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Universal Monsters and Chainsaw Massacres

December 18, 2013

This post was originally going to be called “The Things I Learned from Watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and was to include, among other things, a lengthy explanation of how the movie should have been an episode of Scooby-Doo (There are traps. There are five kids in a van. There are creepy locals who are obviously guilty. It even has a bad guy in a mask). However, end-of-term busyness kept me from writing it, and I decided to write this instead. You’re welcome.

In this corner, we have the original, 1932 version of The Mummy, starring horror legend Boris Karloff (famous for his role as Frankenstein’s monster). The New York Times called it “one of the most unusual talkies ever produced.” In it, archaeologists accidentally revive the mummy Imhotep, who thinks that the beautiful woman with no personality (Zita Johann) is actually the reincarnation of the ancient Egyptian princess he loved. Unfortunately, she is in love with wholesome young lad (The appropriately named David Manners), who won’t let her go without a fight. The mummy goes on a murderous quest to win back his princess, which finally involves ritually sacrificing her so that she can leave her earthly body and live forever or something like that. Fortunately for her, Isis intervenes at the last minute, destroying the mummy and letting the audience know that the wholesome young lad and the Van Helsing-esque occult expert (Edward Van Sloan) were completely irrelevant to the outcome of the movie. The editing is bad, the dialogue is risible, the story absurd, and the whole film pretty stupid.

In this corner, we have the original, 1972 version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, directed by horror legend Tobe Hooper and starring no one in particular. The Los Angeles Times called it “despicable.” In it, five idiots in a van decide to visit a creepy abandoned house in Texas, and they all get killed, except for one girl who escapes from the creepy house, and rides away in the back of a pickup truck driven by a completely random stranger. That’s pretty much it (other than the creepy gas station owner who looks like a demented Barney Fife).  The editing is bad, the dialogue is risible, the story absurd, and the whole film pretty stupid.

After treating his hideous facial disease left him thousands of dollars in debt, Charlie de Witt had to work as a bank teller by day and lumberjack by night. Sometimes, he forgot to change clothes between jobs.

In 40 years, the world of horror movies changed considerably.  The most obvious difference is the amount of violence. When The Mummy came out, it would have been unthinkable to have Imhotep impale David Manners’ character on a meat hook (this, incidentally, would have probably improved the overall quality of the film). By the time you get to TCSM, “graphic” onscreen violence is already a thing, pioneered by George Romero and Wheaton College alumnus Wes Craven. Today, TCSM is tame stuff compared to its successors (Saw, Hostel, The Murder Room of Death, etc.). One wonders how far directors will have to go before they reach the end of breaking taboos. One quickly stops wondering, because you don’t want to know.

However, the violence, despite its up-front quality, is not the main thing that changed in horror films since the ’30s. The violence is a symptom, not a problem. The overall change between Universal Monster Movies and low-budget slasher films is what I call the horror film’s nihilistic turn. In the years between The Mummy and TCSM, horror movies go from operating in a world ruled by a moral order to a world without a transcendent moral order.

In The Mummy, it is pretty clear who the good guys and bad guys are. The main theme of the movie is the theme of hubris. Cultural critic (he’s a cultural critic now) Jonah Goldberg defines hubris thus:

“Hubris, at least in part, is when you think the rules of the universe really don’t apply to you. Hubris is when you think you are anointed by God, Providence, the Matrix, or your own inner spark of awesomeness to the point where you think you can get out of any knotty situation just because you’re you.”–The Goldberg File, November 22, 2013

One source of hubris in the old monster movies is science. Back in the 30s-50s, science wasn’t just a code word for evolution or a boring class that you had to take along with gym and social studies. The early decades of the 20th century were the halcyon days of technological whizz-bangery. It was cool to be a scientist; everyone wanted to be a scientist, and people who weren’t scientists sometimes pretended they were scientists, like A. J. Ayer. In The Mummy, the characters keep referring to archaeology as “science,” because the Indiana Jones movies hadn’t come out yet, and archaeologists didn’t have fun adventures like scientists did.

“Hey Bob, don’t you wish we had decided to be scientists? We would have Ferrari’s, six figure salaries, women hanging all over us.” “Shut up and look at the pottery shards, Jeff.”

With the growing power of science came a growing fear of science’s abuse, a theme that appears in The Mummy. One professor wants to recover the magical lost scroll because of its value to science, while the Van Helsing wannabe tells him not to because the scroll is evil. The idea that there are some things that science should not do is a recurring theme in old horror movies. The “mad scientist” tries to use his power to change reality and control others; however, because actions have consequences, he eventually has to pay for his crimes. In The Mummy, curiosity about the occult and a desire for scientific domination unleash the wrath of Imhotep upon the modern world.

Science is not the only way that the theme of hubris dominates the old monster movies. The idea of trying to get what you shouldn’t want shows up in Imhotep’s illicit quest to regain his princess. Imhotep is willing to sacrifice the woman in order to achieve eternity with her; however, Zita Johann’s character doesn’t want to spend eternity with Boris Karloff, and in the world of Universal Horror, no means no. Another example of this comes in the original House of Wax starring Vincent PricePrice’s character is an artist whose collection of wax figures was destroyed his friend who wanted to collect the insurance money. In revenge, he starts killing people and making them into wax figures. His pursuit of the most beautiful piece of art (turning the lead female into his statue of Marie Antoinette) leads him to commit horrible crimes, which results in his defeat and death at the hands of his own wax machine. In both of these films, the theme is clear–when man tries to break out of the moral order that governs the world, he will have to face the consequences.

By the time we get to TCSM, we have entered the world of the nihilist horror film. The villains in the old Universal movies were motivated by a desire for science, or art, or revenge. In some cases, those desires were good (Price’s character begins House of Wax as a talented artist), but the pursuit of those desires went against the moral order of the world, and the evil characters were eventually punished. In TCSM, the evil is completely meaningless. The bad guys are not operating in a moral world; instead, they kill without motivation and are not punished for their actions. If TCSM was a Universal Horror picture, Leatherface would have ended the movie by being hoist on his own petard (or cut up with his own chainsaw; your choice). Instead, the bad guys get away with their crimes, with the exception of the creepy dude who gets run over by an eighteen-wheeler. There is no moral order for the bad guys to violate; instead, the film is simply brutal violence without any sense or expectation of retribution and atonement.

On the other hand, we only have to put up with these losers for 90 minutes.

Another component to horror’s nihilistic turn is the change in the way that it treats sexuality. Douglas Wilson once summed up the plot of every horror movie ever as “1. Girl takes clothes off. 2. Monster eats Tokyo.” The interpretation of horror movies as simply the expression of diseased (usually male) sexuality has some merit, but it fails to take into account the nihilist turn from monster movies to slasher movies. In the original monster movies, violence against women was a bad thing. Part of the problem with Imhotep’s love for Helen Grovesnor in The Mummy is that Imhotep is A) coercive and B) dead. It is clear that Imhotep represents the negative effects of sexuality, but this takes place in a morally-ordered world. Imhotep’s creepy longing is juxtaposed with the relationship between Helen Grovesnor and Frank Whemple (David Manners). Fertility within the bonds of a healthy relationship (read: one of the people isn’t a crazy dead guy) is contrasted to the sterility of the evil mummy.

In contrast, newer horror films seem to have a fetish of violence against women. TCSM actually isn’t much of an offender on this count; there’s more guys killed than girls, and not as much gratuitous sexualization of the women as in later movies. Still, a brief look at the horror section of your local Blockbuster will reveal…oh wait. As I was saying, a brief look at the horror section of Netflix will reveal the link that sex ‘n’ violence occupy in the horror genre, evidenced by titles like Zombie Strippers, Strippers Vs. Zombies, and Lesbian Nazi Hookers Abducted by UFOs and Forced Into Weight-Loss Programs (that last one is actually a quote from the Jerry Springer parody in UFH). Take a look at the horror movie section of Wal-Mart and count how many movies look like their basic storyline involves buxom beauties being slashed to bits by [Pick one: 1) Guy in a mask, 2) Genetically enhanced monsters, 3) Sharkosaurus Rex]. Violence against women is now the attraction of horror films. A psychologist could have a field day analyzing the violence against women that is semi-legitimized by the horror movie industry. At the very least, it seems to reflect the fantasies of frustrated male dominance. This sexual component plays a large role in horror’s nihilistic turn. Catholic film critic Stephen Greydanus, summarizing fellow Catholic E. Michael Jones’ ideas, writes,

In the 1940s, when moral taboos against nonmarital sex were much more taken for granted, one might have a film or book in which the wanton were punished and the chaste rewarded, but it would be a morality-tale or parable, not a horror story. As moral norms shifted, however, what was once regarded as sexual immorality became increasingly associated with horror, as slasher films like John Carpenter’s Halloween, the promiscuous die and the virgins survive. The unacceptability of fornication was no longer an idea that enjoyed common acceptance in society, yet on some level society was not entirely reconciled to the new ethic, and the image in the film expressed with inchoate fairy-tale directness something that was felt to be true but could no longer be straightforwardly affirmed.

Even as horror films become more graphic and nihilistic, they continue to express truths that society believes in the dark. Despite its brutality, the cliche that “virgins survive horror films” evidences a backhand respect for chastity. Horror brings out the neuroses of our time and looks them in the face. I’m reminded of an Albert Camus quote that I read today: “Don’t let them tell us stories. Don’t let them say of the man sentenced to death “He is going to pay his debt to society,” but: “They are going to cut off his head.” At their best, horror movies look life’s evil in the eye and call it what it is. Stephen King says,

Horror movies do not love death, as some have suggested; they love life. They do not celebrate deformity, but by dwelling on deformity they sing of health and energy. By showing us the miseries of the damned they help us rediscover the smaller joys of our own lives. They are the barber’s leeches of the psyche, drawing not bad blood but anxiety … for a little while anyway.

However, without presupposing a moral order (like the old Universal Monster Movies), modern horror shows us the “miseries of the damned” without giving us a good example to counter that misery. It becomes exploitation.

Current Listening: Yukon Blonde, Yukon Blonde.

What the Heck Is Wrong With Systems, Anyway? Part 4: Postmodern Christians?

November 15, 2013

In my last post, I took a satirical look at the postmodern philosophers who have been a large influence on the “system-haters.” In this more serious post, I will point out some of the problematic aspects of the relationship between Christianity and postmodern philosophy.

The last post spent a considerable amount of time making fun of how esoteric the French Deconstructionists were. This is an easy joke to make, but their obscurity is also a stumbling block to many interpreters. Put simply: Postmodern philosophy is very hard to understand. This in itself is not problematic; the problem comes when these postmodern ideas start being watered down and disseminated.

A typical “system-hater” might know Derrida from John Caputo. However, reading Caputo on Derrida is not the same as reading Derrida–something is lost in interpretation. And reading Tony Jones on Caputo on Derrida gives even a fainter trace of Derrida’s original ideas. The flow of information goes something like this:

Foucault: “We must therefore reevaluate the meanings assigned to Tuke’s work: liberation of the insane, abolition of constraint, constitution of a human milieu–these are only justifications.” (The Foucault Reader, 145)

Professor: “Foucault’s sociological work focused on the way that society’s discourses affected the marginalized.”

Airy-Voiced Chapel Speaker at a Midwestern Christian Liberal Arts College:”The marginalized…”

The danger of misinterpreting postmodernism are manifold. In his excellent book Graven Ideologies, Bruce Ellis Benson has pointed out some fundamental errors that people have made in interpreting Derrida, some of which were noted by Derrida himself.  For example, Benson notes that Derrida’s claim “there is nothing outside the text” has been interpreted as an affirmation of “the belief that what we call ‘the world’ is merely a construct of our minds” (129). However, Derrida himself attacks this interpretation. Benson writes,

Consider Derrida’s own gloss of that statement: “‘There is nothing outside the text’ means nothing else [but]: there is nothing outside context.” (136). He goes on to criticize anyone who would read this phrase as implying that “all referents are suspended, denied, or enclosed in a book” as “naive” (148). (Benson 129)

Or take another one of Derrida’s supposedly monstrous claims: “There is ‘no center which arrests and grounds the play’ (WD 289)” (Benson 129). R.V. Young has read Derrida’s anti-metaphysical bent as a direct attack upon God–metaphysics sneaks God in the back door, so it has to be destroyed. I think there is some validity to Young’s reading, but Derrida himself would contest this reading.

As Derrida puts it, the characterization of the deconstructionist as “skeptic-relativist-nihilist” is ‘”false (that’s right: false, not true) and feeble; it supposed a bad (that’s right: bad, not good) and feeble reading of numerous texts, first of all mine” (146). (Benson 131).

A philosophy professor like Benson who has the leisure to read Limited, inc. is able to see through these bad readings of Derrida. Someone who isn’t inclined to closely read Derrida (or Benson), on the other hand, runs the risk of creatively misinterpreting his work. Derrida’s idea that “there is no center” might be transmogrified into a defense of panentheism. A “false and feeble” reading of Of Grammatology or Writing and Differance could lead to false and feeble readings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Of course, the problem isn’t reading Derrida, but in failing to understand him. But when it comes to misinterpreting Derrida’s words, the possibilities are endless–which is a hermeneutic route Derrida wouldn’t approve of.

Another problematic aspect of Christianity’s engagement with postmodernism is the uncritical, un-suspicious attitude that some Christians have when reading postmodern philosophy. As Brian Mattson pointed out, the first people we should be deconstructing are Derrida and Foucault–they certainly weren’t operating from a Christian viewpoint. Although I can’t completely endorse R.V. Young’s “Derrida vs. God” narrative in At War With The Word, I can’t totally adopt John Caputo’s view of Derrida as a quasi saint in Philosophy and Theology (Both are very good books, by the way). To paraphrase Doug Wilson, we need to study postmodern philosophers like Wellington studied Napoleon, not like Lydia studied Wickham.

Related to that is the problem of Christians rushing to embrace postmodernists too eagerly. The sense that I get from reading some Christian philosophers is that “the jig is up” for traditional Christianity: Heidegger, Derrida, et al, have destroyed metaphysics and the old ways of understanding, and now we have to revise Christianity to make it “fit” all these new ways of doing philosophy. I’m not really clear how a Heideggerian or other framework will make Christianity better–after all, Heidegger was hardly operating from a Christian base. And why do we necessarily have to use a “postmodern” framework? Why not a Thomistic/Aristotelian one? Why not even a Platonist framework?

The danger is that postmodernism will become another Christian intellectual fad that takes an idea that the unbelieving world has come up with and then tried to square it with Christianity. It has happened many times. Think Christian Neoplatonism. Think “Muscular Christianity.” Think “Death of God” theology. Think of all those terrible Christian pop-punk bands from the early 2000s. We don’t want this to happen again.

There are problematic aspects to Christianity’s convergence with postmodernism. But “problematic” just means “having problems,” and problems presuppose solutions. I think that there is good in reading postmodern philosophy. But we must read carefully, discerningly, and (to a degree) dispassionately, being “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Postmodernism lies at the door; it’s desire is for us, but we should rule over it.

This concludes the main part of “What the Heck is Wrong With Systems, Anyway?” The series will continue–the next installment will look at Rob Bell–but I want to get back to doing some non-sequential posts on the blog.

Recommended Reading:

Philosophy and Theology by John Caputo. Good book: short, easy to read, sympathetic to Derrida.

At War With The Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education by R. V. Young, especially Chapter 2: “Deconstruction and the Fear and Loathing of Logos.” Young’s take on Derrida is very negative.

Graven Ideologies: Nietzche, Derrida, and Marion on Modern Idolatry by Bruce Ellis Benson, especially Chapter 5: “Deconstruction and Justice.” More favorable to Derrida than Young, but not quite as favorable as Caputo.

Of course, nothing beats reading the original texts.

Differences Between The Three Main Apologetic Schools

October 23, 2013

How Presuppositionalists view themselves.

How others view Presuppositionalists.

How Evidentialists view themselves.

How others view Evidentialists

How Fideists view themselves

How others view Fideists

For those of you fed up with the Buzzfeed-esque quality of the last few posts, the next edition of “What the Heck is Wrong With Systems, Anyway?” will be much more academic in tone.

 

What the Heck is Wrong with Systems, Anyway, Part 3: Enter the Deconstructionists

October 22, 2013

She was a young, naive church girl. He was a dashing Frenchman. Her parents told her that he was dangerous, immoral–a very devil. But they didn’t know him like she knew him. To her, he was kind, gentle. And he was wise, so wise. After she had known him, she could never go back to her provincial ways. She ran away with him without telling her parents, and they went to live in Paris. Soon, however, she began to have second thoughts. He was often kind, but occasionally he seemed possessive. He began to get angry with her when she disagreed with what he said. She realized that the urban sophisticate who had promised her a new life had not quite delivered on his promise. She was worried, but she still loved him, and did not know what she should do.

Is this the story of a 1940s blockbuster film? No–it’s the story of the Church’s relationship with postmodernism.

While the Nietzche’s influence on the Church has been fairly subtle (few Christians want to declare their allegiance to the world’s most notorious atheist), many followers of Jesus have eagerly embraced the ideas of “postmodernism,” or, at the very least, have been itching to engage with them. Among these “postmodern Christians” would be the philosophers Merold Westphal, James K. A. Smith, Bruce Ellis Benson, and Derrida groupie John Caputo. In another category, we can put the theologians who incorporate or engage with continental philosophy in their work, such as Michael Scott Horton and Peter Leithart. Finally, in a third category, there are the “postmoderns,” the square-glasses, hipster, “system-hating” crowd that has been the main target in this series. They’re hard to pin down, but some examples might be Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Christian Piatt, Rachel Held Evans, and “The Ordinary Radicals” (Chan, Platt, Claiborne).

But what is postmodernism? In this series, postmodernism or French Deconstruction will refer to the ideas of a group of mostly French continental philosophers: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, and Paul de Man. Hans-Georg Gadamer, author of Truth and Method, is also viewed as one of the Founding Fathers of postmodernism, but since I am unfamiliar with his work, I will not be referencing him much in the coming posts.

Sorry, Hans. Maybe next time.

However, before we begin, we need to clear up some misinformation about postmodernism. Oftentimes pastors and church leaders on the conservative side  will  use the term “postmodern” to describe anything they don’t like (see the works of Nancy Pearcy). Like “Gnostic,” it is a helpful catch-all that sends a simple message–this is bad. However, it’s hard to see what relation Pulp Fiction, and Miley Cyrus have to continental philosophy.

Lacan’s ideas came in like a wrecking ball.

In the same way, Christians from the liberal/emergent side use the term “postmodern” to describe things that they like; however, their ideas have almost nothing to do with actual postmodern philosophy. As a friend ranted to me, “These people who call themselves postmodern don’t actually read Gadamer or Derrida.”

Another unhelpful but prevalent idea  is that postmodernism has to do with something called “relativism.” Relativism is often portrayed as the cause of all moral decay in our time (see the works of Nancy Pearcy). But relativism isn’t so much a coherent philosophical position as it is a state of mind–specifically a state of mind only attained after several bong hits. If you’re stoned, the statement “there is no truth” is probably the deepest thing in the world; if you’re sober, it makes no sense. And it doesn’t accurately describe the philosophical positions of Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, Lacan, et al.

Derrida’s Of Grammatology is just the gateway drug to Descartes’ Discourse on Meth

Along with “relativism,” the word “Deconstructionism” is often thrown around. Deconstructionism is often seen as the very hand of Satan at work in the humanities–the idea that there is no meaning in a text. But that’s not actually what Derrida was saying in his work, and Deconstruction isn’t a quasi-demonic ideology of nihilism. Deconstruction is simply a method of analysis. John Caputo writes, “Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell–a secure axiom or a pithy maxim–the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility.” One could offer a basic and oversimplified definition of Deconstruction as looking at an object of analysis with the maximum amount of suspicion possible in order to gain some insight into it. And even though this might lead to a mindset of perpetual suspicion, the tool is not to be blamed for the misbehavior of the owner, any more than a punching bag can be blamed for making someone punch-drunk.

The saga of the French Deconstructionists reads like a bad soap opera. Michel Foucault hated Jacques Derrida, who hated him. Derrida and Jacques Lacan had an ongoing rivalry that resulted in a long, boring, back and forth argument over Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter.” Paul de Man was a thoroughly nasty character who spent his formative years passing out Nazi leaflets in occupied Belgium and his later years cheating on his wife; ironically, his biggest defender was Jacques Derrida, who was Jewish. Michel Foucault died under mysterious circumstances–it is rumored that when he found out he had AIDS, he tried to spread it to as many other people as possible, in order to show that he wasn’t bound by any social conventions. But that might not be true, and he could have died by drowning in the bathtub. The only thing that could have made the story of the Deconstructionists any more melodramatic would be a raging, Verlaine-and-Rimbaud-style affair between Deleuze and Lyotard. At any rate, the Deconstructionists are tame compared to Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, the bad boys of analytic and existentialist philosophy.

The Deconstructionists also weren’t especially hostile to religion. Both Lyotard and Derrida were Jewish (Derrida didn’t practice), and Derrida moved closer to Christianity (or at least theism) later in his life. Lacan was somewhat hostile to religion due to his background as a Freudian psychologist, but no more than Hume or Kant. And Foucault loved I Corinthians 9:27.

The important question that Christians need to ask about the Deconstructionists is, “Is anyone actually reading this stuff.” Continental Philosophy is not known for its lucidity. Consider this selection from Derrida:

This is why one perhaps could say that the movement of any archaeology, like that of any eschatology, is an accomplice of this reduction of the structurality of structure and always attempts to conceive of structure on the basis of a full presence which is beyond play (“Structure, Sign, and Play, Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings, 218).

Derrida doesn’t need a refutation; he needs an editor. Occasionally in his writings, he switches his voice from bureaucratic to sophomoric:

The crude word, fight with him in this way over what’s crude, as though first of all I liked to raise the stakes, and the expression ‘raise the stakes’ belongs only to my mother, as though I were attached to him so as to look for a fight over what talking crude means, as though I were trying relentlessly, to the point of bloodshed, to remind him, for he knows it, cur confitemur Deo scienti, of what is demanded of us by what’s crude, doing so thus in my tongue, the other one, the one that has always been running after me…(Derridabase/Circumfession, Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, 3)

If you can understand this, please share your drugs with others. And speaking of drugs, this comes from Derrida’s Circumfession, which is a reply to Geoffrey Bennington’s Derridabase, which sounds like it should be an expensive brand of French cocaine. Bennington’s book is an attempt to “describe, according to the pedagogical and logical norms to which he holds, if not the totality of J.D.’s thought, then at least the general system of that thought.” Perhaps Bennington can help make Derrida’s thought more clear:

“Contemporary,” contemporaneus, cum tempus, with (the) time(s). Derrida thinks with (the) time(s), not at all in that he represents the spirit of the times (“postomdern,” post-philosophical,” so they say), but in that the time he thinks he dislocates all contemporaneity. Unhappy he who claims to be his own contemporary. Derrida does not: I would imagine him, rather, with Plato and a few other, at Heliopolis, in Egypt (Derridabase/Circumfession, 8).

Perhaps not. Foucault said that Derrida was the kind of philosopher who gave BS a bad name. Then again, Foucault isn’t always the most lucid either:

…the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction. In fact, if we are accustomed to presenting the author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention, it is because, in reality, we make him function in exactly the opposite fashion (“What is an Author?,” The Foucault Reader, 118-119).

It may seem like a cheap shot to make fun of how tangled and confusing postmodern prose is. I don’t want to be dismissive of Derrida, et al. However, it is precisely their intentionally obscure prose style that leads to some of the problems that occur when the Church and postmoder philosophy meet. In the next post, I will look at some of the problems that postmodern philosophy’s influence on the Church has created, particularly in reference to the hatred of systems.

Recommended reading:

  • Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings, especially “The end of the book and the beginning of writing,” “The pharmakon,” and “Structure, Sign and Play in the discourse of the human sciences”
  • Derridabase/Circumfession by Jacques Derrida and Geoffrey Bennington (worth reading for the trancelike state created by the non-linear prose style.)
  • The Foucault Reader
  • Graven Ideologies: Nietczhe, Derrida, & Marion on Modern Idolatry by Bruce Ellis Benson

What the Heck is Wrong With Systems, Anyway, Part 2: Nietzche is Alive

October 7, 2013

“I distrust all systematizers and stay out of their way. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” (Twilight of the Idols, “Epigrams and Arrows,” 6).

To get to the root of the hatred of systems that we looked at earlier, it is important to go back to the source. Friedrich Nietzche would not seem to be a friend of the Christian square-glasses crowd. However, both share a similar hatred of systems that I think is problematic. In this blog post, I will briefly explore Nietzche’s hatred of systematizers, and see how it can lead to some negative consequences.

The real reason Christian hipsters like Nietzche isn’t because of his ideas–it’s because of that sweet ‘stache!

Before I continue, I want to make an important admission.  I am not a philosopher. I am not even a philosophy major. My experience with Nietzche consists of reading Also Sprach Zarathustra, and snippets of his other works. In this essay, I will be cribbing a lot of the content from Bruce Ellis Benson’s excellent book Graven Ideologies: Nietzche, Derrida & Marion on Modern Idolatry. Given my relative inexperience in the world of Nietzche, I can’t be absolutely certain that my interpretation of him is correct (Christian Piatt is relieved). However, I will do the best I can, and I am open to criticism from anyone who understands Nietzche better than I.

Let’s begin with a famous Nietzche quote, from Beyond Good and Evil

Just suppose that the truth is a woman–what then? is not the suspicion well founded that all philosophers, to the extent they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? that the ghastly seriousness, the clumsy obtrusiveness by which they have until now approached truth have been inept and improper ways of winning a wench? Certainly she has not let herself be won–and every sort of dogmatism stands sad and discouraged. If it continues to stand at all.

Strong words coming from a guy who never had a girlfriend. Bruce Benson follows this up with some helpful commentary,

While his stereotypes of men and women are questionable, the contrast that he uses them to draw is clear in at least one respect. On the account he seems to assume here, women are far more complex and unpredictable than supposedly reliable, logical, and straightforward men. Thus, if truth is like a woman, then it is subtle and elusive. There is always something about truth that escapes our grasp, something we cannot categorize and arrange neatly in a system. And precisely because it escapes our grasp, we cannot draw a sharp line between what we do know and what we do not know (65).

In other words, if Nietzche was casting director for Philosophy: The MovieTruth would be played by Zooey Deschanel.

Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer

In “500 Days of Lent,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young Calvinist who falls in love with a beautiful free spirit. He later breaks up with her because she doesn’t believe in paedocommunion.

Nietzche’s concept of truth as “subtle and elusive” seems congenial to Christians. After all, we believe that truth is contained in a person (Jesus), and that not all truths can be or have to be proved “logically.” But, I think that Nietzche is offering up a dangerously deflated concept of truth. He has picked the wrong feminine stereotype. Truth isn’t so much a manic pixie dream girl as it is a nagging housewife. It is always telling us that we are wrong.

I may like to believe that two plus two equals five, but it doesn’t. There are truths in science that I don’t particularly care for–I think geocentrism is a way cool theory of cosmology–but I have to submit to their reality. As a Christian, there are things that I read in the Bible that I don’t understand or don’t want to understand, but if I am going to call myself a Christian. Truth tells us that we can’t eat as much as we want and not get fat. Truth tells us that calling our ex at two in the morning while drunk is not a good idea. Truth tells us that we are not as smart, tough, or sophisticated as we think we are. And that is an unpleasant message.

This confrontational aspect of truth can give rise to self-deception. This is an area that Nietzche knows well. He writes

I call a lie: wanting not to see something one does see, wanting not to see something as one sees it; whether the lie takes place before witnesses or without witnesses is of no consequence. The most common lie is the lie one tells to oneself; lying to others is relatively the exception (The Antichrist 55).

Nietzche correctly notes that we all try to avoid the mental confrontation that unpleasant truths thrust upon us. One way of avoiding this confrontation would simply be to ignore it. However, another way of avoiding this would be to try to downplay the idea of truth. Nietzche is very upfront about this–at one point in his writings he asks the question “Why truth? Why not untruth?” I don’t think that the Christian system-haters are deliberately trying to escape from what they know is true. But I do think that their devaluing of the idea of truth (and propositional truth in general) can at least facilitate self-deception, regardless of whether it springs from good or bad motives.

It is all well and good to say that you have no truth, you have no ideology, and you have no system. The problem is that devaluing truth or ideologies or systems doesn’t do away with them. Too often, it leads to a shadow ideology, an idea hidden under the disguise of neutrality or transcendence. For example, whenever someone claims that, politically speaking, they are neither on the right or the left, they are almost always lying–how many Republican policies have you seen Jim Wallis endorse lately? However, many of those people don’t even know that they are lying. They honestly think that they are occupying a higher dimension of political thought. This dismissal of ideology is a powerful weapon in a debate–I am only motivated by a concern for everyone’s welfare, while my opponent is working to promote narrow party interests.

Once you renounce systematic theology, you will be surrounded by thousands of tiny butterflies. It happened to Rob Bell. It can happen to you.

Tony Jones and Brian McLaren may decry propositional truths, but they both have propositional truths that they hold to, such as “Save the Whales.” Even the most stringent emergent has a dogma. One could easily come up with a systematic theology for haters of systematic theology. It matters very little whether one has a system or not–what matters is whether the system conforms to truth. The problem with fashionable system-hating in theology is that it opens the door to smuggling in ideas under the cover of “no-dogma,” regardless of whether the ideas are coherent or biblical. The supposed neutral zone presupposed by the hatred of systems doesn’t exist. We all hold to a dogma, and we all need to be on our guard, lest we lie to ourselves.

St. Thomas’ Guide to Life

September 21, 2013

The words “Self-Help” are usually associated with authors and speakers like Tony Robbins, Michael Hyatt, Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, and Oprah. The self-help genre is filled with writings ranging from wisdom to fluff, with the fluff tending to dominate. Most people looking for a book that will help them live their life will look to a 200 page self-help book rather than a 3,000 page work of theology. Trainers, celebrities and “life coaches” are often sought for their advice on life. People rarely look to saints.

But the saints have many surprisingly practical words of advice for us, ones we would do well to take to heart. One of these comes from St. Thomas Aquinas and his massive book, the Summa Theologiae. In Summa I,5,6, the question titled “Whether Goodness is Rightly Divided into the Virtuous, the Useful, and the Pleasant?”, he writes:

…in the movement of the appetite, the thing desired that terminates the movement of the appetite relatively, as a means by which something tends towards another, is called the useful; but that sought after as the last thing absolutely terminating the movement of the appetite, as a thing towards which for its own sake the appetite tends, is called the virtuous; for the virtuous is that which is desired for its own sake; but that which terminates the movement of the appetite in the form of rest in the thing desired, is called the pleasant…”

Peter Kreeft explains this passage:

The thesis that there are only these three kinds of good [virtuous, useful, pleasant] is radical and practical, for it means that there are only three reasons why anyone should ever do anything: because it is morally virtuous, practically necessary, or fun. How much of what we do is not good by this standard? (E.g., doing things just because ‘everyone is doing it,’ or because it is ‘expected’,) St. Thomas’ classification of goods is a philosophical justification for a wonderful simplification of our lives.

What are some of the practical ways that this principle can simplify our lives?

For starters, it can get rid of a lot of the pressure that comes with having to conform. Obviously, there’s the example of high school students who simply must have the newest Xbox 720 or Tommy Hilfiger Jeans (clearly I have not been keeping up with pop culture). However, there are more subtle ways that this happens. As a music fan, I often feel a subtle pressure to “keep up” with all the new music that I haven’t listened to yet. There’s a voice in my head that keeps telling me that I should go listen to the new Alt-J album instead of the Matthew Perryman Jones CD that I know I like, because the Alt-J album is new, and I can cross it off my never-ending list of bands to listen to. This sort of thinking leads me into listening to all sorts of bands not because I actually like them, but because they are new, or worse, “important.” St. Thomas’ classification of goods (henceforth referred to as “The Thomas Principle”) keeps me from falling into that trap. If I prefer to listen to The Dave Matthews Band over Black Flag, so much the worse for Black Flag.

Another thing it can get rid of is intellectual pressure. At my college, I hear a lot of talk about how “everyone here is so competitive about grades.” I myself am not particularly competitive about grades. I am, however, competitive about knowledge. It is easy for people with an intellectual bent to feel that they have to be the smartest person in the room. This can result in a frantic search for knowledge motivated more by a fear of ignorance than a love of truth. I have to read these books on political science, even though I’m not studying it, because I can’t be ignorant of it. I have to write a better essay than everyone else, because I have to be the best student in school, because I have to save Western civilization, all by myself. This kind of striving after intellectual achievement is precisely the kind of thing that keeps intellectual achievement from actually happening. Anyone who is frantically trying to be “the best” in a given area will end up being more focused on the process of succeeding than on the thing he is actually succeeding in.

Yet another thing that the Thomas Principle can help us avoid is false penance. I suspect a lot of people do things, not because they want to, but because they feel like they are making up for some defect of character by doing it. Because I, or someone else, has done something very bad, therefore I need to “do something about it,” even if that thing isn’t particularly helpful. I feel bad about not hanging out with my friends enough, so I’ll watch Mean Girls with them, even though I know I’m going to hate it. I feel bad about hanging out with my friends too much, so tonight I’ll just sit in my room alone. I have a feeling that much of what we call “political correctness” comes from this sort of feeling. I feel vaguely guilty about the Holocaust, therefore, I must get very offended by Jewish jokes.

A final thing that the Thomas Principle can help us avoid is what might be called “misguided individualism”–the idea that “personal integrity” is worth preserving above all else. “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul” says the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. “I did it My Way” sang Elvis Presley. The idea is that the most important thing in life is to “be yourself,” to “follow your heart,” to stand by your convictions simply because they are yours, to cherish your “individuality” and independence as the greatest of all virtues. “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven” says Milton’s Satan. It’s an attractive idea, perhaps even a beautiful one.

There are, however, two problems with this mindset. 1.) It’s stupid, and 2.) it’s miserable.

This mindset is the idea that, if I want to stick a fork into an electrical outlet, then dammit I’m going to stick a fork into an electrical outlet! The fact that I will get electrocuted if I do it is not consequential–it’s my idea and I want to do it. This attitude manifests itself in different ways. For example, I happen to get really bothered by the mandatory chapels at my college. There’s worship music with four chords and prayers thanking God for things. People are happy. Oh no, a girl just raised her hands and closed her eyes! I can’t be part of this. This will ruin my rebellious, free-thinking, punk-rock persona that I’ve built up in my minds. If I actually act sincere about my belief, I will be doing what everyone else is doing and it will be Groupthink. Worse yet, it will be corny. I can’t do this. I saw the Angry Samoans once! I’ve got street cred! I’ve got…(long pause as I rationalize my behavior to myself)…I’ve got to be myself! I hate chapel! I hate Anglicans! Look how rebellious I am!

This is pathetic for several reasons. First, it’s conducted to an audience of one–myself. No one else is buying my “I’m-so-cool” act. If anyone is noticing me, they’re probably seeing me make several pained facial expressions as I listen to the chaplain’s speech. Second, it’s very fake. It’s not as if I was an actual rebel against the college and its administration. I’m simply being a jerk. And finally, it doesn’t achieve anything good. It’s not practically necessary at all. It’s definitely not fun. And there is nothing inherently morally superior in being glum and gloomy all the time. The whole act reeks of self-absorption. It is, in fact, an act of idolatry.  The Thomas Principle can help me avoid such stupid moments in my life, and move on to better things.

Memo: We Can’t Let This Happen Again

September 21, 2013

Retrieved from the archives of the National Security Agency

From: Wormwood@my.hades.edu

To: [Undisclosed Recipient]@my.bleaton.edu

Subject: We Can’t Let This Happen Again

My Dear [Name Withheld],

It comes to my attention that someone (our intelligence has not yet been able to tell us who) has been reading some books on campus. This alone is bad enough, but it happens that these book are classified as Level-Three Very Dangerous. We need to make sure that whoever has them is not reading them.

Records show that some of these books came from the library, an institution that we’ve been trying to shut down for years. Our demons in the Department of Illiteracy have made some excellent progress, but they have yet to force the libraries to close their doors. In the meantime, we can at least make sure that we keep certain books from actually being read.  For example, I noticed from the records that someone checked out The Noonday Demon by R. R. Reno. Reno has been a thorn in our side for years, and it seems there is no getting rid of him. His essays in that book are measured, compelling, confident and charitable–exactly what we don’t want from our religious writers. We want their prose to be more like [Name Witheld] or [Name Witheld]–angry, divisive, petty, outrageous. We need people from the evangelical Left and Right to focus more on demonizing their opponents and whipping up the masses into a frenzy than actually searching for truth. Plus, the title essay in the collections threatens to destroy all the work that we’ve done in the field of academia. Who would have thought that a puny human would realize that the academy’s emphasis on “critical distance” and “cultural relativism” could be concealing the deadly sin of sloth. I shudder to think it.

And speaking of sloth, you need to make sure that no one reads The Noonday Demon: Recognizing and Conquering the Deadly Sin of Sloth by John Blackwell. He’s a Methodist, but he’s not one of our Methodists. His entire book is a call to action to try and recognize the different kinds of sloth. I have a fear that anyone who reads his book will draw closer to the Enemy. This book could destroy everything that the Department of Distraction has been working on for the last 50 years. We need to keep those humans from thinking about sloth at all. If they ever do think about it, we need to do our best to keep them thinking that sloth simply means not working. What I wouldn’t give for a whole campus full of workaholic students, rushing about from thing to thing, vaguely aware of a crushing sense of need and despair, but too busy to do anything about it.

Another book to watch out for is Henry Fairlie’s The Seven Deadly Sins Today. It is one of the most devastating exposes of sin, written by an unbeliever, no less–I still don’t know how we let that one slip by. Our Research and Development department spent many years creating and perfecting the powerful weapon known as the “self-help book.” This book is a potent antidote to that. Every sentence in the book is dangerous. Just look at this statment: “Once again the puritan makes the mistake of thinking that to have sex continually on view is the incitement to it. It in fact weakens the feelings and passions that sex can and should arouse.” This is most assuredly not what we need. It takes a great deal of care to convince someone either that sex is a bad, or that it is the only Good. In the five seconds that it takes to read those sentences, Henry Fairlie could destroy years of hard work. And the book is full of sentences like that.

Worst of all, I noticed that someone on campus is reading Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, using Peter Kreeft’s 500-page abridged version Summa of the Summa. On no account should anyone read Aquinas. He is a Level-One dangerous author. We want people to believe that St. Thomas believed more in “pure reason” than in faith, that he was kind of a half-hearted Christian, but a full-hearted metaphysician. If someone actually reads Aquinas, they will found out that he is quite the opposite. The same goes for all the saints and philosophers. Keep on spreading the ideas that Nietzche was a madman, that Sartre and Kierkegaard are depressing, that Descartes was stupid, that Anselm’s Ontological Argument isn’t sound, that Luther hated Jews and Calvin burned Servetus, that the Wesleys believed in Free Will and that George Whitfield didn’t, that John Yoder hated America and that R. J. Rushdoony loved it. So on and so forth. We don’t really want people to have a serious, well-developed opinion on a particular philosophical or theological opinion. Instead, we want them to think using a series of ten or twelve pre-packaged slogans that they bring up during a conversation. Plato? “Wasn’t he a racist?” Augustine? “He was influenced by Neoplatonism.” See what I mean?

I don’t even want to think about what will happen to someone who is reading Herman Dooyeweerd’s In The Twilight of Western Thought.

Do everything you can to make sure that these books aren’t being read. Your colleagues in the Department of Social Media are there to assist you whenever you need their help in distracting your clients.

As Always, Your Affectionate Uncle

Wormwood.

[End of Transcript]