Thursday, August 24, 2006

Simulation and Pseudo-Events: Travelers or Tourists in Culture and Spirituality

Yesterday was the first day of the new semester for seminary. During chapel the president, Dr. Don McCullough, presented a message that was interesting not only in the application he drew, but also in applications in other contexts.

Don’s devotional presentation touched on the topic of the early disciples and what it meant to follow Jesus. Of course, McCullough read a New Testament passage as his point of departure, but then referenced the book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel Boorstin (Vintage; Reissue edition 1992). Boorstin is a historian who, in this book, developed the idea of simulation as a social category. The main thesis of the book is that Americans live in an “age of contrivance” and that our public lives are filled with various “pseudo-events” or “artificial products” that simulate reality and which leave the individual who experiences the events or utilizes the products feeling as if they have experienced reality when in fact they have had their stereotypes confirmed by an encounter with the simulation. Although this book was first published in 1961, Boorstin’s cultural analysis might be considered somewhat prescient if not prophetic.

During the chapel devotion McCullough focused in on chapter three of Boorstin’s book, “From Traveler to Tourist: The Lost Art of Traveling.” In this chapter Boorstin notes the etymological connection between the words “travel” and “travail.” In the not-so-distant past travel was a dangerous experience that exposed the traveler to various hazards such as the mode of traveling (consider cross-Atlantic seafaring), disease, robbery and the like. In the past a traveler would literally experience travail if she wanted to experience another culture. There was a cost and great personal investment in the process.

Today, of course, travel is very different. It is possible to leave the comforts of home and get on a train or jet with controlled climate, good food, and entertainment and travel around the world, only to check in to a hotel with all the comforts of home in establishments catering to the desires of pampered Americans and other Westerners. Little travail often accompanies modern travel.

Beyond this, travelers today are more often tourists, crossing land and sea ostensibly to experience another culture, but instead they encounter a series of pseudo-events, simulations of culture that conform to the expectations and stereotypes of the tourist.

McCullough applied this concept to Christians and their spiritual journey with Jesus. Are they following the difficult path of the traveler who willingly experienced travail, or are they the modern tourist content with a pseudo-event and a pre-packaged discipleship experience?

As I reflected on these ideas I thought of other applications in terms of our understandings and sojourn. First, in our American and broader Western contexts, does our understanding of the various subcultures and their spiritualities reflect the complex and messy realities of the subcultures themselves, or is our understanding really a pseudo-culture and pseudo-religion, an oversimplified and reified image that conforms to our evangelical presuppositions that then become all too easy to dismiss and demonize? And second, in terms of our spiritual sojourn, are evangelicals willing to walk the difficult path of the traveler rather than the tourist, not only in terms of our own spiritual journey with Christ, but also to come alongside other spiritual travelers on differing paths? Or perhaps we’re more spiritual tourists, content with the prepackaged simulations of what we think other people’s spiritual journeys are all about?

Image source:


Chris the Kiwi said...

This is very interesting. Kiwi's are among the world's great travellers because we live so far from most places. Our ancestors had huge dangers to face coming here; it took months from the UK or Europe. It is so easy and safe now.(And I'm pleased about that! :-) )
Franchise stores and restaurants also link to the the stuff the Boostin speaks about - you can get the same food from an international fast food chain in Moscow or Christchurch.
A good question to pursue is how on the faith journey we build a faith journey from our own context, rather than grab hold of what is offered from the so-called big experiences or teachings from Europe, UK or the US.

Anonymous said...

i have not read Boorstin, but in my book; out of bounds church? i argue for the opposite.

it is so easy to cross our arms and pooh pooh contemporary religious experience, which is what i sense is happening here.

their is documented research that shows that tourism is in fact a spiritual search. so taking missiology and the incarnation seriously, i want to ask what it means for the church to enter into this tourist search.

in doing so, i don't believe the church needs to dumb down its gospel. it can offer "extreme discipleship" rather than "christianity lite" to spiritual tourists.


John W. Morehead said...

My thanks to the Kiwis for the comments.

I think there are fruitful materials in a variety of sources that are applicable to missional expressions of Christianity in the West. These include the consideration of simulation and pseudo-events, cross-cultural tourism and travel, and anthropology of pilgrimage.

Scholars tend to make a distinction between a tourist and a traveler in the sense that a tourist tends not to be engaged in the nitty gritty of cultural engagement, but rather, hovers at the superficial level and comes away feeling as if something deep and meaningful has occured. Many times this is merely a confirmation of earlier presuppositions or stereotypes. Tourism in this context might be understood more as a pejorative. (I recall the scene in Fight Club where Marla is berated for being a mere "tourist" in various self-help groups rather than a real co-sufferer and traveler.)

By taking the incarnation and missions seriously we should move beyond the simulation of tourism (as defined by Boorstin and other scholars) and seek a deeper spiritual and cultural travel with our fellow sojourners.

Sally said...

This resonated deeply with me, and may explain the shallowness of spiritual life so often voiced by people in the congregations I work amongst. So much effort goes in to the show, and so much time is spent on the conference trail that true pilgrimage is lost....

Matt Stone said...

John, very interesting comments

Julie said...

I almost lost my lunch at that pic :P