Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review of Fight Club

(Some spoilers, but it isn't like this is a new book)

Rarely, if ever, when someone reads about the Church in the Bible, do they go out and start churches where they are. Even more rarely if someone "explains" to them what Christianity is "all about". Even more rarely if they have any interaction with Christianity as it is. At least in the United States. I cannot speak for anywhere else.

When men read Fight Club, they start fight clubs. Lincoln, NE, not far from where I grew up, has made them illegal. Persecuted, or rather prosecuted, members for their "subversive activities". Tyler Durden, the "hero" of the story (as author Chuck Palahniuk calls him in the afterword), sets up these churches of masculine salvation and devotes the top members--the true believers--to (de)construct cultural salvation through self-destruction. Whether he meant to or not, the author describes the birth and life of a focussed religion, complete with converts, symbols, and rites, around nihilistic categories. And people, especially men, love it.

Men love it because we have no idea what it means to be a man. Are we tough and aggressive, tender and compassionate, effeminate and passive? This question shows up starkly in the unnamed main character, who cannot figure who he is. Is he his furniture? What others have told him? Even his name? When does a man become a man? Where is that cultural/social threshold that used to have the "trial of endurance", going off in the woods with only a knife to survive, that made one ready to join larger society, no longer the boy, but the responsible man? Now, all you have to do is hit 18 or 21 and you are all that is man. A legal adulthood has never made any boy a man--and we know it. Is it your "right" to drink? Or to vote? Or to smoke cigarettes? If we really think about it, all of these "rights" would never make someone a good citizen, or a good person, or a good man. Just like a marriage license doesn't really make a marriage, and certainly cannot make a marriage good. Or a driver's license doesn't really mean you can drive, and certainly not that you (or I) drive well. But, in the same vein of thought as Seth Godin, we tell ourselves lies that "make" it so for us. We believe that a diploma means we are educated; or our age means that we are an adult; or that our marriage means we are in love. Fight Club reminds men that status doesn't mean anything meaningful. Status changes; nothing is static (interesting how closely related "status" and "static" are). Berger, with his "social construction of reality," really is a nice backdrop to the book. When the myth is exploded or imploded, then the "sacred canopy" comes off, causing fear, alienation, and anarchy. The plot of FC is forcible removal of the sacred canopy, for the good of self and others. That is what it means to be a man--taking off all masks, all delusions, whether sacred or secular. By any and all means necessary and available. It is the changing of the ages, the Novum Ordo Seclorum, that needs to happen, and fast. Imminence is always a part in apocalyptic scenarios.

In the end, though, no one that Tyler Durden liberates becomes free. Including himself. They are tagged as "space monkeys" and "human refuse", part of the plan to make them lose everything so that they have everything, and they end up being just that--expendable and meaningless. Their identities don't get defined by "who they really are" or "who they want to be", but by what Tyler tells them to do and say and be. Their existence, their meaning, is tied up in his existence. When he "dies" at the end of the book, they lose their meaning. But since Tyler has set up a new sacred canopy for them, they don't even need him, since his body (the living narrator) and his memory can carry them on. All they need are his messianic promises to tell them to wait for his second coming out of the loony-bin. The whole point, though, is to not ever rise again from the ashes--to always be the dung heap of the world, God's middle, forgotten children; to be lost in the oneness of destructo-salvation. The old Buddhist dream of attaining Nirvana through the complete loss of individuality.

Apart from its self-conscious coopting of Buddhist and nihilistic elements, FC is a trenchent analysis of modern society. At one point, the phrase (the book is a collection of pithy one-liners at its heart) "Generations working to buy things that they don't need" clarifies what drives most of our modern economy. We make and sell shoddy things to people who don't need them. Apropos since we have commenced this year's Christmas shopping season. We do end up defining ourselves by what we have and what we don't have. Very few of us know what it means to be destitute or even in need. Tyler Durden promises to his disciples that they will know what rock-bottom is, because you have to hit rock-bottom before you can be reborn. He compares it to Jesus on the cross and the resurrection. You have to disown what owns you, but instead of selling all and giving it to the poor, you have to destroy it. Burn it to the ground.

Whether he wanted to or not, Chuck Palahniuk has issued a challenge to the Church. People get excited about finding their humanity by losing through fight clubs. They love the idea of throwing off the shackles of consumerism, modernism, and the anti-masculine culture of the West. They love the idea of fighting for something that gives deeper meaning than corporate America, than education that gives no reason for loyalty to school or to discipline, than families that shatter faster than they form, than churches who don't want to help people but want their checkbooks (and, to tell the truth, any church that passes a 'collection plate' or 'tithe' aroud looks greedy, whether it is or not). I love the idea of fighting something. There is something virile and deeply masculine about fighting, even if it isn't with fists. The Church, however, has not been about fighting--except to whine about how it is losing influence, or dollars, or people to 'the world' (defined Marcionly as whatever the leadership of the church happens to not like at the time). If the dream that is Tyler Durden was ever carried it, it would be an unimaginable nightmare. However, the dream that the Church has played out has been almost as bad: inquisitions, heresy hunts, crusades, the European Reformation wars, and the list could go on. The dream, that of world-wide influence and power through Christendom, has got to be rethought.

Once the Church has a clear, accessible, masculine-affirming story to tell, then we will see men building churches after reading the Bible. And it won't be a moment too soon.