Moscow, Christian Community, Cynicism, and My Attempt at Refreshing Old Thoughts for a Small Group of People Like That Guy who Refills the Chocolate Pudding at a Salad Bar

I have heard of blogs and rumors of blogs. I have heard that New Saint Andrew’s students even had blog wars and cared to formally respond to things other people said. There was a time when NSA students actually thought that discussions were fun.

Well I don’t know if I am interested in starting that up again. Right now, I find that most students here are interested in talking to each other about each other. That is much more preferable (this is a matter of taste) than engaging in “larger narratives” about “culture” and “secularism.” And how could we forget postmodernism? Everyone’s favorite word. It just has a certain ring to it. Postmodernism. Postmodernism. A very woody word, long word, philosophical. Gives me confidence. Much better than asking about someone’s day, sort of a tinny word. Culture. War. Culture war.

But I am hoping that this new interest in people over ideas is not a response, a back-up, from cynicism, but a natural outworking of us just becoming more like Christ. If that’s the case, a healthy understanding of discussion and cynicism is sure to follow. If not, I am just participating in a cultural swing when I avoid discussionese and cynicism by asking someone about themselves. And pendulums always come back. If there is any hope of stopping pendulums–which we should be in the business of doing–then we need to set about the task of redeeming both extremes in light of the Gospel.

Abstract concept: I don’t think balance is the right of two wrong extremes, though. The Gospel (what? We’re talking about the Gospel now?) gives a different option than just a balance. Pagans thought that balance was the answer, but a balance is just a distant approximation of the Gospel, which is an entirely other system than the swinging pendulum, the cyclical history, Achilles’ shield. And we need to think about these two systems, whether we are studying ancient history, comparing two generations of evangelicals, or evaluating a small town culture that is less than thirty years old.

Cynicism is a sort of spiral, isn’t it? If I am a “cynical person,” then I am always in the position of distancing myself from things. And the more I distance myself from things (which look an awful lot like the ground I stand on), the more I back up and am sucked inwards. One day,  I will be standing in the middle of the lawn, spinning around and laughing at everyone who’s decided to stand still. And everyone and everything becomes blurry. The last line of attack for a cynic is to become cynical about cynics. A hipster of hipsters (NSA students think of ND Wilson here and their “important” opinions about his strategies). And not only is that actually a participation in the cycle (read: cynic=cycle) of blah blah movements that are born, not from new understandings, but rather from new rejections (modernism->postmodernism=no change), it is a failure to be happy and be at peace. Cynicism is only fulfilling its purpose when it is a tool to bring us toward peace (in Christ) and happiness (more deeply than the Greeks thought about it). As for life and liberty, I lost the first at the Cross and stopped caring about the second when the Holy Spirit made me one of his house idols.

Oh man, it’s so easy to be clever. It is too, too easy. A popular sci-fi author, John Scalzi, once gave ten reasons for why teenage writers suck. One of the reasons is that they can be clever without being good. I think that can be applied to this generation of Christians (not just in Moscow, but in the broader affluent American church). We have inherited a culture of wit and clever deviations from the ironclad doctrines of the Bible. And if I can pitch my own voice somewhere in this discussion, I think that youth culture has moved towards the subtle and mysterious and away from sun-dried systematic theology. I feel like I can make this broad claim, because I have seen a shift in books I have read, conversations I have had, and things I have thought myself. I think the movement towards mysticism and ambiguity is a good shift, but I have to be careful that it is not rooted in a secular floppiness and love of being different. Every generation wants to be different (and always in some surprising way becomes the same). If we want to stop the pendulum and move upwards, we should not fail to see this.

This generation’s interest in ambiguity ought to be an outgrowth from solid foundations. So I want to approach ambiguity with a spirit of gratitude. Thank you, R.C. Sproul, for being so practical. Thank you, Douglas Wilson, for being so cautious. Thank you, John Frame, for thinking so clearly. The church needed a generation of clarifiers and updaters. I think it now needs a generation that grows from those roots, to become a beautiful tree with a million little leaves (apologies for the metaphor). An age of doctrine hasn’t passed, it’s just growing into an age of aesthetics. And a key ingredient of a mature aesthetic is ambiguity (thank you, Austin Storm, for putting it in those terms, so I could think about it further).

Ahem. I forgot where I was. Oh yeah, it is so easy to be clever. Yeah. My point about cleverness was that it is the big killer of discussion. It is attached to self-worship and deception. Self-worship: believing that what you say is full and wise and worth hearing at all times. Deception: thinking that what you say actually matters like you think it does. Both of these are related and they can generate a spirit of anxiety. An anxious discussion–one that has the energy of a committee meeting on the wing of an airplane flying into the mouth of the Megatron Anti-Christ with rototiller arms at the End of the Ages, smashing up the Capitol building and carving the Washington monument into an Asherah pole–is fruitless. Because if there is no peace in our speech, we are not living like God fulfills His promises. But if I forget myself and remember that the people I talk to are more important than myself, I am free to have a peaceful discussion. And then we are free to be cynical about the right things. Besides that, discussions always devolve into bitter attacks.

So although I prefer talking about people and their lives, I see that there is some benefit to taking part in discussions. It is part of a personal agenda. I am a recovering cynic and, unfortunately, one of the side effects is that I have become very cynical about myself. This has kept me from speaking blatantly about what I think or to give reasons for my opinions. I have become cynical about my opinion mattering. That is not something I can judge for myself. My opinion will only matter as long as there are people who want to know it.

You might be wondering, “So…what’s all this then?” And the truth is, I don’t know. I felt like starting a series on Christian community, not abstractly, but about the community immediately around me. I am talking about Douglas Wilson, Moscow, Trinity Reformed Church, First Things, Austin Storm, my classmates, my friends, New Saint Andrews, reformed thinking, First Things, and other people and thoughts in my life. There are a lot of blogs that come out of this milieu, but most of them are just boring (besides First Things).

So, here we are.

5 thoughts on “Moscow, Christian Community, Cynicism, and My Attempt at Refreshing Old Thoughts for a Small Group of People Like That Guy who Refills the Chocolate Pudding at a Salad Bar

  1. Caleb, interesting that you should post this. Pardon me while my cynicism takes over here for a moment. (I think you understand). I have been having a week-long reflection on the excess of opinions floating about. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about whatever happens with the bulk of it being uninformed and purely pathetic (in the rhetorical sense of the word). It’s like we’ve suddenly been ushered into a world where everyone feels qualified to speak as if he or she is a noted expert on every thing that happens. Even if they weren’t there. Even if they have not given two seconds thought to the “issue du jour” prior to it becoming the “issue du jour.” They’ve “done research”, you see. It’s marvelous how access to the web creates enlightened ones who can speak, clearly, cogently, rationally, and authoritatively on any subject his little heart desires. Except not. It is exhausting. Everyone has an opinion and airing them simply muddies the water for the most part.

    I love what you said here: “Ahem. I forgot where I was. Oh yeah, it is so easy to be clever. Yeah. My point about cleverness was that it is the big killer of discussion. It is attached to self-worship and deception. Self-worship: believing that what you say is full and wise and worth hearing at all times. Deception: thinking that what you say actually matters like you think it does.”

    Too bad, too. There are issues that are worth discussing; they are too important not to discuss. But the deluge of opinion does meaningful discussion and action harm. Yawwwwwwwwn.

    Face-to-face, arm-in-arm, cup-of-cold-water, my-life-for-yours love in action. Armchair caring via opinionating never changed anyone’s life.

    Can’t wait for you to come home.

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    1. Yeah. If I was feeling very cynical, I would shut down my blog and complain about everyone who has one. But I don’t want to give up the ghost. I want to find a way to be wildly constructive online instead of just leaving it. I’ve found it’s most fruitful, when there is little discrepancy between my online personality my actual person. I’ve found it’s more fruitful to write stories and make new things than just respond to fleeting news. Basically, my goal in life is to be that kid in the field with a net trying to catch a butterfly, only the net is words and the butterfly is the “something more” and fleeting images of the “sublime” (I feel comfortable as a Christian to say that it is glimpses of God).

      Here’s an example of good done through blogging and opinions: I have never been closer with the guys at CC because of blogging. We’re far apart, but if we are airing out what we’re thinking about as little individuals, it becomes oddly and wonderfully intimate even though it’s done through the internet. We can have great conversations, even though we are thousands of miles apart.

      I kind of wanted to start this “series,” because of talks I’ve had with Nico Z, Austin, people I know in person, etc. Instead of JUST talking in person, I want to talk about the same things in writing, so I can think about them more clearly.

      But I agree totally that there are far too many opinions. I am trying to figure out a way to respond positively to that cultural landscape by using opinions, not cutting myself off from them (which is my natural inclination). I wrote a 1,000 word manifesto about how passive aggressive I am tempted to be when it comes to discussions. I didn’t keep it, because it was kind of boring (or would be for other people).

      I want to be home.

      Also, FUN! Amen about yawning. If something isn’t fun what’s the point?

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  2. I would chalk it up to the ‘culture wars’ and the persistent belief that antagonizing anyone on the other side of that conflict means you’re doing something right. I think if we can avoid that we’ll all do alright, even if we have opinions.

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  3. That is why I love reading your blog, Caleb. Narrative is so much more compelling than a simple airing of opinion. Telling a story can raise issues that would otherwise be offensive to those on the other side of any conflict. You are able to take your reader alongside on your butterfly netting adventures. Austin, I think you have hit the nail on the head about the antagonism that seems to have become pervasive in so called “discourse”. It is possible to express opinions without sounding arrogant, just as you and Caleb have done here. Refreshing.

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