Monday, June 07, 2010

Relating Marketplace and Christ’s Body

This is a paper that I have prepared for the upcoming Lausanne's Special Interest Committee, the Marketplace Ministry. Their conference will be in Hong Kong next month. I can't afford to participate but have sent the paper to one of the committees for presentation. I have also sent this paper to TTC's 'Church & Society in Asia Today' journal but got rejected. In this case, I can share it here in the public.

Why I wrote this paper? Because I see the lack in current models of relating 'church and marketplace', in some extent 'church and state'. In view of recent interest in mega-churches' involvement in businesses, I thought that by sharing this paper, there is at least one theological account coming out from the local context to serve as a platform for further discussion to develop more theologically grounded praxis over this issue.

The abstract of the paper: I am suggesting that we need to see the theological enterprise and the marketplace as two metaphorical platforms sharing the same physical world, under one sovereign, that is God. They manifest themselves within myriad material establishment yet transcend beyond them. Thus they cannot be distinguished on the level of space and time. Rather, they are distinguished on the level of orientation. Despite many similarities, these two metaphors are not symmetrical because they do not share the same degree of exposure to Christ. What I mean by ‘exposure to Christ’ is the state of being one’s true self in relation to Christ. To illustrate my point, I examined Jesus' and Paul's relation to these two metaphors. Both Jesus and Paul were situated within the two interpenetrating metaphors (the marketplace and theological enterprise) and engaged both from within the metaphors.

Relating Marketplace and Christ’s Body: Metaphors, Interdisciplinary, and Two Examples.

By Joshua Woo Sze Zeng,

Student, Trinity Theological College, Singapore.

The ‘marketplace’ is not identical with the workplace. It is not even geographically bound. It is much more extensive than the Central Business Districts where specific economic activities are concentrated. Cosmopolitans like Wall Street, London, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Silicon Valley, Bangalore and Raffles Place are just centres for some particular trades. The marketplace transcends geographical boundary and hence is not bound within cities. This reality is made more obvious through the commencement of e-commerce where transactions happen in the cyber-space.

Human transaction involves more than material commodity and capital; it also includes ideas and theories.
[1] The marketplace is the metaphorical platform of which the transaction of capital, commodity and theory takes place. This platform manifests itself within the establishment of governments, schools, companies, societies, households, organizations and even churches. As long as there is material and non-material goods provided, exchanged and consumed, there is the marketplace.[2] Whether we are conscious or unconscious about it, the marketplace is pervaded by all sorts of philosophy, if not theology.[3]

Similarly, theological enterprise is metaphorical. By ‘enterprise’ it does not merely refer to a company or an institution but the entire network that is grounded on the shared orientation that drive every organizations within it. The organizations within this network ranges from informal gatherings, churches, para-church organizations, theological colleges and seminaries, religious universities, theological think-tanks, non-government-organizations, welfare groups, non-profit organizations to companies. Thus a company established and managed by this shared orientation is no less a theological enterprise as a church. The network’s orientation is its constant conscious allegiance to Christ and commitment to God’s creation-renewal project (with full recognition of the differences within the entire network). The theological denotation of this enterprise is Christ’s one body. (Rom 12.5, 1 Cor 10.17, 12:27, Col 1.24, Eph 5.30) Therefore, instead of Christ being contained and found in the theological enterprise, it is the other way around: Wherever Christ is, there is his body, the theological enterprise.[4] Whether we are aware of Christ’s presence at certain places is another matter.

From this perspective, these two discrete metaphors are not material dimension. They manifest themselves within myriad material establishment yet transcend beyond them. Thus they cannot be distinguished on the level of space and time. Rather, they are distinguished on the level of orientation.

Despite many similarities, these two metaphors are
not symmetrical because they do not share the same degree of exposure to Christ. What I mean by ‘exposure to Christ’ is the state of being one’s true self in relation to Christ. When we are exposed in front of Christ, we are exposing our essential being in nakedness to him. In such exposure, there is no more cover-up or clothing of our ego and ideal for ourselves. We are entirely naked and embarrassingly subject to the stare of the Master, placing us back to our proper position as the servant. In the same way, the marketplace metaphor has its fair share of such exposure. Exposing the marketplace to Christ is to strip the marketplace naked layer by layer to show its true being in front of the striking gaze of its Master, to subject it back to its true form as a servant. By doing so, the marketplace is re-oriented according to its proper position and function.

Therefore it is not enough just by referencing the marketplace to Christ. "Reference" connotes stagnation and being mere informative. It is about pointing to the source of information. And it is precisely this informative tone, which we should avoid in marketplace theological discourse. Christ is not merely a reference for economic or political information. Neither is he the one who is content with any economic and political information nor just by being a provider of these references. These positions cannot hold him in his place.

Christ’s position as described in Ephesians 1.20-23 demands the very core being of socio-economy. Everything needs to be in their right place: as his subjects. In the same way the office of Chief Executive Officer is not merely the source of reference in a company. For this office to be
the office, it will necessarily require the rest of the company to be subjected under its purview. All departments in their proper position are subjects in relation to this office.

A few words need to be said on the orientation of the metaphors. Both metaphors are oriented by the lived experience of those living their daily lives in the metaphors. And the lived experiences of those within the marketplace are not as exposed to Christ as those within the theological enterprise. Hence the difference between the marketplace and theological enterprise is, firstly, by the degree of exposure to Christ. Subsequent ontological differences are merely building on this first level of difference.

Sociologists call these metaphorical platforms as ‘lifeworld’. It is the platform “described in terms of the customary ways of structuring the activities that take place within it”.
[5] For instance, the ‘Monthly Sales Report’ and ‘Profit and Loss Statement’ of a company meant different thing to different departments. To the Sales department, these are customarily records of performance and ground for strategic planning. To the Finance department, they are records of numerical transactions. And to the Human Resource department, these serve as references to decide who to be retrenched when times are bad. All departments share the same report, but each takes it to mean differently from one another. The individuals within different department experience the report differently from those from other department. Having said this, the relation between the two metaphors is much more complicatedly interconnected rather than clearly separated.

Two metaphors under one sovereign.
The interconnection of both metaphors exists in a mutually independent yet interpenetrative mode that often affects and modifies each other from context to context. To use an imperfect illustration, they are like sugar and salt. They look almost alike but stimulate entirely different taste. And when we dilute them with water and mix them together, they become less distinguishable from each other. The degree of sweetness and saltiness of the mixture depends on which substance is more.

In a way this relation resembles the
perichoretic dynamic within the Trinity.[6] The three divine persons are different from each other and mutually indwell each other to form one God-head. God’s paradoxical reality is defined by this perichoretic relationship. Somehow likewise, the identical traits of the marketplace and theological enterprise are recognizable and the differences are demarcated. Yet this does not prevent them from constantly interacting, penetrating and modifying each other.

Christian professionals who occupy this quasi-perichoretic reality often lack due recognition on this dynamic and hence often incapable to engage with it. So it is unsurprising that there exist an unnecessary subtle and deep distrust between Christians who work in the marketplace and those in theological enterprise. Their wrong perception on the connection between the two dimensions has resulted suspicion from both sides. Each side deem the other inadequate in regards to one’s own field of profession. To give an example, whenever a Christian marketplace ministry invites an instructor to address their members, they prefer someone from the marketplace with the assumption that the person’s working experience has direct relevance to the members and the marketplace’s concerns. While on the other hand a theological institution, like a church or seminary, prefers someone from within the theological circle with the assumption that the person’s working experience and education immediately qualify the person for the job.

To place the scenario the other way around, we are clouded by the phantom idea that we must avoid professionals in the theological enterprise who are not connected with the marketplace, as well as professionals in the marketplace who are disengaged with theological development. It is therefore tempting to tease theological professionals as ignorance of the marketplace or being arm-chaired, while taunting the marketplace professionals for being theologically illiterate if not heretical. Such enduring temptation often comes in the subtle form of “preference”. This implies that those who are not from one’s profession are “strangers”. By so doing, we are being led to disregard the person’s credibility and capability too readily.

Yet we have to ask what is the rationale for this preference? If this is the consequence of a mistaken perception, then have we got the relationship between the marketplace and theological enterprise right?

I am not discrediting theological education or working experience here, but pointing to the fact that we have taken the intricate connection between the marketplace and theological enterprise for granted. We can do better than making judgment, “preference”, based on a mistake. While stopping short from calling fire on both houses, I want to suggest that such a move is premature. Exchanges of naiveté caricatures should be shunned.

Besides, assuming disparity between the marketplace and theological enterprise is falling prey to the dichotomisation between the marketplace from theology, between the market from the Kingdom of God, between market-players from Christ. Is not such compartmentalisation the idol we, who believe the sovereignty of God in all spheres of reality, are to abandon in the first place?

I am not suggesting that we blur the differences by lumping both metaphors into a false unity. Neither am I saying that we should grant undue recognition to both. Instead, we intensify the exposure to Christ in both metaphors in the hope to further orientate both to Christ. Since both metaphors are distinguished firstly by degree of exposure to Christ, intensification will then expose the marketplace more to its own theological nature, which is otherwise hidden. At the same time, by intensifying exposure to Christ in the theological enterprise is pushing the enterprise to advance theological development. This is a way to participate in God’s project
through both metaphors. We see this intensification played out in Jules’ life in Pulp Fiction. Jules recites Ezekiel 25.17 to his objects before assassinates them. However, after experiencing a ‘miracle’ while carrying out a job, the Biblical passage took off a new meaning for him. Referring to that verse, “I been sayin' that shit for years… I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before you popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin' made me think twice.” Like the degree of exposure of the marketplace, theology was part of Jules’ life though existed in a trivial degree. However, it was only when his degree of exposure was intensified, the theology took on a new reality. And so in his parting words to Pumpkin, Jules confessed, “I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be a shepherd.” A conscious intensification.

The necessary mechanism to participate in God’s creation-renewal project.
However, in order to participate in God’s project by intensification, we need an interdisciplinary mechanism to ensure feasible working relation between the two metaphors. This mechanism exercises itself like a management consultant to a company. It does not belong to the two departments and does not even share the same portfolio with either. Its two main tasks are: (1) processing data derived from the two departments (marketplace and theological enterprise) in order to (2) develop effective and coherence theory to achieve performance.

As an annotation, I have to clarify the relation between theory and practice for our current discourse. All practices in the market are theoretically driven, and all theories have practical implication. Some theories are more relevant to accomplish a specific task while others are not. When people complain that a theory is not practical, they are basically saying that they do not see the
relevance of the theory to accomplish a specific task. In this case, either we help them to see the relevance of the theory, or direct them to alternative theories. The main point I am pointing out here is the fact that theory and practice are more interweaved than is usually recognized. An example is the recent study by Philip Goodchild that demonstrates how money, as the medium of exchange, is very much laden with theories.[7]

Back to the interdisciplinary mechanism: On the personal level, the dynamic of how this mechanism functions is analogous to how logical reasoning contributes to our cognitive faculty. Logical reasoning is necessary to process data derived from our perception and experiences in order to develop rationale. In the same way, the interdisciplinary mechanism is necessary to manage the collected data in order to engage the persisting issues in the marketplace as well as in theological enterprise. Given this specific function, the mechanism has to be philosophically robust.

Just as an effective management consultant who continuously upgrading and modifying his corporate strategy according to the data he received, the interdisciplinary mechanism is constantly appropriating itself according to the information fed to it. In the same way, Christian professionals who found themselves living in this duo-metaphorical and interpenetrating reality require the interdisciplinary mechanism to engage both metaphors. (That is of course if they are really serious to participate in God’s project.) Hence the individual Christian’s credibility and capability to engage marketplace’s or theological concerns should be gauged by the effectiveness of his or her interdisciplinary mechanism to handle the process of intensification of both metaphors, instead of a simplistic reading of the person’s ‘working experience’ and ‘theological degree’.

Two Examples: A labourer and his theologian that changed the world.
We will look briefly at both the labourer’s and the theologian’s lived experience within the quasi-perichoretic reality, engaging it from within the two metaphors (or dimensions or departments, whichever you prefer). The labourer is Jesus of Nazareth, and the theologian is Jesus’ most influential disciple, Paul of Tarsus. Jesus’ profession was a
tekton, a labourer whose contemporary equivalent job is the “blue-collar worker in lower-middle-class America”.[9] Paul on the other end was schooled at the famous Judaic theological institution of Gamaliel II, and later worked as a theologian with similar significance to present-day Jesuits. Their lives reveal how effectively they engaged the marketplace as well as the theological enterprise by intensifying their exposure to Christ.

We start with Jesus.

In a small town of Galilee, Jesus was a labourer who probably has inherited the handiwork career from his family. He was taught to read and interpret the Jewish scriptures on one hand
[10] and catechised with the Jewish tradition and rituals on the other. He was a deeply religious Jew who was situated in a world that was socially tensed, politically uncertain and economically unstable.[11] The people were heavily taxed, the Jewish religious establishment was exploitative and corrupted, people’s living hood was threatened, deep social fragmentation pervaded the community, revolutionaries were rampant, and pagan religiosities were widespread. It was an unsettling, confusing and chaotic time.

Middle class earners who live in modern cities can hardly imagine the dread that Jesus had to bear every morning after waking up. Existence was extremely mundane and hard. Waking up to such an intense condition hardly captured the imagination of professionals living in modern cities. Nevertheless Jesus, like the rest of his kinsmen, found comfort and hopes from within the Judaic religion, particularly in God’s promises to send the Christ (Messiah) to right the world. However, it seems that Jesus, differing from most of his kinsmen, was convinced of the imminence of this divine sending. His intense devotion to God and anticipation for God’s coming Christ led him, by the anointing of God, to assume the very Christ through whom God’s project was to be carried out. Hence Christ literally means the ‘anointed one’.

The more intense the situation got, the more intense Jesus’ religious devotion became. And eventually his vocation as the embodied Christ came by God’s anointing during his baptism (Luke 3.21-22). Hence he felt the urgency, as God’s promised Christ, to engage the frantic world on behalf of God. And so he went out to inaugurate God’s promised peace and justice.
[12] (However, we must not get the wrong idea that Jesus came to develop his calling as the Messiah arbitrarily. His calling to assume the Messiahship is already expected by Jesus’ parents even before his birth, as recorded vividly in chapter one and two of Luke’s gospel.)

In other words, Jesus’ vocation as the Christ was formed through a process of intensifying his exposure to the promised Christ through the two metaphors. However, one should not be too hasty to identify this with our contemporary people who give up their job in order to go into the pastorate. Yes, Jesus switched job but he did not give it up so that he may spend the rest of his life working as a preacher who preaches a sermon every Sunday that helps people feel good about themselves, or worst, telling people that God wants to bless them with material riches.

Jesus ended up adopting an itinerant style and went around places
[13], bringing changes to individuals and society by summoning each one to commit their lives to God’s creation-renewal project. To establish a peaceful and just society. He did not promise material possession or social security in this lifetime to his followers. Therefore it is intriguing to note that Jesus oriented his vocation not for higher salary or better working condition, but to fulfill God’s project in this quasi-perichoretic reality.

Though a labourer, Jesus can no less secure a longer life than the one he had. Yet he set out to reform the established system, to engage the metaphors, to right the wrongs in the society in accordance to God’s project. However, just as all reformation upset status quo, Jesus had to pay for it with his own life.

Paul was a promising theologian with an impressive Curriculum Vitae.
[14] Being a religious lawyer and teacher, he was very well trained not only in the Jewish traditions and scriptures, but also in ancient rhetoric.[15] Initially Paul violently engaged Jesus’ disciples as a service to his religious establishment. However, after being exposed to Christ on his way to Damascus (Acts 9.3-19), Paul subsequently alleged himself to him. He then re-oriented his life by placing Christ at the centre of his theology.

Since then he spent the rest of his life carrying out the vocation he has been commissioned for (1 Cor 9.16-19). He travelled around the known world of that time to establish believing and inclusive congregations encompassed the Jews and the non-Jews. Thus he was still a religious teacher as he used to be. But the content of his theology, theological vision, and ideal audiences have received comprehensive makeover by his appropriation of the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

Paul exposed his audiences to Christ and summoned them to commit themselves to God’s creation-renewal project together with him. This is the single theme underlying all his letters in the New Testament.

We are mistaken if we take this to mean that Paul was trying to convince his audience to receive Jesus into their heart and then impelling them to build and manage several multimillion denarii
mega-ghettos mega-churches with auditoriums of 20,000 seating capacity each. Similar with Jesus’ vocation, Paul had a much more extensive vision than that.

Paul was setting up new Christian communities everywhere he went. However, these communities generated major social, economic, and political complications. The communities exercised egalitarian principles where everyone was treated as equal and materially provided regardless of their socio-economic status. Individual’s property rights were not prioritised (contra Capitalism) though also not eliminated (contra Communism and Collectivism). The survival of each member took precedence over property ownership. Those who had more shared with those who had none. (Acts 2.42-47, 4.32-34) These congregations also upset some of the profiting trades in the marketplace. Many businesses were affected by the devotional live-style of these Christians.

It is also noteworthy that Paul was beaten and imprisoned by the authorities
precisely for exercising his theology. (Acts 16.19, 19.24-41) Similarly, Paul’s fellow theologians were prosecuted for making theological statement. (Acts 17.7: “they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.") These show that the theology that Paul and his congregations were exercising was intrinsically political. Devotion to Christ is a political habit. The way the Christian community organize itself subverts, upsets and at the same time corrects social ills. It seems that the more intense they were exposed to Christ, the more they engaged the society.

To these early congregations, devotion is not about spending 30 minutes to read the Bible and to pray everyday. It goes beyond that. Devotion is intensifying their exposure to Christ and their commitment to God’s creation-renewal project. They exposed the marketplace as well as the theological enterprise of their time to Christ. This is seen through the letters written by Paul. They are written to address theological concerns in the theological enterprise (for eg. churches in Corinth) yet intrinsically addressed also the issues of the marketplace. The quasi-perichoretic reality was around in their time as much as in ours.

This essay started by recognizing the underlying nature of both the marketplace and theological enterprise as theological, though the former being less explicit and the latter more overt. Both manifest overlappingly through domains such as governments, offices, societies, and churches. A quasi-perichoretic reality. Hence it is skewed to see the connection between the two metaphors as not existing in a mutually independent and interpenetrative mode that often affects and modifies each other from context to context. To adopt such a skewed view is to be a victim to the dichotomisation between the marketplace from theology, between the market from the Kingdom of God, between market-players from Christ. In effect, denying Christ the rightful allegiance we owed to him.

Instead, the way to engage these two metaphors from within is by intensifying the Christological exposure of both. However, an interdisciplinary mechanism is needed to ensure feasible working relation of their intensification.

We have precedence of Jesus of Nazareth, a religious labourer who ended up being the locus of theological discourse in the marketplace and theological enterprise for the past two millennia, and Paul, a theologian who set out to establish theological enterprise but ended up, together with his other fellow theologians, being prosecuted for subverting, overturning, and modifying the marketplace. Both Jesus and Paul were situated within the two interpenetrating metaphors (the marketplace and theological enterprise) and engaged both from within the metaphors. To translate all these to our contemporary setting is to start to see our surrounding world as one quasi-perichoretic reality. Most of God’s people are called to perform in a certain area, while some are called to perform in a few. The way we can do so is by intensifying the exposure to Christ
through both metaphors in the way exemplified by Jesus and Paul. A theological endeavour.[16]

[1] This is because commodity always comes along with theory. For eg. Apple’s 2006’s slogan ”Which iPod are you?”

[2] For Neil Johnson’s definition, see Timothy Liu, Gordon Preece, and Wong Siew Li, ed., Marketplace Ministry: Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 4 (Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 2005), p.2.

[3] See John Milbank’s intriguing analysis of secular positions as originated from heretical and pagan theories in Theology and Social Theory, 2nd Ed. (UK: Blackwell, 2006).

[4] Ignatius of Antioch has highlighted this circa 110 A.D: “Wherever Christ is, there is also the whole church.” (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 8).

[5] Philip Agre and Ian Horswill, Lifeworld Analysis, (accessed 5 February 2010). As used by Jurgen Habermas, ‘lifeworld’ refers to “the background resources, contexts, and dimensions of social action that enable [us] to cooperate on the basis of […] shared cultural systems of meaning, institutional orders that stabilize patterns of action, and personality structures acquired in family, church, neighborhood, and school.” Jurgen Habermas, (accessed 31 January 2010).

[6] Perichoretic is the adjective of perichoresis. It is a theological term coined by the Church Fathers to describe the mutual indwelling dynamic between the Persons of the Trinity. “The Persons of the Holy Trinity reciprocally contain one another while remaining what they are in their otherness from one another.” Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons (UK: T&T Clark, 1996), p.169-70. See also Stephen M. Smith, “Perichoresis,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (USA: Baker Book, 1984), p.843-844.

[7] Philip Goodchild, Theology of Money (USA: Duke University Press, 2009).

[8] Again, we have to be clear that we are not discrediting theological education or working experience. Rather we are pointing out the false assumption underlying such “preference” which makes us fall prey to the dichotomisation between the marketplace from Christ’s sovereignty on one hand, and save us from exchanging naiveté caricatures on the other.

[9] John Meier, A Marginal Jew, vol. 1(USA: Yale University Press, 1991), 282. The word ‘tekton’ in Mark 6.3 has been casually translated to ‘carpenter’, but that is not necessary as it can also be a person who works on stone and ivory too. (Ibid, 281).

[10] See Craig A.Evans, “Context, family and formation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, ed. Markus Bockmuehl (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[11] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (UK: SPCK, 1992), 157-161.

[12] For a comprehensive account, see N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (UK: SPCK, 1996).

[13] Jesus is identified as a ‘virtuoso’ authority and carrying certain strategy to accomplish his vocation. See Brain J. Capper, Jesus, “Virtuoso Religion, and the Community of Goods,” in Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception, ed. Bruce W. Longenecker and Kelly D. Liebengood, (USA: Eerdmans, 2009).

[14] See Chapter 3 of Paul Barnett, Paul: Missionary of Jesus (USA: Eerdmans, 2008).

[15] See Chapter 5 of Ben Witherington III, New Testament Rhetoric: An Introduction Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament (USA: Wipf & Stock, 2008). See also this upcoming work, J. Paul Sampley and Peter Lampe, ed. Paul and Rhetoric: A Study of the Current Rhetorical Traditions and Future Directions affecting Pauline scholarship (USA: T&T Clark, 2010).

[16] Some modern western examples would be William Stringfellow, Williams Wilberforce, and Philip Blond (still living). Some southeastern examples are Ng Kam Weng and Sivin Kit (both are still living).

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