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.