Entertainment Theology

Interview between Barry Taylor by Ian Mobsby regarding his new book – Entertainment Theology

Name: Barry Taylor

Bio: Barry Taylor is a Brit who lives in Los Angeles, California where he does a number of things that, at first glance, don’t seem very connected. He teaches theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he is the Artist-in-Residence for the Brehm Center. He also teaches advertising and design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, topics that were part of his theological doctoral study programme. He writes and plays music, usually with friends, occasionally for money–his songs have shown up in a few movies, and he has composed a couple of soundtracks for largely over-looked films! He also teaches on faith and culture, and helps shape alternative stuff at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. He has written a few books: A Matrix of Meaning with Craig Detweiler, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity, with Spencer Burke, as well as his latest, Entertainment Theology.

Title of book: Entertainment Theology: New Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy

Details of publisher: Baker Academic, Grand Rapids

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1. What was your question when you began researching for this book?
I think it was Marshall McLuhan who said that “we shape our tools, thereafter our tools shape us,” the idea that the technologies we use change the way we interact and encounter the world. I was particularly interested in how the tools of 21st century digital media culture have shaped us particularly in the religious sphere. So I was exploring how mass media and the various devices we use have affected the dynamics of religious belief and faith in the 21st century and also tried to gather somewhat disparate elements together into some kind of relatable form hoping to give some contour to the landscape of digital culture as it relates to religion.

2. How has the book changed the way you think about contemporary culture and spirituality?
I think my intuition that there was something of significance going on in digital culture was affirmed and it prompted me to think even more critically about what these shifts might mean for traditional faiths like Christianity

3. What do you think practitioners of the emerging church can learn from your research?
Hopefully some will be able to locate themselves more firmly in the new realities and respond to their situations contextually. I think that there are lots of things to ‘hang one’s hat on’ in terms of missional engagement in my research, that might prove helpful to those who are actively trying to engage with the culture. It ought to encourage all of us to take what is happening in culture seriously and not dismiss things too easily–I would hope that I have offered a broad look at some of the key elements going on in religion today in general and that this information will enable some to gain confidence and explore and experiment and risk. There is a lot of talk in emerging circles about creativity–creativity is not the vital ingredient in digital culture as far as I am concerned, uniqueness is–finding one’s voice and having something to offer, perhaps something of what I have written will help someone to find their voice, that would be good from my perspective.

4. As you know, some research published in the last 5 years has suggested that their is no residual spirituality within contemporary culture. This research draws on interviews of younger people leaving a night club. They argue that what is needed is not an engagement with new/old forms of mysticism, but more of a proclamation of Christianity ­ does your research have something to say to this research which has been quite influential in some places in the UK?
Yeah, I read a lot about that–Unfortunately, I think the research was a bit weak, or at least a bit myopic. For one thing, I think they were asking the wrong questions. There is no easy way to say this–the questions were too loaded and ‘too Christian’–I don’t mean to attack the validity of the project as much as to challenge the approach–the spirituality that exists in digital culture tends not to look familiar to some who orient their lives in more formal or traditional understandings of spirituality, or who enter situations with pre-conceived ideas about what is going on–I think we have entered, or are entering, a new phase of religious/spiritual self-understanding and what is emerging doesn’t look like what has gone before. As many others have noted, the return to God–the re-enchantment of the West, as some term it, that has occurred over the past few years, is not necessarily a return to old ways or old gods or concepts of God. A proclamation of Christianity is fine, if it is contextual–but we can never go back, in fact, there would seem to be something of a biblical idea that ‘going back, looking back’ is never a good thing (Israel under Moses, Lot etc.), and ‘calling’ people back to modern Christianity, which is generally what I hear being put forward, would seem to be counter-productive to me. This ‘proclamation of Christianity’ spoken of seems to be the putting forth of doctrinal beliefs, an important issue, but one that i think is subordinate to other things-faith is more than believing certain things, as Pete Rollins has said, “living within the event that is testified to in Christianity is more important than the affirmation that one is a Christian, or in other words, the event contained in the affirmation of God is mre important than the belief in God.” We all want to be told that the task before is as not as challenging as it appears, that a simple emphasis of what we already posses will suffice, I think that is quite naive in the present moment, but of course, it depends on how one reads “the signs of the times,” this of course, is that challenge of ‘objective’ research!

5. Do you have thoughts about how Christian spirituality relates to the emerging cultural new mysticism form of spirituality?
I think that mysticism and mystical spiritualities, in the many and varied ways they are appearing in emerging culture, are (along with being a natural result of using electronic technologies-see Jacques Derrida’s essay: Faith and Reason), largely a response to pre-packaged answers to the tough questions of life. Mass-media in its many forms, has done much to challenge the sometimes ‘easy’ answers religion provides to these questions. Where does this leave Christian spirituality? Well, funnily enough, I think the best response to mysticism and to the mystical spiritualities, which seems to imply an other-worldly flavour to things, is to root oneself more firmly ‘in the world.’ I see religion becoming increasingly ‘this-worldy’ as the new century is unfolding, and the challenge for Christian spirituality is to live in the here and now, addressing the present situations, and learning to come alongside people, rather than assuming that they need us to sort them out–that is a bit of a vague answer, I realize, but it is also a question that warrants a book-shaped response!

6. In your book you talk about the resacralization of culture using the symbols of religion, but used in a different way driven by an emerging spirituality, and you link this with an emerging spirit coming from the democratisation of contemporary culture. Can you unpack this for us?
What I was trying to get at really was to acknowledge the validity/legitimacy of the shift towards ‘postsecularity’, but also wanted to underscore the fact that the resacralization of society often looks nothing like the former ways–in a culture of commodification, with a language of semiotics and symbolism, everything becomes an artifact–and old signifiers are given new meanings, even God/s–so something like the cross becomes a utilitarian code-sign for religion/spirituality in general, rather than denoting christianity in particular. Alongside of this I find that the ‘people power’ dynamic of contemporary culture–the ‘democratisation’ idea I reference, trades in symbols, old and new, creating new approaches, new stories, new myths, new permutations of spirit.

7. I am struck by a sense of a new pneumatology – a renewed focus on discerning God, particularly God the Spirit in a new context, through what you call emerging Christian Spiritualities through a return to faith expression and experience through the arts, is that what you are thinking? And what does God look like in this context for you?
Well, I think the idea of spirit seems to match the vibe of a digital, web-driven media–we talk about cyber-space, ethernet–the images are spatial, less formed, which evoke images of spirit to me–I also think that other factors, like the pervasiveness of things like the various 12-step movements, which want to point towards a ‘higher power- without trying to be exclusively specific on one identifiable form of higher power, have contributed to the broadening sense of God as spirit-being in contrast to the old-man upstairs model that in some ways characterized 20th century understandings of God.

8. I was particularly struck by your analysis of the use of the gothic and medievalism reframed into the contemporary now expressed in new monasticism. You mention a number of projects including the work of Karen Ward. Do you see these new monastic emerging church movements as playing their part in discerning emerging Christian spiritualities?
I have been contemplating a lot of things that have emerged in the culture in various forms of media and the arts and I was trying to get my head around a few seemingly disparate things (Marilyn Manson, horror movies, space stories, aliens, monsters, etc.), when it occurred to me that the one common factor was a sort of medievalism–in a very broad sense–I realise there is a difference between medievalism and gothic but in a sense they seem to work along a certain continuum, and that sentiment or expression has emerged in diverse ways in contemporary culture. I was helped by Umberto Eco on this. I taught some stuff on the movie, The Name of the Rose, which was based on his novel, and from there I read a lot of his other writings, fiction and non-fiction. He has a great couple of chapters on the Middle-Ages in his book, Travels in Hyperreality, which helped my thinking. I think the monastic thing, which has shown up in recent reflects a move on some parts of the church to handle problems with modernity by reaching back and re-interpreting pre-modern methods of living. Again, the real answer is much, much longer, but I think this move in some emerging circles is very much a product of some of the cultural dynamics at work in our time. I find that a lot of things that get thrown up in the cultural grid get interpreted and disseminated in many different ways, and at first, they seem very disconnected, but once you start to look for undercurrents, impulses, and explore what is being said and done, things tend to fall into some very, very broad categories–or they do for me anyway.

9. In the last part of your book, you look to the future and name some very helpful and challenging considerations about the future of the church and of discerning a missional, practical and creative approach to theologising. I am challenged by how this needs to hold in tension mystery with being grounded – have you further thoughts on how we can be earthed Christian mystics in a postmodern world?
No, that’s a mystery!! Just kidding. I don’t think that mysticism is necessarily not an ‘earthed’ or grounded way of being–part of the challenge in this regard is un-learning the ‘other-worldly’ emphasis of much modern Christianity–the increasing focus on heaven, afterlife etc. that marked much of 20th century Christianity, is what happened when religion had, or was given, no place in the world–the modern, secular world that is. The theologian Rita Nakashima Brock has said some great stuff about the early church and it’s ‘this worldly’ focus, something we seem to have lost sight of. For me, there is no incongruity between the mystical and the grounded, in fact, I would argue that you perhaps need each to balance the other–the yin/yan, both/and, approach. I think there is a practical side to mysticism. That said, I also think that mysticism is in some sense the practice of saying ‘no’ to what we know–Pete Rollins speaks of this in his book, How Not To Speak of God, knowing less, experiencing more–the mystical path is the path of experience, accumulating experiences in our grounded, living selves–beyond that it’s a mystery to me!!!

10. What questions are you left with following completing the book?
Left with?!!! I always want to start again when I am done with a book–I view my writing as a thought-experiment, a sort of tinkering with ideas and perspectives, and such an approach inevitably leads to thoughts of more experiments, different approaches. But a more direct answer would be a central shaping question about what Third Millennium Christian faith will look like—how will faith evolve as we become increasingly detached from ideas and concepts that drove religious belief for the last few hundred years–small stuff like that!!

11. So what do you think are the threats and positives relating to an authentic Christian Spiritual narrative that relates to what is going on in contemporary culture in post-industrial western countries?
The positive is essentially that we have a blank page before us upon which we can re-write the story of faith–the threat is that we have a blank page before us and that we will write too quickly. The big threat is the ongoing sense that many seem to have that Christianity is a product of another era, another world and of little help in the new spiritual economy–that is a biggie. But I am a great believer that every situation and circumstance offers both losses and gains, there have always been threats and positives to Christian spiritual narratives, in that the present moment is no different than any other.

12. Do you have a view about spirituality and age? Is the spirituality you explore in the book is age specific or related to stages of life? Anecdotal evidence suggests that people¹s openness to spirituality relates to age, life experience and personality type. Is what you have written age and personality specific or more universal?
I do think some people are more open to spirituality than others, and those who are responsive tend to respond in differing ways and to different things. I also think age plays a factor–I am not sure religion/faith/spirituality is a young person’s game, but I wouldn’t be exclusive about that either–I think that religion is a social production and as such how the larger culture deals with it plays a role, then other personal issues–age, personality types, experiences etc. but there seem to be no hard and fast rules–I am often surprised by the ways in which older people are willing to adapt and let go of preciously held ideas and how younger people can be quite hard and somewhat fundamentalist in their beliefs at times.

13. I have been reading the book Affluenza ­ which is an international narrative of people in various countries and the crippling effect of the global market on personal health and fulfillment written by a journalist/Clinical Psychologist. Do you think the spirituality you are exploring comes out of the inadequacy of an approach to the self defined by consumption and addiction?
I think our understanding of the self is changing, particularly here in the west–the subjective self, largely the product of classical greek thought, and the view of the self that has largely shaped western self-understanding, seems to be giving way to something else in the digital era. Mark I. Wallace writes a fair bit about this in his amazing book, Fragments of the Spirit. His basic premise is that rather than a static self we are seeing the mergence of a fluid, changing sense of self that adapts to the new realities. I would also say that I think excessive consumption, driven by mass-marketing and advertising have caused many to question their values and that materialism is a prime tool in getting us to rethink values and about our self-understanding–there is little doubt in my mind that much of the emerging spirituality is influenced by changing views about the potential of materialism to offer fulfillment.

14. What are your hopes for what the book raises with its readers?
I hope that its gets readers thinking–making connections and joining the dots of disparate ideas and elements in their own lives and making strides to more actively engage their worlds. Hopefully the book will push a few buttons and challenge the status quo–it is flawed in places, some of my thinking is a bit naive, or shallow, and I trust that others will fill in the gaps and broaden the conversation. Barry Taylor Blog: