After SVS 2010 is an extended dialogue with presenters from the first annual Society of Vineyard Scholars conference, held Feb 11-13, 2010. Monday through Friday until March 26th we’ll profile an SVS presenter and dialogue with them around their paper. Click here for a brief intro and link directory of the series. Full text of papers are available to SVS members.
NOTE: Today is a unique profile because it involves two people – Jon, an anthropologist, and Jamie, the Vineyard pastor whose church Jon has studied for the past several years. Consequently, this profile is much longer than the others, but well worth the extra effort.
Jon Bialecki & Jamie Wilson: “Surprise, Return, and Futurity: Social Science Analysis of the Vineyard’s Temporal Imaginary of the Kingdom and a Theological Rejoinder”
This paper presents a conversation that arose from an anthropological participant-observer study of Southern California Vineyards, and consists an initial secular social-science reading of limitations to the Vineyard’s capacity to imagine its own future, and then concluding with critical theological reflections on the central claim that is presented, from the point of view of a pastor who was part of the study that gave rise to this argument. Observing that the Vineyard is at a moment of anxiety over generational change, and to a degree rethinking its future as a movement, Jon Bialecki argues that it has two ready choices. Working on implicit logics of temporality and representation that can be identified in the phenomenology of the Charismatic Gifts, Bialecki claims that these modes of figuration also informs the Vineyard’s attempts to imagine future directions. The mode of picturation that results in informed by a logic of surprise that sees the Kingdom as that which is not a part of the current social order, and hence that which cannot be anticipated; this in practice limits the capacity for coalitional and institution building. Alternately, the Vineyard could make use of another modality of thinking that is dependent on a logic of return to a (possibly phantasmatic) past, but which has its own dangers. Responding to these claims, Jamie Wilson probes to what degree they are constant with the Vineyard’s articulation of Kingdom theology, whether an orientation towards surprise is supplemented by a legitimate expectation of eschatological presence of the future in contemporary grace, and how theologians (such as Moltmann and Yoder) and historical figures (such as Booth and Wilberforce) can provide ways for the Vineyards to take up the difficult task of imagining its own future as an instrument of the Kingdom.
Interview With Jon
Q: How did you become interested in your topic?
A: I hope you will excuse me for being long-winded on this point, but my particular position as a secular anthropologist means that any discussion of my interest in this topic also necessitates folding in a discussion of my interest in the Vineyard itself as a movement. Shortly after 9-11, I became concerned about the possibilities for political engagement and mutual understanding between secular and believing Americans, and so I set aside plans for an anthropology PhD fieldwork project on Islamic modernism in Malaysia to study the Vineyard. My initial question was the nature of the relationship between two aspects of Christian practice and thought that are often treated as analytically distinct by anthropologists who study Christian populations; the areas were (on one hand) understandings regarding, and phenomenological experiences of, Neo-Charismatic/Third wave spiritual practices such as prophecy, deliverance, and healing, and (on the other hand) the economic and political imaginaries of believers. While I am still interested in this topic, I’ve since become captivated by transformations that the Vineyard, as a movement, is itself undergoing – its own internal debates and attempts to chart its future.
When SVS was announced, long-time dialogue partner and Vineyard pastor Jamie Wilson suggested that we collaborate on a project, and of course I accepted. In the last two decades, cultural anthropology has been experimenting with collaborative attempts at producing and presenting material, so there was a lot of enthusiasm on my part for this project. We ended up splitting our paper into two parts. I presented what was in part a bird’s-eye view of my dissertation project, framed as an analysis of what I feel is one of the core antinomonies in the movement today; and Jamie presented a theological re-framing and critique of my material, and a reflection on how the Vineyard, as a movement, might go forward.
Q: How do you think your paper is relevant to the Vineyard movement at large?
A: Again, as a friendly outsider, but an outsider nonetheless, I’m hesitant to discuss either the relevance or implications of what I have to suggest, though it seems to me that a tension between picturing the divine as either utterly other, or as foundational and as the known, seems to lie at the core of the early- to mid-period Vineyard, and does have some important implications.
If the Kingdom is to a degree structured in the way that charismatic experiences like ‘hearing from God’ is structured, and if one of the chief indices of hearing from God is the surprising nature of the communication, something that must be divine because it could not be seen as being a part of quotidian thought and sensory experience, then it seems to me that the Kingdom as a social/political project also will always be something that could not be anticipated – and the organizational and political challenges that follow from collectively planning for that which cannot be anticipated seems obvious; this may be in part why there is such a vogue for spiritual formation these days. Also, this yearning for a truly different order seems to effectively preclude a large swath of possible coalition partners, in as much as most of these partners might be grounded in a politics of this world and of the known.
On the other hand, an alternative politics of ‘the known,’ which might ground itself on some paradigmatic real or imaginary past, seems to me to be potentially toxic – that is the kind of logic found in many kinds of contemporary political and religious fundamentalism, desiring to return to a fantasized previous order of things situated in some halcyon vision of the 19th or 18th century, or even earlier. Neither approach, though, seems like it can be entirely rejected – it is hard for me to imagine any kind of contemporary Christian movement that does not at least harken back to some kind of Christian primitivism, and in my discussion of a nostalgic fundamentalism I think I’ve already suggested the dangers inherent in that approach. In short, neither approach alone seems salutary, but creating a dialectic between the two could very well be either unstable, or simply result in a ‘bad infinity,’ an endless vacillation between two poles.
This, by the way, is a problem not limited to the Vineyard alone, though I think that there are historical reasons why this tension might be seen in particularly sharp relief in the Vineyard (think of the oppositions captured in the phrase “Empowered Evangelicals”). By coincidence this morning I attended some sessions of the “Nurturing the Prophetic Imagination” conference at Point Loma Nazarene, and the poet Kathleen Norris, one of the plenary speakers, gave a talk that could be read almost in its entirety as an attempt to work through the same series of oppositions that I see running through large segments of the Vineyard. You can even see traces of these oppositions in non-Christian formulations, such as fair-sized portions of contemporary critical theory – works that may have a genealogical link to Christian, but works that all the same certainly present themselves as predicated on an atheistic, if not agnostic, ontology.
Q: What do you think might be the practical implications of what you’re exploring?
A: Again, as an outsider, and as someone who is perhaps constitutionally incapable of being practical in the first place, I’ll have to demure, though it seems to me that for those who feel that my picture here isn’t entirely a misrepresentation of the Vineyard, and does bring up concerns that have to be thought through, Jamie Wilson’s discussion might be an excellent place to begin.
Interview With Jamie
Q: How did you become interested in this topic?
A: Several years ago, Jon approached me with some questions about our church in the context of his doctoral research. That has led to a rich friendship, some fun mental sparring, and a greatly expanded reading list for me. We have spent years talking about God, politics, anthropology, and culture. When SVS got started, I asked Jon about doing a joint paper, and I would have been happy to respond to any of his numerous observations on the Vineyard. That being said, it was a particular pleasure to get to think together about how our understanding of the kingdom plays out in practice at a grassroots level.
Q: How do you think your paper is relevant to the Vineyard at large?
A: In the general sense, I hope that this paper can help encourage interdisciplinary critical reflection within the Vineyard. Our theology and biblical studies will be stronger if we can engage in conversation with social science disciplines like anthropology, sociology, or history, and vice versa. Likewise, I hope that our movement can build a robust tradition of discourse with scholars who are not Christians.
In the specific sense, the Vineyard would do well to hear Jon’s point that our culture of valuing surprise as an authentication of God’s activity could in practice deter the formation of coalitions that combat injustice. We should note the potential eddies that develop in the current of our thoroughly eschatological understanding of the kingdom. This is precisely the sort of observation that we are unlikely to see without outside help.
Q: What do you think might be the practical implications of what you’re exploring?
A: The paper addresses Jon’s argument that the importance we place on surprise may hinder our participation in social justice coalitions. Does our understanding of the kingdom encourage us to work arm in arm with others for the sake of the common good? The road forward begins as a matter of the imagination. What does our theology enable us to image in the future?
I submit that his point is very well taken, and I proceed to suggest three resources to strengthen our ability to work in coalitions. First, we must keep the cross at the center of our theology of the kingdom. To the extent that our theology becomes a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross, we lose not only our historical mooring but we also compromise our capacity to imagine coalitions which undertake the hard work of suffering with the oppressed. As we understand that the gospel of the kingdom is the gospel of the suffering king, we are empowered to engage in suffering. Second, I point to Jesus’ jubilee reference in Luke 4 as a Biblical resource. I think we have tended to use a strong already/not yet hermeneutic with the first part of the Nazareth question but then dropped the ball on the announcement of the “year of the Lord’s favor.” Finally, I suggest that we undertake more serious historical study of people like Booth and Wilberforce. At a popular level, it is already the case that they have been admitted to the Vineyard hall of heroes. Now is the moment to take the next step toward more serious historical analysis. We need to explore the ways that these leaders understood church and state relations. We need to explore how they understood the advance of the kingdom of God in their own contexts.
May we do the theological, biblical, and historical work necessary to better position ourselves to work arm in arm with others for the sake of the common good. These three resources suggested at the end could all be put into practice at the local church level.
Jon and Jamie will be available for questions and interaction in the comments below
Jon Bialecki is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, and has just finished a three-year posting as a visiting assistant professor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. His recently completed UCSD anthropology dissertation, “The Kingdom and its Subjects,” focused on the interrelations between Charismatic religious activity, economics, and politics among Southern Californian Vineyard believers; he has also written on the anthropology and ethnography of global Christianity.
Jamie Wilson lives in San Diego with his wife Michelle and their three children. He pastors Coast Vineyard together with Michelle, and he is the Area Pastoral Care Leader for San Diego. He holds an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Fuller Seminary. Jamie is passionate about coaching fully committed risk takers to advance the kingdom of God, and his ideal dinner party would include Augustine, Conrad Grebel, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Jurgen Moltmann, Peter Xu, several homeless people and the woman who broke the alabaster jar full of perfume and poured it on Jesus.