Saturday, July 30, 2011
Thursday, July 21, 2011
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.")
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.
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
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.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
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 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."
"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."