Forging an Alternative Imagination: Setting Aside Evangelical Artifice for the Art of New Creation

The Forging part of Forging Ploughshares presented itself due to my work on a forge as a teenager. My academic career in high school indicated to everyone involved, but especially to my father, that heavy thinking might not suit my abilities. He contacted Kansas State Farriers College, a rather inflated title attached to a barn, farmhouse, and a mobile home/dormitory which had been started by the last full-time Army farrier upon his retirement (or so he told us). Bob Bechdolt, a larger than life character in many senses (he must have been approaching about 400 pounds and was at that point involved in a battle with the State of Kansas to have his school officially recognized) came to visit us on our small farm in Kansas and my father was convinced I should learn horse shoeing.  This would include learning to forge horse shoes (using hammer, anvil, and forge, to make approximate half circles out of strips of metal) as well as all that is involved in getting shoes on horses. So, between my junior and senior year of high school I spent many hours using a forge attempting to craft horse foot wear. The use of the forge, I came to learn, is an art unto itself[1] and so too the art of living which would produce ploughshares – representative of the peaceable Kingdom.

The valuation of craft, as with horse shoeing in a world dependent on horses, is interdependent on the community it serves. Entrepreneurial craft in merchant communities, the art of war in communities of soldiers, athletes, entertainers etc. in their various guilds, are valued according to the purpose of their community. Inadequate visions of the purpose of community inevitably distort what is valued and truncate some aspect of humanity. With the rise of capitalism, the guild (as a mode of value) was undermined by an overarching system which swept away every other form of valuation with something like the power of religion (I argue below that it is precisely a religious power). As is well recognized, capitalism values artifice over art (the art of the deal is to reap reward without the expenditure of contribution), so that the one who makes an art of dealing (the pure capitalist) makes nothing other than profit. The system is tautologous in that the signification of value – the pure circulating sign (nothing at all in the case of Bit Coin or simply a piece of worthless paper) is given ultimate value. As a result, those who may actually contribute to the well-being of others (in the art of living as I suggest below) are impoverished and devalued even (most especially) in the Church.

The system is theological in its implications precisely because it is theological in its form. Max Weber traces the rise of capitalism (producing secularism and all it entails – including modern atheism) to the notions of Calvinist election and predestination. The elect can no longer know they are saved on the basis of anything else (works or sacraments of the Church) so their election is indicated indirectly. As Calvin will describe it, one’s savings (personal wealth) is a sign that he is of the elect. Wealth accumulated and health enjoyed is the sign that God is blessing. Capitalism is god-like in its ordering of society because it is conceived as the phenomenal manifestation of the (noumenal, all-controlling) Calvinist god.  Thus, the successful purveyor of pure greed need not display any particular ethic or any positive quality of character to be “God’s man.”

As Pat Robertson has purportedly confirmed in his vision of heaven, Donald Trump sits in the place of Jesus, at the right hand of God. Value caves in on itself so that an empty vessel – surrendered to pure “divine” drive – embodies the pure will of God. It is precisely in his unadulterated desire, greed made incarnate, that Donald Trump can serve as Messiah of the evangelical cult.  To the degree evangelicalism is implicated and bound up with capitalism it has continually proven empty (not just in valuing charisma and numbers over substance but in its incapacity to value people for their full, embodied, humanity – obviously not a problem limited to Protestants). All that is new is that this emptiness is now manifest in its confusion of a creature nearly devoid of humanity with the truly human One.

This confusion, at its root, begins with a theology and mode of exegesis which would not only devalue the humanity of Jesus (late capitalist Gnosticism?) but which would empty the New Testament of its humanity. This is obviously done by displacing Israel (the socio-political reality) with a disembodied notion of salvation and an other-worldly Kingdom. I recently recognized the same end is achieved with slavery, as in the case of the book of Philemon, by limiting slavery to a metaphor for sin. (In all of this, try to imagine Moses pleading to Pharaoh “let my people go metaphorically.”)

If slavery is a metaphor for sin (and not itself sin – though of course it could be both) then the slavery in Egypt and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and maybe the entire Old Testament, can be read as a spiritual allegory in which physical slavery is simply an illustration of spiritual bondage. In this understanding, sin does not pertain to the socio-political realm but has to do primarily with the psychological and interior part of our humanity. Redemption, in turn, has nothing to do with an alternative socio-political reality – real world deliverance.  As Dallas mega-Church Pastor and Trump supporter Robert Jeffress has put it, Trump is preferable to a candidate like Jesus (or Jesus-like) for President as Christ’s Lordship and ethics (as described in the Sermon on the Mount) do not pertain to governance of an earthly nation. In this understanding, salvation is primarily private and inward – mainly having to do with my personal relationship to Jesus?  It is not that the outward world is completely irrelevant in this view. Rather, just as the enslavement of the Jews to Egypt is a kind of allegory, one’s outward life and circumstance might be viewed as an allegorical reflection of the saved or damned condition but does not, in itself, carry ultimate meaning.

In the case of Philemon, if slavery is not itself sin, Paul may be offering advice to a friend that he can either follow or ignore without implication for his spiritual well-being. Slavery is the means by which Philemon, at least in part, has been able to accumulate his wealth. Slaves are the equivalent of a savings account in that the more you have the more capital and security you have accumulated. According to Calvin’s notion, for Philemon to free Onesimus would be on the order of relinquishing his assurance that he is one of the elect.

Likewise, Jesus concern with the poor does not pertain so much to financial poverty as spiritual poverty. His picture of the impossibility of a rich man to enter into heaven (like a camel going through the eye of a needle) is hyperbole indicating that salvation is impossible for everyone. His hard teaching in the sermon on the Mount about anger, lust, and wealth cannot be taken literally; this is more akin to our allegorical reading of Jewish slavery. Christ’s advice to the rich young ruler, his exhortations to spiritual perfection, are simply a form of irony, meant to demonstrate the impossibility of righteousness through works.

In this perverse reading there really is nothing left of the New Testament and what remains is more anti-Christian than Christian. The fact that there are large numbers of Christians that read the New Testament in this way does not lend any weight to this interpretation. It simply shows that the perversity of sin still enslaves many who claim to have put on the freedom of Christ. Here the embodied freedom we are to artfully live out in the body of Christ has no place and no value. It is not only the gifts of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.) but the creative human talent which would employ these spiritual gifts are given no real place. Certainly, an atonement based on pure exchange (the Son making payment to the Father) leaves no room for redemptive creation care. Broaching an alternative and living it out, though, may involve the singular move of realizing (understanding and living out) the task of “filling out” the redemption of Christ (Col. 1:24).

As participants in the work of redemption forging, crafting, artfully living, is our part in creation’s “groaning” redemption. A fully formed and embodied theological understanding requires the full range of human capacities, artfully employed, in writing, painting, craft, farming, music, poetry, reflective (artful) thought etc. Putting on salvation means joining a new community with an alternative ethic and an alternative system of valuation. Value is in contribution to meeting all of the embodied, soulish, sensual, spiritual, needs. This valuation exposes the worthlessness of the venal charisma given ultimate value in art of the deal spirituality.

(Jason’s recent three-part picture of the Kingdom along with a visit by the artist, Megan Kenyon, is the impetus behind this blog.)

[1] My expertise was in specialty shoes for crippled horses – though I have yet to meet the horse deformed enough to fit the shoes I produced.  When I graduated – a term I use loosely as Mr. Bechdolt made no provision for failed farrier candidates – my father made up business cards and set me to shoeing. “Any Horse, Any Where, Any Time” my card announced and so I began to terrorize the horses around Great Bend Kansas and then Roswell New Mexico.

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.

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