Why Are There Never Enough Parking Spaces at the Prostate Clinic?
Why Are There Never Enough Parking Spaces at the Prostate Clinic?
January 5, 2009
One of the modern shibboleths of the evangelical church, particularly the evangelical church in the West, is that of culture. One must be interested in culture, or one is simply irrelevant. Books and organizations abound on Christian approaches to various aspects of modern culture; there are magazines and e-zines dedicated to the topic; and numerous conferences are held, some local, some national, some international, which address cultural issues in terms of the categories and so-called world-and-life-view of Christianity. Now, I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater: sure, we need to understand the language and idioms of our culture to the extent that we need to communicate the gospel in such a context in a meaningful, comprehensible way; but I do believe that fascination with culture is now way out of hand in Christian circles and has come to eclipse more important, more central things. Indeed, even as I say that it is important to understand context to communicate the gospel effectively, I am conscious that this seemingly obvious statement needs to be tempered by the fact that some of the greatest preaching ever known was designed precisely not to communicate to the contemporary culture. Just check Isaiah's commission in Is. 6, and the use of that text in Jesus' ministry to see how not communicating in comprehensible categories as determined by the immediate culture is a critical sign of judgment on an idolatrous people.
Well, space prevents me from engaging in a thoroughgoing engagement with the current obsession of Christians with culture; but I would like, as it were to sketch out the framework of a minority report on the matter by highlighting a series of concerns.
First, I am struck, by and large, with the coincidence of the concerns of the cultural Christian types and those of the middle class chatterati. Plenty of talk about Christian approaches to art, music, literature, sex, even international politics. All very interesting subjects, I'm sure, and the topics of many a chardonnay-fuelled discussion after a hearty dinner party. But what about subjects that aren't quite so interesting? Take street sweepers, for example; or hotel lavatory attendants; or workers on an umbrella manufacturing line. Why no conference on the Christian philosophy underlying these vital callings and trades? After all, imagine how gruesome a Christian conference on international poverty would be if it was held in the pouring rain in the Ritz Carlton hotel in some big city, but there were no road sweepers, lavatory attendants, and umbrella makers. Wet, dirty and unhygienic, I would guess.
Second, I am also struck by how Christian talk of cultural engagement has coincided with a watering-down of Christian standards of behavior and, ironically, thought. I have lost count of how many times I have been told in recent years that Christians should be able to watch any movie, providing they do so with a critical, Christian eye. There are several obvious problems with that kind of statement. For a start, such a categorical, sweeping statement has little, if any, scriptural or exegetical foundation and indeed seems not to take any account of texts such as Mt. 5: 27-30, Eph. 5: 1-3, Phil. 4: 8, etc. Second, even those making the case rarely mean exactly what they say: ask them if Christians can therefore watch child pornography, and none that I have spoken to have been prepared to go that far, except in the necessary cases of those professionally involved in the detection and prosecution of paedophile crime. No, Christians shouldn't watch child porn, they'll say; but the problem, of course, is that definitions of what is and is not pornography, even child pornography, are changing all the time and are driven, by and large, by the wider culture which increasingly mainstreams such material. Witness the new Kate Winslet movie, involving a sex scene between her character and a fifteen year old boy. Specious distinctions involving the actual age of the actor notwithstanding, it is arguably child pornography. Frankly, there are films rated PG-13 today which my grandparents would have considered as porn. Is the standard of what is and is not obscene set by biblical truth or by cultural accommodation? Talk of `Christians can watch anything as long as they do it critically' is as daft, unbiblical, soft-headed, ill-thought-out, and confused as anything one is likely to come across. In fact, I have a suspicion that for some it might simply function as a rationalization for watching whatever they like and not having to feel guilty about it, the Christian voyeur's equivalent of the `I only do screen nudity and sex when the script demands it' excuse of so many `serious' actresses whose bank balances have been boosted by the occasional flash of on-screen flesh.
But the change in Christian thinking does not just relate to issues like pornography. It also relates to the very questions that are deemed relevant or useful. I always thought it was the Bible that was meant to interrogate the culture; but the order seems to be being somewhat reversed in recent times. For example, a few years ago, Mel Gibson's film, The Passion was all the rage in evangelical circles. One day, I was sitting in my office and a student called by to let me know he was taking the youth group at his church to see it and to ask if I had already done so. I said I had not, and we then entered a discussion about whether it was right to depict Christ visually on the big screen. At the end of the discussion, he said that he felt sorry for me because my qualms about the visual depiction of Christ were making me irrelevant to ministry in the modern church. Now I may well be irrelevant, although I think that time has proved Gibson's Passion to be pretty irrelevant as well. What shocked me in this encounter, however, was not that we had different views on the matter, but that the student could not even see that there was any question to be asked. For him, the question of the meaning, relevance, and application of the second commandment was not even a question. He just thought it was obvious that anything which generated interest in Jesus was a good thing; thus, my concerns about the visual depiction of Christ revealed me as an irrelevant old hack, a superannuated puritan who simply didn't get it. To me, this was a most dramatic symbol of how culture had come to set the theological agenda even within a conservative, confessional, reformed tradition, and to define the plausibility structures not simply of the answers but even of the questions. My question arose out of my concern to see what the Bible said to our cultural situation, and that refracted through centuries of discussion of this point; but this student did not even have the categories to see that there was any question to be asked.
Third, I am convinced that much culture talk is driven by the need to hyper-spiritualise everything. Of course, I believe everything should be done to the glory of God; but that doesn't mean I believe we need a Christian theory of movies any more than we need a Christian theory of cake baking, homebrewing, or street sweeping. When I arrive home at night, I sometimes just want to sit down, have a drink, and relax while listening to a piece of music or watching a movie or reading a good book. Pascal was right when he saw that such entertainment was perfectly legitimate in and of itself, when it helped one recover from the drudge and dreariness of the daily grind; when such things become an obsession, an idol, then, of course, they become a problem; but there was no need to specifically Christianise them at a theoretical or epistemological level. Strange to tell, the contemporary evangelical urge to Christianise everything is in itself arguably a form of the very pietism it seeks to reject, where only specifically and consciously Christian things have any legitimate place. Pietism has simply been broadened, not abolished.
Fourth, I am increasingly convinced that talking about culture, for all of its loud claims to relevance, significance, and importance, can actually be a first-class way of doing precisely the opposite, of not really talking about things that matter at all. After all, at root, talk about culture is talk about accidents. No, I don't mean that culture talk is always talk about unfortunate disasters: no cultural critic with whom I am acquainted spends the whole time discussing Britney Spears, The O'Reilly Factor, and Wales. What I mean is that talk about culture is talk about particulars rather than universals, local differences rather than transcendent unifiers, and accidental properties rather than natural essences. This kind of disposition lies at the heart of postmodern thought: postmoderns hate to talk about nature and essence because that would imply metanarratival totalizing; they have replaced the old discourse of unified nature with the discourse of heterogeneous cultures.
The disempowering and anarchic effect of this shift from nature to culture, from universals to particulars, can be seen dramatically in what has happened on the European political Left. In the 1950s and 60s, the Left moved from its traditional metanarrative of economic oppression and liberation to concern for identity politics. The categories then ceased to be class-based or related to basic economic structures and hierarchies, and moved to issues of gender, race, and sexuality. In making this shift, the Left lost its universals in a medley of competing particulars. The result is what we have today: a Left which is morally impotent, as revealed first, and perhaps most dramatically, by responses to the Iranian revolution of 1979. Should the Left support it, as the overthrowal of a corrupt and brutal American-backed dictatorship, or oppose it as a return to feudalism fuelled by religious fanaticism? As the liberation of an ethnic people from Western imperialism, or the establishment of a regime whose brutal subjugation of women beggared belief? The embarrassing spectacle of Michel Foucault approving the events in Tehran in 79 is a nasty spectre that should haunt the mind of any who claim to be his disciples or claim him as a man of the true Left, the Left that speaks up for the poor, the oppressed, and the weak.. The same confusion has played out again and again in responses to the suppression of Solidarity in Poland, to Tiananmen Square, to 9/11, to war on the Taliban, to the toppling of Saddam Hussein. As the Left lost itself in a morass of micronarratives and identity politics, it lost its ability to speak with any authority about things that matter; indeed, it lost its ability even to see the things that matter. The universities that should have been centres of serious discussion of things that really matter descended into trivia, losing sight of the basics of politics in an arcane mass of rebarbative theoretical gobbledigook, Gnostic vocabulary, and utter trivia. Ph.Ds reflecting on the oppression of the poor came to be replaced with dissertations on cybersex, foot fetishists, and, no doubt at some point, the semiotic importance of Tom Jones impersonators. The margins became central; the centre, unable to hold, was thrust to the margins; and the Left became an irrelevance to changing the things that really matter.
As this postmodern ethos has bled into Christian theology, a similar theological disempowerment has become evident. What began as a healthy concern to contextualize theology led in many cases to theologies where the particulars of context (whether geographical, social, political, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation etc. etc.) effectively trumped the universal horizon of scripture. The perfect storm of anarchic postmodern philosophies, identity politics, hyperspecialisation and fragmentation of the theological discipline, fear of cultural irrelevance, and the eclectic mindset of the consumer have combined to create a situation where the particular rules, messiness is in, and the church is little more than a cacophony of competing voices (or, to use the trendy and pretentious terminology, `dissonant vocalities'). On every corner, huckster theologians who have made their careers out of creating this mess are selling you the problem as if it is the solution, and theology now abounds with Orwellian newspeak: chaos is order; contradiction is consistency; valueless trivia is vital truth. And the Christian culture vultures are at the cutting-edge of this, with their focus on the particular and the peripheral rather than the universal and the central. Kids' stuff - teenflicks and sex and the internet - holds centre stage in so much Christian cultural conversation, perhaps a sign of the West's obsession with all things adolescent, perhaps a sign of the permanent adolescence of many of the interlocutors. And let's face it, no-one ever loses in today's evangelical market by backing the peripheral rather than the central, or by overestimating the triviality of the tastes of the Western Christian consumer. Is a Christian bookstore going to make money selling a book on the Incarnation or on prayer, or one on Christian approaches to body image, or The Simpsons, or how to improve your sex life?
You yourself can test this appetite for trivia easily. Today, more people in church are less familiar with the basics of the Bible and Christian theology than ever before; so you should ask your pastor to arrange some parallel seminars on a Saturday with one on, say, the elements of the Apostles' Creed, and one on a Christian approach to movies or sex. I guarantee you that the second will be far better attended than the first. Peripheral trivia trumps central truth every time, even within the ranks of the orthodox consumers in our churches.
So much for the rant. Where do I go from here? Well, in a day when identity politics is in, I have decided to launch my own webzine, aimed specifically at that most neglected sector of today's culture: miserable middle aged gits, of whom I am a foremost representative. To capture the essence of the project, I am going to call it `Oi You, Get Off My Lawn!' as long as the relevant web address (www.oiyougetoffmylawn.com) is not taken. I'll have a regular monthly column on today's music scene, called `Call That Music?? They Don't Write Them Like They Used To.' I'll have a section devoted to political commentary, `It Would Never Have Happened in My Day.' There'll probably be a sidebar on youth culture, entitled `I Ask You, Kids Today! They Don't Know They're Born.' And, finally, there'll be a regular editorial, addressing such urgent issues of the day as `Dooyeweerd or Don't You Weird? The Case Against Soul Patches' and `Why are there so few parking spaces at the prostate clinic? Towards a Christian response.' Now, if you don't think these columns and questions are relevant, then you must be either (a) a woman or (b) a man under the age of 40. If the latter, give it a few years and the profound relevance of these issues will become painfully clear. In the meantime, don't oppress me by engaging in the imperialist, sexist, modernist, foundationalist, miserablemiddleagedgitophobic etc. etc. marginalizing of `the Other' - i.e., me and my pals - in order to make your own little world the norm. Miserable middle aged gits we may be, but we have a right to our culture and our own local narrative too! We have been silenced by the oppressors for too long.
Alternatively, I could try to move out of my own little world, start thinking less in cultural and more in biblical terms. I could become less obsessed with particularities and more concerned with universals. I could engage less with the accidents of culture and more with the substance of nature. I might even spend less time training people who don't know the Apostles' Creed to watch movies that would have made grandma blush and more time teaching them the basic elements of scripture and doctrine. Horribly modernist, I know; in fact, boringly passé. But it might, just might, prove more relevant in the long run than being able to understand the sacramental significance of Sharon Stone or playing `Spot the Redeemer Figure' in the latest Jim Carrey movie.