Monday, February 05, 2007

Communitas, Community, and Tourism

The Ooze discussion on aspects related to my first Burning Man paper continues to be one of the most popular discussion threads, and it is presently the most discussed thread in the Culture Forum. In the forum the issue of communitas and community arose and I posted some comments that I thought might be helpful for reflection here.

The issues of communitas and community are key for those in the church to think about and reflect on theologically, especially in the emerging church where the concepts are discussed frequently. The idea of communitas is developed in the writings of anthropologist Victor Turner. As I wrote in my paper:

Turner conducted research on rites of passage among African tribes, and expanded on a set of ideas proposed by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. As Turner studied the experiences of tribe members undergoing a process of transition during the performance of rites of passage he identified three concepts as parts of this process which involved separation, liminality, and aggregation. This then resulted in feelings of social cohesion which he labeled “communitas.” In the separation process, individuals move from regular participation with the tribe in the mundane world, and then enter a liminal or threshold space where they work together through the performance of rituals. They then experience aggregation or a return to their tribe with a new status resulting from these experiences. The result for those who have gone through this process is an experience of communitas, a strong social bond among individuals who have worked together through common ritual experience. Although Turner’s work focused on “traditional” pre-modern tribal societies, and although he has been criticized for utilizing an idealized framework applied universally to other cultural contexts without appropriate modification, scholars have found it helpful to apply his communitas concept to modern industrialized societies. Here a distinction must be made in that while Turner applied the label “liminality” to tribal cultures, he referred to liminal-like “liminoid” experiences in industrial societies.

In Turner's research, frequently cited by those involved in Burning Man studies and those in the emerging church, communitas tends to be a strong feeling of social bonding that is arrived at through participation in a common activity or purpose by those in a liminal state. Some in the emerging church urge other expressions of church to capture this. For example, although they would classify themselves as missional rather than emerging, two friend colleagues of mine, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, have written on this topic. You can find a discussion of this in The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch (Hendrickson/Strand, 2003), and Mike Frost's Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Hendrickson/Strand, 2006), as well as Alan Hirsch's new release The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Hendirckson/Strand, 2007). Chapter 8 of the latter work by Hirsch is titled "Communitas, Not Community," which demonstrates an unfortunate tendency to divide the two with an emphasis placed on communitas.

I believe communitas is an important concept, but the application of Turner's work on this must be interacted with critically, and in light of other concepts, such as Hakim Bey's concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, which I drew upon in application to Burning man. Another concept relevant to communitas as it relates to ecclesiology may be the concept of pseudo-events in connection with tourism and travel. In a previous post I discussed this idea as developed in Daniel Boorstin's book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (Vintage Books, 1992) with reference to culture and spirituality:

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.

One of the examples of pseudo-events that Boorstin discusses is travel and tourism. He notes how we often settle for travel packages that conform more to our stereotypes and expectations rather than a genuine encounter with another culture. This then results in us becoming tourists who feel like they've experienced something meaningful when in fact travelers (or "travail-ers") from another era would have had a more genuine and real experience than what we experience at the present time.

How might our understanding of communitas interact critically with the concept of pseudo-events, particulary in regards to travel and tourism? The connection is not that far off. Recall the scene in the film Fight Club where Edward Norton's character has finally found catharsis and relief from his insomnia through participation in various self-help groups, only to find Helena Bonham Carter's character, Marla, impinging on his ability to experience this relief through her participation in the same group's under false pretenses. At one point Norton confronts Carter with her hypocrisy and calls her a "tourist" for her lack of real participation in the various maladies that provide the basis for these support groups. The rub of Norton's complaint is that he too is not a fellow traveler suffering from the physical and social ills of those in the support groups he frequents, so he too is really a "tourist." Carter's presence is a constant and painful reminder of Norton's own hypocrisy. Neither of them really identify with the support groups through real participation in them, and any sense of identification they have with them does not translate beyond the weekly meetings into ongoing community beyond what they receive from the meetings themselves.

Fight Club provides an interesting illustration of the connection between aspects of tourism and social groups and relationships. Returning to the critical interaction between communitas and pseudo-events, is it possible that the intense feelings of social bonding found in certain contexts, whether Burning Man or forms of the emerging church, are really pseudo-events, feelings of social bonding but without appropriate grounding in community?

I believe that an emphasis upon communitas is important, and that those like Frost and Hirsch are correct to ground the liminal state in the missio Dei, but this must then be rooted in a (new?) form of Christian community. If this is not done then you have the feelings of communitas (pseudo-event) that never translate appropriately into ongoing forms of community, and an emerging or missional form of church then becomes transient and may likely disappear as other forms of communitas seem to have done in Christian history, such as the Jesus People Movement which only formed lasting community through Jesus People USA in Chicago.

I suggest that the church needs to recapture a sense of communitas as it fulfills its purpose of extending the Kingdom in the world through the missional impulse. But then what? One of the weakness of countercultural utopian communities like Burning Man is that the sense of communitas does not translate very often into ongoing expressions of community. How might the church capture appropriate forms of communitas that then translate into the church living as a true countercultural utopian community? Until the church can demonstrate and offer a valid alternative it will continue to sound hollow and hypocritical to the post-modern Western world. Can the church pay such bills? I hope so, but I wonder whether we must continue our journey into exile in post-Christendom before such bills are recognized and modifications made in our church's so that appropriate payment can be made.


Missional Jerry said...

this is a much needed discussion

John W. Morehead said...

Thanks, Jerry. I hope you and others will help me move it along.

jpu said...

you get a back slap from me for seeing things in the reflection of Fight Club, a good movie and a better book.
are these events psuedo or liminal. turner's observation is that liminal events are part of a cycle. liminal events are otherworldly, intentionally. anything that was constantly otherworldly would be worldly (just like if miracles were common they would cease to be miraculous.) the Christian liminal events have always been pursued, not only in ecstatic worship times, but in deep knowledge, extreme asceticism (desert fathers), pilgrimages, performance of penance, revivals, retreats, camps, concerts, and festivals. they all seem to be tastes of heaven, to keep us thirsty for the really real. only Christ will successfully bring heaven in all its dimensions to earth. meanwhile we are aliens and strangers (1 Peter) who are to live quiet lives (1 Thess) and provide for our families sharing the good news in word and deed.
God is good

John W. Morehead said...

JPU, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I would respectfully disagree on an aspect of your interpretation of Turner. He does not relegate or limit liminal events to the otherworldly. Whle liminality may in some cases reflect or point toward a connection with the divine it is not identified with it. I haven't seen anything in Turner that would be construed otherwise. But thanks again.

Steve Hayes said...

Very interesting.

A couple of months ago we had a youth conference, which was in some ways analogous to traditional African initian\tion rites -- being in a lonely place, ritual, doing things together. I'm not sure if it was "liminal", but it seems like the definitioan of communitas. For descriptioon see Youth conference report.

The question you raise about them getting back to community is also important.

The Jesus people movement led to one community I had quite a lot to do with -- the Children of God. They had a vision of community and lived it, but their leader, who called himself Moses David, went off the rails, and got a Messiah complex.

John W. Morehead said...

Thanks for your comments, Steve. In addition to pursuing research on festival and festivity, as well as cross-cultural perspectives related to this aspect, I am also doing some research on the counter-cultural movements of Jesus People and Rainbow Tribe. The similarities between Burning Man and the latter are interesting. I hope to find out if there is any connection, or at the very least what we might learn by the continuing development of various counter-cultural utopian movements.

Matt Stone said...

Thought provoking words John.

How much of emerging church engagement with culture is along the lines of spiritual tourism, a superficial sampling with no real depth? How much of New Age engagement with the Spirit is along the same lines - any easy dip with no demand for transformation? Do people truely seek a liminal experience or do they just seek an intensification experience?

And the important thing here is liminal experience as community. I have had liminal experiences at Mind Body Spirit Festivals and the like, but because they were through parachurch ministry rather than church ministry there was no communitas in the aggregation process. Communitas with the parachurch group for sure but not with the local church group, apart from a few exceptional people. Where would you find a church willing to go through a genuine communitas experience together?

jpu said...

i found my mistake. i wasn't reading Turner, i was reading Hiebert's at al Understanding Folk Religions. They describe the cycle from the normal to the extra normal and the return to normal. sorry for the confusion on my part.
God is good