"It's 2010, everything's been done before." That's a line (or close to it) from the sometimes funny but essentially quite melancholy road movie, The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. It stuck out because my mind has been on something I read earlier today that has really got me thinking. Simon Reynold's, whose book, Generation Ecstasy, on rave and club culture, that I have used in my theology and music classes, has a new book out and a portion of it was adapted for an article in the Los Angeles Times today (Sunday). This is how the article began,
"We live in a pop age gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration. Band reformations and reunion tours, tribute albums and box sets, anniversary festivals and live performances of classic albums: Each new year is better than the previous year for music from yesteryear.
Could it be that the greatest danger to the future of our music culture is ... its past?
Maybe that sounds unnecessarily apocalyptic. But the scenario I'm imagining isn't a cataclysm so much as a gradual wind-down. This is the way that pop ends, not with a bang but with a box set whose fourth disc you never get around to playing and an overpriced ticket to the track-by-track restaging of the Pavement album you played to death in your first year in college.
Once upon a time, pop's metabolism buzzed with dynamic energy, creating the surging-into-the-future feel of periods such as the psychedelic '60s, the post-punk '70s, the hip-hop '80s and the rave '90s. The 2000s felt different. The sensation of moving forward grew fainter as the decade unfurled.
If the pulse of now felt weaker with each passing year, that's because in the 2000s, the pop present became ever more crowded out by the past, whether in the form of archived memories of yesteryear or retro-rock leeching off ancient styles. Rather than being about itself, the 2000s were about every other previous decade happening again all at once."
It's a great article about the state of pop music, but as I read, all I could think about was that if the word 'church' was substituted for music, the story would essentially be the same. I really think that Christianity/church/theology/ecclesiology etc is drowning in the past. I have been thinking this for a while and the more time I explore this thread the more it feels confirmed. A month or so ago I attended an evening gathering featuring three key leaders in the 'emerging' church movement(whatever that means, movements might be closer but given that nothing much is moving...but I'll get to that in a minute).
The goal of the evening was a sort of open discussion about emerging spiritualities in the American church. Now, I know a couple of the panelists quite well and respect them and appreciate their contributions, but I was quite taken aback by the evening as it unfolded. As they talked about what they saw happening in the church and with the emerging church particularly, a single theme was identified--history. In different ways all three of them said that emerging church spirituality was defined by a recovery/discovery of ritual/tradition/liturgy--absolutely nothing about the future at all, not a single word locating any of the identifying markers in the present, let alone the future--it was very disappointing and disillusioning to me as I listened, because I am not sure that a recovery or discovery of history is enough to generate new energy.
Now, I have no axe to grind with ritual or tradition, I spend most of my working life in a liturgical environment--but if that is the sum total of what is going on its no wonder that there is such an overwhelming sense of things having stalled. This is why I resonated with Reynold's thoughts about music.
At the dawn of the 21st century it really seemed to me as though there were some new things on the church horizon (I'll use the word church--but it is an umbrella for lots of associated things--including theology and ecclesiology). There were new things everywhere--whether it be things like the Radical Orthodoxy group or alt worship pioneers, emerging church people and thinkers of all stripes--talk about postmodern philosophy and the implications for church and culture--you name it, there seemed to be a new and interesting conversation to be had everywhere one turned. There seemed to be a new vitality, a sense that it was time to move into a new iteration of faith--that what had brought us to the present moment was not sufficient to take us further. And I think I would say that most of that energy has dissipated, and things have settled into a sort of malaise.
I swim in a lot of streams so my experiences are not limited to one group, plus I try to keep my ear to the ground and my eye on the horizon--it's not that there aren't bits and pieces here and there, but taken as a whole--evangelicals got tradition, main-liners got a bit of a kick up the arse and some legitimization--but the game? I don't think it has changed and personally I think it needs to. (You can save your defenses of what your particular group is up to-I'm sure it is really great, I mean that--but I'm telling you without even knowing you-it isn't enough--and I would put serious money on the fact that your theological constructs may be tweaked--but at the end of the day are not that different from where they were a decade ago--what's wrong with that you say? Everything I say:) )
"The word "retro" refers to a self-conscious fetish for period stylization (in music, clothes, design) expressed creatively through pastiche and citation. But retro has come to be used in a more vague way to describe anything that relates to the relatively recent past of popular culture. This includes phenomena such as the vastly increased presence in our lives of old pop culture: from the availability of back-catalog records to YouTube's gigantic collective archive and the massive changes in music consumption engendered by playback devices such as the iPod (often used as a personal "oldies" radio station).
Earlier eras had their own obsessions with antiquity, from the Renaissance's veneration of Roman and Greek classicism to the Gothic movement's invocations of medievalism. But there has never been a society in history so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past.
This kind of retromania has become a dominant cultural force to the point where it feels as if we've reached a tipping point. Is nostalgia stopping our culture's ability to surge forward or are we nostalgic precisely because the culture has stopped moving forward? I'm not alone in feeling perplexed by these developments. Sometimes it's the musicians themselves who voice concern. In 2007, Sufjan Stevens declared: "Rock and roll is a museum piece. . . . There are great rock bands today — I love the White Stripes, I love the Raconteurs. But they're just reenacting an old sentiment. They're channeling the ghosts of that era — the Who, punk rock, the Sex Pistols, whatever. It's been done."
This malaise is not restricted to pop music, of course. Look at the Hollywood mania for remaking blockbuster movies from decades earlier: "Alfie," "Casino Royale," "The Pink Panther," "Arthur" ... When it's not revamping proven box-office successes of the past, the movie industry is adapting "iconic" TV series for the big screen, such as "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Charlie's Angels."
Theater has a long tradition of reviving canonic plays and much-loved musicals, but here too you can see the remake and the spinoff catching on with productions such as "Spamalot" (based on "Monty Python and the Holy Grail") and "jukebox musicals" written around golden oldies by legendary bands or from vintage genres. There are even "jukebox TV'" shows such as "Pop Idol" / "American Idol," with their Beatles nights and Stones nights, and "Glee."
There are also retro toys, retrogaming, retro food, retro interior design, retro architecture and retro porn." And I will add retro-church to that list.
Now, I don't wish to appear curmudgeonly and seem like someone just having a moan, its a concerned observation---I worry about this, as do some of my friends (not enough of them to be honest)--and a few of my students--the thinking ones anyway--are expressing this all the time, and, like Reynold's I am complicit,
"At a certain point, the sheer mass of past accumulating behind the music began to exert a gravitational pull. You could see this syndrome starting to emerge as far back as the '80s, but it's really escalated in the last decade. Young musicians who've come of age these last 10 years have grown up in a climate where the musical past is accessible to an unprecedented degree. The result is music that involves a meticulously organized constellation of reference points and allusions that span the decades and the oceans.
It's not that nothing happened in the music of the 2000s. In many ways, there was a manic bustle of micro-trends and subgenres. But by far the most momentous transformations related to our modes of consumption and distribution. We've become victims of our ever-increasing capacity to store, organize, instantly access and share vast amounts of cultural data.
Yet this is not a straightforward denunciation of retro as a manifestation of cultural regression. How could it be, when I'm complicit myself? As much as I've written as a journalist and author about "brave new frontier" musics such as rave and post-punk, I'm also an avid participant in the retro culture: as a historian, a reviewer of reissues, a talking head in rock docs. As a fan, I'm as addicted to retrospection as anybody: Trawling the second-hand record shops, poring over rock books, glued to YouTube. I pine for the future that's gone AWOL on us, but I also feel the lure of the past."
It's not regression, it just a stall, a stagnancy. And its part of a larger cultural malaise. What's the remedy? Simple, but challenging. The future isn't the same as the past--what sufficed in the past will not suffice today and certainly not tomorrow, history isn't enough. Now Reynold's finishes up his article by saying that perhaps the future of pop lies outside the Anglo-American tradition. It is here that Reynold's thesis gets a little sketchier in terms of how it plays out in church/theology circles. It is certainly true that the church appears to be thriving in other parts of the world but for the most part it's got its own issues with retro-christianity, and I think that the issues and challenges it faces are somewhat different to ours.
We have to do some thinking and exploring of our own, for ourselves, not for everybody--i.e. we have to get over the idea of a 'global christianity' and perhaps consider christianities. Joel Baker, who was one of the first people to popularize the concept of paradigm shifts to the corporate world has said that, "If you want to be one of the first into a new territory, you cannot wait for large amounts of evidence." I think when it comes to church, part of the challenge with stagnancy is around the arena of orthodoxy--it's very easy to get bogged down in arguments over orthodox faith and what constitutes it, what faithfulness to the historic faith means---but we 'read' so much of our cultural baggage into our religion and then sanctify what is essentially a cultural perception and before too long, well you know how that goes. We want the weight of history on our side, but sometimes that weight of history is loaded down with a whole bunch of stuff that is really unhelpful--slaves/women/gender-to name a few.
We are going to have to make a break for it--start moving into something different. I was talking about Cy Twombly today--how he moved to Europe at the moment that the center of the art world moved West--the triumph of the New School and all that--Twombly walked away from the centre of the action to find and develop is own voice--something in that idea says that this is a way to break out of stagnancy, ennui. Or perhaps it's just me. No, it's not, things are stagnant and we all know it--so let's do something about it or not bother. And I'll start: the future of faith lies on earth not heaven, in the material world--and you don't need religion or spirituality.
I think we have to get our head out of the clouds--literally. As long as metaphysics continue to overshadow our conversations and thinking about church/faith/theology etc. I think the stagnancy will remain.