All have seen

All the ends of the earth
have seen the salvation of our God:
sing joyfully to God, all the earth. – Psalm 98:3

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rapturous Indulgences: Let's think while we chuckle

The snark-fest around one man's batty ideas regarding "the rapture" is showing that Christian culture is not immune to unhealthy irony

A dear friend, one of the few true masters of irony of this age, Matthew Huggins, recently sent me a note about the spectacle Christians all over the world are now appreciating and taking part in: contributing ironic remarks regarding one individual's view that "the rapture" will occur shortly.

Quite correctly, he pointed out the dangers of contributing to this irony fest.  "Ironically," I had been in the middle of composing my own snarky contribution to this generally festering snark fest.  There are many Christians who have legitimate reasons for believing in a "rapture," very few of whom think that this will be occuring in a day or two's time.  I am not one of them; I tend to be rather agnostic regarding eschatological speculation, and open to various interpretations of Scripture regarding such issues.

Very perceptively (and - ironically), Matthew notes:

I find it unfortunate that the appearance of Rob Bell's book urging a more inclusive eschatology should be accompanied by mockery and marginalization by some fans of Bell's book of those who hold less enlightened views of the life to come (including those who anticipate a sudden, imminent "rapture" of believers from the Earth).

I can include myself amongst those who have been rationally critical of some types of eschatological thinking which involve a "rapture."  But I am very thankful to Matthew for calling me to reflect on what I was doing in jumping into this snark fest.

Back in the 1980's, I was a great fan of the Utne Reader and read most pages of each issue.  Anyone wanting informed but also snarky commentary about the grand march of cultural progress could find in this little publication a wealth of highly reflective and ironic analysis.

The article which struck me the most was about irony itself.  The author's thesis was that we were ironizing ourselves to death - that irony was becoming exaggerated and unhealthy.  This, back during the "conservative" days of Reaganomics, still in the midst of the cold war.

Ironists in 2011 find themselves as epigones - one of Friedrich Nietzsche's favorite words - late newcomers upon a scene that's fading - inferior imitators of things once great.

To go all-out historical - this goes back to the days of Friedrich Schlegel in the early 19th Century. Already in early-middle Romanticism, before the age we properly describe as "Victorian" - there was a sickly pall over "high culture" in the form of ironizing which had become quite ugly. Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy (generally regarded as "postmodern" literary-culture critics / philosophers) describe the subsociety around Schlegel very nicely in their book The Literary Absolute - pointing out to us rather candidly: This stuff has all been done before, and it doesn't end well. Including phenomena of intense arrogance, rivalry, odd forays into religion, group-sex, cultural imperialism, etc. etc.. This all happened at the beginning of the nineteenth century; the book by Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe documenting it was written in 1988.

One can't help but wonder whether this tendency toward the sickly and extreme in irony which we later see in Berliner culture as so adeptly described in Christopher Isherwood's semi-fictional works which have become popularly known to us through the film Cabaret - was not itself a significant cultural factor which helped prompt the backlash which led to the rise of National Socialism.

The "subject" or "self" has a tendency to ironize - attempting to take a distance from what it's observing, in any number of ways - evoking a situation marked both by the presence of what's putatively observed, and some remarkable absence. Our reaction to this tends to be to step back and chuckle.

If done well, we're truly looking at things differently. If not, we're simply "objectifying" that which we see - more firmly implanting our categories and prejudices upon the people and phenomena which are subjects of our irony, and hiding much of who and what they are which doesn't fit into these narrow prejudices.  Sometimes, we find ourselves in situations where we're left curiously empty by our ironizing - and the tendency is then to ironize again.  Sometimes, we are merely mimicking irony - engaging in some rhetorical gesture or flourish which is far from amusing or enlightening (usually because we've seen it done time and time again, and its effect has long worn off) - simply to identify ourselves with those who are engaging in putative ironizing.  When doing such, our behavior is much like the opposite of irony: we are establishing identity, categorizing, hardening existing standards of understanding, insisting on the importance of definitions and distinctions - raising the walls, as it were, of such distinctions.  And we are not really illuminating anything.  And our behavior of hardening distinctions is much more likely to create blindness than to shed light on anything.

It should be pointed out: there was something incredibly "progressive" about 19th century speculation regarding Scriptural prophecy.  Those engaged in the field were moving out into rather uncharted territory.  They were claiming blessings of the Spirit now claimed by various groups of progressive activists; the methodology and tendency toward eisegesis I find markedly similar.  Let's criticize; but include ourselves in the picture.  And let's also take note of when we've fully degenerated into "bashing."

Postscript: Above I mention an article in the Utne Reader from the 1980's - I've tried searching for this article, and am now uncertain.  My memory may be confusing me, given that there is a most worthy 90's article in that publication by Jedediah Purdy (long after my days of avidly consuming this periodical).  It is certainly most apt for today - These Ironic Times: Contemporary Irony - Friend or Foe? Highly Recommended

Yet Even More Postscript:
The American imagination is rife with apocalyptic sensibilities.  Frank Kermode's book The Sense of An Ending comes to mind, beginning, if I recall correctly, with the way an apocalyptic cult dealt with "re-interpreting" their predictions of an apocalyptic event after the date had passed uneventfully.  Our apocalyptic sensibilities however tend to be cast into other forms of millenarianism - every time we speak of an implicit teleology grounded in nothing more than a vague sense of "progress."

That we are now ironizing about something explicitly apocalyptic may have everything to do with our implicit lack of faith in the very things we try so hard to believe in - our frequent appeals to "progress" perhaps belying the fact that this is indeed more of an identity-association we cultivate for our own social ends, rather than a faith in whatever is supposedly behind "progress."

It is utterly essential in these times that we develop habits of patience, discursivity, and cultivation of the love of deep contexts.  It seems so often that "everything" - from our work inboxes to Twitter to talkshows - is conspiring to fragment our attention span and draw us into tiny, pre-packaged soundbytes.

Part of this means: refraining from cheap, knee-jerk type "ironic" remarks.  Irony is, and should be, an essential part of our reasoning and our communication.  It can be so lovely.  And it can stuff our eyes and ears full of desensitizing, exaggerated paroxysms which slowly diminish our hope that we will ever be able to appreciate anything more than these tiny, irritating soundbytes.

There should be no mystery at how Germans, ironized to fatigue, gave into a love for the populist Blut und Bodem type literature - longing for "roots," "kinship" etc. etc.. - along with the political consequences of misplaced nostalgia for a kind of pre-lapsarian Germany.

We choose every day whether we are contributing to political factors likely to bring on a Fascistic moment when our populace says - "hey, this irony/insincerity stuff is all out of control!  We gotta rein in some of this intellectual blah blah all gone amock!"  We see signs of such Fascism already in various movements asking us to call out "the haters."

For Christians, I can think of nothing better to remedy this ailment as a deep love of Scripture, in all of its complexity, and an admiration for God's own beautiful work in His church through the ages - in self-reflective appreciation of tradition.  Our very attempts at becoming "relevant" and "edgy" are encouraging in us the rather unreflective resort to irony on the cheap - and lots of it.  Our efforts at seeking out groups of the "marginalized" are encouraging us to rigidify our categories ... such that those not fitting into our neat categories are unnoticed and unloved.  We are thinking in increasingly sociological ways, asking ourselves which groups of people certain ideas are associated with, and judging such ideas upon their group associations without having evaluated the ideas as ideas.  When we argue this way - idea X is ridiculous, because it's what people who are like those in Group Y believe - we are most surely being bigots, in discarding reason, and simply judging on group affiliation.

We all need a respite from the constant pummeling of our senses with signifiers and voices calling out for our attention.

May that respite be, for us, God's own Word and Work.

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