Monday, October 31, 2011

Santa Fe

"So, forgive me for not remembering this," Ruthie said to me -- my friends Ben and Ruthie live in Cincinnati and I had a chance to visit recently -- "but you teach...?"

"Yes," I said, "I teach --"

"--Computer Age philosophy," Ben broke in.

"But his students would rather watch TV," Ruthie finished.

I suppose, had I been on my game, I'd have shrugged and said, "America," but at least I knew the reference. This started us on a tack about our mutual love of  RENT. They're big fans of the movie, which my wife and I saw a few years ago. We were recently introduced to the musical itself when a friend of ours directed a local production. I got to do a cameo and sit in with the band a couple of nights. Doris was so taken with it that she bought the Best of RENT CD, which we've been fairly obsessing over. I never, ever, thought I'd be grooving to the soundtrack of a musical, but I am.

Tom Collins, who sings the lines we were quoting, is probably my favorite character. For one, he's named after a drink. Granted, he couldn't have been named after just any drink -- "Harvey Wallbanger" wouldn't have quite the same ring to it, for instance -- but still, he's named after a drink. How cool is that? I also identify with him because he's a college instructor. Earlier in the song he has the line "I'm sick of grading papers, that I know." As a writing teacher who gets to grade a lot of papers (and whose "drinking coffee and grading papers" Facebook status updates are the stuff of legend) I'm pickin' up what he's layin' down.

But he really intrigues me because he's identified as an anarchist. We could have a conversation about whether the anarchist elements in RENT are "real" anarchism or just sentimentalized youth rebellion (a little of both -- and what's "real" anarchism anyway?), but either way, I have this thing for anarchism. This has been on my mind recently because one of our grad students approached me about directing an independent study on anarchist theory and history. I applied for graduate faculty status and got approved, so I'll be doing my first graduate-level teaching in the spring semester, and I'll get to do it by immersing myself in anarchist literature. That, as they say, doesn't suck.

It's strange, though, because I thought maybe I was an anarchist for awhile, albeit a Christian one, but I sort of gave up on it, consigning myself to being just another liberal. Then I sort of gave up on the Christian part, consigning myself to being just another godless liberal (I've thought about getting a T-shirt that says "I'm the liberal professor your youth minister warned you about"). So naturally I'm still going to church, at least partially because our pastor is enough of a Yoderian to be taking the church, slowly, in an anarchist direction (one of the tenets of my dissertation is that John Howard Yoder's ecclesiology, taken to its logical conclusion and lived out to its fullest extent, is anarchist) and I find that I like that. That's not confusing at all, right?

I'm reluctant to actually call myself an anarchist, partially because I don't want to be one of those people who co-opts a sexy sounding word because it supposedly has some kind of cachet. Partially, too, because it is a deeply misunderstood designation, owing not a little to all those people who like to co-opt sexy sounding words because they supposedly have some kind of cachet. I'm not saying that people whose political thinking doesn't go much beyond Dead Kennedys T-shirts and a predilection for shouting and breaking things aren't anarchists, but they might be making things confusing for anarchists who construct their anarchism a little differently. I don't want to be that guy.

Mostly, I hesitate to identify as an anarchist because I don't really do anarchist-y things. I lack a taste for the theater of protest. I lead a fairly conventional (if quasi-agrarian) bourgeois life. True, I drink fair trade coffee and have latent suspicions of authority and property -- as well as a deep-seated disdain for capitalism -- but it manifests more in a refusal to take things like authority or property (mine or anyone else's, on both counts) all that seriously than it does any desire or effort to overthrow anything. Mine is a sort of bemused nihilistic anarchism, and I'm not sure that has much street cred.

Another reason I don't really embrace the moniker is that I don't think an anarchist society is practical. I don't mean to say that "anarchist society" is an oxymoron -- one of the horrible clichés people almost instantly reach for -- but that a) there's no way we're ever going to get enough people behind the idea to make significant progress toward it; and b) it seems like the sort of thing that would be all too easy to fuck up if we did. In this I find myself siding with Jacques Ellul in Anarchy and Christianity:
The true anarchist thinks that an anarchist society—with no state, no organization, no hierarchy, and no authorities—is possible, livable, and practicable. But I do not. In other words, I believe that the anarchist fight, the struggle for an anarchist society, is essential, but I also think that the realizing of such a society is impossible. (19)
Ellul's assumption that anarchism means "no organization" strikes me as naive, but the gist of things is that the fight (such as it is) is important but somewhat hopeless, at least in human terms. Here Ellul has a theological resource -- eschatology -- that I don't: Ellul can look beyond our human hopelessness to a God-centered hope that things will turn out all right after all.

Ellul saw Christianity and anarchism as compatible, but he still tended to hold them slightly apart. There are more nuanced and integrated forms of Christian anarchism, such as that which characterizes the Jesus Radicals, and what I find fascinating is how close this anarchism comes to recognizing its own contingency. Christian anarchism seems uniquely poised to recognize that Empire is not going away. It may change -- or merely change hands -- and there may even be revolutions, but there is not going to be some glorious revolution that ushers in, finally and fully, the world we long for. Not, at least, through human agency. Not without a divine inbreaking, one that Christians look toward as the telos of history.

The opportunity here is to recognize that anarchism and radical Christianity and other forms of resistance to Empire are nevertheless parasitic upon Empire as the thing they need to kick against. There is no pristine or primordial anarchist site that has been obfuscated by Empire; there is only the negative space that is always already defined by Empire. The Christian anarchists may not agree with this (it probably doesn't sit well with theological realism), but I think they can nevertheless help us to see it. Christian theology veils this in apocalypse, which allows us to draw closer to it.

What this suggests is that if anarchism isn't practical, in conventional terms, it is a least practicable, in small communities and small ways. In fleeting and furtive moments. In the refusal to wield power or the decision to use power outside of approved channels to help those with no access to power. When our pastor was a junior staff member and thought things might be headed in the direction of him taking the helm, he balked a bit; being "in charge" was antithetical to his vision for the church, and even being in the kind of church that had positions of power was already problematic for him. I encouraged him to take the mantle as a way of occupying the place of power, which the community sees as necessary, in order to give power away. It's a little like having an anarchist mayor in Reykjavik; it sounds oxymoronic, but it's not, necessarily.

Another illustration that comes to mind is an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine [special H/T to Tony Hunt for helping me remember the details of this episode]. In the story, an unfamiliar ship docks at the station in need of repairs. The ship's lone operator, of a previously unknown species called a Tosk, manages to strike up a friendship with the station's chief engineer, O'Brien but also gets in trouble for snooping around the weapons stores (for which he refuses to offer an explanation) and lands in the brig.

Eventually another unknown alien vessel comes looking for the Tosk. They are not the same species, and it turns out they they are hunting the Tosk, not in a law enforcement or bounty hunter kind of way, but in an English-gentlemen-out-with-the-hounds kind of way: the Tosk is their prey. The Tosk are bred, in fact, to be exciting quarry and honored for their cunning in evasion. The captive Tosk is bound by social custom to be the hunted, and in getting caught alive (facilitated, of course, by his being held in the brig) he faces humiliation. The station is prepared to hand him over to his pursuers.

O'Brien is scandalized by this; he realizes that the Tosk was interested in the weapons as a possible hedge against his pursuers, and finds the idea of hunting a sentient race repugnant -- but the Prime Directive (which, in some ways, represents the logical outworking of liberal "tolerance") prevents him from interfering with the social customs of these other races. The Tosk could ask for asylum but he refuses; it would only be further indignity and a violation of his code. He would rather die with honor than evade his fate, even though the means for that evasion are available.

O'Brien takes things into his own hands and launches a plan to help the Tosk escape. The plan succeeds, and the Tosk is freed, in not in O'Brien's sense of what freedom would be, but to continue the hunt without further loss of honor. O'Brien, however, must be reprimanded for violating orders -- for violating the Prime Directive, in fact. He is called into the station captains's office for a dressing-down. As he accepts his reprimand, he pauses to admit puzzlement over one aspect of the plan: at a certain point he was certain it would fail, but the force field system he thought would stop them was curiously slow to engage. The captain, Sisko, says suggestively, "I guess that one got past us," and the two exchange a knowing look.

The Tosk's escape is a violation of the law but not of the social code by which the Tosk lives. He cannot accept asylum but he can accept O'Brien's offer of outlaw justice. He is restored not to freedom as we might think of it but to the life for which he is bred and to which he seeks to return. Sisko is required by the law to reprimand O'Brien and does, but in the process it becomes clear that he not only secretly approved of O'Brien's actions but also played a role in making sure those actions were successful.

Of course, there are ideologies and social constraints that are upheld, to a certain extent precisely through this violation of the law (Žižek would have a field day with this), and in no sense are O'Brien or Sisko enacting an anarchist society or articulating an anarchist theory. But they are working in the negative space of empire to offer aid to the oppressed on the terms of the oppressed. It is a fleeting anarchical moment.

I'm not one for affectation, and I'm a bit stubborn. I'm not going to try to be something that doesn't seem organically a part of the life I'm actually living. But already this is a problem: that life, and my sense of what might be "organic" to it, is already enculturated, already formed and shaped by middle class America, by liberal democracy, by neoliberal capitalism. To go with the flow is to accede to it, to be caught up in it, to be held in bondage.

Maybe I need to take myself a little more seriously as an anarchist thinker instead of hiding behind nihilistic bemusement. Maybe my dissertation can be -- or be parlayed into -- a contribution to anarchist thought. Maybe I need to open myself to praxis: especially those fleeting moments, but also opportunities to show solidarity with other making similar efforts, and even when those efforts make me feel vulnerable or require me to publicly take sides (or, God forbid, a stand on something).

This is the sort of thing I've been thinking about lately. It's not running naked through the Parthenon or anything, but it's something.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sweet Hour of Prayer

It's Sunday, and I'm not sitting at home doing the New York Times crossword puzzle -- I'm playing bass at church. Although it has a band, this is not some über-contemporary cutting edge church. The feel is folksy and we mix up old hymns and new stuff and a lot of it is quite pleasant and some of it is banal and vacuous and sometimes those are the same songs. On this particular Sunday I play bass and sing tenor and most of the time I can keep that straight. I usually play drums, so this is a nice change of pace. I feel a little like Sting, actually, only neither so cool nor so incredibly good-looking. So maybe more like the lead singer from Mr. Mister.

I used to be very anxious in church, not least when I was on staff. I had a lot to lose: I felt that if people knew my theological proclivities, I'd be ostracized. Out of a job. Or just out, I guess. I felt fake, and in some ways I was fake, though I was trying really hard. I lived in constant fear of being outed and yet also with a constant desire to come out, to be known, to tell my story. The tension wasn't unbearable, but it was  uncomfortable, to say the leas -- especially since the kind of Christianity I thought maybe I could believe in was still not something that would sit well with this crowd. Either way I was on the outside.

I get to rehearsal and don't immediately recognize the drummer -- he's not a regular -- until our worship leader points out that we played together once this past summer at a youth event. We shake hands and make small talk. I wonder why there's no sound coming out of my bass and we check a few things until I realize it's not plugged into the amp. This sparks a round of "absent-minded professor" jokes at my expense, most of them instigated by me. My self-designated role at practice is comic relief, anyway: I play an interminable series of 8th notes on the E string of my bass. "What am I playing?" I ask, grinning mischievously. Nobody has a guess, but they know I'm up to something. "Every U2 song," I say. This gets a laugh. I then stumble upon something that sounds a lot like the bass line to "Crossroads" by Stevie Ray Vaughn so I spend the rest of the warm-up trying to get it right until the worship leader signals it's time to start.

It seems strange that after ten years of tension (and the process began long before that) that now that I've given up on any overt theological project, I'm more relaxed. The pastor knows where I'm at with things. I'm a baptized unbeliever, some kind of sympathetic apostate; do with that what you will. I don't try to talk people out of their faith. I'm no proselyte for atheism. I nod and smile at the right times. Should my preacher friend decide that this is untenable, I'll stop playing. Maybe I'll decide I'm not interested anymore and stop playing on my own. I don't know. I've had my fifteen minutes of worship leaderish fame and I'm good. There's always the crossword puzzle.

We finish practice and I grab a cup of coffee and mingle a bit. I'm not much of a mingler, really, but I know these people. They're my people, even though I confess that kind of embarrasses me. The whole thing has a kind of Lake Woebegone-esque quality to it; we're here in church because this is what we do and where we're from and the fact that I don't really believe in God is immaterial next to the history I have of singing with these people and eating with them and watching their kids grow up (as they've watched mine grow up). As evangelicals, we don't have the rich history of the liturgy behind us, or the communion of the saints, or little bits of Jesus, but there is nevertheless a sense of community, a sense of being a people.

The spunky old widow in the prayer room doesn't want my theological history as much as she just wants a hug and a laugh and a wink, as if getting a hug from me is some kind of guilty pleasure. The worship leader doesn't want to rehearse my epistemological misgivings about evangelical theology as much as he needs me to play bass and kvetch about Chris Tomlin (he doesn't really how much he needs me to do the latter, but he does). The high school kid playing keyboard just needs a crash course on how to voice an added second, which is something I can answer. It's not that they wouldn't care I'm an atheist -- they might well be scandalized -- so much as it seems like bringing it up would just make things more complicated than they need to be.

We take to the stage and play our set and people sing along, not exactly lustily, but at least earnestly. There are two services. I sit through the first one, and during the second I hang out with the other musicians in a back room, sort of like a green room. We talk in hushed tones and stop nervously whenever there's a lull in the sermon, wondering if the preacher is headed into the final prayer -- our cue to go back up. (If you get the urge to get up and move whenever someone prays publicly, you might be a church musician.)

It seems odd to me that, in the wake of finally owning up to being an atheist, or something very much like one, I would find myself digging in to church a little more rather than less. This is not quite what I had expected, though I must confess I've stopped expecting much at all because it doesn't seem to do me much good. But I think I know what's going on; I've externalized that tension I've borne for so long. In a way, it's somebody else's problem. The fact that I'm an atheist and a church musician is no longer a conundrum to be resolved or a question to be answered. It just is, and I'm coming to terms with it.

The preacher starts into the prayer and we take our spots. As he's praying I look out at the congregation to see who else is looking up, or looking around. I like doing this for some reason; I'll catch someone's eye, and maybe smile a bit. Some people just pray with their eyes open, but others look strangely guilty, like they think they should have their eyes closed, but for some reason they don't, and there's a story in that reason. I don't know the story, and it's unlikely that it's the same as mine, but still -- I like to think that my smile lets them know that they're not alone.