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.

11 comments:

Don-nie said...

Great post. I stumbled across your blog and dig it. Frost (and Hirsch) really changed the way I view a lot of what I am doing and plan on doing. I haven't read exiles yet, but I look forward to starting it when I have time. Please keep posting, keep up the experiment, and answer the questions.

Peace out.

Daniel said...

I got to hear about this concept from these guys first-hand last November. I found their discussion of community as a serendipitous byproduct very similar to what I had already been hearing from David Lantow. Funny how the life of a good theory can be already commonly held by thoughtful practitioners before it even has a name. Give it a name, and you've got meaningful communication about what already is.
I think of Saving Private Ryan as an illustration of a liminal experience. Common mission, no matter how or by whom it is determined, necessitates community. Community is a necessary part of the efforts toward success, not necessarily success itself.

M Crane said...

Actually Frost gives Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers as film examples of liminal experiences.

There is something confirming about naming something. It means the experience is more legitimized and not just isolated.

Antonio said...

M, When I read this I was reminded of the bond that developed between several of us that worked in the early days of the disaster. There is a strong bond there that never would have developed any other way and I know that each of us would do almost anything for each other. The nights that Mark, Joe and I would sit in the dark talking about the horrible things we had seen that day and just allow each other to ramble and cry was incredible. That can only be developed through experiencing something incredibly difficult together. Lori's dad has a similar community in chm. He has a group of guys that all have similar struggles. The day he was fired they washed his feet and he said it felt like his first real experience of community ever. It seems like this type of community can only be developed by going through extreme experiences together. Which I think this is what you are already saying, but I thought I would throw in my 2 cents.

Random Goblin said...

Hang on; I'm confused. Are luminal and liminal two different things, or is one of them just a misspelling?

M Crane said...

Sorry about the typo. I typed this in Microsoft Word first. Liminal autocorrects to luminal. My apologies.

s&j said...

Microsoft is evil!

sdawg said...

If the heart of "church" is more about communitas than the ever-elusive quest for "community" that so many churches are going on, then are many of the social structures we commonly refer to as "churches" actually churches at all in the Frost/Lantow/etc... sense? Are people actually experiencing more church inside of "para-church" organizations and teams than in "local churches"?

Daniel said...

sdawg,
Intriguing question! My first reaction is to compare each set of churches to the metaphors for church in the epistles. At first blush, one set, the parachurch/missional team seems to much more clearly fit the description.
My second reaction is to wonder if every "church" has the latent potential for communitas via one or more liminal experiences. The opportunity has simply been avoided for one reason or another. Through liminal experiences, churches experience a corporate conversion similar to the experience of the individual's salvation; they become effective agents of God's will in their communities and the world. They begin to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling (plural their own, singular salvation) Phil 2:12.

One of the reasons that churches miss these opportunities is sheer size. The missions that these churches could bond over require much smaller teams to accomplish. Can you imagine the problems finding and rescuing Private Ryan with a thousand soldiers? Not only would the task have innumerably more difficulties, it would also not bind the soldiers together as intensively. It seems to me that large congregations would benefit from thinking as a myriad of smaller teams. I don't care how they gather, autonomous churches, cells, one big happy family, they simply need specialization to effectively obey the head of the church (not the pastor).

Chris and Tiffany said...

I would have to agree with the concept of liminiality. Some of my best friendships have been formed with people through the discourse of very trying periods of my life. I think that liminal experiences allow us as humans to break down a major barrier to community which is trust. Once we learn to trust we become a little bit more connected. I would question any parachurch organization giving a liminal experience. I don't think that our whole lives can be liminal experienes either. Liminal experiences come during chunks of time. Maybe we just need to be more intentional about putting ourselves in situations where liminal experiences can happen more frequently? These experiences have to be organic and spontaneous. I am not sure if they can reach their full potential when contribed by humans.

sdawg said...

I'm starting to think of church being found everywhere it exists. Everywhere things like communitas and the one-anothers are happening. Where there are strong and sacrificial relational primary attachments between disciples. Where such groups exist for each other, God , and the neighbor. There is sometimes a core of people in a "local church" that is this way. Sometimes a small group or neighborhood group is this way. Sometimes teams or groups of people within para-church organizations are this way. Sometimes networks of friends are this way. Sometimes families are this way. Just because a social entity has the label "church" on it doesn't necessarily mean it is church. Just because a social entity has "para" before the word "church" or doesn't contain the word "church" at all doesn't mean it isn't church.