Thursday, June 12, 2008

Barry Taylor: Entertainment Theology and New-Edge Spirituality

At the end of last year I enjoyed reading A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture by Craig Detweiler and Bary Taylor (Baker Academic, 2003) that is part of Baker's "engaging culture" series of volumes. This volume was very well done, and I looked forward to the efforts of both of these gentlemen as they built on this foundation with further books. The first to come out was Barry Taylor's Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy (Baker Academic, 2008). As the back of this book describes, Barry "is artist in residence for the Brehm Center and an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he teaches a series of spiritually innovative classes on music, film, and contemporary theology. In addition, he is an associate rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills."

Earlier today Barry made some time to discuss aspects of his new book with me.

Morehead's Musings: Barry, thanks for being part of this interview. I have enjoyed your collaborative work in the past with Craig and I looked forward to your building upon the foundation you put down. To begin, can you provide a little background as to your personal interests and involvement in the arts and theology?

Barry Taylor: I think like most of us I grew up immersed in pop culture in one form or another, particularly music. So I've lived in a world that is informed and shaped by pop culture most of my life, and I think I've always had a kind of deeper interest in various aspects of it. This led me into more professional engagements. So for a while I worked in the music business, I worked with bands and progressed to doing music of my own, and I still do a little bit of film composition and writing now. I think for me it's always been of interest. I've traveled quite a bit and have been struck by the ways in which the culture manifests itself and how our pop culture shows up around the world. That's the real genesis. And along the way I got more involved in a practicing faith and then moved into the academics of the study of theology. I was always interested in the ways in which culture and pop culture reconfigures the way people think about faith and belief and stuff like that. I started thinking about the academic side of things, but there really wasn't very much engagement with popular culture, it was still the prodigal part of the culture in that people were talking quite happily about high culture, but pop culture got short shrift. I felt that given its pervasiveness it was an important dynamic among people I know. So I really tried to find ways from the outset of thinking theologically about popular culture and trying to get at some of its larger meanings, influences, and stuff like that.

Morehead's Musings: What kind of educational background do you have that you have applied to this personal interest in the subject matter?

Barry Taylor: I have an M.A. and a Ph.D., both of which dealt with various aspects of it. My masters thesis was on popular theology and pop music, and I spent a lot of time exploring Nick Cave and U2 at the time, sort of mining their theological work and trying to place that within the cultural grid and trying to see how theology is done outside of church. My masters thesis was titled "Out of Egypt" and it came from a thing in Hosea where he says "Out of Egypt have I called my son," and it's this kind of idea that sometimes we get gifted with things that come from the last place we'd least expect. Popular culture has been one of those surprising places where gifts in theology emerge. In my doctoral dissertation I dealt more along the lines of the new book, more academic, trying to think about the ways in which ideas of faith and spirituality can permeate popular culture, what they look like if you put them all together, a broader picture of if we live in a digital democracy or a democratizing digital culture with these streams and strands of faith, spirituality, and the sacred, are there ways of grouping them together to see a bigger theological picture. I was really trying to think more theologically and missiologically. I think personally pop culture is reshaping the way people both practice and think about religion. What do traditional faiths do in light of that? That's what I was trying to grapple with.

Morehead's Musings: In your book you stat that you want to "locate the missional-theological reflection of the Christian faith in this new world" of what you refer to as "techno-spirituality" or "postsecular spirituality." What do you mean by these terms as to what you're interacting with?

Barry Taylor: I think that these are both flawed terms, but I was trying to get at something. I'll start with the post-secular. What I was really trying to say is that we've moved beyond the secular society that the church often thinks we're engaging with. You hear people talking about the secular world and society, and I understand the distinction, but I think if you pay attention to what is going on in this supposedly secular society, a surprising amount of non-secular sacred activity shows up. Even in the recent political campaigns, there's a renewed conversation about the role of religion in society in the last ten years through the course of the last couple of presidential elections. Even Britain, where I'm from, this has come up. So what I wanted to say was that we live in a post-secular society, not in the sense that it's over, but that we've just moved beyond the traditional understanding of that, and we're a place where the spiritual is open to discussion in pretty much all aspects of life, which it wasn't twenty years ago. By the same token, and I think this is where it gets a little technical, at the same time we're exploring there is a return to God but it's not a return to the time of religion before secularity so that people can just pick up where they left off. It's a trajectory that has gone through and out the other side where people are now having a new conversation about spirituality, faith, belief, and God that prevents opportunities and challenges to traditional spirituality on a whole bunch of levels, whether ecclesiology or missiology or theology or whatever "ology" you want to pick. There are some opportunities but also challenges because the world is moving forward not backward, and so this renewal in spirituality is in a sense both an old and new phenomenon, so it is the new aspects that come principally through the technological world, through the media, whether it's books or online, that's where the challenge lies because the technology creates different ways of processing and disseminating information, people do different stuff with different technologies. So to refer to techno-spirituality is a way of trying to say there is a distinctly, contemporary aspect to spirituality that in some ways is technologically shaped and defined.

Morehead's Musings: One of the things I appreciated in your book was that early on in it you are very transparent with readers as you acknowledge that your own relationship with Christianity is "in a state of flux," and that you are uncomfortable with the direction of the church. Can you share a little more on these aspects of your personal perspective?

Barry Taylor: In saying those things I'm also actively involved in the life of the church which I think gives me permission to say them. What it boils down to for me is a couple of things. One, I just think that sometimes we live in a vacuum about what's really going on. To say we're naive is too harsh a word, but just a kind of lack of awareness of what is really going on, and sometimes I think that we settle for spin and platitudes rather than digging away at the heart of what's really emerging all around us. I think especially when it comes to popular culture there are still debates about this and that and quite often it seems fairly shallow and surface level in terms of asking "Is this good?" or "Is this bad?", but there are broader questions to ask when you are dealing with cultural artifacts, like "What is this saying?," "What does this mean?," "What does this imply?," "What are the implications for us?." On a general level there is a frustration that we live inside little bubbles and make pronouncements about the world that really we don't like any more. The other side of it is personally and experientially being involved in pastoral ministry in the general work of the church and seminary I feel like we're just focusing on and talking about the wrong thing and that shades the landscape and creates false impressions of reality. Sometimes I think Christians feel really embattled but I'm not so sure that's true, although I sometimes think we don't help that when it is true in places by a kind of less than benevolent openness to conversation. I sometimes think, in broad generalizations, our idea of dialogue is all too often let's go and tell others what the right way is rather than thinking that their might be something that might instruct and enlighten us in our own attempts to understand and engage. So my level of flux is linked to lots of things, how we mediate tradition, how we approach Scripture, the way we "do church," all of this and other things. Like many of my peers there is a general sense that commitment to a life formed by Christian faith and spirituality, but at the same time something of a frustration of being forced to fit our conversation into a particular mold once we get in church life.

Morehead's Musings: One of the aspects of your book that intrigued me was your discussion of the increasing significance of sexual/bodily experience to the self and the sacred today, and the importance of personalized ritual and adornment in this context. I have noticed this myself most strongly in connection with my experience and research at Burning Man Festival and in the Neo-Pagan community. Can you talk a little about the significance of body theology to practical theological reflection today?

Barry Taylor: It's interesting I've been doing quite a lot of work with students in independent study at Fuller where I teach, and this seems to be the big topic, "What do I do with the body?." It could be argued that Christianity, for the most part, a religion based on embodiment, really doesn't know what to do with the body. It seems that we're very reluctant to hold meaningful discussion about it. I don't know if it's a fear of opening a can of worms, but I've found increasingly that as we move into a more technologically-dependent era that our relationship to time and space -- because I think technology changes our relationship to time and space, whether its the invention of digital technologies or cyberspace, when you go online where do you go? What is cyberspace? It kind of exists in a time-free zone. As we grow increasingly technological we become more aware of the role of our body and all of life, and as life becomes more transitory as more of the older institutional support structures crumble or at least fall away in terms of influence, the body becomes a sort of place of inscribing identity. So someone at Burning Man where half the populace may be tattooed and pierced, and if you talk to these people they will tell you that rather than just getting drunk and getting tattooed there was some serious reflection as to why, when, and how these inscriptions are made upon their bodies, usually marking moments of importance like rites of passage. You talk to people who have body piercings and there is this whole connection between pain and physicality and marking the self for particular moments and self-awareness. For me, the body becomes a very important thing.

Also, I think as our ideas about the world and may be concepts like heaven and hell, that sweeping generalization, but maybe a lot of Christianity in the twentieth century was characterized by making sure people knew they were saved from their sins and going to heaven. A problem a lot of people have with Christianity is that it externalizes the spiritual experience that basically de-emphasizes the importance of this life and the real importance is where you go after this life. So you want to be ready for heaven. But there is very little advice about what to do with your body while you're waiting for that experience: don't do anything wrong, don't be bad, accept the decay. For a lot of people their spirituality is embedded in the here and now, in the present, and their body plays a role. How you understand physicality, sexuality (which is in a complete state of flux in every area in biology and sociology), and what this body means, and yet when you turn to the church and here we are in one of the most material spiritualities out there where we celebrate that God puts on flesh and lived as one of us, yet it seems to me we don't have much to say beyond don't have sex until you're married, your body is a temple, don't drink, don't smoke, and at times we'll talk about liturgical dance. I think there are more challenging conversations to be had about the body, whether it's sexuality or physicality or human identity, the nature of the soul, how we understand the whole person in the twenty-first century such as does the idea of spirit-soul-body hold up or are they conceptual ideas that we need new language and grammar for. So those are the kinds of things I'm trying to think about and bring into the conversation.

Morehead's Musings: I think this is tremendously important to talk about, but it is also so difficult, as you know, to talk about this in theological circles. One of the aspects of reflection at Burning Man that I had getting evangelical Christians to consider was that it's ok to be in an environment where people are thinking outside of traditional Christian boundaries on those types of topics. And perhaps it's not just something we need to oppose, but to say what kinds of questions are they asking, how does this play into their spirituality and sense of identity, and what might this say back to us in terms of our own theological reflection beyond critique in this area.

Barry Taylor: In the front of the book there is a kind acknowledgement, but I was trying to acknowledge that I am a sponge who has absorbed a lot from a lot of people, and one was Graham Ward who is part of this kind of this radical orthodoxy theological movement, and now a lot of radical orthodoxy is not my cup of tea, but one thing that I really, really grasped from Graham was his talk about radical orthodoxy as a theology that attempts to reclaim the world. And for him that's not to reclaim the world in an evangelical missiological sense, but in his sense it is bringing back into conversation with Christian faith all of the things we left in the hands of secular society many years ago when the church withdrew or was withdrawn from the center of cultural life. So the challenge of today is to be open to the conversation that already exists. This comes back to one of my frustrations in that I get the sense sometimes that Christians don't think there is a conversation going until they show up and start it, but I think there are conversations already going on but we need to be involved in but won't for a whole host of reasons, most of which are related to power, control, and shallow moral opinions that preclude the opportunity of hearing what can be really rich, but sometimes challenging. Burning Man is a prime example, it's not just all running around in the desert for the heck of it, there are other things going on if you're open to observe and listen.

Morehead's Musings: In your book you refer to today's "new-edge spirituality" as post-creedal, post-orthodox, and post-specialist. What do you mean by those elements?

Barry Taylor: In general, there's a shift toward a more praxis or practice-based faith, having a hold of belief in place is less important than living out certain things. So think there is a general shift away from intellectual conceptualizing ideas about God to a more practice-based approach to life as a spiritual and divine gift to us. Is orthodoxy right belief or believing the right way which is not always believing the supposedly right things? Back to my earlier thing about my frustration with Christianity is that I think we get held to pseudo-orthodoxies all the time, a kind of catalog of supposedly orthodox ideas that are basically modernist responses that are presented as the final word when in fact they are just one more word in the conversation.

Morehead's Musings: One last question. With western culture engaged in a process of re-enchantment in the wake of secularism and modernity, as the culture seeks mystery, magic, and imagination, how important will it be to draw upon theologians, or find, train, and nurture theologians who bring their knowledge of Scripture into constant dialogue with the arts and pop culture?

Barry Taylor: I think it will be hopeless if we don't do this. I can't imagine, if we're really serious about the vibrancy and vitality of Christian faith and spirituality that that wouldn't be a primary missional objective for anyone who's alive in the twenty-first century. The location of the theological enterprise has shifted dramatically. We have to relocate where the action is, if you like, when it comes to the theological enterprise. It's certainly retains some philosophical and high cultural ideas, but increasingly the action takes place on the ground in the world of digital and pop culture. Things may trickle down from the ivory towers, but for most people the influences are from the creators of cultural artifacts in pop culture. There is a quote from something I read that says the greatest tragedy of the last three hundred years is the separation of the theologian from the artist, the painter, the poet, the dancer. The idea being that the divide between theology and culture is a tragedy and is a bridge that needs to be crossed.

Morehead's Musings: It sounds like you, Craig Detweiler, and others at the Brehm Center are trying to bridge this gulf, and I think you for your work and your willingness to talk about aspects of your book, Barry.

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