26 December 2011

Language and Fact

I snidely defined post-modernism thusly on my blog once before:

A philosophy in which the self is the source, interpreter and purveyor of all and in which nothing can be weighed against anything else, for nothing is accorded weight.

But to be a little more fair and to put a broader stroke on it, I should explain that the main aspects of post-modernism have to do with social constructs and language; post-modernism, as a theory, emphasizes the notion that most things which we deem to be fact are, instead, mere walls that we construct around ourselves, which we then proceed to perpetuate. (Hence the obsession with deconstruction). Post-modernism is far more concerned with the idea of everything being merely ideational, rather than any concrete desire to explore why “society” advocates certain behaviors and derides others, and whether indeed there is more to it than construct.

Example? Well here’s a rough attempt. (ahem).

Gender as a construct: A Post-modernist Tale

Once upon a time was born a human being with certain anatomical parts denoting what is linguistically referred to as female. Language is a human invention therefore its applications are malleable. Due to having received these particular anatomical features via the vagaries of genetic science, this person grew up in an environment in which it was anticipated that they would dress and behave in ways societally acceptable for said features. One day, shortly after the time in which biological agents act upon the body in a sexually maturing manner, this human being decided to adhere to behaviors, mannerisms, and sexual activities associated with that which is linguistically referred to as male. Henceforth this person chose to use the pronoun “he” instead of “she”, thereby adjusting the language with which they preferred to be described. Despite having to undergo many advanced scientific procedures to modify the once-healthy body, and to take hormones modifying the inherent biological agents and the inability to perform any of the functions of that which is referred to as the “male”, the protagonist of this story followed feelings and preferences, and this is very natural. But “natural” is not a value judgment. No. That is not permitted. Value judgments are against the mandate of post-modernism.

Oh. And the person lived indistinctly ever after, manipulating language to suit the flux of thought, feeling and perceived morality.

Okay. Yes. I have a tendency to poke fun and/or attack post-modernism. This for the two following reasons:

1.       My own tendency towards moral ambiguity keeps me well and full aware of where post-modernism actually and logically leads. I know what sort of person I would be without objective truth and this keeps me on my toes about philosophies that would enable all the very worst in my blood to go giddily, viciously wild.

2.       Post-modernism irritates the ever-loving daylights out of me. It is self-eating. It cannot walk for it has swallowed its own legs. It is so fascinated with itself that it—while claiming to see through all the constructs—sees nothing but its own self. It is the quintessential self-centered, self-justifying creature and a well-spring of untrustworthy tautologies.

I found this cartoon (linked to the only source I could find) and I think it handles post-modernism pretty well:

Per usual, C.S. Lewis pointed this out some sixty years ago when what is now called ‘post-modernism’ had not yet lost its baby-teeth:

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is of no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

And what does this all come to?

My sister Ronit, among other things. She is a linguist. I am also a linguist (sort of) but I’m what I call a street linguist and she’s a proper one who understands things like…grammar, syntax and structure. It is her job to understand that which is applicable across languages, not just within context.

At first blush my own approach to language would well suit a post-modernist palate. I always say that context is king. And it is. We all know that one word can have a dozen or even many dozens of meanings and only the context can inform us of which one is actually intended. The meaning of the word is influenced by the topic, by inflection, by the speaker and who knows how many other factors that we scarce know to take into account. That is why text-speak is so inane; it lacks a huge number of context-qualifiers. That is also why letter-writing is an art; it’s the ability to infuse the words with the appropriate nuance and sentiment, honing the meaning down to a fine point while not having access to all the traditional tools (voice, expression, gesture).

But while context may be king, post-modernism would have it be a tyrant. One ought not to let context run amok. Context is the medium of communication, not the communiqué itself! Moreover, the truer a thing is, the higher it rises above context.

I am no grammarian, so my sister can speak on the rules and regulations of language to a degree that I can barely understand. This knowledge of the inherent structures that make up languages, both broadly and specifically, is what enables her to do with language things that I—in my context-soaked methods—cannot do; she analyzes them and understands them in and out of contexts; she can approach the language whole, or dissect it into parts.

Language is not as wispy and elusive as some would have us think. It is not as inextricable from its locale as it often seems. If handled with wisdom and care, meaning can survive translation with a healthy heart-beat and live well.

If we make the mistake of chalking everything up to context, we might be astonished (though we really shouldn’t be) at the many horrors that it justifies for itself, and at the many semantic and linguistic games we’ll find ourselves caught up in so as to never have to adhere to something higher or greater than the old adage that ‘perception is reality’. Because, if that’s the case, then all is in the eye of the beholder, and if the eyes are bad, how dark the light within (Matthew 6:23).

18 December 2011

Patterns of Portrayal

The people of ancient Judea struggled with legalism in Jesus’ time, just as we struggle with it now...in our own, newer, flashier ways. They knew, and we know, that God’s laws are good, growing firmly out of his will and wisdom. But they lose their potency when we cut them off, take them into our own hands and make them into what is easiest for us. Sometimes we twist his words so badly to make them do as we wish, that we end up abandoning the mess we’ve made of them, tossing this and that word entirely out of our vernacular. We bounce back between legalism and relativism and never seem to hit the center-mark.

When Jesus admonished the Pharisees for giving a tenth of their mint and cumin, while neglecting their elders, he chastised them, not for obeying the law down to their very kitchen spices, but for doing so having cut the heart of God out of the law. They made the law their very own, and in so doing, ruined its purpose...like a child plucking out a flower who then wonders why it starts to wither from that moment on.

Some time ago, I inadvertently come across three television shows, each which had an overtly “Christian” character wherein celibacy is the primary indicator that they are Christian. Oh that and, of course, a small cross on thier neck. At first blush, I was foolish enough to think that this was a positive trend. I’m afraid I was mistaken.

The trouble with this TV “Christian” is that it is simply a caricature that settles amongst the classic list of high-school style stereotypes: the jock, the rebel, the punk, the slut, the goth, the geek, etcetera. As with most caricatures, the depiction is exaggerated, lacks nuance…and by and large, it’s grotesque.

The first example I encountered was on the posthumously popular “Arrested Development”. It is a clever off-center comedy about a severely dysfunctional family which I can recommend for wit, but not for content. The Christian featured in this story is the young girlfriend of a teenage character. She is presented as a drab girl who goes about protesting morally questionable people and events, and is generally disliked (no, despised) by other characters on the show. How much they all hate her is, in fact, a running gag.

At some point during the series, she claims (at age fifteen) that she wants to get married so that she can have sex. She asks her boyfriend to whisk her away to the secular world. Her Christian mother makes a very similar statement of wanting to learn ‘secular ways’, as though she has been living in a nunnery.

The theory seems to be that these poor indoctrinated girls are sexually repressed and secretly wish to escape thier cloistered Christian world. The girl’s “protests on behalf of morality” are also depicted as a hobby, or an opportunity to exercise intense emotions otherwise forbidden to her, rather than as derived of any sort of conviction. She is not a main character...she's mostly there for laughs in this ensemble show:

The second example seems more moderate at first glance but, ultimately, is just as damaging. Strangely, this example does not seem as though it is intended to be negative. Yet it still manages to leave a bad taste in the mouth about what the world believes Christians to be and represent. It comes from the show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” about a pregnant teen in high school. (I could not stomach more than a couple episodes of the show, but I looked up the events. Not my kinda show).

Theoretically the show’s objective is a good one; to teach teens the truths and consequences of sex. At least I’m guessing that’s what it is. It even seems to offer not having sex as a viable option. One character and her boyfriend are painted as strong Christians who speak loudly about abstinence. Yet the girl’s boyfriend grows increasingly desirous of sex and ultimately accepts a solicitation for oral sex from a girl he barely knows. He apologizes to his girlfriend for seeing someone else, but lies about the sexual nature of his behavior.

This does not scratch the surface of the unchecked hypocrisy enacted by the supposedly Christian characters in this show. The boyfriend pays someone to do his schoolwork for him. He lies and cheats and is a generally unsavory sort of boy. But of course he is a square-jawed, popular jock.

The girlfriend—initially quite genuine—is a blonde, peppy cheerleader who is very vocal about her Christianity. Later in the series, however, she gives in and has sex with her boyfriend, afterwards feeling shamed and recommitting herself to abstinence. This is a severely mixed message.

On the one hand, we all fall and we can all be redeemed. If that were the crux of the message, not only could I stomach it, but I could support it. But so far, the all-consuming factor for these Christians is sex: i.e. whether or not they’re having it. Purity is important, but what about all the other interacting facets of a God-centered life? Kindness? Justice? Honesty? What about the basic tenants of the faith? What about our Author and Creator? What about any other factors of what it means to be a person of faith?

I should point out that this show in particular was well-versed in ‘Christianese.’ The girl wore a purity ring, invited friends to church functions and her prayers made her sound like someone who had been to a youth-group meeting or two.

The third example is the most troubling by far. It comes in the form of the show “Glee,” about classic misfits finding a place and some joy in show choir. Interestingly enough, it’s about defying stereotypes, as it goes on supporting them every which way. It’s fun, musical and peppered with enjoyable quirks.

In this show, there is also a lovely, blonde cheerleader who wears a shiny silver cross. She is aggressively vocal about her virginity and that of others (dare I say “the Lady doth protest too much”...?) She is also rude, malicious and enjoys blatantly drawing her boyfriend to what she then makes clear he cannot have (and I mean very blatantly. The show was at pains to point this out, lest they be accused of 'blaming a girl for the guy's behavior'). The line “we’re about teasing not pleasing” is uttered in the second episode. This character is obsessed with appearances, reputation and is, of course, territorial with ‘her man’. She is meant to be despised and indeed she is despicable.

When this character was leading a school celibacy club (where the girls talk about the wonder of wearing sexy cheerleading skirts with which to tease their male counterparts), I rather sided with the secular teen who, watching the entire absurd display, proceeded to point out how skewed their motives and behaviors were. (Note: the show has veered far from this premise…this was only the launching point to serve the desired aim of pitting the Christian cheerleader character against the main female character)

It seems the secular world has reached the following simple conclusion; these Christian kids are really emphatic about abstinence, but they have no follow-through. Something must exist en force in order to be parodied, and this concept is being parodied left and right. A majority of the creative minds in television seem to have gleaned little more than: Christians are hypocrites and snobs, who either hold thier physical purity out like a vicious lure, or hold it close like a religious security blanket.

I can’t help but wonder if this perspective has its roots in the fact that today’s youth find it easier to claim obedience to a physical command, than submit to a spiritual lifestyle. I hope not, but if so, it is legalism and nothing more and its legs will eventually buckle out from underneath. Abstinence does not a godly person make. It’s supposed to be a strong indicator—an outflow, or by-product—of your life purpose, not the purpose of life itself.

Popular media has been producing its version of Christians for quite some time now, and some of their critiques are unfair. But some are fair. But stereotypes can almost always be distilled down from thier respective hyperbole into some grain of truth--or at the very least a point of origin--which must be examined.

It seems that, with the preponderance of purity conferences and bubble-gum style celebrities with “true love waits” rings, the concept is making its way into the very public sphere as a Christian criterion. The emphasis is perfectly understandable, since abstinence can be a hard ‘sell’ in a culture where the only stipulations for sex are that it be ‘safe and consensual.’ And, y’know, it helps if you kind of like the person too.

But if the virtue of waiting-till-marriage stands on its own to the world, without comprehension of meaning and without roots in a believer’s love for God, then that virtue will fall at earliest convenience. It should be noted that of all three referenced “Christian” characters, two had premarital sex, and one tried her hardest to do so.

The idea of abstinence is definitely on the secular radar screen, but the reason behind it clearly isn’t. Until the deeper motivation becomes clear from the inside out, then the whole thing will continue to be seen as some baseless, archaic idea, when viewed by a world that categorizes abortion under the term “reproductive rights” and says that following the blind-eyed demands of momentary desire is to be known as “sexual freedom.”

However, if our choices flow, not from moral checklists, but from seeking and abiding in the source, our Messiah, then the world will scratch its head in wonder when we refuse to fit into the confines of what we are imagined to be. Then the world will have a reason to search for the answer to such an anomaly, instead of simply labeling it with a cross and slapping on a purity ring…which they, not unreasonably, expect to fall off at any moment.

 POST SCRIPT (because I wrote this article a while ago):

Lo I did find a Christian character on TV that is neither coddled (as on Christian-made TV) nor demonized! Shirley on Community. (Awesome show, by the by). They deal in both stereotypes and complex facts. The show both criticizes her and adores her. She’s not perfect, but she strives to do right. She loves her non-Christian friends, but is often saddened by their choices and behaviors and can sometimes be harsh or judgmental towards them. It’s a rare show where a Christian is treated more as a person than as a concept. There are seventy-five thousand other reasons to like the show—it’s an ensemble cast—but her character is definitely one of them!

A little montage of Shirley clips which may or may not be appreciated if you haven’t seen the show: