Forays: Community and Boredom

Roger W. Stump, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Geography & Planning at the University at Albany, SUNY, is the author of a unique and compelling text, The Geography of Religion: Faith, Place, and Space. As I continue to read through the text, I find myself reflecting on the themes of secularization and desacralization with increasing frequency. Perhaps the notion of some ambitious (future) project makes me happier than I’d like to admit, but I see fascinating avenues of research ahead of me. Stump’s Geography, along with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, would make for a fine analytical framework with which I can approach many concerns my undergraduate honors thesis on French anticlericalism will bring to the surface.

Burk Parsons, in this month’s issue of Tabletalk Magazine, noted,

“Although many Christians claim to want genuine community, many want it only on their own terms, when it’s convenient, and when it demands nothing from them. What they want isn’t the church community, but a country club where they pay their dues for services rendered. They want to be served without having to serve anyone else.”

It was an interesting coincidence that the issue of “Christian community,” my hobby horse ever since I finished Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together a few years ago, would spring up in so many facets of my literarische Welt. Stump argues that, “[as] a cultural system…religion is an expression of the community rather than of the individual, rooted in shared understandings and reproduced through social interaction.”[1]

In The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright argues that “[the] original exodus was an earlier moment in the story of which Jesus the Messiah was and is the climax, and the church the current product; the Israelites were God’s people ‘according to the flesh’…but the new community is now a worldwide family composed of people from many origins, and must now live out their new identity before the watching world of Jews and Greeks alike….”[2] This covenant community of Christians is such because of the “worldview and ethos,” of the Christian narratological praxis. Stump would argue that “[the] social bonds of membership foster conformity to the group’s beliefs and practices.”[3]

It is my assessment that the “social bonds of membership,” have never been more strained in the history of Western Christianity than they are today. A virtual plethora of textual sources, studies, etc., have made precisely this point. For most theologically conservative Christians, this is the bête noire of what I call the “evangelical panoply of die Volkskunde Problematisierung.”[4] The natural idiom of American Evangelical Christianity embodies and is embedded within the political theology of Max Weber, as interpreted by early twentieth century Anglo-American sociologists.

In Jeff Hearn, Alp Biricik, and Tanja Joelsson’s “Theorising, Men, Masculinities, Place and Space: Local, National and Transnational Contexts and Interrelations,” the second chapter of Masculinities and Place, edited by Andrew Gorman-Murray and Peter Hopkins in the “Gender, Space and Society” published by Ashgate, a thematic category labeled “spatial boredom”

Violations with motor vehicles in public space occur in all age groups eligible for driving, but the conception of the reckless teenage driver (cf. Best 2008) has had pervasive consequences for how a dangerous driver is imagined, as well as how problems associated with this age category are remedied. The perception of the most dangerous driver is most notably young and male, but also, increasingly, placed and positioned in rural or peri-urban backwaters. But how does space and place relate to risk-taking with motor vehicles? A very common way in which the greasers talk about the attraction of hanging out at the parking lot in Lillby relates to the experience of boredom: having ‘nothing to do’ or ‘nowhere (else) to go’. It is further framed as a strategy to cope with and avoid what they call ‘restlessness’. Conceptions of rural or peri-urban areas are particularly poignant when youth cultures are discussed: the råners, a Norwegian group similar to the Swedish greasers, ‘are associated with rural areas that are understood as backward and boring, and as a dull rather than idyllic space for young people’ (Laegren 2007: 29). Indeed ideas associated with urban and rural place often evolve around dichotomies between modernity and backwardness or tradition, and progress and stagnation respectively (see Kenway and Hickey-Moody 2009, Stenbacka 2011, Waara 1996).

The experience of boredom is part of the greasers’ narratives and practices, and is used as a resource by the young greasers to constitute themselves as ‘fun’ and social, through engaging in fun practices, such as partying and risk-taking with motor vehicles. They also recreate social distinctions with other young people by labeling non-greasers as boring. Spatial boredom is a resource for the young greasers to draw upon, rather than a mental state or an effect of geographical conditions, in the way that many approaches conceptualise the phenomenon of boredom. Spatial boredom refers to the co-constitution of place and culture: of how cultural conceptions on age, class, place and gender are related to and actively engaged with at the level of practice. The greasers actively engage with conceptions of themselves as rural and backward, and manage to create a position of spatial and social dominance with regard to other local youth, while meanwhile recreating pervasive notions around gender and place. Their orientation towards their neighbourhood and peers entails distancing from the home, which can be interpreted as distancing from both the adult world and a feminised sphere. The neighbourhood comes to portray values connoting danger, risk – and masculinity (see Rose 1993, Domosh and Seager 2001). The social norms associated with masculinity in greaser culture encourage appropriation of public space, and distancing from feminised private space, by exercising and encouraging risk- taking with vehicles.[5]

If it is indeed true that, “[spatial] boredom refers to the co-constitution of place and culture: of how cultural conceptions on age, class, place and gender are related to and actively engaged with at the level of practice,” it is safe to say that, while not directly analogous to the feminization of religion nineteenth century Western Europe, particularly France, the United States’ experience of the sacred and, perhaps more importantly, of sacred spaces, has shifted dramatically.

For many would-be Christians, religion is simply too boring. The intersections of religious praxis and the progressive renewal of the mind via the Spirit (sanctification)—the life of ordinary Christian devotion in the midst of the community of saints—is, ere much pretense is required, simply unsexy. But the un-sexiness of sanctification is its, to be anachronistic, Burkean appeal. The longue durée of the Christian faith is precisely the commitment to imperfect, failed community. As we consent to Bonhoeffer’s maxims of disposing with our ideations of the “best” Christian community, we must be-ourselves-in the midst of God, in the midst of the community, but only as a consequence of God’s faithfulness as the antecedent of faith by ourselves.

Church is “boring” when it is disenchanted, and community will not fix this. Much can be said about this, but these are only some of my preliminary notes on the matter, which I hope to return to at some point in the next few weeks.

[1] Roger W. Stump, The Geography of Religion: Faith, Place, and Space (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 9.

[2] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: SPCK, 2003), 294.

[3] Stump, The Geography of Religion: Faith, Place, and Space, 10.

[4] In some of my very early posts, I used this term to refer to the folkloric narratives within American Evangelical discourse that are being problematized by variegated cultural forces, from within and from without.

[5] Jeff Hearn, Alp Biricik, and Tanja Joelsson, “Theorising, Men, Masculinities, Place and Space: Local, National and Transnational Contexts and Interrelations,” in Masculinities and Place, ed. Andrew Gorman-Murray and Peter Hopkins, Gender, Space and Society (Surrey, England; Burlington, VT, USA: Ashgate, 2014).