On Order, beauty, and me, part ii

In this series, I’m examining order as a theological category by way of the narrative of my own life. In the first post, I described my discovery of punk in college and the hermeneutic of suspicion that gave me for examining the way in which I was raised. In this second post, I’m examining why it is that punk could not offer me a better narrative to order my life than the one I grew up with.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man that ‘you cannot go on “seeing through” things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it….to “see through” all things is the same as not to see’ (p. 81). The trouble with punk culture is that it participates in an impulse that is nearly universal within American, not to say Western, culture, which is a failure to articulate a positive vision of what people are for. The sedimented belief is that somehow, if the bonds of injustice are smashed, if patriarchy, heteronormativity, corporatism, and militarization are dismantled, then the authentic expression of each individual will naturally be unleashed and come to full flowering, and that the eccentric existence of each of these individuals will somehow miraculously not come into conflict with anyone else’s. In other words, without any sort of directedness except the mere evasion of legal consequences, negative liberty will somehow produce not barbarity but cooperation and flourishing.

The truth is, since we have spent so much time focusing on unmasking, we have not thought much about what should replace what we have torn apart. Nor have we thought about what kinds of ascetic practices we will need in order to form the virtuous habits in us necessary to become the kind of people worthy of whatever vision should replace the one we have destroyed spent so much time destroying as a culture. And perhaps most importantly, we have not considered to what degree our cultural penchant for iconoclasm and revolution makes it impossible for us to cultivate the discipline of those ascetic practices. For in the revolutionary consciousness, which we all share, having been formed in late modern American culture, the problem is always extrinsic. One’s own state of brokenness simply cannot be entertained, except as a matter of poor socialization that can be overcome by consciousness-raising. It is a matter of faith that the real problem is with some evil group in society — who are not merely in error, but whose views are so odious that they must be shamed, disgraced, and if possible, buried completely.  And the more we rage against the external enemy without attending to the enemy within, the more revolutionary culture comes to parody itself. Speaking of Gandhi, Thomas Merton wrote that ‘our evils are common, and the solution to them can only be common. But we are not ready to undertake this common task because we are not ourselves. Consequently the first duty of every man is to return to his own right mind in order that society itself may be sane’ (quoted in Kenneth Leech, Spirituality and Pastoral Care, p. 30).

Punk helped me to see that it is not a good thing to be well-adjusted in a society that is deeply disordered, but while I was busy slamming to the Winnepegan vegans Propagandhi, I was blinded to how much goodness there was in the order my family had instilled in me. I will write more about the process of recovery and retrieval anon.

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.

A Portrait of ‘The Artist’ as a Young Mom

I naturally have a touch of melancholy, but since I left the year-round brightness of Austin, the darkness and coldness of winter worsens it and I end up worn out, slothful, and withdrawn. The way that I have learned to cope with this is that every year around the end of Christmastime, I write out a list entitled ‘Things to get me through winter’. This year has about 20 goals, which include going to bed early, drinking lots of water, getting a membership to the Frist Center, buying warm socks, and to “See a movie that I want to see in the theater by myself on a weekday.”

Until this year, I would have never wanted to go to the movies alone. I’ve only gone to a theater alone once before, over a decade ago when I was briefly in a city where I had not yet made friends. I was always a strong extrovert. But since college, every year, I have increasingly enjoyed being by myself. In the recent psychological exam that I took, I still tested as an E on the Myers-Brigg test, but just barely–an E with a need for a whole lot of alone time.

Ten years ago, as a single, childless early twenty-something, I had margins of alone time in each day that I never really noticed until they were gone–time in the car running errands, afternoons when all my roommates were out, or laying in bed at night. When I got married, the little crevices of aloneness in the day got filled up by sharing a life, a car, and a bed with Jonathan. But even then, I still had some time alone, and when either of us needed to, we could tell the other one to disappear for the evening and we’d fill up on solitude.

Then came the baby. She’s a total joy, but (besides the exhaustion and relentless anxiety) the hardest part of adjustment to motherhood is the loss of time alone. Generally, for the last two years, I’ve been with my daughter, or when I’m not, I’ve been working. I can’t tell her that she needs to feed and clothe herself today because Mama needs to sit in a room and stare out the window.  After I put her down at night, we have 2 hours to do everything that we haven’t done all day or we collapse into in an exhausted haze of hulu or facebook. It is a full life–full of beauty and giggles and love, but also very full of people. As a scholar, Jonathan gets alone time while he’s researching, but as a minister, my work provides more time with people. So I’ve begun craving alone time palpably. I hunger for time where there is no need to attend and no task to accomplish.

Today, unexpectedly, Jonathan rearranged his day to give me my winter’s list movie alone. Leaving the house, I felt anxious. It was like I had first date jitters, but the date was with myself. I slipped into a dark theater and was riveted by ‘The Artist’, an incandescently lovely black and white silent film. I left anonymously, no one there to ask what I thought of the movie. I am sure too much of this would get lonely, but today, it was blissful.

Normally, when I get time alone now, I use it for some spiritual practice like prayer or silence or for something ‘good for me’ like doing yoga or getting a haircut. Today, I did something by myself that was merely for fun, which felt lavishly free.

It is so easy as a new mom to lose yourself. Some of this is probably good. There is a self-forgetfulness that makes one more able to love and bless. But there is another sort of self-losing that is tragic. It is the kind of hollowing that leaves you busy, shallow, and boring.

I am grateful for this season of my life and for the new life in our home. Even the starving pangs my inner-introvert feels leave room for grace to grow in me. But I’m also grateful for the times when I have space to remember that before I was a minister, a wife, or a mom, I was a self. I don’t believe in a sort of blunt individualism that would separate my singular inner self as more important or even more ‘me’ than my identity as a mother, a wife, or member of my community. But nevertheless, I am also an individual. A Tish. A daughter of God. A woman who loves words, beauty, ideas, and earthiness. I bought myself some popcorn today and settled in, grateful for a gift that I would have never appreciated ten years ago.