Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Prog-Rock Theology

When I was a child, I had a much easier time relating to people of my parents' generation than my own. Other kids were cruel and demanding, and half the time I had no idea what they were talking about.

Did you ever read that book About A Boy? With the nerdy twelve-year-old who listened to his mother's records and was isolated from his peers and their pop culture? When I read that book, also at age twelve, I identified with the protagonist to a painful degree. This was a text that understood how important pop-culture touchstones are: how, if your touchstones are completely different from those of the people around you, you might have a very hard time making friends.

The book ends with the nerdy kid declaring his hatred for his erstwhile favorite musicians and going off with his friends to, like, listen to Nirvana or something (it was written in the mid-nineties). I myself have never reached the point of disavowing the dad rock I grew up on – I adore the Who and Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel and Rush, and I have no intention of ever apologizing for that ever – but I have discovered the value of generational touchstones.

I embarked on this process maybe seven or eight years ago, when I relinquished the shackles of parental indoctrination and started to take television seriously. Since then, I've been an unabashed pop-culture junkie, and (coincidentally or not) I've also found it a lot easier to make friends my own age.

Just because you're compensating for who you used to be, however, doesn't mean you lose continuity with that person; and sometimes you experience moments so thoroughly of your past that you have to pause and take stock of how you got from there to here.

I had one of those moments the other day, during a classmate's presentation on the religious element in Jethro Tull's Aqualung.

This classmate, being of my parents' age, spoke of the personal resonance of a record that came out at the very moment when she, as a young teenager, was beginning to seriously question the faith of her religious upbringing. At a time in her life when she was querying the assumptions she'd always taken for granted, and finding the institutional church frustrating and inadequate for her needs, Aqualung was a locus of meaning and a source of spiritual significance.

This makes perfect sense to me. I too began to question my religious upbringing at age eleven or twelve, and I too found enormous meaning, far beyond anything I could have hoped to articulate, in the music I loved at that age – specifically, in English prog-rock concept albums of the 60s and 70s:

I don't know if I consciously made the connection at the time, but all of these records tackle explicitly religious or existential themes. They're fundamentally about the Big Questions, and, for a young teenager obsessed with Big Questions of identity and purpose and the nature of life, they provided a site of engagement with these questions in a way that the formal religion in my life at the time did not.

After I had spoken up in class to this effect, three other people of my own generation spoke in turn, and they all said that their experience had been the exact opposite. Church had been, for them, a haven of meaning and spiritual nourishment in the face of the relentlessly superficial pop music of their childhoods.

I realize that this sample is skewed. I'm studying at a seminary, so naturally there will be a higher than average proliferation of people who do ultimately have use for the institutional church. But it's still interesting to me that the prog-rock concept albums of my dad's record collection could provide a space for doing theology in a way that the bubblegum radio pop of the nineties and early aughts apparently could not.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hello, Culture Shock, My Old Friend

I've undergone transcontinental relocation enough times to know better, but I honestly thought this time would be different.

This time, I was in my twenties – old enough to cope; not like when I was a child, trying to grow up at the same time as adjusting to new places.

This time, I was moving to from the UK to the US – a paltry cultural difference. Was I not a connoisseur of American TV/movies/internets? Had I not lived from the ages of one to seven in Alabama? Surely I was entirely prepared for all aspects of life in the States.

This time, the decision was wholly mine – not dictated by my parents (whose choices, admittedly, I don't recall ever objecting to, and sometimes actively encouraged). I'd never wanted anything more than I wanted to move 5000 miles west and take my rightful place as a grad student in ~California~.

And, of course, it really did seem that way at first. I instantly felt as though I fit in. School was everything I hoped it would be. New friends were abundant and wonderful. The weather was gorgeous. For about three months, it was like being ever so slightly drunk all the damn time.

For the past three months, though, it's been more like being ever so slightly hungover all the damn time. This is literally textbook culture shock, and it's really stupid that I wasn't prepared for it. I just... thought it would be different.

I thought it would be easy, because I was comparing it to the last transcontinental upheaval. That was when we moved from Kenya to Scotland, which is a hell of a cultural transition. That was when I was thirteen, which is a hell of an age. In comparison, this move should have been a cakewalk.

I thought it would be easy, because I imagined that I would be used to this by now. I am a third culture kid. Wanderlust runs in my veins. I crave new places. Not for me the desire to be settled. Not for me the need to feel from somewhere. Not for me the constant belittling comparisons of the new place with the vastly superior place where I last lived. Me, I positively revel in the fact that everywhere on Earth I am a stranger in a strange land. You can't feel homesick if nowhere is home.

I thought it would be easy. I was wrong.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Open The Book

“And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Except they did say something to someone – we're reading it. By existing, the last sentence of Mark contradicts itself.

Mark's Gospel ends on the Greek particle gar. That's not grammatically sound. You don't end a sentence on gar. The sentence is not over.

They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid; then, evidently, because this text exists and you are reading it, they mastered their fear and said something to someone. Something: this text, Mark's Gospel, the empty tomb. Someone: you, the recipient of this text. You have to deduce the rest of the sentence – “then they mastered their fear and said something to someone” – for yourself. The ending of Mark's Gospel makes you finish the sentence. It makes you carry on the story.

If there's one message to be gleaned from all of Jewish and Christian scripture and tradition, it is this:

Keep interpreting.

Genesis opens with two non-identical creation accounts. The New Testament begins with four non-identical gospels. Throughout the Bible, as in rabbinic midrash and churches' teachings, there are doublings and recapitulations, glosses and rewrites, the same story told over again but differently. You can't reconcile the differences between alternate versions of the same story. You aren't supposed to.

The ambiguities, the discrepancies, the omissions: they're there so that you can interpret, and keep interpreting. What you must never do is stop. If you declare one particular interpretation to be singularly authoritative and let it rest there, you leave the text lifeless in the tomb. A text lives as long as you interpret it – as long as you read it and retell it and explore it and criticize it and learn from it. If you are afraid to let the text live – afraid to open yourself to the possibility that the text might change you – you will have nothing to say to anyone, and you may as well have left the book unopened.

Keep reading. Keep telling the stories. The stories will change, and the readers will change. This is good. This is the point. Keep interpreting.

Master your fear. Say something to someone.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Back To Green Gables

These days I don't reread; there are too many books and not enough time. When I was a child, though, it seemed to be the other way around, and my favorite books got revisited as often as my favorite albums and my favorite movies. Books that are in tatters on my shelf are engraved in my memory, as deeply and comprehensively as the events of my own life: His Dark Materials and the first three Harry Potters and The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler and Anastasia Krupnik and Matilda and The Phantom Tollbooth...

What makes rereading interesting is that you change. The words on the page might stay the same, but each rereading is a different textual encounter – you've changed, and so the text you read has changed too. This was abundantly clear to me in my devoted twice-yearly rereading of His Dark Materials throughout my teens (oh, what did you expect, “geek” is right there in the blog name), when each read-through was granted new depth by something that had happened to me in the preceding six months: some allusion brought to my awareness by my other reading, or some emotional resonance heightened by a personal experience. Every single rereading gave me a better understanding of both the book and myself, and I marveled at the apparent infinitude of meaning I could mine from the text.

In the same way, I marvel at the freshness of my most recent encounter with a beloved childhood book. I just finished rereading Anne of Green Gables, on a whim, for approximately the eight billionth time, and it was a remarkably new experience. I read this book literally dozens of times as a child, but I have never read it like this before.

The first thing I noticed is how completely female-dominated the story is. From the opening paragraph, focalized through the formidable Rachel Lynde, to the whole farcical setup of cohabiting siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert accidentally adopting Anne instead of the boy they wanted, it's made quite clear that this a story of women.

There are maybe three male characters of any significance in the entire book, and they're all striking for what they are not. There's the schoolmaster, whom Anne hates and whose role is completely overshadowed by his replacement, Anne's passionately beloved teacher Miss Stacy. There's Matthew, whose quietness and passivity contrast strikingly with the active and opinionated women around him – Rachel Lynde, Marilla, Anne, Josephine Barry... Actually, it's possible to read Matthew as an explicit example of queer masculinity. Check out his response to Anne's asking him whether he ever went “courting”:

Well now, no, I dunno’s I ever did,’ said Matthew, who had certainly never thought of such a thing in his whole existence.

Queer as a fish. Welcome to the club, Matthew.

And then there is Gilbert Blythe. Ah, Gilbert Blythe. Can I just state for the record how hard I ship this particular OTP? I love that Gilbert doesn't get easily forgiven for being an asshole just by apologizing, but has to be ignored by Anne for a long time: he's the one at fault, so the reconciliation isn't on his terms. I love that Anne doesn't become friends with him after he saves her from the river, but (her own love of sappy romance stories notwithstanding) defies the “damsel in distress falls into her rescuer's arms” narrative. I love that she is at least his intellectual equal, if not his superior, and the first five years of their acquaintance are characterized by fierce academic competition.

What I'd forgotten, though, is the fact that the reconciliation takes place on the third-to-last page of book. The charming courtship and marriage I remember so fondly occurs entirely in later books. Throughout this book, Gilbert's presence is an absence. Anne refuses even to let his name pass her lips. She is far more concerned with her female friends, the “kindred spirits” – a phrase I'm still prone to using, much to the bafflement of people who never read this book growing up.

As a child, I naturally identified strongly with Anne. Although I certainly had none of her charm or popularity, I saw aspects of myself reflected in her prodigious imagination, her desire to be good but inability to control her temper or impulses, her constant getting into scrapes. Plus, you were supposed to identify with her. She was the protagonist, wasn't she? Her name was right there in the title.

Now, however, I'm struck by how much I relate to Marilla, the older single woman who takes it on herself to raise Anne right. (Matthew is told not to interfere, on the ridiculous premise that “Perhaps an old maid doesn’t know much about bringing up a child, but I guess she knows more than an old bachelor.”) Marilla is opinionated and judgmental; she doesn't know what to do with her emotions, and expresses affection by being kind of an asshole. All of this I can personally identify with, but I don't think it's just me. I think this is intended to be Marilla's story just as much as Anne's: the story of the transformation of her life brought about by Anne's presence in it.

After all, many of the mistakes Anne makes can ultimately be traced back to Marilla's own errors (the liniment cake, getting Diana drunk, the incident of the amethyst brooch), and by the book's end Marilla has grown and changed at least as much as Anne has. She has learned how to be – not a parent, that is made very clear, but – a person guiding and taking responsibility for another person, and growing in self-knowledge as she does so. Toward the beginning of the book, Marilla scolds Anne for her unconventional prayers and her deeply personal (“positively irreverent”) exegesis of a picture of 'Christ Blessing Little Children'. Toward the end, on Anne's departure for further education, she “wept for her girl in a passion of sobs that appalled her when she grew calm enough to reflect how very wicked it must be to take on so about a sinful fellow creature.” Her professed theology hasn't changed, but her lived theology – how she relates to other people – couldn't be more different. She is the same person, and yet she is changed beyond recognition: much like the adult reader returning to a beloved childhood book.