There is an ongoing conversation between my cousin and me that could be titled “What’s Next?” Our exchanges normally revolve around the dreadful state of education and the arts, whose jagged shards we break into even smaller bits. It is mostly an exercise for getting grouchiness out, while keeping it away from our wives, children, and in my case, parishioners. In our better moments, we have wildly optimistic ideas about how to put the pieces back together in the form of something holy and beautiful.
A recent contribution to our conversation was a 2006 article called “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond” from Philosophy Now magazine. The author, Alan Kirby, describes the “Post Postmodern” phenomenon of popular television watching, in which the recipient co-creates a fleeting reality entertainment experience. Keep in mind that this article was written before Twitter, before the ubiquity of smart phones and texting, and in the early days of Facebook. He describes the effect of such things as creating a “pseudo-modern” world, in which reality is self-constructed, fleeting, and, paradoxically, not real at all. Nothing new here, but when I read it, I could not help but think of certain hip worship experiences in the same vein: interactive texting, tweeting, etc. Various churches have adopted these practices and, for all I know, abandoned them already. It’s hard to keep up. If Christianity is thus made as transient as the culture, it’s just one more broken shard.
An episode of the NPR program Radiolab took our conversation in another direction, one that was both bleaker and eventually more hopeful. It focused on the interesting case of the nihilist/pessimist writer Eugene Thacker, brother-in-law of Radiolab co-host Jad Abumrad. Thacker’s 2011 book, In the Dust of the Planet, made little impact until the title suddenly popped up on a high fashion t-shirt and then appeared on rapper Jay-Z’s back, exactly 37 seconds into this apocalyptic video for his and Beyoncé’s On the Run Tour. The title of a book about meaninglessness was suddenly being worn by one of the world’s most famous entertainers — what a statement about the present age! Naturally, Jay-Z’s stylist had no idea what the words referred to, a fact that further enforces the sad state of culture.
But the Radiolab episode went in an unexpected direction from there. Does the popularization of nihilism in the form of wearing its slogan on a t-shirt point to something on the other side of pseudo-modernity? Think, for example, of the way that wearing a t-shirt of Che Guevara declares “game over” for twentieth-century Marxism. Thacker and a fellow nihilist colleague, Simon Critchly, found out for themselves when they co-taught — of all things — a class on Christian mysticism. They reported seeing fires light up in their students’ eyes, something that they had never encountered in teaching. The witness of the desert fathers and of medieval solitary women was showing a way out to kids raised after the Internet Revolution. Young, thoroughly secular people suddenly imagined a way out of our culture, following St. Anthony’s example of leaving Alexandria behind and seeking an authentic, uninterrupted experience in the sight of God.
In a recent First Things article, “Prayer in the Facebook Age,” Mark Bauerlein advocates a different way through pseudo-modernity. Bauerlein prefers something like the practice of the presence of God to sitting on a tall rock in the middle of nowhere. Escape strategies really will not do (as even St. Anthony’s story proves), but giving thanks in all things and interiorizing prayer in the midst of chaos may be both realistic and salutary. He suggests:
My advice to parents, ministers, and other mentors is not to speak to [young people] of God’s greatness and love, nor to assure them, “God is with you always and best felt in solitude.” Young people trust most the evidence of their own experience. So, give them a spiritual exercise to perform before each session of social media begins. When you buy your seventeen-year-old a new tool, hand your charge three psalms, or the Sermon on the Mount, or the Nicene Creed, and say, “Here is your gift, but you may have it on one condition. When you sit down in Starbucks, before you open the tablet, you must recite these words. When you walk home from school, before you text your friends, you must recite these words. Say them slowly and mean them. It will only take a few minutes. I want your promise.”
It could certainly be worth a shot, particularly if it transplants mystic/seeker types in the soil of orthodoxy. A desire to escape pseudo-modernity, then, may turn out to be a giant leap in the right direction.
I always conclude my half of the “What’s next?” discussion with insistence upon what has always been and, we believe, always will be: the kingdom of God. The other side of pseudo-modernity may feature mystical prayer. It may be (and should be) the acknowledgement of God’s gracious, immutable presence in the ebb and flow of various social changes. But it is surely also life in the Church of the apostles, whose claim on connectivity both to God and to fellow human beings has never been equaled. We may live “in the dust of the planet,” but the Church’s answer to what eventually happens to that dust is both intellectually sturdier and more emotionally compelling than anything else I have found on offer. And as one of my heroes, T.S. Eliot, puts it in the opening words of The Idea of a Christian Society, the challenge for Christians discussing “What’s next?” is incredibly daunting, and therefore all the more important:
The fact that a problem will certainly take a long time to solve, and that it will demand the attention of many minds for several generations, is no justification for postponing the study.
If the grouchy conversations with my cousin play any part in this Christian project of re-assembling the broken glass of God’s world, where every –ism is both fulfilled and upended, then long may they continue.
The image above is “Broken glass” (2008) by Jef Poskanzer. It is licensed under Creative Commons.