catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 5 :: 2013.03.01 — 2013.03.14


Imagination sequestration

I’m driving home from work on a Friday afternoon and I pass a church with a parking lot full of cars.  My first thought: must be a funeral.  My second thought: what a sad first thought.  What a failure of imagination.

On my part, the lack of imagination is saturated with cynicism.  I don’t expect church parking lots to be full on weekday afternoons, and if they are full, my thoughts turn to death rather than dance parties, hymn sings or celebration feasts.  To be fair, the church has played no small part in conditioning this cynicism.  Churches around the country are easing into the final phase of a long, slow decline — a phase often occupied with the minutia of survival, not unlike hospice care.  Whether bowel movements or mortgage payments, the fear of the unknown is real and the pain must be managed.  The time of reckoning is nigh and we the people of God are often guilty not only of bland ineffectiveness in our local communities, but of active harm to our world.  As Wendell Berry puts it, “Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo.  Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into Heaven, it has been made the tool of much earthly villainy.”

But the church is not the only institution that is suffering from the atrophy of an underdeveloped imagination.  “The key pathology of our time, which seduces us all,” writes Walter Brueggeman, “is the reduction of the imagination so that we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted to do serious imaginative work.”  I think Brueggeman is right on, though I would take issue with whether we are indeed “satiated” — in quantity, perhaps, yes, but that which we consume in copious amounts lacks the integrity to truly satisfy.  Deprived of imagination, we are gorging on whatever cultural junk food is offered to us like desperately starving people, without regard for nutrition.

I wouldn’t describe myself as an NPR junkie, but lately, my work as a caretaker at a local retreat center has required some deep cleaning and so I plug in the clock radio and listen to what’s new in the world while I work.  Over the past week, nearly every story and program I’ve heard seems like an improvisation on Brueggeman’s diagnosis.

It began with a Marketplace story last week about one of Campbell’s latest product lines that made me laugh out loud.  In their book Colossians Remixed, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat write, “There is nothing that Campbell’s would like better than to have more markets of people who will forget how to make soup for themselves and will become dependent on a can.”  The 144-year-old company has recently taken their cultural forgetfulness strategy to a new level.  In an effort to appeal to millennials, Campbell’s has come out with a campaign to market bags of soup in hip flavors like Moroccan Style Chicken with Chickpeas.  The microwaveable packages feature black and white images of “hipsters” saying “hip” things, demonstrating just how thoroughly the company failed to comprehend its target market. Admittedly, I’m a bit late to this news, as the Colbert Report’s bit about the misguided campaign came out last November, among a whole host of other clever skewerings.  Three months later, Marketplace’s David Weinberg reports that in spite of the mockery, Campbell’s is not discouraged, believing that “even this is good publicity because it gets millennials thinking about Campbell’s.” 

Now, I’ll concede that it takes a form of imagination to craft a campaign like this one.  However, it’s an imagination dehydrated by fluorescent lights and brandspeak that can’t begin to fathom a young eater who might be investing his or her identity in the exact opposite of what Campbell’s represents: in homemade soup, crafted from seasonal ingredients, made from scratch and enjoyed slowly with friends and family.  And beyond the practice of eating good soup, I’d like to imagine that we human beings could evolve beyond the branded mind control in which “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” to allow our liberated thoughts about Campbell’s be what they are: justified criticism of attempted manipulation by a company we can choose to not to support every time its household name happens to cross our minds.

The food theme continued in today’s reporting about the impending effects of sequester cuts in many sectors, including the food processing industry.  U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned that cuts could affect the availability of USDA inspectors, who are required to be on site to oversee aspects of production at processing facilities throughout the country.  “There is no way that we can avoid having to furlough inspectors,” Vilsack claims, saying that some food processing may be delayed as a result.  “It’s going to be quite disruptive to the food industry generally and it will impact consumers’ ability to get food and the price that they pay for the food.”  I don’t know enough about the logistics of sequestration to know whether Vilsack’s absolute claim about furloughs is true, but I do know enough about food to know that not a single person in the U.S. will die if their usual brand of frozen tamales is a bit tardy.  In fact, the exercise of culinary problem-solving might just do us some imaginative good.

What sets off my failure-of-imagination alarm in comments like Vilsack’s is the false drama of supposed “inevitability.”  Walsh and Keesmaat write,

The language of inevitability is the language of empire.  Whenever we hear ‘We have no choice,’ our ears should perk up.  It is precisely the strategy of the empire to take our imagination captive so that we think we have no choice.  When a certain lifestyle seems inescapable, you need to realize that you are imprisoned.

For example, the alarm went off today as I listened to Diane Rehm interview Stephen Brill, whose extensive investigative feature story on why health care costs are so high just came out in TIME magazine.  I agree 100% that we need to overhaul a health industry that has resulted in the rich getting richer while the poor, and even insured folks in the middle class, get sicker.  I think Brill’s report is already providing critical evidence that’s softening hearts and emboldening change for the better.  However, I take issue with a subtle refrain throughout the interview that human beings absolutely need to participate in today’s system of hospitals and drugs, when in fact, we have many choices, both when we are healthy and when we are ill.  Hospitals and medication can do a lot to help heal sick people, but they are just two small tools in the much larger box of human wholeness and flourishing.  During the interview, Rehm reads an e-mail from a listener named Tom, who writes, “Due to rampant greed and exorbitant and even criminal profit levels, I’ve already told my wife I will refuse treatment. If I get something expensive, just let me die.”  To be sure, Tom’s death due to the exorbitant expense of care would be tragic, but there’s something refreshing in his willingness to use a gift as great as his life to protest a rampant injustice that has resulted in so much suffering for those burdened by actual outrageous costs, as well as the fear of “what if.”  In the face of a system that demands our allegiance lest we die, choosing death is the ultimate subversion, which calls to mind another story, doesn’t it?

Speaking of that other story, in the midst of all of this deep cleaning and radio listening, I had the opportunity to be able to participate in a Lenten retreat on silence as the language of God.  It was a fitting counterpoint to all of these words and the place to which I return as I begin to consider what might provide the antidote to Brueggeman’s diagnosis.  If we are “too…co-opted to do serious imaginative work,” how can we achieve liberation?  How can we free our minds, and indeed, our lives?

As I practiced silence during the retreat, I noticed how time seemed to stretch out, as if the present were trying to touch fingertips with eternity.  A flippant assessment in a media-saturated culture might name this sensation “boredom,” calling to mind the hands of a clock moving excruciatingly slowly through the last minutes of class before recess.  But this is the conditioned response of a reward-based system that tricks us into a constant desire for incentives.  If we can’t discipline ourselves to savor silence and eternity, how are we to know or even perceive a God whose first language is silence, and who exists both in and outside of time?  More to the point, I might suggest that part of the discipline of reconciling ourselves to eternity through practicing silence might be about learning how to die, which could prepare us to say, with Tom, I choose to lose my life rather than perpetuate the myth that an unjust system is the only way to save it.  And what other death-dealing inevitabilities might we find the courage to protest if we quit our incessant chasing after the next artificial bliss point and learned to sit quietly with no agenda except to be present to the Divine?

Okay, before all of this silence and death talk becomes overwhelmingly serious, let me say that I think the Colbert Report offers a prescription for what ails us that’s quite a bit of fun: mock the empire.  Whether it’s a sacred cow or a naked emperor or a vacuous ritual, point and laugh at anything that seems to be taking itself too seriously.  Even the church can get in on the fun — and maybe it’s even structure to do so.  Malcolm Muggeridge writes,

Let’s think of the steeple and the gargoyle.  The steeple is this beautiful thing reaching up into the sky admitting, as it were, its own inadequacy — attempting something utterly impossible — to climb up to heaven though a steeple.  The gargoyle is this little man grinning and laughing at the absurd behavior of men on earth, and these two things both built into this building to the glory of God.

Whether it’s our own personal foolishness or that of a broken, bumbling group of us, laughing at ourselves breaks open possibility like a piñata.   We know there’s goodness inside; we just have to land a few square hits on the thing — you know, blindfolded.

Which leads me, as usual, to the importance of community: when we have people around us with whom we share laughter and lament, recipes and meals, dreams and fears, disciplines and play, we are better equipped to name the latest imperial strategy for what it is: a single-serving, microwaveable bag of bullshit. (May all of those inspectors indeed be furloughed, for a very long time.)  Fortified with the nourishment of personal disciplines and energized with the spirit of a collective, we can imagine all kinds of ways to say “no” to the captivity of our age and “yes” to the fullness of life that is both eternal and incarnational.  This week’s news will pass — a new pope will be elected, JC Penney will succeed or tank — but the image of God in us, God with us, will always find new ways to emerge that might not make the Diane Rehm show, but might just motivate us to grow gardens, care for our sick neighbors and gather on a weekday afternoon for something other than a funeral.

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