The Cross

Paul reports that Christ crucified is a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. I’m beginning to wonder if the Jews and Greeks had a point. Everything that is most destructive about Christianity comes from the Cross — the fetishization of suffering as an end in itself, the valorization of sheer obedience as somehow morally salutary, the conformism that stems from the instinctive embrace of the “necessary evil” as the ultimate good. In my darker moments, I wonder if Christianity was always heading inexorably toward Constantine, just as I wonder whether the Civil Rights movement was always headed toward ritualized protests where people stay in the “free speech zones” and line up to be arrested in an orderly fashion.

In famously convoluted syntax, Paul declares, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). In practice, the power of God has been the power of his own self-vindication, the satisfaction of his wounded honor or his desire for vengeance against a rebellious race, and the wisdom has been the opaque wisdom that trusts “God’s will” in an open-ended, incomprehending way. For Paul, though, at least in my reading, the power was God’s ability to dethrone the demonic powers and the wisdom was his ability to hit them precisely where they thought they were strongest — in their ability to terrorize, torture, and murder. God sends his messiah to be crucified under Roman law, with the complicity of the co-opted Jewish authorities, and in so doing he exposes the naked illegitimacy of the Roman order.

As with the emergence of the strategy of martyrdom under Antiochus Epiphanes, however, a necessary concomitant is the energetic development of a new form of life. The Maccabees chose the route of armed rebellion to reestablish an always-embattled theocracy. Paul, facing much greater firepower from the demonic worldly powers, chose the more indirect route of establishing little avant garde communities in as many Roman cities and provinces as possible — communities that do not rebel against the law or seek to overthrow the powers in order to replace them, but live in simple indifference to them.

Neither strategy proved durably effective. The Maccabean kingdom was ultimately reabsorbed into the imperial system, as were the successors to the Pauline communities. But at least they tried! At least they were able to conceive of a meaning to suffering and oppression other than the need to continue to submit to suffering and oppression as an end in itself. There’s such a narrow window within which something like the Cross can counter the Powers rather than simply reinforcing them — all the moreso in that so much contemporary theology, at least among my fellow white men, seems addicted to the “contrarian” gesture that enthusiastically submitting to the powers that be is the most subversive thing of all.

What has me thinking along these lines is my sense that the “hands up” gesture of the Ferguson protestors is a distant echo of the early Christian stance toward the Cross. And I see in mainstream white responses to protestors a repetition of the taming of the Cross, in the insistence that protest much be completely “peaceful,” in the refusal to recognize police violence as violent and the tacit view that it is natural and necessary, etc. I don’t know what conclusion to draw. I’m more gesturing toward the potential usefulness of thinking through past examples and trying to figure out where they went wrong — including apparently very distant and foreign examples.

My year in review

While it was horrible for the world at large, 2014 was an amazing year for me personally. I rang in the New Year wandering the streets of Paris, and I’ll end it in The Girlfriend’s new apartment in Minneapolis, where she has secured a job that uses her recently-completed graduate degree. In between, I travelled more than I ever have in a single year, visiting great museums in Paris, New York, and London. I lived in San Francisco for the summer. I lectured at Harvard and Birkbeck. I wrote Creepiness and put together a co-authored essay collection with Colby Dickinson entitled Agamben’s Coming Philosophy (which was finally submitted to the publisher this morning). I got through a first draft of half my translation of Agamben’s Use of Bodies. I taught the primary source material for my devil project twice, once at Shimer and once at Chicago Theological Seminary. I expanded my teaching competency to include Islam. And of course, I watched a ton of Star Trek.

As I often do, I’ve tried to set things up to “clear the decks” by the end of the calendar year. So far, I’ve finished up all the writing I’ve promised for this year, and this week I’ll finish the grading for my CTS class and have the final faculty meetings for the semester. After that, it will be a matter of holiday obligations and getting ready for The Girlfriend’s move — and trying to find a couple hours a day to begin reconnecting with the translation, which has fallen by the wayside amid the end-of-semester rush.

My hope is that next year won’t be so frenetically busy. Teaching an extra class on top of my full-time load at Shimer was a challenge, and not something I’m likely to attempt in the near future. I have a few talks scheduled (all either on Creepiness or the devil) and have agreed to do a book review (on the devil) and an article (on Star Trek, since now I’m bereft of a pop culture project), but I’m mostly trying to leave myself free to complete my two big projects: the Agamben translation (manuscript due August 1) and the long-promised devil book. It seems doable, especially since I’m looking at another monastic summer (in Minneapolis this time), and may be able to arrange a monastic fall as well.

In any case, next year at this time, I should have the good fortune to be in utter listless despair, facing the yawning abyss of freedom. Maybe I can even go into workahol detox. “Lord, make me non-obsessive — but not yet!”

Remember the West?

As I was reading Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible for our upcoming book event, I was reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s claim from What is Philosophy? that philosophy is about the creation of concepts. That is clear enough in the early fragmentary efforts of the pre-Socratics, who often wear their poiesis on their sleeve by adopting a poetic form for their conceptual inventions. Almost immediately, however, the creative element is covered over or denied in the Socratic-Platonic claim that we only ever remember what we most authentically know. Socrates covers over the construction of his arguments by insisting at each step of the way that what he’s arguing is what his interlocutor somehow already knows — most astoundingly in the Meno, where he presses the uneducated slave into service to prove what he already knew all along. Knowledge always has the structure of a prequel, which comes after and yet claims to be coming before.

In the excellent article on Shimer College that I’ve been relentlessly linking, our approach is characterized as “Socratic.” In the sense that our classes proceed via dialogue, this is true. It may also be true in other senses, as certain faculty members make a point of disrupting any consensus or conclusion, in the spirit of the early Platonic dialogues.

What worries me, though, is the thought that we may be Socratic in the sense of creating “the Western tradition” as its own prequel. A curriculum based in the classics often legitimates itself by reference to seemingly neutral criteria like “influence” — how could we ignore Plato or Augustine or Descartes, given how influential they’ve been? Whatever the merits of what came after, they can only be fully understood once we’ve grasped the sources that make them possible!

In this view, the task of the curriculm is one of remembrance: of our heritage, of our sources, of our roots. Yet the primary outcome of any curriculum is not to reflect influence but to create it. We may gesture vaguely at all the other exciting texts that our classics will enable them to grasp more fully, but we are not requiring them to read those things. What we are actively producing is a group of students who will take certain texts as a point of reference, who will read other texts as part of a tradition in dialogue with those supposed “sources.” The very act of requiring these “classics” enshrines them as authoritative, as definitionally more important that the other texts that we don’t have time for — the course is already packed!

What we’re increasingly finding is that the tradition that the “Western” elements of our curriculum help to construct is not welcoming to all the people we want and need to welcome. And what I hope we’ll be able to do in the coming years — what we’ve already begun to do by revising the Humanities capstone course, which is now arguably the most diverse course in the curriculum — is to shift from a mode of remembrance to a mode of open, avowed creation. We need to create a tradition for the kind of community we want to be, in order to produce the kind of student we want to send into the world.

That may mean reimagining a lot about how we construct our courses — by theme instead of by historical genealogy, for instance, so that Machiavelli can talk with Sun Tzu and Lenin without any presumption of “influence.” In some ways, this would represent a return to the more ambitious construction of the Great Books as a “great conversation” about the big questions rather than a historical sequence. We’d have to recognize that some of the authors had not previously been in conversation with each other — but what’s to stop us from bringing them into conversation and making them talk to each other as they talk to us? The risk is an easy eclecticism, but perhaps the Great Books model needs a swing of the pendulum in that direction to counteract its exclusivist tendencies.

It will certainly mean letting go of certain treasured texts to make room for other voices. And it may mean selecting texts that from a Western perspective seem more secondary, for the sake of creating more productive dialogue with other traditions. It’s hard for me to imagine ditching Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, since it is such a uniquely polyvalent text standing at the crossroads of multiple genres and traditions. Yet the reason for retaining it is not that “it’s been influential,” but because its intrinsic properties make it a convenient relay for dialogue with many other texts.

Admittedly, in some areas of the curriculum a more or less traditional Western framing may be the only pedagogically practical method. I’m thinking in particular of the classical traditions of Western art and music, which have the virtues of being relatively continuous and more or less finished — but the point of that focus wouldn’t be simply to highlight the “all time greats,” but to think systematically about what a tradition is and can be, and what it looks like for a tradition to be spent. This is only a speculative example, but the principle I’m trying to get at is that the Western framing can never be regarded as the default, but must be positively justified, with an open admission of the limitations that it imposes.

There is a utopian element in Shimer’s pedagogical model, and I think that the curriculum could be shaped in a more utopian direction as well. In a certain sense, the naysayers to my more inclusive vision are correct — there is no global, inclusive tradition, and that lack must be acknowledged. Yet an inclusive community of collaborative learning can serve as a testing ground for a global, inclusive tradition to come, an experiment in constructing a new and more hopeful tradition of and for the future, rich with surprising connections, in which the past is precisely not as we remember it, but has become new.

Shimer College in the Guardian

A few months ago, Shimer College received some decidedly unwelcome publicity: Ben Miller, writing for the Washington Monthly, named it the worst college in America. This prompted Jon Ronson, a reporter for The Guardian, to visit Shimer and investigate whether it really deserved that designation. The result is an amazing portrayal of Shimer’s work and what it means to the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends who devote themselves to it.

My hope is that this story will overshadow the original study that prompted it (and in the article, Ronson cites Miller’s regret that his methodology — based solely on economic criteria and likely distorted by Shimer’s very small sample size — wound up singling Shimer out in this way). Already the story has been linked approvingly by Neil Gaiman:

This is especially exciting because being a fan of Neil Gaiman is one of the most reliable indicators of being a good fit for Shimer! Why not apply today or — if it’s too late for you to enjoy a Shimer education yourself — support our work?

All I want for Christmas is for everything to just stop

Every year, the arrival of Christmas music season is equally jarring and unwelcome for me. While I’ve heard the songs over and over for decades at this point, I am somehow unable to allow them to fall into the background. Instead, every word and every note functions somewhere along the spectrum ranging from “object of bemused overanalysis” to “personal insult.” This is especially the case for the newer Christmas songs, which are not only much more inane on average but also grow increasingly insistent on a rather puzzling Christmas theme: romance.

If we look back at the Christmas story, there does not seem to be much room for romantic love. Certainly there is a family theme to be discerned, but the entire point of Mary and Joseph’s relationship is that they are not romantically involved. And the most successful Christian contemporary songs of recent decades — Mark Lowry’s “Mary Did You Know” and Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven” — actually have the virtue of highlighting the strangeness of Mary’s situation.

By contrast, new secular hits — above all Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but also the various also-rans that can be represented by “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” or whatever it’s called — completely ignore that aspect and go straight for the jugular. Indeed, there is one canonical Christmas song that actually renders Christmas a site of transgressive sexuality for the mother figure, namely “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” (The song is particularly poignant in the Jackson Five’s rendition, which has Michael plaintively testifying to sexual misconduct as the rest of his family mocks and dismisses him.) And let’s not even talk about the abomination that is “Santa Baby” — much less the creepy scenario of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

What is going on here? Is this an attempt to shore up the ideology of family by guilting people for being single? Did romantic love simply get drawn into the general miasma of cloying sentimentality that surrounds the holiday? Is a significant other the ultimate Black Friday deal?

I’m joking in part, but when I was a young adult, the flood of messages mandating romantic attachments for the holidays was actually very difficult to deal with in a season that already made me feel isolated and depressed. Being called upon to summon up “spontaneous” emotions of gratitude and familial warmth was difficult enough, and the implicit requirement to have a romantic partner just felt exhorbitant. Perhaps this is my own personal neurosis, but I doubt I’m the only one who has felt that way during the holidays.

What about you, readers? Did you see mommy kissing Santa Claus?

The false rape accusation as witchcraft

One of the primary sources for my devil research is the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, a witch-hunting manual that became one of the first best-sellers of the early print era. As I’ve worked through its theological logic in a couple different courses, I’ve come to see a basic underlying structure to the bewildering array of accusations against witches. The pattern is that feminine sexuality is something unruly and powerful, and if women are allowed to control it themselves, they will use it to dominate men and destroy men’s sexual agency. This is what is going on with the classification of midwives as witches, as well as the frequent claims that witches cause male impotence — indeed, at the most extreme, the text allows that witches can make the male member seem to disappear (though thankfully for us men, this is a mere illusion and the member remains intact through God’s grace).

Much contemporary anti-feminism follows the same underlying logic: if women are allowed to control their sexuality, they will use it to dominate and destroy men. Sometimes the power attributed to women is still quite literally supernatural in scope, as in the claim that legalized abortion will allow women to destroy the white race. The most insidious application of this logic, however, is in the myth of the false rape accusation, which the news media, television drama, and many individual men are deepy invested in. The woman in this myth is an evil creature indeed, seducing a well-meaning man and then using her sexuality as a weapon to ruin the man’s life and reputation.

In real life, of course, a woman would have to be insane to use a rape accusation as a power play, given how hugely tilted the American justice system is toward the accused in cases of sexual assault — and how complicit the media is with the campaign of character assassination that the defense conducts against every accuser. As with all ideological myths, however, the myth of the malicious rape accusation is not about real women at all, but rather about justifying the existing power structure. It’s a kind of preemptive strike, as though they’re saying, “Look at what would happen if we did take rape accusations seriously and gave women the benefit of the doubt! All hell would break loose!”

Preorder mania!!!

Creepiness is now available for preorder on Amazon, as is my translation of Agamben’s Pilate and Jesus. Both will be released in February.

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