Monday, February 17, 2014

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).

1 comment:

  1. You know, I composed a very good comment to this blog in my head, when I was walking the dog. Then I came home and started doing something and poof- where did all that brilliant eloquence go???

    In any case, I have given this a significant amount of thought because I don't want to sound like I am lobbing rocks over the compound walls.

    First of all, I get very twitchy when I read words such as "postliberal theology" for starters. And when Rod Dreher, with all due respect is thrown into the mix, my twitch turns into an outright spasm.

    Call me some postliberal (although I loathe all the terms, they are dividers most of the time and almost never accurate definers) narrative type, but honestly - we are Catholic for God's sake. And for God's sake, let's start with the truly Catholic point of view, by quoting Genesis 1:10 - "God saw that it was good. "

    You know that I don't want to constantly bust your chops, but I find the overarching themed gloom and doom challenges to be anything but Catholic. Forget Rod Dreher, look at Pope Francis. It all starts with "it was good." That is creation, and that is what we are all called to, the good.

    Then we start naming groups, calling out identifiers and outliers, and then we are some poor challenged good guys,who are stuck in the shifting sands of those other guys.

    At least that is how I have read this, and you do know Jeff, that I have read it more than once and slowly - and thought about it a lot.

    It always feels as if the sky is falling. Is it?

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