Media Studies / Aesthetics

Von Balthasar and the Body AKA Theological Aesthetics is not Aesthetic Theology

So as part of my mid-sized project to more seriously think about aesthetics, embodiment and theology [Side Note: if you're going to SBL or AAR and these topics are of interest you might want to check this out] I've been reading from Scary, Johnson, the Frankfurt School, and now… Hans Urs von Balthasar. For those who don't know that name, the basic gist is that he was a Swiss Catholic priest (nominated for Cardinal-ship) who lived until 1988 and while he did an ENOURMOUS amount (see his wikipedia entry), the reason I found my way to him was because if you read about Aesthetics and Theology pretty much anywhere you end up seeing his name.  Sooo…

My task was to cut through to the heart of his content about aesthetics and start there. Results in video below.

Things referenced in the video:

The von Balthasar Reader

Elaine Scary's On Beauty and Being Just

Kevin Mongrain's "Von Balthasar's Way from Doxology to Theology"

Von Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1: Seeing the Form

 

 

 

Seedbed and 5 Ways to (Mis)use the Arts and Artists

 

This is just a brief directing post in case some folks read the site, but don't follow the twitter feed. I recently wrote a guest piece over at Seedbed,  and it is here, so I figured I'd share it.

Oh, and please forgive the self-indulgent weirdness of me wearing my conference-friendly "The Image of Fish" shirt to record a TIoF video. I forgot I had it on and how meta it would get.

 

 

 

Pete, his Problem, and the “Lack” of Emergent Leadership

 

Once again, Bo Sanders from Homebrewed Christianity has got me going… This time it came in the form of his post "The Problem: with Peter Rollins," particularly the following bit:

So when I was listening to Pete the other night make some astoundingly insightful points about televangelist and revival preachers I realized the importance of the medium and the message. Here was one guy, standing up front, we were all facing him and listening to him – and he was a little bit smarter/further ahead than we were. It’s still the problem of the one person at the front of the room with all the ideas/answers.

Now, that is not Pete’s fault. He is utilizing the medium to get out the message. But it did convict me that the architecture, furniture, and facilitation need to be different so that the medium matches the message if what I am concerned about is community and authenticity.

From there I went off on a wild ride, hitting on McLuhan, my Made as Makers film project, and some thoughts I have about leadership in the Emergent Church (Movement). As usual, the vid is below. In it I mention the following:

Oh, and please forgive me on two counts in this vid: 

(a) my hyperbolic categorization of "didactic lectureship"  as a tool for oppression and patriarchy. I mean, come on… that's over the top. 

(b) the self-indulgent weirdness of me wearing my conference-friendly "The Image of Fish" shirt to record a TIoF video. I forgot I had it on and how meta it would get.

 

 

 

Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just”

As part of my reading project to get more acquainted with the field of aesthetics, I read this weird little number from Elaine ScarryOn Beauty and Being Just.

Cribbing from wikipedia, I know that Scarry is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, which means at least some other people think she knows a thing or three about aesthetics. For my purposes though – that is, thinking more seriously about the body and its experience(s) as the primary site of theological thought –  this book was elusive. Wild, weird, and a bit fun, yes. But still elusive.

 

From Pages 111-113

At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty, according to Simone Weil, requires us "to give up our imaginary position as the center…  A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions." Weil speaks matter-of-factly, often without illustration, implicitly requiring readers to test the truth of her assertion against their own experience. Her account is always deeply somatic: what happens, happens to our bodies. When we come upon beautiful things—the tiny mauve-orange-blue moth on the brick, Augustine's cake, a sentence about innocence in Hampshire—they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space; or they form "ladders reaching toward the beauty of the world,” or they lift us (as though by the air currents of someone else's sweeping), letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we land, we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before. It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.

The radical decentering we undergo in the presence of the beautiful is also described by Iris Murdoch in a 1967 lecture called "The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts." As this title indicates, her subject is goodness, not beauty. "Ethics," Murdoch writes, "should not be merely an analysis of ordinary mediocre conduct, it should be a hypothesis about good conduct and about how this can be achieved." How we make choices, how we act, is deeply connected to states of consciousness, and so "anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.” Murdoch then specifies the single best or most “obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for 'unselfing' and that is what is popularly called beauty.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sexism and Being a Patriot: To American Christians on July 4th, 2012

 

While I was at the Wild Goose Festival in NC a week or so back, Deborah Arca of Patheos' Progressive Christianity Portal asked me and a few other folks (Brian McLaren, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Roger Wolsey)  – apropos of an impending July 4th – if we would speak on video for a wee little bit about our understanding of patriotism and how it played with out Christianity. My response is above and here, and though I'm not 100% on my subject-verb agreement and my diction leaves more than a speck to be desired, I feel pretty good about what I said on the whole. By all means, please go ahead and check it out, AND make sure to read the paragraph that follows this one for the thing that gets me going.

 

What is bizzarre / sad / unfortunately-predictible-upon-cultural-assessment is the sheer number of objectify-ingly disrobed women that popped up when – doing my normal Google image search for some nice little graphic to plug into my blog post – I entered the search term "Patriotism."  To put this another way… when Google (which is really nothing more than an easily accessible repository for the traces of America's projections) was asked to show me patriotism, MORE THAN 1 IN 10 OF THE IMAGES PROVIDED AS AN ANSWER WERE BLATENTLY misogynistic. If you want to see in greater detail what I am talking about, turn off "safety search" (if you have it enabled) to ensure no ratings-based censorship that happens, then check this search out

Maybe it is the late time of night or the heat getting to me, but SWEET JIMMY! does this make me wonder / bothered / sad. 

Now I'm certainly no sexless prude, but here's my two cents at the moment: if you didn't already know that the Principalities and Powers where at work idolatrously conflating our political nation with our spiritual salvation, then look no further than the way we heavily employ sexism to visually conceive of the notion of patriotism.

Blech.

May this too find redemption. 

Aesthetics, Embodiment, Dualism, and a Reading List

 

Info about Kant's Aesthetics is here and here.

 

My Reading List

Berleant, Arnold. “Aesthetic Embodiment.” Online here.

Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth.Theological Aesthetics: A Reader

Johnson, Mark.The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding.

Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just.

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory.

Kehl, Medard.The Von Balthasar Reader.

Oliver, Kelly. Ed. Psychoanalysis, Aesthetics, and Politics in the Work of Julia Kristeva.

Crowther, Paul. Art and Embodiment: From Aesthetics to Self-Consciousness.

Theology After Google Presentations

This first video is my presentation on the first night of the Theology after Google conference.


 

This is Barry Taylor's (whose blog is here) on the last day, and for me, it felt like what he added was in a beautiful resonance with my thoughts.

 

I'm still trying to figure out exactly why, but after Barry finished I commented that I felt like I had met a theological brother.  

TAG Reflections

First, I'm sorry for such poor (and poorly aimed) video quality.  If it helps, just ignore the visual and listen like a podcast.  That will fix the problem and you won't have to be exposed to my ridiculously expressive eyebrows.

Next:

I have a more formal, written reflection about the event, here, on a spot that the Emergent Village folk asked me to do.

Bob Cornwall's TAG thoughts are here on his blog, Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Ken Silva's thoughts on my presentation are here, on his blog Apprising Ministires.

 

Jonathan Brink's post referenced is here.

Joshua Case's (of the Nick and Josh Podcast) reflections, though not identical to his closing remarks, are here.

And Brian Shope wrote about Missio Dei after TAG in a way that was clarifying for me here, at his blog, Pacing the Cage.

 

And yes, I am aware that all these links go to work by men.  And yes, that makes me sad.  

Theology After Google

 

 

Via their website:

 

 

Why “theology after Google”?

Progressive Christian theologians have some vitally important things to say, things that both the church and society desperately need to hear. The trouble is, we tend to deliver our message using technologies that date back to Gutenberg: books, academic articles, sermons, and so forth. We aren't making effective use of the new technologies, social media, and social networking. When it comes to effective communication of message, the Religious Right is running circles around us.

Hence the urgent need for a conference to empower pastors, laypeople, and the up-and-coming theologians of the next generation to do “theology after Google,” theology for a Google-shaped world. Thanks to the Ford funding, we’ve been able to assemble a stellar team of cultural creatives and experts in the new modes of communication. We are also inviting a selection of senior theologians, and well as some of the younger theologians (call them “theobloggers”) whose use of the new media (blogging, podcasts, YouTube posts) is already earning them large followings and high levels of influence. For two and a half days, in workshops and in hands-on sessions, in lectures and over drinks, these leading figures will be at your disposal to teach you everything they know.

 

The Theology After Google conference is coming up this week, and I thought that folks might be interested in some of my contributions there. (They're bringing me in as one of those theobloggers)  Particularly: Members of the Religious Society of Friends, folks interested in theopoetics, and hermeneutics nerds. The full schedule is here, and is all set to Pacific Standard Time. 

The main setup is like TED talks, and will all be live streaming here: tinyurl.com/tag10stream .

Please interact, and as I said in the vid, shoot me any comments that you think are relevant.  Fun times.

A Question: Friesen, the Internet, and Heretical Cultism

I recently received the following email and figured that since I was going to reply anyway, I might as well post about it and see if others have opinions they want to share.  Please give the questions below a read and weigh in if you have any thoughts about them.  I’d be interested for sure, and I imagine that Christopher (who is doing his PhD on matters related to this) would be too.

I recently read the book ‘Thy Kingdom Connected‘ by Dwight Friesen out of Mars Hill and wanted to get more insight on a theory developed in chapter 4 of the book ‘Connective Leaders’. On page 85 Friesen writes that in addition to allowing new and often fringe voices to the conversation (which very much follows Bruce Bimber’s theory of accelerated pluralism), the Internet also connects these groups beyond themselves, thus mediating their extreme, thereby keeping them from developing ‘totalitarian, heretical, cultish tone(s)’. This last bit here is quite an important development as it neatly extends Bimber’s theory of ‘accelerated pluralism’, at least as far as it pertains to religious organizations. I am wondering if you believe this to be more or less exclusive to religious groups and/or other bodies with high levels of social capital? Is so, why? If not, why not? Is the presence of face-to-face in-person contact/meet-ups (church going) important? And perhaps most importantly, why do you think this moderation takes place?

NOTES:

Bimber here is a reference to Bimber, Bruce. 1998. ‘The Internet and Political Transformation: Populism, Community and Accelerated Pluralism.’ Polity XXXI (1): 133-160.

For a quick version of this, see below, from the University of Iowa’s e-democracy pages:

The fragmentation of American political discourse into narrow interests preceded the Internet but the medium accelerates the tendency. As citizens turn away from conventional channels of political participation, will they substitute new political forms, or retreat into private spheres of atomized interests? What happens to serendipity and community, cross-cutting issues, and process?

Bimber calls this process “accelerated pluralism”, and it does seem to be a general characteristic of on-line life, political and otherwise. Just as urbanization affords exposure to a wider range of experiences but allows greater social segmentation, electronic media can further fragment civic society by microtargetting people in increasingly individualized affinity groups. In Norris’ words, “virtual democracy looks more like anarchy than ABC news.”

Can cyber-space complete the transformation from village to urban cliques, permitting disembodied interests to aggregate electronically?

Oh, the off-camera commentary was from my housemate Michelle Long, and the swing dance community I mentioned was http://yehoodi.com/ .

I’d love to hear other thoughts on these questions.

McLuhan, Media, and Ministers

As part of the Transforming Theology Project over at Claremont, Tripp Fuller and Phillip Clayton are teaching a class called “Theology After Google.”  Given the content of the course, Tripp has been interacting with the Twitterverse and Blogosphere as part of the course content and prep.  He recently suggested that I throw a little somethin somethin together around the topic of the medium and message for modern ministers.  This video is that.

“The medium is the message” is probably the most oft-quoted line from Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan.  I bumped into McLuhan’s work years ago in my studies in communications theory and was utterly bowled over by his insight, wit, and bizarre eccentricity.  Heck, the title of this blog is even because of him.  Anywho, the issue (one of them anyway) with McLuhan is that he never wrote “the book” on anything. He never got all of his ideas into one place and came down definitively on anything, instead favoring short questions and comments that he called “probes.”  The fact that he did this intentionally makes it no less frustrating for same.  He said it was because The Print Age and linear, visual-rational, thinking was closing to be replaced with The Electronic Age’s emphasis on connective thought.  Consequently, his writing, even though published in the 50’s and 60’s  reads more like what would happen if you published the results of a 12 hour web-surfing spree, rather than a finely honed theoretically work.  That point of all this is to say that not as many academics have given him the credit I think he deserves because he wasn’t playing by the rules.  This (of course) I love.

Here I’m trying to re-articulate his probes “the medium is the message,” and of “retribalization” in the context of theology, specifically theology after Google.

I may or may not come back here and add to the text of this post, but I think I fairly well said what I needed to in the video, so please let me know if things are unclear, or if you would like a further articulation of something I said.  I am more than willing to clarify if I can.  Happy viewing, and please comment below.

Related Readings

Great read about how Google might be changing the way we think, “I Google, Therefore I Know.”

An interesting essay which has a long section about McLuhan’s retribalization is here.

An interpretation of  “the medium is the message” from a more “pure McLuhan” standpoint is here.

An article connecting McLuhan and hermeneutics is here.

Less related, but also of note:

An article dealing with McLuhan and revisionist theology is here.

Ethics, Eschatology, and Avatar

I recently saw the film “Avatar,” prompted by lots of press and the opportunity to spend time with my family, who also wanted to see it.  Long story short?  Pretty good movie if I’m just thinking about it as a movie.  Fairly concerning if I think about it with my theologian hat on.  Why? Two reasons.

1) It enforces a belief in the myth of redemptive violence while ostensibly trying to the cause of environmental protection.

In discussing the film, director James Cameron has commented that

I’m not trying to make people feel guilty… I just want them to internalize a sense of respect and a sense of taking responsibility for the stewardship of the earth.. and I think this film can do that by creating an emotional reaction.

What worries me is that Cameron’s “taking responsibility” amounts to killing the people who don’t have a sense of respect.  Now I know that it is a fictional fantasy, and that I might be taking it all too seriously, but it just seems as if it unnecessarily weaves support of the myth of redemptive violence into notions of stewardship. [An article by Walter Wink about the myth of redemptive violence is here.]  Given the internal logic of the film, were the protagonists justified?  Sure.  Does such justification exist in our own story?  I think not.

2) It suggests an eschatology of hope that entails the physical intercession of some Divine force that allows the “good guys” to continue just as before, just without the “bad guys” around any more to bug them.

As a Member of the Religious Society of Friends, I’m more of a proponent of what we call a “realized eschatology,” what more evangelical/emergenty folk seem to refer to as some form of Kingdom Theology.  I don’t think everyone is obligated to believe this, however it seems to be worth noting as it contributes to my concern for some hope of a future wherein the direct intercession of the Divine defeats all my enemies for me, and I am left to my paradise in peace.

Cameron’s Avatar portrays the god of the protagonists as some magical force which can intercede on behalf Her people, and whose direct intercession is necessary to continue.

I do not think that there is a direct correlation between such cinematic suggestions and individual theological thought, however I do believe that our perceptions of the Divine are influenced by the media we consume.  Thus, while I doubt anyone walked away thinking verbatim that “I can’t wait till God returns and destroys all the [INSERT HATED GROUP] and I get to live exactly as I was before I met them,” I do think that the amazing appeal of this film plays on our fanciful hopes that, in fact, just such a thing will happen.

I’m not opposed to magical thinking in films, but when the film is an explicit attempt to sway the hearts and minds of folks in this world for the sake of engaged change, I find the reliance on magical thinking to be yet another impediment to finding ways forward that are not coercive or fanciful.

I am reminded of a passage in Theodore Jennings’ The Liturgy of Liberation,

If violence is the symptom of despair then the sporadic and systematic violence that charecterizes our world betrays an epidemic of dispair. We despair of justice, we despair of reason, we despair of the other person and so we destroy the other person, and we prepare to be destroyed by the other person ourselves.  In short, we despair.  We are without hope for ourselves, for the other, for our world.

If it is only through some belief that our enemies will be swept away by the wrath of a God-figure that we manage to find some measure of hope, then perhaps despair has indeed won out.  I, for one, though, still tend to think there is yet another way forward.