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?