Friday, February 10, 2006

annihilating nihilism and cultural masturbation with a good memory, and a bad movie or two

This is the sound of the world coming down/This is the sex of history/This is the sound of the big house caving in/This is the friction of joy and misery" --“Murder in the Big House” lyrics, Chagall Guevara

A provocative philosopher, Thomas Hibbs, traces the bent and progression of nihilism in American culture through three stages--the pursuit of evil, the banality of evil, normal nihilism as comic—and all through the lens of (of course!) pop culture movies and television.
Suggesting our current culture’s sitz-im-leben is “debased Gothic,” with a few scattered signs of life on the horizon and airwaves (signified in part by films in the vein of “Pulp Fiction”), Hibbs' "Shows About Nothing: Nihilism on Popular Culture From The Exorcist to Seinfeld" concludes:

“Without an all-powerful God to rebel against, even the devil cannot be taken
The entire situation becomes comical, and yet we are unable to
kill the divine. Like one resilient serial killer, God keeps popping back
up. This, too, is a rather Nietzschean point: that wherever there
are unifying cultural forces at work, there is a divinity present. The
most patently deconstructive elements in Nietzsche aim at undercutting the
possibility of a return to Judeo-Christian monotheism. This is a daunting
task, as Nietzsche himself acknowledged; ' We haven’t rid ourselves of God
because we haven’t rid ourselves of grammar.'” (178)

If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis-- “Grammar is the cement out of which we fashion reality”-- even if decidedly hyperbolic and reductionistic, holds any water or veracity; its implications dovetail with Hillman's. Especially if we grant a defintion of "grammar"
beyond mere...well, grammatical grammar....and the inevitability and invincibility of a thoroughgoing cultural grammar.

The way we speak--through television, movies, blogs, text messages—is hence a revelation what we believe about Revelation.

I noted while writing about the theology/thanatposis of death embedded in U2’s 2004 disc, “How to Dismanle an Atomic Bomb,” that Dismantle was on several levels a Judeo-Christian (Bono’s preferred phrase might be ““Abrahamic”) answer to the nihilism of Pink Floyd’s 1978 double record (remember records?), “The Wall”:

Pink Floyd’s "The Wall" in classic Floydian fashion, was brilliant, but a little
hard to listen to; deeply depressing . So what’s it doing in this essay on U2’s
new release? I think there is some musical/theological/philosophical gold to be
mined by "listening" to these two very different (?) discs from very different
(?) eras at the same time …

Compare and contrast time. Pink Floyd’s
"arc" was from fear to resignation (At least Bono wanted heaven and hell; Roger
Waters seems to want hell and hell, with no middle or higher ground in
sight….no arc I want to trace, or road I’m dying to travel. No answers, no baby
Jesus among the trash). Of course this is the band for whom the line "We’re just
two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl year after year" was a greatest hit and
upbeat, Precious and Kodak moment! For all the Wall knew, the best one can
settle for is to settle into the"comfortably numb" zone. And the fact that during concert
re-enactments of "The Wall," stagehands literally and gradually built up a wall
that eventually entirely covered the stage and band from view; and the band
seemed comfortably numb and completely unmoved by complaints that fans paid big money to see nothing but a wall, reveals that Bono and band were on a different
page in the 90s (At least Bono , after surfing large-screen TV in front of the
crowd, knew when enough was enough. He would say, as he threw the remote down,
and the band launched into a song, "But you haven’t come all the way out here to
watch TV now, have you?")

But Floyd ignored fans and built
the wall they were singing about. Pink Floyd may have intentionally been nudging
fans towards nihilism and suggesting one will have no choice but submit to
fascism; U2 were annihilating nihilism with larger than life irony. And facism?
Remember "Goodbye all you neo-Nazi skinheads. I hope they give you
Auschwitz!"?Even though the double "Wall" album, and concert, ended with a short
piece, "Tear Down the Wall," and that seemed like a good thing; it is not so
good. In the record’s scenario, once we tear down the walls that keep us from
others and reality, instead of freedom, we find our worst nightmare: there’s
nothing behind it! We are hopeless, and now to make matters worse, naked, and in
front of an enemy. A careful listener will hear, after the sounds of the wall
crumbling, the "real last song" of the Floyd record, which numbly (Of course
another U2 Floyd connection and contrast is the Floyd’s "Comfortably Numb" and
U2’s "Numb") submits to circumstances , and coldy bends the arc full circle
(literally in this case..I’ll explain) from fear to… fear. The last voice one
hears at the end of side 4 (remember records? This was a double album; so four
sides) is someone quietly saying something that gets cut off mid-sentence "Isn’t
this where…"), and the sentence (as one discovered later) was "continued" at the
beginning of side 1: "…we came in.") "isn’t "Isn’t this where we came in?"
Clever tactic, depressing thesis: The record (literally) comes full circle
(literally); life (spiritually) is endless circle; spiraling (in the "Vertigo"
video, our band spiraled down to hell, but they bounced back!) through the
grooves of the record, and life, into nothingnumbness. Even if we do tear down a
wall, we’ll build another and another. .Gosh, Bono did say "Vertigo" was such a
nice little ditty that it made you feel like killing yourself. But he laughed. I
cannot imagine Roger Waters laughing as he seemingly invites no other ultimate
option but suicide..or at least quiet and hopeless desperation…after completing
the endless, vicious circle/cycle. That’s at best bad Hindu karma, not good
Irish Christianity (which of course Bono contrasted in the last U2 record’s last
song, one initially "about a girl" but in its more elevated meaning about a God
that Waters apparently knows not of). The Floyd message is antithetical to U2’s,
though both group’s presentations and styles may share a lot of great
art-genius. But Floyd is still brilliant, and brutally honest. Just hopeless,
with no map out of Vertigo and hell; no Love to "teach me to kneel." No dead man
to even wake up.

Annihilating nihilism theough affirmation of life. Tearing Down the wall via a dismantling of death. Life turned inwards implodes; according to Frank Lake's amazing theological/philosophical/psychological masterwork; a green 1,282 page tome, whose unfortunate title ("Clinical Theology") perhaps alone kept it from remaining in print (except for an abridged version)and being known, let alone cherished by most theologians/pastors, paints.
Of course, the most graphic emblem of life turned inward is masturbation. Lake keynotes masturbation's inherent

...identification with nothingness....Kierkegaard understood, with a clarity
that Freud did not, that the increase of dread means an increase of
sensuality. It is a characteristic of infantile dread to manifest itself
as painful genital tension . This commonly results in a compulsive
auteotic sexual activity or masturbation. This is initially the direct result of dread...

In religious people, this is usually counterbalanced by an attempt to obtain a good realtionship with God by overcoming the temptation...The fear and fascination of a 'dread-ful' act associated with a dreadful loss of being itself, produces a rising cycle of dread of madness or damnation, interspersed with desperate masturbatory acts. (Clinical Theology, pp.728-29)
Hillman, in his survey of nihilism in pop culture, proffers that “the essential role of masturbation in Seinfield ” is not merely obsexxed mindset of the writers, but inevitable surfacing of the basic cultural-grammar of a society that has learned to..pardon the poor pun..hold its own. The recurring theme of masturbation in Seinfeld is merely a sign of the times. The characters' constant attempts to refrain from such activity become everyman's narrative struggle, and
“that the experiment is obviously doomed from the outset confirms C.S. Lewis’s insight that 'lust is more abstract than logic.'"

Elsewhere, C. S. Lewis specifically addresses "the real evil of masturbation":
".. that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out
of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and
finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back; sends the man
back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And
this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting
with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls
for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and
psychological attractions which no woman can rival.

Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect
lover; no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on
his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he
increasingly adores himself…And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus
sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination. The true
exercise of imagination in my view, is

(a) To help us understand other people,
(b) To respond to, and, some of us, to produce art.
But is has also a bad use: to provide for us, in shadowy form, a
substitute for virtues, successes, distinctions, etc. which ought to be sought
outside in the real world–e.g., picturing all I’d do if I were rich instead of
earning and saving. Masturbation involves this abuse of imagination in erotic
matters (which I think bad in itself) and thereby encourages a similar abuse of
it in all spheres. After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our
selves, out of the little dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is to be
avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is
that of coming to love the prison.

-CS Lewis,Letter to
a Mr. Masson (March 6, 1956) Wade Collection, Wheaton College
Left to ourselves, we love the prison. “Too bad you can’t do that (masturbate) for a living, "the mother of a Seinfeld character (George) scolds. " Thousands of people would come to watch you. You could sell out Madison Square Garden. "

Precisely and effectively what many contemporary entertainers do at the Garden. For a good living. U2, though, remember is hip to that dead end. Instead, they intentionally, if subversively/covertly dismantle the death-culture and annihilate nihilsm. They tweak the very rules of sacred secular grammar. Bono often cites poet Brendan Kelly's line: "To serve the age, betray it." Through the medium of media. Even at a sold-out Garden. With thousands of people watching you. That's not masturbation; it's the opposite: a self-aware self-giving kenosis; a holy hijacking of the spirit of the age. It's spreading wild hope.
Which our culture must subterfuge by projecting whatever images will draw us back to the mirror. John Tschetter notes:
Our culture is deeply committed to images, and is blatantly idolatrous in doing
so. The 2001 (? date) Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue had written on the
cover, “the goddesses of the Mediterranean”. This goddess can be none other that
the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, sensuality, and sexual love.
Considering that normal speed movie film contains 24 frames per second, try to
imagine how many times per hour the image of Aphrodite is presented to be seen
and worshiped through the projected world in our culture. Suddenly 1 Corinthians
10:14 and 1 John 5:21 take on great significance for us today! In a similar way,
the more deeply we attempt to engage our culture through the projected world,
the more vulnerable we are ourselves to idolatry, because the essence of the
projected world is made images. Both roots of idolatry are at work in the
formation of images for the projected world. Our making of images to present our
work in ministry is not invulnerable to idolatry.
The very admission that our best efforts "are not invulnerable to idolatry" should not frighten us from projecting images (literally as movies) at all, but to maneuver such tasks with prayerful sensitivity; realizing that our culture is backslides toward cultural masturbation. A short list of popular songs over the years on the theme of autoeroticism is telling: The lyrics, catchy tunes, and of course images of "Turning Japanese" (The Vapors); "Pictures of You" (The Cure), "I Touch Myself'" (The Divinyls) cannot not stealth their way into our collective psyche and bend us towards narcissism. We are "not invulnerable" indeed.
Without a surrender to the Spirit's oversight, we will default into temptation and tilt toward the hyperautistic. Without such correction:
Art narcissistically turns in on itself, unable to provide any insight into an order not of its own devising ...(Hillman, 183)
But good news intervenes:

...Although we have traced nihism in culture through its three stages, nothing
in our
argument precludes the possibility of the emergence of narratives that encompass rather than fall prey to nihilisn. Indeed the sense of impending cataclysm has given rise to some of the most profound and ennobling dramas in our history. It is no coincidence that the best recent film treatments of the human confrontation with evil have been historical—for example Schindler's List and Malclom X. We shall ceryainly have to do a beter job of cultivating memory, of fostering, as T.S. Eliot puts it, a sense of the presence of the past. (Hillman,182)
In a starling article, "'Running' and Resistance: Nihilism and Cultural Memory in Chicano Urban Narratives," Vincente Perez amens the revolutionary counterintuitive "encompass rather than fall prey to nihilism" strategy that Hillma advovates. And grinds it up a gear; even applying it pointedly to culture and memory:

Nihilism is about the expression of an undaunted yearning, desperate (violently so, perhaps even to the extreme of self-destruction), but not hopeless, meaningful in its furious revolt against a world of bewildering violence and meaningless death. (p.1)

…Though nihilism can be self-destructive, violent, antisocial, anti-intellectual, and apolitical, Rodriguez suggests that it can also be constructively channeled. Yet, even if the sentiments which define it (despair, rage, fear, and anger) are not directed into more traditional conduits, nihilism for Rodriguez constitutes a militant political consciousness entirely justified given the social circumstances and conditions of urban Chicano life. (p.3)

Both Wright and Ruiz narrate the nihilist's total absorption and internalization of the racist attempt to negate him, and his own total negation of that attempt. For their characters, the acceptance of nihilism functions as a form of opposition against a racist and repressive status quo, and therefore also as a form of "liberation." Only by accepting their identity as nihilistic figures can Bigger Thomas and Jesus Olivas derive a meaning from a life of suffering, alienation, and violence. (p.4)

Annihilating nihilism via an intentional but guarded embace of the best of it , is perhaps the only starting point and vehicle for truly transforming and transcending it. Isn't that indeed the very heart of God's salvific strategy in Christ: a gnostic-eschewing incarnation? Thank God the Word didn't stay Word, E. Stanley Jones always preached.

Another intriguing U2 connecting point: One of the key novels Perez uses to communicate and well, incarnate, his approach is "Native Son". U2's kickoff song on "Dismantling," "Vertigo" was originally called "Native Son," based on the very same novel...and apparently its uniquely cultural approach to overcoming the despair of nihilism..which is always the tendency of some aspects of democracies (Hillman, 18)."My enemy became my country," U2's Native Son laments; though wanting to solidify his citizenship.

Of course, irony is always..and ironically, prone to backfire or implode. But it is often the only tool available to articulately hone and heal. Of course, using "worldy wealth and filthy lucre" for good and God ends is a delicate and dangerous business; but Jesus himself is the one who started it. The church is appropriately reading much these days from deconstructionists; all the more reaon I was glad to find the book, "Against Deconstruction,"...which in some ways makes the case for decontstructing deconstructionism!

Maybe the need of the age is simply more movies; television shows, songs , art about real life ...even about evil; even about nihilism. I would draw the line at evil films about evil; but how about ant-nihilistic films made from a nihilistic genre? U2 are masters at culture jamming (Bono once called it "stealing from the thieves"; songs like "Until The End of the World" (from Judas' point of view) and "The First Time" (The Prodigal Son doesn't come home), reverse expectations, but verse in a vantage point that is the way out. One can't escape hell from heaven. One can only start from where one is. And then and onlt then can we prophesy from within and with authority (For more thoughts on this, try on "Is Adbusters More Christian Than We Are?" and my "Preaching Ecclesiates and Throwing Away the Key.").

Maybe the need of the age is spotlighting "practical theology" by banning "practical theology" departments. For one, what are seminaries doing departmentalizing/compartmentalizing. And:

'Practical' Theology departments at seminaries do not make theology more practical. They ensure that theology, oustide the PT department, will remain practical--that it will remain theology..

..Theology is bad enough, but modern theology is theology cultivated into idolatry. Bowing before science, social science, or philosophy, modern theology has adjusted its distinctive language and insight to conform to the common sense of modernity. Metaphysics or evolutionary science or liberal political theory or whatever determines in advance what can be true of God and His ways. . .

Theology is a specialized, professional language, often employing obscure (Latin and Greek) terms that are never used by anyone but theologians, as if theologians live in and talk about a different world from the one mortals inhabit.

Theology functions sociologically like other professional languages - to keep people out and to help the members of the guild to identify with one another.

Whereas the Bible talks about trees and stars, about donkeys and barren women, about kings and queens and carpenters....

...Theology is a "Victorian" enterprise, neoclassically bright and neat and clean, nothing out of place.
Whereas the Bible talks about hair, blood, sweat, entrails, menstruation and genital emissions.

Here's an experiment you can do at any theological library. You even have my permission to try this at home..

Step 1: Check the indexes of any theologian you choose for any of the words mentioned above. (Augustine does not count. Augustines' theology is as big as reality. Or bigger.)

Step 2: Check the Bible concordance for the same words.

Step 2: Ponder these questions: Do theologians talk about the world the same way the Bibke does? Do theologians talk about the same world the Bible does?

Peter J. Leithart, Against Christianity, pp44ff

Maybe the need of the age is more sermons on blood, sweat and entrails.
Maybe the need of the age is to let Eugene Peterson have the last word; okay, literally two words (If you are addicted to Peterson, and two words doesn't match your fix, try a few choice paragraphs here). Two words that might at cursory glance, and without the context, seem to smell like the very apathy, cultural masturbation, narcissism and nihilsm we are desiring to shed. But they are two very prophetic and pastoral words, which of creatively and immedoately applied could miraculously rework our entire horrid hermenutic; impart holy courage and trigger hoplessly wild hope, and draw our memory (remember how crucial memory is in this process) and hearts back to our First Love:

It is common among people like us to look for ways to free ourselves from the humdrum, escape as often as possible into ecstasy, devise ways to live separated from the clamor of traffic and family, associate as far as possible only with people of like mind, and engage in disciplines and ways of dress and speech that set us apart from 'the others.'
Scripture says:
Forget it."
related articles:

Theology of SexShops/Luther's Four LetterWords and Nihilism
Satchmo's subversive/prophetic humor "Thanks for preaching to those who'd never listen to me"
When Theft Serves Art Where are the Christian "Vagina Monologues"??
TRANSUBSTANTIATING THE CULTURE:Andy Warhol Poets subvert the system
A Postmodern Essay..about being Postmodern!

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