God is a pain, or is in pain, or is pained . . . I don’t know

By

July 1, 2012

First of all, be sure to support the good people at Englewood Review of Books. It’s a great magazine/journal, and you should be all in the ‘in’ with them. Subscribe to their print magazine. Now, please.

With their kind permission, they are allowing me to re-print my review of Zizek and Gunjevic’s new book, God in Pain: Inversions of the Apocalypse.

We figure Zizek needs all the help he can get.

Enjoy.

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I’m often surprised by how a new theology book still excites me. I’m sure that says more about me than the discipline of theology, but it reminds me of that feeling I once nurtured in grad school where I feverishly pursued every new book read by ‘the smart kids.’ Being an exemplar consumer of any and all commentaries on God (what a strange practice this thing called ‘theology’), I still experience a bizarre sort of exhilaration when I discover that someone ‘interesting’ has said something about God. Of course, by now, I should know better. It was only upon my third reading of Derrida’s The Gift of Death that I finally realized my naïve twinge of excitement would forever be trumped by those propped by university funded chairs writing gratuitous stacks of codswallop.

Enter Žižek (who taught me the meaning of the word ‘codswallop’).

Like most co-authored books by Žižek, God in Pain is a series of monologues referencing Augustine, capitalism, Lacan, Marxism, Lacan, sex, Hegel, Lacan, Christianity, film, and, finally, Lacan. In this regard, I’m not sure how much of this material is new. Even as Žižek once suggested to Milbank, a person can only think of so many clever ways to repeat one’s self. To his credit, he still has something left in the tank.

In some ways, Žižek reminds me of St. Anselm’s ontological argument. On its best days, Anselm’s doxological prayer is as profound as a disturbingly brilliant film by Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves). On other days, Anselm’s argument is as absurd as a really atrocious film by Lars von Trier (Melancholia). It’s on the latter days that I feel a keen sense of embarrassment for being suckered in by Anselm in the first place. Therein lies, in part, the Žižek/Anselm connection. Žižek lures you in only to leave you hanging like a bad porn flick that ends thirty seconds too soon (apparently, I’m told, that’s what makes a porn flick ‘bad’).

If the above paragraph is not to your liking, then you may want to spend your money elsewhere (because it’s Žižekian in tone). Despite my own disinclination with Žižek, I do remain intrigued by him. There is something curious about this atheistic version of Anselm. I don’t mean this in the sense that Žižek’s profundity often risks absurdity (though it does); rather, I often think he’s trying to embody a reversal of Anselm’s famous dictum, fides quaerens intellectum. Of course, the idea that he is an embodiment of ‘understanding seeking faith’ may be crediting him with far too much, but if what he often claims to know is indeed knowable, then I’ll grant him the benefit of the doubt. Fortunately, Žižek has some help from Boris Gunjević —an Eastern Orthodox priest described as a ‘radical’ theologian. I take this label to be a warning to those who fashionably loathe that ‘mean old Neoplatonism’.

God in Pain promises to be an investigation of our faith in the human intellect. This, alone, would normally be enough to scare me away, but Žižek and Gunjević’s keen discernment of the Abrahamic traditions are worthy of attention. Here are a few key points:

  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky was wrong. If God does not exist, everything is not permitted. Rather, it is only when God does exist that everything is permitted. God serves as the ultimate justification for any and all actions that stem from the believer. There are no limitations. Indeed, God supersedes the limitations created by our neighbors. This makes for interesting television as well as a lovely deconstruction of morality. For example, think of Kierkegaard’s Abraham. Or, just think of Abraham. On the flipside, trying to be a consistent hedonist is far more oppressive than religious piety. The self-imposed regulations of the average “atheist liberal hedonist” is tyrannical compared to the demands of the God of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. (43-50)
  • The role of gender is explored in Islam. Though captivating, I wonder if any Christian (or atheist) can write a book these days without trying to give yet one more ‘unique’ reading of the Qur’an—despite, mind you, that the Qur’an forbids non-Muslims from reading it. Or, so I’ve read. (129)
  • Christianity differs from Islam and Judaism on one point in particular: in Christianity, God prays. Given that Žižek does not discuss the differences developed in theology over functional subordination and ontological subordination, it’s not always easy to discern how he understands the economy of the Trinity. Christianity has long addressed what it means for the ‘Son’ to suffer and pray without implying that God suffers and prays. But, again, we would do well to remember that Žižek is just having a little but of fun. At whose expense it’s hard to tell. (168-169)
  • Mel Gibson’s The Passion is an anti-Christian film precisely because it lacks the necessary comedic relief to make sense of the incarnation. (178)
  • Religious fundamentalists may be better atheists than most atheists. The former converts belief into knowledge therein exercising authentic belief. In turn, atheists could learn something about atheism from the one who uttered, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ That Žižek and Gunjević delight in the playful paradoxes of G.K. Chesterton is nothing if not curious. (188-192)
  • Žižek doesn’t make a half-bad Barthian. (223-225)
  • Apocalypticism is the norm. Global warming, Mayan calendars, the Second Coming of Christ, and the ‘wrong’ political party in power all mark the end. It is an end that is always coming but not worth getting caught up in. Watch for it, but don’t believe it. Žižek (and Jesus) instructs us to keep a “cool head.” (71)
  • Theology, argues Gunjević, is like shards of pottery waiting to be discovered, plundered, and put back to use. There is little need to construct vases out of the material that broke them, so the attempt to find those shards just may function as a kind of spiritual discipline for contemporary Christians. He suggests that the Radical Orthodoxy movement can aid us in this particular exercise. (193-220)
  • Though the tradition is ripe with resources that may function as a cure for that which plagues us today, there are, I’m thinking, limitations. For example, Gunjević employs the work of Augustine as a resource for resisting capitalism. Here’s where I’m a little skeptical—in a pragmatic kind of way. Thinking that Augustine will help us resist capitalism is a little like thinking he will help us resist war, capital punishment, and the torturing of human beings. It was barely a month after Augustine’s justification for the ‘medicinal’ treatment of heretics that the ‘codswallop’ (ahh) hit the fan. If we can’t follow Augustine’s carefully placed rhetoric on those issues, it’s unlikely he’s going to be the catalyst for capitalism’s demise. Augustine will not be the revolutionary we are looking for, as some of these early Christendom-based ‘revolutionaries’ are the very ones that paved the way for our present predicament. It’s on this point I wish Gunjević were willing to explore a few broken Anabaptist pieces of pottery shattered by the very orthodoxy he praises. If you want to offer capitalism some resistance, something a little more practical than either Augustine or Marx, try milking a cow with a couple of Yoders looking over your shoulder. That’ll do it.
  • Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the last chapter. Gunjević’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark is remarkably compelling. His account of Jesus’s “political street theatre” performance, meant to deconstruct any sort of nationalistic messianism, is a stark reminder of the once provocative Christ. That Gunjević employs as a hermeneutical tool the brilliance of legendary hard-core band Bad Brains only adds to the genius of this chapter. His preference for Bad Brains over the work of ‘objective’ and ‘sterile’ Biblical scholars is certainly noteworthy: “Mark’s Gospel mocks contemporary exegesis and resembles more a manifesto or guerilla manual for militants than it does a paradigm for historical critique listing the number of irregular verbs in the text.” (242)

Praise Jesus for Gunjević (and Bad Brains).

I bring this Žižekian spirit-filled review to a non-graceful end by contemplating Trotsky. Trotsky argued that one or more of the following narcotics trapped the common worker: vodka, church, and the cinema. All three are successful at numbing the pain, all three are addictive, and all three offer an escape. Yet, it is the cinema, Trotsky suggested, that has the best chance for revolutionary discourse and practice. Unlike the church, with its much older, staged performance, the cinema’s hierarchy is more varied and offers the capacity for the kind of amusement and education that can eliminate the need for the other two intoxicants. It can be employed in the service of the revolution. (12)

Given the current state of re-hashed maudlin bourgeois filmmaking, I think I’ll sneak my vodka into the theatre and pray that Jesus is already there.  Contrary to Žižek, that’s probably a riskier wager than Jesus’s “wager” on the cross. After all, if Žižek ends up being one of our most formidable allies, then I’m thinking a Jesus that turns water into wine and casts demons into swine may be our best bet.

That is, if you can tolerate his occasional atheism.

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