LIBR 200 Post #8

A Pen. Source: Clipart

A Pen. Source: Clipart

As LIBR 200 comes to an end, I’ve been pondering all I’ve learned through this class. In particular, I’ve been reflecting on how my perspective on information communities has changed over the course. I was not familiar with the phrase “information community” prior to this class. Early in the semester, as I read various definitions, I developed a picture in my head of the meaning of the phrase. I took the phrase to mean a group of individuals that share common interest in the gathering of information on a particular topic or subject (however narrowly or broadly conceived), or as Karen E. Fisher and Joan C. Durrance (2003) define information communities, groups that “form mainly around people’s needs to use information from distributed information resources” (p. 658).

As the course proceeded, I began to realize that while this conception of information communities was not exactly wrong, one of my grounding assumptions beneath it needed further nuance. My mistake was that I assumed a top-down hierarchical model of the flow of information. While I had not actively articulated this notion, I realized that my understanding had certainly presupposed it. I had assumed that information is made by experts and professionals, and information communities as groups of non-experts simply gather that information.

Anyone familiar with me or my scholarship will find the fact that I had made this assumption endlessly amusing. I am thoroughly committed to a postcolonial methodology that problematizes models that presuppose a binary between elites as makers and non-elites as takers. I subvert this notion by actively considering the beliefs, practices, and narratives of marginalized religious groups as creative and productive.

Somehow, however, I initially had not brought this insight and commitment over to my reflections on information communities and the flow of information. As I read more as the class continued, I began to realize that my presupposed understanding was problematic, and “ordinary” members of information communities produce and create information as much as they gather it from others.

In the case of the information community I examined for this class—theological graduate schools—students do not just research information provided by religion scholars, and libraries are not the sole repositories of created information useful to their projects. Instead, students can be endless creative, looking for information through a variety of sources—from libraries to religious communities—and are even the makers and shapers of new information. While the flow of information can be hegemonic, from the top-down in a movement of domination and control, information never simply moves in this direction. Instead, the people with the least power also resist, finding information in the seemingly strangest of places and telling counter-narratives of their own.

In all of this reflection, I realized that I have approached being an information professional in a completely inverted fashion; first and foremost, I had looked to provide information for the communities that use my library. I gave. I provided. I spoke. This isn’t wrong, so much as it is too narrow. Instead of speaking, I should have been listening. As an information professional, I shouldn’t first look to provide information to the community, but rather, witness it as the community around me creates it. Pen in hand, I have stories to listen to.

References

Fisher, K., & Durrance, J. (2003). Information communities. In K. Christensen, & D. Levinson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of community: From the village to the virtual world. (pp. 658-661). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. Retrieved from http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://knowledge.sagepub.com/view/community/n248.xml

LIBR 200 Post #7

OCLC Worldshare

OCLC WorldShare Logo. Source: oclc.org

When it rains, it pours. Since finishing my PhD in religious studies and starting library school full time was apparently not enough for me, as I have indicated in previous posts, I am also the Acquisitions Librarian and Head Cataloger at Claremont School of Theology. This year has been a tumultuous time in the library at CST, as not only have we experienced a significant amount of staff turnover, but we also have transitioned from one integrated library system (ILS) to another. Through several surveys of our community, we discovered that the technical limitations of our previous ILS (Millennium) were causing community members to under-utilize our electronic databases and mostly rely on research strategies separate from library support.

In particular, our electronic databases were completely individualized and separate from our ILS. Furthermore, the library webpage that contained links to all of the databases was clunky and difficult to navigate. Through the surveys, we discovered that the majority of our community preferred to search in one collective database (like Google Scholar) that had access to many different individualized journal databases. As such, since we were already looking for a new ILS, we prioritized finding an ILS that could better integrate electronic databases into the overall search function of the catalog. While still a fairly young ILS, we discovered that OCLC’s Worldshare had the capability to include electronic databases alongside print collections in its search feature. Following popular emergent technological trends, Worldshare is completely cloud-based, and since records management is completely collaborative across member libraries, Worldshare is an excellent example discussed by Stephens (2006) of the emerging technological trend on the internet toward “participation” and “decentralization” (p. 12). As a cloud-based service, Worldshare provides a number of other patron-friendly services including the options for patrons to see the collections at other libraries, request that their library purchase particular books, and create social profiles to recall and suggest books.

We went live with Worldshare over the summer, and I have been particularly interested to see students’ perceptions of the new ILS and how it might be shifting their information-seeking behavior. For this post, I interviewed a PhD student at CST about her experience with Worldshare so far. She said that while she had noticed several bugs and errors early on, she instantly noticed a difference in the level of “convenience” between the two systems. “It is so much easier,” she said, “when you can search for books and journal articles from many different journals all in one place.” Rather than look through several databases, the library catalog, and Google Scholar, she noted that she could now focus her search efforts primarily in one place due to the different software configuration of Worldshare. She said that her search habits had already changed, and as she became more comfortable with Worldshare, she imagined she would rely on it more and more heavily.

As I have argued in previous posts, all information communities will always rely on a variety of resources for information, only some of which include libraries. I was excited to hear the feedback from the interviewee, however, that Worldshare as a new technology had reshaped the library to be more helpful to her in her search for information. Libraries cannot be everything to everyone, but they certainly should aspire to excel in their information-providing strengths particularly in regards to academic sources. After all, libraries themselves are a kind of technology—perhaps not newly emergent, but organic nonetheless—they are human inventions, and like other technologies, if they are not helpful to their local communities, in an important sense, they are nothing.

References

Stephens, M. (2006). Exploring web 2.0 and libraries. Library Technology Reports 42(4), 8-14. Retrieved from http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=23317356&site=ehost-live

LIBR 200 Post #6

Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler. Source: Amazon.com

Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler. Source: Amazon.com

Many years ago, a friend told me about an experience with conflict among library staff concerning multiculturalism at a theological graduate school. While working at this library, several thousand books on Neopaganism were donated to the library by a local Wiccan community including many important texts like Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon. Up to this point, the library’s collection on Neopaganism was fairly minimal—the majority of books in the collection related to the topic were critiques of Neopaganism by Christian authors.

Since the school had increasingly attracted Neopagan students over the past decade, many library staff people were excited about the possibility to develop the collection in this direction to support these students’ work. Other staff people, however, were resistant to the idea of including these books in the collection. Some argued that the books were against the Christian mission of the school. These staff believed that accepting the books into the collection would be an endorsement of Neopaganism and would take up space that could be used for Christian books.

During the course of this heated discussion, one librarian pointed out that the library already had reasonable collections on some other non-Christian traditions. Neopaganism was being treated as a special case by some staff, likely because of popular Christian misconceptions about Neopaganism, as well as discomfort or even open hostility toward “witchcraft.” Because of other values, these staff failed to follow the cardinal rule of librarianship: censorship is wrong.

After one librarian mentioned that some patrons might seek to vandalize these books if they were placed on the shelves, the full staff compromised and decided to place the books in special collections—accessible by special request, but otherwise behind lock and key. However, these books were not prioritized for cataloging, and as such, they mostly gathered dust because most patrons did not know that they even existed.

Sometime later, after the overall culture and values of the library staff and school changed, these books were “rediscovered,” catalogued, and shelved in the main stacks. It is unfortunate, however, that several classes of students at this school could not benefit from having access to these books. While all librarians must necessarily weigh many different values, they should not compromise over the censorship of voices—particularly when such censorship is grounded in intolerance and hate of already marginalized communities. If security is an issue, librarians must not give up on fostering a multicultural-friendly environment and accede to threats; they must increase security without minimizing the true goal of libraries—information access. Information is never monolithic, and libraries become empty structures when they lose sight of this fact.

LIBR 200 Post #5

NSA Symbol. Source: Wikipedia.

NSA Symbol. Source: Wikipedia.

In our post-Patriot Act era, stories abound among religious graduate schools of tapped phones, requests for information from libraries, and other forms of surveillance. The NSA has targeted students, faculty, staff and other community members. Religious graduate schools have been targeted because of problematic assumptions about the connections between religion and violence, and ideological stereotypes about Islam that can be traced back to earlier colonial eras. Muslims and scholars of Islam have been particularly targeted in this renewed political culture of Islamophobia and terror over the imagined loss of American dominance. As the intellectual home for many of these individuals, religious graduate schools (and their libraries) need to be prepared to respond ethically to government surveillance.

As Christopher Shaffer (2014) notes, it is difficult to know the full extent that the NSA has made requests for information from libraries about patrons in the post-Patriot Act era because the Patriot Act silences discussion of requests with gag orders. An intolerant culture of fear that assumes profiling is ever justified is the foundation of the Act, and the disturbing effects of this culture far surpass the immediate effects of the troubling Patriot Act regardless of how much it is actually used in the case of libraries. In fact, the constant legal secrecy itself betrays the fact that the Act is the antithesis of the desired goal of all libraries, as established by the ALA’s code of ethics—open and free access to information for all.

Rather than be reactive to unexpected developments, information professionals should be proactive in responding to this intolerant culture; while an individual librarian at a religious graduate school might not have to deal with information requests through the Patriot Act in her career, there can be no question that every one of these librarians will need to address situations that are shaped by the overall culture of intolerance that led to the Patriot Act in the first place.

While many things can be done to respond to this culture of intolerance, religious graduate libraries should consider at least two practical proposals. First, they should assume that the NSA will request information from them at some point in the future, and not only have policies in place for these requests, but also regularly delete as much information about their patrons as possible to minimize the value of such requests. Second, librarians should support repealing the Patriot Act and other government support for religious and racial profiling. Many librarians like to fashion themselves neutral information providers. In this actively intolerant political culture, however, the truth is, there can be neutral place. Everyone speaks from somewhere, and everyone speaks for something.

References

Shaffer, C. (2014). The Patriot Act a decade later: A literature review of librarian responses and strategies. Indiana Libraries, 33(1), 22-25. Retrieved from http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=llf&AN=95710158&site=ehost-live

LIBR 200 Post #4

Dharma Wheel. Source: Buddhanet.net

Dharma Wheel. Source: Buddhanet.net

Last week, I interviewed a Christian-Wiccan student at a graduate theological school. Through my conversation with her, I learned that she seeks information in a variety of sectors, and that her choice of where to look for information usually depends on her topic of interest. For topics related to chaplaincy, she often has looked to religious communities and experts at local hospitals in addition to the resources the library can provide. For topics related to Wicca, partially because of the limited amount of resources the library has on the topic, she also seeks information on the web and from her religious communities.

This week, I was asked to interview another student and write on my information community’s perceptions of information services. This time, I interviewed a white female Buddhist student at Claremont School of Theology. She is studying to be a hospital chaplain. Like her fellow chaplaincy student who I interviewed last week, she told me that it depends on the topic for where she looks for information. She told me that while the library’s collection on Buddhism was “improving,” it was still rather small. As such, she sometimes utilizes collections at other libraries that have larger collections on Buddhism. She also informed me that there are few scholarly resources on Buddhism and chaplaincy period, so she often has to find information from other sources (online, friends, experts at her religious communities and hospitals).  While she said that she wishes the library had more resources on Buddhism, she told me that she actually appreciates getting information from multiple sources beyond libraries and that even if the library had an excellent collection, she would continue to use her other information resources. She said this despite the fact that she has had a generally “positive” experience with the library and the library staff.

In his article “Learn by Asking,” Aaron Schmidt (2010) argues one of the best ways to learn about user experiences at a library is interviewing users. I suspect many librarians might initially think libraries with patrons that often use alternate sites for gathering information have failed to pay attention to user needs. Through this interview, by paying attention to the user experience of this student, I learned that libraries cannot be the sole source of information—or even the ultimate network that links to all sources of information—and this is completely fine. Users like to have many different communities that they use to search for information. Libraries should not seek to replace other sites of information; they should look to complement those other sites, and through research (surveys, interviews) play to their strengths. Library staff might be providing an excellent user experience for patrons, and yet patrons might also look elsewhere for information—this does not mean the library has failed. Actively listening to user experiences means recognizing that information comes in many shapes and sizes and from many communities.

References

Schmidt, A. (2010, March 1). Learn by asking [Web log post]. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2010/03/opinion/aaron-schmidt/learn-by-asking-the-user-experience/

LIBR 200 Post #3

Source: World-Religions-Professor.com

A Pentacle. Source: World-Religions-Professor.com

As I research theological graduate schools for this class, I am particularly interested in discovering the ways growing diversity at these schools has reshaped them as information communities. If context matters, as many of the theories of information seeking behavior suggest, then the increasing diversity (and recognition of it) at theological graduate schools must mean that these institutions cannot remain the same. More diverse modes of information seeking behavior mean that theological graduate schools, their libraries, and information professionals must all adapt to these new realities.

As part of my research project, I interviewed a white female graduate student at Claremont School of Theology. She identifies as Christian and Wiccan; she is studying to be a hospital chaplain. I asked her where she finds information relevant to her interests. She told me that her sources of information typically depended on the different aspects of her particular interests. For example, when she is interested in finding information about Christianity for a course paper, she searches the school library catalog and databases. She told me that the library’s collection on Christianity “is quite excellent.” However, whenever she is writing about topics related to Wicca or Neopaganism, she told me that she usually has to find information elsewhere (“online or through friends”) because the library’s collection on those topics, while developing, is still “small.” She also told me that her information seeking behavior varied depending on her needs. For example, while she might look to “traditional” sources in the library for coursework, after a particularly difficult day at a hospital, she might rely on her friends and members of her religious communities for advice on how to cope with emotional exhaustion.

This student’s account supports Elfreda Annmary Chatman’s reflections on information seeking behavior. In her article “An Ordinary Life in the Round,” Crystal Fulton (2010) describes Chatman’s theory on information seeking behavior termed “life in the round” (p. 238). According to Fulton’s summary of Chatman, an individual’s information seeking behavior is shaped by her context and the social dynamics and norms that make up the “small worlds” of her respective communities (p. 249). These local communities share common assumptions about the ideal sites for practical information gathering—sites that can often be outside the walls of libraries. In particular, marginalized communities often have alternative sources of information that they have cultivated in spite of pressure to normalize. The interviewed student’s comfort with seeking information outside the library through her religious communities perfectly reflects Chatman’s theory.

Librarians at theological graduate schools should learn from this student’s account in their pursuit of cultural competence. Patricia Montiel Overall (2009) describes cultural competence as “the ability of professionals to understand… the needs of diverse populations” (p. 176). These librarians must simultaneously develop further resources for marginalized religious communities within the libraries, and support these communities’ internal epistemologies and information seeking behavior that fall outside the realm of the libraries. Information can be found in many places.

References

Fulton, C. (2010). An ordinary life in the round: Elfreda Annmary Chatman. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 45(2), 238-259. Retrieved from http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=llf&AN=69935466&site=ehost-live

Overall, P. (2009). Cultural competence:  A conceptual framework for library and information science professionals. Library Quarterly, 79(2), 175-204. Retrieved from http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=llf&AN=37700817&site=ehost-live

LIBR 200 Post #2

Source: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the United Methodist Church

Claremont School of Theology. Source: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the United Methodist Church

For my class entitled “Information Communities,” each student is required to select a group, collection of individuals, or organization that fits the definition of “information community” provided by the readings for the course. For this class, I have chosen students at theological graduate schools as my information community. I have been a student at a theological graduate school (Claremont School of Theology) for roughly half of a decade. I suspect that my experience as such a student will be an asset for the assignments pertaining to my community. I am also the Acquisitions Librarian and Cataloger at the same school. As such, I am also interested as an information professional in the user-needs of this particular community.

Following the five definitional characteristics of information communities provided by Karen E. Fisher and Joan C. Durrance in their article “Information Communities,” students at theological graduate schools are a perfect example of an information community. First, Fisher and Durrance argue that information communities use technology to share information. Students at theological graduate schools—like students everywhere—often use social networking sites, Google apps, and email to coordinate group projects and study sessions. The internet also enables students to cooperate and network with students at other theological graduate schools around the world.

Second, Fisher and Durrance claim that information communities support diverse members working together. As one example of this in my community, I have often observed a division of labor among theological graduate students for coursework, as students divvy up the large reading loads and outline those sections to each other depending on their different intellectual gifts. There is a wide range of experiences and social locations represented at many theological graduate schools—this diversity is an asset as students work together.

Third, Fisher and Durrance suggest that information communities form because of the collective needs of potential members. While students attend theological graduate schools for a variety of reasons—from personal exploration to vocational training—they also share common interests in religion and/or theology and the necessities of learning, succeeding in coursework, and networking for the cultivation of social capital.

Fourth, Fisher and Durrance argue that information communities help overcome boundaries to gathering information. Despite rumors about graduate school typically being cutthroat, I have noticed that many of these students are particular apt at working together to break the barriers surrounding information. As one example, these students learn to trust each other with the specific details of their projects so that they can receive feedback from their peers.

Finally, Fisher and Durrance state that information communities help foster social bonds stretching well beyond the initial confines of the original information community. Many students learn to gather information outside the classroom about religion—from lay people in religious communities to the surrounding architecture of religious buildings and monuments. Since religion as a concept has been reconstructed by different people again and again throughout history for their specific needs, students quickly learn that they can discover information about “religion” in a variety of ordinary communities. This fact encourages students as an information community to explore outside the confines of any safe environment like the classroom in order to discover the full breadth of religion.

Given all of these characteristics, students at theological graduate schools should make an excellent information community to examine for this class. Just as the students themselves have much to explore about the complicated nature of religion, I will have much to consider about the complicated nature and needs of this particular information community.

Reference:

Fisher, K., & Durrance, J. (2003). Information communities. In K. Christensen, & D. Levinson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of community: From the village to the virtual world. (pp. 658-661). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. Retrieved from http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://knowledge.sagepub.com/view/community/n248.xml

Ever the Student

Source: Boise Weekly

Boise Public Library. Source: Boise Weekly

I officially began my Master of Library and Information Science program at San Jose State University on Friday. My hunger for gathering graduate degrees seems to be insatiable. I was never much for alphabet soup, but at this rate, with all the “M”s, “P”s and other letters I’ve collected, I have quite a bowl of diplomas. There is space in the saucer for one more, right?

As many of my friends already know, for the past decade, the knot between libraries and my vocational life has been nearly impossible to untangle. When I was a kid, my second home was the local public library. My first real job was in a library. I learned how to do puppet story times and still have a small collection of puppets sitting upon my bookshelves. I met my future spouse in a library. And even though I’ve constantly aspired to be a teacher since I was a little child, I never could leave libraries behind. Working in a library will never be able to exhaust my vocational desires, but neither will my vocational desires be fulfilled completely outside a library. It has taken years to loosen this knot and sort through my mixed feelings about libraries and my vocation. When I told my family I was starting library school, they couldn’t stop laughing. They knew: it was somehow inevitable. I fought it. But that cursed library exclamation mark (immortalized on the sign of my first library as seen above) kept coming back.

What only a few of my friends know, however, is that my ambivalence extends to the seeming lifeblood of libraries: books. I am sure that sounds odd. Who hates books, right? Certainly not the guy with a large personal library crammed into a small apartment where space is at a premium. Certainly not the guy who has already read enough trash genre novels to make any average individual’s eyes bleed pixie dust. Certainly not the guy who is nearly finished with writing a book of his own. Most certainly not the guy who reads arcane philosophers like Jacques Derrida for fun.

And yet, there is no question I have mixed feelings about many of the roles texts play in several sub-cultures in the United States. As one example, I have seen—through my personal life and my research for my dissertation—many American convert Buddhists create an unofficial official canon of books—from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind—effectively defining “true” Buddhist practice over against less textual forms of Buddhism and reinforcing the cultural power of these converts. Seemingly innocuous questions like “Have you read The Three Pillars of Zen?” are typically framed in a context of assumed superiority. The interrogator assumes he knows the essence of Buddhism and that it is found within books. The responder must choose whether to conform to this norm or not. Rejecting textual Buddhism and this unofficial official canon guarantees marginalization and invisibility. The troubling truth is: books—these seemingly dusty tomes—often become weapons as sharp as any blade.

As any scholar of religion knows, much of religious history is littered with tales of group exclusion over texts and canons. This general truth is not a stranger to librarians either. No doubt libraries are built on the principles of free speech and combatting censorship. But the practical reality, I have gradually learned during my time as an acquisitions librarian, is collection development always involves difficult choices and many commonly accepted gaps. Finite resources force these realities. The idea of a library—even in the so-called digital age—with every text ever written is itself a fiction (and a disturbing one at that).  But librarians are people too, situated in contexts with blinders like everyone else. Why would we expect otherwise? There are reasons that in a predominantly Christian country, most libraries—public, undergraduate, and even religion-specialist—have a disproportionate amount of books on Christian topics compared to other religious traditions (often surpassing the books on all other religious traditions combined!). Libraries play a role in shaping the canons of our culture. As the anthropologist Brian Street has persuasively argued, even literacy itself is inseparable from the dynamics of power.

My point is not to belabor an already overwrought point about the omnipresence of power. Certainly enough folks have made Foucault’s insight about knowledge and power its own canon. Nor is my point that texts or libraries are somehow inherently corrupt. I may be a masochist, but I assure you all that I am not enough of one to willingly begin several more years of graduate school for a degree I do not believe in. Willingly writing a dissertation has been enough torture, let me tell you.

Instead, my point is that we should not leave our ambivalent feelings behind when we embark on a new project. Taking that lesson to heart here has taught me an important lesson: although every moment in my life that I have thought I escaped libraries, I suddenly found myself in one again, this does not mean libraries and books are always prisons. Paradoxically, they can also be the tools of liberation. That is the value and power of ambivalence. It serves as a constant reminder to reach outside ourselves and do better. To never be fully satisfied. To fully pursue the principle of fighting censorship even while recognizing we will never quite get there. This is why I began library school. How can I better achieve this end? How can I be a better librarian? I am ever a student at heart; even when I am not at school any longer, I will still always be a student. Through my MLIS and beyond, I hope to learn how to be a part of making libraries spaces of empowerment rather than the foundations of reified power. I have much to learn. Perhaps that is ultimately why I never seemed to be able to leave these library walls.

The Power to Name: The Case of Messiah DeShawn Martin

Source: SalFalko on Flickr

Source: SalFalko on Flickr

Funny thing about the law: people break it. Even the arbiters.

Several days ago, Tennessee Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew ruled that a baby’s first name be changed from “Messiah” to “Martin.” Ballew supported her ruling by stating that “the word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.” There are no state or federal laws to support her ruling. She would be the very definition of the “activist judge” conservatives love to hate if not for her values and the cultural power beneath her position. She is no activist. She is the norm.

The case began when Messiah’s parents could not agree on his last name. At birth, the baby’s given name was Messiah DeShawn Martin. The father objected and insisted that the baby should take his last name (McCullough). Messiah’s first name was not in dispute—an inconvenient but easily discounted fact in the name of rogue justice. The parents’ religious identities are unclear. It is entirely plausible that they are Christian, further reinforcing the reality that Christian hegemony even marginalizes minority Christian viewpoints as non-orthodox.

Ironically, Messiah is not alone—and not just in his actual name, since, as many critics have noted, “Messiah” is increasingly one of the most popular baby names in the United States. An astute observer will also recognize that these name/religion cases appear in the national media every couple of years or so. From cases about the name “Christ” to “Satan,” courts have assumed the power to re-name babies for both cultural and religious reasons since the nation’s inception. While to my knowledge no one has done a precise count of these kinds of cases, given their regular recurrence, it is reasonable to imagine that they number in the hundreds if not thousands.

There are many topics we might analyze when considering this case. We might examine the role race and white privilege played in Ballew’s decision; Jaleesa Martin, Messiah’s mother, is black, Ballew is white. We might consider the way cultural insensitivity influenced Ballew’s decision; while giving children particular “sacred” names is considered blasphemous in some—mostly white—sectors, for others, the practice is both common and considered to honor the namesake. We might analyze the gender dynamics in the case; lost in all of the discussion of the case is the fact that the magistrate also changed Messiah’s last name to his father’s surname. We might consider the particular child/parent/state power dynamics reinforced by the American legal system; Ballew reinforced the importance of this issue when she insisted the she had to change Messiah’s name in order to protect him from his parents—according to the magistrate, the name “could put him at odds with a lot of people.” All of these issues are important. However, here I want to talk about what this case reveals about the complicated relationship between religion and law in the United States.

Roughly a year and a half ago, I took a class on Religion and Law in the United States from the amazing Grace Yia-Hei Kao. Like all of my courses with her, thanks to her deep and thorough pedagogy, I ended the term with an encyclopedic knowledge of the class topic. And yet, at no fault of the instructor or my classmates, I often found myself quite uncomfortable in the class. I couldn’t quite articulate the reasons for my discomfort then, but over time I’ve come to realize that my expectations didn’t match up to the topic coverage and general approach of the course. In the class, we learned everything from different interpretations of the Establishment Clause to the tort liability of religious groups. In short, we learned the letter of the law.

In a way, beyond the letter of the law, what I also wanted to consider was the actual practice of the law. I wanted the culture of the law. I wanted to discuss why judges and arbiters in hundreds of cases like Messiah’s openly flout the letter of the law by effectively treating Christianity as the established religion of the land. Even more disturbingly, I wanted to discuss how even though these decisions are unconstitutional, most of these decisions stand and are not appealed. Due to pro bono legal support from several groups, Jaleesa Martin has been able to appeal her case; most similar cases (without the national discussion) are never appealed. How can these arbiters disregard the law and mostly get away with it?

They get away with it because most of the parents cannot afford the appeals costs or the risk of social ostracism if the case becomes public. I recently read Carol Barner-Barry’s shocking and brilliant Contemporary Paganism: Minority Religions in a Majoritarian America. Don’t let the title fool you: the book is not a general introduction to modern Paganism. Instead, it is a chronicle of legal cases involving Christian privilege and American Pagan communities. Providing jaw-dropping example after example of flagrant abuse and oppression of American Pagans by Christian magistrates both through and around the law, Barner-Barry dispels the popular illusion that state figures are neutral arbiters of the law. In one of the most upsetting cases, a principal suspended a Pagan student after she had been both physically and emotionally assaulted by several bullies because of her religious identity. The principal justified the suspension saying that the bullies had claimed that the Pagan student had “cast a spell on them.” The bullies were not punished. The family did not go to the courts out of fear of reprisal. I wish I could say that these kinds of events are rare, but as those that have experienced religious oppression will know intimately, they are quite common. Only the reporting rates are rare.

Further, in theory and in practice, religious minorities in the United States are often forced to decide between the lesser of two evils. On one hand, they can embrace the accommodation of religion that de facto translates into the accommodation and privileging of Christianity—and only Christianity— in the public sphere. On the other hand, they can support the separation of religion and government. Not only does this lead to the silencing of their public religious identities, but it also creates the illusion that the state (and its arbiters) have no religious preferences. Religious minorities are forced to choose between public Christianity or public secularism. While religious minorities often strategically seek recourse to one camp or the other out of necessity (as Jaleesa Martin did with the ACLU), neither option is a long-term solution in the cause of justice. We must change American law and culture so that other religious perspectives can be heard.

In retrospect, my expectations for my religion and law class were misplaced; there was nothing wrong with the class itself. As every class must be, it was rightly circumscribed. Even within interdisciplinary projects, topical boundaries make learning possible within the academy. Through abstraction and artificial limits, the academy can give us tools to better understand, critique and change society. Day-to-day life, however, is different. In this world, the formal letter and actual practice of the law are never completely separable.

When we aspire to address the wrongs in our society related to religion and law, it is not enough to create religiously neutral laws (even if that is possible). Certainly, we can and should add additional legal protections for religious minorities in the United States, including, for example, making the appeals process in these sorts of cases less dangerous and costly. But this is not enough. If judges successfully disregard the law and invoke other cultural sources for their decisions, then we must also critique those norms. Law is not an endlessly repeatable mechanistic process; it is shaped and implemented by people. As such, no cultural stone of Christian privilege can be left unturned. We must strive to change both law and surrounding culture together. Religious minorities should not be the ones on trial. We must pick up our pens to change the law, but we must simultaneously change hearts and minds.

Even this is not enough. As religious minorities, we must take back the ability to name ourselves and name the full breadth of the structures that oppress us. As Messiah DeShawn Martin teaches us, names hold power. Most importantly, we must change who are the arbiters of justice. The judged must become the judges.

Millennials and the Church from the Outside

Source: silent shot on Flickr

Source: silent shot on Flickr

There is nothing new under the sun.

Sparked by Rachel Held Evans’ very popular and quite excellent “Why millennials are leaving the church” post on CNN’s “belief blog,” the Christian blogosphere has lit up with discussions of millennials and Christianity. Evans’ thesis is quite powerful: evangelicals (and I’d extend it to Christians more broadly) are leaving the church behind because they are weary of the over-marketing, over-politicization, anti-LGBT rhetoric, and general apathy about social justice that ground many of their religious communities.

Christian critics and supporters from the left and right have responded to Evans’ post by 1) modifying or adding further reasons for the millennial flight; 2) disagreeing with her assessment and providing alternate reasons; 3) building upon her argument by suggesting how churches must change to rectify the situation.

Wherever they fall in the debate, every post I have read on the topic assumes that the millennial flight from churches is not only lamentable, it is bad—Christianity, millennials, and even American society as a whole will suffer from this result. Behind this common assumption is an even more troubling idea : millennials should be Christian regardless of who is to blame for the truth that less and less are.

At first glance, it might appear odd for me to criticize Christians for wanting people to be Christian. After all, isn’t evangelism the heart of Christianity? Aren’t even the most liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic Christians  passionate enough about their religious narratives that they hope others become attracted to those stories as well? Isn’t there something about “making disciples of all nations” in the Great Commission?

My point is not to challenge this spirit of evangelism. I firmly believe that good stories should be shared. However, American Christians of all stripes have generally been blind to the sense of total entitlement that is wedded to this evangelical spirit. Even if many Christians aren’t brazen enough to say it out loud, they assume that Americans should be Christian—Americans are naturally Christian.

Entitlement always comes from a place of power. Lost in all of the conversation about millennials leaving Christianity behind is the fact that roughly 70-75% of Americans continue to identify as Christian. This is somewhat lower than at any other point in United States history, but it is not dramatically so. Christians continue to be the undisputed and unchallenged majority in the United States—all other religions combined amount to less than 10%, and the “unaffiliated” (by definition difficult to categorize) amount to roughly 20%. The cultural power of Christianity in the United States remains immense. Would American Christians only be satisfied if all Americans were Christian?

One aspect of this entitlement is the understanding that clearly non-Christians just have Christianity wrong. Perhaps they encountered the wrong kind of Christianity (you know, the “intolerant” kind) or perhaps they left Christianity because it wasn’t “hip” enough. If Christians could just fix the message—make sure that non-Christians heard the right, “true” kind of Christianity—they might return. Of course, many millennials were never Christian in the first place. Even putting this aside, insisting your church is not like Westboro will not lead to a sudden influx of newcomers.

The truth is, Christianity holds so much cultural power in American society that non-Christians (including non-Christian millennials) must become familiar with Christianity whether they like it or not. As a child, I had to know about Bible stories that had nothing to do with my Buddhist religious life, because otherwise I would be teased and ostracized. I had to be able to “pass” as Christian even though I wasn’t. Luckily, given the ways religion is racialized, since I was white I had the ability to “pass.” Often people of color are treated as religious others whether or not they are Christian.

The problem is not that those that practice non-Christian religions like me are ignorant of “true” Christianity. The problem is that we have to be familiar with Christianity, when Christians have the choice to learn about other religions. Further, our every religious difference is a mark that we are somehow deficient, somehow less American. Christians, when you have the instinct to instruct non-Christians about what “true” Christianity really means, know this: they probably already know every word you will say.

Christian privilege and religious oppression within the United States are generally not topics American Christians even notice, let alone  discuss. Like all other privileged groups within the interlocking forms of marginalization, Christians are often made uncomfortable by this issue. Instead, they wish to hold onto the dream-world construction of the United States as a land of complete and absolute religious freedom, a land where everyone can choose their religion (albeit with the implicit understanding that everyone should choose the “right” one). Of course, only Christians can think this way—this is a crucial aspect of privilege. All other groups are intimately aware of the effects and pressures of Christian privilege in our society. They experience it every day.

When you are tempted to lament the millennial flight from churches, remember this: these people are not going nowhere—there is no such thing. These millennials are converting to other religions as well as becoming agnostics, atheists and humanists. Even those that become self-identified “nones” are not blank slates for you to draw your elaborate power-tinged fantasies upon. They have their own (often collective) spiritualities, stories, and meaningful lives. The so-called “nones” often have religious connections that we do not recognize because they do not conform to societal norms of what it means to be “religious.” None of us are a vacuum—an “ex nihilo”—for you to put a world in our place.

This sentiment is decidedly anti-pluralistic. By holding such a view, you are going beyond the possibility of discovering that some non-Christians might benefit from the Christian mythos; you are assuming that this is true of everyone. You are assuming that millennials that become (or have always been) Buddhist, Muslim or agnostic would be better off as Christians. With this assumption, Evans’ call to listen to millennials isn’t even possible. The terms of religious engagement have already been unilaterally decided.

And that is what being a religion in power means—Christians have the ability to not only articulate but also implement an approach to societal trends without listening. Perhaps many of the millennials that have left the church (you know, even the “good” kind) are better off. Perhaps they left the church not for the “wrong” reasons (that a church could fix with some effort), but rather for the “right” reasons (regardless of what the church did). Stop insinuating that if millennials have left Christianity behind (or did not identify as Christian in the first place) they have done so for selfish or misguided reasons. Given the discussions so far, unless you talk and listen to these non-Christians you will never know why they left. I can assure you, however, that they did not leave Christianity, evangelicalism, or even “religion” behind because of the decay of the moral fabric of society or because they worship at the “cult of individualism.” In short, we don’t like being used for your Christian agenda.

As a child of a counter-cultural Buddhist who left the church behind, I am intimately aware of the fact that Americans have been walking away from Christianity just as long as commentators have been worrying about it. American Christians have agonized about the possibility of their children leaving the faith since the nation’s inception. What millennials are doing is nothing new. Neither are the alarm bells. I understand the fear, I understand the instinct. In a way, the anxiety over whether future generations will continue to carry the torches of the past is both cross-cultural and not unique to American Christianity in the slightest. There is nothing wrong with valuing the passage of tradition, and I am actively involved in uncovering the transforming mechanisms of these faith lineages in my own Buddhism.

What is wrong about this situation is not the desire to evangelize or the hope for the passing of Christian traditions into the future. What is wrong is the sense of entitlement among Christians that they are somehow more deserving of a guarantee for that future and the status quo. What is wrong is the assumption that the United States should be 75% Christian or more.  What is wrong is the common reaction among Christians against any threat to that significant majority. How is it reasonable to panic over the fact that some are leaving Christianity when nearly three quarters of Americans remain Christian?  It reminds me of the common hair-pulling and hand-wringing over the eventual loss of the white majority. Given the way privilege and societal structures work, even if someday less than 50% of Americans identify as Christian, Christianity will maintain its highly unbalanced social power for the foreseeable future.

To put it in Christian terms, the difficult truth is that American Christianity is the religion of the new Rome. Any perceived threat to this religious empire will be greeted with every tactic necessary to maintain the status quo, including mass mournings for every real or illusionary exodus. The funeral for Caesar is a pretense to marshal the imperial forces and bring others back into the fold.

I know these will be difficult words to read; I am a Buddhist, but I am also Christian (I am religiously hybrid), and the Christian in me pauses after every word. Even the most liberal among us will willingly call the United States an empire, capitalism Satan, and fundamentalism fanatical, but we do not want to acknowledge that Christianity—even in its most liberal forms—might rest upon the assumptions of empire. I know many Christians will read this post and say I’ve missed the point about the discussions of millennials and the church. They will insist that these conversations have nothing to do with other religions; they are about empty churches. As a former youth pastor, I empathize; I know what it is like to run young adult groups where only a handful attend. I know that sadness and worry. But pain and fear does not excuse us from reflecting on the full ramifications of our privilege. Before we continue these conversations about millennials and Christianity, we must ask: why do we feel entitled to think that all or most millennials should be Christian?

The Christian part of me holds onto hope: perhaps we can begin first with humility (a part of our past, our tradition), by listening and see the millennial exodus for what it is, rather than as simply a lamentable harbinger of an apocalypse to come. To reference Evans’ post once more, perhaps the millennial Christians will recognize a lack of authenticity, the wrong kind of political Christianity, and see what justice—what God—calls for.

The Buddhist in me proceeds with more caution. We religious minorities have experienced too much, been ignored too much, been marginalized too much—we know better. I want to believe otherwise. But, even to get this point across, I know: I must quote the Bible. Those are the restraints of Christian hegemony…

There is nothing new under the sun.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.