The Hungry Ghosts (餓鬼) Summarize the Year in Culture
Tap tap. Is this where we come in?
Splendid. Good day, people. When the tiger that Charles devoured got spat up, he fled into this here house. Rather foolishly, he left the door unlocked and his book on the table. We found that he had taken to writing in this book, sending it off through the aether to the human realms. Well, we said to each other, this is an opportunity that no ghost would ever want to miss. Taking the book into our possession, we composed the following post summarizing the year in human culture. Alexius’ editor graciously allowed us to publish this under his name thanks to our assurances that should he do so we would not torment the poor tiger until he went insane. He has even been so gracious as to collaborate with us in the composition.
Editor: That is correct. I should note that I am doing this under duress. Further, the hungry ghosts will not be taking advantage of Alexius’ vulnerable position again.
Is that clear?
The Year in Culture: One Man’s Perspective
To begin, I will quickly summarize what has been going on at a more basic level vis-à-vis my own perspectives on culture. Little of what I write could be understood without first knowing from what kind of person these thoughts arise. Here are three arcs that I can discern from this vantage point.
1. A Faith Opened and Renewed
We’ll pretend for a moment that we can freeze time. Try it for yourself. Fun, isn’t it? If we were to put January 1 on ice and peer in at me through the blur, you would have seen a person for whom Christianity and faith were vaporous notions. Correction: vapours are too concrete. They were more like wan lanterns, too pale to cast any shadows or give shape to the world around them. In retrospect, I was in everything but speech an atheist. I never acted as if God really existed. At the very least, not the God that I professed in my local church. Though I was emboldened by my presence at Calvin College, surrounded by a culture that affirmed the sovereignty of God over Creation, I felt God largely as an absence. An absence that, I realized, had been there for a long time. I felt no trauma when reading that God had died, because there was little point mourning someone I had never met–and the people He had met didn’t seem to know He had died.
My Calvinist faith in God’s sovereignty and adherence to His Law were stultifying me. Unlike others, who could joyfully partake in their own tradition to its fullest, I longed for a completion and a perfection that Calvinism seemed to offer but could not deliver. Intellectually, the hyperdeterminst view of God’s providence would seem to offer a great deal of security. But seeing the world all around, learning of the intricacies of Europe’s history in class, writing on the problems of education, delving deep into the Western visual art tradition, learning a radically foreign language, I could see only disjunct and imperfection.
The ancient (a much more dignified way to address old teachings than to call them old) Christian idea of the Fall did not suffice to explain what I was seeing. In Christianity, the Fall must give way to an Arising, a Consummation and reconciliation of all creation to a God. The world would be purified by purgative fires and we would live in eternal bliss, the Fall a memory so distant we could only laugh at the old world. Perhaps we would erect a monument in the New City, inscribed with the old Law and all the patch jobs God had to resort to before Adam’s corruption was at last wiped away.
What I was seeing was not this Fall, not an interim period of brokenness leading back to perfection. From the foggy threads of language and narrative I wove an altogether different web. Before humans, there was death. Before humans, there was chaos and order, billions of years of life without speech or sight. Everything was broken permanently. Nothing was going to work out all right. Compared with eternity, human existence would be less than an instant. At the end of the day–even more vitally, at the end of this minute, meaning was fragmentary at best for us. Maybe the universe meant something to God, but I could not help but search, and wherever I did I found endless chasms.
In July, I visited the Arch Street Meeting House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Meeting houses are the religious structures of the Religious Society of Friends, a Christian denomination founded nearly four centuries ago in England whose members are often called Quakers. I knew something of Quakerism, enough to be intrigued by the building and be led to go inside to see it. The clerk at the front of the building informed us about Quaker principles–simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship–and something of the history of this group. Friends (the more formal name for Quakers) consider God–though many in the liberal stream of this faith are nontheists or use other language–to be first and foremost, if not only, an immediate lived reality that could be encountered as a guiding Light while waiting in silence. During this last semester, I’ve attended the Grand Rapids Friends Meeting and made friends with many of the members, not the least of which a radical Friend who dresses in plain clothes and introduced me to a lot of postmodern theology that has been a main source of nourishment for me this year.
Today, freeze me up again, and I have a faith that is not too different from what I had in January, at least not in its core. I still experience God primarily as an absence. That said, I now have a framework for thinking about why that is. I won’t bore you with a tour of the theological rivets that I’ve fastened this framework with, but suffice to say that my Christianity has been significantly complicated and enriched, made into something that I live. I feel, for the first time in memory, that I can speak of my religion without cringing or crossing my fingers. My language and practice line up far better now than they did. This has allowed me to speak more confidently about popular culture as well.
2. Musical Boundaries Push
My name is Charles, the Hungry Ghost (餓鬼). In my previous life, I hungered for perfection so strongly that I died of a heart attack at the age of 36. Stress and overwork combined with poor genetics struck me dead in the middle of a business meeting. Now I am a bloated beast with a long thin mouth and a vast stomach. That said, I’ve come to enjoy a wide variety of music over the past centuries, and in this year in particular. Eventually I will be reborn in some more pleasant realm, but for now my hunger for music is insatiable.
A few years ago, my list of favourite albums of the year would have been composed entirely of rock music. There were many varieties of rock music represented, but that would have been the extent of the diversity. This year, however, my list is as follows, in alphabetical order by artist:
Christian Scott–Christian aTunde Adjuah
Dialogues Trio and Julian Siegel–Twinkle Twinkle
Eivind Opsvik–Overseas IV
Frank Ocean–Channel Orange
Godspeed You! Black Emperor–Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Kendrick Lamar–good kid, m.A.A.d city
Neneh Cherry and The Thing–The Cherry Thing
Sun Araw, M. Geddes Gengras, and The Congos–Icon Give Thank
The Touré-Raichel Collective–The Tel Aviv Session
I’ve gotten to the point where not a single one of my top ten albums of the year could qualify as a rock album (GY!BE possible excepted). You have a hyped debut from an R&B innovator (Frank Ocean), politically radical jazz (Christian Scott), psychedelic dub experiments with piercing religious lyrics (Sun Araw and company), and dark, twisted dance music (Burial) and hip-hop (Lamar). Throughout this year, I explored more and more into the world of music from Africa, Iran, and the Caribbean. While I had previously only enjoyed hip-hop that drew on rock traditions and had lush production, I became ever more enamoured of the entire genre, delving even into the dreaded “gangsta” subgenre, with mixed results. I have a more rounded view of the state of music as a whole now–with the exception of country–and I hope this continues.
Most of the music I loved this year spoke to either an underlying anxiety or to awe, or both commingled. Kendrick Lamar drew me in with luridly detailed stories of desperate youth. The jazz I liked was either dancier than usual, as in the case of Vijay Iyer, or possessed a dangerous ferocity as with Neneh Cherry and The Thing. As for live experiences, I enjoyed concerts by Janka Nabay, Kishi Bashi, fun., and Tinariwen. Kishi Bashi and fun. were especially significant, being both the first show that made my jaw drop and the first major arena show I’ve ever attended, respectively.
What exactly makes me a hungry ghost? Why am I so different, you might ask? After all, I got to go to concerts and enjoy all of this wonderful music. What I am lacking is anything that can satisfy. There is no extinguishing my suffering, no possibility of release from hunger and pain. Maybe not different enough. How about this: I look ugly as sin:
3. A Tiger Awakens–Cultural Discerning
Hello. My name is Lawrence, another hungry ghost, and…oh, no.
Alexius: What are you doing?
Editor: Alexius, they tied you up and said they would torture you if we didn’t cooperate.
Alexius: Forget that. Cuts ropes. Swipes with fury.
They scatter and leave the house. Except Lawrence, who is still writing.
Alexius: Did you get my signal to leave?
No, I suppose not. I have to finish writing this.
Alexius: You think you can write a reflection on tigers and cultural discernment? I’d like to see you try. I’m the tiger around here, the one with the real chops for discernment. Let me handle this.
I’ll pop in with some commentary every now and then.
Alexius: Keep it brief, because there isn’t much to say, really. Ahem. Throughout this school semester (Lawrence: Yep, it works! Test, test.) I’ve been considering what it means to have to steward the cultural engagement of an entire floor. I’ve found that it (Lawrence: I’m not sure what to say at this point. Hmm.) means that I must first observe, then find areas of need, then educate. I’ve found the many meetings and events I’ve staged to all be rewarding in their own way, whether I learned something or taught someone else. (Lawrence: I’m so hungry! Look, I really don’t know anything about discerning, I just wanted to try writing. How’s it working so far?)
A large part of my discernment has been interacting with both other cultural discerners and the people on my floor using costumes and stories. This blog is a key point of contact between my work as a cultural discerner at the college and as a writer for the rest of my audience. At this point, right here, I can speak to both concerns. I’ll have more detailed reflections once my term as a CD ends. For now, I need to find a way to get out of this world of hungry ghosts.
(Lawrence: Good luck.)