Ethnography, Place, and Practices as Sources for Theologians

By: Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum

Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s Places of Redemption utilizes ethnographic research of a church in North Carolina to look closely at how one community lives out its Christian conviction to be inclusive across boundaries of difference (specifically differences in race, ethnicity, and ability). From a theological perspective, McClintock Fulkerson sees this working-out of community convictions through lived practices to be a form of (if still imperfect and incomplete) transformative redemption (21-22). As I was reading Places of Redemption, the question Dr. Seeman posed to those of us in class who are interested in doing theological ethnography came to my mind. How is ethnography useful for doing theological work?

McClintock Fulkerson offers us one example of an ethnographic study with larger theological or ecclesiological implications. McClintock Fulkerson says, “theological reflection is not a linear form of reflection that starts with a correct doctrine (or a ‘wordly’ insight) and then proceeds to analyze a situation; rather it is a situational, ongoing, never-finished dialectical process where past and present ever converge in new ways…the sense that racialized and normate bodily interactions demand attention for faithful life together is not reducible to any classic doctrine of human being” (234). While systematic theology privileges historical church doctrine and “agreed upon” Christian belief, McClintock Fulkerson aims to show in her work that place, embodied practices, relationships, and even contradictions can inform theological reflection. McClintock Fulkerson asserts that there is something to be learned from what living and breathing Christians do and think together in the ongoing process of forming and sustaining a religious community across differences.

I appreciate McClintock Fulkerson’s desire to take seriously how a specific community of Christians work out their theology of living and worshiping together. Just because “what Christians do” cannot always be neatly categorized by traditional doctrinal language, does not make these lived-out practices (and the contradictions within them) any less significant than the solitary pondering of academic theologians or religious figures. I particularly loved her exploration of community practices that were not traditionally associated as strictly Christian in nature (such cleaning and maintaining property, telling stories, and eating together), yet were essential to how this community lives out its Christian vocation (131-143).

While I admire McClintock Fulkerson’s aims to think theologically through the community of Good Samaritan, I am left with some questions after finishing Places of Redemption. I hope we can ponder some of these questions together! At times, I felt as though McClintock Fulkerson makes some sweeping statements about the thoughts and feelings of the different groups at Good Samaritan. For example, she says things like “…the university students’ widely shared preference for Gerald’s ‘more intellectual’ sermons” (90). McClintock Fulkerson’s writing relies heavily on her own analysis of what is happening in a situation. While she does offer dialogue, she seldom includes her own participation in the conversation. Who did she interview to give her the sense that the students’ preferences were widely shared? What were her questions about worship? What assessments does she base on conversations and what is based on observation alone? This may be a mere stylistic preference of my own, but I longed for more direct quotes and longer excerpts from congregant interviews (akin to what we saw in the works of T.M Luhrmann and Robert Orsi) to support her claims about inward feelings, group preferences, and dynamics at Good Samaritan.

Another related topic for discussion has to do with the balance between “thick description” and analysis. Does the “thick description” in Places of Redemption give us an example of theology that is communally created or is the book itself too heavily filtered through McClintock Fulkerson’s own theological and philosophical leanings and perhaps even her own feelings of discomfort?

This brings me to my next question for discussion, which is “what do we think of McClintock Fulkerson’s theological move?” As a practicing Christian myself, I can openly say that I do look for God’s grace among the people of God. I also think that good theology comes out of people in real situations. Yet, it still felt like a big leap to go from description to the claim that “what I trace at Good Samaritan is not simply (incomplete) social transformation; it is divine grace” (246). What a bold claim! Is there a way to make theological observations about lived practices without making totalizing claims like “what I am observing is God’s grace”? What would that look like?

Finally, what do we think about McClintock Fulkerson’s use of ‘habitus?’ Good Samaritan is described as a place that (however imperfectly) tries to habituate people to practices of acceptance, comfort, and belonging that can combat wider social norms of discomfort and prejudice. How does this relate to the idea of religious practices as formational? Do we see these communal practices as forming new ways of being for people? Is this what McClintock Fulkerson would call “redemption”?

I look forward to exploring these and other questions for discussion on Wednesday! Thanks for reading!
-Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum

6 Replies to “Ethnography, Place, and Practices as Sources for Theologians”

  1. Taha Firdous Shah

    Thanks, Brittany, for the blog and for raising insightful queries!

    I am glad that you brought up the point on theological reflection not being linear and rather seeing it as a situational or ongoing process. I am struck with the statement made by Fulkerson on “The world takes shape through our bodies” (25). It brings me to think about the doctrines, which you have touched upon in the blog. We see that our actions cannot always be carved out neatly with the ‘doctrinal language’ rather there need be a mix of these lived-out practices that can inform our reflections. I am just trying to understand that the latter will always have varying degrees of importance in one’s life. In this case, how do we make a balance between these ‘agreed upon doctrines’ and practices that inform both our living and worshipping?

    The other thing that caught my attention was the welcoming of the differently abled in the life of this congregation that Fulkerson mentions. While I am not familiar with different church methods and practices, I am just trying to understand how she tries to show redemption through this. Does she employ the use of these ‘differently abled’ people to inform on the idea of the place and how they perceive redemption? Do places designed to accommodate individuals with disabilities necessarily need to serve everyone, or is it acceptable and even advisable to have dedicated spaces that prioritize and exclusively focus on disability-inclusive practices?

    Overall, I agree with you that at times Fulkerson makes some assertions in the book without linking it with ethnography, which is her main tool of conveyance her. This brings me to think generally that what should be the ratio of ethnography-theory-argument-analysis in any piece of work that we produce?

    Looking forward to an engaging discussion tomorrow.

  2. Mufdil Tuhri

    Hi Brittany, thank you very much for your insightful reflection on Fulkerson’s ideas. I am also interested in seeing how Fulkerson provides a way to understand theological practices within the Good Samaritan Community, particularly in dealing with differences, and how their treatment of differences, even if not always reflecting doctrinal and textual references from scripture, can be appreciated as a practice of theology. Fulkerson portrays this within the framework of an analysis of the theological reading of practice and place.

    Indeed, through the application of Fulkerson’s theory of habitus, I argue that Fulkerson successfully portrays how Good Samaritans with strong social, historical, and cultural capital within their traditions can bring their experiences into their inclusive religious practices. Fulkerson explains the importance of paying attention to how practices, history, and racism affect the formation and dynamics of communities like the Good Samaritan as a formative practice (83). Likewise, Fulkerson demonstrates that worship practices at the Good Samaritan play a central role in shaping the identity and culture of their community, as well as in addressing specific social and cultural challenges such as tradition of interpretation, anti-elite sermons, and the inclusion of music that fosters intimacy and interaction between communities (118).

    In some ways, this elucidates the notion that the practices of ordinary people can be portrayed as theological practices, just like their money-raising activities, cooking, communal eating washing, and even janitorial practices (126-141). In my opinion, Fulkerson provides an epistemological framework that allows a religious practice to be understood in a broader, richer, and more comprehensive context. However, I am also curious in this regard, whether practical theology might neglect the doctrinal aspects in understanding religion, or if there are ways to integrate both approaches more harmoniously? and How can a comparison between religious practices carried out by ordinary people and practices held by religious elites help us understand the dynamics of theology carried out in society?

  3. Yaa Baker

    As a daughter of North Carolina and a frequent church goer, this book stood out to me. I must say, however, that it was a rather educational experience. As you mentioned, she discusses how theology is informed by the community its possessor finds itself in. I personally could relate to the introduction quite a lot when she says, “I am not used to worshipping with more than a few token black people” (5). While I have been to diverse churches before, I can identify with the typicality of segregated places of worship, so to see examples of that not being the case and the consequences of that was particularly interesting. I am a bit disappointed at how easily influenced Christian practice is.

    I love how you incorporate your perspective as a Christian yourself who exists within a Christian community, and your critiques are perspectives I did not consider. For example, your comments about her use of dialog and how she makes sweeping declarative generalizations. It appears that she is trying to establish her authority to educate us on her discoveries by removing herself from the dialog, so we feel like voyeurs, which could be considered more credible than being participants in a chat. I think the same is the case with the generalizations. Making such sweeping remarks gives her a tone of omniscience.

    I so enjoyed your reflection and look forward to our discussion in class. You have certainly given us a lot to springboard off of.

  4. Laura Montoya Cifuentes

    Thank you, Brittany, for your reflections on Fulkerson’s work.
    I particularly appreciate how she introduces her work by addressing her discomfort when encountering people different from her. It is a good -raw- start of ethnographic research. Discomfort is a word that I’ve been wrestling with lately since it is at the core of the theological challenges we often discuss at seminary, especially when questioning power dynamics. As Fulkerson shows, many Christians and people embedded in a racialized society like the U.S. find it appropriate to align in discourses of inclusivity, but their quotidian rarely manifests such ideas of inclusivity. (16) There is approval of discomfort in discourse but not in concrete actions, which is a notable social dynamic in seminaries as well. In that sense, the Good Samaritan UMC range of practices (formation, homemaking, worship, and Bible study) and other “practical” categories like “welcoming” stand out amid increasing social fragmentations. Existing boxes around race, class, and able-ism do not constitute a place of comfort and conformity for everybody, including some white people, making the dyad “comfort-discomfort” one subject of several implications.

    Regarding your questions on habitus, I think Fulkerson’s use of Bourdieu’s category of analysis is interesting. For Fulkerson, the notion of habitus in the U.S. explains the status quo of racialized and able-ism interactions, but she also shows a parallel creation of practices based on inclusivity -a new habitus- that challenge the broader “sinful” one. Fulkerson describes what I see as a clash of habitus: a parallel construction, deconstruction, and challenge of diverse habitus through a wide range of practices. Since social habitus shapes us as individuals, I appreciate Fulkerson’s descriptions of how oppressions and experiences of invisibility lived by Good Samaritans drew them to challenge their own discomfort when joining such a diverse community. Still, at the same time, the attempt to create a new habitus, a place to appear, generates new sources of discomfort.

  5. Peter Cariaga

    Thank you for your thoughtful essay, Brittany. Responding to your question about theological observations without totalizing claims (and, by extension, Dr. Seeman’s question about how ethnography is useful for theology), I would offer that ANY claim about seeing divine grace in everyday life—including in the people of God, as you mention—is a bold one. By “tracing” grace, I take Fulkerson to mean that she is following clues in her data and making interpretive decisions about them, rather than using the data to outline what grace must be or always look like. To the extent that she sees such seemingly graceless activity as the fight over LGBTQ+ persons (181-82) as infused with divine activity, that indeed is a bold claim. I don’t know that I would make it. Yet as a theological claim, it’s one I don’t think she’s out of line to make. She has to make sense of what she’s observing in some way, and she chooses to do so with the language of grace. I wonder if the primary difference between Fulkerson’s theological claim and one I might make on Sunday preaching (back when I did that) is that Fulkerson is working off of a thick description that shows warts and all better than I might in a sermon.

    At the same time, I acknowledge that Fulkerson is certainly being normative. I don’t know that I would have the theological wherewithal to interpret the rift as a potential means of grace from an “on-time God” (207), but by framing as such, Fulkerson is at least suggesting that perhaps I should.

    To the extent that I’m wrong, I hope (channeling Ted Smith) that I’m at least wrong in interesting ways. Thanks again for leading this discussion!

  6. Prakash Raju

    In the book Places of Redemption, Mary McClintock Fulkerson from a theological point of view explores how Churches are sensitive to racism and able-ism. Fulkerson focuses on a specific church’s practical theology (Good Samaritan United Methodist Church). From my point of view, I believe that ethnographical approach to theology is very important, because one gets to know both the theoretical understanding of certain practices and through participating in the lived experiences of the people one can easily connect the dots. I agree with Fulkerson on dialectical process of converging the past and the present.
    Fulkerson’s understanding of social transformation being divine grace, is definitely bold, however, this sort of a claim limits the audience to whom she is writing for, but on the other hand, her position about what she believes in very clear.
    The practices of accepting people are truly progressive, but how does one make a difference between a practice which bring actual changes and token practices?


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