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