Escaping Vanity Fair

Escaping Vanity Fair

 Escaping Vanity Fair:
A Word of Encouragement from Nietzsche
Wages of Spin
Carl Trueman


The domestication of radical ideas is a well-know phenomenon to anyone who has ever spent time reflecting on history. Browsing in Borders recently, I found Marx's Communist Manifesto on one of the shelves. This was not in itself surprising; but what was startling was the fact that I could buy it in no less than five different editions. Same book; same text; but five different covers. This was irony in action: the basic anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist war-cry available in so many convenient editions. Why? Because, of course, Marx sells; his book has become a commodity; and the variety of editions speak of the way in which consumerism has overcome and internalized his critique, turning it from a passionate attack and prediction of its doom into one more item on the shelf, to be packaged and marketed, repackaged and remarketed. What will happen next? Can we expect this secular scripture to go the way of more sacred texts, with editions of the Manifesto for singles, young marrieds, teenagers, small groups, CEOs, vegetarians, young women, old men, and slimmers? If it can be sold, sooner or later it will be done.

Similar domestication happens also with individuals who embody certain radical stands: Che Guevara is perhaps the archetypal example of this in the last fifty years. In life he was a disciplined and driven revolutionary, a ruthless and cold-blooded killer, and one who had the reputation of being somewhat dour, with little time for anything or anyone unconnected to the ultimate goal of socialist revolution. In death, however, he became almost immediately an icon of a hedonistic sixties youth protest movement which had little interest in discipline or self-denial or ruthless execution of enemies for that matter; and, in the years since 1967, he has become little more than a marketing logo, a symbol and a facilitator of the capitalism he despised. Divorced from its original context, his messianic face, clad in guerrilla garb, stares portentously from a myriad of teeshirts, coffee mugs, beer bottles, and designer handbags.

If there is real and amusing irony in the domestication of Marx and Che, then the same kind of principles can be seen to apply to the world of music. Here, the story is complicated by the fact that the music of, say, Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen was always parasitic upon the system which it was attacking: all such rebels depended upon record companies with the marketing power and savvy to produce and promote their products; all depended upon people with money to buy them. Thus, at the very outset, one could almost have predicted that, sooner or later, middle aged, middle class theology professors would be listening to The Clash's great anthem `London Calling' as they drove to work in the morning. In the dialectic of protest and commerce, protest lost, content proved less important than aesthetics, and rock became one more sellable commodity of the commercial establishment.

The Christian religion too is no stranger to such domestication. A first-rate example would be the blond and blue eyed Jesus beloved by so many children's Bible illustrators and cheesy Christian artists of earlier generations. Perhaps it was relatively harmless to portray the Lord in a children's Bible as looking like Benny (or was it Bjorn?), the ABBA keyboard player; but when we remember that the blond and blue eyed messiah was also the object of the forgotten quest for the historical Jesus - that pursued by anti-Semitic German scholars between the Wars - it is clear that such domestication is not always so trivial.

Of course, scholars from Adolf Schlatter to N T Wright have been debunking this kind of rubbish for quite some time now; but, in all of the effort to free the Bible from domesticated categories, it is sometimes forgotten that the taming of Christianity is not limited to the biblical text. For example, once theological education became competitive big business, the marketing of it turned into something well beyond the simple description to prospective students of what goes on at a seminary or a college. There is a complex relationship between traditional curricula, the demands of the church, the expectations of the students, and the ability of the marketplace itself not simply to satisfy needs but also to create needs and open up new markets. The implications of theology as commodity have not yet been self-consciously addressed by educational institutions; and, given the nature of the free market as something of a sacred cow in current Western thinking, such questions are unlikely to be pressed in the foreseeable future.

Yet education is not the only object of domestication in religious culture. Take the writer C.S. Lewis, for example. As I understand him, he was not an evangelical and never claimed to be an evangelical. Indeed, I suspect that, as a diehard patrician Anglican, he would have been less than pleased with the idea of becoming the patron saint of a religion with such a populist and democratized ethos. Yet he has developed an almost cult-like status within the evangelical culture of North America. What are we to make of this? Well, I always tell students that the first question to ask about any historical action is this: who makes money out of the deal? And there is no doubt that Lewis's writings represent a solid source of revenue for those publishing and selling religious books, and that much of the market share is represented by evangelicals.

The market for Lewis among evangelicals, however, cannot be reduced to a publisher's sales pitch: whatever some of the more hardline members of the Frankfurt School might have argued, consumers are not just hapless dupes of the system; the relationship between producer and consumer is more complex than that; and thus the market for Lewis must find some foothold within American evangelical culture itself. I would suggest three internal causes which have facilitated his marketability - and this is not an exclusive list, merely a suggestive one. First, he advocates a mere Christianity which is very appealing to the transdenominational spirit of American evangelicalism, particularly in the aestheticised world of postmodernism. Second, his books are well-written and accessible, a combination difficult to find in most evangelical writing (Catholics have Chesterton, Waugh and Greene, to name but three; we have Jenkins and La Haye.....). And third - and perhaps most crucial - modern American culture finds intellectual disagreement to be something best understood by using the categories of moral antithesis. This is surely part of the reason why the language of political campaigning in the US has so little to do with actual policies and so much to do with assessments of character and with exercises in simplistic moral sloganeering. If someone disagrees with me on how the local garbage collection should be financed, it is not simply that the two of us differ over how tax should be levied and disbursed. It is surely a certain sign that he probably beats his wife, was rude to his mother, and has a frequent and irresistible urge to push old ladies under the wheels of oncoming trains - all of which render him incapable of organizing garbage collection. Thus, a Christian thinker like Lewis presents a problem to evangelicals, given his views on issues such as purgatory and the atonement. But he still offers us certain things that are attractive - mere Christianity, good writing etc, things that we want to be able to appreciate and use. So what is to be done? Simply this: he needs to be turned into one of us so that we can feel comfortable with him. And, as an aside, one might add that it is quite useful that he's dead at this point, as his reputation, as well as his literary remains, are no longer his to possess and define. A little bit like Mormon baptism of the dead.

Lewis is not the only candidate for a makeover, however. In many ways a more interesting example of domestication is provided by John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. This is surely one of those books which enjoys almost universal appeal among Christians across the denominational boundaries for the profound simplicity of its narration of the Christian life through allegory. Yet the book's simplicity is deceptive, and its reception into the canon of universal Christian classics should actually be very surprising to all who read it. For a start, the picture it paints of the Pope, sitting gibbering in a cave while gnawing on the bloody bones of the martyrs, would have led one to expect that its appeal within modern ecumenical evangelical circles (not to mention those of Roman Catholics!) might be somewhat limited. Bunyan was, after all, part of a Protestant culture which saw Rome as an agency of the Devil and which was even more adept at finding Jesuits under the stairs than Joseph McCarthy was at finding reds under beds.

Yet Bunyan's ferocious critique is not confined simply to the doctrinal and ecclesiastical divisions of his day. Outrage at social and economic injustice permeates the work as well. Bunyan was, after all, a poor man, a tinker, a mender of pots and pans, a man of no consequence in an increasingly commercial world. Read Pilgrim's Progress again and notice how his lowly status and his fear of the wealthy and the men of commerce seethes within the narrative. Who is Giant Despair? A thuggish landowner. Where are the pilgrims most notably ill-treated, even to the point of martyrdom for the one? Vanity Fair, a scene of commerce and decadence. And how many times are the scoundrels in the narratives also described as gentlemen? The terms are virtually interchangeable. Any suggestive patterns emerging? No reasonably thoughtful seventeenth century reader would have missed the brutal polemic against the wealthy and the establishment. Truth be told, Bunyan's great Puritan classic is not simply a statement of radical theology; it is also an expression of radical politics, an historical action which cannot be properly understood in isolation from the turbulent milieu of a resurgent monarchy, a failed Puritan republicanism, the oppression of the poor, and the fear of a Catholic political and religious renaissance. A work of deep piety it surely is; but to read it and to fail to understand its subversively stated social, political, and ecclesiastical radicalism is to domesticate it and to miss much of its critical value. It is, to put it bluntly, to tame the tinker.

These readings of Lewis and Bunyan represent two different but related phenomena. For Lewis, as I say, it seems to be by and large a sales ruse which accommodates him to the limits of the potential market: evangelicals, because they define themselves doctrinally at some level, even if only minimally, struggle with those with whom they disagree (`Are they really Christian if they do/don't believe in x?'), a trait compounded by American cultural predispositions; thus, if he is to sell well, Lewis must be packaged and pitched as an evangelical. For Bunyan, it is more of the problem of a changed textual context: the twenty-first century Christian world is simply so different to that of seventeenth century England that much of Bunyan's original intent is lost in transmission. The tinker travels through time and is tamed by that very process.

The relationship between the two phenomena lies in the fact that both demonstrate the readiness of human beings to read themselves into texts and thus to avoid the challenges that such texts offer to us. The real loss in the domestication of Lewis and Bunyan, in the reduction of them to the dimensions of a generic Christian piety, is the loss of the past as a critical foundation for reflection and self-examination. A history which panders to the marketplace or to boundaries set by the expectations of the modern audience becomes little more than a projection of contemporary concerns. It may use the idioms of history -- the past tense and the language of hallowed tradition -- but it is no history at all. It destroys the real usefulness of these men by imperiously imposing the present upon them, by demanding that they be like us, the customers; and it serves only to insulate us from criticism and to reinforce our own belief in our own rectitude. By contrast, I would argue that Lewis, Bunyan, and all great theological voices speak importantly at precisely those points where they least fit with my evangelical expectations, because it is at those points that they force me to think most carefully about who I am, where I am, what I believe and why I believe it. Yet such critique is something which is very difficult to maintain in a world where market forces are the unseen and undetected powers that shape so much of reality, from institutions of education to churches to individual tastes. Critical voices which the market cannot internalise appeal neither to the godlike market forces of consumerism nor to the self-worshipping tendency of my own mind; but as a Christian I am surely required to fight against all idolatries, external and internal.

How can this be done? I would argue that the need of the hour is for the development of a proper evangelical critical theory, or, perhaps better, an evangelical self-critical theory. Not one which simply develops an arcane technical language designed to impress the world with the Gnostic sophistication of its advocates, as seems to be the case with some of the hermeneutical overload of recent years - such is simply a new elitism; nor one which simply parrots the latest cultural clichés in a sad attempt to appear hip and trendy like some beer-bellied middle aged academic with a ponytail and a `Legalise Pot' teeshirt; least of all one that terminates simply in clever but sneering analysis that merely describes the world as it is. No. We need a critical theory that seeks to change the world by challenging the world - including the world of evangelicals -- in its market-driven, all consuming consumerist idolatries.

Given the way in which evangelical culture in America is so deeply embedded in the systems, practices and aspirations of American culture in general - from its colleges and seminaries to its publishing houses to its relentless vision of `big is best' to its personality cults of celebrity theologians to its mega-ministries to its amazing ability to transform anyone - even the patrician Anglican C S Lewis and the radical tinker John Bunyan - into friendly evangelical allies, the outlook is not bright. To put it bluntly, we live in Vanity Fair, and we seem to be quite happy there. But recognizing the problem is surely the first part of the solution, and doing so, while awesome and terrifying on one level, should not be unduly discouraging to us. To quote Nietzsche, that which does not destroy me makes me stronger.