A Fascinating But Dangerous Story: Part II

The story I have told has focused on the lure of history and historical theology in which this history creates something of a double bind. The theological understanding that has developed often posits a gap – on the order of the law (e.g., Anselm) or an objectifying vision (e.g., Aquinas) – in which God’s presence is to be sought in an extraordinary inward journey or ecstatic union. This theological gap is compounded with the notion that the turn of theology reflects the turn of the Church itself from an authentic Christianity (e.g. the Constantinian shift). So this authenticity is held out as a lure that needs to be reconstituted. If only we could return to the way of the first Church – thus movements of continual restoration; if only we could overcome the hurdle posed by inauthentic theology – thus the turn to a supposed Biblical Theology which would be conducted apart from the church’s theological biases. Or, as in the mega-church movement, if only we could attain the health and wholeness held out in the lure of charismatic sales-preachers.

The turn from “Systematic Theology” to “Biblical Theology” in James Barr’s description is the attempt to find authority through a word based approach. The meaning is thought to reside in the grammar so that there is no end to a Newtonian like reduction in the attempt to avoid the “field theory” posited by Systematic Theology. The “historical critical” or “historical grammatical” method cements this gap as part of an ever illusive meaning beneath the text in the grammar or in the history or in the original author’s mind. The “true exegete” is one who avoids comparing verses and books within the Bible. One true to this Nietzschean-like philological pursuit must be forever staring into a bottomless black hole of grammar and history awaiting the appearance of Godot.

This well-recognized modernist project, which postmodernist critiques have succeeded in describing, is one which conservative and fundamentalist Christians have continued to frantically pursue. The ever expanding mega-churches with the ever intensified “worship music” and the endless parade of charismatic personalities continues to hold out the lure of ecstatic union or inward discovery. Jesus is “it” on the order of a good Coke product. To sell the product everyone must take a sip and look refreshed and happy – the special role of the product salesman/preacher-personalities. Ironically, among the salesman/preachers 38% are divorced or in the process and they report higher rates of suicide and depression (70%) than any other profession. Some 30% report illicit sexual liaisons with their parishioners.1Statistics taken from the article by Ken Pullman, “Why I De-Converted from Evangelical Christianity,” appearing on his blog of Wednesday May 19th, 2010. The wholeness and happiness of the sales/personalities holds out the lure that intensifies the drive. To admit that maybe Coke/Jesus is not “it” and that the special toothy happiness seems illusive will be marked up to lack of faith.

Human brokenness – the evil, injustice, oppression, mental illness, and general malaise that reigns in the world and church – cannot be acknowledged. This would mean a downturn in sales – but meanwhile customers are turned into diabetic consumers of colored sugar water/gospel lite. Those with special needs, the maimed, the lame, the sick, or those made obese from gorging on substanceless sweetness are shown or find the back door as these institutions consume the consumers. As a counselor in a mega-church describes the façade, “What people claim corporately and believe privately are two very different things. . . I saw cutters and closet binge drinkers and church singers hiding extramarital affairs. Dead marriages and depressive fatigues, ungovernable teens, phantom lusts, deviant compulsions, doubts, fears, anxiety in the night, secretly agnostic ministers, and thoughts of suicide.”2Jamie Blaine, “7 Things I Learned While Working at a Mega-Church,” from the OnFaith Website. This isn’t a shocking revelation but a recognition of the reality of the human condition which the mega-church must hide. As he puts it, “Everybody’s wrecked behind the scenes.” When the wreckage is exposed, as it continually is in the escapades and failures of the salesman/preachers, the mall like structures empty out.

This story of “what happened to theology” or “what happened to authentic Christianity” or the continuous pursuit of mega-church happiness and wholeness is driven by an economy of loss or absence – the economy of the missing piece. Shel Silverstein’s children’s book The Missing Piece pictures a circle missing a pie shape which it is ever pursuing and this pursuit turns out to be what keeps the circle rolling along. The circle searching for its missing piece describes, not only the lure of an authentic Christianity, but an idolatrous religion in which the lure of the idol gives rise to an exponential desire. The idol as phallic symbol in Ezekiel pictures idolatrous desire as bent upon obtaining an impossible union which gives rise to an ever heightened desire which results in child sacrifice. The beat of the worship music, the lure of the idol/salesman, and the longing for union and happy release intensifies the agonistic struggle so that sacrifice – of children, of wasted lives, or suicidal sacrifice, is the end of the game.

Silverstein’s children’s story arrives at the insight of postmodernism as the circle discovers the impossibility of wholeness/happiness. In its search for the missing piece some pieces are too sharp, too square, or he drops the piece, or squeezes it too tight and the piece breaks. When he finds the perfect piece he can no longer sing, no longer engage the world, as the piece clogs up the gap from which his voice and point of interaction with others occur. He can only role silently along enclosed within himself, completely invulnerable but also incapable of friendship and love. He spits out the piece so as to continue his search. As any good Lacanian must know, one must never give way on desire as it is the true life-force, so that filling in the missing piece is death itself.

The realization that loss, absence, and the resulting desire constitutes the “life- force” is the end point of a certain “postmodern” theology. This is the theological realization of Peter Rollins, Marcus Pound and those who have assumed Slavoj Žižek has accurately described the parameters of subjective possibility for the Christian and non-Christian. The realization that the desire for wholeness and happiness is a lure, that acknowledging brokenness in vulnerability is a prerequisite to love, is a relief from the sham of big business Christianity. The insight potentially leads to the full recognition of the shame/pride axis as it is portrayed in Scripture. The human attempt to fabricate an identity that will endure – cover up the shame of death, mortality, or simply the incapacity to stay glued together – is not simply the ploy of toothy, big haired televangelists. This is the human project and predicament from the original cover-up in Genesis to Babel and beyond.

The recent book promoting mind over matter and full mental health, I Am, by one famous preacher advocating the power of positive thinking, captures it all. Here is the name of God – “I am that I am” – the claim of Christ – “I am before Abraham” – and the lie of Satan – “I am and there are none beside me.” From God or Christ this “I am” is the foundation of all else. From anyone else this is a lie from hell. The modernist departure built upon the Cartesian meditation, “I think therefore I am,” marks the human centered foundationalism of the enlightenment. Nearly from its inception modernity has been in crisis. As Kant pointed out in regard to Descartes’ formula, the “thinking thing” cannot be conjoined with its thought – there is a gap within (the noumena cannot be attained through the phenomena). As modernity is tumbling down, the human cry, “I Am” should be heard for the moral rebellion and false grab for autonomy which it is. Sadly, as the foundations of modernity are coming undone, among those left trumpeting the wholeness and health it offers are evangelical Christians who have confounded the good news and the lie of the devil.

In the end though, Žižek’s atheistic materialism offers no more than the discovery of Silverstein’s Missing Piece. The failed Cartesian Subject cannot be displaced; rather one can only realize that the Subject is conceived in a primordial deception and not be taken in by the lure of death drive and desire. Tarrying with the negative of brokenness is all that is left in this dystopian Christianity. It does seem to be an advance on the brazen gaudiness of an idolatrous Christianity caught in the modernist dilemma. What I want to suggest is that there is an alternative. Not a gap positing beatific leap nor a Hegelian dialectic given over to tarrying with the negative. There is an alternative economy which takes the problem into account but which does not leave us in the agonistic struggle to overcome, nor must we simply accept the eternal tension.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.