Jan 12, 2009

Morning Mohawk

Notes on questions in Christianity

a) In the standard (and now haigiographic) telling of Richard John Neuhaus’ life, the turning point, the decision that made him who he was, was his conversion from Liberal Lutheranism to Conservative Catholicism. His move is interpreted, on the right, as a realization that liberalism made him a fellow traveler with Communism, perversion and Evil, and on the left it’s interpreted as reactionary, as probably coming out of some extreme revulsion at the sexual revolution.

This debate is probably the right one, and this agreed upon axis is probably the real, definitive axis in the narrative of Neuhaus’ life, but I have to put the axis, the crucial decision, at a much later point. To me, Neuhaus' life-altering decision was the one he made to support America’s invasion of Iraq. Doing that, he chose to go against his Church and his Pope. He chose, it seems to me, between realms. He chose, from my off-kilter view, politics and nationalism, war and blood, lies and power. In the standard account of the decision of his life, he converted to Conservative Catholicism, but when put in a place where he had to decide between Conservatives and Catholics, he rendered everything unto Ceaser.

To steal a line from a friend of mine, Neuhaus provided religious cover a deeply unchristian set of foreign policies, while betraying what would have otherwise been his life’s work.

b) Mark Driscoll is selling Indie Rock Jesus. With his style and his theology, he’s taking the stripped down “authentic” aesthetic, with a little of that Ol’ Timey religion and a startling sense of white privilege, mixing it with a dislike for the poppier tastes, and then he’s offering it online, on facebook and myspace and iTunes and youtube, and you can listen to it and you can buy it – take it home and it’ll be your life. More than anything in this New York Times piece, this is what bothers me. More than questions of style or theology, more than sides of debates about cultural relevance, and what does that mean, I am bothered by the way Mars Hill, at least in this article, sells Christianity as a lifestyle choice.

How is Indie Rock Jesus different than Indie Rock (even as the fashion is fading into a VH1 special)? How is Christianity different than Starbucks, Apple, Disney, or Ford? How, exactly, is belonging to a church different than belonging to a gym, or being a “regular” somewhere?

Everyone agrees that Christianity, if it’s worth a crap, is going to change the way you live. And everyone agrees that Jesus, if he’s real, ought to be relevant to how we live today. But whenever I see this worked out, demonstrated, I end up feeling like I’m seeing another version of people making meaning in a consumer-driven society: Christianity as a brand, complete with logo, loyalty, sense of identity, and market-based meaning.

Driscoll’s not the only one, obviously. Rick Warren’s church got big because it acknowledged that Christianity is a brand, another identity and sense of meaning for sale on the market. Warren sold Jesus exactly the same way we successfully sell SUVs and breakfast sausage. Call it “Saddleback Jesus.” Everybody since Chuck Smith has been doing this consciously, and everyone before him was doing it unconsciously. Driscoll has Indie Rock Jesus, but that’s not any different than business manager Jesus, salesman Jesus, hippie Jesus, GOP Jesus, or workout Jesus. The messiah who once made a whip when the temple was turned into a marketplace, has now himself become a market.

Ultimately, I don’t really care what Driscoll does, but I can’t tell you how I’m any different. The message of American capitalism is that you are what you consume and you are what consumes you. I worry that as I try to consume Christ, I’m being swallowed by an economic ideology. I worry that my faith is not really, practically, any different than a choice of shoe, but just another way to make up meaning and sense of self in a world where everyone’s consuming and being consumed.

c) Driscoll’s “New Calvinism” reminds me that it was the old five-pointers who taught me some important things about Christianity. They were the first ones I heard say that my response to Jesus shouldn’t be based on the effect of that response. They thought eternity ought to be irrelevant, and they emphasized that God wasn’t dependant on me. It’s a Kantian point, I guess, but one I heard from them and one that was important when I tried to be an atheist, and later when I’d come to questions about the eternity and efficiency of grace.

I still, though, end up rejecting Calvinism. For one thing, its God, as described in the answer to the problem of evil, is monstrous.

I guess some people think we should have gotten over the problem of evil, dealt with it already or whatever, but it still insists itself to me. How you answer or don’t answer the question seems to determine everything else: Your ethics, your description of God, your relationship to the world, your interpretation of the cross and understanding of atonement.

I think it has to be answered. My answer, the one I’m working with, is the agnostic ethical answer. I don’t know about God, but I’m trying to always take the part of the victims, the widows, the orphans, the strangers and the damned. It’s the answer you heard from Tom Joad:

"Then I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be ever'where—wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an' -- I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. An' when our folk eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build -- why, I'll be there."

I feel like I need to add, though, that the reason I was there in the first place, “wherever they's cop beatin' up a guy,” was to get some kicks in. I am not naturally on the side of the oppressed, but have to choose to give up lynching, and I always have to worry about “scapegoating to the second degree.”

d) At St. John’s, I always sat next to the stain glass window depicting the temptation of Christ. It made me laugh, because while Jesus looked sufficiently Semitic, Satan was translucent white, and very European.

I was thinking, the other day, about the way I was taught that Jesus’ answer to the temptations was his crucifixion. The passion of Jesus, with Pilate’s question asking him to declare himself king and the thief and centurion demanding a show of miraculous power, was explained to me as a sort of concluding temptation. I was taught, too, that the reason Jesus rejected the temptation options was because of, basically, a methodological difference. He was the king, he was the ruler or all the kingdoms and principalities and powers, he was the almighty, but he could only take was rightfully his through this subversive plan of death. I was taught that Satan was right about the ends, glory and power, but just wrong about how Jesus should get what was his.

I’m uncomfortable with that interpretation, now. I think it makes the death a ploy, a political maneuver. I think it means that Satan and Jesus, in the temptation story, are playing the same game, share the same goals, want the same thing.

I wonder if Christ wasn't just rejecting the means to power, but also power and the pursuit of power? What if the crucifixion wasn't a trick, but was in fact the most profound loss, the greatest failure possible, where the king of all refuses to make a claim, refuses to win or even play, and so rejects the whole structure of the game? What if, when Jesus refuses to say he is the king of the Jews, he's not doing this as a way to gain kingship, but is, just like it looked to the despairing disciples, abdicating? Could it be that he is choosing powerlessness, choosing not just to reverse the structure of oppressor and oppressed, winner and loser, master and slave, but is actually saying that he, who is God and equal with God, like Paul says, wants to subvert the whole damn thing?

Isn't that why the cross is foolishness? I think this is the extension of the logic of incarnation. God gave up divinity. God gave up omnipotence, and became man. Then, as man, he refuses power, refuses to be made king, refuses to pit himself against Ceaser, refuses most of his followers, and then doesn't object when he's wrongly accused, doesn't try to save himself, and dies. Supposedly he died and descended into hell, but we treat the death as if it weren’t death, but an interlude, a comma, a campaign stop on the way to power.

I think we do a disservice when we see this as political. We should see this, I think, as dramatically stupid, profoundly counter-productive, and a shocking failure. Otherwise, Christ’s death was just economics, simple bartering.

e) For some time now, people have told me about New Monasticism and about Crunchy Conservatism. I have enough common sympathies with both groups to make it seem like I might joyfully join the one cause or the other. I hold those common sympathies, too, so I find myself wanting to defend both, and the intentions and real causes of both, and even to protect them (or their core kernels of cause) from my own criticism. Thinking about New Monasticism and Crunchy Conservatism, I have to untangle what’s so right about these groups with what it is that I always find lacking.

Seeing the one criticize the other connected them, in my thinking, and may have clarified what bothers me.

Both are trying to be more holistic, in their lives, and trying to be more conscienscious and responsible. Both are attempts to extricate from consumer capitalism and attempts to give up the white western privilege whereby we exempt ourselves from the problems we create.

At that point, I agree, and this does sound like me, and people ask have I heard of … But I end up with problems at precisely the point where New Monasticism and Crunchy Conservatism think they’re successful. It’s right there where they think they have done it, have extricated themselves, that it seems to me they have created another privileged self-exemption.

Courtesy of Slovoj Zizek, I think of this as the problem of "The Village," likethe M. Night Shyamalan movie. The group, in the movie, recreates the problem it sought to escape. The monsters are the organizing principal of the village, both in its founding and in its continuation, and the attempt to escape is the cause creating the thing to be escaped. To go with another Shamaylan movie, “The Happening,” the confused and misunderstood story of white flight, the more we escape, the more we extricate, retreating to the city park and then to the suburbs, the new suburbs, the country, the mountains and then finally into survivalist bomb shelters, the more pronounced the problem becomes. The Happening is interpreted, both by critics and by the characters in the film, , though neither are exactly reliable sources, as a tale of environmentalism. But the environment at the center of the story is human society (family and friends, neighborhood and community) which is falling apart in the very first scene with a Kitty Genovese moment where a woman’s scream offers everyone the choice: Engage this unknown violence, take on this impossible responsibility, or escape it, which is exactly the move that created it.

To quote Zizek, "What if the true Evil of our societies is not the capitalist dynamics as such, but the attempts to extricate ourselves from it (while profiting from it), to carve out self-enclosed communal spaces, from "gated communities" to exclusive racial or religious groups? That is to say, is the point of The Village not precisely to demonstrate that, today, a return to an authentic community in which speech still directly expresses true emotions, etc. - the village of the socialist utopia - is a fake which can only be staged as a spectacle for the very rich? The exemplary figure of Evil are today not ordinary consumers who pollute environment and live in a violent world of disintegrating social links, but those (top managers, etc.) who, while fully engaged in creating conditions for such universal devastation and pollution, exempt themselves from the results of their own activity, living in gated communities, eating organic food, taking holidays in wild preserves, etc."

New Monasticism and Crunchy Conservatism are both typically critiqued as fanciful and impractical. My objection is precisely the opposite: They are not impossible enough. The programs are very workable, in the context of consumer choices, white privilege and personal exemption. I know that’s not what they’re trying to do, but I don’t see how they can be anything else.

f) If Protestantism is understood as involving, in its essential makeup, the individualization of religion, so that the primary religious act is conversion – making a choice and starting something, vs., say, continuing ritually in the faith you were given – then we are all Protestants now.

Observe the Pope Pius X Catholics, or the many many Conservative Episcopal sects in America, who are opposing their respective church authorities for not being authority enough. That is, even those who would oppose Protestantization have to be Protestant, making that individual choice.

This probably doesn’t matter, but it’s sort of the same point as the inevitability of Capitalism, ala Che’s face as a brand and the way critics are always sucked into the system, compromised by the structure they oppose. And this probably doesn’t matter either, except that I’m always worried about the way Christianity acts as ideology and mingles with markets, and I’m always worrying about inescapable problems and impossible things.