Dulling a Critical Edge

Picture 1I caught a story this morning on the radio, concerning so-called contemporary Christian music. It was on Josh Garrels (above), whose music “wrestles with and celebrates the mystery of faith with authenticity and heart” (at least according to his web site).

What caught my ear was the following quote:

“There are movements within postmodern Christianity that are saying these lines between sacred and secular are false constructs,” says Christian Piatt, a blogger and author in Portland who writes about faith and pop culture. “They don’t really exist. And, therefore, we don’t have to choose whether or not we’re going to listen to U2 or Amy Grant, or Josh Garrels or The Avett Brothers. I can have them all on the same rotation in my music and not consider myself an apostate or a heretic or anything like that.”

This is a great example of how critical edges get dulled over time (like such a notion as “postmodern Christianity”), for here we have a popular adoption of the fairly radical notion of identity being a construct of contingent boundaries — but an adoption that actually undermines the critical force of this position.

For because the lines between sacred and secular are false, are fictional, are constructed — or so we’re told — sacred things can mix and mingle with secular things (such as on radio playlists). We don’t have to choose any more. Conveniently, however, this approach fails to take seriously that the identity “sacred” and the very ability to call something else “secular” is — according to those who take this postmodern, social constructivist turn a little more seriously — a product of those apparently fictitious boundaries; without the borders that we create and which, in turn, allow us to manage relationships among things in the world, we have no sacred, no secular, and thus no religion too (as John Lennon famously put it).

What’s so very conservative about the above claim is that it presupposes that identity — the product of concepts and classification systems — mysteriously pre-exists, and is simply managed by, those concepts and classification systems, and that those identities can thus somehow break free of what are now portrayed as mere worldly restrictions. It is a wonderful approach, of course, because it seems to free us from all choice and thus all consequences.

But that’s just a fantasy for those in dominant groups who wish to naturalize and export their particular division of the world (what, in earlier critical discourse, might have just called proselytizing or imperialism), so that their local becomes everyone’s universal, binding others while making them unbounded and free to roam wherever they please.

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