The ‘Theoblogian’ Cometh… running with scissors and ‘recombinant’ theology

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.”


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  1. back from the dead… with a shaved head (thank you everlast).

    anyways, i really like these ideas and things that push them to the forefront.. HOWEVER, in my own attempts at applying practically, I think we have forgotten one thing… laziness.

    I was actuall ythinking about this in respect to “postmoderns” being highly “spiritual” or interested in spirituality. Here’s the problem – we want spirituality without discipline or accountability. We are lazy. Well, not me, really, but “you” and “they”.

    I know this off track, but your post sparked my thought.

    The people have the power and have for quite sometime – but we are lazy and want satisfaction delivered to our door in 30 minutes or less. That’s why electronic (touted as some as the next “folk”) never took off – it was too much work for me to actually MAKE my won music when I could just go buy it.

    Is it too much work to “make community” when I can just turn on the tv and watch it?

  2. I’m sorry I’ve failed to comment on this. it’s an interesting post, and I don’t know really what else to say but that this idea of “recombinant” (MWD claims that’s not even a word, but I told him I thought you were borrowing it from Gibson) theology kinda troubles me. I appreciate your attempts to root it in communitas, but then again, the whole mash-up, music swapping culture is anything but “community”. If anything, it gives people an excuse to never set foot outside the house and seek out their local Championship Vinyl and make friends with their local Rob Gordon and Dick and Barry. And what a drag to miss out on that – that God for Grimey’s in Nashville, and for Grimey himself! I don’t have any relationships that have formed via iTunes or Kazaa, that’s for dang sure.

    I know you’ll laugh out loud to hear this coming from me, but it just all seems so bloody postmodern and “emergent” and whatever. Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel? We’ve got the Church, her traditions and practices…why don’t we just start doing them properly and being who we are? I think I’ve just all but rejected the idea that “God is doin’ a new thang.”

    Speaking of MWD, he and I had a good chat the other day about why we are a bit unsettled by this word “emergent” when it is followed by the word “church” – in short, it’s because something that “emerges” springs forth on its own, naturally, organically, unprovoked, unimposed (or something like that). But the church can’t, it seems to me (us), be both “emergent” and “called.” What do you, sensei, or others think? I know the whole “emergent church” thing is a big deal among both presbyterians and west coasters, both of whom seem to populate this blog, and I know the fact that there’s no real movement of this sort happening in the UK that I can’t really have a finger on the pulse, as it were, but I remain skeptical.

    I guess that’s all I’ve got for th’ noo. By the way, that Todd Snider song, “CCRWRSWAM” (you know the one – I didn’t want to have to type it) – is freaking hilarious. Thanks.

  3. Hey there Brannon – well… lets go point by point:

    1. Yes, ‘recombinant’ is a word… but it is a term used primarily by folks working in theology and science – aka ‘recombinant DNA’… what is MWD doing with his time anyway?! (go to encarta if you need further back up…)BTW – does he always dictate to you? Is he a luddite or somethin’? Either join the fray or get the fraq outta the kitchen, dude! ๐Ÿ™‚

    2. I think there is some conflating of ’emergent’ lingo and the followers and what Carl Raschke is working on in ‘The Next Reformation’ and his earlier work – ‘Thinking Theologically’ I take your point regarding ’emergent’ stuff and while you guys seem decided that west coast presbys are gettin’ jiggy with Brian McLaren, you need to dig a bit more. Frankly, the folks most drawn (it seems to me as an outsider… yes children, Pastor Skip is *not* a card carrying Emergent guy…) to this emergent stuff are Vineyard folks, soft core pentecostals and other non-denoms that are hungering for tradition to give some weight to their experience of faith. As a speaker at an upcoming Emergent conference (yes…guilty by association) I am the only one of 25 speakers with a PhD and one of few with a MDiv. This is not ‘radical orthodoxy’ for Santa Monica – its Jeff Foxworthy lookin’ fer some depth after the Bible Quiz. And yes, Emergent is big in the UK – just goggle ’emergent UK’ and you will see that ‘Mosaic’ is a church meeting just off Hillhead… you can stroll and dig the vibe… Tom Waits might be “Big in Japan”, but Brian McLaren is big in Glasgae

    3. As for the church as “called” – only ‘amen’ and ‘saleh’ here

  4. Just thinking out loud here. I’ve no horse in this race, but am intrigued all the same.

    If I understand correctly, in recombinant theology form is ultimately informed by multiplicity. If that is the case, is it ever possible to identify form at all (even the form such a theology a resisting)?

    Is it that the relative inability to identify form, because of its seemingly infinite multiplicity is the form, and that recombinant theology is thus a sort of sacramental theology? — this would be a very Romantic solution to the problem (cf., Walter Benjamin’s dissertation on the early Romantics is surely [and surprisingly] the most readable thing I’ve ever read on this subject), but a solution not without its own problems.

  5. great points, Brad… your horse is always a welcome and needed addition to this dojo of misfit toys. I echo the concern (if that is concern I hear)in regard to multipicity as form that is ultimately formlessness yet forming (see= Trinity). I frankly dont see this as problematic if we concur with most non-essentialist trajectory of thought (Bishop Carl Raschke, HRH Mark C Taylor, Pope Derrida, et al) that ‘theology’ qua theology is primarily authentic in its conversations and collisions…rarely its declarations and dogma. Hence, back to ‘communitas’ and the Heideggarian push toward tautological algorithms – recombinant theology is not merely ‘informed’ by multiplicity… it is multiplicity. A really good read on this is Ray Kurzweil’s latest book – “The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology”. He is the author of “The Age of Spiritual Machines” and draws some interesting conclusions from his work in “GNR” (genetics, nanotechnology and robotics)as a unifying yet distinctive interplay in the evolution of the ‘post-human’ ala Elaine Graham et al.

    As for Wally Benjamin, I too love the romanticism of the Frankfurt School and the unbridled imaginative possibility of the social networks coming together for a utoptian society even Marx would enjoy while ol’ Karl was watching bugs (“A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality” – das Captial) – but like most things mused upon at 3am over coffee and cigarettes… looks pretty hazy in the morning. But hey… he did spend alot of time looking at rooftops in Paris whilst penning his ubertome – Passagenwerk – and made that a viable option for critical scholarly reflection (roofing tiles = class struggle!)

  6. But don’t ‘conversations’ & ‘collisions’ necessarily assume some point of reference, some starting-point, by way of which the conversational / collisional players are even identified as such?

    I’m down w/ the non-essentialist game. But, I’m just increasingly suspecious that it requires a lot of cheating once we get beyond reading the rules & get down to playing it.

  7. Oh … and what I meant, re: Benjamin, but didn’t say explicitly, is that he is actually very critical of the Romantic solution I mentioned in passing. (But that’s not really relevant to the post.)

  8. Jeff:

    I admit I don’t really have a “finger on the pulse” of the emergent thing – haven’t read much and haven’t sought out an opportunity yet to experience the worship paradigm. I just heard first hand from a Presby minister and Vandy divinity prof (John McClure, homiletics) that the emerging mvmt was really big w/ Presbys and had more going on on the west coast then in the Bible belt (thus far).

    John McClure is a kindred spirit, by the way. you’d love him, and his wife Annie, who works for WJK. They’re both Fuller MDivs, too. He wrote a book recently called Other-wise Preaching about the use of Levinas and other post-modern (or whatever) philosophy and theory w/r/t preaching. Sounds pretty cool – I’m going to have to check it out.

    Might check out the Hillhead church, too. Maybe it would’ve been better for me to say that there is certainly no obvious (seen or felt) presence of any emerging mvmt in the UK. But hell, I hang at No. 4 and attend St. Mary’s. What the crap do I know about what “Christians” are up to?

  9. Frankly, the emergent thing seems to have lost its steam. Akin to watching the DNA breakdown in frogs as an indicator of greenhouse effect, the drop in sales by YS Emergent (a Zondervan/Rupert Murdock imprint…) means the movement is in a tailspin.

    Dude, you met with John McClure?! “otherwise preaching” is an AWESOME book! I have it as required reading in my Fuller class this Fall (Pastoral Theology) – he is one of the view folks who is taking continential and critical theory into the church in a way that is useful – I really, REALLY like what he is doing. What a great connection to make!

  10. yeah, he certainly is a great connection to make, and just a flat-out nice, really cool guy. he has loads in common with both you and me – get this: BA in Lit. at University of the South (Sewanee, TN – where D. Klemm used to teach), then to Glasgow in the mid 70s where he did an MPhil in contemp. Irish lit, mainly working on Beckett, but also studying lots of post-structuralism stuff and lit theory. Then he goes back to the US, still not certain about what to do, goes to Fuller and does and MDiv and starts thinking about how to apply all this he picked up at Glasgow – language, theory, communication, etc – to preaching. Meets his wife at Fuller, who also did an MDiv there, then on to the PhD. And after 17 years at the Presby seminary in KY (oh yeah, he and the mrs. are both ordained in the PCUSA, too), Vanderbilt makes him Charles Finney Prof. of Homiletics at the Div. school. Too cool, my man.

    And he’s a musician (guitar player, singer, probably more) and has a home recording studio.

    Yeah, I need to get his book and read it. Not that I’m a preacher, mind you, but there are those intent on making me one. And it does, as you say, seem he’s one of the few making these sorts of connections, which at least sound (since I haven’t read yet) very cool to me.

    I’m sure he’d be glad to know you’re using his text. That’s killer. Maybe we’ll run into him at AAR (he said he’d be there and would look out for me) and I can introduce ya (I’ll be returning countless favors – me introducing you to someone!).

    Yeah, so I dragged MWD into Wesley Owen today (the big one down by Central Station) and he said it was like Clark Kent and Kryptonite. We had a good time browsing around, making fun of lots of the merchandise (they had this really HOT poster of Amy Grant, dude…wooo…I guess she’s back in good w/ the Xns, despite her past weaknesses – but then again, they love a good conversion story – Mike English and all that). Saw the McLaren book on the shelf in amongst “bibles” disguised as teen magazines (have you seen these, dude? they are in-freakin’-credible). It was loads of fun, both remembering who “my people” are (hell, they’d’ve sold my records if we’d’ve had UK distribution), and also watching MWD squirm. Ahhh…

    Total non sequitur, but that “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” track on the Sufjan Stevens album might be the most creeped-out, gorgeous, clever, amazing song I’ve heard in a really long time.

  11. After listing to the Ronald Moore/BSG podcast on my commute this morning, I was listening to ol’ Sufjan and almost stopped the car on I-405 listening to “The Seer’s Tower” – talk about dark beauty. I think Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series was the source of this tune or somethin’ – eerie in all the right ways.

    Yes – I would love an intro to John McClure and do pick up “Other-wise Preaching” – it is really more in the realm of language theory and text vs. orality (ala Walter Ong’s notion of orality)and he does a very good read of Levinas’s notion of alterity. In short – it is worth reading and is not a ‘preaching’ book per se ๐Ÿ™‚

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