Saturday, January 14, 2006

Rolling Back Prices, Rolling Back the Stone

I ran across this article in The New Pantagruel today, entitled "Let's Roll Over". (I found my way to it by La Nouvelle Theologie weblog.) I thought it was helpful in raising the issues and careful in its thinking through them.

It deals with the contradictions and tensions between the content of the faith and participation in capitalist, free-market style economy, and more broadly, liberalism. More specifically, it examines the development of the Beamer Foundation (and Todd Beamer, 9/11 victim's supposed final words, "Let's roll"), and the ways that it has seemed to capitalise -- I use the term advisedly -- on the tragedy of the death of Beamer and others, even trademarking the phrase "Let's roll!", and then licensing it to uses such as a Wal-Mart stockholders' meeting. Part of the article reads:

Whatever their intentions, MacMillan [friend of the late Beamer and now head of the charitable organization bearing his name] and the Beamer Foundation have become part of the chaotic Jesus Market. If they did not know it before September 11, since that time the multi-billion dollar Evangelical media and culture industry has discovered that tragic, professionally-processed faith-stories are a renewable resource. Ben Taylor, writing for Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink website, observed that “Each time America is hit with tragedy, key people seem to step up to remind us of the comfort found in turning to God.” Of course, when they “step up,” a massive commercial structure is ready to amplify the message, with processing, packaging, advertising and possibly lateral merchandising development: CDs, Bible-study guides, and other paraphernalia. The biblical phrase about being called “for such a time as this” is recited so often that it strains all credulity.
The author goes on to examine the perils and tensions of Christian faith in the midst of liberalism. (The paragraph about the "evangelical Barbie" alone is worth whatever time you give the article) It's well worth a read. Two quick notes, however:

First, the essay, I think, is correct in its use of the term "liberalism". I generally try to shy away from this Hydra-like word, which seems to have as many meanings as it has speakers. But here the author uses it to mean not "left-wing", but rather the classical form of liberalism which emphasizes individual liberty over other goods. This is the same sort of liberalism that Stanley Fish is honest about and Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre critique in their own ways.

Second, the author of the essay apparently comes from an evangelical background,and has a tendency to write to and for evangelicals. This is not a criticism per se, but I think that the issues he explores here are relevant, indeed urgent, for any and all Christians, evangelical or otherwise, to wrestle with. It might be that Christians who turn their noses up at evangelical forays into capitalism and marketing, but who otherwise participate in (and drive) the system of global capital and marketing, need to examine and question this implicit division of the world into sacred and secular.

On the other hand, those evangelicals who do not merely bring the market and their faith into conversation but uncritically marry the two (a shotgun wedding, in my view), also need to wrestle more deeply this issue. To separate means and ends (such that one can do whatever, so long as the end is good) is a problem; it seems that, as Christians, we are called to consider both what we are doing and how we do it.

We all need to come to terms with the effects of this system on our world and the ways that it forms our souls.

So it would be a shame if this essay were only read by evangelicals, or conservatives, or whatever. (I'm not sure of the New Pantagruel's intended readership.) Because this is an issue we all need to consider. (So go and read it.)

One final thought (and it is not clear to me whether this is a criticism of evangelicalism or Doug MacMillan): there is a strange sort of at least half-impoverished eschatology at work here. One paragraph in the article reads:
MacMillan finds comfort in the fact that whatever he experiences, it can’t match what Todd must be experiencing. Thinking of what it would be like to talk to Todd and tell him he just talked with Bobby Bowden on the phone, MacMillan imagines Todd would say, “Doug, I’m walking streets of gold.” If MacMillan were to say, “I just got to speak to the Red Sox and the Yankees,” he imagines Todd would say, “Yeah, but I’m up here sitting at the feet of Christ.” What about an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show? Todd would say, “Doug I just touched Christ’s face.”
It is an odd omission here that there is no mention of resurrection, no mention of God's final work to consummate the creation (including God's human creatures), but only a rather sentimentalised of Todd and Jesus. (Even at that, Todd remains untransformed, un-Christlike: he is not shown as praying for his enemies, and although he seems filled with the wonder of worshipping Christ, he is not shown as being overwhelmed with the love that would seem to come from such worship.)

I'll admit that it is a partially effective theological move in refusing to affirm the (ultimate) tragedy of Todd's death, portraying him with Jesus; but it seems to miss the point of God's work in resurrection. That is to say, if Jesus is truly the firstfruits of resurrection, then the point of that is not that we (or our souls, or whatever) get to be "with Jesus" in "heaven", but that we are incorporated, body and soul, into God's ultimate purposes for the creation, and that we will be "raised at the last day" and be part of that reconciliation, that rest, that final shalom. And this theological hope is a way not only of snatching Todd's death from the tragedy of meaninglessness, but also his fellow passengers' deaths. And also the deaths of those who died in the towers. And also the deaths of those who were driven by...whatever...to hijack and crash planes. And the deaths of those who have died in the conflicts that these hijackings gave rise to. And so on. Indeed, this theological hope, of resurrection, reconciliation, shalom, is God's way of redeeming the whole of history from the tragedy of meaninglessness (by giving it all God's meaning, rather than our own). And this would be a much more powerful -- and I think, more faithful -- way of talking about Todd Beamer's death and what God is doing in the world.


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