I don’t usually write about cultural events – at least nothing too specific or too current. (I feel like I should then say, “but when I do, I drink Dos Equis.”) But last night’s debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye has resounded in my mind all day today. Not so much the actual content of the debate, but the method and trajectory of the debate. And, in the name of full transparency, I didn’t watch the actual showing. I did pay attention through the vicarious tweets and Facebook statuses, making this truly not a critique of the specifics of what was argued, but the arguing itself.
The debate itself seemed reminiscent of the Scopes Monkey Trial and the ensuing Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the early 1920’s. Pitting the legal and educational systems of the day against the religious institution was an exercise including rationality and hermeneutics, theology and public policy. Prior to, throughout its proceedings, and even after the court’s dust had settled, the focus fell upon the origins of humankind. The magnitude of this event was far too large to kept within the courtroom. Regardless of the details, influences, and outcomes, culture at large was now engrossed in the search to understand Genesis 1.
To this day, we haven’t been able to escape the grip of this search. The creation/evolution debate has long stood the test of time – at least modern time – in holding our attention to the minutiae of detailed case studies and fossil records on the one hand and the Ancient Near East context and Hebraic cosmology on the other. We have been unable to loose ourselves from this cultural battlefield ever since, despite its absence from everyday conversations. However, it has loomed heavily in the minds and imagination of people on both sides of the fence. Bring up creation by using the term itself and see what happens. In my experience, once anything relating to creation (or evolution) is brought up, definitions are often sought in order to rout out the potential heretic among us. Just try it.
This search has been primarily intellectual and last night once again affirmed this. Historically speaking, the Scopes Trial took place at what was perhaps the height of American rationality. World War 2 had not yet occurred, progress was the impetus behind the American milieu, and science and religion were in the throes of competing for dominance. Intellectual rigor and strength were highly valued in that day; values still sought after today regardless of its arena. Power comes along with this rigor making it an even sweeter fruit to obtain.
Last night seemed to be another futile exercise in obtaining this dominance. If only we can prove so and so. If only axiom A will be shown to be true(r) than axiom B, then our side will win. Yet in the end, I wonder if it only fanned the flame of a bygone era, namely one where intellectualism reigns. I wonder if it was a bringing the remnants of yesteryear out of the dark for a moment of shining. Even the postmodern world we inhabit, modernity can still rear its enlightened head. As my friend said yesterday, “There are incredibly strong modernist currents that still prevail upon these postmodern seas.”
Furthermore, debates in our day and age have taken on a different embodiment than their predecessors. Rather than being events of persuasion that affect life change, they have become vaudeville circus acts engendering sentiment bereft of action. The social imagination of yesteryear understood and valued the import of such events due to this. Now, debates fill the parts of our imagination where political figures feign allegiance to their constituents. Coupled with the amusement factor inherent to television – and screens in general – modern debates only reinforce the notion of consuming the material being presented. There is no intention of actually acting upon the received information. Television and its steroid-induced cousin, the internet, produce consumers, not participants. Combine this with a predominantly intellectual exercise and this is even more so. (This is what I was alluding to by the method and trajectory mentioned above.)
This is where we have allowed ourselves to get stuck. Our insistence on “getting the origins question correct” at an intellectual level has kept us from turning our attention elsewhere. The memory of basing our existence off of this rational understanding has paralyzed us from moving forward. Coalescing forces of winning the culture battle and being theologically correct as God would want have left us bereft of actual practices pertaining to creation. Ironically, this same tradition of reading Scripture and the spirituality it rendered have sought to prove the method of creation yet with the end goal being individual souls reaching heaven’s shores. With one side of its mouth it wants a creation made in six days while simultaneously praying for its destruction by fire some future day.
All of this has allowed us to keep creation itself at bay.
So I wonder:
What if instead of arguing over the creation texts, we moved our preoccupation a few verses further along in the story? What if instead of arguing over the meaning of “In the beginning” and “day” we pondered anew what it meant (and means) to “cultivate” and “keep” creation? What if we moved beyond compartmentalizing ideas from practices and figured out how they are two sides of the same coin? What if the Church shifted away from its often myopic dependency on things of faith being taught and towards lives of interdependency where they can be caught? What if instead of debating over creation we questioned how to live with creation?
What if local churches began sharing their land? What if they started to hold trainings to understand the geography and ecology of their shared regions? What if instead of paving parking lots, they planted gardens? What if they held neighborhood-wide meals from the food they grew? What if instead of using stale bread and cheap grape juice they used organically made breads and vibrant wines?
In short what if the Church became known for its new creation-centered methods in the midst of an intellectually origins-obsessed world? What sort of trajectory would that put us on?
Until then, creation will continue to be the loser.
…we are none of us very good at silence. It says too much. – Frederick Buechner
There is a growing trend that I have noticed for some time now and it is this: we are a culture constantly surrounding ourselves with and producing noise. It is next to impossible to be anywhere public and there not be a television (or multiple televisions), music, or some form of connection to the internet. Be it supplied by others or of our own doing, we often feel ill-equipped to face the day without noise, be it visual and/or auditory. The socially accepted norm is to envelop ourselves with distracting, noise-producing things, much to the neglect of the world around us.
This has led me to wonder about the why and the how of this and their results. As I ponder these things and their relation to life in general and in following Jesus in particular, I can’t shake the following thought: Our love of noise is equaled by our disdain of silence. Why do we shutter and run from silence? How did this come to be? What are its results?
All of us participate in liturgies everyday of our lives. The rhythms, habits, and practices of our minds and bodies form us in ways both noticeable and unnoticeable, conscious and unconscious. Together they comprise our life and, therefore, it does us good to pause and reflect upon them every now and again.
Whether you consider yourself “religious” or not, you participate in a liturgy. Whether or not you consider yourself Protestant or Catholic, conservative or liberal, Baptist or Pentecostal, you join in ecclesial liturgies that form you in particular ways. It is the inherent nature of life: we employ, cooperate, and perpetuate forms of life carried out through embodied practices.
Peal back these liturgies and you will find a story which each liturgy gives flesh to. Take them to their end and you will find daily habits employed in the workplace, the neighborhood, and in creation. Liturgies never stand alone: they always point back to a communal story and forward to an embodied life.
So, the way you worship on Sunday is a liturgy. They way you move through your workday is a liturgy. The manner in which you grocery shop is a liturgy. All have meaning, all have a story, all have a practiced way of life regardless of these things being known or not.
The interesting thing I find is that many liturgies, both sacred and, to borrow a term from Wendell Berry, desecrated, view silence similarly. They both relegate and/or eradicate silence.
Take a look at many of our modern day Christian liturgies. Many of them have no room for silence, but plenty of room for continual song, sermon, and other verbalization. We fill our worship time with a parade of noise, yet little time of being still before God. Pomp and circumstance take the stage over as we create one way streets between both each other and God in efforts to create worship services that begin and end on time. This is vital because our communal liturgies give shape to our individual, everyday liturgies. There is an intimate connection between what we do on Sunday and what happens the rest of the week.
Likewise, and not too surprisingly, our desecrated liturgies have little time for silence. For many of us, the moment we wake to the moment we sleep is filled with noise. From morning television, to radio/ipod saturated car rides to work/school, to instant access to an overwhelming inundation of info with the swipe of a finger, we fill our moment-by-moment worlds with noise. We add to this noise ourselves in myriad of ways.
Again, these liturgies form and shape us in ways we don’t always see. Yet in the end they seem to say: We have decided to keep ourselves so consumed that we don’t recognize our need for silence.
Are we afraid of silence?
The eradication of silence within our culture seems to stem from an unhealthy fear of silence. Try and sit with a group of people silently for more than 2 minutes and you’ll soon see; we can’t deal with silence. I think the reason for this is two fold (although there are more reasons, I’m sure):
1. In our culture we are consumed with productivity. We strive for efficiency, potency, and timeliness in all we do. When things aren’t being produced, we often will quickly discard the activity. In regards to silence, we have fooled ourselves into thinking it is an empty thing. Furthermore, since there aren’t any obvious quantifiable results, we think nothing is actually taking place. We prefer to be washed over in white noise than the stillness of silence. We prefer to speak over the silence.
2. When we do allow for silence, we find it reveals far too much about ourselves. Thus, we are fearful of it. It is much easier to anesthetize ourselves with distraction and noise than to face the revealing nature of silence. Like Jesus in the wilderness, we are often faced with our own beasts in silence. Again, we fool ourselves into thinking it much easier to move from one thing to next without silence. We think we can enter into the world as non-reflective beings unaware of our own character and actions.
As a result, many of us live lives of (somewhat) controlled chaos marked by a frenetic pace, leaving us weary and weathered. We have somehow found ourselves moving at the speed of the noise we are enveloped by. Similarly, we create a host of noise through our talking and writing, our conferences and meetings, our Skype calls and Facebook statuses sans silence. We have fashioned our technologies and liturgies and now they have fashioned us.
Where we once found dialogue, we now have individual monologues passing each other masked as a conversation. Where we once relied on neighborly relationships, we now have isolated strangers settling for fearful waves separated by fences and driveways. Where there once was a season of faithful planting followed by patient growth, we have superseded it with a chemicals and poisons. Where we once prayed, we now shop.
Communication – the means by which relationships flourish – has been usurped by noise.
Why we need silence
So, in a world where silence is seemingly banished, why would we need it? It seems to me that the aforementioned reasons of fear and non-reflective lives acquiescing to noise-centered lives need to be redeemed through incorporating silence into our individual and communal lives.
Silence opens us up to adopting the postures of participation over domination. Participation entails conversation between beings; domination entails pushing one’s agenda onto another. Participation revels in interdependence; domination seeks independence. Participation engenders a posture of patience; domination is hasty and quick to judge. It seems to me that our noise is the product of our attempts to dominate.
Silence gives us a posture of participation resulting in practices of participation. This manifests itself primarily as listening. In silence we are able to listen first and speak afterwards. We begin to recalibrate the order of communication: listening and then speaking. Too often we speak to God, others, ourselves, and the created order without listening. Silence before these beings allows us to hear their voices and then to respond accordingly. Thus, and I think this is key, embracing silence is a means of non-violent subversion of noise, which actually redeems noise. Silence gives us the ears and the eyes to filter out the noise seeking to do violence to us and through us via exploitation, abuse, and power-wielding. Through silence we find the way to navigate peacefully through the all-encompassing waters of noise. We can enter into the noise without adding to it due to the discernment and wisdom we gain by silently attending to God, others, ourselves, and creation first.
This manner of engaging the world seems especially pertinent for Christians. In a day and age where we are often known for speaking first – entering into means of communication marked by domination – we would do well to balance and harmonize our activity in the world rooted in silence. This does not mean we never speak; rather, we know when and how to speak because we have first been intentional about patiently making room for the other in silence. As Jesus was known for his times of prayer and solitude, we too ought to be marked by a decidedly Christian silence.
In silence may we listen and then pray. May we listen and then love our neighbor and enemy. May we listen and then rightly steward the earth. This, I believe, will begin to demonstrate the fullness of silence.
How has silence been relegated or eradicated from your life – both individually and communally?
Who have you engaged with – be it God, others, yourself, or creation – without being silent first?
What am I missing? Tell me about your experience with silence.
The other day I was reflecting on being unheard. It has been on my mind as of late, especially at work. I work with students who are diagnosed with autism, Down syndrome, and a host of other mental and physical handicaps. They are the less-abled, not the disabled. Some can’t speak at all; others who can aren’t always articulate, understandable, or coherent. One must learn the methods of communication these children have at their disposal; it is often a difficult task requiring much time and presence. Messiness, frustration, and the occasional physical outburst from my students are all too often the results of being unheard.
Furthermore, I am working under new situations where the overall context and climate of my environment are in flux. Any upheaval is difficult as change can often shift us from an ecology of like-mindedness and direction to one of (initial) chaos and confusion. As wrinkles get ironed out, the changes still leave us stressed. Again, as with my students, the reality of being unheard lies at the core of this new stress for me and my coworkers.
And, so I wonder. I wonder how being unheard plays itself out in this drama called human life. The following is what I wrote in my back pocket journal on October 3 as I sat in our sensory room with a student who needed to be heard:
The act of listening is essential to being human. Listening to others and being listened to are reciprocal acts that flow from an incarnational, kenotic type of life – real life. They are the opposite of power plays in that they take patience and self-denial. We can’t listen well while pursuing our own agenda.
Thus, the only act of listening we can take a hold of is listening to others. We can’t force others to listen to us. It take the posture of love (kenosis) to practice listening.
Underlying this posture is an understanding to know the means of communication employed by the one speaking. We can’t listen well without first observing. We can’t make sense of communication if we don’t take time to know how/why others communicate. If we depend on verbal communication alone, we’ll miss the majority of what is being conveyed.
This is especially true in the world of Special Education. If we can’t take the time to inhabit the spaces and lives of the less-abled, we’ll never know what they’re communicating. And if we don’t understand their communication we won’t be able to listen. And if we can’t listen, they’ll be unheard. And to be unheard is to be relegated to that which is less than human. And when we deem others as less human, we degrade ourselves as well.
I wonder how often God feels unheard. After all, the first power play was an act of not listening in a garden. Perhaps we would do well to begin to imagine God as the One Unheard. Perhaps that is what allowed Jesus to identify with the unheard of his day.
How has being unheard played out in your life?
What stories of being unheard can you easily recall?
Who in your life is one who is unheard?
I’ve seen it time and time again. Name a daunting social issue, civic predicament, or public plague and I can – more likely than not – give you a story of someone or someones who have decided to take it on. This isn’t inherently a negative thing, but more often than not, the proposed cure for said ill must be of equal magnitude. It isn’t enough to take on something particular and local, to say nothing of the disease in one’s own life; a big problem needs a big answer.
And so we often find in our world of big problems, tactics urging us to make a response towards a big answer. By doing this or that, we are able to declare our assistance in the panacea to myriad of the world’s ailments. The circle of problem and answer seem to revolve around the same wheel chasing each other into oblivion.
You, too, can be a hero. After all, isn’t that what we’re called to? Isn’t being a hero – in some fashion – what justice is about?
Isn’t this world ours to save?
Questions such as these and their ilk are what Tyler Wigg-Stevenson proposes we wrestle with as he pushes us beyond the largeness of both the plagues and recommended solutions of our world.
Objective and Structure
“The question to us is, simply, how can we seek the particular shape of faithfulness in the time and place that God has called us into being and over which God has given us the privilege of stewardship? This book is an attempt to answer that question in two parts.” (p. 20)
So states Tyler Wigg-Stevenson as his objective in this book. From here, he moves us into the remaining two parts. Part One is comprised of the “diagnosis of the potential dangers in the activist sensibility currently on the rise within the church.” He then “critiques four tendencies” he sees all too often in “Christian efforts to save the world” – including within himself. (p. 20-21) These critiques center on an understanding of calling, the problem of our world, our witness of God, and the human condition. He argues that an improper vision and practice of these essentials “make us into bad activists.” (p. 21) With a firm grip on false realities, we enter into our world perfectly positioned for “discouragement, burnout, and cause fatigue.” (p. 21)
Part Two builds upon this with a “constructive alternative” starting where the critique left off. This inverted alternative begins with the human condition and flows backwards into God, the world, and calling. Taking his cue from Micah, Wigg-Stevenson asks us to consider the human condition in light of the peace of God’s kingdom. Continuing with Micah, we are challenged to wonder anew what worship, discipleship, and evangelism have to do with being at peace with God. Furthermore, if peace with God is attainable, how does this beckon us into peace among the nations through justice, industry, and nonaggression? Finally, Part Two, concludes with living in peace in community revolving around dignity, prosperity, and security along with a “new vision for Christian activism.” This activism manifests itself in nine possible modes: priestly, didactic, architectural, judicial, prophetic, pastoral, diplomatic, militant, and sectarian.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and thought it touched on vital issues very much in need of being addressed. Topics such as just war theory, biblical servanthood, and the fear of God are buttressed by personal stories of pain, joy, and discovery. Much of the realms pushed into stem from Wigg-Stevenson’s real life. Growing up within a family seeking a world free of nuclear weapons, later travels to cities devastated by such weapons, and marrying into a family whose history was heavily affected by South African apartheid make one’s imagination capable of writing such a book. His own pursuits are engulfed with “seeking the abolition” of nuclear weaponry, which places him smack dab in the middle of this world-saving action.
For me, however, the emphasis on peace stood out. As he says, for most of us, myself included, we have heard more about grace than peace despite Paul’s conjoining of the two. In many circles, peace is not something to strive towards, whether it be in your neighborhood or with countries across the globe. As he states,
Unfortunately, when Christians disdain peace, it is a clear triumph of cultural religion over biblical fidelity, because peace is at the core of what it means to follow Jesus. (p. 108)
If peace is truly the answer to the human condition, then we must attend to our means of perpetuating it through “extending [it] to saturate every aspect of existence.” (p. 102) He does well to remind us of our orientation to this peace: it must be a present awareness acted out in the everyday while it yet remains a future reality. More than just a spiritualized feeling of some sort, it is an active peace struggled for in the life of disciples of Jesus. “Jesus does not bless the peace-feelers or the peace-talkers, but the peace-doers.” (p. 110)
There are many aspects of this book not mentioned here that make the book worthwhile. If you are one of those wondering about the current models of activism and how to morph, exchange, or break free from them, I suggest this book for you. I pray this is helpful.
Full Disclosure: I received this book for free from InterVarsity Press with the condition I would read it and write a review. I was under no obligation to write an endorsement for the book; nor did I receive any monetary incentives. All words, unless cited with a page number, are my own and are not reflective of the authors or IVP.
Hermeneutics. It’s an intimidating word. Many of us have never heard of it, let alone understand what it means. Which is interesting, considering we all have a hermeneutic we employ on a daily basis. Or, perhaps another way of saying it: a hermeneutic has us all and is manifested through us on a daily basis.
Basically, hermeneutics is the method or manner by which we interpret the world we inhabit. Texts, verbal communication, body language and all other forms of communicative interchanges are in need of interpretation as they flow between people, both the individual and community. The collection of explanations we come to – again, both on the individual and communal levels – expose our hermeneutical framework.
Moreover, hermeneutics is not a mere theory or an art, but encompasses the essence of our existence. The manner by which we interpret followed by the conclusions we espouse give us a trajectory by which we actually live out our day-to-day lives. The stories we tell, the symbols we make, the institutions we form, the communities we partake within all have to do with hermeneutics. Again, we might not always be – indeed, we are more often than not – making conscious decisions due to our hermeneutical orientation, but, nevertheless, we are making conclusions evidenced in our actions. There is not a moment that goes by where we are not interpreting. In many ways, it is the metaphorical water we swim in.
(This is a very diluted, non-specific view of hermeneutics. Please don’t think this is a blanket statement defining it at all. I am very aware of the immense complexity underlying this conversation.)
I have tried to take notice to how many people interpret the world around them. I come from a placed position, which informs, guides, and directs my hermeneutics. And so do you. The question is whether or not we are aware of it.
In today’s world, we have a host of hermeneutical methods vying for our devotion. Many of them are at odds with each other, of which violence – whether physical or not – is often used to help us make a decision as to where to place our allegiance. This has been called the plurality of our age and while certainly being true, is not necessarily an evil in itself as it is often described. Liberal/conservative, theist/atheist, postmodern/modern/post-postmodern, the list goes on describing polarities of interpretation.
However, it seems to me, that regardless of one’s (either individual or communal) interpretation, underneath much of this is a pervasive hermeneutics of suspicion. This isn’t a new thing or an unexamined thing, but again, many of us have fallen into lives bereft of self-reflection and are unaware of how much we have been interpretively persuaded. Lives that aren’t reflected upon tend to be spastic, disconnected, and atomized all the while being highly individualized. Much of this can be given to our tendencies toward suspicion.
Part of the problem is that excessive doubt prevents us from fully entering into the world, as Susan Felch states. Far too often doubt and suspicion go on unchecked flattening the world around us into an experience that is lacking diversity. Constant questioning and interrogating produce “modes of distance and distrust” leaving our vision muddy rather than clear.
I have seen this time and time again at both the individual level and the communal. Our current cultural mode of existence is nothing if it isn’t highly suspicious. We question everything. And I think this is a good thing. A healthy dose of suspicion is very needed. Questions are a staple of life; if you aren’t asking questions, you might need to ask why that is. Yet, when our suspicion transforms into cynicism we have a problem.
“In our desire to be critical we have simply become cynical.” (Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath, 136.) Contempt, bitterness, and division are the hallmarks of the cynical life. When our hermeneutics of suspicion jump into a hermeneutics of cynicism, nothing is good enough for us. We stay isolated in our own worlds, disparaging of the rest. In the communal form, this takes on the embodiment of autonomous cliques, cults, and factions separated from the world. Finger pointing, verbal violence, and general destruction become the norm for relating to those around and outside of us.
What I am afraid of – if it’s not too late in some cases – is that our need for deconstruction hasn’t allowed us to move into reconstruction.
Perhaps an antidote to this predicament would be to follow Susan Felch’s hermeneutics of delight. As a method of interpreting the world, it encourages us to ‘look up and around’ and to loosen the ‘constricted pathways of precept and rule'”. Delight is thus something that only comes about through the releasing our wanting to dominate and control.
When we practice the hermeneutics of delight, we will put ourselves into a more honest position as learners, not because we have forsaken all critical doubt but because we have opened ourselves to the mystery and grace of God and made ourselves available to share in, be responsible for, and enjoy the embodied love that creation itself is. – Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath, 137.
So, delight comes when we begin to see, experience, and live into the interconnectedness of life that only comes through mutuality. Yes, doubt can be there, but only in that is balanced by and rounded off by a seeking after mutual delight. It relishes in relationship and seeks the flourishing of all. Curiosity brings us into contact with others as we seek out the otherness of our world. Wirzba reminds us, “Delight follows from an affirmation of another’s God-given goodness” breaking us from our utilitarian quest to benefit ourselves above all through the powerful using of others and/or creation. As such, we are then inclined and allowed to be joyful in participating with the world around us. We enter into it not as skeptics seeking our own good, but as learners perpetuating further connection and relationship.
What I believe is needed is a turning to a hermeneutics of delight that affirms doubt and suspicion all the while being aware of its propensity for fragmentation. In an ecology of delight, we are pushed to recover the interdependence and interconnectedness of God’s creation. In a world plagued by division and rootlessness, a seeking after delight might be exactly what is needed.
Have you seen suspicion turn into hardened cynicism?
What does interconnectedness and interdependence look like in your context?
What is holding you back from delighting in the world?
I’d love to hear from you.
Fred Bahnson is quickly becoming one of my favorite theologians.
Not because he is bringing an abundance of theology and exegesis new to my ears and heart. Not because he is well known and widely read. Rather, it is the practices of his life combined with his nuanced understanding of God at work in, through, and among God’s creation. In short, he gets his hands dirty.
This is not to say he is solely a theologian. Indeed, he is much more. He constantly weaves history, global agricultural methods, and sociology – to name a few – with theological astuteness. Together, he is able to speak to myriad of connected realms.
And this is precisely what he does by tying back together in the name of the kingdom of God what our society has compartmentalized. In my humble opinion, he – along with others such as his coauthor Norman Wirzba and legend Wendell Berry – speaks to the most often overlooked and relegated aspect of the kingdom of God: creation. Throughout his work – both written and physical – Bahnson brings to our attention the need for
understanding interdependently living with and among creation as we are a part of it.
Today I ordered his newest book (through Speakeasy) by the same name as the above video clip: Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith. I am really looking forward to it as he is one of the few theologians/practitioners pushing for an ecological theology. Once I’ve read it I will post a review, so stay attentive.
In the meantime check out these other Fred Bahnson resources:
Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (coauthored with Norman Wirzba)
Wildgoose Festival: Speaking on Soil and Sacrament
“What grows in a garden?” – Washington Post article