November 6, 2016

From Where You’d Rather Be: Bundy Bears, Social Imaginaries and the Benedict Option


Now I’m not much of a rum drinker.  Not much of a drinker at all in fact.

But I love the Aussie Bundaberg Rum TV ad from twenty years ago, (and it looks twenty years ago in a “what were they thinking?” kinda way), in which a bunch of Polar Bears (Bundaberg’s trademark logo) are partying hard in a pub.

It’s the usual alcohol commercial; music, girls, dancing. Oh and extremely blokey polar bears in Blues Brothers hats and glasses, that sort of thing.  All very 1996.

I know!  But you can watch it here anyway.

Everyone’s having a great time, except for the two bored, ageing Aussie codgers, standing in a quiet corner drinking a flat looking lager and looking on.  After observing for a while, one turns to the other and remarks: “Those bears know how to have a good time.”

The aim of the ad of course is that of all ads: to create a narrative in which the product on offer is far more plausible, far more attractive than the alternative.  The aim is to steep the watcher in what Charles Taylor in his tome  A Secular Age  calls “a social imaginary”.

A social imaginary or “plausibility structure”, call it what you will. It simply means the conditions required for a particular belief to create a self-sustaining and self-confirming milieu in which to operate.  A totalising world-view and world-practice system that is self-evident and increasingly confirmed by its very enactment.

Taylor starts his book with this question:

One way I want to put the question that I want to answer here is this: why was it virtually impossible not to belief in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?

And if you’re familiar with the book you know he will take about 900 pages to answer that question.

The short answer is that the social imaginary of the Western modern world is slanted towards unbelief and away from belief. That’s what Taylor means by a secular age.

Unbelief is confirmed as the given, as the bedrock.  Unbelief is what you get when the dogmas are stripped away and we reach the purity of what lies underneath.  At least that’s how it presents itself.  Taylor argues that secularism is actually not a subtraction story at all, but an addition story, as complex and faith-driven as any other cultural narrative.

Yet in this modern age, any belief outside the prevailing social imaginary is something that has to be arrived at, and, if arrived at at all, only after much effort, propping up, and time and attention.  Where once the social imaginary, the plausibility structure, preferenced belief, now it preferences unbelief.

Fail to keep an eye on belief and it might just sink again, natural unbelief covering over the surface once more, leaving nary a trace of the wreckage and barely a ripple to show for it.

So in our famous Bundaberg Rum ad the believers are the old codgers, sidelined, ageing, unprogressive, yet wistfully looking on at where things are really at. The future is before them, and they are missing out.  It’s a powerful narrative indeed.

Which is why, some twenty years later, we have yet another ad for yet another alcoholic drink with yet another social imaginary, only this time a more self-consciously modern social imaginary with a more self-consciously modern social lubricant: Corona beer:


From where you’d rather be.  Don’t you love that?  I know that feeling, don’t you?

Whether it’s knowing how to have a good time in a 1996 bar with music and girls. Or whether it’s the modern authenticity of where you’d rather be, the social imaginaries come thick and fast. And they’re just as intoxicating as the products they are endorsing.

For the church the challenge is simple.  God’s community is designed to model a social imaginary, a plausibility structure, that trumps all other social imaginaries.  The role of the church’s leaders is not to nestle God’s people into subcultures, but to create counter-cultures, counter narratives, counter social imaginaries for their people. To be places you’d rather be.  And not just for their people, but for all people.

Our role is to build such thick communities in the power of God’s Spirit that people steeped in the secular social imaginary look on wistfully and say “Those Christian bears know how to have a good time.”

Our role is to build such attractive narratives of meaning that Christians not only know that God’s community is where they should be, but they want to be there too.

And in the midst of what appears to be rapid and dislocating decline in the Western narrative (and for those who pooh-pooh the idea of narratives of decline, my response is “show me the money!”), we have the option of creating counter narratives that locate people in places they’d rather be. Places of safety and refuge.

Places of forgiveness and possibility.  Places where the God who upholds the cause of the weak is honoured, in the face of the cultural gods who oppress the weak and silence the marginalised.

And we’re not here simply to have a good time.  This is no bait-and-switch community. It’s the type of community that even in tough times, in sorrow, in pain, in uncertainty, is still the place we would rather be!

I firmly believe that this is the spirit behind the oft-maligned Benedict Option, popularised recently by the likes of Rod Dreher.  The idea that this gathering movement is somehow about cultural disengagement and withdrawal, in the manner of fundamentalism, could not be further from the truth.

It’s about creating plausibility structures, creative minority communities, marginalised but joyous peoples, who both model and offer to a watching world a beautiful, winsome social imaginary the likes of which the progressive or conservative narratives are palpably failing to deliver, Trump or Clinton take your pick.

Benedict Option Bears know how to have a good time, but they also create the kinds of places that aren’t simply for the beautiful, the young and the rich.  Bundy can’t do that. Behind Bundy’s party people there are just as many lonely alcoholics.

Corona may coincide with some places you’d rather be. But the truth of the ad is that you are not there, you are somewhere else, somewhere you don’t want to be! And the idea that a beer could take you to the place you’d rather be, once taken to its logical extension, is both ludicrous and dangerous.

Benedict Option communities offer an alternative. Benedict Option communities offer space for all sorts of people and provide refuge and meaning for bears that have fallen off the wagon, as well as for people who wish they were somewhere else, but find themselves stuck in  the mundane, the pain, the confusing or even just the exceedingly ordinary.

Mostly Benedict Option Communities create an alternate social imaginary in a world of increasing dis-ease; a world requiring an ever more sophisticated level of creativity to keep the secular social imaginary afloat for just another day.

That’s the type of community I’d raise my glass to.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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