Waco, TX. Tara Isabella Burton recently wrote a piece for the New York Times on a collection of people all falling under the label of ‘Weird Christianity.’ Disaffected from their parents’ lukewarm religion and yesteryear political allegiances, these believers have found something more authentic in traditional Christianity: liturgy, Latin Mass, even Eastern Orthodoxy (for Rod Dreher at least, whose work most readers here know well). This movement is not new, especially for those who read Front Porch Republic. Those willing to find resemblances in previous generations might find them in the Oxford Movement of the 19th century. The trend is popular in particular among young people who grew up in Baptist or non-denominational (lying Baptist) churches and have since become members of Anglican, Episcopalian, or other High-Church congregations. While there is nothing new under the sun, it does seem the trend owes its current manifestation, as well its centralization into a popular clique of sorts, to the advent of Twitter.
At the heart of it all is the sense that something has gone wrong with modern religion, modern politics, and the modern world—i.e. nihilism—and the great answer to it all is an “anti-modern faith,” as Burton calls it. Such a faith gives solace to “more and more young Christians, disillusioned by the political binaries, economic uncertainties and spiritual emptiness that have come to define modern America.” In short: traditional Christianity combats both modern liberal disenchantment and our parents’ Republican politics, and it offers a more authentic, genuine, historic (etc. etc.) expression of the values needed to rebuild the world into something more humane.
Its evasion of easy binaries in our polarized culture also gives it a fun, ‘punk’ aesthetic, all while insisting on a more communal expression of the faith—of course in contrast to the great bogeyman of American individualism. Right now, traditional Christianity offers people afloat in liquid modernity the chance to distinguish themselves by an alternative lifestyle as well as embed themselves into a more organic community.
And yet I fear that such a trend falls precisely within the much larger sweep of the nihilism it claims to be fighting. Nihilism is a word often thrown around and, as Martin Heidegger understood, directed toward symptoms rather than the actual nihilistic core. Some perceptive thinkers in the 20th century realized that the rise of nihilism in the modern world is not at all a loss of the ‘values’ of the past, whether values of traditional Christianity, medieval Catholicism, or classical civilization. Nor is it that our ‘world view’ has evolved from an enchanted to a disenchanted one. In large part, the great nihilism of modern life is the fact that we have come to think in terms of ‘world views’ and ‘values’ at all. For to think as if humankind has a world view and values presupposes the notion that we have the ability to take the world as a whole into our own view, to treat the world as a ‘view,’ and further to decide which part of it is of value.
In his essay, “Nietzsche’s Word: ‘God is Dead,’” Heidegger traces the dynamics of the nihilism Nietzsche foresaw. When Nietzsche declared that the highest values were being de-valued, Heidegger points out that this presumes humankind has the ability to value beings and existence as a whole. Underneath the cycle of valuing and revaluing, which may appear ‘nihilistic,’ the deeper nihilism lies in the attempt of humans to act as arbiters of beings’ worth, even the worth of existence itself. Whereas Nietzsche thought the way out of this nihilism came through acceptance of this role as arbiter of values, Heidegger saw something more sinister at work. The conclusion to this nihilism is not the existential freedom of humanity to take control of its destinies; it is the consummation of a technological frame. ‘Technology’ here means the treatment of beings in the most debased manner of valuation: objectification of something as a resource for exploitation to satisfy the consumptive needs of a dominant subject. All the while, in the middle of this valuing, de-valuing, and re-valuing—an eternal return of the same—the worst is happening, to put it in Heidegger’s most provocative sense: nothing is going on with Being. You can interpret that as deeply or superficially as you’d like, and I still think you would come away with a bit of the truth Heidegger meant.
There is something eerily technological about this new trend of Weird Christianity on Twitter and social media as a whole, as Burton herself notices. For what is Twitter but a machination of threads and links of ‘think pieces’ meant to sate the reader’s appetite for the day’s ideas? Philosophers have long accused newspapers as such, but now social media have accelerated and quantified this mass support and dissent even further into ‘likes,’ ‘replies,’ ‘threads gone viral,’ and ‘retweets.’ On social media, we see the valuation of thoughts and ideologies churn before our eyes, with no end in sight. It is no accident that ideas ebb and flow on Twitter like fashion trends—because they are. In the online ecosystem, Catholic integralism has more in common with GQ’s spring styles than medieval political thought.
By taking part in this churning, Weird Christianity does not act at all as an answer to the nihilism of the contemporary (virtual) world: it is not a rebellion against modern life; it is a part of it. I doubt it is mere coincidence that the current ‘retrieval’ of past orthodoxy—the Fathers, the Creeds, liturgy—has come into vogue with the advent of online life, wherein one can read thousands of pages of the Fathers on the CCEL website or skim through entries summarizing old creeds, theologies, and biographies on Wikipedia. Anyone can assent to traditional Christianity at the point of a click—or is that true? Is there not something else going on? Is it not rather an illusory subject surfing his way through cyberspace, consuming his way through Wikipedia articles, online magazines, and blogs, until he finds himself settled in a niche, an ‘ortho-doxy’ (‘right opinion’) that meets his tastes and temperaments, one that strikes him as meaningful or authentic in a world of phonies? Is anything real going on?
No doubt Burton and the people she interviewed exist in the real world, as they do in the online one. But that is just the problem: they exist in the real world as they do in the online one. Every one of those she interviewed has left the tradition that raised him or her for somewhere else. That itself should give pause to the idea that a hardy devotion to tradition is at work here. Their love of liturgy can reflect modern whims and appetites as much as combat them, as liturgy’s ‘rhythms’ and form can allow a depersonalized insulation from the actual content of words inflicted upon a hearer. Much more scandalous and challenging might be listening to a simple, flesh-and-blood human being who does not share one’s own aesthetic preach the Word of God from the pulpit. As some have noticed, liturgy’s recent popularity has transformed entire traditions into new sorts of ‘traditionalist’ non-denominational Christianity. And this is made even more hyper-real by the myriad ‘zoom’ rituals practiced in the midst of this pandemic.
Even the fact that this traditional Christianity evades easy polarizations can hinder as much as help. It belies an underlying cherry-picking, a dominance of a valuer deciding which things she likes while discarding that which is less appealing. One advantage of ‘Nicene orthodoxy’ to contemporary believers is that its positions can be held apart from any cultural or political context, which allows one the freedom of being ‘orthodox’ in terms of Christology but thinking as one pleases about most other things. Thus many young people today, especially in mainline traditions, embrace the old ‘weird’ doctrines of resurrection and two-natures, while they either ignore the cultural and sexual mores taught by those who developed those doctrines or reinterpret them as somehow post-modern before post-modern. (E.g., the oft-repeated quip that ‘Augustine and Foucault agree: everyone is queer.’) But it is not at all clear that, say, Paul the Apostle would have been as interested in the communicatio idiomatum fought over through the centuries as he was in the relations between the sexes. Any ideas that might too much resemble those held by our grandparents do not appear interesting to many of today’s ‘traditional’ Christians, yet old doctrines underplayed by our parents’ generation seem quite appealing. And so ‘orthodoxy’ here acts not so much as a doctrine of reality as a patchwork of values stitched together to set a clique, even a whole generation, apart from another.
In the end, so-called Weird Christianity is in grave danger of playing right into the hands of this current ‘tyranny of values,’ to borrow a phrase from the infamous Carl Schmitt. Much like punk rock or the contemporary Christian upheavals of the last two generations, Weird Christianity as an aesthetic may prove to be but another subculture to be integrated into the much larger trends of the day. (See some of Jake Meador’s thoughts on that here.) Indeed, I fear it is already a part of this larger trend, already just another moment in a larger nihilism. “The search for something real” in the form Burton describes does not at all appear real in itself.
The way out of a nihilistic tyranny of values comes by a shift to truth, as the theologian Eberhard Jüngel once argued in his essay “Value-free Truth.” To put it all too briefly: to hell with whether Nicene orthodoxy makes a person feel good, or whether it offers a demanding way to stand out and achieve authenticity, or whether it answers the spiritual voids and needs of contemporary society with its better values—which, at their heart, are just the first question modified to seem deeper and more serious. Instead: is it true?
‘Truth’ here means something most primordial: a genuine confrontation between a human person and a being outside of him, not a logical progression from one idea to another, a change of world view, or new values. Echoing Heidegger, Jüngel writes that “the essence of the human person is to be in confrontation with beings… But this confrontation is an elemental interruption of the continuity of being.” No domineering subjectivity brooding over a collection of things to be willed into value or dis-value, but rather an interruption of that solipsism, an interruption that demands we reckon with the fact that there is a reality beyond us that requires our submission to it. In that case, in that radical confrontation and interruption, something really is going on with Being.
In this spirit, Kierkegaard once wrote in his Journals, “The truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you.” For Christians, of course, this truth catches us in confrontation with the God of Israel, Who took the form of Jesus Christ, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, killed and buried, and on the third day was resurrected from the dead, then ascended into heaven, and will come again to judge the quick and the dead.
Many people today, including Burton, those she profiles, and ‘Weird Christian Twitter’ as a whole, appear to desire such an encounter with truth. But this phenomenon also appears caught in the same privileging of an illusory self and its values that shields the actual self from being caught by the truth. So long as old Christianity is treated as an aesthetic or an alternative lifestyle or a set of values contending against alienated modernity, it will never be anything more than a therapeutic commodity. But if we allow it to reckon with us, we may find ourselves snared in the grasp of “something real.”