Thursday, July 14, 2005

the wave that has us all

Marshall Berman in his book All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (Penguine 1982) describes modernity as a dynamo, building, destroying and then re-building with unchecked insatiability.

The innate dynamism of the modern economy, and of the culture that grows from this economy, annihilates everything that it creates--physical environments, social institutions, metaphysics ideas, artistic visions, moral values--in order to create more, to go on endlessly creating the world anew. This drive draws all modern men and women into its orbit, and forces us all to grapple with the question of what is essential, what is meaningful, what is real in the maelstrom in which we move and live.

Berman goes on to describe his own experience of modernity growing up the Bronx in the late-40’s. Overnight, from out of nowhere, the idyllic Jewish & Irish neighborhoods of his youth were torn apart by “an immense expressway, unprecedented in scale, expense and difficulty of construction.” Worse, he continues, this was done on the back of the very values of the dispossessed. To oppose the destruction of their homes was to oppose “progress.” To oppose “bridges, tunnels, expressways, housing developments, power dams, stadia, cultural centers . . . few people, especially in New York [are] prepared to do that.” New Yorkers identify themselves and their city with progress, and so the world beloved by Berman’s family and tens of thousands of their neighbors was destroyed “in the name of values that we ourselves embraced.”

This, friends, is the wave that has us all. This is the overwhelming cultural current in which we all live. From the latest rise of Islamic terrorism from eastern Mosques to the malaise and alienation we feel in our Western churches: this is the riptide that joins us both. And it is disorienting. One may experience it as “alienation” one moment and as “freedom” the next.

It's effect is omnipresent. I hear it in the guitar stylings of Jimi Hendrix--the way he sweeps effortlessly along the frets, touching his figertips down lightly here or there just long enough to tap on or half bend a note which races off again--and in the anthropology of psychologist and one-time-cofounder of the Frankfurt School, Erich Fromm.

In Fromm's last book, To Have or to Be (Abacus 1976), he argues that two ways of existence are competing for "the spirit of mankind": having and being. The having mode looks to things and material possessions and is based on aggression and greed. The being mode is rooted in love and is concerned with shared experience and productive activity. The book ends by asking about the new man and the new society.

So then, have we come any further than the 1960’s? Is John’s apocalpytic city of the world, Babylon, really so apocalyptic, or is it the air we breathe, the way we dress and the political discourse of our nations? Fundamentalism is not an option; the church can’t hide from this. Some meaningful response has to be spoken into the gale, some way of properly saying “Kingdom” into the podcasts & videophones of the world. Some way of making words meaningful again, when we ourselves hardly find them so.

This entire series can also be read as a single document.

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