Thursday, September 19, 2013

Five Things Norwegian Foxes Can Teach Theologians

What Does the Fox Say?

My alma mater, Luther College, has an Ylvisaker Hall. It's the dorm where I spent my freshman year, tucked as I was into a super tiny corner room right next to the ping pong table. My loft was so tall I scraped my nose most mornings upon waking, and I definitely spent as much time at the ping pong table as in my room.

None of this has any bearing on what follows, but Ylvisaker shares a last name with the two Norwegian pop stars who wrote the viral hit, What Does the Fox Say? Except of course they spell their name Ylvisåker, which looks way cooler than Ylvisaker.

In any event, as mentioned, Bård and Vegard Ylvisåker wrote this wonderfully ironic pop masterpiece and filmed an even more sharable video, which "went viral" last week all over the Internets. If you haven't seen it yet, pause now and watch it. If you have seen it, pause now and watch it again. It will soothe your soul.

"There is thumping bass and a silly, easily imitatable dance: In short, it is the video internet hipsters and five-year-olds can finally agree on."

Now, to complete our video journey, prior to outlining the five lessons we can draw from this meme-splosion, also watch the Ohio University marching band cover What Does the Fox Say?

Are you ready? Okay, here goes:

Everything comes from somewhere

It's difficult to even catalog how many "rules" of the pop music form the Ylvisåker brothers have riffed in this song. There's the anthemic build, the catchy refrain keyed to simple dance moves, the faux earnestness (the red coated fox as an angel in disguise). The irony and pleasure of the video is dependent on the artistry of hundreds of previous pop and dance tunes, and the ironists' knowledge of them. As a viewer of the video, so much depends upon how much of this culture you have consumed. A little bit, and the video is simply a quirky and memorable piece with high production values about animal sounds. Know a lot, and you fall out of your chair laughing hysterically. ROTFL.

The marching band rendition is also pitch perfect. Marching band tunes are almost never original. Marching bands know their audience, so they perform music that is hopefully familiar to them. This used to mean playing the "classics" (like the Beatles). However, in modern meme culture, if you can arrange something fast enough, riding the wave of a meme can function like the new version of a classic. Classics are now whatever are charting high on the Twitter feeds, or what you can quickly pull up on Youtube.

Imitation is an art

Some of the best art is imitation of previous forms of art. In some ways, I like the marching band rendition even better than the original fox video. I try to imagine the director sitting down with the song, writing out and arranging all the parts for the band, then heading out to the field with that large crowd of university students to work out the dance routine. That's an amazing amount of human creativity and time all invested in imitating (in a new artistic medium) what the Ylvisåker brothers created in their video.

So much of theology is like this. It is often the same "production" as a previous generation, or even simply a previous book, but arranged differently. And if you read widely in theology, you learn how much the arrangement matters. Quite a bit of theology is simple rehashing. It takes true artistry to convey theology in a new key with poise and beauty and panache.

Irony is a form of worship

This one is going to be hardest sell. Some people don't get irony. Often even people who get irony don't "get" irony if it's not irony they get.

That makes no sense, and you know exactly what I mean, right?

Nevertheless, there is something about irony that is core to worship. Worship is a kind of displacement. Like irony, it overwhelms us with negative significance, offering the presence of God in God's absence, faithfulness in and through skepticism, utter earnestness through deep humor. For more on what I mean, read these two quotes from Kierkegaard's The Concept of Irony on irony and humor, and think worship:
...irony [is] the infinite absolute negativity. It is negativity, because it only negates; it is infinite, because it does not negate this or that phenomenon; it is absolute, because that by virtue of which it negates is a higher something that still is not. The irony established nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it.... Irony is a qualification of subjectivity. In irony, the subject is negatively free, since the actuality that is supposed to give the subject content is not there. He is free from the constraint in which the given actuality holds the subject, but he is negatively free and as such is suspended, because there is nothing that holds him. But this very freedom, this suspension, gives the ironist a certain enthusiasm, because he becomes intoxicated, so to speak, in the infinity of possibilities.... But if irony is a qualification of subjectivity, then it must manifest itself the first time subjectivity makes its appearance in world history. Irony is, namely, the first and most abstract qualification of subjectivity. This points to the historical turning point where subjectivity made its appearance for the first time, and with this we have come to Socrates.... For him, the whole given actuality had entirely lost its validity; he had become alien to the actuality of the whole substantial world. This is one side of irony, but on the other hand he used irony as he destroyed Greek culture. His conduct toward it was at all times ironic; he was ignorant and knew nothing but was continually seeking information from others; yet as he let the existing go on existing, it foundered. He kept on using this tactic until the very last, as was especially evident when he was accused. But his fervor in this service consumed him, and in the end irony overwhelmed; he became dizzy, and everything lost its reality (p. 262ff.).
Finally, insofar as there may be a question concerning irony's "eternal validity," this question can be answered only by entering into the realm of humor. Humor has a far more profound skepticism than irony, because here the focus is on sinfulness, not on finitude. The skepticism of humor is related to the skepticism of irony as ignorance is related to the old thesis: credo quia absurdum [I believe because it is absurd], but it also has a far deeper positivity, since it moves not in human but in theanthropological categories; it finds rest not by making man man but by making man God-man (p. 329).
Even foxes and pop stars speak in tongues

If a fox is going to speak to a horse, will he use morse code? The song, though a joke (foxes aren't typically in the pantheon of animals we teach children the sound of, perhaps because they actually sound like a small baby crying with pain), is the most popular example of speaking in tongues in the cultural Zeitgeist right now, and it really does ask a question worth asking, "What does the incommunicable sound like?"

How do we speak faith beyond faith?

Making strange is making meaning

For far too long, and even up to the present day, the Enlightenment fascination with rationality and explanation has dominated the liturgical and theological landscape. Almost anything in worship that is strange, in a foreign language, represents awe or mystery or transcendence, has been expunged. Although I'm not necessarily in favor of going back to the Latin Rite for the liturgy, I get why some people want to return to it. There is power and transcendence and meaning in many things that are incomprehensible and strange. This is why I like naming cherubim and seraphim in the Eucharist. And why a dancing fox is somehow chock full of meaning (even inspiring) beyond all logic.

Liturgy, to paraphrase Catherine Pickstock, is the consummation of philosophy, rather than the other way around. The extent to which we think liturgy is consummated in rationality, is challenged by the fox meme. May we have more theology, and more liturgy, of the fox variety.

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