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    PloughCast #29 Finding Joy: Music, Community, Practical Philosophy, and Jane Austen

    Why We Make Music, Part 5

    By Peter Mommsen, Susannah Black Roberts, Phil Christman, Joseph M. Keegin and Joy Clarkson

    April 19, 2022
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    Joey Keegin and Phil Christman on nostalgia and music, and Joy Clarkson on her book Aggressively Happy.

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    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah talk with Joey Keegin and Phil Christman about their pieces on Christian hardcore and ’80s, ’90s post-punk respectively. The blend of nostalgia and genuine appreciation makes for a powerful and enthusiastic back and forth between the two guests, with Pete chiming in and Susannah remaining respectfully silent.

    They discuss what makes derivative Christian music bad, and how some Christian hardcore escaped the fate of imitative mediocrity. They also discuss the way that YouTube comments provide a strange Covid-era community of nostalgia for the children of the ’80s and ’90s.

    Then, Pete and Susannah talk with Plough’s own Joy Clarkson about her newly-published title Aggressively Happy, a how-to guide to finding joy. Unlike many such guides which focus on one’s internal state, this book encourages readers to find joy in the actual goodness of the world: it is an anti-stoic text.

    Most controversially, Joy makes the case that Pride and Prejudice’s sycophantic vicar, Mr. Collins, is unfairly maligned and is a model of appropriate ambition, resilience, and contentment.

    • I: Christman & Keegin: Christian Hardcore and Post-Punk Nostalgia
    • II: Christman & Keegin: How to Build a Good Musical World
    • III: Joy Clarkson: Aggressively Happy
    • IV: Joy Clarkson: In Defense of Mr. Collins

    Recommended Reading

    Transcript

    Section I: Phil Christman and Joey Keegin: Christian Hardcore and Post-Punk Nostalgia

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to The PloughCast. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough.

    Susannah Black: And I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough. We’re here to talk with Phil Christman and Joey Keegin about two of their pieces in the most recent magazine. And then we’ll be talking with Plough editor Joy Clarkson about her new book, Aggressively Happy.

    Peter Mommsen: And now, welcome to Phil and Joey, here to talk about Christian hardcore and the strange nostalgic community to be found in the YouTube comments of new wave bands.

    Susannah Black: This is what we’ve come to call the aging hipster wife-guy segment of The PloughCast.

    Peter Mommsen: Right, and that speaks to me. Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing. His work has appeared in the Christian Century, Paste, Books and Culture, the Hedgehog Review, and other publications. And he has a great book column at Plough. His most recent book is How to Be Normal.

    Susannah Black: Joey Keegin is a writer and editor at Athwart and The Point, currently living in Chicago. Welcome Phil and Joey.

    Peter Mommsen: Phil, you’ve written this piece that you have to read to understand fully, I think, called “Reading the Comments,” subtitled “Fans of 1980s post-punk and new wave find a community and catharsis online,” specifically in the YouTube comments section. And Joey has written a piece about Christian hardcore, “The Death and Life of Christian Hardcore,” where he tells the story that a bunch of us who were around specifically in the ’90s and early 2000s will remember, of the death and life of hardcore. One thing with both your articles was the relationship between music and community and the strange communities that can be built around music. Could both of you, maybe you start Phil, just kind of tell us a little bit about what you wrote about and why you wrote about it? I think you started off, Phil, in the midst of Covid, staring at your computer screen.

    Phil Christman: Yeah, yeah. I don’t think the article’s depressing, at least I hope not, but it definitely has the most depressed-middle-aged man vibes of anything that I think I’ve ever written, which, the result within the article hopefully is funny. I mean that’s what you aim –

    Peter Mommsen: No, it’s actually genuinely funny.

    Susannah Black: It’s extremely funny. Distressing, but funny.

    Phil Christman: Mission accomplished, but yeah. Everybody suffered Covid differently and of course, unequally. I’m lucky enough that I am privileged enough that I wasn’t suffering in the sense of like risking exposure to bring middle-class people their grocery shopping; instead I was one of those people. So I was just suffering in the sense of being cooped up all day, not being able to go out and also, just being suffused with dread all the time, because this is what the future was going to look like. I think in tough times, people refer to the music that’s like their home base, musically, like whatever you were a huge fan of between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, that will serve as a kind of comfort food for you in a way nothing else will.

    And it just so happens that my comfort food is bands like Joy Division, who are not at all comforting actually. I found myself listening to that stuff a lot. And I found myself just glancing at the comments of old ’80s post-punk and new-wave music videos. And I found myself emoting in response to things that people were sharing to a degree that was like, this is weird. People would post things about like, “I first heard this song with my girlfriend 38 years ago, and now we’ve been married all these years and I wish that Ian Curtis in Joy Division had lived.” He famously committed suicide early on. And people sharing these things very artlessly and very honestly and I just found myself feeling like, yeah, me too.

    And I thought, okay, well, this is a sign that things are not perfectly well in my life. Well, of course they weren’t, there was a global pandemic happening and what did I expect? And one day I started talking about this online with friend of the pod Veery Huleatt and she said, “Phil, you need to write, you’re making me laugh, you need to write about this.” So that’s what happened there.

    Peter Mommsen: You just wrote this book, Phil, How to be Normal. Will listening to post punk and reading the comments make me even more normal? Is this one of the strategies I can use?

    Phil Christman: I mean, How to Be Normal is an essay collection and certainly not any kind of “how to.” But I mean, yes, in the sense that you should reach for some sense of connection with other people, yes, in the sense that you should listen to music, which is something that was like central to my life for years and years and years in my youth and now that I have a vocation and all that adult kind of grounding stuff, I inexplicably sometimes will forget to listen to records, like some kind of crazy person. I don’t know how I became that person, frankly. The person who could forget to listen to records, but, you got to do that and you’ve got to find some way of finding community with other people and for whatever reason, whatever alphabet soup of diagnoses I’m working with, I forget those very obvious things. And yeah, so I do think it helped me be a little more normal.

    Peter Mommsen: So Joey, in “The Death and Life of Christian Hardcore,” you describe actually a bit of a different milieu than Joy Division.

    Joey Keegin: The earliest bands that I could find are sort of like these late ’80s and early ’90s bands from California and Florida and places where these thriving punk scenes had already existed. One of the really interesting things about Christian hardcore and Christian punk rock is that its early roots are something that’s kind of derivative, right. It starts out as this kind of child of punk rock, but then very quickly after that, it starts blossoming in all of these parts of the country that never had punk rock scenes to begin with, they start experimenting with styles of playing hardcore that really nobody else was doing at the time and so its early impulse was like, all right, we’re going to take this template and twist it in this direction and sing about God rather than about death or whatever and some of the early bands really were just kind of like, yeah, taking a kind of stock issue, punk rock thing and just changing it lyrically.

    But then by the early to mid ’90s, you have these places like, rural Arkansas, some other places and there’s some bands that come out of some parts of Pennsylvania where there weren’t really like thriving punk scenes and places like this where, Memphis, Tennessee, which is this place that had some kind of punk rock thing sort of, but nothing to the extent of like California and they just become these hotbeds for this entirely new sort of milieu and community of people making this kind of music. And especially going into the mid ’90s. I mean, they start charting some completely new sonic territory that then becomes influential on the level of the whole.

    All these kids in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do, start getting together in the very few places that they have to gather, church basements, YMCAs, coffee shops in some places, famously in Louisville, Kentucky, which had kind of a Christian hardcore thing, but then they had kind of had their own scene. But nonetheless right, there were like some hardcore shows that happened in like a Denny’s, any place where you could use an excuse to kind of get together with other young people and just kind of freak out for a little while. But in this case, right, in the case of Christian hardcore, you were sort of freaking out for a particular kind of reason that their faith was very earnest and it was very amateur and kind of like in many cases sort of unformed, but they were trying to figure it out with each other.

    The, I mean the very first, I think back on this stuff, the very first like punk rock, loud, weird music song I ever heard was this California Christian hardcore band called Overcome. I think they formed in like 1989 or something like that, doing a cover of “Our God is an awesome God.” And I had no idea what I was listening to – my brother was like, “Joey, got to play this for you.” I was like, I don’t know, like eight or nine years old or something, and he plays this thing and I was just like, what is this guy screaming about? And then he was like, “No, you got to listen to the words” and that was the first time I’d ever heard punk rock music in my life and then some two or three months later or something like that, my brother drags me to a church basement in northern Mississippi, to see his band play with these other two Christian hardcore bands.

    It’s all these teenage kids just like losing their minds and talking very earnestly about God in between songs. And it was like this really incredible and strange experience. What I try to chart in the article is like the blossoming of this very strange, very kind of, I don’t know this community of kind of vernacular Christianity that sort of just blows all over the country and then rockets to genuine fame. Some of these bands get really huge and it becomes like a means of making a huge amount of money and then in that process of becoming very famous undoes itself, and then it collapses very quickly thereafter. So I mean, one of the things I don’t chart in the piece, and I was thinking about this when reading Phil’s, is that one of the things that happens kind of in parallel to the history of this thing right throughout the ’90s and in early 2000s is the development of the internet.

    And so I was thinking about how like, when I was a kid, my brother wasn’t online, he was just like doing his thing, playing with his hardcore band in like crusty Memphis, Tennessee bars and stuff. But I was mostly encountering the stuff online. So I was on AOL chat rooms, like downloading stuff on like Napster and Soulseek when I was twelve years old. And there is a sort of slow-burning, existing community of this stuff online that I’ve come into contact with, to some extent, by publishing this article I think it does take place in YouTube comments. If you look at these old songs from these old Christian hardcore bands, you’ll find people being like, “I heard this song when I was eleven years old and it changed my life” and yeah, so there’s some overlap.

    Phil Christman: Although for me, one of the interesting differences between our articles and I think Joey, you kind of put your finger on exactly what this was a couple months ago before we started recording. Joey, made this remark about him and me both having a kind of aging hipster vibe, which is, that was kindness on his part. Because the fact is, I was never a hipster, too agoraphobic to be a good hipster.

    And especially before the internet, like I had to reconstruct the whole genealogy of pre-punk, punk and postpunk from reading terrible music magazines. And you would just get at a … I knew which bands I liked and you would get a glimpse of oh, well this band influenced Talking Heads or whatever. Oh, really, I can write this down and then I would take notes, I was such a nerd. And I lived in a small town too, sometimes it would be years before I had a chance to actually hear this stuff. So for me, part of, I mean, something that’s interesting about the article is that it’s me finding a community almost for the first time around the thing that had been kind of, not a totally isolated pursuit, but kind of a lonely pursuit for me at the time when I was most avidly pursuing it.

    And something else you said that was interesting when you, Joey, when you’re describing Christian hardcore as both sonically innovative in a way that then there’s like a tributary back to the larger hardcore scene, which I would argue, like at least the Christian rock that I grew up with, like Christian rock and pop more broadly, like basically stuff my youth pastor wanted me to listen to instead of Talking Heads, this is not true of that stuff. That stuff was so blatantly imitative in a lot of cases that they famously used to have these posters at Christian bookstores that are like, if you like this problematic secular band, try this Christian band instead.

    Joey Keegin: Yeah. I wrote about Cornerstone Festival. That was sort of the beginning of my piece: thinking about Cornerstone and the history of it and the role that it played in fomenting this world. I went to Cornerstone in 2000 with my brother and his band played. It’s like sort of fun and interesting and I don’t know, kind of cool in this sort of just sociological way. Cornerstone was, I mean, an overwhelming majority of the bands that played there were like explicitly and deliberately like, all right, we like this secular band, let’s do this exact thing with lyrics that will be marketable to a different target audience. The record labels that existed through the early ’90s were largely doing this kind of maneuver.

    And then there’s a sort of blossoming of record labels that pop up to sort of release these Christian hardcore bands and then all of those are kind of like the exception that proves the rule in Christian music. These were bands that couldn’t get signed to these derivative Christian labels because they didn’t do the thing right. They weren’t like, all right, if you like, X –

    Phil Christman: If you like Minute Men, we’re Minute Men, but we suck! So there’s multiple roads to boring conformity, there’s like, I’m doing art as a form of ministry and I don’t care about the art and that leads to a kind of stifling conformity, but then there’s also the, I’m choosing success. Which is one of the oldest ways to become boring as an artist that there is. As a quick sidebar, I want to say that in the ’90s, there was briefly a kind of Christian art rock scene that I think also had the potential to become something that had some of the admirable features that Christian hardcore did. I’m thinking bands like early Over the Rhine, Innocence Mission, Danielson Famile, Sufjan when he first started, Rosie Thomas. So it wasn’t … I don’t want to …

    Joey Keegin: Danielson Famile was amazing. I mean, and Starflyer 59 also incredible stuff.

    Phil Christman: Oh, I can’t believe I forgot Starflyer 59.

    Joey Keegin: I mean, that dude still puts out records for one and he was like Sunny Day Real Estate or something. I mean, he formed a sound that then a bunch of other bands that had nothing to do with Christian music picked up and sort of continued forward. He was a genre-forming game changer. And then everybody kind of forgot that he had done it. The first few Starflyer 59 albums are these kind of like college rock, shoe-gaze classics that came into the world and were super, super popular. And all these people listened to it and all these people formed bands that sounded like it. And then people stopped listening to him. And so the genealogy kind of got broken, but yeah. Yeah. I mean he was doing something nobody else was doing.

    Phil Christman: You mentioned Sunny Day Real Estate. I mean, Jeremy Enigk. He had a violent conversion experience and made this incredible solo record, that this girl I had this horrible, horrible unending crush on in college, it was her favorite record of all time. So of course that just magnifies the artistic power. Return of the Frog King, something like that.

    Joey Keegin: Yeah. No, Jeremy Enigk, another guy who continues to make records and they’re all amazing. I mean, the guy has been like, he’s a workhorse and he’s got a voice of an angel and he still seems to have this really earnest faith that he sings. It’s amazing. I mean, he’s an anachronism now, but he’s a beautiful and amazing anachronism.

    Phil Christman: Yeah. The talent’s there, but what you were saying about the combination of being serious about your artistry and creating something genuinely new and also having this incredibly earnest and real faith kind of reminds me of the music, some of the weirder music that’s associated with kind of the Jesus Movement moment of the late ’60s, early ’70s. There was this compilation that came out a few years ago from, I forget where, it was like Jesus Music Volumes One and Two or something like that. It’s Christian garage rock, psychedelia, and art rock from very late ’60s through early ’70s. And it was like listening to Nuggets or something.

    For those tuning in at home, Nuggets is a classic compilation of ’60s garage rock, that was a huge influence on Patti Smith and other great artists. Anyway, yeah, it was that good. It was like, how did this stuff not get famous? And it similarly had that quality of like, I’m questing both aesthetically and spiritually in a very real way. And it’s like, why is it so hard for Christians to sustain those moments? I keep coming back to that as artists, like … yeah, go ahead.

    Section II: Phil Christman and Joey Keegin: How to Build a Good Musical World

    Joey Keegin: I mean, I think that it’s easy to forget the size and scope and influence of Cornerstone. But it was like this enormous thing. Like every Christian band in America wanted to play it, and many of them did. it’s all these kind of like hippies that had their soul grabbed by the Lord and playing prog rock about Jesus and then they go –

    Phil Christman: It’s so rad. It’s so good.

    Joey Keegin: It’s so weird and cool and this kind of bizarre American kind of thing, but yeah. I mean, as to your question about how to sustain that kind of artistic energy I mean, I remain really interested in, sort of new developments in music and I’m always trying to sort of keep my finger on the pulse, it gets harder as you get older. I’m sort of losing the thread –

    Phil Christman: I am losing my edge.

    Joey Keegin: Yeah. Well, and I don’t know what these kids are listening to man. I mean, they play, I supervise students at the university and they play me stuff that they’re really into and it’s just like, I don’t know man, it just sounds extruded from a machine or something. But I mean, there is still a world of interesting Christian stuff happening. I mean, mewithoutYou, maybe one of the best things to ever come out of the … I say best, I don’t say this arbitrarily just like one of the most unique and forward thinking and lyrically just absolutely breathtaking. I mean, those guys are absolutely incredible musicians and they put out, just wonderful album after wonderful album. I think they’re just calling it quits now, I mean, which is –

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, they just did a big reunion last summer right? So Aaron Weiss, their lead singer used to be a friend of mine and used to visit the Bruderhof community a bunch in the early 2000s. One of their songs, weirdly enough, several of their songs, weirdly enough, are by the sister-in-law of the founder of our publishing house, Eberhard Arnold, Else van Hollander. But just to show the weirdness and the earnestness that you were talking about, right? These are people who are super serious about new ways of imagining faith. I was personally super snooty about Christian music, and then I got to know Aaron and mewithoutYou is worth listening to.

    Phil Christman: For context, Joey is literally wearing a mewithoutYou’s t-shirt right now, like Pete, you’ve got to facilitate this-

    Peter Mommsen: Ah, for real?

    Phil Christman: These guys need to be friends.

    Joey Keegin: Yeah, no, you got to connect me. I mean, I not only love listening to mewithoutYou, I’ll put on the record and sit down and read the lyrics and like, and in the liner notes, I mean, he tends to like tell you who he’s referencing. It’ll be like a line that’ll have like Wittgenstein or St. John of the Cross. I mean like the guy’s on a totally different level, but which is to say that like, I mean, I think of them as being really one of like the great American and rock and roll bands, like ever. And they’re completely underivative.

    There’s been nobody who’s ever sounded like them before and the depth of the lyricism, the depth of the kind of intellectualism going into the thing, and they’re a Christian band and they’ve all always been a Christian band and they never did the thing that a bunch of other Christian bands did, which is to stop being a Christian band and to say, oh we were always just kind of Christians in a band, and whatever, they never did that.

    Phil Christman: I mean, that’s the thing, right? Like Christian artistic expression probably should sound more like, not literally sound like, but in the effect it has on the listener, make you go, wow, what am I listening to? It should sound more like Captain Beefheart than like Michael W. Smith. I don’t know if he’s even worth picking on anymore, he was ubiquitous in my childhood, it should sound like people whose universes have been upended, who are now trying to like map a whole new space.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, and with mewithoutYou there was also a connection to a level of social concern and awareness of a wider world beyond just me and my faith in my personal turmoil, which I’m going to tell you about in the next sixty songs. So when we were in touch with him a lot, for instance, Shane Claiborne was just starting his Simple Way community in Philadelphia, they were connected up with mewithoutYou, there was this whole scene of different people getting involved around issues like the death penalty and criminal justice issues. I’m not sure the degree that spills over to their music, but it was definitely sort of informing this kind of stuff that they were thinking about in a way that Cornerstone, I’m not sure that was there like a ska’s hot this year, let’s make a Christian ska band.

    Joey Keegin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that’s a really good point. So much of what Christian contemporary music has always been is this kind of solipsistic, yeah, my personal journey. I always play this game whenever you’re listening to this stuff, it’s just like, all right, is this person singing about God or Christ or whatever, or are they just singing about a love interest? And half the time it’s indistinguishable, it could be one or the other.

    One of the things that always really struck me about Christian hardcore is that in the years before it became this kind of hot, marketable commodity by these record conglomerates, it was very much this effort at building the church out in this new way. Making communities that were not just music scenes, but that were concerned with social matters, with trying to kind of make a more just world in the light of the gospel and working like really working … I mean, these bands who formed to perform this stuff, I mean, they’d regularly do volunteer work at their churches, I mean half of these guys ended up becoming sort of youth ministers or something and like trying to participate in something. There was always a close tie between religious communities that weren’t music scenes and these music scenes and the Christian hardcore bands kind of straddled that and in a very uncomfortable way, most of the time, because, the music scenes that they were trying to perform in, and most of these places didn’t want them around.

    If you talk to hardcore kids and punks or whatever in the ’90s and early 2000s, they hated these guys. And I mean, a lot of it was unfair. It was just simply that you believe anything, makes you a mark to be ridiculed because the punk thing was so nihilistic explicitly and there was this kind of, you had the style itself as like I’m above it all right, I’m –

    Phil Christman: Which is also ahistorical, because punk was the Sex Pistols in the first instance, but punk was also the Clash.

    Joey Keegin: And Fugazi, I mean

    Phil Christman: Fugazi, exactly. I mean, you’re really, really like … I remember meeting hardcore kids of the more, I listened to Craft Variety and they always embodied the paradox that you then later saw in the more militant new atheist types, like ten years ago, where, boy, you in particular are not in any position to tell people not to believe in things, because you are completely fanatical, I know twenty fundamentalists less fanatical than you are.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, you got those, the straight-edgers go on you know –

    Joey Keegin: No, I think of, the Christian hardcore thing and the straight-edge thing, there was a lot of bleedover, right? That was one of the places actually, where I think there was a lot more kind of cross subcultural collaboration between like the straight and right. Chris Morgan wrote a really beautiful essay about this years ago. And I don’t remember where he published it. It might have been in, I don’t know, I can’t say, but this is a question he’s always thinking about, it is kind of this strange connection between the straight-edge hardcore scene and like Christian punk and one of the things that he always points out is that Ian Mackay from Minor Threats/Fugazi, his dad was an Episcopal minister. And so the early energy for straight-edge was like directly from this kind of like Protestant moral sense that gets channeled into something else because he wanted to leave this stuff behind, but it changes in content but remains kind of identical in form.

    Wherever it is, it’s completely worth reading on this question and Chris Morgan, I always think of as being the sort of Virgil through the ’90s counte/subcultural inferno. But yeah, the straight edge Christian hardcore thing is … and it remains a connection, right? I think that of a lot of the people that I know who still, decades down the line, as unpopular it’s become, still consider themselves to be straight edge, many of them are Christians. They’re fine with these unpopular labels.

    Peter Mommsen: They get used to it.

    Phil Christman: It’s a little like being a Christian pacifist communitarian, I would imagine.

    Susannah Black: You’re uncool, but you get used to it.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah you get used to it. People can get used to anything, I think someone once said.

    Phil Christman: Heard all the insults, I know how this goes.

    Joey Keegin: One of the weird things about post-punk in particular is that it has really come back with a vengeance. You see just like random kids walking around, they’re like sixteen years old wearing the Unknown Pleasures shirt with the lines on it.

    And I guess I’m sort of curious what you think about this kind of strange afterlife of post punk and being the kind of like, or having the kind of cultural status that it does.

    Phil Christman: I base these generalizations just on what I observe of my students. But that’s a reasonably big sample I think. I don’t think that pop culture history exists in the same way for younger people that it did for me. There’s just a million mood boards that you can reach to when you need to do whatever it is people use mood boards for. I don’t understand that phenomenon, but it’s yeah, every past moment in pop cultural history is like a Pinterest thing.

    It’s a flat collage that you can pull from, if you’re an artist or if you’re just looking for something to listen to, or if you’re just looking for something to wear the t-shirt of. Which in a basic way, that’s kind of good because I like that some young person who encounters a reference to The Velvet Underground, doesn’t have to wait six months until mom happens to be going to the department store several towns over and tag along and then buy it surreptitiously because your mom’s a fundamentalist and she won’t let you buy it, she’s not going to let you buy a tape called The Velvet Underground and Nico, with a big phallic looking banana on the cover.

    Joey Keegin: Is this a personal story from –

    Phil Christman: No, no, no. This is a universal gen-X experience. Y’all have been there. People don’t have to, I’m glad for people not to have to do all the work that I used to have to do –

    Susannah Black: But you suffered. You suffered to make your sort of purpose –

    Phil Christman: I am not really interested in using that in a kind of like, I don’t know, “these are fake gamer girls,” because they were never picked, I’m not interested in using that as a bar to entry at all. If it’s good art, I want people to have access to it.

    But yeah, I noticed a kind of new wave revival as early as the mid 2000s. And initially I liked it just because this is a simulacrum of stuff I enjoy listening to, Interpol, that sounds nice, The Strokes, that sounds nice, the one Modest Mouse song that just sounds so much like Gang of Four that it’s kind of unbelievable, sure, why not. If I can’t have gourmet pizza, then Domino’s is fine.

    Joey Keegin: LCD Sound System played a show on Saturday Night Live recently. I mean they’re like a new wave throwback from top to bottom.

    Phil Christman: Them I could never get into, I was just like, okay, so there’s going to be a burst of fuzz noise, and then he’s going to talk and then there’s another, and then he’s going to talk. I just –

    Joey Keegin: And then he’s going to market his own brand of coffee and then, I don’t know, yeah, sure.

    Phil Christman: I mean, he’s got to eat, but geez. Yeah. I think at a certain point I started having the reaction to all of it that Mark Fisher describes having when Arctic Monkeys were big. Google Mark Fisher, Arctic Monkeys, those of you sitting at home, because it’s a great piece, but he just talks about feeling like, look, if new wave really and post-punk in particular meant anything to you, then what you want to do is have it inspire you to make newer things rather than imitate it. Like this is the wrong way to keep faith with the spirit of that art or really, any halfway good art, is to sort of subside into mirror imitation of it.

    Joey Keegin: It’s the old adage of Ezra Pound, make it new. Yeah, make it new. Yeah. It makes me think right, Matt Bruenig wrote this essay a year or two ago, that was sort of reflecting on the question of post scarcity and art. Like now that you can just access all of this stuff with the click of a mouse, it means that it’s not going to be nearly as special, it’s not going to have as nearly a sort of existential status as the stuff did in the past. So yeah, like Starflyer 59 now is just “nineties.” It’s no longer like this strange Seattle guy who moved in this particular world and had these particular connections and released record labels –

    Phil Christman: It’s no longer like a pirate radio station from another planet, which is how this used to feel, yeah.

    Joey Keegin: Yeah. And like these were art objects. When I was growing up, it was hard to get records. I remember ordering stuff through mail order catalogs and you had to really seek out the ways to get these things. You had to go see a band at their show in order to get it like half the time and so Bruenig’s thing is like, well, okay, so the art object becomes devalued in a particular kind of way, or it takes on a new kind of life, or it has a different kind of being, and it’s very flat and so on and so forth, but it’s all worth it because of, it’s good to simply have these things in people’s hands. I think that article actually made me a defender of scarcity.

    I like that Christian hardcore music meant something for the participants in it, and that you had to like work to find it and that and so on one hand, and I’m thinking now of like the strange thing of like, if you go to a museum and you see these objects taken out of monasteries, and they’re just kind of hanging on the wall, like to one extent, I’m glad that I can see it. But isn’t there something that’s like inherently and sort of irrevocably tragic about the removal of that thing from a kind of context in which it’s like an object of devotion?

    Christian hardcore music was devotional to a large extent. The early stuff, there was a kind of liturgy to it. These kids are trying to like worship God through making and listening to and attending sort of performances of this music. And like on one hand, I’m glad in a way that teenagers or whatever who are just scrolling through Spotify might sort of have one of these things spit into their algorithmic ether, like a playlist or something like that, that’s kind of interesting to me. But on the other hand, what made this stuff so urgent and what made it so important for me as a young person, was that it wasn’t just an art object, it was a piece of a world.

    Phil Christman: But then what that means is that a little bit of a radioactive object, like a fragment of a radioactive object from a radioactive world got thrown into this person’s algorithm on a particular day and we can’t, I don’t think we can predict the impact of that. Especially if we’re talking about art that is sacred in some sense. I think that means as with anything that involves kind of the banalization of Christianity, I think that radioactivity never fully goes away and that we can’t assume that the impact that we know, like what the impact will be, that we can’t write off, that that kid isn’t going to have something.

    It won’t be your experience. And in that way, yes, it’s all tragic because death is tragic, aging is tragic. Now I don’t mean to be like super morbid, but it’s like, yeah. I mean, no one will ever again, have the teenage experience that you or I had and nor will I ever have my dad’s teenage experience and that’s inherently, we need to just admit that that does suck. The grief we feel over that is legitimate, but I don’t think we can write off the possibility that people are having other kinds of experience with art, or are still capable of having kinds of experiences with art, that are still life-changing in ways that we couldn’t foresee. And that will then themselves be surpassed and replaced unless Jesus comes back next week. So I don’t know, I try to maintain both a sense of mourning about that stuff and also an openness to possibility.

    Joey Keegin: Yeah. There will be a time for moshing and a time for streaming and a time for –

    Phil Christman: There you go. I love it.

    Joey Keegin: This too is vanity.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, thanks, Joey and Phil, this has been a great conversation. It’s been great having you on and, yeah, check out these articles, dear listeners, and we’ll also drop links to some of the other pieces we talked about and to some of the bands.

    Section III: Joy Clarkson: Aggressively Happy

    And now we’re very pleased to welcome Plough’s own Joy Clarkson. Joy has just completed her doctorate in theology, imagination and the arts at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland and is the host of the podcast Speaking With Joy. She’s also a contributing editor at Plough.

    Susannah Black: Joy, it is so good to have you here. Where are you calling in from?

    Joy Clarkson: I am Zooming in from my flat in Oxford, and it’s very fun to actually be interviewed, because usually I’m the one interviewing. I feel like of all the people, you and Pete are the ones I’ll let interview me.

    Peter Mommsen: We’ll beware your attempts to interview us, Joy. Because we want to talk about your new book Aggressively Happy –

    Susannah Black: Which I will show to the camera. Why don’t you describe what this project was and how it came to be, the anecdote about how it came to be is also fantastic.

    Joy Clarkson: I think that in some ways it came from spending too much time on Twitter. And one of the things is I actually quite enjoy Twitter, I think there are lots of interesting people to encounter there and what I always say is, it’s a bit of like, I mean, heavens I encountered you all there. I say it’s a little bit like an echo chamber. And so if you yell obscure things that you’re interested in, like literature, Jane Austen, philosophy, theology, you will discover these strange people who will yell back at you. And that’s a wonderful, delightful thing.

    But the other thing I discovered on Twitter, which is perhaps just a megaphone of ordinary life, is that occasionally I would encounter this very angry response to happiness or joy or delight. This kind of sense that if you were really a wise person, if you were really somebody who cared about the world, cared about your faith, that you would be someone who was kind of cynical or serious all the time. And so whenever I would tweet anything happier, lighthearted or whatever, I would get these very intense negative responses.

    And one of those – I had tweeted something kind of innocuous like about tea or lipstick or something. And this tweeter responded and said, “This is disgusting, you’re so aggressively happy.” And I took it just kind of on the chin. I thought it was a bit funny because you know, people are funny on the internet. But I pondered it for a moment and I thought, yeah, I am aggressively happy because I think to find joy and to keep a sense of soft-heartedness and innocence and openness, which I think is necessary for various reasons that I go into the book, I think in our world, it takes some assertiveness, it takes some intentionality.

    And so of playfully put that into my bio, but then it led me to thinking about how we think about happiness, how we think about joy and how we think about these as somehow shallow emotions or things that are not as deep or not as profound. When actually I think that living a life of joy, of hope, of delight is in some ways kind of a resistance to the cynicism of our world, the despair, the hopelessness, and is actually something that adds a great deal to the people around us. And also that tells the truth about reality, which is that we think that we live in a good world, created by a good God who actually likes us and wants it to be redeemed.

    And I think that kind of is the core of the book, is getting to the fact that actually being someone who is delighted with reality is a part of being in touch with the goodness of life. And so that’s a round about way of saying that I wrote this book to rebuke the idea that cynicism is somehow deep and to help people kind of have practical steps on how to be happy, how to enjoy things. The book itself is a collection of 10 essays that are somewhat autobiographical, somewhat literary-theological, kind of pondering various aspects of what it takes to be aggressively happy in the world.

    Peter Mommsen: As we’re recording this in late March, of course the war in Ukraine is going, and there’s a version of the argument that you just described right now, which is that we should only be focusing on the war. That if we’re serious, there’s this terrible, terrible thing happening. That this is really the only thing that ought to occupy us, that we ought to be talking about and focusing on. I notice in your book, you refer a few times, I think, to C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Learning in Wartime.” What does it mean to talk about being happy when we know that something like this war in Ukraine is going on and of course is not only in Ukraine, there are bad things going on?

    Joy Clarkson: I think I would say, there’s three ways to think about that. The first is that, I start the book by talking about quite a heavy time in my life when I just wasn’t convinced that life was a good thing, which maybe sounds intense, but I think that people have experienced that at various times and I think it’s hard not to feel that sometimes when you look at the world that we’re in. And two things pulled me out of that. One was having this sense, which in some ways was being convinced of it, but also kind of just having a little bit of a mystical experience of “life is good.” And part of the reason that we have these profound reactions of injustice and anger and grief is because we have this sense that life is meant to be good, deep down to its core.

    And part of that for me, was also meditating on the Beatitudes, right? We know these most famous sayings of Jesus, which are, “Blessed are the poor spirit, blessed are those who mourn,” these are core to the Christian traditions, to the Bruderhof, and what struck me was when I learned that makarios in Greek could be translated as blessed, but it could also be translated as happy or lucky or many other things that have to do with this kind of lightness. And what strikes me about that is that each one of those things, they are, it’s people who are grieved, people who are poor, people who are hungering for righteousness, that they’re not currently experiencing. It’s all these different senses of lack. And yet it is possible to experience blessedness and happiness in the midst of great sorrow and turmoil.

    So I think I’m giving a long rambling answer to this, but the first thing is to say that I think this is a part of reality is experiencing blessedness, experiencing happiness in the midst of great trial. Pivoting that to saying that I actually think that it’s almost impossible for us to respond to injustice without some notion of the blessedness of life. Without some notion that the reason we feel such sorrow when we see children, families, mothers, being turned out of their houses, being afraid, is because we know that they should be learning and growing and have access to easy things. And so I think that in some ways being in touch with that happy heart of reality is necessary for being openhearted enough to respond to the grief that we experience in the world.

    And then I think the final thing I would say is that this is not a book about just being happy all the time. I think it’s a book about being open to reality. And I think that being open to reality is I think at the core of reality is goodness, is blessedness, is happiness. But being open to reality also means that you are open to the reality of the broken world that we live in. And I think that requires being willing to – The first chapter is called Befriend Sadness. It’s being willing to really reckon with the real brokenness, the real disappointment, the real sadness of life.

    But I actually think that a full embrace of those things allows us to be more in touch with reality and therefore able to be happy when things are redeemed. So that’s a rambling answer, but I think part of it is happiness is still a part of reality, even when there’s deep brokenness. I think we need to be in touch with that sense of blessedness to respond reasonably to injustice and to know how to react well. And that really the book is less about just being happy all the time and more about being in touch with reality, which I think is blessed, which means that sometimes we also need to learn very intentionally how to reckon with our sorrow and our anger.

    Susannah Black: I described this as sort of self-helpy and I think it is, but it’s also in the tradition of philosophical exercises, I want to say. And it’s getting back to a kind of understanding of philosophy as a way of life or philosophy as practice. And I was thinking about that as you were talking, because one thing that it’s not is in the tradition of what a lot of those philosophy-as-a-way-of-life books from the second and third century AD were, which is, this is not a stoic book. There’s this tradition in philosophy, which is stoicism, which basically has to do with like: you can’t control what’s going to happen, but what you can control is your expectation and your own internal sense of reality, and it’s very much kind of like it’s a philosophy that expects very little of life.

    And there’s a certain way to read your book, which would sort of be a stoic-ish reading of it, where it’s like, let’s kind of try to do your best to do stuff to your internal world so that you’re safe from the external world, I guess, is one way to put it. And there are a lot of kind of self-helpy books that are that kind of like, do your best to become safe from the external world. And that seems like fundamentally not what you’re doing with this book.

    This is a set of instructions: each of these chapters begins with a verb. These are meant to open you up to the actual external world, which is as you say, a joyful place, it’s a fundamentally good place. And so it’s not to make yourself safe from that, but it’s actually to, in some way, get yourself in touch with that. And your hypothesis is, it seems to me, if you are not experiencing that blessedness, that happiness, you’re in some way not in real touch with the real world, you’re sort of in some kind of false world. Does that ring any bells for you?

    Joy Clarkson: Yeah, I think that it’s interesting you use the word safety, because one of the first people I quote in the book is Julian of Norwich, who is this wonderful fourteenth century mystic. And one of the things that she orbits around is the problem of evil and safety. So she has this sense of “why can we live in this beautiful world where God lets bad things happen?” but she returns over and over again to this idea that God is keeping us very safe. And she says this over and over again and she has this vision of God holding a hazelnut in his hand, and it’s this little thing and she’s like, oh my gosh, we could just disintegrate. Why do we think reality could continue, we could just fall apart at any moment. And then she says, but then God said to me, I made it. I love it and I care for it.

    And there’s this sense of God’s safety then, as she thinks about suffering and trials and difficulty, it means that the most fundamental thing is that we are safe. We are loved, nothing can ultimately veer us off course and of course there’s many kinds of philosophical things to unpick with that, and providence and all that. But there’s this sense that if we are safe, fundamentally, then no suffering, no tribulation, nothing can really unroot that essential okayness. And I think the chapter I got to that mostly in was the chapter on accepting love. But I think that my sense is that nothing can really make you safe in this world. It’s just a fragile, broken, difficult, it is a fragile world, that’s what it is to be a human.

    So I don’t think there’s any kind of effort you can make really, to make yourself less or more safe. I think that what the book is about, is coming to the place where you know, that the most fundamental reality is that you are, that God made you, God loves you and God cares for you. And the more you know that, the more you are able to kind of have skin in the game of the world. If I know that I’m fundamentally okay, that God holds me in the palm in his hand like a hazelnut that then that frees me up both to love people tremendously, to be willing to be hurt, to be willing to risk, it also frees me to be willing to enjoy and not be embarrassed because I don’t have to worry all the time about what people think about me. It also frees me to be willing to give up my life for a cause that I think is worthwhile.

    But yeah, it is this kind of external facing thing. And I think that blessedness, happiness is seen in that the fullness of that would be Jesus, and the final chapter is called, “Give Yourself Away.” And I think that a full happiness is one that knows itself to be so blessed, secure, safe, fundamentally, that you get to share in the life of Christ, which is a continual pouring-out of yourself. And that pouring-out is not a loss of yourself. We don’t believe that Jesus became less by pouring himself in the world, but that we get to share in this divine life of giving more and more of ourselves to the world and feeling safe enough not to hold onto things. So that I think is kind of the core of the book, is the sense that you cannot give yourself safety. God has given you safety. The more you know that, the more you can turn towards the world and give yourself away and experience the blessedness of that reality.

    Section IV: Joy Clarkson: In Defense of Mr. Collins

    Susannah Black: I think we need to talk about the most controversial chapter in this book. Which has even today, gotten some pretty strong language from Plough readers. Do you want to talk about your unusual –

    Peter Mommsen: The rehabilitation of Mr. Collins in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice. So we published, with your permission, an excerpt from your book in which you embark on the project of Mr. Collins’s rehabilitation. Now there’s been a lot of comment today –

    Joy Clarkson: Right. So Mr. Collins is the clergyman in Pride and Prejudice who is set to inherit Longbourn from the Bennets. Mr. Bennet, yeah, I think I want to write a follow-up book in which I just write a chapter about how terrible Mr. Bennet is. I have such profound antipathy towards Mr. Bennet. So Mr. Bennet has five daughters, his estate is going to Mr. Collins, who is a clergyman who comes and he’s going to do the family a favor and marry one of the five daughters, right? Seems like a pretty rational course of action for the Regency era, trying to keep the house in the family. And everyone just hates Mr. Collins. It’s funny though. So my main thing that I find amusing about it, is I’m just like the hatred of Mr. Collins is not justified. Before I get to rehabilitating Mr. Collins, setting him up as a model of virtue, there are so many other characters worth hating more than Mr. Collins.

    The real reason people seem to dislike Mr. Collins is that he asks Lizzie to marry him. She’s like, “No.” He’s like, “Oh, you’re just playing with me.” And she’s like, “No, I literally don’t want to marry you.” And he’s a bit ashamed and goes back. But you know what, who amongst us hasn’t misread signals? And also, this is the thing, that idea of Mr. Collins being a bad guy, him being awkward at the party and stuff, you know who else is awkward at parties? You know who else gives unwanted proposals to women, who then doesn’t accept their “no?” Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy does exactly those things, but we’re like, well, Mr. Darcy’s rich and he is handsome. So it’s actually kind of like mysterious and cool when he does it. Whereas when Mr. Collins does it’s just selfish.

    So that element of Mr. Collins, I’m not even making an argument for him, I’m just saying that we should maybe reflect on the fact that we often equate people being irritating with them being bad. And I think that’s simply an incorrect reading. And furthermore, the book is called Pride and Prejudice. That is not just describing how the characters in the book act, it’s also describing how we read. And I think the fact that we have this profound prejudice towards Mr. Collins, even though he’s like really at the end of the day not a bad dude, it is the book reading us. It is the book reading the fact that we, our prejudice that we would rather hate on a socially inept doofus than on an actual man who ruins the futures of his five daughters, or various other people.

    So that’s why everyone shouldn’t hate Mr. Collins. The reason I put Mr. Collins in the book is, a lot of this is … the book is, I mean I don’t want to say it’s profound, but it’s about the spiritual things that keep us happy in the world. I do also think that there are certain elements of life, which are practical. In the book of Proverbs, they are just, if you do these things, your life will be easier, if you do these other things, your life will be harder. And I think Mr. Collins has a worldly aptitude, is that the right word? He knows what he’s doing when it comes to arranging his earthly affairs. And I think he does that pretty well. He knows what he wants, which is he wants a wife, he wants to do a good job at his preaching, and you know what, again, he’s a bad preacher, but I will probably take Mr. Collins over a lot of the preachers I have heard in the Church of England, bless it.

    Again, not something to blame him for. Yeah, he wants a wife, he wants a quiet life. He goes after that in a way which is admirable. He tries Lizzie, when she says, “No,” he’s a little bit hurt. But then at the end of the day, he gets another, somebody who suits him better, and he doesn’t resent Lizzie. So I think that there’s actually something in his lack of self-awareness that leads him to happiness. I think we could learn from the mixture of him being quite contented, he’s good at enjoying what he has, he’s good at having some ambitions, but not getting eaten alive by them. And I also think he’s a pretty good example of how to accept rejection, because I think that’s something we all have a hard time with. So that’s my pitch for Mr. Collins.

    Peter Mommsen: Okay. So almost Twelve Rules for Life from Mr. Collins.

    Susannah Black: I mean, what you are making is a very good case. So one of the sort of sayings that has developed among my friends when attempting to assess whether or not someone ought to have been me-too’d, is “cringe is not crime”. And it is a very important principle. You can be cringey at a woman and that does not mean that you are being criminal towards her. He is very cringey towards Lizzie, but he should not be me-too’d. That I think is something that we can agree on. Cringe is not crime.

    Joy Clarkson: Cringe is not crime.

    Susannah Black: I do also want to talk about the other chapter that was, we could talk about each of these chapters, but I think that would take a great deal of time, and anyway people should just buy and read the book. I do want to talk about, “Expect the End of the World.” So this is essentially the last chapter, second to last chapter. And this is another one of the chapters where you have a quotation from “On Learning in Wartime.” Can you talk about what it means to expect the end of the world, why expecting the end of the world will help us to live a happy life and what you gather from the various monks who live their lives being about to be attacked by Vikings?

    Joy Clarkson: In that chapter, I’m kind of excavating experiences in my life at various points. And that one I wrote about when I had first moved overseas and I just experienced a lot of anxiety being really far away from my family and thinking what if one of them got sick, or what if something happened or whatever. And I just spent a lot of anxiety thinking about what if things get bad. And I went on a trip with my friend, it was comically difficult, but we went to Dublin and we saw the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is a gospel collection manuscript created by Irish monks, sometime around the ninth century.

    And it was created during the Viking raids, when things were kind of continually destroyed. They almost couldn’t have monasteries because they built them and then they would get sacked, they build them, they get sacked. And as I looked at this work of great beauty, several things struck me. First, if you’re a person who struggles with anxiety or something like anxiety, your mind is constantly telling you the worst possible thing that could happen. And what I realized when I looked at these books is that, the worst possible thing happened to them over and over.

    And this may sound funny, I guess it’s kind of a form of exposure therapy, but I kind of went okay, well, so people have always been afraid of the worst thing happening and sometimes the worst thing does, maybe that’s just what it is to be alive. Maybe we actually have lived in a relatively calm time and so in a weird way, that kind of took some of the venom out of the fear and the sense that I’m just like, yeah, I guess people have always felt like the world was going to end and for the Irish, it kind of did continually for several centuries until a period of peace came. So that was one part of it – just kind of taking the venom out of feeling like the world was especially terrible because it’s not that it made me think it wasn’t terrible, it was more than it made go, okay, well, this is just part of the bargain, okay I can cope with that.

    The second thing it made me realize though, is that you cannot wait to live your life or write the book you need to write or fall in love or do the right thing until everything is okay, because everything will never be okay. I’m not saying that things are always the same amount of okay, I do think there are periods of peace and wartime and there are moments that call for great attention. But I think looking at that work of beauty made me think, if I live through a time of great difficulty, I just need to decide that other people have too and that you don’t wait to live a good life until things are easy.

    And then I think also tapping into that sense, that also made me reflect on the fact that these monks were not doing this in a vacuum. They had a very strong sense of Christ’s imminent return. The sense that life was fragile, but the kingdom of God was always coming. I love that sense in the gospels of the kingdom of God being present and that’s something that we practice even now at the end of the world, that being a Christian is living for a new kingdom, which is present and is not yet fully here.

    And so then it gave me a sense of agency in the sense that it’s not just that the world has always been ending, it’s not just that I’m going to live a life well, because I might as well, because it’s always been difficult, but also that in living life well and living life and faith, I am actively responding to the brokenness of the world. So that’s what that chapter is about, which both kind of helps me alleviate some of the anxiety just by knowing that I’m a part of the human condition who have all felt this way at numerous times and we’re all right to feel this way, but also gave me a sense of agency of how to live well at the end of the world, because it’s always kind of the end of the world.

    Peter Mommsen: Wow. Thank you, Joy, and can’t recommend this book enough because we’re better off being happy than not, which I think is hard to disagree with. Really enjoyed this conversation. Thanks for joining us.

    Susannah Black: Thank you so much Joy, it’s good to see you.

    Joy Clarkson: It’s been a delight. Thank you.

    Contributed By PeterMommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By SusannahBlack Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black is a senior editor of Plough.

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    Contributed By PhilChristman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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    Contributed By JosephMKeegin Joseph M. Keegin

    Joseph M. Keegin is a writer and editor at Athwart and The Point currently living in Chicago.

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    Contributed By JoyClarkson2 Joy Clarkson

    Joy Clarkson holds a PhD in theology from the Institute for Theology and the Arts at the University of Saint Andrews. She hosts Speaking with Joy, a popular podcast about art, theology, and culture, and writes books.

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