Saturday, June 23, 2012

Why "Brave" is a Bust

I always look forward to Pixar films with great anticipation. Cars 2 notwithstanding, every effort is interesting, innovative, and creative.  As a feminist dad of a teen daughter, the idea of the female protagonist seemed interesting. And I like Scotland. I really wanted to like this. I really did. Unfortunately, Pixar retreated to shop-worn movie themes without much inspiration for anyone.

First of all, a princess. Really? A princess? Is this the only thing people can think of for female characters? I don't need to explain why Brave is a failure of female empowerment, since Mary Pols already did in, but I simply affirm her critique that having yet another princess who rebells against the wishes of her domineering parents is "so chapter one."

Yet we hardly get out of chapter one with the next problem, rebellion against tradition. This hackneyed theme of "Always follow your heart" is as old as princesses.  Tradition is always held to be the enemy of freedom, humanity and self-realization.  Tradition is, as in Brave, defended by doddering old men who are either too dim to see the wisdom of individual choice, or desperate to hold to a waning (and irrational) power base of legend and fairy tale.  Whether it's the fearful old penguins despising the dance revolution in "Happy Feet," or a cranky old father who thinks his mermaid daughter should avoid inter-species relationships, it is always wrong to follow tradition.

This is not surprising as the echos of romanticism continue to reverberate in our culture. From Romeo & Juliet to The Godfather, we've learned to throw off tradition as a constant fetter on human flourishing. But that's just it. It's tired. It's been done. Move on, already.

As an anthropologist, I get tired of the constant message that communities bound to tradition, or authority, or hierarchy can only be portrayed as backward, unchanging and limited.  Progress, whether in international development or Pixar, seems to only have one direction.  As a Christian, I am frustrated that my culture pushes against any notion that we should have obligations to community or tradition. The desires of our heart are not always, or should not always, be our guiding principle. Of course, I don't expect my culture to conform to my faith; this is part of being in but not of the world. At the same time, it doesn't mean I have to enjoy getting this message time and time again.

Pixar is still my favorite movie studio. Sure, Brave would've been better had it ended a little more "Roman Holiday" and a little less "Princess Diaries," but it still beats most of what Hollywood tries to sell. Moreover, one (or two) clunkers can't erase their impressive record thus far.  I do hope, however, they'll return to more creative themes, richer characters, and won't be satisfied with only one film featuring a female protagonist.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Learning is hard. Change is hard. But, wow, after all the #chapeltweets, #tweetunity, prayer circles, and conversation, you'd think we'd pick up a few things. I did not attend the President's Ball, the formal Wheaton College dance held Monday night, but I heard one troubling thing. I would love to hear that this did not happen, but the account is that in the midst of top-40 radio pop hits (think Katy Perry), a student requested a salsa song, which was promptly booed. I don't know how many booed the song, but really? Perhaps people were boo-ing everything they did not like that evening, although I doubt it. Perhaps it wasn't a boo at all, but lots of people doing cow imitations at the same time. If it was a boo, however, it is yet another instance of the disregard some have for anyone and any thing in the Wheaton community different from themselves.

I don't even need to get into the question of whether boo-ing salsa songs is racist (it is), to say that it is not nice. It is not a way to communicate concern for anyone but one's self. Even if it had no minority racial component at all - if people boo-ed a country song, say - it is mean to tell people at the same party, who also payed money, who are your fellow students, to boo the things they like because they're not what you like.

David Anderson, a pastor of a large multiethnic congregation in Maryland, wrote a short book recently with the catchy title Gracism: The Art of Inclusion. The book has a single point, taken from I Corithians 12, that there are members of the Body of Christ who are more vulnerable than others. It is the duty, calling, and self-referential privilege of those who are not vulnerable to care for those who are.

I do not know how many people wanted to hear a salsa song at the President's Ball, but I suspect it was a minority. I suspect many of those who were happy to hear a salsa song were in fact actual minorities. I also suspect that they did not feel cared for when their classmates booed. I doubt they felt appreciated, that people were glad to have salsa lovers at the ball. Setting aside any questions of racism, I would be interested to hear someone argue, from a Christian point of view, that it's OK to boo when you hear a song you don't want to dance to.

Tired of talking about racism? Think it's time to move on? I think it's time to move on also. But I won't move on when so many people would clearly get left behind.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Three Things I’ve Learned So Far from #chapeltweets

We’re one week removed from #chapeltweets, in which a number of students tweeted negative comments following the Rhythm & Praise Chapel at Wheaton College on February 10. We’ve seen sit ins at the dining hall, prayer circles in front of chapel, impromptu teach-ins, and community forums. All good things that suggest we’re moving forward. I certainly want to help us continue moving forward, but I also want to do a quick retrospective on a few things I’ve learned through the happenings of the week.

1. Wheaton is a Christian community because Christ has made us one, not because we are perfect people.

Wheaton is a special place. I realize after all this, this might seem like a Pollyanna-ish thing to start with, but overall, I’m very humbled and encouraged by the care and love people are showing to one another. I’m grateful to be among my colleagues as they care for students and one another. I’m grateful for the administrators who have acted quickly to give care and love. But more than what we’ve done right, I am, as Bonhoeffer has reminded us, blessed to see again that Christian community exists not because of the ways we succeed to live out our ideals and the “wish dream” of human harmony; Christian community is in the grace of Christ that has already made us a community.

As we go forward, I know there are those who remain disappointed with the responses they have heard, and others who are frustrated that we don’t just let it all go and move on. I know there will be more difficult conversations and more hurt feelings. At the same time, I am more confident in Christ’s grace and love in which we abide. I have seen God’s hand in this and I know God is at work. It’s not necessarily characteristic of me to pull out the big Evangelical Jesus language in situations like this, but in this case, I have to call it like I see it. Speaking of which, lesson number 2…

2. It is important to call racism racism.

This is a big one, because there are a lot of people who very much resist using the word “racism”. We resist it because it is such a charged word, bringing up ideas of what those who tweeted may or must have intended. It seems to be an accusation that those who made the comments must be racists. We prefer the terms “racial insensitivity,” or even the gentler “misunderstanding,” “ignorance,” and “mistake.”

The problem is that all these other terms keep our conversation on the level of interpersonal relationships. By avoiding the term “racism,” we divorce the conversation from the cultural and social systems that keep us from seeing what’s going on. This became most clear to me among some of the healing moments in which we inadvertently reverted to some of the things that keep racism in place. Specifically, when we were praying together outside chapel, and when we closed our time together at #tweetunity, we ironically turned to the music that has become the default music of serious spirituality at Wheaton, Euro-American hymnody. Here were groups who were dedicated to redressing the hurt caused by the chapel tweets and we too fell into patterns of placing the Euro-American worship forms on the pedestal of spiritual superiority, or at least, cultural comfort.

I’m sure there are some who are now rolling their eyes, amazed that I would want to call something as innocent as this “racism.” Yet this is the system in which we live. Why, when our community is hurting precisely over the issue of African American worship being ridiculed and marginalized do we turn to “Be Thou My Vision,” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” as our comfort? We have been taught, conditioned, and formed into a community with a hegemonic structure of preferences, in which implicit assumptions about what is best continually push their way to the foreground, unless and until we name it for what it is: racism. I am no better than anyone in this. Until one of my colleagues leaned over and say, “Let’s try to start singing ‘Amen!’” I was blind to the irony and racism myself. I suspect most of the black kids in the circle or the #tweetunity chapel didn’t think much of it either, so it's not just a White thing. This is racism at work. It must be named to be seen. And in the same breath (pun intended), point number 3 is…

3. Racism, sexism, and other exclusions are part of the same conversation.

It has been very interesting to hear many of my female colleagues, particularly those in male dominated fields (theology, economics, the natural sciences) connect their experiences at Wheaton College with the stories being shared by people of color. It’s not that they’re playing a game of “whose pain is worse,” but rather that they can, more clearly and personally than I, see how assumptions of culture and institutional structure work against the full equality of everyone in our community. Just as we have recently attended to race, we need to bring other forms of community stratification into the conversation.

Our culture, like all cultures, is both a good thing (as the God-given ability to express ourselves in symbol, form community, and relate in complex linguistic ways) and a fallen thing (in the ways sin infects every aspect of these capacities and practices). We have, written into our sociality, sinful tendencies towards domination and idolatry. Just as we continue to explore the ways racist hierarchies are promoted and defended in our culture, so too must we consider how our idolatrous hearts enshrine other preferences for masculinity over femininity, youth over age, and able-bodied over disabled.

I almost hesitate to write these words, knowing how some will see nothing but political correctness and liberal humanism, but I think instead of Galatians 3:28 that tell us that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. These social hierarchies are taken away in Christ, yet we go back again and again to find ourselves worshipping ourselves and our cultural creations rather than the Living God and His good creation.

Where do we go from here? We’re going in some good directions already, but I hope that we can press on to the goal set before us. The Kingdom of God is not something we earn through our good work; nor is it something we bring about through constant vigilance to our cultural idolatries. Yet as we pursue holiness in some areas of our lives, let us encourage one another towards holiness in all this.

God is pleased, Wheaton College, that we have begun to hear God’s voice calling to us. Let’s keep listening, together.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Racism without Racists

In the wake of #chapeltweets at Wheaton College, where a group of white students tweeted negative racial messages about the chapel of African American worship, we've heard a very familiar response:

The students who called the service "disorderly," "crazy," or "a joke," were not making any racial reference. They were just expressing preferences. Or It was joke gone too far. Or It didn't mean anything at all.

Whatever it was, this argument goes, these were generally nice kids who love people and do good in the world. They are not racists, therefore their actions cannot be racist.

But do we really need Klan members to have racism?

The title of this post comes from one of my favorite books about racism, linguist Jane Hill's The Everyday Language of White Racism. Her beautifully crafted argument is that U.S. Americans (particularly White Americans) use several strategies in interpreting language. One is "intentionalism," the idea that language gets its meaning from what the speaker wants to say. The second is "referentialism," the belief that language also gets meaning from the objects it references in the world. In much of our communication, this is exactly how language is working. But, she points out, language also has the feature of "indexicality." That is, when we tell jokes, they're often funny not because of what the language references, but because of the context in which it indexes something else. We can be inadvertently funny when we say something (intention) that references one thing, but indexes another. Like when we put our foot in our mouths with a "compliment": "Oh you look so nice! I didn't recognize you!" The intention and reference are clear, and complimentary, but the index (you don't usually look nice) is also clear. Thus, this is an insult, but without an insulter.

Racism can work like this. When someone listens to gospel music and declares it "disorganized," (true example from #chapeltweets), he may just be intending to say that he doesn't know where to look; there's a lot going on; he is confused. At the level of intention and reference, nothing racial there. But indexically there are some layers here. Mind you, the performance in question did not involve people forgetting the lyrics, bumping into each other, or not knowing who should step up to the mic. At that level it was orderly. But it was more complex than some other (European based) forms of music. To call it "disorderly" is to make a comparison. To what? To "orderly" worship. To "normal" worship. To "white" worship. The word "disorderly" indexes similar terms such as "irrational," "uncontrolled," "messy," and "dirty." It is part of a semantic range of terms.

Where is race? In the tweet in question, it was made explicit by saying the "craziness" of the African American worship should be replaced by "ChappyK," our white college chaplain who became a metonym of White "orderly" worship. But he didn't even need this comparison to make it clear to the reader that the "disorderly" worship of these black folks was being compared to "orderly" worship of traditional European musical forms.

I do not think for a minute that the boy who tweeted this is a white supremacist who avoids people of color and promotes racial hatred. He is a young guy who has not yet been encouraged (or allowed?) to question his cultural and racial assumptions, assumptions built into the language of American English where "slang" is for the "ghetto," and to sound sophisticated is to avoid any trace of urban dialect, no matter what you're saying. This boy is not a racist, but his easy indexing of a racial hierarchy, in which language and art forms associated with whiteness are intrinsically superior to those associated with blackness, is racism. This is the system into which he can tap to produce a 140 character judgement that classifies one group as "disorderly," and keeps Bach canatas on top.

Racism does not require racists. All it needs to thrive is people who deny the wider historical and cultural context in which their words and thoughts live.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Masculine Christianity

It's been a while since I blogged about anything, but Rachel Held Evans, a blogger I quite like, has made an important point regarding John Piper's call for a "masculine Christianity." She said

"There’s a double-standard out there in which a woman’s critique of patriarchy tends to get discounted as nothing more than the rants of an “angry feminist,” and, truth be told, I’ve grown a bit weary of hearing that charge each time I speak out about this disturbing trend in the evangelical church."

That is sadly true, but it is a call for those men who agree with her to stand up and say something. For what it's worth...

Piper is right that God uses many gendered metaphors in references to the Trinity: Father, Son, King. But what does it mean to call these "masculine?" Sitting here in the 21st Century midwestern United States, I suspect I can conjure up common images with my fellow U.S. Americans: professional sports, body hair, Axe Body Spray (for the under 28 masculinity), lawn care (for the over 28), more professional sports. I'm sure others would want to add things that they feel are less culturally specific - providing, protecting, leading - but these are no more universal than the first list.

Did God tell us what men were like and then point out to us that God is "masculine?" Or did we come up with some ideas about men and women to which God spoke, in order to share something we might understand? Abraham (nee Abram) thought it was fine to have several wives, and use his wife's handmaid to bear his child, because he believed in monogenesis, that only men carry the stuff of life leading to birth. God knew this and rebuked him for a lack of trust but not for his faulty science. God let a lot of early Hebraic culture go on and even used these cultural elements to help us understand.

Modern "masculinity" is no less complex. In Indonesia today, particularly among the Javanese, earning money in the marketplace is women's work. Women are considered less likely to be tempted to squander money and therefore more stable than men. When economically possible, men withdraw from economic life and cultivate more high-minded pursuits, such as religious teaching. Is this the "masculinity" that we should have in mind? Or more the professional sports kind? Do we imagine the masculinity of scripture - often rooted in a strong patrilineal and patriarchal family where women and children were like property of fathers and husbands? Can we imagine such a masculinity?

There is so much in John Piper's ministry I love. His book Desiring God was very influential when I was young, but his lack of cultural self-awareness is disappointing. It is so much richer to understand how God has used the people of biblical past to shape the myriad cultures today than simply to try to selectively export our reading of ancient peoples into the present. If we respect Scripture, we're going to work a little harder at understanding how God's work among his people in the past speaks to us today. And that is not a "masculine" job.