A thick description of a human behavior is one that explains not just the behavior, but its context as well, such that the behavior becomes meaningful to an outsider. The term was used by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) to describe his own method of doing ethnography (Geertz 1973:5-6, 9-10)
Geertz aims to provide social science with an understanding and appreciation of “thick description.” While Geertz applies thick description in the direction of anthropological study (specifically his own ‘interpretive anthropology’), his theory that asserts the essentially semiotic nature of culture has implications for the social sciences in general and political science in particular.
“Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is… There are a number of ways of escaping this — turning culture into folklore and collecting it, turning it into traits and counting it, turning it into institutions and classifying it, turning it into structures and toying with it. But they are escapes. The fact is that to commit oneself to a semiotic concept of culture and an interpretive approach to the study of it is to commit oneself to a view of ethnographic assertion as… ‘essentially contestable.’ Anthropology, or at least interpretive anthropology, is a science whose progress is marked less by a perfection of the consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other.” (29)
We must proceed to interpret a culture’s web of symbols by 1. isolating its elements 2. specifying the internal relationships among those elements 3. characterize the whole system in some general way—according to the core symbols around which it is organized, the underlying structures of which it is a surface expression, or the ideological principles upon which it is based. (17) We must, however, be careful that such hermetical approaches might actually distance us from cultural analysis’s proper object, “the informal logic of actual life…” (17)
Ethnography is by definition “thick description” — “an elaborate venture in.” Using the example of “winking,” Geertz examines how in order to distinguish the winking from a social gesture, a twitch, etc. we must move beyond the action to both the particular social understanding of the “winking” as a gesture, the state of mind of the winker, his/her audience, and how they construe the meaning of the winking action itself. “Thin description” is the winking. “Thick” is the meaning behind it and its symbolic import in society or between communicators.
Summary (edited) from Robert Charlick. See also “Analyzing Social Settings – Lofland & Lofland”
“As Christians, and as the church of Jesus Christ, we are called by our Lord to be “in” the world, but “not of” the world. “No longer” who we were before we came to Christ, we are “not yet” what we will be when Christ returns. This bracing call to tension in both time and space lies at the heart of our faith. Individually and collectively, we are to live in the world in a stance of both Yes and No, affirmation and antithesis, or of being “against the world/for the world.”
“This tension is crucial to the faithfulness of the church, and to her integrity and effectiveness in the world. When the church of Christ remains faithful to this calling, she lives in a creative tension that is the prerequisite of her transforming power in culture and history.
“Beyond any question, the single, strongest expression of the face of the world in our time … is globalization, the process by which human interconnectedness has expanded to a truly global level. At the centre of the current wave of globalization are “the triple S-forces” of speed (with the capacity for instant communication), scope (the capacity to communicate to the entire world), and simultaneity (the capacity to communicate to everywhere at the same time). Together, these forces have shaped our “wired world” and led to an unprecedented triple impact on human living: the acceleration, compression, and intensification of human life on earth in the global world.”
Christianity Today has run a series of interviews with Philip Jenkins, author of the title noted above.
From Part III —
Ed: Some are estimating that in the next couple of decades, they’ll be more evangelicals in Brazil than in the United States… what will that do in terms of global leadership? We’ve already seen the Anglican Global South assert its authority as the majority. How will this shift play out in the coming years?
Dr. Jenkins: So much of this change has happened very recently – within 30, 40, 50 years, which in the span of Christian history is not great. It’s hardly surprising that some institutions have not adapted fully to take account of that. Other churches, however, recognize it. On a typical Sunday, there are more Assemblies of God worshippers in the greater San Paulo, Brazil area than in the United States. It’s a radical change.
Let me suggest to you that in 30 years, there will be two sorts of church in the world. There’ll be the ones that are multi-ethnic, transnational, and multi-continental. They are constantly battling over issues of culture, lifestyle, worship, and constantly in conflict, debate and controversy. And those are the good ones. The other churches will have decided to let all these trends pass them by. They’ll live just like they’ve always done with an average age in their congregations of 80. Personally, I’d much rather be in one of the ones that is recognizing, taking account of the expansion with all the debates and controversies.
HT to Prodigal Kiwis
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Mary Oliver – The Poetry Foundation
What kind of program can prepare leaders for the new realities of a multi-cultural, interconnected world? And what method of training leaders can effectively integrate practice based learning with critical reflection? What kind of program would you build if you were free to dream, unencumbered by past models designed for a world that no longer exists?
The LGP program at George Fox leverages social media to connect cohort members and advisors as spiritual friends. The yearly advance is set in a different international location each year. So far, S Korea, London, and Capetown – Hong Kong and Auckland coming up. Members gather to explore and interact and learn eight days each year, then connect online regularly through the program. I spent nine days in Capetown as a new advisor with the program – here is my story.
In 2014 the New York Times named Capetown the best place in the world to visit. In the same year the city was named the World Design Capital by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. With a population of 3.75 million, it is not nearly as densified as the comparably situated city of Vancouver, Canada (yet Vancouver is much, much smaller).
According to a long time resident, Dr. Alan Storey, Capetown is less diverse and more wealthy than the other large South African cities. The setting is unique — perched between the mountains and the sea. Unfortunately, my dates there were Sept. 23 to October 1st, and the weather was cloudy and cool. We were ensconced near the waterfront in the Commmodore Hotel: making it easy to walk to the waterfront area and the fairly expansive mall and boardwalk. An outdoor performance venue on the waterfront side of the mall was in use a number of the times I was in that area.
We gathered as a part of the doctor of ministry program with George Fox Evangelical Seminary: ministry leaders from ten nations — 55 of us in total. We toured some historic areas and met with local leaders who lived through Apartheid, experiencing its effects as well as working for its end. Those in the program are wrestling with questions around globalization, post-colonialism, welcoming and empowering the multi-cultural voice of the church, equipping the church for mission in this new world, doing local theology, and raising up leaders who can strongly engage in this inter-connected world.
As an advisor in the program, I have been impressed with the structure of the program, with the vision and heart evident in those making it fly, and with the women and men who have signed up as a way of enriching and expanding their own ability to guide and empower others in these times. “Impressed” isn’t really the right word. If I had to design a program for enriching Christian leaders today, this would be it! On the last day I asked Dr. Caroline Ramsey, lecturer at the University of Liverpool and a specialist in learning – how she would evaluate the program design. She said she would give it a 9 out of 10, and it might only be her natural British reserve that would prevent the 10!
It strikes me that a community of learners can function as a smart mob — and combining face-to-face relationships with regular interaction can generate emergent conditions and unexpected learning. Individual leaders can’t be smart enough these days: we need to leverage the intelligence of larger groups to avoid the “echo chamber” effect.
A final note – this program grows out of the vision of a number of leaders and practitioners in a seminary that is set in the reflective context of the Quaker tradition. That spiritual rooting was evident in a variety of ways, but perhaps mostly in the quiet humility of the leaders – and their frequent laughter! – their desire to function as a true community, and their desire to make Christ the heart and outcome of the engagement.
” On, then, with a look at the new models of the church currently on the market. Once again, context is everything: in the present collapse of every form we’ve known, the next form or forms of the church will not drop down from heaven or be given to us directly by God. Nor will it or they be dredged up by a nostalgic return to the past: no one can go back; our true home always remains resolutely in front of us. Nor above all will any helpful model of our life be cooked up by a committee: what we need is the white horse of the Apocalypse that gallops in over the ruins we have made, not some lumpy camel put together by ecclesiastical management-consultants. Instead, we shall have to settle for being what we are: a sacramental fellowship consisting entirely and only of human beings. We can think only of models that are already in the marketplace of our minds. A glorious future shape of the church will be achieved only if our hands and hearts can do better than the ones that gave it its less-than-glorious past.
“Therefore the question we most need to ask ourselves is not some idle query about what the next model of the church will be. Rather, it’s a twofold contextual question: What are the new models we’re already trying on; and what other models are currently lying around that we might try out? Needless to say, in answering either part of that question we shall come up with both good and bad models – and, given my slightly choleric disposition, you will not be surprised if I find more bad ones than good. It’s the price of hanging out with prophets. But I’m not alone: the “next form of the church” is a hot topic right now, as well it should be: the dreadfulness of all its forms – past, present, and future – has already been stigmatized by a host of experts. Accordingly, let me first give you a shopping list of the models that I think are currently in the showrooms and then have at them to see how many turn out to be religious, institutional, or uncatholic lemons…”
I have tried to capture the paradox that something is still guarded on the island – but it isn’t men. And something beautiful is still being born there, in that harsh landscape.
It was spring in Winnipeg, and I had moved out of my apartment on Ellice Street and moved in with a friend on River Road. I had finished a year of study at the U of W and was in transition, not sure what was next. But a friend had been talking about Regent College, that graduate school on the west coast, and with most of my family in BC, it was an attractive option.
May was a tough month. Although the snow was gone from yards and streets and the buds were swelling, I felt a chill in my spirit. I had a few options before me, and no sense of certainty as to what was best. A new beginning at a new school in a new city was both attractive, and terrifying. Did I really have the stuff needed for grad school? Would I find a new community of friends? What was I called to do? Who had God made me to be?
In Pacing the Cage, Bruce Cockburn sings —
Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend,
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend.
Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, and Philip Seymour Hoffman – who would have noticed that we also lost Robert Farrar Capon recently? I have deeply profited from his gift with language and with theology, and it was a sad day for me when he passed on.
I was thinking about Father Capon as I thought about how to introduce a talk I will give in Capetown on “place.” Capon had a rich sensitivity to context and to place, and you can see that love reflected in nearly all his work, but in particular in An Offering of Uncles and The Supper of the Lamb. Like God, Capon loved the particulars.
In one of his very first books, he offered some thoughts on creation. Here is Capon —
Let me tell you why God made the world.
One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations.
From all eternity, it seems, he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things — new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be.
And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, “Really, this is absolutely great stuff. Why don’t I go out and mix us up a batch?” And God the Holy Spirit said, “Terrific! I’ll help you.”
So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place, and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses.
There were mushrooms and mastodons, grapes and geese, tornadoes and tigers — and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them, and to love them.
And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and said, “Wonderful! Just what I had in mind! Tov! Tov! Tov!” And all God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could think of to say was the same thing: “Tov! Tov! Tov!” So they shouted together “Tov meod!” and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing.
And for ever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the Son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.
It is, I grant you, a crass analogy; but crass analogies are the safest. Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other. Not everyone, I’m afraid, is equally clear that God is not a cosmic force or a principle of being or any other dish of celestial blancmange we might choose to call him. Accordingly, I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a trinitarian bash, and leave the details of the analogy to sort themselves out as best they can.
*** *** ***
The reason I recall this analogy this morning is that I recently received “Local Knowledge” by Clemens Sedmak (2002). Sedmak closes chapter one with this section heading: “A Guiding Image: The Local Theologian as Village Cook.” Clemens argues that doing local theology is like cooking with local ingredients. He chooses this image because it offers a nuance and a “feeling” that a definition cannot convey (it also offers texture and taste!). He builds in the image to remind us that Jesus feeds us, was often at dinner parties, and was himself the bread of life!
The theologian is not free to cook anything he or she likes, but is part of a community that provides ingredients and shares the food.
“Kosuke Koyama talks about the Thai theological kitchen and the Aristotelian pepper and the Buddhist salt used there. He talks about the implicit theologies that can be smelled from the kitchen while you are sitting in the living room… there are many nuances and ‘inside aspects’ that are hardly accessible to an outsider (have you ever been in the company of a conniousseur who talks about the many different kinds of wine?).
“Food is, next to language, THE local cultural product par excellence…” (19)
*** *** ***
Around 2005 another book was released that appears nearly forgotten now, in part because it was never released in North America. But Simon Carey Holt’s “God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in the Neighbourhood” was written by a theologian who is also a cook! You might not know this from his book, but baking, like walking, gives Holt a certain sensitivity to place that is missing in similar work.
And then of course, there is my own book, No Home Like Place (2014). The final chapter is titled, “Re-placing the World Through the Arts.” But there are two parts to this chapter, and the second part is headed, “Re-placing the World through Gardens and Baking.” Ah – see how I snuck that in there! If I revise the book the 2nd edition would divide this chapter into two, to elevate that closing chapter to a new status.
After introducing this section in my book, here is how I proceed.
“It may seem odd that I am about to close a book on place with a discussion of gardens, baking and hospitality. Yet these are three of the most spiritual practices we can muster at this late date in the dying gasp of Modernity. For the preachers among you, I offer this alliterative alternative: Flora, Fauna, Food and Fellowship. Not quite? How about Cultivation, Cuisine, and Community?
“Let’s begin with the simple version: gardens, baking and hospitality. These practices slow us down, help us to locate ourselves, and open space for others. Wendell Berry writes,
“A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.” (What Are People For?)
“Gardens: the Bible is full of them, and its pages open and close – in Genesis and Revelations — with stories placed in gardens. How fitting that the first great title for God is given to us not in terms of a distant transcendence but in terms of his intimate role in creation: “And God planted a garden in the East” (Gen. 2:8). And then Mary’s first sight at the open tomb echoes a world renewed: she sees Jesus as the gardener (John 20:15). Loren Wilkinson writes,
Then the planet will spin in a Sabbath dance
(And the dancing place will be the heart).
Fruit will burgeon from scattered seeds
And garden and town be clean as a fleece
Early in the morning, on the first day of the week. Imago Mundi
We who are created in God’s image can do no less than imitate his work.