Wednesday, April 26, 2006

My Sabbath Paper

I’m writing a paper right now that argues that sabbath-keeping and other forms of Christian practice (monasticism, prayer disciplines, even liturgy I suppose) are a form of resistance to the numbing, homogenizing, market-driven forces of what some cultural critics term “the culture industry” or “spectacle.”  I think this is interesting for a number of reasons: first it offers an interesting alternative to the kinds of resistance evidenced by subcultural avant-garde movements like dada or punk.  It does similar work – a resounding “no” to the cultural forces that tell us to buy our identities and force us into monotonous existence.  But it does it in a different way.  It is in some ways less radical – only one day a week, we choose to not participate.  In other ways it is better because it is a turn, not only away from consumerism and competition and unending labor, but TOWARD something.  Rather than leave us with the nihilism of Debord and others, Christian practice like Sabbath-keeping gives us something to affirm as well: communion with God, human community, our own health.  Of course, this argument is not without problems.  Punks and Situationists would reject this solution out of hand – isn’t the church just the Man we’re trying to stick it to?  Sabbath-keeping isn’t remotely as sexy as avant-garde art and rebellion.  Also, the affirmation of community that I see as a positive outcome of Christian practice runs counter to the extreme individualism and autonomy intended by these other resistant movements.

I posted about this Barbara Brown Taylor article that supports my argument nearly a year ago.  I’m now exploring the ways that this works and the problems with it, and for whom it works.  Those interested in reading a longer exploration can ask for the paper in a few weeks.  I just thought I’d throw the ideas out there for the benefit/discussion of my interested readers.


Morgan said...

Unfortunately, if you work for a church, the Sabbath is rarely a day you can "take off." Maybe I can make it a day where I don't do *blank*, kind of like TV fasting or something like that, for those of us who find it amazingly difficult to give up food. Can you partial Sabbath observe?

bethany said...

Morgan: I think getting legalistic about it goes against the spirit. If you can find ways to remove yourself from the hectic and the consumerist and everything for a day or a period, I think it's good. I stink at Sabbath keeping, especially in grad school. There are other spiritual practices that, I argue, work that way too. Church community for one.

suz said...

Bethany, what a great paper topic. I just finished reading Craig Dykstra's "Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices" you might find his work and that of Dorothy C. Bass helpful. Also, Alasdair MacIntyre has a helpful definition of practice in "After Virtue"

Your point about practices taking us away from consumerism toward something is helpful. But I think it's more than that. Practices like sabboth keeping reorient and reframe (dare I say reform) us as individuals and as a community.

All best to you on your paper. I would be interested in reading it!

Jessie said...

Very interesting. What I am particularly invested in here is the notion of turning TOWARD something as much as (I would say more than) turning away from something--this is a generative rejection, rather than a simple protest. It is like repenting in that way. We flee from something not on the terms of that something, but on the terms of Another.

And I am wondering about the way you discuss a departure or foresaking of the societal spectacle we are enmeshed in--I'd be interested in hearing you identify specifically what dynamic of the Sabbath project/process helps us (or can help us) escape this sort of all-encompassing condition. I suppose that's what writing the paper is for--to articulate the specificity of that!

How cool. I'm really interested in this possibility.

joshwall said...


I think your right on the nature of sabbath and its (counter)culture work, specifically in how at its very nature is a a "resounding 'no' to the cultural forces." It also strikes me as a rather Western (though that's becoming a ubiquitous term) contrast, where Sabbath is a rejection of the principles that society is based from, and a call for silence on the part of the individual in order to place themselves before.... well God and themselves. Does the idea of a sabbath translate with the same potency into other cultures? It seems like it could seeing as how it came from another culture.

I also think its interesting that Biblical its one of the big markers of the Jewish people, folks even get stoned over it! Within biblical context it seems to serve (just thinking quickly here) a similar context as far as group identity and group formation (rejecting the autonomous individual who attempts to live apart from community) bringing the people together.

And on a side bar, in most contemporary Jewish services (or at least all the one's I've gone to, which isn't that many) you traditionally bow to great the sabbath... Another point towards the distinctiveness of the sabbath and how it serves as the principle topic for a counter culture.

Jen G. (Mattya's sis and Ste's wife) said...

I think you've got a good point, Josh and Bethany, about the Sabbath, in addition to being a turning away from the world, serving a purpose of group formation and identity, both in a historical, Biblical context and today. It's powerful and good to have others for mutual support in being 'different,' but can it lead to, or evolve into, a different, humanly sinful community that will eventually need to be turned away from also? We're obviously well able to warp and distort even the best of groups, ideas and institutions. I can't help remembering that in the context of the Jewish community turning away from surrounding cultures to follow their God and keep the Sabbath, they managed to create a legalistic culture that Jesus himself took issue with for no longer being within the spirit of true Sabbath keeping. Something to keep in mind, as you mentioned to Morgan.

Also, Bethany, what about the oft-stated need for "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?" How does the idea that we are each saved individually relate to Sabbath-keeping being a community-building practice? There is a certain amount of "individualism and autonomy" that's part of being a Christian, too. Maybe that falls under what you called "our own health" as something that's affirmed in addition to communion with God and human community. Do you have any more thoughts to flesh out what it means as an individual to keep the Sabbath? You mention monasticism, prayer, etc., which are often solitary disciplines, but you seem pretty focused on how Sabbath-keeping forms community that runs counter to individualism in other movements.

and by the way, Josh, any chance you could get out to Seattle this summer the same weekend as Chad? He, Steve-dave, JP, and B are having a mini-reunion.

bethany said...

thank you all for your good questions and comments. I have smart readers, and it makes me very happy.
susan: I think you're right, I made a choice to play up material effects instead of spiritual ones because of my purpose.
Jessie: I focus in my paper on the way sabbath encourages us to think of time differently, as a gift instead of commodity, as Dorothy Bass emphasises. Also on the way it draws us out of isolation and toward relationships.
Jen: thanks for the note on personal faith as well. I made sure to note in my paper that individual value is not lost in interest of community, instead it seems even more highlighted as we are acknowledged, accepted and loved by others.