Listening To Contemporary Voices
I can’t think of a more persistent, thorough, insightful, engaging cultural critic than Rob Horning. – Me, “Growing Beyond Yourself: Some Thoughts On Rob Horning,” What’s Left In The Church, May 11, 2012
I often think that we in the Christian churches, for as much as we whine about how we aren’t taken seriously as an intellectual force, are just not comfortable with serious intellectual investigations. It is far much easier, and in some ways more fun, to rehash arguments from the 20th, 19th, 18th, 12th, 5th, and other centuries, if for no other reason than those arguments, whether settled or not, are well known enough in Christian circles that taking sides is easy. Disputes between Calvinists and Lutherans, Roman Catholics and pretty much every Protestant, Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians, ethical realists versus eschatological ethics – these are just some of the things I read when I read Christian blogs. It’s as if we feel a need, as Christians, to place ourselves within one or another historical stream of teaching and thought either as a badge of honor, a sign of loyalty, or to show just how much we know about our collective past.
And every time I read someone call someone else a “heretic” because the person so called is a Calvinist, an Arminian, a Catholic, a Mormon, or whatever, I shake my head and wonder aloud, “Really? We haven’t progressed beyond this? In an age when we live cheek-by-jowl with millions who have very different faiths, or no faith whatsoever, we’d rather disenfranchise other Christians over minutiae in teachings that are as meaningless as phlogiston in chemistry?”
Which is why the arguments over church music, over the use of contemporary technology including social media, and the place of sexual minorities within the larger life and ministries of the church are so frustrating, even nonsensical, to those outside the church. We hear so often the word “relevant” being used to describe positions that haven’t been relevant since Richard Nixon was President. We read people insist that 16th century instruments playing 17th and 18th century music is “more suited” for church, but the only reason given is a personal distaste for contemporary instrumentation, contemporary song writing, and the refusal of many congregations, clergy, and ministers of music to do the simple job of teaching folks how to sing, what to sing, and why to sing it.
One theologian not afraid to venture forth to and through the thickets of contemporary philosophical discussions is Miroslav Volf (about whom I wrote here back in 2007). While that work, and the contemporary thinkers with whom we wrestles are slightly dated, they at least have the advantage of being near contemporaries, dealing with issues the church actually faces, as opposed, say, to arguing over Kantian philosophy and ethics and its place in the church.
I was out shoveling the driveway this morning – for the fifth time in two days – and got thinking about Rob Horning (whose blog, Marginal Utility, can be found here at the online magazine of cultural criticism, The New Inquiry) and about whom I’ve written several times over the years. If you read the links, you’ll see that I agree with much of what Horning has to say, up to a point. That point, however, brings with it strong disagreement. I am, however, grateful we have someone like Horning around to remind us of the limits of the alleged freedom granted us by all the technology with which we live.
In particular, I got thinking this morning of one of Horning’s persistent themes: the artificiality of the self constructed on social media, and the potential for mistaking that constructing for our real selves. I then got thinking about how, at least since Freud, the very idea that we can have any complete sense of “self” or identity is impossible due to the presence of the unconscious; at least since Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, we have to recognize the historical, and therefore contingent, nature of what it is to be a “self”; at least since Richard Rorty, the whole question of the self is far less interesting a philosophical matter than what it is we do as “selves” that actually define the webs of beliefs and preferences that make up something we label “identity”. That Horning approaches his critique of social media culture and the construction of the online self from a Marxist point of view adds yet another dimension to the matter of “selfhood”; how is it possible to know who we are, to have a conscious sense of identity when that consciousness is formed by the relationship of productive forces outside us, molding us in to better consumers, better workers, more docile citizens in our expanding corporatacracy? These are all interrelated questions, and far more interesting than anything written by a theologian about what it is to be a human being created in the image of God, and the social and ethical implications of that statement. It might be beneficial if we Christians spent a bit more time reading Horning, and Freud and Marx (who, despite their age, are nevertheless still relevant, even if not always understood by those who claim to do so). Richard Rorty has passed, but his insistence that we continue to ask not so much the wrong questions as far less interesting questions in our quest to understand our world, still needs to be wrestled with and fleshed out by Christians. And Charles Taylor’s ideas of selfhood, of the buffered self of contemporary life, and the way the emergence of the buffered self aided both the rise of secularism and capitalism, these, too, need to be read and studied and considered in a thoughtful manner.
Yet, I doubt most Christians, even those in the academy, will take the hint and at least attempt to update our discussions to include these insights. I doubt Rob Horning’s ongoing dissection of contemporary social media culture will impact how churches wrestle with their own online identities, even though someone should at least inform some church it might not be a bad idea at least to consider the artificiality of our online, constructed corporate selves. The arguments and discussions that are at the center of my own concern – matters of music and theology and liturgy – will be irrelevant as long as we refuse to take any stock of our larger contemporary social and philosophical context, relying instead on superficial nonsense such as charges of “relevance” and demands that something is “better suited” to our liturgical life yet without defining why that is beyond an expression of personal preference.
Our church discussions are boring, uninteresting, and largely empty of any real understanding of our contemporary world because far too many of those who lead them, or try to lead them, would far prefer to rehash matters that are centuries old. Our world has its own shape, its own concerns, its own unexamined assumptions and troubling trends with which we need to wrestle. There are contemporary thinkers, beyond those I named as well, who should become part of the conversation. They are all accessible through the internet, easily understood by anyone with a high school education, and offer perspectives we just don’t hear considered in all our back and forth within the churches. I once again offer up Rob Horning as a good starting point, precisely because he is attuned not only to the questionable nature of social media, but engages in far larger cultural criticism from a perspective our churches need to hear and consider if we are to be intelligent, thoughtful, and most of all loving in our desire to be the Body of Christ in this world for this world.