Saturday, July 30, 2011

On X-Games and Nostalgia

It's that time of year again, when my kids groan and roll their eyes as I, Uncle-Rico-like, relive the glory days of the 1980s, regaling them with tales of my freestyle BMX exploits. That's right: it's X Games 2011.

My favorite event is BMX Freestyle Park--though what they're doing today bears only an analogical resemblance to what we were doing in the 80s. Indeed, as someone who has some familiarity with the difficult of what they make look easy, the level of riding today is simply mind-boggling.

But my nostalgia meter went through the roof last night while watching BMX Freestyle Vert. After watching Jamie Bestwick drop in and tear up the ramp, I thought I had misheard the announcer as he said that "Dennis McCoy" was up next. I thought, "Huh, that's funny: when I was a teenager there was another Dennis McCoy who was a flatland BMX dynamo." But it didn't take long for the reality to sink in: this was the same Dennis McCoy, now 44-years-old (4 years older than I am!). His "old school" lines could be recognized from a million miles away, and it was a beautiful thing.

There was, however, a less than welcome outcome: After my kids saw this old man bustin' huge air, they turned to me and asked: "What's your problem, Uncle Rico?"

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Joan Didion, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"

Cross-posting from GoodReads:

I have sort of read Joan Didion backwards, beginning with her masterful memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, and now working my way back to Slouching Towards Bethlehem--one of those books that casts a long shadow over contemporary nonfiction. I picked up this book as a companion for a recent trip back to Los Angeles, both because Didion is one of those rare creatures who is a "native" of California, but also because California figures prominently in these essays. But I became so absorbed in the book I didn't sleep on my redeye flight and finished it while taxiing at LAX.

As I understand it, Didion was sometimes mistaken for a reactionary conservative because of her unflinching depiction of the Haight-Ashbury district in the summer of '67 (the title essay in this volume). This is clearly to misread her. Indeed, Didion cringes at her own inability to capture the essence of the summer of love in that essay, but she also laments misreading:

I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.

This is part of the allure of this volume: it is both a collection of stellar nonfiction writing as well as reflexive commentary on the vocation and task of writing. Hence the more confessional, autobiographical moments of the book (on keeping a notebook, on going home, on leaving New York). Even these are packed with suggestive nuance. (For example, in commenting on the faith a young communist in Watts who seems driven by dread, Didion confesses: "I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroine or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.")

In these pieces from the 60s, Didion is both a powerful stylist and a crisp observer. Her writing couples bravura and insight as few can. In fact, in this sense she often reminded me of Norman Mailer (imagine Norman Mailer with a vagina!). There are paragraphs in here (especially in "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream") that left me almost breathless from their energy--a virtuoso performance that captures both a zeitgest and a geography in 3 pages of fire. But there are crystallized one-liners that nail reality to the wall (of Joan Baez she says, "until she found Carmel, she did not really come from anywhere").

California is a quarry for Didion precisely because California is where Americanism goes to die--though it goes there thinking it will achieve eternal life. Didion often frames this in terms of the "dream": the American dream, the dream of the Gold Rush, the buttoned-down dreamers in the Valley or the turned-on dreamers in the Haight. So the spiral of a disaffected marriage in southern California becomes "the revelation that the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live"--and kill and die. Or in a remarkable piece on John Wayne, a younger Didion confesses: "when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams." Or she sees Howard Hughes as a projection of our dreams:

That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power's sake [...], but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. [...] He is the last private man, the dream we no longer admit.

I suppose the line on Didion as a reactionary or a 'conservative' of sorts stems from a kind of memory or quasi-nostalgia that sometimes comes to the surface in this collection. For example, she recalls the scene of John Wayne's "discovery" by director John Ford: "There, a meeting with John Ford, one of the several directors who were to sense that into this perfect mold might be poured the inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail had been lost." The same sense of loss and errancy gets a kind of imprimatur on her reflections on the history of Sacramento, her home town--a town founded on a curious mixture of hope and history, that things started downhill pretty much just after the "Eureka" moment of discovery:

Such a view of history casts a certain melancholia over those who participate in it; my own childhood was suffused with the conviction that we had long outlived our finest hour. In fact that is what I want to tell you about: what it is like to come from a place like Sacramento. If I could make you understand that, I could make you understand California and perhaps something else besides, for Sacramento is California, and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried by ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.

The lament/memory/nostalgia is most famously expressed in the opening of "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" where Didion observes "children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together." This opening gambit is completed by the end of the essay when she concludes:

At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing it ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society's values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.
[It is a straight line, I think, from this observation to the stinging satire of Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story.]

So Didion regularly looks back, laments something lost, wonders whether we've taken some wrong turns. For those who think any glance back amounts to some kind of ideology (this assumption itself being ideological), this is enough for Didion to qualify as a reactionary. But is all memory nostalgia? And could our memory sometimes be right? Certainly Didion is no Whig; and only whiggish ideals of progress consider historical laments as false de jure. But some of us just refuse such simplicities. Perhaps Didion is a Burkean we need now more than ever.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Pedagogy of Sermons

Josef Bengston passed along this interesting little snippet from Alain de Botton, an old favorite of mine. This is lifted from a TED talk in which he looks to religious sources for secular practices (kind of, in a backhanded way, confirming some of the analyses in Desiring the Kingdom):

A sermon wants to change your life and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. I think we need to go back to that tradition of sermon in education.

This, of course, only works as an exhortation if the sermon itself hasn't just devolved to a didactic lecture.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On the State of Contemporary Theology

A friend who is a grad student in theology recently expressed some frustration with the proliferation of narrow "camps" in contemporary theology--and hence the lack of space for emerging theologians to engage in conversations which aren't just predetermined at the outset. What s/he has found is that most theological claims/discussions are judged beforehand by a kind of guilt-by-association: "Oh, you're working out of Camp X and are sympathetic to Theologian Y. I've already got a line/take/pigeonhole for that 'school,' and so I already know what you're going to say. Ergo, there's really no need for the conversation."

Not exactly productive conditions for common pursuit of truth.

So, my friend asked, is there some place where young theologians can engage in honest, forthright dialogue without all the posturing? Here's what I suggested, off-the-cuff (and slightly redacted):

It's a good question, but I'm afraid I don't have a very good answer. I must confess I despair about the state of "professional" theology today. It just seems to me that we have increasing "balkanization," with everyone carving themselves up into smaller and smaller tribish enclaves, and then proceeding to both rail against straw men and preach to their own little choirs. In some ways, I think this is an effect of the loss of confessional and denominational identity. Instead of training to be Reformed theologians or Roman Catholic theologians or Lutheran theologians we have a generation who are training to become "ecclesiocentric" theologians or "apocalyptic" theologians or "radically orthodox" theologians, etc. Everybody's gotta have an "angle," a project, an agenda, a manifesto, a list of "Theses" that discloses the hitherto hidden truth of the world on the basis of their own ingenuity. Hence the most important words in our theological lexicons become "alone" and "only," as in: "Only [insert theological ideology here] can properly account for [insert favorite political and social issue here]."

All of this does weird things to theological identity and community, which then breeds a narcissism of minor differences. In some ways, this is a strange by-product of "ecumenical" theological education. (I think the blogosphere exacerbates this in important ways, but I would need more data to substantiate such a claim.)

I also think this state of the field is a by-product of the fact that many up-and-coming theologians right now are not what we used to call "churchmen" in any strong sense ("churchwomen" included): they are not tied to denominational identities, they are not participants in the specifics of ecclesiastical governance/teaching, they are not subject to ecclesial magisteria of any sort, they are not aspiring to chairs in their denominational seminaries, etc. From where I sit, freelancing does not seem very conducive to healthy theologizing.

In a lot of ways, this is why I have planted myself in a very particular, "thick" confessional location--not because it is the one, true perspective; or the temple that holds all the secrets; but because it is a good location (and a "good enough" location) which is both catholic and particular, and one to which I feel--if this doesn't sound too quaint--called. So I'm a Reformed thinker, and even more specifically, a Christian Reformed thinker. Far from being a recipe for sectarianism, I think that centering frees me up to engage selectively, critically, and generously (I hope). In a sense, thick confessional/denominational identity eliminates a certain insecurity that I think explains alot of the current fragmentation. So my theological and professional identity is not bound up with any 'school of thought' or sensibility. (Based on my books, people seem to think that I have some investment in being "postmodern" or "RO" or "Hauerwasian" or whathaveyou: but I don't own stock in any of these little cottage industries, though I have interest in all of them. My central investment is in this obscure little denomination where I'm planted.)

So in some sense, I just don't know if the sort of space you're looking for exists, sadly. Then again, maybe it's always been this way!



Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Excremental and Sacramental: More Gems from Wolfe's Letters

I'm continuing to enjoy Thomas Wolfe's Letters. They hearken back to an epistolary age that is lost, when the letter had all the potential to be an essay, a short story, a travelogue, a memoir. Our emails will never be the same.

Here are just a couple of snippets Wolfe wrote from Europe in 1928. Consider, for example, this prescient observation about the coming dynamics of globalization:

"The things you and I have liked best in Europe--the grand pictures, the buildings, and so on--belong mostly to an order of things that has gone: the world--the world that has to eat and drink and labor--is probably being 'Americanized.' At least, they groan about it, and deprecate it, but I think they earnestly want it for themselves. To be 'Americanized' is simply to be industrialized in the most complete and serviceable fashion."

Or this culmination of his description of a church service in rural Hungary, sort of oozing with a weird blend of the sacramental and excremental which, oddly, makes sense:

"Nowhere have I ever seen the simple animal nature of men so plainly as in this church--I kep thinking of this as they all stood there with their smell of the stable, hearing of their kinship to God."

Friday, July 08, 2011

Woody Allen on Nostalgia: On "Midnight in Paris"

Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" could be co-opted as an interesting little parable for Christian theology and certain sensibilities within contemporary Christianity.

The story centers around Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson): a writer who's sold his soul to Hollywood screenwriting but is now trying to realize his dream of being a "real" writer, that is, a novelist. The story of his novel is centered on the owner of a "nostalgia store," a shop of memorabilia for those who live in the past--much like the writer, Gil, who idolizes the Paris of the 20s, and more particularly the jazz ages writers who transplanted themselves there: Hemmingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and others. In short, just as the protagonist of his novel longs for a past that would allow him to escape his dismal present, so Gil romanticizes a Parisian past that would deliver him from the doldrums of his stalled book and shallow fiance.
Lo and behold, Gil gets his wish. At midnight, a magical car (just go with it...) transports him back to the Paris of the 20s where he dances with Scott and Zelda, listens to Hemmingway's minimalist rhapsodies about "courage" and "honesty," shares his manuscript with Gertrude Stein, woos a lover away from Picasso, and has a delightful encounter with Salvador Dali (played fantastically by Adrien Brody).

He returns each morning to his present--which begins to look even flatter and more banal. But he also returns with new creative energy, an expanded imagination, jolted out of his noncreative stupor. This is what Gil finally realizes: he does come back to his present. He's never quite tempted to settle into this past Paris of his dreams. The film, at this point, gets a tad didactic and just a bit preachy, but still does a nice job of registering an important critique of nostalgia as a disordered relation to the past. But the rejection of nostalgia does not entail some equally problematic utopianism of future progress, or even some trite "celebration" of the present. No, the rejection of nostalgia can nonetheless recognize creative debts to the past, even the importance of an inventive retrieval for the sake of an imagined future--the imagination of which is dependent upon our forebears.

I'll resist the temptation Allen falls prey to, viz., telling rather than showing. Suffice it to say that one could profitably read this as a parable that might point up the nostalgic leanings of some theological trajectories, but without reducing all contemporary projects of retrieval as nostalgic. Ressourcement is not nostalgia, but it can be a bit of a gateway drug to such wistful escapism.