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Posts from the ‘interviews’ Category

Public Theology in the Digital Age

I had hoped to video call into a seminary course that my friend Kyle is teaching on public theology, online engagement, and how/why Christians might responsibly drive these nascent digital conversations. Due to a flight, I unfortunately wasn’t able to join the class live, but I still want to reflect on the questions that Kyle shared with me. I hope these reflections will be as helpful to the course as they were to me, and to other interested readers.

What motivate(d/s) you to bring your theological studies into the public sphere via social media? 

I’ve found in the Internet much of what many relatively lonely people, from LGBTQ teens to white nationalists, have – a place where I can connect with others from a wider community that reminds me I am not alone. A place to build momentum and find fellowship that extends beyond my local community.

I started to use social media in the same way that many young people do: without thinking critically about it, just imitating how I saw others acting. As I began to pivot towards using online spaces to engage critical questions of theology and power, I was forced to start thinking more intentionally about my practice. But there certainly wasn’t always a critical reflection embodied in my engagement, lacking sound theory there were certainly more thoughtful ways I could have contributed. We know that what we put out there is always out there, and that’s a scary thought: my great, great grandchildren will have full digital access to my well-intentioned half-truths and mistakes. I hope my children and future generations think more critically about this stuff from the outset.

It wasn’t until college, through participating in online video call book clubs, swapping blog platforms, tweeting, and then co-curating my own projects like the Theology of Ferguson and #StayWokeAdvent anthologies, I began to realize the organizing power of the web.

At first, I really didn’t think that anyone would really care what I was writing or talking about. Questions of representation have influenced how I see myself occupying space online. Knowing that there weren’t many Japanese American or queer or mixed race theologians being read or discussed in general, I became more interested in lending my voice in a public way. I think being present in online spaces is also healing for me, given my years of participation in traumatic forms of Christianity that didn’t really invite authenticity.

How would you describe the relationship between your local community of formation and your broader online community? How does each contribute to your studies and your theological identity? 

I was formed by Christian traditions that tended to share a healthy skepticism for positive uses of the Internet: we were encouraged to think of social media with metaphors of temptation and wildfire. These days, through seminary community and my work at a local Episcopal church, I feel lucky to have a community that honors my public witness. I don’t feel as much like I must hide who I am anymore, which is enormously healing…I have met many other people online for whom local community is toxic or otherwise lacking, which can make for a profoundly isolating journey of faith.

I’ve made many intimate and rewarding friendships online, many of whom even across distance by technology have been actively diffused into my “local” and daily emotional life. Sometimes, though, fusing these two realms has been difficult for me. I know in-person witness and online activity would both be greatly improved if I were able to figure this out better.

What is challenging about hosting and participating in theological conversations online? What is exciting about it?

Many things excite me here: the ability to participate in progressive theological commentary in the public square (not just micro-echo chambers), how this space can help infuse values of ecumenism, feminism, antiracism, and the friendships that can emerge from this cataclysm of pixels and passion.

I was in what I would now call a spiritually abusive faith community in college – when I was eventually placed under discipline for my “spirit of division,” I was asked to sign a contract asking me to stay off of Twitter and my blog for 16 weeks while I read church-selected texts instead. Looking back, their fear really reflects what can actually be a liberating dimension of these spaces, sharpening each other, broadening horizons.

Throughout history, Christians of different traditions were never able to engage each other so immediately. This can bring insight, but also venom…of course, much of the world’s poor is still without Internet access, and for them joining many of these “exciting new” questions is not an option…

There are plenty of other dangers. Of course our culture’s hyper-individualism is a constant threat. I know many people who embody compulsive and extremely unhealthy activity encouraged by constant beeps and pings of news somewhere else. Disputes online are often quickly vicious. With the bridle of personal responsibility clouded by anonymity, people aren’t often as accountable for our words. This manifests in hate speech very frequently, especially directed towards women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, sex workers, etc.

You think and write a lot about the intersection of race, sexuality, gender, theology, and the public sphere. What have you learned about the practice of online discourse and community around these particular topics? 

For one, I see learning from others through pointed conversations on social media as an active part of my own theological training. Twitter in particular has supplemented and improved my ability to think theologically by introducing me to the work of many diverse and faithful people with whom I otherwise never would have encountered. Given the racial insularity of most Americans’ social networks (especially true for whites, especially true in worship and church spaces), by connecting with the theological insights of other people of color online I have been able expand the tiniest bit further outside of my own social/ethnic bubbles.

In my experience Twitter, as a digitized urban space where anyone is able to connect with another without shared physical location (in-person) or prior relationship (Facebook), serves a unique and educational purpose, as well as a movement-building space for those interested in doing theology online in a just way. Again, this engagement has been personally helpful for not uncritically producing unconsciously racist white or myopic theology in my own life and work.

Something to watch out for is that all the dynamics of race, gender, sexuality, and power as manifested in physical interactions between people are all still at play in virtual spaces – often without being named as such.

What advice do you have for other faith leaders who want to participate in public theological conversation?

Hop in, with both feet! Ask questions and create content that you are passionate about, that engages pressing theological issues. (This could look like collaborative projects like @ThirtySOL or public conversations like #PresbyIntersect or #SlateSpeak or something entirely different). Form relationships, do not just push your project. Especially if you have a larger platform, boost and share content from people who are experiencing harm in concrete and overlooked ways. There are plenty of people with a public platform that will influence many people who have less than nothing to do with helping create imaginative and liberative theological content.

As encouraged in your course syllabus, I would suggest reflecting on and creating a personal “rule of life” around social media engagement/consumption to limit unhealthy behavior. This is an area in which I struggle, and would like to grow further. I would be eager to hear from others how they are able to increasingly honor their own physical community as well as lend a voice to broader conversations.

There is something unique that you have to add to this conversation. The cosmic cocktail of DNA consciousness flesh ancestors spirit that produced you has never before appeared, and never again will. You can bring your unique perspectives to the living questions of how to heed the call of Christian discipleship in the midst of awful social woes. You can help keep the same voices from dominating the theological conversation. Each of us is impoverished to go the journey without you.

breaking point

Tomorrow I head home after a 5 day campus activities programming conference in Nashville, TN.

I got to meet some incredible people, hear some incredible things, and most surprisingly, use my story to (as one agent put it) “truly transform people’s lives.”

Here are a few pictures with some notable people:

frankie muniz - malcom in the middle

frankie muniz – malcom in the middle

LZ Granderson - CNN journalist and ESPN commentator.

LZ Granderson – CNN journalist and ESPN commentator.

Entrepreneur and lecturer Derreck Kayongo, founder of the Global Soap Project, is powerfully changing the way this world works - one bar of soap at a time.

This is entrepreneur and lecturer Derreck Kayongo, founder of the Global Soap Project.  He is powerfully changing the way this world works – one bar of soap at a time.

hehe

hehe

Jose Antonio Vargas - journalist, speaker, activist for immigrant's rights!

Jose Antonio Vargas – journalist, speaker, activist for immigrant’s rights!

Daniel Hernandez, the intern credited and lauded by Barack Obama for saving Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford's life in a 2011 shooting.

Daniel Hernandez, the intern credited and lauded by Barack Obama for saving Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s life in a 2011 shooting.
Nev Schulman, director of the acclaimed documentary (and now T.V. show) "Catfish"

Nev Schulman, director of the acclaimed documentary (and now T.V. show) “Catfish”

In many ways, I was brought to a breaking point this weekend, but it was definitely a positive experience.

What I mean by that is the cons, the stresses, the broken and tensed relationships that sometimes seemed to plague my conference experience, were hard to deal with at times.

I felt like breaking in half half the time.

But ALL of these things were absolutely overwhelmed by the amazing people I have met this week, and by the experiences we were all able to share together within just a few days.

I am learning a lot about how to handle such stress better, how to take it to God and not take it out on those I care about.  This conference experience, aside from a wealth of programming and recruitment knowledge to take back to my position, has taught me that…real love?  It is patient and kind, not envious or rude, not arrogant or self-seeking.

And I’ve really learned that I certainly have a long way to go in actually becoming patient and kind, not envious or rude, not arrogant or self-seeking.

So thank you to the friends I have made this week.  I honestly will miss you all and hope to see you again someday.  Thank you for the love and grace you have shown me.  It is the most encouraging thing in the world.

Anyhow, I would love to talk with anyone about my experience, pass on information, answer any questions, brainstorm about programming, etc. once I get back onto campus.  Please just shoot me an email.

Several of the above photographed have actually agreed to do an interview on the blog with me, so definitely be looking out for those as well.

(Also, if you haven’t heard, I’ll be studying abroad in Costa Rica this summer :)!  woohoo!)

Sorry I don’t have more.  I love you all back home and thank you so much for the support.

Grace and Peace,

Brightside

Larry and the faith – interview with a recovering Christian

I have a best friend.

Let’s call him Larry, mostly because that’s his name.

He really respects and admires Jesus.

But he doesn’t get a kick out of going to church.  He doesn’t really like Christians.  He doesn’t like talking about the faith, much less defending it.

But when you really get down into it, you can hardly blame him.

Listening to some of the negative experiences he’s had with Christianity, even the funny ones, your heart breaks just a little bit.  You begin to realize that it’s no less than a miracle he still marginally identifies with the religion.  You feel a righteous anger towards the people who have played a part in turning him away from much of the organized belief system and very nearly from Christ Himself.

The purpose of sharing this interview is to illustrate that many people raised in the church often feel a sense of alienation from the real, vibrant person of Christ as a result of a constant, very un-real, forced exposure to a dead building and cold people who only nominally bear His image.

My hope is that any jaded, disillusioned, or former Christians out there will find renewed hope in that they are not alone in their experiences, and yes, that there is still a place for them in the kingdom.  Reader, if poor and abusive family experience or hollow religion has played any part in turning you away from Christ, please know that God still so earnestly desires a relationship with you.

And so, on behalf of the rest of the hypocrites (of whom I am the foremost) I sincerely, deeply apologize.  I pray for your renewed interest in the God made flesh, that you would discover that the incredible manifestation of God as man is bigger than any one sect of religion.

The incarnation was a human thing before it was ever a religious thing.

And so I am saying (quite controversially I expect) that if it absolutely comes down to it, if organized religion has spurred you too far away from the church, if there’s absolutely no room for forgiveness right now…leave us all behind and just seek after Him.  Hard.

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT WITH LARRY HARRIS

*Certain names and places have been [REDACTED], [UNDISCLOSED], or otherwise subtly altered at the request of the interviewee*

*narrative interjections will be in italics*

Larry sits across from me completely relaxed and at ease, exhibiting his standard demeanor.  Despite the frequent seriousness of the discussion, he approaches the topic with a warm grin that is only interrupted by fits of sneezing as a result of his allergies.

RYAN: So tell me about church life, growing up.

LARRY: Sunday school was from like 8-11am, then a thirty minute break.  Afternoon service roughly 11:30-3:00, then a 2 hr break, then from 5:00-8:00pm.  We seldom ever went to evening service, but I was basically at church from 8am-3pm.  Longest hours of my life, ugh.  Dude, can you imagine being at church from eight to three?

R: Shoot.

L:  And this is how I always knew it was time to go to church.

Larry leans back in his chair, smiling at the memory.

Me and my brother we’d be sleeping, all the lights’d be off and my mom would come in and she’d be like ‘TIME FA CHURCH! TIME FA CHURCH!’

Larry stands and walks over to the light switch and begins flickering the lights on and off.  He retakes his seat and chuckles.

I’d always be like “ma, Im sick.”

Larry’s voice goes up about three octaves as he imitates his mother’s pitch.

‘Well, going to church will make you better!’

He shrugs and allows a good-natured smile.

And you know, I can’t say she was wrong.

Some of the earliest experiences Larry had with Christianity were at King of Glory Tabernacle, the congregation he and his family attended for many years.  Larry recounts one Sunday in particular he will never forget, when the pastor drew him up for a solo altar call.

L: [The pastor] was walking down the aisle, holding a little microphone and like talking.  And then he was like:

“Larry,

come on down.”

I was like “no pastor, I’m alright.”

“Larry, come on down.”

“Pastor, I’m alright.”

My mom, she was sitting in the front row, she turns around and just points.  I used to like sit in the back, she sat all the way in the front and she pointed like GO.  So he takes me up in front of the whole church and puts his hand on my head and starts like talking really close to my face and his breath was really horrible, just horrible.

R: I thought he was screaming about Satan or something.

L: He might’ve mentioned him a few times.  He was praying for me in this low fervor, his breath right in my face.  Just me, in front of everybody.  Ugh.

R: So church was fun.

L: Church was entertaining, just for the people who were there.

R: So church wasn’t always bad.

L: No, not at all.  There’s some good things.

R: How about an experience that was maybe more funny than harmful?

L: I was riding in the car one time with my friend and her mom who picked us up and her mom says to me “want me to teach you how to speak in tongues?”  I was like…

He makes a face.

But I couldn’t say no, so I was like “okay.”

She’s like “repeat after me: ohh MAMALASHACKALABA!”

He smiles, barely containing a strong laugh.

I was like…”ooh mamalashackalaba!” But I’m thinking the whole time like, you can’t teach it to someone, you can only start speaking it when you catch the holy ghost!  I don’t have the holy ghost right now!

We share a warm laugh.

R: So tell me about the holy ghost.

L: Dude, crazy stuff!  Little old ladies get it in em and they start high-kneeing it around the church.  This one time, man…

Larry has to pause his hearty laughter in order to continue.

I’m sorry, this is too funny.  This one time, this old lady took a whole round around the church and ran up to this other lady in the front row and went like “OOOOOOOH!” and she slapped the shit outta her!  I mean, she slapped her hard, right across the face!  Me and [my brother] Corey were cracking up and I asked my mom what happened and she was like “that’s not the holy ghost, that’s the ghost with holes, baby!”  I honestly think she just used it as an excuse to slap her though.

He laughs even more, prompting my next, clarifying question.

R: She slapped her?

L: Yes!  She was eating grapes, too, when it happened.

R: Hold on.  The slappee or the slapper?

L: The slappee.

R: Why was she eating grapes?

L: She was sneaking-eating them cuz you know how you’re not supposed to be eating in church?  Her old slick ass trying to eat in church.  She’d cough as like the pastor says amen and cover her mouth and go like this

Larry mimics slowly pulling grapes from a purse and sliding them quietly into his mouth.  We both are nearly in tears with laughter.

I can’t believe her old slick ass was eating grapes like that dude!  Slick as hell!  She be sitting in the front row too!  After church Corey went up and asked her for a grape and she got mad she was like “what grapes?”

The two of us take a significant amount of time to audibly share in the humor of this story.

L: That’s why I love old people so much.

R: Because they’re mean?

L: Because they do stupid shit!

R: So what other stuff did the old people in your church do?

L: I remember this one perverted dude in the church, he’d put himself out there and like try to cop a feel on everyone who walked past his pew, this old nasty perverted man.

R: Maybe you could tell me a bit about one of the earlier experiences you’ve had with the old-people-Jehovah’s Witnesses?

L: Which one, there’s two of em.  The one where they chased me in the park and the one where they tried to break down my door.

R: Let me hear about the one in the park first.

L: Me and my friends, we were at the park.  We were just hanging out there, it was like seventh grade, and we had [seen] earlier the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on peoples’ doors.

He pauses and sips a glass of water.

So we was just at the park and suddenly this old white car pulls up and a couple of them get out. So we start walking away and we notice they start walking a little brisker pace after us and we started walking faster too, so we ran, and they started chasing us.

In a rather unprofessional manner, I interrupt the interview with a fit of laughter.

L: I don’t understand why that’s so funny.

R: Yeah you do, you do.

He shakes his head.

L: Dude, they were literally chasing us.

R: What were they gonna do if they caught you?

L: I don’t know.  What were they gonna…now that’s a good question!

He clicks his tongue incredulously.

You know what else, I remember the first question they’d always ask is “if you were to die right now, would you go to heaven or to hell?”  If there’s one thing I remember from all my encounters with them, that’s what it would be.  My next question would be: “are you gonna kill me right now?  You might.”

He pauses, lost in reflection.

L: Another time, I remember my brother was messing with them.  He came to the door in his boxers and they left quick.

We laugh.

R: So tell me about this other experience with them.

L: The one where they interrupted our peaceful Sunday dinner?

R: Yes.

L: It was this older lady and this younger lady.  I remember this vividly because the older lady had short hair.  We were having breakfast – that’s right it was Saturday, because we always had breakfast together on Saturdays – and we see them walking up the to door through the window.  So they started knocking and we just sat there ignoring em but apparently they knew we were home because they saw the three cars in the driveway, my mom, my dad, and Corey’s car.  And they kept knocking.  We still didn’t answer of course.  My mom didn’t even wanna talk to em, that’s saying something!

Larry pauses to blow his nose and apologizes for his allergies.

So I went over to the door all quietly and started looking out the peephole at them.  Then the older lady starts grabbing the door handle and twisting it like this.

Larry stands and imitates jiggling a doorknob.

My mom was about to go over to them, but my dad was like “honey, sit down.”

He breaks into laughter

Ryan, I’m not even exaggerating right now.  Then the lady starts like football-arming the door like this.

Standing, he begins to imitate several hard shoves against an imaginary door.  He reseats himself and laughs.

You can’t make something like this up, y’know?  You don’t make Jehovah’s Witnesses trying to break down your door up.  I mean, holding the handle like this she’s like

He thrusts his body one more time to get the point across.

That’s when my mom went to the door and told them to leave.

He shakes his head.

Cuz that’s disrespectful as hell, knocking against someone’s door.

I laugh profusely.

L: Now that’s the same question as my other story: what the hell were they gonna do if they got it open?

R: I don’t know, man.

L: No, seriously though!  What would they have done if they got inside the house?  I realize they knew we were there because of the cars, but they should’ve also realized that we were ignoring them!

R: Man… so it sounds like even at such a young age, you had your fair share of negative experiences with religion, am I right?

L: Negative, but in a way where it didn’t make me hate church, it was just so funny that all those were so coincidental.  But nah, I was always bored with churches.

R: Okay, so let me shift gears here for a second.  Hypocrisy is a word that critics often use when commenting on Christianity.  Has this been your experience at all?

L: Well, there’s this one person I knew who be praising God all day long.  Well, as soon as church ends they be smoking a cigarette outside.

R: A cigarette.

L: What?

I can’t help but laugh for a few seconds.

R: Who cares, man.

L: I thought smoking was bad.

I laugh for longer than I’d like to admit.

L: Oh, I almost forgot to tell you about this other time with this homosexual guy.

R: What happened?

L: Well I was in church, sitting behind this woman who had a wig on and she was just talking about love and saying hallelujah and all that crap and then this gay guy walked past, and she started cursing him under her breath.  I think that’s the biggest thing I don’t like about the church, the way they treat gay people.  I don’t like it at all.  They seriously treat them as if they’re inhuman.

There have been more serious transgressions as well.  Larry’s first pastor (the altar-caller) was fired when it was discovered that he had secretly and illegally remortgaged the church for a second time and pocketed the money.  Larry’s mother was on one occasion physically choked by [REDACTED], who was at the time the pastor of his own congregation.  Perhaps the most striking of his experiences is that one of Larry’s closest friends, at age twelve, was raped in her church by the deacon.  Larry recounts one of her experiences during the subsequent trial:

L: Ryan.  It was terrible.  She had to describe how his penis looked to an entire courtroom, at twelve years old.  And it happened in the church.  You know, a place where you’re supposed to feel all secure and stuff?  And then you turn around and get raped.  It screwed her up for her whole life.  Absolutely terrible.

R: What about [REDACTED]?

L: Yeah, [REDACTED], I told you about him, how he used to be a pastor?  Okay.  He was this really “godly” man.  But I always said this, that he always had everybody fooled because I knew there was something about him that I didn’t like.  I just had that feeling, y’know?  He used to have church in his house, because it was a really nice house, and, well, he always be saying stuff to me and Cory like “whenever y’all gettin’ married, y’all need to get y’all a freak.”  And people always be like, aw he’s just kidding.  I was like…he’s not kidding.

He burps.

L: Scuse me

Larry clears his throat.

L: Don’t put that in.

R: Of course.

L:  Yeah.  But um, he [was] just always saying crazy stuff like that to us…like his wife was bending over this one time and he says “you need to get you a freak with a big butt like this” and slaps her across the bottom.

Larry scoffs.

He’s this widely respected man, he lived in [UNDISCLOSED], he was the treasurer of [UNDISCLOSED], IL, he was about to be elected to village trustee, all of that crap.  This really respected pastor dude.  As time went on, he divorced his wife, [REDACTED], he pretty much just left her and he started dating this other woman but he’d stay with [REDACTED] for a night and just have sex with her and then next morning he didn’t want anything to do with her.  It was really tearing her apart.

R: Doesn’t sound like a very godly man.

L: Ain’t that the truth.  And there’s more.  I got a friend [REDACTED]; he’s had a rough life in the sense that he brought the rough life upon himself.  He got involved in some bad stuff when he was younger.  But he’s turning his life around and he’s going to church all the time now and he really loves my mom.  She keeps him on the right track now.

R: Cool.

L: Yeah, anyhow, he was living with [REDACTED] for a while and when he came to see us and he told us [REDACTED] has been on drugs for years.  He does weed, all that stuff.

R: All that stuff?

L: All the crazy drugs.

R: What does that mean?

L: I don’t know.  Pills or something.  My mom and I were standing there listening to him talk and she was all surprised but I was just looking at her like:

Larry makes a face I can only describe as “I told you so.”

He lets out a chuckle.

Maybe I did have  a lot of bad religious experiences.  I always laughed em off though.

R: But it wasn’t all bad.  You were telling me that just the other day you experienced what you described as a real, “God moment.”  Can you tell me about that?

L: Sure.  Well, you know it’s been a crazy week.  So I was just sitting in my room, thinking like why am I not crazy right now, when I realized it…it’s God.  He’s keeping me sane.  Even though I’m so busy, He’s been looking out for me this whole time.  He’s got my back now and He always will.

He gives a broad smile.

I just remembered, another church experience that was always good was auntie Lorraine.  She ran children’s church, they’d teach us stuff, we’d learn entire bible verses.  I think that actually helped me a lot dude, she helped introduce me to God and Jesus and all that stuff.

END TRANSCRIPT

I don’t know that Larry realizes how rare it is that he still calls upon the name of Jesus.  That he still can say and believe that God is “unconditional love” only points to the testament that Christ truly is healer.  God pursues us in spite of all human resistance.

So Larry doesn’t like how most Christians act.  So he doesn’t agree with everything the church agrees with.  Given his experiences, you can hardly blame him.

And you know what, I can’t honestly say I’m too far off base from him.

As an aside, regardless of your views on these issues, I don’t know that you’d disagree with us either.

I can’t honestly say that many of my LGBTQ friends would feel welcomed in the churches I’ve attended throughout my life.

I can’t honestly say that a man struggling in the depths of depression and loss, maybe just twenty-four hours sober, would be looked upon with welcome eyes were he to stop by my congregation on a Sunday morning.

I can’t honestly say that he would not be more likely escorted from the premises than helped.

There is a reason why typing “Christians are” into Google prompts the immediate suggestions “crazy, hypocrites, ignorant, delusional.”

True, some of this can’t be helped; we believe that the God of the universe actually came down in human flesh to show us how to live and to die for us so that we could be reconciled to Him and be finally freed from all the evils and afflictions on this earth.

If that’s not absolutely crazy, I don’t know what is.

But you see my point.

Where we should be providing resources for people, we provide scorn.  We judge.  We think we are better than “those sinners.”

So what do you think?  Is it really beneficial in the long run to force your children to attend a service they don’t understand each week?  Are we even “doing church right”?  Do you think our behavior is long-due for an overhaul?

I’ll let Larry close.

R: Any final thoughts?

L: Yeah, you should say I’m handsome.  Be like “as I gazed upon his handsome, smooth, black face, I came to an epiphany; that I have a very nice-looking friend.”

R: Larry.

He laughs.

L: Yeah, well I think the main thing we have to consider when we’re really getting down to it is are we really showing God’s love to people?  Are people walking into church thinking “I’m going to experience God today” or are they thinking “I’m going to get yelled at and told what to do by my pastor today”?

I don’t think Jesus would come back and be like “yes, that, that’s exactly what church is supposed to be like.  That’s what I want.”  And at the end of the day, that’s what matters.  It’s not about how many seats you fill, it’s not about how much you get in the collection basket.  It’s about that agape, that unconditional love.

END TRANSCRIPT

Larry Harris is a sophomore studying Political Science at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.  He is pursuing a career in the foreign diplomacy and one day aspires to be President of the United States.