Friday 30 November 2007

Hent de Vries and Lawrence Sullivan: Political Theologies

Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan (eds.), Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 796 pp. (review copy courtesy of Fordham)

This vast and energetic collection brings together over 30 essays on the relation between religion and public life in an age of globalisation. The essays are written by some of the world’s foremost political and philosophical theorists – Jürgen Habermas, Jean-Luc Nancy, Ernesto Laclau, Claude Lefort, Judith Butler and Chantal Mouffe, to name a few – and together they constitute a landmark engagement with the problem of “political theology.”

The current interest in political theology is perhaps best understood against the backdrop of Carl Schmitt’s famous remark that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularised theological concepts.” Schmitt’s point was historical and descriptive rather than normative: theology reappears in the sphere of secularised politics (in concepts such as sovereignty, intervention, state of exception, decision), but theology reappears here precisely as that which has become obsolete by passing over into the political.

While some writers in this collection follow such a descriptive understanding of an implicit political theology (a notable example is Bruce Lincoln’s entertaining analysis of “Bush’s God Talk”), others seek to develop a normative understanding of the precise relation between religion and the political. In the fascinating exchange between Habermas and Benedict XVI, for instance (recently re-published as a separate volume), we witness a debate over the question whether the modern democratic state is dependent on “autochthonous conceptual or religious traditions” or “collectively binding ethical traditions.” And, if so, is the state able to “renew the normative preconditions of its existence out of its own resources” (p. 251)?

While, in spite of their differences, both Benedict and Habermas are concerned to articulate the pluralistic unity of reason, Chantal Mouffe inserts the religion–politics relation into her “agonistic” model of radical democracy. Mouffe raises the pointed question whether Habermas’ (and, we might add, Benedict’s) vision of “a final resolution of conflicts” through free dialogue is not in fact a vision of the end of democracy, since the expectation here is for “a reconciled society, where pluralism would have been superseded” (p. 320). Through a creative modification of Schmitt’s friend/enemy conception of politics, Mouffe argues that the task of democratic politics is to establish “the us/them distinction” in such a way that the opponent is seen not as “an enemy to be destroyed” but as “an adversary whose existence is legitimate” (p. 323). In a word, the fundamental political relation is not antagonistic but agonistic – it is not warfare, but struggle.

On this basis, Mouffe argues (contra John Rawls) that “comprehensive doctrines” – with all the particularistic passion and commitment that these entail – should not be excluded from the public sphere. While Rawlsian and Habermasian models of deliberative democracy seek to relegate divisive religious issues to the private sphere so that a rational consensus can be established in the public sphere, Mouffe rightly sees that the fundamental church/state separation (which simply designates the state’s monopoly on coercive violence) is not equivalent to the religion/politics distinction, much less to the private/public distinction. Indeed, Mouffe’s model of agonistic democracy suggests that there is an important place for “religious forms of intervention within the context of agonistic debate” (p. 326).

I’ve focused here on Mouffe’s richly suggestive proposal because I find it more convincing and more interesting than some of the rationalist or rights-based conceptions of democracy which are developed elsewhere in the volume. But that is no criticism of this book: on the contrary, the great strength of this collection is its remarkable range of diverse and divergent proposals – a diversity which nevertheless coheres around an intensive concentration on the question of the contemporary reappearance of religion in the political sphere.

The fundamental question which is pursued throughout the whole collection is – as Hent de Vries notes at the close of his lengthy introduction – the ways in which “the legacies of ‘religion’ disarticulate and reconstellate themselves as the elementary forms of life in the twenty-first century” (p. 88). This is indeed a compelling question. And this splendid volume will be essential reading for anyone who wants to explore the whole terrain of contemporary “political theologies” through which this question is addressed.

Note: If you’re interested in Chantal Mouffe, you might also like to check out Richard’s helpful reviews of some of Mouffe’s major works.

Thursday 29 November 2007

Can a minister be saved?

Our friend Ray Anderson was recently re-reading Barth’s shattering collection, The Word of God and the Word of Man (1928), and he suggested that some excerpts from the 1922 address on “The Need and Promise of Christian Preaching” (pp. 97-135) might be a useful sequel to the recent post on Kierkegaard. So, thanks to Ray, here are a few excerpts from Barth:

“Can a minister be saved? I would answer that with men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. God may pluck us as a brand out of the fire. But so far as we know, there is no one who deserves the wrath of God more abundantly than the ministers…. As a matter of fact the church is really an impossibility. There can be no such thing as a minister. Who dares, who can, preach, knowing what preaching is? …

“On Sunday morning when the bells ring to call the congregation and minister to church, there is in the air an expectancy that something great, crucial, and even momentous is to happen…. Do [the people] really know at all why they are here? In any case here they are – even though they be shrunk in number to one little old woman – and their being here points to the event that is expected or appears to be expected, or at least, if the place be dead and deserted, was once expected here.

“And here above all is a human being, upon whom the expectation of the apparently imminent event seems to rest in a special way…: he himself chose this profession, God knows from what understanding or misunderstanding of it, and he has now for better or for worse wedded his short, his only life to the expectation of the event. And now before the congregation and for the congregation he will pray – you note: pray – to God! He will open the Bible and read from it words of infinite import, words that refer, all of them, to God. And then he will enter the pulpit and – here is daring! – preach; that is, he will add to what has been read from the Bible something from his own head and heart, ‘Biblical’ ideas, it may be, according to his knowledge and conscience, or ideas which fly boldly or timidly beyond the Bible; yesterday one prepared a ‘fundamentalist’, and another a ‘liberal’ sermon. But does it make so much difference which it was when the subject is considered? Every one must apparently, perhaps nolens volens, speak of God.

“And then the [minister] will have the congregation sing ancient songs full of weighty and weird memories, strange ghostly witnesses of the sufferings, struggles, and triumphs of the long departed fathers, all leading to the edge of an immeasurable event, all, whether the minister and people understand what they are singing or not, full of reminiscences of God, always of God. ‘God is present!’ God is present. The whole situation witnesses, cries, simply shouts of it, even when in minister or people there arises questioning, wretchedness, or despair. Then perhaps it is witnessed to best of all – better than when the real problem is obscured or concealed by abundant human success.”

Avoiding hell: theology with Jane Eyre

“Well, Jane Eyre, and are you a good child? [...] No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” he began, “especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.

“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: “I must keep in good health, and not die.”

—Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1848), chapter 4.

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Bruce McCormack: Scottish Journal of Theology Lectures

Next week (4-7 December), Bruce McCormack will present the Scottish Journal of Theology Lectures at St Andrews University. His lectures are entitled The Humility of the Eternal Son: A Reformed Version of Kenotic Christology. There will be four lectures, as follows:

Lecture 1: “Immutable in Impassibility: The Role Played by Classical Theism in Creating the Unresolved Problems in Chalcedonian Orthodoxy” (Tuesday 4 December)

Lecture 2: “Passibility in Mutability: The Failure of the Older Kenoticism” (Wednesday 5 December)

Lecture 3: “Immutable in Passibility: The Contribution of Karl Barth” (Thursday 6 December)

Lecture 4: “The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism, Trinity and Election” (Friday 7 December)

I reckon this will almost certainly prove to be the year’s most important theological event. Bruce McCormack is one of the most profound and creative theological thinkers working today, and I believe the future of Barthian dogmatics lies very much with him. In these lectures, McCormack’s sophisticated historical analysis in the first three lectures will open up into the fourth lecture’s constructive dogmatic vision of a new (post-metaphysical) kenotic christology.

You can download a brochure here; and for those of us who can’t make the trip to Scotland, the lectures will subsequently be published by Cambridge University Press. Meanwhile, another event to look forward to is the publication next year of McCormack’s collected essays on Barth, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).

Tuesday 27 November 2007

On the obscene length of commentaries

Michael has posted a delightfully obnoxious rant on the length of biblical commentaries. He issues “a plea to biblical studies boffins: stop and delete all those major commentaries you were working on. They aren’t helping! We don’t want them!”

I must admit, I’ve never been one to complain about the length of books: after all, my favourite poem is the 12-book Paradise Lost, and my favourite novel is the whale-sized Moby-Dick (worse still, my favourite film is the 9-hour-long Godfather trilogy...).

Still, I can sympathise with Michael’s frustration. In fact, I recently felt a little cheated when I bought a copy of Robert Jewett’s new commentary on Romans, only to discover that I couldn’t even lift it off the floor.

Then again, some people have made exactly the same complaint about dogmatic theology. I think it was E. L. Mascall who once observed that Barth’s “theology of the Word” is so voluminous that one no longer has any time left to read “the Word” itself! But as a disciple of Thomas Aquinas, Mascall might have been forgetting about the (Summa-sized) log in his own eye….

Monday 26 November 2007

Around the traps

For those who missed AAR/SBL last week, Andy Rowell has recorded various sessions in mp3 (including papers by Charles Taylor, John Milbank, Robert Bella, N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham). And JR notes that iTunes is now making available many free lectures from leading academic institutions like Harvard, Yale, Duke, Stanford and MIT.

Meanwhile, Jason criticises Žižek on freedom and authority, while Michael notices that David Bentley Hart would be a tough Scrabble opponent, and Halden reviews Paul Louis Metzger’s important new book on consumerism. In addition, Travis points us to Kathryn Tanner’s critique of social trinitarianism in the new issue of the Princeton Seminary Bulletin.

Finally, in one of his Kierkegaardian posts, Jason notes that “the malady of our age is mediocrity.” This reminds me of Bob Dylan’s painfully accurate observation in “Political World” (1989):

    We live in a political world
    Turning and a-thrashing about,
    As soon as you’re awake, you’re trained to take
    What looks like the easy way out.

Sunday 25 November 2007

Conference announcement: Saint Paul's Journeys into Philosophy

The brilliant Canadian theologian Douglas Harink is organising what promises to be a superb conference on “Saint Paul’s Journeys into Philosophy.” The conference will be held at the Vancouver School of Theology on the campus of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 4-6 June 2008. Speakers will include Stephen E. Fowl, Paul J. Griffiths, J. Louis Martyn, P. Travis Kroeker, Douglas Harink, Chris K. Huebner, Mark Reasoner, Gordon Zerbe, Jens Zimmerman, and others.

Proposals are invited for papers that address aspects of the appropriation of the work of the apostle Paul by recent philosophy, in particular by Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Jacob Taubes and Slavoj Žižek, as well as their precursors, such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Walter Benjamin. Papers may address the subject from the perspectives of biblical studies, philosophy, political theory and theology.

Proposals must be no longer than 300 words, accompanied by the proposer’s name and institutional affiliation. All proposals are due by 15 January 2008, and should be emailed to Doug Harink. You can also contact Doug for details about registration and accommodation in Vancouver.

This definitely looks like it will be one of the best and most important theological conferences of 2008.

Friday 23 November 2007

Carl Schmitt on parliamentary elections

One doesn’t normally mention the German jurist Carl Schmitt in polite company. But since today all Australians are (compulsorily) voting in the federal election, I thought a few remarks from Schmitt might be appropriate.

In his incisive little book, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923), Schmitt argues that the foundational principle of modern parliamentarism is “openness and discussion.” And the situation of parliamentarism has become critical today since “the development of modern mass democracy has made argumentative public discussion an empty formality.” Parties no longer face each other discussing opinions, but they face each other “as social or economic power-groups calculating their mutual interests and opportunities for power, and they actually agree compromises and coalitions on this basis” (p. 6).

Further, public opinion is not won over through open discussion; instead, “the masses are won over through a propaganda apparatus whose maximum effect relies on an appeal to immediate interests and passions. Argument in the real sense that is characteristic for genuine discussion ceases. In its place there appears a conscious reckoning of interests and chances for power in the parties’ negotiations; in the treatment of the masses, posterlike, insistent suggestion or … the ‘symbol’ appears” (p. 6).

What about elections? Schmitt contrasts liberal parliamentary democracy with other forms of democracy, and he describes as “undemocratic” the liberal conception “that a people could only express its will when each citizen voted in deepest secrecy and complete isolation, that is, without leaving the sphere of the private and irresponsible…. Then every single vote was registered and an arithmetical majority was calculated” (p. 16).

What is lost in this liberal conception, he argues, is an understanding of “the people” as a public entity. “The unanimous opinion of one hundred million private persons is neither the will of the people nor public opinion”; nor is our modern “statistical apparatus” the only way of expressing such public opinion. Indeed: “The stronger the power of democratic feeling, the more certain is the awareness that democracy is something other than a registration system for secret ballots” (p. 16).

Even if we shudder to recall Carl Schmitt’s own political sympathies, I think we still have a few things to learn from his elucidation of the historical foundations of liberalism and his critique of the modern apparatus of liberal democracy.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Kierkegaard against Bible reading

Jason has posted an extraordinary passage from Kierkegaard about Bible-reading and Bible societies. Here’s an excerpt:

“Fundamentally a reformation which did away with the Bible would now be just as valid as Luther’s doing away with the Pope…. The Bible Societies, those vapid caricatures of missions, societies which like all companies only work with money and are just as mundanely interested in spreading the Bible as other companies in their enterprises: the Bible Societies have done immeasurable harm. Christendom has long been in need of a hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. That is something quite as necessary as preaching against Christianity.”

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Together at last with Paul Molnar

The local Paparazzi (aka Jim West) surprised me and Paul Molnar during one of our long conversations here in San Diego. As you can see here, I’m smiling because I secretly know that Molnar is wrong, and he’s laughing because he knows I’m wrong.... Nevertheless, in spite of our theological differences, we were at least able to agree that The Sopranos is a damn fine TV show.

Monday 19 November 2007

Bob Dylan: Nettie Moore (live)

I recently talked about Bob Dylan’s excellent concert here in Brisbane. Here’s a sample from that concert – a live recording of his performance of “Nettie Moore.” This is my favourite song from Dylan’s latest album:

“Today I’ll stand in faith and raise
The voice of praise
The sun is strong, I’m standin’ in the light
I wish to God that it were night.”

Thursday 15 November 2007

John Webster, Kantzer Lectures

Andy points us to John Webster’s recent Kantzer Lectures, now available online here.

A three-year-old's Calvinism

My three-year-old daughter had a little tantrum the other day, which led to this brief conversation between me and her:

—“Could you please stop that tantrum!”
—“No, I can’t stop!”
—“Would you please try to stop, then.”
—“Noooo Dad, I CAN’T try!”

So there you have it: the whole classical Calvinist system in a nutshell. To which Jonathan Edwards added his own cunning twist (a twist which both betrayed and perfected the old Calvinist system): “I really could do it if I tried; but I can’t try, so I can’t do it!”

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Žižek: resistance is surrender

Jason points us to an excellent column by Slavoj Žižek in today’s London Review of Books. In an engagement with Simon Critchley’s new book, Žižek critiques the idea that the task for politics today “is to resist state power by withdrawing from its terrain and creating new spaces outside its control.” This position is simply “the obverse of accepting the triumph of capitalism.” Indeed: “Today, it is the great capitalists – Bill Gates, corporate polluters, fox hunters – who ‘resist’ the state”!

This is great stuff – I reckon Žižek is at his best as a critic of fashionable leftist politics. He is indeed (as one reader complains) an “embarrassment to the Left.”

Monday 12 November 2007

Barth and Paul: my SBL paper

On Friday afternoon I’ll be presenting my SBL paper on Barth’s interpretation of Paul: “From Faithfulness to Faith in the Theology of Karl Barth.”

Update: I’ve taken the paper down from the web, but the final revised version will be published in a Paternoster volume in 2008.

Sunday 11 November 2007

On education

Aaron has an excellent 10 propositions on education. “There is nothing to which education is subordinate save more education...”

Predicting some AAR/SBL highlights

Later this week, I’ll be attending the AAR/SBL annual meeting in San Diego. Choosing the sessions to attend has been an agonising task – but here are some of the sessions that I’m especially looking forward to:

  • “The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical and Theological Studies” (S16-55). My own paper will be in this session – and there’ll be papers by NT scholars like Francis Watson, Douglas Campbell and Stanley Porter. I reckon it will be a very lively session.

  • “Romans through History and Cultures: Schleiermacher, Schweitzer, Barth” (S17-73). Looks like this will be a great session – it includes Kurt Anders Richardson on Schleiermacher, and Ekkehard Stegemann on Barth’s exegesis of Romans 9-11.

  • “Karl Barth Society of North America: Discusson of Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell (A17-141). George Hunsinger is presiding, with papers by Paul Griffiths, David Lauber, John Webster and Alyssa Pitstick.

  • “Theology and Continental Philosophy Group: Agamben, Decreation, and Witnessing” (A17-322). I’ll be attending a few sessions on Agamben – so far I’ve only read his commentary on Romans, but I’ll be doing some extra preparation by reading Homo Sacer and State of Exception on the flight to San Diego.

  • A discussion and partial screening of Magnolia (A17-406) – this is one of my favourite films.

  • Plenary address by Charles Taylor on “Religious Mobilizations” (A18-403).

  • “Pauline Soteriology: Divine and Human Agency in Pauline Theology” (S19-119). For me, this session will probably be one of the biggest highlights. Douglas Campbell is presiding, and the speakers are J. Louis Martyn, Susan Eastman, Alan Torrance and Telford Work.

  • “Romans through History and Cultures: Focal Points in Readings of Romans – Eschatology, Apocalyptic, Messianism” (S20-16). This looks like a fantastic session – especially William Campbell on Käsemann’s eschatology, and Douglas Harink on Barth and Agamben.

On buying too many books

If you’re going to the AAR/SBL conference this week, then be sure to check out Dan Reid’s helpful list of 10 things to say to your spouse upon arriving home with all those new books. I like this one:

“Look! I’ve taken care of a lot of our Christmas shopping!” (When he/she tells you that no one on the Christmas list wants those books, you act disappointed and rejected, and absorb them into your library.)

Friday 9 November 2007

And another Barth portrait...

Tom from T&T Clark has posted another Barth portrait – this time, a pop art interpretation of Barth! I reckon it would be perfect if only he were carrying a Tommy Gun, or perhaps sipping a Coke:

Or better still, a speech bubble is what he needs:

A portrait of Barth

In a forthcoming collection of essays entitled Engaging with Barth, a group of leading evangelical scholars (such as Henri Blocher, Paul Helm, Michael Horton and Oliver Crisp) seek to offer sympathetic critique of Barth’s thought. They’ve got a nice website with further details – and, best of all, they’ve also included an image of the new portrait of Barth by Oliver Crisp (which I’d been hoping to see). The eyes are especially good – here’s the portrait, together with a detail:

On Leonard Cohen

David Williamson has an excellent post on Leonard Cohen: “Despair, lust and epiphany bleed together in Cohen’s canon….”

As for me, I doubt I’ve ever come across a more profound and more authentic reflection on faith than Cohen’s magnificent “Hallelujah” (1984):

Now maybe there’s a God above
But all I ever learned from love
Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
And it’s no complaint you hear tonight
And it’s not some pilgrim who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a lonely Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Thursday 8 November 2007

Creeping perichoresis

When I hear the word “trinitarian” being used as a cheap slogan, I wince. But when I hear the word “perichoresis,” I reach for my revolver.

Indeed, some theologians have found their vocation in perichoreting everything that moves! In the quote below, however, Bruce McCormack sums up some of the problems that arise from the ubiquitous application of this term:

“Perichoresis … is rightly employed in trinitarian discourse for describing that which is dissimilar in the analogy between intra-trinitarian relations … on the one hand and human-to-human relations on the other. Nowadays, we are suffering from ‘creeping perichoresis,’ that is, the overly expansive use of terms – which have their home in purely spiritual relations – to describe relations between human beings who do not participate in a common ‘substance’ and who, therefore, remain distinct individuals even in the most intimate of their relations.”

—Bruce L. McCormack, “What’s at Stake in Current Debates over Justification? The Crisis of Protestantism in the West,” in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), p. 111.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

Top books on the resurrection

Here are my top eight books on the resurrection (limited to books written within the past century, and to one book per author):

1. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans
2. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man
3. Rudolf Bultmann, various essays
4. J. Louis Martyn, Galatians
5. Robert W. Jenson, God after God: The God of the Past and the God of the Future, Seen in the Work of Karl Barth
6. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope
7. Alain Badiou: Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism
8. Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology

Update: See also Halden’s alternative list – he also includes a book by Alan Lewis which I haven’t read yet; looks like I’ll have to get a copy.

An important new blog

This new blog looks like an important one to keep an eye on: The Immanent Frame, a blog on secularism, religion and the public sphere. It has opened with a series of posts on Charles Taylor’s major new work, A Secular Age (including a post by Taylor himself). And their next major series of posts will be on Mark Lilla’s book, The Stillborn God. (Hopefully there’ll be reviews of both these books here at F&T as well.)

Žižek and evangelicals

David Fitch is writing a book which analyses American evangelicals using Žižek’s concepts of “symptom” and “surplus.”

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Resurrection and the Parousia

We’ve been talking a lot lately about the resurrection. So here’s a related quote from the best book ever written on the meaning of resurrection – Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans. In this passage, Barth is talking about the relation between resurrection and the Parousia:

“Will there never be an end of all our ceaseless talk about the delay of the Parousia? How can the coming of that which does not enter in ever be delayed? The End of which the New Testament speaks is no temporal event, no legendary ‘destruction’ of the world; it has nothing to do with any historical, or ‘telluric’, or cosmic catastrophe. The end of which the New Testament speaks is really the End; so utterly the End, that in the measuring of nearness or distance our nineteen hundred years are not merely of little, but of no importance; so utterly the End that Abraham already saw the Day – and was glad…. Who shall persuade us to transform our expectation of the End – the ‘Moment’ when the living shall be changed and the dead shall be raised, and both shall stand together before God (1 Cor. 15:51-52) – into the expectation of a coarse and brutal spectacle? Who, when this spectacle is quite rightly delayed, shall be able to lull us comfortably to sleep by adding at the conclusion of Christian Dogmatics a short and perfectly harmless chapter entitled – ‘Eschatology’?”

—Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 500.

Sunday 4 November 2007

A new book on Robert Jenson

Andy alerts us to an exciting forthcoming book from Paternoster: Scott Swain, God According to the Gospel: Biblical Narrative and the Identity of God in the Theology of Robert Jenson (Paternoster Theological Monographs series, forthcoming 2007). I can’t wait!

Saturday 3 November 2007

Ernst Lohmeyer

Over at the IVP blog, there’s a very moving description of the life and death of the New Testament scholar, Ernst Lohmeyer. It’s a sad and beautiful account of an extraordinary life (excerpted from the forthcoming Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters). Thanks to Mike for drawing attention to this.

Thursday 1 November 2007

The Gospel according to Martin Scorsese

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

In his infamous lecture, “Why I am Not a Christian” – presented 80 years ago this year – Bertrand Russell remarked that the word Christian “does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant.… Nowadays it is not quite that.” This comment reflects the state of atrophy into which Christianity has descended, the continual process of being alienated from its own essence, of growing ever more vague and indistinct.

And yet it is truly a peculiar aspect of our time that shards of a lost authenticity can be found in the most “anti-Christian” of sources. Indeed, the offensive strangeness historically embodied in the Christian message is frequently more discernible in such sources than in the impotent expressions of official Christianity. As usual, Karl Marx said it best: “Shame on you, Christians, both high and lowly, learned and unlearned, shame on you that an anti-Christian had to show you the essence of Christianity in its true and unveiled form!”

Perhaps one of the paradoxical tasks left to us, then, is to try to make out the truth in the likes of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or buried deep in the pages of Darwin’s scientific notebooks, or even amid the moving images of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

As is well known, Scorsese received one of his six Oscar nominations for best director for this film, not least on account of the sheer gall and long term commitment this project demanded, and that in the face of intense opposition. But, as on every other occasion until recently, he missed out. We should not be in the least surprised that the Academy seemed so reluctant to confer its highest honour on Scorsese. It is, after all, notoriously conservative and Scorsese’s films are uncommonly brutal (several scenes in Taxi Driver and Casino are quite simply unwatchable).

But there is a disturbing dimension to Scorsese’s films that is far more profound than just on-screen violence. It is conveyed by the stark inelegance of the cinematography, the absence of warm tones, the chilling sense of an austere world in which kindness, let alone love, is not possible. Scorsese’s is a fallen world. Like Cain, his tortured characters are driven further into the wastelands – whether the desert or the untamed streets of New York – by their acts of almost mythical violence, until any remaining vestige of hope or virtue is finally extinguished.

And it is into this world that Scorsese – like those great Italian auteurs before him, Pasolini and Zeffirelli – conceived his own Christ. Drawing inspiration from Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ presented a radically different version of the Jesus story than other, more sanitized depictions. Scorsese’s Jesus, like all of his protagonists, is a tortured soul, haunted by a divine vocation that brings with it, not enlightenment, but darkness, confusion, oppression.

Jesus’ experience of God is of an expansive, entirely free presence that can no more be apprehended by the young Galilean’s marginalized psyche than it can by the temple in Jerusalem. The psycho-spiritual journey of the film, then, is not toward some deep sense of Jesus’ “secret identity,” a clearer realization of who he is and what he must do, but rather away from any such security. He is plunged into the divine void, and need only be willing to resign himself to it to find salvation, and sanity.

This is where the film’s near fatal weakness lies: it reduces Jesus’ message to an antiestablishment spiritualism, or even vulgar pantheism over against the rigid formality of Jewish ritual. (As Jesus puts it at one point in the film, “God is an immortal spirit who belongs to everybody, to the whole world!”) By casting God as an all-embracing life spirit, rather than some tribal deity, the film locates the critical opposition as one between Jesus’ free spirituality and Judaism’s stale religion.

But although The Last Temptation of Christ is undeniably wrong here – in the Gospels, Jesus sets the conflict within Judaism itself, between the holiness code and prophetic traditions – the film in equal measure gets something remarkably right. A strong temptation did bedevil Jesus his entire life, one that was fully as much domestic and familial as it was national and political. And while this temptation wasn’t purely internal (an “illness of the soul,” as the Puritans used to put it), neither was it entirely external, for it went to the heart of Jesus’ self-understanding.

Take, for instance, the Gospel of Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. What is usually missed in those banal readings of this account is that the expectations and birthright of the messiah – refracted here through allusions to Psalms 2 and 91 – are themselves presented as temptations, and from the devil’s own mouth, no less! The effect of this outrageous assertion is that one is forced to reinterpret Mary’s and Zechariah’s hallowed songs – both of which eagerly anticipate the coming deliverance of Israel from its Roman oppressors – as nigh on “satanic utterances.”

Jesus’ refusal was an absolute rejection of the notion of “messiah,” and thus of his family, his nation, and ultimately, of that God known as “Yahweh” – an implication perfectly captured by Scorsese’ Jesus when he cries, “God is not an Israelite!” The prophetic path on which he then embarked was one of urgent warning: that the nationalized structures of holiness and resistance will lead unavoidably not to deliverance, but to the destruction of Jerusalem. And it was the necessity of this protest – which entailed an altogether different conception of God, defined by mercy, but whose dark purposes include his own death – that was burned indelibly into his self-understanding.

Jesus’ crucifixion – a form of execution reserved exclusively for insurgents, rebels against the Roman occupation – was then the final symbolic act to warn that further revolt would end in national catastrophe, that this was the fate that awaited them all if they remained fixed on messianic resistance. Or, in Jesus’ own words, “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

At this point, Scorsese’s is unique among those cinematic depictions of Jesus’ life, for he accurately connects the necessity of his crucifixion with the impending destruction of Jerusalem. If the “last temptation” of Jesus was to succumb to the weight of those national and familial expectations, to pull back from the darkness and uncertainty of his vocation, perhaps our temptation is to give in to the security of those all-too-familiar portrayals of Jesus, and thus miss the power of his resurrection.

Two things

Two things worth reading: Aric discusses the evil of theological slogans, and Jason talks about Barth and Badiou. If you’ve never read Badiou’s Ethics or Saint Paul, then you should drop everything and read them right away!


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