Monday, December 03, 2007

advent journal: nothing but the text

Today is Joseph Conrad’s birthday; he’d be one hundred and fifty, if he had lived. While the significance of the date has dwindled for most, I make note because Heart of Darkness is one of my favorite books. If I were to name three books I wish were not relegated to being considered “high school reading,” such that hardly anyone reads them after surviving high school, they would be

  • Heart of Darkness
  • The Scarlet Letter and
  • Frankenstein
Oh – and 1984. And Of Mice and Men. OK, I want you to go back and reread all of your high school literature. But that’s not my point. Besides being amazing stories, my top three were also the books in which I first began to deal with literary theory. I have editions of each one that came with critical essays in feminist theory, reader-response, and a deconstructionist approach, among others. It was then I first encountered Derrida’s statement: there is “nothing outside the text.”

I had no idea what he meant. I kept reading. I made my honors Brit Lit class (I was a high school teacher a decade ago) try to digest the essays; most of them threw up, metaphorically speaking. But we kept struggling together. I learned a great deal. I quit making them read the essays and tried to find a way to bring what I was learning from the theories into my teaching practice. What I learned that Derrida was saying (or at least saying to me) was the only way we have to communicate with others and make sense of our world is through the text: through language.

Conrad didn’t write in his native language and yet his command of English makes his prose some of the most intricate and demanding of any writer. He set up the story to show how stories get passed along. The novel begins with a narrator talking about being on a boat with Marlow, who is telling of his adventures in Africa. When Marlow begins talking, the book becomes an extended quote, if you will, framed by the narrator in the same way most of our lives are experienced as we try to come to terms with one another’s stories. We don’t live much that’s firsthand. Tonight, I want to provide the frame for extended quotes that moved me today. First from Marlow in Heart of Darkness as he distinguished the European colonial effort from the Roman conquest of Europe when it was “one of the dark places”:
What saves us is efficiency -- the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force -- nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind -- as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea -- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . .
It was the phrase “an unselfish belief in the idea” that tied to my second quote, from Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?:
Within the matrix of a modern Christianity, the base “ingredient” is the individual; the church, then, is simply a collection of individuals. Conceiving of Christian faith as a private affair between the individual and God . . . modern evangelicalism finds it hard to articulate just how or why the church has any role to play other than providing a place to fellowship with other individuals who have a private relationship with God. With this model in place, what matters is Christianity as a system of truth or ideas, not the church as a living community embodying its head . . . As such, Christianity becomes intellectualized rather than incarnate, commodified rather than the site of genuine community . . . The body is the New Testament’s organic model of community that counters the modernist emphasis on the individual . . . The church is the site where God renews and transforms us – a place where the practices of being the body of Christ form us into the image of the Son . . . Nothing is more countercultural than a community serving the Suffering Servant in a world devoted to consumption and violence. But the church will have the countercultural, prophetic witness only when it jettisons its own modernity; in that respect postmodernism can be another catalyst for the church to be the church. (29-30)
The catch phrase, or the phrase that caught me here, was, “the church, then, is simply a collection of individuals,” which took me back to Miles Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps and an interview he did with a Mr. Atlas, who interpreted the word collection a bit differently:
“When I started with maps,” he added, “it was a miscellaneous assortment that had only a personal connection. I’d buy a map of a place because I’d taken a trip there or because I had relatives who lived there, something of that sort. And then after a few years I realized that really wasn’t the right way to go about it. That’s not a collection: it’s an assembly of items. And the way I draw the distinction is that selecting a piece for a collection has nothing to do with the individual merits of the item. It’s whether there’s a potential of relating it to other items. That’s what builds a collection: a sum is of greater interest than each of the individual members.” (246)
The collision of conquest, civilization, community, collection, and counter-culture (how nice of them all to alliterate) sends me to church, or at least to thinking about what it means to be the church. The last sentence of the last quote pulls me hard: a sum of greater interest than each one of the individual members. It also brings to mind a couple of stories, both old and new.

We didn’t bring much with us to Durham outside of what we packed in the Pod, which arrives tomorrow, but we did bring our Christmas decorations. Between the two of us, we have collected about seven different nativity scenes from as many different countries. I came back to the house last night to find Ginger had combined them all into one giant descent of humanity on the manger. Interspersed between the figures were the stocking holders that spell out P-E-A-C-E even as they hold the large empty socks begging for candy.

A number of years ago, when I was a seminary student, I was talking with a pastor of a small Baptist church in Houston who was working hard to grow an inclusive community and as such had spent a great deal of money making the church handicap accesible. He told me of an encounter with one of the mega church pastors, who was a friend of his, gave him some friendly advice related to efficiency and conquest, I suppose: “When handicap people start coming to your church, your church starts dying.”

Everyday since we arrived in Durham, someone has shown up at our house with food – good food. At church yesterday, I loved seeing the diversity of people that made us church, that made us far more interesting together than we were on our own.

I piled up a lot of words tonight. I think I’ll be quiet now and listen.

Peace,
Milton

2 comments:

barbara said...

wonderful, brilliant essay. (Have you read After Theory by Terry Eagleton?)

The comment by the mega pastor is chilling.

Real Live Preacher said...

REALLY looking forward to hearing about your first Sunday there.

g