Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Love Will Tear Us Apart (again)

When the routine bites hard/ and ambitions are low/ and the resentment rides high
But emotions won’t grow/ and we’re changing our ways, /Taking different roads
Then love, love will tear us apart again
( Ian Curtis/Joy Division)

            One of my recent `finds’ on `YouTube’ was an amateur  video clip from a concert in which U2 joined Arcade Fire for a cover version of Joy Division’s `Love Will Tear Us Apart.’ I was attracted by the raw immediacy of the images from what I guess is a phone with built in camera   held up among the swaying, jostling audience.  I was also struck by the way the audience sang along on the chorus, giving the song an almost anthemic feel.  This struck me as a useful way of beginning these reflections on faith and technology.  Because of these images, images shot during a concert in Madrid and beamed to me here in Northern California via the internet, I got a strong sense of solidarity and connectedness conveyed to me.
  It was a bittersweet experience, listening to Bono and audience make something very joyous and anthemic out of such a melancholy song. I spent a few more minutes online and found radically different cover versions of the same song, performed by a variety of artists.  It was a good example of the way in which themes, images and artwork are subjected to re interpretation, and reappropriation in new contexts. It happens all the time….especially in our culture of late or post modernity.  However, for me, it is the original Joy Division version that gives me an authoritative `read’ on this   song. I came way from watching the 1970s video clips of that band, fronted by the late Ian Curtis, with a sense that I was watching something unravel before my eyes.
Actually, I had gone onto YouTube in quest of a different song. I was tracking down various examples of David Bowie performing `All the young Dudes.’ I found several, and again, in some of the more recent concert footage, I saw audiences caught up, and singing along almost joyously with the chorus of a song , that, in its original `context’ struck me as a  rather melancholy reflection on the death of 1960s idealism. Here again was an example of a pop culture artifact in which radical re interpretation creates a context for enthusiasm and nostalgia.
I had just begun at Art School in the 1960s when   a counterculture with new ideas about reality, belief, politics, art and life exploded into public awareness at this time. Some of these ideas   were rooted in spiritual exploration; others were grounded in deconstructive skeptical analysis. Artists and musicians as diverse as David Bowie, the Who, The Beatles (etc) began to draw together elements of `high’ and `low/pop ‘ culture and collage them together in  post modern pastiche as a way of exploring and commenting on these ideas.  Many of these ideas, birthed in a different time, and communicated by a different technology, nonetheless have a profound impact on some of our discussions about faith and life today. As I look at a U2/Arcade Fire cover version of a  Joy Division song, literally `phoned in’ by an enthusiastic fan, I remind myself that  the Beatles album `Sergeant Pepper’ was recorded on  a couple of analog four track recorders slaved together in the studio. As I listen to `All the young Dudes’ I remind myself that some viewed this song as a melancholy reflection on the failed idealism of `All you need is love.’
            In spite of this failed idealism, I have suggested above that some of the ideas have lingered, influencing some of our current conversations. I see a resemblance between the exploration of the expanded ideas about `art and life’ and our expanded ideas of church and mission. The Twentieth century was rocked by scientific, social and political revolution as well as corresponding  cultural ones, and I feel that some of our discussions about the nature of the church are unfolding in the shadow  of those revolutions. The way some of us talk about redefining the relationship between church/mission and world reminds me of some of the conversations I used to hear about overcoming the barriers between `art’ and `life.’
Let me touch briefly on three examples. Someone like Avant Garde composer John Cage wanted to change the way we listen to `ordinary sounds’ and silence.  He thought that listening in the right frame of mind was a step towards recognizing there are no barriers between art and life. Cultural and social theorists like Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard, on the other hand, describe our experience of `real life’ as a market driven illusion. We live in `the society of the spectacle,’ and the `realm of the simulacra.’ They are proposing that our experience of `real life’ is something socially structured, and grounded in the all embracing logic of the image. Then again, German performance artist Joseph Beuys tackled the art-and-life issue in a completely different way.  When Beuys proposed his theory of `social sculpture’  he undertook a body of practice that included  sculptural objects, drawings,  tree planting ,live performance, interviews and blackboard lectures, all with the express intent of awakening  people to their own latent creativity  in order to create real world social transformation.  . While, in retrospect, some might say that Beuys and his project was flawed with the same kinds of utopian thinking that we touched on earlier, I find his work to be more stimulating as I reflect on the way some of our discussions about art in relation to life are faintly echoed in our conversations about some of the emerging forms of church and `mission’…   Nonetheless, when I take an admittedly partial, biased and superficial stroll through books, articles, wikis and websites to do with all things emergent and missional, I never trip over the name Joseph Beuys. This perhaps, is understandable. It is a bit of a leap from  a round table conversation  about new emergent forms of mission  to living in a room with a coyote for three days (`I like America, America likes me’) It is quite a jump to go from dissecting the obsolete forms of the Constantinian /Christendom paradigm to sitting in a gallery with  gold leaf all over your face and whispering stuff about art history to a dead animal in your arms (`Explaining pictures to a dead hare’) However,  when Beuys suggested in an interview at the time (1964)  that he thought that the dead hare  stood a better chance of understanding and appreciating what he had to say than some of the people walking through the gallery, he made a point  that I think hits dangerously close to home today.   
Someone else I never see mentioned is Thomas F. Torrance.  This omission is much more bewildering than my previous example.  Torrance has written extensively, comprehensively and lucidly on the history of scientific discovery, and the changing shape of approaches and ideas in the realm of the sciences. Not only has he cogently demonstrated the relationships between adopted `scientific’) worldviews and resultant theological formulations, he has also drawn parallels between the cosmology and worldview of the early church and the newer discoveries in physics.  His `ancient /future’ approach suggestively links Patristic thought with Post Einsteinian ideas about time and space. Our ideas about God, Torrance argues, are influenced by the kind of box we try and put Him in.  Torrance asks us to take off the conceptual straitjackets fashioned from obsolete, Newtonian ideas, and linear `instrumental rationalism’ and head (kind of) back to the future. In short, the guy is the Nazz of the paradigm shift. He does much of the heavy lifting in exploring and describing the kind of reality some of our newer ideas about the nature of church and mission spring from. However, I bring up Torrance not just to draw attention to the conceptual groundwork he has done on our behalf. I want to mention an earlier monograph of his called `The concept of Grace in the apostolic Fathers’ This brief work, originally published in the late 1940s described a rather sad `paradigm shift’ in the early church. He describes  how the idea of `grace’ as the personal quality of a gracious God was emptied out, and replaced with the idea of `grace’ as an abstract and malleable  quantity….something  that would need to be channeled  through sacramental and institutional frameworks….guarded and administered  by `special’ people.  For me, Torrance’s patient dissection of this root problem in some areas of earlier church thinking and practice has direct application to us, whatever model or paradigm of church we subscribe to. I am not, for one minute, discounting Torrance’s monumental contribution to mapping the conceptual ground out of which all things `emergent’ move and have their being.  I am suggesting, however, that his writings on the changing understandings of `Grace’ also speak to us today, and further, bring us  closer (much closer) to what the Apostle Paul was talking about  when he `beseeched’ the church at Rome  to be `transformed by the renewing of (their) mind.


When the apostle Paul wrote to these Christians about `renewing their minds,’  in the 11th and 12th sections of his letter to this church, he spoke into a very specific  historical situation. Jewish Christians were returning to Rome (having been told to leave in 49 AD by Claudius, I believe.) When they got there, they found a flourishing  community of  non Jewish  believers. Paul found himself addressing a delicate `cross cultural’ situation in which Gentile believers with no background in Jewish custom or law were acting as if they were `superior’ to those Jewish believers who still emphasized some traditional practices. Paul acknowledged, and argued comprehensively that both groups were `saved by Grace’…..but  he also allowed that some of the Jewish Christians were still `weak in conscience’ when it came to the food laws, and were still in process towards  experiencing the full liberty that God had granted them in Christ. Paul wrote   to the Gentile believers who believed that God had made an end of the law `in Christ’ and was therefore `done’ with Jewish concepts and traditions and pointed out to them that God, in His grace, had `grafted the `wild branches’ of the Gentiles into the true vine. If, however, these Gentiles became complacent and arrogant, God could break them off, just as He had done with the `natural branches’ of Jewish stock (Romans 11:17-23). Paul regarded the arrogance, `high mindedness’ and `spiritual one upmanship’ of some of these Gentile believers in relation to their `weaker brethren’ as nothing more than `conformity to the world,’ and accordingly pleaded with them to radically change their thinking and behavior(Rom 12: 1-4) This `renewal of the mind’ that Paul  wrote of had little to do  with forms of ecclesiology,  systems theory, quantum physics,  Plato, Constantine, Christendom, centers, margins and the like, and plenty to do with real world relationships between  groups of believers drawn from different cultural  traditions.
Maybe you have read this far, and are wondering what this possibly has to do with issues of faith and technology. Perhaps, if you will allow that Paul qualifies as an `Apostolic Genius’ you will also allow that he  has  some relevant insights into  what the core issues are,  regardless of our form of worship or conceptual model of `the Church.’ If we fail to grasp the relevance of these insights for our own time and church paradigm, then I suspect that when we think of faith and technology in the future, we will largely be celebrating how easy it is to go online and plug back into some kind of virtual celebration that weaves together a sense of solidarity with a bittersweet sense of nostalgia as we sing along and celebrate the way things ought to be, the way things could have been.

No comments:

Post a Comment