Superficial Church: The Loss of Real Church


In trying to get a grasp of Jean Baudrillard’s writing I have been struck at his notion of the ‘superficial’ and how it might form a diagnosis of the plight of the many discussions of what is ‘authentic’ mission and church. Also his thoughts might give us cause for concern about how post-modern culture subsumes and neuters our best attempts at translating our hopes for emerging into reality. Also it has convinced me further of the need for ‘Deep Church’ as a response to the enculturation of emerging and modern church, but I’ll come to that later.

Hyper-reality At it simplest level Baudrillard suggests that in our image saturated world images (of TV, cinema, internet, computer games, mobile phones, CCTV, Web Cams, digital cameras etc), representation has saturated reality so much that experience takes place a distance from the things we are viewing. For example, it’s hard to go to New York without bringing the experience of the New York of the movies and TV with you to that ‘real’ encounter. I know I felt like I was in a movie when I went to NY for the first time.

Or the person who spends hours making amazing iMovie recordings and shows of his life and family, whilst in the ‘real’ world his marriage isn’t great and his spiritual life needs attending to. The computer-edited version of the world is more ‘real’ than the real world.

Baudrillard calls this experience ‘hyper-reality’. cont

Simulations of reality Baudrillard also uses the notion of ‘simulation’. The link between the signs we create, the simulations of reality are often completely disconnected from each other. The representation of something, anything is not seen as a way to connect to the reality behind it, rather it becomes a reality in itself. Again in other words we become obsessed with the image itself, how cool it is, rather than the truth of what it is about. So we pay large sums of money not for trainers that are the best for running, but for the experience of the image attached to the trainers, which has little to do with running at all.

This causes us to be focused on the intensity of am image rather any need for real meaning, depth is replaced with surface, and the ‘phantasm of authenticity which always ends up just short of reality’ (The Revenge of the Crystal, 1990).

Simulations make reality Yet whilst simulations are separated from reference to reality, they become my reality. For instance movies make me cry and connect to ‘real’ feelings, a beer advert makes me thirsty, watching the Asian Tsunami on the news shakes my faith. There is an implosion of surface simulation into reality. Images don’t just shape reality, they have become the thing that preceded reality! They absorb, shape, consume, and produce what we see as reality.

When we watch ‘Celebrity Big Brother’, are these people being ‘real’ at all as D list professional fakers, who are aware the cameras are watching them, in a fake home cut off from the real world for the time they are in the ‘reality show’. Big Brother is real in that it makes it’s own reality.

Style Attachments Baudrillard asks if we ever buy something because of what it does and not because it is attached to a style, or lifestyle? Are we really more than the fulfillment of images of an aesthetic and image of reality.

If I buy tools for the car, are they the best or do I buy into the colours and shiny adverts they show them as a the tool for the cool tool guy. Does my computer work better or does it make me feel like part of the ‘cool’ that goes with using it (apple any one?). All our food seems attached to a style, ‘Aunt Bessie’s’ yorkshire puddings, Tesco’s ‘Finest’ etc.

And how do we try to escape the tyranny of this simulation? Baudrillard suggest we do so by producing events, activities, images and objects, which assure us that we have the new and better reality! In other words we manufacture our escape from the false reality we find ourselves in, we have created fetish of the authentic, to escape false authenticity.

This is the realm of the hyper-real, or more-real- than real. We binges on reality experiences of traveling every weekend we can to somewhere more ‘real’ for experiences, we use interactive TV, instant messaging, blogging to be more ‘real’, watch reality TV shows on plastic surgery, make CD’s that have the sounds of vinyl record scratches, have huge video screens at live sports events and music concerts.

We replace the loss of the real with nostalgia. Yet these attempts to provide an alternative to the loss of the ‘real’ as even more unreal! Maybe we need Big Brother to feel like our reality and our life really exists, to give us the impression that whilst these ‘reality’ TV people are false we are ‘real’.

What Does This Mean for Emerging Church? If Baudrillard is correct in any measure, I’m sure you can see some of the connections begging to be attached to the condition of discussions about church. Here are a few that I can discern. Remember these are suggestions based on Baudrillard being correct, and I am not critique him here, just summarising his thoughts. (I am by inclination a critical realist, rather than a postmodernist like baudrillard and I'll come to that in another post)

1. Hyper-real Church: How much of the emerging church discussion, movement is caught up with hyper-real images of church. We’d rather blog, podcast, write about the image of a better and more authentic church than actually be involved in ‘real’ church. Emerging church can function as the pastiche, edited iMovie of church, that has not correlation to reality.

We are trapped in trying to incarnate church to our culture, by the pursuit of the superficial and hyper-real. What if real church doesn’t look like the idealized images we are endlessly portraying about church. 2. Simulation Church: Our conceptions of church, the practices of the new forms of church we make, or maybe our existing forms are mere phantasms, surface images with no depth or substance. We are ‘faking it’ to ‘make it’. We will give our money and time to re-editing the image, finding conjecture and suggestions of what church might, could and should be, but never engage in doing ‘real’ church. The fantasy church is much more real than the real thing. And our false images become so real we think they are ‘real’ church. We measure everything by surface realities, and our discussions of what is ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ form more superficial, and yet more ‘real’ forms of church.

We become endlessly self referential with our false reality more ‘real because it isn’t the reality we escape from (usually the false image of the evil modern church).

3. Fetish Church: And how do we try to escape this problem? By more re-branding, more image management. We call ourselves missionaries in a post Christian context, we buy the missional church books, we postulate the new and even more ‘real’ church, and avoid the reality of doing and being church even more.

Emerging church becomes a fetish, and fashion lifestyle we buy into, or we trade in for a different version. The aesthetic of church becomes the message. The space of engagement with the aesthetics of our culture, become pastiche fetishes, that end up being consumed, and we eventually leave them for something more real. We become the very thing that we despise and pathologically move on to a new fake hopeful and yet even more artificial constriction of church.

We pride ourselves on exposing the shallow com-modification of the modern church with is worship band heroes, of people obsessed with style over substance, and end up just as shallow and superficial by that measure with our endless ‘re-imagining’s’.

4. Pastiche & Nostlagia Church: Pastiche church is the temptation to take the aesthetics of other church traditions, of those of our culture, and to patch them together in a superficial manner. We might get nostalgic for the ancient church and grab some liturgies and use them but never know the depths of what they really signify. Or we engage in kitsch and pastiche of images from culture, without really knowing why we use them other than they seem real in their own right. In other words we use images at random, project them over some music and see it as an experience, or we make aesthetical art spaces, that degenerate into consumer therapy, self justified with the user experience, as 'authentic'. Our worship experiences becomig self authenticating.

Conclusion I haven’t offered a critique of Baudrillard, just a summary of some of his main thoughts and how they might relate to emerging church, or any form of church. I think I’m left with the main question of how do we avoid this, which is the million-dollar question, and the backbone of my PhD research, so watch this space. But some quick thoughts for now.

1. Tendencies: Abstract into Real: recognise that every-time we re-imagine church we are in the west a people who will struggle to translate that into any reality, and are bent, distorted towards finding the re-imagining to be real itself. Maybe this is the ‘sin’ (inherent missing the mark) of our current culture.

2. Trapped in Consumption: And at the heart of our bent towards the hyper-real, and fetish of church, is our entrenchment in capitalism and the market place. We need to really understand how capitalism has captured our understanding of what it means to be real, and find some ways out of it into non-commodified forms of church, to find the spaces between the doing of church and the consumption of church that will enable a liberating and ‘real’ change.

3. Evaluate our Ecclesiologies: Then use that understanding of our tendencies and the snares of consumerism to assess our current and suggested future forms of church.

Do you see any of these interplay's in church, and any ways out?