Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"True Grit" That Grates Against The Gospel: Calvinism, Popular Culture and the 21st Century.

I've been trying to hold it in but I can't. It's bursting inside of me!

I have held back before out of respect to those who have roots in these traditions, and from a sense of the tortuous paths by which we all got from where we were to where we are, so who wants to disturb old ghosts anyway...? But today everyone in so many ways is uprooted from past worlds these inhibitions cannot work indefinitely.

And recently I have come up against the issue directly.

So now, here it is. I've got to ask. What is up, really, with the Calvinist worldview?

I recently had an online conversation with someone who shared it. He was, as far as I could tell, scouting Girardian thought, agreeing that it was important in showing how, yes, we do tend to scapegoat people, but as an account of redemption...whoahh, never! It was all to do with the incommensurable, metaphysical role that God had to play in our salvation. A role that makes God's very identity. Take this away, it seems, you destroy God.

I am not entirely sure of all the details of my friend's position, as I am well aware that there are numerous distinctions and sub-genres in this area which would repay a good six months hard study. But I do know the line went dead--game over, end of call--the moment I expressed myself in terms of the need somehow to say "Yes" to the invitation of Christ. Yes, as in "I believe, I will follow this way." As in "You're offering me something totally incredible but you don't impose it on me." As in Peter's reply to Jesus' honest question "Will you too leave me?": to wit, "You have the words of eternal life, so no we will not leave, and yes we will continue to follow in the knowledge that it is only you who have the strength and the power to allow us to follow in the first place."

But according to the Calvinist worldview--which in fact is the Augusto-Calvinist worldview (i.e. beginning with Augustine at the end of the fourth century)--this "Yes" does not matter a whit. Everything is God's foreordained choice.


The recent shock of encounter with this thinking in fact goes back behind my online conversation to a movie released late last year and a review of it by Stanley Fish in the New York Times (12/27,'10, "Narrative and the Grace of God: The New 'True Grit'"). Because, you know, if something's in the movies the issue is definitely serious: it's a matter of popular culture. Fish concluded his review by calling the Coen brothers' version of True Grit a "truly religious movie". What he meant by this is the film's portrayal of a total disjunction between any average sense of human justice and what the biblical God (as he reads it) actually metes out. The theology looming over both the review, and that of the original book by Charles Portis, is the classic Calvinist worldview. As Fish expresses it: "There is no relationship between the bestowing or withholding of grace and the actions of those to whom it is either accorded or denied."

He gives an example from the novel in which the young heroine, Mattie, answers the question of why her father went out of his way to help a man who quickly turned on him and killed him (which murder supplies the plot-engine in Mattie's efforts to bring the murderer to human justice). She replies, "He was his brother's keeper. Does that answer your question?" Fish then goes on to gloss her words: "Yes it does, but it doesn't answer the question of why the reward for behaving in accord with God's command is violent death at the hands of your brother, a question posed by the Bible's first and defining event, and unanswered to this day."

In other words the bible is concerned about human violence but has plainly no answer for it, and meanwhile the necessary theological implication is God allows human history to go rip because he has his own supremely relationless scheme of "justice" to apply. So in fact the final hero of the book, and its movies, is "Rooster" Cogburn, a deputy U.S. Marshal, who is simply the best at killing, who consistently kills rather than negotiates, and is therefore the one who imitates God best. Make no mistake, this book and its movies are about U.S. popular religious consciousness. The Rooster of the original movie was the iconic John Wayne ("Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!") and the fact that a remake of the movie appears now, with religious overtones strongly marked (sweet singing of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" as credits roll), is no accident in a situation where the U.S. is at war with a string of nations based in a non-Christian and, therefore, non-elect religion. I watched this movie from the last free seat in the theater and during the religious silence it imposed I thought these people were receiving a mainline dose of theological violence. The way we are depends on the kind of God we worship.

If I thought this God was all the God there was I would feel inclined to launch the most terrible blasphemous j'accuse against him.

I would say this God is murderer who does not even have the decency to put his hapless victims out of their misery but tortures them for eternity as his preferred form of killing! J'accuse!

I would say this God was less than human, less even than all sentient creatures, because he did not know how to relate, did not in fact care to relate, and that he would feel much more at home, like Nietzsche's spider, in some other cosmos where there are only rocks and dark matter to knock up against! J'accuse!

Most of all I would accuse him of not being worthy of Jesus, who as a real human being kept the company of sinners, ate and drank with them while they were sinners, loved the rich young man even though that man turned away from him, was talked into a miracle by a pagan woman, was anointed by a woman who was a sinner, wept for Jerusalem, and died praying for his torturers. J'accuse!

But of course this God does not exist, and I do not have to imagine myself in quite this melodramatic (and hopeless) situation.

This God does not exist because he is not like Jesus, and that is by far the best reason.

But we can also easily deconstruct how such a "God" got put in place. The God of this worldview is a hyper-Roman God. He is a combination of the redemptive narrative of the bible and the harsh legal mindset in which Augustine was trained and to which he gave a metaphysical turn. God is the supreme law-giver and when scripture says he makes a ruling that is not part of a much larger creative exercise of new human meaning, worthy of a creator God, it is a once-and-for-all imperial edict. Thus far from representing a "Reform" Calvinism is Roman legalism deprived of mediating social structures and then raised to the n'th power, to the level of pure consciousness.

But then, we don't even have to rely on deconstruction to free ourselves of this "God". The emerging human sciences of the 21st century, the frames of thought which tell us what we're like as human beings, they assert more and more forcefully that we are supremely imitative creatures. We are not made of law and we are not made of metaphysics. We are composed of an unbelievably sensitive and reactive structures of imitation. For this reason any God who made us this way, in his/her "image and likeness", would have to possess the possibility of relationship and response to an eminent degree. The best word for that, in respect of God, is "compassion", the ability to enter profoundly into the situation of another, to take it on, and in so doing to change it, into love. If in the past we have thought of God in terms of law and metaphysics that is because these are the hardened shapes of volcanic lava left us after terrible explosions of imitative rivalry and violence. Now we are seeing beneath these strata, to their formative energies, we can begin truly to conceive of God as a power that can re-shape us from our white-hot human core outward.

For which reason Calvinism, along with its parent Romanism, can only be seen in the 21st century as anachronistic, the survival of a form beyond its time. In the world of satellites and facebook where we are rendered continually sensible to the lives of other the only God that makes any sense is not made from the grit of violence but the grist of compassion. The true God is the grain of Christ crushed into bread for our sake, in order that we might assimilate such love to and as ourselves.

And, yes, we need to say "Yes!" Just like Adam on the first morning of creation in response to the exuberance of life, but this time round with the knowledge that then we got off to a completely false start. This time the "yes" is the truest freedom we possess, to respond to the relationship of compassion that God has first formed with us through Christ, that makes the imitation of compassion possible. Freedom is an extremely tenuous reality, but it is real. It is exercised mostly in surrendering what seems like freedom but is really servitude, in favor of a relationship that breaks in upon us in the deepest quality of self-giving. It pervades our world and we can let it pervade us, letting our will die to the former way and allowing the way of Christ to grow in us. This is human transformation. This is redemption for the 21st century.

Tony Bartlett, Theologian in Residence

P.S. My confidence in popular culture was restored after True Grit was nominated for 10 Oscars and came away with exactly none.

1 comment:

  1. I suppose this is for you the end of the story.

    Remember that I converted from being a Girardian universalist (god waiting for everyone to say yes) to being something a little more "orthodox". There's no reason for you to read Thomas on predestination, because you don't want to offend anybody in particular, so the "Calvinist" label will do.

    Of course you could be suspicious about if I was truly a Girardian. Once a Girardian, always one...?
    Mark McCulley