Thursday, December 20, 2007


Being educated means being able to sling around labels and categories so that they mean roughly the same things that all the educated people more or less agree that they mean. Of course, all categories slip and slide and have fuzzy edges. But when there is a major change in these categories, a person can be at a disadvantage. Thus, when I went off to seminary in 1978 with a 1961 education, I was boggled by post-modern criticism. Ever since, I’ve been struggling along trying to understand.

Here’s exhibit A, which is from “Sightings,” the formal e-essay or blog posted twice a week by the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. This piece is entitled “Trangressive Irony at Radio City” and is written by Travis Scholl, a recent graduate of Yale University Divinity School and Managing Editor of Theological Publications at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Yale is supposed to be one of the ten universities where they understand post-modern culture criticism, as follows:.

“At this time of year American culture is laden with customs, themselves laden with multivariant meanings. The Christmas Spectacular that takes place every year at Radio City Music Hall, for example, comes with its own set of traditions. The stunning simultaneity of the Rockettes' high leg kicks, the complex choreography of the Wooden Soldier, the condensed retelling of the Nutcracker story—most of the elements of Radio City's Christmas Spectacular, now in its seventy-fifth year, are told year after year, only with different choreography and new sets.

“Near the end of each year's Spectacular, another tradition takes place: the "Living Nativity," in which, as the program notes tell us, the "beautiful and inspiring story of the first Christmas [is] told reverently in pageantry, music, and scripture." It features multiple set tableaus, live animals, and swelling musical orchestration; but perhaps the most notable component of this particular scene, as I observed it over Thanksgiving weekend, was in the audience response to it. As soon as the curtain pulled back to reveal the full set of the nativity, the stage began to sparkle with the strobing flashes of camera bulbs. It was the one and only point at which the audience was willing to transgress the venue's explicit rule to not take flash photographs.”

That’s the case, now here’s the analysis, complete with some handy definitions:

“It has been about twenty-five years since the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard characterized postmodernity as "incredulity toward metanarratives." His definition relied on the distinction between (big) metanarratives, which tend to dominate whole systems of meaning, and (small) narratives, which provide more organic meanings within existential realities.”

I think this means that major cultural assumptions, so big and taken-for-granted that they are hard to think about, can dominate smaller traditions. Thus, we’re a "Christian people" who incorporate into the Birth of Christ/Renewal/Salvation the smaller stories of glamorous stage celebrations, a Viennese gift feast, and then a particular version of the Nativity, which we treat as though it were also a staged spectacle, which in this case it IS.

“But what Lyotard's distinction does not necessarily take into account is the way that cultural narratives, even religious narratives, can be inverted upon and into each other. In a postmodern context where popular culture is inundated by spectacle, religious narratives, most often presumed to function as metanarrative, can be inverted, taking the form of smaller narratives within other systems of meaning. At Radio City , the Spectacular's own metanarrative could have been summarized by the production's oft-repeated encouragement "to believe in the magic of Christmas," supported by its signature lyric to "let Christmas shine." As such, the narrative of the Christ child—which took up all of about twelve minutes of an almost two hour show—was subsumed within the larger narrative of the Spectacular's more recognizable emcee, Santa Claus.”

It’s all about magic, European traditions, and -- bottom line -- prosperity. NOT humility, the power of the “least of these,” and what the interior of a Middle Eastern cave might be like.

Scholl continues: “In most cases, such inversions become instances of those most famous of postmodern events; they become transgressive instances of irony. The irony of what happened at Radio City worked through a kind of double inversion: The production inverted the nativity narrative within its much larger spectacle, but audience members displayed their own inversions of what they were seeing by transgressing the rules for (non)participation and pulling out their cameras at what was staged as perhaps one of the least "spectacular" moments of the show.”

For those of us who find this a bit too subtle, consider Larry Flynt’s “transgressive irony” on the covers of old Hustler magazines. One showed the Nativity Creche with Santa Claus in the manger. (Chuckles of recognition. Oh, we ARE so greedy! Tee-hee.) The other showed the Easter Bunny crucified. (Cries of outrage at the sacrilege. An innocent little creature tortured!) Does it occur to critics that both the Nativity and the Crucifixion were meant to be “transgressive irony” in the first place: renewal out of poverty, salvation out of torture? The very ugliness of the events are meant to provoke thought and realization.

Which brings me to another category I had reason to look up: “punk.” Los Angeles artist Mark Vallen has said: “Punk had a unique and complex aesthetic. It was steeped in shock value and revered what was considered ugly. The whole look of punk was designed to disturb and disrupt the happy complacency of the wider society.” (Wikipedia) So Larry Flynt is a punk religionist in the eyes of post-modern criticism, eh?

What’s interesting to me is that “post-modern criticism” is often academic, remote, so analytical that it’s almost inconceivable, even cold. But once it translates to “punk” it is hot, hot, and even violent -- thrusting reality (a teenaged Middle Eastern girl giving birth in a cave/stable, unattended, without anesthetic, after riding a burro a long way) into the midst of Radio City Music Hall. I understand “punk.” Unless “modernism” means something about prosperity and Viennese Society. Like, um, Freud? The freedom to lie back and free-associate about Mommy at a cost of hundreds of dollars per hour?

What if someone next Easter showed Jesus being waterboarded? What's the equivalent for Christmas? An Iraqi girl giving birth while we bomb her house?


Art Durkee said...

"Trangressive irony." I love it. You can tell a post-modernist by the jargon they use; it's supposed to be post-colonial multicultural and questioning the hegemony of Modern and pre-Modern hierarchies. Usually, though, it's so recursive that it basically says nothing. it's true that mostly only academics care about it.

Except for poets, of course. The heated argument about "post-avant" poetry go on and on and on. Then again, a poet friend of mine is fond of saying, The reason poets get so heated in their arguments is because there's so very little at stake.

I can track the jargon, because I went to grad school, but I do find it alternately tedious and hilarious, even when I basically might agree with the arguments being presented.

Do you know Duane Michals' work? He's an important photographer who does in sequences, in which he creates often surreal narratives, and writes captions below the photos. He has one about the Second Coming that is truly profound. I think you might enjoy it.

For example:

prairie mary said...

" multicultural and questioning the hegemony of Modern and pre-Modern hierarchies." I'm afraid that what a lot of people at the community college level got out of all this (via people with rather sketchy grad school educations) was that they had permission to rip off anyone who thought they were in charge. It raised hell with education, among other things.

What I saw at the website you offered was basically what ministerial students do when they get to seminary, except with images instead of words. At the best schools, the students learn to turn the stories inside out, upside down, to try to ask "what if?" and "what about?" Any religion that can't withstand this and tries to suppress it will not last -- and probably shouldn't.

Prairie Mary

Art Durkee said...

At the best schools, the students learn to turn the stories inside out, upside down, to try to ask "what if?" and "what about?" Any religion that can't withstand this and tries to suppress it will not last -- and probably shouldn't.

Yeah, exactly.

I wish I could find a site that just displayed the Michals images, without anything else. That was the only one I could find fast. There is no doubt a better display of the series, out there somewhere.

Michals' whole point, made artistically, which I agree with, is that if Christ did return, he'd once again be hanging out with the dregs of humanity, and loving them for who they were. All the baggage that surrounds Christmas, and all the baggage that the various branches of the church have added to the mythology, often forget that fact: Christ did not hang out with the rich and powerful, but the abandoned, the forgotten, the forlorn, the downtrodden, the despised.

The rich and powerful in this "Christian nation" like to think that they're on God' side—but chances are, they wouldn't be, not all, if they could actually meet the returned Christ. I wonder if any of them even realize that.

prairie mary said...

I think their dreams are uneasy. We could send them each a sweatshirt that says on the front: "This time God is sending her Daughter, and She's really pissed-off!"

Prairie Mary

Art Durkee said...

Have you read James Morrow's novels? He calls them "bible stories for adults." They're often profoundly thoughtful stories disguised as post-religious satires.

You comment made me think of his novel "Only Begotten Daughter." Pretty terrific stuff.

prairie mary said...

I resist all the Abramic religions. My taste runs to the Tao, the Plains Indian, the Buddhists, etc. I'm getting old and time is short. Some of these Abramic religious problems are artifacts of their starting "givens" and have been argued for thousands of years without any progress whatsoever.

Prairie Mary

Art Durkee said...

I share your tastes, and attitudes, actually. I once titled a personal ad "Funky Pagan Toaist Neo-Pagan Shaman Artist Musician Seeks Similar." LOL The responses were, um, interesting.

What I like about Morrow's novels is how he turns it all on its head, and shows the absurdities underneath. I think you might find his novels more sympathetic to your viewpoint than you might imagine.

On the other hand, ars longa, vita brevis. Who has time to read everything, anyway?

prairie mary said...

As I approach seventy, my emphasis is moving from reading to writing. I'm pruning my bookshelves now.

Prairie Mary