Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Waterworld: A Response to "The Perfect Storm" PART II

Fight or Flight? Weathering the Perfect Storm

In any crisis situation, animal instinct responds to danger in one of two ways: either facing the threat or avoiding the threat. This is commonly understood as the fight-or-flight response and was first described by Walter Cannon as acute stress response in 1929.[1] The peculiar thing about acute stress response is that any animal – regardless of its natural aggressiveness or tendency towards violence – can be chemically provoked to fight-or-flight depending on specific physiological actions in the nervous system [i.e. depending on what chemicals the brain chooses to release at that given point in time, the animal may run away or choose to combat the threat].

It would na├»ve to think that there will only be one “Christian” repsonse to the Perfect Storm; rather, I believe we’re likely to see that western Christians will exhibit both flight and fight responses based upon the “chemicals” released by their churches, pastors, media, personalities, and a host of other factors. Those who choose to fight will weather the storm differently than those who seek to escape it; and, for our purposes here, we might best understand the fight-response as a willingness to embrace post-modernism, post-Christendom, and post-scale thus re-mixing our Christianity at sea; while the flight-response might be understood as an avoidance of these cultural cavalcades in hopes of retaining the Christian culture we have now.


The first response of an animal in flight is to void the bowels to shed excess weight that may slow down the animal during its escape. Christians and churches that want to survive the Perfect Storm by running to the hills must similarly void themselves and their communities of waste, excess baggage, and non-essentials in order to have any chance of survival.

Examples of this waste almost certainly include denominational bickering [between denominations over doctrinal issues, and within denominations about status, prestige, etc…], local politics [power struggles within local congregations, worship wars, etc…], maintainence of the eccelesial status quo [a “keep-them-happy” approach to congregational life], avoiding conflict [rather than acknowledging that conflict is often necessary for resolution and that conflict does not have to be unkind], and conformity among constituents [pushing for sameness in behavior and belief].

If the flight-respondees neglect this voiding process they may find that instead of being able to quickly and successfully escape the Perfect Storm they are caught right in the middle of it while trying to figure out what they’d like to save for later.

Incidentally, just prior to Hurrican Katrina, many of the residents of New Orleans neglected to think through what could be preserved in the face of a Hurricane and, as a result, left many things behind in their homes with the assumption that they could be retrieved later.[2] Both perishable and non-perishable items deteriorated into giant poisonous lakes of garbage and disease, as home video components merged with left-over refrigerator contents into a noxious primordial soup that remained behind to afflict survivers with foul smells and airborne maladies.[3]

Perhaps more than anything, this serves to illustrate to those who will take flight the great altruism of any storm: you only keep what you keep with you. And, when you return, you return home to find grottos turned ghettos and streets become swamps, where everything that once gave you life and pleasure has spoiled and remains to supply sickness and sorrow.

The sad truth of flight-responders though, is not simply in the tragedy of their displacement or the narrow-escape of their refuge, but in the horrible awareness that when all is said and done they are only equipped to rebuild what has been destroyed. Anything new will only ever be a better version of the same things, shiny copies of the past which provide no guarantees for future safety.

With the approach of the 2006 Hurricane season, FEMA workers are furiously preparing to rebuild levees that some are certain will not withstand category 5 hurricanes like Katrina. Architectural firms and schools compete for better housing development proposals, expressing innovation at every turn; but, for more money and less satisfaction, FEMA trailers are being distributed instead.




If the choice between two attitudes towards the future, as Steven Toulmin so eloquently put it, is one of imagination or nostalgia, then fight-responders are making the choice to face the future, not back into it.[6]

Those who choose to meet the Perfect Storm and weather it do have a far better chance of personal survival, but they immediately surrender solid ground; that is, when you sail into the waters you are given the opportunity to sail around the worst parts of the storm and are given space to maneuver and thus maintain a degree of control and the abilitity to “ride-it-out.” You do, however, lose any guarantees about ever seeing land again.

These are the people who can see that post-Christendom neither means anti-Christian nor post-Christendom in all parts of the world [partcularly in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America where Christianity is growing exponentially without yet having become Christian-political heirarchies and cultures]. These are the people who anticipate “new and liberating discoveries as Christians explore what it means to be a church on the margins that operates as a movement rather than as an institution”[7] and reinvent how we live as a church, subverting the influence of the world’s dominant forces rather than protecting them.

These are the people who believe that the response to postmodern nihilism is not defamation or villification, but the provision of meaningful narrative – the story worth entering and believing in – to replace the existential and critical commentary that has led postmoderns away from the Christ and His followers. They are the people who understand that there is a difference between critical engagement of a culture and unthinking absorption into it, and who seek to avoid “absolutizing their own notion of what is essential to the Christian faith.”[8] They are the people who deconstruct the barriers between life and ministry, work and mission, play and worship, and offer to the rest of us a worldview healed from the dissection of modernism through the recovery of mythology.

Lastly, these fight-responders are the people who understand that post-scale doesn’t have to mean simply the end of geography and chronology, but the beginning of multi-dimensional relationaship. In a post-scale world, fight-responders will proclaim that no one has to feel alone because nearness is “a space in which we can feel at home.”[9] They are the people who understand that in a post-scale world “distance is a social product”[10] whose barriers can be overcome through technology, utility, and economy; and, where once that distance meant that it took incredible time and effort to pass information between communities – thus making those communites close-knit by virtue of pragmatism and convenience – now those distances are technologically irrelevant and inter-community exchange is done with equal ease and availability.

There are two ways that fight-responders may choose to engage the Perfect Storm that bear upon our discussion here: total daring, or calculated risk. In the former, fight-responders will take to the high seas with no relationship to the land or ocean floor whatsoever, trusting instead upon their skills as navigators and pilots or their luck and bravery. In the latter, they will choose to engage the storm while maintaining some reference or point-of-contact with solid ground so as to ensure a smoother transition back to land life. Those who engage the storm with total daring make no early plans to come ashore in the same place they left.

Those who completely abandon shore with no reference to land could be considered the new missionaries of the Perfect Storm. Leaving behind all traditions, all practices and liturgies, these brave pilots will literally do whatever it takes to survive.

Their course-of-action will be reaction to the elemental components of future’s fury, steering away from the most dangerous components of the storm while simultaneously lashing themselves to their vessels for security. We might consider mission their vessel, and the dangers they may face could be dislocation – a loss of place resulting in lonliness and despair – or being capsized – whereby the find their mission ultimately defeated by the crushing weight of cultural upheaval – or perhaps even drowning – choking on the storm itself because they cannot get their heads above the waters of the new world.

On the other hand, those who take calculated risks may invent some manner of anchoring themselves to the land and their past. Similarly to these designs by Harvard students [see illustrations below], these sailors may discover a way of keeping a lengthy anchor, or tether perhaps, that will rise and fall with the level of the sea. Within their marshmallow-like protective enclosures they may bring all the conveniences of home while they wait out the end of the storm, still riding it like those with complete daring, but simultaneously aware


that there will be life after the storm and that some planning can make reparations far easier.

These may be the ancientfuture practicioners whose mission vessel allows them the leeway to stay close to the parts of their past they still hold dear – the homes of liturgy, the street of creeds, the hymnal ave – while innovating ways to buoy their chances of survival.

Regardless of which tact fight-or-flight respondees choose, we can almost certainly speculate that they will spend more than a little while within the storm. In fact, we might estimate that much of western Christianity has been in the storm for several decades and that all of western Christianity may very well spend the next century within it. This, then, changes our understanding of how to live in the midst of the storm because we must realize that it is only a storm for those who lived before it began.

But what about those born during the storm? The Stormborn? What about those who don’t remember Christendom? Who’ve never prayed in schools or lobbied against abortion or voted Republican out of conscience? What about those who have come into a world where faith isn’t privileged, and there has never been a Christian right or a moral majority? Those born in the Storm will never have known any other reality, and the expression of their faith will be centered around God’s presence in the storm and the promise of land.

These Stormborn saints are men and women who came to life – either physically or metaphorically – in the midst of the Perfect Storm and have had to follow Christ without the benefit of national religion or median peer support. Consequently, I believe it is the Stormborn who will ultimately teach us the faith once again.

The Stormborn will be the first of us to foster community before the storm settles. They are the ones at home on Waterworld, and will be the ones who send out the first scouts to see if the land is safe once again. They will be the kite-flyers, the branch-gatherers, the divers and swimmers and fisherman in the middle of kite-killing, branch-breaking waves and winds.

Similar to the ways in which present-day young people, and the youth of each epoch of Christendom in addition, have pressed the Church to be relevant to the world around them, the Stormborn will be the midwives of faith-at-sea; for “the people who care most about whether the church is up-to-date…will always be the youth”,[12] and – in this case – that youth is not valued so much because of its inherent verve as its indigineous character and natural relationship with the Storm.

[2] NOTE: this is not a commentary on those who were unable to take everything they owned with them, or even those who had time to collect only a few items; this is a reference to those who naively left items behind and had been warned of the disasterous effects of a hurricane and refused to believe in its destructive potential.

[3] Westwinds’ youth have recently returned from a humanitarian aid trip to New Orleans and witnessed this phenonmenon many times over – both the destruction and the surprise of the home-owners.

[4] Alternatives to FEMA trailers by Marianne Cusato, principal of Marianne Cusato Associate as photographed for Architectural Record online. Cf. Cusato's traditional-style cottage is a 300-square-foot structure that can be constructed faster than a FEMA trailer for less than $35,000 (FEMA trailers cost an estimated $60,000 to $100,000 each).

[5] FEMA trailer on gulf coast during Hurricane Dennis 7.10.2005. cf. . Caption: “A FEMA trailer floats in a spot that was once a home for some residents. Their home was destroyed in Hurricane Ivan. Now there temporary home, the FEMA Trailer, is destroyed in Hurricane Dennis.”

[6] Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (New York, The Free Press, 1990), p.203.

[7] Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom (Waynesboro, Paternoster Press, 2004), p. 21.

[8] Dave Tomlinson, The Post-Evangelical (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2003), p.45.

[9] Zygmund Bauman, Globalization (New York, Columbia University Press, 1998), p.13.

[10] Zygmund Bauman, Globalization (New York, Columbia University Press, 1998), p.12.

[11] Honor Award, Prototype House Competition for Architectural Record Magazine: Kiduck Kim and
Christian Stayner from Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Cf.

[12] Chuck Smith, Jr, The End of the World As We Know It (Colorado Springs, Waterbrook, 2001), p.91.

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