My favorite section in TheoMedia is “PART 4 | Media Christology: Jesus, Media Legacies, and Focal Media Practices.” Here are the chapter headings:
The Page-Splitting God Who Rips Sky and Veil: An Interlude”
Gospel and Incarnation: Jesus as the Ultimate TheoMedium
Crucifixion: Cross-Visuality and the Eucharist
Resurrection & Ascension: Word-media, Baptism, and Christ as Mediator
Christ’s Return: Apocalyptic Media and the End of Mediation
What I am trying to do in this part of the book is to reconsider our media culture through Jesus, and then to rethink how Jesus’ life, work, and reign should configure our media practices.
The whole purpose of TheoMedia is to allow the biblical story of Creation–Fall–Redemption and the biblical visino of the Triune God to redefine our appropriation and understanding of digital culture. “Media Christology” looks specifically at how Jesus was himself the ultimate medium of God (the divine Word who became Incarnate) and how his own life compels an array of media practices.
I am currently reading a review copy of Craig Detweiler’s iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives (soon to be released by Brazos). I just read Detweiler’s cataloguing of the religious rhetoric and imagery attached to the founding of Apple, the rise-fall-resurrection of Steve Jobs, and the cult-like devotion of Apple consumers (and let me confess that I am typing this post on a Mac). Apple lovers have appealed to Christological language and imagery in describing Jobs and his products.
It is eerie… even if much of it is in jest.
Rather than recasting Jesus to fit our technological fascinations, I would prefer, of course, that we rethink our technological fascinations through Christology.
That is the point of PART 4 in TheoMedia. As it turns out, Christology has a great deal to say about how we use and understand media today. If you get a chance to read through it, let me know what you think… and help me keep thinking about the possibilities.
In researching TheoMedia, I read Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You where he takes to task the conventional wisdom that our entire society is “amusing ourselves to death” (so Neil Postman) and reducing our collective minds into media-saturated mush. His claim is that much of this supposedly “bad” stuff in pop-culture is actually helping us to think better. Hence the book’s subtitle: “Why Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter.”
He has made some excellent points.
Let’s take television, for instance. When I was growing up, there were three main networks competing for American viewers. The media-brokers’ mentality towards entertainment seemed to be this: produce shows that demand very little of an audience other than to be entertained. For the most part, the 1980s and 1970s sit-coms offered dumbed down stories that targeted the lowest common intellectual denominator of the watching populace (for Johnson, shows like Hill Street Blues were decidedly different).
Compare this previous TV era with the today’s era of endless cable channels and countless new shows. The most successful television series over the past decade are far from dumbed down in terms of intellectual engagement. For shows like Breaking Bad, Lost, ER, The Newsroom, and even Seinfeld, entertainment is not necessarily easy for the viewers—to catch jokes on Seinfeld, you may have to remember an episode from two years earlier. To follow Lost, you have to endure what feels like insensible plot twists and recall brief character interactions from prior episodes. And shows like The Newsroom and The West Wing demand quite a bit of intellectual brain-wracking along with a textured understanding of politics and current events.
Johnson points to shows like these as evidence that pop culture can actually make us smarter.
I am not sure watching The Newsroom makes me smarter. But what Johnson does demonstrate is that people are not solely entertained by shallow shows with empty plotlines. To the contrary, those series offering difficult, challenging material that engage our imaginations and our intellect are thriving. Not everyone prefers to watch The Newsroom in their spare time, but large swathes of us are willing to endure insensible plot twists and highly intelligent banter between sophisticated, complex characters because the kind of entertainment we most want is entertainment that is meaningfully engaging.
When I watch a film, I have high demands for entertainment. I do not just want to laugh at frivolities. I am not interested in gratuitous “love scenes.” I want the film-makers to make me think and rethink, to engage my imagination and inspire new ways of seeing and perceiving.
Is there anything those of us who are preachers can learn from this?
The Sermon and Good Television: Any Lessons Here?
Perhaps we have something to UNlearn.
It seems to me that many preachers began taking their cues from pop culture trying to make the Sunday sermon entertaining in the way shallow television has attempted to entertain their congregations during prime-time. A lot of preaching was dumbed down. Funny stories empty of real meaning or of any connection to the texts and topics became par for the course.
Steven Johnson might have some wisdom for the 21st century preacher: there are people out there who want to be meaningfully engaged. Not only can they handle difficult content and mystifying plotlines, they are offended when it is not offered. They actually enjoy being entrusted with lofty and carefully articulated material.
Shallow television may well turn our brains into media-saturated mush.
Shallow preaching does the same thing.
But the entertainment industry is picking up on something about human nature: we do not just want to be amused; we want to be meaningfully engaged.
No media form is more uniquely suited for meaningful engagement than preaching. The content of our message demands the highest degree of intellectual wrestling: i.e., There is One God in Three Persons, or a lordly figure has appeared from an ancient line of Kings to end cosmic tyranny.
And no plotline is more insensible and full of more twists than the bullets on this storyboard:
God shows up in the flesh
God gets yanked out of a garden
God gets nailed naked to a post
The Dead God then bursts forth from a grave
I asked in the previous post if preaching should be entertaining.
My thinking is that preaching must ultimately be, like the Christian Scriptures, engaging. That is, preaching must arrest the mind, heart, soul, and strength (to borrow from the Shema—Dt 6:4) and compel a reimagining of reality and a reanimation of our lives.
In this act of engaging, preaching may well be entertaining.
As noted earlier, Christian critiques of entertainment media need to be more nuanced. I write in the opening of TheoMedia that all media was once religious. This is because “media” are means of communication and self-revelation, and for ancient and modern-day Christians communicative initiative begins with the Triune God. The concept of “media” goes back to this one phrase:
“Let there be…”
God spoke, and thereby employed “media”—specifically, the medium of speech. And by that medium he created the multi-media world of creation. Our God is a multi-media God.
So we need to be careful with our negative connotations of “media.”
Entertainment media, however, has rightfully earned itself a bad wrap in many respects, like when it seeks to engage an audience by appealing to our shallow fancies and our unhealthy curiosities. Sermons that merely titillate to maintain a congregation’s attention are little different from television studios who throw in gratuitous sex and stylized violence to maintain an audience.
This is not the job of Christian preaching. Entertainment is not its goal, but engagement. At the same time, it is okay (and perhaps right!) when engaging preaching entertains us.
But this is not “entertainment” that, as mentioned above, arrests our attention by appealing to base interests and shallow fancies.
What should most arrest our attention is truth. What should hold our concentration is a compelling vision of the Triune God. What should awaken our interest is the urgency of sin and injustice. What should seize our minds and hearts should be Christ crucified and the cosmic scandal of a burst open tomb.
And these realities and convictions are what Christian preaching must offer through the medium of speech.
Preaching will be entertaining at times. It will also be unnerving. And if we are plying the homiletical craft faithful to the subject matter, then it will grasp and hold the attention of those who have ears to ear.
Next Post: “Everything is Bad for You… Including Preaching.” A look at how HBO’s The Newsroom and NBC’s Parenthood model a new mode of television that informs the craft of preaching.
The official publication date for my book on media and biblical theology is July, 2013. But the book has only now become available at the bigger online shops like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, which for most of us constitutes a real “release date.”
The book is TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age. I am calling it a “media theology,” that is, a book that tries to think biblically and theologically about our current media culture. There are a number of projects doing this very thing with technology (and to some degree with media as well) like John Dyer’s From the Garden to the City, Tim Challies’ The Next Story, and Shane Hipps’ Flickering Pixels. More academic studies include Brian Brock’s Christian Ethics in a Technological Age and Albert Borgmann’s Power Failure.
I really like the term “media theology.” It encompasses quite a bit, and reminds us that we do theology via media: books, art, poems, hymns, etc. And I like pairing a savvy, hip term like “media” with “theology,” which sort of sounds less hip to most (though “media” is as ancient a concept as “theology”).
Readership: For Academic or General Audiences? TheoMedia is designed for both.
Trying to engage both academics and general readers may be the surest path to a marketing disaster. But this is the sort of writing I think the church most desperately needs… you know, the kind of writing that is born out of intensive study but is nonetheless accessible and digestible to nonspecialists. Even though the marketing niche for this sort of thing may be small, I am pleased to operate within its range of readers. And I hope I have done those readers justice.
My reasons for writing TheoMedia are personal, pastoral, and academic. But the thrust of what I am trying to do with this book is to identify and articulate the right conceptual grid—the interpretive lens—through which we assess and use media in the digital age. It is hard to see how our ancient collection of sacred texts (the Bible) and our age-old theological traditions can speak in such a cutting age, 21st century culture of social media, downloadable apps, Google, and iPhones.
Yet the Bible is actually a medium about media. And God himself makes and uses media—means of self-revelation and communication (“TheoMedia”). If God uses media, then there must be a theological rationale by which the church can understand, produce, and use media today. My purpose in writing is to point out this rationale and venture applying it to our own day.
To tip my hand a bit, I want to say that writing this book gave me an excuse to write about the Gospel. Ultimately, TheoMedia is about God reaching to the furthest extent through Christ to restore a divine-human communication loss of cosmic proportions. And nothing is more thrilling to write about.
Behind the Scenes…
I just think it is fun to point this sort of stuff out. My first book, Faith Without Illusions, came out of a sermon. The same is true for TheoMedia, except that it was a 3-part sermon series. I think I even called the series “TheoMedia.” They were preached at University Christian Fellowship during the Fall of 2010. The ideas had a homiletical reappearance in Scotland for King Church Durham’s Student House Party event in January of 2012. If you were there for any of those events, then thanks for being a part of this book!
One last thing…
The book is a bit pricey, weighing in at around $25. Yeah, I know—it had better be good. I guess the price reflects its labeling as an academic work. Sorry folks—not sure I can do anything about this. Sheepishly, let me encourage us to look on the bright side: at least the price is high enough to qualify for free shipping, right?
If you can help me spread the word about TheoMedia, that would be great. Thanks so much!
I read in The Economistabout the Tea Party’s recently released trailer that seems modeled after The Hunger Games. The allegorical portrayal equates big government social spending (the “Development Party”) with the tyrannical power-brokers of Panem’s “Capitol.” The Tea Party “Patriots” are hip-looking youngsters who Katniss Everdeen-like are attacking the system and standing up against government oppression.
The Economist seems to point to Miss Amanda Robbins’ reading of Suzanne Collins’ bestseller as a source for the trailer. An influential member of Florida’s Teenage Republicans, Robbins wondered if political conservatism was an agenda underlying the book.
As a founder of a Teenage Republican chapter (yes, that happened once, many years ago) and as someone currently reading the final installment of The Hunger Games Trilogy, I think I am in a unique position to comment on the use of this trailer.
Another qualifying credential is that I am studying ancient texts. And the production of this trailer is a prime example of a splinter group co-opting a text and misusing it for their own purposes.
I’m not interested in politics, here—just with the curious media usage at play.
Texts are a media form, and the Tea Party has latched onto a work of pop-fiction and adapted it for their own purposes. Like when the Valentinian Gnostics championed the Gospel of John. Like Marcion’s preference for Luke (well, most of Luke). Like when the Ebionites attached themselves to Matthew. For a more contemporary case, think about the use of John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart by drug lords for acculturating young males into gang culture.
Okay, okay—I am not trying to equate the Tea Party with early Christian heretics or with drug cartels. Not at all.
But I just want to point out the irony. The most potent critique of The Hunger Games trilogy is not directed against an Obama-style big government apparatus. Tyranny of an Orwellian scope is certainly criticized. But the sharpest angle of the polemic is leveled against the manipulation of the masses through the calculated use of media. In The Hunger Games, Collins has provided a brilliant exposé of media culture. The strategic use of media propaganda to sway the populace is one of the most deadly tools of the hated Capitol.
In fact, taking a popular narrative and adapting it cunningly for one’s own purpose sounds like a signature project of President Snow….
We all know that Western society has gone secular. But as much as secularism understands itself as religion-neutral, it has its own sacred cows. There are just certain things you don’t touch or critique about secular culture without being at risk of being called a blasphemer.
Media preference is one of those sacred cows.
I have noticed that little riles us up these days more than someone challenging our choices over what to watch, what to listen to, or what media technology to play with. To tread on the precious altar of pop culture and secular media is to blaspheme in this a-religious society.
Talking about the immorality of Hollywood is so 1980′s. Turning our haughty noses up to innuendo on TV is so early 90′s. Nay-saying the Internet and smartphones is so early 2000′s. So give it up already, prophets of gloom, and stop raining on the media parade.
I just wrote an article on negotiating our culture’s mediascape for Relevant Magazine’s website, due to appear early in the week. In the process of writing and thinking through that piece, I was reminded of something I’ve found while working on ‘TheoMedia,’ my upcoming media-theology book. What I have discovered is that we tend to develop an acute defensiveness whenever someone challenges our media preferences. I’m not a wholesale enthusiast of digital technology, but I have found that even I get defensive when reading material on the critical or cautious side of media appropriation. When something I read gouges at one of my media choices, I bristle with the desire to justify myself… even when I totally regret those choices.
So why are our media preferences so precious to us? Why have they become like sacred cows?
It is because media are fundamental to who we are as human beings. It is because sacred cows are themselves media forms. It is because media are so elemental to society that they are instantly integrated into the fabric of our lives.
1) Media are not just flippant, silly decorations suitable for silly ads, frothy commercials, or massive jumbo-trons. The concept of media is primal for who we are as humans. This is because we ourselves are media.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Our most ancient vocation is that of serving as media, divine media. You and I are both media of God, what I call “TheoMedia.”
2) A “sacred cow” is some symbol we divine image bearers have produced and into which we have invested powerful religious meaning. As such, a sacred cow is a media form. Media possess the power to bear and convey our most adored ideas.
3) And since we are so media-oriented and since media are so conducive for bearing such depths of precious meaning, they easily integrate into our lives.
So it just makes sense that we get all worked up if someone pokes at our use or embrace of various media in pop culture. Media are intrinsi to who we are, capable of bearing profound meaning, and easily intertwined into our lives.
Of course, there are other reasons why we bristle when our media preferences are challenged. For one, the church has been annoyingly effective at moralistic and legalistic culture-bashing. Our society is just sick of it. Even those of us in the church are sick of it. My article at Relevant (“The Vice of Innocence”) will address this to some degree.
We also get annoyed at media critiques because many of our media preferences have nothing necessarily wrong with them in the first place.
There is at least one more reason why we get defensive and indignant when our media preferences are challenged. It is because we are convicted.
I had ground the coffee beans the night before in anticipation of an early Saturday morning reading a fine new book, Arthur Boer’s Living into Focus (my 7-year old is entertained that “the author is an Arthur.”)
In the pre-dawn Saturday darkness, I heard a tiny voice (that can get quite loud) calling “Daddy” from her crib.
I warmed up her milk while I brewed my coffee. We are both very particular about our morning hot drinks. I heat her milk in the microwave for 47 seconds. My French Press (cafetiere) is timed for 4 minutes. When the rituals were complete, we sat down happily under a blanket with clay mug of a bourbon espresso blend and a plastic thermos filled with perfectly warmed milk. I also grabbed my book.
Boers is writing about “focal practices,” a phrase associated with University of Montana philosopher Albert Borgmann.
Eugene Peterson wrote the book’s foreword. Boers, Borgmann and Peterson alike share a suspicious disposition toward the technological ethos of our age—an important perspective for me to understand as I research for my media-theology book. To a large degree, it is a perspective I instinctively share… though I have to say I am trying to listen carefully to other voices, a practice that is causing me to rethink a few things.
With my youngest daughter sipping milk and me sipping coffee, I was reading Boers’ evaluations of a home-life shaped around the TV. In his view, important focal practices—ritual activities that healthily shape us and bind us to God and each other—can include hiking, meal preparation, woodworking, sharing fellowship around the supper/lunch/breakfast. These varied exercises engage us in more healthy formative ways than video games or movie-going. But practicing them is undermined by the perpetual question arising from our technological culture: “what are we going to watch…?” 
“Dad, can I watch TV.”
My oldest daughter had just appeared from her bed.
“No, hon, not now.”
I kept reading, now with both daughters snuggled up on the sofa under the blanket. Boers was writing about his family’s experience of preparing and eating meals at this well-crafted wooden table, a furnishing in his home that almost took on a sacramental quality.
“Dad, I’m hungry.”
That was from my 4-yr old. If he does not eat within ten minutes of rising bleary-eyed from a night’s sleep, there is a danger that the galaxy might implode. At least that’s what his demeanor conveys.
I go to the kitchen to make breakfast: chocolate chip pancakes is the Saturday morning standard. My mood is good. I am excited about the culture I want to instill in my young family. As I work on the meal, I take glimpses out the window to take in the fresh sunlight hitting the Autumn leaves and the still-green grass. Boers had installed a window in his kitchen so he could do the same.
“Dad, can we watch something now?”
I give my permission—the tiny toddler, full of warm milk, wanted to watch an episode of Elmo’s World. It lasts 12 minutes or so… innocent enough, right?
Then I call them for breakfast. My wife joins us from her activities upstairs, and we all sit around this old wooden table that, as our landlords inform us, used to belong to a well-known Bishop of Leeds. Butter is smeared, syrup is poured, and conversation begins.
Actually, chaos begins.
Boers is calling for focal practices that cut into our technological/entertainment habits. Part of the argument is that our lives are stressed, distracted, disjointed, fractured. We hardly have any time to concentrate and enjoy each others’ company. We can hardly sit and have a decent dialogue over a table these days with all the buzzing and beeping of our gadgets at the table.
Forget the buzzing and beeping. I’ve got yipping and yapping.
When we all 6 take our place at that old, wooden table, the sort of conversation and fellowship I envision does not happen. It is stressed, distracted, disjointed, fractured. Someone drops a syrup-soaked hunk of pancake on the floor. The sausage is too hot, someone complains. The toddler shouts that she is all done, yet she does so while sneaking more bites as if she cannot get enough—she is mad if she gets taken down from her high chair, mad if she does not. An argument breaks out between the two oldest across the table. A milk cup almost spills. All this happens in one rising swell—not instantaneously. It just grows and grows until my wife and I are on edge, anxious, frustrated, and so busy attending to the madness that our own pancakes (lovingly riddled with blueberries) get cold.
And you know what? If I had served the meal in front of the TV, it would have been quiet, relaxed, and argument-free.
Now, our table is not always cacophonous and chaotic. And my wife and I understand that our children must be meticulously taught to sit quietly and respectfully while “at table.” That will take years. Also, Boers is not saying that these focal practices are easy. In fact, difficulty is an essential ingredient in developing a focal practice: without the challenge, there would be no counteraction against the immediate-access culture of consumerism and technological gadgetry.
But Elmo’s World would have kept our table much quieter, much less stressful.
I am not necessarily disagreeing with Boers. I like his vision. I will help promote his vision. But I do like to bring out the nuances and impracticalities, especially for those of us with small children (which Boers would readily acknowledge, and does so from time to time in his book).
Brewing coffee and warming milk with a bleary-eyed toddler in my arms is a focal practice of sorts. My arm hurts, and reading with her squirming in my lap can be a real challenge. I will never trade in those moments, though.
But I thank God for supper in front of the TV on Family Movie Night.
 From an interview David Woods had with Borgmann. See Arthur Boers, Living into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2012), 21, n. 13.
I led a workshop over the weekend at the Christian New Media and Awards Conference in London. My topic was “Online Theology”: can we “do theology” online? What are the advantages of doing theology via blogging and microblogging? What are the limitations? I also asked this: what sort of disciplines and skills should we embrace for doing online theology well?
The issue strikes me as massively important because theology is massively important and because digital media is becoming more and more integrated into our daily (hourly!) lives.
Normally I do my writing on media-theology at www.BigBible.org.uk, but since some of those readers attended the conference, I thought I would open the conversation up here at Hopeful Realism.
First, I have learned from Jason Byassee that we just need to be careful about making broad, sweeping conclusions about the Church and the Digital Age. The reason is because it is simply too early to assess—see Byassee’s essay for The New Media Project. His subtitle includes the word “underdetermined” to express a humble approach at making assessments. Historians will one day look back on the church’s embrace/rejection/conflicted use of new media from the luxurious vantage point of retrospection. More definitive conclusions could be made at that point. For those of us in the midst of these technological and cultural shifts, however, we have to be cautious and observant. Byassee cites this from a Methodist minister writing in 1850 about the telegraph:
This noble invention is to be the means of extending civilization, republicanism, and Christianity over the earth. It must and will be extended to nations half-civilized, and thence to those now savage and barbarous. Our government will be the grand center of this mighty influence…. The beneficial and harmonious operation of our institutions will be seen, and similar ones adopted. Christianity must speedily follow them, and we shall behold the grand spectacle of a whole world, civilized, republican, and Christian…. Wars will cease from the earth. Men “shall beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks’ … then shall come to pass the millennium.
Such idealistic, florid language is also used to describe the Church’s use of the Internet. Beware. But also, let’s beware of wholesale negative assessments as well!
The second point I made in the workshop is that online theology often includes a critique of offline academic theology. The most epitomized quote I found is this one:
The “traditional academic form [of doing theology] does not breed conversation, but promotes monologue; it does not foster cross-fertilization of ideas, but reinforces one particular perspective on an issue; it is not open to other voices, but is designed precisely to close them off; and, finally any such discourse is not welcoming to all voices, but privileges a select group who have been properly vetted by the Western academy.”
So “theology blogged” is more just and equitable than “theology booked,” as the logic of the quote goes.
My questions for this blog post for our dear readers is this: should theology done through the media format of a blog be pitted against theology done in the traditional formats of books and academic journal articles? Or can they be complementary? Does one trump the other?
When I took a preaching class in seminary, I never expected it to be such a creative launching pad for me. We listened and watched all kinds of preaching and preachers and focused on different, and sometimes novel, ways of communicating both clearly and compellingly. I went on to take another course, with professor Chuck Campbell, on Preaching, the Powers, and Principalities. It was here that my imagination was further sparked to see and speak to the captivities and spiritual powers at play in our daily lives and in our congregations. One thing I particularly enjoyed was Chuck’s playfulness; in the midst of incredibly serious material he never seemed to take himself too seriously.
When Baylor University Press sent me a copy of Chuck’s (along with co-author Johan Cilliers) newest preaching book, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, I took the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss. Throughout the book there is a notable chorus, “The gospel is foolishness. Preaching is folly. Preachers are fools.” This is a fairly unusual, possibly threatening, but certainly scriptural, statement for the average pastor. An odd line in our job descriptions. The book certainly struck a chord in regards to preparing and delivering sermons, but also, because of its surprisingly multimedia nature, it struck a chord in regards to the arts and their ability to embody and communicate this “gospel foolishness.”
In Friday’s post, Chuck spoke about preaching’s ability to unsettle us, put us in a middle ground, and change our perception. At one point he mentioned the book’s very title changing before his eyes: from a noun to a verb, being the fool to being fooled.
This second post explores some of the similarities and engagements the book has with the arts. We wind up talking about everything from the music of Derek Webb to Stephen Colbert to the upcoming American presidential election.
Hopeful Realism: So as preachers, it is an interesting position we’re in. Most people don’t want to hear that settling is a bad thing. In fact, most of the time becoming settled, is “arriving.”
I think there’s a good analogy with pop music. Is there any chance for pop music? To hatch a message that counters the dominant culture and ideology in a form that is so dictated by tastes and wants. We know what we want to hear and we know when we hear it. It’s a closed loop. How do you break in to that loop to speak in a language that is acceptable and interesting but say things that are potentially inflammatory or unsettling.
Chuck Campbell: Unsettling doesn’t necessarily mean inflammatory.
HR: Well, not necessarily inflammatory, but unsafe. Pop music is the safest of genres. It doesn’t change fast or much. It doesn’t cut very hard against what is dominant.How do you feed people the Bread of Life when they love a steady diet of junk food?
CC: Love? Well they’re used to it. We think we know what we want to hear.
That’s a huge question, let me try to throw a few things at it: We try to say fairly clearly in the book that this is not the only image of the preacher. We don’t want to claim that. There are clearly times in people’s lives where a different kind of word may be necessary. Though, I’m even wondering if in a situation of grief or loss, where life is quite liminal, if being unsettled is not a totally negative thing there. But I haven’t sorted that out pastorally.
The other side is, I think we have the tendency to automatically assume this kind of preaching is troubling; whereas I would like to think of it as inviting into a kind of adventure. Something that is much more interesting than simply being secure. I’d like to frame it in a positive, graceful way. Sure, there is going to have to be interruption, but a lot of times that is similar to the kind of interruption to our captivity to the powers; which is killing us! And a lot of people know it’s killing them. I think there are a lot of Christians out there ready for the Christian faith to be something a little more interesting than we make it sometimes. Maybe people might be more open to a vision of the faith that is a little more unsettled, that is moving, that is on the way…
And this is also a way to counteract the sort of Christianity today that lives in a sort of reactionary fear. We talk in the book about “circling the wagons” and “iron theologies.” There’s a lot of that going on in places and not just Fundamentalist places. Liberals can be just as rigid and draw those lines just as hard. It’s where these kind of ideologies happen that it does call for a sort of disturbing interruption. I don’t think those [ideologies] are what we’re about as Christians.
HR: I began to wonder about art as a medium, not just “high art” like Picasso, in the book there are political cartoons…
Image courtesy of Banksy.
HR: How did he not show up at the Olympics? [CORRECTION: He did!]
CC: Or in the book?! How did that slip by us?
HR: It’s really interesting that you mentioned reading Dostoyevsky as a fuel for this sort of imagination. Rowan Williams, who talks wonderfully about Dostoyevsky, writes about the “gratuity of fiction,” which I think applies to art more generally, in ways like the unsettling effects of foolishness and parody.
“The gratuity of fiction arises from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act if history is over.”
There’s so much in the book about the form of the fool. I think there’s a great analogy for the arts’ ability to incarnate, in some sense, the form of something while injecting surprise and challenge, especially alongside the sermon.
CC: When I was inaugurated into a chair at my former school, one of my very first lectures was on this material. That was ten years ago that I began work on this stuff. I did this thing on naked street preachers and for that occasion Brian Wren, who is a hymn writer, wrote a hymn on the fool for that. It is quite playful and very interesting in that regard.
Some other times we’ve tried to do services with jazz musicians, the perfect art form for this kind of liminality and movement and improvisation. I love to work with musicians that can come up with the kind of art that can unsettle things. For instance, just playing very different music while you’re celebrating Communion can completely change the expectations that we sometimes have at that table.
HR: There’s a Christian musician, Derek Webb, who seems like a particularly apt contemporary example of this. He has this song titled “Freddie, Please.” I’ve heard him describe his process as trying to write what he might say if he had an encounter with Westboro Baptist pastor Fred Phelps. After he realized that that wouldn’t be a very good song, he changed courses and wrote it as an encounter between Jesus and Phelps. What’s most interesting and surprising is that he sets it to a 50’s Doo-wop love song.
CC: The thing I really like about that and the thing that I’m really wrestling with, one of the dangers that can happen with the powers themselves, is that you can become so reactionary to them. Your life can become a kind of resistance that begins to be shaped by them, because you are always only reacting to them. So they’re setting the agenda. Even if you resist, you can inadvertently be caught up in them.
The thing that a song like this does, and what humor more generally does, is it breaks down the binary. It does something so creative and surprising that it opens up a very different kind of space than just “me against you.” And it’s interesting that Jesus is the one who’s singing. Jesus is the one who does that.
One of the books that we refer to over and over in the book, Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde, actually says that contemporary artists, musicians, and visual artists are the tricksters of our time that do this sort of interrupting. It seems to me, that while our book is a book about preaching, it is definitely applicable to people doing liturgy, music, and art.
HR: Speaking of contemporary jesters, I’d love your take on Stephen Colbert.
CC: We mentioned him in a footnote in the book.
What he did with Congress, that’s what fools do…they wind up speaking the truth. They have people off-balance and unsettled in a way that they can be heard. One of the things I like about him on his show is that he’s an amazing example of “bivocal rhetoric.” Everything he says has two meanings. It’s all basically irony in a sense. While he’s saying one thing, he wants you to hear something else. In that way, he’s much more complex than John Stewart. Stewart, in his humor comes at it directly, whereas Colbert has this double-voiced piece going on. This is why the book has a long chapter on carnivals, saying that we need to learn from these characters and how they work. These characters are here. They are around. We need to pay attention.
In terms of Christians, Will Campbell is one of the real interesting people doing this. And actually, I just got this article on P_ssy Riot in the Chronicle for Higher Education as “holy fools.” These women’s closing statements are brilliant and incredibly theological. I was shocked at how theologically engaged they were and how they knew pretty much exactly what they were trying to do. Even though the dance itself is silly, there really is a lot going on. Characters like that are all around.
HR: A last bit of encouragement and advice for us foolish preachers in the thick of a highly contentious American election season?
CC: You talk about an environment where we have two walled-off sides, how do you disrupt that?
As I usually say, the Powers are never just individuals. I think that the best preaching we do on these political things is not endorsing a particular candidate, but rather speaking to the powers that are holding us all captive. That might be deeper than even an issue. It’s going to be difficult, because there are economic powers, there are environmental powers, all related to these really huge issues. Pastors are going to have to be the fools to help congregations perceive things in some wholly new ways, because right now nothing’s happening.