Cornerstone seminar

The Cornerstone seminar went really well. The title of my session was “Sacred Anarchy: The Image of God and Political (Dis)Order”. I focused on Wink’s formulation of the Myth of Redemptive Violence, focused on Genesis as subversive to the Myth, and then took a trip through modern political philosophy to demonstrate how the modern state and most of our current modes of social, political, and economic discourse are based on the Myth. Then I presented an introduction to anarchism and discussed the anti-imperial proclamation of Jesus in the first century AD, with a call to the church to hear the Gospel as the news that Christ’s coming is the beginning of God’s return to his people, bringing the kingdom and God’s reign of peace and justice through the breaking of cosmic systems of evil, injustice, sin both systemic and individual, and through the healing of hearts and of creation, and that the inbreaking of this reign of peace and justice must inevitably be at odds with systems that are based on the Myth of Redemptive Violence. My hope is that the church will begin to catch more fully the radical nature of Christ and his Way, and seek to live accordingly.

I revised my zine for the session, and I’ve uploaded it to this site. Links in past posts to the old version have been replaced with links to the new version. Also, I’m going to upload the notes from my seminar as well as my notes from the “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination” seminar from last November. Look for them in a post in the near future.

Here’s the link to the new version of the zine: Radical Hope: Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination

A postmodern paraphrase of Philippians 2:5-11

The Incarnation is the mad story of the undeconstructible God who did not consider undeconstructibility as something to be grasped, nor did he despise deconstructibility, but rather taking the “human, all too human form” of a servant, he humbled himself to the point of inhabiting the very deconstructible structures of human law and culture—even to the point of suffering death at the hands of these institutions. But he did so not with a view to eviscerating the deconstructible, but rather to rightly ordering it such that the contingent, particularity of this deconstructible creation might reach its proper telos. — James K.A. Smith, What Jesus Did: The Incarnation as a More Radical Hermeneutic

musing about political terminology and misc.

Too often in our reading of the Bible, we make an easy association between words like “liberty”, “justice”, and other words that have political associations in our time, as well as words with other economic and social implications, and the usages of such words in modern liberalized political discourse. This error is often compounded by a profound general lack of knowledge of the origins of modern political systems and how these words came to be used in the ways they are today.

I’m currently reading William Cavanaugh’s Theopolitical Imagination, and that’s only one of the several simple-yet-profound points he makes. The underlying premise seems to be that the act of political organization itself is based on an act of imagination (the act of imagination that convinces a “provincial farm boy” to become a soldier and go far away to kill people he doesn’t know, so provoked by the concept of mystical communion set within arbitrary national borders and a constructed sense of common history and national mythology), whereas Christians are called to be a people of a different politic, a politic shaped by the imagination of the Eucharist which is deeply subversive to this modern nation-state imagination. It’s pretty good so far, I’m about 50 pages in (so almost halfway done – it’s a short book).

I have a shelf of books I call my “introduction to postmodern- and radical-Christianity” section. It includes books such as Dale Brown’s Biblical Pacifism, Vernard Eller’s Christian Anarchy, J. Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image, and several other books that I feel provide good introductory discussion to topics pertinent to postmodernism, radical thought, and the Christian faith. One thought that’s percolating in the back of my mind is the possibility of doing a series at some point where I go through each of these books – that would be quite a lengthy project though. Perhaps a series of reviews would be more manageable.

I still don’t have my computer back, so updates will probably be few and far between for the time being.

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? 2

In the last installment of What Would Jesus Deconstruct? I looked at Caputo’s brief account of Charles Sheldon’s book In His Steps and the question of “What would Jesus do?”. He finished the section by saying the question hinges on the one word, “would”, and the “would” draws us into the realm of hermeneutics. It is at this point he calls upon deconstruction, which he has called “radical hermeneutics” in other works.

Caputo points out that the heroes of Sheldon’s book are people who “renounce the profit-making motives that drive capitalism and give up luxury and success for the sake of living among and working on behalf of the poorest of the poor” (p. 25). While the current atmosphere of globalized capitalism recalls the “Gilded Age” in which Sheldon wrote, “the original force of Sheldon’s question has been turned upside-down in the barrage of bracelets and televangelists preaching personal wealth as a sign of God’s approval.”

With this in mind he recalls the opening scene of Sheldon’s book, a fairly pastoral scene (literally) in the church where “the best dressed, most comfortable-looking people” of the town have gathered – when a destitute, dying bum breaks onto the scene, turning the situation upside down – turning harmony into cacophony.

Caputo asks “what would Jesus do – if he ever showed up some Sunday morning? Turn things upside down.” The last first, the meek and poor inheriting the earth, the hungry given good things and the rich sent away empty. Peace? Not peace, but the sword. Family values? No, rather hating father and mother for the sake of the kingdom. Instead of confirming us in our ways and congratulating us for our virtue “we would stand accused” having ignored the plank in our own eye for the speck in that of our neighbor.

Or, to put things in deconstruction terms, “into the sphere of the ‘same’ (the familiar, the customary, the business-as-usual of Sunday services) bursts the ‘advent’ or the ‘event’ of the ‘other,’ of the ‘coming of the other,’ which makes the same tremble and reconfigure” (p. 26). Sheldon opens the novel with a scene of deconstruction.

Caputo says the “event” of Jesus is that of a deep deconstructive force. Whereas deconstruction has been called the hermeneutics of the death of God, he presents it as the hermeneutics of the kingdom, as an interpretive move that helps get at Jesus’ prophetic nature. Jesus breaks into the 1st-century Jewish scene and takes a stand with the “other”. Deconstruction delivers the shock of the “other” to the forces of the “same”, which could also be put in terms of delivering the good, the “ought to be” to the force of being, the “what is”. In this sense, Caputo says deconstruction brings good news to the church – one could say it brings the Gospel to us in the form of that which turns our world upside-down.

The other in deconstruction is not a devil, but rather a figure of truth. “Things get deconstructed by the event of truth that they harbor, an event that sets off unforeseeable and disruptive consequences”, which may be enough to get the event of truth labeled as a devil (or, for that matter, crucified).

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? 1

Before beginning a discussion of the book proper, it’s worth mentioning that What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is the second book in the Church and Postmodern Culture series from Baker Academic. Caputo’s volume comes after James K.A. Smith’s quite helpful and eminently readable (that is, intended for a non-specialist audience) Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Smith undertook a brief analysis of key aspects of the three philosophers on whose symbolic shoulders stand the philosophical and cultural movement(s) known as postmodernism/ity and how, rather than undermining it, their ideas can actually support the church – particularly in helping to reveal the ways the church has become captive to modernism/ity.

From the Series Preface, by Smith:

“Current discussions in the church – from emergent “postmodern” congregations to mainline “missional” congregations – are increasingly grappling with philosophical and theoretical questions related to postmodernity… Postliberalism – a related “effect” of postmodernism – has engendered a new, confessional ecumenism wherein we find nondenominational evangelical congregations, mainline Protestant churches, and Catholic parishes all wrestling with the challenges of postmodernism and drawing on the culture of postmodernity as an opportunity for rethinking the shape of our churches” (p. 7).

With that in mind, it is worth recounting here that the subtitle of Caputo’s book is “The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church”. For Caputo (and unlike many believers, both “conservative” and “liberal”), the postmodern challenge to modernity is good news, challenging the ways the church has become entrenched in narratives that carry it away from its calling as a people faithful to Jesus.

Caputo opens the book with Charles Sheldon, a turn-of-the-century Kansas pastor. Sheldon is little-known among modern evangelicals, but they’re likely familiar with the subtitle to his 1896 book In His Steps: “What Would Jesus Do?”. It may surprise people today to discover that this book, whose subtitle has become an epitome of Christian cliché, was one of the major inspirations for the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century. Caputo notes that this flies in the face of the Christian Right’s tendency to use the question as a kind of weapon against those who disagree. It also goes against the question’s having been made a bastion of Christian consumerism, since the question of what Jesus would do repeatedly comes up when people in the book are faced with a situation that requires them to deal directly with the needs of the poor and destitute, those who had been left behind by the spirit of progress and the ideals of capitalism and individualism that were prevalent at the time.

For Caputo, the question is “a very tricky two-edged sword” (p. 19), and one that should just be used against others but, citing Levinas, “put with ourselves in the accusative”, question ourselves and our relationship to the suffering world, instead of using a “beam, as in a two-by-four, to slam others” (p. 24). “Everyone wants Jesus on their side”, he says, instead of the other way around. Caputo argues that the question itself has no bite unless it is also biting us – otherwise it tends to be a way to get others to do what we want them to do, but doing so under the cover of Jesus.

Caputo then takes a brief look at the word “would” within the question. “Would”, he says, carries all the weight in the question, and draws us into the question of hermeneutics. He quotes Nietzsche, who said “there are no facts, only interpretations” (p. 25), and says the question itself poses another question – that of how much work can actually get done once the question’s complexity is considered. It is here that he calls upon deconstruction for help.

audio available at Cynicism and Hope site

Audio recordings of several of the sessions from the Cynicism and Hope conference are now available at the conference website, including a recording of my session, “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination“. The talk is in MP3 format and can either be downloaded or streamed from the site.

I also highly recommend listening to Ric Hudgens’ “Three Cheers for Cynicism”, Steve Long’s “Witness instead of Protest”, and the keynote speech by Peter Dula. From what I heard, I can probably also safely recommend Nancy Bedford’s “We Wait for Hope (Galatians 5:5)”, but I was running late Saturday morning and only heard about the last 10 minutes.

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (introduction)

The latest entry in the Church and Postmodernism series from Baker Academic Press is What Would Jesus Deconstruct? from noted deconstructionist/philosopher/theologian John D. Caputo, professor of Religion and Humanities and professor of philosophy at Syracuse. I got my copy in the mail today, read the first chapter, and was very nearly blown away. I’m only one chapter into it, but I really think this may be one of the best books I’ve read in the past couple of years – so I’m going to do a series summarizing and commenting on it.

Caputo believes deconstruction can both serve the church and call it to be what it is supposed to be as the representative people of God on earth. After some exploratory comments he starts with some comments on Charles M. Sheldon’s social Gospel classic In His Steps (the book from which the love it/hate it question “What would Jesus do?” comes) and from there enters into a conversation between Derrida, the Bible, Dostoyevsky, church tradition, and the rest of the world.

One of Caputo’s first assertions may surprise some folk who are used to the idea of deconstruction as a kind of negative dialectic, but he says that first off deconstruction is a hermeneutic of truth, not of its relativization, but of its realization. While any expression of truth that exists in language or in societal structures is by nature deconstructible, truth itself is not deconstructible. It is particularly when these small-t truths masquerade as Absolute Truths that they are subject to deconstruction. Furthermore, deconstruction is not a kind of power play that is done to a situation; rather, situations deconstruct themselves due to the instability between what is and what is presented.

As the series progresses I will present and engage Caputo’s arguments starting with the beginning of the book and ending with the end (though I suppose this convention of reading may itself be deconstructible). What would Jesus deconstruct? Caputo’s first answer to the question may surprise you – he says Jesus would deconstruct the church.

Next time: we dive into chapter one.