Friday, January 22, 2016

Ideology as Idolatry, Part 3A: Decisions for Christ, Dionysus and Aphrodite

Here, my blog series on Ideology and Idolatry continues, in which I explore how I think the same concrete reality is being spoken to by David E. Fitch in The End of Evangelicalism?, on the one hand, who speaks of the “empty politic” and ideology of evangelicalism, and by N.T. Wright in Surprised by Scripture, on the other hand, who speaks of the idolatry that drives our world.

See Part 1: Setting the Stage
See Part 2A: The Inerrant Bible and Apollo
See Part 2B: The Inerrant Bible and Apollo

The word kills the thing… – Rome Discourse, by Jacques Lacan

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In him was life, and the life was the light of men. – The Apostle John

“Decisions for Christ” and a People Defined by Images of Dionysius and Aphrodite

Jessica Simpson in "These Boots Are Made for Walking"

David Fitch, in The End of Evangelicalism?, discusses how “The Decision” for Christ, undergirded by the theoretical machinery of justification and how it works, is what he calls a Master signifier. Fitch uses Zizek’s cynicism to diagnose how evangelicalism no longer functions as the fullness of the presence of the body of Christ in the world for reconciliation and healing. Instead, the “politic,” or the way of life, of evangelicalism as a body of people in the world is “empty.” There is a fundamental lack at its core that drives the very existence of evangelicalism as a body or group of people. “The Decision” becomes an unfulfillable fantasy that evangelicals seek to quench by affirmation of their salvation that was established when said “Decision” was made. As a “Master signifier”, “The Decision” becomes an over-arching piece of our language that has little to no effect for actual living in the world but that holds evangelicals together as a people and gives them a common identity.

This is why the symbolic practice that reveals the reification of the ideology of “the Decision” having power in evangelicalism is the altar call. In other words, the evangelical practice of the altar call is what symbolically points to “the Decision” being at work ideologically within the way of life of evangelicalism. The altar call is what makes “the Decision” and all of its theoretical meaning appear as a real thing in the world. And, considering said meaning, the altar call and how it’s practiced and believed in reveals that the primary focus of evangelicalism is escape from hell rather than fullness of life in the New Creation.

Speaking of escape from hell: in ancient Greece, Dionysus was the god of fertility, wine, winemaking, and ritual madness and ecstasy. His wine, music, and ecstatic dance frees followers from self-conscious fear and care, from the oppressive existential anxieties of the powers of death and alienation. This was part of why ritual sacrifice to him at his altar occurred at the beginning of cathartic Greek tragedies. Festivities in worship of Dionysus included drunken men and women of all ages and social classes dancing and jumping around in a sexual free-for-all. The powers of economic and social class were also broken by the freedom of Dionysian ecstasy. One of the descriptive phrases or words used to give expression to the qualities or characteristics (one of the epithets) for Dionysus (and Eros, not insignificantly) is Eleutherios, which means “the liberator.”

Does the photo above of Jessica Simpson – who claims evangelical Christianity - tell a story of an attempt at escape from hell or of sexual liberation? Or, rather, do the two escapes become one and the same? To which altar is the calling?

In Surprised by Scripture (p. 152), N.T. Wright says,
“…when Freud became popular, filtering down into mainstream culture through novels and plays, people began to speak of the erotic impulse, often, called ‘the life force,’ just as they might before have spoken of a divine command. One should not resist. It would be hypocritical and wrong….one should never pass up an opportunity to appear on television or to have sex. The goddess Aphrodite, even if unnamed, is served by millions.”

Notably, Aphrodite, like Dionysus, is also an ancient Greek figuring of sex and fertility. She was also the goddess of beauty.

In the above sense of the evangelical altar call that accompanies “the Decision” for Christ having an empty meaning towards escape from hell rather than towards true and actual life, and in numerous other senses to be explored later, Fitch, in using the language of Zizek, says there is no actual truth in the real and concrete world at the core of what moves evangelicalism’s language of “the Decision.” In seeing that both Dionysius and Aphrodite are a gods or goddesses of fertility, thought to bring life and/or freedom, and – as per the N.T. Wright quote above - in seeing their powers at work in our contemporary world, I am lead to wonder if the evangelical world is not at the mercy of those two ancient gods of life-bringing fertility.

In other words, I question whether there are, in actuality, foreign gods at work in the church rather than simply the revelation of an “emptiness” that the church seeks to fill. Not only is Jessica Simpson’s “These boots were made for walking” – from which the above photo was pulled - a moment of sexual freedom, but, perhaps, it is a declaration of allegiance to a master. As N.T. Wright says in Surprised by Scripture, “One of the things we learn early in science is that nature abhors a vacuum.”

An event within evangelicalism That Fitch discusses in The End of Evangelicalism?, which exposed the drift of “the Decision” for Christ from a call to holy living guided by the Spirit into what he calls an empty pursuit of a fantasy was the 1980’s debate between John McArthur and Zane Hodges. McArthur took a public and published stance of what he called “Lordship salvation,” which was that you can’t have Jesus Christ as savior without also accepting him as Lord. McArthur insisted that salvation has to mean something for your life, that, when you are saved, you should exhibit behavioral changes, which would demonstrate that Jesus Christ is your master.

Zane Hodges stood on the opposite side of the stage, stating that to make such demands would be to confuse salvation as being from anything other than by faith alone. Telling the tale of what really drives evangelicals, the debate between McArthur and Hodges set off a flurry of controversy within evangelicalism and further solidified the separation of and distance between justification and sanctification.

For our purposes at the moment, what the debate tells us is that the theoretical machinery that now separates justification from sanctification reflects a system in which salvation means nothing for our actual lives, means nothing for our bodies. When we make “the decision,” we are left wondering what to actually do!? In the ideological language Fitch employs in The End of Evangelicalism?, this wondering keeps the distance between the subject of “the Decision” (the one who made the decision) and “the Decision” itself (and all that it means, conceptually). That distance opens up a space of imagined fulfillments of the possible meanings of “the Decision” that allows it to functionally shape the desires of those who claim allegiance to it as a master signifier. As long as we are left wondering what to do when we make “the Decision,” we are free to imagine what salvation means for our actual lives and bodies.

In the ideological terms Fitch uses, then, McArthur’s attempt to put too much definition on what “the Decision” means threatened its status as a Master Signifier. In the context of the aftermath of that debate between McArthur and Hodges, Fitch says that the prevailing idea that “salvation must be by faith alone” and against any “works requirement” maintains “the Decision’s” elusive quality that allows it to function as a Master Signifier. That’s an example of why the meaning of what Fitch and Zizek call a Master signifier must remain elusive. McArthur’s attempt to evade the elusiveness of the meaning of “the Decision” would have closed the distance between the one making the decision and linguistic use and meaning of the decision itself. We would have no longer been free to imagine what it means and thus seek whatever fulfillment of said meaning that we so imagine.

And, for the sake of clarity, the reason the meaning of “the Decision” is elusive is because it means nothing (for our actual living and for our bodies).

With such an “emptiness” at the core of evangelicalism as a body of people in the world (as a politic) - an emptiness which seeks to fill itself, since nature abhors a vacuum – the image presented of evangelicals is no different from others in the world to seek to who satisfy the desires of their bodies in their lives. With the particular theoretical machinery in place of what salvation means, however, we are uniquely guilty about such pursuits to fulfill our fantasies, whereas others are not.

Because of “the Decision,” our sin is erased, and our guilt is washed away. For evangelicals, then, the guilt is interwoven into the machinery that builds the fabric of our socio-political existence in the world. But, because the whole point of “the Decision” is that it means nothing for actual life – that it’s “by faith alone” and separated from sanctification - our guilt while we end up doing what everyone else does actually maintains and solidifies the machinery of our salvation, which is the meaning of “the Decision” in the first place. In other words, functionally speaking, “the Decision” doesn’t help us overcome guilt, as is its conceptual meaning. Rather, “the Decision” weaves guilt into the meaning of the evangelical way of life.

In what I take to be an explanation of both this distance between the person who makes the decision and “the Decision” itself as well as of the elusive meaning of “the Decision” (both of which allow “the Decision” to function as a “master signifier” by which a group of people identify themselves), larval subjects, in his blog in which he was himself teaching about Zizek, said the following:
“The objet a is the trace of a remainder or loss that takes place when we enter the symbolic order or are alienated in the signifier. Why does the signifier do this? Because, as Lacan said in his Rome Discourse, ‘the word kills the thing’. The word kills the thing because it introduces absence into the world. With the word, it is now possible to refer to things that are absent and that don’t even exist. Moreover, the word “freezes” the thing. As Hegel argued in the open of the Phenomenology when analyzing sense-certainty, words are always general universal terms, whereas things are singularities. As a consequence, there’s always a disadequation between word and thing. We want the word, as it were, but no thing is ever adequate to the generality of the word. As a consequence, every time we get the thing (not to be confused with what Lacan called The Thing), we’re disappointed. It’s not it. That experience of ‘it not being it’ is what generates surplus-jouissance. We repeat because that gap between word and thing perpetually reappears.”

In other words, “the Decision” and the salvation that accompanies it is loaded with conceptual meaning that doesn’t actually appear in the world. Because “the Decision” – with all of the theoretical machinery that is attached to it - is not an actual, concrete thing, it can only be pointed to. This is why the altar call is referred to as a “symbolic practice” of “the Decision.”

Within this framework of thought, when evangelicals make reference to the number of “Decisions” made on a given Sunday, they are not only referring to something that is not present in the world, but they are “introducing an absence.”

Billy Graham himself noted his disappointment over the number of people who had made “the Decision” in his Crusades but had later disappeared from the church within a number of years. I’m sure he’s not the only one. And, yet we continue to count “Decisions” precisely because we want to close what is the natural and unfillable “gap between word and thing.” “The Decisions” disappear, but we continue to count them to fill the gap between the conceptual, linguistic entity of “the Decision” and the actual, concrete person who made said “Decision.” By my reading of Fitch in The End of Evangelicalism, this is precisely how a master-signifier works to keep an ideology going.

By the same token, one could also say that Fitch, Zizek, and Lacan were writing commentaries on Greek tragedies and that evangelicals have played them out as they’ve been ruled by the ideology of “the Decision.” Greek tragedies seek not to overcome death but to, in the face of a fate that can never be a-void-ed, reconcile to it. Just as “the Decision” doesn’t overcome the guilt of sin but seeks to reconcile it to a way of life.

John 1 helps to reveal that this quest to reconcile to the void of death is, in fact, a religious pursuit, regardless of whether the ideology of any particular master-signifier – which is centered around an emptiness - occurs within the community of a church or not. As Fitch said recently on Facebook, science is itself another religion. John 1 also, however, as compared to this tragic staging, takes a completely contradictory view of the relationship between language and the world. For John, the word doesn’t kill the thing. Scripturally, the Word not only is the ultimately real thing but is that through which the world was made. For John, there is an ultimate master, and it is the Word. And, the church points to him with its witness.

And, that brings me back to the idolatry of Dionysius and Aphrodite. As per the above discussion of the McArthur vs. Hodges debate (and more works of human hands that I will discuss further in this blog series), it was human discourse that shaped evangelical ideology into what it is today. The question, then, is twofold. One: when regarding the church’s presence in the world today, does the image of a god appear, or, rather, the image of a cynical lack, an emptiness? Two: if the image of a god appears, then what god or goddess is it?

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