Monday 29 June 2015

Theological Feudalism

Let them read Barth!
Ex-fundamentalists (a tribe to which I belong) often get a lot of stick from the theoristocrats, those who have attained a tenured place at the top table in Christian discourse without acquiring the deep scars that come from living through a biblicist nightmare.

These theoristocrats (a term that isn't entirely new, though the usage I'm putting it to may be) are invariably decent, much studied, perceptive sorts. They rightly appreciate that 'truth' is a nuanced concept, and that one person's truth may not be another's. They also tend to dialogue among their peers rather than bothering over-much with the common herd. Indeed, many eschew entirely the 'popular' contributions to their field even when those attempting this feat are as qualified as themselves. 'Popular' is a term of disdain.

And hey, all power to them. But I have a problem when these privileged few summarily discount the experiences of those not so fortunate.

The 'common herd' obviously make up the overwhelming majority of Christian believers. So those ex-fundamentalists or ex-evangelicals are not reacting to a straw man or a caricature of Christian faith, as is often implied. They're reacting to what is increasingly the most common, most virulent form. And reacting is not only their right, it's their responsibility.

If you doubt that, kindly take a hike - down to your local Christian book store. Browse the shelves looking for titles by Bultmann, Tillich or even (shudder) Barth. Good luck with that. What you will find is 'prophecy', creationism, below-the-belt moralism, biblicism and lashings of prosperity-gospel merchandise.

Or tune in, if you dare, to a Christian radio station or TV channel. Chances are you'll find the anti-intellectualism setting ratcheted up all the way to 'lethal'.

This is a world the ivory-towered theoristocrats seem in denial about. They're highly reasonable individuals, all too often willing to smile down benignly, paternalistically, on the eccentricities of the hoi polloi. Occasionally one of these Titans might suggest "let them read Barth," which is about as useful as Marie Antoinette's apocryphal advice to "let them eat cake."

(Not that I'm recommending anyone should read Barth. God forbid! Stay well clear of that one.)

I appreciate the need for rigorous scholarship, and that a lot of academic writing in this field (as any other) will of necessity be couched in terms not entirely accessible to those outside the discipline. That's life. The problem arises when there is no concomitant responsibility to communicate effectively in plain English (or German, French or Swahili for that matter) to the stakeholders who underwrite the whole enterprise; the people who - knowing no better - go out and buy books and downloads by Franklin Graham, Creflo Dollar, David Jeremiah and Joyce Meyer.

So when those who have survived the abusive, intellectual ghettoes speak out, they deserve much more than snootiness in return. They certainly don't need to hear a chorus of "let them read Barth." Bugger Barth!

Back to those Christian book stores and broadcasters plying sub-standard goods. The real question is, what are the theoristocrats doing about it? What? All too often the only response seems to be a softly whispered apologetic (in both senses) disclaimer.

And that's not good enough.

If those at the top table were doing their job rather than enjoying their sinecures there would be less need for the ex-fundamentalist voice to be heard. Until that occurs (sometime the other side of the Second Coming I expect) that voice will - and must - continue to be raised.


  1. Great post. What it boils down to, in many cases, is that the prisoner of a fundamentalist upbringing simply has no recourse to learn a non-fundamentalist version of his or her own religion, short of attending divinity school. Who's going to teach you otherwise? Not your pastor, that's for sure. Not the books at the Christian bookstore, which, as you say, is fully stocked with Creationist chicanery, faith-healing hucksters, and Case for Christ apologetics pablum.

    For me, the life jacket was Bart Ehrman of all people. Here's a scholar who treads where few theoristicrats dare to go, publishing popular books (bestsellers at that) full of mainstream knowledge every academic and theologian worth his salt knows, but which the religious gatekeepers desperately want to keep hoi polloi from hearing. At last, an authoritative voice who isn't trying to sell me doctrinal snake oil or induct me into his religious tribe. Misquoting Jesus made me start reading my Bible again.

  2. Incidentally, Looking forward to the next installment of your Barth series

  3. The problem, I have always said, is that religion in America is a capitalist enterprise. The products supplied are what is demanded. By products, I mean not only religious books and paraphernalia but also the denominations themselves. Mark Noll wrote a book called "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." My guess is that it was not a big seller. But the "Prayer of Jabez" was a run-away hit that spun off all kinds of products such as plaques and prayer shawls and song books. Very few people read theology or are familiar with the issues of theology in my experience.

    The market does not support the Mark Nolls. It supports authors who tell people what they want to hear. So the marketplace has done much to define Christianity in America. And the people speak through the market. How is it that the academic elite should oppose this great market force.

    Rob Bell wrote a book that radically redefined how hell would be implemented. It was a more gracious view. Evangelicals hated him for this. I believe the ranks of evangelicals are populated by the nominal - people who regard Christianity as their personal Sunday-morning social club. People who could never be happy in heaven unless they knew their enemies were in hell. People who would not only never read Barth but would never read the New Testament.

    -- Neotherm

  4. "- go out and buy books and downloads by Franklin Graham, Creflo Dollar, David Jeremiah and Joyce Meyer"
    That's funny, but sadly it's where the big money is today because intellectuals have long abandoned Christianity.
    Leaving these hucksters to manipulate the uncritical working-class masses.

  5. At some point I read somewhere that Franz Kafka would come to work and read what he had just written the night before to his coworkers. He would then laugh. Apparently, he had a rather droll, dry sense of humor. He was poking fun at the bureaucracy and stupidity it represented, populating his fiction with protagonists on some sort of quest, only to be distracted off track and end up wondering if the object of the quest even existed.

    At the same time, there have been endless analysis of his writings, often mainly focusing on his psychology wondering what dark hidden meanings of life he intended to convey. The academic elite completely missed the point, living as they do in their ivory towers of abstract analysis of irrelevancy.

    It is my believe that theoristocrats are of this ilk: Ensconced in their ivory towers, pursuing theoretical meaning of that which has been proven suspect and in their lofty positions have no empathy, yeah, not one shred of understanding of the Proles they see in the distant as ants crawling around in the dirt. They have no concern for the hoi polloi and are without either mercy or compassion for those badly mistreated by those who use the Bible as a weapon to enslave and persecute the helpless.

    I find it inexorably amusing that these people would see themselves as superior as we sift through the ashes of Christianity. I find them utterly useless except as yet another example of those of self-perceived status experts of that which is at best questionable.

    At least they would be fairly well qualified to evaluate the nuances of various translations of Franz Kafka's works without understanding the original language in which they were written. I would be fascinated on their take of the meaning of The Castle. Did K ever make it in to the Castle? Does it really exist? Well these are questions enquiring minds want to know.

    Along with the viability of the Bible as the Word of God.

    Wait a minute! I think I have a word to describe the theoristocrats: Amusing but worthless.