Seeing Paul Rudnick’s “Valhalla,” a senior project being staged this week at Yale, will have you trying to stifle bouts of laughter as you think about the show on your walk back from the Whitney Theater. The irreverent play explores the role of faith in our lives, perceptions of homosexuality across classes and the tension between searching for beauty and fulfilling obligations.
A pretty tragic story when you step back to think about it a bit, “Valhalla” raises unsettling questions about how people arrive at conclusions about what they want and who they are, and about how family and societal conceptions can help or hurt the process. It’s scary to weigh the possibility that the values and ideals we tell ourselves we most want may not exist as we imagine them — like Valhalla itself, a heaven of sorts in Norse mythology.
On a more concrete level, it’s startling to think about the dramatic expansion of social rights in the Americas and Europe — and increasingly, in other parts of the world — in the past fifty years. Though often socially turbulent, the years since the Vietnam War have broadly featured more attention to general welfare in thought and deed than at any point in history. Pictures, messages and friends in many places — our broad media exposure to people of many backgrounds — affect the scope of public empathy, helping to shape political outcomes. It’s the non-commercial side of the “Oprah effect“ — take the oft-mentioned example of how her show and others like it have played a key role in public acceptance of gay rights. Proximity breeds empathy.
This isn’t limited to any one issue. Anywhere and anytime people have a case for more freedom and compassion, there’s a better chance now than ever that their movement will take off. If you temporarily suspend partisan biases, this was basically the idea behind President George Bush’s Freedom Agenda, and much of that rhetoric and policy remains consistent with President Barack Obama’s administration.
In this sense, we’re living in the most authentically Christian time ever — think Sermon on the Mount, though certainly many of its themes are found in other world religions. The world being “smaller” means people have more occasions to understand and feel for each other. It’s a structural change, and technology has a lot to do with it. The gnostic impulse has got to be resisted here — we’ll never have heaven on earth. But no one can ignore the ways in which our society today is giving people the opportunity to believe that there is meaningful life possible in the material world — to escape living the Gnostic heresy.
Even identity politics, often decried in the U.S. (and sometimes on Yale’s campus) as a force working against cultural and political unity, has its roots in this new reality. In fact, it’s an outgrowth of people’s longing for community, which is as strong as ever. But what’s more is that globalization makes the urge to put oneself on the map stronger, because it’s easier to get lost nowadays in questions of personal identity if you don’t. Religion and culture aren’t going anywhere, and big, pluralistic societies should do everything they can — from providing vouchers for parochial schools to supporting cultural groups — to help free association flourish in America. Far from being fracturing, these forces help to unite, in that they remind people of all stripes of the values that bring Americans together under one flag. National culture being less monolithic than it used to be doesn’t mean that national identity will die.
None of this is necessarily here to stay forever — freedom to communicate could once again decline at any moment. Countries around the world remind us all the time, for example, that censorship works, and that which we have has to be defended. And what is often thought of as conservative skepticism about many of these societal changes is understandable and often very valid. The fact that there are many more voices saying very different, contradictory things means that people will have to be more careful when taking cues about what they believe from what they see and read. The 1950s are over. This means that, more than ever, family and meaningful person-to-person contact is essential for avoiding immoral decisions, establishing counterpoints to opinions from far away.
It’s somewhat ironic that we live in a time where it’s easier to be “true to yourself” than ever before, but likely harder to establish what that really means outside of our immediate desires and personal goals. But the years ahead give us the ideal opportunity to take a world more ready to see neighborly love and empathy and to develop it, through community, into reflections — however imperfect — of our own Valhallas.
John Aroutiounian is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.