Apr 1, 2014
One thing about studying philosophy and theology is that you forget what passes for populist critical acumen. A few of my theologian friends and I decided we needed to feel rage, and we grabbed our gin and went to see a film I can only describe as a phenomenon. “God’s Not Dead” was either absolutely brilliant satire of Christian Culture or the most xenophobic, anti-intellectual pandering smut imaginable. And I’m leaning toward satire!
In what is perhaps the first film ever to be the direct result of a completely fabricated Facebook meme—wherein either Einstein or a Navy SEAL stands up in Philosophy 101 to defend God’s existence—this film covertly bills itself as the story of brave freshman protagonist Josh Wheaton (oh, the crafty references throughout!) who takes on quasi-antagonist Professor Radisson. Radisson has a blinding hatred of God because his mother died, and he’s in a committed relationship which began as a student-teacher affair, because relativism. Radisson begins the class with a whiteboard full of famous philosophers and asks what each of them has in common (no spoilers). Whether because Radisson is an atheist or just because he’s a liberal, the lifelong academic is obviously too stupid to so much as pronounce the names correctly, surely a subtle jab by the director, as if to say Christian culture is so content not to understand Nietzsche’s argument that they won’t even notice. Freshman Josh agonizes over whether to write “God is dead,” but as his pastor points out, this would result in burning in hell for all eternity. Decisions: what is a freshman to do?
What indeed. Cute Christian Girlfriend says Josh shouldn’t cross the liberal academy, because he needs to get into law school. How else is she going to homeschool their offspring? Josh bravely chooses arguing with Radisson instead of sex. Invoking the patron saint of Evangelicalism, he says “I’ve been thinking of this quote from C.S. Lewis...” and so it begins.
This brings me to the true cleverness of the script in its inversion of the expected protagonist-antagonist schema: the true antagonist of the film is Reverend Dave, a man who destroys the lives and relationships of everyone around him. We never discover his secret life, his clear internal contradictions being perfectly sublimated into telling people to fail in school, cut ties with family, and go to worship concerts. Rev. Dave tells Josh he may be the only person in that class that could ever tell a bunch of (American) students about Jesus, a statistical improbability so astronomically remote that even a moment’s reflection would cause the audience to erupt in laughter and walk out. But the filmmakers know that Christian Culture’s rampant persecution complex will effectively beat out Pew and Gallup any day.
Rev. Dave travels about the city with his sidekick, the Happy African Guy, whom the director knows the Evangelicals will love, because AFRICA!
Angry Muslim Dad is abusive, as Muslims typically are, and is enraged when he finds Independent Daughter listening to sermons of (not Billy, but) the one and only Franklin Graham, the man famous solely for his bigoted evisceration of everything good his father ever did. The director knows the obligatory honor killing would be a bit much for the audience, but oh, how terrific that another female has been delivered from ultra-patriarchy to patriarchy with a smile! This is confirmed at the end of the film, when (damn, I’m going to have to spoil this guys, sorry) Independent Daughter asks Josh if he is the guy that Michael My-God’s-Not-Dead-He's-Surely-Alive Tait praised from the stage for defeating Radisson. Josh smirks, as if to gently say “eff off” and ignores her.
Classmate Token Asian, who has never believed in God (because, Communism), is convinced. Overbearing Asian Father texts back and forth with Classmate Token Asian, but in the end this family too is destroyed. Richard Dawkins, who is treated as someone that would be taken seriously in real life philosophy class, was the foil, but Dawkins stands no chance if we correctly combo Stephen Hawking and Lee Strobel. Again, it's a subtle accusation over and over and over again that Christian Culture will buy all this solely because it has no interest in actual philosophy. What do you think? Either this strategy is preposterously insulting or else the strategy will work marvelously.
But all this is overshadowed by a far more clever theme: the director pokes fun at Christian Culture’s total (though unconscious) disregard for theology. Not just skepticism of critical thought, philosophy, or entrenched disrespect for the university system in general, but complete obliviousness to theology itself. The filmmakers are well aware that absolutely no serious theologian would endorse any of this and that Nietzsche and Co. are taken quite seriously as assets in the niche world of theology. But the filmmakers are also counting on the fact that pastors are never going to explain any of this to parishioners. Whether because the MDiv didn’t do his assigned reading in seminary or because he (and I do mean he) doesn’t want to lose his job and opts instead to suppress 95% of what he learned in seminary, the director is counting on pastors urging their congregations to pay up for contrived conversations any theologian would laugh out of the room. That is the true brilliance of this satire: it beats charlatanism at its own game.
There are some other liberals in the film, and they all die. One of these, a reporter for Lame Stream Media, has the audacity to question Duck Dynasty about the ethics of duck calls. How can one call homosexuals sinful when you made your fortune tricking ducks into landing in your pond to mate with you? Just after this unnecessarily vituperative attack, she rightly gets the cancer she deserves.
Christian films always end on an unambiguously good note, and that is where Prof. Radisson gets hit by a car and lies dying in the street with nobody left that loves him. The subversive antagonist, Rev. Dave and Happy African sidekick are at the scene to provide last rites. In Evangelicalism, last rites is where you tell them their life is a waste and they have only seconds to accept Christ. Rev. Dave—I shit you not—tells the dying atheist that he is “lucky” and that he is “about to know more about God than I do.”
There were times in the film where the delicately weaved allusions and twists seemed a bit much, where I thought even the most obtuse viewer would see right through the ruse. But after its second weekend the film still grossed a fifth of the opening weekend sales for mega-blockbuster Noah (which Christian Culture rejects because it has Nephilim in it), so I guess the ploy worked. Anyone who does theology just had a swift reality check: the success of this film says something about the void in your future!
Mar 10, 2014
I gave a talk this weekend at the American Academy of Religion’s western regional with the queer studies caucus, entitled “Schism and Heterosexism: the Anglican Realignment and the Future of American Christianity.” Since I have no plan for publishing this yet, I figured a few of you interested in the question of how religion will adjust in the wake of national marriage equality might want to see it. I claim the Anglican realignment is an early preview of what many denominations will go through after the Supreme Court applies the 14th’s equal protection clause. Something similar is going on in Evangelicalism under the aegis of Neo-Reformed theology, which is crafting a fiercely populist, patriarchal, and heterosexist ideology in its networks. It’s a reaction against modernization, but it follows a pattern.
When I read the DOMA and Prop 8 decisions this past summer, it was really clear the Court was hoping to punt on a decision—I’m guessing they didn’t want to see this case again for 5 years. But a few things happened in 2013: 1) the number of states with marriage equality fully doubled, 2) this means there are only two more states that can pass marriage equality before hitting a limit imposed by 31 states with anti-gay amendments, but 3) in late December, and continuing throughout the South over the last three months, federal judges began ruling (all stayed, pending appeal to SCOTUS) these amendments unconstitutional. Most even cite Scalia’s DOMA dissent, and all this means the Court will have to take up one of these cases in the next term or two. Bracketing the likelihood of a SCOTUS intervention, even the GOP nominee for 2020 will have to favor marriage equality (I suspect at least one primary contender for 2016 will be so inclined as well). As the recent 10-year Pew study shows, the 4% shift per year puts a short time limit on the political viability of heterosexist policies.
The big question is how religion will respond. Will it adjust as it did after Civil Rights and miscegenation laws or will it dig in its heals as it did after Roe and Reagan? My bet is on the former, but I was looking for a group to which I could apply Finke and Stark’s sectarian gap theory of religious economy. I stumbled onto the Anglican realignment. Finding out that St. Andrew’s Church in Little Rock was a key early player in AMiA was a nice surprise (I spent most of my life in Little Rock before relocating to Los Angeles for grad school, so I know a lot of people in that group). Information on the Episcopal-alternative ACNA was hard to get and required me to do some original research (there isn’t much published longitudinal data on a five-year old organization), but they were kind enough to send me the parochial reports I needed to project stats over the next decade.
I should probably clarify that 1) I fully acknowledge queer theory’s insight that focusing on marriage equality itself is problematic inasmuch as it imposes a certain middle-class schema. But I do think it is a barometer of whether society sees LGBTIQ people as human beings. And 2) I fully acknowledge that ACNA is not simply and only a reaction to gay clergy and unions; but those were the tipping point. Planning for ACNA did begin within a year of Gene Robinson’s ordination, but this was also 2003-4 when the Rove strategy for Bush’s re-election included the populist push for anti-gay amendments. Let’s at least acknowledge 2004 was a different time and not retroject our currently more progressive views on a much more openly bigoted time. But the realignment is certainly more complicated than any one issue, and I want to clearly acknowledge this.
Of course, it's a properly academic paper, which means it is dull, dry, and boring, but take a look if you are interested in the question of how religion will adjust. Here it is: AAR/WR, DeLay, Schism and Heterosexism (extended).pdf.
Feb 17, 2014
A group of really brilliant friends (Joel Harrison, Sean Capener, and Lucas Wright) working in critical theory, theology, and philosophy post at this site, and Lucas invited me to explain the psychoanalytic concept of subjectivity in Lacan's schema. The post is slightly more technical than what I normally post online, so I hope it's helpful. Read it at Flux of Thought.
Feb 11, 2014
“‘Thou shalt not lie’ as a negative precept has as its function to withdraw the subject of enunciation from that which is enunciated...there where I lie, where I repress, where I, the liar, speak. In ‘Thou shalt not lie’ as law is included the possibility of the lie as the most fundamental desire...this Ding was there from the beginning...the covetousness that is in question is not addressed to anything that I might desire but to a thing that is my neighbor's Thing." - Jacques Lacan, Seminar VII, 82-3
“The unconscious is the chapter of my history that is marked by a blank or occupied by a lie: it is the censored chapter.” - Lacan, Écrits, 215
“For the man who breaks the bread of truth with his semblable in the act of speech shares a lie.” - Lacan, Écrits, 316
"...we learn that reality derives its existence from a refusal, that love creats its object from what is lacking in reality, and that desire stops at the curtain behind which this lack is figured by reality." - Lacan, Écrits, 366
Feb 7, 2014
“Such is the signifier’s answer, beyond all significations: ‘You believe you are taking action when I am the one making you stir at the bidding of the bonds with which I weave your desires. Thus do the latter grow in strength and multiply in objects, bringing you back to the fragmentation of your rent childhood. That will be your feast until the return of the stone guest whom I shall be for you since you call me forth.’” - Jacques Lacan, Écrits, 29
Écrits is rightly described as being simply impenetrable. And then you come across passages like this and it is all worth it. I came across an explanation for the book's impenetrability yesterday in The Triumph of Religion. I guess I just like his intent for writing that does something to the reader beyond communication.
“I did not write [Écrits] in order for people to understand them, I wrote them in order for people to read them. Which is not even remotely the same thing... People don’t understand anything, that is perfectly true, for a while, but the writings do something to them.” - Lacan, The Triumph of Religion, 69-70
Jan 22, 2014
I finished Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov over the winter break. While doing so I was transcribing notes from Lacan’s second seminar where he says this of Fyodor Karamazov’s son Ivan, who despite his atheism has gained a bit of a reputation as an ecclesiologist:
“As you know, his son Ivan leads the latter into those audacious avenues taken by the thought of the cultivated man, and in particular... If God doesn’t exist, the father says, then everything is permitted. Quite evidently, a naive notion, for we analysts know full well that if God doesn’t exist, then nothing at all is permitted any longer. Neurotics prove that to us every day.” 128
I will be using this passage in an upcoming talk— a passage Žižek quotes quite regularly—because it exhibits the plasticity of the Autre and the need we feel for authorization. In the book, Ivan Fyodorovich is dependably cold and calculating, a well adjusted obsessional. The extreme obsessional Alyosha Fyodorovich is dependably righteous. Dmitri Fyodorovich is always passionate and foolish. Their father Fyodor is pure id: promiscuous, hostile, selfish, a scoundrel. Displaying several markers for anti-social personality disorder, Fyodor is a pervert in both the colloquial and psychoanalytic meanings of the term. He rapes a girl which results in Smerdyakov, whom Fyodor keeps around as a servant. Smerdyakov is the only true hysteric among the male characters, which means he wants to be the object of everyone’s attention but nobody’s satisfaction. After a bid for control over his life, Smerdyakov eventually has a hysterical crisis, and he can only resolve his anxiety through self-sabotage. Ivan is the point of reason, and Alyosha is the conscience. Then we find out toward the end that Ivan has been fighting a mental breakdown throughout the entire plot, so we see the well-adjusted neurotic Ivan descend into psychosis. Dostoyevsky died before being able to finish the story but not before scribbling notes for the characters’ futures, but from those notes we know Alyosha was to become a bit of a revolutionary terrorist. Repression has a way of rupturing.
Subjectivity is a balance between four symbolic and imaginary positions (A, a, a’, S): Autre (the big Other), objet a (object-cause of desire), a’ (conscious ego), and S (the subject). Every experience is filtered through this schema, and how these relationships configure determines whether we are psychotics, neurotics, or perverts, each of which is demonstrated by the Karamazovs. Subjectivity is primarily unconscious; what you are has more to do with how you actually live than how you consciously justify how you live.
Only the psychotic can operate without a big Other authorizing action. When you see a schizoid subject talking to himself as we see with Ivan, it is not that he knows what is normal and choose to disregard a standard: the schizoid quite literally does not experience the Other condemning their anti-social behavior. The Karamazov family functions as a neurotic unit, which means Ivan or Alyosha must always be part of any decision so that reason or god can authorize a course of action. The big Other has a death drive, but you are not allowed to kill it. Without the point of authority, nothing is possible.
The Brothers Karamazov continually returns to the naive and pervasive notion that morality is tethered to belief in god, but from the moment we articulate an idea we are already reduced to a conscious objet a, an object our ego has invested with meaning, which is a step removed from the unconscious Autre making demands of us. This is why difference in conscious belief has so little effect on unconscious action: the objet a is altered, but the same Autre functions regardless of plasticity in its conscious manifestation. The relationship between conscious object-investment and the unconscious injunction to repeat behavior ensure that we, as Žižek puts it, live out a staged theater: we change just enough so that things remain basically the same. The Brothers Karamazov is an 800 page book for a plot that could have fit into a short story were it not for each of the characters’ need to repeat and sabotage themselves.
All we do is for the gaze of the Other.
Jan 9, 2014
"They don't realize we're bringing them the plague." - Freud (Lacan, Écrits, 336)
I have a few talks coming up in the next two months.
The first is at the Claremont Graduate University “Religions in Conversation” conference (February 21-22), and my talk is titled Anxiety and Emptiness: Psychopathology in Religion and Art. It will be an expansion of Lacan’s Seminar VII description of religion, art, and science along the respective psychopatholgical dispositions of obsessional neurosis, hysteria, and psychotic paranoia. Evidence of early religion, especially in hominid species predating homo sapiens, comes almost entirely in the form of art and death rituals; art and religion have always had a common source in the Real. I claim politics is an alternative obsessional neurotic formulation of the same Real that religion responds to, but since Lacan is not much of a political theorist for a leftist, I’ll have to build that claim out a bit. This talk will psychoanalyze art and religion as constituting a similar experience of emptiness/anxiety-avoidance at the level of primary repression that diverge at the level of secondary repression in uniquely creative derivative returns.
Third, I hope my Los Angeles friends will join me on March 14th for an event with Peter Rollins. Pete has an excellent line-up of people included at the event, including Ryan Bell, Tripp Fuller, and Daniel Bedingfield, and he was kind enough to ask me to participate on a panel. I’m also quite excited about the after-party at Monkish Brewing. Get more information here.
Dec 24, 2013
I am back at home for the winter break. The drive from southern California is an almost two thousand mile trip I have made a dozen times now, and long drives are among my favorite things in the world. I am trying to find my footing among friends and family after what has been an absolutely traumatic and awful seven months. I will not go into any detail about it, but most of you who read this site have never met me and a good number have messaged to ask if this site is still active. I do very much appreciate the concern, and, yes, while it was all I could do to simply hold together my coursework this semester, I do plan to start posting on my work again in the new year.
Coeval with what has transpired personally, I am happy to say the professional side of things has picked up significantly. My PhD program continues to be a thriving and challenging course, and I will be adding a second master’s to be better qualified for the kind of work I want to do. I am getting speaking invitations all of the sudden, I have my first chapter coming out in a book soon, and—most importantly to me—I have been so glad to become friends with such brilliant thinkers and writers both local and abroad whose encouragement and support makes me think I really could make a living doing the kind of work I am interested in. And I have finally completed the life’s work of Lacan—which has been a quite bizarre experience while working through such trauma— and after I finish compiling my notes I plan to begin a manuscript in the spring for a book on psychoanalytic theory and religion.
So while things have picked up professionally, the truth is that I just have not been able to care at all about my work over the last semester. But I have begun to feel some clarity in the last few weeks and hope to get back into the game in the new year. To those of you who do know me and have been there for me over the last few months, I have some absolutely amazing friends and I really cannot express how much of a difference it made.
[the morning drive through the Mojave]
Aug 24, 2013
The myth of the Fall is interpreted as the necessary step in the genesis of civilization, for if there can be no transgression of taboos and no acquisition of knowledge in retrospect, no progress can be made. Maturity needs a lot of immaturity to come before it. The forbidden fruit is interpreted as the initial objet petit a, the beginning of cathexis or investment, where the ego latches onto an object that it cannot imagine itself being happy without. And it certainly is this, but it is also the entry of the superego.
The tree has a specific name: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Before eating the fruit, Adam and Eve acted without any sense of morality, taboo, or guilt. They are ego and id, but no developed superego exists to suppress the pure, instinctual aggression of the id. To become a civilization that doesn't immediately collapse into violence, we already must have a social superego to regulate what acts are acceptable (even though these taboos must be transgressed regularly if we are not to become mindless machines). Freud likens the ego and the id to a rider attempting to control a much stronger horse; the lack of a superego would be like a rider lacking reins or saddle where no control is possible over our drives. A lack of a functioning superego has a diagnosis: psychosis.
The mythic couple is pure id. There is already some element of the symbolic which they are immersed in. This is attested to first by their communication with the god, but the symbolic element is also seen in the god's counterpart, the serpent. The couple lives in the garden governed only by the pleasure principle, the absence of civilization making even the reality principle unnecessary. But there is still an excess that makes pure pleasure less than enough- when things are going well, we look for opportunities to self destruct. The serpent that speaks is their own excessive death drive: ah, you are perfectly happy? Well let's do something to fix that.
What I find interesting about the story is that a purely psychotic couple governed only by instinctual impulses for aggression and sex would, in very short order, turn the blissful garden into a murderous hell. It's not just that the Fall is the genesis of civilization. The Fall was the salvation of the couple themselves. The acquisition of the objet petit a, like anything we ever desire, isn't able to fulfill their fantasies. But it did keep the newly neurotic one from murdering the other. Is that better? Perhaps, but repression and the return of the repressed are the same: the repression of id in the first myth allowed it to return directly as murder in their children.
Aug 13, 2013
Drew Sumrall recently published his first book, and I highly recommend it. An Essay Toward Universal Revolution is a manifesto, and it is truly rare to find find such philosophical acumen and aggressive political honesty in a text that reads more like an epistle.
“The dialectical paradox is that Christianity’s being ‘for all’ means it is in fact not for All. And it is in this way that the egalitarian struggle is- at its very core- a Christian project. The epoch of the Spirit on the horizon is that what names revolution ‘for all’ who have been excluded from All.” (47)
I particularly liked an argument that could have just as well been directed against my own all-too-common muttering equivocation- as if egalitarian and anti-egalitarian perspectives are on equal moral footing:
“This is a good lesson radicals should learn from conservatives: the only way to effect the change you want to see in the world is to accept it in its totality- that is, not only at the level of its Idea, but its consequence- and demand it... only the timid refuse to take responsibility for their position as well as themselves. Therefore radicals should learn to abandon the ridiculous modern habit of saying, ‘This is my opinion, but I may be wrong,’ as such is entirely irrational... The modern habit of saying ‘Every man has a different philosophy; this is my philosophy and it suits me’; the habit of saying this is mere weak-mindedness.” (109).
“It is no secret that the most liberating events can undergo reactionary reversals that obscure their revolutionary power. Nowhere is this logic clearer than in the figures of Marx and Christ. In the former we have the failed project of 20th century Communism, while in the latter we see the church of religious fundamentalism. In this prophetic text Sumrall calls us to recall the universal message of Christ, to let it sink into us, and to commit ourselves to the task of advancing the egalitarian kingdom of God.
“The universal that the Christ-event opens up is not actual, yet nor is it some fiction. While it may not properly exist, it is a type of specter that insists. It calls out to us, makes a demand upon us, and holds us to account. This book is a product of one who has felt that call on their life and who has embraced the responsibility that comes with it.
“An Essay Toward Universal Revolution is not then some abstract reflection attempting to understand the world, but a manifesto that seeks to reawaken within us a dangerous dream with the power to transform the world. A dream in which the silent speak, the naked are clothed, and tears are changed from despair to joy. Drew Sumrall gives us a manifesto that makes a demand on the reader, an infinite demand to put our shoulder to the wheel of history and commit ourselves to the task of pushing the world beyond the reactionary, fundamentalist universe of exclusionary power.”
“This is a work of brilliance and passion. It will reward those who allow it to draw them into new depths of thought and feeling. I hope it will introduce many to an important young author—imagine if Søren Kierkegaard had been born to a Pentecostal family, perhaps?”
—Brian D. McLaren