culturemaking

Mission Context: When Work Disappears

Ben Sheppard is a member of Christ Community and a senior at UGA. He wants to serve the church by encouraging Christians not to just consume, condemn, critique or copy culture — but to continually create a culture that testifies to the reality of the gospel. More specifically, Ben is taking a look at the places, practices, institutions, events, and cultural patterns that contribute to our cultural context in the American South, the city of Athens, the UGA campus, and the surrounding communities. 

Check out this post for an explanation of what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and where he got the idea.


The book above was one of the required texts for my Communities & Crime class this semester. Wilson is a sociologist whose work focuses on urban poverty. While our entire nation is experiencing a crisis of unemployment, Wilson wrote this book in 1996 to describe a more severe and persistent problem: the extreme scarcity of jobs in inner-city neighborhoods. 

 

According to Wilson, the disappearance of blue-collar jobs and the movement of entry-level service-sector jobs from the cities to the suburbs have created ghettos that are not isolated because of cultural or racial factors but for economic reasons. The prevalence of “ghetto-related behaviors” like drug dealing, violence, and high teenage pregnancy rates can at least be partially attributed to persistent, intractable poverty, which results from severe joblessness.

  

Since we’re talking about a book here, the answers to our cultural analysis questions are pretty easy. Wilson’s book assumes that the problem (“the way the world is”) is that ghetto neighborhoods are economically and socially depressed because work is not readily available, and it assumes that the solution (“the way the world should be”) should be policy changes at the national level, including school performance standards and an extensive public works program. 

  

But how do we approach the issue through the framework of the gospel — the announcement of God’s power to save people through Jesus? There is a laundry list of potential answers to that question, so here’s one angle, from Old Testament scholar Chris Wright:

 

“The jubilee law pursued this objective [family viability], not by merely moral means, that is, appealing for greater family cohesion or admonishing parents and children to greater exercise of discipline and obedience respectively. Rather, the jubliee approach was immensely practical and fundamentally socioeconomic… . Family morality was meaningless if families were being split up and dispossessed by economic forces that rendered them powerless” (Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God, p. 297).  

 

The jubilee laws, which concerned the canceling of debts and the redistribution of property to its original owners, were expressions of God’s desire to save whole people, whole families, and whole communities. Wilson’s contention is that while personal character determines the choices people make, larger structural factors determine what kind of choices they are given. In the jubilee laws, we see that God isn’t just interested in making better people; God is interested in creating a culture that gives people better opportunities to make choices for their own good and the good of their communities.

 

What do you think about the idea of jubilee and the job problem in inner-city neighborhoods?


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Mission Context: The Arch

Ben Sheppard is a member of Christ Community and a senior at UGA. He wants to serve the church by encouraging Christians not to just consume, condemn, critique or copy culture — but to continually create a culture that testifies to the reality of the gospel. More specifically, Ben is taking a look at the places, practices, institutions, events, and cultural patterns that contribute to our cultural context in the American South, the city of Athens, the UGA campus, and the surrounding communities. 

Check out this post for an explanation of what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and where he got the idea.

Today’s mission context: The Arch

Photo credit Josh Hallett

As one of the traditional symbols of the University of Georgia, the Arch is already interesting enough as a cultural object in itself. For instance, did you know that the three pillars are intended to represent wisdom, justice, and moderation? (We might need to replace that last one if we want to get this dubious title back). Today, however, I’m interested less in the Arch itself and more interested in what kind of culture exists because of it – what kind of culture do people create in response to the Arch?

Culture, of course, doesn’t have to be big and flashy.  It’s just what we make of the world and the things in it. Tourists come and take pictures by the Arch; so do recent graduates and wedding parties. In each case, they’re creating meaning and associating it with this physical object. When the Redcoat Band lines up in the “Arch” before a Georgia football game, they’re creating something completely new (a marching band show) in response to something fairly ordinary (a cast-iron arch).

 

Because of the space and its prominent position on Broad Street between the UGA campus and downtown, the Arch is a favorite spot for protests and demonstrations. For instance, the members of the Jubilee Partners community regularly stage silent protests against the death penalty there. Recently, others joined them there to advocate on behalf of Troy Davis during the last days of his life. Just this week, taking their cue from Occupy Wall Street and We Are the 99 Percent, protesters have demonstrated by “occupying” the space in front of the Arch. 

 

On the lighter side, student lore says that if a student walks under the Arch, he or she will never graduate. That’s actually not so bad, especially compared to a similar superstition concerning the seal in front of Langdon Hall at Auburn University: if you step on it, not only will you never graduate and never find true love, you’ll also be a student at Auburn. 

 

What do you think? Are there other examples of culture created in response to the Arch that I missed?


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Culture Making: Choo Choo

Ben Sheppard takes a look at the places, practices, institutions, events, and cultural patterns that contribute to our cultural context in the American South, the city of Athens, the UGA campus, and the surrounding communities. Check out this post for an explanation of what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.

 

Today’s question: What does Choo Choo Japanese Korean Grill assume about the way the world should be?

 

Choo Choo is an Athens-based fast-food restaurant with franchises on the East Side and on Epps Bridge Road. Choo Choo advertises itself as a “hibachi-style” grill. Hibachi is a Japanese variety of restaurant where food is cooked and prepared on a hot plate or grill at the customer’s table.


 

While the most distinctive elements of hibachi in America are knife juggling and the onion volcano, in Japan people order ingredients and grill dinner themselves. If you’re willing to wait, you can get the satisfaction of cooking your own meal without the prep, the dishes, or putting up with someone else’s barbeque recipe. But there are no open grills at Choo Choo – just “individually-prepared hibachi style cuisine.” 

 

So what does Choo Choo assume about the way the world (or at least America) should be? The easy answer is one about American laziness – why cook something on your own when you can pay to have it done for you? In general, the point of fast food is that it’s there when we don’t have the time or the inclination to cook for ourselves (and also because there’s no way I’m ever going to replicate a Chick-fil-A milkshake in my own kitchen).  A slightly more charitable answer might be that letting people cook their own food in your establishment could be a legal nightmare. 


 

It also helps to look at Choo Choo’s more specific context: ten minutes away from the UGA campus. Choo Choo thrives on the college demographic, and two keys to success with students are late hours and take-out – two things which also don’t gel well with “real” hibachi.  

 

The truth is, plenty of restaurants serving American-style food do something similar: people usually associate hot dogs and ribs with grilling out, but you can get them at the Varsity or Sonny’s “individually prepared” and ready to eat. So maybe all Choo Choo assumes is that sometimes it’s okay to sacrifice an experience in order to get some food in your belly, because sometimes that’s all you need.


What do you think? 

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we teach them how to tailgate

Ben Sheppard takes a look at the places, practices, institutions, events, and cultural patterns that contribute to our cultural context in the American South, the city of Athens, the UGA campus, and the surrounding communities. Check out this post for an explanation of what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.

 

Watch this video before reading further: http://youtu.be/3PvX2qZy5m4

 

My question for this week: what does Rice University’s International Student Football Clinic assume about the way the world is?

 

Let’s shrink “the world” down to the American South. As different as Houston is from Athens, we’re alike in that football is as important in Texas as it is here in SEC country (well, let’s just say it’s close). The game can be difficult to figure out, even for people who are born here, and there’s so much that comes with it: fight songs, cheerleaders, face tattoos, halftime shows, mascots, and tailgating. But the clinic isn’t meant to be just an informational session for the intellectually curious. It’s intended to make international students “feel welcome,” to invite them to share our cultural world by introducing them to a phenomenon that they might not be able to explore on their own. Their assumption is that teaching students about football is an act of cultural hospitality.

 

But is it really the best way to make international students feel welcome? From another perspective, the whole idea might seem a little hokey. Wouldn’t these students get a better understanding of our culture by going to a rodeo or a diner or a museum or a park? Is something as pedestrian and lowbrow as football really the vehicle we want to use to introduce foreign students to our culture? Does a football clinic actually provide real insight into what it means to live in the American South or is it just a blatant attempt to assimilate foreigners into our (better) way of life?

 

Watch the video and let me know what you think.

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Mission Context: Borders

This is Ben Sheppard taking a look at the places, practices, institutions, events, and cultural patterns that contribute to our cultural context in the American South, the city of Athens, the UGA campus, and the surrounding communities. 


I can’t remember ever feeling this way about a store closing. It might be because books are the only thing I ever go “shopping” for; it’s also probably because Athens is the only place where I’ve spent enough time to get attached to a particular store. In any case, I’m really disappointed that Borders – specifically, our Borders, in the Beechwood shopping center – is closing its doors forever. So while I introduce a new series here at the Mission Athens blog, I’ll farewell to one of my favorite places in Athens.  

 

I want to use this space to examine elements of our culture and to reflect on how they fit into our missionary context. I believe that humans create culture because we are made in the image of a Creator, and that taking the time to observe and understand the culture we live in is a worthy goal in and of itself. Understanding and enjoying more of the world means coming closer to God, to each other, and to the people that we’re called to serve. The point is not to draw lines in the sand between “their culture” and “our culture,” but to comprehend how the gospel engages not just every aspect of a human being, but every aspect of the cultural universe humanity has created.

 

In Andy Crouch’s brilliant book Culture Making, he sets out five questions for analyzing cultural objects. I’m only going to shamelessly copy two of them here, but you can see all five and how they apply to specific cultural objects at the Culture Making blog. The first question I want to ask is, what does Borders – or any large bookstore – make possible? The second is, what does a bookstore make impossible (or at least difficult)? I’ll answer from my own experience, so chances are the way I answer these questions won’t be the same way you would. I don’t have all the possible answers.



 

What does having a large, chain bookstore make possible? For me, Borders was a great place to go and hang out, alone or with friends. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent killing time in the Religion section there, or leafing through the new arrivals at the front of the store. I love going to bookstores with friends. Not only can you talk about specific books that you like (or don’t like), but a bookstore the size of Borders or Barnes and Noble provides jumping off points for conversation about anything and everything. Even if you don’t like to read, just perusing the titles in the Sports or Politics sections gives you the opportunity for actual conversations with your friends about stuff that matters to you. 

 

Here’s another thing Borders and other big bookstores have made possible for me: finding books I never would have found in a smaller store or from an online vendor. Searching on Amazon gets me a single, specific work, while finding a book in a bookstore means passing by hundreds and hundreds of other titles. I would never have read some of my favorite books if I hadn’t found them while browsing through a bookshelf. I would have missed out on Patrick Neate’s City of Tiny Lights if I hadn’t passed it in a Barnes and Noble; likewise, I would never have discovered Bob Ekblad’s fantastic Reading the Bible With the Damned if the title hadn’t caught my eye on a store shelf. 


 

But here’s the thing: as the writer of Ecclesiastes pointed out, “Of making many books there is no end” (12:12). According to all-knowing Google, there are 129,864,880 books in the world – and counting. Even if we were just counting works in English, there are too many books out there to fit into a single store. Even the biggest chain stores can only present a fraction of books from any given genre or on any given subject; their inventory is skewed toward the popular and the general. Although I try to read a variety of books, I read a ton of books on Christian theology, and your average chain store just doesn’t have room for something like G.K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission.

 

Another thing that is impossible (or at least difficult) in a chain bookstore is getting second opinions on books before you buy them. Publishers will always be able to find someone whose good review they can slap on the inside flap of their latest hardcover. Where are you going to get a second opinion? If the book is popular enough you might be able to ask one of the employees, but even the whole staff combined won’t have read every single book in the store. Pulling a book off a shelf is a risky proposition, and this is where online vendors like Amazon have a leg up. Their review system, while flawed, at least gives you a second (or third, or three-hundredth) take on, say, whether Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is worth your time and money (it’s not; just watch the movie).

 

That’s my take. What do you think? What do bookstores make possible for you? What do they make impossible (or difficult)?


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