Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Truth Greatly Reduced

I knew, even as I was commenting back to Larry on my last post, that I was not expressing myself as eloquently as I would have liked. There was a stronger, clearer, more pointed way to express my concern about cultures being swallowed and the danger that presents for the gospel. Enter Walter Brueggeman with this brilliant quote from "Poetry in a Prose-Flattened World" that expresses all of what I was trying to say and more:

"The gospel is...a truth widely held, but a truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane. Partly, the gospel is simply an old habit among us, neither valued nor questioned. [It] takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in manageable shapes...There then is no danger, no energy, no possibility, no opening for newness!...That means the gospel may have been twisted, pressed, tailored, and gerrymandered until it is comfortable with technological reason that leaves us unbothered, and with ideology that leaves us with uncriticized absolutes."

Brueggeman is focusing on the way that technical theology has reduced the gospel, but I believe that the reason for the reduction is less important than the fact of the reduction. He doesn't just report the problem and walk away. He does present a solution to the problem of this neutered gospel.

"To address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. The terms of that phrase are readily misunderstood. By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae, so that even pastoral prayers and love letters sound like memos. By poetry, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson's fast ball, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with suprise, abrasion and pace. Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism, the only proclamation, I submit, that is worthy of the name preaching."

Obviously, Brueggemann is focusing on the spoken, preached gospel here. I don't know that I can fully agree that poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in light of reductionism. I think heroic living is as worthy a pursuit A true commitment to social justice in big and small ways speaks loudly to a world that has closed its ears to the gospel, but that's not the point he's making. I think the stirring story of the gospel has to be told in a way that stirs the pot of our existence. A tolerable gospel is no gospel at all. He goes so far as to call it abrasive and well-paced. How often have you heard a sermon in the last 10 years that could be described that way? Not only are we careful not to offend those outside the church, we're so desperate to retain the remnant that we have that we won't even preach a full gospel inside the "stained glass or silk plant ghettos." (a la Morganthaler)

The church's greatest prayer for penitence must be for allowing the gospel to be reduced to an old habit. After all, we can not control the wider culture, only our own interaction with it. We can't allow the gospel to be disposable despite what our throwaway society would say about it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rituals in a Throwaway Society: Disposable Culture

So this is the last post in the series. Sorry, it's taken me a while to complete. I think one should always write the whole series first, then post them over time rather than starting the series and trying to keep on top of it. Live and learn.

My sister Heather loves traditions. This has always been true in my memory of her and it's not surprising given the hearty stock of sentimentalists from which we come, but it really took off during her adolescence. Particularly at Christmas time during her high school and college years, Heather became so enthralled with traditions that it seemed like she invented a new one every Christmas during that decade or so. Finding out what the new tradition was each December became a bit of its own tradition. But it wasn't exactly sustainable. As we grew up and moved out of our parents' house and started our lives on our own, we had to let go of some those traditions. We especially couldn't keep adding traditions to the experience.

If traditions create culture, I wonder if the speed of our lives today has put cultures themselves in jeopardy. Obviously, throughout the course of human history, cultures have come and endured and then gone. The Aztecs, the Mayans, the Roman Empire, whole civilizations have been born, reigned for a time and slowly or instantly evaporated. I recently became familiar with a theory called Transculturalism through the book of the same name, which asserts that cultures are merging in new ways creating a new way of life that crosses cultures in unprecendented ways. The book is a collection of essays by well-traveled hipsters, many of whom are of multiple races or have had experiences living outside of their ethnic culture which have had dramatic influences on their worldview. It also deals with cultural phenomena like Cuban-Chinese restaurants and Scandinavians who enjoy hip hop. In a way, I think transculturatlism is a wonderful concept, and if true, a positive step toward understanding each other in the human experience.

The problem, as I see it in the West , (from my very Western worldview,) is that we are not truly experiencing a new crossing of cultures which takes us to a new richer culture. We are being encouraged, if not forced, into a singular culture. Although it pretends at preserving bits of lots of cultures, it mercilessly mashes traditions and the uniqueness of those cultures to a pulp, unrecognizable, vanilla and tolerable. It's done in the name of political correctness, of tolerance and anti-racism, in the name of a global marketing scheme, of simplicity.

Whatever the motives, what is effectively taking place is the disposing of existing cultures, sometimes with each passing generation, often much more quickly than that. Think of the Irish immigration to the states at the close of the 19th century. Where are they today? Do their offspring eat the same foods or sing the same songs? Think of the fact that there are more Puerto Ricans in New York than in Puerto Rico. Are they New Yorkers now--street vendor hot dog, rice and beans or bagel with schmeer? Think of the fact that wealthy Americans want to build massive castles in the suburbs that look awful and unique from the exterior, but all serve the same purpose on the interior--to allow them to gather around the same granite countertops and stainless appliances as the Joneses for a meal prior to sitting down to watch cable shows that are in some subtle way about themselves. Welcome to TLC America.

What's so amazing is that individuality is dying on the altar of a one-world culture. What unites us in our cultural groups--national/ethnic traditions, religious belief and practice, musical preference--what makes us feel part of a group is that there is something unique about that subset of humanity. If we're all becoming one big fat world culture, there will not be anything unique about any of us. Is disposable culture really disposable identity? Are we all giving in to be part of the cool kids crowd? Is there any help for distinct culture in the west? Melting pot, mosaic or masher? More questions than answers.

Take this shirt--polyester white trash made in nowhere...