Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Evolution of Jesus—Religion as Ideology, Part 2

By Craig Martin

This series of posts is excerpted from a chapter from a forthcoming book titled After “World Religions”: Reconstructing Religious Studies, edited by Christopher R. Cotter and David G. Robertson.

The course in which I can most easily approach “religion” using ideology critique is one titled, provocatively, “The Evolution of Jesus,” instead of, e.g., “Christianity.” We begin the course rather traditionally by focusing on first or second century texts. I offer a historical-critical reading of the texts, situating them in the contexts in which they were written, and showing how Jesus was presented both as an apocalyptic prophet and a teacher with secret knowledge of the “light” that will enable us to gain eternal life; the figure of Jesus was contested even at the so-called “origin” of Christianity.

The historical-critical reading is in part intended to denaturalize the Jesus they already know; I take great pains to contrast the Jesus in the gospels with the Jesus of contemporary popular imagination. Whereas the popular version of Jesus is, e.g., all about love or salvation from sins, the authors who wrote Mark was clearly more interested in, e.g., abandoning family and friends in preparation for an apocalyptic event expected to arrive in his own lifetime. Such a Jesus is likely of little use for most contemporary readers situated in an industrial or post-industrial society. Consequently, the remainder of the course focuses on how the figure of Jesus is creatively transformed in modern contexts.

I provide students with the critical, theoretical tools we will use by assigning readings on “ideology,” specifically focusing on Marx’s claims that 1) ideology is produced by the ruling class and in support of the interests of the ruling class, that 2) ideology is part of a superstructure that reinforces a base, and that 3) ideology mystifies reality. In addition, I assign a reading on the concept of “authority” which focuses on the concepts of projection and selective privileging: practitioners often project their own voices onto absent authority figures or, where an authoritative canon exists, pick and choose whatever from the canon can most easily be enlisted in support of the social agenda at hand. The chapter concludes,

Although religious practitioners frequently hold particular figures or sacred texts as authoritative, that doesn’t mean they follow their authorities in any simple or straightforward manner. On the contrary, authorities are often subjected to projection, selective privileging, partial rejection, … etc. … [For this reason,] understanding Christianity does not require us to understand who Jesus really was, but how the figure of Jesus—as an absent authority—was recreated and recycled over and over in various historical contexts. … Religious traditions are subject to ongoing recreation and evolution, and focusing our studies on their “origins” is as misguided as trying to measure the height of an oak tree by looking at an acorn.

Once we’ve acquired these crucial analytical terms—ideology, ruling class, superstructure and base, mystification, authority, projection, and selective privileging—we move on to focusing not on the New Testament canon but rather on the various uses of that canon.

Since I view the mode of production as one of the most important determinants of contemporary culture and behavior, I focus on how Jesus is (re)imagined after the rise of the capitalist mode of production. We analyze a number of pro-capitalist Jesuses, focusing on Russell Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds” speech, which teaches a gospel of wealth; Laurie Beth Jones’ Jesus, Entrepreneur, which presents Jesus as a model businessman and from whom entrepreneurial readers can learn key business insights; and Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Jesus, which presents Jesus as a sort of libertarian icon who opposed taxation and achieved greatness independently of any governmental or institutional support. At that point we turn to a number of socialist or communist Jesuses, focusing on Samuel Zane Batton’s social gospel message in “The Social Nature of Christianity,” Bouck White’s The Call of the Carpenter, which presents Jesus as a working class hero who agitated against the Romans, who are depicted as capitalists; and Terry Eagleton’s revolutionary Jesus in his introduction to The Gospels, which is part of the leftist press Verso’s book series on “revolutionary” figures.

At every point the students are required to apply the critical concepts introduced earlier in the course to the texts at hand. Do these texts assume, reflect, reinforce, or naturalize a particular mode of production? Are these texts designed to advance the interests of a particular class or social group over others? Do the texts arguably distort or mystify how the economy functions? What parts of the New Testament do they privilege in drawing their picture of Jesus? What do they discard or ignore from the New Testament that might be at odds with their agenda? Are their readings of the New Testament anachronistic? To what extent do the authors anachronistically project their own voices onto Jesus?

At the end of the semester, one of my closing lectures points out that the class has never really been about Christianity, and, in fact, nor has it even been about Jesus. On the contrary, the course has actually been about the processes or the means by which groups imagine their past in order to advance a particular vision of the present or future. Thus does “Christianity” as a world religion dissolve; substituted in its place is a cultural process brought into relief by the theoretical apparatus we’ve deployed on the so-called “Christian” data. In addition, by pointing out that these processes are utilized in practically all social formations—for instance, the “founding fathers” trope in American political discourse is a blatant example, or the origins stories attributing the authentic foundation of India to an Aryan race—“religion” turns out not to be a unique case but just one type of culture alongside other types of culture. Christians are thus interested social actors like any other, employing discursive strategies about the past in order to create a present or future that aligns with their interests.

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