The Hidden Potential in an Awkward Family Thanksgiving

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“As we share meals around tables and inhabit other places of faithful presence, opportunities arise for Christians to offer the way of reconciliation as a gift from Christ to the world.”
David Fitch, Faithful Presence

When I was asked to consider writing a piece on how to handle Thanksgiving this year, I joked: “How funny that you asked the foreigner, who doesn’t have to see people for Thanksgiving!” But as soon as I sent the email I regretted writing “have to.” What I usually say on Thanksgiving is “I don’t get to see my people.”

So here’s a thought for those dreading family Thanksgiving this year—you get to see your people.

But are they “your people”? What makes them “yours?” Can families still be ours when we don’t like them or feel any connection or common ground apart from blood ties and history? Perhaps we’ve lost touch with the ways humans have always defined themselves in relation to their families.

Can families still be ours when we don’t like them or feel any connection? Click To Tweet

I blame “Friends.” As a newcomer to this country in the 90’s, I learned a lot about US culture from TV. I was fascinated by how often their Thanksgiving specials were all about how much they dreaded seeing family and longed to get back to their curated collection of like-minded friends. Sure, some in the group were more quirky than others but generally they were alike.

The Value of the Western Family

It makes sense that our Western, individualistic, consumer culture would seep into our ideas of family and community. Acknowledging the generalizations, Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Westerners and Asians think differently . . . and Why provides helpful insights:

“East Asians live in an interdependent world in which the self is part of a larger whole; Westerners live in a world in which the self is a unitary free agent… Easterners value fitting in and engage in self-criticism to make sure that they do so; Westerners value individuality and strive to make themselves look good. Easterners are highly attuned to the feelings of others and strive for interpersonal harmony; Westerners are more concerned with knowing themselves and are prepared to sacrifice harmony for fairness.”

Even within the Western approach, Nisbett describes a difference between Continental and US perspectives.

“We generally find that it is the white Protestants among the American participants in our studies who show the most ‘Western’ patterns of behavior and that Catholics and minority group members, including African Americans and Hispanics, are shifted somewhat toward Eastern patterns.”

Even within a US, Protestant Western context, how can we be thoughtful about this individualistic inclination and what it costs us?

I saw this dynamic up close when talking to a friend as he wrestled over how to care for his aging father once he could no longer live alone. When I said to my friend, “Your house is big enough. Why not make space for him to live with you?” my friend responded with, “Oh, we’d never get along!” as if that was the end of it.

There are many practical reasons to choose a nursing home for an aging parent. But if the main reason is that living together might bring difficulty in the relationship, I wonder how we’ve come to define family relationships. I daresay that for the father to introduce his son into the house as a baby also meant a commitment to many tensions. That’s what family is. Is it a form of romanticism (or even idolatry) to have such notions of family and community, assuming family only works when there is harmony?

Is it a romanticism or even idolatry to assume family only works when there is harmony? Click To Tweet

Missed Connections

Does this mean we miss the opportunity for greater connection—to be together in disunity and find something deeper? When our connection is no longer about agreement, it might force us to discover the meaning of the space or history or blood we share.

In The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone when you’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed or Desperate psychologist, Harriet Lerner, begins with a story of two kids in a sandbox. After playing happily for a while, an argument erupts and eventually, one child runs away, screaming “I hate you!” And yet, within a few minutes, they’re both back in the sandbox, happily digging together again.

Adults can’t understand this strange behavior. We bear grudges and want to be right. We can’t be together until we feel understood, until we can make the other approve of or agree with us. But children are able to enjoy one another because they have different values: they choose happiness over being right. As much as we claim to long for togetherness, are we willing to give what it takes to find it?

As much as we claim to long for togetherness, are we willing to give what it takes to find it? Click To Tweet

Choosing Discomfort

This doesn’t mean “going there” every time or with every one or over every issue. I’m fascinated by the words of John 2:24: “Jesus did not entrust himself to them.” There are some places where it’s just not safe. And there are times when it’s healthy to say, “If that’s the way the communication is going to go, we’re not going to talk about that.” We establish boundaries not for the sake of breaking communion but (even if it means cutting ties temporarily) for the sake of finding a way to come together again.

So if we’re not going to “go there” on this Thanksgiving day, won’t it be awkward when there’s an elephant in the room? If we only have one day to be together, it feels disingenuous to sit around the table, making small talk when there’s some significant disagreement. It may feel like we’re hovering above the deeper problem. But what if there’s a layer beneath the deeper problem—love or family connection or just plain determination to be committed and present—which we have an opportunity to live from when agreement isn’t our connection? Maybe it’s enough to name the elephant (or donkey?) in the room and affirm our deeper connection.

We’re seeing the very real damage that comes to communities (and a whole nation) when we are only around those who are like us. So Thanksgiving gives us a very real opportunity to be uncomfortable for the sake of something more important. We think happiness means being in agreement, having no conflict in our lives. And then we wonder why we’re so lonely. Maybe happiness means feeling connected even in difference, with our families and neighbors. Maybe even more than agreement and sameness we actual long to be known and still welcomed, even when we’re different?

Thanksgiving gives us an opportunity to be uncomfortable for the sake of something important. Click To Tweet

I have to wonder: If we can barely be with our family at Thanksgiving, how will we feast at the table of the Lamb? Perhaps eating with angry Aunt Ethel and weird Cousin Ed is practice for the meal with multitudes from every nation, tribe, people and language.

Just as we romanticize family and community, do we romanticize this heavenly wedding feast? Do we picture rosy cheeked children right out of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride? What if the folks around the table bring food that smells weird? If their table manners are offensive to us? If they communicate in ways that we don’t get? Or see the world in a way that unsettles us?

When we come face to face with the reality of all that divides us, might it reveal in deeper ways the very real meaning of who Jesus is? And our very real need for Him?

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16 responses to “Tony Jones Asks: Are Academic Theologians Useless?

  1. Professor – great post. One of the greater questions to be answered and one that has never been given much reflection I’m afraid. I remember, back in the day before computers and such things, time spent with 2 very close friends from university. They were moving into the field of speech philosophy (existential phenomenology) and those days were fun discussing Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and continental thinkers – some of who were extremely relevant (the current thinking at the time was the serious error of empiricism as foundational for knowledge – an undercurrent leading to the growth of post-modernism?) as well as extremely difficult to follow at times as I think you know – Zizek seems to be following this path for today. Well, part of our discussions were about what this meant for the mass of us who were not into this field of study and what would be the benefit to culture. While there were times when the reading was something I could grasp much of the writings went beyond my comprehension. My friends wrote papers that were later published and while at times there were some provacative thoughts more often than not I (not to be too arrogant but i presumed I was more of the common person in trying to understand their work) was lost. I don’t recall every really getting into an answer for that question other than the necessity for the pursuit of the valid means of understanding and realizing the accurate human condition. So I guess in trying to understand the whys of this situation, many roads lead to the possibilty of the capture of academia (and this includes seminaries) by the economic-think and capitalism that dominates the West. Efforts to balance all this out must be delicate and difficult. So great post with much room for thought but I’m afraid not one many are willing to tackle as the some of the answers point to areas we don’t wish to tread into.

  2. David-
    As usual, you are right on the money here. As someone who is an academic, a practitioner, and an avid reader of tweener books, I agree with you that they are the most important kind of writing. I have often wondered how they even get published at all given the economics you point out.

    As a seminarian at a rather academically-inclined seminary, I have noticed that the current crisis in seminaries and the wakening up to the decline in Christendom in general has made some of the faculty realize the need to be more “practical.” As a result, they are more frequently using these tweener books as texts. E.g., one of the profs who teaches homiletics here assigns Doug Paggitt’s book along with Michael Pasquerello’s dense ‘Trinitarian Theology of Proclamation.’

    Maybe part of the solution is folks like you inside the academy opening up the door to these tweener books as legitimate sources of reflection for the academic-practitioners you’re advocating for.

    I also share your concern about the power of publishing houses. One of my concerns with the emergent movement–as much as I consider myself a friend–is how market-driven and celebrity-centered it has been. As a result, most of the emergent functions I have been to seem to be filled with white, middle-class, recovering evangelicals whose imaginations about what it means to be missional has been shaped by middle-class consumer culture.

    As someone who was a target of and impetus for the ‘Why We’re Not Emergent’ book, I can also vouch personally for the fact that good marketing gets confused with good thinking and thus exerts too much influence on the church (note the recent CT award that book got).

  3. Great stuff David. I especially resonate with your third point: publishing is driving our thinking and ecclesiology WAY too much. It is interesting that in our society, we assume that the prophetic voices are the very voices that are marketed to us. This creates a false sense of reality where we feel like we are free when in reality we are only free within a limited set of safe options.
    To me, the question isn’t whether or not we need educated thinker/practitioners (we do) but whether or not we still need the Academy. Current academic institutions are insufficient and embedded with all sorts of other-than-holistic assumptions. In my experience at seminary, ministry courses were sorely lacking in theological insight, and the theology/bible courses were sorely lacking in practical or ethical reflection.

    We need communities to begin to subvert the educational systems as it is in an attempt to do better–to go beyond and find ways of fostering an organic intellectualism that is more deeply connected with praxis, more aware of present realities (rather than the public issues that dominated thirty years ago), more conversant with the Tradition, and more agile in its ability to help students connect the best of ideas with the most faithful ways of embodying the Gospel.

    I don’t believe that seminaries are doing this very well, because of their generally static nature, their desire to play it safe to ensure their own survival, their need to remain accredited, their costly ways of doing things (buildings and staff), etc.

    I’m meeting with some folks at the local free university to move towards a free seminary. In our area, there are enough scholars, smart practitioners, and free meeting places to make this a reality. Will it replace the Academy? No. At least not for some time. But I see examples like the Chaikovsky Circle in pre-revolutionary Russia as a way of deep thought and innovation in the midst of a stagnating intellectual climate.

    And I’m also beginning to talk with some folks of creating a cooperative publishing group that would help distribute great old materials and publish new materials, using relational promotion instead of marketing and share the revenue cooperatively among participating communities.

    Perhaps none of this will stick. It may all end up being a waste of time, but we need to remove the layers of abstraction in our learning and create new ways that better correspond to our world and our calling.

  4. David,
    i was thinking about this some more, and I wonder if “papacy.” is the correct analogy here. It seems that “magisterium” might be more appropriate, given the fact that publishers are not a single person. Nor is there a unidirectional influence from publisher to readership Obviously the readership to some extent determines what the publishers publish. there is a sense here in which readership gets a vote A sense in which there is a sort of democracy. And there is certainly a kind of accountability with the publishers–no ex cathedra.

    I think it would be fair to say (and worth saying) that of the publishing houses, Baker–the guys who publish your own book–are probably doing the best job of producing these kind of “Tweener” books that you recommend.

    But you know, as I was thinking about this last night, it occurred to me that it might be said that today publishers have less power than they did even 10 years ago. And this would be largely due to the influence that blogs have upon public thinking. Blogs are not moderated by any publishers. I think an analogous scenario might be the rise of Independent film Due to the better accessibility, but high quality, of digital media.

    Phil Cooke makes the point that today, largely due to Internet media it is becoming less and less about making money and more about influence.

    I guess what I’m suggesting is that with the coming of the digital age, the power of those who possess the “keys to the kingdom” (e.g. the publishing houses) is diminishing in power. That is not to say that they are completely without power. Nor is it to say that they are without significant power. But what I am saying is that it seems that the balance of power is becoming more and more equally distributed. Every one, now,can be an author and a publisher. It is not up to the publishers who visits your blog.

    But the publishers do control, to some extent, the amount of traffic that gets to your blog, and thus the influence of your blog. There are also book tours and so on and so forth.

    anyway I just wanted to share these thoughts. Thanks for writing.



  5. Wow This converstion is encouraging. Thanks Bill for your perspective. And Jeremy, thanks for your take. I agree with your assessment of things…Adam you got me thinking as well. I think blogs have certainly helped alot. I think of some blogs that receive alot of hits that I would call tweener blogs – Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed, Michael Spencer’s Imonk and Mark’s Jesus Manifesto. I even see the recent discussion on Nate Kerr’s book on church and pomo blog as the kind of thing that can take academic discussion and make it accessible to tweener people. Despite the power of blogs and what we see in the work of blogs like these and many others, I also see blogs in danger of being absorbed by the publishers and the promotion of books. I’m interested in how this is all going to wash out.
    I love your phrase “organic intellectualism.” I have hopes for this as seminaries continue to shrink and must rely on new sorts of pastor/professors. I think there are a few seminaries rethinking their mission and the cost that could lead to some of what you talk about.
    I think there’s going to be some amazing changes in semianry education. The issue is, how do the “free seminaries” avoid the danger of lack of discpline and rigor which avoiding the established seminaries temptation to self-perpetuation of self enclosed specialized language. There has to be a way to carry on orthodoxy and its ongoing development for post Christendom without it becoming ossified and cloistered.
    I do see hope in all the short run publishers (wipf and stock etc.).
    In the end , all these places have to find a way to survive financially …

  6. as a pastor and academic theologian at same time, i applaud the sentiments but warn against romanticisation. doing both has at times negatively impacted both my church ministry and my academic “career.”
    in ministry, i am boxed as “intellectual” and thus for some, treated with suspicion. in academy, i am treated with suspicion cos i dont’ write enough theologically. it’s tough to do both.

    and for a interesting catholic perspective on this – check out


  7. It was great to meet you at the Toronto “Evolving Church” conference last month. I have your book “The Great Giveaway” to my right and I am re-reading it. I appreciate your perspective and apt critique of the church.
    I teach at Tyndale University College that not only offers liberal arts degrees but also ministry-oriented ones as well. We are trying to provide practical training for our ministry students. Our Seminary component is touted to be missional but every institution has challenges fleshing that out. Our In-Ministry degree is helpful as it is 1 day/week and does more integration.

    I am re-thinking theological education as one who teaches ministry. I am doing more coaching and mentoring of pastors and students these days “on the side.”

  8. Dan, I appreciate what you’re doing there at Tyndale! I hear many god things.Steve,
    I agree it is difficult, I think part of my argument here should be, given the current demise of Christendom and Christendom forms of seminary, seminaries and academia of the church are going to be forced to think seminary differently (I know this is an ongoing mantra out there). Part of this rethinking is that pastors become professors and vice versa as part of a communal educational network.

  9. I realize that what I’m about to say is going to come off as a bit extreme. But let me preface it by saying that I am a firm advocate for deep learning. I’m not anti-intellectual in the least.
    However, the older I get, the more I’m convinced that our educational systems in the West are largely to blame for the problems in the world. Maybe I’ve read too much Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire and been influenced too much by radical streams of theology that refuse to go along with the program.

    My experience…real life experience…tells me that uneducated folks committed to radical living make MUCH better and more astute students than educated folks that are committed to radical ideas. Modern education has, regardless of subject matter, an embedded set of values that are often antithetical to holistic discipleship. It also limits our imaginations…making us susceptible to external agendas and better cogs in the imperial machine.

    Even seminaries that, from within the inherited model of western education, try to integrate ministry and theology, tend to make too many assumptions about privilege, the educational process, what constitutes “good” theology, etc. And so, my experience tells me that while most seminarians end up being more adept at living and leading within Christendom, they are certainly less adept at helping lead people beyond Christendom. They aren’t able to challenge the Principalities and Powers because they no longer have imaginations to see beyond them.

    The best of us may suspect what is wrong enough to recommend some helpful reading to those in captivity, but it is a rare person indeed who offers a way of holistic praxis and thought that can show people a way beyond.

    While our world has space for academic theologians and good-old-fashioned ministers, it has a greater need of theologically minded practitioners and praxis minded theologians. But even MORE than that, we need pioneers who can move beyond Christendom to embrace new ways of ministry and new ways of pedagogy.

    This is why I chose, about 6 years ago, to depart from the path that would lead to my becoming an academic theologian. And it is also why I chose, about 4 years ago, to depart from the path that would lead to my becoming an institutional pastor. But folks that know me would say that I am still a fledgling theologian and an active minister in the Body of Christ. It has been a painful (but I believe necessary) thing for me to seek a more radical path. And I am doing everything I can to make that path more feasible for as many people as possible.

  10. […] Reclaiming the Mission » Tony Jones Asks: Are Academic Theologians Useless? Posted on April 17, 2009 by jasonsmith Reclaiming the Mission » Tony Jones Asks: Are Academic Theologians Useless?. […]

  11. The world is groaning under the collective weight of all the theologies. There is more theology being done now than ever before.
    And yet the entire world is getting more and more insane every day. Indeed much of the insanity is being generated by benighted self-possessed religiionists.

    All theology is useless because it is incapable of changing any one or any thing at a DEPTH level.

    In fact the mind that does theology actively prevents any such change from occurring, indeed its very purpose is to keep the status quo intact.

    The story of Humpty Dumpty addressed this issue. You know— all the kings horses and all the kings men (that is NO theology) can never ever put Humpty back together again

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