Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Child Is This?

I love Christmas. It has only been since I have become an adult that I have embraced the religious side of this holiday. I believe Christmas can be an opportunity to teach each other about giving, which is extremely important, and I always enjoy gathering with family, but the beauty and mystery of the Incarnation really takes my breath away - especially since becoming a mother.

Two Christmas’ ago I attended a midnight mass with Brian’s grandma, who is a devout Catholic. It was magical.  Celebrating the birth of Christ in the cold, wee hours of the morning, surrounded by candles, music and sometimes quiet - it was a phemomenal experience.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the mystery of God becoming human. Stepping out of perfect community with Father and Spitit and into a human existence full of pain, questions, and confusion.

I often wonder what Mary thought and felt, raising Jesus. Did Jesus have temper tantrums? Don’t all 2 year olds have tantrums? Did Mary potty train Jesus (yes, we are still there...)? Did Jesus and his siblings fight? It is mystery...“What Child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” Mary held, rocked, and disciplined the son of God. Really, it takes my breath away.  “Jesus, Lord at thy birth.” Wow. How can this be?

I hope we all take time this Christmas to appreciate the mystery and beauty of Emmanuel - God with us.

Friday, December 03, 2010

At the End of A Journey!

Yesterday afternoon, I defended my thesis for my committee, and I am officially done with my Master's program! I will graduate in 2 weeks....Yay! Here are the acknowledgments from my thesis:

Words cannot adequately express my gratitude to all of those who were a part of this project in so many different ways. First, Brian, thank you for sharing life with me, and for encouraging me in my dreams. I love you more every day. Sophie –thank you for being my sweet pumpkin and for sharing me with the library on so many occasions. Mom and Dad—I could not have done this without your weekly “Sophie” nights. Thank you for always supporting me in every way. Jeanette McAdam, Allie Keller and the entire Rochester College library staff – thank you for your support, help, and space to work, and especially in securing interlibrary loans. Dr. Stevenson – (who I still have a hard time calling “Greg” even though I am allowed), thank you for your careful criticisms and help through every stage of this project. Dr. Barton and Dr. Love – Thank you for all of the fabulous feedback toward the end of the project. Erin Morgan –Thank you for proofreading (so quickly!) and finding the errors I missed! Thank you to my LOST community for your interest, your feedback, and for providing an engaging community. And thanks be to God, who has given us a story worth sharing.

I continue to find tiny proofreading corrections to make, but after I do my best to catch all of them I will have it bound and give it to the library. I have had several people comment that they want to read it. I would be happy to share it with anyone who wants to read it...just let me know and I will send an electronic copy after it is bound. I was also able to present an ultra-abbreviated version in chapel yesterday, and I am copying the text from that here as well, for those who would like the mini-version. Thanks to all who have cared and encouraged me along the way in this journey!

Symposium Chapel – December 2, 2010
LOST: Faith in a Shifting Postmodern Context
Beth Bowers, Thesis Presentation

My aim today is not to give you the whole of my thesis, but rather to do my best to present the goals, some highlights, and some conclusions of my project.
          Certain nights have become sacred in my home due to a pop culture phenomenon that began in the fall of 2004. The television network, ABC, aired the pilot episode of LOST, a drama in which a plane crash leaves several survivors stranded on a mysterious island. It only took one episode, and I was hooked. When LOST airs, my time and activity is oriented around this one hour of television. It has become part of my life—a fun part, yes, but it is more than that.  I have become involved in the story. And I am not alone.
There is an entire LOST fandom that is unlike anything I have ever experienced. This particular LOST cult has a truly global scope as is evidenced by the websites, blogs, books and podcasts devoted to it, and in my world I have identified a community of “LOSTies” that share my interest and passion for this phenomenon. It is a topic of conversation. It is a cause for coffeehouse gatherings and discussions. It provides reason to gather together to break bread and hang out in order to watch. I have converted people, in fact. My husband and I have made LOST devotees out of my mother, brother, sister-in law, and best friend. The story of LOST naturally translates itself to reflect and challenge our questions, our story, and our journey. It explores the deep places of human existence and constantly confronts that which a modern society deems acceptable and possible.
In any given episode of LOST, things both mysterious and supernatural are explored. Because of this bent toward the mysterious and supernatural, themes of faith, God and the asking of honest questions about the meaning of life regularly come in to play amidst the other dramatic elements of each episode.  Our current cultural context is one which regularly dialogues about faith. As theologians and teachers we do a great disservice to our churches when we ignore the theological conversations occurring in our culture by restricting discussions of faith to contexts we can control. More specifically, we teach and preach faith in ways which fit neatly into our modern church bubble, using modern language about a God who we like to keep in the tidy box which we have created—the box I would argue is shaped more like the modern world of the post-Enlightenment than by the witness of Scripture.
In his book, Faith’s Freedom, Luke Johnson states, "As something people live, faith adapts itself constantly to changing circumstances. As something to be thought about, faith must also translate itself within ever-changing circumstances, which include changing symbols and ideas.”[1] In its most simplistic form, Christian faith claims the Jesus story: Jesus Christ is the son of God, and abundant life is found in him. The means by which this faith claim is communicated and the manner in which it is embraced is, and must be, adaptable. Our current cultural climate is in transition—shifting from modern to postmodern. Thus, faith must adapt to these changing circumstances. Our challenge is finding a mode that communicates Christian faith in a shifting postmodern context. As Johnson says, "Christian spirituality needs an intellectual recasting that takes seriously the life of ordinary people in a world shaped by modernity rather than the monastery."[2] For the purposes of this project I recast Johnson's thought in this way: Christian faith needs an intellectual and practical recasting that takes seriously the life of ordinary people in a world shifting from modernism to postmodernism.
My project focuses on the challenge of communicating Christian faith to a world in transition. By way of introduction, chapter one provides a brief historical overview of the relationship between faith and reason, which is a major point of emphasis in the shift between modern and postmodern culture. This overview paves the way for chapter two, which explores the particularities of postmodernism, emphasizing the postmodern view of truth and reality and the postmodern emphasis on narrative. Chapter three tackles the church’s engagement with postmodernism—particularly in regards to narrative, as well as media as the postmodern language of narrative. Chapter four is an introduction to the television series, LOST. Chapter five continues the exploration of LOST, suggesting that media and popular culture not only reflect and shape our shifting culture, but that they are also a means of effectively engaging the conversation regarding faith to a postmodern generation. The culmination of my project calls for an intellectual and practical “recasting” of faith—one that not only redemptively and effectively utilizes secular media, but that gleans insight from the cultural and communal experience of LOST
Joining the postmodern conversation can be both confusing and intimidating. One of the reasons for this is that we engage postmodernism not as a thing of the past but as our present state of affairs, and it is infinitely more difficult to analyze and comment on the present than the past. Best and Kellner remind us that we live in a borderland of sorts, not completely removed from modernism yet not fully engaged in postmodernism, a space full of the unknown and all the feelings accompanying that which we cannot fully conceptualize.  [3]Very generally speaking, from the modern era we observe an extreme reliance on human reason as the means to knowledge. Postmodernism, in turn, slides away from reason, almost with a pre-modern air about it, and instead focuses on the relational, experiential, and situational nature of knowledge.[4] How do we know what we know? What is truth, and what constitutes reality? These are the questions that postmodernism tackles with fresh eyes, eyes not untainted by modernism, but eyes that acknowledge their situatedness and proceed unapologetically. Crystal Downing tackles the concept of what she terms, “situatedness”—the assumption of postmodernism that each person’s concept of reality is determined by perspective and thus molded by context. She uses the classic “Duck and Rabbit” illustration.[5] Scholars have long analyzed why, when some people look at this illustration they see a duck, while others see a rabbit. For Downing, this is a prime example of situatedness. The reality of the picture is determined by the context and perception of the one viewing it. Downing suggests that the postmodernist would intentionally switch the focus of the analysis to a concentration on the ability to change one’s perception and see the other perspective. She notes that once someone is able to see both the duck and the rabbit, that person is now able to switch perspectives, recognizing the reality in both.[6] This is perhaps one of the most important concepts to understand when thinking about postmodernism.
Another central piece of my project is the postmodern emphasis on narrative. Postmodernism not only values story, it suggests that all reality and truth are grounded in narrative. What does that actually look like, particularly when considering Christian faith? James Smith reminds us that narrative represents a wholly rounded means of communication which triggers the imagination and engages the whole person.[7] Faith is linked to the Christian story, and that story—scripture, is what narrates our faith.[8] A postmodern focus on narrative should be welcome to Christians, for ultimately our faith is grounded in narrative: God’s story, the story presented in the Bible. Smith suggests that Christians must be careful, in the postmodern context of plurality, to partake in faithful storytelling rather than rationalist demonstration—he calls us to narrate rather than impose. What makes a postmodern context exciting is that faith is no longer excluded from the public square.[9] That being said, the challenge Christians face is how to communicate faith within the world of culture. My project suggests that pop culture, specifically film and television, have great potential to play a part. Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor encourage Christians to “look closer,” intentionally engaging the medium of pop culture, acknowledging that God’s work in this world is larger than the walls of our church buildings and church projects; they term this concept “common grace.”[10] Common grace is exhibited when one understands and expects God to communicate, work, and move through whom God chooses. As the church, we must acknowledge that the media is powerful and formative, and not only that but that God is active within our culture, moving and using the unexpected.
          Detweiler and Taylor state, “Once viewers fall in love with a show, television becomes a religion … Shows that inspire passion, that fuel hours of online chatter, that attract a dedicated cult following are quite rare. But when viewers find their show, they tape it, anticipate it, and refer back to it. Conventions, costumes, and communal celebrations follow.”[11] Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, 24, and LOST have brought this type of cult following to the mainstream. No longer is one considered a “geek” for following a TV show obsessively (or if they are, it is cool).[12] Gone are the days when being a “Trekkie” was equated with being socially awkward. These types of shows are becoming more common. What a show like LOST can do is make the possibilities for storytelling truly epic. What most movies must accomplish in two to three hours, a successful dramatic television series accomplishes in around 100. This is why the best storytelling is being told on television.
          Story steps over boundaries which modern apologetics cannot. As people of faith, we cling to a story which should be celebrated. Quentin Schultze reminds us, “To be human is to be a storyteller. Clearly God made us this way. We should enjoy and celebrate storytelling, even on television.”[13] Allowing God the space to work in whichever ways God chooses is a part of being faithful to God’s incarnational possibilities, and it seems clear to me that LOST can be an important piece of the conversation.
In all of its glorious mystery and complexity, LOST is ultimately a show about people—a show about what it means to be human. The survivors of Oceanic 815 have messy lives filled with brokenness, and the common denominator for all of them is that they each need a second chance. And the island is all about second chances.[14] The major theme which runs throughout LOST is redemption—finding and embracing healing and a second chance for a life filled with brokenness. This is the emotional core of the show.
          Another major theme that runs throughout the series is the intersection of faith and reason/science. This issue, central to my thesis, is an issue that also stands somewhere within the postmodern shift. LOST provides the perfect setting for a discussion about faith and reason—arguably the central focus of the postmodern shift. Many of LOST’s viewers, right until the very end, expected scientific answers and rational explanations for all of the island’s mysteries. Like one of the main characters, Jack, these viewers embraced the rational, assuming there must be a reasonable explanation for everything. However, we ultimately end up with a spiritual explanation for the island, not a rational/scientific one.
          One way the writers and producers of LOST accomplish their storytelling task is by an intense focus on individual characters. The show is character driven, a feature that draws the audience into a relationship with the show. Watch this video compilation featuring Jack, LOST’s major protagonist.

 “We’re all convinced sooner or later, Jack.” LOST begins and ends with Jack. Jack is the embodiment of a modern man. Throughout the first three seasons, Jack has complete trust in science and reason, and is sure that there must be a reasonable explanation for all of the mysterious occurrences of the island.  He does not believe in fate, and he does not entertain the possibility of a deeper, spiritual explanation for things that happen on the island. But the viewer quickly learns that Jack’s trust in science is shaken when he begins chasing his dead father through the jungle.[15] This begins Jack’s conflictedness—the beginning of his journey toward faith in something greater and more mysterious than reason alone. He so badly wants to trust in what he knows to be real—science and reason, but his experience tells him that his trust is too narrow. Jack, however, cannot readily embrace the island, despite the evidence suggesting that there is something greater at work than just a piece of land in the ocean. For Jack, the island acts as a father-figure whom he continues to push away, preferring to handle things on his own.

In the middle of the series, Jack and five others end up leaving the island but after returning home, Jack’s life becomes messier than it was before the island. He begins drinking in order to fill a hole in his life—a hole left by the island. He periodically sees his dead father who tells him to return to the island; he visits Hurley who tells him they should have never left. And then John Locke—LOST’s embodiment of faith, shows up in his hospital and tells him he must go back to the island; soon after, Jack learns Locke is dead. Jack realizes that he has nothing left to lose. He is finally convinced to return, but is still full of doubts and questions. This begins a new journey for Jack—a journey toward faith. Broken, tired, and finally ready for the mission that lies ahead, he realizes that he cannot control everything and is willing to put his trust in something greater than himself. In the end it is Locke’s faith and persistence that finally convinces Jack to look deeper—and it was only following Locke’s death that Jack was able to see clearly. And in the end, Jack embraces this relationship with the island—a relationships which ultimately calls him to sacrifice himself to save everyone else.
          Jack finds redemption, and it is only in dying to everything he thought was possible and opening himself up to that which is impossible that he finds freedom—redemption only faith can accomplish. If media is a reflection of culture, we see that our culture is dialoging about faith. If media informs our culture, we acknowledge that people may be thinking about faith extremely pluralistically. And in a world looking for a story, we find one with depth and meaning—one which begs its viewers to continue in conversation. The church has the opportunity to engage the conversation by consuming the same media—to meet people where they are at, to listen, to respond, to connect on the level of a fictional story. But ultimately the church can connect on the level of the Jesus story—taking the conversation further.
          How does LOST specifically allow the church to engage culture? LOST brings up issues with which the church has traditionally been uncomfortable: the relationship between faith and reason being a major one. Toward the beginning of my project I suggest that what we are currently seeing among “church folk” and theologians is a faith that is first lived out, rather than just thought about. And perhaps this “active” faith is what is attracting outsiders seeking truth—faith is more about how one believes as opposed to what one believes. Though LOST ultimately lands in a spiritual place, it is quite clear that especially for the characters of Locke and Jack, both are important.
          During the last episode of the series in a flash-sideways scene, Locke acknowledges to Jack that modern medicine (science) is good and important. Because of that, Jack is able to fix his spinal injury and restore feeling to his legs. Similarly, we see throughout the series that Jack learns that reason is not the only means to knowledge. Faith and trust in experience—even religious experience is just as valid as his medical training. LOST has the potential to connect with those still living in a modern existence which screams for reliance on reason as the supreme arbiter of truth, and it speaks to those who have no regard for reason whatsoever: extreme postmoderns for whom experience reigns supreme. What LOST teaches, then, is that when the church encounters the postmodern world, it meets both John Locke and Jack Shephard. What the church must do is engage and embrace the John Lockes where they are and engage and embrace the Jack Shephards where they are—realizing that for faith to be impactful for either it must be real, lived out, and within authentic community.
          In the end, LOST moved in an important direction—a direction it had hinted at the entire time. In the very first season of the show, Jack addressed the other survivors who were in chaos because of a water shortage. He tells them that they cannot survive on their own, that each person for himself will not work. He says, “If we can’t live together, we’re gonna die alone.[16] The island brought together a diverse group of people and forced them into community. Secrets did not remain hidden for long, and each worked through their own baggage in the context of community. LOST creatively reminds us that nobody does it alone. This is where the church has the opportunity to be what Christ intended it to be: authentic community. The church can learn from LOST’s example. Not only has LOST created a community around it, it has modeled it in the way it ends. Like Jack says, if we cannot learn to live together in community, we will indeed die alone, missing all that God has intended for creation by creating it for relationship. LOST should challenge the church to think deeply about intentional community. It should challenge the church to find ways to engage people’s lives where they are.
          LOST informs us on how to present the gospel right now, in 2010—not as certainty, but as story. LOST viewers have rallied around the story. We talk about it. It has become part of our lives. This appeals to a postmodern generation because it invites them into community—a community in which they can be a part of the story. Every time the church gathers, she has the potential to do the same. I suggested in the introduction of this project that Christian faith needs an intellectual and practical recasting that takes seriously the life of ordinary people in a world shifting from modernism to postmodernism.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Letters and Papers from Prison, said:
It is not for us to prophecy the day (though the day will come) when [humanity] will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with [humanity] and the coming of his kingdom.[17]
 Bonhoeffer suggests that the church must come up with a new language. LOST, like other forms of popular media, can help give the church a new language.
What does it look like? I would suggest, rather simply, that it boils down to lived story in shared community. And I imagine that this may not look like it has in the past. It could be sharing table fellowship with the homeless on the streets of Detroit, conversation and confession in Starbucks, people gathering in worship on Sunday morning in the park—listening to and remembering the story—their story, or churches opening their building to tutor children in the neighborhood, engaging members with the community. Or maybe it means churches hosting movie nights/discussions for the community in local theatres, inviting them to participate in a story and in a community. However it looks, the new language is exciting, and maybe even a little non-religious, but necessary to embrace as the church forges her way forward in truly being the kingdom of God in this world.

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Faith’s Freedom: A Classic Spirituality for Contemporary Christians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990), 1.
[2] Johnson, Faith’s Freedom, 1.
[3] Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (New York: The Guilford Press, 1997), 31.
[4] James K.A. Smith, “A Little Story About Metanarratives: Lyotard, Religion, and Postmodernism Revisited,” Faith and Philosophy 18.2 (2001): 358.
[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigation: The German Text, with a Revised English Translation, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Malden: Blackwell, 2001), 166. Wittgenstein first used this illustration by Jastrow in the early 1950’s in his book, Philosophical Investigations.  Wittgenstein is an influential figure in postmodern thought, mostly though his philosophical work with language and meaning.
[6] Downing, How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, 24-25.
[7] Smith, Who’s Afraid, 75-76.
                [8] Ibid., 76
[9] Smith, Who’s Afraid, 73-74.
            [10] Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 16-17.
                [11] Detweiler and Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings, 205.
                [12] Fans of the recent FOX hit, Glee, have adopted the name “Gleeks” for themselves.
            [13] Quentin J. Schultze, Redeeming Television: How TV Changes Christians – How Christians Can Change TV (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity, 1992), 60.
                [14] The first named episode in the series is called “Tabula Rasa,” a play on the philosophy of the historical John Locke which translates, “blank slate.”
                [15] Episode 5: “White Rabbit,” LOST: The Complete First Season on DVD.
                [16] Episode 5: “White Rabbit,” LOST: The Complete First Season on DVD.
            [17] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison  (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 300.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thanksgiving on the Farm

On Wednesday, Sophie, Brian and I, along with my parents, Kevin and Sara are making the 9 hour trip to Middleway, West Virginia to spend Thanksgiving with Brian's family. Brian's parents, Danny and Anne, live on a small farm. It looks like something out of a Charles Wysocki painting...
Really, this is what it is like. Middleway is an old, old town of about 300, first settled in the 18th century. Many of the historic building still have bullet holes from the Civil War, and Brian used to find arrowheads buried in the ground around his house when he was a kid. Sophie loves the farm. She loves the animals (horses, chickens and cats), she loves the space in which to run around freely, she loves riding with Pap on the tractor, and she loves cooking and baking with Gran. I love it, too.

I feel in love with this place over 10 years ago when Brian first brought me home. I will never forget how excited he was to share this special place with me. Eleven Thanksgiving's ago, he told me he loved me for the first time on the top of Maryland Heights, a cliff overlooking Harpers Ferry, which is only a few miles from Middleway. This is the view from there...
There is something very special about this place for me. It is a refuge, and we all need a little refuge right now. I am looking forward to sharing it with the rest of my family this year, too. Country roads, take us home...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A New Day

I was standing at my kitchen sink doing dishes on Saturday evening right around dusk. I live on the campus of Rochester College, working as a Resident Director, and so we live in an apartment at the end of one of the dorms - Barbier. It isn't a lovely building, by any stretch of the imagination, but my back yard couldn't be much more beautiful. Right in the back of the building is grove of pine trees, and the Clinton River runs right past. The sky was blue and pink and purple, and really, if I have to be doing dishes I can't complain about the view outside my window.

I thought of Jeremy. I thought of how many times I waved to him as he cut the grass behind my apartment. Every time I have walked into my apartment this past week, I see the mulch he and his crew put down for me this spring, and how he killed 2 snakes quickly and discreetly before I even had a chance to know what was happening! I thought of him driving around in the ugly turquoise maintenance truck and about all the times he had his student crew with him this summer making things look beautiful and serving quietly. When Sophie sees that truck, she will still say, "It's Mr. Jeremy!"

I sang with Jeremy just over a week ago. I usually stand next to him when I sing on praise team. We laughed and joked lightheartedly several times during the service, like we usually did. I took communion with him and the rest of the worship team. I anticipated him and Veronica leading Refuge on Wednesday.

My heart is broken for my friend, Veronica and her babies. My heart hurts for all of us who love Jeremy and miss our friend. His life is a testimony. Veronica is a testimony. Veronica - you are courageous and beautiful and a blessing. When I saw you sitting right up front where you usually sit on Sunday, the hurt in my heart was almost unbearable. The grace and love you have shown to others, admist your own pain, is simply incredible and completely admirable. The Spirit of God surely is upon you, friend.

My blog has been dark for almost 2 years - life has gotten too busy, I guess. Veronica's blog has inspired me to begin it again. A dear friend and mentor of mine says, "All we have are our stories." How true, and how thankful we all are that Veronica has taken the time to share her family's stories on her blog. That will be a priceless treasure to Faith, Caleb and Carter and all of Jeremy's family and friends. My prayer for my dear friend (and Sophie's favorite person in the world right now--"Miss. Vronca") is that the stories and memories will be a healing balm in the weeks and months to come. You will not walk through this dark water alone, friend.

All we have are our stories.