Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

The image that accompanies this post is from a 1559 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It is titled "The Fight Between Carnival and Lent." This artwork depicts the often uneasy relationship in Catholic festivals between these two related celebrations. It may be surprising to some, but this conflict continues and has great significance for Protestants and Christians outside the Roman Catholic tradition as we engage Western culture.

The significance of festivals and festivity in Western culture first came to my attention as I conducted research for my seminar series on Halloween and the Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebrations for the Imaginarium at Cornerstone Festival in July of 2006. As I conducted this research I was struck by the long connection historically between cultures and festivals, and Christianity's participation in such events, particularly within Roman Catholicism. Carnival is a Catholic celebration with the Carnival season being a holiday period that is celebrated during the two weeks before the traditional Christian fasting of Lent. Lent is a time of preparation for Holy Week, and its forty days of observance are symbolic of forty day periods of religious significance found in the Judeo-Christian narrative, most especially Jesus’ retreat into the wilderness for a time of fasting and temptation. The excesses and social inversion of Carnival eventually gave way to a time of spiritual preparation in Lent.

I was also struck during my intial research on Burning Man at points of connection between festivals, festivity, and the Burning Man community's celebration (research that is ongoing for my masters thesis). Festival is the primary context of expression for the Burning Man community, and this presents serious challenges to Protestantism which has, by and large, lost a connection to festivals through the Reformation. While Roman Catholic and secular scholars have devoted serious attention to festivity, this is not the case with Protestants. Festivity is not taken seriously either as a cultural phenomenon or as a topic for scholarly exploration by most Protestants, and yet Catholic scholars have argued “that festivals belong by rights among the greatest topics of philosophical discussion.”

One of the Protestants who has addressed festivals is Harvey Cox who argued that human beings are “essentially festive and ritual creatures.” As homo festivus and homo fantasia, human beings express festivity and fantasy in festival as a form of “theatre of the body.” Cox argues that with the march of secularization and the continued rejection of festivity “Christianity has often adjusted too quickly to the categories of modernity,” and with this important facets of what it means to be human are neglected. As a result, Cox believes that there is a real need for Christianity in the West to develop a theology of festivity.

In light of this cultural void in regards to festivity there is much to be learned theologically from festivals as Max Harris suggests:

"The popular elements in patronal saints’ day festivals, like Carnival, have often been demonized as pagan or heretical...Could it be that popular religious festivals offer a source of theological wisdom, otherwise unarticulated and therefore unnoticed by formal theology, that is worthy of a place alongside sacred text, reason, and ecclesiastical tradition? Such a perspective would partly balance the standard sources of theology, which privilege clerical exegesis, educated reason, and authoritative legitimation of tradition."

I share Harris’ assessment about festivals in general, and the same could be said of Burning Man in particular. In light of the intriguing idea that Harris puts forward, and given the nature of Burning Man as a festive alternative community, evangelicals must consider festivity as a major theological and missiological topic for future exploration. Perhaps the festive cultural void, and our failure to balance the Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of Christian spirituality, are quickly filled by secular and alternative community subcultures, such as Burning Man. If this is the case then our lack of a sound theology and praxis of festivity represents yet another "unpaid bill" of the church. We neglect these considerations not only to the detriment of others in Western culture, but for the church as well. If the Kingdom might be understood in some sense as divine celebration and play, we are neglecting important aspects of fulfilling our obligations in dancing with the King.

Friday, November 24, 2006

God and the War on Terror: Where Was God on 9/11?

I haven't been able to post lately do to a grueling end of semester schedule with various papers due in a few short weeks, but I thought I'd carve out just a little time to post a few thoughts.

In September I spent some time thinking about 9/11, as did many Americans, and one of the more interesting television programs that played during this time period was a Frontline piece that aired on PBS titled "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero." This program was especially gripping emotionally as it looked at individuals from various faith perspectives, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even one atheist, who wrestled with their faith as a result of their experiences in surviving the terrorist attack on 9/11 in New York. Unfortunately, many experienced a serious blow to their conceptions of God as they felt he somehow lost control or abandoned them during this series of events. As one interviewee put it:

"Since Sept. 11, the images that are most vulnerable to being smashed, suddenly, shockingly, are 'God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.' The test of any religion is, what do you do with the bad, and how much 'otherness' can you tolerate? Sept. 11 is so horrible -- and horrible for years and years to come -- that it can just smash any image of God who has a providential plan for me, those I love, my group, my nation, this world."

Beyond these heart wrenching stories two testimonies were especially interesting, that of a Christian who somehow felt that God delivered him from the Twin Towers (countered by a rabbi asking insightfully why God did not deliver others), and an atheist who used to trust in humanity but who lost even this in light of the imploding towers.

The program reminded me of the need for us to embrace some level of ambiguity in our faith, especially in light of the continually perplexing questions surrounding evil in the world. Sadly, evangelicals tend to prefer a form of Christian faith that is cognitively and theologically tight in terms of its intellectual perspectives, even on those issues where we have little to draw upon, in our scriptural canon. Perhaps this is why we prefer The Bible Answer Man to a program like The Bible Ambiguity Man. But perhaps we'd be a little closer to reality, and perceived with a little more credibility if we answered, "I don't know" to some of life's most difficult questions. Surely we believe that God has, in Christ, defeated the powers of evil and begun his new creation, but this does not mean that we have all the answers as to why evil still seems to be so powerful.

In light of my continued reflections on this I was pleased to find a recent lecture by N. T. Wright titled "Where is God in the War on Terror?" In his usual fashion, Wright avoids simplistic answers and provides words that will generate both understanding and challenge to Christians in the West. He concludes with the following:

"Where then is God in the War on Terror? Grieving and groaning within the pain and horror of his battered but still beautiful world. Stirring in the hearts of human beings the desire for a more credible structure of global justice and mercy. Burning into the imagination of human beings a hope that peace and reconciliation might eventually win out over suspicion and hatred, that the world may be put to rights and that we may anticipate that in the present time. My friends, we in our generation – and especially those of you in your teens and twenties – face a new world, full of possibilities for great good and great ill. I have argued this evening that the Christian gospel, revealing the mysterious God we discover in Jesus and the Spirit, offers a robust and rigorous framework for discerning where God is at work in the midst of the dangers and opportunities that confront us. All of us in our different callings are summoned to this task; some of you, perhaps, to make it your life’s work. Jesus is Lord. The Spirit is powerful. God is doing a new thing. Let’s get out there and join in."

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Green Man: Burning Man 2007 Art Theme

After I returned from Burning Man earlier this year I reviewed the festival's website not only to read their reflections on the 2006 festival, but also to see what was in store for 2007. I was especially intrigued by the art theme for next year, The Green Man. Their website describes him this way:

"Peering outward from behind a mottled screen of vines and leaves, the Green Man does not speak or sleep; he waits. His meaning and his origins are largely lost to time — the Green Man wasn't named till 1939. We know, however, that this type of enigmatic figure was the work of artists, anonymous craftsman whose unsigned work adorns the crevices and walls of medieval cathedrals. This year we will appropriate the Green Man and the primeval spell he casts on our imaginations for a modern purpose. Our theme concerns humanity's relationship to nature. Do we, as conscious beings, exist outside of nature's sway, or does its force impel us and inform the central root of who and what we are?"

The history of the Green Man is fascinating and worth considering in his appropriation by Burning Man and other groups concerned with a ecology and a stronger sense of connection to nature and the cosmos. As the paragraph above mentions, the term "Green Man" came into existence in 1939 when Lady Raglan coined the term which refers to the image of a "foliate head or the head of a man sprouting leaves" that were "frequently found carved in the stonework of churches." This figure became a common motif in medieval sculpture. Although the figure has been adopted within many segments of Paganism as an ancient Pagan symbol appropriated by Christianity, the best evidence seems to indicate that the Green Man does not have Pagan origins. The noted Pagan historian Ronald Hutton in his book The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy (Blackwell, 1991) provides an example of some of the fine scholarship against the Pagan origin thesis. As Weir and Jarman indicate, the origin of the Green Man is complex and can likely traced back to Christian artisans who incorporated the figure as part of an intention "to depict the Seven Deadly Sins - with the Green Man Representing Lust (Images of Lust: sexual carvings on medieval churches [B. T. Batsford, 1986]). Even so, "no one is disputing that..Green Men and the like have, over the last few decades, become paganised."

Even without an ancient and Pagan pedigree, the modern appropriation of the Green Man provides a rich and significant motif for those wishing to explore their place in nature and the broader cosmos. The Green Man is a figure to be engaged with not only by Pagans, but by all who care, or should care more deeply, for the environment. A few Christians have wrestled with such challenges. For example John Smulo has written and essay which address the need for Christians to place a holistic ecological ethic on their spiritual agenda, and Richard Thomas has written an interesting essay on "Jesus: The Green Man of the Bible" that he presented to the Pagan Federational International Conference in 2004.
The figure of the Green Man provides an interesting motif for Christian and Pagan alike to reflect theologically and ecologically on a significant facet of life in the twenty-first century. It might also provide a postive point for interaction between Christians and Burners at the 2007 festival.

Why Do Pagans and "New Agers" Have All the Sacred Sex?

As part of my continuing research and reflections on Paganism, Burning Man, and "alternative" cultures in Western post-modernity I am constantly reminded of the significance of sexuality. This topic, along with the related issues of nudity and gender identity, were major issues in workshops, personal expressions and experimentation at the Burning Man festival that I attended earlier this year.

Within the contexts of Paganism, the New Spirituality, and the Burning Man subculture sexuality is often refered to as "sacred sexuality." I found this label of interest and did a Google search on the topic. To my utter lack of surprise I discovered that while this is a popular label and topic for great numbers of spiritual people in the West, I couldn't find an exploration of the topic in terms of a connection between the sacred and sexuality by traditional Christians. Cornerstone Festival addresses this topic, and one of my friends and colleagues, Jon Trott, addresses this on one of this blogs, but it doesn't seem to be a topic that a lot of traditional Christians tackle.

The reader might be scratching their heads wondering what I mean by all this. After all, don't evangelicals constantly speak out against what they consider to be abuses of sexuality in the form of pornography, prostitution, and the need for sexual fidelity in marriage? Of course we can find lots of discussions like this, but in my take the emphasis in all of this seems to be on the negative, stating all the things we're against rather than a broader treatment that addresses the positive aspects of sexuality, and which connects this to the sacred and to the divine.

After all, isn't God the Supreme Lover who brought creation into existence through the Spirit as the ultimate expression of love and creation? And didn't he bless the human race with the gift of sexuality and the intimacy of physical "knowing" in the Hebraic sense before our expression of sexuality became yet another facet of human existence that is broken by our alienation from the Spirit as the source of life? When husband and wife come together in sexual union is this too not a part of what it means to reflect the nature of the creator, the male and female aspects in union for pleasure as well as pro-creation? Is there not a sense then that our discussion of sexuality should move beyond its reserved expressions akin to Victorian or Puritanical stereotypes in order to embrace a positive and holistic sense of sacred sexuality from a Christian perspective? I don't know that I have any profound theological insights to offer on this topic, and I know that to raise it for conservative Christians is to risk shock and offense, but perhaps Pagans, New Spirituality adherents, Burners, and others articulating sacred sexuality have something positive to say to evangelicals. At least it's worth considering.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Holy Fools in Post-Modernity: Jesus as Holy Fool

I am continuing to wade through several piles of journal articles and books for three major papers for seminary. I shouldn't be taking time away from study for a blog post, but one area of reading has been particularly interesting.

For my Apologetic Traditions paper I am writing a missional apologetic for Burning Man. One of the research trajectories I have been pursuing is the concept of holy fools contextualized within post-modernity. I have found several resources that have shed light on this topic and the apologetic. One source is an article by Peter Phan from Theological Studies journal titled "The Wisdom of Holy Fools in Postmodernity." Phan believes that that paths of communicating wisdom in the past, such as mythos or "the form of dramatic narratives explaining the origin and operation of the universe and the place of humans within it," as well as logos or forms of communication that involve discursive reasoning, are inappropriate means of communicating wisdom within the context of the failure of modernity and the rise of postmodernity. Instead, Phan argues for morosophia, the path of foolish wisdom. Phan states that "the 'wise fool' is believed to possess a source of knowledge that his more akin to supernatural and inspired wisdom," and he connects this to Paul's discussion of the cross of Christ as God's folly in 1 Corinthians.

This theme is picked up and addressed at length in another resource I am drawing from by Laurence Welborn in an article for Biblical Interpretation titled "MOROS GENESTHO: Paul's Appropriation of the Role of the Fool in 1 Corinthians 1-4." Welborn notes that most commentators assume Paul is referring to Pagan perceptions of the absurdity of the notion of a crucified and rising God inherent in the Christian gospel. Welborn takes exception to this assumption and argues persuasively that Paul is likely framing himself as messenger and his gospel message in light of the Greco-Roman stage comedy that involved a fool character known as a mime or a clown. Paul draws upon this motif for two purposes. First, "the adoption of the role of the fool was a strategy praticed by a number of intellectuals in the early Empire." The fool provided the freedom "for the utterance of a dangerous truth." Second, the identification with the fool and a message of foolishness enabled him to communicate the paradox of God's wisdom being displayed to the world through means considered foolish by normal human standards of wisdom.

This brings me to the consideration of Jesus as the Holy Fool. I recognize that to use this terminology is to court charges of blasphemy by Christians. Other Christians who have described Jesus this way have received serious criticism, including Michael Frost who wrote Jesus the Fool: The Mission of the Unconventional Christ (Lion Publishing PLC, 1994;, expanded and updated version forthcoming through Urban Neighbors of Hope), and Elizabeth-Anne Stewart who wrote Jesus the Holy Fool (Sheed & Ward, 1999). Before you send along your comments of complaint, consider the case for Jesus as Holy Fool.

Stewart notes that we often think of Jesus with various titles such as Christ, the Word, Savior, Messiah, High Priest, Suffering Servant, Son of Man, Son of God, Jesus as Lord, but rarely if ever do we consider Jesus as Holy Fool. A biblical case can be made for this motif and if we don't consider it Stewart suggests that "we not only miss a theme of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, but we also immunize ourselves against the breath of the Holy Spirit."

Stewart reminds us that Holy Foolishness is found in the Hebrew Prophets such as Jeremiah wearing a loin cloth, Hosea marrying a prostitute, Isaiah walking barefoot and naked, and Ezekiel lying on his side for extended periods of time. Stewart then connects this to the "foolish" aspect of the gospel stories about Jesus, from the table fellowship he extended to social outcasts that served as "a mockery of traditional expectations" of the escthatological banquet, to Jesus being called a madman, to his articulation of the Fool's Path that "involves emptying oneself to find fullness, letting go to possess, losing life to find it. ..."

Stewart believes that considering Jesus as the Holy Fool provides an important facet for enriching our understanding of him, and within the context of post-modernity I believe it also provides an important motif for communicating the gospel. And while I hope the church in the West can consider the possibilities provided by Jesus the Holy Fool it represents a perspective that is radically challenging to our Christologies, ecclesiologies, and understandings of Christian spirituality. As Stewart states:

"Following Jesus is a radically different proposition for example, than following 'my buddy Jesus' and practicing a Christianity which can only be described as self-indulgent. Precisely because contemporary Western Christianity has become disconnected from the Holy Foolishness of Christ and from the Dionysian elements of religion, the person of Jesus has been 'tamed' into a marketable construct far removed from the gospel Jesus or from the living Christ who can still be encountered in Third World nations. ... [The Western church] cower[s] in dread before the figure of the Dionysian Christ because he is too passionate, too alive, and too challenging to be attractive."

"Those who tame Christmas into a birthday party for children or who reduce Easter to a celebration of the rites of Spring are following a Jesus who bears little resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels. In their Christianity, there is no place for Jesus the Clown, or Jesus the Jester or Jesus the Trickster; such a Jesus is too demanding, too disturbing, too ridiculous. And yet this Jesus, vested as 'a personification of festivity and fantasy,' in an age which has lost both, and wearing both grease paint and halo, 'is able to touch our jaded modern consciousness as other images of Christ cannot.'"

I am looking forward to weaving the strands of the holy fool into a powerful missional apologetic framed in a context for Burning Man. I sense a similar power for Christians as holy fools to follow Jesus the Holy Fool as they embody the foolishness of the gospel in the post-modern West.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Smoldering Times?

I recently posted on Phil Wyman's struggles with his former denomination, the Foursquare Church, that severed their affiliation after Phil's approach at engaging Pagans apparently made the leadership of this conservative denomination uncomfortable. I wonder what kinds of alternatives Christians might be more comfortable with. While I hope the following falls into the category of the aberrant and extreme rather than representative of Christian sentiments and approaches, Matt Stone of Eclectic Itchings recently made me aware of a story in The Times online that discusses the clash between Catholics and Pagans in Glastonbury.

Apparently the clash came as Pagans were celebrating Samhain, and a group of Catholics were in town as part of "Lightswitch@glastonbury festival, the eighth such event organised by the Catholic charity Youth 2000."

As the Pagans engaged in their celebrations a group of "militant Christians cast salt at them in an attempt to 'cleanse' the town of paganism." As the clash went from bad to worse, "police were called after militants told locals that they wanted to cleanse the town of paganism, cast salt around to exorcise 'evil' spirits and called one woman a 'whore witch.'"

To their credit, Youth 2000 distanced themselves from these actions: "Charlie Connor, the managing director of Youth 2000, said that aiming 'blessed salt' at pagans was in direct contravention of the spirit of Youth 2000. 'For the avoidance of doubt, Youth 2000 does not condone or encourage this kind of behaviour from anyone. We fully agree that differences on matters of faith cannot and should not be resolved by any kind of harassment.'”

Several thoughts come to mind when reading this story.

First, this event is similar to a Pagan-Christian clash in the United States from a few years ago. A group of Pagans were consecrating the opening of a Pagan bookstore in southern California and in response a group of Christians surrounded the participants of the outdoor event with their cars while playing loud Christian music and shouting Bible verses. The tossing of salt and epithets by Catholics in the United Kingdom sounds just as lacking sensitivity and appropriateness as the actions of evangelicals in the United States.

Second, salt surely has a connection with Christian spirituality, but Jesus' discussion of it as a metaphor for the positive impact of the Christian life upon culture sounds more in keeping with a sound Christian theology and lifestyle than casting salt at those perceived as spiritual enemies.

Third, Christians forget that many other religious and spiritual groups have a far greater sense of historical consciousness than do Western Christians. For Pagans and Witches the deplorable persecution and execution of alleged Witches in America's past, known as the Burning Times, are etched on the Pagan consciousness leaving a continuing negative impression about Christianity and Christians that continues to this day. Engaging in the kinds of behaviors as those of the Catholics at Glastonbury resurrects and reinforces the negative perceptions and stereotypes Pagans have of Christians pushing the story of Jesus further out of reach for fresh consideration by Pagans.

Thankfully we have moved beyond the Burning Times in terms of the criminal prosecution and execution of Witches and Pagans in the West. But it seems as if the fires of inappropriate engagement between Christians and Pagans have not burned out completely. Perhaps the twenty-first century, characterized by post-Christendom and a growing interest in Neo-Paganism, will see a smoldering times as representatives from Christianity and Paganism continue to clash. Surely Christians can and must do better if we are to emulate the lifeways of Jesus who engaged first century Pagans in ways very different from many of his twenty-first century followers.