As some of you on Facebook might know, I am now at a conference in Oxford where I presented a paper on continental theorist Slavoj Žižek.  For some, the name Žižek is unknown and yet in the philosophical community he is causing vibrant conversations that both infuriate and enliven debates on, well, just about everything.

My interest with Žižek is that as a leading Leftist theorist he seems to be one of the most astute defenders of Christianity working today.  Granted, as a Lacanian Marxist some might expect a neo-Nietzschean or typical post-Marxist critique of Christianity. But Žižek doesn’t crush Christians with a Twilight of the Gods pounding of the Nietzschean hammer by dismissively erecting a straw man argument through neo-marxist rhetoric subscribing to Christians a ‘slave morality’ or becoming addicted to an ‘opiate for the masses’ then dismissing ‘faith’ with a wave of the hand (although he does do a lot of hand waving!).  No, true belief is something Žižek is concerned about (more about that later).

According to Žižek, the misguided ethical convictions and corresponding lack of political courage to do what is good and right that forms the trends with today’s Western intellectual elites have facilitated the spread of a global corporatism that benefits a relatively small economic élite at the cost of the world’s oppressed masses. With a decidedly ironic twist, Žižek declares that the pharmacon (the Derridian cura anima that gives both life and death) needed to combat this exploitative New World Order is found in what (in The Puppet and the Dwarf) he calls “the perverse core of the Christian faith” which provides the remedy for the cultural malady that is postmodern ethical relativism.  This perverse core is a deep concern for the material and the particular as the place of the universal ground for meaning.  He essentially sees much of the crisis in our culture today as a crisis of true belief.  As he puts it:

“What we are getting today is a kind of suspended belief, a belief that can thrive only as today is a kind of “suspended” belief, a belief that can thrive only as not fully (publicly) admitted, as a private obscene secret.  Against this attitude, one should insist even more emphatically that the “vulgar” question “Do you really believe or not?” matters – more than ever, perhaps.  My claim here is not merely that I am a materialist through and through, and that the subversive kernel of Christianity is accessible also to a materialist approach; my thesis is much stronger: this kernel is accessible only to a materialist approach – and vice versa: to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience.” (Puppet and the Dwarf, p. 6)

Žižek identifies various contemporary methods of what some may consider belief in the 21st century – grounding concerns that range from Western forms of New Age paganism to deconstructionism – and sees many of these as merely flaccid and fainting wanderings that have little to no effect on how one lives in the world with courage and resolve and that fact that ultimately most people in Western culture believe in nothing except free market capitalism remains what he states in The Puppet and the Dwarf as a “private obscene secret” of our age.

One of the reasons for this “private obscene secret” in Western culture stems from the repose of Postmodern culture to keep everything at a distance and commit ourselves to only considered reflections of so-called belief not a material, embodied enactment that animates in lived experience. Žižek’s examples of this range from post-structural thinkers in the academy out of the Derridian and Levinasian schools who take the burden of belief off of themselves and place it on the never-ending search for “the Other” to those people in big popular media (think: television personalities with white boards ), mega church pastors of a certain stripe, and those privatized Bohemians at the coffee shop who frame the world with bracketed comments within scare quotes that feigns objectivity .  Such groups, differing though they may seem,  are in fact sharing a deep virus that has spread to both conservative and liberal wings.  This is an inability to truly and completely live into belief. Although the groups will say that they are deeply self-reflexive and therefore needing to hold an objective view, Žižek zeroes in especially on the intellectual elites (yes… he is targeting the academy within which he receives large paychecks… but the man is not without irony) for an anti-foundationalism that constantly resists positing a conceptual totality on the grounds that such thinking risks becoming totalitarian. In short, people talk a lot, blog endlessly, fill our ears and eyes with media and after the tidal wave of information overload most people still lack a belief in anything that substantially effects their day-to-day lives other than the desire to shop.  As a result of their supposed open-mindedness and egalitarian spirit, those in Western culture from the intellectual élite to the reality show celebrity to the Barista pulling your cappuccino this morning (these, by the way, are not mutually exclusive categories) neglect to take into account their unwillingness to subject themselves to a grounding fundamental belief.

Žižek cites New Age paganism in the Puppet and the Dwarf as merely seeing the universe as a ‘primal abyss in which all apparent opposites ultimately coincide’ – a view that offers no accountability for how one is to live in relation to other human beings nor the responsibility to do so. Those he calls ‘Deconstructionists’ after Derrida and Levinas are similar in that this class of intellectuals “has become almost the hegemonic ethico-spiritual attitude of today’s intellectuals… [grounding their views in] the assertion of Otherness leads to the boring, monotonous sameness of Otherness itself.”  The so-called tolerant resolve whereby ‘otherness’ is held up as an unknowable alterity is a blanding of the particular and leaves people kept at arm’s length rather than embraced and results in all particular instances of the so-called other that arise in our day-to-day interactions with increasing globalization are just variations sameness, a Lockean tabula rasa that is beyond our comprehension to master and therefore we cannot offer opinion nor deep connection.  In particular for Žižek is a concern for those who espouse multiculturalism as the highest ideal which when enacted as a call to stay open to a radical Otherness merely encourages passivity in our encounters with others that ultimately translates into political apathy or inaction.  This, Žižek states in no uncertain terms, is about as far from true belief as we can get.

Where to I go with Žižek on all this?  Well, probably to places he would find a bit too ‘touchy feely’ but still in line with large parts of his attempt to revive lost aspects of the Christian narrative.  What the perverse core of Christianity as he describes it offers is a grand counter measure to these tendencies to abstraction and is a call to true belief that seeks after the particular to know the universal – that is to say, to have courage to live in relation to marginalized, the disenfranchised, the person who is our neighbor which purpose and resolve in a deeply real way.  It means getting involved with each other, knowing our names, and drawing dangerously close in ways that can break our hearts and shatter our precious beliefs from time to time.  In keeping the world abstracted and objective, we keep God at bay as well.

I have the honor of being appointed to the Board of Directors for IMAGE journal – a quarterly literary journal the seeks the intersection of faith and the arts.  Quite a gift to be part of this amazing and deeply thoughtful journal.  While housed at Seattle Pacific, IMAGE is an independent literary journal that has published work from writers and artists such as Anne Lamott, Wim Wenders, Luci Shaw,  Kathleen Norris, Annie Dillard and Ron Hansen to mention a few.  Greg Wolfe, the editor of IMAGE and chair of the MFA program at SPU, asked me to write a letter to the Board as a means of stating why I am excited about being part of this community of faithful artists – here is some of that letter:

I am grateful to be asked to participate in the work of IMAGE and so look forward to finding continued ways of supporting this important journal and vital community of artists who contribute and are supported by its work.  The intersection of faith and the arts is something I take very seriously both personally and professionally.  I suppose I see a similar thread in my story to that which Pablo Neruda evokes in the opening stanza of ‘Poetry’:

And it was at that age … Poetry arrived

in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where

it came from, from winter or a river.

I don’t know how or when,

no they were not voices, they were not

words, nor silence,

but from a street I was summoned,

from the branches of night,

abruptly from the others,

among violent fires

or returning alone,

there I was without a face

and it touched me.

The limits of what has been deemed ‘faith’ by many theologians of the Church has been a source of concern and at times deep pain for me. Where friends of mine in seminary would find solace in systemic and doctrinal theology, I would turn to Flannery O’Conner, Cormac McCarthy, WB Yeats, Jim Crace, and other literature to find what George Eliot called “the Mystery beneath the processes” of our faith.  Prior to coming to teach in the School of Theology at SPU in 2005, I was a Lecturer in Practical Theology and Ethics at the University of Glasgow, Scotland and served as Director of the Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts.  This was a place to find the nexus between my theological and pastoral training at Fuller Seminary and my PhD work was in Victorian Literature  and Theology (I wrote my dissertation on George Eliot’s early translation work of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity and Strauss’ The Life of Jesus and its influence on her early fiction – Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede and Mill on the Floss).  I continue to serve on the editorial board of the Oxford University Press journal Literature and Theology and am an active member of the Society of Religion, Literature and Culture which holds its bi-annual meetings in Oxford.

Perhaps more than any verse, Jesus’ command to the gathered disciples at the institution of the Eucharist in Luke 22: 19 frames why I am excited and humbled by the work of IMAGE.  As Jesus presents himself in the elements of poured wine and broken bread he proclaims the injunction to “do this in remembrance of me” which has been emblazoned on the front of alters, etched into glassworks and pottery, and sewn into liturgical cloth for generations.  For some, this statement has become a license to merely preserve, fence in and ultimately fortress a way of life by taking Jesus’ command as a call to arms against the winds of change.  During my six years in Scotland while in the Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts at the University of Glasgow, I also served as Associate Minister at the Glasgow Cathedral.  As ‘high liturgical Presbyterians’ (yes, there are some) the serving of the Eucharist included the traditional ‘fencing of the table’ and view from the ruling Elders that the Eucharist must be presented in a ‘decent and orderly’ fashion.  To evoke theologian Paul Tillich, form had taken such a priority over content and meaning to the point of almost silencing the luminescent reality of the Host in our midst.  Is this what Jesus had in mind?  Digging deeper into the passage, we find that St. Luke records Jesus’ words as “τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν” in the Greek and chooses “ποιεῖτε” or “poieite” as the action to be taken in remembrance of Christ’s life and ministry.  Poieite is a potent call – the call of poiesis is our cognate for poetry in English and not a term that is something to be fenced in.  “Make poetry in remembrance of me” could be argued as Jesus’ command as he deconstructed the elements before the disciples whose feet had only moments ago been washed clean preparing them to walk anew into the world.

It is this call to ‘make poetry in remembrance of me’ that remains a clarion voice for my work as a theologian committed to the Arts and something I have seen through the pages of IMAGE.  I believe that IMAGE and the community which is supported and enlivened by its work is a voice and presence that is needed now more than ever as we continue to live in a time that seems to want only pragmatics (how we live) at the expense of beauty (why life is worth living)

Blessings and peace and continue to ‘make poetry in remembrance of Christ’

I was in fourth grade when Paul McCartney’s musings in 1976 that ‘you think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs, I look around me and I see it isn’t so…oh no…’ filled the airwaves.  Retrofitted by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman during a montage dance number in Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge in 2001, the question of whether there is a place for love anymore continues to perplex and befuddle.

I am a second reader on a senior thesis honors project looking at phenomenological turn in the work of Jean-Luc Marion.  One of the grand works of Marion is his reflections on the absence of love in philosophy.  As he notes in the beginning of book The Erotic Phenomenon:

Philosophers have in fact forsaken love, dismissed it without a concept and finally thrown it to the dark and worried margins of their sufficient reason – along with the repressed, the unsaid, and the unmentionable.  Doubtless other forms of discourse claim to recover from this escheat, and, in their own way, they have sometimes succeeded.

I fear that he is correct.   Spend time in the philosophy section of your local college, university or seminary library and flip through the generous tomes that bear the heft and girth of centuries of the ‘philo-sophia’ or ‘love of wisdom’ and where is the passionate call to love and be loved in return?  As Marion goes on to say in The Erotic Phenomenon, we have relied too much upon poetry, novels and even theology to frame the conversation and therefore releases philosophy from its mandate.  Such assumptions need to be reconsidered :

Poetry can tell me about the experience I have not known how to articulate, and thus liberate me from my erotic aphasia – but it will never make me understand love conceptually.  The novel succeeds in breaking the autism of my amorous crises because it reinscribes them in a sociable, plural, and public narrativity – but it does not explain what really and truly happens to me.  Theology knows what love is all about; but it knows it too well ever to avoid imposing upon me an interpretation that comes so directly through the Passion that it annuals my passions – without taking the time to render justice to their phenomenality, or to give a meaning to their immanence.

It is this last statement about theology that vexes me the most.  Have we so easily resigned the task of critically reflecting upon the nature of love to the ‘soft disciplines’ that we have lost the ability to speak of love, let alone render some grounded understanding of what love truly entails – this most elusive yet necessary of all truth?

Perhaps the question isn’t whether people have had enough of silly love songs… it is why they continue to stomach such shallow ones.  Perhaps we haven’t given people many choices…