You must change your life

Pondering Bonhoeffer’s idea that there is a form of moral stupidity that requires more than persuasion — it requires conversion. You have to become a fundamentally different kind of person who lives a different kind of life.

I’m not a moral exemplar by any means. Ultimately, the only morally significant decision I made, coming from a conservative evangelical background, was to get the hell out of Dodge. However else I have evolved since then, it absolutely required being away from those people. To the extent that I actually manage not to be a prickly white male asshole about the concerns of other groups, it came from the choice to spend a significant chunk of my life at Chicago Theological Seminary, a genuinely diverse and progressive place.

One big problem with standard liberalism is that it is implicitly asking people to change their lives and break with their families and communities, and it offers them absolutely NOTHING, no way to imagine a different life or community — other than just “being right.”

Imagining if I had stayed in the evangelical orbit. Maybe I would have had formally “correct” opinions in some ways, but they would have been couched in the terms of that community and mostly represent my own personal pride and arrogance rather than any real alternative option. And I’m sure that, with the thin gruel on offer there, I would have been more vulnerable to online conspiracy thinking, etc. — again, out of intellectual pride and a desire to define myself over against my surroundings. That’s what happens when you don’t offer genuine education.

Sometimes I regret my decision to go to Podunk Christian College, but maybe marinating in that corrupt environment, learning that it really was “that bad,” was ultimately more productive for me. I don’t think I would have thrived in the elitist, competitive ethos of some schools. The evangelicals would have felt more like “home” — I could picture myself retreating, convincing myself that I was making the better and more counter-cultural choice, etc. It’s hard to think of all the ways my life could have basically been lost.

On doing the thing

During our sojourn in place, I have found myself unable to concentrate on much of anything beyond the immediate task in hand. Reformatting my courses for online delivery — then, inevitably, reformatting them again when the first version didn’t seem to be working — has been time-consuming, trying to keep the various discussions moving has been more draining than normal in-person classes, and keeping in contact with all the students who seem to be falling behind has been more difficult and stressful. This was in a semester when I already had three fresh preps in three radically different subjects, which is fun but also requires a lot of energy to keep up with. I am normally not able to do any considerable outside writing or research late in the semester, but at this point it feels like I am completely intellectually spent. I have actually welcomed the production work on my forthcoming monograph and translation, as relatively mechanical labor that keeps me busy without taking a lot of mental energy. Without the time commitment of commuting, I have been able to keep up more with studying the Qur’an in Arabic than I otherwise would have, but that too is more a matter of just putting in the time and flipping through the dictionary and trusting that I’ll gradually get better — I am not having startling creative insights so far.

Outside of those routines, I have mostly been binging TV, walking the dog, and drinking, on average, 10-15% too much. But I have found time for two intellectual activites: resuming my reading of Thomas Pynchon, whose work I have been revisiting during break periods for the last few years, and translating short pieces by Giorgio Agamben on the coronavirus crisis. Continue reading “On doing the thing”

On having a fake culture

On a certain level, every human culture is fake, in the sense of being made up by human beings. Greater authenticity means little other than greater success in covering one’s tracks. That being said, there are some cultures that are more overtly fake than others. In The Total Art of Stalinism, Groys describes Soviet culture under Stalin as very self-consciously artificial — creating new cultural forms, new approaches from the past, even (improbably enough) new clichés, with no pretense to authenticity or rootedness. Indeed, the artificiality was the whole point. When the Soviet leadership de-Stalinized beginning in the 1950s, then, that meant that the “native” Soviet generation was informed that their entire cultural tradition — the only culture they had ever known — was not merely artificial, but defunct. And a big part of Groys’ motivation in writing the book was to share late-Soviet artists’ attempts to grapple with having been formed from the ground up by a political project that had run aground.

Groys’ argument resonates for me, because I, too, was raised in a fake culture: American evangelicalism. This point was really brought home to me by my reading of Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, where she deconstructs the cultural fabrications of the Reagan reaction. The fate of American evangelicalism is deeply intertwined with that act of cultural construction, to the point where I have been willing to declare that “evangelicalism” as we know it today has no authentic connection to pre-“religious right” movements.

Continue reading “On having a fake culture”