Friday, July 20, 2007

De-Ritualized: Organically Free or Empty Structure

Piggy-backing on the previous post, I’m ruminating on the notion of liminality and communitas. It occurred to me that in Michael Frost’s beautiful explanation of these concepts from Victor Turner that it was in the context of ritual/ceremony that this idea developed. In Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, Frost moves toward application in secularized circumstances. In other words, any harrowing or adventuresome group experience might catalyze communitas. Examples were given of rights activists and church mission trips creating communitas. Carl Starkloff wrestles with these same anthropological concepts in his article “Church as Structure and Communitas: Victor Turner and Ecclesiology” (Theological Studies v. 58 (Dec. '97) p. 643-68). Starkloff brings a Catholic perspective on the same topic and thus has a heightened sensitivity to the value of ritual.

My background is thoroughly Evangelical Baptist, thus the element of ritual has always been minimized unless we were talking about Wednesday night fried chicken. Americans (and Westerners in general), for a long time, neglected the importance of rituals and ceremonies in everyday life. Even the church has worked very hard at minimizing or commercializing our symbolically-rich ceremonies. The rituals that are observed have been reduced to an express version of the former. Funeral ceremonies have become lighter life celebrations. Wedding ceremonies are lightning fast and then its on to the reception. The rich symbolism is hardly given a second thought.

In this void of meaningful rituals and celebrations, individuals and groups are scrambling to create their own or dig them up from obscure corners of history. Among the ritual ideas proposed by Carole Kammen and Jodi Gold (Call to Connection: Bringing Sacred Tribal Values into Modern Life, 1998) are ceremonies for a woman’s first menstruation or the return to singleness after a divorce. They also submit ideas for ritualizing Christmas and Thanksgiving. (Kammen and Gold, 215) Isn’t it remarkable that people have to create rituals for Christmas because all they see is frenetic gift-buying and commercial hype?

Kammen and Gold demarcate a void in our culture. Their solutions, however, come off as cheaply manufactured imitation ceremonies. The fun might be as long-lasting as the novelty of a theme-party. Once it is over, it is time to move on. They are attempting to reintroduce forms without the meaning.

Evangelicals have taken the opposite approach, locating the focus squarely on the meaning devoid of ritual form. Monological exhortations (“sermons”) have become the primary focus in the primary gathering of the church. Even in churches that still celebrate the sacraments in ritual manner, the deep sense of awe and mystery seems noticeably underwhelming. It has become too staid and thus no longer a ritual that demands communitas.

This has become a meandering line of thinking. So, to rein these thoughts back in, how do we celebrate in ritual the rich meanings of Christ in forms that spur us toward liminal experiences and theretofore communitas?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Finally Understanding Liminality

Liminality is a term used by the well-known anthropologist, Victor Turner. During my graduate studies I had a professor who was keen on the notion of liminal space. It is was consistent part of his church planting jargon, but I must confess I failed to understand the concept. I later attempted to read an academic article about Victor Turner’s use of liminality and communitas. This article only served to befuddle me further, as it was mired in uber-academic language. In my mental filing cabinet I labeled the concept as “irrelevant, only theory.” That was…until now.

I have been reading Michael Frost’s Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. When I started reading the book, I was concerned that it was going to say the same hackneyed things everyone is publishing and blogging about; emerging this, emergent that, postmodern this, deconstruct that, yada-yada-yada. I have been on board with a lot of that stuff for years, lets start getting into some more depthy material. To my pleasant astonishment, each succeeding chapter—thus far (I’m in chapter 6)—has gotten better. In chapter five, Michael Frost teaches his readers a lesson about an anthropological term. It was his explanation of liminality that turned on the lights for me.

Victor Turner studied a people group in Africa that sent boys on a coming-of-age survival journey. These candidates for adulthood are sent into the wild to fend for themselves in the elements. The interesting observation that Turner made was that there was a special kind of bond that occurred among those boys that went into the wild together. This bond was more intense than our common understanding of community. The dire circumstances pushed this group of boys to their uttermost thresholds, therefore forcing these aspiring adults to trust and help each other interdependently. These boys then share a bond that stays with them until their deaths. This kind of bond, Turner labels communitas, community at a much more intense level. The consequences of this tendency are far-reaching. Turner states:

People of societies in a liminal phase are a kind of institutional capsule or pocket which contains the germ of future social developments, of societal change. (Victor Turner, as quoted in Frost, Exiles, 110)

Since most of the readers of this blog come from cultures that have nothing resembling this coming of age ritual, what does this mean?

Frost describes his intense quest for real community and coming up short. He notices a pattern of successive generations attempting a deeper, more authentic sense of community. Each time the efforts add to a long trail bitterness and disillusionment. His observation is incisive, “But I have come to realize that aiming for the community is a bit like aiming for happiness. It’s not a goal in itself.” (Frost, Exiles, 108) He goes on to describe how going on a common quest or mission can create a liminal experience. A group that goes on a mission trip together shares a new level of community.

Frost elucidates further on this topic with many more important observations. I have long thought that being on mission together can accelerate community. But I had not yet thought about the issues in such distinct ways. I also realized that I have been guilty of promoting mission in order to create community. This is a wrong-headed approach, mission should be done because we worship God by participating in his mission (missio Dei). Community is a beautiful byproduct of being on mission in community.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A First Posting

I created a new blog in which to converse with willing interlocutors and pontificate about missiological and ecclesiological ideas. Suddenly, it came time to inaugurate my blog with a post. I was at a loss, how does one immediately jump waste deep into the deeper issues of how theology intersects with sociology and anthropology. There is a part of me that wants delve right into issues of insider movements, modalities and sodalities, and postmodern expressions of faith in Jesus. But there is another part of me that feels like a need to warm up to such issues.

An issue that currently troubles me is how to reconcile the Way of Jesus with public policy and inevitable institutionalization. A simple reading of the four biographies of Jesus in the Scriptures seems to suggest that Jesus initiated a subversive movement. It was a movement that challenged the principalities and powers (mentioned by Paul) of the day. The mere news of Jesus’ arrival launched a province-wide infanticide campaign. The high religious leaders were continually unhappy about his existence. Static theological constructs, religious institutions, and political manipulating was suddenly being unveiled as irrelevant to God’s purposes of seeing his world become in tune with his wishes.

Jesus and his band of followers seemed like a little upstart group going up against dominating powers. This insignificant group of uneducated men and women continued the struggle even after their leader’s early physical departure from earth. In a matter of three hundred years, this smattering of peasants turned into a well-oiled ecclesiastical machine. So significant was this machine that politicians began to affiliate and enemy nations became weary of Christians in their own lands. It wasn’t much longer before the church was fully in bed with the state. Accessorized with the sign of the cross, politicians, clergy, and generals exploited every ounce of power they could out of the church. But, why not? Every politician is going to pander to the majority.

It is my desire to see as many people as possible change their allegiance to the Way of Jesus. I don’t just desire a few people to do so, I want the majority of people to do so (if not all). Equipped with the teaches and example of Jesus and bolstered by ever-present companionship, the masses coming to Jesus should spark revolutions of love, reconciliation and hope. We so often talk of societal transformation due to a movement towards Christ. And to a certain degree this kind of transformation occurs. Valuing humans of every socioeconomic level regardless of gender, ethnicity, and status are by-products of whole nations becoming “Christian.” The troubling part for me, is that the church always institutionalizes and joins in the power-grab of the rest.

Why don’t we see more of a drastic change when a culture becomes more than 50% Christian? Why are places that have an overwhelming majority of its citizens going to church still mired by poverty, racism, crime, and immorality (sometimes to a worse degree than places with a minority of Jesus-followers)?

So, there it is. I start of this blog with a question, quandary really.

Friday, July 13, 2007