Monthly Archives: April 2006

The Ambiguous Legacy of St MacGyver

Hoopoeor, “Why White Men Can’t Do Theology”

Theological deliberation has for a long time benefited from leadership by White Men*; their privileged cultural position has offered them access to learning, to leisure, to others’ complementary service, to the critical interaction of other privileged scholars. Some of these privileged White Men have put their advantages to the service of the church’s self-understanding, a laudable self-offering (when they might pursue so many more rewarding activities), and we may not underrate the extent to which their efforts have clarified and illumined the Truth to which the whole church strains with eager longing. Well done, good and faithful servants!

All the same, White Men’s theology involves a deeply problematic architectonic flaw. This flaw affects both “conservative” and “liberal” theologies. Indeed, some of its most devastating effects arise in “liberal” theological discourses; the “conservative” inclination to minimize the importance of gender and privilege as categories of theological thinking keep their Whiteness as the prominent visible characteristic, whereas the “liberal” interest in remedying the pernicious effects of White Men’s dominance ironically perpetuates and more deeply embeds the White presuppositions in their theological endeavors.**

But I have put off too long my characterization of the constitutive flaw of White Guy theology. The problem I have in view involves the relation of White Men’s cultural privilege to the theological standing of justice and grace. In a few words, when culturally-dominant figures speak about either “justice” or “grace,” they almost necessarily presuppose the practical possibility of effecting a just situation, or an appropriately gratuitous gift of Truth. But observation suggests that human efforts to bring about “justice” tend to incorporate elements of [well-intentioned] coercive power, and coercion itself militates against “fairness” (and is antithetical to grace). In other words, when White Men (and their allies) try to fix things, to bring about just social arrangements, the very gesture of fixing entangles them again in the coercive use of privilege that constitutes the White problematic.

This is why I invoke St. MacGyver in the title of the post. I never watched the TV series, but the general premise has seeped into cultural currency. Resourceful hero, trained in covert operations by a national security agency, goes from place to place getting into dire predicaments in his efforts to Do the Right Thing, and he always manages to set matters straight with the clever manipulation of two or three ordinary household implements (and his Swiss Army knife).*** The figure of MacGyver epitomizes the White Man’s impulse to fix things and the White Man’s capacity (and resources) actually to make things right. And not everyone has access to those resources, to those capacities, as White Guys do.

If you don’t have access to the means of “making things right,” though, the whole question takes on (we might say) a different complexion. If you know in advance that important, effective forces stand to prevent your making things right, fixing things, you have a very different relation to the prospect of fixing. Sure, you still hunger and thirst for righteousness — but you know that effecting righteousness lies outside your power. The dominant forces in culture, the ones that limit and constrain you, have made that lesson inescapably clear. By the same token, the more ardently one hangs onto the prospect of fixing, the more clearly one identifies with the White Guy’s power.

In order truly to apprehend grace, one must move out of the world in which our striving constitutes the effective power by which God’s justice becomes manifest in the world. In this sense, one more truly accepts God’s grace as a gift when one adopts a practice of patience rather than an impatient determination to attain right answers, correct social practices.

I say this not out of lack of concern about injustice, but (so far as it’s given me to know) out of a particular grave concern. I fear that our appropriate vexation at evident, appalling injustices tends to compound these problems by instituting a new “improved” situation that itself entails new unfairnesses, but with the aura of sanctified immunity that derives from its status as a deliberate step toward justice. “Conservative” participants in social processes may experience the injustice of the loss of their cherished way of life, the disregard of the authorities upon which (and whom) they rely. Those who experience a different sort of injustice from that which is being remedied may experience the unfairness of having their trials disregarded out of triumphal confidence that “justice has been done.” Certainly many have observed (in others, of course; never in oneself!) the way that well-intentioned justice-doers can be more resistant than anyone else to perceiving glitches in their plans to fix the world.

So, on the terms I’m setting out, our response to injustices that we perceive is neither a determination to remedy them (tacitly: “at any cost”), nor passively to say, “well, the poor will be with us always,” but to endeavor to live in ways that (imperfectly) bespeak God’s equity and truth: within the ambit of our capacities (patiently), subject to criticism and correction (humbly). To the extent that we attain such a life, we do so not through the power of our own wills or intellects, not through the purity of our intentions, not through the guaranteed inerrancy of our authorities, but solely through a grace that does not originate with us, that refuses coercion, that invites correction and cooperation (even when these involve a departure from the corrective program we devised).

In all this, then, it’s time to recognize that White Men have given great gifts to the church — but inasmuch as they participate in privileges that inhibit their realization of the actuality, the humility, and the patience of grace, they need to step back a few paces and not try to tell the world how God wants things run. St MacGyver’s legacy is ambiguous, because White Guys really do accomplish some good things, they often have their sights set squarely on justice. Nonetheless, God’s grace wants spokespeople who know that sometimes you can’t get the justice you want, that coercion institutionalizes un-freedom, that God’s justice is greater and truer and more reliable than human justice, better even than White Guys’ justice.****

This claim, of course, enmeshes me in a performative contradiction. I can’t very well persuade you that I’m right without arrogating to my claims about justice an authority that my argument rules out. And if you point out that a White Man shouldn’t be talking as I have, your resistance tends to affirm the thesis of my argument above. I have no wisdom by which to rectify this, unless it be: By saying this out loud, I may lend some measure of the dominant culture’s power to similar arguments made by people who don’t have the full panoply of privilege that I’ve enjoyed.

Or not. I’d be interested to learn from interlocutors by exploring this premise together, though.

* For casual purposes, I’ll say just “White Men” or “White Guys” here, though a more precise analysis of power and privilege would take account of class distinctions, of sexuality, of a variety of inflections of “whiteness” and masculinity. My point is not that these are irrelevant, but that the nuanced account depends first on naming the structural problem with White Guy theology. Once we reach that point, we can begin tracing the various manifestations of, resistances to, and correlates of that problem.

** I don’t exclude this short essay from the category — though, as I will try to show, it occupies its problematic status self-consciously, deliberately, and patiently, tentatively, with the hope that such an intervention provides the occasion for corrective responses.

*** I’m uninterested in arguing here over whether I’ve got MacGyver right — I would be interested to learn more, but he’s functioning as a metonym here, not as the invocation of the Actual Fictive-Historical MacGyver.

**** I don’t think this involves an advantage to “left” or “right”; I know plenty of “conservative” people outside the sphere of White Men’s privilege, along with plenty of “liberals.” And if we suppress the noisy clamor of White Guys who think they have the correct answer, we may begin to undo some of the stereotyping that results when Others get squeezed into the roles and positions that a dominant discourse constructs for them.

[Now see also More On MacGyver]


You may not have noticed, but I love my daughter very much. I usually make her pancakes on Saturday, but this morning she apologetically asked if I would make French Toast. I allowed that I’d do anything for her, so she volunteered to walk the dog while I cooked, and she fished out our battered copy of The Joy of Cooking to help me with proportions.

“Hey, look at how you make Garlic Bread,” she said, and headed off to leash the dog.

“I don’t understand why you want Garlic Toast for breakfast,” I observed, “but I’ll make it if you want.”

“No, no, I want French Toast,” she emphasized.

“French Toast with Garlic sounds strange to me, honey, but I’ll make it for you.”

“French Toast! French Toast! Anything with garlic is banned!” she called, as she headed out the door.

Perfect Match

Dave points (with surprisingly little comment) to the disheartening convergence of two corporate interests both of which think that the next business model involves control, control, and more control.

No one should take what I say as though I were an MBA from Kellogg School (where I had a cup of coffee this week, and felt as though I’d entered the Bizarro-World opposite of the tech conferences I’ve been to: almost all ThinkPads, with an occasional rare iBook). On the other hand, my ideas aren’t peculiar to me — people who’ve best-selling business books will tell you the same thing.

The next business model may not be located in the sun-shine-y, mellow, free, oh wow, give-it-away, “We’re all feeding each other” territory that I envision, but the path toward the next business model passes through there.

And it surely doesn’t lie in the highly-controlled environment where MSFT and the NYT are building.

Headline News

My friend Hope pointed me to this story about the upcoming da Vinci movie (which will begin a new cycle of Adult Forum appearances); I imagine that the advertisers didn’t expect the poster to stay up, that they were only interested in the publicity in the first place.

Kevin pointed me to this Fresh Air interview with biblical-scholar rockstar Bart Ehrman, and (while we’ at it) Mark had pointed to a link to the Daily Show interview a while back. I’ll check them out, too, if I have time.

Authenticity and Sincerity

Once upon a time, in the days when they ran the Internet on an engine salvaged from a defunct 1967 VW Beetle, a number of us got into a running brouhaha about “authenticity.” I was an “authenticity skeptic,” reluctant to allow more than ideological content this usage. The topic comes up frequently enough that our debates never quite faded from memory, nor even from on-going currency among us discussants, and this morning I fell to thinking about what I might say to stand in for the abused term “authenticity.”

I wonder whether we might get any traction on the disagreement between me and the defenders of authenticity if we were to compare authenticity with sincerity (another term that’s suffered a lot of abuse). I’m willing enough to commend sincerity, in a way that I hesitate to buy into authenticity.

“Sincerity,” I think, invokes the correspondence of the outlook one expresses with one’s actual convictions and sentiments. If I were to say, “I’m terribly sorry that the Baltimore Orioles dominated baseball in the early 1970’s,” that apology would be insincere inasmuch as I’m a devoted (and nostalgic) Orioles fan. “Sincerity” involves one element of what most people seem to want “authenticity” to do, but it falls short; one can imagine a blues performer who sincerely performs “Hellhound on My Trail,” but who has never known poverty, bigotry, or profound romantic disappointment — as sincere as she might be, there’s a strong chance that her performance would lack something that many people would identify as “authenticity.”

Here, though, I respond: I agree that her performance misses the point, but do we advance our understanding of what’s wrong with this picture by saying that she’s “inauthentic”? Might we not more helpfully call her interpretation unconvincing, or shallow, or glib? My students often have to read Henry Louis Gates’s essay “ ‘Authenticity,’ or the Lesson of Little Tree” (it would be great if I could link to the New York Times Book Review November 24, 1991 — but alas, that’s not possible), in which Gates clearly tracks numerous occasions when presumably “authentic” expressions were commended and acclaimed until their authors were revealed. The point of departure for Gates’s reflections is Asa Carter’s The Education of Little Tree, which many praised for its depiction of Native American wisdom, until they learned that it had been written by a white man (with a long history of racist writing and action).

When I fret about the value of “authenticity” in discourse, I’m more concerned about ways we can clarify the basis for our praise and derogation; I’m still not sure “authenticity” contributes much to that end.

Creating Passionate Liturgy

When I hear about the importance of the church engaging popular culture more richly, I usually hear the subtext “and ditch all that out-moded, incomprehensible stuff that nobody who likes The Simpsons or listens to rock and roll or spends a lot of time online would ever believe. Sometimes they throw in the canard about “speaking in code,” as though any complex endeavor that has lived and developed for decades (much less centuries) doesn’t develop its own in-house terminology. Here’s a message, pop-cultured despisers: I like the Simpsons, I listen to rock and roll, and I spend more time online thasn all of you (as the Apostle would say). And I believe those things, and the church’s particular ways of expressing itself are not inconsequentially dispensable.

So I doubt that many people read the recent posts by Dylan Breuer and and Kathy Sierra and thought, “Hey, that’s the kind of thing AKMA would say about liturgy.” Well, it’s not, exactly. But though these are not the precise perspectives I would bring to bear on liturgical planning, I think that Dylan and Kathy are quite right in what they say on their respective topics, and their observations tend to confirm my very Anglo-Catholic perspective on liturgy. I’ll spell out a more detailed account of the convergence some other time — I’m drafting a series of posts on Enriching Our Worship, the Episcopal Church’s compilation of authorized liturgies, and I probably ought to articulate my liturgical theology in greater detail first — but for now, I want to offer an appreciative link along with a promissory note toward further comment.

Week End Update

The friendly manager of CVS exchanged my dysfunctional beard trimmer for one that turns out to work just fine, and I am no longer threatening to be mistaken for a member of ZZ Top.

Pride In The Name Of Family

It’s all pretty much confirmed — Nate will graduate from Eastman School of Music in a couple of weeks, magna cum laude, and after finishing his thesis (on Steve Reich and minimalism) will move from Rochester to Ann Arbor, where he has accepted a Regents Fellowship to study music theory in the doctoral program at the University of Michigan. We’re monstrously proud of him, as of all our children, and thrilled that doing the things he loves is working out so well for him. <parents phosphoresce with delight>

Learning Curve

The first electric beard trimmer that I remember buying came from a store in Northgate Mall in Durham; that one lasted through my doctoral program and my jobs in Florida and New Jersey, about twelve years. I had to buy a new one two or three years ago here in Evanston; that one quit about three weeks ago. I bought a replacement at the drugstore on Monday, and it never even started.

If I seem especially shaggy for the next interval, it’s because someone seems to be trying to tell me something.