Thursday, 22 October 2009

Why Theology Matters (even if you don't understand it)

I was in a seminar recently, sat next to a guy who worked for a missionary organisation that did work out in Africa. The seminar was pretty academic, and there was plenty of jargon in there about 'discourse' and 'hermeneutics of suspicion.' At the end, we were asked (slightly weirdly, I thought), to talk in small groups about what we'd thought, and the missionary man said something like this: 'Oh, it was all over my head. I'm too simple for all that. But I just can't see what all this has to do with the lives of ordinary people.'

James K A Smith recently published a collection of essays called The Devil Reads Derrida. The title article, which I think is the same as this one, addresses the question of why Christians should engage with secular philosophy. He uses an example from the film The Devil Wears Prada:
In a key scene, Miranda (played so devilishly by Meryl Streep) is presiding over her entourage, trying to select just the right belt to accessorize the cover ensemble for next month's magazine. They are passionately deliberating between two belts, which, to the untrained eye, look almost identical. Her fashion-averse assistant Andy (played by Anne Hathaway) stumbles into the gathering. Growing impatient, and with a flippant disdain for fashion, she refers to the rack of designs merely as "stuff." Miranda, in that calm, satanic stare that Streep nailed so well, pauses and quietly says:

"'Stuff'? Oh, OK. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet, and you select, I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue. It's not turquoise. It's actually cerulean. You're also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when, in fact, you're wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room ... from a pile of 'stuff.'"

Smith uses this example to talk about the way that culture is shaped by the thinking that goes on in the sort of academic contexts that most of us look at and say "Wuh?" Derrida, Foucault, Zizek, Lacan, Kristeva: you may not even have heard of these people, and if you can understand everything they say, you're a smarter cookie than I, but these are (some of) the thinkers who shape what we think now and what we will think in the future. Pretty much everything we do, think, want and feel is affected by the discussions that experts have in language that 99% of us find totally impenetrable. I'm typing this in a blog application, on a computer, using the internet and I have no idea how it works. And you know what? That's ok. I don't need to know binary, or even html, to get the benefits of computers. You don't need to understand couture to get dressed in the morning. You don't need to understand John Milbank to have your life transformed by Jesus. But just don't say this: 'I just can't see what all this has to do with the lives of ordinary people.' This has everything to do with the lives of ordinary people.

12 comments:

Tractor Girl said...

That is such a good post. Think at times both sides of the conversation need reminding that theology has everything to do with ordinary people.

Becky said...

Does understanding this type of philosophical thought provide solutions for 'ordinary people' though? I'd be interested in the next step in this argument, and also an account of exactly how theory trickles down into everyday life. In the Prada example, while cerulean does make its way into Andrea's outfit, its effect is pretty benign. I read a book ages ago by a Christian about the effect of cultural/critical theory on everyday life, but found it to be scaremongering rather than true. Do you think theory can be useful?

Matt Wilson said...

Maybe Streep's character was right or maybe fashion doesn't matter and that's why most folk are happy to let a few obsessives worry about it on behalf of everyone else. Maybe academics are right and do shape the thinking of us all, or maybe the academics that become notorious just describe badly what becomes obvious to everyone else.

dave said...

Hear hear! And what is true of philosophy and theology also goes for science etc. One thing I've found very interesting doing a science PhD is how far removed the media's perception and understanding of science (particularly the uncertainties and the human judgement involved) are from the reality of science at a research level. Unfortunately this means that whoever shouts louds gets heard (cf. Dawkins). It's classic vocal minority stuff.
Dave Howey

dave said...

p.s. becky said "Does understanding this type of philosophical thought provide solutions for 'ordinary people' though?".
The thing is, every 'ordinary person' actually has their own philosophy. Their own worldview, unspoken assumptions, things they hold to be true, beliefs and so on. I think the sooner we become aware of this for ourselves and are able to articulate it to some degree, the better, because otherwise we're in danger of (1) being manipulated (2) taking on anything that comes our way, without weighing it up first.

Becky said...

Dave, I agree that everyone has their worldview, but that's very different to a philosophical structure that has been subject to years of academic thought. I think that's another example of the way in which academia (which I'm involved in) and everyday life (also involved in!) can be conflated more than they should be. It's not a straightforward correlation between continental philosophy and the assumptions that guide our general lives as Christian authors often make it out to be.

Becky said...

Oh yeah, I meant to say, I think a lot of this reflective type stuff has to do with personality and desire. If your desire and interest is towards fashion then by all means study every inch of it and do as rigorously as you are able, and if your desire is towards philosophy, then do the same. But in both cases, don't start thinking that everyone needs to be involved.

dave said...

Becky - I agree - if you are interested in something you may want to study it in more depth and this may not be of interest to anyone else. But surely it even if it is not of interest, it may affect them? I may have no academic interest in heat transfer and thermodynamics (actually I do) but everyone surely cares about the amount they have to pay on their heating bill.

Also I agree that worldviews are often less rigorous than 'academic philosophical structures' as you call them. Not quite sure what you are getting at about their being a non-straightforward link between philosophy and 'the assumptions that guide our general lives'. I have a feeling that if this is the case, this may be the fault of academia for not communicating ideas clearly and accessibly.

Irishcobra said...

I enjoyed this topic especially since I am currently studying Theology at the sprightly age of 56. We are never too old to learn new things and to adopt new ways. For those who question the practicalities of theology and how it can effect your life that is entirely up to the individual and how much they put what they learn into practice. Like most things you only gain from something dependent on what you are prepared to put into it.
Jim

Andrew said...

I think this is probably largely true. Keynes expressed it well: 'Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.'

A good example is the word 'worldview', which until some 25 years ago seems to me to have been restricted to arcane continental philosophy books, and usually written 'Weltanschauung'. The concept has trickled down, presumably through academics to politicians, preachers, and popular books. People found it a useful way to talk, to the extent that I heard schoolkids on the train talking about a friend's 'world' and whether the idea of (eg) being a teacher's pet was 'in' it.

However, I wonder sometimes whether academics use the argument as a kind of comforting doctrine to justify their activities. Most theologians will not, even indirectly, impact on the thoughts of jockeys and tree surgeons.

Also, I think it is important that, as recognised in some of the comments above, the fact that Lacan is of interest to smart journalists, and that the view of smart journalists are of interest to popular journalists, and their ideas are of interest to postal deliverers - does not imply that the postal workers are or should be interested in Lacan.

John Uebersax said...

Well what you say I think is true as far as popular culture is concerned -- but are we supposed to take popular culture seriously? The theories of Derrida and other intellectual poster-boys filter down and affect the thinking of Madonna and President Obama, but nobody serious. It's the pavlum they feed the grad students in the U.S. But compare that to more profound, timeless ideas -- the Christian Wisdom literature, Plato, or the Bhagavad Gita. No, I'm of the opinion that 20th century intellectuals are mainly sophists. They give the public what it wants -- just like the fashion designers. As you suggest, maybe it's all a vast make-work project: keep debating silly theories to justify the faculty positions.

Marika said...

You're right, why take popular culture seriously? I for one never watch TV or films, listen to music or the radio, or am in any way influenced in my ideas and attitudes by the world around me. Oh, wait...