Monday, September 27, 2010

Post-Christendom theologians and the craft of lightbulb-changing

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
So two Dunkers and a neo-Jungian psychoanalyst are having an e-mail conversation about postmodernity and one Dunker (my pastor) cracks a joke that gets the other Dunker (me) thinking of a fun little project involving humor and theology.

The question: How many post-Christendom theologians does it take to change a lightbulb?

I put this question out on Facebook and asked fellow theology nerds there to respond. In the process I hooked one professor at EMU into answering and thought it would be cool to try and get some more scholarly opinion surrounding this question. So I sent groveling e-mails to a few scholars I respect and actually got a few bites!

Read on after the break to see the responses and some commentary from yours truly...
None. Its not a task for theologians, stupid! Changing lightbulbs is the missional responsibility of the hermeneutical community of faithful disciples who gather in non-violent humility to light up cities with their good deeds (Matt 5:14).
--Chris Marshall, associate professor of theology and restorative justice, Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand)
No theologians are needed, but a community of believers who think and change light bulbs theologically, which is to say Christologically, I mean eschatologically, sorry doxologically, no harmartologically, and...wait...where's the bulb?
--Christian Early, associate professor of philosophy and theology, Bible and Religion Dept., EMU
First, they would say you are asking the wrong question. Instead, focus on the reason the light went out. i.e., "How many post-Christendom theologians does it take to bring light where the light went out?" Then you will get answers like, "Many, to redesign the electrical system and the building, or perhaps tear the building down aand rebuild the city."
--Valerie Luna Serrels, MA student at EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding
It all depends on what you mean by "change."
--Ted Grimsrud, professor of theology, Bible and Religion Dept., EMU
Two. One to criticize the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that produced it, and the other to urge the Church to never forget its craft of being Church as they change lightbulbs in the world. (The lightbulb doesn't get changed. This pleases the theologians.)
--Brian Gumm (me)
Four. One to change the lightbulb and three to celebrate the Eucharist, which is the condition of possibility of lightbulb-changing.
--James K.A. Smith, professor of philosophy, Calvin College
So we have answers ranging from zero to "you're asking the wrong question" to linguistic concerns to four. I especially like Valerie's response because a handful of my seminary professors had experience personally and/or professionally with the late John Howard Yoder, and I've heard them reflect that one thing he loved to do was deconstruct questions and unmask philosophical presuppositions. So her response seems to stand in that fine tradition. Ted's might also into this category.

Chris' and Christian's responses up top seems to have a good ol' Anabaptist sense of communitarianism and perhaps just a touch of anti-intellectualism, which historically is a strong theme in Anabaptist traditions (e.g. Amish, Brethren, Mennonite). But Christians response then turns into a "torrent of scholarly glossolalia," illustrating the tension simmering just below the surface of any Anabaptist academic type. (With thanks to C. Kavin Rowe for that at which Smith, a self-described Reformed Pentecostal, might get a chuckle.)

Smith's response seems to illustrate his passion to have the faith practices of the church (here, the Eucharist) serve their forming, reforming, or counterforming function on the gathered faith community. Without such liturgical formation, Smith makes clear that the possibility of lightbulb-changing is off the table. He therefore places Christian worship practices as primary and normative for the Church. To me, this seems to follow a Hauerwasian insistence on Christianity as craft.

My own answer betrays the fact that I've spent much of my time in theological studies doing social critique with a postmodern/post-Christendom lens. Part of the theological task that I've enjoyed over the past year is unmasking the powers of the world in which we find ourselves embedded as Christians.  I have a number of scholars to thank for the tools to do this, including Smith himself and the first book of his Cultural Liturgies series: Desiring the Kingdom. I've also been blathering on about David Foster Wallace recently, who of course wasn't a theologian but was a brilliant social critic. The pitfall to this task is that sometimes I forget the "gospel" (it's good news) part of my work as a Christian. It's a little too easy for me to get wrapped up in criticism of the world and get really depressed at how jacked up it all seems. So you could say that I need a shot of eschatological hope to keep me from getting too dragged down.

Many thanks to the four folks who responded! Especially for the professors, it takes some guts to let a grad student like me quote your answers to my silly question (much less answer it!) and let me do some dissection in public. It was a fun exercise for me, but by no means does it have to end here!

Feel free to drop your own answers to the question in the comments below. Of course, I also left the definition of terms for the question unanswered. There could be all sorts of fun asking: What is "change?" (Ted's question) But what is the light bulb?

[Update: Added Chris Marshall's contribution; 10/27/10, 5:20pm EST]
(Photo credit: Anton Fomkin, under CC license.)

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