Christianity and Literature: This Book is Full of Assholes

I’ve started reading more on the intersection between Christianity and art (mainly literature), and I’ve been quickly reminded that Christians are assholes. Not all of them, but damn, Christians are assholes. Part of the trick is to read the bibliography: it doesn’t guarantee one way or the other, but generally, if they’re worth listening to, they’ll be engaging with the major figures on today’s literary scene, rather than curling up in their Southern US cul-de-sac and whinging about Kids Today. Anyway, I’m trying to drag myself through The Discerning Reader: Christian perspectives on literature and theory. It sounded like a good read – a Christian take on garden-variety literary theories, which is exactly what I’m looking for. However, things went downhill pretty quick: as it turns out, this book is full of assholes. 

For the most part these folk are just conservative Christians – some of them are merely tolerable, while others are balls-to-the-wall assholes. I was trucking along through the chapter on Marxism: basically there’s a long-standing Marxist argument which sees Christianity as a culturally-generated system of social control. There’s some weight to that argument, because (institutional) Christianity has historically been on the wrong side of several social issues. The textbook example is apartheid South Africa, where the force of the institutional church was thrown behind the bullshit racist government with its bullshit racist policies. The story gets more complicated than that, because Bishop Desmond Tutu was, of course, an Anglican bishop (and Nelson Mandela was a Methodist), but yes, Christianity does have a culturally-generated and socially authoritative role, and yes, it does do shitty things.

Anyway, this author was arguing against one of Stephen Greenblatt’s essays, and he (the author, John D. Cox) just comes across as a bit of an asshole. He quotes from Greenblatt’s essay:

“The [atheist] stance that seemed to come naturally to me as a green college freshman in mid-twentieth-century America seems to have been almost unthinkable to the most daring philosophical mind of late sixteenth-century England.”

Cox proceeds to argue, on the basis of that quote, that Greenblatt is “breathtakingly arrogant” – basically, according to Cox, Greenblatt is saying that if the Elizabethans can’t think up something as obvious as atheism, they’re stupid. With the hugely necessary qualifier that I haven’t read Greenblatt’s essay itself, the quote seemed to me merely to point to the yawning cultural chasm between the late 1500s and today. Maybe it’s evident in the wider essay, but from this quote (which forms the basis of Cox’s argument) I really don’t see any assumption that our modern mind is somehow superior to theirs. Or is the argument merely that if you don’t share somebody’s world-view, you can’t properly appreciate where they’re coming from? If that’s the case, Cox is hoisted by his own petard: how can he appreciate where Greenblatt is really coming from if he doesn’t share Greenblatt’s atheistic world-view?

That argument popped up towards the end of the chapter, so I was starting to feel a bit hostile towards Cox and his straw-man. Then I came across this corker in the chapter’s closing lines:

“One way to tell Stephen Greenblatt’s story might be to position his moral wisdom more accurately against his Jewish cultural background… to show what his moral wisdom owes to the ongoing narrative of God’s faithfulness to Israel, including God’s faithfulness to Stephen Greenblatt.”

If there was an award for Asshole of the Week, that line would clinch the victory for Cox. He bangs on about the shortcomings of Greenblatt’s “breathtaking arrogance” – arguing, in effect, that only assholes act superior because of their religious beliefs – and then closes his chapter by asserting the superiority of his own narrative, which, naturally, is based in his religious beliefs. I’m still not sure whether the hypocrisy is intentional or just plain stupid.

Part of my bitterness towards Cox also stems from the fact that if I argue with his position, he can turn around and say “Oh, so you don’t believe that God was faithful to Israel?” As a Christian, it’s possible to defend yourself against criticism from other believers by essentially weaponising the faith – driving it to an aggravated extreme in order to portray the critic as wrong-footedly defending the pagans in their error. It comes up (topic change) with abortion, for example – some Christians argue that abortion is bad and we should outlaw it, and other Christians argue that abortion is bad but we should keep it legal, because otherwise it goes into the back alleys and all other sorts of nasty complications arise. The first lot get their kicks from weaponising the faith: “If you believe abortion is bad, you ought to protest against it, instead of defending the right of these pagans to do bad and immoral things!” Again, there’s the rock and the hard place – the shape of the faith, and its application in the real world.

Usually the blunder made by the first lot (we’ll call them Group A (for Assholes)) is to assume that their mode of expression is the only proper expression of the faith as it stands. It’s the ‘My Way or the Highway’ approach: I know God, I know God’s will, I feel that this is the way to enact God’s will, anybody who disagrees with me disagrees with God. It’s the kind of asshole gesture that we get from Cox: God has blessed the Jews, Greenblatt is a Jew, Greenblatt’s wisdom stems from his Jewish heritage and nowhere else, because true wisdom comes only from God. Ultimately, this line of thought is totalising – yes, in the fascist-Germany-communist-Russia sense that we’ve talked about before. If wisdom is perceived as being the exclusive domain of the Christian church (with a little crust spared for our outdated Jewish brethren), then we start ignoring knowledge that comes from outside of the church – a move that’s stupid, dangerous, and rage-inducingly familiar to anybody who knows fucking anything about history.

The fact is, the church can be wrong. It has been repeatedly wrong in the past on a whole raft of social issues. The church can become corrupted by things like indulgences, or the fiscal irresponsibility of the clergy. This is why I have such a big emphasis on God’s activity outside of the church: because the church simultaneously claims to possess the fullest revelation of God’s nature and also fucks up on a regular basis. When the church’s authoritarian instinct renders it deaf to internal dissent, it needs an external voice – a voice like that of Marx – to remind it of the true nature of God. From that perspective, Greenblatt provides such an external voice, and Cox’s argument (to my eyes) is a perverse attempt at wrestling Greenblatt back into a Judeo-Christian framework, nullifying his exteriority and threatening the integrity of the voice of non-Christian conscience.

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