Friday, January 22, 2016

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

How Evangelical Practices and Beliefs of “Decisions for Christ” Set the Stage for Worship of Dionysus and Aphrodite

Jean Duvet’S "The Marriage of Adam and Eve," circa 1555

In The End of Evagelicalism?, David Fitch discusses Ted Haggard’s appearance on Larry King Live on January 29, 2009. Considering Haggard’s past homosexual practices, which I will discuss further later in this blog series, King asked if Haggard’s preaching against gays had been hypocritical. Haggard responded, “Absolutely, it was.” Without stopping or being asked for an explanation, Haggard immediately explained that the reason for his hypocrisy was, “because I have a belief system…I believe the Bible is the word of God…Jesus is the son of God, and I believe in being born again…those things are fundamental to Christianity.” By calling evangelicalism a “belief system” centered around “the Decision” to be born again, Haggard put a distance between what he took to be what defines evangelicalism and his actual way of life.

Ted Haggard, then, is an example of Evangelicalism being defined by a system of thought to which we mentally assent rather than by a way of life. This was to explain how Haggard could both preach against homosexuality and perversely “enjoy” it at the same time.

As noted in the previous blog post, the altar call is the symbolic practice that points to the ideological sway of “the Decision” upon evangelicalism as a body of people in the world. Although the altar call is less popular now than it was even a generation ago, Haggard, in saying that he has “a belief system,” was operating under the still prevailing assumptions of said altar call.

Through the language of “the Decision” – as exemplified by Haggard – we see that it assumes that salvation is individual, that salvation is begun through a voluntary act, and that salvation is nurtured through individual learning and worship. This understanding of “the Decision” as the place and time of salvation limits baptism to being only the individual’s declaration to the public of said “Decision.” In this ideological framework, there is little understanding of the corporate aspects of baptism and how God works within community to change us, our lives, and the desires of our bodies in the world.

The evangelical practice of salvation revealed in Haggard’s statement that he has “a belief system” focuses on the cognitive part of man. Evangelcial assumptions of how salvation works are Cartesian (I think - analytically, btw - therefore I am), and the practice of discipleship is informational. Our discipleship focuses on cognitive practices: regular, inductive bible studies and personal, private prayer. “Going to church” is emphasized, in which the central practice is the sermon.

All of this assumes that, if individuals get the right information, they will grow as disciples. And, not insignificantly, it is at the end of said sermon, during which the individual gets the right information in his head, when the altar call takes place. The altar call realizes the drive to fill the void created by the purely cognitive (or spiritual) meaning of justification. Similarly, the figures that fill Jean Duvet’s engraving of “The Marriage of Adam and Eve,” which is pictured at the beginning of this blog post, realize the “horror vacui” that drove much of the cultural and artistic production of that time.

Perhaps what drives the ideology of the “the Decision” is an extension of something latent in human history centuries before. “Horror vacui,” translated from the Latin, means “fear of the vacuum,” and the idea began to appear more centrally in culture and discourse when Galileo made it an integral piece of his physics. Later, others debated whether nature actually seeks to fill the void or if, rather, nature is essentially constituted by a void.

The above discussed cognitively driven approach to discipleship that now rules evangelicalism reflects how that debate, which was a real source fear Jean Duvet’s fear, was apparently settled. Such fear of the void is obviously quite foreign to us now. The current reigning approach to discipleship is opposed to the more holistic spiritual disciplines practiced throughout much of church history. Such holistic practices had helped to shape the desires born of our bodies’ existence in the world.

The McArthur vs. Hodges debate, discussed in the last blog post, on whether or not salvation should be reflected in behavioral change, perhaps proves that Zizek was correct when he discussed HERE how, now that we swim in the waters of the void of Nothingness, we are far more afraid of Something than we are horrified by the vacuum. The result of such an understanding of reality as a void is that the cognitive, individualistic, and informational assumptions about how discipleship works reveal that “the Decision” still has the same influence on evangelicalism, even though the altar call - which, remember, is practical sign that points to “the Decision” - is no longer as prominent as it once was.

Above, I referenced such influence as the “ideological sway” that “the Decision” has upon those who claim allegiance to evangelicalism as a socio-political entity in the world. In Surprised by Scripture, N.T. Wright says:
“…our brave new secularist world lurches to and fro in obedience to impulses that an earlier age would have recognized as divine but which we, in our late modern Epicureanism, have not named as such and so have no challenged.”

In ancient Greece, worship of Aphrodite included sex in Aphrodite’s Temple with one of her ritual prostitutes. In the Greek language, these “priestesses” were referred to as “sacred slaves.” Of course, they were slaves to Aphrodite, as were those who worshipped her. In studying Zizek through Fitch, one realizes that part of the point of ideology is that it has its own movements and personality, so to speak, and its subjects are, therefore, merely at its mercy. Being at the mercy of ideologies, though, we are all at the mercy of a Nothing. Now afraid more of something than of Nothing, we give our allegiance to it. If the subjects of “the Decision,” though, are, unawares, at the mercy of an actual something – something that ancients would have recognized as divine, no less - rather than being at the mercy of an emptiness or a lack that we seek to fill, then the question again arises: what is that something?

I also mentioned, above, that, for evangelicals, the emphasis of religion that is on various cognitive practices, including prayer and bible study, which climax in “going to church” and hearing the sermon. N.T .Wright continues the previous quote with the following:
“Now, you may say, what has all that got to do with religion? Many in the West still think of religion as saying prayers, going to church, perhaps reading the Bible, or some other sacred text, and not least, living in hope of going to heaven, however vaguely that is expressed. But this is a thoroughly modern definition of religion, which would not have been recognized by anyone in the ancient world or indeed by many today outside the Western world. From ancient times to the present, religion has had to do with the wider assumed dimensions of ordinary culture, whether they be marriage or music, politics or city life, wine or war. It is part of our dilemma that we have separated what we call religion from what we call politics, in exactly the same way as Epicureanism separated the gods from the world – or thought it did.”

Zizek conveys that ideology has a kind of mysterious sway upon its subjects. Fitch suggests that this ideology, in this case, is exemplified by the ideological sway of “the Decision” upon those who make it. This is both different from and the same as what Wright was referring to as the Epicurean separation of the gods from the world, of religion from politics.

It’s different, because Zizek and Fitch describe a kind of religious power and subjection that ideology has over its subjects that implies what T.S. Eliot refers to as a “natural collective consciousness” that flies in the face of modern, individual Classical Liberalism. Zizek’s and Fitch’s point about ideology implies that men are subjects of their larger contexts. What Zizek is saying (and Fitch is using as a tool for diagnosis), however, is the same as the above noted split to which Wright is referring between the gods and the world, between religion and politics, because, for Zizek, there truly is no spirit or spiritual entity that is guiding the ideology of a people who must appease it.

I tend to side with Wright here. The picture I’m painting in this blog series is precisely that of a world not separate from heaven or Mt. Olympus, a politics not separate from religion. I think, though, that despite Zizek’s own position that Fitch was using to diagnose evangelicalism, what they actually do is allow us to see numerous ways of an idol at work. This is precisely because I think N.T. Wright and Fitch are talking about the same concrete reality.

With all of that in mind, and considering Ted Haggard’s hypocritical and duplicitous homosexual exploits that opened this blog post, it’s not difficult to associate them with the work the god Dionysus. Dionysus was most often depicted as a naked male. His worship included an ecstatic procession of drunken revelers, including nude males with erect phalluses. Whether Haggard got drunk when engaging in his secret homosexual exploits or not, I don’t know. That he was drunk with desire controlled by something beyond himself, though, seems obvious.

The point here, however, is that, precisely because “the Decision” is merely a conceptual referent to an absence, to a theoretical system of thought, to a vacuum, it opens the path to and constitutes the stage upon which masters and gods foreign to Christianity appear both in the midst of the church and as the image of the church to the world. With Ted Haggard and Jessica Simpson as cultural artifacts that have taken root and grown up out of the culture of North American evangelicalism in our generation, Dionysus and Aphrodite, respectively, have appeared.

According to Fitch, the fruits of disordered desires of our bodies have appeared in the church, because we have murdered the thing with the word, so to speak, and are therefore driven by the resulting emptiness. We have become driven by either fear of either of Nothing or of Something - which implies their impassable distance in the first place. Such fear stands in stark contrast to letting the fullness of the Word appear among us in the concrete presence of the church around the Table of Thanksgiving.

According to Wright, however, whatever the reasons and psychological explanations, Dionysus and Aphrodite have appeared simply as expressions of our worship of gods or goddesses other than the One True God of Israel.

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