Ramblings on Postmodernism & Poverty

I had two experiences this week that were very different, and yet both were presumably part of this pastoral role I'm trying to embody.

Monday night, book club (or book discussion group, as I intentionally call it, so as to avoid any of the potential negative implications of a "club"). We discussed Blue Like Jazz. The first time I read it, sometimes during the summer of 2005, I didn't particularly care for it. It seemed derivative of Traveling Mercies but missing all the delightful resonance of her story. The second time around I actually quite enjoyed it, not in the slightest because I went on a rampage of recognizing all the overtly postmodern aspects of the narrative. The margins of my copy are full of notes like "TOTALLY POSTMODERN CONVERSION STORY" and "POSTMODERN THEOLOGY" and so forth. I wanted to explore that with the participants in the book discussion group (wouldn't it be easier to just say "club?), so I spent hours on Monday trying to find a clear definition of postmodernism. How very modern of me. I didn't find a definition, but rather attempted to explain postmodernity and postmoderism through examples. I detailed how I'd looked up the word in Wikipedia, an encyclopedia written by ordinary people, and talked about the decentralization of information and the importance of story and the elevation of "meaning" over "truth" (quoting, of course, Miller's comment that the Christian narrative was "more than true; it was meaningful"). I think I did a terrible job of explaining postmodernism, so much so that Derrida was left to toss and turn all night. Members of the emerging church "conversation" were probably admitted into emergency rooms due to an inexplicable & excruciating buzz in their ears. And yet I was having a blast. It was a feast of the intellect, even if my intellect is a little rusty. Talking about philosophy and theology and ethics exilarates me.

And then there was yesterday. I got a call from a woman we know through our outreach ministries who had given birth to a little girl. She needed a ride from the hospital back to the motel where she and her family live. I encouraged her to tell me what she needed (diapers, food, etc.) and that I would figure out how to cover it all. The baby slept in a hospital-issue carseat nestled in our shopping cart while we went through the aisles. I picked out an adorable velour sweatshirt as a baby gift. And I tried as hard as I could to set aside the waves of judgment that just would not stop swelling from the part of me that is very, very small.

I think I probably did a better job of helping that family than I did of explaining postmodernism, but the latter made me feel alive and the former made me feel awful (with the notable exception of when I was able to rock the baby for a few minutes - she was full of peace and beauty). I don't like this or understand this. I was very good at theorizing about poverty when I was taking part in an interdisciplinary colloquium on the subject during grad school. But my first real life experience with a homeless ministry has not turned me into a Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa. Whether you'd call it getting jaded or getting realistic, I'm so much more aware of the countless bad decisions that spiral people into homelessness. Yes, many of the people who are homeless around here are victims of economic injustice and/or untreated mental illness. Drugs also control many of their decisions. Even as I type that sentence, I recognize that part of the abuse of narcotics is self-medication for mental illness. And even as I type this sentence, I know that all of this is useless blather that isn't going to help any of the people we serve.

One of the people we encountered on our post-maternity ward shopping trip was the Ralph's employee working the deli encounter. She knew the mother as a regular customer, and she enthusiastically greeted the new baby. In fact, she ran around the counter to get a closer look - giggling over the little baby fingernails and what not. And then she gave us a great deal on chicken, scanning a cheaper price and tossing a few extra pieces into the bag. There wasn't a hint of judgment or question in her tone of voice. I want to learn from her generosity and graciousness.

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