Tag Archives | sociology

Transforming Practice | Elaine L. Graham

The cover of Graham's Transforming PracticePostmodernity has challenged modernism in every area. Positivist views of reality are being replaced by constructivist views. Modernity’s emancipatory mission to bring humanity out of superstition is now criticized as a new totalitarianism. Industrial capitalism is giving way to design flexibility. Universalism and metanarratives are being rejected in favor of fragmentary worldviews. How can pastoral theology exist in such an age? Is it possible to ground theology in something other than traditional metanarrative?

Using Gadamer’s practice theory, Graham argues that pastoral theology can be grounded in an understanding of faithful practice. She uses Gadamer’s habitus to describe “not merely ‘rule-governed behaviour’, but symbolic, purposeful strategies with many layers of meaning” (101). Habitus accounts for both human agency and cultural conditioning.

Practice thus emerges as the process by which social relations are generated . . . as purposeful activity performed by embodied persons in time and space as both the subjects of agency and the objects of history.” (110)

Graham uses feminist criticism to show how foundationalist understandings of theology rooted in modernism do not account for the heterogeneous experience of gendered people. In the end, Graham roots her pastoral theology not in a text or a tradition, but in the habitus and orthopraxis of the faithful community. Therefore, pastoral theology is not a “legislative or prescriptive [discipline, but an] interpretive” (208) task.

Elaine Graham is flat-out brilliant. She not only articulates her own views, she brings an encyclopaedic knowledge of various ethical, sociological, philosophical, and theological fields to the task. Her interpretation of Habermas’ Critical Theory in particular was incisive without being reductive.

I do fundamentally disagree with Graham’s conclusions, however, due to ontological and epistemological differences. When Graham roots pastoral theology in a hermeneutic of the situation, she removes it from the scripture and any historic understanding of God. For Graham, “not even the canon of Scripture thus inspired is definitive for all time, . . . no text embodies the truth absolutely and finally, but is merely a blueprint for, and prefiguration of, a reality still to come” (197). While I would agree that no text can embody truth absolutely, I do believe that God has chosen to reveal himself through text-as-inspired by the Spirit. If I understand Graham correctly, the normative role of scripture is gone with modernism and “the only vocabulary available to Christian communities in articulating their truth-claims is that of pastoral practice itself” (203).

Graham’s Transforming Practice has accurately described the uncertain state of theology as it tries to reformulate itself in a postmodern context. Her use of Gadamer’s practice theory enables her to accurately and faithfully observe and interpret the community of faith. Ultimately, however, her grounding of theology exclusively in the situation is unconvincing for me. My task moving forward will be how to relate the normative influence of scripture to a hermeneutic of the situation in a way that is dialogical and fruitful.

Graham, Elaine L. Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1996.

The Meaning of Sunday | Joel Thiessen

The cover of Thiessen's The Meaning of SundayCanadian churches are closing. Religious identification is dropping. A full 24% of Canadians identified themselves as having zero religious ties in 2011 (94). Zero—not even Christmas and Easter piety!

In The Meaning of Sunday, Thiessen surveys the quantitative data while adding his own qualitative analysis. Through interviews with ninety Canadians from across the socioeconomic spectrum, Thiessen learns why religion does not mean what it used to for Canadians.

Religion is a matter of supply and demand. Researchers like Barna have argued that there is an unlimited craving for religion. If religious levels are dropping, it means that the supply is flawed—we need to do church better. This analysis has led to a rash of church-help books and revitalize-your-congregation conferences. Thiessen argues that supply is not the problem. There is simply a colossal lack of demand for religion today.

You can see this as good news or bad. On the one hand, this is some relief for churches that struggle with declining attendance patterns. On the other hand, it demonstrates that Canada is following on Europe’s heels in racing towards a post-Christian society. Canadian immigration policy has slowed this trend because new immigrants are more religious than the Canadian norm. However, regression to the mean happens quickly, usually within one or two generations.

Thiessen’s research is hard medicine for Canadian Christians, but it’s medicine worth taking. Like an obese person stepping onto the scales at the start of a weight-loss program, The Meaning of Sunday will give Canadian Christians a realistic baseline for future life and ministry.

Thiessen, Joel. The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.

The Rise of Christianity | Rodney Stark

The cover of Stark's The Rise of ChristianityThis book destroyed one of my cherished apologetic views. I have always understood the rise of the early church as pure miracle. After all, how could a group of persecuted people following a crucified “criminal” become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire in a mere three centuries? The only comparable phenomenon I knew of was the rise of Islam, but it grew because of military conquest.

It turns out that there are good logical ways to understand the rise of Christianity in those early years. Rodney Stark, using his sociology toolbox, turned his attention to this phenomenon in the aptly titled, The Rise of Christianity.

Stark begins with basic growth arithmetic. Numerically speaking, Christianity grew at 40% per decade, which is similar to the growth of Mormonism. For those first years (when the New Testament was written), it would have looked painfully small and inconsequential. However, 40% growth per decade creates an exponential curve.

After justifying the overall growth trend, he turns his eye to the factors which led to such growth. Here a few of the causes that stood out:

  • The incredibly strong social networks of the Jewish people, the source of Christianity’s first people, empowered the spread of the good news. There was a reason even Paul started his ministry in local synagogues.
  • Christianity developed a surplus of women due to the prohibition of female infanticide and abortion. This increasing number of women would have married and brought men into the faith, swelling their numbers.
  • Ancient cities were horribly overcrowded and dangerous places that bred disease. Christians offered a vision of hope to the oppressed and, through selfless care during times of epidemics, saw more of their sick live.

It turns out that the growth of the early church is the natural effect of living the sort of eternal life that Jesus both taught and lived. While I would be the last person to deny the effective work of the Holy Spirit (after all, that’s how every person comes to Jesus), it was moving for me to see the way that God’s Kingdom grew in the midst of the kingdoms of the world.

The early growth of Christianity is a deeper sort of miracle than I had realized. Rather than relying some deus ex machina, the early church grew by embodying (incarnating) their self-giving Saviour in the midst of a depraved and crumbling Empire. Many parallels can be drawn between the Roman Empire and Western culture. Perhaps the church is poised for a new burst of life!

—Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (New York: HarperOne, 1996).

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs | Chuck Klosterman

The cover of Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa PuffsI’ll be the first to admit it. This is one of the more unlikely titles you’ll see reviewed by this pastor. Klosterman is Coupland without a conscience—Žižek without political science. He wears the black hat proudly and although you might cringe at some of the things he confesses to, he comes off as strangely honest in his admitted depravity.

I read Klosterman for two reasons:

  1. He is wickedly funny.
  2. His analysis of popular culture reveals the heart of our society.

This was even true in the last essay in this collection, “How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found,” which is an analysis of the Left Behind phenomenon. Here’s how he unpacks (acerbically yet truthfully) the effect believing that you’re right has on people’s humility:

There is no sophisticated reason for believing in anything supernatural, so it really comes down to believing you’re right. This is another example of how born agains are cool—you’d think they’d be humble, but they’ve got to be amazingly cocksure. And once you’ve crossed over, you don’t even have to try to be nice; according to the born-again exemplar, your goodness will be a natural extension of your salvation. Caring about orphans and helping the homeless will come as naturally as having sex with coworkers and stealing office supplies. If you consciously do good works out of obligation, you’ll never get into heaven; however, if you make God your proverbial copilot, doing good works will just become an unconscious part of your life. (238)

Now, I know I could challenge the misconceptions in this paragraph (just as I could pull apart the theological naivety behind the Left Behind books). It’s clear from his comments on sophistication that he’s simply never read any sophisticated Christian. Put those thoughts aside, though and hear what he says. This is what the Left Behind phenomenon conveys of Christians to one of the smartest cultural critics around.

It’s not just religion Klosterman focuses on. In fact, religion is one of the smaller themes in his writing. He is at home discussing movies, music, sports, and all the other forms of entertainment we consume.

Now do you see why this pastor reads Klosterman?

—Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto (New York: Scribner, 2003, 2004).

Plutocrats | Chrystia Freeland

The cover of Freeland's PlutocratsIn 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement brought the issue of wealth distribution into our public conversations. The protesters and activists labeled themselves the 99 percent—those with far less wealth than the 1 percent who worked on Wall Street.

Chrystia Freeland goes further in Plutocrats. The real division isn’t between the 99 and the 1 percent, it’s between the 99.99 and the 0.01 percent! This 0.01 percent is an elite group of “super-rich” who live and see the world in dramatically different ways from the rest of society:

  • Unlike the aristocracy of earlier centuries, the 0.01 percent feel that their wealth is self-made.
  • National identity is less important for the 0.01 percent since they have far more in common with the rest of the people in their wealth-bracket than their fellow countrymen and women.
  • The 0.01 percent like to view themselves as philanthropists, often engaging in large-scale humanitarian efforts.

Freeland has done a remarkable job, as a  reporter, working her way into the community of the super-rich and learning how they think and operate. If you want to understand the mindset of a multi-billionaire, this is an interesting read.

That said, I found the book to be overloaded with business-speak that took away from the immediacy of the prose. Perhaps this is just par for the genre—I don’t read many business books!

—Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (Toronto: Doublday Canada, 2012).

Apocalypse Delayed | M. James Penton

The cover of Penton's Apocalypse DelayedIt’s difficult to be sympathetic sometimes. This is no where more problematic than with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. With an evangelistic strategy that feels more like a call centre than good news, it’s easy to get frustrated and dismissive.

On the other hand, I have met a few kind and generous Jehovah’s Witnesses in my day. While browsing the religion section of Wayfarer Books (a place you really should visit) in Kingston, I found M. James Penton’s book on the movement and decided to learn more.

The Author’s Background

The author begins by sharing his personal background. He is the great-grandson of a Bible Student (an earlier name for Jehovah’s Witness). He grew up in a Witness home and was a faithful Witness for years, even serving as an elder in Lethbridge, Alberta.

In the late 1970s, Penton wrote a positive book entitled, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada: Champions of Freedom of Speech and WorshipApocaplypse Delayed takes on a decidedly more negative tone.

In 1979, Penton tried to share some of his misgivings about the direction of the Jehovah’s Witnesses with head office. This led to his “disfellowshipment” (read: excommunication).

Penton’s personal story makes Apocalypse Delayed a better book. It was written by an insider who loves the movement, but who recognizes the flaws and wanted to see renewal. He succeeds at being remarkably objective, despite his personal investment in the subject.

The Book’s Structure

Penton tackles the story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in three sections:

  1. History. Starting with the Adventist Milieu of the 19th Century, Penton presents a clear and detailed history of the movement through 1985. An extra chapter in the 2nd edition describes the Witnesses from 1985 through 1997.
  2. Theology. Jehovah Witness theology is notoriously difficult to describe because it’s issued by fiat from head office and often contradicts earlier doctrine. Penteon eschews traditional systematic theological categories and proceeds from sources of authority. This allows him to present a truer picture of Jehovah Witness doctrine than you would get by slotting it into traditional fields.
  3. Sociology. Penton shows, ironically, how the governing structure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses conforms quite closely to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The social pull that head office has on its members along with the power it wields to squash all dissent and questioning is clearly described.

Things I Learned

Many things struck me as fascinating in this study. Here are a few things I learned:

  1. The role of eschatology. The title of the book describes the defining feature of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They consistently pin their hopes on dates in the future which come and go and are then reinterpreted. 1873 was going to be the end of human existence. In 1874, Jesus was to return. In 1878, Jesus was to return in power. In 1881, Babylon the Great was to fall, meaning the end of false religious influence on the church. In 1914, the world was supposed to end. (Coincidentally, the advent of the Great War boosted their belief in this date.) In 1918, worldwide anarchy was to break out. In 1931, God would establish his kingdom in power on earth. These dates have all passed without greater significance. The timeline has been readjusted. The latest significant date was 1975, “the end of 6,000 years of human existence” (199).
  2. The importance of literature. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York is massively prolific. “In 1983 alone they distributed 53,517,808 Bibles, books, and booklets around the world, plus 460,072,255 copies of the Awake! and Watchtower magazines” (231). Despite labeling themselves as an organization dedicated to Scripture, Witnesses are expected to read far more Watchtower publications than scripture.
  3. The transformation from Russel to Rutherford. Charles T. Russell, the founder of what would become the Jehovah’s Witnesses was a generally likable character (despite his marriage issues). He was open to Christians of other stripes while still believing his revelations were the most accurate. When he died, J. F. Rutherford used political subterfuge and outright strong-arm tactics to install himself as Russel’s heir. Despite persistent alcoholism and very questionable morality, this man single-handedly transformed the organization from a movement of Bible Students to an army of door-to-door Witnesses.
  4. The ruthless exercise of control. The tactics used to squash all discontent are brutal. Take for example, Raymond V. Franz. The nephew of then President Frederick W. Franz, he started questioning doctrine and started looking for some sort of reformation. While he went on holidays, Frederick conducted a series of interviews with all of his nephew’s acquaintances. He returned from holidays to disfellowshipment. Those who talked with him were disfellowshiped. Some lost their livelihood when salespeople were instantly cut off from their entire social network.

Concluding Thoughts

Now that I’ve had time to think through the book, I’ve come to some conclusions. This book was written in 1985 and updated in 1997. I wonder what happened in the years following. Penton’s inside information and investigative skills provide a level of accuracy and detail you can’t find in official outlets.

The severe role of control on the lives of Jehovah’s Witnesses has made me change my outlook when in conversation with them. When you discuss doctrine with a Jehovah’s Witness, you cannot expect them to merely shift their belief—you’re asking them to leave their friends, family, and social network behind.

Apocalypse Delayed is one of the most insightful and genuinely interesting books of religious history that I’ve read. I recommend it highly to anyone.

—M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985, 1997).

Violence | Slavoj Žižek

The cover of Žižek's ViolenceAs I write this, Hamas is lobbing rockets into Israel and Israel is returning with air strikes and a ground offensive. As I write this the Ukranian government is trying desperately to reclaim sovereignty over the East which is increasingly controlled by pro-Russian militants. Somehow during this outbreak of violence, a passenger jet was shot down killing 298 passengers and crew. Violence is alive and well in our world.

For Žižek, this explosive “subjective” violence is only the violence we see on the surface. Below the subjective violence is objective violence, the violence inherent in language which influences our thoughts and attitudes. Also below subjective violence is systemic violence—the effect of living in our modern economic and political systems. Any understanding of what’s happening in the world today must take into account all the causes of violence.

Žižek (as you might expect) has many profound things to say about the subject, complete with regular references to Marx, Hegel, and Lacan. He wanders through many diverse cultural and political landscapes. He tackles the problem in the Middle East with an accusing look at the Germans (who, in his mind, offered restitution to the Jews by giving away someone else’s land). He looks at the uproar over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. He delves into Alfred Hitchkcock’s films. He even considers the shaming of prisoners in Abu Ghraib This is one of the joys of Žižek—you never know where he’s going next.

My difficulty with this book was that  Žižek almost always takes a contrarian view. After a while it feels like he plays devil’s advocate just for the sake of being different—as if it was a game. He takes a radically counter-intuitive idea then tries to argue for it. His arguments are inventive and brilliant, but they’re far from infallible. Take for example, the prisoner abuse photos that came from Abu Ghraib. For Žižek, this obscene act of shaming was more like an initiation ritual into American culture. It was a hazing.

Žižek’s Violence is an intellectual, political, and cultural look at the violence that permeates our world. You can agree or disagree with him, but you can’t stay neutral.

—Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008).

Thinking, Fast and Slow | Daniel Kahneman

The cover of Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow

Riddle me this:

“If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets”—100 minutes or 5 minutes (65)?

If you answered “100 minutes,” you’re not alone … and you’re dead wrong. Think about it. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman explains why.

We have two types of thinking systems (thus, the title of the book). System one is intuitive and answers quickly. System two requires more thought and answers slowly. Both systems are valuable and necessary. Kahneman’s spent his lifetime studying these systems and has developed and published many experiments over the years (including the one above) which exploit the flaws in our systems.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman helps us to recognize when our minds let us down (i.e. narrative fallacies, planning fallacies, WYSIATI, etc.) and gives us the tools to recognize our own errors.

This book is detailed, thorough, and absolutely fascinating. Kahneman walks the reader through many of the test scenarios he developed over the years. Even if you prepare yourself for the “trick” and try to answer correctly, human nature wins out. It’s certainly a good dose of humility!

Many of these experiments were carried out with his friend and colleague, Amos Tversky, to whom the book is dedicated. The friendship between them and their mutual fascination with how the mind works makes this book on sociology border on memoir at times.

Read and be fascinated at your incredibly powerful and deeply flawed mind!

—Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2011).

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