Anthropology

your formative years?

I’ve been reading James K A Smith’s book, Desiring The Kingdom. And I’m absolutely loving it!

Although, I have to say that it leaves me in equal parts thrilled and freaked out.

Why?

Check out this provocative description of what makes many people’s time at university so formative (pages 115-116):

[T]he university’s formative, liturgical power extends well beyond the classroom and the lecture hall; indeed, it might be that the dorms, stadium, and frat houses are even more powerful liturgical sites within the university — shaping students into certain kinds of people, who develop certain loves, bent on certain ends.
[…]
Consider, for instance, the consummate ritual of initiation: Freshers’ Week (or “Frosh” Week, as it’s known in Canada). This is an intensive experience of initial formation that functions as a veritable boot camp — a week of immersion in the life of the university that often has quite little to do with the task of learning or research. It is intensely communal and intergenerational, where older students initiate new students into the books and crannies of the university’s life and not so subtly communicate what is valued, which often amounts to carefree social interaction lubricated by alcohol, cult-like devotion to the football team, and the solidification of social networks that will be instrumental and instrumentalized for the sake of personal benefit and gain.

(Obviously, this reflects the North American campus experience. I’d love to hear ideas about how to make the necessary mental adjustments for our Australian context!)

As an example of Smith’s larger argument, I hope this gives you a sense of what’s so thrilling and frightening here.

I’m excited by his affirmation of the importance of our bodiliness — and with it our ‘thick’ significance-laden, identity-forming habits and practices (think spending hours in front of the mirror perfecting your tousled look rather than your regular tooth-brushing).

And I’m freaked out by the picture he paints of the pervasiveness and power of the (liturgical) identity-sculpting forces coursing and heaving away beneath the surface of university life.

How can we resist — or equip university students (or potential students) to resist — something that seems as inexorable and irreversible as erosion?

This is the challenge that’s got its hooks into me at the moment. So expect to hear more about it!

enjoyment is only the tip of the iceberg

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I think I was dimly aware that an entire theology of creation (and a theological anthropology as part of that) was lurking beneath the surface of my previous post.

But — a bit like rubbing detergent or saliva on the inside of your snorkelling mask — it took this dazzling gem from the Church Dogmatics III/4 to bring things into sharp focus for me:

[God] takes man so seriously in his vocation to be in covenant with Him that He calls him to freedom in fellowship, i.e., to freedom in fellowship with others. He calls him to find himself by affirming the other, to know joy by comforting the other, and self-expression by honouring the other. (Section 54.1, pages 116-117)

I find this so helpful. For one thing, it traces the same arc I’ve launched myself upon in beginning to flesh out a properly biblical notion of enjoyment (e.g., wrapping it up with other-regarding behaviour like giving and sharing — or, as Barth specifies it here, with affirming, honouring, and comforting).

But it’s the location of this claim within the sweep of the Church Dogmatics that really excites me.

You see, in Sections 52-56 Barth is busy drawing out the ethical implications of the theology of creation he has developed in Book III — which might be better labelled a Christology of creation.

This is exciting because it doesn’t only confirm my hunch that enjoyment is the tip of a much larger iceberg. It also suggests the kind of shape that this submerged theology needs to have in order to yield a distinctively Christian alternative to the reigning ‘ethics of otherness’.

In the ethics of otherness trailblazed by the likes of Immanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, difference is absolute. All we can (ethically) do is tremble before the claim of the other as other — in a kind of mirror image reversal of the revulsion supposedly characterising the sort of ethics Levinas et al rail against. The tyranny of the self — and people like me — is replaced by the tyranny of the other.

What Barth invites us to imagine by contrast is a way of placing the other beside the self.

It is only in doing so that we will find the conceptual freedom to forge well-differentiated connections between ourselves and others. Perhaps even allowing for the full range of ethically justifiable responses to otherness — between the extremes of knee-jerk exclusion and indiscriminate embrace…

gratitude and gratification

I’ve often tripped over this verse from 1 Timothy 6:

17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

It’s not the warning to the rich that I catch my foot on. I get the idea that having stuff can lead us to haughtiness or an inclination to try to rest the weight of our hope for the future on the illusory solidity of stuff.

What gets me is the exhortation — or rather the reason for the exhortation to set our hope on God: because he “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment”.

I wouldn’t have chosen to dispense this as the remedy for proud, self-sufficient wealth-creation.

Maybe that’s because the leftist bent of my idealistic youth is enjoying something of a revival in my thinking of late.

Or maybe it’s because I need to inwardly digest the message Tim Keller recently got to broadcast on the NY Times website.

But ultimately I suspect it’s because my sense of enjoyment — as in “God richly provides … everything for our enjoyment” — is way too cramped and narrow.

Lingering beneath however I might like to define the word, for me ‘enjoyment’ always connotes something furtive. Stolen. Something I’ve gotten away with. Or jumped through the hoops of respectably delayed gratification to attain.

I guess I could stand to learn a thing or two from my sixteen month-old son, who clasps his hands repeatedly in a prayer of gratitude every meal time — especially when he’s served up his favourite foods (currently grapes, crackers, sultanas, and banana muffins).

For my son, the more he anticipates enjoying something, the more he is moved to express his thankfulness. So much so that it seems like thankfulness enhances his enjoyment of something.

Gratitude isn’t a necessary and more or less unpleasant prelude to gratification. It’s essential to it!

Oh, how I wish I could recapture that…

carried away on a flood of tears

After experiencing that shrinking feeling and then taking on titanic proportions when she nibbled a biscuit labelled “EAT ME”, Alice falls to weeping — and is carried away on a flood of tears.

That’s pretty much where I’m at now in my own adventure down the rabbit hole.

In earlier posts I shared how I’ve realised that simply knowing more stuff — or even having an integrated Christian worldview — just won’t do the job when it comes to spiritual growth.

After making me feel small and insignificant, I think this realisation has led me to (finally) begin to get the significance of the ‘self’ in biblical passages like this:

Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4.16)

Or this:

So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2.8)

This is what I think I was driving at HERE (in my typically roundabout and muddled way).

Sharing of ourselves — investing personally in others — is the indispendible context for making and maturing disciples of Jesus: that is, people who not only have the ‘right answers’ theologically or an integrated Christian worldview, but who worship and love and centre their lives on him. (This, by the way, is why I’ve come to see solid preaching as necessary but insufficient.)

But why are our (shared) lives so significant? And how?

As examples. Obviously.

But examples of what?

Not perfection I take it (otherwise I’m out). But growth and change. The biblical term for which is also that word that stands over the start of the Christian life… Repentance!

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1.15)

Repentance is often associated with tears. You know, groveling and self-laceration? Like in certain over-rated Puritan prayers…

But I like the theological tradition (which you can find in Calvin) that binds repentance — gospel repentance — to joy.

It is with my face streaming with joy. As I’m carried away (not ‘lifted out of myself’). Soul and body. Exulting in the fist-pumpingly good news of the kingdom (at last!), of life, of the resurrection, of God’s “Yes”!

That’s the kind of life we’re called to share. To embody examples of. Living, walking, talking appetisers for the glorious feast we’re awaiting in the kingdom of God.

And, to pre-empt where all this is heading, for this we need recalibrated inner compasses — reordered desires, loves untangled and set right, hearts gripped and filled and brimming over with right affections (enacted in right habits). And we’ll only ever get this by believing the gospel more and more…

But you’ll have to forgive me. I’m getting carried away.

then I’m too small to wield the key

So I’ve started to realise that the real work of discipleship — changing hearts and shaping our desires and abiding habits — is too massive and demanding for me.

Like Alice after drinking from the bottle labelled “DRINK ME”, I’m left feeling small and inadequate.

The enormity of the task is overwhelming. And I certainly can’t get a handle on the key that opens the all-important door. Only God can break up the stony ground of our hearts and reorder our affections — so we love the right things in the right way.

I’m not sure whether this realisation is deflating or liberating. (Like I said when I invited you to join me on this adventure, things are kind of out of proportion down here!)

But before I let myself — and you — off the hook too quickly, let me remind you that God uses means.

What this means is that in his sovereign and loving freedom God typically chooses to work with and through the ordinary stuff of creation. His Spirit did preside over his ordinary week’s work of making everything in Genesis 1.1-2.3, after all!

And this also means God often chooses to use us — in our inadequacy and insufficiency to the task of changing hearts — and our ordinary human words and actions to achieve his life-realigning purposes.

The theologian John Webster would put this under the heading of the sanctifying work of the Spirit — which he describes as “God’s unceasing, ever-fresh act of bestowing holiness upon the creature by the creature’s consecration” (Holiness, page 77).

But it’s what Webster goes on to say that I find most helpful — and dizzying: “the primary mark of creaturely holiness is … its external orientation, its ordering towards God as its source and the object of its praises”.

If I ‘ve understood this (and there are no guarantees I have), then I think it means that as we — in our stumbling and faltering way — learn to delight in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as the source of our life and the infinitely-praiseworthy centre of everything, we can be confident God is at work in us — making us holy and, ultimately, fit to achieve his purposes.

And that is a towering responsibility!

spare the rod, spoil the child?

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Our son Benjamin recently passed the nine month mark. And Natalie and I find ourselves thrashing about in the murky waters of discipline.

Thankfully the profoundly divisive — and potentially explosive — topic of smacking isn’t on the agenda quite yet. But we’ve been bowled over by how frequent the word ‘No’ is becoming in our little household. (About the only thing that prevents us feeling like absolute tyrants is the assurance all the parenting books, e.g., What To Expect The First Year, give us that this is thoroughly normal.)

What I find most fascinating about the challenge of disciplining my son is the way I find it so easy to see the perfectly understandable dynamics playing out ‘behind the scenes’ of his bad behaviour (I suspect I would find this more difficult if we weren’t talking about my own child).

But I’m struggling to recognise the point I’ve heard many preachers make about people being obviously evil, corrupt, sinful, and selfish because you don’t have to teach children to misbehave or act selfishly.

Maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe I’m just going soft. But none of Ben’s bad behaviour seems malignant to me.

I may not always know why he is doing the wrong thing in the moment (often I have no idea). But, upon reflection, Ben typically seems to behave badly for one of three reasons:

  1. He’s tired, sick, and/or hungry. Because he’s hurting, he pendulum swings between desperately demanding comfort and affection and lashing out.
  2. He’s investigating his world — poking a prodding at its limits, seeing what happens when he does this (or when he does it again). Whether it’s hitting Dad in the face or messing around with the powerpoint.
  3. He’s (over-)excited. And so he pushes things to extremes that he normally wouldn’t — biting Mum in his enthusiasm to see her first thing in the morning, for example. Sometimes this is combined with reason 1. Although it seems less deliberate than reason 2.

With this sympathetic reading of the springs and motives of my son’s behaviour, you might think the whole Augustinian ‘original sin’ thing would go out the window. I mean how can I think of my child as totally depraved, corrupt, and sinful from birth when he’s simply hurting, exploring, or just getting carried away?

And yet…

I guess I’m not quite ready to surrender St Augustine’s intuition (or cash in my Reformed evangelical credentials and go deal myself into another theological game). Because the question that presents itself is:

Why does my son’s hurting, exploring, or getting carried away trip up so easily (and consistently) into hurtful, selfish behaviour?

That to me is an interesting question. And one that surely draws us in the direction Augustine takes us…

atheism reloaded?

I’m finding myself more and more squeezed for time at the moment (something about the start of semester and having a five and a half month old). If I’m going to keep posting here at all, I expect things will get even more unfinished and impressionistic than usual. My apologies.

To kick this off, I’d love to hear your reactions to Allain De Botton’s recent suggestions about atheists learning from religion and developing in new directions.

Why not watch the 19 minute TED version?

And check out Dan’s typically honest and insightful response. Here’s a sample to whet your appetite:

Strangely, I found within De Botton’s praise of religion a rather compelling critique of certain versions of conservative evangelicalism. Too frequently, conservative evangelicalism operates with a truncated theological anthropology. As a product of the rationalist Enlightenment, evangelicalism frequently forgets the power of exactly the kinds of practices that De Botton commends: we jettison liturgical habituation to the truths of the gospel, we fail to engage with the fact that we are creatures of desire, of community, who thrill to beauty, who are inescapably embodied.

traces of humanity in popular culture

'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' (1944) by Francis Bacon

The artist Francis Bacon once described his own paintings as looking “as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events”.

I love that description! And if you’ve ever seen much of his work, I’m sure you’ll agree it rings true.

Although often evoking violence and feature abject ‘bodiliness’ (recalling severed limbs, excrement, etc), somehow Bacon’s art manages to testify eloquently to our humanity.

Brutal, almost forensic honesty somehow yields a celebration of what makes us human — or at least the mess left over at the end of this wild party we call being human.

That’s how the classic gothic novel, Frankenstein, works too.

Even though the monster is gruesomely assembled from bits and pieces of the dead, you find yourself sympathising with him. He’s just far more human than the other characters — especially his maker.

But it’s not just in high culture where this dynamic is in play.

I’m increasingly draw to pop-culture artefacts — especially TV shows — that foreground themes of what it means to be human by backlighting it with violent and distorted perversions of humanity.

Here are my top 3 picks for TV shows that employ ‘traces’ of humanity to explore this territory:

  • Dollhouse — another glorious monster from the creator of Buffy and Angel, Joss Whedon: what appears to be a misogynistic premise (a woman who has her memory wiped and reprogrammed on the whim of an elite, mostly male clientele) turns out to be so much more!
  • The Wire — OK, so maybe it doesn’t explicitly foreground an exploration of what it means to be human; but it’s way cool, and does highlight the way institutions (whether the police force, the gangs, or the unions) enable even as they constrain and imprison.
  • Being Human — Natalie and I are only just getting into this show; I can’t decide yet whether it’s more subtle or more ham-fisted than the others in handling these themes.

Do you have any tips for other TV shows (or movies) that might do a similar job?

do you know Australian secrets?

Greens Pool, Denmark, WA

I found it interesting that Chris’ post yesterday about an Australian heart language elicited a couple of comments that reflected pretty iconic Australian images (e.g. the coast, the outback, Les Murray).

I’ve recently come across a theory in anthropology that suggests that you really only understand a group (nation, sub-culture etc) if you share with them in ‘Cultural Intimacy‘ (proposed by Michael Herzfeld). So, for example, the theory proposes that in many nations there is a idealised representation of the nation which covers over a bunch of secrets that we protect from outsiders and which really constitute nationalism. Herzfeld did his research in Crete, and he discusses the way that in Crete, sheep-stealing is a symbol of Greek manhood that exists in tension with the representation of Greece as a modern (and also ancient) law-abiding democracy and that animal theft is therefore hidden from outsiders. And it elicits a weird combination of shame and pride.

These ‘secrets’ – the things that we know about ourselves as a people or group, but which we keep hidden behind the facade of our group imaginary – are what actually define us as insiders.  The group imaginary is how we represent ourselves to outsiders, but the secret tensions reveal our self-knowledge. The secrets are how you can say “Oh, she just doesn’t understand, she’s not one of us….”

The Australian national imaginary includes things like this… we’re an egalitarian country, full of larakins who don’t play by the rules, shaped by the harsh and dangerous environment of the Australian outback, full of adventurers who enjoy our outdoors lifestyle. But I think this belies a bunch of Aussie secrets about deeply entrenched inequality, a love for obeying the rules (we hate ‘queue-jumpers, for instance), and that most of us live pretty safe, suburban lives, are overweight and spend more time in front of a screen than in the sun.

Tim Winton and Les Murray to some extent buy into (and even help create) the Australian national imaginary — I wonder what parts of pop culture reveal Australia’s secret self-knowledge?

will you pray with me?

The idea that I might be asked this question when in the field next year simultaneously fills me with delight and trepidation. I hope to do anthropological fieldwork in churches with Christians. But I feel just a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of engaging with research participants in prayer.

As an anthropologist, prayer is fascinating. It can reveal the inner desires of the heart. It puts emotions and longings into words. It connects the pray-er’s understanding of God and God’s will with their own actions and desires. As a source of data – and as a relational expression of having connected with your research consultants, to be invited to pray together seems like a (forgive the pun) holy grail of anthropological research with Christians.

So, why do I feel uncomfortable with praying with Christian consultants when it is something that is both natural to me and an anthropologically rich source of data?

It’s taken me weeks of incidental conversations and reading, and I’m still not sure I’ve framed this properly, but here’s my attempt at framing my discomfort…

When I pray I am oriented to God and when I do cultural analysis I am oriented to the speaker, to the world. As a Christian, I share both the ritual practice and the belief that what I am doing in prayer is directed to God. To turn away from God towards another person during that act, I think, makes a liar out of me when I say “yes, I will pray with you”. I do not know if it’s possible to both pray and analyse, and I suspect I will only find out in the field!

To read more, check out the full transcript on my project blog On The Way Home.