Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Halloween Atonement Test

Marshall St., every Friday afternoon, in the Syracuse University student quarter, there's a man parading dressed in scripture-quote billboards and threatening hell to all those who don't take Jesus as their savior. His booming voice bounces off bar fronts and food joints, declaring doom to come. Everyone blocks him out, but that doesn't bother him. It simply confirms the structure of his universe. Each time his voice is ignored the ground opens up in front of the person who ignored him.

Hearing this man it's easy to feel the hard edge of violence in the inherited Christian message. It's something difficult to square with a Teacher who began his teaching with "Blessed are the peacemakers..." but quite easy to believe once you understand the story that has gone on between. The Teacher died a violent death, as part of his mission, and what simpler way to understand a violent episode than via the accepted mechanics of violence?

Once Christian thinkers looked around for ways to explain Jesus' death to the masses, they swiftly hit on notions of payment and punishment. You offend me, I'll take a chunk of you! Simple as that. All that was required was to put Jesus in the place of the rest of us who should be paying, and bingo, what have you got? You have the displaced payment of dues to a most unforgiving, grim and terrible god, by a passive, submissive victim who happens to be his son. This is the classic Christian doctrine of atonement.

Not hard then to imagine the second-order consequence of refusing to accept the ferocious pay-off made available through Jesus! Hell, yes!

My friend on Marshall St. is a typical child of two millennia of Christian misconstruction of Jesus' death.

The violence in his voice and soul was put there by Christian history. How much more difficult and challenging it would have been--given intellectual and institutional frameworks-- for Christian thinkers to explain Jesus' death as overcoming the mechanics of violence itself? If Jesus did pay anything it was of such an extravagant, limitless kind that it blew up the system of payment. It was as if he kept printing dollars on the cross, and no one could stop him, so all the dollars became completely worthless, and the only economy left was the one he had modeled, one of limitless giving.

As for violence, it is always itself a system of payment ("I'll get you back!") and Jesus of course exploded that too. By the excess of giving on the cross he shed light on our ancient structure of violent human reciprocity, one that works itself out in our bones and minds in an instant, before we even realize it, and in a flash there is blood on the ground. This revelation by the cross has become articulated in contemporary thought in the notions of "mimetic desire," "mirror neurons" and "the surrogate victim" powerfully laid out in the work of Rene Girard.

Institutional Christianity seems more or less stuck with the default meaning of Christ's death inherited from the centuries. Certainly there are numerous theologians and teachers working in this new direction, but the comfort of violence as a generative principle and its hold on human logic are so great that it adds up to an enormous ideological and religious obstacle. The man on Marshall St. is perhaps an extreme example, but his condition to one degree or another is endemic in all of Christianity.

However, that is not the whole story, by any means. The gospel revelation of violence is not in fact happening essentially in the churches, but broadly in culture, and that is Girard's amazing insight. He found the evidence first in novels and plays, and to some degree in philosophy, and in my own work I have shown it in evidence in movies (and again in philosophy). What this means is that the crucial shift in Christianity is being prompted largely from outside its institutional forms. It's almost as if the Crucified struggles on his own with violence, bringing it to the surface, exposing it and slowly making possible the alternative. This leads me directly to Halloween and what I'd like to propose as the "Halloween Atonement Test." If popular culture can pass the Halloween Test it means that, one way or other, the mechanism and message of Christianity have been changed radically, from one of violence to one of peace and nonviolence.  

The ghosts, zombies, skeletons, witches, hanged men, chopped up limbs, crumbling graveyards, rats, bats, scorpions, spiders, cobwebs, and oh yes the pumpkins, those gaudy gourds with a color and shape uncannily reminiscent of a severed human head, what is all this, if not a revelation of generative violence? It is taking place chaotically and ambiguously but without a doubt it shows an enormous consciousness of violence. Why not then include a large crucifix in the front yard alongside the skulls and hanged men? Would it not perfectly belong there? 

The reaction at once is "No, this would be a kind of blasphemy! The cross is a sacred form of violence, all that other stuff is regular profane violence." But, really, the point of the cross is exactly that: it is regular human violence, to which Jesus replied with transcendent forgiveness and peace. Putting it among the ghouls and the gore would declare this definitively as its role. It would show a true recognition of the death of Jesus as a laying bare of generative violence, and with that the communication of generative peace.

The prehistory of Halloween is pretty clearly a pre-Christian cyclical feast, the Celtic Samhain (pronounced sawin) celebrated Oct. 31st/Nov. 1st. It was especially concerned with the dead and enemies lurking among them (very possibly the victims of murder). The victim gets his day in the sun so to speak and then is stuffed back in the ground. The church's attempt in the 9th century to upstage the "summer's end" ritual by placing a Feast of All Saints on November 1st (and All Souls the day after) proved unable to suppress it. Perhaps because "saints" go to some heavenly otherworld and leave this one still roiled in violence. Perhaps because the fact of the victim was already dimly sensed, despite the pagan trappings, as a Christian truth. But the North American Halloween, and its growing popularity throughout the world, are something else again. It is an intense semiotic display which looks and feels more and more like visual and dramatic "disclosure" of violence. It seems as if deep down the broad cultural effect of the Crucified has been added to the ancient ritualized event pushing all this cruelty into the open, implicitly asking us, begging us, to let go of it.

So why not then place a crucifix in the front yard, next to the skeletons and hanged men? Would that not state unarguably that the cross is an event of human violence, and at the same time and for that reason, communicate a transforming peace to the human scene?

If I ever get to see something like that I'll know Christianity has finally passed its Halloween Atonement Test!

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Friday, October 12, 2012

Satanic Verses

Back in 1988, in London's East End, you couldn't get a copy of Salman Rushdie's book, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie had produced a fictional narrative of an early Islamic story telling of three verses removed from the Qu'ran after the Prophet saw them as a satanic temptation. A fatwa was issued against Rushdie's all-too-human retelling, making it an undesirable item to be held in our high-street book store. The satanic verses had become doubly satanic: first in their traditional sense; second as a modern deconstructive novel which appeared to challenge the purity of Islamic revelation.

My experience of the revised Roman Catholic mass (during a recent retreat weekend) suggested to me a reflective thought of "satanic verses," and in both senses. Here was a liturgical and theological reform responding to a previous form of words now rejected as deviant and deconstructive. Let me develop that thought.

The language of the mass changed initially, after many hundreds of years, as a result of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It went from Latin to English, and from formal to conversational. This 20th-century-style speech is the only language of the mass any Catholic under forty has known. The recent revised version is an English translation of a third edition of the Latin Roman Missal published in 2002. In other words, the new English translation is of a brushed-up Latin edition of the mass. 

Language, as we all know, is the world. Language is pictures, stories, ideas, all strung together and held in front of us by the amazing phenomenon of words. The history of the original satanic verses is disputed, lost in the mists of traditions about the Prophet. In contrast, the past forty years of language of the mass is vivid living memory, and for it to be revised in this way amounts to a deliberate exercise in rewriting religious experience.

Arguments in favor of the new ritual claim it is richer, less chatty, more mysterious and spiritual. Attending the new mass for the first time I had a somewhat different reaction. Everything I heard was an uncanny repetition of verbal and mental themes I had last experienced as a boy, and they came across loud and clear: as hierarchical, scholastic, metaphysical and dualist.

These three examples stuck in my head. First, the famous "And with your spirit" is repeated in various places. It is an evident translation of Et cum spiritu tuo, the words I used to parrot as an altar boy when the priest spun around from mysteriously facing the altar and let out a doctrinally dense, hierarchically awesome Dominus vobiscum, "The Lord be with you." The new English is plainly a reversal to the traditional Latin and carries with it all the old privileging of a separate "spiritual" part within us destined for an immaterial heaven.

The introduction to the Lord's prayer was this: "At the Savior's command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say," followed by the beginning words "Our Father.." Again this awoke from dim caves of memory the ghost of forgotten words, in this case Audemus dicere, "we dare to say." It is the Latin I used to hear a half century ago, and which even then filled me with a feeling of the remoteness and dangerous character of a God who otherwise--in the narrow ritual space of the church's mediation--could be considered the Abba/Daddy taught by Jesus. The reversion to this very Latin Roman formula--from the previous much simpler "Let us pray in the words Christ taught us"--had the clang of iron about it, the cruel reconstruction of an old imperial heaven.

And then there was the one that caught me fully in the throat. It was in the words of institution, "Take this...and drink from it...the blood of the new and eternal covenant...," replacing "new and everlasting covenant." The priest who was celebrating, himself stumbled on the word "eternal," his brain clearly wanting to say "everlasting." As Freud said, a slip of the tongue will often be the sign of something repressed trying to come to the surface. In this case it was the time-filled sense of "everlasting," the meaning of a history-produced and history-producing relationship with God, rather than the other-worldly, metaphysical, Platonic "eternal." With this one word the revisionists played the minds and souls of Catholic Christians back into a two-tier, power-brokered universe, with the amazing human intervention of the cross carried off to a motionless, dead beyond. The game was essentially up (pun intended).

The other form of words, now abandoned, is relegated to the status of satanic verses. The 2nd Vatican Council which inspired these words and the theological energy which produced them are now frequently called an aberration, a mistake. All the so-called leveling out, the loss of majesty and awe, the engagement with history and social activism, all this is a massive humanizing temptation to be cast in the dustbin of bad verses, along with the actual council of bishops which instigated it. An emerging sense of a Jesus Messiah who fills his disciples, and the world, with a transforming meaning both of God and humanity, this is in there too.

But history does not disappear that easily. The repressed returns. True satanic verses are those which accuse the human, which put humanity under judgment of violence. Meanwhile what is accused may well remain the source of life and hope.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian