On Order, Beauty, and Me, part i

I have recently been engaged in an effort to get some order in my life. I am not naturally the kind of person who goes to bed at a reasonable hour, who knows how to say no to TV and the internet, who is willing to take an hour to tidy and disinfect the house, or, to be honest, who is willing to spend ten to twenty minutes getting ready for the day. Lately, my lack of discipline has been driving me up the wall, and I realized in conversation with Tish that my failure of discipline was bothering me, at least partially, for theological reasons. I’ve decided to do a series of posts on the theology of order with reference to my own personal history, which, as one might expect, is what has made me see the importance of order as a theological category.

When I was growing up in the suburbs of the ATL (the New York Times once referred to Atlanta as a small planet of 600k people in a ‘galaxy of sprawl’, a description which I like a great deal), my parents did their best to instill in me a sense of pride in cleanliness, order, and decency. Now, as I said, I’ve never naturally been an ordered person. Keeping my home and work spaces tidy, keeping my passions and emotions in proportion, and so on, have never come easily, but by authoritative direction and formation, my parents managed to habituate me into an fairly quotidian routine of grooming, cleaning, and all around self-discipline. Then I got to college, and there I discovered punk rock, which undid almost all of this primary socialization. My first introduction was to ‘mall punk’ – MxPx, NoFX, Blink 182, post-‘Let’s Face It’ Mighty-Mighty Bosstones, etc. –the kinds of bands you would find t-shirts for at Hot Topic, hence the name ‘mall punk’. But I quickly discovered that ‘real’ punkers hate that sort of music, and as I was introduced to ‘real’ punk, I found that it offered a more satisfyingly jaded, angular approach to the banality of American culture. Brett Gurewitz’s clever, pointed writing for Bad Religion entranced me. Ben Weasel’s misanthropy and seemingly genuine loathing for people appealed to my possibly innate sense of snarkiness. Ian MacKaye’s and Guy Piccioto’s scathing, acid political commentary in songs like ‘Smallpox Champion’ gave language to my burgeoning feelings of dissatisfaction with suburbia and the banality of the ‘good life’ in middle class America. With Guy shrieking ‘bury your heart, U.S. of A./history rears up to spit in your face’, I felt like I was being introduced to a strand of social protest that effectively unmasked the injustice, superficiality, and falseness of the American way of life.

Of course, I could not divest myself of the privilege into which I was born, but it felt better to me to intentionally cultivate grubbiness, disorder, an effete and romanticist feeling of despair and cynicism, and of course, indignation. And the protest culture of punk fit well into the politics of resentiment practiced in the humanities departments of my alma mater. And of course the rejection of bourgeois culture fit well in some ways with the ‘whatever’ grunge aesthetic of 90s culture in which I came of age. I don’t deny that some of the deconstructive work that punk encouraged was positive and important to my formation. I continue to appreciate the rage against the poisonous culture produced in post-war America that I detect in the most articulate versions of punk rock. I think in the long run, in the mysterious way that narratives work, it’s led me to a more committed, more theological, more catholic, and more ascetic vision and practice of Christianity. It’s helped me to reject the easy fit between American evangelicalism and neoconservatism, which is all to the good, since as Richard Lovelace has aptly said, ‘I cannot escape the feeling that Luther, Bunyan, and the Apostle Paul would be referred to psychotherapists if they appeared in the evangelical community today’ (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, p. 218). The impulse in punk to reject conformity to a social and political order that is not fit for habitation by human beings is an impulse that I still respect and endorse.

Next up: why punk was not enough for me.

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