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“I Don’t Want Coffee”: On Dignity, Occupation, and Peace

August 27, 2015

by Michael T. McRay

Edward Mabouri* is a well-known man. More importantly, he is well-respected. His successful souvenir business has brought him wealth and admiration in Bethlehem society. His business privilege has even allowed him to fly out of Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, a privilege denied to most every other Palestinian. Despite his aged and limping body, airport security still treats him like a threat, meticulously searching every part of his body and belongings. The last time this happened, Edward picked up his cane to leave, after being humiliated by their examinations. But before walking away, he turned. “You forgot to check my cane!” he exclaimed, waving it in the air, trying to create a scene. “You must check my cane.”

Embarrassed, the officers assured him that searching the cane was unnecessary; he was free to go.

“No!” he insisted. “It might have a bomb! You must search my cane!”


From the first time I heard this, I’ve loved this story of Edward, a longtime family friend. I am drawn to stories that challenge the dominant narratives we tend to construct of others. Conflict repeatedly triggers this urge to craft single, un-nuanced narratives of those we disdain. We magnify our strengths and minimize theirs; we keep silent of our faults while broadcasting theirs. We call them evil, radical, demonic, murderers, criminals, occupiers, etc.

Living in Nashville, among the great megachurches of conservative Christianity, I hear such single stories spoken of Palestinians, or an Arab: they are violent terrorists. I have taught on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in numerous churches and classrooms back home, and without exception, most people feel positively toward the words Israel and Jew and negatively toward Palestine and Muslim. Thus, I love telling stories that make problematic such prejudices. Edward’s is one such story.

In the hands of Israeli airport security, Edward’s dignity was threatened, so he took his power back and flipped the situation so that those who were in power were pleading with him to move along so they might escape embarrassment. This, to me, is precisely what Jesus was getting at when he told the crowd on that Galilean mountain to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile: reassert your humanity, and do it without violence.

I have heard many stories of Palestinians resisting Israel’s military occupation with creative nonviolence, showing up with prophetic anger and astonishing patience. Day after day, the permanence of the occupation weighs down on Palestinian life; no aspect of society is untouched. Whether physical, structural, or cultural, the violence here is so thick, one almost feels suffocated.

The day of my arrival, I crossed through the Bethlehem checkpoint, traveling from the airport to the home of dear family friends in Beit Sahour. It is a cage of humiliation for Palestinians, who must cross such checkpoints anytime they enter an Israeli controlled area—which is over 85% of the land. At the Bethlehem checkpoint, after Palestinians have stood in line for hours, experienced humiliation and harassment through searches and scans and scoldings, they must pass a series of posters at the checkpoint’s exit, one of which reads, “Israel—Where It’s Vacation All Year Round.”

When I arrived at our friends’ home, Abdullah told me of the recent series of injustices he and his wife had faced from Israel. He then said, “Believe me, Michael, when you lose your money, you lose a lot. When you lose a close friend, you lose even more. But when you lose your self-respect and dignity, you lose everything.” I have often heard, violence is for those who have lost their imagination. Perhaps it might also be said that the violence of oppression is for those who have lost their dignity and self-respect.

Over my nine trips here, I’ve watched Palestinians cling fiercely to their dignity. They know peace will not come from their leaders alone—or at all—but rather from their own internal capacity to endure suffering, resist injustice, promote equity and equality, envision coexistence, cultivate compassion, and protect their dignity. Two weekends ago, while in Hebron, I asked my friend Leila—a gentle, smiling Muslim woman—about her thoughts on peace. Speaking in her third language, she answered, “The big people [politicians] use peace as decoration. But peace cannot come from above. It must come from the people, from inside. If you are peaceful person inside here [points to chest], you will give it out to others.” I continue to find that those without fluency in language tend to speak great truths, for they do not have vocabulary to dress up their ideas; they speak simply and directly. Leila was quite right: too often, the pursuit of peace is used as decorations for the powerful so they can appear right and good to the world. But true peace, she observes, must come from within. If we create the peaceful, nonviolent self, we will naturally externalize this. We will not pursue peace as means to some other end, but we will rather pursue peace for the sake of pursuing peace itself. I imagine Leila and Gandhi would have a lovely conversation together.


Once, Edward Mabouri left Bethlehem toward Jerusalem, passing through the Separation Wall and checkpoint. As he did, he says he saw an Israeli soldier assaulting a Palestinian child. Edward shouted to the soldier, “Why are you beating this child?”

The soldier brushed him away, “This is none of your business.”

“It is my business!” Edward challenged. “He is a human being! Why are you harming this child?” With no satisfactory answer, Edward demanded to speak to the checkpoint’s supervisor. When the supervisor arrived, they all exchanged many words before the boy and the soldier parted ways.

Three days later, Edward received a phone call from the Israeli military commander of the Bethlehem area. He requested Edward come to his office. When Edward arrived, the commander said, “What happened at the checkpoint the other day? Why did you make a disturbance?”

Edward said sternly, “I did not make a disturbance. The disturbance was made by a young soldier who was beating a young boy. This is unacceptable. We Palestinians are human beings, and we do not deserve this treatment.”

Hearing Edward’s indignation, and knowing his social prominence, the commander said calmly, “Please, let us sit. Here, let’s have coffee.”

“I don’t want coffee,” Edward exclaimed. “I want humanity!”

* Edward’s name has been changed.

Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is currently spending three months writing in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda as the Visiting Scholar for TCU’s new QEP project “Stories of Reconciliation.” He is the author of
Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the founder and co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and an adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. You can follow him on his blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Just Another Displaced Person: Immigration and the Crucified Imagination

August 20, 2015

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve lately heard of the housing crisis that much of Europe is facing as refugees spill onto its shores, the majority of them fleeing Middle Eastern and North African countries battered by violent extremism, war, and oppression.

And it doesn’t matter how big the rock is that you live under, you’ve certainly heard of the immigration crisis in the United States, where thousands of undocumented immigrants—many of whom are unaccompanied minors from Central America— have been increasingly pressing through the U.S.-Mexico border. If you wanted to forget about it, all of that talk about the question of “securing our borders” from presidential hopefuls won’t seem to let you.

Amidst the buzz about the surge of immigration and the predicaments it presents, it’s easy to become alarmed. But that alarm can itself turn into something even more alarming, particularly from a Christian perspective: When our alarm becomes the driving source of our reaction to the situation, the way that we talk about undocumented immigrants can very quickly come to imply that they’re fundamentally our competitors for material resources. Only afterwards are they humans facing complex and often dire situations.

Now, I should say that I’m not advocating for a certain political position on this issue. I realize that it’s a complicated one, one that merits nuanced conversation about macroeconomic issues that effect prosperity on a global level.

But in the midst of those conversations, I think we’d be extremely naïve if we each didn’t recognize our own fear of foreigners and consider how those xenophobic tendencies might affect our values. And I wonder what could happen if Christians in all places revived the old art of hospitality to the stranger, not only with the people we do encounter but also with the people whom we could encounter. What would happen if we foremostly put a human face on the immigrant? Better yet, what if we put the face of Christ on that person?

Towards that end, I will advocate every Christian (especially those who want to weigh in on the topic of immigration) reading Flannery O’Connor’s fictional short story, “The Displaced Person.”

O’Connor, a devoted Catholic and native of Milledgeville, Georgia, was inspired to write this story by real events in 1949 and 1951, which involved refugee families from Europe coming to work on dairy farms in her neighborhood. In O’Connor’s fictional narrative, a character named Mrs. McIntyre owns a farm on which Polish refugees, the Guizacs, come to work in order to escape the atrocities of Nazi-occupied Europe.

One thing I find so brilliant about O’Connor as a theologian is how, through her characters, she reminds all of us of our fallen tendencies. When it comes to the topic of immigration, if we’re honest, many of us could see ourselves in Mrs. McIntyre’s farm worker, Mrs. Shortley, as she flippantly discusses the arrival of the Guizacs with another farm worker named Astor:

“‘They come from over the water,’ Mrs. Shortley said with a wave of her arm. ‘They’re what is called Displaced Persons.’

“‘Displaced Persons,’ he said. ‘Well now. I declare. What do that mean?’

“‘It means they ain’t where they were born at and there’s nowhere for them to go—like if you was run out of here and wouldn’t nobody have you.…But yawl better look out now,’ she said and nodded her head. ‘There’s about ten million billion more just like them’” (289–290)

We can also see ourselves in the terribly practical Mrs. McIntyre, who views Mr. Guizac, who “has to work” and “wants to work!” because of his situation, only in terms of how he will make her more materially secure: “That man is my salvation!” she proclaims with this gain in mind (294). When she hears that Mr. Guizac plans to retrieve his cousin from a concentration camp by arranging for her to marry one of the other farm workers, all Mrs. McIntyre can think of is how his doing so will disrupt the productive balance of her farm. She retreats in self-pity, feeling that there is “nobody poorer in the world” than she (312). Mrs. McIntyre guesses the truth, only she doesn’t realize that she is not impoverished by the material burden of all of the so-called “extra” people who work for her (316). Her poverty rests in the way with which she views those people.

It is not surprising that, when a priest speaks to her of Jesus’s act of redemption, Mrs. McIntyre cannot appreciate such impracticality. She interrupts him irritably:

“‘Father Flynn!’ she said in a voice that made him jump. ‘I want to talk to you about something serious!’…‘As far as I’m concerned,’ she said and glared at him fiercely, ‘Christ was just another D.P.’” (320).

When I honestly read “The Displaced Person,” I am disturbed by how much I relate to Mrs. Shortley or Mrs. McIntyre—at how quickly I too can see foreigners impersonally, statistically, only in terms of the material threat or benefit they might bring me. And so it comes as a gut punch when I read the above passage where, once again, Mrs. McIntyre ironically suspects correctly. Christ was a displaced person, one who knew exactly what it felt like to be “run out of” where he came from to a place where “wouldn’t nobody have” him. And by the cold logic of the Mrs. McIntyres of the world, Christ is “just another” bothersome extra like so many others.

Without giving away the ending of this profound story, I’ll tell you this: in O’Connor’s fiction, the cost of redemption is always that of a vision transformed by the claims of Golgotha. Christ’s crucifixion does not remain fixed in time. Rather, it continually reoccurs in human suffering and as our constructed securities are exposed for their inability to bear up under the mystery of existence. In this fashion, O’Connor’s work reminds us that Jesus embodied the high price of our salvation at Golgotha, and its high price must still be embodied by his followers.

Again, I do not write this piece as a plug for any political agenda. I just believe it’s vital that when the topic of illegal immigration comes up, we recall that Christ himself was “just another displaced person” and that his cross reminds us that we are called to become the same by entering into solidarity with the suffering of the world.

Flannery O'Connor

Lauren Smelser White is a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her doctoral work in Christian theology focuses on human participation in the trinitarian event of revelation. Lauren is a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.

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Ancestral Gold

August 13, 2015

by Jeannie Alexander

Summer’s crumpled gold into August now, and the evening sky sets a red sun world in which the light has shifted. I have noted the changes of the light for several weeks now, and I am ever aware that I mark the turning of the wheel, the changes in my blood, by the shifting dance of the sun in all of his life drenched glory. At this cusp time of year, I have discovered a new pleasure, the pleasure of raking freshly mown hay beneath an August sun.

This is primal, ancestral, and I relish the red raw blisters on my hands. Like time spent with my camera, there is prayer here in this field, and a future time that I can see so clearly with an orchard of apple and cherry. In this home, we are co-creating a vision of community. I keep planting trees because we are working toward something here. We can create beauty and hope wherever we choose to stand—even in this fledgling-orchard space where a quarter-mile away a developer strives to cut a quarry deep into the earth, one hundred feet from a beach, from great blue herons, from children, from eagles.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if we were too angry to notice God breathing into us?

My beloved lives many miles away. Too much time spent in a large metal box. And yet together we sit within the golden field of the orchard, a bloody rake in my hand.  And we learn time and time again longing knows no boundary, and grief illuminated by hope only deepens affection. This morning I listened to chickens clucking and goats bleating as we embodied prayer through the faithful planting of even more trees: apple and cherry and fig.  An apple outside of our kitchen window and a cherry in the front yard. We pause as the nesting pair of bald eagles circle our home, shrill whistles demanding our attention. As if the eyes of God were not enough.

I step into the cool of the house and my gaze rests upon the cedar chest passed through six generations of my father’s family. And the bed? Five generations. The hand carved wooden biscuit bowl? Who knows, at least four generations of hands mixed the soft cool flour and milk against that smooth wood. Eggs from down the street rest gently against a bleached knitted napkin in the chipped white bowl my grandfather left behind. A home must be fertile ground for old memory, memory displaced outside of time. I am a haunted woman as I nestle into his embrace and breathe wood, and beeswax polish, and flowers from the garden, and most of all his smell and sweat combined with soap. Dare I to say after all of my years of education and advocacy that my faith is simple, my needs few: all l really want is to tend my garden and home and make love to my beloved. But the world will not allow that, will not allow this focus on home and hearth, and so I steal it in moments in battle lulls. Here prayer hits bone deep. God and contentment are flashes of light across my landscape, a shutter snap of a camera, and then they are gone. And every time I think I will be full until the next time, until the hunger pains begin.

Today and yesterday I went out to the Hermitage. At this time of year, I crave haunted places, places of history. The summer wears heavy, and I reach for fall. These places of past and future all at once pull me in. I have been thinking of the photographs of corn that I took two years ago at the Hermitage. Some things, like places, are haunted. Some people too. This year they are growing soy bean not corn. Soy bean is not a haunted crop and so my camera rests. Instead I take photos of reflections in old glass window panes, so much happening all at once in a moment that casts the illusion of stillness, the guise of an idleness. The old glass, my reflection, the reflection of the forest behind me, and the interior of the old building behind the glass; it is that complex layered image that I think is the true image of our existence. We think we live in particular insular moments, but it is not so. Who, I wonder, was looking at me from the other side of the glass window? Does she or he collect bayberry candles like I do at this time of year? Do they remember the smell of wood and boiled tar? And do they still hear the crows cawing and mules braying on the farm? Did they abhor slavery as much as I do, were they a slave? Or did it never occur to them that things were out of order? That it was wrong to own humans? I stand on the grounds of a beautiful farm where human property lived, and worked, was traded, and died too few generations ago, and today I am tortured by this specter of slavery still.  My beloved lives in a metal box, and steals moments on a field between Tennessee hills hearing my voice through blackbirds.

God in us is a God of yeast and fire; not the fire of destruction, and certainly not of damnation (we have that covered all too well ourselves), but a slow burn that leaves the land more fertile than before. I wake back into the August sun and begin to rake again.


Rev. Jeannie Alexander is the co-founder and director of No Exceptions Prison Collective, a legal and educational advocacy organization on behalf of prisoners and their families, aimed at dismantling the reality of mass incarceration in TN. She served as the Head Chaplain at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution for three years until September 2014. Prior to that, she was the volunteer chaplain for two years. As chaplain, she facilitated the creation of an unprecedented number of programs for insiders, both in minimum security and on “death row.” Before this, she worked as an attorney, but left the practice of law to become a community organizer and to complete a graduate degree in Religious Studies with a focus on Mysticism and Christian Ethics. As an educator, she’s been a professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religion. As a pastor, she’s served and developed interfaith communities in prison based on a model of liberation theology, as well as served as co-pastor to Mercy Community Church, a congregation where 85% of the members experience homelessness. She is the co-founder of Amos House and Open Table Nashville and was a writer for and sat on the board of The Contributor for four years. Two of her essays are published in And The Criminals With Him, and she features significantly in the documentary Tent City, U.S.A. She lectures and preaches frequently on the topics of mass incarceration as slavery, economic justice, Christian anarchism, transformative justice, and mysticism. She understands the Gospel as a manifesto for radical liberation now on earth and an invitation to experience God through the living presence of others and creation. She is also a lover of bees, bogs, and all things wild.

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Hurry Up and Matter

August 6, 2015

by Michael T. McRay

“On April 9, 1989, it was 364 days until I turned one.”

If I tried to write the story of my life, this might well be the opening sentence. I have always anticipated the next thing in my life; discontentment has been constant. I tend to wait impatiently for, and perhaps even sprint toward, the next adventure, pursuit, achievement, or goal.

Once, when my Saturday night prison group was reading Cloister Talks: Learning from My Friends the Monks by Jon Sweeney, we gathered at Riverbend prison to discuss that week’s chapter on ambition. Tony, a spry Southern man whose radical self-acceptance includes abandoning all social discretion, glanced at me and asked, chuckling, “So Michael, what did you think of this?” I can still hear the immediate collective laughter.

What Tony, and clearly everyone in the room, knew was that I am ambitious. I consistently seem to have another trip planned, another project in the works, another, another, another… My friends lead similar lives, which is why we rarely see each other. We are all so busy trying to do good work that we struggle to find time for each other. We all want to matter.

David Dark once said that my generation (children of the 80s and 90s) suffers from the pressure to “hurry up and matter.” Those four words simultaneously overwhelm and liberate me: the truth of that statement involves an expectation that can be difficult to live up to, while the ability to identify that expectation alleviates some of the anxiety the expectation itself produces. Name it to tame it, they say. Most of my life, commercials, billboards, and social media memes have told me to leave my mark in the world. “What will be your legacy?” We need to matter in our lives, we believe, and we need to matter now. In a fast-food, instant-communication, Amazon-Prime world, the Snickers’ question is powerful: “Why wait?” I’ve always hated waiting.

In John Paul Lederach’s magnificent book The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, he writes that in peacebuilding we too often feel the pressure to “stop sitting there and doing something!” Work needs to be done, so get up and do it. While this is certainly true, the art of building peace also involves vigilance and patience, he argues, like watching spiders weave webs. We must accept that much of life exists beyond our control, and sometimes our task is simply to stop doing something and sit there, watching and waiting for how we might participate in or witness with gratitude the goodness that grows without us.

Certainly, the urge to hurry up and matter need not be negative. The nature of the mattering here is important. Mattering looks different to different people. For me, it has meant living well Jesus’ call in Matthew 25 to be among and serve “the least of these.” In my theology, Matthew 25 is what Jesus said truly matters—not what we believe, but how we’ve loved. People suffer, and too many people suffer alone. What matters is our healing, partnering presence among such broken, beautiful people.

But my definition of “to matter” sadly has often not ended here. For most of my life, I have wanted to be seen as important and successful, to do big things that people will recognize and applaud. “More!” my ambition screams. “I need more!” I know I am not alone in this.
But why do we need to do great things? Why must we hurry up and matter? It seems to me we are a “works driven” people: we believe we are saved by our deeds and are valued by our work—both in quality and quantity. We are told we’re good because of what we do and how well we do it. If we are relevant, then we are worthy.

This, of course, is a lie. When “hurry up and matter” tempts us to deny our inherent value as imago dei, to diminish the value of human beings in favor of human doings, then “hurry up and matter” becomes poisonous. People incapable of work and success in the way we often desire it become people lacking value. Perhaps even worse, they may then become projects for our paternalism, tools we use to prove that we do in fact matter because we are doing important work for them and therefore are good. We become misguided: we do not love because it is good and beautiful to do so, or because there is no other way to live well, or because we cannot survive without each other; rather we “love” because that is how we know we’ve mattered. Loving does matter, but love must live for the sake of love itself, not for the cause of vainglory.

I confess I’ve been guilty of the above. I want to believe Mother Theresa when she said we need not do great acts of love, but rather small acts with great love. But I’ve preferred the great acts, because those are easier for people to see. In this way, ambition and the urge to matter combat humility. They disturb serenity and fuel egotism, making little room for God or the greater Body of Christ.

As I write this, I am en route to begin a three-month storytelling project on reconciliation in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda. (Again, my urge to do big things.) Perhaps this work really does matter. I like to think it does. I like to think it is another opportunity to learn how to embrace “hurry up and matter” as prompting toward doing the good work of loving and listening, simply because it is wonderful and life-giving to do so. My job is not to change or save the world; my task is to care for whatever corner of the world I may find myself, gently and fiercely loving all in my path. My friend Richard Goode tells me that we plant the seeds and God takes care of the rest. Maybe he’s right.

Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is currently spending three months writing in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda as the Visiting Scholar for TCU’s new QEP project “Stories of Reconciliation.” He is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the founder and co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and an adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. You can follow him on his blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Ryman Show Photo Archive

August 5, 2015

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A Trope, a Dope, and a Pope: Or, How Ancient Alien Theory Helps Me Think about the Death of Cecil the Lion

July 30, 2015

by Dusty Katzenmiller


My guilty pleasure is watching Ancient Aliens, the show on the History Channel family of networks that has made popular the theory that Earth was visited by extraterrestrials in the distant past and was given knowledge, guidance, and even life by them. I find it interesting because it displays the innate human desire to believe something. Whether thinking about our species’ origins or our species’ futures, Ancient Aliens asserts that our story is more than meets the eye.

However, I have two big issues with ancient alien theory. First, it creates a Supreme Being that is wholly a projection of ourselves—an idealized self, yes, but, in the end, only a projection of ourselves. A hypothetical alien visitation in the distant past does not require anything from us, nor does it create any ethical imperatives. It only demands that we know about it and carry on living whatever life that we want to project on that alien visitation.

Second, ancient alien theory both demeans past generations of human ingenuity while exulting contemporary humanity as the pinnacle of what’s possible. It demeans past humans by claiming that it would be impossible for them to achieve great architectural feats—for example, the Great Pyramid in Giza or the civilization of Pumapunku. Ancient Aliens suggests that both were built with alien technology simply because our ancestors were not capable of complex thought. (However, in regards to the Great Pyramid, French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin et al. have recently hypothesized that an internal ramp structure and a system of counterweights could have been used to build the pyramid rather efficiently.) Additionally, ancient alien theory assumes that twenty-first-century humans have reached the pinnacle of understanding and are thus able to comprehend alien life. But recent events should give us reason to doubt our having reached the summit.


I rarely watch “the news;” my knowledge of what’s going on “out there” is more or less limited to my Facebook News Feed. Thanks to a cadre of friends who are hard at work seeking justice in Middle Tennessee (and elsewhere), I am usually well informed about the bills that would further criminalize homelessness, the often-unjust policies that are being instituted at local prisons, and the injuries that are wrought at the hands of police officers, for example. One wonders how advanced our ancestors might think we are in light of our proclivity to enslave, oppress, and generally dehumanize our neighbors. Yet we are all-too-often able to notice these injustices, look the other way, and move on.

But there are news stories that can grab our attention and keep it.

They often involve animals.

This week, our News Feeds have been inundated with the news that a beloved Zimbabwean lion was killed at the hands of an alleged poacher from Minnesota. The lion’s name, of course, was Cecil, and he was, of course, beautiful.

I myself love African wildlife. The highlight of any trip to the Nashville Zoo was always getting to see the giraffes walk around, gliding along as they take gracefully long steps. I have never seen a lion in person, but I have a profound admiration for them—perhaps because of the popular imagery of lions and lambs lying down together in peace as a representation of the coming reign of God. At any rate, giraffes, lions, elephants, zebras, they are all beautifully made creatures, but, at least since the Victorians arrived in Africa, they have all been considered as potential trophies roaming around waiting to be stuffed.

Now, I do not want to come across as anti-hunting. As Lee once pointed out in a Tokens Show monologue, the hunter often treats prey with more respect than the technocrats who force livestock to live in near-torturous conditions. In that respect, hunting for respectfully harvested food is a good thing. However, hunting merely for a trophy seems deeply perverse as well as a profound expression of “the throwaway culture.”

Cecil was beautiful. Cecil was lured into the crosshairs of a trophy-seeker. And Cecil, in death, was beheaded and his carcass left in the countryside to be eaten by vultures. Cecil was used and thrown away. Hardly the end this beautiful creature deserved.


Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical Laudato Si, recalls how “Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” He continues, saying, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her” (1–2). The Pope then goes on to attribute, at least in part, the “use and abuse” of our planet to what he time and again calls “the throwaway culture.” He describes the throwaway culture in paragraph 22 of his encyclical in the following way.

“[Problems like pollution] are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products.”

The throwaway culture, in addition to destroying nature, “affects the excluded.” Throughout the encyclical Francis argues for creation-care on the grounds that pollution and consumerism wreak havoc on the poorest persons among us. For example, the Pope writes that “[e]xposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths” (20); “changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children” (25); and “[o]ur world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (30).

Of course, dignity is an important notion for this Pope. All creation has dignity that should be respected, whether human, plant, or animal. Surely the Pope falls within the tradition of Scripture in this way, because Scripture—for example, the Deuteronomic food and jubilee laws—demands that all creation be free from exploitation. The notion of giving a field a jubilee year reminds us that the field is a gift from God, and we are not lords over it. Nor are we to be lords over animals. Nor are we to be lords over our neighbors.


Yesterday, during lunch, I browsed through Netflix’s library of programming, and it suggested, because I had watched Ancient Aliens, I might like to watch a show called The Inexplicable Universe hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. For those of you who don’t know, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a genius astrophysicist who, crucially, is able to make incredibly complex ideas accessible to the non-scientist. He is also hugely entertaining to listen to. So I selected the show and started watching an episode about the possibility of alien life in the universe. I have remained haunted by the question he closed that episode with, but it requires some set up.

Genetically, according to Tyson, humans and certain species of monkeys share 99% of the same DNA. As far as intelligence goes, we are able to communicate with them through very rudimentary sign language, for example. (Whereas conversation with a dog is one-way conversation.) His point was that we can communicate with beings who share 99% of our DNA at a level of an adult with a small child. That is, the most mature monkey can only communicate at the level of a very young human child. Thus, he suggested, imagine that there are extraterrestrial beings who are only 1% more intelligent than us, drawing on the 1% difference between us and monkeys. Tyson suggested that communication with such beings could be difficult. Our most brilliant might only be at the level of an alien toddler. Such extraterrestrials might assume, as we tend to assume about monkeys, that the beings that share 99% of our stuff are really not intelligent.

And so Tyson ends the episode with the following question, which I paraphrase: suppose aliens have been to Earth and have explored it and have determined that there is no intelligent life on the planet.

An intriguing question. Especially when juxtaposed against the ancient alien theorists’ tendency both to project ourselves onto the notion of aliens and to assume that we as a species have reached the pinnacle of intelligence.

Perhaps, in light of Cecil’s death, we might sympathize with an extraterrestrial who assumes us to be unintelligent.


But I want to suggest that Tyson’s words must not be the last words on this subject. When I despair humanity’s tendency to be so habitually inhumane—to fellow humans, to sister Earth, to plants and animals—I remember Thomas Merton’s Louisville revelation.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers….Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”

He continues,

“I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. ‘There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.’”

We are much more than meets the eye—this the ancient alien theorists get right. But we are not more because some ancient advanced human (which is to say a projection of contemporary humanity) flew around to different ancient societies. We are more because we are created in the image of the God who is Trinity. We know God because of the Incarnate Son. We have the “immense joy” of being human, “a race in which God Himself became incarnate.” And we are able to behold the Incarnate Son today though the Eucharist. The Eucharistic feast then can be thought of as the pinnacle of human experience. It is at the Eucharist that we learn to commune with neighbors who have been reconciled to us and to understand that there is no scarcity with God. All come to the table and are fed. There are no trophies, only lives shining like the sun.


Craig D. Katzenmiller is Social Media Editor for Tokens and a soon-to-be stay-at-home dad.

The views expressed in this alien-inspired essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Tokens Show.

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Traditional Worship in a Digitally Dependent World?: Part 2

July 23, 2015

by Lauren Smelser White

Last month I wrote a blog post reflecting on why it might be that many 20- and 30-somethings could be turned off by “hip” worship. I proposed that one likely reason is because this group experiences the uprootedness of our consumerist culture in a heightened manner due to our intense dependence upon digital media. Thus, rather than glossy worship services that simply further our experience of being constantly plugged in and marketed to, it’s not surprising that what we’d crave in our corporate gatherings is a recovered sense of rootedness: participating in distinctive ways of life built up over time with certain people in a certain place. Those ways of life may be more or less named as “tradition,” which designates the creative, performative manners in which people have learned to think and behave together. These ways have stood the test of time, drawing communities together, which is why we need really good reasons to discard traditions; when we toss them aside, we leave behind our rootedness, ages of fine-tuning what we’ve built together.

In this post, “Part 2” of my reflections on the topic, I will explain a bit of what I don’t mean when I recommend preserving traditions. I do so for two reasons: (1) because the value of tradition mustn’t become or be mistaken for a smothering traditionalism, and (2) because I think it would be a mistake to go the traditional route simply as a new tactic for increasing church attendance.

For starters, let’s tackle point one: healthy rootedness in religious communities won’t happen unless our shared life is fertilized by tradition, not traditionalism. We must differentiate between the two. And it would be hard to do so better than Eastern Orthodox theologian Jaroslav Pelikan does: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead,” he says, “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”[1]

Pelikan unpacks this statement, going on in the same passage to describe tradition as “a received body of wisdom” while traditionalism is the imposition of “an authoritarian past.” Tradition is an ongoing conversation with the insight of those who’ve gone before us; it’s open to scientific discovery and artistic creativity. The openness of tradition allows for those pivotal moments when we religious types realize that the ways we’ve been accustomed to thinking or behaving does not reflect Christ’s earthly mission. Conversely, traditionalism shuts down conversations, foreclosing the possibility of innovation, always in the name of preserving “sound” practice and teaching.[2] Traditionalism is all about keeping things the way they are, simply because it’s what most folks—particularly the ones in charge—are used to.

Scripture provides a helpful example of the difference between tradition and traditionalism. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul reprimands the wealthy Corinthian Christians for celebrating the Lord’s Supper according to their societal tradition, which meant that they were partaking in a longer-lasting meal from which the poorer members of the congregation were excluded. Rebuking them, Paul mandates that they should celebrate the ritual in a manner befitting what Christ has done for the church; else the meal they eat is not really the Lord’s Supper: “[D]o you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” he asks. “What should I say to you?…In this matter I do not commend you!” (v. 22, NRSV).

In this context, adherents of traditionalism would resist change, no doubt in the name of “valuing tradition.” But an authentic, living tradition allows for the needed reform to be incorporated into the practice of the Lord’s Supper so that the church’s corporate life may better reflect the character of Christ without setting aside the valuable tradition altogether. From this basic example, we can see how the value of tradition should neither become nor be mistaken for a stifling traditionalism.

Assuming that we aim to reject the oppression of traditionalism while valuing the wisdom of tradition, let’s consider point 2, beginning with the question: Why shouldn’t Christians adapt to modern society by adjusting old worship practices to closely mirror pop culture? One can see why ministers would wonder if this is how the church could be invitational to 20- and 30-somethings in our time and place—a population that is leaving the church in droves, by all accounts. In the face of that exodus, church leaders don’t want to be guilty of traditionalism. “If this change is what it takes to get un-churched people in the pews,” they think, “then, by golly, shouldn’t we get rid of the shape note and get with the big screens?”

Rachel Held Evans builds a strong case that this tactic will ultimately fail because what Millennials really crave isn’t a cool vibe; it’s theological vibrancy—and that generally includes “keeping worship weird.”[3] As evidenced by my reflections on rootedness, I agree with her; and I would specify that a congregation’s theological dynamism includes not only its teaching and everyday ethics but also its traditional forms of worship. It seems that many a well-meaning church leader has presumed that signs of tradition and theological vibrancy are mutually exclusive. They’ve based this assumption on two beliefs: that increasing church attendance is pivotal to Christian mission, and that “updating” worship will get more folks in the church building.

This leads to my closing point, which I offer as a caveat to Held Evans’s sensible suggestion that if those well-meaning church leaders really want Millennials “back in the pews,” they should “stop trying to make church ‘cool.’”[4] ~ Recognizing traditional practices’ contribution to theological vigor is highly important, as is also realizing that it could be a turn-off to revamp those practices for the purpose of attracting young folks to church. But this is where it gets tricky: I think it would be a mistake to assume that embracing our traditional worship forms will definitely achieve the desired effect of drawing in Millennials, or anyone else dropping out of church for that matter.

We need to come to terms with the fact that Western culture is becoming more and more secular—that is, it’s more convenient for us to believe that God doesn’t exist and religion doesn’t matter than ever before. I think philosopher Dany-Robert Dufour is right that the proto-typical person in our consumerist society is currently characterized by a schizoid nature, one that is “open to all kinds of fluctuating identities and…therefore ready to be plugged into every commodity.”[5] It’s really easy for us schizoids to prefer all the pretty new stuff that will “make us happy” above any other deity.

While I believe that “seeking the lost” is vital to Christian mission, I think it would be misguided to assume that church attendance is the first sign that we are doing that seeking, particularly in this social context. After all, aren’t we inviting people to join us with the pronouncement that real life only comes by taking up the cross of discipleship? It’s hard to believe that such an invitation will ever appeal to masses of people as accustomed to pursuing (and achieving) luxury as our culture is. Oftentimes I’ve thought it may not be such a bad thing for our congregations to thin out a bit…at least in a secular culture people are comfortable being honest about their unbelief rather than coming out of a sense of obligation. Meanwhile, we should expect that those who drift in because we’ve met their personal preferences will just as likely drift out due to personal preferences.

Rather than appealing to people’s tastes and wants, we should be appealing to Millennials, Gen X-ers, Baby Boomers—everyone—based the baptismal promise of Christoform life, death, and resurrection. We can be certain those who have come to the bottom of their entertainment barrels will realize that they’re ready for something real, even (and perhaps precisely) at the cost of their comfort. Those are the people who will stick it out with us, who will contribute to our communal life and theological vibrancy. Those are the ones most likely to be attracted to a weird group of people who’ve put down roots at the foot of a cross and the door of an empty tomb.

1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (Yale University Press, 1984) 65.

2. Pelikan, 66–67.

3. In “Part 1” of these two posts, I look to Rachel Held Evans’s piece on Millennials and worship as my prompt for reflection. Her piece can be found here.

4. See the title of Held Evans’s piece.

5. Dany-Robert Dufour, The Art of Shrinking Heads: On the New Servitude of the Liberated in the Age of Total Capitalism, trans. David Macey (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2008), 11–12. For another example, see J.B. Metz, Faith in History and Society, chapters 1–4.

Lauren Smelser White is a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her doctoral work in Christian theology focuses on human participation in the trinitarian event of revelation. Lauren is a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.

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What Are You Bringing With You? On Burdens, Baggage, and Blessings

July 16, 2015

Out my window, rain droplets slip from the leaves of trees rising from the garden near Thomas Merton’s grave. I have journeyed up here to the Abbey of Gethsemani for a few years now, perhaps making some fifteen or more trips with my former professor and now good friend Richard Goode. With each trip, we ask the same question of each other: “So what are you bringing with you today?” The answer is always twofold: physical and spiritual. What books and burdens do you bring? This trip, I carried heavy concerns, as well as a few new reads.

One such read is Pádraig Ó Tuama’s brilliant new work In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World. In it, he writes of guiding young students in a prayer exercise he calls an “imagination walk”: with closed eyes, they imagine themselves in a pleasant place and visualize a stranger approaching. This stranger, Pádraig tells them, is Jesus, and after a few minutes of silence, Pádraig asks about their conversations with the Christ of their imagination. One teenage boy said the Jesus he met in the woods asked him three questions: “How would you describe today? Have you seen anything interesting along the way? And: Is it working?” These questions struck Pádraig as an insightful “invitation to mindfulness.” Later, he observes that many have claimed three other questions as central to understanding life: Who am I? Where I am going? What am I supposed to do?  When I read this a few weeks ago, though, I felt a question was missing to both sets of three, though I could not yet name it.

In a recent conversation with a friend, she revealed that a few years ago, she endured a devastating divorce. I learned this via text—through which many secrets are communicated in this age—and she ended her short story-synopsis with, “So there it is. That’s my baggage.” This language struck me, almost as a confession, an offering, something profound and personal. Though it contained no shame, the words seemed weighed with legitimate fear, the fear of rejection and judgment that accompany so many of our secrets. This was her “baggage,” and she revealed and extended it in vulnerability. Essentially, she answered the Gethsemani question without me even asking. “Here’s what I’m bringing with me,” she told me.

I realized this was the missing question to the triplets above: What are you bringing with you? This question directs us back to ourselves, inviting an awareness of our stories that can be both discomforting and disarming. So often what we bring are our wounds and woundings, the stories we tell of those, and the truths and untruths we feel about ourselves because of those stories.

Yet, though we share these stories with much fear and trepidation, it’s from our wounds that we humans come closer to each other. It’s the wounds that let us connect in the deepest ways; they are the cracks in the hard protective exteriors we build around ourselves. For me, I’m drawn in when I recognize and resonate with the pain of another. Whether in a conflict-zone, prison, therapy circle, Tenx9 storytelling event, or coffee shop, I have come to see wounds as opportunities for connection, rather than just scab marks on the flesh of our stories. These wounds and woundings burden us and baggage us, and in so doing, they might bless us as well, as they open us up to connection and community.

We tend to speak of “baggage” negatively, naming things unwelcome, unhelpful, and undefining. The word itself implies externality, something outside ourselves. But the experiences I’ve always named for myself as baggage are neither external nor necessarily negative. They are certainly painful, but in that pain, they’ve been (trans)formative, watershed experiences. They’ve added further to the definition of who I am and provided more opportunities to connect with others who have hurt and cried and longed and regretted and collapsed and recovered and been ashamed. My “baggage” still makes me nervous to fully open to someone. I fear their response: Will they pull away, judge, reject, run? But I keep finding that when I show up and share what I’m bringing with me—all my “dirt,” to borrow a different metaphor—the stories of others tend to mirror my own. We can’t be ashamed of our stories. We need to own them, because they often own us.

I dislike the way we use the word “dirt” in these contexts. Our degrading usage strikes me as only possible due to our alienation from the land. The Genesis creation story says humankind came to life from the dirt of the earth and the breath of God. It takes both soil and spirit for us to be. Nevertheless, we dishonor dirt and therefore assign its name to our dishonorable stories. And so we offer forth our “dirt” with vulnerability and anxiety. On the other side, when I am privileged enough to receive the “dirt” of another, my task seems simple: to hold and honor the story. Is there anything else to say but thank you; I’m sorry; you’re okay; and you are loved? When I receive this response, I breathe. I breathe from relief, I breathe with hope, I breathe with joy, I breathe the blessing of welcome. We offer our “dirt,” holding our breaths in hopes that the blessings of welcome and love may grow, and if they do, we breathe again. It is from this offering of dirt, and from the breath of welcomed relief, that the life of relationship often springs forth, for life is easier when shared with people who understand.

After all, dirt and breath are the genesis of life.

Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the founder and co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and an adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. In Fall 2015, he will spend three months writing in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda as the Visiting Scholar for TCU’s new QEP project “Stories of Reconciliation.”

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Holy the Bees

July 9, 2015

by Jeannie Alexander

I remember my grandfather’s smell. It is my first memory. My second memory is of being carried by my grandfather through his backyard. So carefully we considered the apple trees, muscadines, figs, and plums, but far back in my memory we first considered the mud puddles.  My grandfather was a brick mason and he and my grandmother made their home in Stone Mountain, GA, where both of their families for several generations before had planted their homestead; the modest dreams of sharecroppers. Their plots of land were stitched together like a quilt: my great grandmother Annie-Bell’s home, my great aunt Irene’s home, my great grandfather Doc’s home, my grandparent’s home, my great uncle R.L’s home, and Uncle Pete’s home. One winding twisting piece of property divided into artificial plots. A geography of tragedy, toil, love, and grace. Why is it that we think the modest dreams of the poor are any less grand than those of the wealthy? Surely they are no less holy.

When my parents were first married, they lived in a small trailer that my grandparents had moved to the back of their property behind the main house. When I was two, I would kneel on the bed, my face pressed against the window screen of my parent’s bedroom window each afternoon, waiting for my grandfather to return. His old burgundy car would pull in and, before his feet could hit the deeply rutted dirt path, I would begin shouting, “Papa come saaavvveee me!” This was our daily game. He taught me how to unlatch the screen and push it out so that he could then lift me through the window.  This is where my first memory erupts, the smell of sweat, and the taste of masonry dust stuck to the roof of my mouth as I pressed my nose against his neck to identify his scent every afternoon. His hands were the roughest, gentlest hands I have ever known. And each evening, as he pulled me from the window, he did so with the purpose of connecting me to the earth in the daily ritual of dunking me into the dirty muddy water that always seemed to pool in the large rut in the middle of the driveway. It was a child’s ecstasy that I experienced in those moments; a baptism that awoke in me a deep knowing of God’s presence as it may only be encountered through an immersion of the senses. God awakens in us.

As a teenager embarrassed by rural ways and honest poverty, I immersed myself in the alternative political and drug culture of Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood, which ironically threw me into the intellectually bourgeoisie disaffected punk rock culture of angry youth, often from wealthy families, supposedly fighting for the rise of the proletariat peasant class—a birthright I had abandoned.

But in the early hours of barely light mornings following nights of insanity, I would pull myself together and return bruised and disoriented to the gardens of healing, the waters of remembrance, my grandfather’s section of plowed earth. I was 19, hungover, and standing by my grandfather’s side, a cup of coffee in my hand, watching his honeybees swarm in and out of the hive in the already hot, humid air. “Aren’t you afraid of getting stung?” I asked. “No never,” he replied. “You just have to learn to think like a bee.” As we moved from bees to fig trees to chickens, I knew to my shame the truth: the sacredness of connection was to be found here or nowhere on this earth, and all of my endeavors to find truth through separation would lead me back to this yard.

My grandfather died while I was in law school and I was so furious with grief that I refused to leave New York and go home to Georgia to attend his funeral. The fury has long since turned to peace and gratitude, and my grandfather keeps speaking to me, slowly, softly tracking my often tumultuous life. My friend Bill has bee hives now. A few weeks ago, he removed the top of the hive so I could look inside the secret world into the feeding tray on top. The bees are fed sugar water. They moved slowly in the cold wet morning air and most stayed inside the wooden hive box, but a few came cautiously out of the small entrance hole in front and moved slowly, their thick stout golden honey bee bodies covered with fine hair—so very beautiful. I hear my grandfather’s voice: “The entire source of food for the whole world rests on the backs of these bees. All of this, everything around you is connected so you can’t do nothing to these bees, this land that don’t affect you. These bees are you, and you are the bees.” I think about this when Bill shows me the old feeding trays that he had discarded because they were death traps for bees; too deep, the bees drown caught between metal screen and water. A simple mistake but the cost was dear, and I ran my finger over the screen and over the tiny hairy corpse bodies trapped inside.

One of my last conversations with my grandfather was about bees. We stood staring at the hives while I ate a fig pulled from the tree. I had focused on the bees to avoid the truth that his once robust body was being wasted by the cancer growing inside of him. “Pa-pa, what do bees dream? Do they dream together as one, a collective sigh? What happens when the light goes out inside of a bee? Do they have souls, and if so, are they little golden sparks of light that make a snapping pop noise. Do trees breathe in the souls of bees?” He put his arm around me, pulled me to him, and I kissed his cool cheek. I still do not know these things.

I am buying a house, planting a fig tree, and setting up my own bee hives. All acts of faith, every day sacraments. Wendell Berry writes that “[t]he relentlessness of the tragedy is redeemed by the persistence of grace.” I am no longer afraid of being stung; what is holy is present in the sting and in the heartbreak, but also in the way light changes slowly through the progression of a year, in the sounds of birds and bells, in the way the smell and taste of lake water and river clings to the air and shrouds us after a storm. Our imaginations, tended properly, are the keepers of old memory. It is what is meant by living a good life. Its roots plunge deep into the waters of love, and nurture within us an affection and tenderness that I think perhaps can only be lived not described; one can only point and nod and say “Ah yes, that.”

Rev. Jeannie Alexander is the co-founder and director of No Exceptions Prison Collective, a legal and educational advocacy organization on behalf of prisoners and their families, aimed at dismantling the reality of mass incarceration in TN. She served as the Head Chaplain at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution for three years until September 2014. Prior to that, she was the volunteer chaplain for two years. As chaplain, she facilitated the creation of an unprecedented number of programs for insiders, both in minimum security and on “death row.” Before this, she worked as an attorney, but left the practice of law to become a community organizer and to complete a graduate degree in Religious Studies with a focus on Mysticism and Christian Ethics. As an educator, she’s been a professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religion. As a pastor, she’s served and developed interfaith communities in prison based on a model of liberation theology, as well as served as co-pastor to Mercy Community Church, a congregation where 85% of the members experience homelessness. She is the co-founder of Amos House and Open Table Nashville and was a writer for and sat on the board of The Contributor for four years. Two of her essays are published in And The Criminals With Him, and she features significantly in the documentary Tent City, U.S.A. She lectures and preaches frequently on the topics of mass incarceration as slavery, economic justice, Christian anarchism, transformative justice, and mysticism. She understands the Gospel as a manifesto for radical liberation now on earth and an invitation to experience God through the living presence of others and creation. She is also a lover of bees, bogs, and all things wild.

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Traditional Worship in a Digitally Dependent World?: Part I

June 25, 2015

by Lauren Smelser White

Rachel Held Evans recently wrote a thought-provoking opinion piece for the Washington Post that many of you probably saw as it made its way through online networks.[1] I want to reflect a bit more on what she says, thinking further about why it might be that millennials crave something other than “cool” worship. One of the primary reasons she is onto something is because, I believe, 20- and 30-somethings[2] experience uprootedness in ways that previous generations may not (though, undoubtedly, younger generations already experience it more intensely). This is in no small way due to our dependence upon digital technology for much of our interpersonal interaction. My main suggestion is that, in a highly mobile, digitally dependent society where uprootedness is commonplace, when it comes to corporate worship we may need more of tradition than of an atmosphere that simulates the rapid changes and virtual reality of the environment we inhabit all week. In fact, mindfully retaining some of our traditional forms of worship may be a vital aspect of the church living out its mission in this particular time and place.

For the sake of keeping my thoughts on this topic manageable, I write my reflections in two separate posts, with hope that each makes some sense on its own.

For starters, what do I mean by rootedness? It’s a notion that I find in a statement from William Faulkner, the literary master who created an entire fictional world out of one small county in his home state of Mississippi. He explained why: “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”[3]

If you’ve lived anywhere long enough to feel like a local, I bet you know what he means. You’ve experienced rootedness. Rootedness depends upon prolonged physical presence in a place, but it’s not enough just to exist there—to be rooted you must live there as a contributing ingredient to its flavor. Its seasons and landscape have to be part of your own inner geography. Its people have to be your people (even if they drive you crazy at times)—you know how to talk to them; you know what foods they like; you’d defend them if an outsider cut them down. Like Faulkner, you feel that there is something worth knowing about your place and its long-time inhabitants, and you know that the further you press into it the more you can learn about it. This is rootedness.

In North American, rootedness is a phenomenon that we are less and less acquainted with. Cohesive local communities are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Consider the fact that these days, on average, Americans move more but vacation less than just about anyone else on earth (or so I recently heard on NPR). I wonder what that says about us? If nothing else, it says that we are itching to pick up and move on. We don’t care much about living in one spot long enough to root down into it, to learn its geography and seasons, to get to know our quirky neighbors and to leave something of our quirky selves there. On the other hand, we rarely vacation (even cheaply). The real pleasure of leisurely traveling, even a few hours away, comes from witnessing how plants and animals and people display rootedness in new places. But we are largely missing out on this too—not only because those sorts of communities are disintegrating, but also because we simply aren’t vacationing. We don’t have time and money for travel; we have to pay the note on our bigger barns.

These are generalizations, of course. There are plenty of holdouts. But the point is that more and more we are becoming an uprooted sort of people. I’m not qualified to identify all of the causes for our uprootedness. However, I’d wager that the list includes our cultural addiction to consumption. Deep in our cultural psyche we assume that new things bring joy. Perhaps this is why we church hop so often, and why infidelity is as commonplace among Christians as it is anyone. With every change, we lose most of what we’ve built with the people we leave behind. We are not only geographically uprooted; we are interpersonally uprooted as well.

20- and 30-somethings are experiencing an extra dose of uprootedness in the interpersonal domain, as I see it, largely due to our dependence on online social media for our interaction with each other. According to neurologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, “an ironic revelation of the television-computer age is that what people want from machines is humanity: stories, contact, and interaction” (198).[4] But digital machines only deliver “imprecise simulations” of these sorts of connections. “Small wonder,” they say, “that Internet use in adults actually causes depression and loneliness” (199).

Some may protest these statements, pointing out that the online world actually facilitates innumerable, valuable human interactions. And there is truth in this—ask anyone who has been able to raise awareness for a good cause on Facebook, or who keeps up with a loved one across continents via Instagram, or who finds a way out of isolation on the blogosphere. Most of us find real enjoyment in keeping up with our friends and family by way of these mediums, and many of us have also uncovered unique opportunities there to communicate what we value—that is, we’ve found voices that may otherwise go unheard.

So are Lewis, Amini, and Lannon simply wrong about Internet usage causing loneliness? If they could answer they may acknowledge that, yes, good things can come of our online access to one another; however, we should also consider the extent to which we need to have these sorts of interactions.

We’ve all noticed it: most of us generally keep our heads down in public spaces, checking our cell phones, much more than we tend to look around at the people in front of us. One problem with this, it so happens, is that the hypertext medium of communication doesn’t utilize the parts of our brain—the right temporal neocortex, to be exact—that deal in intercepting and producing the emotional content of speech. This is why, Lewis and company point out, we easily misunderstand each other on these mediums. “In our increasingly digitized world, [online interaction] is a convenient substitute for dialogue, but it does not convey the richness that humans unthinkingly transmit when they use emotionally tempered speech and facial expressions,” they say (60). Furthermore, “minus the perceptible cues of voice tone, eye contact, and expression,” online interaction makes it highly convenient for people to assume fabricated identities—“simply because they can” (59).

So, by being constantly plugged in to social media, we not only exclude the richness of more face-to-face interpersonal exchange (likely lowering our social IQs as a result[5]). We are also constantly tempted to present highly fabricated versions of ourselves for online audiences, especially if we’re any good at such fabrication. Sounds exhausting, huh?

From many conversations I’ve had, I can verify that plenty of 20- and 30-somethings do find it exhausting. I think it’s because there’s something extra on the line for us, something more than just socializing. Generally speaking, we’re the demographic of folks who feel most compelled to keep up with the Joneses via online social media. Most of my friends who own small businesses feel immense pressure to have dazzling Instagram accounts; many of my colleagues in academia trying to make a name for themselves feel they must wow the world via Twitter; all of us wonder if we should be blogging. If we join in at all—and it’s hard not to, because of course we also enjoy keeping up with each other in all of the ways these technologies afford—we must battle the compulsion to self-sell via social media. Even if we resist that compulsion (each in our own ways), it’s pretty hard NOT to feel like we’re marketing ourselves as a product commoditized by “likes.” It’s exhausting, but we keep participating—because it’s also fun; because we have to advertise our businesses; because it distracts us from the mundane responsibility of adulthood; because we don’t want to be irrelevant…

All of this is what I’m thinking of when I say that my generation experiences an added layer of uprootedness. And all of it said, I would argue that the last thing we need when we gather for worship on Sunday mornings is another venue for feeling plugged in, like consumers receiving a polished marketing bid. And even if we feel we need it, dare I go so far as to suggest that we do so out of habit rather than authentic spiritual necessity? What we do seem to need is access to rootedness. And when it comes to worship, rootedness goes hand in hand with tradition.

That final statement warrants some explaining, especially because “tradition” can signify all sorts of positive and negative things for Christian believers. Because it’s too much to tackle here, I’ll attempt it next month in my next post.

1. The piece is titled “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool’.” It can be found here.
2. This is not exactly “Millennials,” a term that designates the generation born somewhere between the early 1980s and early 2000s. Because of my age (33) and part-time occupation (college instructor) I am in better touch with folks whose birthdays range from about 1975–1995.
3. William Faulkner, The Paris Review Interviews, vol. II (New York: Picador, 2007) 57.
4. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love (New York: Random House, 2000).
5. See this article if you’re curious about how our digital interaction might negatively affect our interpersonal intelligence, not to mention that of those being raised in this environment.

Update (7/23/15): Part 2 of this post can be found here.

Lauren Smelser White is a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her doctoral work in Christian theology focuses on human participation in the trinitarian event of revelation. Lauren is a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.

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