I wrote a disjointed rambler of a post not long ago (mostly) about Frost and Hirsch's The Shaping of Things to Come, a book that Andrew recommended to me a number of years ago on the Ooze and which I purchased (as a push-it-over-amazon.com's-free-shipping-line addition) in the summer of '08. In the meantime, while I've ignored my post, some good comments have come in, and because the questions and my answers converge in so many respects, I figured I'd write a new post rather than trying to squeeze it all on to a comments column.
I've always had trouble with anthropological writing in general. On one hand, I prefer a discourse that observes and listens to one that dehumanizes based on cosmetic differences, so I feel like I should be on the side of anthropology. On the other hand, the form and content of anthropological literature often gives the impression that one is reading about some alien species, a new kind of insect perhaps, rather than about someone who thinks and sings and loves. Some of that might have to do with the vestiges of biological racism, but I'm inclined to think the methodology itself has more to do with the alienation: when the writer is an observer, writing from the metaphorical perch called hard science, those observed cannot help but shrink in complexity and agency, since hard science assumes in its pursuits that everything worth writing about happens as a result of predictable and simple mechanistic causes and effects. Concretely, the anthropologist often fetishizes what the bigot fears, making central to identity what is most obviously different. That's better than the bigoted alternative, but it's still not adequate to complex and real human beings.
Now I don't think that Frost and Hirsch hold model airplane enthusiasts or surfers in such contempt, but I do think that by looking for the rhythms of human life in a group of model airplane enthusiasts, they might have taken on the same methodological assumptions when they saw that their "community" happened around their hobby. My hunch is that, unless they are independently wealthy and orphaned model airplane enthusiasts, their lives also encompass jobs, family, neighbors, and all sorts of other assemblies of people. (I might be making very middle-class American assumptions there, so please let me know if I am.) Therefore the "people-group" analysis that the book seems to assume may actually stand as reductionistic rather than holistic.
Moreover, the examples that Frost and Hirsch point up in their book all seem to revolve around consumeristic pursuits. Perhaps this reveals my ignorance of these pursuits, but most of my friends who at one time or another were surfers and punk rockers and model car enthusiasts stopped being so around the age of thirty, or in other words about when their young families started taking up the time that such things once took up. (Again, my assumptions might be based on my relatively limited base of friends and acquaintances, but I've seen the same happen in middle-class and poor people's lives: when the kids come along, the basketball and the garage band and most of the things that defined them in their twenties become things-they-used-to-do.
Dying and/for Community
That's where my questions about dying come up: the contributors here know me from the Ooze and know that I'm no un-critical cheerleader for traditional congregations, but I do wonder whether the structure of traditional congregations has something particular to teach those who would try new iterations of ekklesia, namely that for all its failings, the traditional church does establish itself across the spheres of human activity. People with young children might also be people who write blogs and think of themselves as low-octane intellectuals. (I'm all three.) People who surf might also have grandmothers. And even people who pilot model airplanes eventually die. Such is the simplest of intro-to-philosophy syllogisms, but I wonder whether a community built around model airplanes knows how to die as well as does a community built across generations and which has at its core an ethos of welcoming children rather than seeing them as obstacles to the travelling surfer's life.
At the end of anybody's life, of course, is death, the waiting-for-Christ that one does more quietly than before. As I said in the previous post, I imagine that if Frost and Hirsch were to turn their anthropological tools on me, they'd see me as a member of the tribe "academics," and frankly, I don't think that we academics die very well. I've had a professor and two colleagues die while I've been at UGA, and while folks did have good intentions and great compassion for the dead's friends and kind words for their memories, in none of the cases did the community's ritual capacity for death seem adequate in the way that any of my churches' did (even the most dysfunctional, capital-I-capital-C churches). Perhaps model airplane communities have their own graveyards and rituals, but academics decidedly do not. In all three cases, the more meaningful celebrations and goodbyes happened in the dead's home churches (even in the case of an agnostic colleague): because they are built around human life rather than production or consumption, churches do have the capacity to make intelligible the specific rhythms of human life, and even given their bad theology on some points, the ritual was there in ways that it was absent in the academic "community."
I'm repeating myself and rambling at this point, so I'll cut it off there and throw it back to iwaiw's readers. As I said, I think that a "people group" approach that focuses on production and consumption is going to turn out inadequate, and my hope, if I might articulate one, is that EC will learn from IC at the very least what it means to sustain a community based on the events of human life rather than "common interest."