One of the subthemes of reportage on Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan is the extent to which he embodies what he is supposed to embody as the first "Generation X" candidate.
Some commentators have seen in Ryan's politics a reflection of the pragmatic, post-utopian, do-it-yourself, suspicion-of-institutions spirit of the generation. Others have wondered what happened to the live-and-let-live, anti-workaholic (pro-slack), spiritual-but-not-religious, pop-culture-connected spirit that seemed to animate so many of us born in the mid-1960s to late-1970s, and who came of age in Reagan's America. Still others ask whether there was ever anything to these purported generational characteristics. This weekend, the New York Times ran an article by Alex Williams, "For GenXers, a Wake-Up Call," that summarized some of the discussion so far.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote a book about Generation X, Virtual Faith, that argued that at the level of the symbolic order coming through popular culture, one could glean a constellation of characteristics that expressed and shaped the sensibilities of young adults bound up in popular media culture, but that constellation would necessarily remain a provisional hypothesis subject to deeper investigation of "GenXers" and their interpreters. Interpreting popular media culture, in short, was not optional for making theological sense of generations, but had become (since the Baby Boomers) an essential skill.
As Williams and many others have reported, Ryan is apparently a fan of the rock/rap/metal band Rage Against the Machine. RATM has for twenty years been an activist group advocating liberal, radical, and anarchist perspectives and actions regarding racial oppression and economic disadvantage and exploitation in the United States. This interracial band, who share the politics of Pussy Riot but take a post-punk attitude toward songwriting (balancing between three-chord fury and high musicianship, especially in guitarist Tom Morello), express musically and politically one part of the spectrum of sensibilities and tastes of the generation in question. Many of their song lyrics trace the plight of immigrants, the doings of the agents of abusive governments, and the dignity of resistance to the seductions of the identities that are too small for human beings, despite and because of our constitutive vulnerability. Many of their songs are calls for the courage of self-examination and culture-examination that have been notably effective in reaching both their disprivileged hearers as well as their privileged fans.
One Rage song in particular might be of interest to Ryan. The tune, "Maria," is an interpretation of Mary the mother of Jesus as a border-crossing garment worker, who in her suffering and deep knowledge of this hard reality becomes a patron saint: "These are her mountains and skies and she radiates / and through history's river of blood she regenerates / and like the sun disappears only to reappear / she's eternally here / her time is near / never conquered but here"
Ryan's politics, insofar as they are an expression of his faith and beliefs, seem not to have been affected very much by Rage Against the Machine. (By contrast, many religiously- or spiritually-identified people take RATM as important to their faith/beliefs.) The disconnect between Ryan and Rage is interesting and worth thinking about, because it raises the question of how pop culture, or more specifically, popular music, can or cannot influence religion/spirituality/faith. While researches on this question differ in their findings, a significant amount of cultural studies of religion and theologies of pop culture in the last twenty years emphasize the co-implication of faith/belief/spirituality/religion and pop culture practices, and I too had tried to emphasize this in Virtual Faith.
I think the theological/religious studies conversation is well beyond needing a "pure" starting or orienting point, as if "faith" starts apart from "culture" and must "guide" cultural practice, as if faith itself has no cultural history. Neither is it a matter of saying that (popular) culture "determines" what one should believe/confess/practice. The best research emphasizes the complex character of the interactions and the impossibility of finding in lived experience a pure separation between the two.
As I mentioned above, it appears that Ryan has not been moved by RATM, and indeed Rage guitarist Tom Morello has recently criticized Ryan as representing the "machine" that the band has consistently sought to interpret and expose.
But things may not be as simple as all this. We would need to know a lot more before we could make firmer theological sense of Ryan's musical tastes, or musical sense of his theological tastes. What place does Rage music hold in his imagination? When does he listen to/view their music? How does their music sit in his personal/cultural history? What fantasies does it invite for him, what dispositions does it solicit, what practices does it allow? How does it connect up with other sources of consolation for him? Could it be that, despite the seeming "contradiction" between RATM and Ryan, his taste for metal plays some sort of psycho-spiritual balancing act for him? If so, what does that balancing serve?
These are not only questions about Ryan, they are questions for all of us who are aware that our faith/belief/spirituality/religion is inseparable from our musical experience. That includes all of us "GenXers" and everyone else, too.