That’s the advice I received from a good pastor friend regarding the books of Chuck Klosterman, one of the finest pop-culture observers and thinkers of our day. And any time a pastor uses the conversion story of Augustine to convince me to pick up a book, well, it’s hard to resist.
So I started with Klosterman’s latest, But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking about the Present as if it were the Past, and I found it to be a brilliant and fun book of thought experiments, mostly dealing with time and being judged by the future.
Where Are We Wrong?
This book grabbed me from the beginning, because I’ve been thinking a lot about time in recent years. My dissertation concerned the worldview question “what time is it?” and its relation to discipleship. Klosterman’s questions about our current generation and how we may be viewed by future generations intrigued me:
“What about the things we’re all wrong about? What about ideas that are so accepted and internalized that we’re not even in a position to question their fallibility?” (2)
This isn’t a guy who believes all his convictions are right. Klosterman has done enough research to know that we must be wrong—without knowing where—and that it will take the judgment of future generations to expose whatever is wrongheaded in whatever we think is normal.
What can we do about this?
Klosterman wants us to not only consider the answers that we may be getting wrong today, but also the questions that lead to those wrong answers. In other words, our framework for questions and answers will be challenged in the future. And so he wonders: can we get a head start on challenging our frameworks even now?
Books, Music, Sports, and Science
The thought experiments begin! First, how do classic books become “classic”? Moby Dick by Herman Melville is a work of art according to the literary consensus, but it was a flop when it was released. What might be today’s Moby Dick? What is the “evolving, circuitous criteria” for judging great books?
“Quality will matter at the end of the argument, but not at the beginning. At the beginning, the main thing that matters is what the future world will be like. From there, you work in reverse.” (24)
Like many in our society, Klosterman is convinced that the best writers of our time will not be white, male, straight, or monocultural. Looking ahead at the progress of identity politics, he expects a recalibration of social ideologies, so that future generations will likely look to the minorities today who are not getting enough attention (Native American writers, perhaps?). He agrees with Junot Diaz, “that our future literary canon will be populated with the types of people who currently tend to be excluded from it. That will happen. Such an evolution will occur.” (39)
Why is this the case? Because the excluded and marginalized bring their biographical personas to the subtext of their work. “A book becomes popular because of its text, but it’s the subtext that makes it live forever.” (45)
Klosterman’s approach is radically postmodern: “A text has no preexisting meaning.” (57) It means what future generations decide it means.
In the next chapters, Klosterman does for music what he has done for books. If eras of classical music get reduced to one particular composer, then we can expect rock music to be personified by one individual. Who will be in that footnote? Who will be the representative for the rock era? Klosterman makes the case for the Beatles, but then wonders about Bob Dylan, or even Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones—all of whom sum up a different side of what makes rock “rock.” (His conclusion is that Chuck Berry may be the man!)
Klosterman repeats the same treatment on recent scientific discoveries, television shows, and the popularity of football. (Will it lose its dominance, similar to boxing in the last 50 years, or will it thrive in the future?)
Squeezed by Naturalism
I loved this book. Klosterman writes as if he’s across the table with you, enjoying a friendly debate about artistic merit versus cultural appreciation.
Still, I believe Klosterman’s thought experiments bump up against the smallness of the world he inhabits. He admits that his own narrowness of assumptions might be a problem:
“Why smart people tend to be wrong as often as their not-so-smart peers—they work from the flawed premise that their worldview is standard.”
What is Chuck’s worldview? He is secular to the core, ruling out any possibility of an afterlife or rational reasons to believe in God.
“When considered rationally, there is no justification for believing that anything happens to anyone upon the moment of his or her death . . .
But, like many today, he doesn’t rule out mystery:
“Yet this wholly logical position discounts the overwhelming likelihood that we currently don’t know something critical about the experience of life, much less the ultimate conclusion to that experience.” (11)
Chuck likes mystery, but his assumption of naturalism means that all the mystery must stay on this side of reality. The afterlife may be an experience that happens in brain at the moment of death. He never makes any attempt to understand why people in the past or so many people in the present believe, for rational reasons, that there may be another world. Chuck sees design in our world but believes it more probable to believe in a simulator for our world, rather than God as he has traditionally been understood by Christians, or Jews, or other world religions, for that matter.
Again, here we have a naturalist who ponders determinism and the future, and who (rightly) recognizes the importance of getting outside your worldview to ask questions.
“If we’re playing a card game that works with only one deck, we can interrogate only the deck itself.” (113)
He’s right. But here again we see him bumping up against naturalism and its limits, never realizing he’s just interrogating the deck itself and not changing the game.
Pressed by Progress
Klosterman also believes in the Hegelian idea of progress—that the trajectories set in this century will unfold in future centuries. His approach to all of these questions is radically future-oriented. He doesn’t have any doubt whatsoever that the future’s judgment will be right, leading me to wonder if it is possible in Klosterman’s mind for the future to be wrong in its assessment, or for the past to judge us now in the present.
To give an example, Klosterman is sure—absolutely sure—that minorities defined by their sexual behavior will be more and more appreciated in the future.
But what if he’s wrong? What if much of the sexual identity politics today will feel, in a hundred years, the same way my wife and other Romanians look at Soviet-era literature from 50 years ago—a weird span of four decades where ideologies flourished by suppressing other views of morality and perspectives on government?
“The reason so many well-considered ideas appear laughable in retrospect is that people involuntarily assume that whatever we believe and prioritize now will continue to be believed and prioritized later, even though that almost never happens.” (49)
Again, Chuck is right. But then he goes off and assumes that what we believe and prioritize now (the experience of sexual minorities) will be what we prize in the future!
Afraid of the Past
I enjoyed Klosterman’s thought experiments about how the future generations will judge us, much as we judge the past generations. But I think his emphasis on the future, while giving us some great perspective, may serve to do what he warns about regarding film reviews: “multiply the avenues for small thoughts while annihilating the possibility for big ones” (244)
It is a convenient distraction to look ahead and wonder how the fog of the future might judge us today. The truly courageous look back at the past, where instead of a fog we are confronted by our ancestors, the “democracy of the dead” as Chesterton called it.
How would they judge our society? What would they say about the way we live?
We stand in judgment over against the people who gave us the society we live in. Why not submit to many of their judgments, which cut against us in our day? The past is a frightful, living thing, as opposed to the future, which is an amorphous fog we can only speculate about.
In the end, I recommend this book because it comes from an astute observer of culture in our day. Yes, Klosterman bumps up against the limits of his naturalistic worldview, but his willingness to question his own assumptions is what makes me like him. And he seems to be inching ever closer to the right posture for hearing a 2,000-year-old message that has transformed our calendar and still transforms people’s lives today.
“There are intrinsic benefits to constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong: humility and wonder. It’s good to view reality as beyond our understanding, because it is.” (253)
On that, we agree.