Monday, April 3, 2006
Counterculture in 'Knocking on Heaven's Door.'
Now for the fun part: It seems to me that Mark Oppenheimer uses "counterculture" in three ways in Knocking on Heaven's Door, his illuminating and entertaining history of the influence of counterculture on mainstream American religion in the late 1960s and early '70s. (We've been discussing the book here in a series of posts.) He sometimes uses the term loosely, especially in the introduction, to talk about what we refer to in retrospect as "the sixties" — but when he focuses on definitions, it's clear that he's pointing to specific features of the era. He also notes but doesn't much discuss the fact that religions can in themselves be countercultural. That's a point I want to come back to later this week, because I'm not sure Unitarian Universalism in the U.S. is religiously countercultural. It may be that neopaganism's appeal around the edges of Unitarian Universalism — see, for example, Sharon Hwang Colligan's provocative argument that UU "churches" are merely fronts for the real religion of the pagan "circle worship" — is rooted in the simple fact that many people expect a religion to offer an alternative to mainstream culture, and neopaganism does. My uneasy hunch is that UU values are unusually derivative from our culture, which blunts our ability to do what a counterculture does — "[transform] the existing social, scientific or aesthetic paradigm," to use Umberto Eco's definition.
I'll have more to say about this, and I hope you will, too. But first, Oppenheimer's definition:
Not everything about the sixties was "counterculture." Martin Luther King Jr, for example, wasn't countercultural in Oppenheimer's telling (although in another sense he definitely was); the Black Panthers, however, clearly were countercultural. It's true, Oppenheimer says, that "something happened" in the 1960s that significantly changed American life. He argues that "that something has to do with etiquette, clothes, language, music, and sexual mores" (4). The Yippies and the Hell's Angels were equally countercultural, he says, even though they had completely different attitudes about the war in Vietnam; they both were against the squares.
"What happened from 1968 to 1975 was less a political shift than a visible assertion of counterculture aesthetics," Oppenheimer says (6) — and it was the aesthetic change that lasted, not the politics. Thanks to the sixties, American culture "loosened up." But what about politics? What about the political movements that progressives still celebrate and that some conservatives still deplore? (And what about the rise of modern American conservatism, the other political movement born in the sixties?) Oppenheimer observes that the counterculture style was much more pervasive and influential than any of the political movements we lump together when we talk about the era. At the end of the book, Oppenheimer observes:
[W]hile civil rights was deeply influential on white countercultural movements in America [in the late 1960s through mid-1970s], folk music was somewhat less influential, feminism less still, and gay rights hardly at all. . . .
One might move from feminist activism to gay rights activism, or from civil rights activism to Jewish ethnic particularism; but despite the perception that sixties consciousness was Vietnam consciousness, religious people did not seem to move back and forth as much between antiwar activism and other kinds of activism. The war was an issue unto itself. (217, 218)
And this is where his definition struck me as especially helpful: A style that drew on the moral authority of the civil rights movement connected political movements that were not ideologically or otherwise connected. And it seems not especially surprising that the aesthetics of the sixties have been recycled and packaged and turned into a thousand fads. For those of us who weren't around for the sixties the first time, the reruns are often more funny than provocative. But within that style there was a religious impulse that interests me.
The moral resonance of sixties counterculture also seems to be weakening today. I couldn't help but think as I read that book that one of the places it continues to carry a lot of weight in the UUA is the word "empowerment," which draws on the black power use of the term in the late '60s for all sorts of arguably unrelated issues, like "youth empowerment." (I'll also come back to the intriguing way that Oppenheimer helps us see how youth activists helped the UUA adopt denominational positions that few congregations would have been ready to adopt at the time.)
Finally for today: Although he emphasizes aesthetics, Oppenheimer draws on Umberto Eco's definition of "counter-culture," which points to the countercultural dimensions within religions themselves:
Counter-culture is thus the active critique or transformation of the existing social, scientific or aesthetic paradigm. It is religious reform. It is the heresy of whoever confers a license upon himself and prefigures another church. It is the only cultural manifestation that a dominant culture is unable to acknowledge and accept. . . . Counter-culture comes about when those who transform the culture in which they live become critically conscious of what they are doing and elaborate a theory of their deviation from the dominant model, offering a model that is capable of sustaining itself. (19)
Oppenheimer's claim is that aesthetic changes in mainstream religion — women priests at Episcopal altars, folk music in the Roman Catholic mass, "Jewfros" — are also substantive changes, even when no doctrines or institutional structures have changed. But is Unitarian Universalism really all that countercultural? What do you think?
Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 3 April 2006 at 8:34 AM