Understanding Body and Soul

March 23, 2017
Steven Jungkeit
Steven Jungkeit is teaching "Urban Shock" this semester at HDS. / Photo: Walter Smelt

For Steven Jungkeit, balance is key: balance of his twin vocations as a Congregationalist minister and a professor of critical theory and ethics at Harvard Divinity School.

Bringing these two elements together has produced some interesting results, such as the course he is teaching this spring at HDS, called “Urban Shock.”

The course uses theory, literature, music, and television in order to explore the new social forms that have emerged in cities as diverse as New Orleans, birthplace of jazz, and Shenzhen, China, birthplace of your Apple device. Though the course is new, its concerns go back to Jungkeit’s time in graduate school.

Jungkeit went to Yale Divinity School to study religion and literature, but he found himself increasingly drawn to theology as he learned to appreciate its own literary qualities. To pursue his newfound interest, he switched to the master of divinity track, which often leads to ordination, but he remained focused on an academic career.

He was as surprised as anyone, then, when he ended up behind a pulpit in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, as part of a ministerial training program modeled on medical residencies.

“I had to make some concrete choices about what happened after divinity school,” Jungkeit said, “and it so happened that someone was recruiting on campus for the Lilly Endowment’s Transition-into-Ministry program. So I laid before him all the institutional reasons I thought working in a church would be terrible. And he said, ‘You seem like you’ll do just fine.’ ”

The two years Jungkeit spent as a minister-in-training changed his life.

“I loved being able to sit with people who were in crisis. I loved being able to hear people’s stories while also getting to turn pages and write my own stories in the form of sermons. I loved that mixture,” he explained.

After the Lilly program ended, Jungkeit pursued a PhD in theology at Yale, writing a dissertation on the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. All the while, though, the possibility of a ministerial career was in the back of his mind.

“I very much wanted that grounding in what was happening in other people’s worlds. So after graduate school, I went to work as a hospital chaplain, partly as a way to clear my head and get back in touch with life.”

Schleiermacher was actually a model for him in this decision, since the theologian worked as a hospital chaplain while writing some of his most famous works. Many thinkers important to Jungkeit focus not only on the soul but on the body.

For instance, Jungkeit says he sometimes preaches to his current congregation at First Congregational Church in Old Lyme, Connecticut, from Michel Foucault, the secular French theorist known for analyzing the disciplining of bodies in modernity.

“I see the body and soul as completely integrated. Someone’s emotional and spiritual life is totally wrapped up in their bodily life as well, which was reinforced for me while I worked at the hospital. People’s capacity to experience transcendence or meaning in life is affected by pain they’re going through and by the mobility or immobility they’re experiencing in a hospital bed,” Jungkeit explained.

For him, the situations he encountered in hospitals were only intensifications of what he finds among his current congregation.

“You see people aging, you see people coping with addictions or with the loss of someone important to them. People talk to me a lot about how busy and how constrained they are, which I believe affects people’s ability to pay attention, to have meaning, to achieve connections and have community.”

Though his job as a minister is demanding, it is important to Jungkeit that it be mixed with study and at least part-time teaching.                    

“The metaphor I like is software. The work I do at the church has hardware, a physical infrastructure, but it runs on a sort of software, which is the theology, the theoretical material. When I’m preaching or visiting congregants or working on our global partnerships—when I’m engaged in this praxis—I’m simply running the software, performing operations.”

He sees teaching, on the other hand, as akin to programming.

“Engaging with students is more like coding, just as reading theory or theology is like reading the code upon which the software runs. There, we’re operating at a ones-and-zeros level.”

Asked what the “outputs” of this programming might be, Jungkeit said, “The purpose comes back to these moments of connection, of finding meaning, values, and community with one another, of participating in movements of justice. To me, the purpose is to engage in the fabric of the world on an individual level as well as on a social, a global level.”

For him, doing the practical work without also thinking deeply about the reasons behind it is risky.

“Absent a level of conscious reflection, reading, study, teaching—the theoretical ballast of one’s praxis can get pretty thin.”

In the course he is teaching this spring, “Urban Shock,” Jungkeit has students read theorists like Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Karl Marx, and Catherine Bell in order to think about how people adapt to urban spaces.

Alongside such academic authors, however, Jungkeit assigns poems by Charles Baudelaire, the cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, and episodes from the television programs The Wire and Treme. He also plays music at the beginning of each class, ranging from German industrial to New Orleans funk.

“The fact is we’re all immersed in this world of sound, this world of visuality. So it’s important to me to account for the ways people are being formed and informed by new visual and sound traditions, as well as by ritual forms. I think it’s crucial to be able to read that stuff as deeply and as closely as one would read a text,” Jungkeit said.

Sound, sight, and ritual are particularly important to understanding the cacophonous context of the modern city, where millions of bodies thread their ways daily through labyrinths of buildings, traffic, trash, advertisements, and more.

The title of the course comes from a phrase of Walter Benjamin’s, whose voluminous work The Arcades Project Jungkeit calls his “alternate Bible.” In it, Benjamin explores urbanization in Paris and its effects on the evolution of fashions, objects, buildings, and rituals.

“Benjamin was working on a transformative moment in nineteenth-century Paris, but I get excited about all the ways this notion of urban shock is still being played out, all the spaces and all the cities where it continues to be part of our existence,” Jungkeit said.

As he likes to point out, over half of the world’s population has come to live in urban zones in only a couple of centuries, making it vital to understand the many ways this process impacts people. Interest in these issues has drawn students not only from HDS, but also from the Harvard Graduate School of Design—all of them quickly infected by Jungkeit’s enthusiasm during discussions.

“I sense a kind of excitement around this material, especially around Walter Benjamin, and I feel that tends to be a pretty good gauge of what might be exciting for others as well,” he said.

Though some might be surprised to find such a course being taught at a divinity school, Jungkeit sees ritual, an important subject in religious studies, as a kind of through line in the readings.

Benjamin, for instance, wrote about the habitual wanderings of the flâneur, or recreational walker, and the ceremonial gestures of the gambler.

“Rituals that were once religious have become unmoored from any religious tradition, showing up in forms of secular devotion,” Junkgeit explained.

He also perceives ritual elements in this moment of political ferment and massive protests on behalf of women, black lives, environmental causes, and more.

“Protests are liturgical. These are choreographed rituals, every bit as much as a church service is. People carry signs around, as in a religious procession. There are planned moments of meditation and reflection.”

During the Occupy Boston movement in 2011-12, Jungkeit once even held class in the encampment’s spirituality tent, dramatizing the connection between apparently secular political movements and the concerns of divinity students.

According to him, the prominence of particular protest sites, like Zuccotti Park in New York during the Occupy movement and Standing Rock for those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, allows for a kind of secular pilgrimage.

“There’s a great opportunity now for people to get out of the digital cloud and converge on these zones as physical beings. We all know the way crowds can be manipulated, but, in a moment of social fragmentation, I believe these convergences are empowering. You need a place to gather, you need the presence of bodies that allows for a collective sense of agency.”

Though Jungkeit usually works in churches and classrooms, he believes vital activity is now taking place in the streets.

“We don’t need churches or ministers to teach us these things,” he said. “In fact, I think churches and ministers would do well to learn a thing or two from Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and the Standing Rock protest. It seems to me that’s where the real liturgy is happening right now.”

—by Walter Smelt