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Twitter, Democracy, and UFOs

Manuel Castells, receiving the Balzan Prize (the sociological Nobel) in 2013

Manuel Castells, receiving the Balzan Prize (the sociological Nobel) in 2013

Another figure from my sociological theory class that influences my thinking is Manuel Castells (pictured). He is a professor of sociology and communications at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California. His theoretical focus is on the nature of modern communication with special focus on the impact of technology. In short, he argues that access to communication avenues (namely internet driven) are disruptive to previous power structures. It’s unclear, he says, how this new democratic process will play out over time. But the role of technology (twitter, Facebook, etc) have clearly played a critical role in protest movements across the globe.

Castells has been on my mind frequently since I covered him in class last month. The implications of his thought echo every day when I try to follow the twitter “conversations” on my feed. The air quotes are there because it’s not clear if the intent is engagement or the repetition of a specific comment designed to score points. I was caught up in one of those interactions for a good part of yesterday afternoon and by the end of it had a hard time understanding where individual tweets fit into the conversation.

The other day I went to Castells’ web page at USC to look over his work. One article available for download caught my attention. Titled “Communication, Power, and Counter-Power in the Network Society“, it appeared in the International Journal of Communications in 2007. It’s an interesting piece (trust me) that says much about modern cable media and internet communication. I’ll quote some pieces from the article and then try to draw out implications.

I will also analyze the process of formation of counter-power, which I understand to be the capacity of a social actor to resist and challenge power relations that are institutionalized. Indeed, power relations are by nature conflictive, as societies are diverse and contradictory. Therefore, the relationship between technology, communication, and power reflects opposing values and interests, and engages a plurality of social actors in conflict. (239)

Two things are significant in this paragraph. First, there is a tension between institutionalized power and non-institutionalized power. Technology becomes essentially disruptive to the dominance (the technical term is hegemony) of the institutional authorities. Second, where in the past we’ve had two party conflict (think classic Marxian thought of owners and workers) now we have multifaceted sources of conflict. This multiplicity of voices can often get mistakenly read in dualistic terms when something far more interesting is going on. Modern technological conversation may be more like classic New England town meetings that the bimodal world of cable news programs.

The communication system of the industrial society was centered around the mass media, characterized by the mass distribution of a one-way message from one to many. The communication foundation of the network society is the global web of horizontal communication networks that include the multimodal exchange of interactive messages from many to many both synchronous and asynchronous. (246)

The key words in this passage are “horizontal” and “multimodal”. Communication streams are occurring rapidly with multiple conversations occurring at the same time or with conversations resurfacing into new dialogue. I just saw someone retweet a comment from April. That tweet is re-introduced into a new dialogue to make a point or restart an earlier dialogue. The horizontal is important because it speaks to the equalizing force of modern media. You may be a power-broker in institutional life but I have my 140 characters and my tweet gets out there regardless.

And it is self-generated in content, self-directed in emission, and self-selected in reception by many that communicate with many. We are indeed in a new communication realm, and ultimately in a new medium, whose backbone is made of computer networks, whose language is digital, and whose senders are globally distributed and globally interactive.

Castells uses the prefix “self” three times in that sentence. The essence of this new form of communication is personal expression (earlier he calls it “electronic autism”). This is where attempts to label other participants as heretics, hypocrites, or heathen becomes problematic. People writing on the internet are attempting to communicate their thought processes (often while still in flux). But we tend to treat the written word as fixed text, not the exploration of ideas.

The emergence of mass self-communication offers an extraordinary medium for social movements and rebellious individuals to build their autonomy and confront the institutions of society in their own terms and around their own projects. Naturally, social movements are not originated by technology, they use technology. But technology is not simply a tool, it is a medium, it is a social construction, with its own implications. Furthermore, the development of the technology of self- communication is also the product of our culture, a culture that emphasizes individual autonomy, and the self-construction of the project of the social actor. (249)

There are clearly individuals who use social media to critique established institutions. There are others who simply ask their questions they don’t feel free to ask within the institutional context. Still others use social media like defensemen in a hockey game (it’s on in the background as I’m writing), assisting the institutional powers and putting the metaphorical puck back in play. What Castells catches, however, is that the democratizing impact of the medium allows for shifting definitions. There is a process of social construction operating through which people attempt to find collective understanding.

This is where the UFOs from the title come in. One of my favorite articles in the sociology of religion was written in the 1970s about a UFO cult then operating in Oregon (sadly, it turned out to be the Heaven’s Gate group who committed suicide in San Diego following the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet). The sociologists (Balch and Taylor) interviewed adherents who said they felt supported by the group and its leaders but didn’t buy the UFO stuff. They then said that the researchers couldn’t tell anyone that they had doubts. Many adherents repeated the same warning.

One of the dynamics of modern internet communication is that individuals are free to share what they think outside the dynamics of institutional sanctions. This is consistent with the central argument I’ve been making about testimony vs industry evangelicalism. The dynamic of self-expression is important to identity while it is simultaneously destabilizing institutional power.

Therefore, not only public space becomes largely defined in the space of communication, but this space is an increasingly contested terrain, as it expresses the new historical stage in which a new form of society is being given birth, as all previous societies, through conflict, struggle, pain, and often violence. New institutions will eventually develop, creating a new form of public space, still unknown to us, but they are not there yet. (258)

Here’s where all this leaves me. Twitter and Facebook have no mediating mechanisms. There are no referees who say “that was out of line” or “you’ve missed her point“. There are no structures to bring people together for dialogue (although I loved that someone suggested we start a kickstarted campaign to fund dinner for four for two competing twitter figures and their spouses!). Castells’ last sentence is timely. We need new forms of public space that allow the positive attributes of democratic, multi-vocal, authentic forms of communication without resort to power moves.

Until those forms develop, we’ll need to show the discipline to offer Grace one to another.

Evangelicalism’s “Come to Jesus” Moment

Jesus and ChildrenI really didn’t think it was time to write this post. I’ve been working toward constructing my take on the future of evangelicalism in a postmodern society and am still reading material that frame those ideas. But after last week’s WorldVision announcement, conflict, and retraction set off  a raft of “end of evangelicalism” posts, I decided it was time to run with what I have and refine it later. As I was telling a friend today via e-mail, blogs aren’t good at nuance because they reflect one’s best thinking to date and there are space limitations. So we’ll consider this another run at the concept. I’ll keep unpacking in future posts, I’m sure.

For more background, I recommend this piece I wrote to summarize my presentation at the Wesley conference in Idaho four weeks ago. My basic argument is that evangelicalism, between 1990 and 2010, has been focused on boundary maintenance, the protection of position and power, and orthodoxy. That stance has created a backlash among the millennial generation that has caused many to question if they want anything to do with evangelicalism at all, if evangelicalism relates to anyone outside the church, and if we need new models from which to express religious life.

Much of the reasonable response from these millennial bloggers has been somewhat reactionary. They worry about guilt by association with many who pride themselves in the kinds of posturing they grew up with. It reminds me of a conversation I had about my Christian faith when I started graduate school. My fellow students weren’t troubled by my identity as a Christian sociologist. They just wanted an assurance that I wasn’t going to be like “that guy” who chased people around the drink table at parties telling them that they were sinners. In short, “if that’s what it means to be evangelical, I don’t want it.”

I’ve heard various versions of the “that guy” argument over the years. It happens in Sunday School where someone wants to articulate theological grounding but doesn’t want to sound like their dogmatic cousin. It happens in churches where leaders demand adherence to their positions as a condition of continued affiliation.  It’s not just the young who are having these identification issues.

But I’m not prepared to let the bad behavior of individuals or groups give them control over  the evangelical label. I think it has a unique meaning (albeit one that’s broader than conservative groups or the media seem to allow).

I consider evangelicals as people committed to God’s Story (read N.T. Wright’s When God Became King for an elaboration), who hold to the full expression of Jesus the Christ (incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, kingdom-builder, and Lord), and who believe that the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sinful ways, calls us to turn toward the Kingdom around us, and instructs us how to participate in the unfolding of that now-and-not-yet Kingdom.

But living as evangelicals in a complex, diverse, postmodern world calls for a very different stance that we’ve used in past decades. We’ve been enamored with Empire when we should be focused on simply sharing our stories. We have been focused on abstractions and arguments when we should pay attention to the people who cross our paths.

This is why testimony is important. We allow the story of our walk with God, however messy, to intersect with the story of another. This is why the harder stories like those in Jonathan Merritt’s recent book excerpt are so important. They don’t hide behind platitudes but show God at work in the real issues of life. This shouldn’t be news to us. The disciples on the road to Emmaus shared their pain and met Jesus. Philip shares his story with the Ethiopian Eunuch once he’s led by the spirit to one considered unclean. Peter tells the story of his vision and the apostles celebrate Cornelius as a full member of God’s family.

My title today has two meanings. First, it suggests that there are some things that evangelicalism needs to give up, to get straight, to reorient. I’ll make some general suggestions of these and unpack them in future posts. Second, it suggests that we should come as little children when we follow Jesus. Not just in simple faith when believing but in the trust and collaboration that characterizes healthy children at play.

“Coming to Jesus” will require some significant changes to evangelicalism as we’ve known it if it is to ever be true to its potential. We will need to begin with assumptions of diversity instead of unanimity.  I wrote in my last post that faithful religious groups can see things in different ways. We need an evangelicalism that affirms this reality, whether we’re talking to evangelical Episcopalians who have affirmed a gay bishop or talking to a writer who celebrates complementarity. We will have to live with the discomfort of knowing that we differ from our sisters and brothers in Christ. Jesus said that’s what the world would be looking at. We will need to affirm the questions that arise from the lived experience of everyday Christians instead of making our faith about which big pastor-author we follow. That may mean the end of “influential evangelical” lists which would a blessing. We will come to value the voice of an individual blogger as a personal search for authentic faith without looking for litmus tests that are the equivalent of Steven Colbert’s “dead to me” board.  We will need to be looking forward to the Kingdom Jesus is unfolding in our very midst and not looking backward at some glory day when we could assume everyone agreed with our position. I’m convinced that this look backward is really a type of Christian Civil Religion, where we simply assume people have faith because of where they grew up (I’ll unpack this on another day, but it speaks to the issues I raised in this post.) As David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw point out in Prodigal Christianity, we must begin by outlining our own position. We will need to practice sacrifice, beginning with our demand that we be proven right. This is a central issue of faith. Rather than demanding our way or the validation of our viewpoint, we will need to put ourselves in the place of the other. This will call us to a position of compassion for others, especially those we think are unlikely. As Matthew 25 reminds us, they might just be Jesus.

In short, we need to come to Jesus as children. Trusting, open, engaging, happy to play well with others. There is a reason that Jesus celebrates their faith. He was trying to teach the disciples an important lesson. They were fighting with themselves about issues of power and dominance (“who will be the greatest?”). Amazingly, one of the key instances of this happens right after they say the transfiguration! They’re believing correctly in terms of who Jesus was didn’t keep them from the power games that were essentially self-serving.

15 And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. 16 But Jesus called for them, saying, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”

Notice that Jesus isn’t rebuking the pharisees here. It’s not the religious and political leaders who needed a “come to Jesus” moment. It was Christ’s followers. It took a long time for them to get it. But the Holy Spirit led them to deeper understandings so that they lived and died as representatives of Christ. By having the faith of a child.

 

 

Two Modes of Evangelicalism: Industry Evangelicalism

This is a follow-up piece on last week’s post that connected Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions to the changing nature of American Evangelicalism. It also builds off of the post I wrote for the Respectful Conversations dialogue on the future of evangelicalism. Finally, it’s informed by my reading of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason on the early years of evangelical establishment.

To be fair, this is still a work in progress (isn’t that what blogs are for?). I’m trying to wrestle with some distinctions that can align with some of what we’re seeing in a number of areas in both the sociology of religion and contemporary evangelicalism. I want to contrast two forms of evangelical expression: Industry Evangelicalism and Testimonial Evangelicalism.

WeberFrom a purely sociological perspective, I’m using what Max Weber called “ideal types”. These are ideal only in the sense that they don’t exist in real life. In fact, the differentiation between the forms may exaggerate characteristics in ways that border on caricature. But that’s still useful from a theoretical standpoint. Weber was able to contrast real-world situations with his ideal types to understand the social dynamics in operation. Two of his most famous analyses based on idea types are his examination of economic systems (the Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and his church-sect typology.

As I’m conceptualizing it, Industry Evangelicalism is concerned with maintaining a following. This requires a media platform, organizational structure, and easily identifiable leadership (with an equally identifiable set of followers and defenders). Its power is dependent upon separation from other organizations, a sense of being persecuted and misunderstood, and a publishing or broadcasting infrastructure.

On the other hand, Testimonial Evangelicalism is based on the authentic sharing of story. It is based on interpersonal relationships. Any power that is involved is the social psychological power of personal story. The story is authentic because it rings true. It avoids pat answers and mischaracterization. It is willing to risk holding contradictory positions and tolerating ambiguity. In short, it is best expressed in John 9:25: when asked how Jesus had healed him, the blind man said “I don’t know: what I do know is that once I was blind and now I see.

What I am suggesting is that we’re seeing a shift from Industry Evangelicalism to Testimonial Evangelicalism. This is an important distinction. What many see as a decline in Christian commitment within society is not a decline but is a transformation. This is always the way God’s church has remained fresh and vital in the midst of a society prone to the syncretism of combining religious perspectives and affirmation of distinctive cultural values.

I’ll unpack the theoretical implications of Testimonial Evangelicalism in my next post. First, it’s necessary to explore Industry Evangelicalism.

In American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell argued that one of the contributing factors for the growth of religious “nones” is the dogmatism and harsh stances of evangelical leaders. Younger generations found public comments and harsh tones to be a bridge too far, essentially saying “if this is what it means to be evangelical, I don’t want it.” This pattern is replicated in work on millennial questions about evangelicalism. I’d also suggest that the gulf between evangelical churches and mainline churches is as much this matter of tone and dogmatism as it is about theology.

There are a host of examples of Industry Evangelicalism. I’ll ignore the Duck Dynasty controversy here because I’ve already addressed it except to wonder who put out those Facebook pages about “standing with Phil Robertson“. Were these put up by some individual DD viewer? Probably not. It is far more likely that organizations that search for religious conflict put together these Facebook pages and asked Christians to “like” them. If I were really cynical, I’d think that “liking” got you on some mailing list. I’m sure that happens in the political arena and fear that the same models are being used in Industry Evangelicalism.

This week offered some concrete examples of the ideal type. I don’t have all the details behind these examples, which is where Weber’s approach is useful. They offer some indicators even if they aren’t perfect matches to the ideal type.

A group of Baptist college and seminary presidents raised concerns over the role of biblical inerrancy espoused (or not espoused) by their faculty. In the process, they raised concerns about academic freedom as generally understood within the academy. Peter Enns, reflecting on the article today, suggests “There is no hope here of reasoned, learned, discourse. Only circling the wagon and protecting turf.” Circling wagons and protecting the institutional turf reflects the prioritization of “our position” above all else.

Christianity Today had an interesting article this week on changing ties between Christian colleges and their sponsoring denominations. It’s a good piece and reflects the tensions present between attempting to build an inclusive enrollment (the article connects to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity) while the alumni and trustees are denominationally connected. The article observes that denominational giving is down compared to years past. While Union University president David Dockery does a good job of connecting these changes to non-denominationalism, he’s quoted at the end of the article expressing concern that loss of denominational structure “will likely lead to a weakening of the college’s Christian identity.” There is a presumption that it is organizational form and control that protects identity and that a college’s ethos (and the commitment of its faculty) is not strong enough to maintain identity. The impression this gives, while softer than the Baptist presidents above, still privileges institutional form above exploration and authentic dialogue.

Also this week Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and seen on thousands of television screens each week, released advanced information from his new book in which he says that President Obama is setting the stage for the Antichrist. It may be progress that he doesn’t think the president IS the antichrist but it still reflects a conflictual style that takes a legitimate disagreement (same-sex marriage) and puts it in the starkest possible context. It will sell books for sure. More importantly, to be called out in the Huffington Post is exactly what Industry Evangelicalism needs for success. The HP folks will ridicule the position taken by Pastor Jefress and he (and his folks) will take great solace in being disliked and misunderstood by HP. It’s good for the “brand”. (The similarity between this strategy and political structures is particularly disconcerting).

Yesterday Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill church in Seattle (and subject of lots of questions about the originality of his books) tweeted “If you aren’t a Christian, you’re going to hell. It’s not unkind to say that. It’s unkind not to say that.” I’m not really trying to explore the theology of universalism. I was really trying to figure out what prompted the tweet in the first place. Driscoll’s followers wouldn’t be surprised at the tweet. His detractors would be outraged. Was he hoping for push back on what he saw as unquestionably Christian orthodoxy? Or, as my friend Ryan Thomas Neace wondered, is it about the need to present a simply constructed worldview where answers are easy and uncomplicated?  Again, I’d argue that the tweet operates to keep the organizational position consistent in the face of complexity.

A consistent theme in Apostles of Reason is the development of evangelical infrastructures against supposed critics and pitfalls from outside. While there are major stories of accommodation to cultural changes (I just finished the chapter about Christian colleges pursing secular accreditation), those are always seen as pragmatic moves that must be watched closely to protect the institution from outside interference.

In short, then, I’d offer three keys to knowing if we’re dealing with Industry Evangelicalism: 1) is maintaining the status quo necessary to protect institutional power; 2) is there money to be made or followers to be developed through the immediate controversy; and 3) do the players hyperbolize their position and exaggerate their victimhood?

As I’ll argue in my next post, Testimonial Evangelicalism offers an entirely different set of characteristics that are more reflective of life in a complex, postmodern, messy, diverse culture. It’s not less Christian. It’s a different expression of the Truth of the Gospel.

400 Years of Avoiding the Race Question

I decided that the focus of tomorrow night’s Race and Ethnic Relations class should be about the linkage between African American history and contemporary race relations, including the differential life outcomes that are so contingent on black/white issues. So I spent a good chunk of the weekend developing a fly-over version of African American history. I’m covering a period of 400 years in three hours. Forgive me if I overgeneralize.

I broke the history into four sections: Jamestown to the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction to Brown v Board, Montgomery to the Voting Rights Act, and Affirmative Action (LBJ expansion) to Obama. In each period, one finds economic exploitation, political posturing, tensions between federalism and states rights, and occasional vindictiveness. Each time, someone takes a step to correct “the race problem” and then someone else reacts to that attempt. Eventually, the original attempt to improve the situation gets modified (emasculated might be a better word) by the Courts. It feels like little progress.

The use of executive action seemed to be a recurring theme. The Emancipation Proclamation itself, Truman integrating the military, Eisenhower and JFK calling in federal troops to force Southern school integration, or LBJ extending affirmative action as federal policy. This is understandable. It’s not hard to see how someone concerned about a situation feels willing to take a step to ameliorate the injustice.

Then I come to things like Reconstruction. What you have there is a vindictive group of Radical Republicans (not to be confused with today’s group) who wanted to punish the South for seceding. So they invoked laws that upset the racial order and imposed it from Washington. The minute that Reconstruction ended, Jim Crow laws start showing up to allow the South to do what they wanted and reassert self-management.

I looked at the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The former passed the Senate 73-27 but the South voted 1-21 against. Same pattern with the VRA: bill passed 77-19 with all 19 of the no votes coming from the South (if you count Robert Byrd in West Virginia). The outgrowth of this lopsided approach was Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” which kept race-baiting at the forefront of electoral politics and flipped the Dixiecrats into the Republican party.

Dred Scott

Dred Scott

Earlier courts went to extremes in the Dred Scott decision or Plessy v. Ferguson. More recently, Courts have consistently taken issues like affirmative action and then chipped away at its intent. In most cases, the rights of the privileged were given priority over the rights of the marginalized that the originally policies purported to address.

At the end of my review, I’m struck with a depressing picture. The African Americans who were supposed to be the focus of The American Dilemma, were used as pawns in battles between regions of the country or political philosophies. Little progress could be made because that would upset the balance of power that the factions were dealing with.

If I’m right, and I desperately need someone to tell me I’m not, then there’s little hope for positive change on issues of racial equality. Because the powers that be will keep pretending that they’re pursuing policies to help African Americans when they’re really trying to win a political battle that furthers their own power.

It will take a citizenry willing to say that racial inequality is unacceptable, that it is our future at risk, that we are willing to move beyond our own self-interests in pursuit of the common good. Not because that will show “those folks” in the South or the Republican party, but because our brothers and sisters of color require our action.

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