Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

Aerosol Icons and Subversive Spiritualities – Take 1

Bromford Dreams @ Bham Uni 012-thumb
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Over the last few years I’ve noticed several key strands emerging in relation to thinking about the nature and role of ‘Church’ in the 21st century….At one end of the spectrum we find attempts to re-assert a ‘church-centric’ postmodern Christian vision which arguably eschews serious engagement with the social sciences and is wary of faith groups partnering with government. We could think of this as an ecclesiology of/for the ‘big society’, a new ‘Christendom’ or what has become known as ‘radical orthodoxy’ (seen for example in the work of John Millbank). At a grassroots level it’s possible to see some linkage between these ideas and what has become known as ‘emergent church’. At the other end of the same spectrum we see the emergence of an alternative ‘post-secular’ theological narrative within which ‘Church’ finds its space as part of a network (or perhaps rhizome) of narratives of meaning in a society that has become increasingly suspicious of organized religion of any sort. We might call this ‘third space’ ecclesiology (seen perhaps in the work of Chris Baker) – more ‘Occupy’ than ‘big society’. As the place of faith in the public sphere has once again become a central political question the Christian community in the UK finds itself at a watershed moment. These two strands of political theology continue to stimulate challenging discussions about the future for faith in the 21st century. And yet both approaches leave me feeling uneasy for three reasons.

First, whilst at a personal level those associated with these perspectives are often involved in ‘hands-on’ activism both narratives appear disengaged from the raw underside of contemporary urban society, from the disturbing and creative messy stories within which grassroots communities find and make their own meaning. The urban theorist Leonie Sandercock speaks about the ways in which organic humanistic spiritualities emerge from the backstreets of our urban world. I think that’s what I’m looking for – a ‘bottom-up’ political theology for the 21st century that is more interested in people than dogma.

Second, I’m uneasy because the big debates I very briefly hinted at above don’t seem to engage with the real lives of a huge chunk of UK society – people who have got no time at all for organized/formal religion but are not ‘post-secular’ because they were never ‘secular’. Let me explain quickly what I mean by referring to my own experience. For the last 18 months I’ve been working alongside unemployed 16-24 year old young men on a large housing estate in Birmingham. The so-called ‘N.E.E.Ts’ (not in employment, education or training) that provide convenient (but flawed and one-dimensional) symbols of what David Cameron has called ‘broken Britain’….The young men that I’ve got to know have got no time for organized religion – that’s for other, older, richer, more powerful people, not them (they say). And yet these young men do not reject the possibility of ‘God’, just Her/His presence in their neighbourhood (one of the 2% most deprived in England in 2011). Theirs is a spirituality characterized by solidarity, anti-racist inclusivity, resistance, creativity and hope. It is no more ‘post secular’ or ‘third space’ than it is ‘radically orthodox’ but it’s the world and the narrative of meaning of an urban world that ‘top down’ theologies just don’t touch.

Third, I feel uneasy with current theological narratives because their carefully honed and thoughtful arguments fail to connect with a ‘post-literate’ culture where truth, meaning and identity are more often encased within images and the oft-derided popular culture as Gordon Lynch has argued. Yes, of course popular culture can be reduced to the bubble gum pop of X Factor or to the tabloid TV of Big Brother, but it can also be a vehicle for the exploration and expression of alternative narratives of meaning and ‘bottom-up’ protest. Over recent months I’ve been thinking more and more about images – the part they play in the life of the city, in our definition of who we are and in spirituality. Might it be the case, as Tom Beaudoin wondered that popular culture may, in fact, represent a ‘surrogate clergy’ in the 21st century?

As part of my work alongside unemployed young men we have drawn on their use of graffiti art to explore their ideas about social exclusion, identity, truth and resistance to negative stereotyping. Working alongside the Muslim graffiti artist Mohammed Ali the young men have created a huge ‘Bromford Dreams’ cube which juxtaposes images of exclusion, powerlessness and a sense of being forgotten with images of hope, solidarity, prayer and resistance. The cube which has sat proudly on the Bromford estate for the last month has now been brought to the campus of the University of Birmingham. We have brought the urban edge into the urban centre. The art of young men who are often written off now stands alongside the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The art of young men who say ‘God doesn’t live round here’ will be seen by the Archbishop of Canterbury as Rowan Williams visits the University to give a lecture – the edge meets the centre…

In the face of debates about the place of faith in a plural public sphere and discussions amongst advocates of radical orthodoxy and post-secularism the aerosol icon created by unemployed young men offers an alternative model of urban spirituality that is messy, unfinished, organic and subversive. Might such a narrative present a more disturbing, challenging and creative ecclesiological future than big ideas, however well argued?

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(3) Comments

  1. I think that Chris is overemphasizing the differences between his grass roots “bottoms up” theology and that which is not only written about but practiced by Chris Baker and myself under the auspices of the William Temple Foundation. Research carried out by the WTF in Manchester and the North West reveals and acknowledges exactly the complexity and disengagement with institutional religion described from a Birmingham context. In addition, the language and concepts that we are working with are attempts to do justice to the messiness, blurred encounters, entangled fidelities, local theology that have been my own way of trying to establish the primacy of a local approach. But, I have also had to acknowledge the limits of any form of localism which fails to engage with the wider political processes that determine and shape our lives from above. Local, in itself, is not adequate to describe the context, hence the need to find ways of engaging in wider political debate and to work out how faith groups can and do fit into that larger picture. The term “postsecular” is simply another bit of language that may assist in that process and is not claiming to be yet another theological master narrative along the lines of Radical Orthodoxy. So lets talk and discover the common ground here, but with reference to what we are actually writing and doing rather than to a detached academic debate.

  2. I am grateful for Chris’s contribution and he is clearly making some important points, most of which I agree with. His point about the disengagement of third space ecclesiology as a concept from the realities of lived existence is of course true – most concepts take away something real and vital from messy human experience and praxis. But I would remind him that the work of Sandercock (always inspirational) and my use of her work did in fact emerge from church-based praxis. Having embarked in a very open and inductive research programme, looking at the engagement of eight different churches in urban regeneration projects in Manchester in the early 2000s, I was actually looking for some theory that expressed the messy, complex, multi-layered and often quite ambiguous ways in which these churches felt they had an impact, but were also changed themselves through the experience. The idea of third space and hybridity actually fitted in very well (along with other ideas such as Pete Ward’s Liquid Church) and I struggled hard to keep it as an open and fluid concept, recognising that as soon as it became reified, it no longer became a Third Space. It tries to represent something which is more performative and interrogatory than static and essentialised, although also rooted within what I define as a reformulated or radical Christian realist social ethics (Hybrid Church in the City – Third Space Thinking SCM 2009. But I am more than happy to be consigned with the work of the Occupy movement rather than the Big Society!

    I think the project that Chris refers to is great and inspiring and the impacts he describes are fantastic. However, I find his ideas of popular culture as ‘surrogate clergy’ fairly flimsy – for all its faults I worked pretty hard at trying to locate an ontological justification of the Third Space within philosophical, ecclesiological, ethical and theological categories. I think I would struggle to do the same necessary work with this idea. I like the idea of making the fact that we live in a post-literate society a positive virtue, but I suspect more work needs to be done as to what that might mean, and in such a way that it doesn’t simply collude with a mindless ‘politics of affect’. And I do perhaps detect a certain naivety regarding this idea that graffiti is pure counter-culture with no power issues attached? What I see in the photo is a beautifully constructed piece of public art, located in the context of ‘academy’ and ‘high culture’ where I suspect it has every danger of being acquired for a handsome price by an art collector on the prowl for a new Banksy or P183. Unfortunately popular culture is more than ever desirable and commodifiable, precisely because we possibly live in a post-literate age and have therefore lost (potentially) our ability for critical and strategic thought. One person’s subversive is another person’s art trophy. But ultimately I agree with the questions I think Chris is trying to raise: how do we avoid this?; how do we ‘capitalise’ politically rather than simply aesthetically on the Cube? and how might we understand ideas of ’church’ in relation to this key task? Otherwise the edge will meet the centre, but what will really change?

  3. Christopher Shannahan - Reply

    I am pleased that John and Chris have offered thoughtful responses to my recent post. Both comments provide me with food for thought and are really welcome. Perhaps I could just offer a couple of responses. To John – I hope I am not over-emphasising the distinction between ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’ and I am aware of the long standing praxis of WTF. However the gap, as I see it in ‘third space’ theologies as they currently stand is in the lack of significant engagement with the blurred and messy world of grass-roots urban popular cultures (and I’m not talking X Factor). I recognise the dangers of ‘localism’ that you note but think that the ‘bottom-up’ third space theology I am looking for is ‘glocal’ (not ‘local’) in character. To Chris – thanks for your thoughtful response, just two thoughts: first whilst I recognise the tabloid nature of Beaudoin’s sound-bite I don’t see the argument as a flimsy one…It’s a perception that is shared in more measured terms by folk like Gordon Lynch, Paul Gilroy and Robert Beckford. Maybe not ‘surrogate clergy’ but I would argue for the existential significance of some forms of popular culture. On that point it’s worth noting the the cube pictured was designed and painted by unemployed young men from the Bromford estate in Birmingham. I hope it’s not reduced to no more than a ‘beautifully constructed piece of public art’…More of an insurgency into the ‘academy’ I hope than an ‘art trophy’. The Cube will return to the estate. If it doesn’t I think the guys who created it will have something to say! I would definitely not make overblown claims about this one project changing the centre but the evidence so far is that the Cube has stimulated some constructive conversations and subverted a few stereotypes…Thanks both for making me think about what we’ve been doing….I’m hoping to begin work on an article and a book thinking about some of these issues in far greater depth and would love to get your views on what I come up with.

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