Resisting the “normative gaze” Part II

Alright. Some great comments from my last post on this topic. Which has led to some interesting discussion in other places. The lead off question:

Will the emerging church be able to resist the historic “normative gaze” of a particular Christian culture that assumes the normativity of European culture and theology?

Notice. I haven’t said that the emerging church has not resisted normative gaze. For me, that remains to be seen. We’ll see. But where were we?

I take my cue from the apostle Paul again:

3The world is unprincipled. It’s dog-eat-dog out there! The world doesn’t fight fair. But we don’t live or fight our battles that way–never have and never will. 4The tools of our trade aren’t for marketing or manipulation, but they are for demolishing that entire massively corrupt culture. 5We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ. 6Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity. – 2 Corinthians 10 (Message)

Paul teaches us that there are philosophies, warped philosophies, and barriers erected against the truth of God. I would venture to say that there are practices along with these barriers that do indeed stand in the way of Truth. One of the practices that we are engaged in here is the practice of the normative gaze. Although referred to as an ideal by Cornel West I consider it a practice as well. For gazing requires movement and intentionality. To quote Cornel West again:

“This ideal was drawn primarily from classical aesthetic values of beauty, proportion, and human form and classical cultural standards of moderation, self-control, and harmony. The role of the classical aesthetic and cultural norms in the emergence of the idea of white supremacy as an object of modern discourse cannot be underestimated.” (West,Prophesy Deliverance, p.54)

Basically the classical aesthetic becomes the “norm” for beauty and truth. For a richer genealogy of modern racism check out West’s Reader. I am sure there are other places where this can be found. But what comes out of this is this: the tyranny of a perceived universal over a particular. Thus particularity becomes a scandal. One attempting to speak authentically from their particularity becomes a scandal. This could be do to perceived power. But as a Christian I can only see this as some kind of idolatry. In effect raising one’s ethnicity above others and holding it as the norm for others to follow suit I believe to be a form of idolatry. Jesus once told us that it was a sin to love one’s own family more than Him. Which is startling thing for Jesus to say in our culture charged with jingoism and nationalistic pride.

I wanted to write more but this is where my main thoughts have left me thus far. I have been thinking about some things Stanley Hauerwas has said on the attachments of the old age or aeon and how that is connected to violence and idolatry. For it seems that race-ism is deeply connected to an over-love for family and ethnic heritage than it is of pure hatred of another family or race. We’ll see as this journey unfolds.


9 thoughts on “Resisting the “normative gaze” Part II

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  1. I think the most insideous effect of this reality is that most people who do it are largely unaware. Even among those who consider themselves “progressive” in this regard still do not see the depth into which it is intergrated into our worldview.

    In regards to the emergent journey, I struggle with how this affects the way in which we move forward more inclusively. If emergent has predominately reflected a white male (American) voice/perspective, the talk about “inclusion” can even reflect the gaze in its assumption that what exists already is the foundation/form within which diversity can graft.

    I am not saying I believe this is true of emergent, but I know this dynamic does exist within the church and in some circle of this dialogue. I would love to hear your insight into this.

  2. Jamie,

    You are correct in stating that many who succumb to the “gaze” are largely unawares. I was talking to a good friend about some of the ways in which white males “gaze”. There are little things that I have seen white males do that are cultural/historical holdovers from the belief in white superiority.

    For instance, there have been times that I’d be having a discussion or some kind of conversation with a white male. They will unconsciously raise their voices, fold their arms, posture themselves in a way to let me know (purposely or instinctively…depends) that they are “in charge”. Its little cultural practices like that that I have experienced. There are other little things like this. Many do this unconsciously. I am sure some white males reading this comment would disagree with my observation. I have friends that happen to be white males that have been challenged by this. It took a relationship with a particular “other” in order to get over this. This is something that is a cultural practice that requires a reverse cultural practice to get rid of.


  3. Let me start by saying I fully agree with you and appreciate you serving us all by helping us see these tendencies.

    While Canada (and Canadian white males like myself) are far from immune to the challenges discussed here, the socio-historical context of Canadians is significantly different. Honestly, my first thought at your example was one of hesitation. Growing up in a family of Italian-Canadian journalists, our body language and confidence communicate themselves in this fashion all too often, something I have had to learn to curb. However, I do not want to dismiss your insights, as I have observed them myself. That being said, can I assume that you do not believe that this physical behaviour is always indication of the normative gaze when white males talk to people of other races?

    I would very much like to hear some of your ideas of “reverse cultural practices” that could be explored.

  4. jamie,

    I don’t think that these kinds of behaviors are always “gaze”. It depends on the situation really. A white male would have to check his body language whenever he is around “others”.

    On the flip side though. One of the things I have struggled with is paranoia when it comes to white people. Sort of a caucasiaphobia. Thinking that white people on some level are always conspiring against me. Most of this is borne out of my experiences living in Alabama. I have personally experienced blatant racism from police and teachers growing up in the South. It is something difficult to shake. My wife, who was a military child that grew up everywhere except the South, doesn’t understand why I watch the police whenever they are in close proximity.

    Although these issues I have come from my personal experiences they are still pretty much a part of who I am. That’s why I find it difficult to see a white person who has never been challenged with potentially possessing a cultural superiority mindset shake it.

    The reverse cultural practices I would suggest is to engage in conversation with others not of my race. Learn to appreciate their unique history and memories. Learn to do what I call “practice Pentecost”. Which will be my next line of thoughts on race and class coming up soon. Give each other a benefit of a doubt. Share intimate space through eating, fellowshipping on a regular bases with someone not of my own race. These are just a few practices that come to mind.

    Thanks for engaging this issue with me. I don’t have all the answers. Just my experiences as a young black man living in the Southern part of the United States.


  5. I appreciate your honesty about “caucasiaphobia”, as well as your history. I know such an admission could be turned around against you in this very issue. Your commitment to acknowledging your history as part of your identity is crucial. We all need to be so authentic. Thanks! Will there be a Part 4+? Peace

  6. Again credit is do to “Emergent” for creating the spaces and facilitating the relationships that make these kinds of conversations possible. There are some churches out there (they tend to be Charismatic in orientation), that are quite diverse. However, race and culture does not seem to be addressed in a meaningful way.

    In those contexts where there is some diversity, the “normative” manifestation of European culture is manifested in the music (e.g. Old English Protestant hymns or Christian Soft Rock) and language of the church, while excluding all other expressions; or other cultural manifestations are allowed (e.g. African influenced gospel), but the challenges of race and the lingering effects of our racist history are never engaged.

    The Charismatic churches, which are sometimes referred to as “Word of Faith” tend to be the ones that are more open to embracing non-European expressions. Could this virtue be the result of their Pentecostal influences and their availability to the movement of God’s spirit? Anthony, I’d be interested in seeing you address that potential connection in your piece “The Practice of Pentecost.”

  7. My first thoughts on reading this blog and conversation were kind of general .. a sense of gratitude that the conversation is happening.. sadness that it is not more central in emergent.

    But as a I finished reading I felt something more like pain.. pain that the marginalized voices largely remain that.. marginalized.. pain that the wholeness of the Body remains broken.. pain that it takes so long to birth a new world..

    Jesus, help us …

  8. len,

    I feel your pain sista. Of course my pain is largely from the church in North America. I am a part of a emergent cohort in Charlotte that is diverse ethnically and gender wise. Its been a great journey with some of the people in this group. We are learning from each other…and most importantly we are all becoming friends in God.

    Its like Sam Cooke said a long time ago, “A Change is going to come.”

    Thanks for hitting me up.


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