Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

A Bleak Iconography

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It was time to sharpen the contrast, really. I have redesigned the blog to signify a kind of territory. This territory is wilderness, the landscape stark and difficult, full of memories and promises we create as we go along, each becoming ourselves. As we create, we create markers and monuments for pilgrimage. Monuments for ourselves to return to, for others to visit. All art and letters are made outward from and of the body. All theology is autobiographical. Between is the aesthetic, of matter. Beyond is the transcendent, of spirit. The aesthetic is by far the more apprehensible of the two.

The background image you see here is iconic for those who know it: the cover of Joy Division’s monumental debut album, Unknown Pleasures. The jagged, peaking lines is a data visualization of CP 1919, the first pulsar ever discovered, observed by Cambridge grad student Jocelyn Bell Burnell. A pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star, a star that has collapsed upon itself under its own weight after it has gone super nova. It is a dead star, a star of the shadows, emitting radio waves in regular pulses, echoes of something once bright and shining. A pulsar is a monument, a marker for and of something no longer present. It is an empty tomb. Any further, and it would become a black hole.

Joy Division is a troubling choice for an aesthetic foundation. I understand that. A gloomy band that took its name from a novella about groups of Jewish women kept as sex slaves in Nazi concentration camps. A troubled, adulterous lead singer who hanged himself. Entire albums about loss, frustration, and failure. A constant desire for something beyond what we have observed to be true. It’s hard to find something more stark and upsetting. The Bible, perhaps. Stories of Jewish women kept as sex slaves. A troubled, adulterous psalmist who sends his friend to his death. So many poems and books teeming about loss, frustration, and failure. A constant desire for something beyond what we have observed to be true. Perhaps, Joy Division is not so troubling as the Bible is not treated troublingly enough. Yet, in both there is a salve.

Joy Division offers an aesthetic that sets a particular tone about and for our human condition. The lyrics are a kind of apocalypse, a vivid unveiling of life’s anxieties, the memories of a more secure time and of lost objects and relationships, the movements of dwelling in ashes and in places bereft of security. These human moments are not foreign or strange to us. Often, we seek to avoid them, sometimes at all costs. But here, we keep listening because we find something familiar within us, a recognition of disappointment and a desire for something more. These lyrics, these moments, they are uncomfortable and distressing to us.

Bleak theology does not shirk and avoid such moments, these sorrowful songs. it does not glorify and romanticize them. It treats these aspects of human life as givens and moments to be appreciated and processed and acted through. I’ve found that much of Christian preaching and living ignores, if not suppresses, such aspects of human life, focusing on a future, eternal reward, or an all-powerful king-god who has our tragedies in His (sic) best intentions. What about the now, the eternal present within which we always find ourselves? What is this ideal for living?

It is important that I emphasize that I am not “Christianizing” Joy Division, its lyrics, or its aesthetic. Christians – especially American Evangelicals – are some of the most notorious culprits of curdling cultures for their own missiological and religious agendas. Where Joy Division speaks of religion, such as in “Passover” or “Wilderness” or “Insight”, it resonates and unsettles. To bend the band for theological exploitation is to do disservice to its identities and expressions. Indeed, Ian Curtis writes as though God exists, yet the presence and agency of his God offers little reassurance. For my purposes, it is better to understand Joy Division through the same lens that Dante employs in his Inferno, like Anne Carson in her “The Autobiography of Red”: the stories and truths they seek to tell, to reveal, become more rich upon and within the foundations they know and within which they question and find solace.

Again, all theology is autobiographical. All theology is grounded in the individual’s encounter with divinity, or that is understood as such. I resisted Joy Division as I was forcing myself to conform to collegiate Evangelical culture. When I allowed myself to listen to that stark, churning music and shuffled off four-years’ worth of proof-texted coils and praise band refrains, I felt – in a word – relief. In my solitude, I discovered I was not alone. Indeed, we do not become ourselves in a vacuum, but in the world. I am proclaiming neither theological nihilism, nor philosophical pessimism. I am urging a recognition of the existential human condition and that our anxiety of self is real and lasting and a part of who we are. It is something to be appreciated and explored. What is theological about this is that I am doing this in relation (always in relation) to myself with matters of divinity, in description of the possibility of encounter with the absence of God and with the absolute paradox.

Whereas idols point only back to ourselves, icons point to what is beyond ourselves. Iconography provides a complex visual language that urges something beyond the limits of aesthetics. Icons demand self-reflection regarding the situations of our perspective. This black and white image is an album cover, a record of cosmic discovery, a map of radio frequency, a suggestion of anxiety, all of this and more. The icon of this map of CP 1919 is a signifier, an indicator toward a particular orientation toward the Unfathomable. The ragged rows of spikes are an outline of rotation over time. It is a map of repetition, of an eternal return. It is a topography of absence. It is always itself, this dead, spinning star.

When we listen to a pulsar, when we hear the Gospel, we hear the sound of an empty tomb. Here is empty space, a place full of memory and promise. A place to dwell among the graves, to sing dirges and to break bread with one another, to lament, and to find solace in our anxieties about ourselves, our neighbors, and our God.

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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

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