Sunday, January 25, 2009

Problems with Viewing History and Truth through a Postmodern Lens

A week ago, I watched video of President Obama’s visit to Arlington National Cemetery where he paid his respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I recalled my own visit there, my first one, in 1987. I wept uncontrollably as I stood there for the changing of the guard, imagining and empathizing with all the mothers, wives, daughters and sisters that had stood and would ever come to stand where I was standing then. “But for grace, there go I,” always floods through my mind as I ponder those who suffer.

And on Monday of last week, I recalled my childhood tradition of watching the Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches on Channel 17 in Philadelphia every year. I would ponder why God put me in the family that He did in the day and time that He did, as I surely differ little from all of those who have seen greater tragedies and had fewer comforts. When history presents itself to me and gets my attention, it becomes a deeply personal experience. I see myself as some character in most every narrative I read, because “but for grace,” I might have been them. I have something to learn from those people, particularly those who have lived through something that I find to be very different from my own experience.

I found this example of thinking about history quite different from my own, one that highlights the paradigm shift in how postmodern adults perceive truth. Very late on Friday night (the Jan 23 airing --See Video Below), I watched an interview with Scout Tufankjian, photojournalist and author of the new book entitled “Yes We Can,” that documents the events of the Barack Obama Presidential Campaign from its early 2006 start through its 2008 finish. Many interviews on the Charile Rose Show pop up on Google Video, but I have not yet found this one online. Meanwhile, here is a video photo collage narrated by Turfankjian. She looked to be a young twentysomething, a member of what Barna calls a Mosaic, that generation that follows Gen X. I found myself transfixed by the gold ring that protruded from her left eyebrow that became especially noticeable in semi-profile as she faced Rose for the discussion. Had I not known she authored a book, I would have described her as a confident and fairly articulate adolescent, based upon her manner. And though I had an easy time identifying with Charlie Rose, I did not not with the author of the book, save to remember looking that young once, now many years ago.

She described how Obama treated her like a young relative that comes to visit and tends to get in the way, getting “short” when occasionally irritable. She also recalls how he hugged her, I believe, on the occasion of her birthday. When Rose asked her to describe her experience of watching history unfold before her eyes and whether this had been a life-changing experience, I realized how increasingly surreal the whole interview seemed as it unfolded. Of course, I kept reminding myself that she had just authored a fairly thick book that had been featured in an Amazon “suggested purchase” email that I read earlier that day. This young woman showed a demeanor more befitting a teen while catching up with an older relative at a family gathering rather than a book author appearing on national TV to discuss her experiences while following this notable campaign.

Tufankjian offered a response to Rose’s question about how life-changing she found the experience of witnessing the campaign from so close of a proximity, a response that sent a weak but still cold chill down my spine. She stated that she knew that this had been a life-changing experience, but she had not yet decided how or why it had been so. For her, the word “history” brought back memories of elementary school moments when she heard about events of history that were, for her, just “artifacts” that never seemed like actual events. She offered her experience of looking at photography of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a clearer example of what she meant by her statement.

 Even when viewing the photos of King, she explained that she cannot imagine that there was anyone there actually holding a camera as the artifact, this disconnected information byte, actually occurred. She explained that she realized that someone had clearly been there, filming his speeches in real space and time, but her description struck me as though she viewed these events as something like a work of fiction that seemed to have no impact on her life. I’m sure she would say that the history of racism definitely had some affect on her life, particularly after participating in the Obama campaign in such a coveted and unique way, but it seemed to me that the events around her neither significantly or profoundly pierce, change or inspire her. Her own, personal experience of the world arbitrated reality as well as the truth of the artifact info bytes of history. I observed her description of the events around her and history of them as something of a novelty.

Tufankjian described her interest in the campaign as beginning in 2006, before Obama ever openly indicated is interest in the candidacy. While she was living in New York, she went to an event in New Hampshire at the last minute to take photographs of some political event, not excited about it at all. She immediately phoned her editor and asked if she could follow Obama to cover his campaign which seemed inevitable to her because of the heightened emotional response of his supporters in New Hampshire. She described the politically interested in NH as generally unemotional, so the zealous emotional response of the crowd to this Barack Obama operated as a sure indicator of significance for her, just as a true and trustworthy compass points to Magnetic North.

As the interview became even stranger for me, Scout Tufankjian described a notable event during the campaign where she said that she realized that she had “better start paying attention” to what she was really witnessing. The campaign traveled to Philadelphia, PA, a town with its own history of race issues that hosted Reverend King in days gone by. I am not sure, but I from my understanding of events, President Obama debuted this “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia, that which Tufankjian described as his “race speech.” Apparently, this was a moment of awakening for her, but not because of the significance of the topic of racism, her witness of King’s dream unfold as she watched Obama speak, and not because of the fact that Philadelphia was a town with a history of racial wounds. Her awakening did not strike me as remotely or notably different from her almost detatched description of other events and “artifacts” of her Obama campaign experience. That also came about through observing the emotions of someone else, perhaps another artifact for her, but it was an emotional artifact, so it demanded her attention.

Scout described Martin Nesbitt, the treasurer for the “Obama for America” campaign, as the kind of guy who she typically saw wandering around in the back of rooms, looking at old high school trophy cases. She describes her epiphany of sorts that took place for her in Philadelphia when she observed Nesbitt sitting in the front row of the crowd, weeping as he listened to Obama’s speech on race. She was moved not by the ideals and principles that so strongly moved Nesbit, nor was she moved by Obama’s words, but she was moved by her observance of Nesbitt’s emotional response. Her signposts and context clues were not ideological or objective, as she noted only the clarion “wake-up” call of another person’s emotions. As she spoke about Nesbitt’s weeping, clearly among the most profound experiences she had on the campaign trail, she didn’t really appear to be moved by it as she recalled this experience. I wondered if I’d actually been more moved by hearing her dispassionate discourse than she had been, having witnessed it all as a first-hand experience? It all seemed odd...surreal.


This afternoon, I received an email from someone who read my most recent blog post, and they described their own epiphany regarding how emotionalism rules and reigns in many churches. This person described discontent in their former church, but they did not readily recognize the “unwritten rules” of the church as such, nor did they realize why truth was such a personal experience for those in that church. This particular, very large church had two primary unwritten rules: 1.) “Be nice,” and 2.) “Obey authority at all costs.” This person said that “Getting along was more important than truth. The problem was that this left the authority with the power to do evil but you could not say anything about it or you were ruining the unity.” Because truth was a personal experience, people were like “moving targets.”

Niceness among members and niceness through submission ruled out any possible discussion of truth for this former member, because clarifying misconceptions in something like a Sunday School setting would challenge everyone’s individually-based perception of the truth and would violate the cardinal rule of niceness. Someone might realize that their view was different from someone else’s view, and that would not “be nice.” The Scriptures become little factoids and artifacts like Tufankjian’s esteem of history, all isolated and remote, all because the truth of Scripture’s depth might not be very nice.

And then, when I visited the True Womanhood blog this afternoon, I found a link to another blog post that appears on the quite irreverent Sacred Sandwich blog (listed under this True Womanhood thread that also encapsulates many of my concerns as well) . Here are a few highlights from this satire about what happens when feelings trump truth in a church. It seemed a perfect way to illustrate my concerns.

From “Tired of Postmodern ‘Conversation,’ Pastor Tells Congregation to Shut Up”:
Jacob Mason, the church’s Supervisor of Holistic Meditation, witnessed the shocking event. “Tuck was facilitating our usual sermon-dialogue time on Sunday when Karen, our director of pottery, tried to express her inner feelings on what God was saying to her. Before she could share her feelings, however, Tuck said that he had a feeling to share, too. He said he felt like she needed to shut up and focus on God’s word instead of her feelings. Needless to say, Karen’s feelings were hurt, so she told him how she felt about his feelings toward her. Then we opened up the discussion for others to express how they felt.”

According to several eyewitnesses, Pastor Wynn then screamed, “What is WRONG with you people!” and fled the building.

Sadly, this was not the first time Wynn had exhibited a drift toward fundamentalism and biblical certainty. Two months earlier, church leaders became concerned when Wynn became noticeably excited about ordering the new ESV Study Bible. “Things just didn’t seem right with Tuck after that,” said tattoo and piercing minister Leslie Moore. “First he started using big words like hermeneutics, exegesis, and perpiscuity. Then he started hammering us on doctrine, of all things. Before we knew it, he was blowing out our candles and turning up the dimmer switch in the sanctuary so we could read the Bible during worship. Talk about a buzz kill. We could barely see the Nooma videos with all the lights on.”

Read the entire post HERE.

Maybe that virtual “Intermountain Hospital” can reserve a padded cell for me next door to the room where the virtual Pastor Tucker Wynn “takes a break” from the frustration induced by his powerlessness “to make people focus on the clear teachings of Scripture instead of their feelings”? As I am zealously committed to improving my interpersonal “niceness” factor for the sake of patience and meekness, maybe a few weeks in a virtual padded cell will help me figure out how to both temper and improve my delivery of the truth without compromising it.

(3Feb13 Addendum:  The video that originally appeared here, embedded in this post, is no longer available online)