Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Travel to Lausanne Consultation

I have not been able to post to this blog recently due to the need for me to complete several projects for seminary and ministry prior to my departure for Hong Kong Wednesday morning, September 27. I will be participating in our Lausanne issue group consultation addressing postmodern and alternative spiritualities as part of our group's ongoing work. The consultation will involve several members of our international group that met in Thailand in 2004, and a few new members. The event will be held at the Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre, a wonderful missional contextualization of the gospel in Chinese culture founded by missionary Karl Ludvig Reichelt.

One fo the projects I have been working to complete is my essay on Burning Man in partial fulfillment of the summer missions project. This is very close to completion and will be presented to faculty and staff at Salt Lake Theological Seminary on October 10. The paper involves a sociological, anthropological, and missiological analysis of Burning Man Festival. Those interested in this paper may request an electronic copy after the presentation in October.

Upon my return to the United States on October 7 I will be preparing to host a crab feed fundraiser for Neighboring Faiths Project on Sunday, October 8 from 6:00-7:30 p.m. at Shadowridge Church in Granite Bay. Those in the greater Sacramento, California area are encouraged to join us for this event. Please be in prayer for this event's ability to minister to our supporters and to provivde financial support for our missions work. If you are not in the Sacramento area please consider supporting our work financially as well by sending your contribution even if you can't join us for the crab feed.

I will resume posting on the blog after October 10.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Morwic Ethnography

This semester I am taking a Mormon Culture course at seminary as an elective toward my graduate degree in intercultural studies. One of the course requirements is that students research an aspect of Mormon culture in order to write an ethnography, an insider's cultural perspective on a facet of a given culture. When I first began thinking about the focus for my ethnography I considered doing follow up research on my previous work looking at aspects of symbolism and pilgrimage related to Latter-day Saints at the Mormon Miracle Pageant at Manti, Utah. (As a side note, Dr. Kent Bean at Snow College reviewed a copy of my paper on this topic for my Cross-Cultural Hermeneutics course last semester and plans on quoting it in an upcoming presentation on Manti for the American Folklore Association.) But after further thought I decided to pursue another avenue.

In a previous post I mentioned Morwics, a term coined by individuals in Utah who are both active Latter-day Saints and Pagans who combine these differing religious/spiritual pathways do to a common thread of esotericism and folk magic. I recently received approval from my instructor to write my ethnography on Morwics, Mormo-Pagans or Eclectic Mormons in alternative terminology. I have been part of several Yahoo discussion groups on Paganism since my relocation from California, and have made several contacts with Mormo-Pagans who have expressed an interest in completing an ethnographic survey, and perhaps a follow up interview. This Saturday is Pagan Pride Day in Salt Lake City, and I will be going to meet some of the contacts and to begin to develop relationships with them and other Pagans in Utah. I have also found a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University who is researching a related topic in the form of LDS women who supplement and sometimes replace Mormon beliefs with those of Neo-Paganism. D. Michael Quinn, who has done extensive work on early Mormonism and folk magick, was helpful in providing research contacts for this. I am looking forward to combining research interests in both Mormonism and Neo-Paganism, and to contributing to our awareness of this interesting religious subculture.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Surveys: America's Image of God and Twentysomethings Spiritual Shift

Yesterday I came across two interesting surveys about religious and spiritual beliefs of two segments of Americans. The first survey was wirtten by sociologists from Baylor University's Studies on Religion, as reported in an article in USAToday. It reported that "while 91.8% say they believe in God, a power or a cosmic force, they had four distinct views of God's personality and engagement in human affairs. The Baylor proffesors analyzing the survey data describe these views of the divine as Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical and Distant. While there is closer proximity between the Authoritarian and Critical views of God and conceptions of God in American evangelicalism, the survey hints at other views that may be just as popular. The survey also noted that belief in the paranormal still holds fascination for many Americans.

The survey has come into question given Baylor's Southern Baptist affiliation and whether the questions include a "conservative Protetant tilt." The article noted that the "questions often used 'church," with no mention of synogogue or mosque." Despite Baylor's assurances that the survey was not leading in its questions in favor of a Christian orientation at the expense of other religious or spiritual traditions, this blogger has reservations about extrapolating from this sampling to arrive at national implications. It may be that if the questioning were oriented differently greater numbers of respondents would have provided answers farther away from conservative evangelicalism and mainline Protestanism and toward Do-It-Yourself Spiritualities.

Another survey, this one by the Barna organization, looked at the move away from Christianity by twentysomethings even after great spiritual activity in churches during teen years. The Barna organization cites a statistic of 61% of today's young adults who fit into this category, adn that this is not a temporary phase before returning to church in later adulthood. Barna notes in this new study that this same group also engages in "at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity during their teen years." This survey is in keeping with Lynn Schofield Clark's work in this area described in her book From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford University Press, 2003). As a result of these findings the article insightfully notes that "the current state of ministry to twentysomethings is woefully inadequate to address the spiritual needs of millions of young adults."

The conclusion of Barna's organization is correct, and with the survey results from Baylor the same might be said of older American adults as well. It would seem that our attractional and inward focus of church life independent of constant cultural engagement has failed to adequately prepare people for Christian spirituality in pluralistic America.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Burning Man, Communitas and the Church

As I biked around the desert playa of Burning Man during the festival as a culmination of my summer research, I wrestled with understanding the essence of the event. I recognize the incredible complexity of this cultural and social phenomenon and that any such understanding must resist oversimplification to the point of misunderstanding.

A number of elements which comprise the Burning Man experience have been suggested, and several come from the Burning Man website itself. These include a sense of belonging as a part of a group; survival in a hostile desert environment; empowerment through art and other forms of personal expression; sensuality as it relates to the festival serving as a feast for the senses; celebration through performance art and the burning of the Man; and liminality which understands the festival as a threshold event in time, space, and culture. Frost and Hirsch have recognized and commented on these facets of Burning Man in their fine book on missional Christianity, The Shaping of Things to Come (Hendrickson/Strand, 2003). In addition, I would add the strong emphasis on art and festivity, but these might be considered subsets of sensuality and celebration (although festivity might be understood much more broadly and with greater social and theological significance than celebration).

But even with these elements in my my questions remained as to the essence of Burning Man. Previously I thought I had boiled it down to either art or festivity as the key elements, and then wondered whether one gave rise to the or whether they should be recognized as occurring in tandem without one being an epiphenomenon of the other. In my earlier thinking I leaned toward festivity giving rise to the art, a point of view which runs counter to much of the thinking on this event. I hope to include a future post on Burning Man and festivity which will discuss this further.

But last night I was reminded how curiously seemingly unrelated strands of research and thinking can come together to shed new light on research. I have commented in the past on symbolic anthropology as it relates to understanding Latter-day Saint pageants and temple openings. Much of my thinking here has been influenced by the work of the late Victor Turner. In reviewing some of this previous research I became convinced that it is also directly relevant to understanding a if not the key element of Burning Man.

Researchers into the Burning Man phenomenon often point to community as a major facet of the appeal of the festival. I believe this is a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough. Burning Man holds great appeal and significance as a social and cultural experience because it offers far more than community, it offers what Turner called communitas.

Victor Turner was a symbolic anthropologist who did some groundbreaking work in Africa studying the place of rituals and their symbolic meaning. He studied initiation rites and their role in the social situations of given tribal cultures. Turner noted that in these rites the participants pass through a liminal state of transition from their previous place of social location in the tribe to eventually transition to a new social location of the mainstream on the other side of the threshold. Turner’s work was fascinating in that he noted that the experience of the participants in the liminal state resulted in an intense feeling of intimacy among the participants. Turner saw this as an experience that approximated what occurs in religious events and he described the strong liminal experience of social togetherness of the initiates as communitas.

Turner’s insights are valid both in non-Western societies in which he first observed them as well as in Western societies. He noted that societies include the stability of normal life, or "structure" as well as communitas that might be labeled “anti-structure.” Turner’s explanation of this juxtaposition of these elements illustrates much of what can be seen at Burning Man in terms of the social forces that under gird and energize the creative expression of the festival:

“I have used the term ‘anti-structure’ . . . to describe both liminality and what I have called ‘communitas.’ I meant by it not a structural reversal . . . but the liberation of human capacities of cognition, affect, volition, creativity, etc., from the normative constraints incumbent upon occupying a sequence of social statuses.”
Understand what Turner is saying: the strong feelings of community in the liminal state results in a liberation that affects human thinking and creativity that is not often found normal social situations. Communitas is a key facet to understanding both the increasing popularity of Burning Man itself, and what is often lacking in Chrisitan community in Western Christendom. Consider the following:

1. While Christian churches often experience a sense of community, rarely do they experience the intensity of communitas. We need not think in either/or terms, but the church might consider the significance of the community/communitas distinction.

2. Community tends to be inward focused and follows from a sense of working together as a result of a focus on each other and common goals; whereas the intensity and strong social bonds of communitas come from an outward focus of people working sacrificially toward a task.

3. Community can be artificial as people come together through shared beliefs, history and ideals, whereas communitas occurs naturally and intensely through shared experience.

4. Communitas has far greater potential to unleash creative thinking and artistic expression, elements desperately needed in Western Christendom.

5. If Christians in the West moved outside of community concepts in order to enter the liminal spaces of culture, the result would likely be communitas resulting in societal change both within local churches and the broader culture as well.

Michael Frost has recognized the importance of communitas to missional expression in the West, as spurned on by his association with Alan Hirsch. Missional Christians are encouraged to reflect on this idea further both as an aid to understanding the citizens of Black Rock City and as a means of transformation and empowerment for Christian communities.

Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Hendrickson/Strand, 2006)

Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure (Aldine, 1969)

Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play (PAJ Publications, 1982)

Image source: Copyright Burning Man LLC, Michael Stewart – photographer

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Burning Man: A Few Impressions After the Red Pill

I pulled my journaling notes from Burning Man and thought it might be helpful to share my daily impressions. Keep in mind that describing Burning Man is difficult. As Morpheus told Neo in The Matrix, "No one can really tell you what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself." The same can be said about Burning Man.

We arrived at Burning Man in the late afternoon. As we worked our way through a slow procession of vehicles they kicked up playa dust, but eventually the greeters to the community because visible. I knew immediately that the festival would be very different than my previous participation in community as the greeters were dressed (and undressed) very differently than in the default world (a Burning Man term for reality the other 52 weeks a year). Our greeter shared a phrase we were to hear many times during the week: "Welcome home." Each member of our group then took turns striking a bell type object and shouting out "I'm no longer a virgin," referring to our first-time experience participating in the festival. From this moment on I knew we had swallowed the red pill. How far would the rabbit trail go as we followed Alice into an experimental new world?

My initial experience of Burning Man involved ,a combination of cultural, visual, and sensual overload. The festival is a lively expression of various forms of art, sensuality (distinguished from sexuality), and festivity. These are expressed not only through various "cultural artifacts," but also within the citizens of Black Rock City as well. This was demonstrated through the common adoption of playa names, Mardi Gras-like costuming and various forms of nudity expressed by festival participants. These elements all support individual experimentation with identity play as well as self-expression and celebration.

My unscientific impression of the age group representation was that it is mixed, encompassing all groups, from children to senior citizens (the oldest person we encountered was a proud 79!). Two primary age groups appeared to be those in the 20s and 30s, and another in the 30s to 50s or 60s. My feeling is that the younger demographic appears to be primarily involved in the celebration of what Burning Man offers, while the second group continues to exercise the primary creative control and development of the festival while also enjoying its celebration. The festival organizers circulated demographic surveys which stated that the results would be posted on the Internet. I look forward to reviewing this data for its sociological significance.

My final impression of the festival was that there was something significant here. While the popular media (and the church) often focus on the salacious activities of nudity, sex, and drugs, I believe it is a mistake to characterize Burning Man, or dismiss it, through these elements. While these elements are surely there, they do not represent the totality or essence of the Burning Man experience. In my view the event functions as a spiritual pilgrimage, an embodiment of sacred space and the ideals that its participants yearn for but do not find in the default world. The more I reflect on this pilgrimage and my interactions with the pilgrims themselves, the more I recognize the great significance of this festive community in the desert.

Image source: http://www.filmbespreking.be/2red_pill_1024x768-med.jpg

Table Fellowship, Third Places and Social Outcasts

I really enjoyed John Smulo's interview with Mike Frost on his blog that I mentioned yesterday. As I read through it two points struck me. In the first instance, I was struck by the distinction Frost made in our understanding of Jesus and his practice of table fellowship. Frost is correct in noting that technically Jesus did not extend table fellowship in that his ministry was itinerant in nature. What he did was to accept the invitations to table fellowship extended by various peoples that would have been considered social outcasts in the first century. This distinction is important for Christians in that not only should we be willing to extend an invitation for intimate fellowship to those that our culture and subculture consider undesirable in "come to us" fashion, but we should also be willing to accept their gracious invitations to enjoy fellowship with them, to the extent that our behavior and spirituality merit such invitations. This insight should speak volumes to evangelicals who many times seem more interested in boundary maintenance in their fears over contamination through interaction with others, whether at Burning Man Festivals or neighborhood parks. If we are to emulate Jesus surely we should be spending great amounts of time in real and meaningful fellowships with contemporary "social outcasts," and perhaps one could argue that if Christians aren't perceived in this fashion then our identification with the cultural establishment should tell us we've missed the boat on Christian living and missional incarnation.

The second insight in the Frost interview came for me in his discussion of Third Places. Frost describes this as follows:
"The term ‘third place’ comes from Ray Oldenburg’s book, The Great, Good Place, which is a sociological analysis of the cultural landscape of the US. Oldenburg contends that Americans orient their lives around three broad ‘places’ in their worlds. The first place is the home or neighborhood. The second place is the workplace. And the third place is that public space where we interact with others at a significant level over core issues."
Frost notes that for many (most?) evangelicals the "third place" is the church and evangelical subculture, and because of this we neglect our opportunities to incarnate in neighborhood bowling allies, community functions, and other social events. Christians need to move outside of the Christian ghetto to develop a sense of their spaces of social influence as their primary third place, and this needs to be done with authenticity as they seek to develop real relationships and meaningful participation in these spaces, rather than seeing the third place as a means to an evangelistic end. But the question remains with our existing church structures as to whether less time in the holy huddle will be permissible.

I long for fellow exiles to experiment with me in stepping into new realms of table fellowship and third places.

Image source: http://www.myownself.com/new/images/SocialOutcast.jpg

Five Years After 9/11, 'Dialogue' with Islam Cause for Hope

Conservatives reading the title of this post will likely cringe. Let me state up front that I believe the war on terrorism must be fought on multiple fronts that include law enforcement and, at times, military action, but as I put forward in my seminars at Cornerstone on the rage of the non-West directed at the Western world, an essential element is missing, and that is intercultural understanding. With this in mind I was pleased to receive the latest update from The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life which included an interview with a Pakistani anthropologist on the topic of dialogue with Islam. Following is the introduction.

A native of Pakistan who served as his country's high commissioner to Great Britain, Akbar Ahmed offers the unique perspective of an anthropologist who has lived in and studied both Islamic and Western cultures. The BBC has described him as "the world's leading authority on contemporary Islam." He is the principal investigator for the "Islam in the Age of Globalization" research project at the Brookings Institution, with support from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and American University. The central thesis of Ahmed's work is that dialogue is required to reduce conflict between the U.S. and Islam. For his traveling dialogues with Judea Pearl, the father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Ahmed was nominated as a 2005 finalist for Beliefnet’s "Most Inspiring Person of the Year" award. Ahmed, 63, was interviewed in the living room of his home, just outside Washington, D.C.

For a contrasting view, see Five Years After 9/11, The Clash of Civilizations Revisited

Featuring: Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, professor of International Relations, American University, Washington, D.C. His books include After Terror: Promoting Dialogue among Civilizations (2005) and Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World (2003).

Interviewer: Mark O'Keefe, Associate Director, Editorial, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Missional Exiles in Post-Christian Culture

Today in my mailbox I received a promotional flyer from a major evangelical ministry that promotes "outreach" through mass marketing. The flyer served as an example of what churches can purchase and use in mass mailings for their communities. Across the top were the words "Invite your community back to church!" On the other side were the words "You're invited" with cozy Autumn photos of smiling people, pumpkins, Autumn leaves, and hot chocolate (with marshmallows, of course).

Do evangelical churches really think it's this easy? Simply mail a seasonal flyer with smiling evangelicals offering pumpkins and hot chocolate, and the community comes "back" to church. I question the premise: Invite your community back to church. It assumes they were there in the first place. And it assumes that people are willing to come into our sacred space and engage church culture, a very questionable notion given the anti-institutional nature of the post-modern spiritual quest. We continue to ignore the increasing numbers of people who have never been to church, as well as the post-Christendom context of the West. While American Christianity may be faring better than the church in the U.K. and Australia, the winds of late modernity/post-modernity and post-Christendom are blowing our way and the leaves have already fallen off the trees of church in modernity. Gone are the days of the church as the focus of the community, and yet our self-understanding and approaches to Christian spirituality and how we "do church and outreach" still presume a Christendom context.

We need a wake up call, and ideas as to how to think missionally in post-Christian culture. This is why I was pleased to secure a copy of Michael Frost's new book, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Hendrickson/Strand, 2006). I had the privilege of meeting Mike during my trip to Australia a few years ago. He's part of the Forge Training Network, and he is the co-author with Alan Hirsch of The Shaping of Things to Come. My friend and colleague John Smulo has a two-part interview with Mike where they discuss the book on his blog.

To wet your appetite, feast on a sample from the first chapter:
This book is written for those Christians who find themselves falling into the cracks between contemporary secular Western culture and a quaint, old-fashioned church culture of respectability and conservatism. This book is for the many people who wish to be faithful followers of the radical Jesus but no longer find themselves able to fit into the bland, limp, unsavory straightjacket of a church that seems to be yearning to return to the days when "everyone" used to attend church and "Christian family values" reigned. This book is for those who can't remain in the safe modes of church and who wish to live expansive, confident Christian lives in this world without having to abandon themselves to the values of contemporary society. This book is for those Christians who feel themselves ready (or yearning) to jump ship but don't want to be left adrift in a world where greed, consumerism, laziness, and materialism toss them about endlessly and pointlessly. Such Christians live with the nagging tension of being at home neither in the world nor in the church as they've known it. Is there some way of embracing a Christ-centered faith and lifestyle that are lived tenaciously and confidently right out in the open where such a faith is not normally valued? I think so, but it will require a dangerous departure from standard church practice. It seems that the church is still hoping and praing that the ground will shift back and our society will embrace once again the values that it once shared with the Christian community. But for many of us, and for those to whom this book is written, this hoping and praying is a lost cause. We acknowledge that the epoch of history that shaped the contemporary church has crashed like a wave on a shore and lef the church high and dry. That epoch is known as the era of Christendom.
As a missional Christian in exile in the post-Christian West I encourage other exiles to join me in benefitting from Michael's wisdom. May our tribe increase.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

I've Been Burned

I returned to the Salt Lake City area yesterday on my return trip from Burning Man Festival. I'm currently playing "catch up" in my workload from seminary and ministry, not to mention trying to spend some reconnecting with my wife and kids. Over the course of the next week and beyond I will post comments as I reflect on my experiences, and as I work on my paper on the festival for seminary credit.

I thought in this initial post it might be appropriate to comment on my personal experiences. The posts that follow will likely be more academic as I try to understand the meaning of Burning Man, for its participants as well as for church in the Western world. I thought it might be appropriate with this first post to simply share some initial emotional and experiential reactions.

First, I and my fellow small group of participants that I traveled with went with something of a biblical "theme verse" that guided our initial thinking about the festival. Although I am usually opposed to theme verses given their tendency to serve personal application at the expense of sound exegesis, I resonated with a verse quoted in AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man, Lee Gilmore & Mark Van Proyen (eds), (University of New Mexico Press, 2005), Hosea 2:14: "I will entice you into the desert and there I will speak to you in the depths of your heart."

God did speak to me through my experiences, and I'll share three brief highlights. In the first instance, my greatest apprehension on attending Burning Man was not the people or the culture, often characterized by the popular media and the church as the lunatic fringe, but rather the harsh elements of the desert. I admit it: I'm a creature of modern civilization who loves all of our conveniences, including air conditioning. The prospect of a week in the heat of the day, freezing nights, and sandstorms was less than appealing. But I followed God's enticement into the desert, I experienced the heat, the cold, and one serious sandstorm, and I lived. Perhaps I need to take my own commentary more to heart in venturing out as a traveler rather than a tourist.

In the second instance, I experienced a time of great emotional unity with fellow Burners in an experience that was the most moving for me during this event. As I biked across the playa I almost went past the Temple, but as my fellow travelers stopped for a look inside I joined them. This open air Temple made of wood included small pieces of wood for participants to write their notes of love and remembrance for lost loved ones. At the conclusion of the festival the temple and the memorials are burned up. The mood in the Temple was somber as people sobbed, hugged, and remembered. Reading the messages was moving, and felt a little intrusive as well. I decided to use the opportunity to write a message to my son Jacob who I lost to suicide a couple of years ago. My experience at the Temple in doing this was intensely moving and cathartic as I anticipated my loving memorial message being burned as an offering to my son. The experience was in many ways more therapeutic than other forms of dealing with grief that I experienced, including those found in church and other civic forms of grief expression in society. (Sarah Pike touches on this in her chapter "No Novenas for the Dead: Ritual Action and Communal Memory at the Temple of Tears" in AfterBurn.)

Third, my experience at Burning Man challenged my stereotypes. It is all too easy to dismiss Burning Man participants as Bohemian liberals of little or no consequence to the rest of "normal" society. But an experience with one of the citizens of Black Rock City illustrated that participation in the ethos of Burning Man exceeds its 40,000 attendees. On the first full day of our experience we were privileged to meet Krusty (his playa name). How can I describe Krusty? I suppose the easiest way to do it is to think of the 1980s film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and recall Sean Penn's colorful surfer character, Jeff Spicoli. If you modify this character by the addition of passionate intensity for Burning Man, and add an expletive "f***" for every third word or so, that's close to a representation of Krusty. On the second day of our Burning Man experience, it was easy for me to come away from my encounter with Krusty as confirmation of the festival's stereotypical attendee. But this would be wrong, as we discovered toward the end of the event. As I and fellow Burner Scott Eggert discovered while washing dishes for our camp in a later encounter with Krusty, there is more to this colorful Burner than meets the eye (and the stereotype). Scott asked Krust what he does when he's not at the festival and he said that he lived for the Burn. When pressed further, Krusty replied that he works at a hospital. Intrigued, Scott asked whether he was a LVN or RN. Krusty said no, he was a physician, and that he had been "catching babies" for a hospital in southern California for several years. Krusty, the intense Burner who had been so easy to dismiss early in the week was in fact a very intelligent OB/GYN. Amazing.

So with this first post I must admit that I've been Burned, not only in participating in the festival, but in having my attitudes, my stereotypes, my assumptions about people and culture burned and reconfigured. It will be interesting to see what rises from the ashes.