Social theory isn’t something that is readily studied in Christian circles, at least the circles I’m familiar with, and therefore something that I’m a neophyte in. After a rather in-depth overview of several aspects of social theory in Anthony Elliot’s Contemporary Social Theory, I think ministers should give social theory more attention and thought. I think it can help us both engage and critique culture.
Social theory asks several important questions, maybe the most important being the relationship between the individual and society. Does society define the individual or does the individual define society? How does an individual know how to appropriately act in society? What signs does society project that people use to define themselves?
Of the social theories covered in our reading, the one I found most compelling was structuration. It gives weight to both the individual and the society to create and change social structure. The individual is not helplessly incapable of affecting or changing social structure, but neither is society constantly changing at the whim of an individual.
For the church, I think there are a couple of important questions to ask. If we look at the local church as a social structure, how do we fully inculcate people into the life of that structure? How do we teach them the ‘rules’ and ‘routines’ of the church? The theological reasoning behind kneeling and standing, making the sign of the cross and other worship practices that aren’t readily apparent to most people. Without an inculcation process, that routine can easily become devoid of meaning because one doesn’t understand why he or she is doing something. I find it interesting that the early church had an intense inculcation process for catechumens. They often waited long periods (sometime years) to be baptized so they would understand the community and a life of faith. At least for my denomination, if someone makes a profession of faith we rush them into the baptismal waters. Once that’s over, they’re often on their own to understand the language and action of faith. Should one of the goals of discipleship be discursive consciousness with regards to faith? I think probably so. When individuals knows why he or she performs a certain action, there’s a greater chance of permanent transformation.
My second thought on our reading connects inculcation and language in the church. Despite what some say, language does matter because it paints a picture or story about reality. That is not to say that language is fixed or that a tree is a tree because we call it a tree. But as Christians we can’t deny that some words get their meaning because of history and in some sense it becomes truly sacred language and therefore a word can’t (or at least shouldn’t) have unlimited meanings. Should we as Christians give up our funny theological terms that are full of rich meaning and history for words that might be new or easier? Possibly. But I think we should do our best to teach the sacred language of faith and connect it to 2,000 years of history because language does matter and it can impact reality.
Lastly, there’s a new movie coming called Branded. You can watch a trailer of it here. I wonder how this relates to our reading for the week. Any thoughts?