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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Implications of Anderson’s Oxymoron

Written by: on January 17, 2018

Race, faith, friends, housing development, city, state etc. represent what most of us consider to be community of one description or another. None of those require much imagination as everyone belongs to a multiplicity of these types of community. Yet, Benedict Anderson’s use of the term ‘Imagined Communities’ suggests something more. Deeper? Maybe. Confusing? Somewhat. Counterintuitive? Sure. Possibly even an oxymoron. “The words bring to mind the true strangeness, but also the centrality, of the human will to be connected with others ‘of one’s kind’ whom one will never meet, and never know.”[1] How is one to define ‘of one’s kind’ when considering something ‘imagined’? And, if one is able to comprehend the concept, what are its implications for understanding our contemporary world, in geo-political terms, but also in those imagined communities that do not have tangible borders?

What seems to be counterintuitive about his work is founded on his two main premises; that nations are not an ancient and historical construct but a very modern one and that everyone seems to belong

to a nation in one way or another to such a degree that they are willing to endure immense sacrifice, even death, in order to sustain it.[2] We see the results of modern nationalism within our own country as the rhetoric continues vilifying our open southern border and working to insulate ourselves by building a wall to keep out those not like ‘us’, who do not belong here. This is somehow meant to protect our national interest. Anderson sees this type of protection as part of the new construct of nationhood, defined by hard borders and territories instead of revolving around a center with rather porous border territories.[3]

This concept of nation or nationalism might also be recognized within other communities, even if they do not identify themselves as a nation per se. The need to draw specific lines of belonging are evident within religious communities; ie. Shiah or Sunni, Christian or Jew, Methodist or Nazarene etc. An attempt is even made to create supposed clear definitions within faith traditions; ie. Presbyterian church USA or Presbyterian church of America etc. The walls may not be physical, but the boundaries are meant to be clearly defined so that all may know who is in and who is out of this community. What holds these all together, even though an individual may know only a handful of people with whom they allegedly share community, is the confidence they have that those like them share in a “steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity”[4] making up the core of their sense of connectivity. Both in regard to an actual nation as well as in other forms of imagined communities, a promise of immortality is offered as individuals sense a transcendent connection with those anonymous members of their community who they do not know, as well as those with whom they sense connection historically and in the future.[5] This is no small gift bestowed upon individuals by this concept of ‘nationalism’. But, in reality this connectivity is ‘imagined’ or ‘contrived’ and the “fiction seeps quietly and continuously into reality, creating that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity.”[6]

What requires explanation and greater understanding is “the attachment that peoples feel for these inventions of their imaginations.”[7] Why is it that individuals maintain such strong allegiances to nations and other imagined communities to the point they are willing to sacrifice themselves, their daughters and sons, and a multitude of other humans either physically in war or figuratively through vitriol and throwing ideological barbs? Think of the camps (read ‘nations’) that have developed within Christianity regarding issues such as interpretation of scripture, baptism, Eucharistic practices, women in leadership, sexual orientation ad nauseam. The porous nature of the faith evident in the first few decades following pentecost, as the Gospel spread from Jerusalem to the Roman empire, from the Jews to the Greeks, from the Godfearers to the Gentiles and beyond, where there was no need for universal agreement but it was understood that there was a unity within the faith, even with different traditions. That gave way to schisms over leadership, revolts over language, splits regarding ‘proper’ practices, and fractions based on interpretational bias. Little wonder then that the contemporary Church is largely unattractive to this generation. It looks identical to that which they see in the world supposedly not transformed by the Gospel of love expressed by Jesus of Nazareth.

Much of Anderson’s argument is based on the idea of literary capitalism. That the printing press paved the way for these imagined communities of shared knowledge and ideology for the better part of five centuries.[8]. It is curious to consider what effect the removal of most print media will have on

this sense of collective nationalism. How will it transform the sense of connection to the past and the future? What impact will it have on other imagined communities bound more by ideology than borders? As we consider leading the global Church in the coming years it will be necessary for us to consider the implications of Anderson’s work as well as the effect of the changing connection to the printed word. If one is to believe Anderson, that this phenomena of nationalism is a modern concept, it is possible that we are witnesses to its end. What will be its replacement if this is the case? How will or should the Church respond? It may seek to become more rigid, defining its ‘borders’ even more clearly. Yet, possibly the best response the opposite, becoming more porous in order to transform the world with the Gospel as in the early church.

 

[1] Clark, T.J. “LRB · T.J. Clark · In a Pomegranate Chandelier: Benedict Anderson.” London Review of Books. September 20, 2006. Accessed January 16, 2018. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n18/tj-clark/in-a-pomegranate-chandelier.

[2] Dasgupta, Rohit K. “Remembering Benedict Anderson and His Influence on South Asian Studies.” Theory, Culture & Society 33, no. 7-8 (2016): 334-38. doi:10.1177/0263276416662131.

[3] Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 2016. P. 19.

[4] Ibid. P. 26.

[5] Clark, T.J. “LRB · T.J. Clark · In a Pomegranate Chandelier: Benedict Anderson.” London Review of Books. September 20, 2006. Accessed January 16, 2018. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n18/tj-clark/in-a-pomegranate-chandelier.

[6] Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 2016. P. 36.

[7] Ibid. P. 141.

[8] Clark, T.J. “LRB · T.J. Clark · In a Pomegranate Chandelier: Benedict Anderson.” London Review of Books. September 20, 2006. Accessed January 16, 2018. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n18/tj-clark/in-a-pomegranate-chandelier.

 

About the Author

mm

Dan Kreiss

Former director of the Youth Ministry program at King University in Bristol, TN and Dean of the School of Missions. I have worked in youth ministry my entire life most of that time in New Zealand before becoming faculty at King. I love helping people recognize themselves as children of God and helping them engage with the world in all its diversity. I am particularly passionate about encouraging the church to reflect the diversity found in their surrounding community in regard to age, gender, ethnicity, education, economic status, etc. I am a husband, father of 4, graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, an avid cyclist and fly-fisherman still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

8 responses to “Implications of Anderson’s Oxymoron”

  1. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Dan,

    Your closing picture got me thinking about how we use technology to connect us to our imagined communities. We are the most connected but disconnected people of all history. We have “friend” on Facebook who are anything but. At the expense of the people standing two feet away, we tweet worldwide to an audience who is really only concerned about themselves.

    That is why I liked your title when it included the words “Anderson’s Oxymoron.”

    Well written!

  2. Great post Dan, and glad you are still with us 🙂 The following questions at the end of your post were very thought-provoking: “How will or should the Church respond? It may seek to become more rigid, defining its ‘borders’ even more clearly. Yet, possibly the best response the opposite, becoming more porous in order to transform the world with the Gospel as in the early church.” My hope is that the church will become more flexible and “porous” in order to meet people where they are at so we can win them over with love and not rigid judgment.

  3. Greg says:

    Thanks Dan, I think you went out of your way to step on all our toes. We are supposed to be speaking in the hypothetical, are we? 🙂 Just kidding. We all enjoy thinking that we are correct in how we live, how we worship and how we are against something. I was drawn to the picture along the California/Mexico border since our family have stood on both sides of that wall. The American side is difficult to get to and you have to pass through border patrol. The Mexican side is in a public park that is crowded and has beautiful beach access. Our own countries fear mongering has produced something we can be against in hope to unite us.

  4. Thanks Dan for your post. Greg commented on your photo of the Wall. I want to comment on your other image, the one of Pentecost.

    When I saw that image, I thought of the Acts 2 passage and how it describes the various “nations” that had gathered: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

    People who could not understand each other because of their linguistic and national divisions, suddenly began to comprehend each other when the Spirit was unleashed. Sounds like what Church should be to me!!

  5. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Dan,
    Man what a great discussion on what is to come if indeed the death of print media will mean the death of what we believe it means to be a nation. Especially in light of what it means to be human. One of my favorite things to watch is the Olympics, will this become a thing of the past, what will man fight over if not nations. I am not sure if I agreed with Anderson on the dawn of nations was born out of the printing press, just look at ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, Assyria, Israel, these definitely were seen as nations. Interesting to think about.

  6. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Dan, much of what you shared I was questioning as I read Anderson. I continually was drawn to a sermon I recently read on the inclusive Paul and the diversity and welcome of the house church movement he began. To me, as a concept, nationalism is bland and no big deal. Yet the implications of its dystopian reality bother me. The whole thing seems pretty anti-Christ and individualistic rather than communal and mutual in care.

    As I read your last part about the removal of print-media I questioned your statement, “If one is to believe Anderson, that this phenomena of nationalism is a modern concept, it is possible that we are witnesses to its end.” I think print media has merely evolved into media and people are still building nations on social platforms, through web-based interfaces and still via tv and radio. Now, more than ever, I see polarization from the content third parties are feeding us with mostly unquestioning allegiance by many. What do you think the outcome of mainstream media will do? Do you think this will change print media’s effect on us?

    • mm Dan Kreiss says:

      Trish,

      I think you’re correct that the demise of print media will not elicit the end of nationalism or even imagined communities, but what I think we are possibly witnessing is that the process is more organic and less controlled than in the past. I also think as Westerners we are less well read than previously and develop our nationalistic sympathies on snippets of 140 characters or less. This is frightening to me. I think we have already been witness to some of the changes, both positive and negative, of this decline in print media. Think of the BLM movement and the powerful witness of an individual with a cell phone and a place to post it. Or the Trump campaign that was propagated on Twitter.

      I raised this question of print media based on one of the reviews/critiques I found that suggested that the basis of his thesis was powerful for 500 years but that the future regarding the influence of print media was very uncertain based on the new connections available.

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