Saturday, January 23, 2016

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

How “Irruptions of the Real” Are Fruits of Dionysus and Aphrodite Worship

Within the recent history of evangelicalism in America, numerous acts of what Fitch and Zizek refer to as over-identification have occurred. These are referred to as a particular kind of “irruption of the real” that reveal what’s actually going on underneath the ideology that keeps us going together as a body politic, as a group of people in the world. According to Fitch, these events and characters reveal blatant inconsistencies that put on display for the world the emptiness of “the Decision” and the hold it has on us as a “master-signifier.”

These “irruptions of the real” reveal the fundamental lack that defines ideology and makes it work – in this case, the ideology of “the Decision.” They are referred to by Fitch in The End of Evangelicalism? as acts of “over-identification,” because they are samples of people who, precisely because they are bound to an ideology, with their lives present to the world the inconsistent antagonisms by which their ideologies work (the working of the ideology being driven by and emptiness, a lack, a void).

Jessica Simpson – depicted at the beginning of post 3A of this blog series as a configuring of Aphrodite herself - presented herself as Christian on her MTV reality show Newlyweds, where she wore “Jesus is my homeboy” T-shirts and declared her commitment to maintaining her virginity until she was married. Obviously, all of that, in our cultural context, publicly identifies her as a Christian. As Fitch discussed in The End of Evangelicalism?, what happened when she was criticized for her provocative look in her “These boots were made for walking” music video - which was the source of the previously referenced photo – both identified her as specifically evangelical and, at the same time, ironically revealed the above noted inconsistencies at work in the ideological machinery of evangelicalism.

When criticized for blatantly presenting herself as an image of the goddess of sex, beauty, and fertility, she defended herself by noting that she was always criticized for this in the Christian world. In Simpson’s response, she also said, “I think if they were really good Christians, judgment wouldn’t be there.” Fitch notes that it was as if she was saying that those of us who have been forgiven – in other words, made “the Decision” – are free to do whatever we desire to do, and we should quit resenting it. One might suppose that she was rebelling against the truths of Christianity that she had been taught, but, according to Fitch, what Simpson really did here was carry the logic of “the decision” to its extreme, thus exposing its emptiness and resulting contradictions.

Simpson merely reaffirmed the truth embedded in the debate between McArthur and Hodges, that salvation “is not about works,” so, in real life, it means nothing. Simpson was also affirming what Haggard taught us about the ideology of evangelicalism’s “belief system.” Because salvation occurs individually and privately and is focused on the cognitive parts of said private individual, the subject of evangelical ideology’s linguistic world (the one who makes “the Decision”) is left free to have his or her bodily desires shaped in any way they please. The way Simpson imitates the act of sex – remember that Aphrodite is the goddess of sex - in “The boots are made for walking” is quite suggestive for the imagination’s realizations with the body.

Not surprisingly, then, Simpson has also famously complained that, while growing up as a teen, “they would never let me sing solos in church,” specifically because it made men lust. This serves as another place to see how “the Decision” enables salvation – because it is a “system of belief” - to completely bypass the body as being relevant to salvation. So, the men in Simpson’s congregation are saved, but it’s still not safe for a shapely teenage girl to sing in church on Sunday. This reveals that men who have “been saved” still “have nowhere to go with their desire,” as Fitch put it.

And, if the men in a church are saved but, from the church, at least, have no direction for or control of the desires of their bodies, then “the Decision” for their salvation is revealed to be an empty signifier that means nothing for the actualities of life. Because our body is part of who we are, this leaves the man uncertain regarding the status of his “Decision.” Hence his many answers to the many altar calls at the end of the many cognitively driven sermons to which he was subjected.

The emptiness at the core of evangelical politic that drives its ideology is also presented by the blatant inconsistency embodied by Carrie Prejean, who was Miss California USA, 2009. During the Miss USA pageant, she was asked by gay activist and blogger Perez Hilton what she thinks of same-sex unions, in light of the then recent legalization of gay marriage in the state of Vermont. Prejean answered, “I do believe marriage should be between a man and a woman.” And, yet, the picture presented to the world was blatantly and obviously inconsistent and duplicitous.

Prejean had just pranced around the stage before the whole world in a provocative bikini – which had ironically been designed by Jessica Simpson, lol. The world also found out that Prejean had had cosmetic surgery and had been caught in a revealing photoshoot and a pornographic sex-tape of some sort.

The day after the pageant, though, when she was on NBC’s Today show, she said she didn’t take back her answer during the pageant, that she had spoken from the heart. She said: “It’s not about being politically correct. For me, it’s about being biblically correct.” In the midst of the above noted inconsistencies that blatantly contradict the actual way of life that would follow “the Decision” if it actually meant something in daily life, the moment Prejean said “biblical”, she automatically identified herself as evangelical. Also, she was a student at San Diego Christian College, which is an evangelical institution.

She even later appeared on Focus on the Family radio show as a heroine for Christian morality and was introduced at convocation at Liberty University, where she said the question at the pageant had given her undreamed of opportunities to talk about her faith in Christ. If Prejean was presented in such a way on Focus on the Family and at Liberty, then either evangelicalism is wildly inconsistent as a socio-poitical entity in the world, or evangelicalism’s real moral heroine is Aphrodite rather than the Christ preached by Paul and the rest of the scriptures.

Holiness codes at evangelical denominations and colleges are another display of what Fitch calls excessive over-identification. Rules that forbid alcohol or tobacco, or even dancing, represent over-compensation for the lack at the core of the evangelical belief and practice of “the Decision” that is supposed to give meaning and shape to our salvation. With these holiness codes, it’s as if we evangelicals are that saying: we are saved, but it doesn’t effect how we live, so we must make sure it does. By such codes, we show the allegiance of our identity at the same time to both “the Decision” and to its lack of meaning.

Of course, though “the Decision” is a cognitive one, actual life is carried out by the human body. That body is on display with the cultural stereotype of obesity among evangelicals, which Fitch also discusses. This stereotypical obesity is exemplified by the iconic obese Southern Baptist preacher. This caricature of the obese Baptist preacher shows up in movies, novels, and other areas of American culture. Fitch says that these are products of a symbolic structure that constitutes evangelicalism as we know and live it. One example is Jerry Fallwell, former Chancellor of Liberty Baptist University, where all the above referenced holiness codes are so vigorously in force, by the way.

As a cultural artifact, the obese Baptist preacher symbolizes that the more we evangelicals try to say “being saved” means something for the way we live life out with our whole being - including our bodies - it really, in the end, doesn’t. We preach abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and tobacco but make up for it with food and doughnuts. Again, “the Decision” gives us no direction or control for our body’s desire. We merely shift inordinate desire from one destructive thing to another, from lust and licentiousness to gluttony. As noted in the last blog post, this absence of meaning sets the stage for pagan and polytheistic worship of Aphrodite and Dionysus.

At Liberty University in particular, though, in a place that prohibits alcohol, tobacco, and even dancing, the “lack” at the core of “the Decision” irrupts in the body of Jerry Falwell. The inconsistency can’t be ignored and shows that “the Decision” doesn’t affect our lives the way we say it does. On the contrary, the very structure and machinery of “the Decision” as an ideology that moves evangelicalism as a body politic in the world gives a whole other order to the drives that lie beneath.

For clarity, these examples of holiness codes and the gluttonous body of Jerry Fallwell speak generally to how the separation of the conceptual drive of “the Decision” from the actual bodily life of its subjects leaves those who make said “Decision” with no way to shape the desires of their body in a particularly Christian way. The appearance of Dionysus and Aphrodite in the church are borne more out of other images of “over-identification,” but the same disordered relationship to the body in which “the Decision” means nothing for actual, embodied living – which occurs when the word murders the thing – is required in the first place for all of these “irruptions of the real.” In other words, what I am referring to as the images of Dionysus and Aphrodite in the evangelical church grow from the same soil as the inconsistencies revealed in the referenced holiness codes and in the body of Jerry Fallwell.

To make sense of evangelicalism as a way of life for a body of people in the world is also possible through the story of Ted Haggard as another cultural artifact of evangelicalism. His story is another “irruption of the real,” as Fitch refers to it. And, as noted at the end of the last blog post, his story points to the presence of Dionysus in the midst of evangelicalism.

As an evangelical megachurch pastor, however, he was an icon of evangelicalism and was named one of twenty most influential evangelicals in America by Time Magazine in Feb 2005. He was also president of the National Association of Evangelicals. In such a spotlight, he had been renowned for preaching conservative family values and “the evils of homosexuality” side by side with no reserve.

And, yet, he was famously exposed for being involved in a gay affair. As it turns out, he was in such a position of leadership and preached such fruits of “the Decision” – as discussed previously in the Larry King Live interview – all while lying about his own gay proclivities. As with Ms. Aphrodite Jessica Simpson and Carrie Prejean, one could explain Haggard as a man who simply wasn’t following the teachings of his religion. Fitch’s point, however, is that Haggard’s story is, rather, an irruption of the Real that lies underneath and drives the ideological machinery of evangelicalism. The moral failings of pastors are quite common now, but it was the media extravaganza that so revealed what drives the evangelical ideology of salvation.

Haggard’s separation of “the Decision” and its effects from his actual life was discussed above. Haggard went on to explain in the interview that he believed that if he could just be “more spiritual,” he would be OK. As he said it: “I would pray and fast. I’d read my Bible. I’d memorize more Scripture...And it actually made things worse…” As Fitch says it, Haggard again reveals how evangelicalism’s “belief system” has no place to go with desire. He even says, on tape, a few minutes later, to one of his gay lover victims, “You know what, Grant, you can become a man of God and you can still have a bit of fun on the side.” With that, Haggard makes his blatant inconsistency explicit on tape.

Evangelicals can’t stop counting “Decisions” just as Haggard can’t stop “having a little fun on the side.” Both are born from the same ideological drive from the vacuum. As noted in the first blog post, evangelicals continue to count “Decisions”, even though we are surprised by how many of them have disappeared from the church into the ether within five years or so of entering it. Similarly, Haggard finds freedom from his slavery to his desire by fulfilling it, which brings a return of his guilt and the disappearance of his freedom. This leads him to return to his “Decision,” which brings him back around to his freedom.

In both of the above cases – the incessant and unstoppable counting of “Decisions” and the inability to control bodily desires - driven by the same ideology, evangelicals can’t stop doing what has proven unfruitful. Dionysus, besides being known as “liberator”, as discussed in the first blog post, was also known as Aesymnetes, meaning "ruler" or "lord." Dionysus was also known as Briseus, or "he who prevails. He is also associated with death and rebirth, because, his being the god of wine and winemaking, the mythological story of his being torn to pieces and being reborn is associated with the recurring yearly grape harvest. Perhaps the story of Dionysus as the ever returning ruler of man’s desires makes sense of the evangelical ideology of “the Decision.”

Again, one could, however, make sense of such cultural artifacts within the fabric of evangelicalism by pointing to personal sin and rebellion in Haggard’s heart and life. There very well may be some truth to that, but it’s already evident from his very words that it’s all of the theoretical machinery behind “the Decision” - which technically defines “justification” - that allows him to bypass his raging duplicitous desires and to make (poor) sense of the inconsistencies and/or contradictions in his life. “The Decision” is firstly the decision to be forgiven and pardoned, so Haggard ends up saying, in effect, “go ahead and enjoy, but be guilty about it, and then be forgiven.”

It’s the elements of guilt and forgiveness in the theology of salvation that Haggard employs to make sense of the desires that he doesn’t know how to control or what to do with. Jessica Simpson had done the same thing when she complained about being judged for being so sexually provocative, for crafting herself into an image of Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, fertility, pleasure, and sexuality.

To top it off, other evangelical leaders – who were not known for their public moral failures – participated in the same ideological systematization by parading Carrie Prejean in front of the world as a heroine of their faith. She was well known for blatant and obvious moral failings but was publicly confirmed by her “biblical” “belief system” that is against homosexual relationships. In the face of a “Decision” that has no meaning in one’s actual daily life that includes the body, such overwhelmingly obvious inconsistencies also fall in line with the equally obvious necessity for the fabrication of holiness codes at schools of gluttony.

So, if those are “irruptions of the Real,” then the question remains, what is the Real? Zizek traces “the Real” that drives an ideology to a traumatic event at the foundation of its history. I will discuss this further in the next blog post. In that case, the Real is, in Fitch’s words, “covered over” by the above discussed inconsistencies and antagonisms that are the substance of an ideology.

In other words the evangelical ideology of “the Decision” is defined by antagonism between “the Decision” and homosexuality, between salvation and dancing, alcohol, or tobacco, or between “justification” and the self-control of men in a congregation where a shapely teenage girl might sing solos. Such antagonisms hide the absence that is introduced into the ideological world of evangelicalism when the actual meaning of “the Decision” appears in the linguistic or symbolic world of evangelical discourse. Said conceptual, and therefore absent, meaning of “the Decision” was established in what Zizek refers to as the founding “traumatic event” of any ideology’s history. The details of this history are what I will flush out a bit more in the next blog post.

If N.T. Wright is correct that ancient idolatries have translated into our world (as per previous blog posts of this series), however, then the “covering over” of “the Real” with the above noted antagonisms constitutes evangelicalism’s having given way to polytheism. In that case, the words of Billy Graham and Ted Haggard reveal that Dionysus rules the harvest of “Decisions” who walk through the doors of evangelical churches. Just as the grape harvest disappears and reappears cyclically, so do “the Decisions” in and out of the doors of evangelical churches, in the evangelical quest to make wine.

If Wright is correct, then Jessica Simpson reveals that the man-made production of her video “These boots are made for walking” make for a good Aphrodisiac for men whose “Decision” doesn’t provide a way to order their bodily desires in accordance with the gospel of truth. In addition, Carrie Prejean’s enactment of Aphroditic fertility rituals on the national stage, with the gays as her pleasing sacrifice, might just reveal who evangelicals really worship in upholding their ideology of “the Decision” for Christ.

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