Recently, Tara Isabella Burton published a great column in the New York Times opinion section on the “weird” present and future of American Christianity. She contrasts the slow decrease in religious affiliation among Americans with the increased traditionalism in the thought and actions of those Americans who remain Christian. Ms. Burton’s point ultimately consists in her recognition that many Americans find ourselves increasingly disenchanted with the social and cultural order that we inhabit—whether that discontent is rooted in something more practical, like economics and capitalism, or something more theoretical, like individualism. As a result, some Americans are turning to traditional forms of Christianity as a means of re-enchantment. She puts it succinctly when she says “…the rise of Weird Christianity reflects America’s unfulfilled desire for, well, something real.”
Broadly speaking, this analysis is highly insightful and descriptively accurate. However, I think this cultural trend of “weird” or “punk” Christianity is reflective of a deeper and more disquieting conceptual wasteland that we find ourselves in today.
Ross Douthat, a regular columnist at the New York Times, recently published a book called The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. Whether or not you agree with me that “Boss Ross” has a perennial problem of staking out any substantive positions in his books and writing, one must admit that he gets a lot descriptively right in this book. According to his analysis, we are in the late stages of the American Empire, and our society and culture is pervaded by a general feeling of “decadence.” Even if that decadence is not per se bad, it means that we are generally at a loss when it comes to societal motivation and inspiration about where and how to progress and identifying what really is worth striving for. For the most part, we have gotten everything we have wanted—and now we are faced with either an intense, paralyzing laziness of the imagination, or, more concerning, a death of the imagination. In light of Douthat’s assessment of our society generally, Burton’s analysis of a particular subculture can be better situated and understood.
Catholic critics of modernity have been commenting on the problem of the “cultural wasteland” for decades now. Approximately sixty years ago, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz recounted a story of the collapse of human civilization, and chronicled the tale of a monastic order’s quest to preserve the fragmented knowledge of the time before nuclear Armageddon. And twenty years later, Alasdair MacIntyre advanced the disquieting suggestion in his book After Virtue that moral knowledge, language, and reasoning had become fragmented and lost—and that this had occurred seemingly without anyone noticing. I suggest that our current postmodern moment is, in many respects, best understood as this sort of conceptual wasteland. We have come to the end of the imaginative horizon of modern inquiry and find ourselves in a desert with no horizon, ceaseless intellectual wandering with no purpose or direction. Douthat gives us the broad societal analysis in his book, and Burton presents a more particular aesthetic analysis in her column—even if she’s perhaps unaware that she’s doing it.
It is no coincidence that the children of the punk-rock ‘90s have grown up to favor “weird” and “punk” religious expressionism. The weird and the punk are natural expressions of this wasteland aesthetic. To that end, two movies immediately jumped to my mind while reading Burton’s column, “Blade Runner 2049” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Coincidentally, both movies are wildly popular in the Weird Catholic Twitter community that Burton repeatedly refers to in her column.
Surely, after all, the history of art is directly related to the breadth and depth of human imagination and creativity. Art is fundamentally the primordial expression of what it means to be human, to be particularly placed and contextualized members of distinct societies. Thus, it makes sense that we would find ourselves in a conceptual wasteland—sometimes, as in the case of “Mad Max,” quite literally!—when we consider the state of art across disciplines in modern society. The most obvious example is found in the cinema—as countless others have noted, the lack of new and original ideas for movies is astounding. Billions of dollars are spent each year mostly rehashing old ideas. And the “wasteland problem” is not limited to a lack of originality: the predominant tone of art, and especially movies these days, is gritty and the dark. What we see is a breed of cinema conceptually emptied of anything new and unsure of how to progress or move forward as an art, and thereby committed to a demeanor of the weird and the punk.
And this is where I think Burton’s analysis needs the orientating force of Douthat’s broader societal analysis. Postmodern American life has exhausted and lost the imaginative resources to progress on both the left and right. We now find ourselves in a conceptual wasteland, of which weird and punk aesthetics are natural expressions that even serve as imperfect sources of identity and fulfilment.
Yet it is precisely here, at the point of adopting the “wasteland aesthetic” as representative of some sort of substantive vision of life, that we must be extraordinarily cautious—and Christians especially so—lest we find ourselves rediscovering a Dadaism for a new age. Simply put, the “wasteland aesthetic” does not provide a substantive vision for how we are to progress and escape the desert, but it instead functions as a coping mechanism in the face of hopelessness and the lack of knowing where to go. For conservatives, this looks like what Burton identifies: an attempt to return to the past, to go back from where you came from. Yet while we must learn from the past, we cannot turn back the clock. Indeed, there are good reasons not to recreate the past, insofar as the past also represents significant failures and shortcomings of human beings and societies. On the other hand, for progressives, the wasteland aesthetic tends to take the form of desert madness: mirages spring up, tempting one deeper and further into the wasteland, and in the hope of escape these mirages are pursued with fanatical doggedness until they are exposed as smoke and mirrors. All of us, no matter our politics, are lost in the wasteland without a horizon, and we are desperately in need of a new horizon to orient us and for us to pursue.
Rather than hopelessness, though, I suggest that we adopt a spirit of radical hope. In this respect Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope, is particularly helpful. In it, he outlines the history of Plenty Coups, the last great Chief of the Crow Nation. Specifically, he tells the story of how Plenty Coups was able to respond and chart a path forward through the cultural devastation and conceptual wasteland the Crow Nation experienced. The only way to progress in such a scenario is to progress through the unfolding experience of devastation, with a commitment to what one knows to be the good, the true, and the beautiful—even without an idea of how those principles will be instantiated on the “other side” of apocalypse—as well as a spirit and demeanor of courage and fidelity.
The rise of “Weird Christianity” can be a wonderful thing. However, it is important for we “weird Christians” to remember not to rest content in our “weirdness” but rather employ it as an imaginative resource to draw on concepts outside our existing frames of reference. Our task is to maintain a courageous commitment to radical hope, and in so doing to imaginatively help show the way forward and through our postmodern moment.
Justin Bullock is Catholic and based in Jacksonville, Florida. His favorite Saints include St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and St. Catherine of Siena.