January 28, 2013

The Logic of Trauma: James K. A. Smith and Body Hysteria

The last couple months an interest in trauma studies has been slowly brewing in me. It all started to stir about when, this past summer, someone told me I had a trauma imprint in my brain. Huh, me?… Come to find out, this wasn't some unwanted wrinkle or strange brain blemish. It was a psychological scar from a moment in my past my brain associated with embarrassment and trepidation. Ever since, I've been somewhat intrigued with how, specifically, the body handles and reacts to situations that remind the brain of a past traumatic experience.

Going to sleep is usually the time my brain chooses to turn-on. And so, while laying on the ground in my sleeping bag at my friend's house, I had this thought.

What does trauma have to do with James K. A. Smith? For instance, could trauma count as an example for Smith's argument in Desiring the Kingdom? (Don't bounce 'cause you ain't familiar. Give me a second to explain.) Smith wants to prioritize the body in matters of education, and faith as well. He claims that education, and Christian education at that, should be less about filling the head with information than forming a kind of people, by the heart, through the body. Education shouldn't limit the body to passively sitting in a chair. The body then could be the key to "learning" (he's working with a broad definition of education), to being formed for a way of life, for the Kingdom and for love. He talks along these lines because, he argues, humans are fundamentally animals of desire. We are lovers at our core.

So, what does this have to do with trauma? Yes, good question. I'm not convinced it has anything to do with trauma. I'm only speculating, playing with my thoughts. I'm wondering: If Smith is right in critiquing modernity's emphasis on the head--"I think therefore I am"--and thus taking serious the body's role in faith and education (and life!), then I wonder if trauma could be a good conversation partner.

Traumatic experiences have a wide range. But it seems, no matter what the origin of a traumatic event is or how it came about, an "imprint" is made in the brain. When situations, afterward, arise that remind the brain of this prior traumatic event, the body reacts, usually hysterically: sweaty palms, stomach aches, twitching, trembling, fainting, etc. What is so interesting, to me, in the moment a traumatic imprint flares up and the body reacts is often the person is caught totally off guard by the "intrusion" of the body's hysteria. The body reacts without any regard for reasonableness, rationality, or logic. For instance, the person, in such a moment, can offer him/herself the following thoughts, "Hey, this is no big deal. Everything is fine. This is simple. Calm down." Alas, nothing. The body does not falter nor acquiesce to the rational. It overrides it, overwhelms it. All willpower is, at once, lost.

Though, it would seem, logic falls short in such a situation, is it possible that trauma and body hysteria have a "logic" all their own? What would it mean that the mind, though it offers rightfully corrective thinking (i.e. "It's ok, this is perfectly safe", etc.), is overridden, overruled, and overwhelmed by the pre-rational currents of the body?

If I believed we were fundamentally thinking things, or even believing things, I would be tempted to be optimistic of the mind's abilities to calm the body down. If humans ruled from the head, then, wouldn't trauma be a failure to correct the body's hysteria via willpower and/or cognitive reasoning? Now, I'm not suggesting the mind, corrective thinking, etc., have no part in the healing process, only they can't be the sole target/methodology/approach. This begs the question: What part does/should the body play in the counseling process/healing procedures of trauma patients?

So, does the body hysteria of trauma victims work well with Smith's thesis? It's hard to say since Smith is working this philosophical anthropology out for Christian educational purposes (see his Desiring the Kingdom, which I've mentioned before), and for a theology of culture (see his second book in the trilogy Imagining the Kingdom). I have my doubts. Regardless, if he's right, the implications are far-reaching, thus this connection to trauma. If anyone would like to dialogue about this or has/knows of corresponding resources I would love to be contacted. Thought-experiments need multiple pairs of ears!

By Kennedy Space Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

January 25, 2013

Political Theology Musings: Amos Yong's Cosmopolitical Liturgics of Resistance

That's what he calls it anyway.

Looking closely at passages like Acts 12:3-5 and 16:25, where early Christians respond to imprisonment and persecution with prayer and praise, Professor Amos Yong, in his book In the Days of Caesar, draws some interesting conclusions for the Church's liturgical practices today, and he does so with his pentecostal sensibilities fully engaged. He writes, "For starters, the prayers, songs, scriptural recitations, and sacramental modalities of the liturgy are formative of human habits, character, and agency", which means liturgy shapes both ethical and political agents (this makes me wonder whether Christians who are disengaged, for whatever reason, from the political consequences of Christian faith are being shaped by liturgy. Perhaps, using Yong's language, some liturgical practices are not "dense" enough?) (155). Also, liturgies are memorial and anticipatory. Anticipatory in the sense of "enacting the promises of Scripture with regard to how the world should be" (156). Basically, singing songs of praise and praying in corporate worship shape the body, and individuals, for political engagement and are in and of themselves proper political responses.

Yong's perspective is that worship, prayer and exorcism--did I fail to mention he is working towards a distinctly pentecostal political theology?--are not apolitical, but actually robust alternative political practices. This may ruin any "clean" Christian's understanding, who's goal is to remain unscathed by the whirlwinds of our world's political affairs. But if Yong is right, "worshipping God" and singing those Sunday morning hymns is, and has always been, thoroughly political in nature.

"Praise is the distinctive liturgical moment where believers adore God, extol God's majesty, and glorify God's name" and, quoting William Stringfellow, "'exposes the scandal of emperors deemed divine, or principalities treated idolatrously, of national vanity displacing God, of death extolled.' In this light, all of Christian praise enthrones God above every other power. Simultaneously, praise de-absolutizes the historical, the national, and the mundane; praise dethrones the powers, or at least identifies their creational status and place under the lordship of God; and praise exposes the idols of our lives" (157). Adoring God above all can sometimes seem empty of the denouncing-of-false-gods aspect, but it is always there. When I open my mouth and my lips announce the Lordship of Jesus, all "Caesars" of the day take a knee alongside me.

So, if worship is not, then, "a private act accomplished by isolated religious persons, but a public celebration that is lived out as a communal form of life" as an alternative political practice, how would prayer be situated within its political dimensions? I mean sure, sometimes church leaders--the Christian Right is famous for this--will pray explicitly political prayers for the purification of the state or the obedience of our leaders to God's will and so forth. But Yong wants to look pass these moments into the more subversive political nature of prayer.

"On the one hand, prayer reflects our casting aside our own schemes, plans, efforts, power, etc., and our reliance upon the power of God; in other words, prayer acknowledges our weakness and dependence on God. But on the other hand, prayer recognizes that our opponents are, scandalously, not only other human beings and institutions, but the principalities and powers, and that therefore the most effective weapons, even in the domains of the social, economics, and political, are spiritual" (157). Prayer, it would seem, as suggested by Yong, has a life outside church walls. Implications? Indeed...

But there is one last element to Yong's (tri) politico-liturgical exposition: exorcism. Though the word may inspire cringing, Yong wants to redeem it (word and practice), carefully coming against Western churches' "disregard of the important ritual function of banishing the powers of darkness" (159). While keeping in mind that for the first 1,000 years of Christian faith a "renunciation of the devil, and in some cases an elaborate rite of exorcism, was part of the liturgy of holy week", Yong offers a dose of imagination stretching. He might ask: "Where have the angels gone?" Following Eric Peterson's lead, Yong wants to attune the church's liturgical imagination to the songs of angels, and help us realize that our worship is never alone, or a merely human affair (Rev. 4 and 5, and Isa. 6). Our worship is participation with angelic songs. "[B]ecause the angels are related to the politico-religious world in heaven, they imbue the liturgy of the Church with a relation to the political realm" (159). And if the angels are watching, then perhaps, also, the principalities and powers.

In addition to opening time and space for rituals of exorcism and saturating our imaginations in the heavenlies, Yong suggests that exorcism can serve the wider public square, having in mind the burning of pagan books in Ephesus (Acts 19:19), Jesus' cleansing of the temple, and "the Catholic Worker Movement in inner-city Philadelphia in response to church and school closings, and by the New York and Northern New Jersey conferences of the United Methodist Church confronting the spirit(s) of Apartheid at the South African consulate in New York City" (160). Obviously, Yong is working with a much broader view of exorcism than some will be used to.

Being a pentecostal, I am finding immense energy in Amos Yong's work toward a constructive pentecostal political theology. I'm only halfway--and I'm reading slowly--so I'll do my best to continue to summarize his unique contributions in each chapter until the end.

January 21, 2013

"My First Contact with the Theory of Nonviolent Resistance"

Reading The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. this month has helped me to appreciate this holiday more than I have in the past. It has been fascinating discovering the early intellectual influences on King's moral vigor. As a fifteen year old, on September 20, 1944 King began his freshman year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia where he would receive a bachelor of arts degree in sociology on June 8, 1948. It was there King was introduced to Henry David Thoreau and his profoundly impacting essay "On Civil Disobedience".

Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.

I am perturbed by the question of what this means today, to not cooperate with evil. And yet wherever the answers lead I find inspiration in this man's life. Today we celebrate his 84th birthday.

photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via photopin cc

January 15, 2013

Town to City

I like to hide. But this is because I don't like attention. Certain kinds of attention, not unlike other people I suppose, freak me out.

Last weekend I travelled to a place I've never been and met people I never thought I would, all for the possibility of work. I'd rather not give much away, since the whole thing, whether I'm being offered the job or not, is still up in the air. I'll say this, though. The town was small, smaller than what I'm used to lately. I have my fair share of years growing up in the boonies, where your closest companions are trees and occasionally wandering animals, but the last several years I've gotten used to concrete and steel, streets and neighborhoods, places where trees are planted every twenty yards in squares of dirt in sidewalks and animals are on leashes. Now, granted, where I went isn't the boonies per se. It's more like a small rodeo town in the middle of nowhere, where long roads connect places over vast land.

I remember thinking to myself immediately while getting off the highway and entering the town, "I don't know if I can do this." It's hard to say for sure what caused my initial fright, but I got ahold of myself and was soon enveloped in my stay. I met some great people, ate Mexican food, where my host knew half the people we saw, introduced myself several times, was asked loads of interesting and surprising questions and delved into fun and constructive conversations. I enjoyed my stay in this small town, and tried to imagine living there for a time.

After eating pizza and conversing for a bit at lunch, I soon realized time had flown by. It was time to say good-bye, possibly not for good. I gathered my things, gave hugs, shook hands, placed my bags in my car and soon left. I had done it. I had done what I set out to do, and with triumph.

On my way back I had a brilliant idea to see a friend who lived three hours from where I was. It was on the way. But the place she situated herself was of significant difference to where I was coming from. After driving alongside slushy snow alongside icy water, my lonely road transformed into a busy concentration of red and white lights, mimicking my veins and blood cells. I felt a rush of excitement and opportunity. I was in the city.

The building was lit, as I could tell from the open windows, as I drove up the parking lot. An Episcopal church is where I was meeting my friend, it's where she goes. Immediately, I thought, "No, no no no, this isn't right." I knew this was the place, but the "Episcopal" I read on the illuminated sign out front didn't correspond to what I was hearing. It was the lyrics and melody of the pop worship song "Give Me Faith." This was surely no typical Episcopal service, if it was one at all. It wasn't, come to find out. My friend's church community only meets there. I walked in and was slammed by this feeling. Shoot, what was it?

I stood at the back of this beautiful sanctuary, the long A-frame kind. Wood, pews, city-dwellers my age. Ah wow! I took a deep breath. The last song was sung and I looked for my friend during the meet-someone-new time. Surprised, I spotted her in the wake of shifting bodies and seemingly-shifty pews. We hugged and she introduced me to her friend. At last, I made it.

This community felt good and right, healthy and real. The preacher got up. He had glasses and wore and blazer. I was seated too far back to make out his facial features. I found myself shallowed up in an exposition of a passage in Hosea of all places. Gosh, I hadn't heard anything from Hosea in years, when a pastor preached in our college chapel reenacting Hosea's life in first person narrative. This word would be almost as memorable as that one.

Later I ate the dinner saved under foil for me. After service and dinner I stood in a hallway and talked poetry with the guy my friend introduced me to. They had worked together. He was thoroughly Portland. Long hair under faded beanie, scruff, scarf and painted nails. He's studying music I think. After, we drove him home and got milkshakes. This trip from small town to big city has highlighted something about myself I hadn't really known before. I like the city. Now, this isn't to say I don't like small towns or the one I came from, only that there is something about a city that, for me, is alluring, something beyond all the interesting people, shops, fashions, flash and ideas. Not like in a small town, in a city I can escape. Dreams of "Making It Big" drawn all kinds of people to cities. Money. Fame. Status. For me, I'd go there to hide.

January 7, 2013

My World in Words in 2012: Year One

A week into 2013 and I thought a flashback, for the purpose of pondering past posts, would prove enjoyable, possibly insightful. One year is the longest I have consistently blogged--and written--so a celebration is in order I do declare. Please come!

Homework, graduation, Kenya, internship and confusing months of wandering, working odd jobs while applying for and being rejected from the ones I wanted all characterized parts of the time allotted 2012. Written from diverse places, here are the ten most read posts (as calculated by my blog) from last year, in order ending with the most read:

Number ten is Share a Meal, Share Your Life: Eating as Bridging, a reflection on eating together. What is it about sharing a meal that is so sacred, so human?

A Writer's Curse was my articulation of writing as pain-in-the-ass. And oh how this was the case here.

Post-Kenya Notebook: What About These Kids? was the third post in a series about my trip to Kenya back in May. There were always a ton of kids during our outdoor ministry meetings, yet it seemed everyone was keen on neglecting them.

I wrote I Know You: An Ethic of Meeting pt. 1 after reflecting on how absurd it is to think you know who someone is even before meeting them.

After getting home from summer camp, I sat down to write about all the mayhem. Oh, there was much! This post, At Camp: Friendship, Innocence and a Moment's Peace, surprised me, and remains one of my favorites from last year.

Another fun one is My Beef with Identity: Abstract Language and Youth Ministry. This was a pain to write. I had mental constipation as these concepts had been swirling around my mind for quite some time after hearing a sermon at a local youth group. And the plan was to write a second part, what should be done when engaging identity, but I never followed through.

Post-Kenya Notebook: Kenyan Pentecostals Put Us to Shame was my first reflection on Kenya after our return to the States. And you thought we were charismatic?

Honestly, I am confused as to why this post was so read. Don't get me wrong, I think this story is very interesting, but I would not have thought it'd pique others' interest: Thinking on Christopher Rollston

The Big Rush: A About Educational Trailblazing was a discovery of my thoughts on friends and peers trucking through higher education, and the second most read.

The most read post of 2012 is absolutely perplexing. Dave the Dishwasher I wrote one night back at school when my friend Ben and I decided, honestly for no good reason, to stay up all night. We did so outside in our school's gazebo. This post was a product of our moon-bathing.

I don't know why some of these posts were so heavily read. So, I'll add a few more of my personal favorites here:

All I could think about while watching the fireworks on July 4th were words to capture such a sight. A couple days later I wrote this: Fire in the Sky

I wish A Medical Clinic and Unclean Exegesis had got more hits. This day at the medical clinic, particularly the conversation with Doctor, was so memorable to me.

Mainly, I just really like the picture in I Know You: An Ethic of Meeting pt. 2. Click to see... and read.

I am appreciative to all who regularly, or occasionally, read the whirling, swirling thoughts I pin down to this blog. Here's to one year of (more or less consistent) blogging and many more to come.