Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Capitalism, Imperialism, Perfection, Gods

What great timing! I arrived home from the gym this evening just in time to catch the Point of View (POV) Shorts series on PBS. The four featured documentary films showcased fascinating imagery and provocative themes, touching on various aspects of the contemporary socio-political and cultural landscape. Below I have outlined my take-away from each short:

Utopia, Part 3: The World's Largest Shopping Mall - Located in a country believed to be sailing to newfound financial heights on account of its participation in the global capitalist economy, the South China Mall outside of Guangzhou, China, awes spectators with its overwhelming scale and size - it even boasts an indoor roller coaster for post-meal amusement. The mall's dirty little secret: it's virtually empty. Alex Hu built it, but 'they' didn't come. In a hauntingly existential way, capitalism's greatest monument becomes the very sign of its excess; the wild speculations of capitalist power are completely severed from the material reality; or, as Slavoj Zizek warns, "the capitalist incessant development and revolutionizing of its own material conditions, the mad dance of its unconditional spiral of productivity, is ultimately nothing but a desperate flight forward to escape its own debilitating inherent contradiction." What does the limit of our seemingly infinite thirst for consumption look like? After the illusion withers, all that's left are deserted concourses and empty amusement rides.

Nutkin's Last Stand - A gang of renegade Brits take to the streets (or, more accurately, the fields) to trap and destroy the foreign grey squirrel presence that is diseasing and killing off the local red squirrel population, which holds a special place in the native literary imagination. Implicitly, and in some scenes explicitly, the film illustrates how European villagers project their fears of American imperialism onto the infectious squirrel pox invasion. How do societies draw their circles of inclusion, and how far will they go to protect 'their own'? How can one colored species be labeled a disposable pest, and another colored species national treasure - even sacred?

34x25x36 - Enter into God's laboratory of corporeal perfection. The Patina V Mannequin Factory in City of Industry, California, has been tasked with the construction of American culture's religious statuary: the ideal woman of the moment. Veneration of fashion symbols represents but another link in the long chain of icon-worship. What is the significance of society's transition from the apotheosis of Mary to that of a chic female physique? In both cases, the εἰκών signifies a form of unattainable perfection, either spiritual/moral or physical/aesthetic. Must humanity always have some object of worship? And what are the implications of the owner's admission that no human model could possibly achieve the mannequin's level of perfection? Is Macy's this century's house of worship?

City of Cranes - Cranes dot the urban skyline, yet few people notice the lifting machines or the individuals that inhabit them. Why? Because we hardly look up. And yet, the cranes represent the very promise of future growth - a promise seemingly deferred, as the building never stops. There's always work, one construction operator explains: if he's not building a new structure, he's removing an older building he helped put up twenty years ago. The work, however, is solitary, often quiet, with sprawling panoramas of the hustle and bustle below - voyeuristic, and yet calm, patient. Crane maneuverers reportedly learn to tell stories about the people they view from above - narratives based on individual patterns and daily routines. Are these individuals our new gods? Do they inhabit another world above ours, marked by a ballet of coordinated machinery, that literally controls and constructs the world in which we live down below?

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Sharing Global Faith - Issue V

Sharing Global Faith gathers Unitarian and Universalist voices from around the world in a unique devotional e-resource. Reflecting on various aspects of faith life, participants share spiritual insight into the stories and thoughts that fuel their ministerial call. Distributed monthly from April until September 2009, the publication seeks to deepen international connections and nourish the individual spirit.

In the fifth installment, three global luminaries explore the meaning of FAITH to our religious tradition. We are honored to include the following contributions:

Bishop Ferenc Bálint Benczédi (Transylvanian Unitarian Church) moves towards the cusp of the physical and spiritual worlds, where he begins to apprehend life’s completeness, God’s worldly presence and the existence of the good, beautiful and true.

Drifting away from the creedal mode of belief that characterized his upbringing, Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana (Assembly of Christian Unitarians of Burundi) reimagines faith in terms of relationship, solidarity and responsibility.

Rev. John Buehrens (First Parish Needham, MA) excavates the biblical etymologies of the term ‘faith’ and arrives at a definition that lifts up the courage to step forward in trust and affirmation.

Woven together, these three reflections highlight the importance of living one’s faith in freedom as embodied vocation – standing, and moving, with this faith.

More here.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Contextual, not Textual

By and large, Unitarian Universalists are contextual, as opposed to textual - we focus on reason, conscience and personal experience (all subjective and located) and value contemporary thought over (and occasionally against) stories and truths inscribed in ancient holy texts. In fact, we are prone to view the Bible as itself contextual. In his 1885 Manual of Unitarian Belief, Rev. James Freeman Clarke explains how Unitarians see the Bible as both a human and divine product, full of "human experience, sorrow, joy, temptation, sin, repentance, trust, hope, love."

On his blog Reignite, Stephen Lingwood recently posted a video of Marc Driscoll explaining the four strands of the Emerging (Christian) Church. While affirming the first three (Evangelicals, House Church and Reformers), Driscoll fears that the fourth strand, the Emerging Liberals, threatens to theologically undercut the foundation of Christianity, by calling into question the literal veracity of the New Testament and the supernatural state of Jesus Christ. At one point, Driscoll reads the decision to welcome the LGBTQ community to church as a form of "outright dismissing the Christian doctrine that has been established for a really long time." This, he submits, is disastrous.

Aside from the fact that literalist proof-texting fails to take into account the inherent (human) fallibility in scriptures themselves (consider, for example, KJV's misinterpretation of the term 'almah,' which transformed an eligible bachelorette into a superhuman miracle-birther), I find Driscoll's comment intriguing and worthy of further consideration for the non-textualists among us. Of course, every reading serves as an interpretation, and thus an 'absolutely truthful' reading proves nonsensical, meaningless. However, the very notion that a single text could claim absolute authority (not to be confused with the claim that the text is absolutely true) challenges Unitarian Universalism in many ways. Do we hold certain texts to be authoritative? Entirely authoritative? What role does our hymnal play? Our seven principles? Or congregational covenants? Further, if we do not hold any of these suppositions to be true, where do we turn for guidance, and why? What do we mistrust about texts? Their static nature? Their inevitable universalizing subjectivity?

In my experience, certain texts deserve considerable respect and authority, contextualized (!) of course by their innate fluidity and hermeneutical ambiguity. The issue, I believe, is less the suggestion that no text is fully 'truthful' and more the realization that no text is fully 'complete' - that no text has figured everything out. One of the reasons that Unitarian Universalism encourages its flock of faith to engage differing viewpoints and differing prophetic material is precisely this acknowledgement. For me, at least, reading the Bible 'rabbinically' as mytho-poetic literature does not threaten my faith. Rather, I would take issue with the idea that the Bible represents the only mytho-poetic literature deserving of to be read.

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