A Thin Line Between Influence and Cultural Appropriation

As scholars, we constantly have to walk the fine line between being influenced by other thinkers, other methodologies, and co-opting those for our own purposes. Having lived in and spent time in Latin America, I’ve keenly felt the tension between allowing things to influence my work, to make me a better theologian and ethicist, and simply taking them as my own. 

The first time I went to El Salvador, I came back shattered (and I mean that in a good sense, which I realize sounds odd). In trying to process through it all, I remember a good friend and member of my small group saying that I needed to do the work for myself, I couldn’t just embrace a place and a world that isn’t mine and lay claim to it, to (in my words) colonize it. At the time, I’m pretty sure I reacted somewhat flippantly to her words, but over the next few years, they formed the foundation of my personal reflection and my work.

Because spending time immersed in another culture, regardless of whether it is down the street from you or half a world away, does change you. Places and spaces and peoples have different operative theologies, different ethical systems, different customs, and different worldviews. When you encounter them, it’s impossible not to be changed: some people cling even more tightly to the things they know and love, some people reject from whence they come and grab onto the new, and others wrestle, day in and day out, with trying to figure out to live authentically, with disparate sets of experience, and to somehow still make meaning. Often, those things happen in combination and ebb and flow into each other. For me, that meant that I had to stop living in some imagined, utopian El Salvador that doesn’t exist (and I don’t mean utopian in the sense of not recognizing the many issues facing that society, I mean it in the sense of it being perfect for what I thought I was looking for at the time). I had to stop rejecting everything about being a privileged white college student and figure out what it meant to be a privileged white college student who knew that there was a world beyond my university, beyond my country.

As a graduate student, one of my mentors described this as “the grace in being pulled apart,” existing in a Twister game of life and having limbs in different places, pieces of my heart and my head here, there, and everywhere (where, sometimes, you’re not entirely sure how your left hand ended up on blue but you still can’t seem to move it without falling down).

It’s not an easy thing and, quite frankly, it’s often painful and sometimes unbearable. How does anyone live authentically when their paradigm has been challenged, when their worldview has been confronted with its opposite, when the problem of other minds isn’t how it’s possible that they exist, but that they think and act and conclude differently? 

Watching the MTV Video Music Awards tonight, I was reminded again of this tension. I could write a lot about the things in the performance by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke that I found problematic (the perpetuation of rape culture and misogyny being just two of them), but mostly, I found myself really interested in the audience reaction. Reactions from the audience seemed to be of shock, horror, confusion, and anger (I’m sure there were others, but I can only comment on what MTV chose to air). People far more qualified than I am will weigh in on the cultural appropriation that occurred during Miley’s performance, and I am going to name it that, but it was an unexpected reminder that I still have a lot of work to do when it comes to walking that thin line between allowing myself to be influenced and shaped by people and places and spaces without stealing those things and claiming them as my own property.

Football and ethics: more compatible than you think

Finding the time to write during the academic year is somewhat difficult, given that if I’m writing, it should be for class or publication. But tonight, I came across an article that I wanted to share through this medium, too, as it relates directly to what I’m working on academically and it’s just good information for folks to know.

But, before reading that, a little background. My advisor, who is a wise man in all things related to the academy and surviving a doctoral program, advised us from the get-go that we should figure out what we want to write about in our dissertations, be able to explain it in a sentence (what is sometimes called the 30-second elevator pitch…if I can’t tell you what I’m writing about that quickly, I don’t have a well-defined thesis), and to tailor all of our papers, whenever possible, to that topic. It’s not always easy to do that (sometimes it is impossible, given the constraints of a class), but last quarter, I was able to find a way to write about soccer for my Ethical Perspectives on War and Peace class.

I ended up writing about Bayern Munich during the years leading up to WWII and the war years. See, in reading a gigantic history of the global game of soccer, I stumbled upon this quote:

“Almost alone in attempting to moderate or defy the law was Bayern München, the upstart team from the Bavarian capital who had just won their first national championship. Bayern was a secular institution, but counted many of Munich’s Jewish community among its board, players and supporters, including its president Kurt Landauer. Landauer was forced to step down by the authorities rather than the club in March 1933.” (William Goldblatt, The Ball is Round: A Global HIstory of Soccer, (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2006), 309

It piqued my curiosity and so, given that I was writing for a class about war and peace, I started to research Bayern during those years. And what I found made me even prouder to be a Bayern fan. Yesterday, Raphael Honigstein wrote a great piece about Bayern’s resistance during the war. You should all read it, because much of the information contained within it isn’t available elsewhere in English (the upside is that my ability to read German improved while writing the paper; the downside is that research took A LOT longer to complete). 

It’s also important because, in November, I’ll be presenting a paper at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting that deals, in large part, with this time period in Bayern’s history (and then looks at the ethical implications of their resistance when viewed through a framework using the work of two different ethicists). So it’d be good background reading for all of you who will get to hear me present (and good info for all those unlucky enough to miss the paper presentation).

You can find his article here.

For love of the game…

My parents, I’m sure, wonder how they have two kids who are as sports obsessed as my brother and I happen to be. My brother’s love is, at least, somewhat understandable: having grown up in Minnesota, he is a die-hard Vikings and Twins fan. My love for the Twins and the Vikings runs deep, and I have affection for other teams, but it wasn’t until I discovered the world of soccer and, more specifically, FC Bayern Munich, that I truly fell in love.

This morning, I woke up at 7:20am in order to watch Bayern’s match against Kaiserslautern. For the last two and a half years, I have woken up early on weekends to watch matches. I have tried to schedule classes so they didn’t conflict with Champions League matches. I have frantically checked my phone when I couldn’t watch a match, relying on a combination of ESPN’s Gamecast, text messages from friends, and Twitter to keep me in the loop with what’s happening with my team (I must confess, having an iPhone and the Bayern app means that I don’t have to worry about seeking out the information anymore; it gets sent directly to me).

In the past few years, the vast majority of my experiences of the transcendent have been because of the game (mainly through Bayern, but there were definitely moments in both the 2010 World Cup and the 2011 Women’s World Cup, too). As I began thinking about writing my dissertation, I realized that I wanted to look at that, to examine soccer as religion. And so that’s what I’ll be doing.

One of the smart things that my advisor reminds us to do is to gear all our longer class papers towards our dissertation, and so tonight, I started working on my final paper for Religion and Film. I’m looking at three movies, discussing how they portray sport, religion, and sport-as-religion. This, of course, means I get to watch three movies about soccer. A hardship, I know.

In watching the first one tonight (Goal: The Dream Begins), I realized just how emotional sports make me; even though I knew how the movie ended (I’ve seen it before, after all), I was still completely wrapped up in the drama of whether or not Newcastle would qualify for Europe (it should be noted that they were playing Liverpool and the winner of the match would go through and, even as a committed Liverpool fan when it comes to the EPL, I was rooting for Newcastle in the movie). The more I tried to pay attention to composition and the mise en scene and the other technical elements, the more my heart clung to the love of the game. When there were cameos by some of the game’s best (Beckham, Zidane, Raul, STEVEN GERRARD), I was as amazed as the main character was to be in their presence.

Maybe I was just basking in the glow of Bayern’s win this morning, but I think that it goes deeper than that. Eleven men, even fictional ones, running around and playing their hearts out…this is what I live for. Pedro Arrupe, former Superior General of the Jesuits, is famous for a quote that reads:

Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of the bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

That pretty much sums up my love for Bayern and the game. There’s a reason that my religious views on Facebook are “Mia san mia” (that’s Bayern’s motto, for those who don’t know, and it’s Bayerisch for “we are who we are”). I’m so excited to watch the next two movies and write the paper!

Colbert, social ethics, and the American disconnect

A friend of mine asked me to write a blog about some of the theological ethics underpinning Colbert’s statement above, so here it is. The quote is from a piece Colbert did on his show last December. The piece was entitled “Jesus is a Liberal Democrat” and the whole thing bears watching, as it is really a brilliant piece of theological reflection from someone who clearly feels that his faith has something to do with politics.

Colbert raises up an important disconnect in American politics and theology. His piece is a response to Bill O’Reilly ‘s assertion that there are “deserving” and “undeserving” poor (while O’Reilly did not use those terms, that’s what he’s referring to when he talks about those who “through no fault of their own” versus, presumably, people who are poor because they deserve so to be because of their own actions) and, as  a Catholic and a theologian, I think that this is one of the places where Colbert’s Catholicism really shines through.

Too often in America, the only Christians who are portrayed as being involved in politics are those who are talking about VERY specific issues: abortion and gay marriage. On the whole, it seems a bit like the Christian community is not interested in other issues (or at least that’s what the media would lead one to believe). If you look at the Religious Right in America, many people who would identify with that also identify with the Tea Party movement. There’s no sense of collective responsibility or the common good…it’s about getting what is rightfully one’s own. I’m not saying this to say that all Tea Party members want to see the poor remain so; I’m sure many of them contribute to charity.

But this is where the distinction between charity and justice is important to remember. Charity is good and necessary, but if we don’t look at the structures and causes of social ills, charity will be at most a band aid on the situation when what we need is a cure.

Catholic Social Teaching has a lot to say about the responsibility that we have to one another and I think that there are plenty of people who willfully ignore it. I think that the very notion of the common good, one of the foundational principles of Catholic Social Ethics, is foreign to the American psyche. We like to believe in this country that we can be whatever we want to be, that there are no limits. We live in a society where the emphasis is placed on the individual.

But there is also an operative theology that is at work here that is not compatible with the Catholic vision. America has been shaped by its Puritan and predominantly Protestant history. Each denomination has a different way of doing theology and theological reflection and that shapes the texts that become important within a tradition. The fire and brimstone of Puritanism is very much a theology of God as Judge. It’s a theology that focuses more on the fall of humanity than on the resurrection and the new life. Think about it: if our operative theology is of a God who punishes, then it makes sense to see bad things happening to people as part of God’s plan. But if our operative theology is grounded in the resurrection, we see a God who loves us despite the fact that we sometimes make bad choices.

This is an oversimplification of a very complex issue, but I think that there’s no denying that operative theology has a big impact on how we view social ethics. If I am the one who is going to be judged, and I’ve been taught that it’s about following a certain set of rules, then I am going to act differently in the world than if I’ve been taught that God is above all love and that judgement will be on whether or not I have loved others (it’s worth pointing out here that the ONLY description of the Final Judgement we receive in the Bible is in Matthew 25, where the questions are all about how we interacted with and took care of our neighbors and not how well we kept the Ten Commandments or followed the “rules”).

If we’re going to take the New Testament seriously, especially the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles (both of which were written with an intention to underscore the importance of community and the common good in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus), then we need to acknowledge that our politics may not agree with our faith. Or our faith may not agree with our politics. It’s natural for us to want to make God hate what we hate and love what we love; the question is then, are we willing to be transformed by Jesus or are we going to insist on shoving Jesus into the space in which we want him?


Apparently, I’m REALLY not the only one reflecting on the dynamics of the whole religious studies/theology/catechesis question. Last night, I had a long conversation with a dear friend who is a high school teacher about this very topic. And then today, lo and behold, there’s more that’s been published about it.

In the latest edition of America, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, addresses (what he believes to be) the role of theology in Catholic higher education. While I appreciate Cardinal Wuerl’s claims, I find that I strongly disagree with him on a number of points. Again, it comes down to VERY different understandings about what the role of a theologian is and what the purpose of theology is.

To be sure, as in every academic field, theologians enjoy a legitimate autonomy, but it is an autonomy defined by the standards of their discipline and the boundaries of what is known with certainty.

How, exactly, can we as theologians “enjoy a legitimate autonomy” if, in the Cardinal’s view,

Their contributions are most evident when the explorations of theology build upon the insights of previous generations and are fruitful only when they begin from the known truths of received revelation. Identifying those boundaries of authentic faith, the building blocks of genuine theological progress, constitutes a significant task of the church’s magisterium.

What the Cardinal sees as “the building blocks of genuine theological progress” could be considered by some theologians to be limits placed on the academic exercise of theology. Yes, there is an important spiritual component to doing theology (and it would be really nice if people stopped insinuating or flat-out saying that theologians who disagree with their theological point of view don’t have prayer lives…it’s somewhat disheartening to have your faith constantly called into question by people who don’t know you and who couldn’t possibly know the state of your soul).

In large part, I’m still digesting the Cardinal’s piece, so my reactions here are somewhat off-the-cuff, but I will say this: If my vocation were to be a catechist, I’d be working in a parish or for a diocese doing catechetical work. As I am not called to that, I believe that it is unfair and a poor understanding of academic theology to expect theologians to suddenly pick up the slack of those who are not doing an appropriate job. Not that theologians can’t help catechize, but the methodology in catechesis and theology are NOT the same and to expect theologians to begin to live the vocation of someone else is absurd and unjust. There’s a very well-written piece about this all at my friend Br. Daniel Horan’s blog. I’d suggest reading it.

First Day of Classes: More Thoughts on Vocation

Today (finally!) classes started. Well, technically, they began yesterday, but for most of the first year class, our school year officially started today with Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion, which is actually a lot more interesting than one may think. We’ll be talking solely about methods (in such an inter-disciplinary program(there are four tracks in the PhD program), it’s impossible to really do methodology because it is SO different depending on what your area of focus is) and it should be a really helpful in rounding out the more theoretical side of things, as opposed to the theological (which is what I’ve primarily worked with in the past).

During the brief lecture today, our professor talked about the difference between religious studies and theology (or, rather, theology as a sub-discipline of religious studies). Not all would see it as such, but I agree with my professor that the two aren’t separate fields, but rather, one is a piece of the other. In the same way, catechesis is a sub-discipline of theology. As I’ve previously said, I think there’s a tendency on the part of some to conflate theology and catechetics, and I think it’s true that there are some who do not draw a distinction between religious studies and catechetics. I remember the story of a bishop requiring all members of the theology department at a university to sign a mandatum, essentially an oath that one will abide by only official Church teaching and that one will only instruct official Church teaching (it’s a big more complicated and nuanced than that, but I’ll leave it at that for now). One of the professors in the department was Jewish and refused to sign and it took a while for the bishop to realize that, as a non-Christian and a non-Catholic, teaching Jewish studies, he could not be required to be bound to the mandatum. In an age where more and more departments of theology are required to sign documents swearing their allegiance to the Church, what’s the place of academic freedom and the broader discipline of religious studies?

Though I myself am a theologian, I truly see myself as part of this larger field of study. It is relevant to me what people are writing about different traditions and it is relevant to me what new theories of religion are emerging. One of the fundamental principles of liberation theology is the understanding that theology cannot be done in a vacuum; it must come from the lived experience of people. To try and do theology without an awareness of what’s going on in the broader field would make me a particularly bad theologian, indeed.

It’s going to be an interesting four years. I know I’m not the only person who self-identifies as a theologian in the program, and that makes me all the more excited. And several spokes speak Jesuit, so at least I won’t always need to rely on my handy Jesuit-to-English translator.

Catechesis and Theology

I certainly wasn’t planning on posting twice in one day, but in light of my comments in the previous article about issues surrounding the vocation of a Catholic theologian in this day and age, I would be remiss not to bring a few other voices into the conversation.

In the current issue of America, the national Jesuit weekly, two professors from my alma mater have written a piece entitled, “Beyond Catechesis.” In it, they reflect on the vocation of the theologian and they deal with some of the tensions between the two different roles which are encompassed within the vocation. I don’t want to quote them extensively here, as everyone really should read their work, but I want to highlight one little bit, as it relates back to the point I made in the last post about the difference between theology and catechesis:

The tendency among members of the hierarchy is not to make this distinction, a tendency evident in a recent statement by the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on Doctrine that evaluated Quest for the Living God, a book by Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J. The committee concluded that the book “contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church….” In support of Sister Johnson, the board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America issued a brief response: While the bishops’ statement recognizes “the complementary but distinct vocations of the theologian and the Magisterium,” the C.T.S.A. was troubled that the statement “seems to reflect a very narrow understanding of the theological task.” This narrow understanding appears to reduce the theological task of the theologian to catechesis (Lawler and Salzman).

In addition to the essay from Professors Lawler and Salzman are three responses: one from Tom Groome, Chair of the Department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry; the Most Rev. Thomas Curry, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Catholic Education; and Vincent Miller, Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton. Their responses are also important, as they help to further flesh out the different understandings and streams of thought that are part of this debate.

I’m glad to see that I’m not the only theologian thinking and writing about this. I know that many of my contemporaries share in my interest in this conflict, as it directly impacts our work and our writing (Br. Dan Horan has two pieces at his blog worth reading and the women of WIT also have one while we’re on the topic). I’m sure there will be more to come about this in the future, but for now, it’s definitely food for thought.