catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 10 :: 2008.05.16 — 2008.05.30


Nazis and fashionistas

A couple of months ago, my husband Rob picked up a film at the library called The Architecture of Doom.  I must admit that I’m a bit addicted to fictional stories on film, so I didn’t immediately share his enthusiasm.  Potentially compounding my reluctance, the film is little more than the presentation of a paper set to photos that might as well be a Powerpoint slide show.  However, The Architecture of Doom tells an important story, taking an angle I’ve not yet seen applied to the history of Nazi Germany, which is why, in the end, I appreciated the film immensely.

Architecture basically recounts the story of an idea that sprouted legs and learned to walk, growing bigger and more reckless until it had crushed everything in its path.  Adolph Hitler’s vision was not limited to political power, though such was needed to meet his goals; rather, his plan was for complete cultural dominance, driven by a comprehensive world view that spoke into every area of life, encompassing medicine, painting, sculpture, architecture, work, music, clothing, cultural events and more.  His vision was Adolph Hitler’s Utopia.  From our twenty-first century perspective, we know the end of the story: the physical embodiment of “the way things should be” according to Hitler’s ideals was only partially complete when the giant was finally slain.  However, I couldn’t help but note the similarities between Hitler’s comprehensive worldview and the language employed by some followers of Christ, including myself, who believe that Christian faith speaks into every corner of our lives, from what we eat to how we conduct foreign policy.

Let me quickly affirm that Hitler’s methods were ultimately deplorable, emerging at best from a severe misunderstanding of how true social change occurs and at worst a deadly fear-based psychosis. Nazi Germany is far more a tale of caution, than a how-to manual.  However, this period of history also offers a clear, striking example of how ideas become incarnate in our broadest social structures, all the way down to the clothes we wear.  Every thing and action represent the embodiment of an idea, even if we don’t consciously recognize or articulate that idea.

Another film states this concept in a different way, featuring an antagonist who could very well be likened to Hitler in her emotional quashing of anyone who doesn’t coddle her vision.  In The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly, one of the top mavens of the fashion world, hires bookish Andy Sachs for a coveted and terrifying job working as her receptionist.  In an early scene, Andy’s patronizing attitude toward the industry gets dropkicked across the room by her new boss:

Miranda Priestly: [Miranda and some assistants are deciding between two similar belts for an outfit. Andy sniggers because she thinks they look exactly the same] Something funny?

Andy Sachs: No, no, nothing. Y'know, it's just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y'know, I'm still learning about all this stuff.

Miranda Priestly: This…'stuff'? Oh…ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

Miranda’s statement is specific to the subject of the film, but also has a much broader application: when there’s a vacuum of intention, something will fill that void.  In Andy Sachs’ case, it’s the intention of the fashion industry.  In the absence of ethical leadership, it was the intention of a failed artist who understood the power contained within the drama of such simple elements as a ubiquitous symbol, a color palette and a gesture: “Heil, Hitler!”

For me, the question that emerges from these two evocative examples is: what vacuums am I not perceiving?  Beyond me, what vacuums has the Church been blinded to and therefore allowed to be filled by the intentions of some other system or spirit of the age?  Such blindness leads to questions of the Church like those posed recently by Hanna Rosin in Slate Magazine  about the too-often ambiguous and problematic relationship between Christianity and pop culture.  We underestimate the spirits of the age when we think any cultural expression is neutral, made holy with a Jesus fish or biblical turn of phrase, or just simply inconsequential, exempt from consideration.

That said, I think the approach to the vacuum is a spectrum, of which willful ignorance is just one dark end; the other might be called willful self-sufficiency.  For firstborn Christians like myself, there’s a strong temptation to believe that if I can seal all of the gaps in my actions, I can coerce myself and others to fill that space with the pure and righteous goodness of God.  If I can manage to buy all of my foods locally and organically, make my own clothes out of fair trade fabric, maintain a carbon-neutral household and bike to my perfected calling in a progressive institution, I’ve made it to the Kingdom ahead of everyone else.  But the reality is that such fidelities between beliefs and practices are not our original ideas achieved by our own cleverness.  Neither are they created solely out of our self-conscious efforts to think harder and squeeze just one more drop of connection out of our exhausted brains.  In fact, the fidelity between belief and practice is a gift that we enter into only through the grace of God who lovingly invites us (rather than compels us) into Kingdom reality.  We have the option to ignore the gift, or to pretend we need to re-pay its price even after we’ve opened it, but that doesn’t change the nature of the gift as one that is best enjoyed with the delight and surrender of a child.

But that advice comes off pretty abstractly doesn’t it?  For myself, I try to hold to some concrete “macro” practices in an attempt to keep both ignorance and willfulness in check in daily “micro” practices.  I surround myself with a community of friends—online, at work, in my neighborhood, in church—who challenge me on specific practices, as well as attitudes toward and foundations of those practices.  I read books and watch films that illuminate through both positive and negative examples the spirits of the age and their tangible incarnations.  Though prayer is one of my weaknesses, I try to remember to pray for wisdom, and also for forgiveness.  I write and publish, both to remind and humble myself.

Even when I do perceive a vacuum of intention and can name the very thing that’s filling it, I still fail.  We still fail.  But at our best, the connections are crackling all around us, lighting this dark path with a mysterious glow and guiding our way toward the Holy City.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus