Are You Dead Yet? Reflections on a ‘Good Friday Faith’

I looked in the mirror and said to myself, ‘Have you had enough? Are you dead yet?’ (Alexi Laiho, lead singer of Children of Bodom)

I recently came across this Good Friday sermon by Kim Fabricius, over at Faith and Theology. I felt a shudder of recognition. For this is just the kind of thing I would once have lapped up. Hell, it is just the kind of thing I once preached. So forgive a little post-Easter catharsis.

The sermon fits into a particular genre, soaked in the pathos of The Crucified God. And it deploys a certain tactic: what Anthony Paul Smith dubs ‘weaponized apophaticism’.

I paraphrase: ‘Yes, the great critics of Christianity had a prophetic point. So much of what passes for Christian faith today is wish-fulfilment, a prosperity gospel worshipping a fantasy God. But beyond that, untouched by that complicity in capitalism, is the true God, the Good Friday God. A God who promises nothing, a God who, in the worlds of Rowan Williams “becomes recognised as God only at the place of extremity, where no answers seem to be given and God cannot be seen as the God we expect or understand”. Here, in the crucified Jesus, fantasy religion is overcome and we reach the real, beyond any concept.’

It is powerful. It has enough truth in it to be persuasive on some level.

But look at the supporting cast of characters. The Jew, chased out of Spain by the inquisition, who loses everything, then prays to God ‘You may torture me to death – and I will always believe in You, I will love You always and forever – even despite You’; the resistance fighter in the Warsaw ghetto, who in the face of defeat and the Shoah declares undying faith in God.

Judaism comes to the aid of Christianity, on the very Good Friday when the traditional liturgy basks in condemnation of the Jews. Oh, yes, Christians were complicit in that too, but look at the crucified Jesus . . .

I doubt if I am alone in seeing such rhetorical moves – however well meant – as being the worst kind of appropriation. Not least because the very purpose of them is to indemnify ‘Good Friday Faith’: or, ‘Christianity as it was meant to be, as it always secretly was, despite all appearances’. Do Christians have the right to enlist inquisition or holocaust as witnesses to Christ? To feed on Judaism to keep the Cross safe?

Perhaps less obviously, though more fatally, what shines through this whole endeavour is the image of a monstrous God, one who is recognised only at the extremity where we are abandoned and even tortured by God. Faith is proved as our flesh is stretched over this impassable gulf between us and God. No accusation will ever stick against him. If he were to appear as the worst sadist, it would show his love all the more.

So, we are told, ‘we wait’. We wait, stretched over the rack. And that is the problem. This is a theology defined by its obsession with what will come. Are you dead yet? Not yet, not yet. A theology of hope, that keeps us always in suspense, always the living dead.

I’m not sure we really need this theology of the not yet, of saving death. I would rather we defied death and everything that pretends to justify it, including the hidden victim-torturer God beloved of contemporary theology

Are you dead yet? No. I have had enough.

A Synthetic Manifesto: A Review of Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism

Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins are no strangers to readers of this blog. Both are well established figures within the fields of theology, philosophy and the liminal space between them that sometimes goes by the name secular theology and sometimes Continental philosophy of religion. Both are graduates of the Department of Religion at Syracuse University and Crockett now teaches as an associate professor of Religion at the University of Central Arkansas while Robbins is a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Lebanon Valley College. While their friendship has long been know, expressed in the academic realm through their co-editorship of the Insurrections series with ColumbiaUP, Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism is their first co-written book. The book, published in the new Radical Theologies series published by Palgrave Macmillan, is quite consciously written as a kind of manifesto for the practice and future of radical theology. Now, what this means is dependent of course on the figures who develop it, but by radical theology it is clear that people thinking with religious material outside of a confessional duty as well as those who are more explicitly confessional but still attempting to radicalize their confessional thought beyond any capture by that tradition’s authorities. That is, radical theology cuts a wide-swath and it may be the only form of theology that is truly “big tent” in terms of its actions and not just as a propaganda move. However much such a movement might benefit from a manifesto, the disparate directions and materials with which various radical theologians engage with makes creating such a manifesto difficult and risks sedimenting their works and cutting off these radical theologians from the true, creative source of their power. At times it feels that Crockett and Robbins risk such sedimentation. However, what ultimately saves them from this temptation is their very synthetic approach. This is a book constructed not in the name of Crockett and Robbins, but through a multiplicity of names that are brought together in varying ways and with various levels of success under the standard “The New Materialism”. Read the rest of this entry »

AAR/SBL 2012: Please Boycott Hyatt

Workers at Hyatt Hotels have asked patrons to boycott their workplaces. In conjunction with a group of religious scholars supportive of labor rights, they have addressed a special plea to participants in AAR/SBL to boycott the Hyatt McCormick Place and Hyatt Regency in conjunction with the conference. They’re asking attendees not to stay at, eat, or attend panels or interviews at those two hotels.

A petition you can sign at the link above will be delivered to the AAR and SBL Boards of Directors in advance of the conference. A strong, early show of support from scholars affiliated with the organizations will allow them to pull conference events from Hyatt early, and prevent them from forcing attendees to choose between attending events and respecting picket lines.

In Chicago, Hyatt has refused to adopt the contract that other major hotels abide by. Nationally, the boycott against Hyatt is based around their use of exploitative subcontracting arrangements, poor working conditions for housekeepers (and lobbying to prevent regulatory improvements), and other reasons explained here.

I have worked alongside the UNITE HERE union in many capacities, as an organizer in my first post-college job, as an ally when I was in local government, and as a member in my college dining hall. In the labor movement at large they are passionate advocates, tactical innovators, and well known for empowering workers as leaders in the union structure and as a “countervailing force” within their own workplaces. I have complained in other venues about dumb boycotts, but this is a principled and effective use of the tactic. (It’s notable, and common to boycotts led by this union, that they are called by workers in the hotels, who go into it knowing that reduced business means short-term sacrifice of their hours and tips in exchange for long-term strength.)

It’s by comment-section felicity that I ended up connected to this community, and I’m grateful to have the soapbox to connect something personally important to me to you. Please sign the pledge and help persuade AAR/SBL to move its conference business out of Hyatt.

Spiritual warfare and citizenship

I just finished reading Kevin Lewis O’Neill’s excellent ethnographic study City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala, which I will be using in my Global Christianity course. His overall argument is that Guatemalan Neo-Pentecostals understand their religious practices to be the way they exercise their citizenship, the way they can take responsibility for the future of their country. They pray, fast, speak in tongues, undertake “spiritual warfare” (including drawing literal maps of where demonic powers are strongest and the paths they travel) — all the while downplaying more straightforward paths of action. For instance, one of O’Neill’s informants tells him that he should be praying more to get rid of all the bars in his area, and when O’Neill suggests that he could also talk to the bar owner, the guy tells him that’s just a waste of time. The whole outlook is radically individualistic: if they can change their own hearts and induce others to change theirs, they will eventually add up to a better nation.

I’m not convinced that these people have chosen the most effective route to help their country — though Guatemala is in such bad shape I’ll admit that I don’t know what would be effective — and I suspect that at least some of my students will be skeptical as well. Partway through the book, though, I had an epiphany. My own practice of citizenship consists, aside from voting every couple years, of reading a lot of stuff so that I can stay informed, then forming opinions about public policy and arguing with people on the internet about it. Like the Guatemalan strategy, this approach is premised on individualism: if the debates have a point, it is to change people’s opinions, one by one, so that they will then vote the right way.

When I look at things that way, I wonder if maybe prayer and fasting is the way to go.

You Heard It Here First

From an IM conversation earlier today:

A: if, hypothetically, abortion was outlawed across the board what would be the next big thing for Christian activism?
B: Making poverty illegal

This seems about right, doesn’t it?

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