Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Thing with Feathers

Lauren Sandler's Righteous is a disturbing book. Chronicling what she calls the "evangelical youth culture", the work is a journalistic ethnography of a lot of things I hate about evangelicalism. Sandler clearly has an ax to grind, but many of these groups are scary all by themselves. I come away wondering, is there really a place for me in all of this? Why, exactly, haven't I run like hell away from the whole franchise? To the extent that I've tried, why didn't it take? I just have to remind myself: this is not all there is.

One of Sandler's stops
is Patrick Henry University, a Christian college that seems to serve as a training camp for the religious right. One of the students told Sandler, "God put the fossil record in the rocks to test our faith." I'm going to guess this student also believes that the book of Job is historical and that God really does make deals with a very literal Devil. This strikes me as a screwed up view of God, which is to say it's a screwed up view of justice and life in general. If this is God then I'm definitely an atheist -- in fact, atheism isn't strong enough; I'm one of the damned, and glad of it.

But as much as I might break ranks with my evangelical heritage, as much as I might take issue with fideistic treatments of the text, as much as I might be "literalistically challenged" when it comes to reading the Bible, I still claim the Bible as my book. I claim the early Christians as my people. I claim Jesus as Lord (even if I reject the idea of Jesus as my "personal savior"). And of course I mean those things in a very pointed, semi-ironic way. But it is a way. It is precisely because I claim those things that I stake out distance from theological formulations that I feel have missed the point.

At the heart of this, I think, is a sense of betrayal. I'm not trying to play the victim here, but I think there is a deep sense, among some of us who grew up in conservative, evangelical Christianity, that we got sold a false bill of goods. We got took. We went to church camp or youth rallies and had tearful moments of conversion and listened to Christian rock and joined sides in a simplified world of "us" versus "them" and we dedicated our lives to "full-time Christian service" and somewhere in our lives this world fell apart and when we tried to talk to people about it they made us feel -- whether they meant to or not -- like it was our fault for not believing like we ought to. If you think about it hard enough this is eerily similar to the way victims of abuse are made to feel like they deserve it.

There's part of me wants to qualify that, to say that of course it's not that bad, but there's another part of me that wants to scream: yes, God damn it, it is that bad; that's the point. This has changed us, shaped us; it's something that will never, ever, go away. It's something that whether we like it or not has probably colored every aspect of the rest of our lives. We are not wrong to be deeply troubled by this; we would be nutcases if we weren't deeply troubled by this. One friend of mine is on a campaign to theologically erase the church as something that wasn't intended to last past the first century. I can't go there, but I can't blame him, either. Another friend passes for Christian in certain circles but is mostly Buddhist. Another has secretly been an atheist for years, but deeply loves theology. And so it goes.

I think faith, of a sort, is available to us, even when belief is a luxury we can't afford. The contradictions don't go away. The scars are still there and some are fresher than others. I don't always know what to think. Sometimes, I wonder if we're basically just screwed, our species living out a tragedy writ large, and if there is such thing as "redemption of creation" it will come in the form of our own self-imposed extinction. I know that sounds grim, and it might be true. But here's the thing: I find that I still hope -- not the muscular hope of Hebrews 6:19 (an "anchor for the soul, firm and secure" but more like Dickinson's "thing with feathers".

If there is a way out of our morass, it will come to us eschatologically, as a gift, which is both very Derridean and very Christian. I don't mean some kind of deus ex machina or the Second Coming (same thing, really), but something more subtle, like an idea that seems to come from nowhere or a circumstance no one could have foreseen. And sure, that gets close to those things I'm saying I don't mean, but I insist it's not the same. I like to think of hope as the negative space of our disappointment in the world. Our despair is not total; there's a little bit of wiggle room.

We might even locate God in that wiggle room, which is kind of what John D. Caputo does in The Weakness of God, currently among my favorites. For Caputo, the metaphysical God of philosophy really is dead, and good riddance. We can now speak of God in a way that is divorced from the metanarratives that fight for our epistemological allegiance. Or so we can hope. The sorts of things we say about God, the sort of God we believe or don't believe in -- these say something about how we think of justice. I don't mean to suggest that you can examine someone's theology and know how they'll vote in November (though, the truth is, you probably could with some amount of success), but that somewhere, in ways of which we're not always aware, these things are linked.

The God of the latter Hebrew prophets, the God of the Magnificat, is a God that champions the downtrodden and the oppressed, who looks to the underdog, who opposes the strong and gives grace to the humble. To believe in this God is to affirm the rightness of those things. "God" is the strongest word we know, the strongest idea we have, to lend force and weight to our observations about the world. It is a signifier, not necessarily of some ineffable reality just slightly beyond the veil of human finitude, but of our greatest dreams and hopes, our most persistent suspicions and most insatiable curosities.

Sure, this smacks of Tillich's "matters of ultimate concern," but everybody gets to be right about something.
God is not something big, and triumphant, some sort of metaphysical mega-trump that takes on all comers. God is actually paradoxically small, something deconstructive, sliding in the cracks of our megalomaniac schemes, something crucified.

A thing with feathers.