Nov 17, 2012

Dexter Has A Superego

(not really a post about Dexter’s superego)

For my course on Slavoj Žižek’s religion and politics, I’m writing my term paper on what he keeps referring to as the “obscene supplement” of belief.  I’d like to eventually develop this into a book, so if any of my readers with publishing experience/interest would like to think about putting something together on psychoanalysis and religious belief, let’s talk.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned my new working theory of religion is: psychotics trying to convince neurotics to act like hysterics.  I don’t mean that in any totalizing way, but I think there is a broad pattern there that much of religion works according to.  I’ll get to definitions in a second.  What I still need some clarity on is Lacan's category of perversion and its relationship to sociopathy, so I'm admitting my ignorance on that matter up front <<so if you know more about this, email me.

Dexter and Draper

Libby and I are huge fans of the TV series Dexter.  The protagonist is a Miami metro blood spatter analyst who moonlights as a vigilante serial killer.  The show is enigmatic of how difficult and fluid psychoanalytic categories can be.  Serial killers are usually psychotic or perverse sociopaths.  They had an absent father or a malfunctioning prefrontal cortex that makes empathy and reasonable social norms impossible.  Mad Men’s Don Draper is a sociopath- he climbs the ladder at work, cheats on his wife, doesn’t care who he hurts; he can only imitate sympathy because the sociopath quite simply doesn’t experience empathy the way a normal (neurotic) person does.  On the other hand, vigilantes in cinematic myth are always neurotic, operating by some code or according to the best wishes of society.  It’s what makes Dexter lovable, but unbelievable.  He is not like normal psychotic or perverse serial killers; while he doesn’t experience much empathy, he operates according to- literally, in a Freudian fashion- his father Harry’s code.  The code says Dexter can only kill anyone he can prove to be a murderer.  There is even a breakdown when Dexter finds out after the fact that he killed a criminal who was not quite a murderer, and this season has dealt with whether or not Dexter can kill someone who will murder but hasn’t yet so far as he can prove.  

This is how psychoanalytic categories work.  They are somewhat fluid and difficult to discern.  But whether an individual/belief/act is psychotic, neurotic, or perverse is the difference between whether Dexter is a psychotic danger to society or a praised vigilante.


Psychotics have no developed superego.  No rules/norms to mediate between the (Real) world and their imaginary/conscious experience of it.  They do as they please because they are not constrained by standards.  That is why Don Draper is so attractive in theory, but only a complete bastard would actually want his life.  There is no “obscene supplement” in them because there is no big Other to give the covert injunction.

Neurotics- Obsessives and Hysterics

Neurotics and perverts do have a developed superego, often overbearingly so.  They are “split-subjects” (subject-barred, $, in Lacanese) into conscious and unconscious registers.  Neurosis is what Lacan considers “normal” and comes in two main forms: obsession and hysteria.  Bruce Fink describes obsessives as such: “The obsessive’s fantasy implies a relationship with an object, but the obsessive refuses to recognize that this object is related to the Other.”  They are generally men.  The obsessive likes rules, lives by them, often without ever questioning where the rule comes from, whether it should be obeyed or disregarded, etc.  Masturbation and fantasy during sex characterizes obsessives because their are somewhat indifferent to the Real.  In contrast, Fink writes, “The hysteric, on the other hand, emphasizes the partner or Other, making herself into the object of the Other’s desire so as to master it.  The Other is the desiring subject in the hysteric’s fantasy.”  Hysterics are almost exclusively women.  The (yes, chauvinistic- Lacan’s fault, not mine) sexual metaphor is that of the woman who cares more about the sexual pleasure of her partner (experiencing proxy jouissance/enjoyment from the Other’s pleasure) or who- in the most common hysteric fantasy- wants to watch her partner having sex with another.  In religious behavior, the neurotic obsessive is the individual that follows laws and taboos explicitly, forgoing the direct jouissance of freely pursuing satisfaction of desire by acquiring a proxy jouissance from following the superego’s (big Other’s) injunction.  The religious hysteric sees herself as the objet petit a of the big Other and experiences a proxy jouissance from the imagined pleasure of the big Other.  In both the obsessive and the hysteric, desire and fulfillment are thus displaced by the superego, which opens space for the superego supplement to continue to (unconsciously) function.

When Psychotics lead Neurotics

Celebrity religious leaders, whether cultish or mainstream, are often psychotic and/or sociopathic narcissists who are able to lead so well precisely because they buck authority, norms, traditions, etc.  They cannot work with others, so they create their own gig.  Again, I’m not saying this is always the case, but examples abound.  The freedom the psychotic or sociopathic figure exudes is appealing to the normal/neurotic believer because the leader is (mis)perceived as essentially “playing by the same rules” but in a better way.  Pete Campbell wants to be like Don Draper because Pete thinks Don is just a really, really, really successful version of Pete.  Dexter cannot work with others who want to kill, because anyone that wants to join him (and this is the plot line of Migel Prado in Season 3) would be a psychotic who could not fit within the constraints of his big Other’s (Harry’s) neurotic code.

Religious followers on the other hand are usually neurotics who can forego direct enjoyment by experiencing a proxy enjoyment from following rules (in obsessives) or experiencing themselves as the desired object of God or their church (in hysterics).  If you consider the clear sexual imagery at play in so many worship songs, this should make sense (“I want to glorify you, your love is better than all things, take me deeper...” It only gets more sexual and obscene from here).  This is hysteric language.

None of this is overtly negative in itself.  After all, most people are neurotic-obsessives or neurotic-hysterics (only a thankfully small subset are truly psychotic or perverse).  But it’s important to recognize how these categories work because otherwise you don’t realize that Mark Driscoll clearly fits the pervert category (or perhaps he is simply an honest psychotic)  and John Piper (if we assume the best about him) is a clear neurotic-hysteric, and then we get half the young christians out there- who are probably neurotic-obsessive- imitating people who have very different motives than you might assume on a first pass.  One gets direct joy from controlling people and the other gets proxy enjoyment from satisfying the big Other.  If you cause a pervert or psychotic to feel threatened, even with the best of intensions, you will be directly and immediately confronted and excoriated because there is no mediating standard of decency (think of all the examples of excommunication and silencing that have come out regarding Mars Hill in the past year).  If you question an obsessive, you may be considered an outsider without further consideration for not submitting to the same standards (questioning the neurotic’s objet petit a- their object of desire and source for proxy satisfaction), but the situation is less threatening even if it’s more temperamental (because the neurotic does not know what he truly desires).

One final example: men’s ministries.  These have become huge in Evangelical Christianity.  Become a real man, more testosterone, patriarchy, and subtly-disguised dick-size-bragging in the church and so on.  A lot of these are modeled on the work of men who appear strong because they don’t experience the same standards and rules their parishioners do. The model is attractive to men who have a perceived lack of satisfaction, but are unclear as to where the solution lies.  The same audience that watched Fight Club and thought about quitting their job over it.  A lot of the sexual bravado is telling here: you are supposed to have a lot of sex in the future, not the past- which is really confusing to the neurotic parishioner who doesn’t realize (or at least puts it out of mind) their leader had all sorts of sex in college but “is sorry and regrets it”- essentially, the leader doesn’t follow the same rules he wants his congregation to follow.  And further, a lot of the “stepping up” language has a Žižekian “obscene superego supplement” to submit, and when you tell a neurotic that his main problem is that he doesn’t submit to authority enough, its a bit like telling a battered woman that she “deserves it” because of whatever.  You can actually give neurotics a lot of mixed messages, even mutually exclusive messages, and still appear cohesive if the messages broadly align with what their superego expectation already is (sort of in the same way that shoddy reasoning with lots of fallacies can make for an attractive argument if the conclusion is whatever you want to be true).

So basically, what I absolutely love about psychoanalytic theory is the categories it allows us to recognize in the patterns we follow.  It’s not a cure-all, and there is a lot about psychoanalytic theory that I wholly reject, but learning to ask questions about the motive and satisfaction derived by certain beliefs can be a really helpful asset in the study of religion.

Tags dexter psychoanalysis don draper mad men mark driscoll john piper neurosis psychosis slavoj zizek Tad delay

Oct 2, 2012

Reviewing Hellbound?

Originally posted at Fuller's the Burner Blog

[Director Kevin Miller at Q/A after showing Hellbound?]

The film opens at Ground Zero.  The Westboro Baptist cadre screams to the 10th anniversary pilgrims that we should thank God he saw fit to send their loved ones to hell that day.  The shot pans out to capture a peculiar form of disgust in the eyes of onlookers- the type of disgust you see when someone first realizes the obscene underside of what they too might believe.

Around six in ten Americans believe in Hell.  Director Kevin Miller’s Hellbound? looks at this phenomenon.  The film was a nascent idea until Miller and his crew saw the hype and reaction to Rob Bell’s Love Wins in the spring of 2011- this is a topic people want to talk about.  Miller set out to interview as many people as possible to talk about 1) why to believe or not believe in hell and, more importantly, 2) how does belief in hell change us?

With interviews from Brian McLaren, Mark Driscoll, Greg Boyd, Kevin DeYoung, Frank Schaeffer, William Paul Young, Justin Taylor, Ray Comfort, Chad Holtz, Mike Bickle, and Jonathan And Margie Phelps - just to name a few - and additional video from John Piper, Rob Bell, and Jerry Falwell, Hellbound? is clearly directed to an Evangelical audience familiar with popular figures (but to be sure, interviews from Protestant and Catholic academics and an Orthodox priest make the cut as well).  The film suffers slightly from a very stark delineation between the universalists and exclusivists: one side is calm, compassionate, and able to clearly articulate the history of hell in Christian theology, while the other side is, well, Westboro and exorcists.  I asked Miller about this- “What was it like searching for more articulate voices for the exclusivist position?”  He replied that, unfortunately, efforts were made to reach Piper, Mohler, and similar academic figures to defend the exclusivist position, but the messages went unanswered.  I can’t blame him for this.  In fact, I think the difference in dispositions is one of the more important messages to consider.  What is it about certain personalities and temperaments that want to believe in hell?

Frank Schaeffer’s interview tied the movie together in a way that transcended the debate over hermeneutics.  As an expat of the religious right, with books and films from his former life still influencing American extremism, Schaeffer says hell is undeniably a method of control.  However we interpret an obscure verse in 3rd Isaiah or a post-Maccabean redaction of Daniel, we can no longer pretend we don’t know what hell does in the psyche of a community.  When exclusivist pastor John Piper issues a papal tweet excommunicating Rob Bell for questioning hell, says Schaeffer, this is saying something profound about a very specific insecurity.  Identity and security found in a set of ideas requires a certain hostility to those who disagree with you (because, if Bell is right, Piper has wasted his life).  Mark Driscoll tells us “Some of you... God hates you,” and Kevin DeYoung tells us that only the elect should be considered God’s children.  The scenes from Jerusalem and Auschwitz remind you that there are deadly serious consequences to how we think God will deal with our enemies. The audience is forced to think: who am I more like? who’s view of God is more like mine? how to I see people who are different than me?

The film ends with the same ironic heroes it begins with: Margie and Jonathan Phelps. In the Q/A following the film, Miller told us Westboro may be the only people in America that truly believe in hell: if you believe that there is a hell and avoiding it comes down to a matter of belief, then the only ethical choice you have is to preach this message unceasingly.  This is the obscene underside of the latent belief that 6/10 Americans purport to hold.

Hellbound? is an introduction to an important conversation.  While parts of the film hit depths that challenged my perspective as a student of religion, it is not so much a film geared toward those of us in the theological academy.  It’s for those who “just believe whatever the Bible teaches about hell” on the one hand or, on the other hand, those who think the idea of hell is too archaic to have real social and geopolitical consequences today.  It’s for the true believers, the casual parishioners, and the agnostic alike.

Director Kevin Miller writes:

Throughout history, Christians have disagreed about pretty much everything. And whenever these disagreements come up, certain doctrines or beliefs become a sort of litmus test to determine insiders and outsiders: Are you one of us or are you one of them? Are you our kind of Christian or are you some other kind of Christian... whom we’re really not sure we can trust? 

Whenever I see the battle lines being drawn like this, it piques my interest, because I know there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes. On the surface, people are arguing about theology. But underneath lurk all kinds of personal, political, religious and even economic agendas.

Tags Hellbound? Kevin Miller burner blog westboro baptist ground zero hell americans belief in hell mark driscoll greg boyd kevin deyoung frank schaeffer william paul young chad holtz mike bickle margie phelps john piper rob bell jerry falwell views on hell exclusivism universalism documentary on hell al mohler

Apr 7, 2012

John Piper Accidentally Stumbles into some Holy Saturday Heresy

I think I may soon have to expand on the actual definition of a much-misunderstood and abused term: heresy.  In historical theology, "heresy" has a very specific referent that has nothing to do with whether or not a belief is "true" or "Biblical."  Instead, the term refers to teaching that is out of line with the creeds written by the ecumenical councils.  You don't have to like that, but that is what the term means.  Most Protestants today struggle with understanding this (perhaps due to an anti-Catholic hangover?) and have altered the meaning without realizing it.

Thus, what constitutes “heresy” and orthodoxy evolves over time.  For example, the Cappadocian Fathers, who are responsible for the chief defense of the Trinity in the early church formulation (which is the base for orthodoxy now), appear to be universalists.  A few hundred years later, universalism becomes a heresy, which puts us in the awkward situation of calling the Cappadocians both the paragons of orthodoxy as well as heretics at the same time.  To take that further, the 4th Lateran council makes a literal, everlasting fiery hell a standard for orthodoxy.  So if you believe there is a hell, but you believe it isn’t necessarily a fiery place, congratulations, you are a heretic.*

The first significant creed in the early church is the Apostles Creed.  Today, John Piper posted a refutation of the line in the Creed that says Jesus "descended into hell" (greek: hades).  Piper writes: 

“… it seems best to me to omit from the Apostles Creed the clause, “he descended into hell,” rather than giving it other meanings that are more defensible…”  - John Piper

Oops.  That does technically make you a heretic.  Hello, Rob Bell!


*Of course, I think the idea of hell is not only ridiculous, but tragically harmful.  That makes me a heretic on this point.  I try to be honest about that.

Tags john piper holy saturday heresy apostle's creed apostles creed

Mar 30, 2012

John Piper talks reconciliation and Rob Bell

John Piper is asked about his tiff with Rob Bell in an interview broadly dealing with reconciliation.  Notice the fetish disavowal involved.  Piper, who was solely responsible for cutting off a guy that has even recommended Piper’s own work, chooses to see himself as a person that tries to reconcile with people.  The fetish disavowal comes in the form of doctrine, because when you can’t balance your own anger and your ideal/imaginary version of yourself, you have to export responsibility for your actions onto a god.  The article also discusses the time he excommunicated his own son.

God is often the excuse we resort to when we can’t take responsibility for ourselves. (e.g. "I don't have a problem with X, but God does...")

 What’s most interesting to me about that whole “farewell Rob Bell” fiasco is came right after Piper temporarily stepped down from his ministry due to what he called “several species of pride.”  People praised his humility, but when he jumped back in the game with a tweet of excommunication, people praised him for that too.  That says something about tribe.

The lesson to remember is that we can all disagree and get along.  But the moment you start cutting people off over obscure disagreements- political, theological, whatever- you have to face the possibility that your own narcissism requires your associates to be and/or think just like you. 

*notice how Piper’s definition of a Christian excludes anyone before Anselm’s 11th century Cur Deus Homo redefined atonement. (posted on earlier today).

Here is the Q/A from Christianity Today:

You famously tweeted, "Farewell Rob Bell" in response to his promotional video for his book Love Wins. Is there a place for theological reconciliation in the body of Christ?

To say yes to that—and you should say yes—would require serious definition. When you say theological reconciliation, you can mean two people with two different theologies working their way through to a common theology. That is their way of being reconciled. That's what I give most of my energies to. I want to persuade people of what I see in the Bible, and work towards unity in truth. Probably what would be thought when [people] ask that question is: Can two people who maintain their differences in theology then be more reconciled? So, you wouldn't say farewell; you would say hello. The answer is that it depends on the issues.

I don't mind addressing the Rob Bell issue. When I watched the video of Rob Bell that was put up on Justin Taylor's website, which was, I think, a link to his book on hell, my issue there was not primarily his view of hell. It was his cynicism concerning the Cross of Jesus Christ as a place where the Father atoned for the sins of his children and dealt with his own wrath by punishing me in his son. Rob Bell does not admire that. He doesn't view the Cross that way, as a penal substitution. I consider that the essence of the Cross and my salvation, and the heart of God for me, and that ticked me off royally. I didn't say all that, so probably everybody thought "Farewell Rob Bell" was kind of like "I don't like his view of hell, so there." Well, I don't like John Stott's view of hell either, and I never said anything about John Stott. I kept learning from John Stott. I would have sat at John Stott's feet until the day he died.

There are some views that push people away farther and there are other views that don't push them away farther. I want to learn from everybody. Francis Schaeffer said our differences in the church are a golden opportunity to show love, and instead of throwing hate bombs over the walls that we've got between ourselves, we throw love bombs over. In other words, differences can be an occasion for courtesy, kindness, gentleness, listening, and respect—all of which, the world would then look at and say, "They don't have theological unity, but they do talk to each other in a certain way." Now, Paul was pretty hard on certain theological differences and Jesus was really hard on certain differences. And so, there's a point for "Thus far, no further, farewell." There are other points where we ought to be cultivating all those courtesies.

Tags john piper rob bell farewell rob bell reconciliation fetish disavowal