Saturday, July 2, 2011

Long on Louie

Much has been made about the era of "new atheism", a label that has generally been attributed to the likes of Charles Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who have gone on the offensive against organized religion in their books (The God Delusion and God is Not Great, respectively), but today I'd like to argue that the labelized movement is being propelled in popular culture by a cache of far humbler players.

I was relatively unfamiliar with the term postmodernism when I entered into the university scene. My adolescent throes left me writhing and wrangling with the existentialists coming out of high school, and this was more than enough to fill up my rather indistinct thought life. But then professor after professor pounded this notion of postmodernism into my learned bones. Much more than that, I was told I had already missed the boat, that postmodernism was more a reflection of the preceding generation than any reflection of my own. What we were living in now was something of a post-postmodernism. I still don't really understand that.

No part of my being yearns to be waded down and enveloped in the actual fires of philosophical debate and proclamation. The world of the philosophers tends to skew towards the linguistical underpinings of words and their diagnoses of our reality drifts away from what the everyman is content to consider. This is not to say that philosophy is not important (or boring), by no means -- rather, I simply mean to say that there is not always a direct correlation between where archetypal philosophical thought dwells, and where the mainstay of cultural thought and understanding reside. Make sense? Sure it does.

Whether it can remain labeled as postmodernism or not, I think western culture can generally be summed up in one statement: authenticity is king.

If my statement is a true reflection of where society stands, then unless philosophical change occurs, institutions like Catholicism and Marriage (not necessarily by divorce, but a wider breath of those who choose to cohabitate without tying-the-knot) will continue to weaken.

I would like to submit to the council, one Mr. Louis Szekely, aka Louie C.K. He is a balding, overweight, freckled comedian. Despite is ginger looks, his mother was Irish Catholic and his father is a native Mexican of Hungarian-Jewish descent. That's multiculturism, baby! Mr. C.K. writes, directs, and stars in an autobiographical t.v. show called Louie. It features his stand-up routines much in the same manner as Seinfeld, in which a certain stand-up topic is extrapolated and explored through comedy.

Louie is a crude show. It is so not (particularly) because its creator is trying to leverage shock value for laughs, but rather, because Louie simply breaks everything around him down into its most base components. And in such a way the world is debased.

Another tangent: have you noticed the rise of cursing on television and film? Perhaps it's only in my mind, or perhaps because as I age, I allow myself to indulge in seedier programming, but I do reckon that there is more accepted cursing from all branches of entertainment than ever before. Why would that be so? What would cause this to occur? The most conservative voices might point to an overall decline in morality, particularly in Hollywood, over the past 50 odd years. I would argue against such a statement. I don't think that is demonstrably evident. People have always acted ungodly. I don't necessarily think we are collectively becoming ungodlier as a culture. We just like to switch out our old idols for new ones.

What is a curse? Is it intrinsically evil? Probably not. From a Biblical perspective, I think while it is easy to say that one should be sensitive about the usage of our Lord's name, simply spouting out a four-letter word does not a blasphemer necessarily make. So what does a curse-word represent? That's a bit of a silly rhetorical question, as cussing is used in a litany of forms and formats. But I think the most consistent definition is to simply say a curse word = an interjection... or perhaps even, a grammatical ejaculation, which sounds itself like something profane, but indeed has historic precedence.

 Wikipedia's definition of interjection: In grammar, an interjection or exclamation is a lexical categoryemotion or sentiment on the part of the speaker...

So then, if I am Mister Authenticity, if you stub your toe and exclaim, "Darnnit!", I will look at you much more suspiciously than a congenial ol' "Dammit!" Dammit for the win!

Louie comes off as perhaps a perfectionist of deconstruction. He takes every topic to its logical, and most fundamental form. Most of the time, these topical situations are humorous, as Louie is constantly having to come to terms with his inferiority to much of the outside world. We laugh with him as watch his struggle with parenthood, dating, divorce, ugliness, baldness, depression, laziness, fear of dentistry, etc. But every now and again the debasing deconstruction of the topics at hand bring us to territory that really isn't funny. This is not a fault of the show, but rather, I believe, purposeful. Louie conceives his view of the world as indeed authentic (I am supposing here -- I have no insider info), and so when we look into a show concerning his narcissistic mother, we receive tense, unseemly conversations rather than gut-wrenching laughter. Surprisingly often, Louie's character (himself) responds to the cruelty of those around him. In one episode he is bullied by a young jock in front of a date in a donut shop. Perhaps out of anger and a need for vindication, Louie follows the bully home. The youngster lives with his parents. So Louie knocks on the front door. He informs the bully's parents about the hoodlums unsavory actions. The boy's father responds violently, hitting the boy and physically forcing the blooming gangster to apologize. Louie responds by erupting at the parents for their shameful parenting. "No wonder your son acts this way," Louie surmises, and trots off. But the scene doesn't end there. It follows-through. As Louie exits the house, the son-battering father chases him down to apologize. The two-some share a smoke as they talk about their own personal inadequacies as parents. Neither of them feel qualified to raise kids in this world. We learn that this guy became a father at 20. Louie compares that to his own situation (he became a father at 34 -- or something like that). We are then allowed to fade out, after empathizing first with the victim (Louie), the bully (who himself is a victim), and the bully's bully (who tells us that his father beat him, and it's all he knows when it comes to discipline). We deconstruct the various parts of the puzzle in order to understand it and gain a right view of the situation.

Most of the time, for Louie, authenticity means deconstruction which leads to empathy. I would imagine that Louis C.K. would argue that this is not only the most correct way to live, but ultimately, the most loving, as it involves a level of empathy that dogmatic philosophies cannot reach.

Somewhat surprisingly, it took eleven episodes for Louie to tackle religion. The result is the least funny episode of the season -- and the most profound.

The entire narrative of the episode takes us to Louie's youth, when he attended a somber Catholic school. The Nun of the class, apparently a teacher, sternly describes Jesus' crucifixion to a class of yawns and snickers. This does not delight her. The next day she brings in a hired hand. A fella who appears much sterner than the stern nun, vividly and graphically chronicles Christ's passion. He has one of the boys portray Jesus, and near the end of the gory walkthrough, asks Louie to come up and literally drive a nail through his classmate Jesus' wrist. Of course, young Louie is frozen with fear and refuses to do the deed. The stern man tan rebukes the boy, 'then why do you continue to crucify Jesus with your sins?' The scene is pretty damn impacting. The acting continuously borders on the unbelievable, which incessantly kept me suspecting that priestal foul play was about to be afoot (as it seems all Catholic references on television these days has to involve pedophilia), but no, the narrative focused on the weight of sin on these kids.

After the traumatizing experience, young Louie can't sleep at night. He keeps thinking of his own sins, particularly of stealing candy bars from the store, and how these particular actions were killing Jesus. The boy, unable to carry the weight of his sin, runs to the church -- to the cross. And in a stunningly poignant moment, literally takes the nails off of the crucifix, all the while profusely apologizing. Louie wants to be guilt free, wants to make amends with the slaughtered lamb.

As the script goes, the boys' motives are completely overlooked as the head stern nun lady speaks of how the boy must be punished for his defaming crime.

The story resolves as Louie's mother admits her lack of faith in Jesus as a Messiah and her conviction that the practice of religion is silly.

And that's that.

The remarkable aspect of the episode is that it got so much of it right. It understood perfectly sin, understood Christ's innocence, understood repentance, but alas, missed the Gospel.

I could herein go on a diatribe of "Why I am Not a Catholic". I shall not. I say only this, if you do not tirelessly proclaim the truth that it is by grace man is saved, not by works, then you abandon the cause of our Christ.

 The Dawkins, Hitchens, and perhaps more relevant Zeitgeist following, appear as pungent adversaries to faith, I think they go against the cultural shift of authenticity. I say this because of people. Richard Dawkins can manage to be a dear old chap while debating the existence of God tooth-and-nail. This separation between personal orthodoxy and personal attitude is a tough (and I would conceive impossible for many) feat to attain. Fighting a movement of thought is one thing, but fighting the people that hold those beliefs is another thing entire.

Fighting a culture/religious war by slinging angry-ridden comments on an article does not involve personal conflict. Telling your neighbor that his religion is a crock and he is an imbecile for following it is another. A truly authentic personal approach to such matters is that of tolerance, not because Louie and others believe that muslims, mormons, and evangelicals are worthy of being tolerated, but because it is too much of a hassle and daily downer to actively get into conflict with those of us who hold faith-based convictions. At the end of the day, this way-of-living will be a more devastating and seductive worldview than 'new atheism' because it lulls the individual by way of least resistance.

Another example: The Book of Mormon. Not the book, the play. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been making cultural waves for years through their juggernaut baby, South Park. Now, South Park is a strange little beast. G.K. Chesterton once wrote about how fantasy is superior to superhero comics (or something of its ilk) because it puts ordinary people in extraordinary situations, rather than focusing on extraordinary people in a (basically) normal world. Well, under that flagstaff South Park reigns, as it focuses on a group of regular (well, Cartman is not-so regular) fourth graders in a dumbfoundingly idiotic and extreme world. These fellas have made an art at taking stupid aspects of our culture and exploding them to an exponential degree, leaving only a few mild mannered boys left to reason their way out of the situation. Anyway, I didn't mean to focus on South Park.

The Book of Mormon --- I was quite looking forward to the broadway musical whenst I heard of it. I have long enjoyed the South Park episode devoted to examining the ridiculous genesis of the cult, so I assumed the musical would continue the tradition. Granted, I haven't seen the play, but a listen to the soundtrack offered on NPR's website revealed a gruesome situation; Mormonism comes out alright. Yes, the play does remind us that the groundwork of Mormonism is malarkey, but then seems to go on to say that that's a-okay. It's okay because Mormons tend to be good people, that is to say, despite its centeredness on a retarded unreality, the cult is a good people making machine. And so all is forgiven.

I reckon Dawkins and Hitchens (particularly Hitchens, I assume) feel that Parker and Stone gave those crazy Mormons a free pass... and they would be right to say so. But that's not the point now, is it?


At the end of the day, I find a lot to love about the current cultural climate. I think my soul would be heavy if I had to dwell in a place where it was more important to look proper than to be honest (those Mad Men were mad for a reason, eh?!). I reckon also that there is a lot going on inside the minds of Louie and the South Park dudes that resonates with Jesus. I think the rigid adherence to authenticity is something that Christ himself was/is about, as it always leads to folks realizing that they are messed up. And empathy has a close kinship with love, as we are moved to act when we are moved to empathize. I could be wrong here, but I also see a measure of forgiveness inherent in this movement. The recent Representative Weiner scandal went so poorly not because the phallically named and driven congressman was indecent, but because he lied about it. The ramifications for the cover-up are far worse in this day and age then the original crimes themselves (how former President Clinton got away with both is a bit strange to me, I confess).

Conversely, this age carries its demons. What Louie lacks is a sense of wonder, discovery and awe. Perhaps this is the most traditionally postmodern aspect of the culture: the intrinsic sense that there's nothing to be found out there. There's no meta-narrative to discuss. Ultimately, not only does this prevent the mind from engaging in the sublime and extraordinary (a gift I believe every human has been given the capacity to enjoy), but slowly erases the moral framework of the world, because it will inevitably slip into a slightly nihilistic disposition. If there is no meta-narrative, there is no point. If there is no point, if everything is ultimately meaningless, than there is neither right nor wrong. While this helps exploit the principles of empathy and forgiveness, it also raises their bastard counterparts: apathy and hedonism. So, you know, that's not too good.
Drug sellers apparently are reptiles. Evil reptiles.
To end this diatribe with a cliched monologue, I would like to allude to those PSAs that centered around folks and their Anti-Drugs. The idea was showing what certain folks were into that kept them away from the seduction of snorting a line of white stuff. Anyway, I can't help after watching that episode where young Louie takes nails out of my Savior's battered skin, to want to stand up and say something. I want to stand and say, "Absolutely! It's natural and indeed good to want to take those nails out! Absolutely. They killed an innocent man. That hurts. Morethanthat, once we understand that it really was our sin that drove Jesus to the cross, there is a deep seated sensation that he shouldn't have done it -- let us pay for our sins ourselves! Let us carry our own cross! Don't do it man! Save him from that death! (Of course, we can never pay the cost) But there's so much more to the story than death. He's alive now. And he died and rose again so that we wouldn't have to live up to some standard. The poor, the desolate, the forsaken, the lost, the screwed-up, the alcoholic, the waste-of-space --- when it is said that Jesus forgives their sins, it isn't with a caveat of 'once you become awesome and donate 1000 hours of service to widows and orphans. That's not grace.

Secondly, while tolerance can be a good thing, it doesn't hold a candle next to turning-the-other-cheek. That, I think, is the most controversial attitude that Christ calls us to. It goes so against what everyone in life tells us. We Christians, I think, fail most often and consistently at that one. In my mind, the other-cheek bit is taking tolerance to another standard. A higher plateau.

And now I end this unceremoniously.



  1. You might find this interesting: Quine seems to me to have the most tenable formulation of post-modernism, in that he rejects the rigid reductionism of logical positivism yet still holds to the idea of meaning, especially in communication.

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