The word ‘blurred’ perfectly captures the context within which urban political theologies in the twenty-first century are forged. The ‘blurring’ of previously ‘solid’ cultural demarcations, ethnic identities, class divisions, political ideologies, religious boundaries and urban geographies is not new as Manuel Castells and Edward Soja noted over a decade ago. In a globalised century however this ‘blurred’ world has become the norm and not the exception. Unless contemporary theologies grapple in depth with this ‘blurred’ context they will become increasingly irrelevant to all but a declining religious minority. The step into this fluid city challenges what might be called ‘solid’ theological and ecclesiological models. Such stepping out also raises key questions about the extent to which so-called ‘fresh’ expressions of church and what Pete Ward has called ‘liquid church’ are ‘fresh’ enough or ‘liquid’ enough to engage credibly with the ‘blurred’ ‘post-religious’ twenty-first century world.
I have previously argued for a ‘bottom-up’ urban political theology that, in Cornel West’s words ‘brings suffering into the limelight’. This assertion arises from my own critical rooting in the core values enunciated within theologies of liberation. However this insistence on the primacy of praxis should not be viewed as the kind of knee jerk anti-intellectualism that characterised some early expressions of British urban theology. Rather, in our ‘blurred’ world a genuinely mutual dialectical relationship between ‘bottom’ and ‘top’, ‘local’ and ‘global’, ‘theory’ and ‘theology’, ‘community’ and ‘academy’ is demanded if we are to fashion intellectually credible liberative urban political theologies in a plural and ‘post-religious’ century. In a short blog post I can only hint at this huge agenda by highlighting just two theoretical questions that need to run through new ‘blurred’ urban political theologies before illustrating these with reference to a project I have just completed.
First, the ‘third space’ – In recent years Chris Baker of the William Temple Foundation has sought to utilise the dense ‘third space’ thinking of the postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha to resource an urban theology that engages credibly with the ‘blurred’ ‘in-between’ social and existential spaces that characterise twenty-first century urbanism. Thinking about this provisional ‘third theological space’ connects with the suggestion of the urban studies researcher Leonie Sandercock that the ‘terrain of difference’ has become a defining feature of contemporary city life. Such interconnected analyses of messy plurality make me hopeful that a liberative ‘blurred’ political theology is possible. I am, however, far less convinced by the language of ‘hybridity’ that has been adopted to negotiate this world of difference. Whilst it may be the preferred language of cultural studies, hybridity unreasonably tidies up difference by speaking of ‘fusion’. Whilst it is fair to deploy this botanical language in relation to plants its application to people and communities homogenises plurality. Perhaps we might better talk of dialogical difference. People of dual heritage after all are not a ‘fusion’ of Black and White in the way that a ‘hybrid’ plant is a biological fusion of two distinct flowers.
Second, the ‘blurred’ political theology that I seek invites an empathetic but critical engagement with the lived realities of an arguably ‘post-literate’ generation whose spiritualities are less bound by systematic book based expressions of doctrine, ideology or identity than they are by a wide range of visual stimuli and an often devalued urban popular culture. Whilst I recognise that Beaudoin’s ‘surrogate clergy’ claim is too big a stretch the ‘blurred’ world of the ‘post-religious’ but not secular city gives rise to unsystematic ‘spiritualities of life’ (to use Gordon Lynch’s words) and to what Woodhead and Heelas refer to as spiritualities that refuse to ‘defer to a higher authority’. A strong theoretical base is vital if a ‘blurred’ political theology is to avoid sermonic sound-bites. However if we are to engage with the existential questions of a plural city with any credibility beyond the academy then we need to value the theological significance of conscientised urban cultural forms such as rap music and graffiti art as highly as the closely argued peer-reviewed journal article.
In light of this very brief summary of complex arguments here is an example of the ‘blurred’ urban political theology that I am searching for….For the last two years my work has revolved around an ethnographic action research project working alongside unemployed young men (the ‘NEETs’ of popular discourse) from a large housing estate in east Birmingham (second highest unemployment in the UK in February 2012). The ‘Bromford Dreams’ graffiti spiritualities initiative that has emerged from this project exemplifies the ‘blurred urban political theology’ that I am hinting at. Young men often stigmatised as exemplars of so called ‘broken Britain’ living on a socially excluded white majority urban housing estate, mostly unemployed, few with any educational qualifications and none with any connection with ‘solid’ religion….
These young men ‘blur’ boundaries and subvert expectations that arise from their ‘NEET’ status. Whilst they have little time for organised religion they are far from secular. Not examples of ‘broken Britain’, they are the ‘broken Britons’ of rapper Plan B’s searing new track ‘ill manors’. Theirs is an ‘in between’ world within which conscious glocal hip-hop culture offers a provisional framework of interpretation through which they are able to explore and express an organic discourse of meaning. Give them a spray can or a mike and they articulate a provisional and provocative post-religious spirituality. In the Bromford Dreams cube that they designed and painted together with the Muslim graffiti artist Mohammed Ali the young men articulated a ‘blurred’ urban narrative of meaning. Might it be that the ‘space of representation’ of which Henri Lefebvre speaks is found on the huge graffiti cube that they have created? More organic statement of intent than finely fashioned public art, like the icons of old the Bromford Dreams cube opens a window onto a bigger reality. Could such ‘third space’ spirituality offer a hint of the ‘blurred’ liberative urban political theology for which the post-religious city is waiting?
Chris Shannahan is a Methodist Minister and a Research Fellow in Urban Theology at the University of Birmingham.