Wednesday, February 19, 2014

five words and that ****

Part of this blog's existence involves _not_ commenting on everything little thing.  There are too many good blogs that do that already, and quite frankly, I don't have the time.  Thus events like Albany's Bishop Howard Hubbard's retirement or most of Cardinal Dolan's activities I let pass because, well, there's nothing written anywhere that says _this blog_ must weigh in.

However, this past Monday Jimmy Fallon kicked off his start as host of NBC's Tonight Show, and in this there's a little Spiritual Diabetes nugget to consider.  Fallon attended The College of Saint Rose (where I teach in the Religious Studies department) in the early to mid-1990s.  He left in 1996 but returned, to much acclaim, to receive his degree in 2009.  With one exception Fallon is, unquestionably, the College's best known graduate.  Over the years I've been at Saint Rose it's been a pleasure to hear faculty memories of Fallon's days here and now it's nice to see both Fallon and thus the College bask in the aura of his ascendancy.  It's no small thing to be likened to Johnny Carson.

Monday, February 17, 2014

watch out what you wish for just might get it!

This blog came into being with a few provisos, one of which was to avoid the New York Times--largely because it seems like everybody else blogs about the NYT.  What could I add?

However, Nicholas Kristoff has called my profession back to...reality, engagement, whatever. Academics know all this good knowledge but, more and more, retreat into their hallowed halls for conversations amongst themselves.  GET OUT, Kristoff calls, and help out the rest of us.

Almost prophetically another blip on the blogosphere radar skewers academia's small-mindedness and disconnectedness.  One theory to rule them all, indeed.

sweatin' to the oldies

Rod Dreher, in typical fashion, lays it out:  we're losing our story--i.e., our ability to see our lives within a cohesive, coherent larger story--and thus, well, the abyss:

When I began this blog entry this morning, my wife received a visit from V., an older working-class friend of hers, on her way to work. I overheard part of their conversation. V. related a woebegone story of her adult stepdaughter, and the chaos this layabout young woman lives in, and by. V. says that the stepdaughter — I’ll call her Jennifer — is driving her crazy. Jennifer lives by her passions, and has made a wreck of her personal life (she was chased over the weekend by an ex-boyfriend who had a gun, and ended up hooking up with another guy at a honky-tonk). She has no money. She’s sponging off of V. and V.’s husband. It enrages V., who goes to work every day to try to make ends meet while Jennifer camps out on the couch at home. She had a job working as a sitter for sick elderly people, but she got bored with it, and decided she would rather loaf at her dad’s trailer than pay her own way — a lifestyle that her father enables. V. told Julie this morning, “She actually said to me, ‘I hope I have all your energy when I’m your age.’”

When V. and her husband are gone, Jennifer and her children, if she has any, will be wards of the state.

Jennifer has no script. No script has been taught her or imposed on her, or if it was, she rejected it. She believes in living life according to her passions, improvising as she goes along. I am certain that an upper-class urban intellectual like Rushkoff hasn’t the slightest clue about the catastrophe that narrative collapse has wrought on people who lack the capacity to choose wisely. For them, narrative collapse has not been an expanse of freedom, but rather the obliteration of freedom.

Well worth the time to read here.

But in the process Rod mentions a 1993 First Things piece by Robert Jensen, and here's where the plot thickens.  Rooted in biblical narrative itself, narrative or postliberal theology seeks to define and focus upon "Christian self-description"--Christianity's own language, rituals, and stories--before it starts arranging relationships with externals:  the modern world, capitalism, the academy, feminism, rock music, art, etc.  In 1989 William C. Placher published Unapologetic Theology, a clean and quick attempt to sketch out the philosophical and theological underpinnings of postliberal theology (a label, btw, that he felt sorely misled the uninitiated).  There's Wittgenstein, Eric Auerbach, and the work of Yale Divinity School faculty George Lindbeck and Hans Frei behind all this.  However, for all this work--or really for anything Christian to work--the participants have to be at least somewhat aware of 'the story.'  Even twenty years ago, Jensen surmised: "Houston, we have a problem."

The experiment has failed. It is, after the fact, obvious that it had to: if there is no universal storyteller, then the universe can have no story line. Neither you nor I nor all of us together can so shape the world that it can make narrative sense; if God does not invent the world’s story, then it has none, then the world has no narrative that is its own. If there is no God, or indeed if there is some other God than the God of the Bible, there is no narratable world.
Moreover, if there is not the biblical God, then realistic narrative is not a plausible means for our human self-understanding. Human consciousness is too obscure a mystery to itself for us to script our own lives. Modernity has added a new genre of theater to the classic tragedy and comedy: the absurdist drama that displays precisely an absence of dramatic coherence. Sometimes such drama depicts a long sequence of events with no turning points or denouement; sometimes it displays the absence of any events at all. Samuel Beckett has, of course, written the arch-examples of both, with Waiting for Godot and Krapps Last Tape . If we would be instructed in the postmodern world, we should seek out a performance of Beckett”the postmodern world is the world according to Beckett.

The arts are good for diagnosis, both because they offer a controlled experience and because they always anticipate what will come later in the general culture. But the general culture has now caught up with postmodernism, and for experience of the fact , we should turn from elite art to the streets of our cities and the classrooms of our suburbs, to our congregations and churchly institutions, and to the culture gaps that rend them.

There we will find folk who simply do not apprehend or inhabit a narratable world. Indeed, many do not know that anyone ever did. The reason so many now cannot “find their place” is that they are unaware of the possibility of a kind of world or society that could have such things as places, though they may recite, as a sort of mantra, memorized phrases about “getting my life together” and the like. There are now many who do not and cannot understand their lives as realistic narrative. John Cage or Frank Stella; one of my suburban Minnesota students whose reality is rock music, his penis, and at the very fringes some awareness that to support both of these medical school might be nice; a New York street dude; the pillar of her congregation who one day casually reveals that of course she believes none of it, that her Christianity is a relativistic game that could easily be replaced altogether by some other religion or yoga”all inhabit a world of which no stories can be true. 

Welcome to nihilism, y'all. 

Postliberal theology has a lot to say in response, so more blog posts there.  The point with all this is that Jensen's FT article appeared during (one of) postliberalism's high-water marks.  So instead of "narrative collapse" being linked to 9/11 or the GWOT or 2008 economic downturn or Obama's second term, we've been sliding into greater narrative collapse since before the Cold War's end.  (And that in itself provided a sort of narrative by which some folks understood the world.)  But it's more evident now, and unfortunately the 'replacement narrative', as R. R. Reno notes, isn't one that bodes well for Christians (or really any believers).