Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Chapter 2 (part 2): Ecclesiastes in a Ripped Shirt

(This post might make more sense if you read part 1 first.)

The malaise of modern life
I’m bored.
I’m the chairman of the bored. – Iggy Pop

What lies beneath the surface of both Ecclesiastes and the “No Feelings/No Fun/No Future” mantra of the early punk movement? In a word: boredom.

Theologian Charles Williams correctly calls Ecclesiastes “a classical expression of utter boredom.” The author’s ennui hovers like a dark cloud over the entire text. The repetition of the theme – the notion of meaningless – reinforces that sense of despair. As Yancey notes, the word meaningless – translated as vanity or vanities in the King James Version – appears 35 times in the New International Version’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes, effectively “drumming home the theme from beginning to end.”

In the era of Solomon, only the very rich could afford to be bored. The poor were too busy working; they were so caught up with eking out an existence that they didn’t have time to even think about boredom, let alone contemplate the vicissitudes of life. In ancient civilizations, navel-gazers didn’t last long, and in ancient Israel, they had the Book of Proverbs to warn slackers about such idleness.

The whole notion of boredom is a relatively new concept, introduced into the English language as the industrial revolution was first taking shape. The words bore and bored were first used in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and literally related to the idea of drilling – a repetitive action of piercing into something or someone. (Think of a boring conversation you’ve had recently and the image of a dull drill grinding into your skull may come to mind.) Again, much like our understanding of existentialism, we have the French to thank for teaching us about boredom. They gave us the word ennui, which conveys a sense of world-weariness and melancholy in addition to sheer boredom. And while the French had a word for it long before the English, boredom’s appearance in the English language is perhaps “the first sign or symptom of a disease that would spread like a plague over the next three hundred years,” writes Richard Winter. The connection between boredom and an increase in leisure time is no coincidence.

To be sure, boredom is a theme in the existential literature Yancey cites as influential (particularly Hemingway). The Sex Pistols and other punk performers of that era captured this sense of boredom and lashed out the only way they could: through their performance art. “If they [the Sex Pistols] represented a rebellion against anything,” writes Tricia Henry in Break All Rules! “it was against teenage apathy and boredom. ... People identified with the message of rage against the status quo and displayed their empathy by adopting the punk lifestyle.”

Both boredom and existential angst seem to flourish during times of material prosperity. While Solomon was probably not the author of Ecclesiastes, “the whole tone of Ecclesiastes reflects the tenor of King Solomon’s time, when Israel reached its zenith as a nation,” Yancey notes. He adds that “existential despair, whether in the Teacher or in Camus, tends to sprout from the soil of excess.” The malaise of modern life, it seems, stems from our excesses – in material wealth, in technology to do the things that once required human strength, in leisure time, in the multitude of activities we have to fill that leisure time.

Psychologists and sociologists also have come to see this combination of boredom and existential despair as one of modern life’s chief maladies. Sociologist Orrin Clapp describes boredom as “a strange cloud [that] hangs over modern life” and notes that it is most prevalent “in cities where there are the most varieties, pleasure, and opportunities.” Earlier last century, according to Yancey, psychoanalyst Carl Jung reported that a third of his cases “suffered from no definable neurosis other than ‘the senselessness and emptiness of their lives.’ He went on to name meaninglessness the general neurosis of the modern era, as people torture themselves with questions that neither philosophy nor religion can answer.”

Burning with boredom
Here we are now,
Entertain us. – Nirvana
London of 1977 had much in common with Israel of King Solomon’s time. Both nations were at peace after recent times of war. Israel had prevailed over the Philistines and other neighboring tribes; Great Britain had triumphed over Nazi Germany in World War II. The nations were also empires in decline. While we may think of Solomon’s Israel as a nation at its zenith, already the seeds of its disintegration had been sown. But England’s youth, while still living in one of the world’s most prosperous nations, harbored no illusions of greatness. Unlike their Queen Elizabeth, celebrating her Silver Jubilee with a sense of benign neglect for the harsh economic circumstances surrounding her, the youths of London were keenly aware of the hopeless situations surrounding them. Unemployment skyrocketed, especially among the young, who roamed the streets of London in packs.

They had time on their hands, but no jobs. They had television. They had boredom. The punks responded through the language of youth and rebellion: rock and roll.

While the Sex Pistols grabbed the headlines with their frantic and frightful stage shows, several other British punk groups were making music that also resonated with the disenfranchised youth. One of those groups, a raucous London quartet known as The Clash, struck in 1977 with two songs about the burden of boredom: “I’m So Bored with the USA” and “London’s Burning.” To the north, in Manchester, a group called the Buzzcocks churned out their own anthem to boredom. It was appropriately titled “Boredom.”

With “I’m So Bored with the USA,” the Clash lashed out on two fronts. Socially aware from the outset, the Clash attacked the listlessness of the U.S.-dominated pop culture. (The lines “Yankee detectives/Are always on the TV” referred to the ubiquitous American crime programs like Kojak and Baretta that could be seen on England’s telly as well as back in the states.) But the song’s critique on pop culture was actually its secondary theme. More powerful was its criticism of U.S. foreign policy, from Vietnam to Central America. Sharp, compelling lyrics, delivered in lead singer Joe Strummer’s trademark, working-class cockney accent, hit home on both sides of the Atlantic:
Yankee dollar talk
To the dictators of the world
In fact it’s giving orders
An’ they can’t afford to miss a word
In “London’s Burning,” Strummer’s urgent, panicky shriek at the beginning of the song – London’s burning! London’s burning! – no doubt evoked memories among older Londoners of the nightly air raids during the Battle for Britain. But this time, the enemy is not from across the English Channel. This time it is the enemy within.

Settling into the first verse, Strummer explains the cause for alarm:
All across the town, all across the night
Everybody’s driving with full headlights
Black or white turn it on, face the new religion
Everybody’s sitting ‘round watching television
London’s burning with boredom now...
More threatening than the luftwaffe, Strummer seems to be saying, is the boredom that creeps into our lives without warning. With “London’s Burning,” the Clash sound an alarm, in hopes of jolting listeners out of their complacency.

Meanwhile, in the industrial city of Manchester, north of London, a group called the Buzzcocks were churning out their own brand of punk. This group, too, struck a resonant chord with the theme of boredom, though with no hint of the ironic urgency that the Clash infused into “London’s Burning.” As band member Pete Shelley recounts, fellow Buzzcock Howard Devoto wrote the lyrics to “Boredom” at a time when he was “working a night shift at the tie factory” – a tedious job – “and during the night he’d written these words. I looked at these words and before he went to bed, I wrote the music.”

“Boredom” features an intense, two-note guitar solo – evoking the discordant wail of a British police siren – that is repeated throughout the song. The repetition of those two notes underscore the theme of the song – monotony and dullness, yes, but tinged with a certain discord that implies all is not right with the world. Devoto’s lyrics portray life in post-industrial Manchester – or anywhere else – where despair coexists alongside the presence of so much material wealth, even when the wealth is inaccessible to the disenfranchised youth. “I’m living in this movie/but it doesn’t move me,” Devoto sings in a disenchanted tone. In another lyric – “I’ve taken this extravagant journey/or so it seems to me/I just came from nowhere/and I’m going straight back there” – the Buzzcocks portray the “extravagant journey” of life as a mind-numbing round trip from nowhere to nowhere.

A loss of faith
Faith in any better future ... is a trapdoor back into the order opposed and abhorred. – Mark Sinker
The seeds of boredom, sown in our culture of material abundance, take root in a world where faith and meaning are in the decline. That was certainly the case in 1970s London and New York, the centers of two once-great empires now in decline. The emergence of punk from the smoldering ashes of boredom resulted from the steady erosion of Christian values from England’s and America’s shared culture, argues Richard Winter, a psychiatrist whose book Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment describes the rise of boredom over the centuries. “The history of philosophy in Europe and North America over the last three hundred years,” he writes, “is the story of throwing off the restraints and shackles of Christianity in attempting to find a basis for meaning and significance in science, reason or experience – without reference to God.”

Boredom is a symptom of that “God-shaped vacuum” in our lives Blaise Pascal spoke of, and we try to fill that void in a variety of ways.
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in others words, by God himself.
“In our frenetic age,” writes Winter, “we run after any diversion in an attempt to avoid introspection and awareness of our incompleteness and dissatisfaction.” The punks ran to the clubs, attempting to fill the void with music, fashion, friendship and a subculture that rejected the bourgeois values of the established system. We may not run to the punk rock shows, but you can be certain that we, also, attempt to find solace from contemplating our existence and the meaningless of it all. For some of us, it is our careers that provide refuge. For others, it is shopping, or alcohol, gambling, food or any of a number of addictive diversions. It doesn’t matter how we try to fill this void. What matters is that we recognize it for what it is.

That “inner emptiness and longing we all experience from time to time is a sign of something beyond ourselves.”

The last and final word
I’m young and I’m hopeless. – Good Charlotte
From the days of Ecclesiastes to the punk rock movement of the seventies and on to today’s music and cultural scene, the existential questions of life have haunted men and women everywhere. Historically, the wealthy and the scholars had more time to ponder these questions. But with the changing face of our world – the instantaneous access of information, the increase of leisure time and the growing affluence of global culture – the creeping fog of boredom seeps into all of our lives, and we turn to various sources, outward or inward, to help us cope. We can join the chorus of the Sex Pistols and reject all hope for the future, or we can join the preacher of Ecclesiastes and pour ourselves another glass of wine.

The theme of Ecclesiastes – the theme of despair and hopelessness – seems to run counter to the hope of the Christian faith. Yet the very book that devotes all but a few verses of its twelve chapters portraying life as hopeless is also an apt starting point for connecting punk condition with the love of God. As Yancey points out, Ecclesiastes didn’t fall into the Old Testament by accident. It wasn’t slipped into the text while no one was looking. Instead, Ecclesiastes is “a profound reminder of the limits of being human.”

We humans look at the world and with our limited perspective, see things that cause us to question whether God even exists. And even if we do believe in God’s existence, we may question his sense of divine justice. But there is a key phrase running throughout Ecclesiastes that offers a hint to the author’s – and our – limited point of view. The phrase – “under the sun,” as the King James Version translates it – reminds us that the preacher, wise and experienced as he is, still offers only a human, and therefore limited, perspective on this situation we call life.

But as we of the space age now know, there is more to the universe than that which is “under the sun.” Perhaps the author of Ecclesiastes also knew, for after his thorough study of life and all that falls short of perfection, his “last and final” word on the subject offers hope for all who are under the sun.

“The last and final word,” wrote the preacher, “is this: Fear God. Do what he tells you. And that’s it. Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether it’s good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14, Message).

Centuries after the preacher wrote these words, there appeared in Israel a traveling preacher, one called greater than Solomon, who brought forth a radical message. And in his first recorded sermon, he invoked God’s blessings upon an unlikely group: the poor, the meek, the mournful, the persecuted – the hopeless. Were he around today, this preacher might even proclaim, “Blessed are the punks.”

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like it. I'm recalling a sentiment voiced in McLaren's A New Kind Of Christian (probably from the "mouth" of Neo) that Christendom typically experiences a phenomenal rise in the public realm, before petering out to near or total obscurity. I read this on a day when most of my American friends are shuffling to the polls in the wake of a remarkable scandal within Evangelical ranks. "No future" is certainly an appropriate cry - although, as with punk music, I have to wonder if the real question for the true believer isn't "What future?"

Keep going, man.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Katya said...

Found your blog through rockstarmommy.com, and I love this post. Very poignant.

1:56 PM  
Blogger LutherPunk said...

Wow...I am glad that there are other folks out there for whom punk ended up forcing the asking of big questions. Nice and well written.

Pax!

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Melissa D. said...

"At some point in our lives, each of us must confront the existential crisis of No Feelings, No Fun, No Future. Each of us must peer into the abyss of existence – if not leap into it – and see what peers back at us. For such a journey of soul-searching, the Book of Ecclesiastes serves as a suitable guidebook after all."

This is sort of a diversion from your primary topic--- since I know nothing about punk music, I can't speak to that... but on a theoretical level, are you suggesting that the "existential crisis" is critical to spiritual growth? Do we have to go through this crisis in order to come to God authentically? And, do we confront this crisis repeatedly throughout our lives? If so, "leaping in" could open the door for strongholds and addictions; on the other hand, it can become an addiction in itself (and is that necessarily a bad thing?)....

Melissa D.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Melissa D. said...

...what I really meant was... is the LEAP essential (not the crisis). I believe the crisis is a given, but do we have to leap in to really find God....?

6:59 PM  

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