What is a Person?

This is a guest post by Ashon Crawley. Ashon is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of California, Riverside. His research and teaching experiences are in the areas of Black Studies, Performance Theory and Sound Studies, Philosophy and Theology, Black Feminist and Queer theories. His book, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press), is an investigation of aesthetics and performance as modes of collective, social imaginings otherwise. Find him on twitter at @ashoncrawley or at ashoncrawley.com 

Walking through the streets of Philadelphia – or taking a trolley, the El or a cab – was for me always an exercise in intense emotion and feeling. There is so much that happens on the streets: the smells of food or the steam from sewers in the winter, the sounds of music playing in cars, from stores or churches. And it was there on those streets – mostly West Philly, Center City, Southwest and sometimes a bus to North Philly – where I first tried my hand at clandestine dating or at least late night trips to try to figure out my erotic life with young guys who were, like me, likely on their way to church on Sunday morning. I’d call the Party Line and talk until I found someone to take to the streets to my apartment, or me to the streets for theirs. It was all about feeling something deep and intense and varied and warm. I felt a kinda freedom in fugitivity, a freedom in clandestine hookups for kissing and hugging and sex. I wanted to feel something.

And so it was in Philadelphia that I first felt something along the line of the uncertainty that feeling could produce, the unstable ground that feeling could be. Reading Linn Marie Tonstad’s God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude transported me backwards, from 1998 until 2005, my time living in Philadelphia. And this because her scrutinizing attention to debates about the concept of the trinity, my reading of it, has been the first occasion in such a very long time for me to think my own relation to the concept of the character of godhead. In Philadelphia, I was quite acquainted with debates about the concept because it is one that animates lots of Blackpentecostal inquiry and dissent.

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Let us assume, shall we, the ubiquity of now.

Apparently, Jack Chick, of Chick Tract infamy, is dead. He passed quietly, it seems. No chariots or such. The internet perked up for a moment, which seems mostly to have passed. Just like Jack Chick.

Jack Chick was neither David Bowie or Prince, it should go without saying.

Mind you, I’m not a fan. I don’t imagine any of you are either. And yet, for we who grew up within the world he informed, if even only its margins, he would menace his way into occasional, odd remembrance.

Even today.

I’m reposting something I wrote quite a while ago now — four or five years ago. It is, I hope it’s clear, neither an ode nor an homage.

But Jack Chick is dead . . . and remembrances keep happening.

This afternoon I read for the first time since high school C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. As it turns out, it is a lot better read when you believe in letters more than you do devils. I somehow had completely forgotten the random bit where Wormwood turns into a caterpillar and requires a secretary to dictate the rest of his letter.

I got it in my head that I wanted to write my own evangelistic tract, but from the perspective of Lucifer. Using Lewis and the weird world of free tracts available online as my guide, I came up with the following.

On the cover is a comic-book style illustration of Satan–Van Dyke as sharp as horns, crimson cloak wrapped inhumanly tight by a black belt, dijon mustard green cape billowing without any apparent wind, pitchfork out of hand but within arm’s reach—hunched at work over a writing desk, pen to paper, semi-circled by an orange and red inferno that had presumably also ignited the contents of the waste basket at his feet and the drawers near his elbows. Below this was written, in a jagged flame-like font:

Lucifer Writes A Letter.

Dear God Damned If You Do,

You may not realize it, but I like watching you. I’m doing so now, actually. I see you stopped reading for a second there—did a little double-take and glance over your shoulder? No, I’m just kidding. I’m not watching you read this letter. Well, I am, but not while I’m writing it. I may not be human, but I’m still pretty much as bound by time as you. I guess you could say I’m a little god damned that way myself. Ha Ha Ha.

No . . . when I say I’m watching you now, as I’m writing, it’s best to not get too pedantic. What with reprints, revisions, and subsequent editions of this letter, who can say when “now” is, right? I mean, let’s face it, I could just as well be referring to any old peeping Tom, Dick or Harry in the past or the future. Let’s just assume, shall we, the ubiquity of now, and take for granted, get our cards all on the table, that I’m always watching. From beginning to end. Period.

I have to say, my friend, I like what I see. You have a lot of damned potential. Ha Ha Ha. I couldn’t resist. But seriously, you have a way about you that makes a fella like me perk up and pay attention. You and I, we like the same movies and jokes. The dirtier the better, am I right? And who can cuss people out better than we? No-fucking-body, I say. Ha Ha Ha. What else? Oh yeah . . . petty theft that stops short of felonious grand larceny. Check! Telling lies so well and often that we eventually believe them ourselves? Check! Guess that makes us hypocrites too, huh! You’re my kind of sinner, my friend. Why, we’ll stab you kin in the back and claim the knife was there for as long as we knew you — don’t blame us for your own lack of attention. Losers.

The only thing that worries me is that I’m hearing word that you’re thinking about giving all this up. Tell me this isn’t so, my friend! I mean, thanks for the memories and all, but there’s so much more we could do. There’s a whole eternity of torment and toil waiting for you with me down here. All you have to do is just keep on doing what you’re doing.

No matter what you do, don’t you dare pray, don’t even think it, stop reading now, ‘Lord Jesus, I’m a sinner, forgive all my sins and set me free from the bondages of sin. I believe you died on the cross for my sins, and I now confess with my mouth and believe in my heart that God raised you from the dead. Forgive me and come into my heart, and fill me with joy everlasting.’ And God help you if you keep praying and you find words of your own to truthfully say, ‘By faith I accept you as my Savior and Lord, and I will serve you forever.

Never forget . . .

Eternally Damned If You Don’t,


Rebooting the conservative continuity

Many years ago, I argued that one of the biggest problems facing conservatism is how baroque and complicated its “universe” had become. Its fans are expected to have immediate recall of obscure concepts and plot points, while tolerating obvious continuity errors in matters like when personal freedom is good and when it’s bad, when the government should be small and when it should be much more heavy-handed, etc. The result has been a dwindling audience as fewer and fewer people are willing to put in the work of becoming emotionally invested in such a complex fictional universe all for the sake of justifying their support for some pretty mediocre contemporary content.

In that post, I argued that it might be time for a Crisis of Infinite Earths of conservatism, which could wind down the unnecessary complexities while still maintaining some kind of continuity over time. Read the rest of this entry »

The Story of Brexit, in the style of Mideast reporting

Radical Protestant separatists have rocked the European Union, voting to leave the federation that had tenuously unified Christians belonging to opposed sects. Britain, which adheres to its own idiosyncratic version of the Protestant sect, had only recently reached an uneasy truce in a territorial dispute with its Catholic neighbor, Ireland. It is hoping to join a group of other Protestant countries in Northern Europe who have negotiated trading privileges while keeping their distance from the Catholic-dominated group.

It is a major blow for Germany, which has assumed a leadership role in an EU increasingly riven by sectarian strife. Germany’s relative balance between Protestant and Catholic groups positioned it uniquely to mediate disputes between those two sects, yet left it in an awkward position as it led the effort to bring the Orthodox state of Greece into line with the rest of the Union. While other Orthodox nations have been successfully integrated, it remains the case that the EU’s chief geopolotical rival — and most powerful neighbor — is the overwhelmingly Orthodox Russia.

The European Union was originally conceived as a way to bring an end to sectarian violence on the continent. By uniting all Christians in a single political and economic unit, it was believed that long-simmering disputes over indulgences and the filioque clause could be put aside. The Brexit separatists have shaken this project to its core, leaving some observers wondering whether Europe will ever be able to leave behind its religious strife and join the modern world.

Introduction: God and Difference Book Event


Trinitarian theology has lost its way. It has become – as I demonstrate in this book – a way to enjoin practices of sacrifice and submission under the banner of countering the rapaciousness of modern subjectivity.

The problem with Christian theological accounts of the Trinity is not, Tonstad argues, that they have become infected by the fallen or secular logics of gender inequality and hierarchy. The logics of heterosexism and heteronormativity are, in fact, deeply theological, and cannot be unsettled simply by the demand that they be made flexible enough to welcome queer people in. What is necessary instead is a radical remaking of the logic of trinitarian procession, moving away from the heterosexual logic of penetration, according to which relationships move according to the thrusting logics of space-making, activity and receptivity, towards the clitoral logic of surface touch, intensification, and non-sacrificial encounter.

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What makes an ontology “robust”?

It often happens to me that when I begin using a term ironically, it eventually works its way into my sincere vocabulary. That is exactly what happened with “robust,” which I initially intended as mockery of Radical Orthodoxy’s gold standard of ontological adequacy. At a certain point, however, I realized that I was using it straightforwardly to describe the message of the Hebrew prophets, which (in another favorite Radox term) can “account for” the exile and present sufferings of the Jewish community while providing them with practical guidance and future hope. The system was self-reinforcing, insofar as any future sufferings would only demonstrate the importance of sticking to the program, since insufficiently faithful or overly assimilationist Jews were presumably never in short supply. Though the paradigm broke down in the Maccabean crisis, as I argue in The Prince of This World, ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, it has proven remarkably resilient throughout the subsequent history of rabbinic Judaism.

This concept of robustness came to mind again as I have been reading Augustine’s City of God with my class. One student expressed satisfaction that Augustine provides an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people, and while that answer may seem a little too convenient from an outside perspective, it is at least an answer — certainly a more convincing answer than the critics of Christianity were offering, if we judge by Augustine’s presentation. Like the prophetic paradigm, it accounts for present experiences of suffering, provides present-day guidance, and opens up a future hope that is genuinely desirable on the paradigm’s own terms. It is self-reinforcing in that apparent counterevidence is just another reason to double down — and indeed, the most serious challenge to the medieval Augustinian synthesis, namely the Reformation, was precisely an attempt to double down on its terms. This is because of the self-referentiality that it shares (and arguably takes from) the prophetic paradigm: what happens to us is ultimately our own fault or at least aimed at instructing us in some way, and that incites us to take action that further reinforces the authority of the paradigm.

From this perspective, the Radical Orthodox ontology is nearly the opposite of robust. The self-reinforcement mechanism is missing, because the decline of Christendom is blamed on external actors — either the quasi-pagan moderns or else, increasingly, the insidious influence of Islam. It does not “account for” present sufferings or any other particular present fact at all, but only for the purely theoretical entities that Radox itself posits out of thin air and holds up as a model for other ontologies. And it doesn’t give us much to do in the present other than to participate in some fantasy version of the liturgy. This is because its appeal is entirely counter-factual — if only we would embrace this robust ontology, everything would be so much better!

In this sense, it is formally homologous to libertarianism. Both posit a desirable system that has an answer for everything, but that is not presently being implemented in its pure form anywhere — hence it is not disprovable. Both obfuscate their roots in actual-existing present-day social realities (capitalism and Western hegemony), by claiming a vantage point from which everything undesirable about those systems comes from outside impurities. And this prevents it from deploying the self-reinforcing mechanism of both the prophetic paradigm and classic Augustinianism: namely, the admission that the experience of suffering and failure is built into the system, that it is functional and not an extrinsic addition, and that it is therefore both meaningful and pointing toward a better future, however distant.

By contrast, the claim that the state just up and decided to wreck the market or those devious Muslims tricked us into embracing the univocity of being sounds downright childish — the counterpoint to the naive trust that a presently non-existent system or “ontology” would automatically solve all our problems.

The wrath of God in America

Today we discussed Romans in class, and I described the traditional reading somewhat uncharitably: there’s something wrong with us such that it’s impossible for us to do the right thing, but if we believe in a certain story, then it’s alright. I know I should be more respectful, but no one seemed very disturbed by it. Perhaps I can get away with it because it’s obvious that I know a lot about the Bible and it means something to me (albeit in some kind of weird way). And in fact, that’s what motivates my dismissal of the traditional reading — it renders Romans (and the Bible more broadly) meaningless.

The traditional narrative of salvation, especially in its Protestant inflection, is one that never made much sense to me. I struggled mightily with it, growing up in a particularly evangelical/fundamentalist corner of the Church of the Nazarene. I could never figure out why I as a Gentile ever needed to be released from the burden of the Jewish Law, why “works righteousness” was such an appalling thing, why getting baptized or going to the altar to ask forgiveness wasn’t a “work,” etc., etc. Ultimately I tried to square the circle by joining the Catholic Church, which at least seemed to offer me some objectivity.

That objectivity no longer appeals to me in the same way, but I still can’t get my mind around the Protestant problematic of faith and works and justification. On a practical level, raising children within the Protestant problematic seems like a recipe for neurosis at best (me and all my closest friends) and moral nihilism at worst (all the evangelical Trump supporters, the most prominent of which are precisely the sons of the first wave of leaders).

The reading of Romans I find in Ted Jennings, Neil Elliott, and others presents me with problems that make sense. What do we do when law seems impotent to produce the justice it aims for? How can we maintain integrity while living in a corrupt system that coerces us into complicity with injustice? What would it mean if we really didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore? I find it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, but it at least means something in a way that finagling your immortal soul into heaven simply does not in my view.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am sure that the wrath of God is revealed against the American Empire, as sure as Paul was that the wrath of God was revealed against the Rome of Caligula and Nero. We are living in Romans 1 every time we turn on the TV news. It doesn’t take divine revelation to know that things can’t go on like this forever. But we go along with it, for the most part, because we’re afraid — more and more afraid as we become more and more precarious. All our politics, our collective life has to offer us is fear.

The resurrection may be a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that does something, that opens up a space for transformation and hope. A man was subjected to torture and a shameful, painful death, but through some divine power he was able to overcome literally the worst the world could dish out to him — and so we don’t need to be afraid anymore. He is starting a team that we can join so that we don’t have to be afraid. And when we look at the style of thought that something like the resurrection might make possible, then we can look for other things that might fulfill a similar role. Could we arrange a society where we didn’t need to coerce each other with the threat of death, exclusion, starvation, and shame? What would have to happen to make that possible?