Thursday, January 9, 2014

Bonfire of the Vagueries

by Ben Howard

My grandpa and I had a deal when I was in college. He would give me books to read and have me write a book report. In return, he would give me $100. Needless to say, this was a pretty sweet deal, not to mention an innovative way for a grandparent to help out financially during what can otherwise be some lean years. But there was a slight catch: All of the books were by motivational speakers. They were books with titles like The Principles of Success and Wake Up and Dream. They were full of assurances that everyone was capable of being happy, healthy, and wealthy; full of anecdotes about people “just like you” who changed their lives.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that I, a man whose favorite word is “ambivalence,” would find these books to be just a bit grating. However, it wasn’t the cliches that would frustrate me, though they were ever-present. The most frustrating part of these motivational books, of these tales of success and wealth and happiness, was just how generic they were. There would be long stories about “a man” who ran “a large multinational corporation,” or the author would offer tips from “a successful businesswoman;” so many stories, so many quips, and it was always impossible to tell whether they were true or apocryphal. In a world of abstract nouns everything is cloudy and vague.

And this cloud of vague, generic language is a real problem. It allows us to live in a world of blanket statements, a world absent of nuance or idiosyncrasy. Generic things don’t actually exist and abstract nouns aren’t real.

Image via Arun Kulshreshtha
This generic language crutch has also driven me away from reading most Christian writing. While much of this writing is beautiful, florid prose, I find myself frustrated by the abstract nature of the conversation. There is something empty in exhorting the universalized “you” to an unspecified peace, love, and justice; something absent from references to the broadness of humanity and the world and the church. I do not doubt the intentions of these authors or the authenticity of their beliefs, but I cannot help but think that this vague, ethereal, sterile language drives us away from encountering a world that is specific, tactile, and oftentimes messy.

Christianity needs embodied theology; we need proper nouns and color. We need history and culture and art. We need the divine revelations of Julian of Norwich, the embattled poetry of T.S. Eliot, and the dark Eucharistic feast of Caravaggio.

An embodied theology means that instead of the ethereal ideal of justice, we hear about the day to day struggle of people like Brian Merritt as they work with the disenfranchised of Chattanooga. An embodied theology means that instead of a vague, romanticized version of love, we are confronted by the tireless passion of someone like Lauren Plummer on behalf the homeless in Nashville. We mirror their rage on behalf of the voiceless who are taken advantage of by the inequitable and corrupt and we share the joy of their righteous victories. An embodied theology needs these people, this raw physicality, the beauty of the abstraction found in the grit and grind of daily life.

Image via Wikipedia
It can be so easy to hide behind the tropes and the big words with big intentions. It can be so inspirational to talk about saving the world, or bringing peace to the nations. It can be so reassuring to mouth the pretty words about love and grace and truth. But generic things don’t actually exist and abstract nouns aren’t real.

But there are so many true stories, and so many real people; so many pieces of concrete reality that allow us to cobble together a mosaic of faith. It’s a piece of art covered in dirt and tears and blood. It’s coated with the dust of history and glossed with the anticipation of the future. It’s full of rough edges and pieces that don’t fit, but it’s real and that makes it beautiful.

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87.   

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