I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

space and ipod

Let's talk space.

Let us continue to explore the ipod phenomenon in relation to American culture.

The ipod commercials with the silhouette people have been crazy successful, contributing to the creation of an ipod cultural revolution. Everyone has ipods and earbuds such that we can now recontextualize Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out" for a new generation. [wiki]

The shadow people intrigue me. They are empty and undefined. They represent nothingness, save for the earbuds that connect the mind to the ipod.

From one perspective, the silhouettes represent the worst of consumerism. Interpreted this way, they embody the perception by Apple and other corporations that consumers exist as empty beings--empty and in need of products to fill the void. The space is space for the product; the space is the desire, lack, and emptiness that fuels capitalism and consumerism. The empty space is also a spiritual void that can be filled only when the consumer can connect with music.

The idea of filling a spiritual void is something that Christianity seems to have targeted in recent years. The idea is that there is a God-shaped hole that only God can fill. Real satisfaction/contentment/joy/peace/etc. can only truly be realized through a relationship or encounter with God. Perhaps this is true, I'm not sure; but what I am sure of is that God has become objectified and treated as a product for spiritual consumers to consume. God = the missing piece = filling the void. I find this working itself out in all of the very diverse strands of Christianity: God will make you happy, God will fulfill you through your misery/self-denial/repentance, God will make you materially wealthy, God will make you spiritually wealthy through material poverty, only with God in your life can you truly appreciate anything else, etc. Regardless of what movement of Christianity, the common theme seems to be that we (like the ipod shadow) need God to fill the Big Empty.

There is a sense in which the ipod shadows strike me as a very direct appeal to our desire to fill the Big Empty.

The ipod also represents the need to continually upgrade, so that one has more and more space to fill; more gigabytes. This means buying more songs and more videos....we buy bigger houses to fit more stuff in them.....we are continually appealed to by advertisers to buy more space, and then there are always more and more things to buy to fill the space. Upgrades. Upgrade to more space.

Tyler from Fight Club (1999) says the following:

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes
working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need
we're the middle children of history
no purpose or place
we have no great war no great depression
our great war is a spiritual war
our great depression is our lives

.....but on the other hand....

I can also see a positive interpretation of the ipod silhouettes. What if the darkness is not emptiness and void? What if the space represents simplicity? I think there is a very positive perspective to the ipod shadow people. American life is cluttered and fragmented. We have too much junk in our homes, too many to-do's on our to-do lists, and too many activities in our schedules.

Can the ipod silhouettes represent a return to the simplicity of the self?

If this is the case, then the emptiness has redeeming value. If we were truly able to simplify, then perhaps we could empty our minds for spiritual and personal growth.

Consider: when a room is cluttered, no one object in the room needs to be labeled as "bad." All of the items in the room may be good and profitable; however, taken together as a whole they represent clutter. Sometimes too many good things become bad when they are taken as a whole. Such is the case in 21st century life: we all try to fill our lives with so many good things thinking that more is better....but sometimes less is more.

So, which interpretation is correct?

Do the ipod shadow people represent the desire of the Corporation to fill our voids with more "shit we don't need"? To create more voids so that we can be sold more shit? Or does the ipod represent the kind of space that cultivates growth and simplicity?

These are questions of interpretation: how do we define ourselves in relation to our excess of products in 21st century American society? It is a question of reflecting on and observing how we define ourselves as subjects and how we form and construct our identities (Michel Foucault).

Here are a selection of ipod commercials (that I think are particularly interesting) for your consideration:

Sunday, July 20, 2008

It's not about Batman this time

If Batman Begins explored the psyche and motives of Bruce Wayne and his night job, part two of the current Batman series has little to with the hero and everything to do with the villain. Heath Ledger as the Joker is incredible. Compelling. Oh, yea, and disturbingly so. In this film, the hero does not ride off in the sunset; the hero does not win; and the hero does not even get the girl as a consolation prize.

The goal of the villain is the same as the first movie: turn the city against itself. But the difference is that the Joker has no motive, ideals, or desires; he is not in it for the money, power, or attention. He's just here to "watch the world burn."

"I take their little plans, and I turn them on themselves," says the Joker. The Joker simply inhabits the plans, structures, and social orders; he hangs around in them. And then he turns them inside out. Even when the Joker is confined "safely" behind bars, he is still in complete control of the situation, one step ahead. But then again, it isn't the Joker that's in control. He's simply turning the system on itself. Allowing the world to destroy itself. And the interesting thing is that he does it all with just a little gasoline and gunpowder. He's a minimalist. The complexity of the society and order is enough to destroy itself; all it needs is a madman to dance.

This second installment of Christopher Nolan's is the sinister side of deconstruction. It is a cruel grin. The Joker has no end or objective; he has no goal. He only wants to play within the chaos. The Joker's world is not a world that needs to be undone. It is a world where chaos is most fundamental, and one only needs to inform those watching the parade that the Emperor does, in fact, have no clothes.

"In a cruel world, the only morality is chance," says Two Face as he tosses a coin to determine the life or death fate of another human being. This movie is not a battle of ideals. It is not good versus evil. It's a movie that Qoheleth could have scripted: "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity....What God has made crooked, who can make straight?" This movie is not a Batman movie. It is about a criminal who has figured out that you don't need to try to bend a world that is most fundamentally crooked. All you need to do is dance, laugh, and play within the chaos.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Traditionally, the two terms "theism" and "atheism" mean two opposite extremes. To be a "theist" is to believe in one or more gods. To be an atheist is to deny the existence of any gods; it is to be a disbeliever in any deity. Traditionally, we have defined ourselves with these labels. We say, "I am a theist, so I believe in God." Or we label ourselves a disbeliever in God (or gods). There are other labels, of course. We may prefer the label "agnostic," suggesting that we are suspending our belief in deities: we do not know, or we cannot tell at this point whether or not a God (or gods) exist. Once we have conveniently labeled ourselves, then we can go to work in defending our position against the others and/or show that those who wear the other labels are wrong or mistaken...or perhaps even insane!

To use the term "a/theism" is to begin to think about faith and belief in God (or gods) in a very different way. It is to suggest that the distinction between "atheism" and "theism" is not as simple as it may appear. It is to suggest that elements of belief in God invade the heart and mind of the atheist. Conversely, it is to suggest that elements of atheism and disbelief are active within the soul of the believer.

Writing a postmodern word

The term "a/theism" is something of a postmodern form of writing. It is poststructuralist, to be more precise. Poststructuralism, as you may have guessed, came after and in response to structuralism. Although poststructuralist theorists never defined themselves as such, one name commonly associated as poststructuralist is Jacques Derrida. He questioned the "binary oppositions" of terms that were traditionally formed as strict dichotomies. Terms like "nature" and "culture" and terms like "theism" and "atheism" were traditionally said to exist in opposition, with one term typically dominating or set off against the other. Catherine Belsey has written a nice little booklet on poststructuralism, published by Oxford University Press. It is concise, clear, and yet retains some of the ambiguity inherent in the various poststructuralist positions. Her thoughts are helpful in understanding "binary oppositions":

"Western culture, Derrida argues, depends on binary oppositions. In this respect the structuralists were heirs to 25 centuries of thought. Moreover, these oppositions are always hierarchic. One term is highly valued, the other found wanting. Nature is privileged over culture, just as speech is privileged at the expense of writing. But these terms can never sustain the antithesis on which they depend. The meaning of each depends on the trace of the other that inhabits its definition." [1]

Later, Belsey clarifies by elaborating on the nature/culture dichotomy:

"How do we define nature? Not by reference to flowers and tress, probably, since they are found in parks and can be cultivated, but as wildness, the absence of culture. By reference, in other words, to the term that is excluded by and from nature itself. And yet it is precisely from within culture that we are able to identify nature at all. The one term cannot be excluded from the meaning of the other. Meaning depends on difference." [2]

If meaning depends on difference, then each so-called "opposing" term or viewpoint depends on the other in some way to sustain it and give it meaning and purpose. This leads us to question, then, whether there is a "pure" concept, like natural or cultural. According to Belsey, the conclusion for Derrida, then, is that the oppositions do not hold: "Binary oppositions do not hold, but can always be undone. The trace of otherness in the selfsame lays all oppositions open to deconstruction, leaving no pure or absolute concepts that can be taken as foundational." [3]

To use a term like a/theism is to suggest that although these terms appear to oppose one another, this opposition may in fact be undone. It is to suggest that there are traces of belief within unbelief and traces of unbelief within belief. It is to question whether one can use a label in any absolute sense. In the term a/theism, the use of the backslash between the "a" and the "t" does not allow our eyes to see two separate terms; rather, the two opposing viewpoints are separated and yet are not separated. The two opposing terms become one term and although the distinctions remain, the distinctions are, at the same time, blurred. It suggests that the reader must sort out out the details.

The a/theology of Peter Rollins

I recently posted on Peter Rollins's How (Not) To Speak of God. What was perhaps most interesting to me about Rollins's little book is that he spends a good deal of time discussing his idea of a/theology. As the title of his book implies, Rollins is concerned that we do not overextend our certainty about who God is. Additionally, Rollins finds it important that we apply the same measure of humility to our own understanding of our relationship with/to God. We should acknowledge and explore issues of doubt, uncertainty, unbelief, and darkness. His direction of thinking implies a certain opportunity for "fellowship" (my word, not his) between believers and unbelievers and the ability to open space for dialog that seems to be rare for religions that use binary oppositions to set their beliefs off against the unbelievers.

Says Rollins,

"By combining theism and atheism in an a/theistic discourse we are able to develop a way of thinking that brings the speaker into an awareness of his or her limitations and a space of knowledgeable ignorance. [4]

"What unites Christians is not that we somehow grasp the true meaning (another way of saying 'my meaning') of the painting, as if it can be reduced to a singular message, but that we are seduced and transformed by it.....The deconstructive language being forged here acknowledges itself as a dis-course that sends us off-course--that is, our reflections on God never bring us to God....speaking of God is never speaking of God but only ever speaking about our understanding of God." [5]

For Rollins, doubt is no longer something to avoid or something to be feared. Rather, doubt has real value for faith. In fact, as we will see later, Derrida suggests that without doubt, faith is not faith.

"Doubt provides the context out of which real decision occurs and real love is tested, for love will say 'yes' regardless of uncertainty. A love that requires contracts and absolute assurance in order to act is no love at all. [6]

"The believer ought to acknowledge and even celebrate this dark night of the soul, understanding that this is not a threatening darkness which conceals an enemy but rather is the intimate darkness within which we embrace our faith." [7]

As we continue with Rollins, we find that it is transformation rather than doctrine that testifies of God.

"The point of this a/theology is that it understands that God is testified to in the transformed lives of believers rather than in some abstract doctrinal system." [8]

Here I hit the pause button for a brief moment to question whether or not Rollins has not perhaps set up his own binary opposition. Is "transformation" something that is set against "doctrine"? Has he dichotomized the two concepts, set them against each other, and privileged transformation over doctrine? It is an interesting question. Briefly, I would suggest that creating binary oppositions may be, in some sense, a necessary feature of our existence; however, as Belsey noted above, such binary oppositions can always be undone.

Okay, hitting "play" and resuming the feature film:

"The job of the Church is not to provide an answer--for the answer is not a phrase or doctrine--but rather to help encourage the religious question to arise.

"Central to this approach is the idea that God stands outside our language regimes and cannot be colonized via any power discourse. This means that the Christian faith is extrapolated via a powerless discourse which, at its most evangelical, attempts to create a space in which others can seek for themselves. Consequently, one of the roles of the Church is to provide a sacred space." [9]

I was very intrigued by this last line, and it prompts me to raise the question: have our churches created sacred spaces? Has the body of Christ truly created sacred spaces? For me, this is the key question to ask at the turn of this new century. The body of Christ, I suggest, should no longer rely on "outreach" or "evangelism" or any other program of proselytizing but should instead create sacred spaces for others. Is the body of Christ providing sacred contexts where all lines of inquiry can be explored and examined with care, love, and thoughtfulness? Is the body of Christ creating a sacred space for sacred silence, in the midst of our noise- and image-saturated culture? Or are we merely creating more noise? If we try outshout those who compete for the attention of the 21st century schizoid man, then we will be forced to become simply another propaganda machine trying to sell religion. In this sense, we will merely become one of a long line of manipulating competitors all jockeying for the attention span of humanity.

An a/theistic approach, on the other hand, would appear to step away from the noise and the competition by creating space--sacred space and sacred silence. I tell you the truth, I dream of a community of believers dedicated to creating sacred spaces.

I finish Roolins with what may be taken as something of a summary of his a/theology. I like the analogy that he uses here of a dark glass:

"Our a/theology should be a dark glass which protects God from being spoken, which responds to and returns to the love of God, and which encourages others to seek God for themselves. God is not revealed via our words but rather via the life of the transformed individual." [10]

Derrida on a/theism

Derrida not only wrote theoretically about binary oppositions, he also applies it to religion and speaks directly to the issue of a/theism. For Rollins, doubt is productive. The same is true for Derrida, but Derrida goes farther and suggests that doubt is absolutely necessary for faith, thus further blurring the lines between "belief" and "unbelief".

At youtube, I found an interesting question and answer with Derrida. Someone (who sounds a bit irritated to me), asked Derrida: Why do you say that you "rightly pass for an atheist"? Why do you not just say, "I am an atheist"?

Derrida questions even the very existence of theism if it is not at the same time atheistic. This is very Kierkegaaridan. Says Derrida, "If one does not go as far as possible in the direction of atheism, one does not believe in God." Believers must "run the risk of being radical atheists." Derrida suggests, somewhat controversially, that, "if we do not go as far in the direction of atheism, the belief is naive."

Derrida cites the mystics, that they "pray to someone who does not exist, in the strict metaphysical sense." God is a being beyond being. Believing beyond being is to believe as an atheist. For the mystic, then, this is believing as a nonbeliever.

In conclusion and in answer to the question, Derrida does not define his belief: We cannot say 'I am this and not the other'. Who can confirm, 'I am a believer'? Who can say 'I am an atheist'?"

Conclusion (or, concluding for an opening)

The suggestion of a/theism is not simply that believers experience doubt; it is stronger than merely asserting that believers hold on to faith in the midst of doubt. An a/theistic understanding of faith locates faith as movements between genuine theism and genuine atheism. The faithful do not merely doubt but also truly disbelieve. And conversely, the suggestion is that the staunch atheist also experiences genuine and true belief. The result is obvious: The "faith" of a Christian becomes more difficult (if not impossible) to define. It is not enough to merely intellectually believe in God. Faith becomes more intangible and difficult to pin down.

If we could peer deep inside, is it possible that we could find in the heart of the atheist the remnants of the deepest longing for God? If the unbeliever "suppresses the truth" (Romans 1) of their belief in God, is it possible that the believer suppresses their unbelief in God?

The conclusion of a/theism in its practical outworkings seems to be the opening of space and the opening of dialog. The body of Christ no longer seeks to define itself as opposing the nonbeliever or even as trying to convert the nonbeliever; rather, the body of Christ would focus on creating sacred spaces for openness, thoughtfulness, respect, and authenticity. Creating such sacred spaces seems to me to be reflective of some of the early church communities.

[1] Catherine Belsey, Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 75.
[2] Ibid., 83.
[3] Ibid., 87.
[4] Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), 31. I liked Rollins's book. It is an easy read if you are familiar with continental philosophy. If not, then the reading will go a bit slower, but the book (by and large) avoids using technical terms, so the book is still accessible, even to those without an interst in philosophy. Rollins has a website, with a blog he seems to maintain somewhat regularly: http://peterrollins.net
[5] Ibid., 32.
[6] Ibid., 34.
[7] Ibid., 35.
[8] Ibid., 40.
[9] Ibid., 40-41.
[10] Ibid., 42.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Signs of the Times

Friends, it has been approximately a month now since my Barack Obama sign went missing. Yes, it appears to have been stolen. I was honestly not all that surprised by the theft. This is a staunchly Republican area of the country.

I will now be forced to purchase another sign (probably much bigger!); however, in the meantime, this little caper provides for some very fascinating reflection.

One of the staple beliefs of most Republicans is the importance of respecting personal property rights. Indeed, the interpretation of the rights of personal property will certainly be one of the primary differences between the candidates in this upcoming election. The issue will weave its way into discussions of health care, taxation, the economy, and more.

It seems quote probable, then, that the person who stole my sign violated their own beliefs at the moment of the heist. The burglar no doubt was passionate about his belief in protecting personal property rights: "Get the damned government out of my back pocket!" If the rustler was of a religious inclination, then doubtless the protection of personal property rights also has a moral imperative: thou shalt not steal. And yet, at the instant of the crime, the thief found himself in the precarious position of having violating the very personal property rights that he believed in. Hence, our friend, the righteous Republican robber, found himself violating personal property rights in the name of preserving personal property rights!

Was it a calculated move? Did the burglar decide that he would commit this one violation of property rights in the name of preserving the property rights of the many? Did he make this one sacrifice of his integrity in the name of the greater good? Certainly this is possible, and in fact, we can imagine a scenario where one violates one's principles in the name of the greater good. These are calculated compromises.

Was this a calculated compromise?

Probably not. In all likelihood, the pilferer made a decision of emotion. Our bandit was so overcome by passion to defeat a "liberal" candidate that he snatched up the sign! I suggest that it was a crime of passion.

But was it passion for an ideal? No. It was passion for winning and a desire for his side to win. And this takes us to the real moral of the story: passion for our beliefs propels us into another dimension of thinking whereby our zeal to win is even more important than the beliefs themselves. We all do this; we are all the same. It is a part of our nature. We live under the illusion that we "take a strong stand" for our convictions; but in reality, our convictions are only a secondary, almost insignificant consideration. Our beliefs, in most cases, are only a bit of a bump in the road before we can get to the real business of fighting each other.

So, friends, get ready for the upcoming months of politics. The "issues" are not the issue. Elections are most certainly not about beliefs or convictions. It is politics, and politics is about winning and losing. Politicians can only win by creating a mob of supporters who feel so strongly about their convictions that they would do anything to advance their beliefs, even if that means violating such convictions.

But don't let me stop you, good neighbor. Carry on! March forward! Fight the good fight! Go into the political battle knowing that you are right and that your cause is just, and if your cause is just, then any means is justified for reaching that end...the end being victory for yourself and defeat of the others. It is only our political opponents who are irrational and unreasonable: we are the pure in heart. Our cause is right.