Critical Research on Religion

My essay “Pastoral Counter-Conducts” has appeared in the vital new journal Critical Research on Religion. It was wrangled by Roland Boer following his Newcastle conference on Theology and Treason and includes essays on Schmitt, Badiou, Christian materialism and the emerging church.

With your “discontent about the humdrum status quo of human life and our frail, terminal human bodies”

…read your Bible.

“all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)

Or if you can only hear wisdom in a modern, amplified idiom:

“Dehydrate back into mineral. A lifelong walk to the same exact spot.”

“Someday you will die somehow and something’s gonna steal your carbon.”

Thusly does Fritz Eichenberg introduce his collection of “Fables with a Twist”, the text and intricate woodcuts of which the zoöeschatological disputants pore over with rapt imagination. In the titular tale a meeting of the animals fumes over human oppression and envisions the placement of Homo sapiens on their coat-of-arms. The fall is rewitnessed, the Ark is regretted, power plays out, man is mourned, apocalypses are left behind, the peaceable kingdom is yearned for and mocked, and olden fables are given modern twists which don’t avoid but intensify their morals. “Headlines proclaim: Exploded populations—oceans polluted—wars and genocide—animal kingdom threatened with extinction. … The Lord made a mistake!” (Endangered Species, p. 96) Let us rehabilitate the fabular.

Spend all your spare time wondering whether the apostle Paul is at the origin of modern biopolitics or, to the contrary, enables its dissolution? Well, wonder no more! At least not on your lonesome. The latest issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, on “Michel Foucault and St Paul,” is now up, and it promises to answer that question. Okay, discuss it at least. Among others. My own essay [pdf] is the cough that clears the issue’s throat, spraying Žižek with spittle.

The Apex anthology Dark Faith, edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon, collects almost 400 pages of religion-themed horror, both short fiction and poetry. Broaddus writes in his introduction that “we all believe in something”, signalling the wide ambit given here to the idea of faith. As is common with such themed anthologies,  such an extensive range risks producing some unevenness and superfluous material. But conceding the inevitable weak spots, there is compelling work here that keenly explores both specific faiths and faith as such.

Dark Faith begins at the US’s most prominent sacred site, with falling spectres locked into their desperate escape from the burning twin towers. The repetition of this traumatic event is haunting, but by approaching such ghosts supernaturally (rather than through the mediatised images that in fact captured them for the melancholic archive), this story itself becomes hollowed and spectral. More religious violence against tyrannical power follows, whether the revenge is attempted in this world, at the end of days, or in the afterlife. There are ineffective or misdirected militant attacks on God and pacifist refusals of his judgment and reach. Of course the messiah, when he comes, is rarely what we expected: instead we share a smoke with a decrepit “Jeezy” grown bored with heaven, or we wait for an Elijah with too many glasses of wine under his belt. Come, Lord? On second thought, maybe not.

The antho takes a step up a quarter of the way in with Nick Mamatas’s “The Last Words of Dutch Schultz Jesus Christ,” which mediates the divine through biology and spectacle. The God Film with its infinity of reds produces mystical experiences in a group of students-cum-experimental subjects. The resulting campus cult makes an extreme neurotheological sport of their improvised attempts to encounter God. Then Mamatas shows us the film, beginning the intertextual play with the Burroughs novel struck through in the story’s title. He straps us in to gaze at red, as if he is trying to induce a noumenal experience in the reader, and he damn near triggers it, too.

The book delivers a mixture of such encounters with the absolute, down through the chain of being from the celestial and demonic to the earthly and animal. In Richard Dansky’s story, the sovereign Other with its regal, alien intelligence is found in the mad eyes of a heron. Characters struggle at the whim of capricious, otherworldly forces, suffering, degenerating, giving birth, losing themselves. They face the inhuman; sometimes they become it. Matt Cardin’s “Chimeras & Grotesqueries” describes, in a refined yet detached voice, the “perpetual solitude and miniature demiurgic activities” (113) of a grotesque derelict taken to fashioning monstrous figures from flotsam, amid the mass hysteria of a decaying urban milieu. Again, the religious sublime must broach the biophysical substrate—worming its way into the brain and the gut—with broken, finite creatures and worlds set askew by the touch of the transcendent.

As might be expected, there are plenty of apocalypses, some all too familiar but others less so. In Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Days of Flaming Motorcyles” the narrator is able to take the end of the world in her stride—after all, as she insists on not a few occasions, there is a marked continuity between the disaster and the world she once knew, from late capitalist urban decay to ordinary, instinctive, familial violence. This undecidably angelic or viral outbreak, rather than devolving into primitive survival, settles into a reflective way of life from where she can watch the unsettlingly sensitive zombies contrive their own solution to the pain of existence and the loss of community. It is a pragmatically hopeful story about ritual and making do amid catastrophe.

Not all the stories are as innovative or well-executed. A trio about creativity and death or sex, as well as a pair about grief and immobility, detract from the thematic integrity of the volume. Some of the writing approaches the tedious, and some of the (anti-)spirituality verges on the adolescent and preachy. There is much in the familiar glut of carnage that is about as subversive as a metalhead preacher’s son. Yet where the theme of dark faith is actively explored—check the Bible, or a newspaper, if these terms seem incongruous—avenues open up for truly interesting speculation. Character studies from the perspective of final judgment offer insights into the ever theological notion of the self. The enumerated paragraphs of Brian Keene’s “I Sing a New Psalm” add up and take away the parts of a life and then weigh the remainder against the absolute (with predictable consequences). In Douglas F. Warrick’s story, a life recounted through the tortures of hell is gradually eluded via zen, with pain, rage, grief, sorrow, all the wounds of a named, known and evaluated soul dissolving into asubjective nothingness. Perhaps most often, we are faced with religion as war and destruction. There are priests and patriarchs, moralists and authorities, getting their just desserts—or sometimes not, however deserved. Indeed, too often the relatively innocent reap the wages of others’ sins. In this volume, the unjust agonies of a damaged world are  exposed, refused, scorned and mourned with unrepentant regularity.

The anthology closes with Gary A. Braunbeck’s “For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer,” an ambitious piece of cosmic noir filled (at points overstuffed) with rambling banter between a detective and a priest. Like so many of the previous stories, it confronts the existence of excessive suffering, searching for some minor redemption in a godless, entropic multiverse. Its solution is hardly agreeable: apart from one brief moment of soon-forgotten empathy, it is apolitical, moralistic, and enthusiastically vengeful, with one character opining that “Evil is a human matter, fashioned by ignorance, brutality, addiction, emotional trauma—the list is endless.” (371) Yet what reconciliation of pain with the good would satisfy? The volume canvasses many strains of misotheism—the omnibenevolence of God being quite plainly bogus, even if his existence isn’t—with practical solutions to the problem of evil ranging from deicide to multiple homicide. Yet sometimes nonviolent escapes from the cycle of blame and retribution are sought and even found, as in Valente’s utopian rituals, Warrick’s enlightenment, Lucy A. Snyder’s mutinous truth or the anthology’s numerous moments of dark and absurd humour. We are shown a range of faiths and gods, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and pagan, totalitarian and childlike, fierce and fickle, inept and feeble. If little ultimately holds them together, the regular flashes of suffering and defiance, futility and hope, do witness to the everyday persistence of vital religious instincts.

“The so nice and exact Adjustments of the Motions of both the Comet and the Earth; that the former should pass just so near, and impart such a certain Quantity of Waters, neither more nor less than would drown the World, and just cover the highest Mountain, and yet reach no father; in short, as would secure the Ark for future Generations, and yet not leave one dry-Land Animal besides alive; this Exactness is a most peculiar and strange Effect of the most wise and sagacious Providence of God in this mighty Revolution. …  That exactly at a time which was fit and proper, and in an Age that justly deserv’d so great a Judgment, the Comet should come by, and overwhelm the World, is very remarkably and extraordinarily the Finger of God himself. That Omnisicient Being, who foresaw when the Degeneracy of human Nature would be arriv’d at an insufferable Degree of Wickedness, the Iniquities of the World wou’d be compleatly full; and when consequently his Vengeance ought to fall upon them; predisposed and preadapted the Orbits and Motions of both the Comet and the Earth, so that at that very Time, and only at that very Time, the former should pass close by the latter, and bring that dreadful Punishment upon them. Had not God Almightly on purpose thus adjusted the Moments and Courses of each, ’twere infinite odds that such a Conjunction and Coincidence of a Comet and a Planet, would never have happen’d during the whole Space, between the Creation and the Conflagration of this World; much more at such a critical Point of Time when Mankind, by their unparallel’d Wickedness were deserving of, and only dispos’d for this unparallel’d Vengeance, no less than almost an utter Extinction.”

William Whiston, A New Theory of the Earth, From its Original, to the Consummation of all Things. Wherein The Creation of the World in Six Days, The Universal Deluge, And the General Conflagration, As laid down in the Holy Scriptures, Are shown to be perfectly Agreeable to Reason and Philosophy (1696), pp. 433-434.

“Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless.”

Ecclesiastes 3:19

Harold Ramis’s Year One is not much of a film. It’s not as if the man can’t write, or the material didn’t have potential—there’s plenty of gags to be had in the caveman tropes of folk anthropology, and some of us make a living from trawling the Bible for peurile innuendo. But the former Leonard Nimoy impressionist and soon-to-be once-again Ghostbuster couldn’t quite get this one to gel. Even the likes of Black, Azaria and Platt couldn’t save the script. It’s as if Ramis hadn’t read the Bible since puberty, and returned to it with the same juvenile frame of mind, using smut to fill every hole, of which there were many. Some satire is attempted: there’s mockery of false remorse, and attempts to send up theology, but what might have been heretical a generation ago is no longer so today when blasphemy is imperative. And yet, amid the glut of foreskins and sodomy, Ramis did manage, perhaps inadvertently, to dramatise the religiosity of secular modernity.

The protagonists are a pair of banished hunter-gatherers who end up wandering through a bunch of biblical events before becoming embroiled in the priestly politics of Sodom. In the climactic scenes, they manage to talk themselves out of a stoning, entice revolution, impel sovereignty’s self-abdication, and bring about the sacrifice of the High Priest in lieu of his virgins. Lauded as the Chosen One, the character Zed (Jack Black) has the fortitude to resist the crowd’s adulation:

“You would worship me. [Crowd cheers.] Well don’t. [Crowd cheers.] No, I’m not saying don’t like ‘I’m the Chosen One so don’t,’ I’m saying don’t because I’m not the Chosen One. … I’m telling you you don’t need me. You know what? Maybe we can all make our own destiny. Yeah. Maybe we can all be chosen. You. Yeah you. You can be chosen. You. You. Way over in the back, you. …”

And of course it proceeds to rain, which represents the gods’ pleasure with events and indeed their answer to Zed’s prayers.

It’s hardly the “we’re all individuals” scene of Life of Brian, but unlike that satire’s typical Pythonian contentedness with ridicule, this speech manages a bit more than contradiction: it stages the departure of religion through religion, showing up liberal ideology as a democratised messianism in which every individual is interpellated as the chosen one.

If only there had been better gags.

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the scene online, but in its stead I offer for your viewing pleasure Jack Black jigging it up on Yo Gabba Gabba—a scene with its own gripping spiritual intensity:

Conversation with child

June 26, 2010

… who missed library day.

“Dad, out of that shelf, the only two books I haven’t read are the dictionary and the Bible.”

“Well, read the Bible then.”

“I’m reading the dictionary.”