End of Year Reflections: The Gaudy Fullness of Liturgy, Or Christian Time Travel

In this post, this tiger will attempt to push the conversation started before MGMT week. What does discernment point to? What is the best way for a person, even a feline person, to fracture what Calvin calls “discernment” and emerge from the rubble to engage in what I have tentatively named “stalking?” This will take the form of a reflection on my one and, it turned out, only year as a cultural discerner. This post will be taking up the art form known as liturgy and, in a brief sketch, attempt to convey the source of my discomfort with its use in our cultural discerner meetings.

For those who need a refresher on what “discernment” means, a former cultural discerner and close friend of mine defined it thus:

“Discernment is a posture of paying attention and listening carefully to what we consume. It’s an attempt to train ourselves to become more meditative and mindful about how our culture experiences shape us. Therefore discernment involves an active response rather than passive consumption. One response, for many, is criticism. Criticism helps us evaluate and ground the work in its cultural context. But responses could vary from reflection to creation of new work. So discernment is a spiritual practice (akin to meditation) that helps us become better, more mindful consumers of culture.”

As nutshells go, that is an attractive and relatively helpful one, and it comes from someone much more sympathetic to the work of discernment than I. Therefore, I believe it will work to my advantage to play on this definition for the following few posts. I will take this nutshell and do my best to work within it so that, by the time I am done, I will not recognize what I am doing as discernment. I will break the shell and attempt to re-encapsulate my thought in terms of “culture stalking,” which, I admit, is an impoverished term, not empty of meaning since its two words have their own denotative and connotative values, but as a pair they represent no tradition with which I am familiar. Let us begin by writing on the last sentence of my friend’s description:

“Discernment is a spiritual practice (akin to meditation) that helps us become better, more mindful consumers of culture.”

Spiritual practice is a Christian term, and it generally refers to concrete activities in which people of the church participate in order to strengthen or deepen their faith. If we are willing (and for now, we are) to define discernment under this taxonomy, we can put it alongside prayer, meditation, Scripture reading, and other more classic and well-known examples of Christian “spiritual practices.” The problem facing the project of cultural discernment in an age dominated by popular and mass/niche culture is that the church tradition in which the college is rooted used to be the antithesis of culture-friendly. Cinema was frowned upon in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) only two generations ago, and for most of its history the denomination has done its best to cultivate a practice of denying entry to profane or secular culture. Lingering elements of this resistance continue to persist in the CRC and in Calvin College itself, as demonstrated by the absurd furore over the New Pornographers show a few years ago (their name was what was controversial) and the more minor but equally ridiculous controversy over Fun. earlier in this school year.

I believe that it is because it must respond to such critiques, fundamentally pietistic and separatist and conservative ones, that  liturgical practices became routine at cultural discerner meetings. Remember, because what cultural discerners are doing is basically criticism with a sacred sheen draped over it, there is a fascinating antagonism between appearance and reality.

Every week during cultural discerner meetings, we (I was present in the form of a costume worn by my editor) would read from Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. It normally consisted of a communal reading of an evening prayer, the content of which can be seen here. An explanation I was accustomed to receiving when asking about this practice would be that it helped form a community among us and help orient the group toward a more Christ-centred attitude in the meeting. I also think that it has a lot to do with image and posturing, helping us “sacralize” the meeting in order to defend against implicit accusations that we were dabbling in the devil’s work. See? Look at us! We’re praying. Indeed, liturgical readings as I understand them are mainly aesthetic experience, intended to provoke the imagination. As Calvin professor James K.A. Smith writes,

The Gaudy Fullness of Liturgy: Or, Christian Time Travel

“Liturgies are formative because they are both kinaesthetic and poetic, both embodied and storied. Liturgies are covert incubators of the imagination because they play the strings of our aesthetic hearts. Liturgies traffic in the dynamics of metaphor and narrative and drama as performed pictures of the good life, staged performances of some vision of the kingdom that capture our imagination and thus orient our love and longing. By an aesthetic alchemy, these liturgies implant in us a vision for a world and way of life that attracts us so that, on some unconscious level, Liz Lemon-like, we say to ourselves: ‘I want to go to there.’ And we act accordingly.”

One of the virtues of discernment we are supposed to recognize is that it is primarily this-worldly, that it is an active “kinaesthetic and poetic” work, intended to break the hold of a kind of culturally-enforced passivity. It is, in theory, an anti-consumeristic discipline insofar as it criticizes a posture of unguarded consumption. The way I see it, discernment at its best is essentially criticism: entering into a received text and using it to productive means, and to do that one usually has to take work apart and try to understand one’s reaction to it. What are the elements in a work that provoke certain responses? Are those responses earned or forced? Is the work telling the truth (which most people practicing discernment at Calvin would capitalize as “Truth” or maybe even “TRUTH”) or is it perpetuating an unhelpful illusion?

(Aside: I would say unhelpful illusion since even truth, as it can be articulated in language, is in some sense illusory, in that it is not what it seems and is always broken open to re-reading if we are paying close enough attention. The best illusions are ones the good ones, the ones that push us closer to reality, that snap us out of our more confining and dominating delusions.)

Here is one section of the evening prayer we usually invoked:

O gracious Light,
pure brightness of the ever living Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the evening light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
your glory fills the whole world.

There is an essential problem with even lovely texts like this one. The problem is what I have described in the title as a gaudy fullness. Every word of it is a hyperbolic exaltation of the Light, the Triune Godhead. Let us understand what is happening as we recite words like these: we are engaged in a communal reading of an advertisement. Call it propaganda, if you prefer. What is set forth with such words is a comforting illusion. Despite the earlier use of Jeremiah’s request to be “rebuked” by God, we are gathered, through reading, in an expectation of victory and triumph. Our side cannot lose if it is arrayed in alliance with the one whose “glory fills the whole world.” It is, in effect, a denial of the current time. Instead of operating within history, we, in our liturgical time machine, have jumped through Metanarrative Space into a pristine union with the Holy Church, Bride of Christ, victorious forces of God Almighty. It is a place with a sickly kind of excess. We are, even as we begin our work to try to be more intensely in the world, drawing ourselves out of it and into a realm not of critical reflection on our faith, our culture, but rather affirming its pillars, imagining ourselves bathed in a golden radiance of which we are unworthy. The descriptions, if they were directed at a product other than God, would seem hilariously out of place. In a way, we are attempting to enter into these words and reanimate their deadness rather than acting from our own place in the tradition and allowing ourselves to be receptive to new possibilities. These words give us idols to cling to in our journey through the tumult of the meeting to come.

We have, in effect, been drawn into an unhelpful illusion, of the very sort we are meant to criticize and even curse in our work as discerners. At the start of our meeting, we have already assumed too much, closed in our circles, and fortified ourselves. Our confessions, words of praise, and songs are like penance paid in advance. We are wandering in the world, Lord, so, before we go off, let’s have a sprinkling of Spirit. What we need is an active response, not passive consumption. What needs to happen, if we are to guild our meetings with liturgical gowns, is to take these liturgies, indeed our entire assumed foundations, and work within them to open them up. Unfortunately, openness is precisely the opposite of the Reformed way, the way that cleaves desperately to foundations and, in many ways, including this latter-day rediscovery of high church liturgies and formalized prayer, vigorously defends its monopoly on correct view.

My own tigerly inclinations run with Anabaptists and Quakers, who eschew all outward identifiers: no crosses, no liturgies, no formal structures save for the dialogue of community itself. Rather than dictate, as these formal prayers do, the order and content of our encounter together, we should have a radical openness that, if it must be “spiritual,” at least embraces a plural voice, a new statement, one rooted in the old but more open to breaking out and invoking a new possibility. I refuse to be a mere mouthpiece, a marionette, for some other community’s prayers. If I must have old words, and there are many times when I must, I have to be able to reshape and recontextualize them, to engage their plasticity and inner tension. Narratives as presented in Common Prayer Liturgies are reassuring and affirmative of our own holiness as well as the rightness of our cause. This is not the attitude we learned in attempting to understand discernment.

Challenges of Discernment 2: Snoop Lion


Snoop is no longer a Dogg. He’s come over from the dark side and reached out to the light. Now, he is a lion. I can deal with that. Lions might be unconscionably social creatures, but you can’t deny either their sexual prowess or their felinity.

When artists take radical changes in direction, they are always or almost always doing so in direct response to their career and what came previously. My editor and I have had a few conversations about this influential, controversial, and often stoned music figure. We agreed that it was going to be an engaging challenge integrating the new, reggae-derived music that Snoop is delivering on Reincarnated with our previous experiences with his music. Where we diverge, however, is in our history of thinking about him and his place in culture. My editor has only recently appreciated gangsta rappers as legitimate objects of cultural interpretation–something having to do, no doubt, with his Northern European and Christian school upbringing–while I have been listening to Snoop’s dope rhymes since I became sapient. It’s a little-known fact that tigers are rather enamoured of hip-hop music. Hard to say why, but there you go.

Snoop Dogg is a talented rapper who is bounteously gifted and, shall we say, lyrically disquieting. I find his voice compelling and his flow practically flawless most of the time. His history is rather checkered and the quality of his releases is not as consistent as some, but there’s no denying his impact and visibility in the hip-hop world. His significance to that genre is the main source of all the publicity around his much-hyped transformation from badass urban rapper to peace-loving rasta mon.

He still has lyrics in one of the new singles about killing people. So much for making child-appropriate music.

On that subject, I find it helpful when criticizing songs in general and hip-hop in particular to pay attention to why songs are written, what audience they’re directed to, what their subjects and themes are, and at what time they were composed. These might seem like elemental, if not elementary, aspects of all music criticism. Yet, it’s important to remember that these rules apply across genres. We should neither hesitate to point out the misogyny and violent content in such lyrics nor condemn their presence before considering them critically. In some cases, there might be a compelling reason for insensitive or provocative lyrics to be there beyond empty gestures of offence.

I want to leave this one fairly open. I’ll just say that I can overlook problems with representation and even direct statements of murderous intent if the quality of the music is there. I might write a more in-depth review of a Snoop song later, outside this series. For now, take a look at this song and see what you think:

Now, as for the transformation itself. It might be tempting to view the Snoop Dogg/Snoop Lion transformation as a simple redemption narrative. That is indeed one perfectly valid interpretation, and it’s the one that Snoop has chosen to package and market his Reincarnation album and accompanying documentary. It’s too early to see for sure, but judging by the lyrics from “Here Comes the King” I think a case could be made that there is more continuity than not between the two personae. See what you think.

First, note that Snoop was born to sing reggae. That voice is so well-suited to Major Lazer’s distinctive production that it’s hard to believe the two haven’t worked together before. Second, notice the aforementioned persistence of militaristic themes and violent imagery. And, of course, the central, highly monarchical core of the song, proclaiming Snoop the “king.” Well, if I were a reggae insider, working my way up in the ranks to barely scrape together a viable media presence, I would question this American interloper’s self-proclaimed ascension. Nonetheless, the beats and lyrics don’t disappoint, and though I have one skeptical eye out, I’m looking forward to giving Reincarnation a spin later this year.

Challenges of Discernment: Django Unchained

Snow falls infrequently in the land of Hungry Ghosts. Every day I wake up from fitful bouts of dreaming to see slate curtains of grey clouds roll by without a single ounce of rain or snow falling. It’s more likely that a dust storm will brew out on the horizon, though our little town has been spared a rather nasty bath so far. Ever wary, I have chosen to stay inside, welcoming in only the occasional visitors from the outside, including Charlie. It seems that some of Charlie’s family members have started offering pirated movies to the dead, the first offerings he’s received from what he estimates to be thirty-four generations of offspring. One film we were able to see legitimately, however, was Django Unchained, the first Quentin Tarantino film to get a release so wide that hell itself got a sprinkling of screenings at local theatres. Most of the ghosts in our town are relative newcomers and unable to move very quickly, so Charlie and I found ourselves sitting more or less alone smack in the middle of the theatre. There might have been a couple making out in the back, but the less I know of that, the better.

Coming out of the theatre around two hours and forty-five minutes later, Charlie looked at me and asked me: “So, what benefits did you get out of watching the film?” Normally, when someone asks that question, it has to do with a film that they find morally questionable and they’re asking to make sure that you learned enough to pay penance for indulging in such sinful activity.

I don’t think Charlie meant it this way, since the ghosts of hell are by nature hesitant to be too judgmental of others, but it brought to mind the early years of my culture-stalking the years when I still approached violent or sexually explicit films with trepidation. I remember getting that question from well-intentioned relatives and other close acquaintances who were the type to walk out of a film if they heard snapping tendons or saw a stray nipple on screen–and it’s strange to equate those two, if I do say so.

Nonetheless, the question found a nick in my armor, and I’ve been struggling over it for many years now. Not actively struggling, since the answer for me has never been in much doubt. What claws, what gnaws at me in the back of my mind is how to explain and interpret my responses into language that will be intelligible and sensitive to those who ask. First, I’ll give my answer in general terms and then in relationship to Django Unchained, the film that prompted the question in the first place.

General Answer:

To me, the question “what benefit did you get from watching (experiencing) this piece of art,” can, and in this post will, mean that the inquirer is concerned that you are polluting your poor sensory organs with unclean subject matter or something that ought not to be seen. To me, the question sounds like a transaction–OK, you got to have your fun but what edification or moral reinforcement did you get in exchange? Any response to the question I would give has to begin with a refutation of that viewpoint. Going to a film is not normally an educational exercise first and foremost. It is something done for enjoyment.

I see a film, Django included, for the enjoyment of seeing an artist working playfully and intelligently with the materials of his or her medium, not necessarily to receive good moral teaching. Did I learn positive morals from watching Dogtooth or listening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? At this stage in the conversation, I would answer “No.” On the first listen or watch, and maybe on subsequent ones, the morality of a work of art is not what draws me but its mastery of material and its ability to provoke and evoke.

Of course, there are lessons in Dogtooth about the abuse of parental power, the absurdities inherent in traditional family structures, and the fragility of social norms. The same general principle applies to the Kanye album. I would wager that every work of art, no matter how destitute of intelligence or morally repugnant, can teach something to its audience. Again, however, I would emphasize that that is not the main reason I am looking at a piece of art. The power of a piece of art is generally how it skillfully wrestles with questions and limitations, how its various emphases and themes are brought out through manipulation of the relationship between the audience and a given object. Morality is not generally something that floats on the surface of a work of art, to be easily clutched and comprehended without serious thought. And when it is, I’d often rather be in another theatre, another gallery.

Django Unchained:

What did I say to Charlie on the vacant sidewalks? What benefits did I get from watching Django Unchained? I started out by giving an abbreviated version of the answer above. I then briefly reviewed my early thoughts about the film. Here they are.

Quentin Tarantino is, as Richard Brody wrote, a puzzle:

Tarantino is possessed by two emotions—love and revenge—and the over-all subject of the movie is essentially a counterfactual historical warning: that the South got off easily with the Civil War when, in a proper balance of justice, it would have faced the avenging violence of freed slaves whose exaction would have far exceeded military conquest and brought about total destruction and left few alive. His vision of slavery’s monstrosity is historically accurate; his anger, aptly placed—yet the world that he imagines and admires, one without reconciliation, is essentially and crudely adolescent, a version of history as blood feuds in which anger begets anger and revenge breeds revenge as he watches from the superior position of the cinematic referee, at a safe historical distance.

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2012/12/quentin-tarantinos-django-unchained-reviewed.html#ixzz2GrgHlFSi

Brody captures the conjoined virtues and vices of Tarantino. Those who win in his films always deserve to win. They are the wronged, the aggrieved, and, in his two most recent films, the systematically exploited and degraded. When watching the film, I took pleasure in the deaths of those who deserved it and quailed at the injustices committed against those I was meant to admire. Cinematically, mechanically, the film is expertly scripted and executed, scored and filmed. Moment by moment I was enraptured in the rhythms of Tarantino’s scenes. Slow, verbose build-ups culminate in purgative explosions of violence.

The actors let the script’s dialogue do most of the work, delivering their lines with relish and characteristic panache. I was especially impressed by Jamie Foxx, whose work has not always brightened a film as it does here. His character is the axis around which the film revolves. For him, as Brody later writes, this is personal. Vengeance is his, and no one else’s. Tarantino manages to work in some conversations about “characters” and “roles” as Django assumes various false personae to infiltrate Southern plantations. Foxx embodies this character well, playing a quieter, more serious companion to Christoph Waltz, whose German dentist-turned righteous bounty hunter King Schultz has more than enough eloquence to talk them out of a multitude of scrapes. Other cast members also work well within their roles. Leonardo DiCaprio has no trouble projecting cavalier and sophisticated menace as Calvin Candie, owner of the fourth-largest plantation in Mississippi, though I thought his performance was relatively weak compared to Samuel L. Jackson’s turn as his aging head slave. It’s striking to see Jackson in a role that is so apparently static but actually a dynamic and smart counterpoint to Django. Loyal and cunning, he plays a key role in the second half of the film and ends up being the most memorable supporting character/performance of the lot.

While I struggle with the implications of Tarantino’s take-no-prisoners view of historic justice and find many of the more violent moments exploitative, I have to ask myself why he is bringing these to the table in the first place. Brody connects this obsession with purgative revenge to Tarantino’s obsession with B-movies and other popular culture ephemera. I think I can empathize with his films more than I can agree with his worldview as presented here. Escapist fantasies are always simplifications, usually problematic ones. I think Tarantino’s treatment of slavery here in the context of an often witty and dramatically taut film deals with the right problems. Slavery was a horrific, barbaric evil inflicted by those in power on millions of people for far too long (and it hasn’t disappeared either). When I search myself, I find the same desire for dramatic devastation, the annihilation of all the violence and exploitation in hellfire. For almost three hours of Django Unchained I was a paying cheerleader for retributive just desserts, dealt at the point of a gun (and by dynamite, lest I forget). Nevertheless, I find the craft so compelling, and the fantasy complicated enough–yes, cartoonish and hedonistic but no, not sanitized–to enjoy Django relatively guilt-free.

By the way. Could someone please keep Tarantino from appearing as an actor in his own films. His appearance here has a hilarious kinetic punchline I won’t spoil, but his lumbering awkwardness is enough to stop his own fluid filmmaking dead in its tracks. Someone work on that.