Saturday, July 30, 2016

as Mere Orthodoxy has republished Anderson's four theses on social conservatism I'm musing upon another question, what are we supposed to be conserving?

It's been interesting that an author like Andy Crouch can write a book about how Christians need to focus attention on culture making. It's interesting that evangelicals have begun to think so much in the last twenty years about making culture as the culture wars have increasingly shown themselves to be pretty well played out. 

And that has had me wondering about the "tension" between culture making and social conservatism.  When folks like Rod Dreher talk about the Benedict Option talking about that from within the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy makes sense because, hey, don't we already know Eastern Orthodoxy is pretty old school? 

But as the dissolution of Mars Hill as a corporate entity has not quite shown, the verdict isn't out yet on whether the spin-off churches will go the distance--if Dreher's book weren't already close to being on the way I might suggest that Mars Hill could be viewed by social conservatives as a case study of a didn't-work-out variation of what the Benedict Option can be by a negative example.  Driscoll and company were certainly shooting for intergenerational legacy and the Call to Resurgence was nothing if not an admonition to build some kind of counterculture. 

Of course there isn't a Mars Hill and in about a week Mark Driscoll 3.0 is looking to launch a new deal. 

So the low-church evangelicalism in the United States can aspire to being socially conservative but in cultural terms what is that?  What's it look like to be a social conservative in the current cultural context?  Couldn't the nominalism and the abjection of the kind of liturgical life that could preserve Christian cultural identity become the benchmark of a social conservative evangelicalism?  In other words, couldn't someone propose that precisely the problem with socially conservative evangelicalism is how much it is functionally already like the contemporary American society it has been in?  As progressives and secularists have been keen to point out in the last few years, the sudden discovery that the Religious Right isn't as influential as previously thought could seem to reveal that the social conservatism of the Religious Right may have foundered on the reality of what the social conventions of even ostensibly conservative types has been on things like marriage and sex and abortion.

So if social conservatives want some confidence about where to move forward and yet we evangelicals are talking in terms of cultural production ... then maybe we should say we're not social conservatives if we're talking in terms of engineering a suitably Christian culture that does not conform to the lax norms of contemporary American society.  That's not conservative in the tradition of Edmund Burke, is it?  Is the word we're looking for ... "reactionary", maybe? 

I think about preservation and conservative approaches as a musician plenty because I play classical guitar.  I also think about it because I love pre-World War II blues as well as the music of Haydn and the music of Bach.  J. S. Bach was a pretty conservative composer by the standards of his own era but the successful fusion he created of the disparate styles and forms of his time became the gold standard for art music over the last two centuries, thanks to a resurgence in his reputation in the 19th century.  The thing about Bach's influence is that Bach was conserving stuff but in the process of preserving older idioms transforming and adapting them.  It can be easy for evangelicals who seem to have little appreciation of arts history in the United States to forget that the level of stylistic and formal fragmentation in the Baroque era was significant.  The previously largely uniform style of the Renaissance fragmented into regional and national and functional idioms.  Yet over the course of a century and a half there was eventually the birth of a more unified style.

One of the troubling aspects of Francis Schaeffer's legacy is his wildly inaccurate lump-sum spit-take on the arts in the West.  It is more than a little tempting for social conservatives to see the stylistic fragmentation, revolution and innovation as a sign of the decline of WASP influence in the last half century.  Schaeffer saw the fragmentation but he didn't have enough of a sense of musical and artistic history to see that consolidation cycles also happen.  He viewed the post-Romantic explosion as not just a one-off but as a defining trait.  The idea that the pendulum swung all the way out and might begin to swing back was not something he was going to necessarily see as being what was going on in the 1960s. 

So Schaeffer's polemic was that the fragmentation was a sign of the rejection of the Christian worldview manifesting itself in a chaos of art.  Well, "maybe", but an explosion of polystylistic conflict within Europe only looks like a unified whole to us NOW because that's how we get taught art history and art history can be full of its own polemics.  One of the problems of polemics in which white European arts history gets presented as a unified white patriarchal art history is, hey, wait the French and the Italians and the Germans and the Spaniards and the English and the Poles and the Swiss ... these are all groups that took turns killing each other and not seeing themselves as a unified single white race.  Are we absolutely sure that the white monolith was as monolithic back then as it is presented as being now in the racially tense polemics of the contemporary West?  Not so sure about that. 

I've been reading Manfred Bukofzer's Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach this year.
There's something he wrote early in the book (the page number escapes me at the moment but location 165 it if you have a Kindle):

The change from renaissance to baroque music differs from all other stylistic changes in music history in one important aspect. As a rule, the musical style of the old school fell into oblivion. The new style took over and transformed the last vestiges of previous musical techniques, so that the unity of style in each period was assured. However, at the beginning of the baroque era the old style was not cast aside, but deliberately preserved as a second language, know as the stile antico of church music. The hitherto unchallenged unity of style disintegrated, and composers were obliged to become bilingual. The stile antico was fashioned after the style of Palestrina, who became the idol of those who followed the strict a-capella style of baroque music. The more the actual knowledge of Palestrina's music faded away, the more powerful became the legend of the alleged savior of church music.

Mastery of the stile antico became the indispensable equipment of the composer's education. He was now at liberty to choose in which style he wanted to write, whether in the moderno, the vehicle of spontaneous expression, or in the strict antico which he acquired by academic training. ...

In sum, the arts in the West being a polyglot of forms and styles has been with us for centuries, like 1600.  Academics and theorists now (as then) benefit from the idea of codifying and labeling styles with an ear toward amplifying stylistic contrast rather than taking an interest in conceptual and practical overlap.  Thanks to academic approaches to music we've been given a history of what is now called art music that presents the entire field of four centuries of European music as if it were a conceptual monolith. 

If evangelicals want to keep contributing to culture and "making culture" it would be helpful to consider that those who self-describe as conservative might want to ask themselves "what am I trying to conserve and why do I believe it's worth conserving?"  I'm interested in playing with a fusion of 18th century musical thought processes that have gone by the names "fugue" and "sonata form" because I'm intrigued by the level of formal and developmental complexity these thought processes have been able to bring to bear on a set of fairly simple successions of tunes.  I'm also interested in the popular musical traditions known as ragtime, blues, rock, and jazz.  I don't see any inherent tension between these two traditions in Western music.  I don't see there being any reason you can't take 18th century conceptual approaches to music and refract them through blues, country, and so on.  I hear this as a way of taking a historically conservative approach to musical traditions that does not forget that we live in the present. 

Social conservatives tend to be known as social conservatives because of what they have in mind for the vetting processes of what might be euphemistically described as participatory adulthood on socially acceptable terms--the problem is that after a generation or so of formulating social conservatism in such strictly mating-game terms it's never been clear what has been conserved in other contexts ... and to be blunt about it, art. The nice way to put it is that evangelicals have a long history of assimilating existing musical idioms at a rate that lags behind the rate of innovation.  The slightly less nice way to put it was summed up with vulgar humor in the South Park episode "Christian Rock Hard". 

Continually failing to demonstrate competency in the vernacular musical idioms of our era, evangelicals also seem to have abjured mastery of the kinds of church music that non-Christians actually want to hear because they consider it beautiful even if they don't endorse the theological beliefs that inspired that music.  Evangelicalism of the socially conservative kind has been so dead set on a utilitarian ethos with the content of its art (for desperate want of a better term) there has been little that can be found at the ready for articulating concerns about form, which in more traditional philosophical parlance was sometimes discussed under the category of "beauty".

Looking back on a life that has moved from one dead end job to another it's sticking with me that social conservatives may have been so committed to the meet-and-breed part of their social agenda that the possibility of making any art along the way never exactly came up, or if it came up tended to rise to VeggieTales level. 


Far be it from me to treat childrens' entertainment as if it's not art.  There's a blog post incubating about Blue's Clues as a tour de force of Socratic pedagogy.

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