On Christianity

17May07

/1/ – The noxious doppelgänger

The two faces of Christianity most prevalent in the global media consciousness (or whatever you want to call it) are Evangelical (based on its political fervor and fairly recent emergence) and Catholic (due to its widespread clutches and bureaucratic longevity). In his brief text The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, Slavoj Žižek describes this as the false choice between religion’s two possible roles: therapeutic and critical (p. 3) While the Catholic church is still reeling from its barrage of sexual scandals and recently dealing with the arrival of a new pope with questionable character, the troubles of evangelicals, on the other hand, have been a much more immediate occurrence. Frankly, it’s been a bad couple of weeks for them – Ted Haggard, who had been in charge of the largest evangelical church in the country, admitting to meth heightened sex with a gay
prostitute and, only a few days before, Dr Dino, one of the strongest supporters of Christian Science, was found guilty, along with his wife, of over 800,000 dollars in tax fraud. The figure of the ‘true’ or ‘real’ Christian seems a dim possibility if not a completely dead anachronism.

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La Pietà

This pessimism reflects the nature of the evangelical/catholic problem. The evangelical form is seductive because, in direct opposition to many members comments, it is a quick Christianity in which the present is displaced due to the all important task of spreading the message of Christ. This leads to a complete truncation/misunderstanding of the Bible’s teachings and reduces the message of Christianity to the very act of presenting the message itself. This is abhorrently evident in the film Jesus Camp which I will discuss below.

The Catholic side of things seems to be quite the opposite in that there is an over identification with the material actions of the church’s decisions (such as ‘okay so now we’ve decided that unbaptized children do in fact go to heaven…whew what a relief’) with the immaterial spirit matters of the religion. Yet at the same time there is an odd kind of selective separation when it comes to the material and the spiritual. They seem to work in conjunction with one another in order for one to cancel the other out – we don’t really choose the Pope god does or I’m not actually your physical priest when you are at confession etc. It is a separation that allows for a very strange privilege, which can be jokingly, though perhaps in bad taste, extended to the years and years of molestation. This is exactly the case in the South Park episode “Red Hot Catholic Love”

/2/ – The over extended scroll

In the episode, the parents of the South Park react negatively to a planned boat trip with the local priest, Father Maxi, and their children. The parents clumsily try and discover if Father Maxi has been abusing their children and eventually decide that the very fact that they have to be doing such an investigation means that they should renounce their religion and become atheists. Father Maxi is of course appalled and attempts to fix the problem discovering that his fellow priests are not upset that molestation is going on but that kids are now reporting it for some reason. They defend their position by stating that molesting boys is part of Vatican law and that it is the only way for them to have sex since the same document forbids them from marrying. When Maxi states that both should be changed the priests react violently stating that it cannot be changed mostly because no one knows where it is. The episode strongly criticizes Catholicism on the aforementioned points of excessive bureaucracy and the strangeness of its wide appeal (for example there is aliens in the Vatican and their highest power is not the pope but a giant space spider).

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Maxi, fed up with the Catholic church’s ridiculousness, tears the holy document in two and then, in the ruins of the Vatican, argues against needless ceremony. This gesture is a sacrificial act in that Maxi denounces those things which differentiate Catholicism from its religious core. Near the end of the episode Maxi says: “All that’s dead are your stupid laws and rules! You’ve forgotten what being a Catholic is all about. This… book. You see, these are just stories. Stories that are meant to help people in the right direction. Love your neighbor. Be a good person. That’s it! And when you start turning the stories into literal translations of hierarchies and power, well… Well, you end up with this. People are losing faith because they don’t see how what you’ve turned the religion into applies to them!”

What is important is to see this relation as not simply falling in the aforementioned therapeutic or critical pincers.

/3/ – Quick and dirty agape

The film Jesus Camp is terrifying for a plethora of rational and irrational reasons. It centers on three children (Levi, Rachel, and Tory) who attend the ‘Kids on Fire’ bible camp run by Pentecostal minister Becky Fischer in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. Mike Papantonio, a devout Christian, attorney, and co-host of the Air America show Ring of Fire, is used as a counterpoint to the raving Fischer.

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Jesus Camp

One very unsettling strand throughout the movie is how articulate the children seem. You have the inkling feeling though that they are just rehearsing the same script over and over again without understanding its content. A predictable but none the less unsettling statistic is that 75% of home schooled children are evangelical Christians. There’s a moment where the young mullet-ed Levi is at the breakfast table and his mom is teaching him about climate change and how it isn’t a big deal. Here is the messenger status of Evangelicalism (at the cost of all content) at its purest. Papantonio’s largest argument against people like Fischer, is that they take the concept of the message and the messenger to mean a cultural war through conversion and a particular form of the teachings of the bible.

While selective bible quoting is as old as Christianity itself, Christian evangelicals seem to go even beyond selectiveness. Evangelicals seem to raise figures to sublime objects (the Freudian das Ding) which allows them to ignore the specific teachings of that particular person. St Paul becomes a war monger, Jesus is known not for his radical theories and actions but only for his death. Christ is reduced to spilled blood and lost flesh.

Connected to this is of course the obsession with hellfire and damnation which is always an internal joke among literature folk seeing as most of those images came not from scripture but from the minds of Milton and Dante.

/4/ – Heretics on Fire

It is no surprise that such hypocritical scandal (coupled with controversy over evolution and gay marriage) has led to more vehement admonition of religion and religious figures. Yet, at the same time, there is a kind of nihilism induced by the critique of Judeo-Christian religion that seems utterly unhelpful. The second narrative strand of “Red Hot Catholic Love” is helpful here. When a counselor is brought in to ask the boys about possible molestation she asks them ‘has your priest ever tried to put anything up your butt?’ Given no explanation the kids try to think what they could be and Cartman deduces that it must be food she is talking about and therefore it must be possible to shove food up your butt and defecate out your mouth. The fad catches on and it’s telling that the parents, while ranting about atheism, are literally shitting out of their mouths. The slightly less explicit message is that just because something is the opposite of what is generally accepted doesn’t mean that it is right.

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Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins author of The Selfish Gene while trained as an evolutionary biologist has, within the last few years taken a more aggressive approach towards religion. He recently did a project entitled The Root of all Evil? (which is available on Youtube) in which he asks why hasn’t religion been overshadowed completely by science. Dawkins chats with some truly frightening and ignorant people and some that are less so, but he consistently makes over-generalized statements about religion and Christianity in particular. For instance, Dawkins critiques Christianity for putting all its emphasis on the after life and neglecting the present moment. Here Dawkins makes the mistake of taking Evangelical Christianity for all of Christianity. Dawkins is obviously unfamiliar with Ecclesiastes Chapter 3, v 12-13: “So I conclude that, first, there is nothing better for a man than to be happy and to enjoy himself as long as he can; and second, that he should eat
and drink and enjoy the fruits of his labors, for these are gifts from God.”

Interestingly enough South Park again is an excellent reference point in this matter. The two most recent episodes “Go God Go” and “Go God Go XII” deal particularly with the issue of atheism and with Richard Dawkins. The episodes lampoon Dawkins’ combative attitude towards religion must likely a response towards his most recent works. The final argument of the two shows is that sectarian violence would still exist even without religion. In typical Libertarian fashion the two episode arc ends with the conclusion that what is really wrong is to go around telling people they are wrong to be religious.

/5/ – At the end of time…

Despite the fact that Žižek is, like myself, staunchly atheist he argues that one needs to fight for the political and cultural significance of Christianity. The significance of the crucifixion has far reaching implications. In a Schelling fashion the finite God (Christ) is above the infinite God – the finite is above the infinite (The Puppet and the Dwarf, p. 13). This is why the crucifixion is, in its form the act of true love. Love is when, out of the infinity we choose a single fragile individual and place it above everything else. It is also for this reason that Žižek in the documentary that bears his name states that love is formally evil. Furthermore Žižek writes “Christian love is a violent passion to introduce a Difference, a gap in the order of being, to privilege and elevate some object at the expense of others” (p. 33).

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G.K. Chesterton

Žižek also utilizes a brilliant passage from G.K. Chesterton’s text Orthodoxy which could be used against the common complaint that there is a lack of miracles:

“The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning,”Do it again” to the sun” (p. 40 of The Puppet and the Dwarf).

This is part of the horrible freedom allowed by the idea of Christ’s sacrifice, in which we get to live with impunity. Whereas in Paganism the limitless transgressions fizzle out in their own ends, Christianity allows access to earthly pleasures without melancholy because Christ has paid the price for us. Žižek utilizes a Catholic school girl joke to illustrate this point: “There is thus an element of truth in a joke about a young Christian girl’s ideal prayer to the Virgin Mary: ‘O thou who conceived without having sinned, let me sin without having to conceive!’” (p. 49).

As for the bureaucratic and evangelical ruination of Christianity – Žižek makes a startling statement at the end of The Puppet and the Dwarf: The gap here is irreducible: either one drops the religious form, or one maintains the form, but loses the essence. That is the ultimate heroic gesture that awaits Christianity: in order to save its treasure, it has to sacrifice itself–like Christ, who had to die so that Christianity could emerge” (p. 171).

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