Saturday, January 23, 2016

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

Initiation into the Cults of Dionysus and Aphrodite

Roman Imperial Coin with Emperor Vespasian and an Augur's Staff

As discussed above, those subjected to the evangelical ideology of “the Decision” for Christ are, according to how the system now actually works in the world, driven by an empty fantasy that can’t be fulfilled. I have heard many a story of a man making multiple trips to the altar to solidify his certainty of “the Decision” after he fell into the guilt of sin by fulfilling the desires of his body in the same ways as everyone else in the world. These were stories of a man’s initiation.

In this way, and others, we see evangelicals constantly pursuing certainty of their salvation that came about as a result of “the Decision.” This fantasy of certainty, however, is never quite fulfilled. The failures continue. The guilt continues. We ask, were we sincere in the decision? Did we really mean it? We even wonder how it really works, anyway. So, the altar calls continue. Repeated trips to the altar pursuing assurance that he or she is “in” when, at the end of the sermon, the preacher calls the church to the altar to make “the Decision.” Those multiple trips to the altar symbolize something “the Decision” promises but seems to always elude our grasp. The process of initiation is the reaching for that promise.

Essentially, as Fitch says it, we evangelicals are caught up within the fantasy of “the decision.” After initiation into the system represented by “the Decision,” we identify ourselves with it. We are forced to believe that “the Decision” makes a difference. We are therefore also forced into enacting a compensating structure – such as a holiness code against alcohol, tobacco, and dancing, such as a public, ideological stance against homosexual unions, such as continually re-enacting “the Decision” to make sense of desires that bring guilt when fulfilled - to make sure the decision does indeed make some difference in actual, concrete life.

Confirmation that we are initiated into Something rather than Nothing becomes necessary. Fear of the vacuum is confirmed when we make so sure that it’s filled. Meanwhile, we ignore the appearance of violations of the difference “the Decision” is supposed to make in our lives right before our very eyes. We ignore the inconsistencies between how identification with and initiation into the system of “the Decision” is supposed to change our lives and how the system is actually built to change nothing. Examples of such blindness are found in the body of Jerry Fallwell, in not letting Jessica Simpson sing solos at church, and in parading Carrie Prejean before the world as a heroine of the faith.

The system into which one is initiated when he or she identifies with “the Decision” didn’t appear in the world over night. As with any idol, it was built by human hands – in this case, throughout Protestant historical discourse and practice, which eventually lead to what was referenced at the end of the last blog post as the founding “traumatic event” of the currently functioning ideology of evangelicalism. Ted Haggard’s “belief system” of “the Decision” found its roots in Luther. With Revivalism, Luther’s system grew into a tree we would more readily recognize today. And, it came to full fruition with the hysteria of the Billy Graham Crusades and was later reified when evangelicals saw what they took to be Graham’s success.

Fitch says that, theologically, Luther is exempt from the building of a “belief system” that separates salvation from actual living, but that he sowed the seeds that later led to the folding in of justification into a moment unto itself that is separate from sanctification. Now, as discussed above, salvation must be separated from sanctification, lest one be tempted to think “works,” rather than “the Decision,” can initiate you into God’s grace. Now, the saved self becomes static and passivized, distanced from God’s salvation that is active in the Christian’s everyday life. Now, the initiation isn’t into a way of life but into a way of thinking.

Fitch also notes that the elements of Luther’s thought that led to this self divided between intellectual assent and actual life were: a) that justification by faith alone, not works, b) that the called is both a sinner and righteous at the same time, c) that the self is caught between two kingdoms, between civic duty and faith, between gospel and law. Fitch states in The End of Evangelicalism? that Luther himself is exempt from such bifurcation of the self, but that later followers separated out each theme and detached them from Luther’s deeper understanding of union with Christ. Fitch says that Calvin should also be pardoned from blame for this bifurcation of the self.

It was Revivalism that front-loaded salvation into the moment of justification. This was later to become “the Decision” that opened the door to the practice of salvation that is now dethatched from real life and from our body and its desires.

In discussing the history of the altar call, Fitch also says that, early on in Revivalist history, after “the decision”, the individual was called into “Spirit filled life.” This call to be guided by the Spirit in one’s life was a separate decision from that of one’s original “Decision” to be saved. Notably, these were two separate decisions at that point, because modern thinking is analytical. Anyway, after the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of 1920’s, however, the second decision for the “Spirit filled life” fell by the wayside or was left to the Pentecostals who were emerging at the time.

During that fundamentalist-modernist controversy of 20’s, mainline Protestants began to question the “bloody” sacrificial aspects of atonement, so they put less emphasis on personal conversation and focused more on recruitment for social transformation of society. Fundamentalists called that the social gospel and complained of de-emphasis on personal salvation. Conversion and substitutionary atonement therefore took new prominence as defining identity markers of Evangelicalism, whose historical roots lie within Fundamentalism rather than in their mainline Protestant opponents.

Because the modernist-fundamentalist controversy, then, was where “the Decision” became an identity marker among antagonistic socio-political groups of people in the world who originally shared a common history, Fitch, in The End of Evangelicalism?, refers to this event as the “traumatic event” that established the “Real” that drives the ideology of evangelicalism at and from its historical foundation. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920’s and ‘30’s is what gave the system into which evangelicals are initiated the particular shape that it has.

Though Fitch and Zizek speak of the founding “traumatic event” of an ideology as a secular entity, the Romans understood that the historical founding of something has religious significance. In ancient Rome, it was the priestly figure of the Augur who “broke ground” in a newly founded Roman city. It was the augur who had a central role in deciding new leadership of the empire, thus breaking the empire’s allegiance from one leadership and divining another. And, such a “break,” or, “trauma,” if you will, is precisely why the augur was a priest. All worship involves sacrifice.

The result of this sacrificial “traumatic event” of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy at the founding of evangelicalism as we know it, then, was further separation of justification from sanctification within evangelical belief and practice of “the Decision.” As noted previously, “The Decision” – with the altar call as its symbolic practice - then reached its zenith as the hallmark of evangelicalism in the Billy Graham crusades. Other contemporarily developed and very similar tools - tools that share the same assumptions about the subject of “the Decision” being primarily a cognitively driven, private, individual self – included The Four Spiritual Laws of Campus Crusade and the Bridge Illustration.

Speaking of those assumptions, when the priestly Augur performed his duties with the purpose of divining the new direction of the empire or of a city, he would do so by “reading the signs in the sky,” and those signs would come to mirror, by the priest’s ritual, what would then come to appear below. For help in reading the signs and to direct the divination process, the augur would first, then, divide the heavens into four quadrants. Said four quadrants were determined by the ordinal directions of North, South, East and West, as established by the yearly cycle of patterns that appear in the heavens and which govern the seasons of man’s life. The augur then used his staff to read the signs in those four quadrants.

The city below founded by the augur would then come to mirror both the signs read above and the religious process by which those signs were read. That’s precisely why Roman cities were laid out on orthogonally ordered grids in the directions of N, S, E and W. And, the signs read by the priestly augur in the heavens also determined the leadership of Rome to appear below, here on earth. That what was read were “signs from above” is precisely why it was considered a divination of who the empire would next give allegiance.

This is why the photo at the beginning of this blog post is Roman imperial coin with Emperor Vespasian on one side and an augur’s staff mirrored on the other. When ancient kings came to the throne, one of the first things they did was make new coins in whichever temple of their land coins were made. And, those coins bore the image of the one who was to reign where the coins were used. In Rome, on the mirroring side of the coin, those coins displayed a sign by which Rome now gave her allegiance to their new leadership. The tails side has an image of the augur’s staff, the instrument through which new power was divined.

This mirroring of heaven and earth in the augur’s divination ritual is a parallel to what happened when the “signs above” of the discourse of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy came to mirror the practices of the fundamentalist and Mainline Protestants, respectively. How the priests of the two newly establishing socio-political entities – the Fundamentalists and Mainline Protestants, respectively - “read the signs above” lead to the establishment of the new allegiances to new masters of each new political body. Fundamentalism, later to become the evangelicalism as we know it, gave its allegiance to “the Decision,” while mainline protestants (the “modernists” in the debate) gave their allegiance to “social justice.”

A coin is made by the impression of the mold. “The Decision” is the mold, and evangelicals become the coins that bear the image of the master of their land. By use of the land’s currency, one is initiated into its cult. In the constant exchange of guilt and freedom while changing nothing, the evangelical initiation into the cult of “the Decision” is accomplished. Roman coins were printed in a Temple, too. Where your treasure is…

So, now, according to Fitch, the character of “the Decision” and how it is practiced, to which evangelicals give their allegiance, allows people to rally together as a socio-political body in the world without requiring them to really agree on anything. This is because of the assumptions about the purely cognitive and individualistic meaning of “the Decision.” In other words, it is precisely because “the Decision” is a decision to give allegiance to an intellectualized system of “signs above” that “the Decision” can mean so much of nothing or anything here below. An intellectualized system is a No-thing.

Another way of saying this is that “the Decision” functions as an empty signifier. It allows evangelicals to believe without really believing. Because “the Decision” functions ideologically in this way as master signifier that only serves to gather or rally a group of people together rather than to actually determine peoples’ actions here “below,” “the Decision” enables the formation of various kinds of churches that can appeal to various status-quo lifestyles. The patterns in the fabric of life on earth below aren’t changed by “the Decision” in a meaningfully consistent way, because it is a decision regarding “things above.”

In the formation of such varied churches that embody the status-quo, said churches make little to no demands on changing one’s life. All of this lack of real change and perpetuation of the status-quo occurs while claiming allegiance to the gospel. Thus, “the Decision” allows Christians to remain complicit with social systems of self-fulfillment, consumerism - and excessive sexual desire. With “the Decision,” those who identify with it are able to bypass the malformation of their desires in the world. They can keep their existing desires under the banner of being Christian. “The Decision” unifies a body of people around desires shaped by the gospel in active competition with desires of the world, all while requiring nothing of said body of people. By giving allegiance to “the Decision,” evangelicals end up being initiated into a system that baptizes the world’s predominant social orderings.

And, it’s precisely the above referenced lack, such Nothing, such emptiness at the core of the evangelical politic that leaves room for the work of Dionysius and Aphrodite. If N.T. Wright is correct that the ancient gods still rule our modern world, precisely because they go unnoticed, then what Fitch refers to in the above paragraph as status-quo lifestyles, complicity with social systems of self-fulfillment, and excessive sexual desire, are, in fact, rule by gods who were once known in a particular time and place by the names Dionysus and Aphrodite.

Interestingly, then, in the ancient Greek mythological stories of Aphrodite, there is another parallel to the above told story of the “traumatic event” that is the foundation of “the Decision” as an ideological “master-signifier” for a socio-political entity in the world that claims allegiance to said “Decision.”

In ancient Greek myth, the gods are invited to a wedding. Well, all of them are invited except the goddess of discord, who therefore fashions an apple inscribed with the words “the fairest one.” The apple is thrice claimed by Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite. For the choice of who the apple rightfully belongs to, Zeus appoints Paris, prince of Troy. Athena, being the goddess of wisdom and victory, offers Paris wisdom and glory in battle. Hera, being sister of Zeus and mother of Ares (god of war), offers Paris supreme power. Aphrodite, being goddess of beauty, notably does not offer herself.

Instead, Aphrodite offers Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Aphrodite fills Paris with uncontrollable desire for Helen. When Paris kidnaps Helen and steals her off to Troy, well, that’s a problem. Hellen happens to be married to the king of Sparta, so the war that shaped the rest of Western civilization erupts.

As with Zizek’s description of a “traumatic event” that becomes the foundation for political identities’ claiming allegiance to one side or the other of the antagonisms that were born from said traumatic event, what is mythologically referred to as “The Judgment of Paris” became the foundation for antagonism between Sparta and Troy and those who would claim allegiance to either.

The reason it is notable that Aphrodite didn’t offer herself to Paris is multi-sided.

Part of the story of the birth of Dionysus is the disappearance and death of a mere mortal who, being one of Zeus’ lovers, demanded that she see the real Zeus, without disguise. Zeus, knowing that mortals can’t gaze upon the gods without meeting their death, begged her not to ask again. Zeus’ mortal lover insisted, however, and the reason for the whole theme of this blog series was demonstrated. The stubborn mortal did ask again and therefore insisted herself into a disappearance into oblivion, because Zeus knew rightly.

As Fitch would say Zizek would say, were Sparta and Troy fighting merely to confirm their respective allegiances to the otherwise meaningless ideological master-signifiers of their different ideas of “justice” that were born from the founding “traumatic event” of the Judgment of Paris? By that account, it’s not that mere humans can’t see the gods but that there are no actually existing gods who could do something like inflame Paris with uncontrollable desire for an image of herself in the first place. That’s not possible, because there are no gods or goddesses.

As N.T. Wright would claim, however there is an actual hidden being upon which the eyes of mere mortals cannot gaze, known to the Greeks as the goddess Aphrodite, who inflamed Paris with uncontrollable desire for Jessica Simpson when she presented herself before him in her rather sexually provocative video called “These boots are made for walking.” And, if that’s the case, then Paris was engaged in an act of worship, and Jessica Simpson is Paris’ icon or signpost to Aphrodite.

If Paris were to become Christian, his repentance would be the bloody and traumatic break from the past that leads to a new existence and mission with and in a new socio-political entity in the world (the church). He becomes and embodies the break, the sacrifice, the trauma. And, if Paris were to become Christian, part of his repentance, part of this “trauma,” would be the death of his formerly powerful priestess who had so ruled his world.

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