William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and the grandpa of cyperpunk, recently wrote an article for Wired entitled “God’s Little Toys” speaking specifically about the nature of remixing and mash-ups as musical form but I feel he draws some points worth reflecting upon for the so-called art of ‘theology’:
“Our culture no longer bothers to use words like appropriation or borrowing to describe those very activities. Today’s audience isn’t listening at all – it’s participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital. Today, an endless, recombinant, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of creative product (another antique term?). To say that this poses a threat to the record industry [or for that matter the christian church] is simply comic. The record industry, though it may not know it yet, has gone the way of the record. Instead, the recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries. We live at a peculiar juncture, one in which the record (an object) and the recombinant (a process) still, however briefly, coexist.”
While the status of the church remains known through a careful tension between reference to the ‘record’ (think: scripture, doctrine, dogma) in order to live out the ‘recombinant’ (think: events, gatherings, mission, communion) – the shift is being felt where the reverse is true – the ‘recombinant’ is determining the shape and content of what is deemed ‘record’. I suppose this has always been the case, but I feel the tremors under my feet as a theologian all the time these days. Rarely do students appeal to the “record” as a primary means of justifying their lives nor giving hope for their tomorrow – it is an appeal to the “recombinant” and radical communitas – the hybrid interplay of their experience in the world (“God is in this place”), their striving to have immediacy with God and fellow humans (“worship was so real today”), and growing divide between the lingua franca of so-called academically critical reflective theology and the vox humana of “everyday people” – i.e. Donald Miller’s “Blue like Jazz” is referred to more and more as “theology”. This form of writing – drawing on readily available cultural references and remixing with first-person themes and testimonials – is rushing over the western church. It makes sense to me given that I think this way. As I admit this however, I must also admit the following: Theology is no longer about the “record” – it is about the “recombinant”. In this way, Carl Raschke’s “The Next Reformation” should call us to our knees as he makes the necessary connections between the Reformer’s (particularly Luther’s) criticisms of Medieval Catholicism and Aristotlelian Philosophy and the criticisms of Modernity and foundationalism by postmodern thinkers. Luther argued stringently for a theology of the cross over against the hegemonic theologies of glory that emerged from the rationalism of Thomistic theology and Aristotlelian Philosophy which paved the way for the ontotheology that has been so ably criticized by Heidegger and Derrida. In short, to the extent that evangelicals embrace postmodernity, they are embodying the legacy of the Reformers. The essentialist, the overtly foundationalist, the fear mongering that comprises much of what is being passed off as ‘orthodoxy’ needs to be challenged at every turn if the ministry and mission of Christ truly remains the guiding light of our lives. As Raschke rightly states, Modernity and theological essentialism that has arisen with it was not merely a defunct rationalism or an idolatrous ontotheology, it was (and is) also a horrific political machine which has propagated and continues to propagate violence, terror, holocaust and all forms of oppression on the world in centuries since the Enlightenment.
A “recombinant” approach to theological method is one that begins with the many – the communitas – and seeks form through multiplicity rather than simplicity and singularity. Again, Gibson gives some helpful words to theologians today:
“We seldom legislate new technologies into being. They emerge, and we plunge with them into whatever vortices of change they generate. We legislate after the fact, in a perpetual game of catch-up, as best we can, while our new technologies redefine us – as surely and perhaps as terribly as we’ve been redefined by broadcast television. “Who owns the words?” asked a disembodied but very persistent voice throughout much of Burroughs’ work. Who does own them now? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Though not all of us know it – yet.”