Friday, November 13, 2009

The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 2

Part 1 begins here.

Around the time that the gospels were being written out, and a generation after the Apostle Paul had written to them, another letter was sent to the Corinthians, this time from Rome. There had been a leadership change at Corinth, and Clement* was not happy about it. So Clement wrote to Corinth in order to urge the usurping leaders to desist, to repent from their pride, to restore the former presbyters to their positions of authority, and to restore "peace and harmony" within the church in Corinth.

Our interest in this letter is Clements thoughts on harmony, because within his conception of harmony he describes a particular aesthetic, and how it relates to human sin. The prime example of harmony that Clement describes is the harmony of the created cosmos, from the course of the stars, sun, and moon, the cycle of the seasons, right down to the sexual relations of the smallest of creatures. It is this harmony that is offered to the Corinthians as an example of holiness. When Clement's audience fails to live up to the harmony seen in the created order, the act of kindness that is the cosmos turns to judgment, as they fail "to conduct [themselves] worthily of him and to do the things that are good and pleasing before him, in harmony." In this way, the created harmony of the cosmos acts both as model of human behavior, and as a judgment against their own disorder and sinful behaviour.

This isn't, however, what is most striking about Clement's letter. What is most interesting is how crucifixion and resurrection function within this frame. During his extended homage to the harmony of the created order, and what this kindness means to the church in Corinth, Clement shapes this created harmony into a distinctly Christological form. Clement connects the "Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood . . . was given for us" with the order and harmony of the universe established by God. The blood of Jesus itself is part of this cosmological harmony, along with the resurrection revealed within this same harmonious order. The universe operates according to an internal coherence; human persons are called to modulate within this harmony, even though we often choose sin; the "blood of Jesus" is not injurious to the harmony. The harmonious creation of God contains within its own order a Lord Jesus who sheds blood for the life of the world. The crucifixion doesn't ring a sour note, but is well within, even revealing the breadth of the harmonic spectrum of creation, and is part of its coherence. This is not, to be clear, an apology for death and violence – Clement urges the Corinthians to do what is good and pleasing to the Lord. But the blood shed, and the resurrection life given, are unapologetically oriented to the grain of the universe.

There are two points that arise from this. The first is my contention is that there is an aesthetic of sin and grace present here. The created object, in this case the entire cosmos, has a rhythm to it, an internal coherence. This harmony inherent within the created object, proclaiming the truth insofar as it maintains internal coherence, is interrupted by a dyad of sin and redemption, revealing grace while it remains an act under the weight of judgment. But the interruption that is the crucifixion and resurrection, while it is disruptive and unique, is a showing of an underlying harmony, a single note revealing the tonal centre that brings the rest of the harmonic structure of the created object – the cosmos – into greater coherence. To put it simply, the interrogation of sin (whether it is the disorder of the Corinthians, or the crucifixion), while it remains sin, also offers the opportunity for grace, all within, and consistent with, a framework of the harmony and internal coherence of the created object. What we might say, playfully taking some license where Clement's argument is not fully resolved,** is that sin is a kind of competing harmony that, as it is interrogated, may initially sound harmonically discordant; but that it’s discord, listened to carefully and on its own terms, is exactly where we find the deeper ground of a more complex harmony, and an opportunity for a revelation of grace, just as the Corinthian sin became an opportunity to explicate the grace of the crucifixion and resurrection within a coherent and harmonious cosmos.

My second contention arising from 1st Clement is related to the first. If we were to look at human culture itself as a single aesthetic production with this frame, a helpful model emerges. Think for a moment of a multi-stringed instrument, and the harmonic phenomenon called sympathetic vibration. When any single note is struck, other strings begin to vibrate even without themselves being struck, producing tones harmonically related to the note of the single string. These sympathetic vibrations, though not as loud as the string plucked or bowed, offer a harmony far richer than a chord because the strings themselves each vibrate at more than one frequency. Clement's notion of harmony can profitably be thought that way. The event that is the crucifixion and resurrection is the single note struck, revealing and bringing forth a cosmological harmony already present.

The cultural extension of this notion of harmony goes like this. The event of the crucifixion and resurrection is the sounding note which sounds all those sympathetic vibrations, making the harmony of Christendom. Nearly all artistic production within the culture of Christendom has sung, in different ways, the event that is Jesus. But as the central note that is the crucifixion and resurrection culturally speaking, is silenced, the sympathetic notes of the harmony will still ring, but will be slowly weakening without the sounding note itself, and increasingly drowned out by competing harmonic structures – something like the competing harmonic structure of the Corinthian sin that brought some incoherence to the harmony of the cosmos. Culturally, without the coherence of that sounding note, we end up with cultural artifacts that might sound and look like they are connected to central Christian narratives, but are in fact disconnected and slowly dying out for lack of the cultural coherence we once knew. It’s like we are Richard in Blue Lagoon, trying to remember the Lord's Prayer and miffing it nearly completely, mixing it up with the pledge of allegiance; all the while without realizing that we have offered the object of our affection at the altar of a forgotten pagan god.

Take for example the way that religious iconography operates in Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, where specifically Christian religious artifacts are consistently presented as items of power. However, there is no allowance within the mythology of that universe for any explanation of where that power might find its source. The cross and the holy water are divorced from any narrative, other than their magical usefulness. They are put alongside any number of other magical artifacts or rituals that are entirely fictional: orders of monks, amulets and talismans. The cross and the holy water are evacuated of their original significance outside that particular universe, becoming magical weapons no different than the others. As such Whedon’s imaginative universe is little more than derivative of any robust, Christian theological imagination. Rather, the power of the cross and the holy water is simply a dying echo of a story no longer told, and I would be hard pressed to find much of enduring theological significance in such an anemic Christological vision. Whedon’s vision shows, in this way, the dynamics of cultural discord, without either submitting it to a coherent dogmatic vision, or interrogating the discord on its own terms. In fairness to Whedon, he makes no claim to be operating within a Christian imagination, but rather within an existentialist one. We can, nevertheless, faintly hear the dying harmonies as they are overtaken by other philosophical notes.

So, without pressing too hard on Clement's notion of harmony, two things emerge. The first is a theoretical poetics of coherence within the created object, both governing the structure of the object and further revealed through the interrogation of sin. The second is of a cultural aesthetic lacking the coherence of a shared narrative, whose resonances are still heard as they are dying out, as scattered and disconnected cultural artifacts, slowly drowned out by competing philosophical systems. Pursuing the significance of a Christian dogmatic imagination, we will leave the echoes alone to die out, looking instead to O'Connor, Stevens, and Aronovsky as creative artists pursuing the coherence of a created fallen world, under both grace and judgment, in the hopes that through this pursuit we will discover a living God able to gracefully break through the most depressing and fallen of worlds.

* There is no direct evidence to ascribe this letter to bishop Clement of Rome, and there is good reason to doubt the connection. However, for the sake of simplicity I will use the tradition ascription rather than the clunkier " author of the letter."

** Clement certainly thought that the sin of the Corinthians was disruptive of the natural harmony of the cosmos. But because the crucifixion is part of this natural harmony, yet is so certainly an act of sin, he leaves the tension of the complex harmony of the Corinthian sin unresolved.

part 3: Flannery O'Connor


The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 1

I had the opportunity to present a keynote address to the Canadian Institute for the Study of Pop Culture and Religion in September. As I prepare my manuscript for publication, I will be posting the sections here. Enjoy!

A number of years ago, as I listened to Johnny Cash's American Recordings for the first time, I was taken aback. The first track on that album was a re-recording of Cash's murder ballad, Delia's Gone, a story of the cold-hearted murder of a woman by her jilted lover. Because Delia's Gone is written according to the conventions of the murder ballad, there is no independent moral voice narrating any kind of judgment for the violent acts described, such as the female victim being tied to a chair, shot in the side, visibly suffering, being shot again, now to the death. The lack of moral voice is extraordinarily unsettling, because all we are left with is the single voice of the unrepentant killer. Only a cold rationalization of the act itself, and even a commendation of misogynist violence to the listener remains, Cash singing that " . . . if your woman's devilish, you can let her run; Or you can bring her down and do her; Like Delia got done."

Cash's biography makes this recording all the more startling. Cash was a man of faith and an ordained minister. He was a man who did prison concerts out of simple obedience to Jesus's command in Matthew 25:35-36 to visit the prisoner. "I'm trying very hard to be a practicing Christian," said Cash. "If you take the words of Jesus literally and apply them to your everyday life, you discover that the greatest fulfillment you'll ever find really does lie in giving." Most surprising, though, is not that Cash recorded Delia's Gone early in his career, but that he re-recorded it so late. This second recording, unlike the first, cannot be explained away as a reckless instance of a young man living the show-business life. No matter how tempted we might be to try to categorize Cash's artistic production according to some schema of "backsliding young man recording murder ballads" and "older faithful man recording hymns", we can't. Because of his choice to re-record Delia's Gone, Cash actively resists that schema.

We cannot assume that because Cash professed to be a Christian, he would be preserved from tasteless artistic production. However, upon reflection, it is my contention that Cash was doing something faithful, theologically significant, and part of a particular American, theologically driven, cultural tradition. Within the context of the whole American Recordings album, does two things. One he places it alongside other songs of redemption and grace. The second is that the narrative of Delia’s Gone remains discrete as a story. Deliah’s Gone remains distinct, with a coherence of its own, while making room for this particular story to be placed within a larger theological schema that includes the possibility of the redemption. But by allowing Deliah’s Gone to remain discrete, the unfolding of the drama of sin is allowed to impact the listener in full force without any mitigating moral voice of judgment. The world of Deliah’s Gone is pursued by the God who redeems, but that world includes human choice which, in this case, takes a disastrous and destructive turn. God pursues the people of this world not because the good and moral choice is possible and right, but for the opposite reason: because the moral good is not pursued, and needs a God who can redeem despite the depths of human depravity.

As such, Cash defies any notion that theologically charged artistic production should be reduced to moralistic, pious religious propaganda; nor does American artistic production necessarily need to conform to narrative apologies for the cultic power of the will. And he's not alone; Flannery O'Connor, Sufjan Stevens, and Daren Aronofsky each in their own way resist reducing their craft to pietism. My contention here is that the pursuit of violence, illness and death is theologically significant, allowing a dogmatic imagination to examine the significance of a created, fallen world under both judgment and grace, and offers an alternative to the more common American story of human potential as an ultimate good. As we will see, as we look at Flannery O'Connor's fiction, Sufjan Stevens' songwriting, and the film The Wrestler in more detail, it is in the pursuit of the fallen where we find some of the most profound illustrations of God’s graceful pursuit of a world under judgment.

part two: Clement of Rome

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