If you’re like me, you may wonder if anything good can possibly come out of the California surf culture. All I can think of is Beach Boys music and bad 50s movies, phrases like “Surf’s up dude!” and “I’m totally stoked!,” and, of course, Point Break (and we all know the depth of anything associated with Keanu Reeves).
by Michael Dawes (Flickr)
Nonetheless, I was intrigued. A theology of surf culture? What might that look like? How do you do a theological analysis of a subculture like this, and what insights might you gain? So I attended a paper by Robert Covolo (Fuller Seminary) setting out to do precisely this. (This was the first paper in a section sponsored by the Theological Engagement with California’s Culture project.) The paper unfolded in four main parts:
Surfing’s Inevitable Theologies
Covolo began the paper by looking at surfing in Hawaii at the time of the first Protestant missionaries. He pointed out that surfing was an an embedded cultural practice with ties to sports, gambling, religion, politics, and more. Indeed, surfing was so integral to that “pagan” cultural context, that the Protestant missionaries saw the gradual decline of surfing as the necessary result of the Gospel redeeming that society.
And, in a second example, he pointed to many authors who have argued that surf culture is antithetical to Calvinism and the Puritan work ethic. He disagreed with the argument, but offered it as an example of how people have recognized that surf culture has theological significance.
So Covolo used these examples as a way of pointing out the fact that a cultural practice like surfing is necessarily laden with religious/theological ideas. He didn’t go so far as to call it its own religion, but he does see it as religiously significant. And this opens the door to theological engagement.
A Brief History of California Surf Culture
The most interesting part of this section was the distinction he drew between the popularized and commercialized surf culture found in the Beach Boys and Hollywood movies, and the “real” surf culture that tended to be less commercialized and more countercultural. The latter were frustrated with the former for co-opting their culture and turning it into something more palatable to the dominant culture.
And he also mentioned the importance of the Jesus Movement for understanding surf culture. Although many have focused on eastern religious themes in surf culture, Covolo argued that very little attention has been paid to the thousands of California surfers who became Christians at this time, and saw significant parallels between Christian theology and the countercultural surf culture.
Motifs in Surf Culture
Covolo’s approach to analyzing culture revolves around the idea of identifying theologically significant motifs in the target culture and engaging them in dialogue with Christian theology. At the end of the paper, though, he points out that this can be done in two ways. The Protestant missionaries in Hawaii used an outside-in approach, recognizing that surfing was religiously significant, and then engaging that culture from their own theological convictions. And he’s fine with doing that. But he thinks that a second move is critical: understanding the culture from the inside. For cultural analysis to work, you have to get to know the “inner logic” of the culture, and then draw it into theological dialog.
The motifs that Covolo used for the paper were that of “leisure” and “time.” Covolo drew a distinction between “island time” and “western time.” Island time views time as an end in itself. The goal is to live “in the moment” and appreciate the “now.” The dominant Western culture has an instrumental view of time that see it as a commodity to be used for some other purpose. You don’t simply enjoy time, you harness it for greater productivity. The dominant culture, then, can only have an ambiguous view of leisure. While appreciating “free” time, it must also see leisure as a “waste” of a valuable resource. Surf culture, on the other hand, views leisure as a good in itself, enjoying the moment as it is given.
Surf culture, then, stands as a challenge and a critique to modern views of leisure and time. And Covolo finds much to appreciate. Drawing on the theology of Augustine, Covolo pointed out resonances in the idea that time is both intrinsic to the created order and that we now live in “fallen time,” unable to experience time as we should. Surf culture, then, performs both a prophetic and an eschatological role. Prophetically, it challenges the dominant culture’s facile adoption of fallen time. Eschatologically, it points out that things are not as they should be. Although it lacks the narrative directionality of Christian theology, it still points forward to a time when things could be different.
The Poetics of Surf
Here Covolo looked at the language of surf culture and showed how often it connects to religious themes/ideas. The “stoke” that surfers talk about refers to the peak experience that comes from moving harmoniously with something as powerful as the ocean itself. This is an almost mystical experience that transcends language, resonating with apophatic traditions in many religions. And the way surfers talk about the ocean and the power of the wave harkens to biblical language about an all-powerful God who thunders and roars. Throughout, surf language reflects religious ideas and experiences that are ripe for theological analysis.
This ended up being a very interesting paper with good food for thought on how to engage cultures (and subcultures) in theological dialog. Nonetheless, I’m still stuck with a few nagging thoughts that I would have liked to hear more about. Most importantly, I wonder about how we can know when something that sounds “religious” actually is religious? For example, just because I refer to my dinner as “sublime,” should we presume that I have a theological approach to food? If we’re not careful, we run the risk of over-reading a culture by assuming that religious sounding language/motifs can have only one semantic function.
I would have also liked to see an example of critical analysis as well. There’s a lot to be said for understanding the “inner logic” of a culture and working toward understanding before engaging in meaningful critique. But the danger is that we work so hard at understanding that we never get to the critique. Is “island time” and the corresponding appreciation of leisure an unadulterated good? That seems an unlikely conclusion. So what does a legitimate critique of a culture’s inner logic look like?
There’s more to be said here, but I’ll stop. It was a good paper that raised some great questions. But I’m still not going to take up surfing.