Does the chicken know? Some thoughts on popular Christianity in light of Slavoj Žižek’s critique of tolerance and ideology

Mr. Ping: The secret ingredient is… nothing!
Po: Huh?
Mr. Ping: You heard me. Nothing! There is no secret ingredient.
Po: Wait, wait… it’s just plain old noodle soup? You don’t add some kind of special sauce or something?
Mr. Ping: Don’t have to. To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.

(from Kung Fu Panda)

I wonder if this snippet from a rather popular and decidedly mediocre “family” movie captures some essence at the core of our culture’s popular ideologies of self and meaning. If so, do we find this ideology also at work in the heart of popular Christianity?

Over the years I have become convinced that most of popular Christianity¹ has more to do with questions of ideology² than with faith. For that reason maybe one of the most important philosophers today that Christians should consider (if not necessarily to agree with) is Slavoj Žižek. His take, which is fueled by Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalytical theories, provides rich fodder for thought. And given that he is coming from such a radically different place than most Christians, there is a kind of intellectual distance that may help Christians get some objectivity on their experiences. Keep in mind that I am not an advocate of Žižek, just a curious thinker fascinated by many of his observations.

Much of Christianity we take for granted, and quite a lot we don’t even really “see” at all—it’s just assumed and accepted. Common issues within Christianity are often framed in such a way as to mystify the real, underlying issues. This is not to say that there are not many who call themselves Christians who are also people of genuine faith, but the larger culture with all its variations and internal antagonisms, is rife with “givens.” Even the small community church that pulls away from the larger church (whatever that is) does so within a set of ideological assumptions about its place in the world and the available theological positions. There are, because there has to be, exceptions, but it is worth engaging with someone like Žižek (profane though he can be) in order to see with different eyes. Consider this talk he gave in 2008 at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR. His topic was ideology and tolerance:

Though Žižek does not address many of the specific questions facing Christians, and though he speaks within a thoroughly secular framework, he does raise alternate views on how ideology plays out in our beliefs. If Christians thought more about their beliefs, especially their beliefs about being Christian in the social/cultural/historical sense (and I must say that some already do this), I think we would begin having more interesting conversations. Maybe we could cut through some of the garbage as well.

As I watched Žižek’s lecture, here are some brief thoughts that came to my mind:

  • When I think of his concept of a post-ideological society I wonder if we are living in a post-theological society as well. In other words, is Christianity today less theological and less ideological than in the past? Or is it that we are less theological and more ideological? In other words, are we more inclined towards illusions of truth?
  • His idea that we are addressed as slightly spiritualized hedonists strikes me as not only true in terms of advertising, but also true in terms of modern evangelical Christianity. Consider how so much of worship music in pop-Christian churches is a continual reference to the self and one’s personal feelings, desires, and experiences rather than what worship is supposed to be—about God. Consider how so many sermons are about how we can get through life better, have better marriages, raise better kids, find centered feelings of peace, rather than plain old encouragement to run the hard race through the frequently awfulness of life until the race is over.
  • Christians, as much as anyone, are living in a “realize yourself” world where we seek the truth not that we might conform to it, rather that we might find ourselves in it—that truth might be found to be us. Thus, truth becomes not only a tool for one’s own self-actualization, but truth must necessarily be fragmented into various individualized truths as self-actualizing individuals struggle to make truth change to their own desires.
  • His example of tolerance in explaining ideology is interesting. I wonder how much of the ecumenical spirit within much of Christianity is really about tolerance. And I wonder if tolerance is really just another word for smugness.
  • His tearing down of the ecological myth of a once balanced earth (Gaia) disturbed by man, and that we must get back to the natural balance of Nature, is rather profound. In a sense he is stating, in secular terms, that creation is fallen and out of balance already. Might this correspond to the biblical idea that the goal is not to get “back to the garden” rather it is for creation to be save, transformed, made new again?
  • I wonder how much of popular Christianity, from its pop music to it pop worship, operates within the terms of fetishism. In ideological terms, and Hegelian, could it be that pop Christianity is (or looks) more Christian than true Christianity? Or that the emotions contrived by so-called worship teams add greater depth to the truth of Christ? Or that the hi-def screens and concert quality audio make the message of faith more contemporary?
  • Lying for the common good: The idea that in classic totalitarian ideology (as exemplified in The Dark Knight film) a lie is necessary for social stability begs the question of how often we promote lies for the stability of our own social worlds. How often does it happen that Christian communities embody and carefully maintain little lies in order to maintain the particular idea of Christianity they are trying to believe is true?
  • His idea that we act as if we believe seems to fuel much of Christian culture, especially regarding popular attitudes towards prayer and worship. We pray that someone will be healed, in our hearts we do not believe that prayer will make a difference, but we believe prayer still works even if we do not believe it works, and thus we act as though it does, and thus we convince ourselves that it does.
  • I wonder how much of what goes for popular Christianity is really just a system of belief where nobody truly believes but they all pretend to believe because of the social constructs they inhabit (e.g. kids don’t believe in Santa Claus but they pretend to believe for the sake of the parents). In other words, how much of popular Christianity is a system of belief and how much is genuine belief?
  • The chicken who is not allowed to “know.” I wonder how much of popular Christianity is a kind of fiction born out of the need for a particular version of Christianity that we tell to children. In other words, do we change true Christianity into a a kind of fairy-tale Christianity so that it is much easier for us to tell it to our children, to answer their tough questions, and to not get too deep into the tragedy of life? And then, do children tend to know (or come to know) that it is a fairy-tale version of Christianity (or just a fake version of life) they are given, but they go along with the farce for the sake of their parents’ delusions? And do the parents end up believing the lies they tell? And finally, do the children end up believing the lie when they have children of their own?
  • In popular Christianity who is the “chicken” who is the Big Other? Think about the sexual scandals in the Catholic church over the last few years. What was the purpose of the systematic cover up? The church preaches that people are sinners, including priests. Who were they protecting? Was it the Pope? Or was it the laity? Who were they trying to keep from knowing? Or consider popular Christianity and its often strange language, linguistic tropes, its strange fashions and mannerisms. Why talk and behave that way? By behaving in a non-real way who is being protected? I wonder if the Big Other in popular Christianity isn’t God. I wonder if Christians tend to play the game not because they are lying to themselves but because (subconsciously) they hope they are lying to God.
  • Are there things that we “see” in popular Christianity that we know we see but are supposed to pretend that we do not see? That is, do we play a game of fabrication in which we sublimate the truth under the guise of acting like Christians?
  • We know we are to be loving, but are told that if we can’t be loving at least be polite. Then we believe that being polite is being loving. What do we do with this?
  • Do we like being Christians because it gives us more freedoms than our liberal, politically correct society? Is our desire for those freedoms from a good heart or bad? How often do Christians champion their subculture so that they can claim their gun rights, or their property rights, or even the right to hurt others in the name of Christ?
  • I wonder if our modern consumer Christianity falls into an historical progression from: 1) become a Christian because it is the truth, it is the best option, to 2) become a Christian because that’s what the other cool/hip people are doing, the mega-church is the happening place, to 3) become a Christian in order to realize your full potential, become the real you, actualize yourself.

Now, there is a problem in thinking about ideology, that is one can begin to feel trapped. I do not believe that we are trapped within ideologies or ideological structures to such a degree that we cannot get out of them. But I do believe it is good to more carefully examine the structures of our beliefs, including the social contexts that support and perpetuate those beliefs.


¹ By “popular Christianity” I mean that in the broadest sense, the way we use the phrase popular music for example. It is that form of Christianity that is most clearly evident across our culture. One could say it is that core orthodoxy that animates the personal claims of being Christian throughout much of the world, and especially in the West. All of us, I would contend, more or less hold to this form of Christianity, and all of us, more or less, struggle with it, either patching up the chinks as we go, or in some fashion, abandon it for another. Popular Christianity is not the same as biblical Christianity or authentic Christianity, though a Venn diagram would likely show some overlap.

² I recognize that the word ideology is rather vague in this context, and I intend it to be so. If I had to define ideology I might say it is the set of (largely submerged) beliefs (held sometimes consciously and generally unconsciously) that serve to propagate and maintain both other beliefs and social structures of belief. On the other hand, this definition is probably both too broad and poorly aimed. In short, to use the word ideology is to say that what is taken for granted, what is accepted as obvious, often belies a deeper, more complex, and frequently more troubling reality.

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Filed under Christian Life, Politics, Religion, Theology, Video

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