Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong?

A powerful essay on the “co-opting” of minority cultures by Parul Sehgal. This is something I am deeply interested in understanding and observing within “participatory culture,” which often takes part in remixing texts of many kinds. Sehgal’s points are a clear and necessary check on the “fast and loose” nature of those borrowing culture to create culture.

Calling out the co-opting of minority cultures to seem cool has become a public ritual. But where is the line between borrowing and theft?

…Questions about the right to your creation and labor, the right to your identity, emerge out of old wounds in America, and they provoke familiar battle stances. The same arguments are trotted out (It’s just hair! Stop being so sensitive! It’s not always about race!) to be met by the same quotes from Bell Hooks [sic], whose essays from the early ’90s on pop culture, and specifically on Madonna, have been a template for discussions of how white people ‘‘colonize’’ black identity to feel transgressive: ‘‘Ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.’’ It’s a seasonal contro­versy that attends awards shows, music festivals, Halloween: In a country whose beginnings are so bound up in theft, conversations about appropriation are like a ceremonial staging of the nation’s original sins.

…In an essay in the magazine Guernica, the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie called for more, not less, imaginative engagement with her country: ‘‘The moment you say a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying: As an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.’’

Source: Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong?

Birthday Parties in a Cul-de-Sac

Birthday Parties in a Cul-de-Sac: The Conundrum and Guilt of Planning a Birthday Party in the Burbs

I realize not all morality finds its origins in the 80s, but in this case, I think I am on good ground. When I was growing up in the age of the 8 inch-high bangs and pegged pants, Birthday parties were nothing like they are in today’s suburb…

Modern Day Parable on Environmentalism (Joel Salatin)

Reading in the Christian Century today there was a review of Joel Salatin’s newest book “Mad farmer?” and read this parable from the “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic,” as Michael Pollan describes in Omnivore’s Dilema. Salatin writes:

We have neighbors—I’ll call them Cleve and Matilda—who would be the bane of liberal environmentalists. . . . Members of the National Rifle Association, they hunt avidly and procure all their meat that way. They scavenge firewood from neighbors’ woods to fill their home-built outdoor wood furnace that supplies all their domestic heat. Their huge garden, filled with blackberries, strawberries, and vegetables, offers a cornucopia of bounty, which they freely share with neighbors, including us. They can, freeze and dry their bounty.They don’t go out much. . . . They don’t buy new vehicles, seldom or never eat out, do fix-it jobs in the community to earn their living. They don’t buy things or shop—their clothes are common working threads, worn out and eventually discarded for rags. They listen to Rush Limbaugh. . . .Now let’s meet another family, living in suburbia, utterly dependent on industrial food, helter-skeltering daily between charitable and recreational activities. Shopping and getting take-out food routinely, amassing 20 pairs of shoes and a dozen trousers. Jetting to Disney World for vacation and popping pharmaceuticals for mental and physical survival. Big paychecks, lots of paper wrappers, big lawn to mow and nice annual donation to an environmental organization. Goodness, maybe they even sit on the board of a prestigious greenie.org.Let me ask you a question: Of these two scenarios, who is the true environmentalist?

via Mad farmer? LaVonne Neff reviews Joel Salatin | The Christian Century.

What I love about this is that Salatin challenges stereotypes and pushes the on the often self-righteousness of one group over another. I wonder how I am blind in my own prejudices and stereotypes to the point of not living up to what I say I believe. Continue reading Modern Day Parable on Environmentalism (Joel Salatin)

When The Church Becomes a Department Store

You can drive around most neighborhoods here in the suburbs and find at least some vacant buildings. Some of them are small, and if not historic, they at least have a history.  While others are just enormous squares, nondescript, no personality or history at all. “throwaway” buildings might be a way to think about it. On our drive to take our oldest daughter to school, we drive past an old Car Dealership that is either defunct or has moved to a more “developed” part of town. In Either case these three or four separate parking lots, and multiple-unit buildings have sat empty as long as we’ve lived here and show no signs of being bought. The weeds and grass have begun their revolt, and I hope they succeed. Surrounding these vacant lots are open fields. Every time I drive by I am sad that these lots are taking up with could otherwise be open fields with trees and animals living there.

But this happens all the time. Some new franchise opens in an already over-saturated market, tries to out advertise, out sell, and out yell, with new products or looks, but underneath, we all know it’s the same story being sold just repacked with a different logo. And soon enough, everything closes down and those once wild fields of life and now empty fields of tar. Continue reading When The Church Becomes a Department Store

Has Christmas Lost its Power?

snow flake bokeh christmas tree Going through Christmas this year I began to wonder if Christmas has lost it’s power as a symbol and sign in our culture today. Symbols can lose power over time and when this happens there needs to be a reformation of those symbols and signs, or a letting go of them. This is in part why early Quakers did not celebrate Christmas and other holidays, they felt that for whatever reasons it was celebrated, the signs and symbols utilized in that celebration did not connect to the actual reality of Christmas: the incarnation of God.

The history of Christmas has gone through many ebbs and flows. There are times when it has held more meaning and times when it was less important culturally and religiously. It’s not just now, it’s always been like this and for the first 300 years of the early Church they didn’t even celebrate it or call it Christmas. Continue reading Has Christmas Lost its Power?

Interfaith Clergy Letter to the Editor in Clark County

(This is a letter a group of us from Clark County wrote in response to some of the controversy surrounding September 11th this past week. We submitted it to our local papers which did not pick it up so I thought I’d post it here.)

This year, a small group of clergy in Clark County began gathering monthly to learn from one another and to support one another as community leaders.   As an interfaith group, we honor and celebrate the religious traditions and spiritual paths of all people in our community.

For many people of faith, this week includes two major religious holidays with Rosh Hashanah for the Jewish community and Eid al-Fitr for the Islamic community.   However, this week is also charged by the memories of 9/11, plans to build a community center and prayer space in a building 2 blocks from Ground Zero and the furor over threats to burn The Qu’ran, the sacred Muslim text, by a pastor and his followers in Florida.   We are grieved at some Americans’ misunderstanding of one of the world’s largest religions. We celebrate the rich diversity within all faith traditions.  We stand together to honor the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington and all Muslims who are our neighbors. Continue reading Interfaith Clergy Letter to the Editor in Clark County

There is No Pure Christianity

A long while back a friend of mine wrote on his twitter this remark:

There is no pure Christianity, it is all syncretist.

And I agree with this point, all Christianity today is influenced to a smaller or larger extent by outside forces. I’m not sure it’s ever been any different to tell the truth.

But I want to take this statement in a slightly different direction. What I have been thinking of lately is something more like:

There is no pure christianity, it is all interpretation.

And I don’t think this is necessarily a problem at all. Questions like “what is Christianity?” and “what does it mean to identify as a Quaker?” are ones that I’ve been thinking about a lot, partly because I’m currently preaching on Quaker testimonies and some of the more specific practices within our particular denomination, but it’s also because of the things I hear in general conversation and in the media.

It is not unusual for people to claim “Christianity is this,” “Christianity is that,” “I am a biblical Christian,” or “I am rooted in Christianity and then I go from there.” For many, all you have to do is assent to a couple value-free ideas about faith and everything is peachy-keen. But even to say something as basic as “Jesus is Lord,” is loaded with cultural, theological, spiritual, historical, and narrative significance that cannot be fully understood, appreciated or experienced outside of these things. And I suppose all of this is fine on the surface but what it betrays is that many of us still assume a Christendom culture, or a general understanding that there is one monolithic Christianity that everyone pretty much understands and accepts at some level. But this is just not the case. And for many the Christianity they understand is the Christianity of the 700 Club, the Christianity of the street preachers at the Saturday Market in downtown Portland hooting and hollering damnation at every passer-by. For many, there is no alternative to this, this is for them the only image of Christianity they have ever witnessed.

When people say “I am simply a Christian and that settles it,” or “the basics of Christianity are…” I always wonder, and sometimes ask, which Christianity are they talking about? It has never been a good idea to talk about the Christian faith within the abstract, or in the generic. But that is exactly what is happening today in a world where biblical language, theological imagery, and other Christian assumptions of the Reformation period can no longer be assumed. Today, when we share Christianity with people (I think) it always needs to be couched in our communities, our traditions, and the stories of people who are actually working this stuff out. The Bible is a part of this, but arguing from it alone as though a couple straight-forward ideas will remedy the problems is (IMO) fools-play and makes light of the transformative power of our Lord.

So when we talk about Christian faith are we talking about a Christianity that supports empire or creation? Are we talking about a Christian faith that is rooted in the life of Jesus, or one that simply focuses on his death and resurrection? Are we talking about Christianity of the creeds, or Christianity of the queries? Are we talking about the Christianity of George Fox, John Calvin, Dorothy Day, Lucretia Mott, or George Bush? And while it is possible that somewhere deep down inside the root of all this there is a common thread, but I think we are too far past a point where we can reach that common thread. And for some of this stuff it’s not an either or (for instance, we are all (at least us Americans) implicated in empire whether we like it or not), but what does it lean towards?

We are in a world of interpretations and not only should we not forget this, but we might try embracing it. In fact, I think that they are the very things that can help us discover something that is more meaningful and real than if we are left to simple generic forms of Christianity. So much of what passes as “church” these days is a rip off from a commercial on broadcast TV, a stolen play from a big-box store playbook, or a thinly cloaked politics borrowed from the latest town hall rally or social protest. The capitalist model of faith is one where choice is king. We pick and choose what we like, what feels right, what looks, acts, and talks like us and in the process everything is left bland and generic (both conservative and liberal camps are guilty of this). Another way is to assume for ourselves a tradition that is made up of practices, stories, characters, and particular filters (some helpful and some not) and become people who enter into the Christian faith through that corridor. We can offer an alternative to the street preacher/screamer, but that alternative will not on its own look at all like what passes as Christianity today.

So maybe the fact that there is no pure Christianity at this point is actually helpful if we think about it from the perspective of interpretations and traditions.