Wednesday, May 16, 2012


On a boring, rainy Monday evening, I went poking through some of the dregs of my DVD collection at home. I have a set of videos from a site called Five Minutes to Live, that specializes in weird films and foreign documentaries. My collection includes things like “Dinah Shore’s Portal to Hell” (not an actual show, just a collection of acts on her show)and some very bizarre Christian fundamentalist movies and television shows. These shows are hilariously awful, but they also make you wonder about the people who made them. Do they really think these films are going to make me embrace their religious views? They’re more likely to make me think they are, in Lewis Black’s terminology, “stone cold f**k  nuts”.

One of these films is called “Rock : It’s Your Decision”. There is an obnoxious phrase/meme  going around these days, “first world problems”. This seems to me to be a clear example of a “first world problem”. “Rock music is one of the biggest challenges a Christian teenager faces”, says the minister. Really? Their biggest challenge? Maybe the aborigines had it right when they took teenage boys out and scarified them. That strikes me as more of a legitimate challenge. There is a brilliant dissection of this movie by someone who calls himself the “Cinema Snob”. You can watch Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

As I was laughing at this stupid film, a more serious thought occurred to me. The youth pastor in this movie encourages young Jeff to make his decisions “backed up by Scriptural passages” in the way that academics back up their arguments with authoritative sources. It suddenly occurred to me what the problem is with this approach.

Biblical scripture is a collection of teachings, ancient laws, and myths. While one could reasonably take some scriptural texts at face value, others are not so simple, especially (as most churches assert) when the text must be taken as a whole. Contrary to Martin Luther’s pleading, the Bible is not a text that clearly and simply speaks for itself. If it did, we would not have volumes and volumes of theological interpretation.

But the problem is not the Bible itself. The problem is the same one faced by science: cultural materialism. Hardcore science people and skeptics hate the fanatically religious, but they do have one thing in common—they are working from the same assumption that there is no existence outside of matter. For the literalist Christian, everything is concrete. Scripture is an account of actual events, and the Bible contains actual instructions. And they always try to defend themselves via materialist methods. Like scientists (who can get a lot farther with this, because they are dealing with the observable world), having an a priori materialistic assumption is going to create problems.

Most fundamentalists don’t even realize that they are materialists. They believe in spirits, angels, demons, and magical places called Heaven and Hell in a very literal sense. Scripture is, in the words of James Simpson, an actual written contract between men and a very materially real God. This is the notion that scientists laugh to scorn—there is no evidence for it whatsoever. Moreover, it is not really a religious viewpoint. Religion, as I’ve said before, is about “linking back” or “tying back” what has been split apart. This is an entirely metaphorical construct, because you are not dealing with something “physical”—it is an idea that centers around the mystery of consciousness and being. It doesn’t properly belong to the realm of science; at best, it is in the realm of phenomenology and analytical psychology. It has nothing to do with the external, observable world or anything “concrete”—it has to do with what Jung terms the “psychical” world—the world of the “psyche”.

The literalist is another version of the materialist—they believe that all of the mythology of scripture has a real, physical, material reality. And this makes them on the defense from both sides, because they are seen as misunderstanding the scripture on the side of religion, and as flat-out factually wrong from the side of science.

This is another archetypal problem. We live in a materialistic culture. One can balance materialism with religion, but many of the monotheisms have fallen into disfavor because of the extreme emphasis on dogma and rules over compassion for the human family as a whole (which should be the function of religion). It is imbalanced, because both the religious and secular world are too materialistic. This is naturally going to lead to extreme responses, as an attempt to rebalance the psyche.

In Jolande Jacobi’s introduction to Jung’s psychology, she says, “Only where faith and dogma have frozen into empty forms—and this is largely the case in our ultra-civilized technological, rational-minded Western world—have they lost their magic power and left man helpless and alone, at the mercy of evil without and within.” (p. 50) Zombie imagery is so very popular because it is a metaphor for this conundrum—the human as the shambling, lifeless dead. One might very well attempt to synthesize these two views by taking an extreme religious viewpoint. This way, they feel they are satisfying both worlds. But in reality, they are just as dead, because such extreme religiosity requires extreme repression of normal instinct in the name of morals. No one wins in these scenarios.

The only way to solve the conundrum is to invent a working mythology of one’s own, or re-invent an existing one. While we share common archetypal ideas, the way that we respond to those ideas will necessarily guide our assumptions about the world, and hence our actions in it. Trying to pump meaning into dead images does not work. Trying to love a deity because you “ought to” does not work. And rejecting the mystery of consciousness and life will leave you empty. A new synthesis has to be found if you want to really live. Not that any one of us has really figured it out yet.


harry said...
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RoboPA said...

Outstanding. Sometimes we need to leave the literal and re-imagine our religion from the realm of images/symbols/myths. What post did you talk about religion as mending the split?

Josh said...

This post is excellent. It breaks down the fundamental problem of the fundamentalist! All religious texts are abstract in their original intent. To understand things abstractly is part of being spiritual. If only more understood this. Thanks for the great post.