On April 3, 2020, Ordinary Space editors Andrew William Smith (AWS) and Rick Quinn (RQ) sat down over Google Meet with author/teacher/prolific Tweeter David Dark (DD) for a wide-ranging conversation on making meaning and finding hope in these pandemic-touched times.
David teaches in the College of Theology at Belmont University and among the incarcerated communities of Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of several books including his most recent work, The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend Our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land (2019). David embodies the role of public intellectual/theologian in the age of social media (@DavidDark on Twitter) where he offers creative cultural commentary, weaving his passion for pop culture, justice, and faith together in his work.
The interview has been edited for length, for flow, and for print.
You can view the original conversation in its entirety on YouTube: https://youtu.be/AQZvCjQZ-xM
RQ: [O]ne of the things that I see you often tweeting is that we live in clarifying times….And, I know you wrote a book entitled Everyday Apocalypse as well. I'm wondering if you might speak to what you see being clarified in these particular times.
DD: Yes, maybe all times are clarifying . . . . Apocalypse means unveiling, unmasking. And the concept of Everyday Apocalypse is drawn from Albert Camus who said, "Don't wait for judgment day. Every day is judgment day." Every day affords us a deep realization of what our ultimate values are, what our soul looks like, what we're doing with our breath, our heartbeat, our attention, all of those things.
And Covid [-19] certainly is clarifying, the “corona world” we could say. I will say with shame [that I] did not realize that the people I see at Whole Foods do not, at least as of right now, get paid sick leave. They didn’t get paid sick leave before this hit. Neither did Kroger employees. Neither did Target or Walmart. That is one example of a norm that I myself normalized for much of my life. And apocalyptic times—clarifying times—invite us to think about what we’ve been normalizing all along. And if we’re good stewards of the apocalypse that is every day, we’re going to want to change our behavior. Change in behavior is repentance. Repenting is changing your mind in such a way that your body and speech and actions will follow.
...[11/09/16 when our current president was elected] was a shocker for me and pretty much everyone I know. And it was also something of a seismic perception-shift in terms of thinking through what our country is enabling, funding, abiding. So that’s part of what I mean by clarifying times.
RQ: In what ways do you see pop culture adding to this clarification in this time?
DD: I like to define pop culture as that which has been popularly cultivated, which can be country music, Shakespeare, sports, winning politicians . . . . For me, it started with the Twilight Zone as a child. And it was this shocking transmission of weird things in black and white that were spoken into my normal and helped me to find my normal, less normal because it was so, so familiar. The author, Shannon Hale says that unless we tell strange stories. We won’t know the strange things, we won't believe the strange things that happen to us as they're happening.
DD: So the pop culture that gets through to me is everywhere. It’s a Black Mirror episode. It’s Fleabag. It’s Breaking Bad. It’s any number of things.
RQ: I was wondering if you might talk a little about your use of the image of “beloved community.”
DD: Beloved Community: my favorite two words in a lot of ways. In thinking through my own intellectual debts, I [previously] spoke of the Jewish/Christian tradition. But then I realized that atheists and Buddhists and Muslims and agnostics might not feel like they’re a part of that club. …[A]nd around that time I started paying attention to [some] of the architects of the Civil Rights Movement, [like] James Lawson and Congressman John Lewis. And I noticed that in each of their talks they would turn to this word “beloved community,” which they themselves had picked up maybe in the 1950s and 60s.
Beloved Community is...such a great concept because...if you are engaged in acts of nonviolent resistance, Beloved Community even includes the people who are putting you in jail or spraying tear gas in your face. They are Beloved Community, thought they themselves, in that moment, might feel estranged from it.
And it’s a way of describing a moral impulse and a moral realization that is Christian, that is Jewish, but not exclusively. Beloved Community is . . . . such a great concept because . . . if you are engaged in acts of nonviolent resistance, Beloved Community even includes the people who are putting you in jail or spraying teargas in your face.
They are Beloved Community, though they themselves, in that moment, might feel estranged from it. So the Beloved Community is a little like the kingdom of God, is a little like [when] Wendell Berry speaks of the Great Economy, the great oikos, which means house. And that house does include everyone, including those who are trying to destroy that house or destroy the possibility of connection.
RQ: You talk about music being the “currency of beloved community” or further, “the starter kit urging us to spill the beans before it's too late.” So, we’re sort of curious as to what’s on your pandemic playlist right now. What's bringing you meaning? Where are you finding the Beloved Community in music?
DD: [M]usic is the currency of the Beloved Community. It grabs hold of you. You’re walking through a grocery . . . . and I was walking through a grocery kind of recently, and I heard Aerosmith's “Living on the Edge.” And it’s like, that’s right. We are all living on the edge right now. We’ve decided to go to the grocery during a pandemic.
... [M]usic is so wonderfully unconscious because . . . . it has no agenda except maintaining a beat and kind of letting it all hang out in some way.
But I’ll note for me, a lot of Arcade Fire, a lot of Bob Dylan, a lot of Joni Mitchell and—I mean, it feels awfully cultish for me—but constant Radiohead. . . . Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper and Color Revolt and, yeah, just R.E.M. big time.
I loved that Michael Stipe pulled out “Underneath the Bunker,” which was on side A of Life's Rich Pageant, and it’s like that came out in '86, and it took all these years for “Underneath the Bunker” to find its context. And it was very moving to me that he had it ready to go like that. But yes, so much stuff, and I love the random. I love just putting it on shuffle and seeing what, what I get. But yeah, so much good work that we maybe now have a little more time to sit still for.
DD (cont.): So this slowing of things can lead us to think, to think harder, hopefully, about the responsive as opposed to the reactive. I obviously love Twitter, and I don't want to shame anybody, but it has been said that technology enhances our capacity for the demonic. And by demonic—if I can possibly say demonic in a value neutral way—it’s just energy and there’s a kind of reactive energy that I can back away from, even as I’m drawn to it. Because I confess that I’m almost always more interested in seeing if somebody has responded to a tweet than I am in washing the dishes or looking after myself. So a lot of these little sayings, including “slow the tape,” come to me.
AWS: [D]on’t you think that in your critique of nationalism, which has been so prophetic these last couple years, that whatever we get to after this, we need to remain critical of nationalism in all its varieties? Let’s just play pretend. Let’s say we do get, you know, an “interim pastor” [as some moderate-liberal Christians on Twitter had dubbed the idea of it] Biden presidency. Then what?
DD: Then you keep going with Beloved Community, and you never mistake any nation state for an embodiment of Beloved Community. I think Tony Campolo years ago said America is a pretty good Babylon, but it’s still Babylon. And yeah, I mean, that nationalism is anti-Christ insofar as it leads us to mistake any government or any organizing fiction as an absolute or worthy of killing people. And the big one, and forgive me if this feels way too off to the side, but we have a decorated veteran who blew the whistle on election interference named Reality Winner. And she has been muzzled, denied the right to speak to the public.
And the big one, and forgive me if this feels way too off to the side, but we have a decorated veteran who blew the whistle on election interference named Reality Winner. And she has been muzzled, denied the right to speak to the public. Her Bible was stolen by our government. And she's almost been in this form of isolated incarceration for three years.
DD: Her Bible was stolen by our government. And she’s almost been in this form of isolated incarceration for three years. Justin Amash doesn’t want to talk about her. No Democrat, no elected official in either party or all of those parties in between will acknowledge her existence or call for her release as she is in danger of contracting Covid-19.
AWS: And I'm so grateful because I didn't know who Reality Winner was until you told me.
DD: Well, Reality Winner, I think one reason I think her name is like the name of a Thomas Pynchon character and she sounds —respectfully, even telling her story sounds like disinformation—sounds like you’re partaking of something that isn't true. But it’s also a fact that she herself was part of the drone program. And if she ever does tell her story, we have to think through all of the lives that we’ve taken of innocent people in the name of national security, a little like the fact of soldier suicides, which no one wants to talk about. Because in Reality Winner’s story, she’s still in her twenties and she woke up a bit, took a look at what she had been enlisted into.
DD: And Joe Biden cannot afford, neither can Bernie Sanders at least for now not and certainly not Donald Trump, none of them can afford to acknowledge this infinitely valuable human being who we the people are crushing at this very moment. So I look for those figures who don’t fit within any partisan narrative. And she’s kind of a big one at the moment.
AWS: So, Friday the 13th was the beginning of this [quarantine/pandemic life for me]. I’m not sure that we ever get to go back to a before “Friday the 13th world,” any more than we go back to before a 11/09 world or a 9/11 world. I think the world is upside down, and we need to live in a different kind of upside-down world, when we emerge from our shelters, from our fallout shelters, from our bunkers.
DD: Hopefully we can say without being called conspiracy theorists, that we’re hearing more birds, the sky is clearer. [I]t's everywhere.
And social distancing—which we are beginning to accept as a concept that is essential to being a morally serious person— there's no reason that social distancing can’t come to refer to not boiling the planet quite so readily as we were.
I like to define religion as perceived necessity, whatever that is to people. And our perceived necessity is changing with every passing day.
I like to define religion as perceived necessity, whatever that is to people. And our perceived necessity is changing with every passing day. I like to define religion as perceived necessity, whatever that is to people. And our perceived necessity is changing with every passing day. And people speak of the economy, and you can do that. But I prefer the term “arrangement” because the economy is an arrangement, and when we call it an arrangement, we aren't treating it as a god any longer. We’re not treating it as magic. And we realize that the beautiful thing about an arrangement, which is what an economy is, is that we can change the arrangement anytime.
… [W]e’ve got quite a shift, and we get to think through what mindful consuming and ordering of products looks like. And I want to be careful because I don't want to try to positively spin apocalypse in a horribly unmindful way, because I think in terms of death and grieving and loss of life, we’re nowhere near registering what's coming.