a theologian working on issues of globalization, and myself, a sociologist who pays attention to religion and social change. I focused on the transformation of higher learning welling-up from the cumulative transformations in digital connectivity.

My talk revolved around two moral orientations, two moral "codes" if you will, that are clashing (rather than converging) in higher education today.  The first code is the formative retreat ethic that stresses the moral imperative of creating a cloistered space of education that works toward discipline and even piety. Our institutions of higher education have an underlying moral orientation: a formative retreat for the cultivation of virtuous adults. I speculate that the stronger the religious orientation of the college, the stronger the formative moral imperative of the institution.

On the other hand is a new ethic, a Hacker Ethic, that emphasizes openness, free access, and utter playfulness. The Hacker Code, Hacker Ethics, and Hacker Culture – these are terms I use heuristically to describe a nascent, overarching ethos that has fueled the development of our increasingly “connected” (I mean digitally, online, networked connected) lives from the 1950s until now. Various principles are involved (I give several lists and descriptions in my talk), and much of it centers on digital connectivity.

What I stressed to this esteemed group of scholars and administrators is that higher education is caught in a larger transition. Banks, phone companies, and our local and federal governments are all firmly committed to open internet connectivity. For example, the federal government just announced at the end of September that while we can still physically mail our returns, more people are e-filing and, as a cost cutting measure, the federal government will no longer mail tax forms, but we must access them online. Examples could be multiplied many times over.

Our schools are dominated by this connectivity as well – Barry Wellman on twitter recently wrote, “Student finds it impossible to go cold turkey off the grid because official announcements & research materials are only online.” The internet is not just a tool of knowledge and business but has become something much more.

Hacker Culture logoImage via Wikipedia

We submit grades online, our students register for courses online, use electronic course reserves (72% of professors use course management systems), answer questions, set calendar appointments, distribute departmental information and committee reports, and even submit journal articles and whole book manuscripts. Increasingly we post syllabi and study content, we skype into meetings, we blog and tweet (about one-third of professors as far as I can find a statistic) our results.  Administrators are pushing internet connectivity to solve certain problems and scholars are using internet connectivity to solve others.

It took me a while… but I soon saw that there was a new set of ideals being promoted. What fuels the development of these new digital realms is not just clever innovation but a new morality, what’s been called the Hacker Ethic. Hackers represent those who were taking advantage of the new spaces and new possibilities opened by the creation of new structures. It’s an entire moral orientation.

Although you can't see the Power Point slides emphasizing different points, here's part 2 of 4 parts of the keynote available on YouTube:

More on the "Hacker Ethic" can be found in part 3.

I'm grateful for the time at Valpo and a new set of conversations.  Certainly there are many others who understand these dynamics far better than I do and can speak far more articulately about them.  But this was my chance to package my best understanding of the things that affect my life and work everyday.  And I'm convinced they are propelling more substantial changes that threaten our traditional understandings of higher education in unanticipated ways.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

2011 Summer Research Seminar: Congregations and Social Change

Congregations and Social Change:
Adaptation and Innovation among Religious Communities
June 27 - July 22, 2011

I will be directing a research seminar at Calvin College next summer. This is an open invitation:

Seminar Description

This research seminar will closely examine the ongoing relationships between congregations and processes of broad ranging, societal change. By incorporating a historical sensitivity and scholarship rooted in a sociological perspective, the seminar will continually connect societal arrangements with adaptation, reaction, innovation, and experimentation in congregational beliefs and practices. The focus will be on congregations of all types (whether church, synagogue, temple, or mosque) and encourages a look at both interpersonal dynamics (beliefs, micro-exchanges, small group interaction, etc.) as well as more macro-level phenomena (globalization, technological shifts, political systems, etc.).

The analytical perspectives on congregations can include --
  • singular case studies, particular historical periods,
  • whole denominational networks (Mormon wards, eastern orthodox churches, Jewish synagogues, mosques and Islamic centers as well as Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Zoroastrian and other religious temples and missions),
  • types of congregations (small, rural, independent, mega, etc.),
  • regional centers (Southern California, Manhattan, Chicago Metro), and
  • any other appropriate and manageable arena of analysis.

The seminar also welcomes any aspect of congregational life that can be examined in relation to social change, for example,
  • changes or comparisons of liturgical design,
  • formation and negotiation of political identity,
  • mobilization tied to extra-congregational organizations or social movements,
  • creation of age-targeted ministry (twenty-somethings to retirees),
  • incorporation of creative arts,
  • negotiated relationships between religious and civic service structures or public agencies,
  • adoption of online social networking or use of new media and technology,
  • management of multiethnic/multiracial dynamics,
  • etc, etc.

Seminar participants will read sociological and historical literature, engage ethnographic methodology commonly employed in contemporary research, and discuss their own work toward creating a community of scholarship oriented around common concerns. Ideally, each participant will produce a polished piece of writing as a result of the seminar, eg., completing a conference paper, journal article, dissertation chapter, book chapter, or publishable mass-media article. As participants work on their own congregations and social change research during the seminar, they will receive guided feedback in a supportive environment. Housing, daily lunch with other scholars, library access, and a small research stipend is provided for seminar participants.

Who May Apply

This research seminar is most intended for current and recent doctoral students in fields related to religious and organizational studies (sociology, anthropology, history, ethnic studies, folklore, and others). While the seminar is designed toward social science-oriented scholars holding, or advanced to candidacy for, the terminal degree in their field (typically the PhD), I eagerly welcome humanities-oriented scholars as well theologically-oriented participants from seminaries and divinity schools. To the extent possible, I will select a group diverse in gender, ethnic, confessional, and disciplinary backgrounds, and with a variety of research sites (i.e., the confessional and/or social identities of the communities they plan to study). I also plan to choose among applicants a mix of participants ranging from doctoral candidates through recent doctorates in tenure-track positions and scholars working on their first or second books to mid-career scholars retooling with defined projects.

on the director, guest speakers, and application process.

Application information is at the bottom of the page. Deadline is January 14, 2011.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr.

Leaving my office, I always pack up a few books to read every night, the choice being a mixture of necessity and desire. Today I find myself entangled in the lives of the German pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the American preacher, activist, and slain hero Martin Luther King, Jr.
3. Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights act...
Today I picked off my shelf Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945. Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance and another new book, The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., by sociologist Jonathan Reider.

It was only as I packed the books that I began to see the remarkable parallels between these two men.

These are two men brutally cut short in their lives; two men who struggled through the unique oppressions of their day; two men who had deeply faith-oriented lives that drove them to confront the ugliness in the world while keeping in step with their own sense of community and brotherhood.

Both appreciated education and preached with distinctive combination of intellect and passion. Both studied sociology and applied insights to their worldviews. Both admired people outside their immediate faith, especially Gandhi. Both men could be characterized as lovers with an array of relationships that connected them deeply to the people around them. Both were writers who left profound works which still occupy our thoughtful attention today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer - among others - lecturer ...
And their greatness may lie in that both attended to the larger issues of the world, provoking new theological responses to changing circumstances because, well, neither of them could leave things as they were.

It might go without saying that this is not my first encounter with either man. They've commanded my attention off and on for well over 20 years. But the well of Martin Luther King Jr. and the well of Dietrich Bonheoffer are both deep. Writers, theologians, and everyday people are continuing to draw endless insight and inspiration from these two men. My studies and my questions continue to bring me back to them, again and again.

Tonight, as these new books allow me to reflect even more closely one to the other, perhaps the insights this time will be even more surprising. And also perhaps therefore tonight they will prove to be even more transformative.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Reading, Reading, and More Reading

I'm on my way out with family for the Labor Day Weekend, and as on other longer trips the biggest decision to make is not what to wear, it's what to read. I have a stack (okay, I actually have several stacks) of books to get through, a mix of personal and "business" reading, covering vast realms of fiction (literature, poetry, graphic novels) and nonfiction (history, philosophy, biography, social sciences, and more) that I hope to complete in the next year or two or five....

As I look at my own stack(s) of books and deciding what to take on our family trip, I'm reminded of how much I appreciate the opportunity I have to CHOOSE what I have to read. As a scholar, there is certainly a mix of "want to" and "have to" reading, but overall I devour writing that attracts my interest and my fascination while avoiding or skimming those that are more obligatory.

But as I'm writing this, I am also reminded that my professional duties occasionally assign me to read a less-than-satisfactory tome. Even so, I almost always find that what I had never intended to read becomes just as or even more valuable to me as something I had intended to read a long time.

For my students this semester, reading is more "forced" on them -- I'm thinking of several of them who are no-doubt slogging through dozens and even hundreds of pages this Labor Day Weekend in preparation for next week's classes.

One set of students is beginning James Cone's remarkable Malcolm and Martin in America, a book that will further prepare our understanding of Barack Obama's presidency and help place it in the context of other modern African American leaders and the political circumstances they faced.

Another set of students is making their way this weekend through Emile Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life, a book that has had it's reputational ups & downs but which sociologists, anthropologists, and scholars of religion will at least reluctantly agree with it's significance for developing analytical conceptions of religious & social life.

One student is reading through Karl Marx's Grundrisse, a is sort-of a thick, rough draft of Das Kapital that weighs in at well over 800 pages.

And another student is beginning to work through Max Weber's masterful writings collated in Economy and Society -- one of my personal favorite books of all time.

As they make their way through these readings I hope my students will have the same experience I often do: required reading may not have been my personal preference, but in the end these readings become among the most memorable and thought-shaping of my life. The unfamiliarity and uncertainty involved in such texts stimulates a close attention to the words that "beach reads" and bestsellers rarely demand. In addition, the need to talk and write about such texts with other "smart" people cultivates an engaged standpoint that encourages us to draw out (and sometimes tear out) the unstated implications of found in these works.

So as I leave behind my stack(s) of books this weekend, I wish my students with their own growing stack(s) of "to read" books well with the hope that they will have a positive and even transformative experience. What may have been "required reading" today may very well someday be considered "must-read" in the near future.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Superman, Batman, and... Mumita! - Islam Conqures Comic Book Genre

A quick post: I've been noticing interesting mixtures of religion and popculture lately, mostly because I think people are wrong to believe that the appeal of popular culture exists only among certain brands of Christian Protestantism seen to be crassly consumerist and dumbed-down accomodationist. But the effort to remain lively and relevant are found among all religious orientations.

Enter the 99!

Created by Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, the 99 is a comic book series in the style of Justice League or X-Men that unites a band of superpowered youth to bring peace into society under the leadership of the brilliant Dr. Ramzi.

The backstory returns to the Middle East, the attempt to preserve a library of knowledge being destroyed by war, and a mystical-chemical process of inscribing knowledge into 99 gemstones. Fast-forward to our modern day, and our heroes discover their powers and their brilliant mentor form a team to save the world.

The "origins issue" can be downloaded online.

The writers freely draw on allusions of other successful comic book series. After all, they want to be successful and believe they can learn from the models of the greatest characters created in the past century.

But perhaps the most interesting is the upfront attempt to introduce comic book heroes that reflect the virtues of Islam and are consistent with beliefs of Muslims worldwide. This makes the development of this graphic art series ripe for sociological study: how do the comic book creators fashion an Islamic-friendly graphic that can appeal to the various, globally-diffused orientations within Islam?

I've not read much of the series, so I have yet to see blatant reference to prayers or readings from sacred texts. At most, someone online has already joked about Wonder Woman being "fully clothed" in an forthcoming six-issue team-up with DC comics JLA in October. Besides this, it is hard to tell just how "religious" this series will be.

But I do know this: What is special about the number 99? Why are there 99 gemstones and 99 heroes? Because the characters are intended to display the 99 attributes of Allah.

Just like the Hollywood Christians I write about in my book Hollywood Faith, the series is intended to support and accentuate religious values. Yet it is intended to do so in a way that is unobtrusive to telling a good story. When you read the last page of the "origins issue," the creator is clear that the comic is intended for a Muslim audience, fashioned in what he calls an "East-Meets-West" fashion that combines the fierce independence of heroes of the West (Superman, Batman, Spiderman) and the team-work comeraderie of the East (a la Pokeman).

More on the use of popculture in the Arab world is found in a talk given by Shereen El Feki.

Overall, the intent is to correct the view of Islam as an intolerant religion through a humble framework, accessible to children. There is even a 99 theme park in Kuwait prominently displaying the heroes as awe inspiring icons. According to this news story, this is the Middle East's first theme park.

And while success is hard to measure, the comic is already translated in various languages, is conveniently available online for digital download, has already been put into a computer animated format, is teaming with other important comic book publishers, receiving good media attention, and the creator is committed to making this bold venture a striking presence on the global stage.

Watch a TED talk from the creator and more on the comic book series.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Back from Atlanta: More Books and Better Relationships

Just returned from the annual meetings of the Association for the Sociology of Religion and the American Sociological Association in Atlanta, a "two-fer" that gives the meetings a turbocharged schedule.
Midtown Atlanta, Peachtree Street.Ray Devlin via Flickr
This year's meetings were once again full of wonderful experiences including sessions on theory, race, and ethnography, and plenty of interaction on a range of issues in religion both domestic and international. An author-meets-critics session with Christian Smith over his new book Souls in Transition was a wonderful highlight, as well as a nice exchange between emerging church leaders Doug Pagitt, Tim Hartman, and Troy Bronsink, along with anthropologist James Bielo who is currently writing a book on the emerging church to be published with New York University Press.

I was part of several other sessions including an "Engaged Scholars" panel that included Margarita Mooney (UNC Chapel Hill), Kathleen Jenkins (William and Mary), and Sascha Goluboff (Washington and Lee) talking about aspects of opportunity and challenge for faculty working among religious communities as well as a fascinating session that combined reflections on citizenship, place, bodies, and religious identity with Lynn Davidman, Nurit Stadler, and Kevin McElmurry with Mary Jo Neitz offering brief commentary.

Besides sessions, the book exhibit was rich for me. William Roy's new book Reds, Whites, and Blues provides an important reflection on music and race that will be required reading in the coming weeks for the book I'm writing. Add The Entrepreneurial Group, also from Princeton University Press, which fits into new research I'm preparing with the oh-so-smart Kevin Dougherty at Baylor that emphasizes that entrepreneurs are not lone actors accomplishing brilliant strategic vision but rather are immersed in social relationships that allow their entrepreneurialism to flourish. (No inclusion of religion there -- Stay tuned as our project focused on innovation and entreprenuership among church leaders develops).

books in a stack (a stack of books)austinevan via FlickrAdd to that a stack of wonderful new books including several I recommend to you: Jesus, Jobs, and Justice; The History of White People; When a Heart Turns Rock Solid; The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King Jr.; a new set of lectures on Social Theory by Hans Joas; and Backlash 9/11: Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans Respond. Those are some that I took home, but more are coming in the mail including Max Weber in America; Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School; and a rich little book by Martha Nussbaum titled, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law (the actual book info here). Yep - the annual book haul was awesome this year!

Finally, great chance to meet up with friends, charming and bright to a person. And I appreciate several new friends I met along the way. The next big meeting is the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion being held in Baltimore this year. I'm already looking forward to it.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Open Session: Scholars and National Leaders of the Emerging Church Movement

I just created a *facebook* invitation for a special session organized at this year's Association for the Sociology of Religion in Atlanta, Georgia. Free, open, and sure to be stimulating, this is going to be a real hoot - All are welcome!

August 13 · 3:00pm - 5:30pm

LocationHyatt Regency Atlanta, International Tower Level, Cairo/Hong Kong Rooms

Created By

More Info
Critical dialogue featuring Doug Pagitt, Troy Bronsink and Tim Hartman, along with anthropologist James S. Bielo and sociologist Gerardo Marti. Join us for a unique exchange on the promise, challenge & future of Christianity hosted by the Annual Meetings of the Association for the Sociology of Religion - an international, interdisciplinary association.


Session begins promptly at 3:15pm - arrive by 3:00pm to save your seat!

Atlanta, GA - Hotel Map & Room Floor Plan - Cairo/Hong Kong Room -;jsessionid=3D7ADA7CA1DCC18CB2CF43C18D458E4E.atg01-prd-atg1

Full meeting program highlights here:
Not only are the special guests coming from across the country offering a rare opportunity for constructive dialogue, but anthropologist James S. Bielo will be talking about his own "ethnographic observations" of emerging church dynamics.

The meeting will also bring together an international, interdisciplinary group of scholars active in all forms of religious research. The experience and expertise being gathered in this room will be tremendous.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Heidegger and the Quandary of Insider/Outsider Roles in Religious Research: A Methodological Note

This week afforded me a bit of reading and reflection through Heidegger’s Being and Time as part of my ongoing attempt to grow in my scholarship.

As an ethnographer, I regularly immerse myself in religious communities both short and long term -- see a recent post at Duke Divinity blog about a recent church visit -- and as such am regularly confronted with what was introduced to me as “the insider/outsider problem of religion.” The dilemma centers around a core question: Who is best able to understand religion, the committed or the agnostic? More important, what are the challenges and solutions for achieving a satisfactory understanding of religion (not just for scholars, but for everyone) considering one’s stance? My first attempt to answer this question is printed in an extended appendix of my first book A Mosaic of Believers. But reading that now, and continuing to think on the issue, I’m finding my framing of both the problem and the answer to be much too glib.

My methodological answer is essentially that immersion in a religious community along with a simultaneous immersion in a scholarly community allows scholars enough “distance” to reasonably comment on issues and concerns of scholars without being unredeemably caught up in the interests and pretensions of any particular religiously committed sphere. It’s a serviceable answer, passes muster for the pragmatic work most social scientists do every day.

Yet I continue to find the issue to be important, not the least of which is that I consider myself to be a religiously committed person. I am not entirely comfortable with the notion of a self that is caught in a back-and-forth motion, swinging between two blatantly idealized communities, and sustaining an assurance that I am able to not only keep these things in check but to truly believe that the doing of such a thing accurately represents our lived experience as researchers.

Looking back on my experience in doing the work of two ethnographies in the past ten years, I find my resonance, my “affinity,” to the churches I studied to contain more complexity than I usually have the time or the patience to consider. Not only did my stance as a sociologist create some tensions with in first
study of Mosaic, but then my later relationship to the energetic Prosperity/Word of Faith church Oasis (another article here) produced entirely new ambiguities as many aspects of the religiosity found there does not entirely lie with all my religious sympathies. Especially at Oasis, the boundaries of being an “insider” became so fluid (usually in considering all aspects of figuring out to what degree am I part of these people) that I no longer found the neat division between “insider” and “outsider” I wrote about in my appendix to be so helpful – and that perhaps my articulated stance is dangerously misleading to my scholarship.

This week I’ve been taking a trip through Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (with help from Magda King) and am once again captured by his articulation of “authenticity” or “owned-ness” of our selves. Heidegger sees our humanity as ever-always caught up in the doing-of-things as we continually project ourselves into the world. But Heidegger’s important nuance is that we “fall” into the world by being so-easily enrapt in the an everydayness among fellow beings such that we don’t ever stop to consider the wider implications of what we are doing (descriptive) or, especially, the possibilities of who we may become (prescriptive) should we grasp onto our available limits within our finitude.

His point is especially important to me as a researcher. Looking back at my initial answer to the question of the “insider/outsider problem,” Heidegger suggests that I may be leading a dis-owned, inauthentic existence in my methodological approach because I merely “fall” into the ways of being within these two communities. On the one hand I take on the lifeways of a religious community, and on the other hand articulate, translate, commiserate with the lifeways of a scholarly community, with my work constantly going back and forth across the in-between void in my person juxtaposing two seemingly “isolated” positions in an endless array until a satisfactory product (Book! Tenure! Career!) resolves itself -- which then propels into a new cycle.

It’s Heidegger’s notion of authenticity and “owned-ness”/"disowned-ness" that’s got me. He’s profoundly right that our normal day-to-day life, even as highly self-aware scholars, is to be caught up in our ways without question. It’s one of the liberating aspects of being historians and sociologists – we come to see through distance how embedded human beings are in the structures of their world without their being conscious of it. And it is the privilege of scholars that we self-consciously reflect on ourselves and our various apprehensions in order not to "fall" easily prey to facile pretensions of what we think we know. I strongly value this primary privilege of scholarship, the ability to embrace our self-reflexivity in productive ways, and I fear that my first answer to the study of religion misleads the earnest task of becoming a more-wholly-self-possessed person who is accomplishing the uniquely human task of carefully considering all the potentialities for yielding insights and knowledge in our world.

Heidegger's point becomes even more salient when I consider the dominating aspects of institutionalization – that human beings ritualize ways of being and knowing in such easy, non-problematic ways. I come to this: If religious scholarship is simply learning to engage the institutionalized spheres of “religion” on the one hand, and then articulate them within the institutionalized spheres of “scholarship” on the other, then we “fall” into highly ritualized ways of being that radically limit the potentialities for our work. Here I will quickly mention Courtney Bender’s wonderful new book The New Metaphysicals (see current dialogue at Immanent Frame) which thoughtfully engages the issues of institutionalization in religious life and in scholarship in a fresh way. The book has got me thinking about a lot of things (It is a wonderful conversational read), and it seems to fit this particular dynamic well. Her focus on “practices” is strategic, and it is perhaps this approach I must absorb even moreso since it appears to allow Bender to be far more “self-possessed” than I feel at the moment.

In the end Heidegger stimulates my courage to consider how it is that I regularly constitute my world not merely in my role as "scholar" but as a full person. I no longer wish to maintain a pretense of bounded areas which do not touch one another, especially when I am fully aware that it is “me” (the “I am”) who is engaged in my whole life. Rather than "fall" into a false sense that I am merely receiving and recording on the one end, then resolving and reporting on the other, knowledge in such simple-minded ways, I'm thinking that f I am to continue to grow as a scholar I must take much better possession of my own self and extract whichever awareness with accompanying conceptualizations as best I can so as to more fruitfully participate in truly authentic dialogues with my colleagues and other "beings" around me. It is hopefully taking the best aspects of the best conference sessions with the most stimulating, original, and engaged minds which I've witnessed at conferences and seminars over the years and accentuate that to a much higher degree into my work with friends, neighbors, and (dare say) even my own self.

So, with more historians of American religion engaging in ethnographic practices I thought it might be worthwhile sharing these few preliminary thoughts here. Whether it is Heidegger or the resources from the historian’s craftbox or somewhere else I'm missing, I am in need of a much different conversation on the ability to sustain an “owned” scholarship of religion that respects our ongoing engagement with the world that maximizes the creative potential of our as-yet-unyielded insights.

Crossposted at the ever-stimulating Religion in American History blog.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Silly Bandz - Stretching the Relevance of Spirituality

Thanks to an ongoing invitation from Jason Byasee at the Duke Divinity Call & Response Blog, I just posted a fun article on a recent experience visiting a church here in North Carolina. As my friend John Schmalzbauer commented on my facebook page, "Another interesting episode in the story of Christianity and material culture!"

Anyone who is a parent or works around kids has seen children go crazy over Silly Bandz, a broad array of colorful rubber bands shaped like cars, animals, and superheroes, and worn in big bunches on forearms. I was introduced to these back in April when my kids begged me to drive them over to the local drug store in search of a new shipment. It's not just the little ones who are into it. From toddlers to teens, the kids collect and trade Silly Bandz to express their identity and proudly flash a new form of status in the latest hierarchy of "cool."

So, when I visited a church recently I recognized the rubbery trinkets being passed out by greeters at the door. Actually, my kids saw them before I did - "Dad! Dad! They're giving out Silly Bandz!" Smiling volunteers enthusiastically gave away armloads of these pretty toys to excited kids as they came into the service that day.

As you might guess, the ambiance of this church is casual, the worship music is loud, and the "preaching" conversational. The pastor proudly showed off his own Silly Bandz at the beginning of the service before moving on.

But it was after the service when I saw these trinkets work their magic as kids, parents, other church members, and church staff were animatedly talking about their Silly Bandz, trading amongst each other, and telling stories connecting the shape of these bands to the shape of their lives. Strangers made friends, and adults found constructive ways to talk with children. A band shaped like an electric guitar prompted a person to talk about their love of music. Another shaped as an outline of the continental United States got people talking about their summer travels. And ones shaped like a cross were proudly traded around tables in the foyer amidst conversation about Jesus.

You can jump to the rest of the article here & comment at the Duke Divinity Blog hosted by Leadership Education at Duke University.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Yes, It's Summer, and I'm Already Planning for the Fall

Milton, Fl – July 26, 2005. A volunter f...

Summer hit hard this year - kids coming out of school, several deadlines looming, a stack of books to read, talks to prepare, papers to edit, some phone calls and emails to make, work around the get the picture. I can't decide if my summer highlight so far was a wonderful visit talking with several scholars of race and religion at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, or a weekend working with a chainsaw, sweating out the humid Carolina heat, cutting down trees in my backyard -- I must say hacking through those stubbornly hard limbs and hearing them crackle and crash on the ground was strangely satisfying.

(FYI, this picture is not me, but you get the idea.)

Sitting at my desk, I'm once again caught between celebrating finished projects and making progress on new ones. This alternating back and forth weave is part of the rhythm of academic life I'm still getting used to. Now that I have things through "the pipeline," I can read a just published article on one side of my desk ("how pretty! how nicely written! how did I do that?") to the mangled notes and stuttering drafts forming on my computer desktop. That weird sense of something complete versus something so haphazardly unformed is disorienting, but I'm getting there. Part of life I suppose, whether academic or not.

I find some refuge in a series of books I'm reading: combination of fiction (Devil's Dream by Madison Smart Bell at the moment), non-fiction (An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought by Stefanos Geroulanos, among others), and another trip through the Christian Scriptures (this time working with notes from a beautifully bound newly published 4th Edition Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV I received as compensation for reviewing a manuscript for Oxford earlier this year). Refuge because these are bounded material things with a clear beginning and ending which place no demand on me yet stimulate my imagination in a hundred directions.

I also find refuge in playing around a bit more than usual this summer. As a family we've take a few trips to Carowinds, our local roller-coaster & water park, and seen a few movies. I'll admit to sleeping in a bit more than usual and lingering in bookstores a bit more than normal. More fun is coming with a trip to New York City in August and a family visit down to Georgia before school starts.

As to Fall 2010, a few things coming around. September will feature a new conference of emerging church-type leaders in Durham, NC, called "Big Tent Christianity" (I'm going by memory here) that looks to be a very strong showing of several people central to the movement. For me, it's a two-hour drive to experience of being with some very friendly people who are working through some very interesting questions about what needs to be kept and what needs to be thrown out of contemporary Christianity, so the conversation ranges between theology, ethics, anthropology, and a whole lot of good eating. One thing I appreciate about this crowd is the value for conversation - long conversation, not easily wrapped up and quickly solved questions, and lots of "let's throw it on the wall and see if it sticks" kind of speculation.

September also features the theological conversation regularly planned by Emergent Village. This year, the focus is on global theology and diversity, with scholars coming from an array of what sociologists call "social locations" to try to jar Western-shaped Christianity out of its blind spots. {CORRECTION: The Emergent Village dialogue is November 1-3!! see link for more info... h/t Steve Knight.}

In October I'll be speaking at the 20th anniversary conference for the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University, and I may try to sneak in time with current Lilly Fellows meeting a couple days before the conference so I can get a good "fix" among historians of American religion (I really envy the work of these historians), picking their brains on all the things I wish I had the time and expertise to study and paying attention to the sheer intelligence that will surely be in the room.

October will also be one of the best conferences of the year with the annual meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Loads of good things already slated for the program this year, with the meetings being in Baltimore, Maryland. Never been there, so hope to catch the best of what's available to experience while catching up with a few friends.

The American Academy of Religion meetings are in Atlanta this year. It's a bad time for me, with the SSSR meetings happening the exact same weekend, but I might make it for a day or two. {CORRECTION follow-up: With the Emergent Village Theological Conversation happening same place/same time, I may be able to pop back & forth...hmmm...}

And by that time, I hope to be moving to the home stretch of courses for the fall, especially my experimental course titled "Race, Religion, and Barack Obama" -- a new course that uses the life and presidency of Obama to highlight sociological issues on the interplay of race and religion in American society.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

African American Integration into Diverse, Multiethnic, Multiracial Churches

This month, a set of articles appeared in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the leading journal in the social scientific approach to understanding religion. It seems I've placed myself in the middle of a controversy on how best to understand cross-racial integration in American churches.

PART I: African American Integration into Diverse Churches

The lead article is one I originally wrote about two years ago, which went through two sets of revisions with very extensive, and very helpful, comments by other scholars:

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 49 Issue 2 (June 2010)
The unique history of African Americans in the United States fuels much of the discussion on the relationship between religion and race in diverse congregations. The impetus for much of the current research on multiracial churches began with Emerson and Smith's bestselling book Divided by Faith (2000), an overall pessimistic assessment of the potential for black-white integration within American Protestant Christianity.

The article distinguishes "Ethnic Reinforcement" from "Ethnic Transcendence," processes that are believed to be necessary for achieving racial integration of distinct ethnic-racial groups. However, these are often seen as contradictory. So the article asks weighs one versus the other and asks if one is more important than the other. Or perhaps there is a more nuanced interaction between the two?

You'll find much more information (including background, quotes, references, and explanations). The article greatly expands ideas first found in A Mosaic of Believers and then touched in the "race" parts of my book Hollywood Faith. Here's a bit from the conclusion:

I find that the intentional focus on diversity and programs of churches do promote intergroup contact to foster an "inclusive identity" that indicate processes of ethnic transcendence (as I describe in earlier articles also published in JSSR in 2008 and 2009). At the same time, African-American members in the church I studied recognize and appreciate the markers that affirm a distinctive African-American experience. In other words, "ethnic reinforcement" is achieved in the church by recognizing blacks up front in lay and staff roles, by race-specific practices in church life (e.g., musical styles), and by preaching racial awareness from the pulpit.

The distinctives of the African-American experience in white-dominant American society appears to require multiracial congregations to construct relational havens in such a way that blacks are affirmed, protected, and perhaps even entertained. Such racial affirmation is good enough for most blacks, yet the church does not appeal equally to all. For other African Americans, the church is "not black enough," and this failure to adequately incorporate a much higher degree of black prominence (which further indicates the importance of ethnic reinforcement). So, while other studies have argued for the importance of mixing musical and preaching styles as well as providing an awareness of racial issues from the pulpit to keep a multiracial congregation together, this case study suggests that the exceptionalism of African Americans plays itself out in the interaction between reinforcement and transcendent and prompts a closer understanding of the importance of these practices.

In achieving diversity, the congregation does not merely invoke ethnic reinforcement; rather, the congregation places the value of diversity at the center of the congregation in a way that recognizes the unique experience of African Americans.

PART II: Scholars Response to My Approach to Understanding Diversity

Well, the article almost didn't get published. One reviewer very much disagreed with my approach and made several insightful comments. The editor decided to put the article forward, inviting the scholar to print his objections, and allow me to respond.

This led to an exchange. My reply is found here:

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 49 Issue 2 (June 2010)
In my reply article, I urge caution for scholars who have not studied particular cases to not base critiques in supposed "ideal" situations:
"Ethnographers take a risk whenever they select a case for study. We immerse ourselves among people in the hope of yielding significant findings, yet none of us can predict the outcome of our research. The commitment of time, energy, and professional status is enormous, but ultimately we cannot tell ahead of time the exact dynamics in play or the manner of their operation. It reminds me of the "mystery bag" game we played as children. Each of us would reach into a large sack without knowing what was inside and try to guess the contents based on the touch of our hands. Ethnographic sites are mystery bags; researchers have some sense that there is indeed 'something' to be found but cannot entirely be sure what it is until a much greater degree of access, observation, and interpretation is achieved."
In writing a long response -- I'll encourage you to read it yourself as it deals with several current issues in the study of congregational diversity -- I talked about how to move the study of diverse congregations forward.

For example, we should isolate significant arenas of diversification and investigate contemporary initiatives for diversification. Michael Emerson recently suggested that megachurches are diversifying more quickly than other congregations. Such an observation is provocative and potentially important, but we lack the systematic research to state this more confidently. Can we identify processes of diversification that differ by the size of congregations?

I would also agree with Michael that there is great enthusiasm among church leaders to catalyze and sustain diversification. New conferences and pastoral networks as well as new publications and program initiatives are aggressively advocating diversity as a missional cause. Research is required to identify the nature and scope of this broad movement. I suspect that rigorous research will identify intriguing ironies and contradictions, and I expect to articulate some of them through my own research on music and worship in successfully diverse churches

In the end, this was a very fruitful exchange. Scholars wrestling with ideas and sharpening each other's work. I hope this one gets the attention it deserves and accelerates a much-needed sophistication on these issues.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Spending Time with My New Friends Derrida, Lacan, and Žižek

Winding up this past semester was one thing, getting through an intense immersion through the works of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Slavoj Žižek is another...

Jacques DerridaDerrida via Wikipedia

Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan'''Lacan via Wikipedia

Slavoj Žižek (b. 1949) - Slovenian philosopher...Žižek via Wikipedia

I have a long interest in social philosophy and chip away at stacks of books at home and my office every few months. Since March, my work on the line of Hegel-Marx-Freud-Saussure-Heidegger-Derrida-Lacan-Žižek has exploded. I can still rely on my past learning of Marx and Freud, have just enough of Hegel to bumble around, and enough of Heidegger and Saussure to make the leap. But the last line of Derrida, Lacan, and Žižek needed sustained attention for some new queries I'm exploring.

There's no way I'm going to summarize these thinkers. Let's say for the moment that I find Derrida's critique of Husserl's subject to be fundamental and important, introducing a radical opening/gap/crisis of subjectivity that demands attention. Derrida is directing me back to Heidegger, and a new translation of Being and Time is coming out in time for my new resolve to think more carefully about the metaphysics of human subjectivity.

Lacan, on the other hand, reworks Freud in intriguing and productive ways. I'm glad I quickly found that one cannot simply "read" Lacan - he demands much prior preparation. He never explains himself, and his ideas have shifted over time. In the experience of reading him, the translated seminars are one thing (conversational, narrative); the massively compacted ideas in Écrits is another (compact, dense). Still, this remarkable thinker opens ways for understanding the self and human relationships that are still being developed.

Which leads to Žižek. Here we find a creative (almost frenetic) thinker who is both a social critic and a metaphysician. Žižek's Sublime Object of Ideology reveals a Lacanian reading of Hegel (via Marx) that brings forth surprising insights into the nature of guiding "beliefs" or "truths" at a macro-level. The conceptual apparatus is daunting to the uninitiated, so I'm grateful for graduate school and my continued readings in philosophy from Descartes onward to get me through. Nevertheless, Žižek's understanding of ideology has got me pondering a lot of things, and it is this orientation that feeds into his approach to Christianity as found in The Puppet and the Dwarf among other writings. It is this reading that has been attractive within the Emerging Church Movement, and Žižek's popularity is making its way through reconsiderations of Christian theology in books recently published by T&T Clark (see also here and here) and Eerdmans. In contrast, his social critique is quite different from such metaphysical considerations, thus accounting for the difference in the experience of reading The Parallax View and Living in the End Times.

So, I've been busy spending time with my new friends. Back to reading.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tenured and Promoted: Gerardo Marti becomes L Richardson King Associate Professor of Sociology at Davidson College

Last week, Davidson College affirmed my tenure and promotion to Associate Professor.

Long time in the making -- a vote of Davidson College Trustees affirms my "lifetime appointment" as a professor in the Department of Sociology. I continue to hold the L. Richardson King Professorship, and have several new courses in the works for the coming year.

Lots happening here. A few quick items:

I continue to work on a new book project which I hope to complete this fall on music and worship in racially diverse congregations. More on this later.

I have a new article just published in the Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review titled

Ego-affirming Evangelicalism: How a Hollywood Church Appropriates Religion for Workers in the Creative Class

I have two new articles to be published in June with the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion about African American integration into diverse congregations. I'll post when these come online.

I posted a new article at the Duke Divinity Call and Response Blog on a "skirmish" between the Multiracial Church Movement and the Emergent Church Movement.

And I am now the Book Review Editor-Elect for the Sociology of Religion journal. Please send good social scientific books my way.

I am preparing in my role as Program Chair the annual conference for the Association for the Sociology of Religion. The meetings will be held in Atlanta in August, and I hope to let you know of some sessions you may be interested in attending, especially a session titled "Scholars and National Leaders of the Emerging Church Movement" with Doug Pagitt, Tim Hartman, Troy Bronsink, James Bielo, and yours truly.

I continue to serve on the Executive Council for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Council for the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and the Editorial Board for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

I recently was elected to serve on the Steering Committee for the Religion and Social Science Section of the American Academy of Religion.

I will be presenting some interesting research at the annual meetings for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in October this year. These are great meetings happening in Baltimore, Maryland, this year.

And my book stack continues to grow. Reading a ton of philosophy these days, with a few good reads at the intersection of race/ethnicity, religion, and social change.
I hope you can see why I've not been as regular at posting on the blog these days, but I hope to keep you in touch with interesting things as information becomes available.