Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Pride of Life: Some Reflections on American Pop-Culture and Paganism

In Johns First Epistle, the apostle warns Christians about "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life". I've always puzzled over what this meant. But then I was watching the music video for Coldplay's "Hymn for the Weekend", and I think I understand what it might mean.

The song is, generally, about getting "high" on life and the music video involves a tour through some stereotypical Indian town during Holi. This holy festival among Hindus is famous in the West for its many colors and copious amounts of paint. The video involves celebration and a mesmerizing Beyonce dressed in Indian grab and cultic paint on her arms and hands. There scenes of children playing, women dancing, a yogi like figure lighting candles, fireworks, and a woman mystically tossing flower petals into the wind.

Now of course the typical Western Orientalism critique applies. This is where Europeans marvel and revel in the strange mystical rites and culture of the East and reify these things into some alternate universe of bliss, when compared to Western rationalism, materialism, and scientific reductionism. Westerners like Coldplay and Beyonce get to play pretend and run naked with the barbarians, giving praise and honor to the savage and his truer way of life (this is an old trope in new garb). But that's not all.

The music video offers a beautiful panoply of images celebrating the beauty of life and the Human spirit. The rituals and traditions of Holi present Hinduism as a very earthy and Human collection of beliefs. Hinduism is considered one of the World religions, but this, like the category of religion, is a misnomer. Hinduism is a British creation, an attempt by outsiders to consolidate, classify, and categorize what they saw the subjects of their new colony do. What were diverse, contradictory, and unrelated beliefs shared by the "Hindoo" were turned into a "religion". This was adopted by the Indians themselves as they communicated with the British, and found themselves in the reflection of the Other seen in British eyes. Now, Hinduism is a 'thing'.

But at its core, at its heart, Hinduism is merely the attempt at systematization for the sole surviving and thriving form of Paganism. I don't mean this as a pejorative or a synonym for polytheism. Paganism is a regulated religion at the level of the people. By this I don't mean a particular body or a mass, but I mean it as an abstract concept. The people are the inhabitants and manifestation of the nation, the ethne, which entails certain beliefs about the world and the management of the village/city.

What fundamentally set the God of the Jews apart from merely being a tribal deity was that he made claims upon the whole Earth. Most Pagans believe in a supreme deity or force or primeval non-create reality that lay behind all things, gods and men. However, none would claim that their god is that Reality. Thus the god of the Jews claims to be the God, and none other. This was a patently absurd claim in the ancient world, and in our modern era of Paganism, it is equally absurd. Of course, the newest instantiation is not that there is a multitude of gods, but that the one God is many faced and that all peoples have their own ideas and experiences of him. It is possible, theoretically and in actuality, to be a Christianized Pagan, and not properly worship and submit to the True God.

All of this is what I think is the Pride of Life that St. John tells us to be aware of. In This Age, Paganism is the natural and default function. We see things as a closed system, an economy that is self-contained. Instead of the existential dread cry that there is something very disjointed and alien about the nature of life, namely ever-devouring Death, we learn to settle. Paganism is a system to make sense of the world as it is. Thus, the crudest forms might deify entities like the sun, the earth or the ocean, more complicated forms deified more abstract entities like erotic love, fortune, and luck. As the world continues to Globalize we will see more Coldplay-esque videos celebrating Holi, corporate execs become Buddhists, and Atheist proselytizers telling us to practice zen.

The alternative to the Pride of Life is to acknowledge that the Word of God, who created all, came to redeem a broken Creation. The Biblical alternative to the Pride of Life, that begins with a shining morning leading to the dark dusk of death, is a shadow of night retreating from the sudden, and seemingly miraculous, appearance of the dawn.

I don't mean for this to sound triumphalistic. Christianity has many times participated in crafting itself into a form of Paganism, adopting a stable economy and a Chain-of-Being metaphysics which makes Christ coming into the World into the most natural occurrence. Rather, it is the fact because Christ is radically Other than Creation that He can appear and open communion with those He created in His Image. As St. Denys put it, "God is beyond both knowing and unknowing". This is the Mystery which we proclaim, and it shatters the comfortable world of Paganism. Fundamentally, and this is where I'll end, the difference between the God and Father of Jesus Christ and all Paganisms is that Christ does not make a Covenant with Death. Amen and Hallelujah.

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