The Review that Quickly Becomes a Personal Rant

To say the reading’s been going slowly over the past month or so would be a laughable understatement. But behold: one tome has emerged from the stack, its contents ingested from front cover to back. The book? Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, by Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan.

Before I go into a fuller discussion of the thing, let me first make clear that we really do need to hear– and think deeply about– the assertions the authors are making about how religious belief and practice really need to change– to undergo an almost complete reorientation, in fact. I’m down with that opinion 100%, especially with its main component, the need to address class as a primary element of lived faith. Without recognizing how class structure is an essential aspect of an increasingly universal status quo, both maintaining and being maintained by an essentially global oligarchy– and without doing our utmost to change that situation– all of our well-meaning efforts at charity, love, justice, inclusion, etc., etc., really won’t amount to much. It’s the establishment-shattering possibilities within religion that are at the heart of many of our spiritual traditions, and if we’re to honor those traditions, we need to accept and act according to those possibilities.

Superb. Right on. Hallelujah. First problem, though: the book really should have been titled Occupy Christianity. Although the authors do acknowledge that they’re only going to concentrate on their particular faith tradition, and give a nod here and there to some practices in Judaism and Islam, the title isn’t quite honest in terms of the broader issue it purports to address– namely, the need to change religious— and not just Christian religious— practice in general in a more justice-oriented way. This disappointed expectation (at least for me) is profoundly significant. Because as long as we continue to identify “religion” with one religion, it’s a pretty short step from there to one true religion.

But anyway.

Here’s another thing: for readers unaccustomed to contemporary Christian theology, the authors’ assertions about the need to keep the tradition true to its justice-oriented roots might just be mind-blowing, in an admittedly fantastic fashion. Their pointing to the many ways in which mainstream Christianity/Christendom has become complicit with the (oppressive) powers-that-be might be the key to shocking some awareness into earnest Christians as-yet-incognizant of what exactly life lived comfortably within a neoliberal kingdom means. And it might also offer those newly conscious ones vehicles not only of dealing with their ensuing disorientation, and of comforting them that all is not lost, but also of providing new ways to move ahead within their tradition.

Source: Tanya Little

To those even remotely familiar with liberation theologies or the progressive Christianity of, oh, at least the social gospel and especially early feminism and post-colonialism on, these same reminders and assertions are pretty much the same thing we’ve been hearing all along from progressive Christians: rituals focused on active participation and personal story-telling, images of the church body (such as the starfish, prominent here) that better work to value all members and not just elevate the clergy at the expense of everyone else, “leaderfull” engagement as opposed to (apparently) any form of hierarchy whatsoever. The only difference here is that the ideas have assumed new packaging: namely, an association with the latest social justice movement and some (welcome) inspiration from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

Maybe what feels to me like a collection of stale reminders and suggestions, though, is really just a personal frustration at progressive Christians’ need to hold onto/rehabilitate symbols and figures without which their faith would apparently disintegrate. For instance, the Trinity. (Sure, it could provide the image of an interdependence of equals– but so could an ideal commune, without having to resort to divinely ontological guessing games.) For another instance, Paul.(1) There’s admittedly no way to prove my suspicions that his “service as one equal among many” (not a quote from the book or anywhere else, as far as I know), at least as presented in his letters, looks all too much like false humility and pedantry. Were we contemporaries, I could imagine my trying to escape his unctuous presence any chance I got; being around a guy who always seems to have an unsolicited lesson or admonishment ready to hand seems suspect, and produces the same creepy reaction caused by a character such as Uriah Heep or the oily preacher in There Will Be Blood. For a third instance, Timothy, and the apparent need to make excuses for his (and Paul’s; why not backtrack a little) misogyny.

Why hold onto these things, these guys? Out of sentimentality? Out of a fear that peeling off one layer, then another, might lead to a void inside? There are admittedly huge problems with picking and choosing which aspects of your tradition you’ll follow (any number of reactionaries’ selective interpretation of who’s eligible to be loved could provide a good cautionary tale about doing so). And no one’s perfect; good ideas can come from execrable people, and if an individual had to be a pure paragon before s/he were allowed to contribute to society, nothing, good or bad, would ever get done. Perhaps my frustration, then, is simply with a perceived need to adorn a solid message with gilded figures– an inability to act on an imperative (essentially, Micah 6:8: “do justice,… love kindness,… walk humbly with your God”) without imagining some figurative justification for that action. An assumed belief that without some constructed image of divine exemplarity, even the thought of treating each other well could never possibly present itself, much less be acted upon.

Obviously, we’ve got problems. And I’m almost willing to say that whatever knocks us upside the collective head and makes us start solving them is a welcome thing. But my discomfort prevails. If the peaceful side of the ramparts involves sappy rituals and holding onto idols of our own making, well– I’ll probably choose to find a nice cozy cave once we’ve gained a decisive victory over the 1%.

(1) Note the difference between the early Jesus movement and the later construction known as Pauline Christianity.

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