A previous post suggested that Christian theology requires a more thorough exploration on the theme of running away, firstly because it remains a prominent trope within various forms of popular culture, and also because theology itself contains the template of running away properly, against which the Church can both sympathise with and critique secular notions of escape. What has not yet been explored is how running away has seeped into the texture of quotidian living in the City of Man in a postmodern context.
A strange yet potent source of raw material for such a reflection can be obtained from a scene in the TV series Dexter. The series’ main protagonist, Dexter Morgan, has a conversation with Miguel Prado, the city’s Senior Assistant District Attorney. The conversation begins with discussing the death of Miguel’s brother, but turns to the subject of the location of his soul post-mortem. Whilst ultra-scientific Dexter resists providing an answer, Miguel speculates that the soul, being immortal, must exist and continue on in some other person. This dialogue, when set against the backdrop of the city of Miami, provides an oddly fecund point of reflection about a person’s desire in urban postmodernity, which in turn ties in with the previous post’s argument for a theology of running away.
According to Graham Ward, the city in postmodernity has morphed to become more adaptable and able to accommodate financial, economic and cultural fluidity. Once the epitome of Modern rationality and the drive to create a sense of constancy, the city is now, with its bright lights, night clubs, adult stores, cinemas and shopping malls, oozing a culture whereby outlets abound for persons to act on their desire to run away. However, it seems that such outlets for escape, whilst becoming more diffuse, are merely allowing an escape that is more localised and microscopic, so much so that the endpoint of one’s escape goes no further than the shopping bag, movie image, dance partner, or sexual encounter.
Why such cultural themes are relevant for the theologian can be gleaned from the thought of the Jesuit social theorist, Michel de Certeau. In his Practice of Everyday Life
, de Certeau wrote that the postmodern person is one that is always geared towards “being other and moving towards the other”. One can sense de Certeau’s Catholicism and Trinitarian sensibilities, for in the Trinitarian economy Father, Son and Spirit are engaged in an economy of other-centred movement, as one gives of oneself to another in an act of love. In a way, this Trinitarian image forms the template of running away that one constantly finds first in the Scriptures and in the writings of Christian mystics like John of the Cross. Running away is always seen as an act of love which decentres the self-sufficient individual and relocates them in another person. In Christian theology, particularly in the thought of Augustine, the impulse to run away finds its ultimate endpoint in the eschatological Christ, at the closing of the age.
As earlier mentioned in that previous post
, we see parallels of this escapatory theme running through some elements of pop culture, whether in songs like Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run
or in TV shows like Dexter
. However, whilst postmodernity seems to acknowledge that the self has to find an outlet that located in another, the postmodern city appears to aim those desires at crassly material, rather than eschatological endpoints, locking desire in an enclosed material cage (oddly encapsulated in the beginning of this music video by the synth-pop group Arkarna
). Postmodern culture seems to want to avoid any recognition that the restlessness that drives one to consume stems from a valid, God-given impulse that wants to rest in something that transcends the material, nothing less than God himself. So long as these desires for a transcendent endpoint remain unfulfilled – or more accurately, misdirected – the impulse to run away becomes similarly frustrated. When this happens, the story of running away in pop culture ends in one of several ways: indeterminate running, despair, or (as in the case of Dexter) lashing out in seemingly cathartic acts of violence.
It is only the transcendent and eschatological horizon, embodied in Christ the Last Thing, that can properly end the story of elopement that one vainly longs to see consummated in products of pop culture.