Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Tale of Two Anthropologies

I've heard it before and thought before it was worth reflecting on: the claim of two radically different versions of Christianity. Not just different churches, with divergent doctrines and customs--we're drearily used to that--but actually different Christianities.

The latest comes from the pen of William Rivers Pitt, a compelling, passionate writer who produces regular pieces for Truthout, an online journal of progressive opinion, investigation and analysis.

In a recent article he declared himself a Christian. He did not do this so much in spiritual or theological terms as to situate himself personally against what he sees as distortion of traditional faith and practice.

He complained with typical fire about "...this hideous, necrotic 21st century version of know, the version that has little if anything to do with what You tried to tell us in those four friendly books at the beginning of the New Testament. Do Unto Others has been replaced with Do Others In The Throat..."

He later added, "It is brutally hard to be a Christian in America these days. Some of us Christians take that bit about doing unto the least of us deeply, deeply seriously. Some of us Christians think that it is wrong, sinful, and in fact a brazen form of Apartheid to deny certain Americans the rights enjoyed by other Americans based upon who they love. Mostly, some of us think Christianity in America has gone barking-mad insane."

I once heard Marcus Borg say he thought there really were two religions named Christianity, the one that Pitt is denouncing, and another, more critically disposed, gentler, kinder, more embracing.

I think a more useful and transforming way of describing the situation is not two religions but two anthropologies. If we make a distinction of religions we are at once on the ground of conflicting gods, of religious warfare in fact, which would be the very ground a nonviolent Christianity is trying to avoid. If we make it instead a matter of anthropology we can give a genetic explanation which in its way involves us all.

What Pitt describes acidly as the "necrotic 21st century version" is from an anthropological viewpoint the product of the breakdown of the violent sacred within traditional Christianity. When Christianity entered the world of paganism it eventually found itself cutting a deal with the old generative human culture of violence. The ancient root of culture that chooses its victim and builds a regime on the victim's exclusion if not outright killing, this is so deeply part of normal human business it was inevitable widespread territorial Christianity would meld with it. But progressively the Gospel has undermined its own cultural Christian foundations, leading to secularism on the one hand and a loss of strict boundary identities and falling church membership on the other. The truly creative work of the Gospel is the emergence of new face-to-face groups dependent on generative relationships of love rather than pre-set boundaries. I will return to this shortly.

Against a loss of Christian foundations a "natural" human reaction is to circle the wagons, raise the drawbridge, tip the boiling oil, that kind of thing. In other words to double down on the old cultural foundations in violence. Pitt is absolutely right. It is necrosis. But the crucial thing to recognize is that we're talking about anthropology--the-way-humans-do-business--not religion in its usual metaphysical sense. Still less are we talking about something coming from Gospel revelation.

The latter has itself provoked a human crisis, but it only has a relation to the crisis the way a virus relates to the immune system. The virus provokes the reaction but it is not itself the "cytokine storm" that will potentially prove fatal. (The storm is a phenomenon in which the body produces a feedback loop of immune cells so overwhelming it will block the airways and kill the patient outright. Necrotic, like the man said!)

The difficulty of being a Christian today is the difficulty of expressing the love of Christ when liberal secularism may seem to have a better grasp of it than Christian churches, and liberal churches lack the will and inspiration to express Christ's love in a thorough-going, evocative lifestyle. We have grown used to churches as big cruise ships where we can lounge about on the way to heaven with thousands and thousands along for the ride, giving us a sense of worldly power in addition to the heavenly docking rights.

But what if being Christian today is about a key relationship style that can only be expressed in a face-to-face community, within a small group that takes this thing totally seriously? What if Pitt's problem is that he expects the cruise ship when really he's already in his rowboat with a bunch of hairy disciples, and this, dear Pete, is it! What if it's precisely the success of the gospel which has destroyed the churches--via both secularism and the violent immune reaction we have described? And now what is required are small groups willing to live in the strange new space of a world deeply affected by the transforming love of Christ even while it violently resists it? What if the new "church" is being asked to show the world what that love looks like, just for the heck of it!

We really are talking about a different anthropology, the alternative to the old one which has failed both in humanity generally and in Christianity in particular.

Tony Bartlett TinR

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

It took a cross. A Roman instrument of torture and public execution.

Around this the whole of human history seems to turn. But why this? Why this extremity of suffering and humiliation?

Why would Jesus have imagined this as his end?

Did he caught a glimpse of one when he was a boy and the Romans put down a rebellion,
crucifying thousands on the roadsides? And he knew this someday would be his fate too?

Possibly. But why? And how?

How would it turn out that the Romans arrested him and sentenced him to death as a political criminal, a terrorist?

How would that happen if Jesus' teaching had always been non-violence, "Turn the other cheek"?

Standing in front of the cross countless millions have felt the indescribable vibration of something new. A completely new human possibility.

So new that it has been given transcendent names like "grace" and "Holy Spirit." Surely these names are not wrong. The scripture itself uses them, and they signify an entirely new relationship with what we call God, with the divine.

But the new relationship could not be experienced apart from the frame of life in which we all exist. Apart from the body, from humanity. It took a human nerve cell to tell the centurion that here was the Son of God!

It takes a human nerve cell to vibrate before a piece of wood and the blood that drips on it.

It takes a human nerve cell to feel the earth move under our feet while the cross stands upon it.

Which perhaps begins to explain it.

Jesus embraced the cross because his own nerve cells told him here was the place where the deepest human vibrations gather to hide, in the body of another. Hatred. Anger. Fear. Power. Cruelty. Pity. Revulsion.

If he were to embrace this instrument of destruction and speak into it his indestructible word of truth, peace and forgiveness, then all would be made new. It only took the courage to decide to do it.

And that's what the gospels are, basically the story of his decision. They tell how by a supreme act of courage and wisdom he got the authorities to do what they naturally do, to collude against him and bring him to the cross.

No one had ever done this before. No one had dared. Jesus did. And for that reason God gave him a name that is above every other name.

And, reciprocally, Jesus changed the name of God. He spoke into the name of God the very things he spoke into the the cross. Truth. Peace. Forgiveness. No longer, therefore, could humanity freely make the dark vibrations within the cross the shadow face of God.

Entirely the reverse. Because the nerve cells are made new, so is God!

All is now new! All is grace! All is Holy Spirit! All is possibility, of a new nonviolent humanity! 

Good Friday. Really!

Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian-in-Residence

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Peeta, I have prayed for you." Christ & The Hunger Games

A movie can be evaluated by its internal features, things like dialogue, cinematography, acting. It can also be assessed by its connection to the wider culture, the way it reflects and resonates with its contemporary world and moment. On the first metric The Hunger Games is nothing out of the ordinary, I would even say fairly pedestrian. On the second it is absolutely gripping, a total phenomenon for our present human landscape.

Our collective relationship to this movie makes The Hunger Games an unprecedented cultural event.

It is the only movie I have been to that was still sold-out on the second weekend of release and with four screens showing in the multiplex. It looks well on track to finish its U.S. run with $350 to $400 million in ticket sales, topping the first Twilight and Harry Potter films. It ended its first full week with about $190 million, a record for a non-sequel. From the opening frames you feel a visceral audience reaction, a kind of complicity brought by the public into the cinema, prompted from the advance publicity and buzz about the film.

The story is a relentlessly brutal sacrificial progression from start to finish. Set in a post-apocalyptic future it tells how a capital city populated by a privileged elite requires annual "tributes" of young people from outlying districts. These young women and men fight to the death within a digitally-controlled hi-tech arena where the action is televised at every point for the entertainment of the populace. That much everyone knew before their ticket stub was handed to them, so as the movie opens there is a palpable sense both of dread and fascination.

But there is something more besides. There is also a recognition of our actual cultural condition. We too have a sacrificial celebrity culture played out against a backdrop of distant arena wars: in each instance a steady supply of young people are sacrificed to the machinery of death. We watch this movie to experience virtually what we already experience...virtually.

But is that the only pay-off? It has been noticed that there is no religion in the movie (and none in the trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins behind the movie). Diana Butler Bass in an article in The Washington Post said this was because the books rejected any religion of collusion with sacrificial empire. She believes that "(U)ltimately 'The Hunger Games' argues for a human future of love and non-violence." Diana identifies the character of Peeta in the movie as the figure representing this hope.

In the books, however, the narrative is always told from the perspective and voice of the female protagonist Katniss, and Peeta is there essentially as her foil. Yes, he is the character suggesting an alternative of compassion, but this role and the potential of this emotion are never developed. Peeta never exercises any plot agency beyond his consistent resolve to help and protect only Katniss. For this reason the structural message of the books seems to remain the brute human destiny of sacrificial killing.

In itself this is a huge revelation. The cultural event of The Hunger Games is a massive disclosure of the sacrificial principle. It is many, many times more significant than Shirley Jackson's short story, The Lottery, published in 1948, with which The Hunger Games has the key device of a terrifying sacrificial lottery in common. As a cultural phenomenon it far eclipses Jackon's piece which is recognized as one of the most famous short stories of American literature. Now with The Hunger Games just about everyone knows clearly about sacrificial killing as a fundamental way of ordering society.

At the same time, however, I believe the movie cannot just be about sacrifice. Despite its bleak formal structure the cinematic event implies the compassion of Christ standing behind it. It is the cross of Christ that has relentlessly brought the sacrificial principle to the surface and made a liberating consciousness of it tolerable. Peeta is not in the story by accident and I do not think it is a coincidence that his name is a form of Peter. Peeta is the point where the full character of Christ's revelation threatens to break through. He is the Christological nonsacrificial principle, repressed in the narrative, but nevertheless dynamically essential to make the disclosure of sacrifice work. Christ stands behind Peeta and the Hunger Games like the radio-opaque dye in an MRI, rendering the isolation and identification of the cancer possible.

Diana Butler Bass is therefore not wrong. The Hunger Games looks toward "a better world based not in sacrificial violence but in sacrificial love." But it does so not out of any sense of principle, rather because of the deep revelatory and transformative agency of Christ himself bringing to birth the possibility of a new way of being human on earth.

Tony Bartlett, Theologian-in-Residence